WATCHING Neil Morrison chat with locals in the bar at The Benleva in Drumnadrochit you would think he had owned the place for years.
In fact, when SLTN visited the hotel last month it had only been open a matter of weeks; but Neil has wasted no time in immersing himself in the Loch Ness community.
For Neil, who also owns Macgochans in Tobermory on Mull and The Lochside hotel in Bowmore on Islay, The Benleva represented new territory in that it’s his first business on the mainland, and his first in an area with which he has no direct connection (Neil is from Mull and his father is from Islay).
It was a part of the country that wasn’t necessarily in his sights. But fate had other ideas.
“It all started at the SLTN Awards last year; I was talking to Kevin Duff from Carlsberg and he mentioned The Benleva,” Neil told SLTN.
“To be honest this area wasn’t on the radar but I came up to look at it and saw what I could do with the place.”
Striking a lease to buy deal on the property – an 18th century former manse which sits in an acre of ground in the shadow of a 400 year old ‘hanging tree’ – earlier this year, Neil couldn’t wait to get stuck in to the refurbishment.
The timing, however, was far from ideal.
With the Mull Music Festival running between April 20 and 24 and the week-long Feis Ile Islay whisky festival kicking off on May 26, the revamp of The Benleva had to be fitted around what are major events for Macgochans and The Lochside, resulting in Neil clocking up a hefty mileage – and plenty of ferry journeys – travelling between the three outlets.
But what he describes as “a bit of a juggling act” paid off and the stunning £180,000 transformation was achieved in a matter of weeks, with Neil again working with renowned Scottish designer Ranald MacColl, who designed Macgochans and The Lochside, and a team of local tradespeople.
It was a substantial project which involved turning lounge and dining areas at the front of the property and two rooms at the top of the building, previously used as owner’s accommodation, into en suite bedrooms, taking The Benleva from seven to 11 rooms. The building was replumbed, new water tanks installed and the kitchen was overhauled.
In terms of design, The Benleva bears many of the contemporary Scottish hallmarks of its sister outlets.
Touches of tweed and tartan feature in the light and airy en suite bedrooms, and a muted grey colour scheme and contemporary tartan carpeting have been paired in the hallway. In the large public bar, fresh, neutral décor sits alongside dark wood tables, chairs and pew-style seating, while the bar itself has been clad in timber; the adjacent lounge bar features a similar look.
The Benleva’s interior wasn’t the only thing to be given a makeover.
A new menu majoring in fresh, local produce was introduced and the bar stocked with a broad range of malts, draught beers from Carlsberg UK’s portfolio and six beers on handpull, which will ultimately include beers from the Hanging Tree Brewery at the rear of the hotel, which is due to be up and running in a couple of weeks.
I’m an opportunist; I do think what’s for you won’t go by you.
Neil has also put his own stamp on The Benleva in the shape of live music – something his other outlets are known for.
And it seems the changes are going down well with locals and tourists.
“Here, like on Mull and Islay, it’s all about catering for both markets,” said Neil.
“The bar’s been open a couple of weeks now and the locals seem to love it; they are seeing the changes so they keep coming back. The locals are really important.
“There’s also a big tourist market here. I’ve met with a lot of the B&B owners and accommodation providers and I’m also looking to work with some of the local tour companies and activity centres, and with some of the distilleries.
“There’s more work to do here but I’ll do my usual and suck it and see for a year. I think it will take a year to get it trading as I want it.”
It’s an approach that has so far paid dividends for Neil, whose trade career began at 18 with a bar job in The Mishnish in Tobermory before moving along the road to work in Macgochans.
A place at college to study music took him to Glasgow, where he continued to work in bars before heading to Campbeltown to help a friend open a pub. A job with MDP Hotel & Leisure followed, where Neil ran his first pub in Elgin at the age of 22 before going on to run various outlets in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and then take a job with Albatross Leisure in the capital.
Learning that Macgochans was looking for a manager, Neil returned to Mull in 2007 in what was meant to be a temporary move. Five years later, he had taken over the lease and proceeded to carry out a root and branch refurbishment of the venue, starting with the 120-capacity main bar, followed by its whisky bar, Bar Beag, the following year and then first floor function suite The Deck the year after that.
A similar strategy was adopted at the then ten-bedroom Lochside hotel in Bowmore, which Neil acquired in 2015 through a lease to buy deal and ran for a year before embarking on a £230,000 refurbishment.
The hotel now features 12 stunning bedrooms, a restaurant overlooking Loch Indaal and two bars – one of which is a dedicated whisky bar with more than 400 whiskies, including The Lochside 8 – a blend of Islay malts which Neil produced with Inverarity Vaults and launched for this year’s Feis Ile. Turnover at The Lochside has more than trebled in the two years since Neil took over and he aims to buy the freehold this year.
He is also seeking further acquisitions, with Glasgow and Edinburgh firmly in his sights.
“I’m always on the lookout for places,” said Neil.
“I’m an opportunist. I’ve not got a five-year plan or anything, I’ve always just gone with the flow – I just roll the dice and see where they land.
“People say I have the devil on my side but I think what’s for you won’t go by you.”