After launching the Machrie hotel on the Isle of Islay, Gordon Campbell Gray was inspired to form the Wee Hotel Company, a collection of small but perfectly formed hotels, all located in and celebrating his beloved homeland. Janet Harmer pays a visit
Gordon Campbell Gray has come home. Having spent the past 12 years travelling the world, focused on launching one hotel after another, there is now nowhere he would rather be than his native Scotland.
“Given the choice of sitting in a first-class lounge, waiting for my next flight, or putting three Labradors in the back of the station wagon, it’s the three Labs I would now choose,” he explains.
However, he has not turned his back on creating new hotels – something he has done continuously throughout a successful career that started in 1984 when he bought and revived the Feathers hotel in Woodstock, Oxfordshire (see panel overleaf). As well as overseeing the recent development of Machrie on the Isle of Islay, managed by Campbell Gray Hotels – the company he founded and then sold in 2015 to the Cyprus-based trading company Audeh Group – he has also launched the Wee Hotel Company, with a view to creating a collection of small properties in iconic Scottish locations.
Two outstanding businesses – the Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye and the Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant in Port Appin, Argyll – have already been acquired by the Wee Hotel Company to provide a base for expansion, more of which later.
It is Machrie, though, which spurred on Campbell Gray’s decision to return to Scotland. His involvement in transforming what was a previously run-down property into a glamorous 47-bedroom hotel with stunning views over the adjacent golf course and the seven-mile-long beach beyond came out of the blue.
The hotel had been bought out of “The only rule we have here is that there are
no rules. We just want everyone to be happy” administration in 2011 by former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife Baroness Sue Nye, one-time advisor to former prime minister Gordon Brown.
“About nine years ago I was introduced to Gavyn and Sue by the architect for the project, a mutual friend,” says Campbell Gray, who was born and brought up in Renfrewshire and now owns a home near Oban in Argyll. “They didn’t know how to do a hotel and wondered if I would be interested. Although it wasn’t something I had planned, it became the catalyst for moving back to Scotland.”
The development of Machrie was initially stalled by the lengthy process of connecting the property to the mains water supply, but once the project got under way, Campbell Gray says it was one of the “loveliest” with which he has been involved.
“The vision was to create a hotel that sat beautifully with golf – that was crucial, as previously the building didn’t look out over the golf course – and also looked out over the sea,” he explains.
“So we created the main public areas – the 18 restaurant, bar and Stag lounge – on the first floor. Guests come up the stairs, are hit by the view, and immediately go ‘wow’.”
Another key consideration was to ensure the Machrie, which opened in September 2018, became a hotel that the locals would want to visit and come back to time and time again. “Everyone on the island has a story about the hotel – it was where people came for weddings or granny’s birthday. We wanted to restore that connection and we’ve done it by making the locals feel welcome by pricing it in a normal way,” he says.
Rooms in the summer start at £150, and the lunch menu in the restaurant costs £18.95 for two courses and £21.95 for three. The 18 is somewhere golfers can come for a bowl of Scotch broth, a sausage roll or a full-blown meal, where the most expensive main course dishes on the à la carte dinner menu are pork belly, colcannon, apple and black pudding and pan-roasted sea bass, local mussels, wild mushrooms, herbed potato terrine and fish velouté, both at £18.50.
Another key attraction for locals is the inclusion of a screening room in the hotel.
“We’re not a cinema – you can’t just buy a ticket to watch a film – but you can come for lunch and we can throw in a movie,” explains Campbell Gray. “The island has no cinema, so the screening room is a real attraction for the community. We screen all the major golf tournaments and rugby and tennis matches. It’s a great location for kiddies’ parties and for combining with business meetings.”
The remodelling of the hotel, which included a bold extension to the two original
Victorian wings of the property, has been done by Hudson Architects, but the interiors has been created by Campbell Gray working in conjunction with Peter Young Design and the owners. “We codenamed the design McScandi, as we wanted it to look clean and fresh while also being cosy,” says Campbell Gray.
