Skibo says 'I don't' to £1m of business

THE Highland hideaway where Madonna married and Robbie Williams celebrated his 30th birthday has turned away £1 million of business recently - to protect its exclusivity.

Skibo Castle in Sutherland made international headlines when Madonna married Guy Ritchie in December 2000, in strict secrecy.

It was also the venue chosen when the singer Robbie Williams hosted a celebrity birthday party in March.

Last year the National Trust for Scotland said that the trend for wedding celebrations in stately homes and castles had helped its income, with about 500,000 a year being raised in renting out the venues for parties, weddings and corporate events.

But Peter Crome, the managing director of the Carnegie Club at Skibo, revealed he has already declined similar business. He told The Scotsman: "We had to be conscious of having the club available for its members and the sort of weddings we do will take over the whole club, so we can’t do too many.

"We are not stopping them. It would be easy to do one a week but we can’t do that. I’ve taken the bold step of turning away business that I feel may disrupt the feeling of the club.

"At the last count, I’d turned away about 1 million worth in five or six months. That is difficult.

"There are a number of companies I’ve worked for in the past where I’d have been shot for doing such a thing.

"It’s not to say we are turning everything away, but we have to think of the impact it will have on membership and people who are staying here."

The decision is in keeping with the move towards making the Carnegie Club more of an exclusive base for its 500 members, who pay 4,000 a year, plus a newly-introduced 5,000 joining fee, for their privacy.

It follows the club’s takeover by a small group of members last year, ending the involvement of Peter de Savary, who bought the one-time home of Andrew Carnegie 14 years ago.

Mr Crome said: "Before I came here [in October] I was confused about the club becoming a hotel and that was part of the members’ fear. It wasn’t difficult to get into, and by their very nature clubs need to have a degree of exclusivity."

The championship golf course is now for members’ use only and guests are encouraged to stay only if they are serious about membership. The next time Robbie Williams returns, for example, would have to be as a member.

Having celebrity guests does the club’s profile no harm, says Mr Crome: "The Madonna factor did much for Skibo and for the Scottish wedding business and it’s nice to know we are helping tourism indirectly.

"But I don’t understand it. People celebrate things all the time. I guess it just captures the imagination somehow, it’s the whole celebrity mystery and the idea that people are behind a gate. It has always intrigued me why something fairly normal attracts so much attention."

The exclusivity of the club previously brought it into conflict with the land-reform lobby. Mr de Savary was critical of new access legislation, arguing that it would harm business.

But Mr Crome said: "It was something the previous owner was involved in, but for us we accept that it is now something people are able to do, but we have no strong political view on it. The idea of people picnicking on the lawn was not appealing, as it would not be in anyone’s house. Not everyone is sure what it all means yet, so we will watch its development with interest."

A major programme of refurbishment is under way at the castle, with 2 million already having been spent on a new golf clubhouse and another 1 million earmarked for the guest lodges.

In addition, 5 million will be spent on the castle itself and 3 million to renovate the original marble-surrounded swimming pool - a far cry from the 85,000 that Andrew Carnegie paid for the castle, although the once-poor Scot who made his massive fortune in the United States spent 2 million on improvements.

The original pool used sea-water and the pavilion was glass-covered. Carnegie even had a galleried bandstand installed and often the pool was covered to make a dance floor.

Mr Crome said: "We hope to start work on the pool next year. It will be a huge project and there will be no easy fix, as it has not seen any serious investment for about 40 years.

"However it will be a great challenge, and once it is finished, it will be one of the finest pools around. It is one of the best examples of Victorian pools and it will be interesting to see if we can add anything to it that’s more of the moment."