A Story of Scottish History, Haggis and the Himalayas.
We sailed the stormy Minch with the Lord of the Isles, nosed peaty classic malts at Lagavulin, Oban, Talisker and Dalwhinnie distilleries, sampled and enjoyed spicy haggis, prowled a castle infested by nine verifiable ghosts, mostly gentle, then golfed at the fabled Old Course. And all this before we met Juliet.
Entrepreneurs can be found anywhere in the world, but we travelled more than 3,600 miles to arrive at West Port, St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife, where Juliet “turns houses into homes”. Her enthusiasm and somewhat mischievous grin are contagious and her perceptive observations about the state of the economy bang on.
Farmore Interiors was founded six years ago by Juliet Carswell and her husband, Kevin Tulleth, a redoubtable team. He is in charge of project management, property refurbishment and maintenance. She and her energetic staff, totaling lucky 13, are interior designers, suppliers of fine furniture, fabrics, lighting and wall coverings. And so many other things scattered about the pretty shop’s interior that eyes are bedazzled and credit cards take on lives of their own. I’d just crossed her threshold when I spotted a fluffy mohair throw in wonderful shades of Loch Ness cobalt and Monster emerald casually tossed across the arm of a sumptuous leather loveseat, an absolute must-have.
Pleased with our reaction to her strategically created environment, Juliet told us she “started with a shop window”. I bet it was enticing. Then came, she said, “A very small shop”. Now her commodious two-floor emporium of delights is in for “more refitting” come the two day Lamas Fair in August when Farmore Interiors closes to the consumer but not her colleague elves, all ready to go with measuring tape and hammer.
The European Union, growing it seems almost daily, is one of the wide-ranging sources of Juliet’s extensive and sophisticated inventory. Her clientele is international, many Americans, Europeans, Japanese and Canadians attracted by the romance of the birthplace of golf. Others flock to the town’s university and colleges including, of course, Prince William, now in his final year of Art History. “The furore’s all calmed down,” she said. He’s apparently keeping a low profile.
Juliet first came to St. Andrews as the daughter of one of the university’s professors. Born in historic York, she had always been intrigued by design, a flair she shares with her mother who took courses in order to help with the direction of the new born business. When furnishing their own homes they had found it difficult to track furniture and accessories that could be categorized as “interesting and unique.”
But in St. Andrews, after lots of intensive research, it was a whole different ball game for them. They “filled a vacuum and things just took off. Word of mouth principally. We’ve done very little advertising.”
What they have done is develop a strong connection with an influential firm of lawyers and property developers, Pagan and Osborne. They market homes that appeal to golfers whose strongest desire is to live close to if not on top of a really great golf course. As Juliet said, “As long as golf is in St. Andrews, Americans (and others!) will want to acquire property here.”
But Farmore not only furnishes interiors, it frequently creates the interiors it furnishes. So her clients seek her out both for necessary building projects and renovations, and to furnish their homes from top to bottom, including accessories. Pagan and Osborne produce attractive property brochures and send them out to their clients both abroad and locally. This is where Farmore spends promotional funds. “Otherwise, no radio, no television, and just a few ads in local publications.” They just haven’t had time to get their client list on computer; “It will be done soon.” (Pagan and Osborne’s website, however, is excellent.)
Trained local craftsmen go out to homes and measure for curtains, draperies and carpets to ensure that really professional finish. Local townspeople are equally thrilled with Juliet and Kevin’s work. An old friend (she, in fact, introduced me to Juliet) told me the Farmore Team swept into her really lovely, newly purchased Victorian home, organized draperies for the very large windows, then carpets to cover the sweeping three storey staircase. Wall coverings of an appropriate but subtle Victorian design, were next. Then an enormous 19th century bathroom was divided in two, one en suite, for which Farmore found new fixtures. They completely redesigned the large kitchen and accessed appliances that enhance my friend’s pleasure as a fine chef. Simultaneously they searched for furniture to complete drawing room and dining room arrangements, and built shelving and wardrobe space for the combination study and guest bedroom. Whew, talk about complete customer service!
They carry the very best fabrics, paints and wall coverings, famous Sanderson, Osborne and Little, Jane Churchill, Zoffany and Liberty. “Some of our clients don’t think twice about paying 150 pounds (sterling) a metre for fabrics.” Linens are lush and lovely, there are whimsical animals, stuffed, pottery and porcelain, decorative screens, sparkling crystal, cushions, lighting, clocks, gift items and, back to furniture again, hand made French bedroom and dining room collections.
The second floor houses Juliet’s sunny studio where private consultations take place, quiet and orderly. In the office beyond, there is a steady hum of activity governed by a large wall mounted chart that lists all current and on going projects, “An instant, easy to access, day to day barometer of how the business is going.”
We asked Juliet what she thought of the state of the economy. “It’s booming at the moment. But they say interest rates are about to go up and people will probably pull back a little. Mortgages and credit cards are at max, over-borrowing in some instances on the equity of houses. Perhaps there’s been a slight drop because of the war in Iraq. But it will come back again, it always does. It’s cyclical.”
In answer to our query, “Yes, we’ve considered expansion in Edinburgh. But we have three children, 15, 13 and 10, Charlotte, Cameron and Catherine, and we want to spend time with them. St. Andrews is the place for us,” she affirmed.
