The Loch Maree Hotel is arguably the most famous hotel in North West Scotland.
In an age where the word hotel has become sullied somewhat by the proliferation of soul destroying bleak concrete monstrosities adjacent to motorways and airports, it’s important to remember what they originally symbolised. In this part of Scotland they signified the opening of the Highlands to tourism; one of the most important developments in Scotland’s economic history. Initially these tourists were invariably wealthy members of the gentry whose main concern was bagging a brace of grouse, landing a salmon and stalking a stag. Indeed, today these activities continue to be practised across Scotland and I’m proud to say that fly fishing takes up a great deal of my time. So given the origins of tourism in this area, it comes as no surprise to learn that those early hotels were more like palaces than Premier Inns.
The Loch Maree Hotel is a perfect example of this. Resting on the shores of Loch Maree, it really is a beautiful piece of architecture that is interesting and grand without being gaudy in any way. Its captivating asymmetry evokes the idea of an ancient building that has evolved organically over time, with wings and windows enthusiastically added when funds allowed. It’s easy to imagine the relief that walkers and sportsmen must have felt when they saw the multitude of pretty terracotta chimneypieces with welcoming smoke bellowing out of them.
Pictured above is our Maree worsted wool scarf, named after Loch Maree.
It was constructed in 1872 and the aforementioned factors made it an enormous success very quickly. From the 12th to 18th September in 1877, Queen Victoria was a guest. I would happily argue that she popularised the stereotypical image of a Scotland filled with tartan, tweed, wildlife and wild land. This means that anyone involved in local tourism owes here a huge debt of gratitude. She clearly enjoyed her holiday here because she wrote:
“Got up early and breakfasted at half-past eight, and at a quarter to nine we left with regret our nice cozy little hotel at Loch Maree, which I hope I may some day see again.”
To mark this highly important visit Sir Kenneth Mackenzie organised that the event was commemorated by carving, in Gaelic, the story of her visit into a large piece of natural sandstone just outside the hotel.
As I have made clear in the past, romanticism has always gone hand in hand with perceptions of Scotland and Scottishness, much like our Scottish wool scarves. This meant that the islands on Loch Maree provided the hotelier with the perfect platform upon which to launch a successful Victorian business because they were cloaked in myth and legend. When you combine that with the fact that it rests in some of the most exceptional scenery in the world, and that the loch also offers sea trout fishing of genuine renown (a British record 19.5lb sea trout was caught here), it’s clear to anyone that all the ingredients were present to create a magnificent place to rest and recuperate from the stresses of everyday life.
The myth and legend really has left its mark. Loch Maree supposedly gets its name from St Maelrubha, an Irish Saint who founded a church on one of the lochs islands, which later became known as Isle Maree. Every local child will have heard the story of the Danish princess who came to live on the island with her prince. Together they had an arrangement whereby when the prince returned from voyages he would expect to see a white flag on the island if everything was dandy or a black flag if something terrible had happened. The princess once raised a black flag to see what her lover would do in reaction to it. This was a terrible mistake. So distraught was he that he stabbed himself in the heart and killed himself. Once the princess realised what had happened she too did the same thing. The tragic couple were then buried together on the island. Their gravestones still exist to this day.
Picture taken by Mike Sutherland
To treat madness, madmen would be rowed around Isle Maree three times before being taken to a well on the island and being told to drink the water. A coin was then wedged in the cracks of a nearby tree. Even today the tree and coins can all be seen. It was said that Queen Victoria also visited the island and got someone to stick in a coin for her.
The landscape is breathtaking. Slioch makes its sizeable presence felt towards the North of the water, but the reality is that every hill is so perfectly placed that it could have been put there by an artist keen to use their artistic licence to make a lesser scene more dramatic. From the water, particularly, the scenery is so picturesque that it verges on the surreal. The loch is nearly 14 miles long and at certain points it’s 2 miles wide. Yet unlike other large lochs in Scotland, it doesn’t come across as cold and unwelcoming because the 30 plus islands that are in it break up a big expanse of water into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Picture provided by Sarah Milteer
The wildlife is as good as you will find anywhere in Britain and it makes the rare look regular. Golden eagles, sea eagles, black throated divers and ancient Caledonian pine forest are all common. When the mist descends and the eagles cry and the red stags roar you do feel as if you are living for a moment in the pages of Tolkien. I promise you that it really is that special.
There has been only one dark moment in the history of the hotel. This occurred in the August of 1922 when guests were served potted meat that had not been sufficiently heated in the factory. This resulted in the first outbreak of botulism in Britain and eight people died.
Today, the hotel continues to attract those who wish to bask in the glory of this most remote part of Scotland. As this part of Scotland has so far escaped the ravages of over development, the landscape can be enjoyed just as it was nearly 150 years ago. It has recently undergone extensive tasteful renovations and you can even stay in the same room that Queen Victoria slept in. Although I have not had the pleasure of staying there as of yet, I certainly plan on giving it a go sometime soon and I hope you will too. Who knows, if I enjoy it in the future then I may even arrange for some Malcolm Mowat’s worsted wool scarves to be sold in the lobby. That really would be something; my wool scarves being sold in a hotel once visited by the Empress of India, herself a passionate lover of all things tartan.