The Fife Arms review: the art of luxury in the Scottish Highlands

With 15,000 pieces of art this jewel in Braemar takes the design hotel concept to another level

The Fife Arms bedroom
The Fife Arms in Braemar is a five-star hotel with bags of style
(Image credit: Sim Cannety-Clarke)

The luggage tag was first invented in 1882, initially for rail passengers, but most associated these days with air travel. It’s a fairly innocuous aspect of any trip, no doubt soon to be replaced by a piece of AI software that can tell where your luggage is travelling to before you’ve even booked the holiday.

But I mention luggage tags because it was the first thing I noticed on arrival at The Fife Arms. As we entered, met with the kind of beaming smiles usually only reserved for toddlers and puppies, our luggage was whisked away to our rooms where we found them affixed with a beautiful bespoke tag.

It was an ornate rendering of an old style railway luggage tag, an obvious homage to the railway that was supposed to travel right past the hotel in Braemar, before Queen Victoria decided that it would bring too many of the riff-raff far too close to Balmoral for her liking.

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Why come here?

While the charm of the Fife Arms is not solely down to its use of great luggage tags, it does underline an attention to detail that is apparent throughout the entire stay at this jewel of the Scottish Highlands. When Swiss art empresarios Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser – owners of the Hauser & Wirth galleries – bought what was an old bus tours hotel in the quaint town of Braemar, the gateway to the Highlands, few could have imagined that they would transform it into one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, top destination design hotels.

The Fife Arms drawing room

The hotel has more than 15,000 artworks on show
(Image credit: The Fife Arms)

Filled with quirky art, more than 15,000 pieces in total, it’s clear that the pair have gone for the wow factor, with maximalism around each and every corner. But beneath the surface it is also a hotel that focuses on delivering substance to go with its imperious levels of style.

One word of warning though, all that art means you will need to allow yourself extra time when going from your room to any of the hotel’s bars and hangouts due to the fact you can’t help but be drawn to the artwork. The taxidermied lamb outside our door got mixed reviews from our party, but arguably the hotel’s most coveted piece is “A Stag Shot by John Brown” painted by Queen Victoria. The title does sort of give the subject matter away, but the feeling and majesty of the painting is in the viewing.

From Picassos to paintings by King Charles III, there is truly something for every art lover here. And at 5pm every evening the hotel puts on an art tour with one of their very knowledgeable staff members. If you attend make sure to ask about the ghost piano in the hotel’s lobby…

Bertie’s Bar

Bertie’s Bar is the hotel’s whisky den
(Image credit: The Fife Arms)

Eating and drinking

Our evening at the Fife Arms started, as all good evenings should, in the hotel’s whisky den, Bertie’s Bar. Named after Queen Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, a famously extravagant bon viveur, the snug’s style matches his character immediately transporting its occupiers to a different time. There is no actual bar at Bertie’s, guests are invited to take a seat and explore the range of whiskies which adorn the walls with more than 300 varieties available to try. On entry we were met by our own bon viveur, Rebecca, who was as knowledgeable as she was charming – leading us through a whisky tasting that provided us with just enough facts to be able to blag an evening with my Scottish family the following night.

From there we made our way to another of the hotel’s many Instagrammable hotspots, Elsa’s cocktail bar – named after fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, an extraordinary woman who had links to the area, but is perhaps best known for her invention of the colour “shocking pink”. We ordered a pair of martinis that were exquisite and served by an affable and amusing waiter, in fact, across the board we were helped by an array of staff who let their own character shine through their service.

Part of the charm of the Fife Arms is quite how much it leans into its whimsical Wes Anderson vibe. It would be easy for a hotel like this to come across as stuffy or over the top, but everyone who works there manages to make guests feel at ease, even with a priceless Picasso on the wall. After finishing our drinks we were led to our dinner table in the fabulous surroundings of the Clunie Dining Room.

Fife Arms dining room

The Clunie Dining Room
(Image credit: The Fife Arms)

Even without all the accoutrements, you could have an incredible time at the Fife Arms if you only focused on the food. From the Orkney scallop with a beurre blanc to the red mullet with rhubarb and buttermilk, the starters that we had signposted a meal that celebrated local, fresh and seasonal ingredients.

After much umming and ahhing – we were very close to keeping up with the pescetarian theme and choosing the John Dory and the pollock and mussels – we settled on the duck pithivier for our main. How could you not choose a main course that comes with basically all the sides? A delicate layering of perfectly cooked duck meat matched by its equally divine flaky pastry coating underlined that we had made the right decision.

Another of the Fife Arms’s calling cards is its wine cellar and our sommelier for the evening was so passionate and interested in the wines on offer that it was almost enough for us to give up our day jobs and start new careers in oenology. We settled though instead for just drinking and listening to our heart’s content.

The Fife Arms bedroom

There are 46 individual rooms and suites
(Image credit: The Fife Arms)

The rooms

When you eventually tire yourself out with all the fun downstairs, the rooms above offer another home from home where local produce is once again the order of the day. The hotel’s own whisky and gin await guests on their bedside table along with a delicious milk chocolate bar from another nearby supplier.

Along with your usual programming, a selection of films are also available to watch for free on the TV and is the kind of touch that more hotels should be providing – particularly when one of them is the excellent “Gregory’s Girl”, potentially Scotland’s finest piece of cinema.

We stayed in one of the fabulously floral “Nature & Poetry” rooms, but all the rooms are as beautifully appointed as you’d expect from a five-star hotel and the beds have that magical quality of a firm-but-not-too-firm mattress that will suit even the most sensitive of spines.

Explore the great outdoors on the hotel’s doorstep

There’s spectacular scenery on the hotel’s doorstep
(Image credit: Ben Addy)

Things to do

While there is much to enjoy in the hotel itself, it’s difficult not to have your eye drawn to your wild highland surroundings. Braemar is known as the gateway to the Highlands and despite that name you’re actually as well exploring the immediate surroundings through a nature walk organised by the hotel, as you are straying further afield.

Our walk was led by Wild Braemar’s Annie Armstrong, a local wildlife expert who is heavily involved in the area’s rewilding resurgence. Even just spending two hours in Annie’s company was a life-affirming and enlightening experience as we were able to learn about the beautiful surroundings of a nearby pine forest in quite some depth.

Perhaps the only complaint is that it all goes too quickly, once you’ve had a whisky tasting at Bertie’s, a cocktail at Elsa’s, fine duck pithivier at the Clunie, it’s suddenly time for bed and all you’re left with the next morning after checkout is the luggage tag. The ornate old railway luggage tag, harking back to an earlier more hopeful time, a time when a trip to the Fife Arms was still in your future.

Jamie Timson was a guest of The Fife Arms. Rates for a Nature & Poetry room start from £434 per night including VAT and breakfast. Mar Road, Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN;

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Jamie Timson is the UK news editor, curating The Week UK's daily morning newsletter and setting the agenda for the day's news output. He was first a member of the team from 2015 to 2019, progressing from intern to senior staff writer, and then rejoined in September 2022. As a founding panellist on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, he has discussed politics, foreign affairs and conspiracy theories, sometimes separately, sometimes all at once. In between working at The Week, Jamie was a senior press officer at the Department for Transport, with a penchant for crisis communications, working on Brexit, the response to Covid-19 and HS2, among others.