The Scottish Highlands meet Hauser & Wirth in the art-filled The Fife Arms hotel, a quirky pastiche of wry Victoriana, local legend and futuristic fiction.

This article appears in Volume 27: The Books Issue

Some libraries are grandiose temples, their leather-bound first editions and soaring shelves whispering classical tales in velvety tones. Others are more humble, the dog-eared pages and cracked spines of their contents testament to the many hands and minds they’ve touched. All, however, are a refuge for stories both real and imagined – houses for all the minutiae of human experience, waiting to be decoded, debated and passed on.

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And some libraries aren’t libraries at all. This is certainly the case at The Fife Arms, the much-lauded hotel project from art-world power couple Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Their gallerist’s touch is evident; although there are no exhibitions here, the rather unassuming exterior conceals a nexus of ideas, a bewildering portmanteau of eras and characters that tip you a sly wink as you journey from room to room, piecing together the fragments of wry Victoriana, Scottish legend and futuristic fiction. It is a living library, an act of imagination seeking to establish new limits for the Highlands community held dear to its instigators. As the poet Alec Finlay, one of several collaborators brought on board for the hotel’s launch, tells me, it is “mapping the past, in the present, as a way into the future”.

If all this sounds rather heavy-handed, it isn’t – there’s a healthy dose of humour imbuing every element that means its intellectualism is easily absorbed. Stepping across the threshold, I’m greeted by the tinkling of a Steinway piano playing itself, a gothic-meets-surrealist installation by the contemporary artist Mark Bradford. Ahead, a cascade of neon-glass antlers swirls around a pole composed of bagpipe drones in “Red Deer Chandelier”, commissioned from the LA-based artist Richard Jackson. One of the bedrooms is dedicated to “Sharp the Dog”, Queen Victoria’s beloved pet, with a creepy assemblage of china cats and dogs grinning from every surface; while in the library, a full-size waxwork of the monarch herself presides over the bookcases. It’s a knowing pastiche of the weirdness of the Victorian era from which the hotel takes its cue – buttoned up but outrageous, obsessed with Scotland and India, each trinket a clue waiting to be read.

Originally opened in 1856 in the wake of a tourism boom kick-started by Queen Victoria, The Fife Arms had slumped into a dismal overnight stay for passing coach parties before the Wirths, interior designer Russell Sage and a chorus of creative voices revamped it late last year. Much has been written about the hotel’s art collection of over 14,000 pieces. A Picasso reigns over the drawing room, a Lucian Freud portrait hangs in the lobby opposite an antique mantelpiece carved with scenes from the work of poet Robert Burns, and an original Louise Bourgeois spider crouches in the courtyard. There are also special commissions from Indian artist Subodh Gupta, whose chandelier of pots, pans and carnival-coloured bulbs glimmers over the dining table in The Fire Room; Chinese artist Zhang Enli, who conjured the kaleidoscopic mural on the drawing room ceiling, inspired by the cross sections of Cairngorm crystals and topographic maps; and Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca, whose prehistorically “cubistoid” strokes adorn the walls of The Clunie Dining Room, where I eat ember-cooked leek, smoked turbot and langoustine to the soundtrack of the Clunie Water gushing beneath the windows.

However, the longer I spend here, the more I come to suspect that such showstoppers are something of a red herring – a way of drawing your attention to the multiple stories that coexist rather than compete. Its 46 rooms are named after a plethora of cultural icons and subjects ranging from the gloriously OTT Royal Suites, dedicated to figures such as the Duke of Fife and Queen Victoria, down to the unpretentious Croft Rooms, inspired by traditional croft houses and with monikers like The Hill and The Mountaineer. The million-dollar art pieces mingle with portraits of locals by graduate painter Gideon Summerfield, and the house tartan was designed by Deeside native Araminta Campbell.

It’s an egalitarian kind of storytelling that manifests in the hotel’s relationship with the community. The village of Braemar is best known for the Braemar Gathering, the only outpost of the Highland Games that the Queen faithfully attends each year – however, during my stay, which coincides with the Braemar Mountain Festival, I’m introduced to a host of characters and tales as quirky and idiosyncratic as the glorious fictions being enacted within the hotel’s walls. On a village walk I’m shown the cottage where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote some of Treasure Island (and where his ghost allegedly pops up from time to time), the Wes Anderson-esque Great North of Scotland Railway station (which isn’t actually connected to a railway), and the candy-striped sweetshop once run by Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian couturier who was a regular visitor to Braemar and also has an art-deco cocktail bar named after her in the hotel. We pass a house where I’m told the owner used to keep a pet monkey, which has since passed into local legend – the knitting club made it the theme of its annual competition last year, covering the village with woollen primates.

St Margaret’s Church is in the process of being converted into an arts and performance space – reportedly partly funded by donations from the Wirths – and that evening I swing around the village hall during a ceilidh alongside greying elders, teenagers in boohoo.com bodycon and a seven-year-old in a matching tartan cap and kilt. The next morning, I return for a lecture by Finlay about his project “gathering”, a mapping of place names in the Cairngorms commissioned by The Fife Arms and inspired by the work of natural scientist Adam Watson and author Nan Shepherd. In her love letter to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, Shepherd wrote, “To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.” Finlay’s book takes the same approach, highlighting folk legends and natural phenomena to explain that the Cairngorms are “a landscape of conflicting ideas – it’s not just historical, it’s being debated and imagined”.

I drive up into the indigo hills with local writer and guide Ian Murray in search of the landscape Finlay describes. We pass shaggy, ginger-snap Highland cows as we ascend into the sleety skies and snow-capped mountains, spotting grouse and the odd deer among the russet-coloured heather. As we break through to the other side of the mountain, a brilliant-blue sky cracks open the gloom and we stop on the banks of a navy loch, a postcard- perfect rainbow stretching from one side to the other. The cold clarity of it is almost painful and I think of Shepherd’s description of walking through the hills: “one walks the flesh transparent… flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”

Before I leave, I bump into Finlay in The Flying Stag, the bustling village pub attached to The Fife Arms, which on a Sunday afternoon is packed with hikers, locals and well-heeled hotel residents. I tell him I’ve been out in the Cairngorms and he replies, “I can tell – you’ve got light in your eyes.” And this is how I feel as I depart this curious, ambitious gem of a hotel – with eyes full of light, lungs full of air and a head full of stories.

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