DESIGN FOCUS: THE DOWANS HOTEL

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Nestled in Aberlour and perching the crest of a hill is the Dowans Hotel. From the road, this may look like a typical Scottish hotel and you would expect the interior to reflect the look of a country house, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

The Murray family, who bought the hotel in 2012, have worked together to create a stylish boutique hotel in the Highlands.

Head of the household Michael Murray explains, “I was formerly CEO of Coats Viyella in Asia, and as a family we travelled all over the world and stayed in some super hotels. When I came back to the UK and took early retirement, I felt it was time to invest in a business that could be run by the family.  My two daughters had done degrees, and my wife Marie has a keen eye for design, so we looked for a hotel that we could invest in and that we could put our own mark on.”

TheDowans0008_optMarie continues the story, “We looked at a lot of hotels. We even considered one in Spain. Then this one popped up. It was flatlining, and we could see its potential and the opportunity it offered us.
The couple and daughters Lauren and Stephanie researched the local market and realised that the hotel was not only was located in the heart of whisky country, but that it had lots of other customer opportunities too.

The Dowans was originally built in 1888 as a home for John F Cumming, the grandson of the couple who established Cardhu Whisky Distillery in 1824. The house remained a family home (though it had changed hands) through to and including the second world war where it became an Officers’ Mess for the army. In the early 1950s, The Dowans was acquired by the Aberlour Orphanage, and it became the nursery section of the Orphanage, where children aged up to the age of 6 years old lived. In the late 1960s, the Aberlour Orphanage sold off all their physical assets and subsequently morphed into the Aberlour Child Care Trust and The Dowans was acquired and converted into a private hotel with its main focus, at that point, in guests with an interest in sporting (fishing and shooting) activities.
But as Michael told DRAM by 2012 this business had dwindled. He says, “The former owners  marketed it as a sporting hotel, but really that market only accounts for less than 10% of our business. Some people come and say “I can believe you’ve changed it, but then I discover they haven’t been to the hotel for the past 20 years.”

Today when you arrive at the hotel you park just beside the duck pond. Marie explains, “People are always asking us when we put the pond in, but we didn’t.  It has been there for years but was just overgrown. So we have the cut the greenery back and have put in a wee pontoon.”

You then walk around the front of the hotel to the reception. This allows you to see its lovely gardens, seating out area, and, of course, a super view of Speyside. But as Michael explains that wasn’t the case when they took the hotel over. He says, “You used to enter at the back of the hotel, which meant you didn’t get to the see the view.”
When the family took over in December 2012, one of their first jobs was to install seven skips to take what they describe as ‘dust collectors.’  Stephanie says, ‘We also took a lot to car boot sales and we donated the cash we raised to the Aberlour Childcare Trust.”

Marie continues, “Once we had a clear out, we immediately set about renovating and upgrading the Hotel, with the help of Chelsea McLaine of Glasgow, and with the ambition of giving to the Dowans all the comforts of the twenty-first century without losing any of the building’s original Victorian charm.”
The reception area was one of the first to get a make-over. Although initially that consisted of removing the carpet. Says Michael, “We did discover a lovely parquet floor, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t practical for everyday use, so we have laid a new floor over it.”

It is very glamorous with lots of large candles which reflect off shiny black surfaces including a black marble fireplace.  A reception table features a bespoke silver antler vase. Says Marie, “When we first got here there were antlers everywhere. We took them down but we weren’t sure what to do with them, and then I saw some sprayed silver antlers in an expensive shop and thought ‘ah’ we could try that. So we did.”

And to great effect, not only do the silver antlers feature around the hotel in various guises, but there is also a large silver antler light fitting which hangs above the stairs, which is a knock-out.

TheDowans0026_optTo the left of the reception is a very comfortable, and again very glamorous room with its own cocktail bar.  This was formerly a residents lounge.  And according to Marie, it was ‘dead space.’ She says, “When we took over people didn’t want to come into this room. It was freezing and lifeless.” Marie worked closely with Margot Paton of Glasgow-based interior designers Chelsea Mclaine who assisted with the transformation. Says Marie, ‘I’ve known Margot for years, we originally lived in the West End, and I really like her style. We worked really well together.”

Today the old residents lounge is anything but old and lifeless. The colours in this reception room are predominantly shades of gray, with oversized armchairs in luxurious fabrics, and two large couches, again beautifully upholstered in a glamourous silver fabric. These sofas are located in front of a spectacular fireplace, complete with a large wood burner.

Says Marie, “We wanted to retain the character of the building and bring back some of its original Victorian baronial features, for example, the cornicing. When we took over it much of the cornice was hidden, so we exposed it and to be honest, it was in very good condition considering.  We have also deliberately not boxed in some of the piping, but instead have painted it to match the décor. I’ve also put love seats in the windows.” She continues, “I told Margot we didn’t want the lounge to look like a care home.”  Well, she certainly fulfilled the brief!

The wood burner was put in by the couple when they first took over. Michael explains, “I thought putting some warmth into the room would attract customers in, but that wasn’t enough.”
The fireplace is the focal point of the room and sparkles. Says Marie, “We added the sparkle when we renovated. The original Victorian black surround was cracked so we replaced with black granite with quartz, we painted the wooden fireplace, which was nicotine yellow,  pale gray and even recycled the mirror by spraying it silver”.

There are also curtains in a lovely luxurious grey fabric and lots of cushions and beautiful lamps. Nestled in the corner is a cocktail bar which is the domain of daughter Lauren. In fact, she says, “Cocktails are our biggest sellers.”  She just loves creating new cocktails as well as classic cocktails for the Dowans’ customers.

IMG_5845_optStephanie, however, is responsible for the hotel’s two restaurants, a more casual brasserie and a formal dining room. Both of which have been imaginatively designed and feature Australian artwork. She also concentrates on learning as much as she can about the history of the Dowans and has developed a real passion for local produce and of course whisky.
It’s no wonder that one of the most popular areas in the hotel is the whisky snug, which has some 300 or so whiskies. It is a warm golden room with a wall of whisky. In fact says Stephanie, “Some people sit looking at the wall of whisky all night. I do tell them it’s not interactive!”

However if I thought the lounge was a ‘piece de resistance’ the renovated bedrooms are something else. Beautifully presented and all with wonderful bathrooms.  Michael explains that wife Marie movedjust about every ensuite in the building.  They really need to be seen to be appreciated. But the quality of the finish and the furnishing is pure luxury. Marie quotes, ‘I have stayed in some spectacular hotels and I wanted our guests to enjoy the best we could offer.”

One of the most amazing feats is that the Murray’s have managed to refurbish The Dowans without closing for any time. Next on the agenda is the staircase and the final rooms.
Says Michael, “It’s been a real journey. We didn’t close one day during the renovation and our customers have enjoyed watching the hotel change. When we opened our guests hardly ate here, now they do. Our customer base has grown and grown, and we are attracting tourists, business people and locals from all over the area.”

I’m not surprised – this is a real family affair, that works!

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