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 Shirley and Derek Mowat, owners of the Dunstane Houses.
When they left their Orkney homeland in 1988, aged just 18 and 21, they were aiming for London – a young couple in search of bright lights and big-city thrills. They failed, quite spectacularly, to get there. What was supposed to be a weekend’s stop-off to visit friends in Edinburgh became a permanent arrangement. They fell in love with Edinburgh’s art and architecture, its rich cultural heritage, its modern-day bustle and brio and promptly settled in the wrong capital.
Before they were out of their mid-twenties, they’d taken another, equally whimsical gamble and bought a guesthouse, 39 Steps, followed by a pair of holiday cottages. By this stage, Shirley’s hospitality experience amounted to a hotel management diploma and a stint as a professional chef, whereas Derek, whose background was in working with cars, was armed only with boundless enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. Neither had ever run a business before.
Derek learned on the job, maintaining his passion for working with cars alongside, and Shirley added new skills to her repertoire every day. Within three years, they had elevated the guesthouse from two stars to three and transformed the cottages into four-star holiday homes. Running a hospitality business went from being a try-it-and-see experiment to a way of life. Shirley and Derek began to look for their next step.
It didn’t take long to find it. In 1998, another opportunity arose. A beautiful Victorian building on West Coates came onto the market. Originally a merchant’s townhouse, it had been running for some years as a reasonably successful 15-bedroom two-star hotel, but it had the potential to be so much more. As they had with almost every opportunity so far, the Mowats jumped at the chance, bought the hotel and spent the next decade taking it to the next level.
By 2007, the Dunstane had become one of the most beloved small boutique hotels in Edinburgh – and, thanks to Shirley and Derek acquiring another Victorian gem – the 18-bedroom Thistle Court Hotel over the road – it got a lot bigger. The next decade saw plenty of change and innovation across the Dunstane’s two buildings – an updated interior here, an added in-room perk there – but it wasn’t until late 2016 that a new chapter opened. For the first time since they’d landed at the Dunstane, Shirley and Derek began a massive refurbishment project, determined to turn one of the best hotels in Edinburgh into one of the finest in the UK.
The main Dunstane building was refurbished from top to toe to create distinctive, individual bedrooms and sumptuous suites that seamlessly combined contemporary luxury with period character, while its neighbour – now named Hampton House – also is the planning stage of a dramatic overhaul, creating a unique two-part boutique hotel animated by the spirit of its city.
Reopened under a new(ish) name in April 2017, The Dunstane Houses now represent the best of modern Edinburgh, with a unique all-day dining lounge and bar that celebrates Scottish produce (including of course, a rarified whisky selection), a passionate team who always go out of their way to meet guests’ needs, and timeless neoclassical-inspired interiors.
But although the atmosphere and visual character of The Dunstane Houses is a tribute to its Edinburgh setting, its Orcadian soul is never far from sight. Orkney’s heritage and culture informs everything from the photography on the walls by the front desk to the names of the hotel’s suites. The Ba’ Bar, for example, takes its name from the Kirkwall Ba’ game (the town-wide rugby scrum-like contest that takes place every year), and much of the produce in its kitchen is sourced from the Orkney islands. It is little touches like this that give the hotel of its authentic character, and, for Shirley and Derek, act as a daily reminder of where their journey began.