Bars

From hacks to hospitality (The Scotsman Hotel)

Tom Bruce-Gardyne visits the heart of Edinburgh and a new luxury hotel that has taken over the former home of Scotland's national newspaper – The Scotsman Hotel
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Whisky, that pre-eminent social lubricant and loosener of tongues, has always played a key role in journalism. Countless indiscretions have slipped out over an evening dram to reappear in print the morning after – suitably spiced up for the gossip column. A drop of the hard stuff has no doubt often helped steady an Editor’s nerve in the midst of a circulation war or when a big story is breaking in the dead of night. So it is only right and proper that the new Scotsman Hotel in the heart of Edinburgh, which for 95 years housed one of Scotland’s top newspapers, should dedicate its bar to Scotch whisky. Not content with the usual Macallans, Glenlivets and Laphroaigs you would expect in a five star hotel, The Scotsman has selected no less than 399 of Scotland’s finest malts. With one last puff on their cigarettes the journalists at The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News decamped to new offices at Holyrood to await the delayed arrival of their neighbour – the new Scottish parliament. For a brief moment the building, described as “the most magnificent newspaper building in the world” when it opened in 1904, fell silent allowing the ghosts of printers past to wander the eleven floors in peace. Then the builders moved in and The Scotsman’s imposing baroque façade, that rears up above the North Bridge to look down on Waverley Station, disappeared behind scaffolding. In May of this year, two years and £19.5 million since the revamp began, Scotland’s latest luxury hotel threw open its doors. Among the first to be shown round some of the 68 bedrooms were old news hounds who had come to reminisce about past colleagues like Magnus Magnusson and Gus, now Lord, Macdonald. On being told that prices start at £149 for a Study Room, one wistful old hack remembered having 3p docked from his expenses for allegedly over-charging on a bus fare.
Moving up a gear, you can choose between a Deluxe Room, an Editor’s Room, a Publisher or Director suite and, best of all, the Penthouse. This occupies the entire top two floors, boasts a sauna at the highest altitude in Edinburgh, and is all yours for £800 a night. If anything might persuade Andrew Neil, The Scotsman’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, to stay at his old stamping ground overnight this is surely it. So far Mr Neil, affectionately known as ‘Brillo-pad’ (but probably out of earshot) due to his Shredded Wheat style tonsure , prefers to fly from London to hold court with his scribes in the Balmoral Hotel before jetting home.Stretched over so many floors the lay-out is inevitably confusing, but it adds to the charm. In its concept and design it is as unlike a Hilton-style skyscraper as it could have been. No two rooms are the same shape and, rather than order in acres of the same fabric, the decorators have chosen nearly 50 different tweeds from Johnston’s of Elgin to furnish them. The result is a comfortable balance – it’s certainly not tartan, but nor is it self-consciously modern or needlessly reliant on design for design’s sake. But it is the details that stand out, like the privacy hatches where room orders can be left without one having to stumble to the door from the shower, sopping wet while desperately trying to maintain your dignity. Or the fact that every room boasts its own espresso machine – to replace those little sachets of instant coffee, invariably stale and which taste very much like the contents of an ashtray. Clearly someone has given even the smallest of details some very serious thought.Strange as it may seem you enter The Scotsman on the fourth floor from the North Bridge which was the original escape route from Edinburgh’s Old Town to the New Town when it was built in the late 18th century. The marble and oak-lined hallway that once housed the newspaper’s editorial staff has been retained to form a small reception area. This will be warmed throughout the winter with a blazing log fire which the authorities only allowed after the architects had inserted various pipes and filters. New Town residents meanwhile have never bothered with such expense: maybe the chimney pot detection van is an invention that Edinburgh council may wish to invest in. Or possibly not.Down the marble staircase to the third floor and we are back in the bar, or Room 399, where not the faintest trace of its
previous use as the features office of the Edinburgh Evening News remains. As you settle into the sofa or perch on one of the ornate leather chairs, the image of a Sub-Editor taking a slug of Whyte & Mackay from a plastic cup is hard to invoke. Whatever else there may have been a few years ago, there wouldn’t have been Gianni standing behind the curved bar of beaten copper. With his dazzling smile and dark olive eyes Gianni, the Greek Head Barman, looks as though he has just stepped off the set of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The hotel’s collection of 399 whiskies is back-lit in the glass cabinets that line the walls. With the range of different malts on offer totalling more than five times the number of working distilleries, there is plenty of scope for tasting rare expressions and vintages – such as malts from defunct distilleries like Brora and Glen Mhor.Among the labels that caught my eye were a Bunnahabhain 1963, a Teaninich 23-year-old and an Old Fettercairn Stillman’s Dram. Prices range from £2.50 to £162 for a glass of The Macallan 1946 that is kept in a wooden box on the bar next to a humidor filled with Cohibas, Davidoffs and Montecristos. The choice of blended Scotch includes all shades of Johnnie Walker including Gold, previously only available at the sevenstar Dubai Hotel – or so Gianni told me. If you are still not satisfied you could always ask Gianni to amaze you with one of the 40 cocktails in his portfolio. How about an Editor’s Choice? A deep purple brew consisting of Jack Daniels, Amaretto, Southern Comfort, Drambuie and a drop of Tabasco. From here it's a few short steps to my favourite room of all: the dining room. Here The Scotsman’s chefs are promising to deliver the best breakfast in the British Isles and the aroma of croissants, coffee and bacon is tempting to say the least. One floor down is a rather impressive health club for members and hotel guests called Escape and below that is a nightclub which has yet to be named. In a tribute to The Scotsman and Andrew Neil, how about ‘The Brillo Pad’? Maybe it’s best to let the hotel staff sort that out.