The Royal connection to the small town of Braemar goes back to the 11th century, but was made famous by Queen Victoria, who loved it since she visited in 1842. So it comes of no surprise to see an extremely lifelike waxwork of the monarch perched on an opulent chair in the library of the newly opened Fife Arms Hotel.
Why wouldn’t a hotel which also boasts an original Picasso, Louise Bourgeois ‘spider’, a flying stag and a huge neon chandelier also play host to the famous Queen? Re-opened in December 2018, the unique hotel is owned by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, co-founders of the acclaimed global gallery Hauser & Wirth. Which is why there’s more than 12,000 works of art, antiques, and objets in every nook and cranny.
A work at The Fife Arms entitled Annie by Lucian Freud. Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke
Among these works are large-scale site-specific commissions by internationally-renowned artists – Zhang Enli, Guillermo Kuitca, Subodh Gupta, and Bharti Kher. American artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek has designed the hotel’s striking coat of arms and the logo for the public bar, now named The Flying Stag.
These contributions are complemented by an outstanding array of mainly Scottish artworks collected for the hotel, from important paintings and drawings to prints, pamphlets, caricatures and a delicate watercolour of a stag’s head painted by Queen Victoria.
The India Suite at The Fife Arms. Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke
The transformation of the Victorian coaching inn is as dramatic as its interior, which was headed up by Russell Sage Studio - of London’s Zetter townhouse and The Goring Hotel fame. The renovation was inspired by the dramatic landscape, colourful stories and Iwan and Manuela’s appreciation of rich cultural connections of Braemar.
And while there are traditional Scottish references in the tweed and tartan elements, no-one that ever visits would dare call this design twee. It was local designer Araminta Campbell who was tasked with creating the hotel’s tweed and tartan. The brief was to design a tweed that reflects the heritage and character of the hotel, as well as the beautiful landscape in which it sits. Araminta adapted a Glen Check tweed pattern, drawing on the Green Mar tweed which would have been worn by the original 19th Century founder of The Fife Arms, the Duke of Fife, in his hunting residence nearby.
With an abundance of taxidermy, luxurious wallpapers, a wrap-around wall mural by Guillermo Kuitca and a mahogany Robert Burns fireplace – it’s like an eccentric elderly aunt’s stately home meets the Tate Modern, and has been described by Russell Sage as a career highlight. Sage said: “When we were first approached, we knew this project would be a career highlight simply because of what Iwan and Manuela had created with Hauser & Wirth Somerset in Bruton.
The Jacobite Risings Room at The Fife Arms. Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke
“For The Fife Arms, Braemar, the project was to restore and totally transform a run-down architectural gem at the heart of the historic Scottish town of Braemar, famous for the Highland Games, or Braemar Gathering, as the locals call it. I’m personally excited about the little spaces which can often be forgotten in hotels. Here they become an essential part of the story; be it the route of a small staircase between bedroom floor which showcases 100 pieces of taxidermy, a corridor leading to a single bedroom which now becomes a glorious private gallery, or the lift which becomes a pine cone grotto assisted in its construction by the people of Braemar.”
As well as stunning interior design, the architect for the renovation was MOXON, headed up by Ben Addy, who grew up in Aberdeenshire. His plan includes a new beautiful courtyard, as well as well as two new rooms for private events, one being The Fire Room, modelled on The Queen Mother’s favourite picnic hut near Auchtavan. Each of the 46 bedrooms have their own special design and theme ranging from ‘The Mountaineer’ one of the smaller, croft rooms, through to the Royal Suites. Each an homage to a place, person, event or activity integral to the life and legacy of Braemar and all with one-of-a-kind furnishings and décor.
A staircase at The Fife Arms Hotel. Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke
If you can make your way out of the room and past the artwork, taxidermy and hidden seating nooks, a cocktail or two in Elsa’s bar is a must. The tiny space with the huge vintage disco ball is located just off the elegant Clunie Dining Room and seats only eight. With twinkling candlelight and a speakeasy feel, the bar is named for designer Elsa Schiaparelli (who often visited Braemar). The signature cocktail, Shocking Pink, is a delicious aperitif before dinner in the dining room.
A simple menu of seasonal dishes created by Executive Chef, Robert Cameron, the Clunie Dining room is also where a buffet an a la carte breakfast is served. While the hotel is sure to attract visitors from all over, the restored hotel bar - The Flying Stag, with its full sized, swan wing adorned stag - remains a huge part of the local community and serves wonderfully classic pub grub including Cullen skink and a black pudding scotch egg.
Full of obscure treasures and whimsical curiosities, the Fife Arms has to be seen to be believed. Just make sure to stop by the library and tell Victoria all about it.
Rooms are from Dhs608 (£130) per night including breakfast. thefifearms.com