In the heart of the Highlands sits the Torridon hotel. Rohaise Rose-Bristow speaks about recent refurbishments that honour the hotel's heritage
A long sweeping driveway leads to the Torridon – a striking 19th-century former hunting lodge – nestled in the remotest of landscapes.
It is the UK's most northerly five-red-AA-star hotel, deep in the Scottish Highlands near the village of Achnasheen in Wester Ross – and even that's half an hour by car. However, with Inverness just an hour away, it has the benefit of being both remote and accessible at the same time.
The Torridon overlooks the sea loch that bears its name, and with 58 acres of parkland it is an ideal destination for lovers of the great outdoors, offering opportunities to hike, bike and kayak, not to mention climb mountains – there are three ranges to the north of Glen Torridon, each boasting two Munros, meaning they have peaks of more than 3,000 feet.
Put simply, this area is one big outdoor playground, as Monica Galetti and Giles Coren discovered when they visited in series three of BBC Two's Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby. The episode screened in the summer of 2020, when the country was emerging from the first lockdown and, not surprisingly, it created huge interest and a resulting influx of bookings.
"It was fantastic to be on the series," says owner Rohaise Rose-Bristow. "We were privileged to be one of the hotels featured. It's helped us – so has the North Coast 500 [touring route], which has always been there but with some clever marketing has really put the north-west Highlands on the tourist map. We're a proud pitstop for many drivers."
The North Coast 500 is Scotland's answer to Route 66. The Torridon sits on the scenic coastal drive, which starts and ends at Inverness Castle, looping round the Black Isle, Easter Ross, Caithness, Sutherland and then Wester Ross. NC500, as it is known, is described as one of the world's best drives. Indeed, the Torridon, in a collaboration with Morgan cars and Pride of Britain hotels, offers motor enthusiasts the chance to hire a classic car to drive it.
Inside the hotel Rose-Bristow is relieved that the recent design upgrade of three of its 18 bedrooms was completed in time for reopening in February. But she admits that finishing the project did come pretty close to the wire.
Accomodation at the Torridon
Rose-Bristow's parents bought the Torridon in 1992 and, after managing the hotel for five years, she and her husband, Dan, bought it in 2004. Since then, the couple have completely refurbished the property and their current business strategy sees them redesign three bedrooms each year on rotation.
The expectation of a country house hotel is log fires and sumptuous sofas to sink into with a dram after a bracing walk in the hills or a long drive. Guests staying at the Torridon can certainly expect some of that – but don't expect to see tartan everywhere.
So, is she happy with this the results of this makeover? The answer is a resounding yes, given all the decisions are down to her. "If I'm not happy, I can't blame anyone," she laughs.
Twelve bathrooms have also been refurbished in the most recent tranche of work, which Rose-Bristow admits has been "challenging" for many reasons. "We're fortunate in that we have a good relationship with local tradespeople, although bear in mind that ‘local' here means Inverness, which is 60 miles away, so everyone travels a fair distance to get here," she points out.
"The pandemic had a knock-on effect in that things were late in arriving and there were occasional delays and sometimes we've had to deal with bad weather, but on the whole it went well as we'd planned carefully and had all the dates in the diary."
Are there any particular themes? "Ten years ago, I tended to go with what was on-trend, but now I'm keen to create classic designs that stand the test of time, with interiors that have longevity, prints that provoke a conversation and get our guests asking questions – that's what inspires me," says Rose-Bristow.
"I'm often asked where I get my inspiration from and the truth is it comes from everywhere: a magazine, Instagram, I might spot a piece of fabric I absolutely fall in love with or a picture will catch my eye in an antique or vintage shop in Beauly. It doesn't have to be expensive but if I like it and can imagine where it could go and how it might look, that's what inspires me."
Clearly, the location of the Torridon plays a part. "There would be something wrong with me if I wasn't inspired by our surroundings, so I always give a nod to what we can see when we look out of our windows. But, at the same time, we want to make the rooms contrast with what is outside."
Ultimately, though, it's all about comfort and practicality, she adds. "Our rooms have to have the wow factor but guests have to be able to relax. The room has to be functional and everything in it has to work for that particular space." That means Egyptian cotton sheets and duck down feather duvets as standard along with Cowshed toiletries and, of course, WiFi.
