I don’t know about you, but I’ve never given Taynuilt a chance. Head west on the A85, and there’s no real incentive to do so. There’s a sign pointing right to the village, the station and the golf course, one pointing left to some holiday chalets, there’s a war memorial and a whitewashed hotel at the crossroads… and that’s that. Ahead, there’s the coast, Oban, and the prospect of islands. Just a few hundred yards further on and the streetlights stop. You accelerate again, and it’s gone from the rear view mirror.
Next time, slow down. Have another look at that hotel at the foot of Ben Cruachan. It’s the building that gave Taynuilt its name (“house by the burn” in Gaelic), a ten-bedroom coaching inn dating back to the 17th century that was bought two years ago by a chef, John McNulty, who is just 25 and determined to turn it into one of Scotland’s finest gastro-pubs.
It’s a bit of a gamble. Motorists like me, blinkered by that rush to see the sea that never truly leaves those of us whose childhoods were spent far from it, might always tend to zoom past. Worse still, those tourists who DID stop off for a meal there before it reopened in March 2013 mightn’t want to do so again.
From what I can gather from friends who live nearby, the Taynuilt Hotel as it was when McNulty bought it out of administration was the kind of place that gave Scottish tourism a bad name.
Microwaved meals. Basic beers and lagers. A kitchen with just one cooker and a hotplate. A bar with a ceiling painted black, white walls stained with nicotine, and an uneven, rotting floor that occasionally flooded.
At a cost of £225,000 over and above the purchase price, McNulty has transformed the place. The bar has been rebuilt, cleared of its tired copperware, given a white ceiling, its carpets replaced by a level wooden floor, the kitchen and the bedrooms comprehensively upgraded, the building rewired and provided with a new boiler.
But the biggest change is in the food and drink. Our tourism chiefs are forever banging on about the sheer quality of Scottish produce, but how many pubs take that message so seriously that it informs everything on their menu? How many, when making a fish or a venison pie, will deliberately use only the choicest cuts and not just leftovers? How many, when you order lobster at 6:30pm, will be able to tell you it’s so freshly caught that it hasn’t yet arrived?
If McNulty has been financially helped by his family (his father owns a small chain of local pharmacies) in buying the hotel, the passion for high-quality affordable seasonal produce is entirely his own. It’s what he picked up first at the Kilberry Inn on Kintyre, where he would have learnt how far people are prepared to travel for good food, then working for Emily Watkins at the Kingham Plough, in Chipping Norton, one of England’s finest gastro-pubs, where he might have wondered why such places were all too scarce in Scotland.
It’s not been easy. He’s worked the last 12 months without a break, and when he moved in, he and his partner Rachel and their baby daughter lived in the bedroom above the front entrance as the hotel was being gutted and refurbished around them. “We spent the first five weeks just clearing the place out,” he said. “It’s only because we’re young enough and daft enough that we’d take something like this on.”
Finding a general manager like David Lapsley must have helped. The son of the Tiree policeman, and a former soldier with the Argylls, Lapsley is that rare creature: someone who who can convey his passion for food and drink without leaving the customer feeling browbeaten or hopelessly ignorant. “If you are passionate about putting the best food and drink you can find in front of people,” he says, “this job is really simple.”
Between them, they have plenty of plans. Already, they are trying to lure visitors from Oban by taking the cost of the train ticket from their bills, have introduced loyalty cards for locals and midweek pensioners’ lunches at less than £8. In the future they plan to build on their whisky tastings (a flight of 12, 14 and 21-year-old Balvenies for £13, anyone?), introduce meals based around their excellent wine list and craft beers and buy a few mountain bikes to hire out.
If there’s a prize for commitment and enthusiasm in this, Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink, I’d happily nominate the two of them. If there isn’t, there should be.
In 1803, when Dorothy and William Wordsworth passed this way on their journey around Scotland, they stayed at the Taynuilt Hotel too. It was, Dorothy noted, “very congenial, with good breakfasts, excellent supper, and including accommodation for the horses, all at a modest price.”
Apart from that bit about the horses, it still is.