More heaven than earth?
What links two time major golf championship winner, Sandy Lyle, Scottish outlaw and folk hero, Rob Roy – and Oscar-winning film director, James Cameron?
At one time or another, they have all called the Stirlingshire village of Balquhiddher ‘home’. It overlooks the stunning Braes of Balquhidder and the breathtaking Loch Voil. The beautiful glen – in the heart of the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park – is a popular haven for walking, fishing and nature watching. One company has made more – or should be say mhor – of a mark than most by investing in this landscape and the surrounding area. We took time out to explore …
It is approaching 30 years since Tom Lewis took over the Monachyle hotel – a way up the Balquhidder glen where the passing places in the single track road become more and more spaced out and where the waters of Loch Voil are fed by the many mountain streams that tumble into Loch Doine.
Working as the hotel’s chef, he picked up the baton from his mum and dad in 1999. From the word go, provenance has been key. Tom says: “It’s just how we’ve always lived on the farm – we eat our own produce and from other local producers. It just makes sense.” He adds: “We’re really farmers who have diversified. Sourcing our food seasonally and locally is just how we eat – lamb off the hill, venison from the stalkers next door, our own beef, pork, chickens, duck and chook eggs, and organic vegetables and herbs, too, plus wild foraged treats like wood sorrel and chanterelles. And when we need fish, we get it from sustainable Scottish sources.”
Tom was head chef at Monachyle for 14 years, handing the reigns to Marysia Paszkowska in 2013. For the last four years – and more – Tom has dedicated his time to the hotel and new ventures that share the ‘MHOR’ name.
Tom’s family moved to Balquhidder in ’83. His parents, Rob & Jean, bought the hill farm – a deal clinched with a signature on the back of a cigarette packet. Rob farmed sheep and cattle and Jean offered B&B in the farmhouse. The business and farm grew and evolved together.
Tom still lives at Monachyle Mhor with his wife, Lisa May. The award-winning hotel and restaurant are at the heart of a 2,000 acre estate, but the family’s businesses now stretch far beyond the glen. Tom and his brother, Dick looked to nearby Callander – a gateway for many visiting the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park.
First came MHOR fish on the Main Street. It is more than a chippie … it is a restaurant, but also a cafe. It caters for dining in – and taking away. You’ll find traditional fish and chips cooked fresh to order, as well as dishes like their now famous Seafood Chowder. Next came MHOR Bread. The Scotch Oven was a bakery, shop and tearoom that had been serving Callander for more than a century. A decade ago, The Lewises bought it with the aim of expanding the business, preserving what is best in quality Scottish baking and introducing a range of artisan breads. All the breads they sell are still made traditionally by hand, using flour milled in Scotland – but without preservatives and at affordable prices. You’ll also find an array of pies and pastries – perfect for picnics.
Then, with his wife Lisa May and his sister-in-law Mhairi, the family opened the Mhor 84 Motel. At one time, it was the Kingshouse Hotel on the A84 – a spot that’s been a haven for travellers for over 300 years. In April 2013, the Lewis family created the perfect pit stop and an affordable motel – serving not only drivers on the A84, but also cyclists on Route 7 and walkers on the Rob Roy Way.
The stripped-back atmosphere mixes antiques with modern furnishings and provides 11 rooms plus a holiday cottage. Food and drinks are served all day from 8am until 9pm. Hill walkers head down from Munro tops to bag a hearty lunch – or enjoy freshly made treats from their bakery in Callander. There’s also live music every week on their ‘Thank Folk it’s Thursday’ nights.
Back at the hotel, we checked in on a glorious evening …
Having been shown our room in the main house (the view above, middle, is from our room – there are more rooms in the courtyard development adjoining, above right), we went for a walk up the glen … returning for a pre-dinner cocktail. The Elderflower Cosmo was eminently quaffable!
The hotel – and its restaurant are known for food: it didn’t disappoint …
Starters, main courses and desserts were not only a sight for sore eyes – they were tasty to the last morsel and packed with Scottish flavours … including the cheese board.
Midges were in the air when we went to bed – so the bedroom window was closed. It was warm, so not the best night’s sleep – but the en suite room was comfortable with all you need for a night away. The foodie theme continued at breakfast …
After check out (it was pouring), we went for a drive to explore the area – and clocked the cycle ways: National Route 7 links Sunderland and Inverness. It forms two-thirds of the famous Sea to Sea (C2C) cycle route before heading north to Glasgow via Glen Trool Forest and the Ayrshire coast, passing through two National Parks – Loch Lomond & The Trossachs and Cairngorms. Close to our location, it follows the A84 and provides a great route for those discovering this neck of the woods at a more leisurely pace.
Driving into Callander, we spied a place that provides self catering: the Leny Estate has been the home of the Buchanan family for 1,000 years. Set in Leny Park just to the west of Callander, they provide a unique mix of accommodation – from a spacious, elegant, tranquil, five star self catering apartment in the North Wing of the main house to award-winning luxury self catering lodges, log cabins and cottages within the garden grounds. There are numerous activities available locally – from hill walking and cycling, to canoeing and pony trekking. Add in an abundance of castles, ancient monuments, museums, gardens and historic battlegrounds and it is easy to see why many make their base here to explore all the area has to offer.
If you’re thinking of visiting, check out their TripAdvisor reviews via this link.
We drove into Callander for an explore: as one of the gateway towns to the National Park, it provides a great place for those visiting to stock up on supplies – not only food & drink but also walking, climbing and camping gear with several outdoor stores. We caught up on some work emails over a coffee stop at MHOR Bread but, more importantly, bought some of their wonderful bread and pies to take home …
Planning to visit?
The Celts who settled the area centuries ago described it as a ‘thin place‘. By that, they meant the boundary between heaven and earth was ‘thin’ – where the two came as close as you can find. After just a few hours of discovery, we can see why. It is a beautiful corner of Scotland – stunning landscapes with the freshest air and businesses passionate about the true spirit of the land. They’re working with it – and its produce – to create unique experiences, employment and a sustainable future for generations to come. If you are planning a visit, please click on the web links embedded in the blog for further information … and remember to leave all earthly worries behind you.
We recommend a stay at Monachyle Mhor. The hotel’s reputation has spread far and wide. It is known not only as a fab five-star boutique escape, but also as a fun place to be, especially for those who love the great outdoors. You can swim or paddle in the loch, bag a munro (there are 5 on their doorstep), hire their ’69 Series Land Rover – or take a whirl in the Highlands with Hidden Glen Safaris. Bike rental is available to explore Route 7. Guests are invited to “forage for fun, fungi or fauna” and can also visit the hotels’ neighbouring venison shop. There’s game and deer-stalking as well as fishing in Lochs Voil and Doine from the Monachyle Mhor estate – free if you’re a guest.
Tom Lewis has forged many links promoting Scottish food. He’s the instigator of the Mhor Festival and he and his family are always looking to the future with an eye on yesterday’s values. The Slow Food philosophy underpins their approach to food and drink – and all their time and efforts developing the MHOR businesses respect the local environment.
The hotel is two hours from both Edinburgh and Dundee and only 90 minutes from both Glasgow & Perth. It is a great destination for a night’s escape – and the same can be said for their motel, Mhor 84.
Monachyle Mhor Hotel Balquhidder Lochearnhead Perthshire FK19 8PQ
Thanks for reading.