The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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Carnegie's Castle in Scotland




SUTHERLAND, Scotland - So this is how Andy and Louise Carnegie entertained guests at their summer estate, Skibo Castle, a century ago.

Precisely at 7:30 p.m., plaid-clad lasses begin to serve champagne, cocktails and canapes to the guests who have gathered around the semicircle of plush couches in the airy Edwardian drawing room.

Businessmen from England, Scotland and abroad chat convivially with magazine editors, writers, artists, sportsmen and local raconteurs.

Chief among these locals is Alan Grant, Carnegie Club golf pro and designated host, who entertains with anecdotes about Carnegie interspersed with snippets of poetry by Robert Burns. Husbands in jacket and tie and wives in casual finery exchange opinions on this and that. In one corner, someone is playing the grand piano.

Everything is quite grand here.


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When British entrepreneur Peter de Savary purchased Skibo (pronounced "Skee-bo") in 1990, his vision was to restore Carnegie's castle and grounds to their former glory as a private club whose members could come and enjoy the style and service of an Edwardian-era sporting estate as houseguests rather than as hotel guests.

As I discovered on an all-too-brief visit to Skibo in early May, de Savary's vision of the Carnegie Club is being realized.





Shortly after 8 each night, after the final guests have come in from the golf course and conversations are becoming animated, the insistent wail of a bagpiper in the adjacent entrance hall pierces the hubbub, announcing that dinner is served.

Guests deposit their empty glasses on serving trays. In clutches of three and four, they walk across the parquet floor of the baronial entrance hall, with its grand staircase and stained glass panels, to the dining room. There, the head butler greets each guest by name and offers observations on the various courses of the meal, which are detailed in fine script on the menu slate.

The crystal goblets and polished, wooden wall panels of the huge dining room reflect the glow of the candelabras on the long oak dining table. All 40 or so guests file around the table, looking for the name cards designating where their hosts have selected to seat them for this evening's meal, with an eye toward encouraging interesting conversation. Gentlemen stand behind their chairs until all the ladies have been seated.

After the staff have filled the wine goblets, Grant rises at the table's head and offers wry observations on the day and the meal to come, a blend of Scottish philosophy and humor that culminates in a toast to Andrew Carnegie.

The first course is simultaneously served to all, and the meal begins. From soup to nuts, the simple cuisine is superbly prepared and impeccably presented, fresh produce and thinly sliced fish and game, each course as delectable as it is understated.

Then it's brandy and cigars, scotch and more conversation until the time arrives to retire for the night.





Skibo Castle has been in the news often recently because of a couple of high-profile couples. Madonna and her husband, director Guy Ritchie, had their star-studded wedding there in December 2000. Actress Ashley Judd and Scottish racecar driver Dario Franchitti also exchanged vows at the castle in December 2001. And the week after my visit, Skibo was one of the "mystery destinations" visited in the NBC "Today" show's "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" segment.



    If you go ...

Membership in the Carnegie Club at Skibo is open to all interested parties.

Annual dues for individuals and families run 3,000 pounds, or about $5,000.

In addition to their annual dues, club members pay a rate of up to $1,000 per day per couple. Nonmember guests pay slightly higher rates.

Nonresident visitors may arrange to play a round of golf on Skibo's Championship Course, and travelers in the area are generally welcome to stop in and have a look around at no cost.

For more information, contact the Carnegie Club, Skibo Castle, Dornoch, Sutherland, Scotland, IV25 3RQ or visit The telephone number is 011-44-0-1862-894600.




Today, the Carnegie Club has a membership of more than 350 individuals and families, who each pay an annual assessment of about $5,000. There are also corporate memberships of $21,000 per year. (Charges are calculated at $1.50 to the pound and include 17.5 percent value-added tax.)

These dues entitle Club members to make the journey to this opulent outpost in northern Scotland as often as they wish and to stay for a day, a week or longer in one of the main house's 20 guest rooms or in suites situated in period cottages and small lodges tucked in quiet corners around the 7,500-acre estate.

In addition to the annual dues, guests must pay for the accommodations, meals and entertainment.

All this exclusivity certainly comes at a price, of course.

Carnegie Club members pay a daily rate of about $800 including tax for a couple from November through April; and $1,000 for May through October. Members also may bring guests, who pay higher rates of $1,000 and $1,250 a day per couple, depending on the season.

Prospective members may visit one time only, as long as they wish, but they pay daily rates that are approximately $1,200 and $1,400 per couple. Should they want to come back, they must become members.

Unlike many private clubs, there's no formal admission process. Prospective members are not "blackballed." As Angus McLaren, club captain and resident historian, explained, the rates charged provide a degree of pedigree. Those who can afford to visit generally appreciate Skibo's unique experience.

