In Review

The Art Master: a stay at The Fife Arms, Braemar

An art-filled boutique hotel in the heart of the Cairngorms

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The newly re-opened Fife Arms is set amid the breathtaking whale-backed hills of the Cairngorms, a rich wilderness redolent of a Tolkienian landscape.

The former Victorian coaching inn is the centrepiece of Braemar, a small Aberdeenshire village nine miles from Balmoral Castle. In early September, the village’s modest population of around 450 swells to almost 16,000 for the Braemar Gathering, one of the biggest events on the Highland Games calendar, attended by members of the Royal Family.

Until celebrated art collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth – owners of world-famous gallery Hauser & Wirth – entered the scene, the Fife Arms was fusty and falling apart at the seams. Known for their love of craftsmanship, the couple set about breathing new life into the place, mixing their signature ‘luxe’ sensibility with strong heritage values.

The result is a cleverly curated ‘art getaway’ for the new age; one that preserves the past, forces the future and never fails to surprise. The hotel is swathed in rich fabrics (including bespoke tartan and tweed weaved by local-born artist Araminta Campbell) and filled with beguiling curiosities stretching from the avant-garde to zany. In the downstairs library is a life-size – and somewhat eerie – waxwork of Queen Victoria surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals.

Furry and feathered taxidermy in glass cabinets is a prominent feature at the Fife Arms, along with antlers of all shapes and sizes. These zoological additions give the hotel the flavour of an old hunting lodge, but just when you think you have the décor sussed, you’re thrown a post-modernist curveball like Louise Bourgeois’ giant ‘Spider’ sculpture in the courtyard. 

The Wirths have outfitted the hotel with more than 14,000 objets d’art, including an original Picasso and a portrait by Lucian Freud. Other pieces of historical note include a watercolour of a stag’s head painted by a young Queen Victoria, a self-playing Steinway piano, and a carved 19th- century mahogany chimneypiece inspired by the works of Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Each of the 46 guest rooms and suites is entirely unique, with rustic interiors informed by Scottish tradition. Suites are dressed in contrasting upholstery and materials – from thistly damasks to earthy tartans – and feature Victorian-style canopy beds as well as freestanding copper baths. The Nature and Poetry rooms are more parred down, with interiors that draw from the luminosity of the Cairngorms.

The Flying Stag, the hotel’s sprawling gastropub, is open to all and offers hearty fare, from haggis with ‘neeps and tatties’ to beer-battered fish and chips. For wood-fired delicacies and refined seasonal gastronomy, there is the atmospheric Clunie Dining Room, with features a showpiece stuffed stag and boasts walls entirely covered in the cubic abstractions of Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca, who was given carte blanche to create his interpretation of the surrounding landscape, which truly is a vision of prismatic colour.

And once you have been seduced by the magic of the Fife Arms, where should you reflect upon all this art that you’ve taken in? The answer is outside, slap bang in the heart of this spectacular patch of untamed beauty.  

Rooms start from £250 per night (including VAT and breakfast) and suites from £795; thefifearms.com

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