• Coul House.

    Deliciously historic.

A rich history…

Each year we learn a little more of the history of Coul House and the Mackenzie’s of Coul from various sources, including descendants of the Mackenzie family that have had dwellings here on the Coul Estate since 1560, local historians, references books, websites and from a multitude of other kind people that have shared their stories and connections to the house and estate.

As with any historic ‘facts’ some of what I will tell you will be hearsay, true or slightly embellished. Either way it will help you get a feel for its rich past. It has certainly enhanced our feeling of being the custodians of something special.

The Mackenzie Baronetcy

The Mackenzie Baronetcy, of Coul in the County of Ross, was created in the Baronetage of Nova Scotia on 16 October 1673 for Kenneth Mackenzie. His father Alexander Mackenzie of Coul was the illegitimate son of Colin Cam Mackenzie, 11th of Kintail, and half-brother of Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, ancestor of the Earls of Seaforth, and of Sir Roderick Mackenzie, ancestor of the Earls of Cromarty. The third Baronet was involved in the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Being on the losing side he was attainted with the baronetcy forfeited. The baronetcy was assumed by descendants of the brother of the third Baronet.

  • Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Baronet (c. 1620-c. 1680)
  • Sir Alexander Mackenzie, 2nd Baronet (died 1702)
  • Sir John Mackenzie, 3rd Baronet (c. 1673-c. 1715)
  • Sir Colin Mackenzie, 4th Baronet (1674–1740)
  • Sir Alexander Mackenzie, 5th Baronet (died 1792)
  • Sir Alexander Mackenzie, 6th Baronet (died 1796)
  • Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, 7th Baronet (1780–1848)
  • Sir Alexander Mackenzie, 8th Baronet (1805–1856)
  • Sir William Mackenzie, 9th Baronet (1806–1868)
  • Sir Robert Ramsay Mackenzie, 10th Baronet (1811–1873)
  • Sir Arthur George Ramsay Mackenzie, 11th Baronet (1865–1935)
  • Sir Robert Evelyn Mackenzie, 12th Baronet (1906–1990)
  • Peter Douglas Mackenzie, presumed 13th Baronet (born 1949–)

The presumed thirteenth and present Baronet has not successfully proven his succession and is therefore not on the Official Roll of the Baronetage. Perhaps I can apply to succeed and claim the title!

  • Stuart Macpherson, pretending 14th Baronet (born 1967–)

A Gothic and Classical masterpiece

The house as it currently stands was built in 1821 for Sir George Steuart (unusual spelling of Stuart) Mackenzie, 7th Baronet (1780–1848). It was designed by Edinburgh brothers Richard and Robert Dickson (usually simply referred to as R & R Dickson), acting as architects in Scotland in the early and mid-19th century. Whilst most of their work is typified by remote country houses they are best known for their magnificent spire on the Tron Kirk in the heart of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile.

The brothers designed in a variety of styles from Gothic to Classical. There buildings are both sound and attractive and most are now listed buildings including Coul House which is a category A listed building, primarily due to its ornate plasterwork on the ground floor ceilings and the horizontal plane windows; many of which were changed in the Victorian times but some can still be seen in the lounge bar and most of the ground floor windows at the entrance side of the building.

There is a terrific book written by Stuart J. MacCulloch called “A Scion of Heroes”. The book is about the extraordinary life of Captain James Murry RN during the Regency era, in the book there are a few chapters about Sir George Steuart Mackenzie and his family. I have taken text from the book to whet your appetite:

Sir George Steuart Mackenzie`s chief claim to fame was his interest in science, especially geology. He first became known to the scientific world in 1800, when he proved that the constituent of diamond was carbon, demonstrated by a series of experiments in which he is said to have made free us of his mother`s jewels.

George`s inquisitiveness later paid off when he became a fellow of the Royal Societies of both London and Edinburgh. In 1810 George undertook a journey to Iceland, and later to the Faroe Islands, to study their geology. On his return he presented an account of his observations before the Edinburgh Royal Society.

A book entitled “Travels in Iceland” was published and George contributed sections concerning the voyage and the travels, the mineralogy, rural economy and the commerce of the islands. This was the first of a large number of learned publications to come from the pen of George Mackenzie of Coul. In addition to science he turned his pen to the subject of agriculture, but with this topic he entered rather more contentious grounds.

Sir George Mackenzie of Coul was a particularly outspoken supporter and in 1813 he wrote a book justifying the clearances with the clear message:

The necessity for reducing the population in order to introduce valuable improvements, and the advantage of committing the cultivation of the soil to the hands of a few……

George was also a firm supporter of sheep farming:

We have heard but a few feeble voices exclaim against the necessity of removing the former possessors to make way for shepherds

A colourful past

In 1831 Sir George`s fourth son Robert Ramsay at the tender age of 19 caused quite the scandal when he was exposed for having an affair with Captain James Murrays’ 29 year old wife. He had to flee the country quickly; taking the first ship he could to Sydney Australia to join his brother James. Somewhat later Robert became the Premier of Queensland, Australia.

Sir Robert Evelyn Mackenzie, 12th Baronet of Coul, was the one who, due to hard times, had to sell off the land and ultimately the house, which sold in 1949 for three thousand pounds. The house was initially split in to two halves with interior partitions and separate landlords renting out the converted bedrooms as flats. It stayed that way till the 1960s when each half was converted again and opened as two guest houses, before coming together as one in 1968. In 1978 the house sold again and opened up as a licensed hotel.

The Story Continues…Read our Annual Progress reports.

Susannah and I purchased the hotel in 2003 and the Coul story continues with our annual updates that you will find towards the back of this book…

Well, we have survived the first year, which “they” say is, the toughest and we certainly hope “they” are right. We have now been here for eighteen months and the to-do list seems to be getting longer, not shorter.

We started by attacking the rhododendrons, and, believe it or not, we have cleared well over an acre significantly reducing their numbers particularly around the pitch and putt. We had to bring in some heavy equipment to dig up the roots and replace them with 700 tons of topsoil. Next the drainage needs to be sorted out, and then in the spring we can plant the grass seed.

