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Scotland became a fashionable destination when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with the country’s beauty and folklore during their initial visit in 1842. The royal influencers bought Balmoral Castle 10 years later, and with their imprimatur, the British aristocracy suddenly wanted a lot more of the moors.
Now a new generation of charming hotels with great character, many of them opened or renovated by wealthy foreigners, is putting Scotland on the map as a luxury destination for the 21st century. Hunters, fishermen, golfers and whisky connoisseurs have always loved coming here, but with the lure of these stylish lodgings, the country has become equally appealing to art aficionados, nature lovers and gourmets. “Today, the young Scots are taking a justifiable pride in their culture, art and hospitality,” says Rachael Henley, the general manager of The Fife Arms in Braemar, the location of the Highland games known as the Braemar Gathering. A perfect expression of the modern vitality of Scottish craft and culture is Braemar’s Tor Workshop, where artisans create beautiful bespoke furniture, some of which has been acquired by Swiss gallery owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth, who own The Fife Arms.
Eager to discover the new style of Scottish hospitality, I recently planned a relaxed 10-day driving trip. That gave me and my traveling companion time to bask in the magnificence of the country’s diverse landscapes and natural features, a geography I like to experience in the manner of Yellowstone or other great American national parks.
We began in Edinburgh, a convenient jumping-off point. During past visits, we’ve stayed at one of the city’s grande-dame luxury hotels, notably the Balmoral, Prestonfield House and Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh — The Caledonian. All are delightful, but no one would accuse any of them of being fun. This is the word that best describes the lively new 33-room Gleneagles Townhouse, which opened last June right on St. Andrew Square in the heart of the city. It’s the intimate big-city offspring of the venerable 99-year-old (but recently renovated) Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire, a famous bastion of haute Victorian Highlands style.
From the moment we arrived at this landmarked 1781 building, built for the eighth Earl of Dalhousie, it worked a charm at demolishing any lingering Scottish stereotypes. Kilts, haggis and bagpipes were nowhere to be seen, though whisky was thankfully in evidence. Still, it had ample sense of place. Outside, it impressed us with the intemporal elegance of its Corinthian columns and the classical statues along its roofline, and its interior spaces, formerly occupied by the British Linen Bank and the Bank of Scotland, had a cozy grandeur.