MONARCH OF THE MARCLIFFE
The brass plaque on the wall beneath him says he weighed “699 lbs.” Below that, “277 kilos”. His graying brown head is turned just slightly and his dark eyes catch yours. His antlers: “9.5 lbs. Dry”. I don’t understand the “dry” bit. Actually, this was the grand stag, a red deer I think, that was “The Monarch of Pitfodels”, which is where The Marcliffe Hotel now sits. The Marcliffe being the exceptional 5-star hotel our group stayed in for four glorious nights, just outside Aberdeen.
And it is Stewart Spence, the owner, who is the true Monarch of The Marcliffe. The moment you check in to your sumptuous room, you notice a letter from him in your welcome materials that states he is a keen golfer and member of Royal Aberdeen.
In fact, the letter starts out: “Dear Fellow Golfer”—and at the bottom it is signed: “J. Stewart Spence (h’cap 7)”. He tells you that he has been a member of Royal Aberdeen for forty years and a member of Cruden Bay for forty-five years as well (along with several other clubs).
Stewart, who has already made me feel like I know him, informs us: “For Scottish Beef (aged a minimum of 35 days and cut to suit), along with shellfish and seafood, you need go no further than the Conservatory Restaurant, right in the hotel.” But here’s the bit I really like: “To complement your dining experience you may choose from our very interesting and extensive wine list with over 400 bins, including a page dedicated to wines produced by golfers for golfers.”
Making mention of the fact that he is operating a hotel in the Home of Golf, he assures you that: “We are here to facilitate a memorable stay for our golfers, and if there is anything we can do to make your visit more pleasurable, please do not hesitate to ask.”
And then he reads your mind and offers: “If I have one piece of advice for you when you are tackling the great links courses of the North East, it would be ‘keep it low’.”
Now how’s that for providing a clue to the driving force behind this hotel? I have the distinct feeling that he likes the best of the best and he wants you to enjoy the same. There is an immediate sense that this man is passionate about everything he does and everything he puts his attention on.
So of course you will google The Marcliffe website where you’ll discover that Stewart is an avid angler and he fishes for salmon in Russia and Iceland every year. He is also an enthusiastic fundraiser of Orri Vigfusson “Patron Saint of Salmon,” and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund.
Although a monarch, Stewart drives himself around in either his Range Rover or BMW 7 series. He regularly shops at Harrods, and is particularly fond of Loro Piana jackets, Turnbull and Asser shirts, Ferragamo and Bulgari ties. He is royal right down to his shoes—made by Church’s.
By now I have already googled Church’s and discovered that yes, they do have a Women’s Collection and that my next shoe is called “Constance”. It is black patent leather, and with its smart not-too-high heel and a decorative “gusset flap”, it is quite classy and has a little bit of a vintage golf shoe look.
That just about covers Stewart Spence, except all the elegant ladies want to know if he is available and our golfing guys all want to know when he is on hand to tee it up?
I file away all this interesting information about the hotel’s proprietor and figure I can now free up my mind to ponder other wonders of the Scottish world—that is, until Kevin and I are sitting down in the Drawing Room using our laptops (giving the housekeeping staff a chance to tidy up our room-cum-office now that it is nearly 4:30 PM). Right next to us is the black grand piano topped with photographs, many of Stewart with luminaries such as Tom Watson, Paul Lawrie, Jack & Barbara Nicklaus, and Bernard Gallagher sitting with the Ryder Cup trophy. And who walks straight over to us to say hello, but Mr. Spence, his good self!
I actually noticed him in the lobby earlier in the day, wearing a crisp light gray suit and exquisite pale green silk tie. He was chatting with a couple who were leaving, so I didn’t want to intrude. But now he has planted himself beside us as the consummate host; and in two seconds the conversation turns to golf.
After a bit of chitchat about the courses our group has been playing on this tour, Kevin casually mentions, “I’m on the Top 100 Panel with GOLF Magazine.”
“Oh are you?” Stewart says with delight, realizing he is now conversing with a true golf aficionado.
Kevin nods. “In fact, I think Royal Aberdeen is one of the most underrated courses that I’ve played—I said it to Ronnie—how it’s not ranked in the Top 100 in the World is beyond me.” Ronnie MacAskill, being the Director of Golf at Royal Aberdeen, which is the sixth oldest club in the world.
Stewart picks up the thread about the ranking lists. “But I’ve always said—you see—I’m sixty-six and been playing golf since four years of age—that’s what happens in Scotland—played in twenty-six countries. And I said to the guys at Pine Valley—I was there for a couple of nights a couple of years ago. You know guys, I think you are definitely the number one inland club in the world…”
I find this statement perfectly logical from a Scot who plays a great deal of golf on the pure links courses of the east coast, and offer, “That’s a good way of putting it.”
Stewart goes on, “Because I’ve never understood why they rank inland and links in the same category. I’ve played golf for over sixty years. It’s a totally different thing.”
Kevin and I, we get it.
“And you know something, they all to the last one agreed with me,” Stewart says proudly. “Because they are all keen golfers. They said, ‘We would never compare St Andrews with Pine Valley,’ and stuff like that.”
He finishes his confidential point of view with: “Because I, well, I’ve played all the great inland courses, but out of choice, I’ll always go and play links courses. Know what I mean?”
“I’m the same,” Kevin beams. “I’m born in Dublin and played a lot of my early golf on Portmarnock—now live near Lahinch in the summertime.” He touches my arm. “We live in Scottsdale, Arizona in the winter.”