Our bedroom and ground floor refurbishment plans were delayed by the significant investment needed in the kitchen with new ovens, stovetops, dishwashers, mixers and slicer all needing to be replaced. We have however now finished our first en suite bathroom upgrade and painted 60 exterior window frames, repaired some guttering, painted and laid new carpets in several bedrooms. Our maintenance man Charlie Cleland is a true handy man – who has worked here for over 26 years. Without Charlie progress would be a lot slower. We also had to rewire and upgrade some of the electrical supply and replace many fuse boxes. We have had the driveway re-graded twice, the road sign replaced twice and now, after several months of wild goose chasing, we have the sign illuminated …….so the upgrades and refurbishment continues.

We have been working with local architects, who had to create blueprints for the house so that we could submit a listed building consent to Historic Scotland for refurbishment. Our plans include the refitting of the old public bar, the relocation and upgrade of the gent’s toilets and the reinstatement of the main central double doors into the octagonal room. This will involve removing the existing reception area and creating a new opening in the wall opposite the log fire in the main hall.

The girls have started play group, nursery and ballet so we have added taxi service to our list of daily duties.

The business has already shown early signs of success with many of our guests returning several times throughout the year. The restaurant is gaining a great reputation locally with more and more locals coming in to dine. This success is, of course, down to our friendly staff without who we would be lost.

Only thirteen and a half years to go and the mortgage will be paid off…………….

Well, we have now been here for two and a half years and in many ways it feels like a lifetime. I can barely remember the sweltering heat, the leisurely golf games with chef Garry, the lazy days off lying by the pool with the blissful reassurance that I was not funding the luxury hotel development in the farming belt of rural Georgia.

The passing of time of course has many benefits I can now confidently stride to my car knowing which side the steering wheel is on. I had become adept at making myself look busy in the passenger seat before getting back out of the car to find the correct side. I have also renewed my passion for the Highlands of Scotland. I seem to see the landscape, breath the clean air and relish the weather with an unprecedented appreciation that I can only explain has come from the long absence from such beautiful surroundings.

The bane of my life this year has been the three “r’s”, roads, rhododendrons, and roofs.

After waiting for various expert opinions and quotes to fix the drainage problem left in the aftermath of the rhododendron clearance, none of which came to fruition, we met Mr. Archer an estate gardener from down South who was staying for a couple of nights at the hotel. Mr. Archer suggested we work with the wet soil to create a bog garden and cut trails through the remaining rhododendrons. So we finally planted the grass seed in October and started cutting trails, which are already providing great excitement for my two wee girls.

The half-mile driveway continues to challenge us. This year we invested a handsome amount of money in improving the road surface, which is already showing signs of deteriorating, and has managed to force the last brown hair on my head to turn grey.

During the occasional summer shower it became apparent that our roof was letting in water in several places and so once again we found ourselves calling in the experts. It is now evident that renewing some parts of the roof over the next several years would be prudent, and my receding hairline races to meet the nape of my neck.

Our refurbishment plans are slowly but surely taking shape and we now have a ground floor design plan and are waiting for the go ahead from historic Scotland, which we expect to have by early January 2006.

We managed to purchased new crockery and silverware for the restaurant and retire the old oval grey-rimmed plates to the attic for a rainy day.

My wee girls continue to be a source of joy any anguish, Aurora has now started School and is thoroughly enjoying it. Liah is in nursery and enjoys it most days.

The business continues to grow although more slowly than I would like.

Well I feel like I need to rename the report this year, as progress will not be what I think of when I look back at 2006. We did finally get our building warrant from town planning and approval from Historic Scotland for the first phase of the refurbishment at the end of March. However at the same time we received a set back we had not anticipated, Susannah was diagnosed with breast cancer and our focus changed completely for the next eight months.

Fortunately in the face of adversity good things often happen and this year was no exception. One of those good things was the opportunity in June to hire the assistance of an enthusiastic part-time gardener Anna Ross. She and Charlie have worked tirelessly to create a bog garden, finish cutting the trails through the remaining rhododendrons and create the foundation of our garden for the years ahead. Another good thing this year (proving all good things come to those who wait) was Chris MacLeod our General Manager. Susannah and I were delighted when Chris joined us in July from Tulloch Castle in Dingwall where he had been working. Chris is extremely service oriented and shares our desire to build the business into one of the finest country house hotels in the Highlands. Chris has given me the opportunity to take some time off on a regular basis and has been instrumental in the rehabilitation of my sanity.

This summer we decided to take matters into our own hands regarding the maintenance of the driveway armed with a hired vibrating roller and ten tonnes of road chips Charlie, Anna and myself embarked on a new potential career. However, like the cowboys before us our work was undone within months. So we continue to patch taking solace in the fact that we are saving thousands of pounds by doing it ourselves.

We are proud to announce that we received one AA rosette award for our food and delighted to say our kitchen brigade remains intact with Garry at the helm aiming to achieve two rosettes next year. With the support of our valued guests’ votes we also won two other awards Rising Star and Hospitality Hotel this year at the Hotel of the Year Awards held in Glasgow. Credit is certainly due to all the staff for their commitment and hard work.

I am delighted to say that Susannah is pretty much back to her old self now and planning to crack on with the refurbishment early in the New Year. Aurora and Liah continue to thrive and seem to have spent much of the year in anticipation of Christmas not only because we decided to close for a few days to enjoy a family Christmas but also the eagerly awaited arrival of their first pet delivered by Santa. We now have two more mouths to feed namely Daisy and Bubble the gerbils, much excitement particularly for Liah…it remains to see for how long!!!

I have come to realise like a classic car this building and therefore the business within it is truly a labour of love requiring not only continuous maintenance but also the patience of a saint. Thank you all once again for your support and enthusiasm for what we do.

Well it is fair to say a lot has been accomplished this year. We finally started the long awaited refurbishment of the ground floor with many of the improvements now clearly visible and I must say we are all feeling quite optimistic about this coming year. Susannah is keeping well, the kids continue to thrive and the business continues to grow. This year I managed to join Fortrose Golf Club and even had some family holidays, a week away to Perthshire in April and a week in the south of France in October followed by five days on Arran where I played a little more golf than I should have. I practically had to be dragged off the golf course to get back to work. Thank goodness I have Chris here, to leave the place in such good hands takes strokes off my game without a doubt.

