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Issue 6 - Having it all

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


This article is 15 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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Having it all


It is the classic rags to riches story of all time. The Dunfermline weaver’s son returning triumphant to Scotland from America, where at the age of 13 he had started as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory in Pittsburgh. He was now a steel magnate and the richest man in the world, and
he wanted to buy a Scottish home.

Andrew Carnegie married late in life, in 1887. He and his wife Louise had only one child, Margaret, born 10 years later when her father was 62 and her mother past 40. From her birth, both Carnegie and his wife were determined that she should learn about her Scottish roots.

To begin with, the Carnegies were set on buying Clunie Castle, but were unable to persuade Ewen MacPherson to sell his ancestral home. Carnegie then appointed Hew Morrison, a friend of the librarian of the Public Library of Edinburgh, to find him a suitable residence. He laid down three stipulations: a trout stream, a view of the sea, and a waterfall. Morrison soon brought Skibo Castle on the Dornoch Firth to Carnegie’s attention. However, as he browsed through the relevant papers, Carnegie noted the dilapidated conditions of the farms, buildings, fields and roads, and quickly lost interest.

Knowing the estate and its potential, Morrison did his utmost to convince him – but to no avail. Carnegie then arranged an expedition to the Highlands with friends in order to view other estates and Morrison was invited along. As the coach party travelled through Sutherland, Carnegie reluctantly let Morrison persuade him to swing by Skibo, principally to humour him for his efforts.

The name Skibo derives from the Gaelic word Schytherbole meaning ‘Fairyland’ or ‘Place of Peace’. This may go some way towards explaining how, throughout its history, Skibo has extended such a magical attraction over owners and visitors alike.

Located on the northern shore of the Dornoch Firth on the slopes of the Sutherland Hills, the same microclimate that keeps midges at bay encourages a profusion of wildlife and vegetation.

As his carriage passed from beneath the impressive beech lined avenue to reveal the secluded mansion, Carnegie knew that his search was over. The purchase price for the Skibo Estate in 1897 was £85,000 ($132,900), but Carnegie went on to spend a further £1,000,000 ($1.56m). The existing Gothic mansion was torn down and rebuilt to create a magnificent baronial castle suitable for the style of entertainment he had in mind.

In the 21 years that led up to his death, Andrew Carnegie played host to the greatest figures of the age – kings, prime ministers, businessmen, writers, artists and musicians. Rudyard Kipling, Sir Edward Elgar, Hellen Keller, the concert pianist Paderewski and King Edward VII are among the names to be found in the castle visitor’s book. But in keeping with his egalitarian image, there are others, such as humble delegations from his birthplace at Dunfermline.

Carnegie’s additions to Skibo extended to the south and west of the existing structure, providing 200 rooms and almost 400 windows. There is a room with a view for every hour of the day. Outside of his study, when seated at his writing desk in his favourite green chair, Carnegie could gaze out across the Firth while writing such treatises as his Gospel of Wealth. A testimony to his love of this spot is captured in the words engraved on the top of the balustrading: “I lift up mine eyes to the hills”.

When carrying out the refurbishment work, Carnegie was extravagant, but not wasteful. He used local craftsmen and no detail was overlooked. The entire castle, built in concrete and steel, is draught free. The deep red mahogany and oak doors have iron lining for insulation and fire protection. Door handles are located unexpectedly low, a reminder that Carnegie was only 5ft 2in tall. The wallpapers and light fixtures were chosen by Louise Carnegie and ordered from New York. They remain in almost pristine condition.

In 1898, Louise Carnegie wrote: “The surroundings are more of the English type than the Scotch. The sweet pastoral scenery is perfect of its kind … The Highland features to which our hearts turn longingly are not wanting, but more distant … With all our fullness of life before, we have never really lived ‘til now … “ Four years later Carnegie himself wrote: “I am so busy working at fun! Fishing, yachting, golfing. Skibo never so delightful; all so quiet. Ahome at last.”

Acentury later, the great Edwardian steel magnate long dead, another entrepreneurial figure was to fall under the same spell and realise the potential of Skibo. Peter de Savary had discovered Skibo by chance on a visit to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland. “I’d heard about Dunrobin Castle, the home for the Dukes of Sutherland, at Golspie, and I asked a chap at the Highland Tourist Board about it. He suggested I visited Skibo instead.”

This place was eminently handy, said the man, just over 40 minutes’ drive from Inverness Airport with its customs clearance and facilities for private jets; or just 10 minutes by helicopter. De Savary, whose past commercial ventures have encompassed shipping and oil and property development, immediately knew that this was going to cost him a lot of money, but it would be worth every penny.

In 1995, he created a club for like-minded individuals to come and stay under one roof in the same style as the former house guests of Carnegie himself. The only difference between de Savary’s hospitality and that of Carnegie is that de Savary’s guests are expected to share the cost.

Anybody can go to stay at Skibo once, at a cost of £800 ($1,250) per day for two sharing, but after that, if they want to return, they have to become a member of The Carnegie Club which costs £3,000 ($4,690). The daily charge covers everything – food, drink, unlimited golf on the championship links course and most of the estate’s sporting facilities. The idea is to treat Skibo as if your friend had told you to make yourself at home, says de Savary.

Seven years on there are over 500 members, drawn from the rich and clubbable of 32 countries. There are a limited number of corporate members who pay £12,500 ($19,500) a year, allowing five nominated representatives who may use the club on a private as well as a business basis.

Aside from the glamour associated with the high-profile marriage of popstar Madonna to film producer Guy Ritchie last year, the main attraction for potential members has to be golf. This is no accident. Prior to launching the project, de Savary scoured the tourist surveys and discovered that golf was Scotland’s main attraction. Skibo Castle was already ahead of the competition in that department, courtesy of Carnegie. At the turn of the century he had commissioned J.H. Taylor, a five-times Open champion, to build a course in the castle grounds.

From this starting point, de Savary invited the internationally renowned links architect Donald Steel to bring the course up to date. According to aficionados, the new 18-hole links course, which stretches along a scenic peninsula, presents golfers with the challenge of unpredictable winds, fiendish pot bunkers, undulating gorse-strewn dunes and formidable protected greens. Not surprisingly, the stars have all been – Greg Norman, Sam Torrance and Sean Connery to name but three.

But the Carnegie Club is not all about golf. Another feature is the Olympic-size swimming pavilion. On a summer’s day in the past the roof could be wound back and the doors opened onto a walkway sloping to a pier on the edge of a man-made loch. Other activities include archery, horse-riding and clay pigeon shooting. There is salmon fishing on the lochs and River Evelix, and trout fishing on Loch Ospisdale. The club can arrange for grouse, pheasant and deer shooting on neighbouring estates.

And making sure that everything is as it should be, there is a staff of 150 along with an impressive management team.

Arrive at the castle and your car is immediately taken away from you, to be returned when you depart. The castle, its grounds and facilities, are yours to enjoy. You enter the Great Hall with its soaring stained glass windows and a large church organ backdrop, and every room has a different ceiling, the restoration made easy by the fact that de Savary found the grandson of the local man responsible for the original plasterwork in 1897. He even had the original moulds.

No detail has been ignored. De Savary has tracked down many of the original furnishings, such as Carnegie’s Bechstein grand piano and dining table, and restored them to their rightful place. In the evening, all the house guests dine at a massive table once destined for a boardroom in New York. Most guests and non-golfers have lunch in the restored club house, again at a communal table. The bedrooms are spacious and luxurious with four-poster beds. The private bathrooms feature enormous free-standing baths and bidets of gigantic proportions!

There is one thing about a visit to Skibo Castle. Afterwards, you will want to return again and again.