A birthday gift last year bestowed upon me a title, Laird of Glencoe – that vast, sweeping bloody Scottish valley of death which remains to this day, much like Belgravia, a McDonalds-free zone. As I studied the paperwork, folded neatly inside an A4 tartan paper file, I promised myself that one day I would lord it and stand proud over my very own square foot of peat-based turf.
I was therefore a tad disappointed to discover that the whole thing was a fraud. My kerchief of land is hidden deep inside a forest somewhere, utterly worthless, with no view. I can’t even sell the bumper sticker, never mind the official fridge magnet.
As a city boy who grew up in the central belt of Scotland, kilts and haggis and whisky are but colourful whimsies to be toyed with on certain days of the year, rather than cultural totems to be fought over with passion. However, gripped momentarily by the lording-it bit, I decided to give it a go, if only for a weekend.
I was to have my own castle in the Highlands, a suitably large 15th century tower called Ackergill, overlooking the North Sea up near John O’Groats. By rights the place ought to be crumbling into the water by now, like several of its neighbours, the nearest being Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, a World Monuments Fund-listed pile of rubble (or perhaps Pile of Rubble), clearly visible as such from the pristine ramparts of my own temporary domain.
On arrival, I explored. I looked through the telescopes, bounced on the extra large bed and wandered around the centrally heated jumbo-scale bathroom. While surveying the crashing waves from my bedroom window, I sat at the handsome desk and composed a handwritten letter – on castle notepaper – to a loved one, a letter I really did mean to post. Honest.
It’s owned by a local photographer who keeps the directional arms under lock and key and charges for pictures. He’ll even charge you to take your own picture. It is unquestionably the world’s most unwelcoming tourist attraction
Ackergill’s previous owners rescued the structure from oblivion, but found that its grand, sweeping vistas were suited to weddings and car launches. These paid the bills, and so Ackergill stayed relatively secret, corporate bashes giving way every now and again to well heeled birthday weekends of shootin’, fishin’ and beach bonfires. The new proprietors like a bit of that too, but have lavished money on Ackergill’s intimacy. So you can, when it’s quiet, actually be King of the Castle, with your own staff, your own snooker room and your own highland hall – complete with stags’ heads.
So let the games begin….
If you’ve just arrived from The City, or Dalston, or Paris, don’t worry. There’s a pair of wellies, a Barbour jacket and a hat (in your size) awaiting you on arrival, along with a dram of Old Pulteney, the whisky that smells of the sea because it’s made just up the road in Wick. There’s a room packed with Highland Dress for dinner (although there is no dress code) and all the fishing and shooting tackle you might want, plus library after library of endless books, satisfying those of us who prefer to chill out in front of a seaview clutching a leather bound copy of the Waverley novels, Proust, or Fifty Shades of Grey. Whatever.
You’ll need most of your energy for climbing the stairs (disappointingly, the 15th century builders left no room for an elevator) especially if you’re up top, scanning the North Sea for incoming Vikings. Actually, the view is usually so clear that you can make out oil rigs and windfarms on the horizon. Best to look outwards, really, because five storeys below is somewhat different: the vestiges of the ancient quayside, battered by centuries of winter tides and storms, are now of interest principally to stonemasons, archaeologists and conceptual artists.
The grounds run to several acres; of grass, where Highland cattle graze and bunnies hop about; of orchards, frequently shaken by the sound of exploding clay pigeons from the Duke of Thurso’s estate next door (Ackergill has exclusive rights to lay waste to that part of the animal kingdom which resides there); and of coastline, where you can watch a man haul from the water, just a short distance offshore, the lobster that you may just be having for your tea. Oh, and of rivers, too, thick with salmon and sea trout.
Beyond the grounds are the wild flatlands of Caithness, which create that “Big Sky” you’ve so often dreamt of – a vista of heathland, peat bogs and moors cut by isolated roads that never get busy. The caravans that clog the famous Highland byways of Scotland every summer rarely make it this far north; you can, believe me, drive for miles and never see another living soul.
