By Karen Carruth

Superlatives are often overused, but in this case I can’t think of enough to describe Douneside House in Tarland, Aberdeenshire. 
I don’t do gushy, but this, so far, is top of my list of hotels to revisit that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing.  
Whether it is the combination of the touching background story which is part of the fabric of the building, or whether it was the genuine homely touches and relaxed atmosphere that just struck the right cord, I’m not sure, but I will go back, of that there is no doubt. 
Where to start. Douneside House is part of the MacRobert Estate and Trust, (yes, the same MacRobert as the MacRobert Pavilion on the Highland Showground), the connection with the MacRobert family, even though none of the family are still alive, is still a palpable and important element to the hotel’s success. 
After having a tour around the 14 bedroomed hotel, I felt like I was visiting a great aunt’s home, with the family photographs still in position, trophies, books, and antiques distributed throughout the house just as you would expect in a family home.  But more of the MacRobert family later, the hotel has to take priority.
The hotel sits within huge manicured gardens. You are actively encouraged to explore the grounds, which are stunning – thanks in no small part to the trust’s ongoing scheme of employing four Royal Horticultural Society students each year and putting them through the practical elements of the gardening/horticulture course under the watchful eye of the hotel’s permanent gardeners. 
There is a walled garden, and market garden with glasshouses which provide the produce for the hotel kitchens, and various burns and ponds dotted around the estate. 
There are 14 rooms in the hotel, but there are also cottages and apartments around the estate (some wheelchair friendly), all in, they can accommodate 60 guests at any one time. 
I’m greeted by front of house manager Hilary. No formal reception desks here as there is a hall table where keys are left for guests. If it is your first visit, then a member of staff will show you around the house. Hilary is a delight and a wealth of knowledge on the MacRobert family and the house. 
She gives a splendid tour explaining along the way the history; this was the MacRobert family’s home, going back to when the house was a small two up two down, through the various additions, up until the house was a retreat for military personnel only, and then on to the hotel opening to the public in June this year after major renovation. 
We tour the bar, the library, the conservatory where guests are having afternoon tea and reading newspapers, around the gardens and then on to the spa. 
This houses a modern swimming pool, sauna, steam room and whirlpool. As well as a gym, a games room and a studio for classes, all of which can be used by locals as well as the guests.
Back to the hotel and Hilary takes us to our room. A babysitting catastrophe means I am accompanied by a 13-year-old, rather than the current husband, and I did wonder whether it would makes things a little awkward staying with a teenager. 
The hotel is well versed in dealing with family units, Hilary knows where all the camp beds are stored for emergency bed space when the hotel is full over the Christmas period with military guests and their families. 
We were very generously given the MacRobert room, I’m guessing it’s the largest room in the hotel, it was vast. An enormous bed, overlooking the front lawn from a small balcony, and a view of the terraced garden to the west. 
When Hilary left the room, I’ve not seen my daughter so happy since she got her hands on the latest iPhone. We were subjected to skipping, jumping and there may have been a cartwheel. The room is decorated with antique style furniture, perfectly in tune with the rest of the house, and there was a contemporary bathroom with roll top bath, double shower and Molton Brown toiletries. What’s not to love, it was stunning. 
Blessed with a lovely day, we threw open the windows and oo’ed and aa’ed at the view of the front lawn which goes on for about a quarter of a mile. 
Hilary mentioned that it is a great lawn for rounders, badminton, croquet and putting, all the equipment is at the hotel, just ask.
While we were walking around the hotel with Hilary, she was explaining lots of the family mementos dotted around the various rooms. 
It’s a tragic story to tell, but the MacRobert family history is intertwined with both the hotel and the MacRobert Trust.
As you walk in the front door there are painting of three children, little boys, aged around five-years-old or so. These are the MacRobert boys, Alasdair, Roderic and Iain. Lady Rachel and Sir Alexander MacRobert established their family home here in the early 20th century, after Sir Alexander made his money in India. 
Sir Alexander died in 1922, which left Alasdair to inherit his father’s baronial title. However, Alasdair was killed aged 26 in 1938 in a flying accident. The baronial title then moved down to Roderic, who was lost in action in 1941, aged just 26, while leading a flight of Hurricanes in an attack on a German held airfield in Iraq. 
This left Lady MacRobert with her youngest son Iain, who was then a pilot in the RAF. Less than six weeks after the death of his brother, Iain was reported missing when his aircraft failed to return from a rescue mission. 
He was 24-years-old. This left Lady MacRobert alone with no family. 
I may have to explain a little about Lady Rachel MacRoberts’ background which will help you understand her actions. She was the daughter of an unorthodox American family. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother was the daughter of a former Governor of Massachusetts. Her parents were pioneer explorers of The Himalayas. Rachel was brought up by a strong mother, a suffragette, and she was clearly a lady who didn’t take things lying down. 
Barely a month after her last son Iain was reported missing, Lady MacRobert sent a cheque to the Secretary of State for Air to purchase a bomber. She asked for the plane to be named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, to bear the MacRobert crest and if possible to be piloted by a Scotsman. 
In her letter, were the now famous words: “I have no more sons to wear the badge or carry it in the fight: if I had 10 sons, I know that they would all have followed that line of duty.” The chosen bomber was a Stirling XV Squadron RAF. 