“Brilliant. Beautiful,” Stewart smiles.
I chime in, “It’s the complete contrast—desert and water’s edge,” so Stewart knows I am a golfer; not that he didn’t intuit this. “I’m a links lover, too.”
This sparks a memory and Stewart reminisces: “I remember playing the Boulders. We used to be affiliated with them. And John, this pal of mine says, ‘Now listen, if you hit a ball into that desert, into that scrub, you’re not going in there, you’re live bait.’
“I’m standing on this fairway,” Stewart recalls, “I’m thinking, John, there’s two brand new balls in there.
“‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ he says, ‘well just forget about them!’
“‘But I’m a Scotsman!’ I insist.
“‘Don’t go in there!’ he says ominously.”
Kevin and I smile and nod our heads knowingly.
“My girlfriend took up golf a few years ago…” Stewart volunteers.
Okay, now we know he’s not available! So that’s all the elegant lady readers canceling the flight they just booked to Aberdeen.
“And her favorite thing is looking for balls.” Stewart continues, “Well, awhile ago we’re playing golf in Gran Canaria (Spain). It’s another box to tick,” he interjects. “We were on this course with a lot of scrub on the left. The next thing I know, she disappears in there and comes out with seven balls!”
To me, this hilarious. “That’s just like Kevin. For some reason, he always seems to find five brand new Pro-Vs for every one he loses.”
Stewart picks up the story. “Well, the next ball I hit into the scrub, off she goes and finds ten more balls in the same place!”
I’m now picturing her going around the golf course wearing a backpack bursting at the seams with found balls. I wonder if Church’s sells backpacks. Gotta go back on their website and check.
“Why do we even go looking in there? If you find your ball in that scrub you can’t play it!” Stewart points out.
That never stops Kevin from foraging anywhere. The rough of links dunes. The jumping cholla of the desert. Nothing deters him. It’s all I can do to keep him out of the marshy areas in Florida. What does he think? The alligators will not like his “I-only-drink-New-Zealand-Sauvignon-Blanc-Irish taste?”
Kevin and I are laughing ourselves silly.
“My girlfriend,” Stewart chuckles along with us, “her son, he plays golf. She’s brought back enough balls to fill three shag bags. ‘Mom,’ he says, ‘no more! I have enough!’”
Kevin’s inner caveman hunter-gatherer is completely engaged just picturing her hoard. I can tell he’s envious. As if he all of a sudden feels he has a shortage of golf balls. He has dozens of plastic golf shoe bags full of them. He has drawers loaded with them in every room of both houses. There is even a crystal bowl in the Liscannor kitchen heaping full of balls. This is not including the hundreds of prized balls of Top 100 or other exotic courses he has played that are on display in the living room and dining room in Ireland. He has amassed so many in Scottsdale that I was forced to locate a used ball buyer over by Paradise Valley Mall who took something like 80 dozen of those balls.
“I mean, come on, even though we travel business class, there is a limit to the weight of the bags…” Stewart winds up.
On this convivial note, we say our goodbyes with Kevin extending an invitation to Stewart. “Why don’t you round up a team from Royal Aberdeen for our inaugural Top 100 Invitational in Florida next January?”
“I will handpick my team!” Stewart replies enthusiastically before taking his leave.
There goes the amiable Monarch of The Marcliffe, come to life straight off the page of his letter. Maybe only 170 lbs. dry.
Kevin goes right back to working on his computer, and I am left to marvel at what this inimitable man has created. To the left of the grand piano is an L-shaped, almost floor-to-ceiling display housing a world-class collection of porcelain cheese and butter dishes. Above the fireplace and on every other wall not made up of windows are outstanding original oils and watercolors, mainly landscapes. The inviting lobby with comfortable silk damask-covered sofas, round-skirted tables, and a gorgeous arrangement of fresh flowers including delicate orchids, which are included in every guest room, also has a charming assortment of raku pottery by the reception desk.
One can only guess that perhaps the artist, John Hine, is a personal favorite of Stewart. There, artistically displayed on beautifully lit shelving, is an entire menagerie of various ceramic animals that include a precious Scottie and even a Jack Russell. But it is the hares, dozens of them, ranging from a few inches tall to life-size, all in a white crackle glaze, that are the stars.
This reminds me that listed on the “52 things to see and do when in and around Aberdeen,” also discovered in our room, is #27: “The Golf Memorabilia and Snooker room at The Marcliffe Hotel.” And that is where I probably found the true essence of the man.
I feel a bit like the super sleuth of my childhood, Nancy Drew, creeping down a narrow staircase in search of this most private retreat. In the quiet recesses of the elegant boutique hotel, I find loads more early photographs—images like the Beechwood House, from back in the 1950s—that provide a rich narrative of the whole history of the house.
What is now The Marcliffe, started out as a mansion built in 1852 for an Aberdeen banker. A veritable gallery of prints and drawings tell a fascinating story of the entire evolution of the mansion and its environs over the decades.
Perhaps the most endearing of all the artifacts is a hand drawn map of the “Salmon Rivers of Scotland”, accompanied by a little framed poem on the wall called The Fisherman’s Prayer.
For me, it rather sums up the charm and wit of our host, the Monarch:
“Lord, suffer me to catch a fish, So large that even I, In talking of it afterwards, Shall have no need to lie.”