At Scotland’s The Fife Arms hotel tradition takes an outlandish turn

Interior designer Russell Sage has combined the old, the new and the outlandish at this Highlands bolthole

The Fife Arms hotel
Drawing room at The Fife Arms, Sim Canetty-Clarke

Location: In the Aberdeenshire village of Braemar, within the Cairngorms National Park and where The Braemar Gathering – the most well-known of the Highland Games attended annually by The Queen – takes place, Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth galleries have opened The Fife Arms hotel. Once a Victorian coaching inn, latterly a cheap and cheerful place catering for visiting coach trips before closing down five years ago, the hotel has been handsomely transformed following an extensive four-year renovation. Surrounded by mountains and with magnificent, unobstructed views, The Fife Arms, which is not too far from Braemar and Kindrochit Castles, opened in January and is now a grand, luxurious destination with 46 extravagantly decorative bedrooms, a restaurant, public bar, events rooms, spa, shop and an extraordinary collection of art and intriguing objects.

Exterior shot of the riverside The Fife Arms hotel in Braemar
Sim Canetty-Clarke

Architecture: London-based Moxon Architects, who had previously worked for Hauser & Wirth on its Culardoch Shieling mountain cabin in the Cairngorms, oversaw the project.‘We wanted to revive the landmark building through careful restoration and discreet remodelling of its precious, historic fabric,’says Ben Addy, director of the practice. Part of that process involved reopening the bedrooms, which had been carved up into smaller spaces, as well as reconfiguring the downstairs common areas and adding a contemporary extension within a central courtyard.

Sustainability was paramount, meaning the use of locally sourced salvaged granite and trees felled from close by. With a listing on the exterior of the building only, it meant a careful restoration outside, but mostly a strip-out job of the interior. ‘We kept a lot of the lovely original wooden floors and the imposing fireplaces, which sport the Fife coat of arms,’ says the hotel’s interior designer Russell Sage, who is renowned as a restoration expert.

Guestroom with bed in The Fife Arms Hotel in Scotland
The Heather Room guestroom, Sim Canetty-Clarke

Interior: Beyond the front door is where the fun really begins. Extravagantly designed by Sage and his London-based team– who are known for the delightfully eccentric interiors of London’s The Zetter Townhouse, Savoy Grill and The Goring – The Fife Arms has been utterly transformed. A dramatic layering of art, colour, antique furniture and the most sumptuous of textiles, each of its bedrooms has been individually themed – there are some inspired by Scottish culture, as well as nature and poetry. ‘We always set out to do a Victorian restoration,’ says Sage, who employed historians to ensure authenticity. ‘We’ve been faithful to its design, but the owners also wanted to create interventions that would wow.’

‘The Fife Arms is for someone whois passionate about art and stories’

The hotel is now what Sage refers to as ‘an absolutely full-on experience’ – one which both guests and visitors are encouraged to explore. ‘You probably pass through 20 different spaces to get to your room,’ says Sage. Adding interest to those areas are 1,500 works of art, including paintings by Lucien Freud, Picasso and Robert Thorburn, a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, a neon chandelier by Richard Jackson and Cipher, a swirling wall decorated with bindis by Bharti Kher. There are also 16,000 objects, including a sketch of a stag by Queen Victoria, a vanity set belonging to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and a pipe carved by Robbie Burns. Plus, in true highlands style, there are 200 pieces of taxidermy on the back stairs alone.

View of the relaxation area in The Fife Arms hotel in Braemar
Sim Canetty-Clarke

Local creatives also play an integral role– young textile designer Araminta Campbell created a bespoke tartan that adorns walls, carpets, curtains and uniforms, while a local knitting club created woolly squirrels that are hidden all over the building. Sage sums it up: ‘The Fife Arms is for someone whois passionate about art and stories. It could rain for a week and you could entertain yourself at the hotel and feel like you’ve had an extraordinary adventure.’ From £250 per night, thefifearms.com

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2019

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