The End of an Era

viewpointCameron McNeish laments the loss of our traditional mountaineering hostelries.

I was initially surprised by the amount of criticism directed at the development plans for the historic Kings House hotel on the edge of the Rannoch Moor.

Mountaineering Scotland, the John Muir Trust and the National Trust for Scotland have objected to the latest revisions made to the original proposals while social media has seen a fair amount of comment ranging from “why interfere with an historic droving inn” to “refurb this Scottish treasure and bring it back to its former glory, albeit the wonky fireplace and walls.”

I’m not altogether sure what “former glory” this person is referring to. Does she mean the days of the drovers when the Kings House was a turf-roofed blackhouse with grazing outside for the cattle or does she refer to a later era when only gentlemen climbers could afford to stay there? Or was it more recently when the walls ran with condensation, the sheets in the bed were damp and the food was next to inedible?

That last sentence pretty well sums up my own personal experience of staying in the Kings House Hotel a number of years ago. Like many others I’ve camped outside and used the wee bar at the end of the building and while that could have been described as ‘quaint’ or ‘atmospheric’ in reality it was no more than a rough howff.

The oldest part of the Kings House

The thing that drew so many of us back time and time again to the Kings House, despite its problems, was its heritage. This was a genuine mountaineering hostelry. Climbing history was inherent in its very rafters. When you stayed there, or drank a couple of beers in its wee bar you felt part of that history, part of its ongoing association with mountaineering and climbers. Surely a bit of sensitive modernisation wouldn’t go amiss? Or would it?

The Kings House Hotel has suffered the same fate as dozens of other hotels throughout the Highlands and Islands. Years of underinvestment and lack of care have resulted in buildings and infrastructure that are well past their sell-by date. In most cases the only option left is to pull them down and start again, if the funds can be found.

Because of its wonderful position the Kings House Hotel has massive potential and the Black Corries Estate, who bought the place from Rod and Kerry Leitch, is to be congratulated for not allowing this iconic hostelry to literally crumble into the peat and bogs of the Rannoch Moor.

The Kings House Hotel dates back centuries and, situated right on the West Highland Way and opposite the Glen Coe ski grounds, has always been an iconic stopping point for drovers, travellers, walkers, hikers and skiers alike.

The initial designs for the refurbished hotel by the highly respected Benjamin Tindall Architects from Edinburgh, who have gained a reputation for many sensitive developments, won planning approval from Highland Council. The plans were popular amongst the outdoor public too, but were eventually abandoned as the owners considered them too expensive.

At the time Ben Tindall said: “My designs are aimed at making the Kings House one of the finest hotels in Scotland, appropriate to its superb location on the West Highland Way and a heritage that includes famous guests such as Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth as well as climbing giants such as Dougal Haston and Doug Scott.”

And then Bidwells, the Black Corries Estate’s agents, decided to engage Crieff Hydro as the hotel operators, a company more familiar with luxury family-oriented hotels than traditional inns that appeal to outdoor folk.

Realising this, and the adverse effect this kind of management might well have on the heritage of the hotel, Ben Tindall pulled out.

New design plans by an Aberdeen-based firm of architects are currently with Highland Council for planning approval but they have been the subject of some beefy criticism from conservation organisations, mountaineers and walkers.

Mountaineering Scotland has described the proposed design as “industrial”. The National Trust for Scotland said the national scenic area description for Glen Coe calls it one of the most spectacular scenic experiences in Scotland and any development would need careful handling, adding that the extension would dwarf the historically significant existing building.

The John Muir Trust said the new building was incongruous and would “stick out like a sore thumb.”

Responding to these criticisms the developers have amended their plans again, and have promised a “lower roof line.”

Kings House planning proposal

However, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and we all have differing opinions on what makes a buildings look attractive or not. I admit I’m more concerned with the potential clientele of the proposed hotel and how that may well affect the treasured heritage of what has been, at least for the last century, Scotland’s best known traditional climbers’ inn.

The Kings House, which is thought to be one of Scotland’s oldest licensed inns, was built in the 17th century. It was originally used for travellers crossing Rannoch Moor and often by troops using the military road, which was built by the British army in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rising.

By the late 18th century, the building had reverted to its original use as a coaching inn and was visited by, amongst others, Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet William Wordsworth, in 1803. Apparently she wasn’t too impressed by the accommodation, or the food.

By the time the late 19th century came along the Kings House had become a popular haunt of Scotland’s pioneering mountaineers and it maintained that reputation until the mid-eighties when it came under the ownership of Dave Bathgate and Ian Nicholson, two prominent Scottish climbers.

The hotel has suffered its ups and downs since Bathgate and Nicholson gave it up, but it has always been known as a climbers’ inn, also attracting clientele from skiers, walkers on the West Highland Way, and fishermen. It’s also been common for people to camp unofficially just across the river, but within easy stumbling distance of the bar.

Whenever I’ve passed the Kings House, or when I’ve looked down on it from the Buachaille or from Beinn a’ Chrulaiste I’ve always associated it with names like Naismith and Raeburn, AE Robertson and Sir Hugh Munro, WH Murray and Jimmy Bell and those I’ve had the pleasure of having a pint or two with over the years, great climbers like Jimmy Marshall, Dougal Haston, Hamish MacInnes, Doug Scott, Rab Anderson and Cubby Cuthbertson.

The old place always felt like you could walk into the building and inhale its history, immerse yourself in its heritage and feel part of its undeniable outdoor culture.

My fears are that under the management of Crieff Hydro the Kings House will become yet another family-oriented hotel with clients that have very little regard for such history and heritage.

The new plans submitted to Highland Council for approval include a large car park, which many fear may be used for large coaches, and they will be more visible from the hill than the hotel itself.

In recent years a number of traditional ‘outdoor’ hostelries have closed or have been ‘modernised’ including the Crook Inn, where the Scottish Mountaineering Club had their very first meet; the Fife Arms in Braemar, which became a tour-bus hotel [currently being refurbished], and Tibbie Shiels in the Scottish Borders, which appears to have closed down. Only the Clachaig Inn, the Sligachan Hotel and the Glen Clova Hotel remain as genuine mountaineering hostelries.

The Fife Arms – when owned by Wallace Arnold group

The very concept of a large family 60-bedroom hotel situated at over 800 feet on the edge of the Rannoch Moor seems a curious one, but perhaps, just perhaps, I am wrong and the new hotel management will recognise the importance of the Kings House Hotel’s heritage of Scottish mountaineering and mountaineers, and will take the hotel into a new era of mountaineering history.

Perhaps, but I’m not holding my breath.

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