Refocusing our energy in the early part of the year on the refurbishment it was time to find a builder that would help us. I am sure it comes as no surprise to many of you that this proved almost impossible. We were struggling to find a stonemason that would convert the old stone cellar into an office and break through the three-foot thick stonewall into the front hall making the opening for the new reception area. Then in passing Rory (our then second chef) announced he used to do a little stonemason work and with Charlie’s help would love to have a go at it. So we had a meeting with our conservation architect Hector MacDonald and with his guidance Rory traded his apron for a crow bar! Charlie and Rory removed several tonnes of stone one wheel barrow at a time, broke through the stone wall, reinstated the false window, laid a new floor, created a new ceiling and hooked the room up to the central heating. We now have a lovely new reception plus a great new office with desks for Chris, Yuliya and myself (oh the luxury of space) although the kids think it’s their games arcade, with two computers being side by side they enjoy finding their way on to CBBC games and can spend hours (if we let them) playing selections of noisy games in stereo. So if you have called to make a reservation and heard kids games in the background it is not Chris and myself playing those games it’s the kids…..honest.

Anna continues to nurture the garden on the limited budget I allow her and to her credit each year it is getting more and more established. We have had several lovely weddings this year and the grounds were a beautiful backdrop for all the pictures.

It’s been very encouraging for us this year once again to see more and more of our guests and their friends returning throughout the year and to have been featured in many independent travel guides including the “Good Hotel Guide”, “The Lonely Planet” and “Scotland the Best.” We have also had many great reviews on the web site “www.tripadvisor.com” so thank you to those who wrote to any of these guides and to all of you for your support. Credit is due to Chris, Garry and all the staff for their good nature, hard work and enthusiasm without which not only would I be insane by now but the guest experience would not be what I so often hear it is……………… “Deliciously relaxing”.

So here is to another successful year.

Five years done, fifteen or more to go. Maybe by then I will be satisfied with all we have achieved but, perhaps, one is never truly satisfied? Maybe this is what keeps us motivated? However, looking back, much has been accomplished, just not as much as we’d dreamt of when we first crossed the threshold. When we looked to the future our dreams then were untainted by the shackles of cash flow and the unforeseen challenges that lay ahead.

As it wasn’t possible for us to view the hotel prior to purchasing, we were unable to ascertain the amount of investment that was needed to both maintain the old house or the amount of upgrading that was necessary. Buying it sight unseen may seem foolish (or, if you are being kind, courageous!), but we have no regrets. There are some advantages to buying blind: it meant that our decision was based purely on the ability of the business to pay the debt and not tainted by the physical condition of the house and the late 70’s décor, like the shag pile carpet, dusty old dried flowers and painted plate collection that covered many of the walls on the ground floor.

With the help of a local interior designer Graham Grant we have now taken the ground floor back to a more Georgian feel. Graham worked with Brinton’s Carpets to design the unique carpet that now dominates the lower floor and stairwell. This set the tone for the Farrow and Ball vintage paint colours and the subsequent fabrics that we’ve re-upholstered all the furniture with.

Continuing on from last year’s good work, this year we managed to refurbish the bar and Regency lounge with new carpet, curtains and paint. We reinstated the original fireplace into the Regency lounge and Dougal Black, our local carpenter, made some authentic bookcases that, we feel, finish off the room beautifully. We also purchased forty new restaurant chairs and some swanky table skirts to give the restaurant an air of sophistication.

This year Charlie (our overworked handyman) celebrated his sixtieth birthday and, coincidentally, his thirtieth year of working here, at Coul House. To mark the occasion we hosted a little BBQ lunch with all the staff. Rather than buy Charlie the conventional gold watch we asked what he might like. Much to our surprise, he wanted a rowing machine. Now, Charlie has never been one for recreational exercise so I assumed this would be quickly relegated to the darkest corner of his house to gather dust or taken to the local car boot sale, however, to his credit, he continues to use it nightly and, combined with his new eating habits, has lost over three stone (48 lbs or 22 kilograms) in the last six months and is looking healthier than I have ever seen him.

Our annual family holiday (oh, I love how that sounds), thanks to having great staff that has made this possible two years on the trot, was to sunny Florida. This gave the girls a chance to meet Mickey Mouse and to test their new swimming skills without freezing their toes off in our local loch. Eighteen days away… and I felt like a new man.

So here’s to another successful year. A special thanks goes to you, the reader, guest and friend of Coul.
Onwards and upwards, in 2009 we will aim to refurbish as many of the bathrooms as we can.

I feel I should start off by saying that Susannah continues to be in good health three years on from her treatment, and we would like to thank everyone for their kind support and concern. Aurora and Liah are still thriving. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Flopsy the bunny rabbit, or Daisy and Bubble the gerbils, who all passed away this year. Before their passing our menagerie had grown this spring by the addition of nine ducks and later 20 ducklings and a number of baby bunnies (which as you can imagine delighted our girls!) Boy those ducks are promiscuous and we talk about rabbits. These ducks make Tiger Woods look like a choirboy. All joking aside we, and many our guests have thoroughly enjoyed watching the ducks waddle around the property. Anyway twenty plus ducks were proving quite a handful so we found a new home for most of them, no not the chef’s freezer, a farm near Culbokie.

I am delighted to say the growth of the business this year has been phenomenal, despite the doom and gloom predicted by the media. The strong Euro and our ever-increasing repeat and referred guests have combined to give us unprecedented levels of business over the last twelve months. Of course there is a down side to all of this…. I have been playing significantly less golf than I would like.

My cautious bank manager has not managed to quell my optimism despite his gloomy predictions for the hotel industry in the short term so I’ve been pushing on with manageable bite sized projects. We’ve proceeded with converting the room know as the Tartan Bistro (latterly used as our wine cellar) into swanky new toilets, which we are delighted with. We also managed to employ a much-needed roofer Marc Beagent (GM, Chris McLeod’s brother in-law who was between contracts) Marc was a real trooper and battled on during a horrendously wet period of the summer, fixing and replacing as much as he could in six weeks. Hopefully we he will be back again in the new-year to continue what he started.

