The Scottish are a proud, perceptive people. The loveliness of their countryside has not escaped their notice. Yet it has often taken the enthusiasm of outsiders to remind locals of the splendors beyond their doorstep. The classic case in point is Prince Albert, a German who, as Queen Victoria’s consort, joyfully unleashed his own inner Highlander when he bought Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire in the middle of the 19th century, succumbing entirely to notions of rolling glens and snow-capped Munros, the dreamy landscape dotted here and there with turreted castles and populated by heavily antlered deer, noble huntsmen, and fine-featured lassies in tartan sashes reeling en masse to tunes piped by twinkly-eyed chaps of loyal regimental aspect.
Tartanmania, the craze that Albert set off, is still very much with us. If anything, it has gained fresh impetus in the past few years with the arrival of several top-notch hotels—all, as it happens, owned or operated by foreigners. Never before have there been as many fancy places to stay in the Highlands and islands to which a personal invitation from a member of the royal family is not required.
The turning point was the opening of Killiehuntly in 2016. This outwardly humble farmhouse and cottage near Kingussie changed everything. The sumptuous simplicity of its interiors gave rise to a new stylistic designation, Scandi-Scot; and the fact that it adjoins an even larger estate, Glenfeshie, in the—not uncontroversial—process of being “rewilded,” only compounded its appeal. Glenfeshie and Killiehuntly belong to a Danish couple, Anne and Anders Holch Povlsen, and are part of their constantly expanding Wildland portfolio, which includes Aldourie Castle on Loch Ness and Lundies House in Sutherland. It would be unfair to characterize the hotel aspect of their project as insignificant; yet the Povlsens’ primary consideration appears to be land management on a grand scale. Today they own more of Scotland than any other private individuals. That this is possible points to some of the more practical reasons behind the current renaissance: the availability of large amounts of attractive property and the government’s welcoming attitude towards investors. Such things do not explain the success of the Wildland scheme; but nor are they irrelevant.
To my mind, though, the most extraordinary expression of the phenomenon is the Fife Arms, a converted pub-with-rooms in Braemar. The creation of Swiss gallerists Manuela and Iwan Wirth, it would, with its brilliant combination of fine art, wit, and whimsicality, be impressive anywhere. In this village—hitherto best known for hosting the Highland Games’ Braemar Gathering—it is hallucinogenic. I can think of no better demonstration of what good taste, imagination, sensitivity and a more or less unlimited budget can achieve, even in the middle of nowhere.
And now there is Ardfin.
Depending on where you start from, Jura is a flight or two from the west coast followed by a ferry and a drive. Though ravishing even by the high standards of the Inner Hebrides, the island is perhaps more famous as the place where George Orwell went to recover from tuberculosis. Sadly, its fresh air—and the air can get pretty fresh—did not have the desired effect on Orwell’s health. But he did complete his masterpiece 1984 here before he passed. Jura has one road and a population of fewer than 300. It is divided into seven estates, of which Ardfin is one. If you turn left off the ferry, you get to the Astors’ place; turn right, you get to Ardfin.
The property was acquired in 2010 by Greg Coffey, an Australian hedge fund manager. Since then its Victorian villa, Jura House, has been transformed inside and out. So have the nearby farm buildings, known as The Quadrangle. And then there is the small matter of the new golf course, which is already being talked about as one of the best in the world. The estate will open in April 2020, with 10-room Jura House available on an exclusive-use basis and The Quadrangle, with its 13 rooms and two two-bedroom apartments, operating like a conventional hotel.
What house and hotel have in common is the astounding beauty of their seaside location and the tremendous charm of their interiors. Louise Jones, a London-based designer, has packed them to the rafters with irresistible good vibes. Yes, there are familiar elements that tend to go with the territory—antlers, grandfather clocks, tartan. The looms of the woolen mill on the neighboring island of Islay were kept busy more or less around the clock for the duration of the Ardfin renovation. But Jones’s endlessly varied use of ticking stripes, vintage materials, Liberty London prints, wallpapers by Nicholas Herbert, and florals fabrics by Jean Monro and Décors Barbares means there is never a dull moment. The effect is as invigorating as a stiff dram of Jura malt.
According to the season, you might shoot or stalk, or spot dolphins; contemplate the human condition in the walled garden; wander the estate’s 12,000 acres; sit down with a book by a window in the Ceilidh Barn overlooking the water. Or play golf.
The golf course is Ardfin’s trump card. In fact, it trumps Trump. It blows a big fat raspberry at Turnberry. I took a tour with head greenkeeper Simon Crawford, who explained the attributes that make it so remarkable. The ingenious design, the devilish difficulty introduced by its cliffside situation, the fact that its immaculate fairways and greens are maintained without pesticides or toxic chemicals. His enthusiasm was contagious. But I did not need a lot of convincing. The whole thing is beautiful, almost as much an art installation as a sporting facility. It seemed fitting that the boathouse at the 12th hole is the place where, in 1994, the KLF, an experimental music duo of an admirably philosophical disposition, set fire to a million pounds in cash. A delightful gesture—yet one whose calculated grandiosity flames out into insignificance against the genuine grandeur of the Scottish wilderness.
Ardfin has doubles at The Quadrangle from $1,425 and two-bedroom apartments from $7,920, full board. Stays at Jura House cost from $26,402 per night for a minimum of two nights, including activities.