Really, a newspaper cutting was enough to book Forss House for a Highlands escape. Those chimneys, even looming large in a thumbnail! Close to the northernmost point of Britain, Dunnet Head, the hotel overlooks a serpentine river and is surrounded by an enchanting forest. Ian and Sabine Richards have owned it for the past dozen years. Anne Mackenzie, a Forss force of nature, has been General Manager for the last 32 years. Later she will show us a Viking style pine cup. “Major Radclyffe found it in the attic in 1900. Are you quite pleased to see it?”
The chimneys are a riot. Even more so up close and personal when viewed from a roof ledge. They’re so tall and Tudorbethan, or as Sir Charles Barry would’ve said, “Anglo-Italian”. Joseph Gribben, a mid 20th century Belfast builder, always insisted on lofty chimneys because they keep smoke away from the roof. Some of them have windows between their stacks. They look like they belong to another house, not the 1810 Regency one below. Together they form a defensive ring around and above the perimeter walls. What a silhouette!
John Gifford writes in The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands, “Eight kilometres west of Thurso. Harled early 19th century mansion of the Sinclairs of Forss, with huge chimneys on the wallheads as well as the gables. Lower mid Victorian west addition; the east gable’s conservatory is also late 19th century. On the north front, a crenelated porch added in 1939. Beside the Forss Water to the west, an early 19th piend roofed mill; at its south end, a small miller’s house with gable stone dormers. On the river’s opposite bank, a second mill, probably also early 19th century. Two arch bridge with rounded cutwaters, of circa 1800.”
The five bay garden front is a chessboard of blind windows: the central window on the raised ground floor is a visual trick; so are the alternating middle windows on the first floor. “Forss House was built as a hunting lodge by the Sinclairs of Orkney,” according to Anne. “The wild game hunter Major Charles Radclyffe retired here at the end of the 19th century. He had the first coloured tattoo in Britain.” There are plenty of reminders of its hunting lodge past, from the stags’ heads in the entrance hall to the fresh fish on the menu. Dinner is held in the dining room which overlooks the south garden and river:
- G+T – juniper berries, orange rind, lemon slice, ice
- Amuse bouche – blue cheese soufflé
- Bread – pecan, curry
- Goat’s cheese mousse – tomato, mint
- Scrabster monkfish – smoked mussels, saffron potatoes, mushrooms, spinach
- Elderflower jelly – strawberry granola
- Canapés – whisky truffles and pistachio cakes
- Baron dé Baussac Voignier 2010
In the whisky bar next door to the dining room is a framed letter from a newspaper published by the Continent’s first English bookshop. It’s addressed to the Major’s father: “C J Radcoyffe Esq, Hyde, Wareham, Dorset. Dear Sir, We the undersigned desire as members of the Staff of The Galignani Messenger to collectively offer you and your family our heartiest good wishes for a happy Christmas and a bright New Year. We take this opportunity of earnestly trusting that you may be spared for many years to preside over the ever increasing success and prosperity of The Galignani Messenger and we on our part will use our best endeavours to attain that object. Paris 24th December 1894.”
All the raised ground floor reception rooms are carpeted with Hunting McKay Black Watch tartan, the only non clan tartan. Breakfast is in the adjoining conservatory. The original 19th century conservatory was doubled in size in the second half of last century. It overlooks the east garden. A shallow sweeping staircase leads to four first floor bedroom suites. Rooms are named after hills and types of fishing bait. Cairnmore and Torran overlook the river. Brimside has a view of the east garden. Tulloch overlooks the entrance. There are a further four bedrooms on the lower ground floor plus accommodation in estate buildings.