Iwan and Manuela Wirth open a Highlands hotel

Not far from Balmoral castle, art-world stars Iwan and Manuela Wirth have turned a village inn into a beacon of Scottish culture and craftsmanship. Maria Shollenbarger gets the world exclusive. Portrait: Sim Canetty-Clarke

The inn, restored by Swiss art dealers and collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth, marries dynamic aesthetic sensibilities with respect for local history
The inn, restored by Swiss art dealers and collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth, marries dynamic aesthetic sensibilities with respect for local history | Image: Sim Canetty-Clarke

All the world’s a stage” goes the old maxim, but hotels can be their own particular performance spaces. The best of them interpret not just a place, but the people within the place; they evince, in original ways, the character of the community and the beauty of the landscape for guests to interact with, learn from, perhaps even be changed subtly by. And creating such a hotel is an art form all its own.

The Highlands form the backdrop to the 46-room Fife Arms
The Highlands form the backdrop to the 46-room Fife Arms

The Swiss art dealers and collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth – who represent the likes of Martin Creed, Paul McCarthy and the estates of Louise Bourgeois and Dieter Roth through their gallery Hauser & Wirth’s outposts in London, Zurich, New York, Hong Kong and Los Angeles – are a couple for whom the descriptor “powerhouse” seems tailormade. But they don’t pretend to be masters of hotel form. “We don’t know how to make them or how to run them,” Iwan Wirth admits unreservedly, in fact cheerfully, as he walks me through the newly restored Fife Arms, a 46-room inn in the centre of Braemar, the Aberdeenshire town that’s probably best known for its Braemar Gathering, Scotland’s premier Highland games (and the only one The Queen attends without fail every year). “What we do know how to do is create an exhibition. That level of detail, the understanding of nuance and context, the passion of an almost perverse intensity that’s required to make an art exhibition successful… we’re good at that. And we know talent and how to find it.”

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Those skills have translated seamlessly into The Fife Arms, which puts the worlds of contemporary art and craft into provocative dialogue with local history. With an architectural intervention overseen by Ben Addy of Crathie- and London-based Moxon Architects, and interiors by Russell Sage – and with the collaboration of some of Hauser & Wirth’s artists – The Fife Arms, which will open to the public in early December, marries folly, wit, intellect and refined aesthetic sensibilities, all under a wider mantle of respect for a place and its stories. “They are stories,” Wirth agrees. “A great hotel is always a portrait.”

The walls of the drawing room are covered in The Fife Arms tartan by Araminta Campbell and feature Lifting VII by Stéphanie Vandem
The walls of the drawing room are covered in The Fife Arms tartan by Araminta Campbell and feature Lifting VII by Stéphanie Vandem

The Wirths made their maiden hospitality foray in Bruton, Somerset, in 2014, in the form of Durslade Farmhouse, a six-bedroom rental property they reimagined with the help of Argentine architect Luis Laplace and the artists Guillermo Kuitca and Pipilotti Rist. Upper Deeside, as the Highlands area around Braemar is known, is similarly close to their hearts; when not in Bruton, that is where the Wirths can be found. Set in the town’s centre, next to Clunie Water, The Fife Arms, which they acquired in December 2014, has foundations that date back to the early 19th century; by the time the Wirths came upon it, it had proliferated to 90 rooms thanks to a few unsightly 20th-century additions. “Basically, it was hosting coach parties and charging £25 a night,” recalls Iwan Wirth. “It was an abused building, but of extraordinary poetry and power.” As in Bruton, the Wirths have become respected stakeholders – financially and socially – here in Braemar, in particular through their support of St Margaret’s, a local church that now functions as a thriving arts centre and at which the Wirths support an annual music festival (to which they have reportedly donated many thousands of pounds). The Fife Arms, which in its creation relied almost exclusively on Scottish builders, artisans and provisioners, further underscores their commitment, while simultaneously bringing no small amount of joy to the Wirths, both of whom characterise themselves as having been “obsessed” – in a good way – by the project over the past four years. 