Another accomplishment this year by Charlie, Rory and Anna has been the addition of a winding path around the lawn on the entrance side of the building. It takes you past the duck pond, up to the top end of the property and snakes back round to the car park. We’ve placed a few benches between the magnificent old trees to enjoy the surrounding wildlife and the good views of the architecture. A wendy house has also gone up, hidden amongst the trees on the other side of the house for the kids. I have been tempted to let it out several time this summer when we’ve been sold out, so be sure to book early for next summer as you never know where you might be accommodated!

2010 will see us slowly begin the bedroom and bathroom refurbishment that we have all been looking forward to starting. We will be fitting this in around our quieter periods of the year not to cause any distruption.

Susannah and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support and patience, your encouragement truly helps us have the patience and perseverance to recognise our vision for the place and each year we get a step closer to that being achieved. It would be remiss of me not to highlight once again the wonderful staff that have helped make 2009 so successful.

In China it was the year of the Tiger however here at Coul House it was the year of compliance. Coul House has been grandfathered until this year, from so many of the modern regulations, unfortunately for us this year is the deadline for Coul House to become compliant. We have been required to install door closers and intumescent foam strips to thirty-eight of our doors, upgrade our fire alarm system and renew one of our oil tanks. We have also renewed three of the roof pitches with new cross-timber and slates, only sixty-one to go. It looks like Mark our full time roofer/handy man has a job for life!

I finished off last years letter by optimistically saying that, “2010 will see us begin the bedroom and bathroom refurbishment that we have all been looking forward to”. Well it is now December and all we have managed to do is paint eight bathrooms and renew all of the mattresses, duvets and pillows.

So often it seems when we plan to start something that seems fairly straight forward, it ends up escalating into a major project that gets beyond our budget very quickly. Our intention whilst upgrading the bathrooms has been to address the water pressure problems that hamper the enjoyment of having a shower. For those guests that are used to more pressure than Coul House currently offers (which we acknowledge…. is most people) I apologise, I know it causes frustration. Gone are the days of a weekly shower from a damp squib. Most of us these days have become used to being pressure washed daily. Almost all of us have lost the old British art of water temperature regulation first thing in the morning with the advent of thermostatic temperature controls. No more impromptu dancing in the shower as the hot water turns frigid.

So with this is mind we have been quizzing plumbers since March on how best to address these issues. Then came all the new questions….vented or un-vented pressurised water system? Will the old pipes handle the increased pressure? How will you heat the higher volume of water? Are the old boilers efficient enough? Do you have sufficient water pressure being supplied to the building? Is the main water supply pipe coming into the building big enough? Should we replace the boilers with a new wood-burning boiler and if so what type; solid fuel or wood chip? Should we consider solar panels? Are there grants available to assist with this type of capital improvements…………………………? Ahhhhhh.

So many months and several other plumbers later we are still confused, but I believe there is some light at the end of the tunnel (ever the optimist). We have managed to pare it down to a more manageable project by eliminating what I now know we can’t afford. I am currently waiting for the latest solution and the dreaded quotation.

As well as all of the above it has been an extremely busy year here again at the hotel. Once again we have increased the number of visitors and hope to keep our bank manager happy. The tough part starts now with December through to March looking like it will be very quiet. So if you would brush off the snow from you car, clear you drive way and come visit. I will have the log fire on for you and a good meal is never far away with Garry and Gediminas in the Kitchen.

Well the winter season of 2010/11 was as anticipated a quiet one, with the weather conspiring to keep many off the roads, financial forecasters full of doom and gloom, things were looking bleak. So we battened down the hatches, tightened our belts, cancelled several projects, delayed hiring seasonal staff and held on tight for the “stormy months” ahead.

As I mentioned in last years letter I finished the year waiting for a quote for a new pressurised water system, well it came in …..60K …I called the plumber and asked if there was a typo “was it supposed to read 6K” I said. Although he saw the funny side, there was no mistake. So it was back to basics and we have now gone ahead and installed power showers (noisy but effective) in about eight of the rooms and intend to install more in the coming year. Next year we intend to renew the water boilers and install a biomass boiler to replace the oil fired boilers we currently run on. What joy..…more technology to come to terms with…

In my infinite wisdom I decided to finally take the plunge and buy a front desk reservation software system with the idea of relegating the old trusted diary to the local museum. I realised, that with more and more guests using the Internet to book their accommodation, this would enable us to streamline our reservations process and free up some of our office admin time. Perhaps it would even let me get in touch with the ever-increasing number of repeat guests throughout the year by creating a database.
For reasons I am now still questioning, I also chose at the same time to install a new phone system and online reservations handler. The idea was that the new phone system would give us total wireless broadband access throughout the hotel and ultimately improve mobile phone reception. Boy oh boy have I had a tough time coming to terms with all the changes, I thought I liked change! However I have been holding on to my old reservations diary like a comfort blanket and feeling quite overwhelmed with the whole process of integrating these new systems… we are still in the middle of it all as I write.

Anyway on a lighter note the local foxes recently took the last of our ducks…. sorry did I say lighter note! Well, Ana our very patient and hard working gardener is delighted, as we have promised not to get any more ducks. There was no love lost there as she watched them ruin her landscaped pond over the last eighteen months. Ana has already planted lots of new flowers and shrubs ready for the spring. Aurora and Liah were quite attached to the ducks, especially enjoying the wee ducklings, however
this year Santa brought the girls a puppy each… perhaps better companions, and hopefully much less destructive to the garden

Although the year started out very slowly when it did eventually gather momentum we ended up having some extremely busy months. There were lots more British visitors this summer, many staying several nights instead of the traditional one or two, a few weddings in the Autumn and early Winter, and a wind- fall of corporate business in September, October and into November, that has helped put our figures back on track. So thank you all for your continued support and for being such fantastic guests.
Here’s to another year. No matter what challenges it brings it is made a lot easier with the support of our right hand man Chris McLeod and, of course, all of our other wonderful staff.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 1859.

I find myself wondering if Charles Dickens was a hotelier in the Highlands before being regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period.