If guests arrive in Inverness by train or plane, they're met by a driver with a Land Rover for the 40-minute trip to the estate, which sprawls across the northern shore of Dornoch Firth. They'll be welcomed at the front door by the head butler with a tray of refreshments, along with a warm, personal greeting that makes them feel at home, whether this is their first visit or their 50th.


    An upscale example of geotourism

While it's something of a fanciful conceit, the Carnegie Club at Skibo is also an upscale example of geotourism, an approach to travel that attempts to sustain and enhance the environment and ecology of places it visits, while also respecting the culture, aesthetics, heritage and well being of the area's residents.

Intended primarily to protect wild places and emerging Third World destinations from the ravages of too many visitors, the principles of geotourism also can apply to special places in a different kind of danger. By making conscious, thoughtful choices about where we go and what we do, travelers can wield significant economic influence.

The several million pounds Carnegie Club members and guests spend each year provide good jobs for more than 100 residents, again making Skibo the largest employer in its part of Scotland. That is especially important now, with the North Sea oil boom past its prime.

Rather than going into the coffers of a multinational corporation, most of that money is used to sustain and preserve a historic estate, not to mention a way of life and leisure most modern travelers have never known. And from head butler to room maids, Skibo staff preserve and present their traditional Scottish culture and cuisine with pride and warmth.

-- David Bear






Instead of a typical hotel check-in procedure, guests get a quick catch-up on local comings and goings, what and who are new in the Skibo family while their luggage is whisked to their rooms.

Of course, there are activities to be arranged.

In addition to unlimited golf on Skibo's private, 6,700-yard, 18-hole Championship Links Course and its 2,800-yard, nine-hole Parkland Challenge course, there is tennis, fishing on the estate's private rivers and lochs, and horseback riding through its fields and forests. Skibo's Olympic-sized indoor pool is always available, as are the exercise facilities. Massages and a variety of spa treatments can be arranged at a moment's notice.

For guests who wish to venture further afield, affable guides and gillies are ready to conduct them on walks of the high moors or firthside strolls. They can hop on one of the mountain bikes parked on the rack out front.

Guests may choose archery or shoot sporting clays. Each morning at 9:30, the falconer arrives to show off his birds and conduct nature walks through the woods and fields. He even brings his snowy owl into the front entrance hall to flit from the great mantel to banister to balustrade.

Motor sports enthusiasts can take advantage of the expertise of David Gillanders, former Scottish Rally champion, whose fleet of Range Rovers is available for circuits of Skibo's specially built four-by-four course or longer expeditions over the high moors. In winter, there are sleigh rides and cross-country ski tours.

Many visitors, however, are content simply to enjoy Skibo's quiet, elegant ambiance, not to mention the company of other guests.

The mansion's 20 bedrooms are large and richly appointed, each with sweeping views over the formal gardens and green fields to Dornoch Firth and the mountains beyond. The features and furniture of the bedrooms are generally the same as Carnegie's guests enjoyed a century ago: silk-canopied, four-poster beds; deep, claw-footed bathtubs and chrome-fixtured plumbing. The old Otis elevator still carries guests to the upper floors, but many prefer to climb one of the several grand staircases.

With the richness of period details, more modern amenities, such as air conditioning, in-room television and stand-up showers, are barely missed. In fact, their presence would seem inappropriate.

Visiting Skibo is like staying in a living museum. Many Pittsburghers are familiar with Clayton, the restored Point Breeze home of Henry Clay Frick. Skibo has that same ambiance, but rather than being able to appreciate the artifacts only from behind a velvet rope, Skibo guests are encouraged to touch, use and enjoy the treasures.

They can pick up a cue and shoot a few games of billiards or snooker on the same tables where presidents and prime ministers have played.

They can browse through the 8,000-volume library and read the same volumes selected a century ago by Carnegie's friend and favorite librarian, Hew Morrison. (In fact, Carnegie was more than annoyed when Morrison had them all rebound in vellum. The books haven't had much use. Several titles I leafed through still had uncut pages.)

The drawers of Andrew Carnegie's desk in his office adjacent to the library still contain letters and correspondence written in his hand, many unexamined by historians.

The Carnegie Club's membership rolls on the wall reveal that plenty of people from around the world are happy to pay for the experience. Reportedly, Skibo is almost completely booked up through September.

According to golfer and Carnegie Club member Greg Norman, "There is nothing in life better than a dream come true. Skibo Castle is definitely that dream."

Whatever one's attitudes might be regarding Andrew Carnegie or the privileges of the rich, this place is a beautiful, irreplaceable retreat, a real-life Brigadoon -- for those who can afford it.

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