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If I've paid for the piper, then I'll call the tune

Published 28 March 2004
News Review
559th article

Michael Winner with Peter Crome, centre, and staff at Skibo Castle (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Skibo Castle is best known as the location for Madonna's marriage. It's actually called The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle and was recently taken over by three super-rich, anonymous Americans.

Non-members are allowed one visit before deciding whether to join. Nine hundred pounds a night for superb accommodation includes three glorious main meals plus tea, endless wines, golf, other sports and bagpipers.

Bagpipers are rampant at Skibo. One piped us in as we arrived. You're piped in to dinner. A bagpiper walks round the castle at 8 o'clock every morning in the belief that if you wake up to the sound of the pipes your day will be fulfilled. As I wandered off to the lavatory. l expected a bagpiper to wail me in.

Skibo is in the eastern Highlands in Sutherland, a wonderful, sparsely populated county. It's set among stunning countryside and incredibly maintained to an exemplary standard of old-money luxury. "I don't think I've ever been in anything so beautiful," observed Geraldine. That's an impertinence. She's been in my house.

Skibo is maintained regardless of profit, which is greatly to the credit of the owners. They're even spending £250,000 restoring an Edwardian swimming pool. The castle was completed in 1902 for American steel billionaire Andrew Carnegie, after whom New York's Carnegie Hall was named.

It's run by Peter Crome, ex of Chewton Glen. He's the greatest hotel manager in the world. By a long way. He has genuine, not unctuous, charm. He's the perfect host. He serves breakfast, and chips in everywhere. All hotel managers should spend a week with Peter to see how the job should be done.

Nevertheless, I was slightly disgruntled at my first dinner. Peter had said ties were obligatory. "What are all these people doing tie-less?" I asked. I'd put on my Downing College tie. It's glorious black with purple stripes. I faced open necks in all directions.

At least the pianist was attired in white tie and tails. Staff wear kilts and white socks with tassels. It's all very MGM circa 1952. "They're dining privately," explained Peter, referring to the tie-less. "You only need a tie for communal table."

David Richardson, the club secretary, approached. I'd been told dinner was promptly at 8. "It's 8!" I said. "Where's my dinner?" "We might wait 'til five past occasionally," said David.

At 8.05pm there was still no sign of movement. "A couple arrived late, the lady's getting ready," explained David. "You mean I have to wait until this woman's finished preparing herself?" I asked. "We're here to relax," observed David, noticing the angst in my voice. "There's nothing relaxing about wondering when this woman is going to come down and I'm going to be allowed to eat," I replied somewhat testily.

At 8.12pm the piper led us to the communal table. "Good," I thought. "Food at last."

Then David stood up and gave a dissertation on Andrew Carnegie. "This is unbelievable!" I thought. "I haven't eaten and he's milking a captive audience." Eventually I sampled roasted Kylesku langoustine with leek puree (sensational), free-range black-legged chicken (very good) and chocolate tart with marmalade ice cream (good).

The food in general was impeccable. Delicious local produce simply cooked by their young chef, Craig Rowland. But communal dining is not for me. Andrew Carnegie apparently chose a variety of people from all walks of life who might be interesting. He didn't rely on what rich tourist happened to be around that particular night. I was no help. I dialled out.

The man on my left was quite diverting. He used to write Not the Nine o'clock News and was now a successful author of books on How to Succeed. He also lectured on how to succeed. But he lived in Battersea! Successful people don't live in Battersea. Mayfair maybe, Belgravia, Kensington, Holland Park for sure, but Battersea - no way!

After that I dined in a lovely lounge with a log fire - just Geraldine and me. The first night Peter Crome asked. "Would you like to be piped to the table?" Since I was on a sofa five paces away I said, "That won't be necessary, thank you." Geraldine said, "I'd love to be piped to the table!" So in came the piper.

The next night Peter wound up a very old, wooden-cased gramophone with an old-fashioned needle and a 78rpm record and said, "Margaret Carnegie's piper will play you to the table tonight." Out came the splendid sound of her piper. Margaret was Andrew's daughter, in case you didn't know.

Our stay was fantastic. Memorably excellent. Skibo is unique. If you can get there, go. If you can't, phone Rent-a-Piper and have fun at home.

Winner's letters

What in heaven's name is going on? Looking at the photograph of the lovely, sophisticated, elegant Geraldine Lynton-Edwards last week, I couldn't believe she'd even be seen dead on the Riviera in the company of a scarecrow like Michael Winner. Now my poison pen is empty, may I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Winner about puffed-up French restaurant staff.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

Shock-horror! Articulate, educated, witty young adults are responding to your column. If you ever keel over from gluttony the readers can be sure of a worthy replacement in 14-year-old Hannah Davies (Winner's Letters, last week). And I bet she's prettier than you!
Nathalie Harrington, Surrey

It would be philanthropic of you to spread your acumen still further by inviting an unknown reader to lunch with you every so often. You could call the fortunate females "Winner's Dinner Ladies". I propose myself for first in line. My main qualifications are a good sense of humour and the ability to chew with my mouth closed.
Karen Caplan, London

Michael told us, last week, he enjoyed "red mullet, king prawns and duck foie gras" at the Moulin de la Camandoule. Since when has he been eating his meals backwards? Is this a new trend?
Mike Mogana, Solihull

I have a theory, tested over many years. Namely that in a less-than-full restaurant, the time lapse between requesting a bill and receiving it is directly proportional to the extent to which the diner's social status and/or physical attraction is perceived to act as a decoy to potential passing trade. I invariably receive mine before I can raise a hand. I'll bet Michael has to blow his fuse repeatedly.
Colin Drury, Glamorgan

We booked for 6.30pm at Edinburgh's the Witchery, arriving a few minutes early to find the restaurant locked. At 6.30pm it was still locked. We waited in the cold and wet. We were finally shown to the only table without a candle. My wife was told the bread pudding would take 20 minutes to cook. She declined, as she didn't want to hold up the others. I ordered cheese and our friend, creme brulee. These arrived after 30 minutes by which time we'd finished our coffee.
Ian Harvey, Edinburgh

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk