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At Crieff you can now take more than the waters

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.

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And as the night 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 inclusive price.

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 sisters.''

''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 family atmosphere.

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.

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