Securing a five-star quality accreditation from VisitScotland is a tall order for any venue with accommodation, let alone gaining the award within seven months of opening. But then Anne MacDonald has always had a clear vision for the future of this Regency property in Blair Atholl.
“We first saw the manse in February 2016, in the grip of a Cairngorm winter. It had been unoccupied for some time, but even then the potential was obvious.”
Anne’s background is in broadcasting and corporate events, and she had many useful connections both here in Scotland, and internationally. “This venue is perfect for exclusive use; whether by corporate clients, for family celebration events or by visitors from overseas looking for an authentic luxury travel experience. Its central location lies between two fabulous five star visitor attractions, historic Blair Castle and the nearby House of Bruar – referred to as the Harrods of the Highlands, which also houses an outstanding collection of whiskies. It is the perfect place to try some of the region’s most popular outdoor activities; including walking, cycling, canyoning, kayaking, field sports or even teeing off at Pitlochry or Gleneagles, and guests can enjoy exclusive discounts on some activities when booked through The Old Manse.”
This reflects the close integration Anne has sought with other local businesses from the outset. “It was important for us to see economic benefit going to many of the local quality SME suppliers.”
The building’s refurbishment included a commission for a beautiful bespoke dining table, which can seat 16, made by Brodies Timber, a local joinery manufacturer, and cabinets were also made by Birkwood, another local cabinetmaker. “We work with a local company for our catering, and all the flowers are supplied by a local florist,” says Anne.
To achieve its five-star quality assurance grading in the first year is testament to the attention to detail that has gone into the business from day one, and is a clear signal that guests can “expect the highest level of service when staying with us”.
The Old Manse of Blair can accommodate up to 14 people in seven en-suite bedrooms. Generous public rooms and cosy private nooks offer a luxurious chance for an indulgent get-away-from-it-all experience, including a snug with a roaring fire when needed, which offers the perfect place to enjoy a glass of malt after a day outdoors. The addition of a large Orangery, with support from CAIRNGORMS LEADER, has been an essential step in the growth opportunity for the business. It is already bringing people to the area and adding economic benefit through the local supply chain.
But the Quality award doesn’t just reflect the physical surroundings. The 5* accreditation only comes to businesses that have demonstrated that they excel in hospitality and friendliness, as well as service and efficiency.
“This has been an exciting, yet at times challenging, journey,” says Anne, “but we always hoped our work would safeguard the future of this wonderful building, and help raise awareness of the site’s rich and unique history.”
That will be brought to life this summer, when the venue hosts its first wedding – a local one – in September. “The manse was used as a venue for weddings in the past, so we really look forward to linking the building’s past and present in this way. We’re really looking forward to seeing the response from locals, many of whom have never stepped foot in the building, which has a 200-year history. As a heritage building in the heart of the community, it’s important it’s accessible.”
Whether as a wedding guest or a private visitor, there is no shortage of traditional country pursuits nearby: like clay pigeon shooting, Munro-bagging, pony trekking, a 4×4 off-road experience, canyoning or quad biking. And of course Blair Atholl is an excellent base for winter sports within the Cairngorm National Park as well, making it a perfect year-round destination.
Already featured in Vogue, Anne is now working closely with TayScreen to explore other options as a location or a film/TV set, and The Old Manse could also be a perfect venue for product launches.
“Blair Atholl station is a stop for the Caledonian Sleeper, and visitors love the fact they can board the train in London at 9pm, and wake in the Highlands for breakfast and a full day of adventure.”
Opening initially in October 2017, the first winter season was primarily corporate bookings, but many guests stayed on to enjoy the area’s outstanding setting. “We received a beautiful photo book at Christmas from one Australian family, reflecting their holiday in Scotland, with a note to say that their stay in Blair Atholl was the highlight,” says Anne. “That was amazing.”
As the summer season now gears up, Anne has to prepare for a busy period of corporate events and bookings. One upcoming event is built around a seven course local tasting menu: “provenance is all important for our visitors,” she says. “This event will showcase our wonderful range of seasonal ingredients, but our guests always enjoy the finest local produce: and of course, as a bespoke venue, we can cater for any dietary requirements.”
Looking ahead, the redevelopment of the Orangery will add more space for events, from June. “We’re also considering converting our stable block into single occupancy bedrooms, which are very important for the corporate market, as everyone demands their own personal space at this level.”
“We set out to find somewhere to raise our own family in a rural location, where we could also establish a successful business,” says Anne. “Highland Perthshire has proved to be the answer to both requirements. We’re creating great memories here, by providing outstanding events for people to enjoy.
“To achieve our five-star grading in our first year is testament to the significant investment, time and attention to detail we’ve put into creating the business. The heartening feedback we have received from all our visitors, and our local community, make all the effort worthwhile.”