“It was important to have a hint of Scottish design, but didn’t want to make it a
pastiche. You have to satisfy visitors to the island who want to feel they are in Scotland, while being aware that the locals don’t want to look at another bit of tartan. So, we have some contemporary Scottish touches, such as the antler chandeliers and the metal stag’s head.”
Other design hints reflecting the locality are provided in the use of Islay tweed in
the screening room, vintage Hermès scarves with a golfing theme and furniture sourced from Scottish companies. The soft, tonal palette is lifted by injections of colour, with vast spaces – such as the vaulted ceiling in the restaurant and the double-height windows in the Stag lounge – reflecting the expanse of the surrounding landscape.
Machrie is proving to be a draw for golfers, whisky aficionados (attracted to Islay’s eight distilleries), tourists and, perhaps surprisingly, corporate guests. “We have a party of lawyers booked in from San Francisco who want to play golf, do the whisky tour and have a meeting in a relaxed environment,” says Campbell Gray.
A cosy and relaxed atmosphere is what the hotelier is ultimately aiming for. “The only rule we have here is that there are no rules. We just want everyone to be happy. If a guest comes down at 11am and says: ‘Am I too late for eggs?’, we’d never refuse them.” Such a philosophy goes hand in hand with Campbell Gray’s abhorrence of brand standards.
“I love individuality and I want each hotel to have its own personality. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards – it’s the idea of a brand that I find irritating. What is right here wouldn’t necessarily be right for the Three Chimneys.”
However, quirkily, Campbell Gray does insist on two features that are replicated across all his hotels – freshly squeezed orange juice, and butter curls in a blue and white dish. “If you take time to make butter curls, it indicates that you care. It may be an unnecessary detail, but it shows that someone loves the place and will care about a lot of other things,” he says.
It remains to be seen whether the butter curls make it across the collection of around half a dozen hotels that Campbell Gray hopes to build within the Wee Hotel Collection. The fact that he has secured two well-loved business – the Three Chimneys and the Pierhouse – to launch the new company has been a real boost.
Both sum up what Campbell Gray wants to achieve. “I want them to be relaxed, fun and comfortable with no ‘tra la la’, while showcasing the very best of Scottish food,” he explains.
“The Three Chimneys was a unique opportunity to acquire an amazing restaurant that I have always admired and respected,” he says.
“The restaurant and the bedrooms in the adjacent House Over-By have been beautifully maintained and I will be very proud to continue what Shirley and Eddie Spear have created at the business over the past 34 years. It really is the epitome of the greatest food you can get in Scotland and emphasises the importance the Wee Hotel Company will place on the wonderful, indigenous ingredients we have here.”
Campbell Gray is equally enthusiastic about what he has taken on at the Pierhouse, previously owned by Nick and Nikki Horne for 12 years. He describes it as the essence of “authentic, honest and unpretentious” hospitality, truly the best of what Scotland has to offer.
While Campbell Gray says that some tweaking of the two businesses will take place with the addition of a minimal number of bedrooms, little will change in either operation.
However, further acquisitions are likely to be focused on properties that require some TLC.
“I would prefer to buy something that is down on its uppers and create something from scratch,” he says. “We are looking for buildings that are a bit quirky, exciting and very individual – around 20 bedrooms would be ideal. Each hotel will be like a cousin, rather than a brother or sister.”
Meanwhile, as Campbell Gray continues his search for new additions for the Wee Hotel Company, he is revelling in being back in his homeland. “It is rather beguiling to now wake up and look out onto a loch with seals and otters,” he concludes.
Island life – living and working in a remote location
The opening of the Machrie has provided jobs for 68 staff, with up to 90 positions expected to be filled as business increases across the summer months. Few staff come from outside Scotland, and there are more than 40 people from Islay itself. But with no unemployment on the island, it is likely that future appointments will have to come from beyond.
While living and working on a remote island is not for everyone – island fever can drive people away – Machrie’s general manager and head chef could not be more enthusiastic.