It was certainly a roller coaster of a year (no not as eloquently put at Dickens but it is what it is)! It started with Susannah being diagnosed with more cancer and subject to another gruelling schedule of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. At the same time the hotel was enjoying its best financial year thanks to some timely weddings and a troublesome water mains renewal that stretched from Strathpeffer to Garve. This gave several May Gurney employees the need to be resident at Coul House on and off for three or four months. The “Strathpuffer” (the annual 24 hour mountain bike endurance test for the crazy fools who seem to enjoy the weather the more extreme it gets!) was hosted once again in the local forest in early January which always brings us welcome business in one of our quietest months of the year.

The new phone system I talked of in last year’s letter continued to be a source of consternation throughout most of the year. It uses what is called VOIP (voice over internet protocol). Believe me, when I say that it has been a major headache. We lost contact with the outside world on several occasions. Some might say that is not a bad thing but who knows how much business we lost through it! I had to remind myself on several occasions what possessed me to buy such a phone system! Nowadays we need wifi to meet the needs and expectations of the majority of travellers. The new phone system was somehow relevant to that, but in what way now I can`t remember, so we persevered!!!!! Charlie and Rory crawled through the tiny attic spaces of the entire house installing modems for the phone company to try and keep the costs manageable. Thankfully we now have a fairly reliable wifi service throughout…most of the time! As for the digital phone system well I am still trying to figure out how to use the hold feature properly.

The big project for this year was the installation of a new biomass wood pellet boiler. It came in its own heat cabin with back-up oil boiler, pellet and water storage. Costly, yes, but with the government`s 20 year, renewable heat incentive on offer it was a matter of let`s do it now before the incentives go! The old oil boilers we had were 30 plus years old and costing more each year in maintenance (a bit like the wife) oops! Sorry darling only joking! The challenge was how to finance it (the boiler not my darling wife). The bank would not entertain the idea at all and trying to find the money proved as tricky as looking for dog doo in the autumn leaves! I knew it was there – I just could not find it initially. However the Carbon Trust and The Energy Saving Trust came to the rescue and the boiler is now up and running.

As usual I have run out of space and I limit myself to one page so as not to bore you too much! So thank you once again for your continued support and for being such fantastic guests, roll on 2013.

Well here I am again, late December having to recall the significant events of the last twelve months!?!

2013 marked our tenth year here at Coul House. In many ways I cannot believe ten years have passed, and then I look at my kids and see how much they have grown. I look at the business and see how much it has blossomed, provided a constant source of challenges and achieved many of the goals we set out to achieve. Then I look in the mirror and I see each of the three thousand six hundred and fifty days that have past and think……..has it only been ten years!! This year I’ve had guests taking my father as my brother, Chris as my son and my kids as my grandkids!!?

No one told me it would be easy to own my own business, but it never ceases to amaze me how precarious a journey it is between success and failure! Last year (for some unknown reason) the Highlands had the worst October – February occupancy figures it has ever had. Not only that, but final payment was due for the newly installed biomass boiler (which at the time was not firing on all cylinders). The VAT payment was due and to top it all of the bank was looking to reduce our overdraft! Once again we needed to do some fast talking, belt tightening and the cancelling of maintenance projects to get through the winter on a wing and a prayer.

Salvation came in March with a fantastic review for the restaurant in the Inverness City Advertiser (a free local magazine). Restaurant revenue started flowing in with new guests being introduced to the culinary delights of Coul House. Then the good spring weather got the season off to a great start and the momentum seemed to continue right through to November, which was tremendous. I’m delighted to say that during the spring and summer months we were the #1 hotel in the Scottish Highlands on tripadvisor.com which proved most beneficial; introducing yet more new guests to Coul House. So a big thank you to all those who wrote reviews, recommended us to your friends and indeed for your continued support and repeat visits.

This summer was only marred by the passing of Charlie Cleland our maintenance man. Charlie had 35 years of service here at Coul House; he will be missed for years to come and is never far from our thoughts.

It is times like these that I count my blessings; Aurora is now thirteen, enjoying school and to my delight no boyfriends on the scene yet! Liah is eleven and currently playing tenor drum in two different pipe bands and looking forward to starting academy in August. Susannah, my gorgeous wife and I are both fit and well and thankfully able to work hard. The biomass boiler is finally running well and saving us money, and of course the continued support from the hard working staff.

Unfortunately during the high winds of early December several mature trees were blown over, including an Eastern Hemlock, a few Lawson Cypress, a Yew and a Portuguese Laurel. Two of these were found crushing the old shed at the top of the drive, which we believe had been made from a previous fallen Monkey Puzzle tree many years ago.

So after much reflection I have come to realise that the refurbishment of Coul House is a journey not a destination. Here’s to the next ten years and to the continued challenges that make it so……interesting!

Whoa is it really December already….I cannot believe where this year has gone! It has certainly been a whirlwind (although that may just have been the side effects of all the coffee I have been drinking). I have discovered the joy of coffee this year, probably something to do with the new espresso machine that we got at the tail end of last year. It is especially good with a shot of Disaronno Amaretto and a slice of Garry`s apple and frangipane tart!

………….A successful whirlwind I should add. We started the year with some online marketing, yes, I finally realised that I was never going to get round to it myself, so I outsourced the marketing to a friend of Susannah`s (Kate) that does marketing for other hotels throughout the UK. Kate wasted no time, having the first mail shot out in early January, to our previously unused database. She made it look so easy I thought perhaps I should have done it myself!

Perhaps as a result of the marketing campaign we had a very busy start to the year. It may have also been the fact that we ran a groupon offer (at a ridiculously low net rate, especially after their share and the vat man`s take) to boost our winter occupancy and provide a cash injection to assist us with the £50k refurbishment project that we embarked on in February. Rooms 14 & 16 now have fabulous new bathrooms and carpets, with room 14 becoming an open plan suite with a lovely chesterfield sofa bed, raised ceiling and a showcase bathroom. We have certainly raised the bar with these two rooms; making me more inclined to throw caution to the wind and do all of the rooms immediately! Patience and common sense however prevails as I have never been one to buy lottery tickets and despite Ana the gardener’s best efforts, (and all the fairy magic in the garden) she has not managed to grow us a money tree!

