At the turn of the century in 1900 Andrew Carnegie, the celebrated steel magnate and philanthropist was the richest man in the world and worth about $850 million. In the subsequent years he gave most of it away, but he still managed to buy and develop Skibo Castle in the Highlands of Scotland, famous most recently for hosting the high profile wedding of Madonna, as well as that of Ashley Judd. The Castle, which is situated in 7,500 acres of impressive looking Scottish scenery, is located in Sutherland, a few miles from the village of Dornoch, famous not only for the visit of Madonna to the local church, but also as being the site of the Witches Stone. That is where one of the last witches in Scotland was put to death.
A recent overnight visit to the Castle at a time when the notoriously unpredictable weather was on its best behavior, confirmed that this exquisite place just has to become one of my regular hangouts. It is now a private club, a very exclusive one of course that will be closing the doors on new members in March 2007, once the magical 500 number has been reached. After that you will have to go on a waiting list before paying the $37,000 application fee.
If you are not a member, you can still visit as the guest of a member and pay the $1800 per night (all inclusive) rate before deciding to become a member yourself. Managing Director Peter Crome, a giant of a man with a giant personality joined Skibo from the Savoy and Chewton Glen, where he spent a very fruitful ten years, and his dedication to high standards makes him a perfect choice for the estate.
Aside from hanging out in the castle itself and taking advantage of the superb library, there is a championship golf course, and a host of outdoor activities including a giant indoor swimming pool that is currently being completely refurbished. Fishing for salmon or trout on Loch Ospisdale is another favorite pastime for guests. The original castle was built by Gilbert de Moravia, the Bishop of Caithness in the 13th century, but it has been a private home since 1545. Carnegie purchased the property in 1898, spent a fortune on improvements, and today the castle is adorned with pictures, personal possessions and everything connected with him, in the great hall and all the 21 bedrooms.
Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, the son of a weaver who emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1848 when he was twelve. He quickly found work as a bobbin boy at a cotton factory. and by 1865 at the end of the American Civil War, Carnegie was known as the 'Steel King' of America. He also made a fortune from investing in sleeping railway cars, as well as iron works, steamers, railroads and oil wells.
In 1887 he married Louise Whitfield and brought his wife back to Scotland for the honeymoon. They returned every year and when his only child Margaret was born he decided to buy Skibo, which came with a 20,000 acre estate for the princely sum of $158,000. He spent an additional $4 million on improvements, employing the finest artisans in Scotland. That included the finest plumbing available at that time, and the magnificent carved oak staircase and the five stained-glass windows on the half landing. The interior today has changed very little since Carnegie's time in a very elegant Edwardian style.
After purchasing Skibo, he used it as his haven for planning his way of dealing with the pressing issues of education, international trade and philanthropy. He was often heard to comment, "the man who dies rich, dies disgraced." He established numerous trusts, and set up over 3,000 libraries, and perhaps his most significant contribution was the donation of $1.85 million to construct the Peace Palace in The Hague.
Today the rules of the castle are exactly as Carnegie had them in his day, non-existent. Carnegie was also a great entertainer, and some of the famous visitors who made it up to his retreat and stayed included Rudyard Kipling, John D.Rockefeller, William Gladstone, Lloyd George and King George V11. Each day started with a lone piper in full Highland dress circling the house to wake people up, and that tradition continues unabated. Breakfast was and still is served with the pipe organ in the great hall, and guests would be given a bone spoon embossed with 'Skibo' in silver-only if they finished their porridge.
After Carnegie's death in 1919, his wife and daughter spent their summers at Skibo, and Margaret kept ownership until 1981 when she took the decision to sell the estate, with the proceeds going to the charitable trusts set up by her father.
Today the formal dining room is still the centerpiece of the social activity, where members and guests dine together in a formal setting comfortably separated from the inclement weather outside. There is also less formal dining in the library and in Mrs. Carnegie's dining room, and I have now have just realized why every clock I saw in the place never had the right time. Time is of little importance at Skibo, as the idea is to envelop every visitor in a feeling of peace and tranquility.
Surprisingly for such an exclusive place, Skibo has gone out of its way to cater towards children with the creation of the Children's Barn. This allows the youngsters to explore the estate's grounds, and if the weather is bad enjoy a host of activities in the barn. They get to earn badges in four categories: nature, creative, challenge and sport. This also includes archery, cycling, falconry, and for the harder to please kids, there are arcade games, a music system and air hockey.
Closest airport is Inverness and private jets can also land there. Transfer can be arranged by one of Skibo's famous chauffeur driven range rovers or by helicopter. A sleeper rail service runs daily from London to Inverness, and by car, Skibo is an enjoyable 3 ½ drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Mike Hepworth October 2006