When hospitality becomes an art, it loses its very soul –
It is an obvious statement to make but COVID-19 is drastically changing our existing economy; and, in so doing, creating financial disaster for many established businesses and types of business. You have to feel sorry for them all – but, little comfort though it is, all business owners know the risks and appreciate they are always a step or two away from trouble.
Apart from the travel industry, the hospitality industry is the one most badly shaken and the one that will affect our lives the most when COVID-19 finally burns itself out. But the time that will take worries me – especially regarding the fate of the great Scottish traditional hotels. These are the hotels I love the most. I particularly rue the passing of the Garth Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey – now to be developed for flats.
I have to admit though that I really like modern hotels and their custom-designed rooms – you know exactly what to expect when you sign in. The receptionists are trained to smile and make eye contact and, in the room, the en-suite facilities are up-to-date and there are welcoming teabags with biscuits, a clutter of information, courtesy soap and shampoo. Sit back and relax.
Yet, nothing surpasses the Great Scottish Traditional Hotel (GSTH). It can still be found if you look hard enough and, despite COVID-19, it will hopefully long continue to stand proud, a lingering relic of grander and more gracious days. A relic quite unaware that the world has moved on.
When you arrive at a GSTH, generally no-one is in reception. You push the bell. You hear no sound; you assume the bell hasn't worked; you push again. A man's head pokes up from behind the desk and you read disdain in his face for what he considers your impatience.
'Yes, can I help you?' he drawls in an exaggeratedly polite tone.
You want a room for yourself and your spouse. He does not reply but pulls out a massive and dusty book which he scrupulously examines running his finger up and down its columns.
'We have two available,' he says: the hotel is actually only half-full but he wants you to realise how lucky you are to obtain a room.
'The one on the second floor is smaller but has a sea view. The other is larger but at the side.'
You tell him it does not matter; you simply want a room for the night. He looks haughtily at you as if to say, 'Indecisive type, aren't you?'
After my wife steps in and settles the issue, the man (owner, manager, receptionist − you never find out) passes you a massive key attached to an equally massive key ring. 'You go up the second stairs on the right to the half-landing on the left, then it's right, first left till you come to the next stairs on the left, go to the right then it's on the left.'
Oddly enough, you thank him.
If you are really fortunate, as I once was (true story – only the room numbers have been changed to protect the innocent), you'll be given the key to room 20, reach the landing and find that rooms 10 to 19 point to the left and rooms 21 to 30 point to the right. Assuming that room 20 must be the one facing ahead, you will do as I do and walk into the broom cupboard.
Once you have found your room, you'll find it even smaller than reception suggested; still, it is only for the night. The central heating proves impossible to control and the window is jammed. You must be the only person sleeping with an open window on an autumnal night. 'Sleeping' is judgemental as the plumbing system plays a musical accompaniment all night and curious creaks and groans echo down the corridors (complaining long-dead guests?). The doors in the passageways squeak lustily every time they are used.
So, what is so good about the GSTH? The food. The food forgives everything. These hotels still have not discovered pre-prepared, deep-frozen, ready-to-microwave foods that you serve yourself with at breakfast nor the trivial savings 'portion control' brings. Breakfast is a joy. You may well wonder who last fingered the open marmalade and open butter, but the bacon is to die for and the eggs...
You can put up with a lot when the victuals are good and the staff (outwith the receptionist) are genuinely friendly. The tourist agencies have got it wrong when they award, in a scientific fashion, points for matching bedspreads, carpets and curtains, quality of welcome pack and so on. It is the friendliness and food that counts. The Great Scottish Traditional Hotel has a lot still going for it.
So also has that other increasingly rare sighting so often associated with the GSTH; the Great Scottish Traditional High Tea (GSTHT). High tea came into vogue because working people had to rise early and, consequently, their eating times were appropriate to that. Breakfast was very early and, with autumn and winter bringing shorter days, lunch was often skipped in favour of getting the necessary work done. The term 'high' was used in polite society to signify that the meal was being taken at the main table and not a side table or off one's lap.
The fact that high tea was the main meal in many a home distinguished the GSTHT from its English cousin. Anna, Duchess of Bedford in Victorian times, claimed she suffered from a 'sinking feeling' in the late afternoon and started the habit of snacking on tea, sandwiches and cakes at that hour.
If you can find a hotel serving high tea then it is generally better value than the later and more elaborate 'dinner' ('dinner' simply means the main meal of the day). Now, I do not claim that a GSTHT is top of the healthy eating options. Any self-respecting high tea starts with tea served in a silver-plated pot, long past its best and with an ill-fitting lid and with a spout that proves impossible to pour from without spilling copious amounts on the tablecloth (a table cloth is de-rigour for high tea). Tea and water are obligatory throughout the meal as is a constant supply of toast and butter.
The main dish – ideally sausage, bacon, egg with a steak thrown in (but haddock or mutton pies are also acceptable) − must be served with a large tureen of chips (never French fries). Ideally, the plates must be large and chipped and the knives must prove only equal to spreading the butter on the hot toast but to be too blunt for anything else. The trifle must be served in a huge, communal bowl to ensure the maximum number of table splashes; cake and scones must follow.
But the essence of all that is that plenty of enjoyable food is available. Now, a meal served like that is not an art or a science: it is simply good hospitality.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow