Running through the veins of the most creative entrepreneurs, I think, is a mantra that goes like this, ’ in times of uncertainty, innovate and diversify’ and in the first of my new ‘Creative Minds’ posts, I’ve chosen a special place created by a innovative farming family who have done just that. In doing so, they’ve built a brand and ethos that is leading the way in experiential hospitality and boutique festival events in Scotland.
Monachyle Mhor is still a bit of a secret, undiscovered even by those who have explored much of Scotland and its ‘best’ places to stay. Formerly a farmhouse, it’s been renovated with care into a unique, quirky, boutique hotel located in a somewhat hidden valley – Balquhidder Glen. The glen itself is a little mystical and not on the main route to anywhere other than mountains accessible on foot so if you’re not looking out for the turn off, you’ll likely sail on past – as many who want to keep the secret hope that you’ll do! Its name, (if you’re not Scottish) ‘Balquhidder,’ is pronounced by conjuring up that illusive airy sound (as is in Loch) but much softer, a little like the ‘wh’ in whisper.
This is important as it sets the mood for arriving at this special place along the single track road that weaves slowly along the narrow edge of Loch Voil. The further along the road you go, you start to feel what I can only describe as a slight giddiness, as though travelling back in time. You will be entranced by the heart stopping views and glassy water and so if you’re the one driving, take care not to actually end up in the Loch while you’re gaping in wonder.
Pass by the churchyard burial ground of ‘outlaw’ Rob Roy MacGregor and the distant location of the hidden cave thought to have sheltered the fugitive Robert the Bruce, round another bend and you’ll come across a slightly bizarre, unexpected sign for a Buddhist retreat and then suddenly, amidst this intriguing setting, you’ll reach the opening that leads up to the hotel. You can’t miss the hotel itself, its pink. Well what else did you expect? It’s a place that surprises from the moment you park up.
With the working farm adjacent, the atmosphere here has a bit of a quiet buzz about it. Well not all quiet. The owner Tom Lewis can often be heard laughing loudly as he chats away to guests and staff – it’s his open, friendly and relaxed manner that infiltrates every inch of this place and instantly puts you at ease. An accomplished chef and farmer himself, he’s hands on in sourcing and foraging the best of ingredients from the nearby land to compliment the home-reared meats and organic kitchen garden produce -the culinary experience at Monachyle Mhor is legendary.
But as with the most creative minds, he hasn’t stopped there. In terms of thinking ‘outside the box’ Tom and his wife Lisa and other close members of the family are constantly coming up with creative ideas, events and groundbreaking ventures. They’ve used their skills in seeing the potential in the discarded and forgotten to create really special and innovative accommodation beyond the farmhouse. Instead of hiring interior designers they use their creative instincts, seeking out collaborations with contemporary artists and young student architects to create breathtaking spaces that are quite magical.
I caught up with the team at Monachyle Mhor to ask them a little about what they put into their creative approach in growing the brand and what’s next.
1. Tell us about the background to Monachyle Mhor Hotel and how it came to be.
The farm was established over 30 years ago and was run by Tom’s parents until he took over in 1996. Tom renovated the hotel and now runs it with his wife Lisa and his brother Dick. Monachyle Mhor has 16 rooms and two lots of stylish glamping accommodation located in the stunning grounds. The Mhor Collection kept growing and Mhor Fish opened 11 years ago followed by Mhor Bread, both located in nearby Callander. In 2013 the Mhor Collection opened Mhor 84, a motel located off the M84 past Callander.
2. What would you say is the ethos of the Mhor brand and how does this filter through to your various Mhor ventures?
Our ethos is simple; good quality, a warm welcome and the personal touch and we hope this comes across in all we do.
3. Monachyle Mhor stands out as a unique and successful boutique hotel, what’s your secret to making it so special?
We get a lot of repeat visitors at Monachyle and we find that word of mouth plays large part in bringing us new visitors, which we think is pretty special.
4. One of the things guests notice is the quirkiness of the hotel, very much evident in its fun atmosphere and its decor- how would you describe this individual style of the hotel interior and how has this evolved since opening?
We like to bring a blend of old and new, to both reflect the hotel’s history and also to highlight some of the brilliant contemporary art and design we come across. Our alternative accommodation offerings, the Pilot Panther Wagon and Ferry Cabin (formerly a ferry terminal) are another way we like to mix functionality with creativity and aesthetic design.
5. Who was the creative mind behind the interior décor and what was their vision?
Tom has been at the helm of the hotel’s design journey, but the rest of the family, his wife Lisa, brother Dick, sister in law Mhairi and sister Melanie have all had a hand to play in the design of the Mhor Collection as a whole. The vision was to create somewhere stylish, fun and yet relaxing.
6. Each room and public space in the hotel has it’s own unique character yet it all works together. How have you worked creatively to achieve this?
Whether it’s bringing back antlers discovered on a walk, or a member of the Lewis clan creating a piece of bespoke artwork for the walls, the feel across the Mhor collection has come about, well, collectively! We have been lucky enough to work with a number of very talented local designers and creators who we know understand our vision and we feel work well with the brand we’ve created and feel very passionate about.
7. You have some really interesting and unexpected pieces of contemporary art displayed in the hotel, can you tell us more about them and how you source your artwork?
Tom’s sister Melanie is behind much of the art found within the hotel and indeed across the collection, but we also like to travel and have found things around Scotland and further afield, that we have brought back.
8. It strikes us that Mhor has creativity at it’s heart – in the food, the ambient décor, the art and the welcoming staff. How do you sustain creativity in what must be a tough business?
It can be tough, there is always a lot going on, but we really care about what we do and hope that this passion comes through in all that we do, be it through food or in creating welcoming, yet (hopefully!) stylish spaces.
9. What is your vision for the future of Mhor? Are there any exciting developments for us to look out for over the next year?
At the moment we are really focusing on developing our year round events programme. This year already we have hosted our 6th Mhor Festival, a fantastic family oriented event with Landrover Defender called DefenderJam and a 10K running event, Run Mhor. At the end of this month we will also be hosting a Wine Safari, so, if you enjoy good wine, fantastic food and the great outdoors, we’ll see you on the 29th of October!
10. If you get any down time, how do you choose to spend it?
We like to travel, to see new things, try new types of food and meet people, so we take holidays when we can – not as often as we’d like! We also enjoy seeing what the rest of Scotland has to offer, although we are incredibly spoilt in living and working where we do!
It is indeed a unique place and I have to admit feeling slightly panicked at having let the cat out of the bag. However you choose to get there by seaplane ( yes that’s an option) or by car, as you enter the doors of Monachyle Mhor, you leave your worries and stresses behind and enter an indulgent world of relaxed luxury without any pomp and stuffiness. Each room has its own character and like the best Mr Ben adventure, it’s possible to have fun and a completely unique experience every time that will leave you wanting to return again and again.
Tom and the Mhor family are truly innovative thinkers and know how to make things memorable for all the right reasons. From mobile restaurants to glamping under the stars, they are masters of fun and experiential hospitality. If this post has got you yearning to visit then you’re in luck! The latest addition to the events calendar is their Autumn Wine Safari which will take you on a wander through the landscape sampling exquisite food, wine and whisky along the way. It takes place on Sunday 29th October and the good news is there’s still time to book tickets here. Enjoy!
*All photos courtesy of Mhor