Kilmartin Castle: one couple's great Scottish hotel adventure

Why former Dubai residents Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt took on the challenge of converting an old Scottish castle into a bed and breakfast on an ‘impulse’

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For many people, the idea of upping sticks and ­moving to a Scottish castle is a faraway dream. I can vouch that is certainly true for me. I'll admit, unashamedly, Monarch of the Glen was staple Sunday night TV in my household for the whole of the early 2000s.

Well, for former Dubai residents Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt, that dream became a reality when they bought themselves Kilmartin Castle, a 500-year-old building that they read about while road-tripping through Scotland five years ago. Now, after an awful lot of hard work, the couple are running the castle as a luxury bed and breakfast on the country's rugged west coast.

"We bought Kilmartin Castle in 2014," Burgon tells The National. "We loved Scotland, and impulse was the main driver for buying it. Ever since we met, we would have dreamy conversations, as most couples do, about starting a business together as a post-UAE plan, which we could both get stuck into creatively.

“When we found the castle, we just jumped on it. This sounds ridiculous, but we didn’t even look around at any other properties. The castle and area was just too perfect an opportunity. Kilmartin Glen is a historically rich area on the verge of becoming a Unesco site. This empty castle was prime for a restoration.”

Former Dubai residents Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt have moved to Scotland to renovate and run luxury B&B, Kilmartin Castle. Courtesy Kilmartin Castle

Before leaving the UAE, Burgon was a radio personality, presenting on Dubai 92 and Dubai Eye, and Hunt was a creative director. She is from England and he is from Australia. While on their Scottish road trip, Burgon read a newspaper article about the castle and told her husband about it. "I said, 'Oh, look at this castle for sale. I'm not saying we should buy it, but maybe one day we should look at buying something like this'. He was like, 'We can buy a castle?'"

After living in the UAE for more than a decade, and running the castle remotely as an Airbnb lodging for almost four years, the couple finally took the plunge and moved back to live in, convert and run the property themselves. But first, they decided to take a few months off late last year to go road-tripping again. This time, they weren't on the hunt for any centuries-old properties, but antiques from around Europe to decorate their home and hotel with.

"We had always wanted to take a whole summer off and go travelling, so buying up antiques was a good excuse," the former radio host explains of their journey, during which they travelled from Denmark to Norway and France. "We did lots of research into the best antique fairs and markets, or 'brocantes' as they are called in France, and hit them all. We were at one in the dark at 6am, as all of the serious buyers were looking around and sellers started to set up their stands.

"In November, we made our way back to the UK through Belgium and the Netherlands. By that time the van was so full we couldn't sleep in it any more."

Stef Burgon admits to finding an eye for vintage art while exploring the markets and thrift stores of Europe. Courtesy Kilmartin Castle

The couple picked up everything from Aime van Belleghem paintings to vintage cabinets and ornate mirrors. "We had this really clear idea in our minds of all the rooms and what we needed for this rustic, luxury feel, always mixing old and new together," Burgon explains. "We learnt that it's not something you can do quickly. Luckily, we gave ourselves time to source what we think are the right antiques and new products for the look we imagined."

This comes through in the finished product. Looking through the photographs of the finished B&B (which I fully intend to visit at some point in the near future), the upcycled vintage touches blend in perfectly with the 500-year-old walls and floors. Stag horns, busts and exposed stonework perfectly contrast with the loud statement wallpapers, record players, distressed rugs and copper elements. The main living area is home to a leather sofa so slouchy and inviting you could well sit down and never get up again.

Traditional castle style, meets cosy contemporary living room, with plenty of vintage finds from the couple's travels. Courtesy Kilmartin Castle

The eco-friendly approach of incorporating vintage and thrift store finds is also reflected throughout, and the couple are trying to run their operation as sustainably as possible. This begins with the toiletries.

"We like the planet, and we appreciate how beautiful but fragile it is," Burgon says. "We commissioned a local artist, Claire Henry, to create ceramic pots for us, and we refill them with Faith In Nature products, which are paraben, SLS and cruelty-free."

It's taken years for them to get to this point, as their renovation journey began earlier this year. "We started working on drawings with architects in the summer of 2017, and work on-site started in January this year," Burgon explains. "The restoration took seven months from start to finish, but we had planned for six. Looking back, seven was ambitious, and we should have probably given ourselves longer to take some of the pressure off. We were as hands-on as we could be. Every single day we woke up, worked on-site and then fell into bed, tired and late."

Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt were hands on with the Kilmartin Castle renovations. Courtesy Kilmartin Castle

The hard work paid off, though, as the entire project was captured by cameras for British TV show The Great Hotel Escape. It aired last month and went "behind the scenes to follow families who have risked everything to turn dreams of running a hotel into reality". Curiously, the couple was approached to appear on the show, presented by Gogglebox stars Steph and Dom Parker, through a mortgage broker.

"We changed our mortgage to a hotel business loan, and programme researchers for The Great Hotel Escape had contacted the broker who was working that out for us," Burgon explains.

Netflix researchers also contacted the couple, indicating a possible surge in renovation shows in the coming months. The online streaming site has already enjoyed success with shows like Instant Hotel and Tiny House Nation in the last year. Clearly, this is a popular genre for television.

"Online communities such as Airbnb and Instagram are changing travel," says Burgon. "People want to experience the stories of smaller, more intimate places and are moving away from large hotel chains and resorts. This movement is encouraging younger people to buy these castles, once considered 'money pits', as viable business opportunities."

TV cameras or no TV cameras, moving from a busy city such as Dubai to rural Scotland is a lifestyle adjustment, but it is something the couple is tackling head on. "At first it felt like an extended holiday. Food shopping felt like fantastic value for money, because we were still converting everything into dirhams in our minds. There was also a sense of freedom, knowing you could jump in the car at the weekend and drive to a part of the country you hadn't been to before, stay at a cute B&B and go for dinner. After 12 years of living in the UAE, we longed for spontaneous local discovery and felt like we had 'done' Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, even further afield places, such as Jebel Akhdar and other parts of Oman."

Despite all this, there are plenty of things the couple miss about the UAE. "We miss Ravi's, Special Ostadi, a Raju Omlet breakfast of eggs lazeez, authentic chai tea, the streets of Satwa in the evening, when fresh bread being baked in fiery ovens," Burgon reminisces, adding the friends they have left behind and the price of petrol to that list.

The couple's cat, Frank, moved from Dubai to Scotland with them, and now joins them on road trips around Europe. Courtesy Kilmartin Castle

But they haven't left the UAE completely behind. "We have our Dubai rescue cat, Frank, with us on this crazy life adventure," she says. Plus, if you find yourself in Argyll and Bute, and stroll into Kilmartin Castle, you may well encounter a familiar shakshuka on the breakfast menu … it's a recipe they took home with them and a little taste of the UAE in western Scotland.

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