killiecrankie house restaurant tom tsapp


Road trips, bagels and
Irn Bru sweets: 
How two quarterlifers set up a restaurant in rural Scotland


By Emily Parker

02.01.21

 

Quarterlife Editor Emily Parker caught up with Tom and Matilda Tsappis to find out what makes two regular 20-somethings quit their lives and city jobs to start a ‘restaurant with rooms’ business in rural Scotland.

"We’re in Tokyo, Japan. It’s the year 2012. Tom Tsappis is a 20-something broker from London, trading foreign currencies at a big city firm. Matilda Ruffle is a 20-something strategist from Edinburgh, selling big ideas to big brands in a creative agency. On paper, they are living the graduate cosmopolitan dream. But things are about to get very different.

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Tom and Matilda Tsappis were regular 20-somethings working in finance and advertising when they met in Japan in 2012.

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Skip ahead nine years to 2021 and they are back in the UK. Tom has trained as a chef, Matilda has trained as a sommelier, and both have quit life to renovate an old hotel in rural Scotland - a hotel with holes in its roof, a packet of forty year-old peanuts behind the bar and an unidentified mushroom family living under the water tank.

The building - opening as a restaurant with rooms in early September - is Killiecrankie House in the Cairngorms National Park, 75 miles north of Edinburgh. Killiecrankie House under its young new owners could be set to bring discerning 20-somethings from busy metropolises the next big thing on the foodie scene. 

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1//  At what moment did they first realise the big city
life wasn't for them anymore?

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Matilda: It happened at different times for both of us. Tom went first.

Tom: We were living in Japan where we met. Matilda loved her job in advertising. In supermarkets she used to disappear into the Coke aisle where I’d find her rearranging the bottles so the labels looked neat because she cared about her Coke client so much. But I was already pretty burnt out in my life as a broker before I moved to Japan. In London I used to start at 6am. I’d be out three or four nights a week, not getting home until 2am after entertaining clients. I lived that fast life in Tokyo too, but with the added barrier that I spoke a different language, which I found tough because I love to talk. That made all the work and the socialising more tiring and pushed me to my limit quicker. By the time we decided to leave Japan I’d reached breaking point and decided I couldn’t go on living like that.

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2//  Some quarterlifers will relate to big-city burnout - how did Tom first discover an alternative in a

passion for food?

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Tom: My love of cooking started with a love of eating. I really fell in love with food in Japan. I used to be very different with food. When I was 14 I thought TGI Fridays was the best restaurant in the world. I didn’t know there was another kind of restaurant out there. When I worked in London I’d leave the office at 8pm, go to the shop on the way home and buy a bag of Wine Gums for dinner, which I’d eat and go to bed. If M&S wasn’t open for ready meals, I’d just buy sweets.

But Japanese food is incredible and we both had good jobs and disposable income out there. We were able to eat in interesting places and I got a taste for really good food at Japanese restaurants. Then at the same time a lot of the western food I was craving most just wasn’t available, or would come with a local twist. If I had a hankering for a specific food, I could only have it if I made it myself, so that was when I really started to cook. I remember saying to Matilda one week I was craving a salt beef bagel, but I couldn’t get a bagel anywhere. So I spent a week making salt beef and bagel dough. It took seven days, and looking back they were probably rubbish, but that was the start of something.

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Tom’s love of cooking started with a love of eating, and a craving for specific western foods while living in Japan which led to seven days spent making salt beef bagels.

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Matilda: Tom wanted Belgian buns at one point. He was craving them so badly he had to make them. Another time he wanted crab ravioli. He made such a mess. He had no tools for the crab so he used a hammer. 

Tom: Matilda was cleaning crab off the ceiling for weeks.

Matilda: In Japan we also realised how much satisfaction we both got from feeding people and watching them enjoy our food. We’d often invite friends over when we were cooking.

Tom: We had a Halloween party once. I spent hours drawing webs and frogs onto cupcakes and making home-made marzipan pumpkins. I went to art school and I’ve always had a passion for doing things with my hands, but then I ended up in finance because my family were all in finance, so cooking was a return to something creative.
 

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3//  What turned Tom's passion for food into momentum for making a big change in his life?

