It was a sunny day when I drove to the Cromlix Hotel in Kinbuck to meet Barry Makin, its General Manager who manages the hotel for tennis icon Andy Murray and wife Kim.
It was the first gorgeous day of the year, and Cromlix was looking at its very best, having not long re-opened after being closed for three months for a major refurbishment. It has a new sweeping driveway which takes you to the original entrance, but I entered through the garden and directly into the sunny Glasshouse Restaurant, which was where Barry and I caught up over afternoon tea. Cromlix has been very much in the press over the last month following its refurbishment which was orchestrated by Kim Murray and her designer Suzanne Garuda.
In fact, a video of the refurbishment, showcased by the Sunday Times, has been viewed almost 500,000 times – great publicity for the 16-bedroom Victorian country house, which now feels like a country home.
Barry explains, “When the Murrays bought Cromlix they had entered into a 10 year agreement with ICMI who ran the hotel for them. ICMI ran the hotel as a quite formal luxury country house, which is their area of expertise. When the contract came to an end, Kim and Andy decided they wanted to get more involved in the business and chose to move away from the management contract and run it themselves. They put in a new management structure which reports to a board which includes Kim, and they decided to appoint their own GM – which is where I came in. The project manager on the refurbishment approached me and told me what they were planning, and I thought it all sounded very exciting.”
Barry joined at the beginning of 2023, having spent the previous 14 months with Hotel Indigo in Edinburgh. He has a wealth of experience in hospitality having started out 20 years ago as a bartender at the St Andrews Bay Hotel and has quite simply, worked his way up.
But, as many others do, Barry fell into hospitality by accident. He had joined the army at 18 as a telecoms engineer, and after leaving the army he did a similar role for Tayside police on a three-year contract. When that finished, having a young family, he took a zero-hour contract at St Andrews Bay to pay the bills.
It was the start of a long and varied career. Says Barry, “My army background stood me in good stead. I had an understanding of discipline, a good work ethic and I was very good at following instructions. I was also a little bit older, at 27, and had a bit of life experience.
“At St Andrews Bay I was lucky because I had great people telling me what to do and how to do it – and I paid attention. St Andrews Bay was like my University and I was lucky my first GM was Stephen Carter – an absolute force of nature. Stephen was a host first and foremost. For him it was all about the people and not the pennies, and because he drove the hospitality of the business so hard everything else just fell into place.
“Hospitality is one of the few industries that you get out what you put in, if you work hard and if you do the right thing for the guest – because ultimately, that’s why we are here, you won’t go far wrong. The more you do, the more you learn and the more experience you get which you can use in different areas. I have moved around and have been able to draw on all my different experiences – you bring an element of them to each job.”
By the time he left St Andrews Bay he had gone up through the ranks – Barman, Junior Supervisor, Supervisor, Senior Supervisor, Conference and Banqueting Supervisor with his final role there as Beverage Manager for the Fairmont. He helped with the rebrand and its refurbishment.
Then he joined De Vere at Slaley Hall as Restaurant Manager and got involved with the refurbishment of its Hadrian’s Grill and Dukes Grill restaurants. As De Vere also owned Cameron House at that time, he made a move back to Scotland and to his old boss Stephen Carter, who was by this time GM/MD of Cameron House.
Food and Beverage roles at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh and the Roxburgh (which was owned by Macdonald Hotels at the time) followed. When it was bought by Starwood he got the chance to work in the company’s other properties, the Grand Central in Glasgow and The George in Edinburgh.
Barry explains, “I stayed with Starwood for about four years before realising that I could do a good job with The Scotsman. It had been bought by G1, now the Scotsman Group, and I when I was there, we completed refurbished the whole hotel from top to bottom – the Grand Cafe, the Scotsman Picture house and all the bedrooms. It was, and still is, a beautiful building.”
This brings us nicely back to Cromlix. Barry added, “We are now fully independent. We have our own financial controller and director of sales and marketing which is unusual for a 16-bedroom hotel. We are lucky, because we have owners who are prepared to invest in this part of the business, some people arguably wouldn’t. We now have a substantial back of house which allows us to do what we need to do. Beforehand, there would have been a head office, but because we now do it ourselves, we are really agile. We can make decisions really quickly.”
Certainly, there was no dilly dallying when it came to the refurbishment – the whole process took only 10 weeks. The hotel has not changed structurally, but all the bedrooms, public areas and just about every bathroom was redecorated and refurnished. At any one time there were up 200 contractors working on the project.
Says Barry, “Where possible we used local suppliers.. “This was a typical country house hotel in style and design, but we have moved away from that. I think we are relatively unique in the Scottish country home landscape. There is no tartan anywhere – not because we are not proudly Scottish, but because we wanted to be a bit more contemporary. We have retained the old furniture and French polished it, we have upholstered chairs and sofas to fit in with the new style, plus there are of course new pieces of furniture and new artwork too.
