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Issue 38 - Hollywood on holiday

Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


This article is 10 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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Hollywood on holiday

Few are aware that Nairn was Charlie Chaplin's favourite holiday destination. When Andrew Ross visited the picturesque Royal Burgh he found that it has hung on to some of its Victorian splendour and still boasts a touch of Hollywood glamour.

I had often driven past the Morayshire coastal town of Nairn en-route from Aberdeen to Inverness, but had never found a reason to stop. Achance dinner party conversation about the seaside town known as the ‘Riviera of the North’ being a favourite holiday destination of screen legend, Charlie Chaplin, piqued my interest. I did some more research and found that Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston had both been frequent visitors too.

Yet I still never got round to visiting.

Indeed, it was only when I opened a newspaper the morning after the 2008 Oscars ceremony to find the town and one of its famous residents splashed across the centre pages that I resolved to go and find out what I had been missing. I was not disappointed.

From the moment you enter Nairn, it feels just like a seaside town should. There is more than a whiff of Victoriana, and the restored bandstand, gift shops, plethora of cafés and restaurants, and general ambience just scream out – vacation!

The grand houses and hotels in the town’s West End lend it a certain regal air too. It is no wonder that actor and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton and her artist husband, John Byrne, have continued the Hollywood tradition and set up home here, or that each summer legions of American golfers flock here... and leave wishing they had dedicated more of their itinerary to the place.

The golf here is great. Indeed, there are two championship courses – the ‘West’ course, established in 1887, played host to the Walker Cup in 1999. United States of America team member, Danny Yates, was so smitten with the place he commented: “The golf course was spectacular. Nairn is a special place and the people... wonderful.” Recent converts include basketball player Michael Jordan and actor Jack Nicholson.

Chaplin was known to have the odd game here too.

The golf is good, of that there is no debate, but Nairn is a town dominated by one thing: one of the best and longest beaches in Scotland. You would be hard pushed to find more pristine, whiter sand anywhere in the country. It is a popular summer bathing spot. The promenade along its length is busy year-round and an excellent vantage point to drink in the stunning views of the Moray Firth.

During his many visits here, Chaplin was often seem ambling along the seafront for an evening constitutional. The star of the silent screen was said to be delighted never to have been paid more attention by the locals than the doffing of a cap or the occasional polite ‘good evening.’ It was a far cry from the hysteria that surrounded him nearly everywhere else he travelled.

Aside from the interruption of the odd kite surfer or fisherman checking the lobster pots, the views from the promenade are unchanged from Chaplin’s era. You can see across the water and up the north coast to Ross-shire, Sutherland and even Caithness on a clear day. You can see Moray and Inverness-shire too. Indeed, so wide is the bay at Nairn that the beach was used by Allied Forces during World War Two to rehearse for the Normandy landings.

It is not uncommon to see bottle-nosed dolphins feeding off-shore at Nairn. Seals and porpoises are a regular sight too, and even the odd whale. Dolphin-spotting tours leave from the harbour, but if you keep your eyes peeled from the shore you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these graceful creatures as they feed and play. The star of the show is ‘Sandancer’ a dolphin known to locals for his acrobatics.

It is this seaside setting that saw Nairn gain a reputation in Victorian times as one of the country’s premier spa towns. Visitors came from far and wide to take the fresh Highland air and bathe in what was the largest saltwater swimming pool in the world. It had been opened by the esteemed Dr Grigor in 1873. The boom in health tourism – aided by the extension of the national railway network to Nairn in 1855 – saw the picturesque sleepy fishing village transformed. However, it would never lose its charm.

Boasting one of the lowest rainfalls and the most hours of sunshine in Scotland, it is no surprise that Nairn, in the present day, remains a popular holiday destination. The salt-water baths may have long been replaced by a conventional pool, but the hotels and attractions that sprung up to service the tourism boom still remain. The town also plays host to a world-class jazz festival.

The Golf View Hotel, perched on a promontory high above the Moray Firth, boasts one of the best outlooks of any hotel in the land and is fabled among the international golfing fraternity. Chaplin and wife, Oona, were said to be partial to taking afternoon tea on the terrace. Its sister hotel, The Newton, is more secluded, but also boasts uninterrupted views of the firth and the west golf course.

The Newton was Chaplin’s favoured summer residence, and you can see why. It is like a fairytale castle replete with ballroom, endless corridors and cavernous fireplaces. The bistro, Chaplin’s, has been named in honour of its most famous patron and serves up excellent local seafood caught within view of the hotel. You may even find an elderly local in the bar willing to share an anecdote about the star over a glass of the local tipple, Royal Brackla malt whisky – Nairn is conveniently at the heart of the Moray and Speyside section of the Malt Whisky Trail.

Nairn’s charms do not, however, end there.

Today’s visitors often base themselves in the town’s many hotels and holiday homes while they visit nearby attractions. In 1746, the nearby Culloden Moor was the site of one of the defining battles of the Jacobite Rising and saw the Hanoverian British forces defeat the Highland army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. It is but a stone’s throw from Nairn. Cawdor Castle, too, is a must-visit, especially for fans of William Shakespeare.

Macbeth is pronounced Thane of Cawdor in the eponymous Scottish play before going on to murder King Duncan in Inverness Castle.

Like Chaplin, in my time in Nairn I became partial to an evening promenade, pausing to take in a cricket game on the beach-side ground that is also the sight of the annual Nairn Highland Games, or just to stare dumbfounded at the stunning sunsets (that occur well after 10pm in the height of summer).

During a sunset walk along the sands on my last night there I glanced up and swore I saw a bowlegged silhouetted figure with brimmed hat on head and cane in hand. Closer inspection told me it was a surveyor in hard-hat with measuring equipment. Mooted plans for development of a leisure hub to the west of the town by the current Thane (Earl) of Cawdor may change the face of Nairn forever and go a good way towards destroying some of that parochial charm that attracted the likes of Chaplin.

The change may yet prove to be positive, but I would get there while the going is good.

Golf View Hotel
The Seafront, 63 Seabank Road,
Nairn, IV12 4HD
Tel: +44 (0)1667 452 301
The Newton Hotel
Inverness Road, Nairn, IV12 4RX
Tel: +44 (0)1667 453 144
Nairn Golf Club
Tel: +44 (0)1667 453 208
Nairn Dunbar GC
Tel: +44 (0)1667 452 741
Overnight sleeper trains leave
London Euston for Inverness six
days a week. National Express East
Coast runs a daily train between
London Kings Cross and Inverness
Easyjet and BMI fly regularly from
London airports to Inverness Airport
(just 10 miles from Nairn)

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