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Entering the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in a chauffeur driven Range Rover you get the feeling of what it was like to live in a time when royalty truly ruled the Scottish Highlands.
A stone wall reveals a manicured front lawn large enough to play cricket, which it is sometimes used for. It’s ringed by golden strands of tall fescue that looks like wheat and large full trees—a rarity in this part of Scotland where much of the land has been clear cut. It leads to the circular driveway of a magnificently restored castle with a most unusual marking: a flag with one side boasting the Union Jack of the United Kingdom and the other side bearing the Stars and Stripes of the U.S. There is perhaps no place on earth that flies a flag with this combination and it required special permission of local Scottish authorities and the U.S. government. It refers mostly to the former and current owners of the castle.
Records of Skibo Castle date back to the early 13th Century, however, its modern transformation began when wealthy Scottish-American industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, purchased the 8,000-acre estate as a family residence in 1898. Today it is owned by Ellis Short, an Irish-American businessman. He reportedly purchased the property in 2003 for £23 million ($30 million) and has since invested another $27 million to modernize and restore the castle and grounds. It is still a work in progress but you couldn’t tell by Skibo’s majestic beauty.
It is perhaps best known as the place where Madonna and Guy Ritchie held their wedding in 2000. Well known guests over the years included Bill Clinton, Sir Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson and Michael Jordan.
It operates as a members-only club. It has to be one of the most exclusive clubs in the world and it offers an experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere. The cost is steep for sure. A full membership requires a one-time fee of £25,000 ($33,000) and annual fees of £8,500 ($11,200). The per-night fee is £1,240 ($1,640) for one of the 20 double rooms in the castle. Members can also stay at one of the dozen or lodges scattered about property, ideal for families. In fact, families with small children are required to stay in the lodges. Guests of members and those considering membership pay a little more per night.
The fees are steep but what you get in return is everything. Meals, snacks and well-stocked wine and spirits carts are free and constantly available throughout the castle and grounds almost any time of day or night. Activities are also ever-present and include skeet shooting, archery, falconry, fishing, spa services, horseback riding, cycling and tennis. A staff of more than 200, many in traditional Scottish kilts, tend to the needs of the members, care for the property, and with a fleet of jeeps drive guests throughout the estate.
Ellis Short is an accomplished businessman and it may seem like he is making another small fortune charging these seemingly exorbitant fees, but the expense of maintaining and renovating the property means that the castle often operates at an annual loss.
From the moment my wife Maria and I arrived we felt at home. Our large suite, “E 5,” is named after Ellis Short’s son, Ellis Short V. Modern light neutral colors with traditional wood furnishings (most likely antique) brightened the space. A small bottle of Skibo’s own 10-year-old single malt Scotch and two glasses provided a warm welcome. (The castle also has its own branded gin.) It was the first of several small surprises during our stay.
The bathroom was as large as the bedroom and is completely renovated with new fixtures and appliances. The two rooms are connected by a long hallway. Each room in the castle has a different motif and our room was chinoiserie, with the décor representing Chinese themes.
The room had everything except the proper amount of outlets for the connected traveler. But this is a place designed for its guests to disconnect.
There are very few rules at Skibo and we were encouraged to roam everywhere. While the guest rooms had modern amenities, the public areas in the castle are kept much as it was when the Carnegie family roamed the estate. Andrew Carnegie’s massive, multi-room library is filled with antique books and furnishings. I did some work there on our final day, although I chose not to use the manual Burroughs typewriter on display. The trophy room downstairs is one of the more interesting parts of the castle with a collection of custom hunting rifles, fly fishing rods and the trophies that included large fish, birds and stag heads.
We attended a formal dinner our first night in the main dining hall which required a jacket and tie. However, the host of evening, Alan Grant, made it clear it wasn’t going to be a stuffy affair. He appeared with his tie pulled to the side and the top button of his shirt undone. We all quickly followed his lead and the conversation flowed freely. After dinner Maria and I moved to the drawing room for digestifs and snacks by the fireplace and to listen to the castle’s pianist. The next morning during breakfast he was playing the castle’s full-sized pipe organ.
When we finally returned to our room there was another surprise: a stuffed rabbit containing a warm water bottle. It was then that Maria never wanted to leave.
Scotland is where golf was invented and for those who worship the links Skibo is a paradise. Its private course designed by Tom Mackenzie, who also oversaw its $3.4 million restoration, is challenging and beautiful with springy bright grass, ringed by tall golden fescue, purple heather, and winding rivers and lochs. Fewer than 4,000 rounds are played on the course each year. It gets such little use members don’t need to reserve tee times. It’s opened to the public in a very limited way and at a high cost (nearly $400 per round). An advantage of having such free access is that if you don’t have four hours to spend on the links you can play as many holes as you want. In the height of summer, when the sun sets near midnight, members will play the final three holes after dinner.
The recently renovated stone and glass clubhouse—open for breakfast, lunch and dinner—provides splendid views of the links and the freewheeling Evelix River.
For our activities on the second day we chose skeet shooting and archery. Our instructor was patient but we were both hopelessly inept. This was followed by a massage and finally a dip in the pool housed within a magnificent glass walled building.
For all its exclusivity there was a total lack of pretense during our two-day stay. Conversations with members were friendly and fun and the staff was always courteous, professional and warm without being haughty. While being wealthy is a requirement in order to afford membership, there are no other prerequisites. One member told me that basically the only requirement is that you’re not a jerk, adding that he knows of only one person who was denied membership for being insufferable.
On our bed on our final night was a warm water bottle inside a stuffed lion with a sad expression on its face. That’s the way I felt the next morning when we took the hour-long drive to Inverness for our flight to London; wishing we could have spent one more day.