“Kim studied art at university and is an artist in her own right, so she was very involved and hands on. They had just finished their family home in Surrey where she had worked with designer Suzanne Garuda and out of that relationship, she asked Suzanne to get involved here. But Kim was heavily involved in every decision from the design point of view. She okayed every paint colour, every wallpaper – and was also super excited about it.”
Cromlix is part of the Murray family history. When Cromlix originally changed from being a private home to a hotel, Andy’s grandparents were the first people to have a celebration there – they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at Cromlix. Kim paid her first visit to the property when Andy’s brother got married there, and it was also the venue for their own wedding, as well as Andy’s father’s.
Says Barry, “Cromlix is more than just a business for them. There is a real emotional attachment. When you talk to them you can feel it. They want to make Cromlix the best it can be.” Kim, said herself in the video for the property, “We have always viewed this as a home from home. We want to spend more time here and we wanted to put our personal stamp on it.”
She and designer Suzanne Garuda have certainly done that. Barry explains, “The whole idea behind the refurbishment was to bring the outside in. I know it is a bit of a cliché, but we are situated in 34 acres of woodland with flowers, plants and herbs and we wanted to make the house feel part of its surroundings.
“One of the things Kim says is that we are not a country house, we are a country home and that’s the feeling we want people to have when they arrive. It has been deliberately designed that way. For example, we don’t have a reception desk – we have an antique table which acts as a reception desk but doesn’t feel like one plus we have lounge furniture too – it is a space that can be used by everyone.
“It is not a stately home, so every room feels cosy, we have log fires in most rooms, and I think it makes the place feel incredible. We have not just refreshed the hotel; we have repositioned it to reflect Kim’s vision for the hotel.
“We have a substantial team, 70 in total, from groundsmen to a large kitchen team led by Darin Campbell. We have a big kitchen team and that means we have made changes there too – now we make everything in-house, nothing is bought in.
“Our pastry chef, who used to own her own cafe, is fantastic and we are very lucky with Darin. He was formerly Andrew Fairlie’s head chef at Gleneagles and at One Devonshire. He has refreshed the menu – we leave him to do what he does best – simple food, well done.
“We do have plans to create an 80-cover restaurant because we only have 50 covers at the moment. We will need the extra covers when we embark on our next project – which is to build 9 lodges on the estate. When this happens the hotel kitchen will move and we will create an accessible bedroom suite and another room in the hotel. These extra rooms combined with the lodge guests will also mean that we will need more staff accommodation because we will need more people.
“The vast majority of our staff come from Dunblane, Stirling and Falkirk although a few, including myself, live in Edinburgh. We have quite a young demographic. I think half of our front house team would be under 30 with an average age in the early 20’s. We often get members of the same family working for us. Historically it has been a good place to work, otherwise why would siblings want to come? We do occasionally struggle to fill our more senior roles.
“It is a hard industry and sometimes there are long hours, but you have to recognise what people do and reward them to show your appreciation. I do think perhaps bigger corporate companies are better at it than smaller companies – because it is easier for them to do.” Technology and how to utilise it to is perhaps more orientated towards corporate groups too.
Says Barry , “I think technology will help with three or four star level hotels. I don’t think it will be driven by improving the guest experience, I think it will be driven by cost and staffing. When it comes to luxury, what guests will be paying for is the personal interaction with staff. Technology, no matter how efficient it is and how much money or time it can save, can’t replace the genuine warmth and the ability to read someone and at this luxury level, that is what you need.”
As for encouraging people into hospitality Barry also has a view, “There is always more that the government could do to help us. It could allow more people to come in and classify hospitality as a skilled trade, which it is and promoted as a genuine, viable career which leads to success.
“I am testament to that. In my previous role as a telecoms engineer I wouldn’t have experienced the places I have, been as financially secure, or met the people I have. It is all there to be had but it is not promoted as a career, it is promoted as a job that you do to make some money. The folk that like it, stay in it. But, if you think of the successful people in hospitality, it is unbelievable, and all the information and data is there to highlight success stories.”
As to the future at Cromlix, he smiles, “Andy and Kim are more involved than ever, and we do see Kim and Andy’s mum, Judy, who is brilliant with the guests – but we don’t see a lot of Andy. I didn’t realise until I started learning more about the tennis circuit how busy it is. Andy is so popular and well-loved particularly in Scotland, so we are so lucky from a PR point of view. We don’t market ourselves as Andy Murray’s hotel, I believe we stand on our own merit as an outstanding property.”
As for a Cromlix number 2, Barry says, “Certainly Kim and Andy are learning more about the business and are more involved, but I don’t think they are planning to buy another country house – but never say never.
“There is certainly plenty to keep them occupied here for the next few years. This place could grow and grow. Auchrannie started smaller than Cromlix and grew into this big, amazing destination.” He concludes, “There are a lot of people who have mentored me and encouraged me along the way but the most influential is Stephen Carter. When I started here, he sent me a book and wrote a little note in it – ‘when you stop getting better you stop being good.’ That’s my motto!”
Pictures: Verena Splett