"When someone complains, you can guarantee it's about the WiFi – it's always about the WiFi," she laughs. "But that's important to people, they might need to work, they need to keep in touch. Then again, we are in the middle of nowhere, so it might be difficult to get a signal and it is an old building."
Dealing with an old building that requires constant maintenance is also a challenge – as is its geography. "No two rooms are the same; there are loads of nooks and crannies," Rose-Bristow points out. "It can be a challenge working out what to do with an awkward space in a room that doesn't have a conventional shape."
That's where skilled tradespeople come into the equation. For example, Dannie Rusling is a furniture maker who specialises in bespoke pieces and has been working with the Torridon for a few years now.
Rose-Bristow says: "I love working with people like Dannie who will throw their own ideas into the mix because the results can often far exceed your original expectations. It's also about sustainability and upcycling, repairing items rather than replacing them," she continues, referring to Emma Duff, a French polisher and furniture repairer who has a studio in Portmahomack, a village in Easter Ross.
"I've had two beautiful Victorian wardrobes – which were rattling – restored and they look amazing. Emma has also revitalised our stairs and antique floors. I think authenticity is important, particularly with an old building like this. It's perfectly possible to find that balance between old and new."
Rose-Bristow has also recovered sofas and chairs and uses the services of a local interior designer and upholsterer. "If they're in perfectly good condition then there's no need to replace them. I love combining different colours and textures – stripes and checks, florals and so on," she says. "I don't think anything is out of bounds. Ten years ago, we'd have maybe two or three colours in a room – now it's 20.
"It's fair to say that colour is definitely back and I think that while old buildings like this have a duty to retain and enhance their original features, who says you can't have colour and experiment? I always accept that there will be people who love aspects of what we've done here and people who don't, but if it gets people talking and gets that conversation going, then I'm happy."
Wallpaper can be divisive but it can add warmth and interest to a room when it's done well. In a nod to the hotel's heritage, Rose-Bristow has chosen Cole & Son's Byron wallpaper for the 1887 Master Suite, which is named after the year in which the house was built.
"This is a very grand room with its own staircase, so obviously it's going to be very special," says Rose-Bristow. The original house was called Ben Damph House and was built by William King-Noel, the first Earl of Lovelace, who married Ada Lovelace, the renowned scientist.
"I've picked up on that history in the 1887 suite and tapped into that era of peacocks and vibrant colours, with rich textures such as velvet," she says.
Each room has its own character. "We have many regular guests who always want to stay in the same room. The worry, though, is if they will still like the room after it's been refurbished. There is always feedback and we welcome that, but regulars do tend to consider that a room is ‘their' room and are disappointed if it's not available – but then we do have just the 18 rooms."
The Torridon has a mix of superior and deluxe rooms and suites as well as the Stables, which offers 12 rooms, and the Boat House, which is available for private hire.
Staff for success
Beyond design creating an elegant yet cosy environment requires knowledgeable staff. In torrid times for hospitality, which have seen people leave the industry because of the pandemic, Brexit or a career change, the Torridon's passion for training and nurturing its team has put it in good stead. Its five-star service programme and in-house leadership and management programme was put in place to help staff both professionally and personally. That foresight means that the core team is strong and settled.
"We encourage our people to develop with us, and if someone leaves the Torridon to move to a promoted post elsewhere, then that gives us much pride," says Rose-Bristow. Many staff live on-site and can enjoy a country lifestyle in the heart of the Highlands – definitely a bonus for those who enjoy outdoor activities. The chefs also enjoy the freedom that the estate provides, with head chef Paul Green and his team able to use fresh produce in season from its two-acre kitchen garden, and Highland beef, Tamworth pork and chicken from the on-site farm.
The Torridon's website describes it as "a place like no other" and for Rose-Bristow the hope is that the latest refurbishment cements that statement. She's already planning her upgrade of three more bedrooms and there will be a refurbishment of the drawing room and the Bo & Muc Brasserie too.
"It never stops. We never rest on our laurels," she says. "We do a couple of big projects every year and although we put a couple of projects off during the pandemic, our view is that it's important to invest for the future."
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