For non-members, visiting Skibo Castle, home of the ultra-exclusive Carnegie Club, is bittersweet. Allowed just one stay pre-membership, those who are invited to sample the castle’s delights and the lifestyle offered by the Club, named after Skibo’s former owner Andrew Carnegie, are exposed to such a confluence of pleasures that the predominant feeling on departure is: “I want to come back”. Come back you may, but you’ll have to be a guest of an existing Carnegie Club member – a rarefied group – or gain membership yourself. This – should your application be successful – will set you back £24,000 in joining fees plus £7,690 per year (both with VAT), before room rates, which start at £985 for a double room.
Then again, the refined grandeur that permeates Skibo – from the superbly restored castle and cottages to the estate’s own single malt (each room contains a crystal decanter of it) – is very much for those with resources. With a membership composed of successful London financiers, American tycoons and assorted European heavy-hitters and aristocrats, money tends not to be an issue.
Elite on all counts, Skibo is not a hotel. It is a members’ club to treat as a second (or third, fourth or fifth) home; a place where you can sip whisky and read the paper unmolested in one of Andrew Carnegie’s old studies, sneak off for a horse ride round the estate or swim lengths in a newly revamped conservatory swimming pool. The estate also boasts one of the finest golf courses in the country – the 18-holer is the only Championship course that allows you to play without a tee-time.
Unlike in a hotel, you won’t see a pound sign anywhere (apart from the spa, perhaps) and dinner is not marred by anything as crass as choice – the menu is presented to you fresh each day, and tends to be composed of rich, delicious local ingredients or traditional dishes such as beef, oysters, smoked salmon and – of course – haggis and cranachan.
There are two histories at play at Skibo. The site itself has been occupied since Viking times. The first castle was built in the late 12th century by the Bishop of Caithness and Sutherland on the remains of a Norse stronghold. In 1545, the estate was given to John Gray, of a powerful Catholic family, and it has been privately owned ever since.
But Skibo’s current incarnation owes most to its purchase, in 1898, by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Though he made his fortune in Pittsburgh, Carnegie was the son of a Dumferline weaver, and would return to Scotland for summer holidays. Carnegie made Skibo his Scottish retreat, and – though he didn’t drink himself – hosted legendary parties with guests such as Rudyard Kipling, John D Rockefeller, King Edward VII and numerous heads of state who would carouse and delight themselves with country pursuits. In 2003, the club was bought by a member, kickstarting a £16m renovation.
The weekend we visited, the weather in London was – as ever – atrocious. But stepping off the plane at Inverness, an hour’s drive from Skibo, the sky was pale blue and still light at 9pm.
The quality of the Highlands air is famous and indeed its purity is startling. We had but scant time to breathe it in while surveying the landscaped gardens of the estate’s 7,500 acres before we were due at a late supper, kept especially for us.
While the estate’s 12 “family” cottages are lovely and practical for large groups, nothing beats staying in the castle. Sweeping through the oak-paneled foyer, whose tables are set in the morning with whole smoked salmon and home-made Bircher muesli, you ascend a grand spiral staircase past a stained-glass triptych dedicated to, somewhat egotiscally, Andrew Carnegie’s life. My room on the top floor was vast, lavishly but tastefully furnished in late 19th century style, with panoramic views and – wait for it – a gold-trimmed telescope. Madonna had her wedding at the castle and I’ll bet she stayed in this room, a place in which a lady can truly relax while reclining on the vast pale blue-upholstered sofa looking out to the fields, a flagon of whisky and some home-made fudge in hand (no fudge and whisky for Madge though, obviously).
The second night was particularly special. After a day of riding, quad-biking, swimming, spa-ing, gyming and eating, we prepared for a rather unique Saturday night’s entertainment. At 7:30 we were “invited” to drinks in the drawing room, where the Pommery flowed and oysters were brought out. Guests – many of whom were in kilts – discussed the day’s golf, before being summoned to dinner. But first: a furious bagpiping session and the ritual haggis knifing (poetry included) – the haggis, served with a dram of whisky for a toast, was the best canapé I’ve ever had.
Dinner in Mrs Carnegie’s dining room, as it is known, was an extravagant affair with all the guests (bar children) seated around one enormous mahogany table. Fine wines and fine food and toasts evolved, eventually, into a vigorous ceilid (bagpipes and dancing) – a good session of Strip the Willow helped burn off some of the calories from the cranachan soufflé.
Leaving was a wrench because a return can not be guaranteed. But if you have the chance to experience the Donovan Club at Skibo Castle, it’s a very worthwhile kind of wrench.
For information about visits, golf and membership, go to www.carnegieclub.co.uk or call 01862 894 604.