We also undertook to renew half of the roof valleys; the other half of which is scheduled for January 2015 along with the gutters. However you will have to take my word for it due to all of the health and safety regulations. I have only been up once myself to see it and that was just to see what I had paid all that money for, I looks great, £20k well spent I`m sure!

Some of you may have met our very talkative local painter/ keen fisherman James Mutch, who seems to know everyone (or someone they know from the western hemisphere). James has been working his way round the hotel both inside and out, taking off the old wall paper (only one room left to go), painting the windows and freshening the rooms up generally.

More driveway maintenance and emergency lighting, new garden gazebo and garage, new ovens for the kitchen, new uniforms for the restaurant staff……all this and I am still smiling…no really I am I`m just hiding it under the moustache!

Family, dogs, staff and hotel all doing well, let another year roll on and see what it brings.

Thanks as always for your support and positive feedback.

Well what a phenomenal year. I really did not anticipate that 2016 could possibly surpass 2015 in such a spectacular way, but it certainly has. Some bright spark or several bright sparks from the North Highland Initiative came up with the brilliant idea of branding the northern road network simply as the North Coast 500 or NC500 as it’s often referred to. 516 miles of glorious country roads packed with scenic diversity, centuries of history and of course great places to stay, eat and visit. A whole bunch of clever marketing, social media activity and some well-timed TV coverage and ……. BOOM……people started flocking to the Northern Highlands in numbers not seen since the days of the cured herring packing in 1860s. Needless to say all of us here at Coul House have been delighted to be able to welcome so many travellers in need of a bed, or simply some sustenance, on their way round the route.  Here`s hoping that it continues to attract many new travellers to the area and to the delights of the Northern Highlands.

As a direct result of the economic boom, we have been able to accelerate our refurbishment plans this year during some rare quieter times (early spring and late autumn/winter). So it was new bedroom carpets throughout and I am delighted to say that we have completed a total of ten new bathrooms this year to add to the two in the superior rooms we did previously. Each of which has been completely fitted out with new flooring, WC`s, sinks and either a walk-in shower or claw foot tub with shower over or both in some cases.  Each of the new bathrooms has been plumbed into a new pressurized water system to provide consistent water pressure, finally all mod cons for at least half of the house or more. Now if 2017 is as prosperous as 2016 we will be able to do the other nine! In fact we started two more rooms early January, so we are certainly committed to maintaining the pace of refurbishment if we can.

It has not been all work, work, work; as a family we managed several short breaks this year including a long weekend in London to celebrate my father`s 75th birthday (yes my father not my older brother as he occasionally gets mistaken for; which of course delights him) a couple a days in Barcelona before going on to Costa Brava, plus five days in Venice in the October holidays finished off our forays for the year.  No crazy Penny Farthing stunts this year, choosing to keep my feet firmly on the ground. In an attempt to compete with my father`s youthful looks, I decided it was time to shave off the Georgian styled beard and get the running shoes back out. In fact I have been racking up the miles on the local running trails with Alfie and Bella typically following loyally behind. I am sure you will agree it has taken years off me! Ah, a boy can dream….. fifty years old this year and still the stamina of a twenty year old.

Mark and Fionna Ellison from Reddishpink Media have been very patient with me over the last year as I have been very pernickety over the content and text of our new website. However, we finally managed to get it launched in early December 2016, I hope you all like it?  Check it out and let me know what you think but be gentle, as it was a lot of work and I am getting much more sensitive in my old age – or as Susannah thinks as a result of the Penny Farthing debacle!

Delighted to say that the foundation of our fantastic crew has remained in place and several new staff members have recently joined us to cope with the continued upturn in business.

Thank you once again for your support, please continue to spread the word and of course remember to book early for your next visit to avoid disappointment. If you are (unlike me) riding the wave of social media feel free to like us, join us or follow us on the various online avenues that I am tentatively embracing.

Well, what a phenomenal year. Yes, I know, I said that last year too! As 2016 came to an end I was giddy from having had such a successful year. I decided to share the joy and came up with a particularly generous offer, my “2017 Celebration Offer”, £20.17 per person B&B to celebrate the start of the New Year. The offer was remarkably well received with several couples taking advantage of the offer multiple times during both January and February. This impacted our occupancy positively in what is traditionally a quiet time of year. There was a lovely atmosphere with log fires ablaze and many happy couples enjoying great food and much wine. As a direct result of the offers uptake, we once again found ourselves needing to recruit additional staff during January. Needless to say, the Celebration Offer is here to stay.

The rest of 2017 was simply …eat, sleep, work, repeat! At least it felt like that at times.  Being busier than we have ever been for teas, lunches, dinners, and accommodation is of course fantastic. Every business owner`s dream, I hear you say. It is, of course, a dream come true and indeed what we have been working towards for the last fourteen years but it does not make it any easier to manage. For me it was a tougher year than most; trying to maintain our service standards whilst training new staff and welcoming more guests than ever.

This summer there was a little girl staying in the hotel for a few nights with her family. One evening after her dinner she was wandering around asking questions. After a while, she asked me “why the frowny face?”  I had just answered her umpteenth question whilst trying to write down an order from one of the many waiting diners whilst trying not to forget what they had ordered. I explained that I was simply concentrating not angry. When I concentrate my brow furrows like a Shar Pei puppy; wrinkles are clearly unfashionable, something you see less and less these days particularly from our TV/movies stars as they battle to hold back the aging process!

Anyway, why the frowny face is something I have asked myself several times this year. Busy hotel, yes, happy guests, yes. So why the frowny face? The bane of my life this year has been the three “r’s” no, not the road, rhododendrons, and roof as was the trouble back in 2005. In 2017, recruitment, retention, and re-motivation were the biggest challenges. With the weak pound and NC500 bringing prosperity to the entire area, fewer Europeans looking for work in these uncertain times, not to mention local unemployment at a record low, there are simply not enough people to go around. Consequently, we are often forced to take a leap of faith in the recruitment process and this year I have had that faith questioned a number of times. We had staff that disappeared prior to their next shift, staff that thought a few days-notice was sufficient enough time to recruit replacement cover and staff that found being hospitable a bit tricky. So it was recruit, train, cover, recruit, train, cover until things settled down towards the end of the season.

