Tartan, whisky, restaurants in the middle of nowhere — all are being reimagined in newly fashionable “Outlander” territory. By Amy Tara Koch. Photographs By Robert Ormerod
Cool-kid chefs turning local bounty into Michelin-worthy dishes, an artisan whisky boom and a clutch of stylish hotels have helped Scotland shrug off its saturnine image and rebrand as a misty, moody mecca.
The cult following of the time-travel television series “Outlander” has added to the patina. Its depiction of Highland clan life, along with stunning locations from Inverness to Edinburgh, has fuelled a tourism spike that the National Trust for Scotland refers to as “the Outlander Effect”.
One thing is clear: between women-helmed whisky startups, the rise in gastronomic tasting menus in middle-of-nowhere settings and the classic tartan pattern’s spike in popularity, Gaelic culture has been rejigged in a fresh and exciting way. It’s enough to make closely held traditions relevant to millennials, gen Z and people old enough to remember when “Braveheart” came out on the big screen. Here, some of the new Scotland highlights.
If there were a symbol for Scotland, it would be tartan. You see it everywhere, from hotel interiors and tabletop items to cookie tins and everyday clothing. For centuries, tartan, which comes in thousands of iterations, has served as an identifying feature for Highland clans. When the British government attempted to restrain the use of “Highland dress” in 1747, after the failed Jacobite Rising, tartan became a testament to endurance, even rebellion.
“Tartan, today, is a symbol of subcultures everywhere, not just in Scotland,” says Mhairi Maxwell, a curator of the recently opened “Tartan” exhibition at the V&A museum in Dundee, which gives historic context to how a humble fabric became a global symbol and driving force in fashion and design (on display until January 2024).
To Araminta Campbell, custom tartan is the stuff of modern heirlooms. She creates one-of-a-kind patterns that express her clients’ ancestry, interests and connections to place. Her ready-made shawls, scarves and throws can be found at the Scottish Textiles Showcase in Edinburgh, a shop near the Royal Mile that supports local wool mills and artisan makers producing sustainable products. Custom pieces are by appointment at the designer’s atelier. Ready-made pieces start at 295 British pounds (about $AU567); custom pieces start at 5,000 pounds ($AU9,600).
At Fhior in Edinburgh, chef Scott Smith’s passion for coaxing knock-your-socks-off flavour from humble Scottish ingredients is displayed in his seven- and 10-course tasting menus. One dish, flash-fried, koji-brined cauliflower with a relish of lovage-seed [similar in taste to fennel] spiked apricot, is an umami blast with burnt orange zip. The cuisine may be haute, but the vibe is not. “We focus on flavour, not pretence,” says Smith of his casually cool restaurant, with a wall mural painted by the staff (it hides the cracks) and an Arctic Monkeys-heavy playlist (85 pounds [$AU163] for seven courses; 105 pounds [$AU202] for 10 courses, without alcohol).
What was once a tourist cafeteria inside the country’s oldest working distillery is now a six-table fine-dining restaurant. The Glenturret whisky brand was purchased by Lalique, the French glassmaker, in 2018, and at the Glenturret Lalique Restaurant in rural Perthshire, an hour’s drive from Glasgow, chef Mark Donald works with local foragers, gamekeepers and fishers to orchestrate 16-course tasting menus that give Scottish staples a kick — with humour.
Case in point: his version of a tattie scone, a breakfast staple of fried unleavened potato bread, is an opulent one-bite, mayo-laced bao bun layered with Highland Wagyu beef, truffle and a bump of caviar.
Whisky, naturally, makes cameos. A pre-dessert cocktail features a tableside mist of aromatic “new make” (whisky before it is cask-aged), which perfumes the drink and the air. “We want to smash stereotypes and make guests feel that they’ve had more than just a meal,” says the chef, who cut his teeth at Noma, Gleneagles and the Balmoral Hotel. The restaurant recently earned a Michelin Star (195 pounds [$AU375] without alcohol; wine pairings are an additional 110 pounds [$AU211]).