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Tom: We must be attracted to change deep down. We worked out that we’ve lived our lives in a sort of pattern or cycle, both separately and then in the nine years since we’ve been together. Every seven years we change everything and start all over again.

 

Matilda: Straight after Japan we decided to go to America for three months. We road tripped our way around which gave us time to think and talk without day to day pressures. We were eating out pretty much every meal for those 88 days, and analysing everything about the meals - ambience, menu, service, style of food, cost. It was an accidental crash course in the dos and don’ts of really good food and hospitality. 

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Tom and Matilda left Japan to road-trip across the States for 88 days, going from demanding city jobs to 14 thousand miles of open road with time to talk about what they wanted from life.

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Tom: It’s like with most things - they say if you want to be a good writer you’ve got to be a good reader. We learnt to eat before we learnt to cook. I drove nearly 14 thousand miles from one side of the country to the other and we were eating out every single night. We had hours to dissect those experiences as we drove.

Matilda: It wasn’t just that we were travelling or ‘opening our minds’ as the cliché goes. My mind was already open. We’d been living in Japan for a while. My mum is Japanese and my dad owns a vineyard in China. My parents also lived in Taiwan when I was growing up and I went to school in Scotland. I’ve always had a very broad cuisine. From a young age I was eating weird stuff from all over the place. So the world always felt big to me. But what travelling does give you is time to sit down and ask, “How would I actually make this hypothetical dream into a reality?” It takes time and brain space to make things happen. 

Tom: When you travel you experience more, but I knew a lot of people who went traveling and did the classic gap year circuit and came home and just did things because they were trying to remember the really nice holiday they’d had. Whereas we used the time and space travelling gave us to channel and create the building blocks for an alternative life. It can be difficult to go travelling in search of the answers to your life and your problems. For us it was more organic - we were tired and we wanted a break, so we went to the States for some time out. It just so happened to be right at the point I’d fallen in love with food.

Matilda: We’re also analytical people - we went from living life in the fast-lane, using our brains constantly, to a life of freedom with nothing but food, eating out and the open road.

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4//  How did that momentum take hold when the road trip ended and they moved back to London?

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Tom: I loved cooking, but I had to find a doorway into that world. I was motivated by, “I want to eat that,” but I didn’t know how to “make that”. I left finance and went for the interview at Leiths School of Food and Wine which gave me the fundamental skills of cookery. 

Matilda: It’s a personality thing. Tom likes immediate gratification. He was in a hurry to be great. He likes cooking because you see a dramatic change from the ingredients to the end product in a quick time-frame. When he studied at Leiths I’d come home from work to find whole pheasants in the fridge with the feathers still on - he loved the skill and variety and pace of cooking. Whereas I’m motivated by continued learning. Advertising was becoming the opposite for me. I loved my ad-land job, but you get to a point in that line of work where the learning slows down. It becomes less exciting, and at the same time it’s all-consuming. You have to put in so many hours and after a while you get tired of the hours. You make money and you move up the ladder, but you use your four weeks of holiday a year to escape and recover from the exhaustion.

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Back in London, Tom’s desire to seek some official validation and rigour led him to Leiths School of Food and Wine where he learnt the art of cooking and would bring home pheasants with the feathers still on.

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Matilda: Wine was in the background for me. My dad has a vineyard in China and I’ve always enjoyed drinking wine, but there was so much I didn’t know about it. Wine is complicated. It felt like such a rich area of information and potential knowledge. Each time you learn more about wine, you feel you know less and less, which made it a really meaty pursuit I could get my teeth into. I made the decision to study wine after we did a holiday to France driving around vineyards.

 

Tom: You’ll notice a trend here - we go on a road trip and something big changes.

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Matilda’s love of learning led her to take on the world of wine where she is working her way up to the Master of Wine qualification - an accreditation only 416 people in the world have.

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Matilda: We got back from the France trip and I booked onto level one of my wine course.

 

Tom: You can do level one in a day. She booked on with my best man which heightened her determination because she’s competitive so she had someone to beat. She got full marks that day.

 

Matilda: I don’t like to lose and I felt determined to plough through the wine levels, so as soon as I finished one level I’d book onto the next. I do get competitive with the other students on my wine course. When I see them sharing pictures of their wine region maps and pages of notes on Instagram it makes me want to study harder.

