Sometimes you just have to take a chance in life – go for it and hope for the best! And, it’s fair to say that’s the case when booking private accommodation. We’ve all heard of the holiday horror stories, so it can be a bit of a gamble.
So with that in mind, and needing a break from the cabin fever setting in due to Covid-19 restrictions, I booked up with Airbnb for what was described on their website as a former country coaching inn built in 1833 near Alness in Easter Ross, Inverness-shire. The house, a granite-built and rather substantial property was located on what was an old stagecoach route.
Located approximately four miles from the town of Alness on the B9176, Stittenham House is only 18 miles from Inverness, the capital of the Highlands and the main shopping centre. Within the surrounding area, the towns of Dingwall, Invergordon and Golspie are all within a 30-minute drive.
The nearest town to the property is Alness where you can find, rather surprisingly, a Morrisons supermarket along with a Co-op and a Lidl. The locals are spoilt for choice in the retail grocery sector. There’s also a good choice of takeaway food outlets including two Chinese/Thai, two Indian, and a fish and chips. Some of these offer a home-delivery service to Stittenham House. There’s a couple of hotels who also do food but it would be fair to say there’s not a whole lot of choice for eating-in dining.
So, back to the house. Firstly, if driving via Inverness, which most people will be when arriving, be careful as there’s a very sharp left-hand turn into the driveway leading to the property. Misjudge this at your peril!
Although a detached property, there are another two small stone-built bungalows behind the main house. I assumed these have been converted from former outbuildings belonging to the original coaching inn, but more of the history later.
There’s plenty of private parking at the rear door and the side of the property for around three to four cars.
To the front of the house, there is a large garden with fruit trees and we had some delicious apples while enjoying the spectacular views across the Cromarty Firth and the north and south headlands, while in the opposite direction you can see Ben Rhinnes rising above the Speyside hills.
Access is via the rear door – we never used the front door due to its location at the side of the property. It was simply much easier to use the rear door to access the house.
Bordered on the rear and side aspects by forest and woodland the house is very secluded in a scenic rural setting.
Entering via the rear door you’ll find a small vestibule providing space for coats, hats, umbrellas and outdoor shoes, you’ll also find a notice board with essential and helpful information. The hosts have also fitted a hand-sanitising station.
The rear vestibule leads to the kitchen off which is a separate pantry containing a small fridge and tabletop freezer, plus ample storage space for boxes, suitcases, fishing rods etc.
The house sleeps seven people in four bedrooms and, because of its location, most people will self-cater. Bearing that in mind, the house needs a larger fridge/freezer. We were a group of four adults and one child and filled the freezer with the food we had taken with us, overspilling into the fridge. The pantry is certainly large enough to host a full-sized fridge/freezer combo or standalone units.
“Stittenham House was built in 1833 by the First Duke of Sutherland, who owned Dunrobin Castle in Golspie, further along the coast. It was originally a coaching inn with stables and the final staging post on his lengthy carriage trips between England and his castle home. The property still has many of the original features, including the crow-stepped gables. The original stables were converted into two cottages, but which still retain the original air vents for the horses.
“Since 1833 the house has only had four owners – following the First Duke of Sutherland was Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson, 1st Baronet, who was a Scottish Tai-Pan. Born in Shiness, Lairg, Sutherland. As a result of his actions during the Highland Potato Famine, Matheson was awarded his baronetcy in 1851. The First Opium War led to the Treaty of Nanking which allowed Jardine Matheson to expand from Canton to Hong Kong and Mainland China.
“After Matheson, Charles William Dyson Perrins, an English businessman, bibliophile and philanthropist bought the house. He was the son of James Dyson Perrins, the owner of the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce factory. In an attempt to keep the Worcester Pottery business he also owned afloat the property changed hands again, this time to the grandfather of the present hosts wife, the Allison family.”
