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Independent Minds: Shirley Mowat, The Dunstane Houses

Bringing a breath of fresh Orkney air to the heart of the Scottish capital, The Dunstane Houses stylishly blends owner Shirley Mowat’s Orcadian roots with the neoclassical design of old-town Edinburgh. When heading for London in 1988, what was supposed to be a weekend’s stop-off to visit friends in Edinburgh became a permanent arrangement – and instead of looking back, Shirley decided to bring her homeland with her.

Edinburgh Heart, Orkney Soul

Shirley Mowat looks very much at home as she settles on the edge of an impossibly comfortable-looking bed in The Ronaldsay Suite, one of her favourite rooms in the trendy twin Victorian townhouses just across the street from one another in Edinburgh’s picturesque West End. And that’s because she is – very much at home – in many ways, despite originally hailing from the Orkney Islands, she now runs a relaxed duo of heritage buildings with husband and classic car collector Derek, which form two halves of her Orcadian inspired household. “I call Orkney my home,” she says, but now that Shirley has brought so much of her heritage to Edinburgh, it’s clear to see that the city has captured her heart. The home, and where we call home – whether just for the night, or from childhood roots – lies at the heart of The Dunstane Houses and the Mowats’ approach to hosting guests.

Hints of her home isles of Orkney are quite literally woven into the fabric of The Dunstane Houses, from the names of the suites, and the photographs hanging on the walls by the front desk, to the concept of the hotel’s whiskey bar, the Ba’ Bar, which is based on the Kirkwall Ba’ – the traditional street football game that has been played in Orkney for centuries. Boasting a collection of over 70 different malt whiskys, along with Shirley’s signature gin produced using herbs from a secret garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh, guests can sip on Scotland’s finest while getting a taste for Highland culture – and the impressive selection of artisan gins means you could stay for a week and never have the same G&T twice.

The Spirit(s) of Scotland

The Scottish spirit has also been lovingly filtered through to the rest of the Ba’ Bar menu, which can only be described as a celebration of Scotland – think homemade shortbread as a welcome treat in every room, smoked kippers and salmon for breakfast sourced straight from Orkney, and a delightful selection of afternoon tea from St Andrews, which can be served in the garden on a sunny day. “We see ourselves as the gateway to the rest of Scotland, and it’s the local details which helps us tell the Scottish story“, a story which Shirley personally shapes by supporting the local community and by buying Scottish in any way that she can.

After much consideration on the bathroom amenities, Shirley chose luxury bath and body brand, Noble Isle, for its British Isles-inspired lotions which feature extracts sourced from some of the most celebrated local producers, including malted barley and honey from Scotland. A cabinet in The Dunstane entrance proudly displays a handpicked collection of local souvenirs available to purchase, including cashmere from Johnstons of Elgin, a boutique on Multrees Walk just moments from The Dunstane and with a factory on the Scottish borders, with plans to add some locally-made enamelled jewellery post-lockdown from one of Shirley’s favourite Orkney-based shops with an Edinburgh outlet in Stockbridge, Sheila Fleet.

Staying Local

This exclusive shopping area nestled behind St. Andrew Square is just one of the many nearby highlights to The Dunstane Houses. “I think that people have got this perception of Edinburgh as being a large place, but it’s actually quite small, and very walkable.” For Shirley, strolls down to Dean Village along the River Leith have helped preserve her sanity during lockdown, and she hopes to offer walking and cycling tours of the city once restrictions are eased.

Set on the quieter, West End of the city, close to the photogenic patchwork of 19th-century buildings and bridges set along the Water of Leith, The Dunstane’s enviable location lends itself nicely to post-pandemic travel – guests can relax away from the hustle and bustle but still be within easy distance from Princes Street and the Royal Mile, whilst being well placed for day trips to Stirling, St Andrews, and the Scottish borders. If visiting on a Sunday, Shirley highly recommends a slow morning at the weekly Stockbridge farmers’ market, browsing the many boutiques, bakeries, and artisan coffee shops in this vibrant area of the city with a village vibe before putting your feet up in the cosy lounge back at The Dunstane for a whisky tasting to warm you up.

