By Susan Young
When Frances Ryan got in touch to say that the Crinan Hotel had been in the family for 50 years my curiousity was more than piqued. Now, having interviewed Frances and daughter Julia, I realise that even if I visited every weekend for the next 50 years I don’t think I would grow tired of their stories. I am just sorry I never got to meet Nick Ryan, Frances’ husband who died a year ago, but he certainly left the hotel and his family legacy in good hands.
The Crinan Hotel has had its fair share, and continues to have its fair share, of celebrity and royal guests. Nick Ryan once described the range of guests the hotel had as “Artistic, alcoholic and affluent”. And having seen the
guest list I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall… from Dave Brubeck to Sean Connery, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to European Royalty, even Scottish hospitality guru Ken McCulloch had his wedding reception
I caught up with Frances and Julia at the hotel and we headed up to the top floor for our interview. There with the most spectacular views across Loch Crinan to Jura surrounding us we talked and talked.
Today Frances is a hotelier, artist and fashionista, with an infectious laugh and a gracious persona. She arrived at Crinan five days after she got married and she has been at the hotel ever since, and although it was her
husband who for 45 years was mine host, and one of the greatest characters in hospitality, Frances has always been in the background in a supporting role. She tells me, “I was there picking up the pieces and learning how to run the hotel, doing the flowers and greeting people – it was a team thing.” At the same time she established herself as one of Scotland’s foremost artists – under her maiden name Frances Macdonald. Then, six years ago, due to circumstances, Frances took the reins.
Julia explains, “My dad was ill for a long time before he died, last year, of dementia, but he was still out there speaking to our guests dapper as ever in his bow-tie. He would tell his stories and because the guests regularly changed it was never a problem. He didn’t ever acknowledge the fact that he had dementia and perhaps people didn’t realise that it was my mum who was running the hotel.”
She may have been running the hotel for the past few years but she also, for a few years, funded it. During the recession, artists flourished as people invested in art, and Frances’ success in this field kept the business afloat. Frances has exhibited regularly throughout Scotland, London and abroad and her paintings are in several important private collections at home and abroad as well as corporate collections including Fleming’s Scottish Collection. She has exhibited at London’s Portland Gallery and The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.
Frances’ son Ross is an acclaimed artist too while Julia is an artist of the musical variety – she is a mezzo soprano. Says Julia, “I think when you grow up in a place as beautiful as Crinan it does something to the soul.”
She continues, “The hotel is somewhere you can come and feel very comfortable. We don’t offer plumped cushions and some things are very retro but this is somewhere you can actually relax and eat well. The beds are comfortable and you can look out at the view. I have never known anything else and I think of ourselves as custodians. I just know that what’s being offered here is something unusual, for some people it may be too idiosyncratic and it could be their worst nightmare… but what you do get is a mainline into a family that actually lives here. We want people to have what they need here and we do now have wifi that works, although people may still have to walk to the lighthouse to make a call. But generally after a few hours here people really relax.The people that come here generally get it, and from kings to aristocracy – we get them.”
Frances first met her husband while working for the Union Castle Shipping line on a ship heading to Cape Town. She was working as a nurse onboard having decided to become a nurse because she wanted to travel. Meanwhile Nick had joined the Merchant Navy at 15, and worked on two of the world’s greatest liners, Cunard’s the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth before joining the same ship as Frances. Frances says, “He kept coming to me for inoculations!”
The Ryans came to Crinan after Frances took Nick back to Greenock to meet her family. Frances tells the story, “I wanted Nick to meet my parents, and at the same time visit other family. So we went to Tarbert to visit my granny, but my parents had seen and advertisement in the Glasgow Herald for a hotel manager for Crinan Hotel. Nick put it in his pocket and on the way back from Tarbert he suggested we went to see it. We liked what we saw. Nick then had an interview in Glasgow. I don’t think anyone else turned up!
“We then moved to Crinan and lived in the cottage next to the hotel which was where Julia was born a year later. Ross, my son, followed a couple of years later. For the first seven years Nick managed the hotel for James Scott. In fact, he managed all three of Scott’s hotels – The Stonefield Castle in Tarbert and the Cairnbaan Hotel at Lochgilphead. But this meant he spent a lot of time in the car. Then James decided to sell The Crinan and we bought it.
“Nick was a natural hotelier – he was born to it and brought his experience of serving first class customers to the hotel. He had an incredible time working with Cunard. He met a host of people during his time including the likes of Liz Taylor. He worked his way up and became Cunard’s youngest catering officer and was schooled in service in the ships’s Verandah Grill and as a result his standards were impeccable.”
Julia gives a classic example, “Dad would correct me every time I put a teaspoon on a saucer if it wasn’t right – the teaspoon had to be at the same angle as the tea cup handle!”
Frances continues her story, “What was hard for Nick was the fact he was not Scottish, but because my granny was from Tarbert he was saved. To get into the scene he got involved with the tourist board and was a founding member of Connoisseurs Scotland – now Luxury Scotland and I have retained that association.”
“People came here because there was always something going on. We liked to throw good parties and that’s why people came. One really memorable party was Julia’s 21st. We had a real crowd, the theme was ‘Wild’ and Nick unbeknownst to us had ordered a massive cake made with meringue and cream. When Julia went to cut it – the cake exploded into a six-man life raft – everyone was covered in cream and meringue. In fact we had to get the dining room redecorated! There were loads of people dressed in designer wear and when they went back to London some of them used the same dry cleaner, who was heard to say ‘It must have been some party… this is the sixth outfit that’s been handed in.’