The kitchen is very well equipped with everything you’ll need for a self-catering holiday. Microwave, kettles, toaster, dishwasher, plenty of crockery, cutlery, and glassware along with ample storage for your supplies, and generally enough cooking utensils to cater for seven people. The hosts provided all the washing-up liquid, hand soaps, hand towels, antibacterial spray, kitchen roll, tin foil, and bin liners which saved bringing it with us. There’s also a new washing machine in the kitchen which features a four-ring electric hob, oven and grill. The house does need some new glassware however, as most of it is dishwasher bloomed.
On using the kitchen at breakfast, we found there were a couple of items missing. A pair of tongs for turning items on the grill and an oven gloves/s for taking the grill pan out safely. We ended up using a hand towel before buying a cheap oven glove at a local supermarket.
Because of Covid-19, the host was unable to meet us on arrival which they normally would. But to their credit, the emails and text messages were great at imparting information relevant to the property. These messages included an offer to simply call email or text them if there was anything we needed during our stay or encountered a problem. That said, we decided that a pair of tongs and oven gloves were nowhere near sufficiently important to bother the hosts with.
The kitchen utensils complement could perhaps benefit from a large frying pan, although I had taken one with us as past experience has proven this is something generally missing from self-catering properties. If like us, you cook a good hearty breakfast and need to fry seven eggs, then a small frying pan simply won’t cut it!
Next to the pantry, at the kitchen end of the house, is where you’ll find the dining room. It’s nice to see that the owners haven’t ruined the property with unsympathetic upgrades. The property, including the dining room, have open fires with original surrounds although none are available to be used in their original intended form being blocked off now. The dining room has a gas-fire fitted.
The original inglenook glass-door cabinets are still in evidence. The dining room features a large dining table and six chairs, so if you’re a group of seven, which the house can accommodate, then you’ll need to pull in a chair from the smaller kitchen dining table to seat all seven guests.
Next door, and along the corridor toward the opposite end of the house, you’ll come across the single bedroom and the smallest of the four bedrooms. Don’t expect modernity to jump out at you as you be sorely disappointed. Some might use the term spartan, however, the room with its bed and comfortable mattress was more than adequate. The bedding is clean fresh white cotton, with two pillows – and, as I expected both mattress and pillows feature protectors fitted. There’s also a fireplace (not in use) a standalone chest of drawers and a wardrobe for hanging storage. It also has a radiator controlled by an individual thermostat with a master controller located in the kitchen.
A short walk further along the same corridor brings you to the twin bedroom. This follows exactly the same style and content as the single – functional and clean – you don’t need much more, do you?
I should point out at this stage the decor and colour styling is both basic and fairly typically Scottish – muted earthy colours of taupe, orange, and brown along with a smattering of the obligatory tartan thrown in for good measure. Oil paintings, grandfather clocks and. antique brown period furniture completed the look.
Anyway, moving along the corridor brings you to the front door and vestibule next to the sitting room. As I mentioned earlier, there is no vehicular access to the front of the property, therefore absolutely no likelihood that you’ll need to use the front door. There’s a small patio table and chairs, along with a bench on the patio area outside the front door in a sheltered spot.
The sitting room is an excellent sized room for a party of seven, however, the leather suite consists of a three-seater, two-seater and a single armchair and even with my rudimentary maths, worked out that that’s not enough seats for seven people. There are dining chairs available or, if perhaps your group has a child at this property, it would be beneficial to take a beanbag with you. Alternatively, you could try to squeeze seven onto the two settees provided.
There’s an original fireplace but unfortunately, like the rest in the property has been sealed off and in its place had a false log-effect electric fire installed, more’s the pity. There’s nothing better than a good blazing log fire in the evening as you savour a single malt. But I appreciate the concerns that open fires can give property owners if people are not used to them and don’t take care. A large dresser and mirror unit along with an empty curio cabinet took up the remainder of the space. (Due to Covid-19 all the little bits and pieces had been removed from the property by the hosts). The room also had a large flatscreen television. The TV has Freeview and therefore plenty of channels to choose from, while the whole house is served by a free 5G Wi-Fi service.
One small issue and I mention it purely for constructive reasons, the room is lit by a small central chandelier which is fairly bright. There was also a standard lamp behind the three-seater settee, but ideally, the room could do with another standalone lamp in the main body of the room. Using the chandelier (the big light)made the room very bright while using the table lamp meant it was too dark to read.
