How This Art-world Duo Transformed Scotland's Most Flamboyant Hotel

Simon Watson

By taking over the beloved Fife Arms, art-world power players Iwan and Manuela Wirth have added another gem to their cultural empire and given a jolt of energy to the Scottish Highlands.

Last November, just a few weeks before the Fife Arms, a Victorian-era hotel in the Scottish Highlands, officially opened its doors, Iwan and Manuela Wirth invited the village of Braemar in for a preview. The Wirths, avid art collectors and the Swiss power couple behind the Hauser & Wirth gallery empire, purchased the Fife Arms in 2014, and the extensive renovation they undertook had for the past few years deprived Braemar of not only its popular public bar but also its very center of gravity.

That night, however, the Wirths made it up to everyone and then some: A trio of local bagpipe troops in full Scottish regalia marched through the village streets and faced off ceremoniously at the hotel’s front door. Inside, the many hearths were stoked and the tables laid with flutes of champagne and trays of oysters, cured meats, and smoked fish. The village choir performed on the Fife’s grand stairway, opening its set with a rendition of “California Dreamin’,” while a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) brought gentlemen in kilts and young girls in miniskirts to the dance floor with classic folk numbers like “Dashing White Sergeant” and “Strip the Willow.” The hotel bar, reborn as the Flying Stag, was awash in Scotch whisky and the good cheer of people who have at long last been reunited in the place they love, only to discover that this place is far better than they remembered it to be. The evening, which coincided with Saint Andrew’s Day, one of Scotland’s biggest holidays, culminated in a display of fireworks.


Left to right: Hunting trophies decorate the Fife Arms’ Brae Wing corridor; the bathroom in the King Edward VII suite. Simon Watson

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“The Fife was always a place for parties, but it’s never seen a party quite like that!” exclaimed Alison MacIntosh, whose husband had played the grand piano in the reception room, accompanied for a bit by her daughter on the oboe. MacIntosh had stopped by the hotel to drop off a handwritten note of thanks. “My sister had her wedding reception here. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday here,” she continued. “It was the most important building in the village, and we could see it was going down—it was shabby, it was cheap. I am so happy to see it brought back to life.”

The Fife Arms was built in the mid-19th century as a first-class hotel, to capitalize on the newfound popularity the Highlands experienced after über-tastemakers Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, made nearby Balmoral Castle their holiday home in 1852. Situated within the Cairngorms, Britain’s largest national park, the area is known for its spectacular fishing, stag and grouse hunting, hiking, and the Braemar Gathering, a venerable competition in which all manner of heavy items, including a 19-foot-long, 130-pound tree trunk known as the Braemar caber, are tossed, thrown, or put. Held on the first Saturday in September, the Gathering is faithfully attended by Queen Elizabeth every year from precisely 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.


The main hall lobby. Simon Watson

“Everyone has a romantic relationship with Scotland,” said Iwan Wirth, an enthusiastic fly fisherman who has been coming to Scotland for decades. “But the Swiss love it because it looks like our alpine valleys—Engadine without the motorways, the hydro plants, the development. It’s sort of Switzerland before the First World War.” Eventually the romance of camping out in traditional fishing lodges (cramped, stinky) on their visits wore thin, and the Wirths began looking for a place to call their own, big enough to accommodate their four grown children, assorted dogs, works of art, and the many contemporary artists who compose not only the Hauser & Wirth gallery roster but also their close circle of friends. Before long they found themselves the owners of such a house—as well as a 90-room hotel that had seen much better days.

“It was crying for help,” Iwan recalled, contrasting the Fife’s stately presence in a culturally rich, picture-postcard village setting against its unsightly modern additions, its warrens of sad, carved-up spaces, its leaky roof, and its demotion from a storied, first-rate establishment to a cheap stopover catering to the lower end of the bus-tourism industry. “Manuela and I take these long hikes every day whenever we are here, and that is when we basically discuss everything from the children to personal issues and the business,” he said. One day, the couple trekked up to the Braemar weather station, and by the time they returned home, they had made a decision.