Fortunately over the years we`ve been blessed with longevity from many great key members of staff including the omnipresent Chris McLeod our GM, the ever creative and accommodating Head Chef Garry Kenley (that we keep locked in the back for no one to see) Gedas our talented second chef and of course the long-serving Rory Macrae who came with the building when we purchased it back in 2003; the definitive handyman who turns his hand to anything and everything from cooking breakfast to mowing the lawn and a multitude of other maintenance tasks. Each of them has contributed to the Coul House success for more than ten years and for that we are very grateful.

I`m delighted to say that this year we’ve managed to refurbish another five bedrooms and more importantly their en suites. Only four more rooms to do now which is very exciting…..….ah there is light and the end of the tunnel. Thank you once again for your support and encouragement throughout the year. It truly means a lot to us.

Ahh… December 23rd and here I am once again writing our progress report. It feels like it’s been a long and certainly; busy year. So much so I`m struggling to remember what it was exactly we did this year, I certainly hope that there will be more years ahead like this one in many respects.

I feel sure we must have knocked something off our to-do list..? Now I recall; we started the year with two more rooms being refurbished and the bathrooms being put onto the new pressurised water system – only two rooms left to go which is fantastic. I have been teasing Susannah that we should keep one room ‘untouched’ to remind us of how far we’ve come – but she’s not keen on that idea for some reason. In fact the last two rooms are scheduled to be done in February 2019 – finally! Although I’m not sure what we’re going to do after they’re all complete…ahh…if only that were true, we’re already looking at new furniture and fabrics to refurbish the incumbent furniture, fixtures and fittings, and on it goes.

Back in 2004 I said “only thirteen and a half years to go and the loan will be paid off” however in 2010,

I said goodbye to my cautious bank manager and established a new fifteen year business loan to allow us to press on with our refurbishment plans. So, August 2025 is for now; the new target.

In 2011 I talked about the ‘incredible’ quote for a pressurised water system and here we are now seven years later having spent 50K in the last two years upgrading the plumbing system one pressurised tank at a time. Mind you at least this cost includes all new pipes and some of the bathroom hardware. Now, I know patience is a virtue and one I am often credited with however, trying to find a plumber to finish the job that they’ve started is beginning to test even my patience (and that’s saying something). I’m hoping 2019 will bring better fortunes where plumbers are concerned. Whilst I have been frustrated with plumbers over the years I have been blessed with sparkies, A. J. Morrison  and in particular Caly, Paul Morrison`s right hand man has been extremely diligent and a pleasure to work with as has Paul himself. Caly has installed outside lights, rewired more parts of the hotel than I care to mention, installed many USB sockets and patiently waited on a number of occasions for Susannah`s attention to inform him of her latest plans or indeed amended plans for the refurbished bedrooms electrical requirements.        

And as if each passing year is not enough of a measure of time, my gorgeous wee girlies are hardly recognisable, having grown into young women almost overnight (certainly before I was ready for it). They both helped out in the hotel this summer, Aurora up front in the restaurant and Liah with Garry in the kitchen. Aurora also passed her driving test this year (with some excellent tuition from Susannah) and left Contin for Edinburgh College in August to study contemporary dance which she is thoroughly enjoying. Liah is champing at the bit to pass her driving test in 2019 (once she’s finished her Highers). It barely seems like yesterday that we were moving into Coul House whilst trying to keep an eye on two wee tots running around, often in one dressing-up outfit or another!

We were lucky in August to add Lara McLeod (Chris’s wife) to our management team and our luck continued in September when Casey Mackenzie re-joined the team after a nine month sabbatical. Susannah and I feel the whole team (front & back of house) has never been stronger and we are extremely proud of how they have pulled together and worked hard to make the hotel a success for another year.

Unlike last year this year seems to have breezed-by; busy, but not as manic as the previous few years have been. Business has been much more consistent rather than that gold rush feel we experienced during the peak periods of 2017 & ‘18. To me it certainly feels like it has been a lot easier to manage. That of course, may just be down to having such a great team in place and long may that continue to be the case.

Our amazing core team, with long standing members such as Gary, Chris, Gedes has steadily grown with committed new members such as Casey, Valentin, Bogdan, Emma-Fleur & Lara, to name but a few. With so many competent staff and good hosts around I have experienced a rather unfamiliar feeling from time to time this year; that I am surplus to requirements! I have had to get into the habit of taking days off, leaving the team to run service and motivate myself to do paperwork instead of being so hands on; none of which comes naturally to me. We managed a ten day family holiday to Tenerife in April which was fantastic; I even played nine holes of golf first time for many years! We were greeted at the airport in Tenerife by a wonderful couple, Lidia and Pedro who ran our housekeeping department for almost two years before returning home to Tenerife in December 2018. We still miss them dearly.

March 2019 saw us complete the refurbishing of the last two rooms. We stripped the walls back to the stonework (I say we; it was the local builder, Daryl Fraser Lee`s crew, my D.I.Y skills are limited to hanging paintings) raised the ceilings back to their original height, revealed then removed a neglected chimney breast (that we did not know was there) relocated one of the bedroom doors, then rebuilt, rewired and re-plumbed, installed two new shower rooms and voila two newly refurbished bedrooms are ready to let; simple as that! Well at least that`s my recollection nine months later. I have conveniently forgotten the shock of receiving the final invoice from the builder; I thought it was only governments that went over budget that much! I am still waiting for the bill from the plumber; he is as tardy with his invoices as he is at turning up! Although, to be fair, he’s always here in an emergency….! Ah; it reminds me why I am happy being an hotelier and not a general contractor.

I am pleased s to say that our family (including the dogs) are all fit and well. We now have three dogs, which I can`t help but feel is a little eccentric, not to mention challenging at times. Bella gave birth to two pups on 1st May which involved an emergency mid-night C-section; not something we had planned for and rather more expensive than this Scot felt comfortable with, but being the most photographed dog in Ross-shire she’s worth it! We kept one pup and gave the other one away locally; some of you will have met Molly our new pup already. She is a wee cracker and enjoys our daily runs with Alfie and Bella.