Heated by a single radiator and the fire, the hosts had also supplied an oil-filled radiator unit. We found it wasn’t needed. The sitting room features some of what might well be original plaster cornice work.
The single and twin bedrooms overlook the front lawned area as does the dining room while the sitting room has a dual aspect of both the garden and woodland.
While the property is located on the main road and only has single glazing, it’s far enough away to remain quiet and therefore road noise is at a minimum. I assume the glazing has not been upgraded on the basis that the house was given a category ‘C’ listed building classification in 1986 due to its history and age.
Off the main corridor, running at right angles you’ll find two bathrooms and bedroom three – a king-size room. One small point of note is that there were no rubbish bins in any of the bedrooms, and these would make a handy addition.
The bathrooms have been upgraded bringing with them a degree of modern styling with low sink units, waterfall taps, illuminated LED mirrors, and shaver points. One features a bath with a shower over, while the second has a dedicated walk-in shower cabinet.
Unfortunately, the day before our visit I received a message via Airbnb from the host telling me that they had discovered the over-bath shower was faulty, and although a replacement was on order, it was unlikely to arrive in time for our stay. This was indeed the case.
Notwithstanding, the walk-in shower performed perfectly adequately with a good supply of constant hot water and reasonable pressure. It’s not a power shower so don’t expect to be blasted awake in the morning with a jet of water that would strip skin, but was more than adequate for our requirements.
All towels are provided as are toilet rolls. Also in the bathrooms were antibacterial hand soap dispensers hand sanitiser, and paper hand towels should you prefer them instead of a standard cotton hand towel. Presumably supplied again due to the coronavirus precautions. Unfortunately, there’s no storage space or holders inside the shower cabinet so you’ll have to leave your bottles of lotions and potions on the floor along with your washcloth or other items.
The bathroom with the shower cabinet also has a heated towel rail, meaning if you leave this on, (we did) the room is comfortably warm at all times. The bathroom with the bath has a radiator, but which appeared to have a faulty thermostatic valve as we could never seem to warm this room up. Both bathrooms were supplied with shower mats for guests use.
At the end of this corridor lies the large double bedroom furnished in an identical style to all the others. This was my room for the duration of our stay and it was absolutely fine. It had a radiator plus an oil-filled portable heater for extra heating if required. In this instance, the extra heater was not required. Storage was supplied in the form of a chest of drawers and a wardrobe unit along with side tables and lamps which were evident in all the other bedrooms.
For someone with a pre-existing back injury, it’s always a bit of a nightmare going away and relying on a bed whose mattress you have neither knowledge of nor any experience of its history. In this case, I slept well and therefore had nothing to complain about.
Finally, back along both corridors and located above the kitchen via a spiral staircase, was the fourth bedroom featuring another king-size bed. This one doesn’t have the same outlook as the others did, looking over a wooden garden shed. Perhaps more suitable for younger guests and certainly not recommended for anyone who is disabled or has mobility issues. And that brings me nicely onto the fact that this being an older property means the doorways are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, with all principal rooms on the level with full ground-floor accessibility.
Generally, the place was exceptionally clean and tidy throughout with lots of thoughtful and helpful touches by the host. Mind you, it could do with a lick of paint here and there just to freshen it up a bit (windows and stairwell), but bear in mind the year we’ve had where businesses like this were forced to close their doors in March and couldn’t reopen until August 2020, it’s perhaps no wonder that many of the normal annual maintenance tasks might have slipped slightly. It’s not only acceptable but completely understandable during these difficult times of a health pandemic. The owners are to be commended for having put in place so many safety measures to ensure both their and their guest’s safety at all times.
The property has a green ethos and recycles waste via three bins – one for glass, general waste, and a third for plastic, card, paper and tins.
Would I recommend this property, would I stay here again? Absolutely. It’s a wonderfully quiet, well-situated large family unit offering all you’ll need for a relaxing break, which frankly, all adds to its many charms befitting the dowager lady she undoubtedly is.
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