Mod Scots and haute highlands (The Independent)

There is a proud, introspective look and sound to modern Scotland. Young musicians are reinventing folk for a new generation that finds the stones of Callanish more magnetic than bleached pop frippery. The Harris Tweed Artisans Co-Operative formed a year ago in the Outer Hebrides to bring attention to new styles in a classic textile, selling wares at Flowers by Violet in Stornoway. In Edinburgh, Howie Nicholsby can make you a bespoke new-wave kilt suit in some unique varieties of it at his 21st Century Kilts atelier. And the textiles and wallpapers of Glasgow’s Timorous Beasties are bold, edgy, sharp of wit… and totally Scottish.

There’s still tartan, of course. If you’re starting a clockwise tour of the Highlands, stay at the Hotel du Vin in Glasgow, the most handsome and arguably the best urban hotel in the country. Converted out of a row of Edwardian townhouses – all wood panelling and stained glass – its now resplendent with claw footed Victorian tubs and ravishing, gothic, black on black tartan twists; it’s a paradigm of mod Scot style – something old; something radically new.

You must, of course, take the West Highland Line out of town from Queen Street when you go. There’s nothing swank about the service itself (particularly if the toilet stops flushing and the guard leaves the WC door open ‘for emergencies only please!’), but the view’s the thing. Portly third generation Scots from Arkansas in baseball caps check their GPS locators and take a snapshot of every single station sign on the route, through Fort William to the ferry port at Mallaig. There is, of course, the inevitable ‘Oooh, the Harry Potter bridge’ over the crossing of the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The scenery is extraordinary, and beguiling. If Kent is the garden of England, the Highlands are the stately, almost alien-beautiful Elysian Fields in Glasgow’s back yard.

The coastline along Mallaig, facing the Isle of Skye, has some of the best scenery in the country. This is where you swap the rails for a hire car, drive inland to the bay town of Plockton and hope that a coachload of grannies hasn’t descended on the location of Hamish Macbeth. Carry on driving to Applecross, over the mountain pass. This is as amazing a scenic drive as you could get anywhere, with white dappled soaring inclines, lush otherwordly emerald moss, snaking crystal waterways and cascading waterfalls. What could be an hour’s drive takes three, allowing for camera breaks and strolls into infinity curves of green. It also thumbs a nose and flicks its kilt up at anyone who has flown long haul to New Zealand searching for Tolkien wonderment without exploring here first.

Stay at the Little Hill of My Heart, a lovely wee B&B that does everything right, from the polished, plush bedrooms to the L’Occitane Verbana candles and landlady Avril’s cracking full-Scottish breakfast. This is the guest house for the 21st century, charming and clued-up. Sadly the fish and chips at the nearby Applecross Inn aren’t quite worthy of the raptures that many visitors go into, though as pub grub goes, it’s fresh, fine, and perfectly satisfying after the adjacent Roe’s Walk, which used to venture through rhododendron tunnels before they were cleared, but still takes you dramatically ever higher until reaching a viewing platform in the trees.

The next ‘wow’ along from Applecross is Loch Torridon. The Torridon, a Victorian redux gothic pile par excellence with sumptuously modernised rooms, is the kind of place you check in and sit still, or at most amble from. Its turrets sit dwarfed by the mountains behind, with the Loch sprawling before it, and no other building nearby. This is a high-style country lodge stuff, with crackling fires, a zodiac crested dining room ceiling and a whisky bar that glisters with hundreds of bottles of fine amber nectar. You could spend a glorious week here, strolling along the water’s banks and beside the horned cattle and feel, justifiably, like you’ve ‘done the Highlands’.

Skye is better reached pre-Applecross if you’re not going further along the islands by ferry-hopping from Uig, but go at some point you must. Skye has a burgeoning Gaelic-speaking community as well as some of the best modern dining in the country. Stay at Number Ten, local landscape artist Diana Mackie’s self catering apartment, attached to her painting studio and cottage on a charmingly desolate beach to the north. Mackie is a whirlwind of style and energy, and with Number Ten she’s created an ultra-modern, ultra luxurious, light-filled hideaway for two, with state of the art technology and some of her own designs, including wonderful stained glass, and a bed made from whisky barrels.  Number Ten is platinum honeymoon territory, though you could also come here to write your magnum opus in splendid isolation.