Aurora continues to enjoy living in Edinburgh and is doing well at college. Liah passed her driving test earlier this year and is now trying to claim our car as her own, studies make-up and hair in Inverness College, has been getting an occasional modelling photo shoots, and works here; when she can fit us in around her busy social life! It is lovely to see them happy, healthy and more independent each day.

So here is to 2020; a leap year; the Chinese year of the rat; they say it brings much prosperity, its Scotland’s year of coasts and waters; the year the Tories take us out of Europe and America has a presidential election. If you are looking for a few days to get away from it all and bask in the relaxing atmosphere that is Coul House then give us a call; we will be there for you when you need us most.

Wow, 2020, where does one begin? I can only assume that this is a year that no one will want to repeat. Certainly not the chancellor, the NHS or any of the poor folk that lost someone they love or their business, livelihood, or immediate prospects. So much for the year of the rat, although I am sure that there has been many that have prospered in the face of adversity or because of the adversity, as is often the case.

Scotland will not remember 2020 as ‘the Year of Coasts and Waters;’ or will anyone remember that 2020 was the year the Tories took us out of Europe, and I am sure we will all try hard to forget the American 2020 presidential election and the unusual circumstance that prevailed afterwards.

For us here at Coul House 2020 started off as usual with great pace, it looked like 2020 was going to be a very prosperous year, with an abundance of forward bookings throughout the year and no major building works in the budget, I was looking forward to a relatively stress free year. Susannah and I even managed a long weekend to Oslo mid-February, blissfully ignorant of what was to come.

I assumed that here in the UK we would be immune to succumbing to a pandemic. Having listened to the media over the years reporting on outbreaks in foreign lands that dominate the news for a period, before becoming less of a story, naively I imagined this virus outbreak in Wuhan China would be similar.

Mid-March came and a news flash announces that restaurants and bars must close, no mention initially of hotels, but what are we without our restaurant and bar? The hotel is empty, bookings are cancelling rapidly, deposits are being refunded and the staff are wondering what is going to happen to their jobs and to Coul House Hotel. I tried, as always, to be optimistic; people are asking questions I did not know the answers to, and I cannot even blag something convincingly. Then the chancellor announced the furlough scheme, and a huge wait fell off our shoulders. The hotel closed March 23rd and we did not reopen till July 15th.

Who would have thought four months “off” work could be so stressful? After the initial two months of uncertainty and several sleepless nights I did come to terms with having a sabbatical, thankfully the weather was beautiful, my girls and my father were all here with us during the entire lockdown which was lovely and I managed to relax and enjoy a few barbeques on the front lawn, fitness workouts in the Octagonal Room and “master” a couple of Tik Tok dance routines with Aurora`s help and much laughter from all the family to boot. I think my father rather enjoyed taking up residence in the Master Bedroom and particularly enjoyed eating his way through the scones, shortbread, and desserts that we had in stock!

We want to take this opportunity to thank everyone of our fabulous guests for your loyal support and encouragement over the years and particularly over the last eight months. We are all feeling much more optimistic as we look forward to a new year, and as it happens a bicentenary year for Coul House. We are at the early stages of planning a series of bicentenary events to celebrate the house`s history, including Georgian Gourmet Dinner Parties, Music Recitals and a rendition of a long lost play written by the original owner of the house, Sir George Stewart Mackenzie.

As I said at the end of last year`s letter, if you are looking to get away from it all and bask in the relaxing atmosphere that is Coul House then give us a call; we will be here for you when you need us most.

Wow, 2021….2022, where does one begin?

Firstly, I need to apologise, as it has taken until July 2023 to finally get this letter published. I must confess I`m surprised that some of you still have an appetite to read the report after all these years; it`s clearly putting some of you to sleep.

As I was writing my annual report in December 2020, I was feeling optimistic about the coming year when later that week the Scottish Government instructed us to close again. They said it would just be until mid-January; in fact, it was the end of April before we were permitted to reopen. Initially we had to open with restricted alcohol sales and reduced hours of operation; resulting in limited numbers of guests visiting until mid-May when these draconian restrictions ended. Although local restaurant trade then came rushing back in unprecedented numbers, it was September before our bedroom occupancy returned to its pre-pandemic levels.

Thankfully, business support, job retention schemes, rates relief, and reduced VAT rates propped us up through the enforced closures and downturn in business. It was the fabulous support from our loyal and new guests that has buoyed us personally this past couple of years. Everyone`s enthusiasm and overwhelming appreciation for the Coul House team and their hard work has provided Susannah and I all the encouragement that we needed to keep us going through these tough times.

One of the biggest challenges we faced this past eighteen months has been to maintain the standards that we set out to provide as we catered for unprecedented numbers of guests with just the core members of staff plus a few new recruits. Susannah and I are immensely proud of the staff and their commitment in the face of such challenges. There were so many days that we could have benefited from having more staff on duty to assist, however, we soldiered on and always seemed to achieve what at times had seemed beyond us. I coerced Aurora and Liah to comeback home and for a year to help us out; they have now escaped for new lives in Edinburgh.

Despite the challenging times we were delighted to host five bicentenary events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Coul House being built. We had musical story telling recitals by Bob Pegg, Christina Stewart, and Bill Taylor, a story telling from the esteemed author of Sion of Heroes; Stuart McCulloch, which was fantastic and a couple of wine tasting gourmet dinners. With hindsight, the highlight of my summer was a fun, re-written rendition of the long lost play by Sir George Stewart Mackenzie, remastered by local playwright Phil Baarda. Thankfully, we had beautiful weather and were able to host two performances in the garden for an audience of around sixty. Changing what started out as a cameo role; Phil blindsided me by casting me as supporting actor, Robert Ramsay, Sir George Stewart`s nemesis; alongside two very accomplished semi-professional actors. Despite my initial nervousness and indeed thanks to the supporting cast, I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed myself. By the end of the second performance, I was basking in the applause and the thought that local theatre companies would be knocking at my door…… but alas I wait!

Dare I say it, we`re feeling ready for another lock-down…. Shhh…. I know; we need to be careful what we wish for…I’m sure we just need a rest, and we will be right and rain again.