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The Wirths like to say that they know nothing about running a hotel, and that in purchasing the Fife they were motivated by instinct, enthusiasm, and no small amount of ignorance, but the couple had in fact already made successful forays into the hospitality business. They have established themselves in the traditional art-world capitals (Zurich, London, New York), and in 2014 they opened Hauser & Wirth Somerset on an 18th-century farm in the English countryside, incorporating a guesthouse, a restaurant, and an arts center into their robust cultural program. They followed it up two years later with Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, which boasts more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, and Manuela, a bustling, art-filled restaurant. This December, they opened their latest outpost, in St. Moritz. “Art is at the heart of everything we do—not just the work but the process, the thinking,” said Iwan, who added that Hauser & Wirth aims to reimagine the gallery-going experience as an opportunity to build community. “With Somerset we created a new model. The Kunsthalle Zurich has 9,000 visitors a year. Somerset has that in three weekends.”


Left to right: Victorian suites, such as the Prince Albert, are named for noble visitors to the region; waitresses in the Fife’s Clunie dining room sit beneath a 16th-century Flemish painting. Simon Watson

The artists who had been guests at the Wirths’ house in Scotland were among the first to sign on for this latest venture, and they created site-specific projects while the Fife was still under renovation. These were not, Iwan noted, commissions per se. “We invited them all for the Gathering and then sorted out who does what,” he explained.The walls of the Fife’s Clunie dining room were hand-painted by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca (the installation took him three months, which he spent toiling alone through the winter, with little daylight and no heat); the Chinese artist Zhang Enli took on the ceiling in the drawing room, painting a massive watercolor inspired by ancient Scottish quartz; and after some consideration Bharti Kher, who splits her time between India and the U.K., decided to take on the spa. “It doesn’t even need a gallery here,” Iwan said. “The art is embedded in everything.”

While there is no dedicated exhibition space on the grounds, art is indeed the fabric of the Fife, and one could be forgiven for failing to notice the Picasso in the drawing room, the Lucian Freud in the reception, or the Gerhard Richter in the dining room, integrated as they are with the hotel’s sumptuous Victorian interiors. The decor of the Fife Arms is so spot-on that if Manuela, whose regular tartan-inflected wardrobe complements her tousled, flame-colored locks, had told me that she has Scottish ancestry and that the carved wooden chairs and fringed upholstery all came from the attic of her family estate, I would have been more than inclined to believe her. While much of the contemporary art does, in fact, come from the Wirths’ personal collection (the Man Ray photographs in Elsa’s Bar, for example, used to hang in Manuela’s study), the Fife’s period furnishings and artworks, including a drawing of a stag by Queen Victoria herself, were meticulously sourced by designer Russell Sage and his team, who under the Wirths’ direction saw to it that every single detail had a story to tell.


Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1994) in the courtyard. Simon Watson

When the hotel’s manager extraordinaire, Federica Bertolini, inquired about how I had slept, I learned that the mattresses were from Glencraft, a company that has made them for four generations of the royal family. The Fife has its own proprietary tartan and tweed, used for its bespoke staff uniforms as well as the custom interiors of its fleet of Land Rovers, and it even has its own registered coat of arms, featuring an image of a flying stag. Its motto: To the Summit. Post-renovation, the Fife boasts only 46 guest rooms, each unique, ranging from royal suites named for noble visitors to the region (I was assigned the Duke of Fife) to more modestly sized but exquisitely appointed accommodations inspired by the works of Scottish poets and scientists. One of the Wirths’ favorites is the David Douglas room, named for the Scottish botanist who brought the Douglas fir to Britain from North America in the 1820s. “This room was a problem,” Iwan admitted. “The windows are small and they are on the courtyard, but Russell got his hands on it, and now you feel as though you are in a forest.” Engraved in the headboard are the words of the Edinburgh-based artist and poet Alec Finlay: “To learn about the pine, hold the cone in your hand.”