Lady Claire Macdonald – The host with the most
They have the location, the skills and the vision but there’s more to running a successful luxury hotel than that. Lady Claire Macdonald and her daughter Isabella Eveling talk to Sophy Buckley about the importance of new genes, luck and team work when it comes to building a successful small business with a big international reputation.
Family is everything to Lord and Lady Macdonald, chief of one of the oldest clans in Scotland. It is the love of their lives, the essence of their business and the key to their success. The couple beam with pleasure as they talk lovingly about the contribution the various members of the family make to their lives. And there’s plenty to talk about.
They have four children, seven grandchildren, and an extended family that takes in Edinburgh, London and Germany. But despite the diaspora typical of so many modern families, the heart of the family remains in Skye, and in particular at the beautiful Kinloch Lodge Hotel. From the building itself – owned by the Macdonalds since it was built as a hunting lodge in the 17th century – to the grand portraits on the walls and intimate photographs on the side tables, the comfy sofas and welcoming fires, for Godfrey and Claire family looms large.
“We are so lucky to have been able to grow and build a business around our family,” says Claire, who with her husband Godfrey celebrate their 40th year at Kinloch in November. “It’s been a real privilege.”
“We are so lucky to have been able to grow and build a business around our family”
The couple moved to Skye from Edinburgh when Godfrey’s father was ill and after he died in 1972, the Macdonald estates were sold off to pay death duties. Only Kinloch Lodge, then a rather run-down hotel with 12 bedrooms and three bathrooms, nestling on the sea-loch shoreline surrounded by forest, was retained. The young newly-weds put their energy into slowly refurbishing the pretty white building with its thick walls, incredible views and ancient plumbing. At the same time, they started their family and over the years established the hotel as a friendly, welcoming retreat where everyone pitched in.
Their second daughter, Isabella Eveling, has fond memories of that time. “Growing up, us kids would answer the phone, talk to the guests, even make tea and serve it. It’s not the level of professionalism that people would expect now – and it probably wouldn’t be allowed – but it was a very open and relaxed house where people loved to come,” she says. Godfrey took care of front of house and Claire did all the cooking, slowly building a reputation for creating delicious menus from local, seasonal produce.
The turning point came in 1982, when Claire was offered a food column in The Field. The column opened up a far wider audience and she was encouraged to write cookery books (17 to date and counting) as her philosophy of fresh, local and quality caught the mood. Her writing is credited with helping to recast Scotland’s reputation from one of fried food to one of fashionable fresh feasts and she and Godfrey have taken a step back from the hotel to concentrate on that, handing over its day to day running to Isabella and her husband Tom.
Today the hotel has matured into a stunning luxury hideaway, complete with all the mod cons and international awards expected by the discerning traveller including a Michelin star and a Red Grape award, helping secure its place as one of Conde Nast’s global top 25 small hotels. But despite all the high-end accolades, it retains a wonderful, warm family atmosphere and you’re just as likely to see guests dressed up to the nines for a celebratory dinner as lying on a sofa in one of the three drawing rooms, shoes kicked off having a snooze in front of a fire. You might also spot one of Tom and Isabella’s two young sons cycling about or wandering down to the hotel’s private beach on the shore of Loch Na Dal to fish or build a camp fire.
“So often when a family business is handed from one generation to another, its essence is lost. Everyone, not least Tom and Bella have tried really hard not to let that happen and I think we’ve succeeded,” says Claire.
“We saw it very much as our job to build on what Mum and Dad had created,” adds Isabella in her soft Scottish lilt. “The key lies in the fact we’re still very much a team and we draw on Mum and Dad’s experience and wisdom all the time. Without it we’d be lost.”
“The key lies in the fact we’re still very much a team and we draw on Mum and Dad’s experience and wisdom all the time”
I don’t think so. The pair are devoted hosts and nothing is too much trouble. Since arriving in 2002, two years after they themselves were married at the hotel, they have worked tirelessly to develop Kinloch’s luxury side, hiring head chef Marcello Tully who within two years of his arrival had won the coveted Michelin Star, and forging a partnership with Talisker, the distillery. There is also a range of Claire Macdonald food and next on the agenda is expanding the spa facilities and adding four new suites.
“They have brought new skills, a more up-to-date touch and Tom brought in very welcome fresh genes – he’s not a Macdonald and it’s made a huge difference. Tom and Bella breathed new life into Kinloch and we couldn’t have done it without them,” beams Claire.
The next 12 months will be a celebration of all the family has achieved over the four decades at Kinloch. Four of Claire’s books are being reprinted in May and her autobiography is out in August while Isabella is planning some events and parties to mark this fabulous achievement.
For Godfrey and Claire, this milestone has come round surprisingly fast and highlights some of the changes over the years. “We’re not really involved day to day anymore but that allows us to spend lots of special time with our grandsons.” And so to the next generation.
Visit the Kinloch Lodge website for more information.
By Sophy Buckley