Boasting intricate craftsmanship using the finest local materials. The Fife Arms brings understated grandeur to Scotland’s hotel scene. By Victoria Lim
The Fife Arms
For many years, The Fife Arms was a down-at-heel Victorian coaching hotel in Braemar catering to budget-conscious travellers. Although the property has a rich history, it is named after the Duke of Fife, who married the granddaughter of Queen Victoria - it was large, draughty and forgettable.
Still, Braemar has played host for the past 186 years to the Braemar Gathering, a Highland Games spectacular that the Queen attends from her nearby perch at Balmoral. Its history was precisely what drew Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss power couple behind renowned gallery Hauser & Wirth, to this humble inn. The duo bought the property in December 2014, closed it for four years of renovation, and finally reopened it in January.
From the outside, The Fife Arms still looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie with its white and red gabled roof and gilded signage. Inside, it couldn’t be more different and shows off the creative vision of interior designer Russell Sage. Ninety rooms have been reduced to 46. A spa has been added alongside a library, playroom, garden and village bar, but that’s only part of the story.
Art is very much part of the hotel’s DNA; more than 14,000 works of art, antiques, and objects have been integrated into the rooms, corridors and corners. You can spot a Louise Bourgeois spider in the hotel courtyard and Victorian taxidermy exhibits, original drawings and installations on the walls by artists-in-residence Gideon Summerfield and Alec Finlay. There is also an original Picasso and a Lucian Freud on the walls, plus a psychedelic handpainted ceiling by Zhang Enli in the hotel’s drawing room, which is inspired by topographic maps and the marbling patterns found within local quartz specimens.
“We invited several artists for residences in Braemar and each responded with very different works. Alec Finlay created ‘gathering’ which tells the story of place names, some of which had been long forgotten. James Prosek created The Fife Arms’ own coat of arms, which includes the Flying Stag, the hotel’s public bar. Within the bar, Characters of Braemar hang - a series of portraits of some of the village’s residents who were drawn by Gideon Summerfield, a graduate of the Royal Drawing School,” shares Iwan.
Hard to get pieces are also on display. The Front Hall has a portrait by Freud, a chandelier commissioned by Richard Jackson, a piano that was a collaboration between Mark Bradford and Steinway, and a spectacular 19th century fireplace that is handcarved with scenes from Robbie Burns’ works. A watercolour painting hangs inside the hotel’s entrance - a stag’s head painted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria of a stag that was shot by her Highlands Servant, John Brown. “It’s one of the few works by Queen Victoria outside the royal collection,” says Manuela. One was fashioned in longstanding Scottish tradition from hundreds of antlers ethically sourced by Gareth Guy of The Horn Shop in Braemar. Another was created by Los Angeles-based American artist Richard Jackson, who interpreted this Scottish decorative classic by using cast glass antlers lit from within. Both are displayed at The Flying Stag.
Each of the 46 rooms and suites is dedicated to Braemar’s visitors, including monarchs and writers (Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson). Flying Stag, a jewel-box cocktail bar, is named after couturier Elsa Schiaparelli.
“All stories have been meticulously researched with the help of local historians and they are then retold using different design
elements. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson, who began to write Treasure Island while on holiday in Braemar, stayed in a house a stone’s throw from the hotel; poet Lord Byron (1788-1824), who as a child lived for a while at a farm just east of Ballater with his Scottish mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight. The stay had a profound effect and local landmarks feature in his works, such as Dark Lochnagar written in 1807; and Frances Farquharson, (19031991), the editor of American Vogue. And even the smallest touches have a story. The room keys are attached to a brass cast of a native
freshwater mussel. These mussels are endangered in Scotland and we support a charity, Pearls in Peril, who are working to reintroduce them,” says Iwan.
The suites, in particular, perfectly showcase The Fife Arms’ rich history and culture, The opulent Indian Suite, which is inspired by Abdul Karim, the confidant of Queen Victoria, is fitted with local timber and constructed using traditional joinery methods. The table was hewn from a single piece of oak by a hand blade, which took seven weeks to make. The Queen’s Suite is embellished with stuccowork and the bathroom is surrounded with blue and white Azulejo-tiled murals from 1901; the King’s Suite has a spectacular wooden coffered ceiling; and the Arch Suite still retains an 18th century fireplace.
“The Fife Arms combines our love for Scotland and the country’s traditional crafts with our years of working with some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. With Braemar being very much our happy place, we hope that people will share in the magic of this historic village,” shares Manuela.
A psychedlic handpainted ceiling by renowned artist, Zhang Enli
The Indian Suite features interesting details like a mini gong and Indian miniatures.
The Prince Albert Suite includes Scottish touches like a tartan linen, and figurines that once belonged to Prince Albert of Saxecoburg and Gotha.
The Flying Stag, a public bar in The Fife Arms, is decorated with a series of portraits called the Characters of Braemar.
A hauntingly beautiful oil piece by Lucian Freud