The vibe: Hunting lodge meets NYC art gallery
Location: Mar Rd., Braemar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland | View on Google Maps
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The AFAR take
Picasso is breathing down my neck. Well, a Picasso, not the Picasso. Pablo’s 1953 La femme assise dans un fauteuil, or a Woman Seated in an Armchair, hangs directly over my teatime service at the Fife Arms hotel in Scotland, and its subject, Françoise Gilot (an artist and one of Pablo’s paramours), appears to disapprove of my fruit tea choices. A discerning figure with eyebrows furrowed—though this is cubism, so who knows if those are actually eyebrows—La femme is a striking masterwork, her oranges, greens, and blues in unlikely symphony with the forest-green tartan wallpaper in the hotel drawing room. I can’t help but stare back, resisting the urge to kneel on the couch and go nose to nose with Gilot, examining her every detail. Prized artwork in hotels is not uncommon, but when a Picasso is just one of 14,000 artworks and artifacts on hand? No wonder so many travelers seek out this former hunting lodge in a tiny Highland village, two hours north of Edinburgh.
Rural Aberdeenshire is by no means “undiscovered.” Queen Victoria was an early admirer of Deeside, a stretch of land some 80 miles long following the River Dee, from Aberdeen in the east to Braemar (where I am). Drawn to towering mountains, heather-carpeted moorlands, and salmon-filled streams within what is now Cairngorms National Park, Prince Albert bought the Balmoral estate for Queen Vic in 1852 and established one of the modern royal family’s favorite escapes. Before they arrived, nearby Braemar Castle—a 15-minute drive down the road—played a pivotal role as a garrison against the Jacobite Rising of 1715.
With the royal family came its entourage, and so the spoken Gaelic of Braemar shifted to English. Hunting lodges and restaurants popped up, and now, Braemar is a hopping village of about 450 permanent residents—though it swells to tens of thousands when the Braemar Gathering, the largest of the Highland Games, arrives in early September each year.
On a Tuesday night in late September, not long past 8 p.m., the only sound I hear in Braemar is the birds. Aggressive, chattering caws in the trees above the Invercauld Mews Bar, who seem to be shouting at full volume, “Go away! The bar is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays!” Fine, I say, and continue my postdinner stroll down the village’s main street. On the right is the Bank of Scotland, open two days a week . . . four hours a day. On the left are specialty shops: the sporran shop, the chocolate shop, the Hungry Highlander fish and chippy—closed as well.
Aha! A light in the window at Farquharsons Bar and Kitchen, named for Bonnie Prince Charlie–supporting Clan Farquharson; the inside looks warm and inviting. The bar is packed, its kitchen firing, plates of haggis and tatties being ferried to tables. Meanwhile, the Flying Stag across the street is doing brisk business; half pints of a porter-ish beer (on inspection: a smooth Nitrous Engine Oil dark ale) flow freely.
Were it not for those two pubs, all of Braemar would appear to be in bed for the night. It’s one of those petite stone villages, with tidy homes no more than two stories high and a doctor who makes house calls, that would make for an excellent setting in a Robert Galbraith murder mystery.
Pablo Picasso’s Woman Seated in an Armchair is a striking masterwork, her oranges, greens, and blues in unlikely symphony with the forest-green tartan wallpaper in the hotel drawing room.
Each of the 46 guest rooms and suites has a connection to Braemar or Scottish heritage. “Scottish Culture Rooms” are inspired by figures in literature, science, politics, and art, everyone from Lord Byron to suffragist Elsie Inglis to Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote much of Treasure Island in Braemar. “Nature and Poetry” rooms celebrate the flora and fauna of the Scottish Highlands and how it comes to life in text. Each room is unique and exquisitely detailed—yet so comfortable—one might find themselves spending an entire afternoon writing from the handcrafted wooden desk, reading the provided book of Fife Arms poetry while beneath a wool blanket, and trying to count all the dog pictures and porcelains in the room.
Let’s get this out of the way: For every bottle of single malt and work of art, there’s taxidermy. Lots of taxidermy—by the hundreds, behind glass, creeping up a wall and across a ceiling. Given the region’s natural history and the building’s legacy as a hunting lodge, it’s not a surprising choice, but it can be jarring until it becomes part of the background. Also in the background: sketches by King Charles when he was a boy and a commissioned mural by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca covering the dining room walls. The true luxury here is how much there is to explore within the building, like it’s a liveable museum. And outside is the natural majesty of the Highlands, equally captivating.
The food and drink
Ever the community hub, the street-facing Flying Stag is a bustling pub serving American-size portions of Scottish comfort food (think pork sausage and mash, fish pie, haggis/neeps/tatties). Nooks and crannies for a quiet dinner abound; simply look for the well-worn armchair in the far corner on the left.
Meanwhile, the main Clunie Dining Room serves an equally filling and tasty daily breakfast, dinner, and Sunday roast against a mesmerizing cubistic mural backdrop by Guillermo Kuitca. Don’t cut the carbs here: The sourdough bread and butter are among the highlights. Next door, champagne and cocktails flow in the “jewel box of a bar,” Elsa’s, inspired by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. (She even sits vigil over the lounge in a Man Ray photo from 1931.) I preferred the tea service and small bites above all else, either taken in the lounge or in the garden outside.
Staff and service
It’s easy enough to meet new people in Braemar with a few introductions—something the hosts at the Fife Arms will graciously initiate. “Would you like to go on a hike in Cairngorms National Park with the Queen of England’s former hunting guide?” they ask. Or perhaps a local history walking tour with Simon Blackett, chief raconteur of Yellow Welly Tours and gent-who-knows-everyone? How about a tour of the hotel’s art followed by a whisky tasting in our library?
Um, yes to all of the above, please. This fall and winter, for an additional fee, guests can book a “whisky afternoon tea” ($65 per person); a full-day survival skills workshop—making fires, foraging and sourcing plants—led by the head instructor of Highland Survival Skills; and a dark-sky adventure to a remote part of the Cairngorms. Guides may share local folklore, talk expertly about constellations and native flora and fauna, you name it. They’re all among the Fife Arms’ ghillies, a Gaelic word for hunting and fishing guide, here likened to a concierge planning these local immersions.
The story behind all that art
The Fife Arms was never meant to just be a place to rest your head. In 2019, its Swiss owners, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, influential contemporary art dealers and copresidents of Hauser & Wirth, reopened the Victorian-era coaching inn as a place with soul: where world-class contemporary art co-exists with 16th-century Scottish antiques, and the community comes for a pint and to take guests out on a jaunt.
The Wirths fell first for Braemar on a casual visit; after walking by the commanding Fife Arms building, with its multi-gabled roof and chimney stacks, they said, “We could make something of this.” With the help of Moxon Architects and Russell Sage Studio, the renovation and restoration took four years, during which the Wirths sourced furniture, art, and decor from their own collection along with estate sales across the Highlands, uncovering a showstopping 19th-century mahogany “Robert Burns” mantelpiece to live alongside Picasso and Louise Bourgeois works.
“Everything [in the hotel] has to have a reason,” said Iwan Wirth. “It’s not good enough simply to be beautiful or useful. We need to be able to tell a story about everything.” From $496