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5//  How did these separate pursuits of food and
wine come together in a shared vision?

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Matilda: It started with the supper club.

Tom: After my course at Leiths I did work experience in different parts of the industry - on Saturday kitchen, in a charcuterie factory, and at a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants. The variety of experience gave me clarity that what I ultimately wanted was to work for myself. I told Matilda and we started to think about what would be possible and how we could make it happen.

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Tom worked and interviewed at a range of places, from Michelin-starred restaurants to charcuterie factories before deciding what he really wanted was to work for himself.

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Matilda: Elia Supper Club was our minimum viable product. We could set up and run it from our flat in Dulwich with minimum risk. We ran two supper clubs each week, one on a Friday and one on a Saturday, with between six to eight people. We offered a multiple-course tasting menu with BYOB, and it gave us a chance to practice, find what worked, what didn’t, and to see how we worked together. It turned out we absolutely loved seeing people in our home enjoying our food, helping them to switch off after a week’s work. 

Tom: It was a time of trial and error and we learnt a lot. We look back now at early supper club menus and think ‘that looks terrible’. It was the learning curve we needed. It was hard work too. I was working full time on the food - some courses would take me all week to prepare. Matilda was working in advertising still, and helping to run the supper clubs in the evenings. We did over 100 supper clubs in total. Matilda only missed one.

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Tom spent seven days a week making dishes for their supper club tasting menu run out of their Dulwich flat, while Matilda worked at her advertising job by day and waited on every Friday and Saturday night.

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Matilda: Some days I’d work until six, get home at seven and start serving straight away. It was tiring and hard-work, but so satisfying. Regardless of how sore your feet were or how messy your home was at the end of the night, you could sit down, eat the leftovers, put on the Greatest Showman and chat about how it went. Knowing you’d made a table of people happy by feeding them felt great.

 

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6//  When did they decide to strike out
on their own and buy a place?

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Matilda: The goal was always to have our own place and run it full-time. Elia showed us we had something to offer, but I think Covid accelerated the process. We hadn’t been able to do the supper clubs, which we’d missed. Then I had a bit of a meltdown in May 2020 after a particularly intense few months at my advertising job during Covid. I sat at my laptop one day and I just couldn’t stop crying. Work signed me off for a few days with stress. And we just looked at our life and thought, we’re not happy living this life. This isn’t working for us anymore. We need something different. That was when our search for a place began in earnest.

Tom: It all happened so quickly. We viewed Killiecrankie House in June and got the keys in November.

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Stars aligned when they found Killiecrankie House looking for new owners, and it offered the perfect blend of picturesque rural location
and Scottish heritage.

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Matilda: We saw about 15 places in total. There were three we seriously considered. Here at Killiecrankie the location is so perfect it was a clear winner. The lady who owned the place was the cousin of a family friend who was looking to sell and retire, but she sadly got cancer. It was getting worse quickly so she wanted to sell quickly as a result. Because of her illness the stipulation in the sale was we had to move quickly too, which we could. 

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Killiecrankie House is being transformed from a twee countryside hotel full of quirks, holes in the roof, and traditional charm, to a more contemporary, Scandi-inspired, food-focused space. 

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Tom: We’ve had to gut the place completely. There are five rooms, so we’ll be able to have up to ten guests staying, but you can eat here without staying over too. The place suits us. We’re very informal people. We’re not people who would run a kitchen that has some poor sod out back picking herbs for hours on end. This place is called Killiecrankie House and that’s exactly what it is - a house. It’s our house. It’s no different to the supper club - you’re coming to eat in our home.

Matilda: The renovations have been tiring and expensive. We’ve found much more needs doing than we originally thought. When we started peeling back the layers, we found a packet of peanuts from the 70s in the bar, holes in the roof and a chimney that was about to take the rest of the building down with it. But in a way, finding all these problems meant that we had a blank canvas to build the place that we had always wanted.  

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7//  How did the concept for the Killiecrankie House menu blossom out of Elia?

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Matilda: The key thing we took from Elia was that we loved the interaction with the guests. That’s why here, there’s no division between the kitchen and the dining room, it’s all open plan, and the chefs will help to serve the plates. Food-wise, Elia drew from a lot more cuisines as we were still trying to find our style. But the most successful dishes we served at Elia tended to have a strong story and an element of surprise. 