This was the start of a tradition that the RAF has kept alive. A succession of RAF aircraft has since carried the name. Today’s MacRobert’s Reply is a Tornado GR4 at Lossiemouth. In 1942, Lady MacRobert donated a further £20k to purchase four Hurricane fighters, three were named after her boys, and one after her. 
These acts of determination cemented a charitable legacy that originated with her husband’s benevolence in India and still resonates today. 
Lady MacRobert wanted to provide the means to foster in young people the best traditional ideals and spirit. 
Today, the MacRobert Trust continues to own and maintain Douneside House in memory of the MacRobert family. Any surplus income generated by Douneside House is re-invested into the house, or donated to charities which reflect Lady MacRobert’s wishes through the trust’s grant giving scheme, which gave £1m to charity last year. 
Hilary explains this entire story to me while we are going around the house looking at family photographs of Lady MacRobert and her boys, there is a moment when we both fully understand the emotional wrench this women must have gone through. It was almost a hankie moment. 
What a story. What a strong, formidable, lady Rachel MacRobert must have been. 
Having to deal with such tragedy would be enough to break a less courageous women. We pull ourselves together, and admire the silver salvers from The Royal Show that Lady MacRobert won while showing the estate’s cattle. 
There is 35km of waymarked paths on the estate, there is fishing on the Dee for trout, and the Don for salmon, and they have a lochan that kids can fish in. But first things first, my daughter and I have a six course taster menu to tackle. Phew. 
It’s a challenge, but we are prepared. My daughter and I make a pact (as fussy eaters) to try everything that is put down in front of us. 
First we have to earn the food. A wander over to the swimming pool for an hour in the water, sauna, steam room and an extended lounge in the whirlpool was necessary for someone of my years. And then it was back to our room to change for dinner.
The dining room is small enough to be cosy. But enough space to not be on top of each other. The staff are extremely knowledgeable on all the courses being offered. There are both hotel guests in, as well as locals, it’s relaxed and comfortable.
Would I like wine with each course? “Well, young man, I will give it my best shot!” I say courageously. 
I don’t remember everything in each course, but I will try to give an outline of the ala carte cuisine. First off there was an amuse bouche, which included salmon and caviar.  We then had a vegetarian course, a fish course (salmon and caviar); a poultry course which included pigeon and fois gras; then a stunning venison fillet in the game course; then two dessert courses, one with beetroot ice cream and meringue, and the other a chocolate ganache. 
The wine was brought out with each course, from what I remember… it was getting fuzzy by No 6. 
In total I had champagne, wine, sherry, wine, wine, and liqueur. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the sherry, but I was pleasantly surprised by it, very warming on the way down. 
By glass three, I was only managing a tiny amount of each, which was quite enough for me, delicious as it was, I had a long drive home the next day. 
The wine waiter explained in detail each wine, where it came from and a short story about each vineyard. It was a real treat. I wished that my wine knowledge was more extensive than picking something around £6-£7 in Tesco. 
The food was outstanding and even us two non fish eaters enjoyed all the fish courses, and the only thing we struggled with was the foi gras – but that was maybe more of an animal welfare issue rather than the taste. 
The bed was enormous, we had a terrific sleep, and in the morning after our full cooked breakfast headed out to the lawn for a game of putting. 
The view in front of the hotel is to the Grampian Mountains and Lochnagar – it’s a wonderfully relaxing place which we felt the moment we arrived. 
We wandered around the gardens, including a nosey into the vegetable garden. There are little wooden gazebos dotted around the gardens to ponder the world in and to take in the view. 
I was chatting to a lady who lived just a few miles away, she had come to the hotel with her husband for an overnight for their wedding anniversary. 
She tells me that the hotel has a wonderful reputation in the local area as a dinner destination, as much as for its hotel facilities, lots of family celebrations take place here.
The hotel hangs onto its military attachments closely. Previously it was a hotel for military personnel only to have some down time with their families, but now that it is open to the public, the MacRobert Trust decided that the hotel should be used solely for military guest from the middle of July through to the end of August and over the Christmas period. 
Although members of the military can stay at the hotel at a generously discounted rate at any time. 
Hilary says: “The military feel a strong ownership of Douneside House, and we have a very personal relationship with the forces, and we want to maintain that.” 
The weekend we visited there was a military reunion dinner in one of the dining rooms. She continued: “It has been a steep learning curve since we opened to the public, we really want guests to feel like this is a home from home. We are very relaxed here and want that to transfer over to our guests.” 
They do it beautifully. They have struck a careful balance between country house elegance, and homely welcome. 
I was complimenting Hilary on the refurbishment, and she said that the MacRobert family’s belongings around the house were all they needed. 
There was no need for props to bring this house up to the standard it is now. Have a look at TripAdvisor, you won’t see anything less than five stars for every review. 
The MacRobert family, in particular Lady MacRobert, would, I think, be pleased that the trust that she set up is doing such excellent charity work, also offering a retreat for her beloved military personnel. 
And now that her home is open to the public, it offers a special story for guests to embrace for many years to come. 
As we drive down to driveway to leave, my daughter (ever dramatic). is pressing her face against the window making me promise that we will come back. I promise.


Prices are from £120-£240 room only.  
Dinner and breakfast £35, full board £50 or tasting menu (with wine) and breakfast £85 (all per person)
All can be booked at