Mackie had a hand in the interior of the nearby Three Chimneys, the most celebrated restaurant in Europe without a Michelin star and continuing to make a mockery of the system. The Grande dame of Scottish cooking, Shirley Spear, handed the kitchen reins to Michael Smith in 2005 and what started life as something of a folly in an old cottage now continues to offer the most muscular and elegant updates of Scottish cuisine anywhere, with the bulk of the menu ingredients locally sourced, including scallops served in a hazelnut crust and lamb loin with its own haggis. You can’t go to Skye and not go. And few visitors are so churlish.

There are Michelin stars aplenty in Scotland, and they come attached to some similarly wizard chefs. Philip Carnegie has brought a lighter touch to the dining room at Inverlochy Castle – a Relais & Châteaux property – but it’s still a studied and solid portrait of formal dining within an explosion of eccentric theatrical chintz – the perfect locale for an am dram Agatha Christie bloodbath as well as an anniversary splurge.

There are always, wherever you go, some 100% guarantees of modern culinary wonderment – the tasting menu at Number One at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, a restaurant which looks like vintage Manhattan and tastes like Heaven, includes celeriac pannacotta and the most perfect of venison plates. And Martin Wishart’s eponymous satellite restaurant at Loch Lomond has given Glaswegians yet another reason to spend the whole day at Cameron House (the day spa, particularly the rooftop hot tub, is also well worth a splurge).

Then there are the surprises: Broad Bay is a remarkably swish 4 bedroom B&B on the Isle of Lewis, run by a couple who have given up urban existence to live the dream in the Outer Hebrides. They’ve constructed a glass over-sea lookout/dining room and between them serve dinners to their guests that knock the Arran socks off most chefs with decades more experience. Portions are big and game is a speciality – if a guest has shot it that day, expect to taste it later. Similarly, one of the youngest Michelin starred chefs in the country, Graham Campbell, is cooking up a storm at Duisdale House Hotel on Skye. When he does the rounds after dinner, he’s every inch the cheeky fresh-faced urchin, but he might just be the most exciting, if not the best, chef in Scotland right now. He’s taking what sound like nearly straightforward bistro dishes (pepper crusted tuna; peppercorn and honey coated duck) and doing something edgy, unusual and genuinely surprising with them. A crème brulee might taste like foie gras, and deliciously so. He’ll go far.

As indeed you will, if you make it to the Albannach, possibly the most remote Michelin starred establishment anywhere. The drive to and from the Albannach, technically a ‘restaurant with rooms’ in Lochinver, takes you through some really unique landscapes – distant mountains; artful ruins and petrified trees immersed in lochs.  The Albannach itself is like visiting a particularly friend’s house with a penchant for imposing wood furniture. Expect wintery red meats and a lot of love in every dish. It’s worth the trek, particularly if you’re combining camping with a night here (apparently a very popular combo, according to the owner, Lesley Crosfield). Dinner for non-residents is a very reasonable £55 and the wine list is splendid, and surprisingly bargainous (Cloudy Bay is off licence prices).

Even a modern tour of Scotland demands a trip to that Loch. The Clansman Hotel is an unreconstructed tartan monstrosity with a vast fibreglass Nessie outside and a two storey sign that advertises ‘the ONLY hotel on Loch Ness’. Just behind the sign is Loch Ness Lodge (technically a ‘restaurant with rooms’, so the Clansman isn’t exactly fibbing), where you’ll be better off staying. Again, it feels like a private home, albeit one furnished by a very skilled interior designer who has taken their cues from thistles and tweed and done something jewel-bright and swank with it. And the food is divine.

Visit Urquhart Castle, flee the adjacent Nessie gift shops and park up in Inverness, a largely unlovely town with a nefarious one-way system, a cast of wet look-gelled reprobates and a superb modern design shop for Harris Tweed oddities in the form of Judith Glue. It also boasts a rather out of place, drop-dead chic boutique hotel in the Rocpool Reserve, with a Roux restaurant and one particularly in demand room that that has a balcony hot tub. You’d do well to dine downstairs in the former and stay put in the latter for the evening with a bottle of something fizzy and a companion and get the early train to Pitlochry.