In addition to the scenic city rambles, there are plans to continue the ever-popular Outlander tours from ‘Andy the Highlander’ who comes to the hotel with mud on his face, dressed in full Highland brigade, and takes guests to the castle for sword fighting demonstrations. For those who have seen enough of the city on foot, Derek is always happy to take guests for a spin in one of his classic cars, or for a back-street driving experience, Shirley recommends a local Mini Cooper company run by two brothers, whom she affectionately refers to as “the Scottish Italian Job.”

Home-from-Home

The Dunstane has enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with its local community since its original days as a merchant’s townhouse, and perhaps more so than ever during the difficult times of Covid-19. Overwhelmed by the support of Edinburgh residents for their ‘ultimate night-in’ package, which saw neighbours who lived just 100 yards from The Dunstane skip across the street for a much-needed night of indulgence, Shirley has been thinking creatively about hosting in a post-pandemic world. “We are already seeing an increased desire in our guests to escape the home after months spent in lockdown, yet still craving home comforts in a luxury setting.” Moving with the times, turndown service is now optional for guests, whilst The Dunstane rooms have been completely decluttered of unnecessary touch points, replaced by an app which is available to download pre-arrival. “Cleanliness is key” for Shirley, whose Head Housekeeper has been making the hotel shine for over 15 years. Cleanliness, coupled with the warmth and friendliness of the staff, define Shirley’s perfect luxury experience and The Dunstane service which greets every guest with a warm, Scottish welcome – “I like to feel expected, and I never want to be kept waiting when I arrive at a hotel.”

And although very grown-up in style, The Dunstane makes little ones and four-legged friends feel instantly at home, from setting up mini-tents for little ones to enjoy an in-room glamping experience, and a children-eat-free initiative, to dog-friendly hampers filled with luxury tit-bits. In keeping with her home-from-home philosophy, and seeing staycationers on the rise with furry friends in tow, animal lover Shirley recently made the decision to welcome pets into the Cosy Wee Doubles and Luxury King Rooms at Hampton House, with access to the gardens and the option to accompany pet-parents to breakfast, dinner and drinks in the Hampton Conservatory. “We don’t just allow dogs, we make them feel as welcome as we would any other guest“, with an in-room doggy bed, bowl and treats and glass of ‘paw-secco’ on arrival.

Room For One More?

The 35 individually designed bedrooms are currently spread across The Dunstane House and Hampton House, styled with warm heritage tweeds, rich velvets, printed wallpapers and freestanding bathtubs beautifully presented beneath bay windows which flood the rooms with natural light and views of the Pentland Hills or Edinburgh’s cityscape. “I was able to design something that is quite close to my heart and that’s all through personal travel experiences”, says Shirley, who has succeeded in making a stay at The Dunstane feel more like a country escape than a city break through her carefully curated interiors and a top-to-bottom refurbishment in 2017. Although the roll-top bathtubs are one of the most ‘Instagrammable’ features of the larger suites, for Shirley, “it’s all about the bed.” Enveloping guests in locally-sourced linens, Scottish pillows and duvets, the king-size beds at The Dunstane come with Vispring mattresses which are handcrafted in Devon for the perfect night’s sleep, “my gosh they are divine, everyone comments on them and says they slept wonderfully.”

In anticipation of a trend for longer stays, and more exclusive use of properties following the pandemic, Shirley has her eye on next door Randolph House which she’d like to convert into a set of six, ultra-luxe suites as a third addition to her boutique brood. “I hope that guests start to slow down when travel becomes possible again, and instead of hopping from one hotel to the next, they really bed in and get a feel for the place.” By extending the offering, the hope is that guests will extend their stay and linger a little longer in Edinburgh’s most beloved family-run boutique hotel. “The biggest problem with Edinburgh is that it can be hard to leave. It’s the kind of city that takes hold of you somewhere inside and roots you to the spot“, at least that’s what happened to the Mowats, and indeed to many of their returning guests – and it’s not difficult to see why once you’ve visited The Dunstane Houses…