Kilts and Castles

It was founded by the Vikings, called home by Andrew Carnegie, and turned into heaven on earth for the rest of us. Welcome to Skibo.

Now, Zachary, what exactly is it you like to do?" asks Henrietta Fergusson, pressing her tweed skirt into place and settling into a tiny and surprisingly modern office off one of the oak-paneled hallways.

Miss Fergusson is headmistress, mother superior, camp counselor, and officially, "club secretary." She is also the heart and soul of Skibo Castle, and each new lad who visits this magical kingdom in the far northeast reaches of the Scottish Highlands needs to first have a chat with Henrietta. After all, she wants to make sure that children take their leisure as seriously as their parents do. This is no place to lounge at poolside (even though the one at Skibo is Olympic-sized and heated), luxuriate in massages or facials (both, however, are available at the castle's own Clarins Spa), or to sleep in late (bangers, fried eggs, and porridge are served at 8 a.m. sharp). And while afternoon tea is irresistible—perhaps sitting in a big comfy armchair in the drawing room overlooking the rose garden—it seems a shame, doesn't it, to waste all those nice long daylight hours (this far north, you can, in midsummer, read out-of-doors until nearly midnight) indulging in chocolate ginger cake and Earl Grey tea served from pink-and-white English bone china.

A large, handsome woman with bright-blue eyes and a serious bearing, Henrietta suggests America's first lady of manners, Letitia Baldrige, and the fiercely dedicated head of housekeeping in an Agatha Christie novel. She is, in other words, someone to make any young lad sit up straight and pay attention.

"Do you like to hunt?" she asks.

"Uh, yes," gulps the eight-year-old American boy sitting opposite her. He's never hunted in his life, but he's certainly not going to tell Henrietta.

"Good, we'll sign you up right now for clay pigeons. Great fun. And what about fishing?"

"I've done it a few times before but..."

"Well, it's time you did it again, isn't it darling? After all, that's why we're at Skibo," she says, briskly jotting all this down on a slip of paper that will be printed out on a very official-looking document called Zachary's Itinerary at Skibo.

"What about tennis or falconry? And there's round-the-clock golf, of course, and a charming, charming tennis court. And all the youngsters seem to love archery."

I mention young Zachary not because Skibo is necessarily a family destination—in fact, it is preferred that families with children under 16 years lodge in one of the 12 stone cottages found throughout Skibo's 7,500 acres rather than in an upstairs castle bedroom—but to suggest that if an all-American kid can do all this, just think what the rest of us grownups can do! After all, Madonna staged the most elaborate (and fiercely private) wedding of the year at Skibo Castle on December 22.

Skibo—the name is Nordic, but no one seems to agree on exactly what it means—was called "heaven on earth" by the Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie, who bought this stately pile of honey-colored limestone and stained-glass windows, turrets, towers, and staircases in 1898. This is luxury on a grand scale set amid a ravishing Highlands landscape of distant mountains that plunge dramatically into nearby hills; of massive blue skies that give way to thunderous Wagnerian storm clouds and downpours. Here you'll find priceless golf courses, dense moors full of partridge and grouse, and rocky, crystal-clear rivers and streams teeming with wild salmon and speckle-bellied trout.

In the ninth century, the Celts believed Skibo to be a gift from the Gaelic fairies and called it Schytherbolle, "a fairyland of peace." Over the next thousand years—whether the inhabitants were Norse invaders (who were hardly peaceful under the bellicose rule of, say, Sigurd the Mighty and Thorstein the Red) or millionaire industrialists like Carnegie—Skibo was seen as the ultimate Arcadian fantasy, a refuge far from the madding crowd. But by 1990, when international entrepreneur Peter de Savary purchased the castle, Skibo was a grim reminder of grander times. De Savary and his wife had driven to Skibo on a lark one Sunday afternoon to look at a painting advertised as part of the estate's "liquidation" sale; instead, he ended up buying the castle. It took him three years and $30 million to renovate Skibo and create what its promotional brochure calls "a private golf and sporting club with an international membership limited by invitation . . . in one of the last great wilderness areas of Europe."

One can arrive by plane (the airport at Inverness is less than an hour's drive), but the 12-hour overnight train ride aboard the New Caledonian allows you to pack as much as you wish, board at your leisure, and leave from London's Kings Cross station in time for a martini and snack before bed. The berths are small but comfortable, with crisp white linens and smart blue coverlets. The next morning, at 7:30, a tweedy Scotsman picks you up in a Land Rover for a 45-minute drive to the castle. Skibo is virtually invisible from the public roads that point you toward Spinningdale, Clashmore, and Miekle Ferry North.

Life at Skibo is much as Carnegie and his family lived it in the late 19th century (daughter Margaret remained at Skibo until 1981, when, at age 82, she turned it over to Holt Leisure company, from whom De Savary bought the property). A bagpiper in full Highland dress still circles the castle each morning to rouse its guests; much of the furniture, the drapery, even the vellum-bound books from the library remain as they were the day Carnegie died. "In the old days," explains De Savary, "all great houses had a falconer. Since there were neither tennis courts nor swimming pools nor even guns, the falconer served as both entertainment and forager, bringing home the fresh rabbits, grouse, and partridge that would be served at dinner." Skibo's current falconer, Andrew MacLeod, a rugged, blue-eyed Australian of Scottish descent who lives nearby with some 16 barn owls, falcons, and eagles, offers to those who are interested an up-close look at what a brutal, bloody sport falconry can be.