The Emperor suite has wallpaper by Watts of Westminster and fabric by Gainsborough
The Emperor suite has wallpaper by Watts of Westminster and fabric by Gainsborough

“There are people who know a lot about very few things, and people who know a little about a lot of things,” says Iwan. “I’m fascinated by the former, and in places like this you meet people who know everything about one thing – the hedgehogs, not the foxes.” Special praise is reserved for Sage, the interior designer whose expertise in late-Victorian textiles, furniture and styles is brought to spectacular fruition here. “He speaks so many visual languages and has a deep knowledge of this era. “And he has extraordinary imagination, which is important because you need someone to dance with on these things.”

Guillermo Kuitca’s mural of Clunie Water in the dining room
Guillermo Kuitca’s mural of Clunie Water in the dining room

The Fife Arms, as a result, is a best-in-class survey of Scottish craftsmanship, textiles, architecture and design, food and drink, even wellness – all juxtaposed with the work of contemporary artists. They hail from as far afield as Argentina (Guillermo Kuitca, who, reprising his role of muralist at Bruton’s Durslade Farmhouse here, painted his vision of Clunie Water and hotel views across the walls of The Fife Arms’ restaurant); China (Zhang Enli, whose ceiling mural in the drawing room proposes his own take on the Highlands landscape); and India (Subodh Gupta, who created a unique sculpture for the Fire Room, a fantastical timber-clad private dining room inspired by the late Queen Mother’s preferred picnic cottage at Auchtavan, the traditional Highland clachan). Lighting the hotel’s central staircase is a monumental chandelier consisting entirely of glass antlers, knitting into and out of each other, twisting and rotating, descending four full storeys; the Wirths commissioned it from the California-born and -based artist Richard Jackson. 

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“We wanted an unpretentious, almost shabby elegance,” says Iwan, “but then for guests to perceive these interventions that put you very much in the 21st century.” The past is everywhere too, though, and this also by design. Helped by local historians, Sage and his team have spent months sourcing and restoring by day and researching by night. Many of the wallpapers throughout The Fife Arms are revived designs from the William Morris archive; a reproduction Jacobean bed (acquired for the Jacobean Suite) is a fantastic assemblage of 119 discrete wooden pieces; a massive carved walnut chimneypiece in the entrance hall – acquired by Sage at auction and, in a serendipitous turn, originally created for the 17th Montrave House in nearby Leven – features scenes from several poems by Robert Burns. “I wanted The Fife Arms to feel like inheriting your own amazing Scottish baronial home,” Sage told me via email, “stuffed full of authentic, interesting finds from the local area, with the most amazing art collection you’ve ever seen and a totally bespoke and personal experience for all who stay here.” 

The genius is in the many details. The Leith-based specialist textiles designer Araminta Campbell was commissioned to create a house tartan and a house tweed; the former covers the walls of the pub’s snug and appears, as does the tweed, throughout the hotel as upholstery and wallcoverings, and bespoke kilts and hunting jackets in the two patterns will be available via The Fife Arms’ shop when it opens – along with signature crockery featuring the hotel’s crest, hand-carved walking sticks and a Fife Arms beauty and grooming line packaged in exceptionally pretty blue-green glass apothecary bottles. 

There is no corner of The Fife Arms that hasn’t been intelligently, imaginatively considered in the context of place – even the spa will feature treatments incorporating the smoky and much sought-after local Cairngorm quartz crystal, if the Wirths can track down enough of it. And while they are happy to cop to having no idea themselves about how to run a hotel, they’ve hardly left things to chance: general manager Federica Bertolini, who oversaw Cornwall’s Tresanton for 12 years, has been living in Braemar since 2016, fulfilling her primary remit to, in Iwan’s words, “become part of the fabric of the place”. 

“I grew up in a village of 500 people,” says Bertolini. “This – the community, the people, how they interact – is completely authentic; it’s how I understand life to be.” The players are all assembled, then; time to tell the story.

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