WHEN the bells ring out at midnight on Tuesday, the ballroom at Crieff
Hydro will be crammed with Hogmanay revellers, many, I'm told, in full
Highland dress. The ''Hotel Full'' signs will be up. And as the night
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rolls on there will be parties in many of the 200 bedrooms as regular
visitors renew old acquaintances and toast 1992.
Not so long ago -- until 1983 to be precise -- you couldn't get a
drink in the place. Well, not an alcoholic one. Befitting its original
purpose as a hydropathic centre, where pure water brought a refreshing
tang to mouths dulled by the unpalatable drinking supplies available to
the Victorian residents of cities like Glasgow, Crieff was dry.
In 1983 it ventured a table licence. Then came a full drinks licence.
But even today, as befits a hotel which caters for wholesome, active
family groups, there are no bars. Drink is available, but people tend to
indulge, among their friends, in the privacy of their own rooms.
Crieff Hydro is a remarkable place. Outwardly it shares some of the
appearance of a Gleneagles, say, or a Turnberry. Set in 800 rolling
acres -- it recently won the 1991 Timber Growers' Award for forestry and
woodland management -- Crieff boasts all the usual facilities, from a
nine-hole golf course to jogging trails. It is open throughout the year.
Public areas within the hotel are being upgraded to a higher and
higher standard. When I was there they were laying a thick new carpet in
the reception area. When managing director John Leckie started at the
place 32 years ago, only one bedroom had an en suite bathroom. Now, all
200 have full facilities.
There are two swimming pools and a sports hall, lots of conference
facilities, a boutique offering a range of evening wear for those who
haven't packed enough glad rags, and a dining room that will, at a
pinch, seat 475.
Yet, behind its surface similarities, Crieff Hydro is quite different
from the modern concept of the large country house hotel. It positively
welcomes children. They come before the chintz. It still provides a
reduced-rate retreat for Church of Scotland ministers and their wives
during the winter months. Even if you come in high season it does not
charge an arm and a leg for the privilege.
If you were lucky enough to get a booking for next Hogmanay (Crieff
boasts an 87% year-round occupancy), it would cost each of you, at most,
#83.50 a night for dinner, bed, and breakfast. Children under 18 sharing
their parents' accommodation cost no more than #23. I know some hotels
where you couldn't get a New Year dinner for two for that kind of
At other times the tariff is even lower. Next summer you can have a
room for #49.50 per person, again with breakfast and dinner thrown in.
And, despite the keen prices, Crieff Hydro is stoutly profitable. The
accounts for the year to February show a pre-tax profit of #597,000 on a
turnover of #3.9m. The previous year the profit was #681,000. At a time
when other experience suggests the hotel market is not necessarily the
best place to be, how do they do it?
Well, Crieff was built in 1868, for an astonishing #18,000, its
original capital cost long since written off. Where modern hotels have
to set rates that justify sky-high construction and fitting-out costs,
Crieff can steadily re-invest a sizable slice of its considerable
cash-flow in upgrading and expanding its facilities. ''We've spent #2.5m
in the past five years alone, and none of it was borrowed,'' says
chairman George Donaldson.
These days Crieff Hydro is owned and run as a private limited company
with some 160 shareholders. But it, and they, still think of themselves
as a family concern, with both the managing director and the chairman
tracing their own lineage back through lines that eventually lead to the
founder of the Hydro, Dr Thomas Henry Meikle, who was born near Melrose
but studied medicine at Aberdeen.
Having been involved in a hydropathic establishment in Aberdeen --
there were 30 or more of them in Scotland in the mid nineteenth century
-- Dr Meikle came to Crieff looking for a site for a new one. Perhaps he
was attracted by talk of the town's water (''of sparkling purity,'' said
one contemporary account) or the idyllic view across Strathearn.
Whatever the reason, he raised the necessary money locally, work
commenced and the Strathearn Sanatorium Company and its principal asset,
the Hydropathic Establishment at Strathearn House, were born.
Dr Meikle ran the new Hydropathic as both manager and medical
superintendant for the first 25 years, when his son joined him to share
the burden. The founder eventually died in 1913. His older brother
William had died long before, in 1858. And William's widow had taken, as
a second husband, a Dr Leckie from Millport.
The present John Leckie, only the fourth managing director of Crieff
Hydro in its long history, is the great-grandson of that same Mrs
Leckie. And the Crieff Hydro chairman, George Donaldson -- best known
for his family's Tayside timber firm, which, in recent years, has
dominated the Scottish market for pre-formed timber roof trusses --
explains his family link thus: ''John's mother and my uncle's wife were
''To date the chief executive has never been a trained hotelier,''
says John Leckie with a quiet smile. ''They plucked me almost straight
from agricultural college when my father died.'' That was, as we've
already noted, 32 years ago, and John Leckie and his wife Janet have run
the place ever since.
He remembers his early days when the floors were covered in
unappealing green lino and the bedrooms had 40-watt bulbs. Not because
the place was penny-pinching. ''That was just the norm then,'' he says.
George Donaldson recalls his childhood visits to the place, going down
to the original 1905 bath hall (that original pool is still in use)
where an employee, at a given signal, would pull a lever allowing jets
of water to gush out ''straight from the hill''.
Crieff built the third hydro-electric scheme to be seen in Scotland,
harnessing the power of Loch Turret. It was still supplying power when
it was taken out of service, in 1968. The estate around the Hydro was
farmed until 10 years ago. There was a dairy farm, a piggery, and hen
houses. In its heyday Crieff also ran a small commercial laundry, which
washed hotel linen from as far away as Glencoe.
''It's sad that's all gone,'' says John Leckie. But he does admit that
the cult of the amateur, which has stood Crieff Hydro in good stead for
123 years, may need revising. ''Running a hotel nowadays is a much more
complex business than it was 30 years ago. You need better marketing,
better administration, better everything.''
John Leckie has one son working in the hotel business ''down south''
and another studying hotel management, so if the Crieff directors see
fit that the family tradition continues, control will eventually pass
into the hands of a trained professional.
That said, John Leckie perhaps overstates his own claim to amateur
status. He was certainly green when he was pitchforked into running the
place at the age of 24. But he has shown a shrewd awareness of where the
hotel business has been heading since. The moves into holiday chalets in
the 1970s and into the conference market now have been well timed. All
the developments are designed to offer guests the full range of
facilities they might expect elsewhere while retaining Crieff's unique
The most unlikely people have succumbed to its influence. There's a
story in the official history of Crieff Hydro about Davie Kirkwood MP,
one-time Red Clydesider, being taken there in 1917 by friends for a rest
when he had broken parole. ''The place was fu' o' ministers,'' he
reportedly said. ''And d'ye know this? They were playin' cards all
evenin'. I thought that was terrible. An' me a revolutionary.'' Clearly,
whoever you are, Crieff Hydro can get to you.