Last Updated on March 11, 2022
Murrayfield and Beyond – Orcadian Hospitality at The Dunstane Houses, Edinburgh
By nature, I am a creature of habit. My alarm is set for the same time every day, I keep regular hours for meals and when I travel I like to stay in the same area. That reluctance to venture beyond my comfort zone is partly down to lack of any sense of direction and partly because when I find something I like I’ll go back time and time again for more. In Edinburgh, a city I’ve visited regularly since I was four years old, that tends to put me in Stockbridge or Edinburgh New Town. It takes something special to tempt me away. The Dunstane Houses in the West End of Edinburgh fits the bill perfectly and I’m thrilled to have experienced and loved yet another part of Edinburgh.
You’ll get a feeling of grandeur as you walk up the driveway to the hotel – and yet, for me, there’s a welcoming family feel. I suspect that might be the result of a close-knit team – everyone who works there seems to belong. And, the luxurious, comfortable and discretely Scottish decor helps too. As you walk around The Dunstane Houses, you start to get to know the people who run the place. There’s a stunning photographic montage of vintage cars in the hallway, old pictures of life on Orkney and quirky touches that somehow make you feel welcomed and at home.
The Victorian villa that makes up Dunstane House has been a hotel since the late 1970s. A baronial style home, designed by Alexander Black it was first owned by Thomas Gill, a silk merchant. A bachelor, he lived there with two servants until the early 20th century. Across the road, his sister and her family moved into 5 Hampton terrace, now Hampton House. Various other family members came and went until the 1920s. So, the buildings that make up The Dunstane Houses were originally home to an extended family.
In the West End of Edinburgh – a stone’s throw from Murrayfield, The Dunstane Houses is perfectly situated if you happen to be visiting for a rugby international (but also very popular!). It’s close to Edinburgh Zoo, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and to Haymarket train station. It’s also an easy tram ride to the airport so perfect for international travellers. There’s a car park for hotel guests too, so this would be a great place to start or end a driving tour of Scotland. While you can’t fall out of your bed and onto Princes Street, it’s only about half an hour walk to the castle or city centre – or a short hop by tram or train.
My room, the Dunstane Suite on the first floor, was sumptuous, elegant and charming. A massive freestanding copper tub in the window looked out to the church opposite and then to the Pentland Hills beyond. The spacious bathroom had a marble-topped sink and a huge walk-in shower. Fluffy white towels and robes made for a luxurious experience. And, the Noble Isle toiletries provided are one of my favourites – here they offered very appropriate whisky and water conditioner along with the regular shampoo, soaps and body lotions.
There was a splendidly comfortable sofa at the foot of the king-sized bed that was just perfect to curl up on with a book. The desk was large enough to work at – and there were plenty of power sockets with USB ports for that plethora of tech that we all seem to find essential to take with us for our travels. I was particularly taken by the mini-bar – with haggis crisps, irn-bru, whisky and all kinds of Scottish artisan beers and spirits. Even the white wine was labelled Alba, though I noted it came from Italy. No, I didn’t scoff the lot, but that was because I had a table booked in the Ba’Bar for dinner with my family. It’s clear that there’s no lack of a sense of humour at The Dunstane Houses. There was a Nespresso coffee machine, shortbread biscuits and a kettle. Full-sized bottles of still and sparkling water on the side completed the hospitality offering.
A tour of the hotel the next morning provided a glimpse into some of the other rooms. The 17 suites and rooms in Dunstane House range from ‘Cosy Wee Singles’ through to Luxury King Doubles and Suites. All are individually decorated and as I suspect this is the kind of place you’ll return to, it’s worth finding your own favourite. Over the other side of the road, Hampton House has the same high standards. It’s more recently refurbished and has a slightly more contemporary feel to it, with Zoffany and Harlequin wallpaper in the rooms. There’s the same mix of room categories but the cosy rooms are a little larger than the other side of the road and there’s also a two-room suite with a double bedroom and a sofabed in the living room which would be great for families or friends travelling together. Both houses have their own breakfast space – at Dunstane House, you’ll breakfast in the Ba’Bar (more about that later) while at Hampton House, you’ll eat in the Stroma room. Or for a truly luxurious experience, order breakfast in your room.
Part of any good review involves trying the hotel restaurant – and I decided to invite my family along to join me on this occasion. We pre-warned the hotel about one of our group who has quite specific dietary needs and they pulled out all the stops to accommodate those requirements perfectly, offering a completely off-menu main course that worked brilliantly (there were starters and desserts which worked with minor modifications). Meanwhile, we picked off a whole range of dishes from the menu and I think it’s fair to say there were absolutely no failures.
Dishes like the cullen skink (soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and cream) my brother chose as a starter, are simple, classic Scottish fare while my own slow-braised venison pie with puff pastry, roast potatoes, red cabbage and gravy was a total indulgence.
There were burgers, beer-battered fish and chips, sharing boards of Orkney specialities – cured meats, cheeses and smoked fish with oatcakes, dill mayo and Arran chutney.
And there were all sorts of naughty desserts to lead you into temptation. The Ba’Bar offers an all-day dining menu, but there’s a set supper menu with two courses for £32 or three for £36, a seasonal offering with vegetarian and vegan options.
Breakfast the next morning in the Ba’Bar was a similarly elegant affair. Of course, I had to opt for the Full Scottish Breakfast – and of course, it met all my expectations with haggis, excellent tattie scones and black pudding ramping up the Sassernach version. It’s the sort of place where you know you should have the Scottish porridge (made with water and salt) but never do!
Learning more about the Ba’ Bar the next morning, I found that rather than the strange Scottish term for sheep that I’d assumed, the bar is named after an Orcadian traditional sport. The Ba’ itself takes pride of place above the bar – it’s a strange round leather ball that is used for the Kirkwall Ba’ game – a kind of collective football game that takes place on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day there.
It originated from a rivalry between the men of the Laverock (Uppies) and the Burgh (Doonies) from a time when The Bishop controlled Laverock and the Burgh was controlled by the King’s Earl. The ba’ itself is a coveted trophy given to a player in the winning side who has been a notable participant for a number of years and the one at The Dunstanes was won by Shirley’s uncle. Once you know the story, you can’t help but smile at the door tags – offering you a reversible disk to let the staff know whether your room is still occupied (Doonies) or not (Uppies).
The owners of The Dunstane Houses are an Orcadian couple who moved to Edinburgh in the late 1980s and never left. Shirley and Derek Mowat seem have found their vocation in the hospitality industry – they started running a guest house and pair of holiday cottages in their mid-twenties and went on to buy The Dunstane in 1998, a 15 bedroom two-star hotel. They added to that with the 18 bedroom Thistle Hotel across the road, then, in 2016 started on a massive refurbishment project.
What exists today really is a labour of love on the part of the couple, with sumptuous and timeless room designs, a genuinely helpful and friendly team and the kind of warmth and hospitality that you’ll find across the Scottish islands. My own family comes from Skye and Mull and I have a friend who lives in Shetland. While I’ve never lived there myself, I’ve come to believe that growing up somewhere that can easily be cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time builds a community focus and heart. The ‘Orcadian Soul’ is something I appreciate – and finding an Orcadian pocket of Edinburgh is really quite special.
The Dunstane Houses
4 West Coates
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