In the second of our series on outdoor hospitality entrepreneurs, we meet Walter Micklethwait, who has turned his family’s country estate into an eco-friendly quirky retreat and function venue. Louise Creasy reports.
Inshriach House was built in 1906 by the Blacks, a celebrated publishing family and owner of the Edinburgh firm of A&C Black for four generations, as a shooting lodge. Despite being 15 minutes south of Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, it feels completely isolated, bordered on the north side by the river Spey, and to the south by the Inshriach Forest and the foothills of the Cairngorms.
And so it begins…
In 1970 it was acquired by Walter Micklethwait’s grandparents and having always spent his family holidays on the Highland estate as an antidote to London, when a third of it was left to his mother 10 years ago the pair dropped everything to try and hang on to it. Walter picks up the story: “It was an entirely sentimental decision and completely foolish as we couldn’t afford it – I sold my house, and mum had to rent out the family house in London, but we were still £1.3 million short – we were just lucky HSBC gave us a mortgage. We were shaking everyone we could find upside down – anyone who had any money got it taken off them and we just scraped it.
“Of course, we could not afford to sustain such a big Edwardian country house with 200 acres, so we decided to rent it out and we moved into one of the cottages.”
Inshriach House had never been a business so a lot had to be done to bring it up to scratch and into the 21st century while keeping it eco-friendly. Walter completely redecorated the entire house, doing everything himself except for fixing the roof. “I used reclaimed materials where I could and spent the last bit of money we had on fitting a wood pellet hot water system and a set of solar panels for the roof. When you run something like this you have a responsibility to be as sustainable as possible.”
After 10 months of blood, sweat and tears, it was fit for accommodating 18 people. “In 2009, there was little business in the house and with next to no money coming in we decided to host a festival to make some friends and help put us on the map. This was the Insider, and it ran every year up until 2013, but it was never profitable and increasingly elaborate,” he says. “There were two musicians for every one member of public over the three-day event, and only 1,000 attendees. It was great fun and very uncommercialised – people loved it, but festivals are a mug’s game unless you can handle them very well.”
Camping in style
Even with the house slowly building a business with holidays, parties, weddings, photoshoots and retreats, they still needed to diversify. That is when Walter’s love of making weird and wonderful creations came into play. “I wanted to know how to make a yurt and it just so happened Canopy & Stars was starting out at that point. They approached me with this business plan and asked if I wanted to get on board with my yurt. It got off to a flying start as no one else was offering anything similar this far north at the time.”
It was the perfect entry into glamping, and the business soon expanded to include other off-grid facilities. In 2010 the Beer Moth arrived, a converted 1954 Commer Q4 lorry, bought from the Manston Fire Museum in Kent. Then the Bothy Project approached him with a scheme to build a small-scale art residency space. Partly funded by the Royal Scottish Academy, the custom designed pre-fabricated cabin now does six months each year of artist residencies and six months of holiday lets.
The latest addition to the now 20 acre glamping area is a Swedish-style shepherds hut (built by Walter’s partner Lizzy’s dad), together with a wood-fired sauna and hot tub – recycled nonetheless from a horsebox and an army trailer respectively. “I love trying to turn old discarded junk, vehicles or buildings into something purposeful; nothing is ever thrown away if it can be useful. I try to make something every year to keep it fresh.
“We’ve never done any conventional marketing; it has just grown organically and led off in meandering directions through our passion for creativity.”
It is Walter’s unorthodox attitude to life that has arguably led him to amazing opportunities, and with that heaps of media attention (Oprah Winfrey apparently mentioned the Beer Moth on her show in 2014) inadvertently raising the profile of the business.
Elsewhere on the estate
While all these self-contained holiday units are the estate’s way of making money, extra revenue is brought in from farming, which Lizzy runs, breeding 60 to 100 Blackface lambs each year to then sell on for meat, and more recently Walter’s gin distillery. Using only ingredients that he can pick himself within a few miles of the estate, it is distilled on site from an old hen coop that now resembles a Wild West saloon and went on to win Channel 4’s 2015 Shed of the Year. It is also home to a small farm shop (selling eggs and products made on site, from woodcarvings to clothing) and a piano bar.
“I admire anyone who can make things, that’s why Shed of the Year is so cool – it’s full of very skilled people taking a lot of time to craft things that are entertaining, sustainable and almost universally unnecessary. I admire people who use all manner of materials with fluency and who find uses for otherwise useless things.
“While I’m proud to have won the prestigious award, it attracted undue attention to our small-scale operation. We would have 80 to 100 people turn up a day to have a look round, and while I understand it is a tourist focused area of the world, the joy of this place is the privacy of it – for us as a family living here, but also for our guests staying in the house or glamping. It was starting to get intrusive so we decided to hold open days, and they became really popular – and fun.”
