Bracken Hide embraces the wilderness of the Isle of Skye

06 April 2023 by

In an increasingly urban world, these Isle of Skye hoteliers are aiming to provide a haven in the wilderness. Explore the brand new Bracken Hide hotel in all its glory

The first Bracken Hide social media post, back in October 2019, included the hashtag #gulp. Miranda and Charlie Garton-Jones, more familiar with selling sleek London properties than turning an unkempt Scottish hillside into a destination for luxury wilderness breaks, were taking their first steps towards hoteliership.

"Please don't say congratulations just yet! We're at the crucial final stage," says Miranda. She's speaking on 1 March 2023, some three and a half years on from that initial #gulp.

"I woke this morning saying ‘this is it, this is the month we open'." The mix of excitement and head-spinning busyness is palpable on a Zoom call. A glass balustrade has just arrived on-site, says Charlie, who's about to head up to the Isle of Skye from the couple's home in London to oversee the final push. He reassures Miranda that the rug for the Whisky Bar has got as far as Maidenhead, too. The last pieces are coming together.

It has been the culmination of a project to build a luxury wilderness hotel on the Isle of Skye, which began in 2017 when the Garton-Joneses spent £300,000 on 53 tussocky, sloping, wildly east-facing acres just outside Portree, the island's main town. Six years and £5.5m later, the first guests had been shown to their ultra-private cabins (27 with plans ultimately for 45, dotted over the land) the week before our interview and been encouraged to take a dip in the stream-fed plunge pool before dinner at Fraser's and a dram or two in the Whisky Bar before bed.

Miranda and Charlie, long-time visitors to Skye, tell a story of love at first sight. They finish each other's sentences and sometimes talk at the same time. The conversation is energetic and driven. The land had been, nominally, a golf course, but nobody had teed off there for years. "It was so rugged you could lose a hot air balloon, let alone a golf ball," says Miranda. Temptingly, it came with permission for development.

"We thought ‘how hard can it be?' We know what we're doing." Miranda is referring to the couple's first foray into hospitality, when they bought a dilapidated Scottish Youth Hostel Association venue in Uig in 2014, turning it into the award-winning Cowshed Boutique Bunkhouse. "Bracken Hide is an extension of that," says Charlie. "The Bunkhouse was running at 80% occupancy year-round in what is a so-called seasonal market. There was obviously a market."

"And we wouldn't have considered opening a hotel if we didn't believe it would be a runaway success," Miranda adds.

Advance bookings suggest they're onto something. Occupancy tracking at 49% until January 2024 is exceeding the couple's expectations, but with the acute shortage of visitor accommodation on Skye, that's perhaps not surprising. Charlie recalls summer 2018, when police advised visitors not to cross from the mainland without a firm booking because there was no room at any inn, hotel or campsite.

"People were sleeping in their cars by the roadside because they had nowhere to go," he says. In addition, brisk tourism means houses are often rented out on Airbnb, which reduces the number of affordable homes for island residents; some 10% of the cost of Bracken Hide has gone on building staff accommodation.

Wild thoughts

The couple's vision has been to join up the expectations of a largely overseas luxury-seeking clientele with the wild natural location. They sold 70% of their Garton-Jones property business in 2018, and the remainder in 2020 to fund the project, expecting a £4m bill up until building costs rocketed through 2022. Other financial help has come from friends and family. When it comes to return on investment, the Garton-Jones are in this for the long haul, hoping to recoup the outlay in seven to 10 years.

The young team at West Port Architects came on board and it was their CGI designs that persuaded local planners to approve the plans. "That took 18 months," says Charlie. "Bracken Hide isn't the traditional Highlands idea of a hotel, but once they got the concept they were supportive."

By October 2019 diggers had already shifted 5,000 tonnes of wet earth – by the end of construction it was more like half a million – but then Covid happened. Construction stopped. "We had diggers sitting there twiddling their thumbs, costing us thousands in hire fees," says Miranda, exasperation evident in her voice. "And building sites are like super-tankers," Charlie adds. "Once you shut them down they take a long time to get going again." When works restarted in summer 2021, a revised opening date of summer 2022 was set, but disruption in post-Covid supply chains meant the date was pushed back again

"We were in awe of our contractors' commitment," says Charlie. "They're not clocking off at 5pm, they're coming in on weekends – one even delayed a holiday."

The team has finally nudged Bracken Hide over the line. "The building is meant to replicate an old bothy," says Miranda. "The best compliment we've had is, ‘oh you'rerenovating that old building' and we say ‘no, it's a brand new one'.

The wrap-around dry-stone wall and curved roof of the Hub is darkly dramatic, in keeping with the shapes of the landscape, and the result of months of work by local masonry professionals. A wild grass roof covers the Hub and inside the glass-fronted atrium (the bespoke windows were a significant cost and joinery alone reached £140,000) is a real fire and a three-metre Tibetan cherry tree that will be strung with festoon lights and seasonal decorations. A striking crocheted bull's head with bronze horns and a resin nose is the couple's modern interpretation of the traditional Highland stag's head and hangs by the restaurant. "An artist friend [Fabiane Lee-Parrella] spent a year making it, and it's magnificent. Our homage to a Highland stag," says Miranda. In the Whisky Bar – the couple's favourite part of the property – a jade-green rug with a prowling tiger will cover the floor. "It has a sense of humour – you can't take yourself too seriously, can you." Throughout, natural tones of heather, every shade of green, gorse yellows, burnt orange, and Harris tweed, wool, velvet and leather connect interiors with the landscape.

