Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler arrived with his wife by motorbike, Stella McCartney has taken her husband Alasdhair Willis and children several times, Alvin Stardust landed his helicopter on the lawn and Madonna was turned away (Sorry, fully booked).
Ever since the Isle of Skye’s Three Chimneys was listed No 28 in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants by Restaurant magazine in 2002 (the only Scottish restaurant ever listed) and New York Times food critic Frank Bruni named it as one of his Personal Top Five Restaurants in the World to dine in, the glitterati have been metaphorically pounding on the 120-year-old rustic cottage door to get in.
So we counted ourselves lucky not only to have the chance to sample the food, but to be among the first to live it up in The Three Chimneys’ newly refurbished five-star luxury House Over-By retreat.
The Isle of Skye has inspired novels, songs and films; the rugged scenery and remoteness is said to be almost addictive. Driving towards The Three Chimneys on the winding single track road, the scenery is certainly dramatic. Moody dark skies with shafts of sunlight light up silver streaks on Loch Dunvegan against a backdrop of mountains and rugged black rocks.
Stepping inside The House Over-By is like entering a warm cocoon. It has six bedrooms, with a breakfast room, lounge with cosy sink-into sofas and luxurious but laid-back décor.
Neutral herringbone cashmere throws from Johnstons of Elgin are slung across sheepskin-covered chairs that command views of Loch Dunvegan and the mountains of Harris and North Uist. A tripod telescope stands at the lounge window for spotting otters playing on the shoreline just metres away.
Our family suite was spacious with king-size bed, lounge area and plenty of room for a travel cot and junior bed for our children aged five and two years old. The bathroom was of palatial proportions with Travertine floor tiles and a huge double-end bath big enough for two.
Edinburgh interior designer Joelle Reid, who has designed many of the capital’s popular watering holes such as Hamilton’s Bar and Indigo Yard, was the creative force behind the new look (and recent restaurant refurbishment). Capital artist Hatti Pattisson was enlisted to create bespoke textiles which were hand-finished in silver and blue foils and inspired by Skye’s rugged seascapes.
Local textiles were used, such as sheepskin rugs from Skye Skyns, a family-run tannery five miles away on the Waternish Peninsula which is worth a visit. The workshop is open to visitors who can watch the tanner making sheepskins using traditional tools such as paddles, racks and a buffing wheel. At nearby Shilasdair Dye House, Stella McCartney particularly liked the naturally dyed yarns coloured from local lichens and wildflowers.
A remarkable success story, The Three Chimneys is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Owner (and head chef until 2005) Shirley Spear, together with husband Eddie, bought the Three Chimneys, an old stone croft, in 1984 for £47,000. A self-taught cook without any hospitality experience, Shirley moved with Eddie and her two children, aged five and three, to the Isle of Skye from Croydon to follow their dream of opening a restaurant that would champion Scottish ingredients.
Through hard work, with Eddie front-of-house and Shirley in the kitchen, the couple won a swathe of awards and today the Three Chimneys is a world famous foodie destination. As part of Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink, Shirley was named chairwoman of the Scottish Food Commission in February and she is passionate about promoting Scotland’s outstanding natural larder.
The Three Chimneys was awarded its first Michelin star last year under chef Michael Smith and we couldn’t wait to sample the food. Many of the ingredients are sourced within a few miles from local crofts, with seafood pulled fresh from Loch Dunvegan in front of the restaurant. The food is innovative with off-the-cuff-cooking sometimes a necessity depending on what’s in season.
The West Coast Fruits de Mer with cool smooth oysters, near-perfect prawns and organic salad leaves grown over the hill in Glendale was a hard act to follow. The taste of the hand-dived Sconser king scallops and the monkfish wrapped in bacon was testament to its freshness; the kitchen can call local scallop diver David Oakes at sea and the turnaround from loch to plate is as little as an hour-and-a-half.
Next up was a “wee taste” of cream crowdie (a traditional crofter’s cheese, once unique to the Highlands and Islands) with blueberry and wildflower garnish, a tantalising mix of smooth and crunchy texture striking the right note of tangy sweetness.
My eyes still glaze over at the memory of the signature hot marmalade pudding with Drambuie custard. The couple next to us were served their pudding at the same time and silence descended as everyone took a moment to savour the heavenly dish. After tasting this divine pudding, it’s perfectly understandable why superstar Barbra Streisand was unable to resist having three helpings while dining here.
We ate at the Kitchen Table on our second night, treating ourselves to the eight-course showcase Taste of Skye Menu with matching wine flight, while enjoying watching the chefs at full tilt during a busy night’s service (in fact the kitchen atmosphere was remarkably calm and relaxed). Each course was devoted to an ingredient sourced from the island’s waterways and landscape, our favourite being the Loch Bracadale crab.
The next morning, we relaxed at breakfast watching seals basking on the rocks of Loch Dunvegan and simply feasted. We piled our plates with freshly made still-warm gluten free granola, peat-smoked salmon from Mallaig with fluffy scrambled eggs from a nearby croft. My husband still talks about the scones.
Art galleries and studios are dotted around the island but we were here for the scenery and wildlife. We drove around the north west, passing whitewashed crofts and ruined stone bothies. A must-stop is Claigan for a walk to Coral Beach, Skye’s famous crescent-shaped sandy bay where buzzards circled overhead and we saw oyster catchers and gannets. At the rocky beach near Dunvegan Castle, we experienced one of those rare, magical ‘at one with nature’ moments where the children scrambled along the shore calling to five seals who swam playfully alongside keeping us company as we walked. In the background colonies of grey seals were basking in the sun on the sea loch’s islands as fishing boats chugged by.
Dramatic scenery and wildlife spotting on Skye is a huge attraction, with each sighting luring us back for more – it’s almost as addictive as The Three Chimneys’ hot marmalade pudding. Just ask Barbra.
The Three Chimneys dinner menu is £65, an overnight stay at The House Over-By with breakfast is £345 in high season, contact 01470 511 258, www.threechimneys.co.uk; www.joelleinteriors.co.uk; www.hattipattisson.com