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Issue 93 - An island of tranquility

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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An island of tranquility

Christopher Coates escapes the bustle of the city and visits the secluded Isle of Eriska

Escaping the rigours of urban life for the solitude of a 300-acre private island, where one may relax with only the sounds of nature breaking a blissful silence, is surely an attractive prospect by anyone’s standards. Add in the fact that the island is located in the midst of some of the West Coast of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery, has wildlife-rich grounds to explore, luxurious lodgings and a Michelin-starred restaurant, and you might begin to have an inkling as to why the Isle of Eriska is held in the highest regard as a rural Scottish retreat.

This beautiful little island can be found a short journey north of Oban at the point where Loch Creran meets Loch Linnhe. Predominantly made up of schist and slate, it offers a surprising amount of variety for so small an area. From pebble beaches to dense woodland, prominent hilltop to grassy meadow, this diverse geography and the abundance of wildlife to be found therein is undoubtedly the reason why humans chose to settle on this secluded haven as early as the Iron Age. Although archaeological evidence — such as the remains of a crannog (loch dwelling) on the island’s south shore at An Doilinn — bears testament to this ancient history, Eriska does not enter written record until much more recently.

In 1681 the island, which for many years had been the property of the Church, was granted to Sir Duncan Campbell of Lochnell in a charter penned by the Bishop of the Isles that mentions the island by name. Although the spelling has varied somewhat over the years — a map of the Hebrides from the 1630s has it as ‘Eriskach’ and an Admiralty chart from the early 1700s as ‘Uriska’ — the island’s name has undoubtedly been carried through the centuries from a much older vernacular root. Although many derivations have been postulated, the most likely source is the Norse name ‘Erik’s-ay’ — Erik’s island. Whoever Erik may have been, he clearly had good taste when it came to choosing a homestead. Indeed, the New Statistical Account (1845)described Eriska as being home to a small farm and mansion house, the latter of which remains to this day and is now known as Arnott’s House.

From then on Eriska’s history becomes a matter of public record. After being bought in 1883 by James Mellis Stuart, a merchant who could trace his ancestry back to the Stuarts of Appin, he set about transforming the estate into a home fit for a Victorian gentleman and his family. This began with the commissioning of esteemed architect Hippolyte Blanc to design a grand mansion — the impressive ‘Big House’ that even now forms the focal point of the island. Blanc is famous for building many churches across Scotland, designing the world-famous Jenners department store in Edinburgh, and having had a hand in the restoration of Edinburgh Castle. Utilising granite and sandstone, which was likely from Cruachan and Ayrshire respectively, this impressive dwelling was completed in 1884. Sadly, James didn’t get long to enjoy it as he died just a year later.

Bought by William Blair, a prominent Edinburgh lawyer, in 1885, Eriska became his family’s summer residence and entered a golden age. The hospitality afforded to the numerous friends and family welcomed to the Big House became legendary, and it was in this period that the isle first developed a reputation as a luxurious, private pleasure spot. After passing to Blair’s son-in-law, Sir George Clark Hutchison, each April two carriages were added to the Edinburgh to Oban train — one for Sir George’s family and his guests, another for staff and baggage. These carriages would then be disconnected from the train at Connel Junction before being sent across the Connel Bridge to Benderloch, where horses and carts would be waiting to whisk the travellers to their final destination. During this time a total of 56 staff were on the island’s payroll, which gives some insight into quite how much entertaining went on!

Inevitably, WWI put a stop to the fun and its former glory as a private home was never quite recaptured during the following decades. After Sir George’s death, Eriska passed to a number of different owners (one even tried opening it as a hotel) but in general the trend was toward decay and dilapidation. That was until 1973, when the island caught the eye of Robin and Sheena Buchanan-Smith. An ordained minister with the Church of Scotland, it was a big step for Robin to leave the safety of a permanent ecclesiastical position and enter the world of hospitality. Neither he nor Sheena had prior experience of running a hotel business, but they didn’t let that stop them. After a complete restoration over the winter of 1973-74, the Big House on the Isle of Eriska opened its doors as a hotel. This family legacy continued into the next generation, with Robin and Sheena’s son Beppo and his wife Seona developing the business further over the following decades before selling the business in 2016 to another family-owned company. Today, the Isle of Eriska boasts a class-leading reputation as an unrivalled Scottish luxury retreat.

Led by general manager Gordon Cartwright, a former senior AA inspector and renowned hotelier with the management of a raft of high-end hotels to his name, the hotel exudes an atmosphere that’s relaxed but dignified. The service offered, while undoubtedly in the traditional style of high-luxury, never comes across as stiff or forced. Moreover, the island now has a 9-hole golf course, putting green, swimming pool, spa, steam room, sauna, tennis courts, two restaurants — one of which holds a Michelin star — and now a number of luxury one-bedroom lodges. Located at the island's highest point, these Hilltop Reserves are completely separate from the main hotel and offer sumptuous interiors, wood-burning stoves, fully equipped kitchens and the use of private hot tubs that boast panoramic views of Loch Creran.

But even if you were to take away all of these facilities, there would still be reason enough to make the journey to Eriska. The landscape itself offers its own entertainment and wildlife spotting is almost an inescapable pastime as seals, otters, roe deer, and badgers make regular appearances. What's more, it is this rich natural environment that helps to deliver the jewel in Eriska’s crown: the food.

Head Chef Paul Leonard and his team deliver a Scottish culinary experience of the highest order. More than 50 wild foods can be foraged for on Eriska, along with 57 types of herbs and eight different seaweeds, kelps, and sea lettuce, while the hotel's own organic kitchen garden and smokery supply even more of the items appearing on guest’s plates. Indeed, Paul estimates that 80% of the non-proteins on the menu come from the island itself, while the fish, shellfish, poultry, and red meat are all of the very best quality and sourced locally from trusted providers.
The result is a menu that changes daily, with a superb seven-course tasting menu taking centre stage as a dining experience that guests will find unforgettable. Dishes draw on both classic and contemporary styles, and all utilise the Scottish larder to the fullest. By the end, diners have had what feels like a full tour of everything Scotland has to offer — it’s no wonder so many return time and time again. As if that wasn’t enough, the wine list is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most impressive and the hotel’s famous cheese trolly (which offers more than 35 cheeses, all British and over two thirds from Scotland) can be described as nothing short of a head-turner.
So the next time the pressure of modern living is getting you down, do as the Victorians did and look no further than an escape to the inimitable Isle of Eriska.