Of the quiet little towns and hamlets which shelter up here in Britain’s most northerly tip, most are uniformly coloured in what Farrow & Ball might describe as “Thurso Grey”, or, as the locals would have it, “dreich”, a word so onomatopoeic it barely needs looking up. But for a moment of surrealism, walk through Thurso itself, to the harbour. There, framed between some fishing boats and a fleet of perfectly restored multi-hued VW camper vans, you’ll find a displaced population of Californians and Hawaiians chasing world class surf, their taut, thermal rubber-clad bodies the subject of peering scrutiny by little old ladies, pausing while they take thair small dogs walkies.
By a country mile, the most bedraggled hamlet is John O’Groats, Land’s End’s opposite in charity walks. It isn’t quite the UK’s northernmost point – that’s Dunnet Head, a few miles away, a windswept headland of grandeur and majesty. John O’Groats does have a signpost, one of those “Land’s End 700 Miles, New York 3000” things, but you’re unlikely to see it as it’s owned by a local photographer who keeps the directional arms under lock and key and charges for pictures. He’ll even charge you to take your own picture. It is unquestionably the world’s most unwelcoming tourist attraction.
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"Not that long ago, all this would have been the stuff of fantasy, the area's origins lost and gone, strangled by squalor"
But as you make your way through the fresh air, usually under bright sunshine, cynically consigning all that is non-metropolitan to the waste basket marked “sooooo yesterday”, there are moments of urbane pleasure to satisfy even the most dedicated urbanist. Scrabster, another exercise in onomatopoeia, is essentially just an industrial harbour for North Sea oil supply ships and a few fishing boats. It’s also where one enterprising couple set up shop a few years back to offer fresh fish for the discerning. The Captain’s Galley – whose owner/chef strolls over the road each morning to select his ingredients off the boats – is the kind of place which draws people from miles around to guzzle lobster in the car park, or to savour an amuse-bouche of langoustine so fresh they’re barely dead, simply flashed under a grill and spiked with chilli and lime.
The late Queen Mother – whose second home up here, the Castle of Mey, still draws the tourists – has left a legacy of wholesome, disparate foodstuffs under the label “Mey Selections”, which Prince Charles, through his North Highland Initiative, wishes to turn into another Duchy of Cornwall quality branding exercise for highland beef, marsh lamb, biscuits, butter and honey, all coming soon to a supermarket near you.
Mention of local food brings us neatly back to dinner at Ackergill. The archetypal castle in the Highlands may be a grandiloquent construct of historic fortitude and strength, but that has often just been tourist board fodder, and in turn that has meant a distinct absence of quality dining. At Ackergill, they’ve decided that the menu reigns. Food is sourced not just locally, but outside the windows, and is prepared with flair and imagination – with no foams or quirky imports from Soho’s passing fancies. The young chef was trained a few miles down the road, and his steak with braised beef cheek was so perfect I assumed it was sous-vide. He was horrified. “Rest it as long as it’s cooked,” he sternly lectured me afterwards. The accompanying wine, a big gloriously youthful McLaren Vale Shiraz (they don’t make wine locally) ripe with booming dark fruit, was splashed out by the glass with gay abandon.
And that local whisky? During my visit two Canadians, in full Highland dress, were sinking it in front of a roaring fire, loudly living the dream of their forebears. I preferred to end the night on a sweeter note, a vin doux with dessert, but I’m not going to spoil anyone’s dreams from days of old. There are whole industries, not to mention political movements, based on the fictions and re-interpretations of ancient events. An indulgent weekend lording it with all that as a backdrop does no-one any harm at all. Sláinte! C
Ackergill Tower, Wick, Caithness, Scotland KW1 4RG
ackergilltower.com; 01955 603556
Derek Guthrie writer flew from London Gatwick to Inverness with easyJet