Restaurants with rooms
In 2021, Tom Tsappis and Matilda Ruffle, both in their 30s, opened the five-room Killiecrankie House in a 19th-century former vicarage in Perthshire. It is part of a growing trend of “restaurants with rooms”, small country guesthouses offering sophisticated dinners.
The couple envisioned a boundary-pushing tasting menu with lots of cheek and zero haughtiness.
Here’s how a stay unfolds: after the 4pm check-in, guests gather for cocktails and get-to-know-you banter, either in the teal-and-pink salon or the garden. At 7pm, the three-hour dinner begins. First are light bites like venison tartare flecked with pickled garlic buds and served with bramble puree, and a seaweed “cornetto” filled with salmon belly tartare and salmon mousse. Then come heartier dishes like liver and onions, which uses sake-cured monkfish liver instead of the usual beef.
Drinks pairings are equally plucky, with a cider from Fife, a dry-hopped local lager and a Cypriot dessert wine called Commandaria (dinner, 105 pounds [$AU202] without alcohol; the “discovery” drinks pairing is an additional 75 pounds [$AU144]; an overnight stay is 520 pounds [$AU999] for two with dinner and breakfast).
The Dipping Lugger, which also opened during the pandemic, is a love song to a centuries-old house, the notable characters who inhabited it and the fishing village (Ullapool) that surrounds it. The design of the three-room property juxtaposes period pieces with whimsical ones: wingback chairs, fireplaces, velvet sofas set off by quirky wallpaper and framed posters of Mumford & Sons and other bands, a nod to the side gig of the owners, Robert Hicks and Helen Chalmers, as music promoters.
Food, of course, is the focus. The ever-changing seven-course menu of chef David Smith is a snapshot of the environs. For example, seaweed powder-dusted Loch Broom langoustine (a type of lobster) is plated with a prawn ravioli dotted with lemon puree and sea fennel; a smoky Lapsang souchong tea-bathed deer loin has a bright pea puree and pickled trumpet mushrooms. Of note: the property is along the spectacularly scenic North Highlands route known as the North Coast 500 (dinner, 95 pounds [$AU183]; 60 pounds [$AU115] for wine pairings; an overnight stay is 450 pounds [$AU865], including dinner and breakfast for two).
“Good cooking is storytelling: who you are, where you came from and where you are right now,” explains chef Pamela Brunton, a pioneer of destination tasting menus in Scotland. Since 2015, Brunton has been redefining the concept of modern Scottish cuisine from the whitewashed fisherman’s-cottage-turned-restaurant called Inver that she operates with her partner, Rob Latimer, in the Northwest Highlands. Dishes ooze the here and now: oysters just pulled from the loch drizzled with citrusy sea buckthorn juice; local lamb paired with hedgerow herbs and served with a wild garlic emulsion; asparagus with foraged sea beet, sea kale, sea lettuce and samphire atop custardy Rainton Tomme cheese.
Commitment to sustainability and nose-to-tail cooking has earned the restaurant a Michelin Green Star for outstanding sustainability initiatives. There are six standalone cabins with panoramic views of mountains and Loch Fyne (dinner 95 pounds [$AU183], wine pairings are an additional 65 pounds [$AU125]; lunch can be ordered à la carte; an overnight stay starts at 195 pounds [$AU375] and includes breakfast but not dinner).
On a family farm in a fertile pocket of Angus, between Dundee and Aberdeen, Arbikie Distillery is pioneering single-estate spirits with hardcore sustainability practices. The brothers John, Iain and David Stirling, all in their 50s, founded a field-to-bottle distillery in 2013 and within five years introduced a rye Scotch whisky (one hadn’t been made in Scotland in more than a century, the distillery says). In 2020, they created what they say are the world’s first climate-positive spirits, by planting peas and beans which reverse the distillery’s carbon
In terms of flavour, their spirits have a taste of the terroir, since all ingredients originate on the farm. Next up? Installing a wind turbine to power the distillery with green hydrogen. Arbikie offers tastings at its distillery seven days a week from 10am to 6pm; 25 pounds ($AU48). Its spirits are available from bottle shops in Australia.
