Gordon Macintyre’s decision to decorate his drawing room with the same design as papers the walls of the Queen’s robing room at Westminster is merely one illustration of what a distinctive and individual hotelier he was.
Theatrical, glamorous and exacting, his personality was perfectly reflected in his establishment on the Moray Firth coast where the furnishings were exceptional and the atmosphere was more convivial houseparty than small-town hotel.
Having once turned down the chance to train in Switzerland at the world’s best hotel school, he had honed his instinctive hospitality skills both in the family business in Scotland and in London, developing an ethos that would take his “boutique” hotel to international acclaim, attract a galaxy of performers and artists from Rod Stewart to Yehudi Menuhin and Annie Leibovitz, and leave a joyous memory in the minds of all who sought him out.
The son of hoteliers John and Ruth Macintyre, who owned the Park Hotel in Forres and bought and converted Clifton House, Nairn into a hotel in the 1930s, he was educated at Inverness Royal Academy where he was a bright pupil.
Then, as a teenager in the summer of 1947, he was sent to France for the first time, spending two months experiencing the gastronomy and styles of eating which were to influence his tastes all his life.
On leaving school he declined the offer of a place at the prestigious hotel school in Lausanne and opted to do his National Service instead, thinking it would entail just a year. However, conscription was extended to two years and Macintyre – who even then always carried a silver napkin ring and insisted on a linen napkin – regarded his service as a complete waste of time.
By 1952, following his father’s diagnosis with lung cancer, he and his sister Gloria were running the Park Hotel, where he learned the basics of cooking. He also married his wife Muriel that year and they would work in Scotland during the tourist season and in London during the winter.
At the Bonnington Hotel in Bloomsbury he worked firstly in accounts and later as personal assistant to the owner, Jack Frame, learning from him and forming an idea of how he wanted to run his own hotel. During their time in London, Macintyre and his wife both gained experience at the Chelsea Pottery, an open studio for potters – he in decorating techniques and Muriel as a thrower.
The couple returned to Nairn in 1959 where he worked in The Clifton with his mother and, along with his wife, set up the Nairn Pottery from their home. It became well known for the fragments of decorated pots adorning its the walls. They also ran pottery classes.
When his mother retired from the hotel in 1970, Macintyre became wholly responsible for the direction of the establishment and its distinctive look. The décor changed, with Cole wallpapers featuring in the rooms, the most impressive of which was the drawing room with its Augustus Pugin-designed wall covering, like that printed onto gold foil paper in the Palace of Westminster. Curtains were lined and interlined, with swags and tails in a specially woven yellow Gainsborough silk and ceramics, paintings and curiosities filled the property which enjoyed some spectacular views over the Moray Firth.
With Macintyre’s attention to detail, artistic eye and non-conformist attitude, the hotel began to gain a reputation : breakfast was served until lunchtime; the menus were all in French and, long before it was fashionable, he insisted on buying the best local produce and on wasting nothing.
First mentioned in The Good Food Guide in 1969, The Clifton won a Good Hotel Guide Cesar for the wine list and was also singled out for its breakfasts, collected a Michelin award, excellent reviews in American guides Frommer’s and Fodor’s and was named one of Which? Hotel Guide’s ten best seaside hotels. Described variously by writers as wonderfully eccentric, the most distinctively individual hotel in the Highlands and one of Scotland’s most interesting, it was also covered in the French, Italian and German media, including a seven-part article in Madame Figaro, a Saturday supplement of the French newspaper Le Figaro.
On one occasion the Times’ Christmas crossword featured a clue querying the colour of the eggs served at Clifton House (pale blue, from a speciality breed of chicken kept by Macintyre), sparking a flurry of calls to the hotel.
Its recipes were included in books, among them Second Helpings of Roast Chicken by Simon Hopkinson and Scottish Highland Hospitality by Claire Macdonald; the hotel was used for filming and in 1977 the ITV programme, A Night at the Clifton, featured a production of the play The Sleeping Prince at the hotel.
The latter was the fruit of yet another idea from the multi-faceted Macintyre. From the mid-1960s he had begun presenting chamber music in the dining room at The Clifton, where the mahogany floor and wooden ceiling contributed to an excellent acoustic. But years earlier he had learned about costumes and costume-making at Richmond Opera and in the 1970s he began staging plays at the hotel. Starting in 1973 with Lady Windermere’s Fan and running until 2002, they spanned almost 80 productions, from Hedda Gabler to An Ideal Husband.
Musicians and actors loved playing in the round there, where voices could project well, and the intimacy and hospitality were unique. Macintyre also made the costumes and extended the sense of theatricality into his own wardrobe – one visitor recalled meeting him for the first time when he appeared in the doorway wearing black leather trousers and boots, a pink shirt and gold cravat.
All profits from productions went to charity until he formed the Nairn Performing Arts Guild, a registered charity, in 1989. Among those who performed at The Clifton are classical pianist Benjamin Frith and the cellist Steven Isserlis. Other guests also included Hungarian violinist Gyorgy Pauk – who brought his 1714 Stradivarius – Barbara Cartland, Bette Midler and Mel Gibson.
The Guild formally ended after Clifton House was converted into three homes and Macintyre and his wife moved out in 2008. Together they had formed an enormously successful partnership, each encouraging and complementing the other. Muriel, whose pottery is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, died in 2009 and last year a retrospective of their work at Nairn Pottery was held at the Museum of Edinburgh.
Macintyre , who was also a knowledgeable gardener who landscaped his own gardens, took up painting in retirement and remained passionate about music and opera, visiting the Bayreuth festival in Germany many times and attending Glyndebourne last year.
Breaking with tradition to the end, his funeral service was held at his home, from where he made his final journey, accompanied by the sound of the pipes, to Nairn Cemetery.
He is survived by his sons Symon and Charles, daughter Ruth and extended family.