In our series of reviews of country house hotels in Scotland and further afield we turn to a long-established house in a magnificent setting within the Galloway Forest and close to the beautiful and remote Solway Firth in southwest Scotland.
Kirroughtree is a mid-priced country house hotel and part of a small chain of properties owned by the MacMillan family, mostly in the Scottish borders. Historically it has always been the gourmet getaway in their portfolio, It is a hotel I have visited regularly for around 15 years now, to enjoy a weekend of complete peace and tranquillity, and of course, good food and wine. Some cut price, off-season rates attracted me back recently, and whilst my weekend still had some wonderful aspects to it, on this visit – perhaps my 10th over the past decade and a half – just one too many niggles mean this review is not the one I would have hoped to write.
Built in 1719 by a wealthy cattle trader as his country mansion, Kirroughtree was much expanded in the Victorian era when it became a sporting estate. One of its real claims to fame is that poet Robert Burns was a friend of the family and regular visitor, known to sit at the grand staircase and recite his poems to his fellow guests. The grounds are extensive with some pleasant walks, the only leisure facilities being a tennis court and small putting green.
The town of Newton Stewart is within easy walking distance, but within very easy reach by road are some of Scotland’s prettiest towns, gardens, historical monuments and beautiful stretches of wild coastline. The hotel makes a great base to explore this unspoiled corner of rural Scotland. The book town of Wigton and the artists’ colony of Kirkcudbright are both within easy striking distance, as is the remarkable Logan Botanic Gardens where the warming effect of the Gulf Stream means even southern hemisphere exotic plants flourish.
One of the great things about Kirroughtree is the constant figure of manager Jim Stirling. At the helm since I first visited, he is charming, helpful and endlessly courteous. The hotel rooms are extremely comfortable, elegant and absolutely enormous: it is easy to play out the full Downton Abbey fantasy here with the ornate high-ceilings, massive bay windows overlooking the estate, huge beds (some with four-posters) and traditional furniture. The rooms are grand, but in truth they do now need to be updated as bathrooms, fixtures and decor are showing both their age and a little wear and tear that is disappointing.
It could be considered very good, or very bad, depending on your viewpoint, but Kirroughtree is very grown up. There is nothing to attract or amuse children, and indeed guests are invariably middle-aged and older. The evenings are not so much quiet, as downright sedate, with the public rooms emptied well before 10pm. Though on the younger side of the average profile, this does not bother us one jot as we love the relaxation and chance to completely unwind in the lounge (above) with the day’s papers and a drink after dinner, or indeed retire early to enjoy a wonderful night’s sleep in the rural silence.
Obviously, dinner in a hotel such as this is the highlight (indeed the onlylight) of the evening. That means it has to be very good and very satisfying, and though Kirroughtree has always delivered in the past, this time it let us down.
The evening starts, as it always has, with pre-dinner drinks and canapés served in the lounge. Most guests dress smartly for dinner giving a certain sense of occasion and it is a pleasure to sit there and peruse the menu at leisure. But my problem with this visit started once seated in the quite formal but comfortable dining room (below).
The food was good, though not up to the standard of previous visits. But the big problem was that the kitchen and waiting staff seem to have one mission in life: to serve the meal as rapidly as possible. We sat down latest of all around 8:30pm (with some older guests having already been and gone), but our four course meal was, almost unbelievably, done and dusted by 9:30pm.
On our second evening we specifically requested that the pace be slowed down, speaking to our waiter before the meal and after the first course. This request was completely ignored: the waiter carried empty plates through the kitchen doors, only to reappear in a heartbeat with the ensuing course. Given this is a remote country house with nothing to do of an evening but enjoy a relaxing dinner, I just cannot fathom that the kitchen does not allow its guests to relax through a comfortably-paced dinner. The speed of service would almost have been comical, had it not been so deeply irritating.
And the food? The highlights included a salad of wood pigeon breast with pine kernels, croutons and crispy bacon one evening, that was succulent and delicious splashed with a Madeira vinaigrette. A main course of fillet of Highland beef with horseradish mash, wild mushrooms, buttered spinach and a peppercorn sauce on another evening was excellent, the portion quite small, but adequate. The wine list doesn’t have quite so many well-priced mature bottles as it once had, but there is still plenty of interest and strength in the European classics.
After dessert one can of course retire to the lounge with coffee and petit-fours and sit for as long as one wishes, but how much nicer this experience would be if dinner was a more leisurely affair served with a little more charm and less obvious hurry.
Though rack rate for dinner, bed and breakfast for two starts at £294 per night, there are always promotional deals to be had that can greatly reduce this. However, despite the timelessness, tranquillity and gorgeous farmland surroundings, the mildly disappointing food coupled with that crazy speed of service took the shine off of our enjoyment on this visit. Having been loyal to Kirroughtree for so long we will no doubt give it another chance, but it’s a pity that doing so will feel like a bit of a gamble.
Dumfries and Galloway,
Tel: 01671 402 141