A gold fish bowl sits at the bottom of the curving stairs to the studio. It’s inhabited by two active fantails that survey the bustling scene. “They’re our lucky charms,” smiled Juliet. “They’ve been with us right from the beginning and have followed our progress.” Imagination, a sensing for people’s needs and wants, on time delivery, constant follow-up, impeccable service, flair and superb taste are Farmore’s secrets of success.
Before we left St. Andrews, our friends took us to the Himalayas. No, it wasn’t at all out of the way, just around the corner in fact. The “Himalayas” have for more than a century occupied a corner of the Old Course with a good view of the much-revered clubhouse. It’s a really hilly 18 hole series of putting greens, each with its own challenges. There’s a fiendish individual whose job it is to change the holes two or three times each week so none of the members can ever be sure of the lie of the land. It began to rain at the 18th hole, so we made tracks for the 19th where we told tall tales of prowess and licked wounds.
Want to know more about the distilleries and the delectable amber drams they produce? Lagavulin is perched on Islay’s craggy shore across the bay from the ruins of 13th century Dunyvaig Castle, once a stronghold of the Lord of the Isles. In the old days, when every farmer produced his own crop of peat-smoked barley and fashioned it into potable booze, a lookout would play a particular melody on his bagpipes to warn the islanders of approaching customs and excise boats. Up at Dalwhinnie, the highest distillery in Scotland, there was a similar warning system. As lawmen were seen galloping up the winding valley roads to the stills, friendly mountain folk rushed out to throw red blankets over the stone walls as a danger signal. Now all distilleries are governed in more civil fashion by an imposing heavy brass “safe”, padlocked securely until officers come for pre-arranged assessments of the routine weekly reports.
Distilleries each have their own copper stills, each distinctively shaped, a governing factor in the final taste of the whisky. And if you visit, you will discover the subtleties of aroma and flavour. Lagavulin is my personal favourite. It’s the peatiest of them all, a powerful, warming wake-up call to one’s senses. Oban, to quote an expert, is “a breath of fresh air”, lighter, very clear, fresh and silky. She told us there are “two distillations at Oban. In Ireland,” she added quite seriously, “the whisky is triple distilled because they can’t get it right the first or second time.” Talisker is middle of the road with an essence of Skye’s dramatic seascape. And Dalwhinnie’s charm seems to share the spirit of gentle fun exuded by the staff. As we were sampling our drams, a tourist from Germany asked for water. Maureen, the nice lady behind the counter whose entire family has worked for Dalwhinnie for generations, said, “How could you think of adding water to the malt when my husband works so hard to take it out?”
But there’s a two percent evaporation that afflicts all the distilleries’ stock. It’s a natural process, but visitors are provided with a different interpretation. “That two per cent is know as ‘the Angels’ Share’. We have no ghosts in our distillery, but on windy nights of no moon, you might hear the songs of a tipsy angel or two!”
And The Lord of the Isles? The present incarnation is surely the young man we met on the Islay ferry. A tall, lanky university student returning home for his summer break on the family farm, he urged us to visit Finlaggan, the home of the Lords, the MacDonald chiefs, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. But the site dates back even further to a stronghold built there in the Iron Age. Well worth seeing.
The castle of the nine ghosts is, of course, Glamis, childhood home of the late Queen Mother and birthplace of her daughter, Margaret. The gardens are superb, as are the collections of furnishings and artwork. Take your camera. You might meet the spirit of Lady Glamis, Janet Douglas, known as the Grey Lady, who haunts the beautiful chapel. She was burned at the stake as a witch in 1537 although innocent, through the machinations of the sinister James V of Scotland.
Then there are the mysteries of extravagantly carved Rosslyn Chapel, the Castle and the Glen that lies between them, where William Wallace and Robert the Bruce hid from Sassenach invaders. We spent a few days at Rosslyn and saw evidence of Knights Templar and the gentle man who had the Chapel built to his own extraordinary specifications in 1446. He was Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney. To quote his biographer, “He caused artificers to be brought from other regions and foreign kingdoms and because he thought they had not a convenient place to lodge in, made them also build the town of Rosline and gave everyone a house and lands.” The Chapel was far from complete at the time of his death. His son and successor to the Barony of Rosslyn, roofed the choir with its stone vault but did no more to fulfill his father’s original design.
The Chapel has survived many trials and tribulations, and when renovations are complete to archaeological and architectural standards, probably about 10 years from now, a chamber beneath the Chapel will be opened for the first time in many centuries. It’s believed some Knights Templar are buried there and much of the statuary apparently removed from the Chapel at the time of Cromwell’s destructive romp through the United Kingdom is said to be stored with them in the hideaway. And, strangest of all the legends is that it could also be the hiding place of the Holy Grail. Have you read the Da Vinci Code?
It was well worth the mishaps along the way, the overnight flight in seats built for undersized six year olds, the lost luggage, a startling similarity in buying power between the pound sterling and the dollar, and the midges of Tarbert . . . oh, didn’t I mention the midges? Also called “no-see-ems” because they’re so tiny, their biting power’s riveting. A poster at a pub in Islay, just across The Minch from Tarbert, announced a naked bicycle ride, a demonstration against industrial pollution to take place in Edinburgh during the festival. Participants were urged to support the effort, to “come out in thousands”. We asked the bar keep if there would be similar rides on Islay. He shook his head with a sigh, “Never here, the midges would eat ‘em alive!”. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.