By Janice Hopper

Escaping to the countryside can sound desperately rigorous and rugged, but a unique new hotel opening in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, combines luxury, art and the great outdoors in an inimitable fashion. Royal Deeside may be known for Balmoral Castle, the colourful Braemar Gathering and regular regal visitors, but the latest buzz is The Fife Arms. 

This Highland hotel is the brainchild of international art gallerists Hauser and Wirth and it celebrates Scotland in a way rarely seen before. Whilst it boasts artworks by the likes of Picasso, Lucien Freud and John Bellany, it also taps into the history of Royal Deeside and celebrates country life. 

Artistic adventure

The story begins upon arrival, in the entrance lobby. Naturally the eye is drawn to the Lucien Freud piece ‘Child Portrait (Annie)’ casually hanging on the wall. Equally, the bright, modern ‘Red Deer Chandelier’ by Richard Jackson steals attention incorporating intertwined glass antlers, Celtic knots and patterns, and replica bagpipe drones. Explore further to come across an original delicate watercolour by Queen Victoria herself, which portrays a stag shot by her loyal servant John Brown and inscribed in great detail; “Stag/ shot by J. Brown./ Weighed 14s-12lbs In Pess Lak na ghon/ Length of antlers 35.1⁄4 inches, width of antlers 34 inches/ Octr 6th 1874/ V.R.’” 

This painting truly deserves to be hung in pride of place because it’s where Royal Deeside’s story began. The hotel was originally built as a Victorian coaching inn in the 19th century, tapping into the fervour that Queen Victoria had created. She put the area, and its beauty, on the map. 

Another famous Scot celebrated within the entrance lobby is Robert Burns. The Burns Fireplace was rescued from Montrave House in Leven, Fife. With its bewitching array of bawdy pub scenes, cloven-hoofed musicians playing the bagpipes and fiddle, and the figures of Highland Mary and Robert Burns proudly standing on either side of the hearth, it makes an excellent spot for Burns recitals or quiet contemplation. 

Rooms and rest

The bedrooms and suites proudly tap into life and work in the countryside. The interior design was under the eye of Russell Sage, the tartan and tweed was designed by Araminta Campbell, but the 46 individual guestrooms and suites are decorated to tell the many stories and faces of Braemar. The Croft Rooms are inspired by traditional Scottish croft houses, featuring box-beds that have been hand-painted by artists, some featuring scenes of the surrounding Scottish landscape. Working with the Scottish poet and artist Alec Finlay, the Croft Room themes include ‘The Fairy and the Fiann', ‘The Farmer’ (“An acknowledgement of all the hill farmers and peasant farmers who endured hard lives, and gave so much character to the region”) and ‘The Hill’ (dedicated to the mountains that so captivated Nan Shepherd. 

The Nature and Poetry rooms celebrate the grandeur of Scotland’s natural landscape, showcasing artwork and objects made from materials such as heather, horn and tweed. Creatives celebrated include Sir Walter Scott, Nan Shepherd, Robert Louis Stevenson and poet Marion Angus. Other rooms pay homage to life, sights and sounds in the countryside, with names such as ‘The Heather’, ‘The Stalker’ and ‘Wild Flowers’.

The more ornate accommodation, such as the Victoriana suites, reflect the hotel's history as a nineteenth century inn. Decorated with antique furnishings, period wallpaper and original artwork they are richly indulgent. At the top of the range, the Royal suites, inspired by Deeside’s most prestigious of visitors, are elaborately beautiful, highlighting characters such as the Duke of Fife, Princess Royal Louise, Abdul Karim (Queen Victoria’s confidant in the last years of her life) and Queen Victoria herself. 

Food and rink

Whether guests choose to overnight or not they can certainly sample the food. Local suppliers include Katy’s Farm (known for its renowned eggs), grass fed lamb from Wark Farm in Alford, game from local estates, and Highland Fine Cheeses from Tain. Neil Menzies Butcher in Braemar supplies the beef and pork, the Wild Hearth Bakery in Comrie provides the sourdough bread, Katy Rodger’s Artisan Dairy in Stirlingshire brings the cream and créme fraíche to the table, and the Great Glen Charcuterie supplies the venison charcuterie that graces the breakfast platters. 

Dinner is served in the Clunie Dining Room. Whilst the walls have been transformed by Argentinian artist, Guillermo Kuitca, the large 7ft stuffed stag makes a lasting impression and taps into the Victorian passion for taxidermy. Continuing the taxidermy theme, the Flying Stag public bar provides the visual signature of the hotel.

The fantastical beast, which leaps into flight above the bar, is a combination of a pair of ptarmigan’s wings and a fearless stag. It’s the photograph that graces magazines and hots up Instagram. The hybrid beast is the creation of artist James Prosek, stirring up connotations of folklore, mythology and mysticism, and tapping into the area’s excellent reputation for hunting.

The stag is surrounded by a jagged arc of antlers above the bar, making it a memorable setting for an evening of live folk music, whisky drinking, and casual dining. ‘Wee’ dishes include Seared Highland Beef Carpaccio or House Cured Salmon, and the ‘Muckle’ mains feature Haggis, Neeps and Tatties with Lochnagar Whisky Sauce, or Beer Battered Fish and Chips. 

As guests drink and dine they can take in paintings by Archibald Thorburn, a renowned painter of native birds. He was a known favourite of Queen Victoria as he didn’t sentimentalise animals or anthropomorphise beasts. Visitors can also examine a wall of portraits of folk from the local community painted by Gideon Sommerfield. Look out for fiddler Paul Anderson, gamekeeper Lewis Falconer and local singer Joyce Wright. Further portraits are peppered around the hotel, including one of young Highland Dancer, Fern Jolly, immortalised aged 10 on canvas. 

The Drawing Room, where coffee and afternoon tea are served, continues the artistic experience. The walls are covered in The Fife Arms tartan. The ceiling, commissioned from renowned Chinese artist Zhang Enli, was inspired by cross sections of Scottish agates. The finished piece is entitled ‘Ancient Quartz’ and captures the swirling, mesmerising quality of these ancient stones. This room also houses the Picasso: ’Mousquetaire assis’ features a dashing musketeer in an attractive blue uniform!

For cocktails drop into Elsa’s, named after the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli who was a regular and stylish visitor to Braemar.


Other, more practical facilities in the hotel are also sumptuously decorated with great attention to detail. A Drying Room allows for the storage of wellies and waterproofs, a Family Room provides children with a play area and somewhere to curl up and watch a movie, a Spa offers rest and indulgence, and the garden is designed by Jinny Blom, a gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Ultimately the Fife Arms has encapsulated country life in Scotland with brave, bold brushstrokes. Throw in an extra dose of luxury and comfort, and it’s easy to see why Queen Victoria was so enamoured with this invigorating corner of the world.