The stately home at the core of Scotland's Isle of Eriska was a welcoming sight, standing at the end of a narrow road flanked by beautiful flowers and a variety of well-kept trees. The stress of flying across the Atlantic and driving across Scotland began melting away even before we had parked the car.
Guests of this exclusive hotel have full access to the natural beauty of western Scotland - walking paths along the shoreline and through the forest, wildlife habitats, and a golf course by the water - as well as a spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Everything is designed to provide a serene environment and an abundance of "Scottish hospitality."
Beppo Buchanan-Smith, who runs the island that has been in his family for 42 years, was the first we had heard use that phrase. As it turned out, Scottish hospitality became a running theme throughout the two weeks we were in Scotland.
After two glorious nights of relaxation and good eating on Eriska, we left refreshed and ready for a weeklong luxury barge trip down the Caledonian Canal aboard European Waterways' Scottish Highlander. From Inverness to Port William, through canal locks connecting Scottish lochs, we were pampered with excellent food, traditional Scottish music, and tours of many national landmarks - from whisky distilleries where scotch is made, to "Macbeth's Castle," the Castle of Cawdor.
No visit to Scotland is complete without a tour of various battlegrounds where the Scots and English fought, and a history lesson about why the conflict still reverberates through the United Kingdom in today's politics. Turns out, even that proved to be an example of how important hospitality is to the Scottish way of life.
Standing above the lush green valley of Glencoe last July, a guide explained that, in February 1692, it was the site of a most heinous crime. A company of English and Scottish soldiers loyal to the King of England and under the command of Captain Robert Campbell (a Scot) had come to visit the MacDonald clan during a harsh winter, ostensibly to collect taxes.
The Scottish tradition of hospitality was extended to the soldiers, who stayed with the MacDonalds for two weeks, eating their food, playing cards with their hosts, and flirting with the young ladies. Then, orders came straight from the King for the soldiers to kill everyone "under 70," and the soldiers conducted a slaughter the following morning.
In the telling of the story, the murderous act almost seems secondary to the violation of the implicit pact between guest and host. In fact, the Campbells and the MacDonalds have never forgiven each other, and there is still bad blood between them today. The Scots, we realized, take hospitality very seriously.
After the barge trip, we headed by train to Edinburgh for our last stop in Scotland. The trip was delayed an hour, while an extra car was added to the train to carry all the luggage people brought. The staff apologized profusely and provided free food and drink for everyone on board. They also announced that passengers should hold onto their tickets to apply for some kind of rebate.
In Edinburgh, we stayed at the Nira Caledonia, a luxury hotel in the Stockbridge neighborhood of the city. The hotel is an amalgam of several old, three-story residences, including one that was the home of Christopher North, a 19th Century writer. The staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful, even to the extent of doing our laundry on a Sunday, when the nearby services were closed.
There's a fine restaurant on the premises, and we ordered room service one night. We wondered how it would work, because our room was on the second floor, several buildings away from the restaurant. The food arrived promptly, carried in multiple trips up the steps by two strong staffers. There are no elevators.
We asked how that would work when disabled guests came to use the hotel. The manager, Sean Gourley, shrugged (as if the answer was obvious) and told us, "We carry the guest and the wheelchair up and down the stairs." At that point, we began to wonder whether Scottish hospitality had no limits.
Several weeks after we returned home, a letter showed up from Scot Rail, apologizing again for the delay in our train trip and notifying us that a full refund was in the mail. About 10 days later, a check for £83.90 arrived - one more reminder of how much we enjoyed Scottish hospitality and how much we are looking forward to a return trip (even if they did spell my name wrong).