Barnett on Business Travel



September 18, 2003 -- In 1898, Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie returned to his homeland and shelled out $800,000 to buy the dilapidated, decaying 38-room Skibo Castle on 7,500 pristine acres in the Scottish Highlands and invested $2 million to restore it.

At age 50, the ironfisted steel magnate turned philanthropist escaped from Pittsburgh, des-cribed by an historian as "hell with the lid off," to a slice of Scotland that Carnegie called "heaven on earth." He fancied it as a perfect place to entertain cronies and celebrities like John D. and Abby Rockefeller, Rudyard Kipling, President Woodrow Wilson and England's King Edward VII.

More than a hundred years later, Skibo Castle is still a getaway home, for a weekend or longer, to captains of industry, chief executives, visiting potentates, global celebrities and other lions of commerce and the arts. The meticulous renovation begun by Carnegie continues today by a group of Skibo's longtime members. They purchased the eight-century-old castle several months ago from a British entrepreneur named Peter de Savary.

Like Carnegie, de Savary has left his mark on Skibo Castle, creating what could well be described as, without fear of overstatement, one of the world's more unusual country clubs called, not surprisingly, The Carnegie Club. Even tightfisted Andrew himself would probably join.

By conventional yardsticks, Skibo Castle defies most hospitality traditions. It has a full-time staff of 105 to look after 21 guest bedrooms in the castle and 25 bedrooms in 12 lodges, an impressive two-to-one ratio. Forget the jarring, telephonic wake-up calls. Here, bagpiper Graham Grant offers a stirring rise-and-shine outside your window. I found it a delightful way to start the morning. He also pipes guests in for breakfast and dinner.

Located in the village of Dornoch, not that far from Inverness, Skibo has a resident full-time historian, David Richardson, who is youngish, congenial and chatty, not fusty and reserved. Richardson sits at the dinner table nightly and regales dinner guests with all sorts of lore and historical nuggets.

For instance, Richardson claims the nearby Royal Dornach golf course has frustrated golfers since 1616, making it the third oldest in the world after St. Andrews and Leith. What's more, he confides, Skibo's new owners are investing in a 21st century device: a global positioning satellite for the estate's 18-hole, 7,100-yard championship links course and its 9-hole "Monks Walk" course. The GPS is designed to give players instant intelligence not only on the lie of their ball, but also on distances, grass conditions and wind direction.

Although such a gadget hardly seems cricket, it is typical Carnegie, who would and did resort to virtually any tactic to build and retain his primacy in the 19th century steel market. As an unnamed British economist put it, Carnegie presided over an empire of 43 blast furnaces of "unspeakable grime and squalor" stoked by "unlimited hours of work." Carnegie eventually scrubbed his own grimy image by lavishing $350 million of his fortune on his "toilers" and other Pittsburgh residents seeking "enlightenment" by endowing libraries, universities and charities with his marquee name.

Richardson is quick to point out that Andrew Carnegie did not just hobnob with other industrialists and royalty at Skibo.

"He often invited his old friends from his birthplace, Dunfermline, in for the relaxing weekends. He called them 'old shoes' because they were comfortable and, though they didn't have money, they had a lot to say for themselves." The house historian insists the lord of the castle "judged you not by the thickness of your wallet but by the richness of your wallet."

Today, however, you need a thick wallet to enjoy the privileges. Skibo is essentially a by-invitation-only private club where membership costs $5,000 annually, a tariff deemed paltry compared with the Lochlomond Club near Glasgow. It charges new members an astonishing $160,000 for the privilege of belonging.

Even though Skibo is billed as a private club, the new owners are continuing de Savary's savvy strategy of letting two non-members stay a maximum of two nights for $1,200 a night plus 17.5% VAT. (The prices drops to $975 a night between January 5 and March 31.) Sounds pricey, but that rate covers your room, all meals, drinks, as much golf as you can possibly play and a long list of other sports ranging from archery to falconry.

The only extras are horseback riding, piloting four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicles around the grounds and elsewhere and indulging in pampering treatments, wraps and massages at the Clarins spa. A 50-mile ride to or from the Inverness Airport in a Range Rover costs $127 each way.

There are two ways, I found, to enjoy Skibo. Race around the estate and do everything offered, the kid in the candy store strategy. Or just hang out and do nothing. Soak and float in the magnificent, massive, marble indoor swimming pool. Hop a bike and peddle over bridges and past lakes stocked with trout and filled with swans. Power hundreds of golf balls into the mist at the driving range that's usually deserted so no one can snicker over those mighty swings that send the white ball trickling off the tee.

Carnegie's personal study, the snooker parlor and a warren of other antique-filled rooms have no end of sofas and overstuffed chairs for curling up and reading or snoozing. Skibo delivers the most exclusive luxury of all: pure, do-anything-you-want-when-you-want-to-do-it relaxation. If you must stay in touch, there is a personal computer with high-speed Internet access for checking and sending e-mail, writing and number-crunching your golf handicap. But don't expect a business center.

De Savary, a roguish Pied Piper of hedonistic pursuits, attracted a Who's Who of commerce to Skibo. Corporate members include Goldman Sachs, American Express, Jaguar, Ford and a passel of pharmaceutical companies. But only the most senior executives show up, not hundreds of super salespeople getting a payoff vacation for their efforts. In fact, the estate and the castle itself is so vast, it doesn't feel crowded even when it's fully booked.

Nor does it scrimp on food and drink. The Angus beef, Scottish salmon, single-malt Scotches and every other sustenance is trotted out in generous, home-style servings. This is not Michelin star food, but it's hearty and tasty. A typical dinner recently included smoked-duck salad, spiced seared salmon, a hearty potato, apple pie and carmel sauce. The house wine list is deep and bottles are poured freely.

As for de Savary, what's up his Turnbull and Asser sleeve now that he's sold Skibo Castle? He owns and oversees the London Outpost, a brownstone in Knightsbridge open to travelers at the bargain rate of $240 a night. He's developing a club in the Bahamas. And he's currently refurbishing Bovey Castle, which covers 358 acres in Dartmoor, England's largest national park, located about three hours west of London. The 97-year-old Bovey is sort of an English version of Skibo, but larger and with no membership requirements. It has 84 guestrooms, a new, 120-seat movie theatre and opens next spring.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.