 

Once we’d found a place, my inner creative strategist started to come out, thinking about the powers of storytelling and persuasion. For us it’s not just about shoving what we want to say down people’s throats, but trying to get buy-in and engagement from the other side so it’s a two-way thing. We care about being able to read people and work with them throughout the night to ensure they get the most out of us based on who they are and what they came in wanting. Tom and I like people and stories, and Scottish people are natural raconteurs. I can’t think of any other country that celebrates a poet quite like they do. We want the restaurant to mirror this. 

Tom: Every course is inspired by Scottish food, Scottish produce or an anecdote about Scotland. But it’s not haggis, neeps and tatties. It’s not something you’ve seen or had before - we’re trying to show people that there’s a lot more to Scottish food. In a way, the restaurant is a way of telling our own story. But every single thing is in some way linked to Scotland. 

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The concept for Killiecrankie is grounded in storytelling, taking diners on a journey through Scottish traditions, native ingredients
and culinary heritage.

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Tom: We want to be fun and light-hearted too. It’s quite a playful menu, toying with Scottish traditions and tales. For example, there’s a dish called ‘drunken oyster’, based on the conservation work by the distillery Glenmorangie who are seeding thousands of oysters in the Dornoch Firth in order to filter their wastewater and the by-products of distillation, into pure water. There’s an edible Beano, the famous comic from Dundee. There’s a ‘dripping-fried porridge’ snack, based on the Scottish tradition of the ‘porridge drawer’.  

We’re doing an Irn Bru pate de fruits which is like a jelly or fruit pastel, and the reason we serve sweets at the end of the meal is Scottish people eat more sugar than any other culture in the world. Greenock, outside of Glasgow is known as the UK’s  Sugarapolis because so many sweet factories are concentrated in that area, and have been since the 17th century. . So we end every meal with a twist on classic sweets. There’s a classic sweet in Scotland called a macaroon, which is a vanilla-flavoured paste like a fondant that was originally made of potato and covered in chocolate and desiccated coconut. So we’ve got a macaroon macaron, made from potatoes.

Matilda: We have our approach to wine too. We’ll of course be serving those classics that everyone knows and loves. But then we’ll also have an ‘off the beaten track’ offering, so you can come and try a Cypriot wine from a vineyard we visited, or a sake, or some of my dad’s Chinese wine. We will also offer a drinks pairing for people willing to put themselves in our hands.

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Tom plans to serve an Irn Bru pate de fruits sweet at the end of the menu because Greenock, near Glasgow, known as Sugarapolis is home to a wealth of  sugar refineries which means Scottish people eat more sugar than any other nation.

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Matilda: We’ll showcase smaller producers too, local beers and different spirits, all in service of deepening and enriching whatever story it is we’re trying to tell on that particular evening. These are things we’ve picked up going around eating, drinking and saying: “That worked well. How can we copy or take inspiration from it, or adapt it to fit what we’re trying to do?” We’ve analysed everything down to the way wine lists are written out. 

Tom: We’re hoping there’s something on every level for every person. Hopefully everyone will come and think the food, service and ambience was great, and for most that will be enough. But if you want to know a little more and go a little deeper, you have the option to hear stories and engage with the experience on another level.

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The service ethos is rooted in a Japanese phrase - Kuuiki wo yomu - which literally means, ‘reading the air’.

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Matilda: You have to work out what your guests are there for. Sometimes at the supper clubs I’d explain stuff and I could tell people were itching to get back to their conversations. In those situations my job is to say my bit quickly and get out of the way. But with some people you can tell they’re real foodies that are interested in hearing about your process of getting to a dish, or understanding how something was made or how we landed on a particular concept. So there’s a skill in working out what people are after.

There’s a brilliant phrase in Japanese culture - ‘Kuuiki wo yomu’. Literally translated it means: ‘reading the air’. In the UK we call it ‘being able to read the room’. In Japan it’s an essential skill for everyone to have because the collective-minded community out there is deep-rooted in social history.

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Japanese communities were once made up of collective units of five households, paid in rice and penalised as a group for wrongdoings of individual members, and this strong sense of community and sensitivity to the moods of others can be felt in the air today.