Ian Hamilton arrived on Islay after spending four and a half years as general manager of the Loch Lomond Arms on the mainland. His move to Islay came with experience of island life having lived on the Isle of Arran, where he met his wife while working at the Auchrannie Resort, and the Isle of Skye, where he worked at the Duisdale and Toravaig House hotels.
Further afield, Hamilton has also spent time on what he calls “the magical” Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, Michigan, in the US.
“Having two young boys, I don’t get island fever,” says Hamilton. “They love being on the beach, so Islay is the perfect life for us.”
For Darren Velvick, moving to Islay as Machrie’s head chef has provided him with the perfect opportunity to get back to a more simple way of life. After a career that has included 23 years working for Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing before a three-year stint in Dubai, latterly as chef de cuisine at the Croft restaurant at the Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Sites, the move to the island with his family could not be more of a contrast.
“Islay is stunning – there is the beauty of the landscape and the people are so friendly,” says Velvic. “Foraging, meditating and coldwater swimming all year round is my way of destressing and staying healthy mentally and spiritually. I embrace the island rather than fight against it. I love the isolation. However, many find it hard to deal with.
“As long as my family are all happy, strong and healthy, that’s all I want in life nowadays.”
Campbell Gray’s businesses
The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links
Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll PA42 7AN
Owners Gavyn Davies and Baroness Sue Nye
Operator Campbell Gray Hotels
General manager Iain Hamilton
Head chef Darren Velvick
Facilities The 18 restaurant and bar; spa; screening room for 30; boardroom for 22; and 18-hole Machrie Links golf course originally designed in 1891 by Willie Campbell and remodelled by former European Ryder Cup vice-captain David J Russell
Room rates From £150 in summer (£120 in winter)
The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant
Port Appin, Argyll PA38 4DE
Owner and operator The Wee Hotel Company
General manager Fiona McLean
Head chef Segejs Savickis
Room rates From £170 in summer (£125 in winter)
The Three Chimneys and the House Over-By
Colbost, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye IV55 8ZT
Owner and operator The Wee Hotel Company
General manager Petri Pentikäinen
Head chef Scott Davies
Room rates From £360 in summer
Gordon Campbell Gray – CV highlights
Gordon Campbell Gray has always been a nonconformist. After eschewing a formal hotel school education, he moved through a variety of roles before landing the position of assistant food and beverage controller at London’s Portman InterContinental hotel at the age of 22. After being promoted to purchasing manager, his career took a diversion when he joined the Save the Children charity to run projects in Bangladesh, Morocco and Nicaragua.
Returning to the UK in 1982, Campbell Gray was appointed deputy general manager at the Athenaeum, London. However, keen to make his own mark, within two years, with family backing and that of former merchant bank Hill Samuel, he bought the Dorchester hotel in Woodstock, which he relaunched as the Feathers. He went on to acquire the Draycott in Chelsea, London, in 1987.
After selling both properties, Campbell Gray moved to New York’s Long Island to
buy and refurbish the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton before returning to the UK to work on the creation of One Aldwych, located on the corner of the Strand in London. It opened in 1998 with finance from an overseas investor (64 other investors had turned him down), and it was praised for its clean-cut, contemporary design and innovative approach to sustainable luxury.
Campbell Gray Hotels was launched in 2003 to manage a small collection of
individual, luxury properties around the world, including One Aldwych. Its first new opening was the Carlisle Bay hotel on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It later took over the management of Dukes hotel in London and opened Le Gray on behalf of a Lebanese owner in Beirut. The involvement in Dukes, One Aldwych and Carlisle Bay ended between 2010 and 2014.
With the injection of cash into the business from Cyprus-based trading company Audeh Group in 2015, Campbell Gray Hotels has gone on to add properties in Jordan, Bahrain, Liberia, Malta, Scotland and Switzerland via acquisitions and management agreements.
Having been personally involved in the creation, design and philosophy of each property, Campbell Gray is now taking “a more ambassadorial role” as he focuses on the growth of the Wee Hotel
Company in Scotland.