As if being a woman at the helm of a start-from-scratch whisky brand was not innovative enough, Annabel Thomas has made herself known on the sustainability front. In 2020, Thomas bottled her first batch of Nc’nean at the company’s remote West Highlands distillery, which is an hour and a half drive from Fort William and requires a ferry crossing. Within two years, the company had attained B Corporation status, which signifies that it has met certain standards for social and environmental performance, and achieved net-zero emissions for its own operations.
Thomas also bucks tradition on the flavour front. Her whisky, which does not adhere to classic ageing practices, is light, citrusy and unpeated. “Classic whisky is designed for 70-year-olds. I wanted to create something for the new generation, a contemporary-looking, lighter-tasting product that is transparent about environmental impact,” she says.
The company currently offers a single-malt whisky, a gin-like botanical spirit and a seasonal small-batch whisky called Huntress that experiments with yeast. Nc’nean offers two daily tours, Monday to Friday, at 10am and 2pm; 18 pounds ($AU35). Private tours are also available.
On St Andrews Square in Edinburgh, Gleneagles Townhouse is a reimagined 19th-century bank that pulses with 21st-century glamour, from its stunning glass-domed restaurant, The Spence, where pink, green and blue velvet sofas offer bird’s-eye views of ornate plasterwork, to its 33 rooms, each individually outfitted with tasselled crown-canopy headboards, antique-looking chandeliers and rugs, plus marble-floored bathrooms, many with free-standing bathtubs.
Since the property opened in June 2022, The Spence has become the city’s social hub, a stylish perch for all-day brasserie-style food and fanciful cocktails (doubles from 450 pounds [$AU865] per night; entree prices range from 17 to 45 pounds [$AU33–86]).
When Manuela and Iwan Wirth of the acclaimed contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth opened The Fife Arms, their renovated Victorian coach inn in 2018, the Highlands town of Braemar became a destination for design aficionados. The hotel is a glorious mashup of art, culture and history, where a Picasso is hung upon tartan-clad walls and set off by a ceiling mural by Chinese artist Zhang Enli, and a watercolour by Queen Victoria hangs a few paces from a cocktail bar dedicated to Elsa Schiaparelli.
Each of the 46 wildly cosy rooms salutes a notable Scot or visitor to the region (for example, Flora MacDonald, a hero of the Jacobite movement) and brims with character in the form of eye-catching wall coverings, curated bric-a-brac and artwork. This being the Highlands, the great outdoors beckons. “Gillies”, or local guides, are on tap for horseriding, fly-fishing, birding and hiking in Cairngorms National Park (doubles from 600 pounds [$AU1,153] per night).
With its widely spread-out attractions, wind-whipped landscape and lack of public transport, Scotland can be challenging to tackle on your own. Highland Explorer Tours offers bus-based group tours ranging from single-day outings to the Highlands (highlight: flying across the arched Glenfinnan viaduct on the Jacobite Steam Train, also known as Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter films, 185 pounds [$AU356] per person) to six-day trips with stops in Orkney, Isle of Skye and the beaches along the North Coast 500 (1,509 pounds [$AU2,900] per person). Rabbie’s Tours offers one-day (54 pounds [$AU104]) and four-day (209 pounds [$AU402] without lodging) “Outlander”-themed tours centred on filming locations.
For custom private tours, Away from the Ordinary crafts itineraries with eye-popping niche experiences — surfing on the Isle of Lewis; salmon fishing on the insanely scenic River Lochy in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s tallest peak; sampling yet-to-be-released casks at micro whisky distilleries. Beyond activities, the company can secure tucked-away lodging and car transfers (starting at $AU1,498 per day for a couple, including hotel, guide and experiences, but excluding dining).
Another high-end option is to whiz past the scenery aboard Belmond’s Royal Scotsman, an old-world train with wood-panelled sleeping cabins and fine dining. The journeys, which depart from Edinburgh, range from two to seven nights and include off-train excursions such as whisky tastings and clay pigeon shooting on a private estate (rates start at 4,500 pounds [$AU8,650] per person for two nights).
© The New York Times
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our ninth edition, Page 28 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Lily Allen's Second Act”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.