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Matilda: During the Edo period, Japanese society was made up of five families or households, called ‘Gonin Gumi’, which established a system of collective responsibility. For example, the unit was paid in rice as a group, and were collectively responsible for sharing it amongst themselves.. But if one member of the group did something wrong, the whole group would be punished. So there’s a strong sense of collective responsibility which you can feel in the air in Japan. The ideal held up is one of everyone in harmony, homogenous with those around them. One nice side of that is this ability to read the room and sense how everyone is feeling, which is a fundamental part of Japanese society and culture. 

The importance of reading our guests is crucial to the ethos of the experience we’re building. We want to be able to give people as much as they want. If they want a tour of the kitchen garden we’ll do it for them with one of the chefs. We’ll point out the plants and how we’ve used them. We’re happy to go geeky.

 

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8//  What advice would they give to 20-somethings feeling inspired at the idea of
striking out on their own?

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Tom: As with most things, the best way to excel in your area of passion is to find the person or people you really admire and try to emulate what they do.

Matilda: One thing we’ve learnt is to find your core thing and do it really, really well. You want to please everyone at first, especially when you’re young and don’t yet have the deep-rooted confidence in your ‘thing’, but the sooner you can start doing what’s at your core amazingly well, the better you’ll be.

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To 20-somethings with dreams of working for themselves or struggling with burnout, Tom and Matilda say: research the world you look up to, find one thing you can emulate really well, and follow your energies.

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Tom: We offered veggie options at first with Elia. For a supper club of eight there would be one veggie who we’d cater for. But we realised the seven others were getting a worse meal because we were spreading ourselves too thinly. Now we’re just doing one tasting menu for everyone who comes through the door. You put yourself in our hands in that respect.

Matilda: And you have to be a bit unapologetic about it too. We won’t be offering a veggie option because of the number of staff we’ll be bringing in and the time we’ll put into each dish. We were going to do an a la carte menu at one point, and maybe a Sunday lunch at another point. But we costed it up and thought long and hard about it and decided to drop it a few weeks ago. Now it’s just the core offering of the tasting menu and breakfast.

Tom: We want room to breathe and enjoy where we’re at. We didn’t leave London to put ourselves in exactly the same place of stress as soon as we got here. And stretching beyond trying to excel in our core offering would’ve done that, when we actually sat down to work out the logistics.

Matilda: It’s all about who you work or spend time with too. Working together has been good for Tom and I - we talk and plan constantly. Tom is a risk-taker, whereas I’m more safe. We help develop each other’s ideas and we also offer differing skill-sets that enable us to plan carefully. If you go into something with someone else, find a partner with complementary skills and traits.

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Tom and Matilda say you only need to succeed once and not to fear the risk. If you explore enough, you’ll find your thing.

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Tom: Research was huge for us. That’s important for anyone with a passion or a dream. Start by totally scouring what’s out there already. What does well? If you want to write, read as much as you can. Read everything you can get your hands on, work out what you like and enjoy, who you respect, and what you can emulate or change.

Matilda: If you explore enough you’ll find your thing. And I’d say try to follow your energy and enthusiasm. If it’s right it shouldn’t feel inorganic or forced.

Tom: I’d also say fear less and just go for it. When we started Elia there were supper clubs we had to cancel and people we had to refund because not enough people had bought a seat, but we just cracked on. You only need to succeed once, so don’t be put off by the things that didn’t work out.

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In a year, they hope to be still open, married, and to have a little money to go on a honeymoon.

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Matilda: We’re opening post-summer because of the renovations so we’re missing summer trade. Plus it’s colder up here in September, so it’ll be tough. But if we can get some momentum and have some sort of profit by this time next year we’ll be happy.

Tom: And if everything goes tits up, we’ll look at the reasons why - maybe we overextended ourselves - then we’ll sell up and move onto something new and take our learnings with us.

Matilda: You’ve got to do this stuff - try things. You learn the most that way. No decision is permanent and it can be really freeing to look at things that way. We hope it works. But even if the worst happens and we end up back at the drawing board, we’ll be taking a lot more with us than if we’d stayed in our jobs.

Tom: I say give it seven years. Give us seven years. We don’t seem to be able to stay in the same place longer than that anyway.
 

Killiecrankie House opens 3rd September - dining and rooms can be booked here.

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