The timber-clad cabins reference the popular ones at the Bunkhouse. The furthest is 170m from the Hub (there are buggies for guest use), with the higher Mountain cabins having far-reaching views and the Glen cabins closer to the Hub. They have all the trappings of a conventional hotel room: underfloor heating, ensuite shower rooms, privacy and one gigabit internet speed. A private terrace has rattan chairs for dark-sky gazing, and day-time gazing over the rough-hewn hillside, misty mountains and the Isle of Raasay.

Near the Hub are two Nordic saunas – "five minutes in heat, five in ice water, three or four times, and you feel reborn" says Miranda – and a stream-fed plunge pool. Whale-watching, hiking, sea kayaking and falconry can be arranged through collaborations with local businesses.

Flying the flag

"Wilderness is exactly where tourism is right now," says Charlie. "The more we live in urban places, the more people want to spend time somewhere wild and natural and see dark sky, whales, eagles. People want wilderness but they want it to be luxurious and they want the full service."

Some 70% of visitors to Skye are from overseas (the US, Germany, France and Australia are big fans), 30% from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; it's an exact reversal of the figures for the rest of Scotland. "There are massive numbers of Indian tourists too, travelling from big cities to find wilderness," says Charlie. "And whisky!" Miranda adds. India is the world's third-biggest whisky market after the US and Japan. They're also attracted by the weak pound. "Coffee and a croissant in London is £4.50 to £5.50. On Skye it's about £7. But if you're a dollar economy that's not going to scare you. You're talking here about wealthy overseas tourists." Still, it's priced keenly with cabins available from £150 a night including breakfast.

March is over. The Bracken Hide hotel is open and Miranda and Charlie's whisky tumblers clink with Talisker 18-year-old single malt laced with relief and pride.

Fraser's at the Bracken Hide

"Your own place is what you want your entire life as a chef," says George Fraser. "I'm 42. I started working in kitchens when I was 13 – nearly 30 years ago. This is a dream come true."

The Portree-based chef has leased the 64-cover dining room and kitchen to create Fraser's at the Bracken Hide restaurant. A £120,000 fit-out, completed to his spec, has an open kitchen and pass looking across the contemporary space with its curves, plants, mix of booths and standalone tables, through landscape windows towards the sea.

He will be responsible for all F&B at the hotel, including room service, afternoon tea (£24.95, or £29.95 with a glass of prosecco) and Sunday lunch, working with a front of house and kitchen team of 15 (the hotel has created 25 jobs in total), many of whom he knows from previous roles. "It's the biggest [career] step I've ever made. I'm excited and petrified at the same time. Bookings have been open since December and I've got hundreds in already. It's all looking well."

His flavours are classical. A 6-6-6 à la carte with an average cost of £40 for three courses, will change roughly every six weeks. Dishes take seasonal inspiration from the immediate surroundings. Most of the fish and shellfish, including hand-dived scallops and rope-grown mussels, is from a 15-mile radius of Portree, and venison is from the island, while Lochalsh Butchers at Kyle provide lamb and beef, much from their own farm. Wild ingredients are picked in season on the island: seaweeds are deep-fried for an umami-rich garnish, and wild raspberries, red vein sorrel, and mushrooms are abundant.

Mussels will be steamed in white wine and garlic and served with crusty bread, and ribeye of Highland beef will come with roasted vegetables and dauphinoise potatoes. A favourite of George's is duck with blueberry emulsion and sweet potato fondant. "The emulsion goes really well with the duck, gives a bit of tartness, and I love sweet potato. The dish is strong, vibrant." He'll include a ‘soufflé of the moment' among the desserts served with homemade sorbet or ice-cream – on the opening menu is a raspberry soufflé with mint sorbet and chocolate tuile.

A compact wine list, created in collaboration with supplier Matthew Clark, will be offered alongside beers from the Isle of Skye Brewing Co, including Skye Tarasgeir brewed using peat-smoked malt.

Fraser hasn't ruled out the possibility of a tasting menu, though he's concerned a £75 tab would "take a lot of people out of the equation". Encouraging local custom is important – a 60:40 split between residents and non-residents is the ambition – and unlike other local restaurants he will take reservations.

Portree is home for Fraser. Originally from Edinburgh, he was head chef of Duisdale House hotel, Sleat, and prior to that the Kirkwall hotel in Orkney. A previous role took him on tour with JayZ and Beyonce as crew chef. "We did 136 days straight, 6am-10pm. Sixteen shows in Europe, 36 in the US. It was fantastic, I saw so much of America – but always in the dark!"

From the menu

  • Roasted Skye scallops and mussels, cauliflower purée, Parma ham crisps £13.50
  • Pan-seared breast of Perthshire pigeon, black pudding, apple £10.50
  • Roasted hake with parsley crust, crushed baby potatoes, spinach cream, Tenderstem broccoli £19.95
  • Ribeye of Highland beef, garlic and thyme dauphinoise potatoes, roasted vegetables, parsnip crisps £24.95
  • Chocolate and Talisker delice, textures of chocolate and raspberry £8.95
  • Lemon and thyme panna cotta, berry shortbread, berry compote £8.95

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