Taking the Skye road to success; For many of us, leaving the hectic modern life behind us is nothing more than a dream. For Michael and Ann Heaney it became a reality. Phil Brown visited their Scottish Highland hotel to enjoy the finest hospitality on offer.
Michael and Ann Heaney - the proud owners of the Skeabost Country House Hotel in Skye, an impressive 26-bedroom hunting lodge dating back to 1850
Enjoying the outdoor pursuits of fly fishing and golf before enjoying the fine cuisine on offer at the Skeabost Country House Hotel
When life gets tough, we all dream of giving up the day job and starting a new life somewhere else in the world. For most us, it remains a fantasy. But one Birmingham couple have turned their dream into reality in spectacular style.
A little over a decade ago, Michael and Ann Heaney had all the trappings of success that Middle England could bring. Michael was a successful civil engineer, Ann had a hair dressing salon in Streetly. They lived in a desirable detached house in Penns Lane, Sutton Coldfield. But they hungered for another challenge. Their solution was drastic.
In 1989, they sold everything and invested in a rundown bar and hotel called the Skerry Brae in Lossiemouth, Scotland. They never looked back. Their ethics of hard work, friendliness and attention to detail paid dividends.
In May this year, Michael and Ann became the proud owners of the Skeabost Country House Hotel in Skye, an impressive 26-bedroom hunting lodge dating back to 1850. It nestles next to its own 18-tee golf course. You can wander through 25 acres of landscaped grounds. There are eight miles of fishing along the best salmon river on Skye. Michael even has the fishing rights to his very own loch, the Snizort. Not bad for a city lad from a broken home who, from the age of four, was brought up by nuns in a Birmingham children's homes.
But then, Michael had always felt that a life on Skye was his destiny.
'When all my mates at work were going off to Spain, I packed the car up and drove to Skye. I've holidayed here for 30 years. I somehow knew I would end up living on this island.'
I had flown from Birmingham to Glasgow airport and caught an onward connection to Inverness to meet Michael. There was still a three-hour drive through the rich autumn colours of the Scottish Highlands to reach Skye. Plenty of time to hear a life story. Of how Michael, upon leaving Father Hudsons as a teenager, went to live at the working youths hostel in Digbeth, holding a job as a sheet metal worker during the day and at Wimbushes at night ('the night shift was to pay off a suit I'd got on loan; I never bought anything on HP again - I hated being in debt').
'We had a good quality of life in Sutton Coldfield, but we started to lose the hunger - we needed to change our focus. We had no experience of the leisure industry but came up with the idea of buying a hotel.' said Michael. 'Ann went to work at the Green Man pub, in Middleton, to get knowledge of food preparation. We bought the Skerry Brae and we offered a simple, quality menu - rump steaks, cod - at a reasonable price. Some of the locals laughed at us in the beginning, but by the end we were turning round 47 plates an hour.'
The original staff of nine eventually increased to 47 and the couple even opened an adjoining night club. There was a strong core of regulars from the nearby RAF base at Lossiemouth.
'You've got to love what you do,' said Michael. 'There was a lot of hard work and determination needed to build up the Skerry Brae. But we really didn't treat it as work.'
Michael and Ann's endeavour had its rewards. They have travelled all over the world, including China, South Africa, India, Australia, Peru, the Galapagos islands and cruised to both Poles.
Then Ann uttered the words that were to change their life for a second time. 'She said 'Mike, it's only ten working years until we retire'. We'd been so busy and worked so hard, time had just slipped by. We wanted to enjoy more of life so when the opportunity came up to buy the Skeabost, we took it.'
The word Skeabost is Norse for 'sheltered house' and the hotel has a real family feel to it.
Where strangers are treated as friends, friends are treated as family, and family is treated like gold, say the reassuring words in a framed picture hanging in reception.
'That was my idea,' says Ann, from Hasbury, Halesowen. 'Family and friends are very important to me. But I've always been my own person, done things my way. And if anyone asks us how we've achieved all this, I'd say it's down to hard work and determination, traits from my mom and dad. And I've always been good with people.'
The en-suite bedrooms are spacious, comfortable and elegantly presented. You can take a step back in time and book a room with a four-poster bed for a romantic weekend escape. Opening the curtains in the morning is joy, with glorious sweeping views over the loch and Skye countryside.
Downstairs is the welcoming Red Lounge with deep, easy chairs, and a crackling and hissing log fire. And the snug hotel bar has the full array of whisky challenges.
The candle-lit table d'hote restaurant is a treat. Award-wining chef Tim Morris uses the best of Skye and Highland produce to conjure up such dinner delights as local mussels in a white wine and saffron cream sauce on a bed of vegetable strips, collops of Snizort native lobster around a cocktail of local chantarelle mushrooms, king scallops and a coral butter sauce. The chocolate and raspberry tart with Armagnac egg custard was a fitting finale.
Breakfast and buffet food is served in the hotel's Loch View Conservatory, although Michael and Ann have plans to develop this part of the building into a spa treatment centre in 2002.
This is the serene side to Skeabost. There is also an extreme. There is the chance to get the adrenalin pumping with some adventure sports - including power boating, sea loch diving, quad biking, mountain climbing and abseiling.
I opted for a bit of relaxation after my journey. Birmingham seemed a million miles away as Ann's son Mitchell, an ex-rifleman in the Royal Marine's and now Skeabost's ghillie, took me fly fishing on the banks of the dark swirling waters of the Snizort.
I was introduced to the dark arts of casting using black pennel, stoat's tail and Connomara black (all flies). I was told it was a perfect afternoon for fishing - overcast, the river was up (a spate after a flood) and the water was a steady temperature.
But it still came as a surprise and a delight when I caught my first ever fish: a very small brown trout. Mitchell cracked open his flask for a 'wee dram' to celebrate with a toast of 'Slainte va' (good health, pronounced sleigh var). It was followed by a McEwans 80 shilling beer at the bar later. A real Skeabost welcome.
Gale force winds the next day meant we missed out on the 55mph power boat ride, but it didn't prevent us from abseiling 250ft down the black cliffs of the Nieste Point lighthouse, the most westerly point on Skye, from where you can spot whales in The Minch sea on a clear day.
Mountain climber Mike Lates, fresh back from an advanced instruction course in the Alps, was our team leader. People were nervous (the wind was so strong it was blowing cliff-top waterfalls upwards) but after some short, simple and intensive instruction, where the emphasis, pretty quickly, was to make sure that knot was right, Mike had us all descending the cliffs by rope like experts.
Another of Skye's challenges was conquered - and there was no better place to go to celebrate than with the Heaney family at the Skeabost.
Reservations at the Skeabost Country House Hotel can be made by calling 01470 532202. Fax 01470 532454. E-mail email@example.com. Website www.sol.co.uk/s/skeabost.
Christmas packages: December 24-26, three nights full board from pounds 350 pp (includes table d'hote dinner). New Year packages: December 30-January 1, three nights full board from pounds 350pp (includes table d'hote dinner)
Winter 2001/02 packages: Three nights dinner, b&b from pounds 105 pp to pounds 150 pp (includes dinner in the Loch View Conservatory, pounds 12.50 pp per night supplement to dine table d'hote).
Spring 2002 packages (expires May 1): Three nights dinner b&b from pounds 105 (includes dinner in the Loch View Conservatory, pounds 12.50 pp per night supplement to dine table d'hote.
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Dec 8, 2001|
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