Beverly Yates, who's officially a Skibo club host, also serves as a sort of unofficial historian to the house and can tell you everything about your own bedroom—as well as everyone else's. As he walks you through these grand rooms, pointing out Mrs. Carnegie's dust-covered Victrola and records, big silver towel warmers in every room, and the stained-glass windows and grand organ at the top of the staircase, he also dispenses little bits of history. The porcelain sinks, for example, and tiled floors of the mammoth bathrooms are just as they were a hundred years ago. So, too, the Otis elevator—the first to be installed north of Glasgow. And when Edward VII visited the castle in 1902, he was so enamored of Carnegie's thoroughly modern innovations—hot and cold running water, central heating, and the most up-to-date plumbing in Europe—he incorporated them into Buckingham Palace when it was renovated a few years later.

Like all great houses, Skibo is at once very grand and very eccentric. The walls are hung densely—Uffizi Gallery-like—with what appear to be old masters, alas, all fakes. Carnegie thought expensive paintings a waste of money: better to have them replicated by local talent. Mr. Carnegie's second-floor bedroom is exactly as he left it (right down to the frayed Oriental carpets), though his own bed, custom-made to accommodate his five-foot-one-inch frame, has since been replaced with something more suited to modern dimensions. On the other hand, Mrs. Carnegie's Castle—a stone cottage at the far end of the property complete with homey oak-paneled kitchen—could most politely be described as decidedly dowdy. Grander is the Montrose suite, with its wood-paneled walls and ceilings, elaborate stone fireplace, and fanciful canopied bed.

Peter de Savary sees the ultimate Skibo-ite as a "golfer and person who loves Scotland and is not looking for boutiques and discotheques." If you don't play golf, there's certainly plenty to do, but you'd miss two terrific courses. De Savary calls the nine-hole parkland "the next best thing to your own private course." Two minutes by golf cart from castle or cottage, the Monk's Walk, as case, he also dispenses little bits of history. The porcelain sinks, for example, and tiled floors of the mammoth bathrooms are just as they were a hundred years ago. So, too, the Otis elevator—the first to be installed north of Glasgow. And when Edward VII visited the castle in 1902, he was so enamored of Carnegie's thoroughly modern innovations—hot and cold running water, central heating, and the most up-to-date plumbing in Europe—he incorporated them into Buckingham Palace when it was renovated a few years later.

Like all great houses, Skibo is at once very grand and very eccentric. The walls are hung densely—Uffizi Gallery-like—with what appear to be old masters, alas, all fakes. Carnegie thought expensive paintings a waste of money: better to have them replicated by local talent. Mr. Carnegie's second-floor bedroom is exactly as he left it (right down to the frayed Oriental carpets), though his own bed, custom-made to accommodate his five-foot-one-inch frame, has since been replaced with something more suited to modern dimensions. On the other hand, Mrs. Carnegie's Castle—a stone cottage at the far end of the property complete with homey oak-paneled kitchen—could most politely be described as decidedly dowdy. Grander is the Montrose suite, with its wood-paneled walls and ceilings, elaborate stone fireplace, and fanciful canopied bed.

Peter de Savary sees the ultimate Skibo-ite as a "golfer and person who loves Scotland and is not looking for boutiques and discotheques." If you don't play golf, there's certainly plenty to do, but you'd miss two terrific courses. De Savary calls the nine-hole parkland "the next best thing to your own private course." Two minutes by golf cart from castle or cottage, the Monk's Walk, as it's called, "rewards you for playing well," says De Savary, "and punishes you for not doing well." On long summer nights it's light enough to get in nine holes after dinner.

The other course was designed by John Sutherland so that Carnegie and his wife could learn the game. They never did, and modern-day English master builder Donald Steele transformed those nine holes into an 18-hole links course bordered by Dornoch Firth on three sides. "It looks," reported one golf journal, "like it could have been built by shepherds two centuries ago." At 6,671 yards from the back tees, it demands that the golfer be creative and thoughtful: The layout is varied, the winds can be strong, and the course requires a broad repertoire of shots.

If that weren't enough there are, within 20 minutes, nine other courses, including Royal Dornoch, that together are known as Scotland's necklace of golf.

"The truth is that the northeast is possibly the best area of Scotland for a golf tour," says Tom Mackenzie, a partner of Steele's. "The scenery is spectacular, and the welcome is absolutely unparalleled on courses that are challenging yet fun to play and remarkably quiet."

Anyone is welcome to Skibo for an initial visit, but a return visit requires a membership in The Carnegie Club at Skibo, which entitles you to partake in every aspect of the castle—from unlimited golf to your pick of rooms or places to dine. And dining is one of the great pleasures of Skibo, whether it be the invigorating breakfast buffet taken communally with other guests, fish and chips at the clubhouse for lunch, or something more intimate—perhaps dinner à deux in the library. But it is over dinner in the grand dining room that one experiences Skibo at its best. Here you begin to imagine life as it was lived by Andrew Carnegie, who in a different time and a different world would raise his glass to the likes of Lloyd George and Rudyard Kipling, welcoming them, amid candelabra and crystal, to "heaven on earth."

The Carnegie Club at Skibo has annual dues of $4,470, plus 17.5 percent tax. High-season room rates (May 1-Oct. 31), including meals, drinks, and sporting activities: $860, plus tax. Nonmembers: $1,200. Dornoch, Sutherland, Scotland IV25 3RQ; 44-1862-894600; fax 44-1862-894601;
www.carnegieclub.co.uk