"Glamour, eccentricity and Highland spirit, rooted in an extraordinary history"
Andrew Carnegie, once the richest man in the world, could have lived anywhere on earth. Yet he chose Skibo Castle – a 7,500-acre estate overlooking the Dornoch Firth in northern Scotland. Acquiring the property in 1898, the Scots-born industrialist wanted to give his daughter, Margaret, a proper Highland childhood, while entertaining visitors including John D. Rockefeller, Woodrow Wilson and John Pierpont Morgan.
Today, Skibo Castle continues to honour the Scotsman’s legacy with The Carnegie Club, one of the most exclusive private members’ clubs in the world, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. Twenty per cent of visitors arrive by private jet, while others make their way by helicopter or chauffeur-driven Land Rover from Inverness airport. The estate is privately owned by American businessman Ellis Short, founder of private equity fund Kildare Partners (and owner and chairman of Sunderland Football Club from 2008 to 2018), a longstanding member who loved the club so much that he bought it in 2003. He has since spent several million pounds refurbishing and expanding this elite Highland retreat.
Entering the castle’s Great Hall is like stepping through time. Skibo’s enchanting drama and grandeur has been painstakingly preserved since Carnegie’s time, with many original features still intact – from the stained-glass windows to the unusually low door handles, positioned to accommodate Carnegie’s diminutive 5ft 2in frame.
A sweeping staircase leads to 21 bedrooms, each of which is uniquely furnished with original ornate dressers, four-poster beds, roll-top baths, and original 19th-century bathroom tiling. There are also 12 dog-friendly lodges on the estate, with more modern furnishings.
Don’t, however, make the mistake of thinking there is anything remotely stiff about Skibo. The charm of this magnificent castle is its modesty. It is a delightfully social place brimming with character, and characters.
While this Highland home gained notoriety in the 90s for hosting the wedding of Madonna and Guy Ritchie (it has subsequently hosted a number of famous names), pomp and ceremony is not the thing at Skibo. The majority of members are wealthy businessmen. Almost half are American, though, during my visit, I met Scandinavians, Scots and plenty of English.
“There is little success where there is little laughter,” Carnegie once said. Appropriately, visiting Skibo feels like dropping in on an Edwardian house party. Courting business is frowned upon, while joining a group singalong around the piano at the end of the evening is emphatically encouraged.
Members are awoken each day by the resident bagpiper and a live organist accompanies breakfast, which, like every meal at Skibo, is generous and executed using local Highland fare.
Guests travel by foot, bike or golf buggy to the smartly-furnished clubhouse, where they can choose to take in the view with an endless stream of champagne and lunch offerings or venture out to lower their handicap on the championship golf course. There is also clay pigeon shooting, horse-riding, off-road driving and a fashionable pool and spa, where visitors pad about in white dressing gowns beneath a striking glass-paned roof.
Dinner is either an informal affair in the clubhouse or, the piece de résistance at Skibo, a formal dinner in black tie or highland dress, which is hosted by the flamboyant ‘in-house storyteller’ Alan Grant, whose striped trousers and joke collection could rival Billy Connolly. A lively feast is followed by a raucous evening of ceilidh dancing, or you can retreat for a nightcap by a roaring fire.
It is astonishing how quickly one adapts to life at Skibo Castle, cocooned in The Carnegie Club’s unique brand of historic luxury. Membership is priced at £9,500 per annum, in addition to a £30,000 joining fee, and nightly charges start from £1,400, inclusive of all food and drink. Membership is capped at 400 and, with the club almost at capacity, it will be closing its book imminently.
“Skibo is not about turning a profit,” comments owner Ellis Short. “It is about keeping the unique atmosphere and feeling we have created here. Our members live in the fast lane and the club is all about allowing them to switch to a slower pace. The aim is to make it feel like Andrew Carnegie left the day before.”
It is a warmth and heritage that you simply cannot fudge; an alchemy of glamour, eccentricity, humour and Highland spirit, rooted in extraordinary history, against a backdrop that is unquestionably one of the finest, most peaceful in the world.
The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, Clashmore, Dornoch IV25 3RQ, carnegieclub.co.uk