Drawing on the rugged beauty of the Scottish highlands The Fife Arms is putting the wild back into wellness
Words: Will Moffitt
To dip into the River Dee in October in your swimming trunks is to experience Scotland’s beauty and brutality in one bone-chilling rush. The meandering curves and currents of Aberdeenshire’s famous river are elegant to look at, but when you are in them they take the breath from your lungs and the feeling from your bones. Back in our tent, wrapped in a thick woolly blanket and armed with a shot of hot whisky I feel energised; elated even. This must be one of those dopamine hits endorsed by winter swimmers and Wim Hof acolytes.
It’s this focus on wild wellness that drew me to the Fife Arms. Located in the highland village of Braemar, a wee drive from Balmoral, the old 19th century coaching inn has garnered high praise since its revitalisation in 2018 by gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth, lauded for its eccentric charm, picturesque surroundings and extensive art portfolio. The chance to try the hotel’s new wild wellness experience – which promised guided walks, nature art sessions and a spot of wild swimming – felt too good an opportunity to miss.
Our ‘wellness journey’ began in the hotel’s tartan-walled drawing room, which sports a psychedelic ceiling swirling with vivid colours painted by Chinese artist Zhang Enli. This arthouse-meets-hunting-lodge aesthetic is repeated throughout, exemplified by the Clunie dining room. Named after the local river the Clunie's walls are wrapped in jagged cubist murals – the work of Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca – with a giant stag sculpture nobly commanding the centre and a menacing set of bony antlers overhanging the kitchen.
Above: The Drawing room at the Fife Arms has a psychedelic ceiling painted by Chinese artist Zhang Enli
After a quick bite of smoked salmon our guide Annie Armstrong whisked us off to forested hills overlooking the village covered in burnt orange leaves, rows of birch trees and scarlet toadstools. A qualified zoologist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of these local ecosystems, Annie covered everything from fractious debates over deer culling to the medicinal uses of bog-myrtle. After a quick sketching session of a nearby glen we headed back to the hotel rosy faced and reinvigorated, ready for a guided tour of the hotels’ extensive art collection.
Not many hotels house a Picasso or a Lucien Freud portrait, but the Fife has both, along with a giant canvas by Pieter Brueghel the Younger that you can stare at over breakfast. In the lobby hangs a ‘red deer chandelier’ glowing with twisted neon colours and a self-playing Steinway & Sons piano wrapped in bleached salon paper by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. The Flying Stag, the hotel’s cosy gastropub, sports a sculpture of Scotland’s soul animal above the bar and there are portraits of Braemar's residents hanging on the wall by former artist in residence Gideon Summerfield.
The rooms are also part of the fun, laden with tributes to Braemars’ famous old crowd. Mine was themed around the life and exquisite tastes of Mrs Frances Farquharson, the one time stylish editor of American Vogue, who married Captain Alwyn Farquharson of the local Invercauld estate.
Above: The Flying Stag pub
The next morning, taking breakfast in the Clunie I treated myself to a hearty local delicacy: creamy porridge served with a dash of Royal Lochnagar whisky. Shortly after Annie took us for a walk around Ballochbuie Forest on the Balmoral Estate. The sky was a dappled blue as we traversed through pine forests thick with moss and lichen. Near a shimmering lake we passed a Honka Hut, gifted to the Queen and Prince Philip for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary by the people of Finland. Next came the roaring Falls of Garbh Allt and an ornate iron bridge, constructed for Queen Victoria in 1878.
Soaking up the fresh air, surrounded by unkempt glens, clear lochs and ancient forests, I felt relaxed and clear headed, distracted from mounting deadlines and the ping of that unrelenting inbox. If this is ‘wellness’ I thought, then it's wellness of the most practical and honest kind: shorn of the kooky mantras and the scientific jargon. As Annie pointed out: it’s also the kind of experience that can be tweaked to suit guests’ tastes, unlike those monastic boot camps that conflate exhaustion with fun and map your itinerary to the minute. Speaking of which… It was time for a spot of wild swimming.
Above: the rugged beauty of the Scottish landscape
On our final day we joined “human rewilder” Lisa Krause in a nomadic tent lined with sheepskins. Teaching us to breathe properly — first through the nose then deeply enough to fill your belly with air — Lisa explained that most adults have “forgotten how to breathe”.
Sitting upright before lying horizontal we worked on stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system which can help alleviate stress by relaxing the body, slowing your heart rate and lowering blood pressure. I was sceptical at first but by the end of the session I found parts of my lungs I didn’t know existed. Tingles ran down my arms and fingers.
Emerging from the tent to the smell of pine and the sound of birdsong I felt more in tune with my body and my surroundings. Lisa suggested that we try to practise these breathing exercises at home to help alleviate the stresses of urban life. I have done so a handful of times and on each occasion my mind wanders back to Braemar. I long to go back, clear my head, and get another hit of that cool Scottish air.
Starting rates for a Nature & Poetry Suite start from £434 per night including VAT and breakfast. For more information or to book, please visit www.thefifearms.com or call 01339 720200.