A Luxury Vegan Hotel In The Scottish Highlands
At Saorsa 1875 in the Scottish Highlands, everything, from the food and fittings to the toiletries and green energy, is 100 percent cruelty-free.
A sleepy hamlet in the Scottish Highlands seems like an unlikely place for a vegan hotel. Hidden on a sloping hillside among sky-scraping trees, Saorsa 1875 is smack in the middle of a farming community in picturesque Pitlochry, an hour-and-a-half drive north of Edinburgh.
Saorsa is the Gaelic word for freedom, and 1875 is the year the property was built. A former baronial estate, the red-tipped Gothic beauty ensconced in velvety-green gardens is a passion project for Jack McLaren-Stewart and his parents Sandra and John.
Arriving at the immaculately restored 11-room hotel, which feels more like a grand home, we’re greeted by the sweetest family dogs. At a glimpse, it looks like your typical swish boutique, with rich fabrics and finishes, Edison bulbs and tropical-print wallpaper. What makes Saorsa 1875 exceptional among the crush of eco-hotels and lodges is that everything from the food and fittings to the toiletries and green energy is 100 percent cruelty-free.
“We want to show that veganism isn’t about sacrifice, but an exciting vibrant lifestyle,” says Sandra McLaren-Stewart, who, along with her husband and son, transformed a crumbling estate into the UK’s first purely vegan lodging that’s undeniably luxurious, “where guests can experience amazing food, drink and design that doesn’t come at the expense of our fellow animals or the planet”.
After living abroad for many years, the couple returned home to Scotland, where they both grew up, chasing a dream and creating a stylish, soulful hideaway. “This is the way we live; and we want to share it with others,” says Sandra, an interior designer and long-time vegetarian. “Originally, it was just going to be me and my husband, since the kids were doing their own things. When Jack came up here to visit and knew what we were doing, he said: ‘I’m coming too if that’s okay.’ He’s got the youthful perspective and is attracting a whole new market through social media.”
Since opening last summer, this hip, mellow country inn is already being touted as the ultimate green escape for its serenity, dog-friendliness and imaginative plant-based cuisine. The family’s purist vision resonates everywhere from the restaurant to the rooms, all named after local wildlife and filled with furniture sourced from antique markets; refreshingly, there are no televisions, instead, classic rock, blues and folk tunes drift through the bar and restaurant.
And just outside the window there are miles and miles of ancient woodland and heather-covered moors for exploring. The next day under drizzly grey skies, Jack and the dogs accompany us along hilly, winding trails into a cedar-scented swathe of forest that sustains very rare Scottish wildcats, red squirrels, red deer and birds such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
Walking deeper into the woods, Jack seemed to know every twist and turn by heart of this rugged and lonely landscape that still felt uniquely wild. “Look at this,” he says, immersed in the vivid-green vastness, while keeping a watchful eye on Lizzy and Roxy splashing about in a crystal stream tucked in a pine copse. “We want to give people the opportunity to come to a beautiful place and not feel like they have to compromise.”
A vegan of five years, Jack, 26, the glowing blonde poster boy for vegan living, talks about his conversion. “I was a hardcore meat eater. One day, on my way to buy bacon and eggs for breakfast, I walked past a butcher getting a delivery and seeing these full-bodied pig carcasses hanging in the back of the truck, something just clicked.”
He didn’t go to the supermarket that day, but instead watched the Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives and Earthlings documentaries. “It shocked me to the core. The more I learnt about veganism, the more it fits with my world view. I’d always considered myself an animal lover, yet at the same time I was eating them.”
It was a transformative moment that changed everything. “I said to my parents: ‘I don’t think it’s morally acceptable for us to be eating animals in a modern 21-century society.’ We discussed it in depth, and they felt the same. When we were growing up, certainly as kids, we didn’t eat huge amounts of meat, but Sandra was very conscious about where it came from, where it was sourced. Which obviously we look back on it now, and wooh…” he says, with an uneasy puff of laughter. “My youngest brother went vegan quickly, then my parents and the dogs. Veganism is not just about being an animal lover, but the fundamental principle of not using and abusing another living being.”
At the day’s end, returning for the nightly cocktail ritual, we joined the other guests on the plush vintage sofas at the bar Faodail in one of the hotel’s elegant rooms. Jack is the centre of attention, happily talking about his travels, politics, music, life, while reinventing swoon-worthy, farm-to-glass whisky sours and Espresso Martinis.
That communal spirit continues to the spare, rustic-chic dining room, where everyone sits around a long, custom-made table. “It gives it a more inclusive, convivial atmosphere,” says Sandra, who believes travellers want more than an escape, but to connect and engage. “I was inspired by the family holidays at ski lodges, where everyone would come down off the mountain, wanting to share their tales of the day and their stories.”
Dinner is an evening-long affair. Italian head chef Luca Sordi — whose stints have included Turin’s Soul Kitchen, Italy’s first vegan hotel, La Vimea, and London’s prestigious Vanilla Black — takes us through an experimental five-course tasting menu made with the freshest ingredients from the hotel’s vegetable patch and sourced from small-batch local producers. Artfully presented dishes such as asparagus and truffle with hollandaise ‘mayo’; black-salt caviar and wild garlic; whisky-infused smoked carrot soup; and pea-and-mint risotto with cream cheese rhubarb gel show off his flair. The dessert ‘A Land of Sheep’ — inspired by some wisps of wool Sordi found snagged on bushes nearby and created from apricot compote, dark chocolate and spun sugar ‘wool’ — is equally decadent.
And that’s what makes it special: that spirit of innovation. “The feedback has been phenomenal. We’ve had people from the US, Japan and New Zealand getting in touch with us.”
The family has a clear sense of its three-part mission to introduce visitors to the joys of cruelty-free living and the staggering beauty of the Highlands, as well as doing something good for the community and local animal sanctuaries. There are plans to offer more guest experiences, including cooking and cocktails classes, wine and spirits tastings, a yoga studio in the garden and adopting a few resident rescue goats.
Things are so bustling that it’s on a lookout for their second location. “Maybe in Tuscany or someplace warm,” says Sandra. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
For more information go to www.saorsahotel.com