THE exclusive Highland estate of Skibo Castle has been bought over by a small group of members who say they plan to take the famous hideaway for the rich and famous to an even higher level, it was confirmed yesterday.
The sale, for an undisclosed sum, ends the direct involvement in the world-renowned Carnegie Club of its millionaire founder, Peter de Savary, who is now developing a rival upmarket venue in Devon. However, Mr de Savary told The Scotsman yesterday he has not ruled out a return to the Highlands with another business venture.
Speculation had been mounting for some weeks that Skibo, where Madonna and Guy Ritchie married, was being sold. Neither Mr de Savary nor the Carnegie Club would reveal how many of the members are in the syndicate or who they are, although it is believed the group is less than ten-strong.
It has been rumoured that leading the group is Ellis Short, an American fund manager, who has a home overlooking the first fairway at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Mr Short, a director of Tokyo Star Bank and president of Lone Star Global Acquisitions, who also has homes in the US, London and Tokyo, was not available for comment yesterday.
Mr de Savary took over Skibo, once the home of Andrew Carnegie, 13 years ago and turned it into a luxury home-from-home for stars like Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas and Greg Norman. The club now generates 12 million a year for the Highland economy and employs about 150 full-time staff.
The estate, which includes 7,500 acres of parks, gardens and woodlands as well as a golf course, was put up for sale after the Connecticut-based pension fund, Westbrook Partners, withdrew its majority share after five years.
Mr de Savary said: "The time has come after 13 years [to leave]. I think I have done everything I can do there; it’s regarded as one of the pre-eminent places in Scotland, if not the world, and there is not much more I can do creatively without spoiling it.
"I have been the pioneer and the visionary and we have made a great contribution in the northern Highlands and the community at large. But the time has come to secure its long-term future.
"Rather than sell it to a hospitality development or commercial buyer, it seemed more appropriate to sell it to a group of dedicated members who love it and will look after it and keep it much as it is.
"They are happy and I am happy and I think it is an extremely good outcome for Skibo, and I am just pleased that, under my leadership, we have managed to create something quite unique and certainly very special."
His next project is Bovey Castle in the Dartmoor National Park in Devon, which he plans to open by next Easter.
"I am sure it will rival Skibo," he said. "People like to go to different places and I am sure they will love going to Skibo and Bovey Castle as well.
"Both are offering the ultimate in hospitality and lifestyle and the affluent clientele like to move around. They take more than one break a year and go to different places. I don’t think there is any issue there."
Mr de Savary, whose mother is from Scotland, once also owned Glenborrodale Castle, and said he did not consider he was leaving Skibo. "When you put as much of your emotion and heart and hard work into something as I have at Skibo you never leave it. It’s been a love affair and you only forget bad love affairs, not the good ones.
"Skibo will always be in my heart as will the Highlands of Scotland and I am sure I will be doing something else there in future."
Andrew McPherson, who will remain as Skibo’s general manager, said "significant improvements", including building another golf course and upgrading the clubhouse, lodges and spa, are planned under the new ownership.
He said: "Our priority has always been to maximise the members’ enjoyment of the club, at which we have been very successful. However, now that the club is owned by its members, we will be able to set an even higher standard of member services.
"Our goal is to make this the finest club in the world."
Skibo, a former Viking stronghold, was bought for 85,000 in 1891 by the Scots-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who described it as his "heaven on earth". He then spent over 2 million to transform it from an average-sized estate house into an exotic location which was visited by people like Rudyard Kipling, the Rockefellers, Lloyd George and King Edward VII.
Carnegie owned Skibo until his death in 1919, when it passed to his widow, Louise, and then to their daughter, Mary Carnegie Miller, who used it as a summer residence until 1981. It was taken over by Mr de Savary in 1990.