“He definitely knew how to throw a party and that’s what helped make our reputation. I hope we still know how to throw them, in fact, perhaps it is time we had another.”
The hotel also benefitted because Frances had an uncle who was in the newspaper business in the USA and a lot of guests came their way due to the association.
Says Julia, “Crinan is a mecca for sailors worldwide. Whether you go to San Tropez or Boston – if you say you are from Crinan sailing folk will say “Ah Crinan – the West Coast”. The sailing fraternity all come here but you can go to Edinburgh and folk say Where?”
“Every type of person comes here but it is definitely not a country house hotel – its a hotel with a pub. In the 70s and the 80s Crinan made a lot of money from fishing – then in the 80s it petered off. But I can remember a time when the boats were in and you could walk from one side of the canal to the other on the fishing boats. We grew up in what would be considered a rufty-tufty fishing port where everyone was cash rich. The pub had a linoleum floor and a nicotine stained ceiling. It was full of oilskins and fishermen and it was very busy, very noisy and there were fighting all the time. Dad was always breaking them up.” Her mum intervenes, “That’s why we sent you off to boarding school – you were beginning to repeat the language that you were hearing!”
At the age of 15 Julia was scouted to be a model, but went to the Italia Conti school instead to learn to sing, but was re-scouted a few years later by Storm which has just been founded by Sarah Doukas. Says Julia, “I spent the next eight years doing the modelling circuit. However, when I went to London I soon realised how that my own mother in Crinan was the best dressed person I knew. I grew up with her wearing Chanel, Lacroix and Moschino around the hotel.”
In fact, on the day I visited Frances was wearing a lovely Lacroix jacket! So nothing much changes! Says Frances, “I’ve always loved fashion. In fact when I came to live here I saw someone knitting a Shetland sweater and I told Nick if he ever saw me wearing a sweater like that it was time to get me out.”
A few years after taking over at Crinan they opened a Seafood restaurant on the top floor which was known as Lock 16. Julia says it was really “an amazing piece of theatre.”
She explained how her dad was the first person to use prawns fresh from the sea in Scotland. She laughs, “In the 1970s people threw prawns back into the water, a bit like they used to do with squat lobsters. They weren’t considered viable. So he opened Lock 16. It was very New Yorky – people came for a drink at the bar on the top floor and were staggered by the view. Then at 8pm dad would ring the gong and everyone had to go and sit down next door. The starter was always something simple, either salmon or melon, and then he would serve up the dish he invented Prawns.Corryvechan.
“There would be around 22 people sitting in this glass box looking out at the sunset and then a server would come in with a huge copper pot with seaweed hanging out of it and a huge mountain of freshly hauled prawns. Between there would be tropical fruit – papaya, starfruit, passion fruit and at the top that there was the head of a pineapple. It was outrageous. No one had seen a dish like that, and it was in the days before social media, so it was constantly a surprise to everyone. He got the idea because he had travelled in Polynesia and the locals used to eat fruit with shellfish because shellfish is actually quite heavy. Of course, some people would be horrified, asking how do we open them? And then dad would call me in – and aged around 12, I would go round the table showing people how to go down a prawn and open it. Of course if there was no fresh fish because the boats couldn’t go out, the restaurant wouldn’t open. This only served to increase the fame of Lock 16.”
Once again Frances laughs, “Our good friend Peter Lederer used to say it was just brilliant marketing.”
At this point Frances showed by a picture of her hubby with Alan Devreaux former head of the Scottish Tourist Board, at what I imagine was ScotHot – with an abbreviated version of the dish. She laughs, “He used to go to trade shows with a bin bag full of prawns and a side of salmon in his bag. Can you imagine health and safety if anyone did that now?”
Today you can still enjoy Lock 16 – the restaurant is open from June to September at the weekends, and people also use it for weddings and celebrations. During the week the seafood that the Crinan Hotel is famous for is served in The Seafood Bar.
Over the years Julia, her husband Jamie and brother Ross have dipped in and out when it comes to helping out at the hotel. At the moment Ross is painting and running his dad’s boat – he has refurbished it over last three years and he is now chartering it out. Says Julia, “Ross is running his charter business and takes guests out from the hotel. It is perfectly complimentary to what we do – when guests arrive they just want to get out on water and Ross can take them.”
Ross and Frances also do charters for artists taking them out to islands like Iona and Barra and do tutorials with them. The guests stay on shore and Frances and Ross stay on board, they also bring in guest artists from the islands for talks. This year there is a trip to the Broomielaw which will take in Portavadie, Arran and Rothesay finishing at the Broomielaw and a visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery. They also do Art and Music Weekends at Crinan.
Julia meanwhile has been helping husband Jamie Spencer with his aid work Feedback Madagascar for the last 24 years. In fact she met him at Crinan, having returned there in 1994.
She says, “I met Jamie within three weeks of coming home, and before long I was off to Madagascar and living in a hut. He received an OBE last year for his work.”
That also explains the Madagascar little shop at the hotel. Since her father died Julia has been spending time in Edinburgh, running a B&B, coaching singing and also being mum to her two sons – Archie and Jock. But now that the hotel is getting busier she will try to spend more time there.
Says Frances, “I know I can call on both Ross and Julia anytime. Neither of them get involved in the day to day business, but they are there for me.”
Part two next month… seriously this story could have run and run, I’ve another 1,000+ words of stories. The Ryan family created a Scottish hospitality institution with the Crinan Hotel and Frances is she says, ‘acting as a custodian’ for the next generation.
She concludes, “If we can all hang in there, I’m sure one of my grandsons, could be persuaded to take it on.” I’m sure Nick would love that.