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Issue 33 - House proud (House of Bruar)

Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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House proud (House of Bruar)

After almost 15 years of purveying the best of Scotland's edible and wearable produce, House of Bruar is becoming a legend in its own lunchtime. Even people who hate shopping make the pilgrimage there, discovers Kate Patrick

The phone springs to life. It is a text from someone who would rather be stuck in an immigration queue at Miami airport than out shopping for his wardrobe.

Driving down A9. Stopped at Bruar. Bought fabulous cashmere jacket! Wonderful!

This is a turn-up for the books. He doesn’t usually use words like ‘fabulous’ or ‘wonderful’ – not in connection with the experience of buying clothes, anyway, and certainly not in texts. Unless the exclamation marks are ironic, something has clearly brought about a dramatic change of outlook.

What’s happened, of course, is that he has been utterly seduced by the chic but homely charms of the House of Bruar, the ‘Harrods of the north’ – although I’ve always thought that this label was rather unfair to Bruar. It may be the purveyor of high quality clothes, goods, food and services in a vaguely Harrods-like fashion, but it is so gloriously and weirdly remote, in its Highland roadside location somewhere north of Pitlochry, as to be the complete antithesis of a glitzy Knightsbridge department store.

With its cluster of white-painted buildings and round tower, Bruar could be the little brother – or perhaps steading – to Blair Castle, the great white beacon of the Atholl Estate that stretches as far as the eye can see in these parts.

Without the comparison of Blair, it could equally pass for a Victorian-Baronial sporting lodge, which was the intention of Mark and Linda Birkbeck when they cleared the site of an earlier hotel and constructed their new venture in 1993 with the aim of kitting people out properly for countryside pursuits.

Once inside, you cannot fail to see what a brilliant concept it is: here on Scotland’s main north-south artery, on the way to (or from) all those shooting estates, grouse moors, salmon rivers, northern islands and Highland holiday cottages, it provides exactly what you need. Traditional, highquality country clothing; mountains of cashmere interspersed with the occasional gorgeous, beaded or lacy treat; Scottishmade, artisanal gifts for your hosts – or for your Christmas drawer; lunch, a warming bowl of home-made soup to break the journey; very posh loos; and the food hall to launch a thousand self-catering house parties.

My texter had in fact acquired a totally classic, navy blue cashmere jacket made by Johnstons of Elgin, which fitted at the first go. No wonder he was pleased. No grappling with Saturday afternoon crowds.

No coach parties. Just airy, white-and-wood sales floors laden with the most upscale merchandise for men and women that Scotland (and also England) has to offer, polite staff and a fortifying cup of coffee before hitting the road again. What’s not to like?

During almost 15 years, and flying in the face of those who expressed doubts in its early days, Bruar has become a destination in its own right – a day out from Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow or even further south (there are regular parties of ladies from the Lake District) – rather than a pit stop on the way to somewhere more interesting. Bang next to the Falls of Bruar and a short drive north of the Soldier’s Leap and other lovely walks and nature trails at Killiecrankie, Bruar is just the spot to get your fresh-air fix as well as your retail therapy. Time it right and you might even coincide with the Atholl Highland Games at Blair Castle.

If providing a soothing environment in which to shop – the corner with the fireplace and leather sofas is especially popular with those who just want to sit and read the papers – is half of Bruar’s successful formula, the other half rests on the skill of the buyers. Customers know that they can rely on being able to find their favourite moleskin jeans, Oxford shirts, Chrysalis tweed shooting coats, Liberty blouses, Aigle wellingtons and classic labels such as Daks Simpson; but the Bruar team has always acknowledged that you have to adapt to survive, particularly in a climate where traditional country ways of life may be under pressure. So you’ll also find bolder colours (lilac shirts and Tabasco-coloured trousers for men) and brands like Gardeur, Steilmann and the lovely Irish label Avoca adding zest to the mix.

The most recent extension is a 15,000 square foot space to accommodate a fine art gallery – featuring wildlife, floral or landscape paintings (and also sculpture) by British artists, some of them local – and a ‘country living’ department which has some inspirational ideas for gardens, kitchens, bathrooms and even kennels. “We are excited about how this will expand and develop,” comments Patrick Birkbeck, son of the founders, who as managing director has also made sure Bruar hasn’t missed the technological (and mail order) revolution.

Possibly its most significant achievement, though, has been to serve as a one-stop shop for the best of Scotland’s consumable products. Think of the venison reared in remote Highland and island estates; the fish hooked out of icy, fresh Scottish waters and processed in smokeries that are pretty much in the middle of nowhere; biscuits, jams and preserves cooked up in farmhouse kitchens and cheeses produced in diverse dairies and creameries… and you get an idea of the scale of what Bruar has done to bring Scotland’s disparate independent producers together, and to the attention of the wider world.

It’s hardly surprising to discover that Bruar has earned the trust of its customers – over a million visitors a year – to the point where it now has a healthy market in its private label products. You can get House of Bruar Champagne or classic French wines to sit alongside your Ruinart; and who wouldn’t want to try a pair of House of Bruar tartan trews?

My text correspondent didn’t; but then again, he hasn’t ruled out a return visit for some classic grey flannels.

House of Bruar by Blair Atholl, Perthshire
Tel: +44 (0)1796 483 236
Open 365 days a year,9am-5pm