Great Places to Stay
Coul House, Near Strathpeffer
In the early years of the 19th century, the Mackenzies of Coul built a magnificent mansion house near the village of Contin, by Strathpeffer, in the Highlands of Ross-Shire. Today, Coul House serves as a wonderful get-away-from-it-all country house hotel. Bruce Stannard put his travel-weary feet up by the fire. This article first appeared in the Scots Heritage Magazine> and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.
One of the obvious joys in travelling in Scotland during the winter months of the so-called "off season" is that one does not have to contend with jostling hordes of other travellers. As I journeyed up to Ross-shire from Edinburgh in November the roads were almost empty and I had time to drink in the magic of that fantastic Highland landscape which was so familiar and yet seemed so new. The leaves were still golden on the birches and the air was crisp and clean and cool. I was on my way to what turned out to be a wonderful weekend of self-indulgence, relaxing in the seclusion of Coul. House, once the mansion house for the ancient Mackenzies of Coul.
I arrived just on dusk and had a little trouble finding the correct turn off at the village of Contin by Strathpeffer. A local reassured me I was on the right track after all and that if I continued up a private driveway for half a mile I'd come to the house. I pressed on, scattering pheasants in woods and fields until, at last, mellow lights confirmed I'd made it, just in time for the bar's opening.
Staying in Coul House
What a blessing it is to walk into the cosy warmth of a crackling firelit lounge room, sink into an over stuffed chintz chair and sip gently at my favourite Islay single malt - the pungent Laphroaig. I found myself feeling quietly pleased that because of the off-season slump in tourism, I seemed to be the only guest.
Coul House is clearly a great favourite with golfers and anglers trying for trout and salmon: in the hallway, rods are hung on special racks and the walls are decorated with fishing trophies and charming portraits of prize fish. There is plenty to see and do here. Guests are offered a five-course golf package that includes the famous Royal Dornoch and they can use the hotel's Highland passport to cruise nearby Loch Ness, visit Macbeth's Cawdor Castle and sail to the Summer Isles.
The handsome greystone Coul House has been given four crown status by the Scottish Tourist Board. Set amid spacious lawns and surrounded by glorious rhododendrons, the former Mackenzie mansion commands magnificent uninterrupted views over forest and mountain. For over 20 years it has been the home of Martyn and Anne Hill who offer high standards, friendly service and a warm Highland welcome. There are three elegant lounges, all with log fires and the bedrooms, individually designed, are well equipped.
Dining at Coul House
While I was sitting by the fire nursing my Laphroaig, Executive Chef Chris Bentley introduced himself and offered me the dinner menu. Coul House, one of Scotland's Hotels of Distinction, is also affiliated with the Taste of Scotland programme which insists on using the very best of locally grown produce; fish, beef, game, vegetables and fruit. Mr Bentley made his personal recommendations: Consomme of Wild Mushrooms and Crispy Leeks, followed by Smoked Haddock Rarebit and (should I have room) Ecclefechan Butter Tart. I had not the slightest idea what Ecclefechan Butter Tart was but I was so intrigued by the name that I decided to try it.
The consommé was hot and pungent and absolutely delicious. Chris Bentley came in to see if I had enjoyed it. I know you're particularly hungry," he said, " so I brought you a little something to nibble at while I work on the main course." He produced Wild Strathspey Mushroom Tartlets with Galic Cheese and Red Pepper Essence. They were superb; light, delicate and yet crisp and full of the most wonderful flavour. Surely the Smoked Haddock Rarebit would be an anti-climax. It wasn't. The haddock fillets were lightly poached in Scotch ale, then the ale was used to make the cheese sauce thus marrying all the flavours together in perfect harmony. Superb!
After a decent interval and a glass of Domaine Laroche Chablis, the Executive Chef again popped out of the kitchen to ask if I was up to the Ecclefechan Butter Tart. I was. And how very pleased indeed to be given a chance to try a uniquely Scottish dessert. So much so that I asked for the recipe.
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