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A Night Away: the majesty of the mountains in Hauser & Wirth’s art-lined Highland hotel

A historic building set against the backdrop of the mighty Cairngorms is home to a vast collection of artworks old and new – and epic rooms inspired by local lore. In celebration of Burns Night on 25 January, Inigo takes a trip. Slàinte Mhath!

Words
Cat Sarsfield
A Night Away: the majesty of the mountains in Hauser & Wirth’s art-lined Highland hotel

A visit to The Fife Arms involves a journey through what Scottish author and poet Nan Shepherd described in the 1940s as the ‘living’ mountains. In her love letter to the Cairngorms, she wrote: “Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity.” Peering out the window en route to Braemar, it’s easy to understand what she meant. Arrive at night and even the shadowy outlines of these mighty hills feel significant. Arrive in daylight – it’s best as the sun begins to set and the sky is shaded in lilacs and pinks – and it’s even more of a sight to behold. A fitting prelude before you’ve even stepped through the doors of the Highland hotel. 

The Fife Arms had many iterations until its current owners, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, restored the hotel to more than its former glory in 2018. Each of its rooms celebrates the stories of Braemar and Scottish history. There are vast and velveteen Royal suites, paying homage to the kings and queens whose ties to Scotland run deep – particularly pertinent with Balmoral just down the road. There are the Scottish Culture rooms, inspired by everything from writers and Suffragettes to zoology and bridge engineering. Inigo stayed in Lord Byron, a room kitted out with late 18th-century portraiture and furnished with deep reds, dark woods and classic tartan. A mannequin sporting one of the poet’s actual jackets proved only a little unnerving in the middle of the night, until we remembered where we were.

As to be expected from a Hauser & Wirth outfit, art plays a pivotal part in the hotel’s interiors. Old-world and contemporary works gather in the 14,000-piece collection, hung on every wall, stairwell and corner of the place. To walk in is to step back in time to a Scottish baronial castle… until you’re met with bursts of contemporary art that deconstruct the historical narrative: see how Red Deer Chandelier, by Richard Jackson, lights up the reception staircase with multicoloured neon; gaze up and get lost in the hypnotic drawing-room ceiling painted by Zhang Enli, inspired by Scottish agates and Cairngorm crystals. And then there’s the Steinway ghost piano, its ivories eerily (and brilliantly) programmed to play – seemingly without being tinkled on – all evening.

These more modern pieces are set against a backdrop of historic works: a Flemish Renaissance scene teeming with bodies, a stag drawn by Queen Victoria, and – of special significance, given the date of our visit – an elaborately carved chimneypiece from Robert Burns’ home in Fife. A fantastic, fractured Picasso, hanging on a tartan wall, sums up The Fife Arms’ approach: authenticity with an audacious wink.

For a place so purposefully designed and with a collection so meticulously curated, there’s a total sense of ease here. Breakfast in the Clunie Room – may we recommend the kippers and poached eggs, or if you’re feeling up to it, porridge with a wee nip of whiskey – often leads to friendly conversation with staff, who’ll either delight you with the details of your favourite artwork, help plan your day, or perhaps fill you in on the gossip from Elsa’s cocktail bar the night before.

Dinner is a seriously Scottish affair, from the silky Islay smoked salmon to the cuts-like-butter Highland beef wellington, hailing from a neighbouring estate – another nod to locality. Vegetables are stars in their own rights; celeriac celebrated two ways, for instance: salt-baked and pureed, paired perfectly with crispy, salty, pine-nut crusted kale. For a little less formality, there’s always the in-house pub serving up all the classics, The Flying Stag.

Nan Shepherd would urge you to get out into the hills. Walk up the road from the hotel and you’ll soon be on beautiful trails leading past Braemar Castle and on to ridges with views of snow-capped mountains, icy streams and deep green forests. But a wander through the hotel is just as atmospheric. Admire the taxidermy walls. Take an art tour. Sling back a whiskey or three in amber-hued Bertie’s Bar. Discover the Scottish lore that inspires every inch of The Fife Arms.

Further reading

The Fife Arms

The Fife Arms on Instagram

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