Ah, Pitlochry. It’s hard to imagine a more twee tourist town, with peculiarly nasty council estate architecture cheek by jowl with fantasy Lottery-win homes and more nick nack vendors than you could shake a shortbread stick at. And yet there’s a lot to like. Craigatin House is a very cute, urban-minded B&B that’s taken one of those aforementioned Lottery-win Victorian properties and turned it into a thrifty, but contemporary and comfy bolt-hole. A 20 minute walk from the Craigaint, past a macabre Scooby Doo-style amusement arcade that chimes and flashes on the edge of a desolate wood, across a dam and the fast flowing salmon ladder, you come to a glowing glass arts centre and the Port-na-Craig restaurant. Port-na-Crag is an accomplished mix of contemporary and quaint, and doing a surprising, roaring, pre-theatre trade. The place is a delight, and the Stornaway black pudding and cheddar salad is a must, as is the haggis with mashed tatties.

A clockwise tour of modern Scotland must end in Edinburgh. If any further proof was needed that this is now the most des res city north of the border, two openings last year sealed the deal: Super chef Paul Kitching abandoned his beloved Manchester and set up 21212 here, with some dubious Space 1999-signage mixed with some otherwise ravishing décor and some stellar dishes (and bedrooms) in a dream of a building on the Royal Terrace. And the other, of course, is the Missoni Hotel. The locals might bitch about its unpalatable exterior, but it’s now their lunch destination du jour (and quite rightly so). The interior, full of Rosita Missoni’s vulgar-adjacent 50s/60s jewelbox colours and op-art inspired patterns is beyond delightful.

But this isn’t just an Italian style transplant. The hotel is, in fact, the work of Glasgow’s Graven Images, one of the hottest design companies in Europe right now. They also recently collaborated on a range of interior products with Harris Tweed Hebrides which were used to furnish the Blythswood Square hotel in Glasgow, and which they’re now marketing for retail. In putting their stamp on the most fashion conscious new hotel in the world, they’ve underscored how Scottish style is world class and as vibrant as seductive as the landscape it comes from.

STAYING THERE

Broad Bay House, Back, Isle of Lewis (01851 820990; broadbayhouse.co.uk). Doubles from £149, including breakfast.

Craigatin House, 165 Atholl Road, Pitlochry (01796 472 478; craigatinhouse.co.uk). Doubles from £68 per night, including breakfast.

Hotel du Vin, 5 Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow (0141-339 2001; hotelduvin.com). Double rooms start at £150, room only.

Little Hill of my Heart, Camusterrach, Applecross (01520 744 432; applecross accommodation.com). Double rooms from £32.50 per person, including breakfast.

Loch Ness Lodge, Brachia, Loch Ness-side, Inverness (01456 459469; loch-ness-lodge.com). Doubles from £245, including breakfast.

Missoni Hotel, 1 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh (0131 220 6666; hotelmissoni.com). Double rooms from £120, room only.

Number Ten, 10 Borreraig Park, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye (01470 511 795). Short breaks from £375 (three nights).

Rocpool Reserve, Culduthel Road, Inverness (01463 240089; rocpool.com). Doubles from £170, room only.

The Torridon, by Achnasheen, Wester Ross (01445 791242; thetorridon.com). Double rooms from £175, including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

21st Century Kilts, 15 Bridge Street, Edinburgh (01463 248 529).

Judith Glue, 15 Bridge Street, Inverness (01463 248529).

Timorous Beasties, 384 Great Western Road, Glasgow (0141-337 2622).

Violets, 40 Point Street, Stornoway (01851 702 264).

EATING AND DRINKING

21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh (0845 22 21212).

The Albannach, Baddidarroch, Lochinver (01571 844407).

Duisdale House Hotel, Isle Ornsay, Sleat, Isle of Skye (01471 833202).

Inverlochy Castle, Torlundy-Fort William (01398 702177).

Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond, Cameron House, Loch Lomond (01389 722 504).

Number One, The Balmoral, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131 557 6727).

Port-na-Craig, Pitlochry (017996 472777).

GETTING THERE

Virgin trains run from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh to London throughout the day, from £12 each way. http://www.virgintrains.co.uk

The West Highland Line is operated by Scotail. http://www.scotrail.couk

Ferry services within the islands are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. http://www.calmac.co.uk

FOR MORE INFORMATION

www.visitscotland.com NB – The Tourist Board have a new website going up soon and are emailing Ben directly with the link.

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