• 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.

Yet more about the Mackenzies

  • 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.

Read more about the architecture

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…

2004 - New Beginnings

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…………….

Progress Report number 2

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.

Progress report number 3

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.

Progress report number 4

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.

Progress report number 5

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.

Progress report number 6

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.

Progress report number 7

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.

Progress report number 8

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.

Progress report number 9

“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.

Progress report number 10

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!

Progress report number 11

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.