As well as these monthly events, the farmyard space has become an events function area in its own right. “There is nothing else like it around us, or anywhere in the UK that I can think of. We can host up to 150 people and offer catering, live music and a bar without it affecting the house or glamping site. We held a mountain bike conference last week and it was really successful,” he says, before going on to add, “Everything is reusable during events – it’s not very practical but I wouldn’t have it any other way – the gin business is the same, every bit is recyclable – I don’t use any plastic or polystyrene.”
While some years Inshriach House doesn’t host any weddings, in a busy year it will have up to six, with anywhere between 80 and 150 guests, and that’s because Walter doesn’t advertise the fact it is a wedding venue – couples just find it through word of mouth or photographers.
Walter says: “The money is useful but weddings are noisy and hard on the house and garden. If we keep a marquee up for more than two weeks it leaves a large yellow rectangle on the lawn. The couples who get married here love the area and want creative input into their wedding, so we work together to pull that off, the photographers we recommend tend to be amazing, the caterers are always brilliant, we hire rustic-looking furniture and there is a stage area and bar in the marquee so it looks very impressive. But I can’t think of anything less Inshriach than putting together a wedding package.”
Walter, whose work has also resulted in him being awarded the Sawday Trailblazer of the Year Award, is rather modest. “It’s been hard work but fun developing this business. It has brought together a lot of creativity, entertainment, a heap of good people and has allowed us to hang onto Inshriach through some difficult times.
“We have never had any money to spend on anything, so it’s always been a case of what’s the next thing we can afford to do. I really do not know what sells it apart from faith and that we entertain people. We have no conventional marketing programme, and while I am interested in what people are doing on the glamping front and I turn to people like Bill Coppethwaite, who pioneered yurt building in the States, and Lloyd Kahn, who has lived in a self-build home for the last 50 years, for inspiration, we never carry out any market research. We build things we believe in and let it grow slowly and organically.
“We’re not afraid of the bank anymore, which is good – the business has diversified, and a lot of people get what we’re doing and the ethos of it. It also helps that what we are doing just happens to be on trend right now. In truth though, it is the seclusion and wilderness of the landscape that people come here for, and the sense of humour – our USP is the element of surprise and bewilderment about it all.
“We differentiate ourselves from others with the level of recycling, originality and imagination, and the space we have. The house always had a nice atmosphere and some of that has run down to the glamping. Everything is individual but there is a decorative theme that applies to all the different elements, and then there are the weird little touches, like a bar made from a horsebox trailer. I like to call it a ‘Victorian old man’s pub’, and it can just about accommodate two members of staff, but has bar stools for customers on the front.
“There is nothing off the shelf about any of it, and it is the same in the farmyard with the ridiculous shop and many weird old vehicles, it is another worldly experience. As a result, Inshriach is more than the sum of its parts. Less can be more when well delivered. We are not trying to stay ahead of the competition; we just seem to occupy a different lane.”
And does Walter have a mantra that he thinks we should all adhere to? “There can be no doubt that we are at a critical point environmentally so reuse everything you can. Don’t be wasteful, profligate or extravagant. Don’t buy, generate or gift crappy things. Try to fix stuff. Try to be sustainable. Work hard towards something that inspires you. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right first time. There are more important things than money.”
While the house is the main avenue of business for the Micklethwait family, the glamping side of things is catching up – turning over two thirds of what the house does, with gin somewhere between the two, and that is partly what Walter wants to focus on for 2019. “I have just finished building our own bottling room so I can do very short runs and experiments and contract distills for others and I’m investing in equipment to make it a better business.
“This place has enormous potential and none of it is very obvious, but with time, funds and skills permitting, anything is possible. As the community that lives here has developed and the skills have changed, people have brought their own ideas to the party – there’s wood working, workshops, retreats, joinery stuff, the gin – there’s all these different avenues to pursue.
“Hopefully the next new project is a little Victorian railway station I dismantled with some friends five years ago. I have planning permission to put it up and have chosen the most awkward possible site for it, but I’ll make it work somehow.”
It might be easy to cast off Walter’s apparent scattergun approach to business, but what he has achieved through sheer hard work, creativity and talent has completely turned the fortunes of Inshriach House around. A former kids TV set designer and antiques dealer, there is nothing about Walter that does not surprise us. A humble, genuine and fun guy, with a busy working estate to take care of, along with a growing family (three children under the age of three), it’s a wonder he’s able to keep diversifying the business at all. Whatever happens next, it is sure to be truly inspired and no doubt a little outlandish.