The Fife Arms, Cairngorms - Hauser & Wirth new hotel Stland

Benjamin Edwards

In the village of Braemar, at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, stands The Fife Arms – a handsome, sensible-looking building, with a gabled façade the colour of milky tea. Set in a crook of the Clunie Water, the hotel was built in the nineteenth century to capitalise on the influx of English to the area after Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria in 1852. Enthused by their monarch and empowered by the new railway line, hordes of southern tourists crossed the border and made their way to the heather-clad hills of Deeside and beyond.

For the latter part of the last century, The Fife Arms was a tartan-strewn, down-at-heel pit stop for weary walkers and coach parties on the hunt for a hot drink and a slice of cake. Draughty, damp and arguably a little dour, the hotel had been declared bankrupt before being bought by gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth in 2015.

The Swiss couple are the powerhouse behind Hauser & Wirth, an empire of international commercial galleries. They have already proven their hospitality credentials with a restaurant called Manuela in LA and Durslade Farmhouse – a rental property that sits in the gardens of their Somerset outpost in Bruton, alongside another restaurant – The Roth Bar & Grill. The purchase of The Fife Arms, which is a stone’s throw away from their own house, marked the beginning of a vast four-year programme of rebuilding and restoration overseen by Moxon Architects with interiors by Russell Sage.

The result is an extraordinary show of confidence in not just the building but also the local area. Furnishings were sourced and made nearby wherever possible and Russell and his team had two full-time researchers on hand to confirm the authenticity of every last object, picture and piece of furniture. The upshot is a wry and clever survey of Scottish history where everything tells a tale – from the beautiful collection of Jacobite glass in the private dining room to the cabinet in the library, where every drawer houses row upon row of precious stones and fossils. A watercolour in the lobby was painted by Queen Victoria and features the head of a stag shot by her companion and ghillie, John Brown.

The look is decidedly Caledonian with doormen decked out in plus fours, more sets of antlers than I would dare to count and an abundance of taxidermy creatures who make beady-eyed appearances at every turn, including not one but two imposing stags. There are walls lined with specially designed tweed, woven by Edinburgh-based Araminta Campbell, who was also responsible for the bespoke tartan in the drawing room, and plenty of watercolours of airborne pheasants and galloping horses. But this is only part of the picture because, unlike most hotels, there is also a vast and eerie Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture in the courtyard, a Lucian Freud portrait in the lobby and a Picasso musketeer in the drawing room, under which guests can have afternoon tea. In the same room, Chinese artist Zhang Enli’s painted ceiling is a dramatic slice of stratified Cairngorm rock in psychedelic swirls of blue and green. In Elsa’s Bar – named after Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli – you will find a set of Man Ray photographs, and an ominous-looking eagle painted by Gerhard Richter presides over events in the Clunie Dining Room, the walls of which are wrapped in a mural by Guillermo Kuitca.

If this all sounds a bit odd, that is because it is, but in a wildly eccentric and thoughtful way – under the watchful eye of Iwan and Manuela, Russell and his team have transformed what was a sprawl of clumsily divided rooms into 46 bedrooms, ranging from small but relatively affordable ‘croft rooms’ –with comfortable box beds and walls painted to echo the surrounding hills –to large suites with four posters and deliciously deep bathtubs.
The Clunie Dining Room, so called after the river, is at the swisher end of the spectrum, with a menu comprising highland cattle sirloin with bone marrow bouillon and turbot served with juniper butter. Meanwhile, The Flying Stag, the in-house pub, offers a pie and a pint for a tenner. Its namesake is a hybrid creature created by the American artist James Prosek that leaps over the bar – part stag, part ptarmigan, a bird that lives among the highest peaks of the Cairngorms. The pub is also hung with portraits of Braemar locals sketched by artist Gideon Summerfield – a project commissioned by Hauser & Wirth: among their ranks you will find a policeman, a butcher, a girl scout, a highland dancer, a gamekeeper and a nonagenarian.

The sheer level of detail that has gone into this project is perhaps best described in numbers. More than 16,000 artworks, antiques and objects were bought or made specially for the building; there are 70 varieties of wallpaper throughout the hotel, several of which are revived William Morris designs produced in their original colourways; the wine cellar can fit 4,000 bottles and there are 180 types of whisky in the pub bar. And yet excessive is not the right word for The Fife Arms. The same level of rigorous curatorship has been applied here as you would find in one of Iwan and Manuela’s galleries. These rooms have been carefully crafted but with a good dollop of humour and irreverence; they are historically accurate but not remotely pretentious. ‘This is not a museum,’ says Russell. ‘It is a visual feast – a place for people to grab memories and take them away with them.’

Doubles from £146, and suites from £715; thefifearms.com