Dunstane House - HERO2

The Dunstane Houses – a breath of fresh Orkney air in Edinburgh

The Dunstane Houses have stood at the gateway to old-town Edinburgh since the 1860s. Variously occupied by merchants, musicians, doctors, distillers, bankers and newspapermen over the last 150 years, they have witnessed the evolution of modern-day Edinburgh. Today, these historic buildings form two halves of a one-of-a-kind boutique hotel: a relaxing, contemporary sanctuary that blends the story of the capital with the Orkney roots of its owners – a stylish and welcoming city retreat with an authentic Scottish soul. Mr Hudson talks to Samantha Wright, General Manager, about the history of the hotel, the guest experience at The Dunstane Houses, and some of her favourite places.

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Tell us about the owners of The Dunstane Houses

When Shirley and Derek Mowat 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. Within three years, they had elevated the guesthouse from two stars to three and transformed the cottages into four-star holiday homes.

The Dunstane Houses - The Scapa Suite

“By 2007, the Dunstane had become one of the most beloved small boutique hotels in Edinburgh”

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, and 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.

Shirley and Derek Mowat

“The Dunstane Houses passionate team always go out of their way to meet guests’ needs”

How would you characterise the hotel?

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.

Babar At The Dunstane Houses Edinburgh

Ba' Bar

What experience can guests expect at The Dunstane Houses?

At The Dunstane Houses we like to provide a home away from home for our guests, we take away the formality of the hotel and make it a relaxing and restful atmosphere. We have removed our reception desk in order to facilitate this, and all our front of house staff are trained to put the guests needs first at all times. We have removed our computers and phones from the front of house so that the administrative side is not disruptive to the guests’ experience also.

What makes The Dunstane Houses special?

I like to think that our approach to traditional hospitality with a welcoming friendly touch makes us stand out from the crowd. At the Dunstane Houses you can experience Scotland and Edinburgh as you can nowhere else. We partner with other small independent companies with the same guest ethos as us so we can be sure that the experience we recommend to our guests matches the level of hospitality they get with us at the hotel. For example, we partner with Mini Mack Tours who do tours of Edinburgh in Mini Coopers so you can see the city through the eyes of the local. Also Andy the Highlander who takes guests on highland tours dressed as a 17th-century Jacobite Warrior. You can see all of our bespoke packages on our website.

Edinburgh | Photo: Matthew Kalapuch

Edinburgh | Photo: Ross Sneddon

“Listening to feedback from our guests is very important to make sure we are taking both positive and negative comments on board and using them to shape our product”

How do you keep up with changing customer expectations?

Derek and Shirley are very passionate about hospitality and invest heavily in having the best hotel in Edinburgh. This helps with keeping up with customer expectations as we are constantly improving our product and our procedures. Also listening to feedback from our guests is very important to make sure we are taking both positive and negative comments on board and using them to shape our product.

What makes a great hotel?

A great hotel is one that truly cares about our guests as well as the business. Our reputation is paramount in importance to us and we like to make sure that all our guests leave and tell all their friends that we are a great hotel!

The Dunstane Houses - Hampton House

“Competition is fierce and marketing is paramount to get the word out as independent hotels just don’t have the same power as the larger chains”

How has hospitality evolved over the last decade?

Hospitality, in Edinburgh especially, has become increasingly more difficult over the last ten years – it is more competitive and guests are much more money conscious which means value for money needs to be apparent in every part of our business. We have to make sure that our offering is special, unique and worth every penny we charge for it. Which of course we believe we have achieved! Competition is fierce and marketing is paramount to get the word out as independent hotels just don’t have the same power as the larger chains and so online reputation and word of mouth is crucial.

The Dunstane Houses - 3

What makes Edinburgh such a great destination?

Edinburgh is a fantastic all-year-round destination with plenty to do and plenty to keep coming back for. We see this in our high level of repeat guests. There is so much to do from the coastline and scenery of our own Volcano in the centre, to shopping, food and history.

What are some of your favourite places in Edinburgh that people need to know about?

The royal yacht Britannia is my favourite tourist thing to do, along with Mary King’s close which is an underground street preserved from the middle ages, up on the royal mile. There are some lovely walks around Arthurs seat and also down the Water of Leith (which is a walk that you can join from the back of the hotel).

Arthurs Seat | Photo: Claudel Rheault

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