"Glamour, eccentricity and Highland spirit, rooted in an extraordinary history"
16 April 2020
Andrew Carnegie, once the richest man in the world, could have lived anywhere on earth. Yet he chose Skibo Castle – a salubrious, 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 his legacy with The Carnegie Club, one of the most exclusive private members’ clubs in the world, which turns 25 this year. 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, a longstanding member who loved the club so much that he bought it in 2003. He has since spent several millions refurbishing and expanding this elite Highland retreat.
From the moment you enter the castle’s Great Hall, it is like a mesmerising step 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 one uniquely furnished with original ornate dressers, four-poster beds and roll-top baths, set against original 19th-century tiling. There are also 12 dog-friendly lodges on the estate, with modern furnishings.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking there is anything remotely stiff about Skibo, however. The real charm lies in the fact that this luxurious castle is completely unpretentious, delightfully social and brimming with character (and characters).
While the 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 circumstance is not the thing at Skibo. The majority of members are wealthy businessmen, families and professionals. Almost half are American and during my visit, I also met Scandinavians, Scots and plenty of English.
“There is little success where there is little laughter,” Carnegie himself once said. Indeed, humour and entertainment are the driving force behind Skibo’s abundant offerings, designed to make members feel like guests at 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 woken each day by the resident bagpiper and a live organist accompanies breakfast, which, like every meal at Skibo, is generous and perfectly 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 lower their handicap on the world-renowned championship golf course. There is also clay pigeon shooting, horse-riding, off-road driving and a glamourous pool and spa, where visitors pad about in dressing gowns beneath the 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’s astonishing how quickly one adapts to life at Skibo Castle, cocooned in The Carnegie Club’s unique brand of historic luxury, where kilted butlers attend to your every whim. 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