Hungry for Mhor
Perthshire, Scotland


The first time I meet Tom Lewis, he is standing on a bar chair, joyfully encouraging us to down a dram of Glengoyne 10-year-old whisky at 10 in the morning. I like him straightaway. It’s the start of his inaugural Wine & Whisky Safari and I’m with a convivial group of people and dogs. We’re eager to see what this madcap Monachyle Mhor hotel owner has in store.

Tom leads us on a six-mile walk up Balquhidder Glen, whose sparkling loch and rugged mountain splendour shine bright this morning. We climb up to a craggy lookout and eat Scotch broth dotted with a foraged pesto, while sampling another dram. Then it’s on to sit by Loch Voil for smoked haddock ceviche on eco-friendly leaf plates, served with chilled Riesling. Arriving at a fairy-lit barn at Tom’s hotel, we eat melt-in-the-mouth shin of beef from the family farm. The booze, beauty, food and fresh air ease the wheels of sociability and we make friends with our fellow safari-goers.

For me, Tom epitomises the change in the food and hospitality scene in Scotland since I’ve lived here, which is about 20 years. His love of food and having a good time share equal status. He may run a luxury hotel, but he is all about letting your hair down and living the good life. His motto is ‘don’t own a table you can’t dance on’. Always bubbling with enthusiasm, he’s to be found foraging with guests, turning up chanterelles and sweet cicely or at the bar spinning a yarn and encouraging guests to mix. Or he’ll be sourcing a quirky new addition to the hotel – my favourite is the old Port Appin ferry waiting room, now a cool suite in the hotel grounds.

So great is Tom’s dedication to eating and partying, he opened a buzzing motel-cum-café-bar, Mhor 84, which has live music, funky decor and all-day great Scottish food and drink. And his ever-growing annual foodie festival, Mhorfest, sees middle-aged foodies and bright young things dancing, eating well and drinking till the small hours over a May weekend.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

Subscribe today or purchase a back copy via our online shop.

And the buzz is spreading. Scotland now has food festivals galore, none of which existed 15 years ago. At Crail Food Festival, in a postcard-perfect Fife fishing village, I encounter a happy collection of passionate local producers and providers. As I munch a fresh-out-of-the-sea crab salad and sip a craft beer on the harbour wall, I watch people of all ages revelling in eating and socialising. Local tearoom owner Graham Anderson started the festival 10 years ago. To kickstart the event back then, the community enthusiastically raised £2,000, which was doubled by Scotland Food & Drink, an organisation that has championed Scottish food since 2007. Graham used the extra cash to fund a sit-down meal that was the festival highlight. Where leaders like Graham and Tom have gone, others across Scotland have followed.

Twenty years ago, eating out in Scotland often seemed a choice between dressing up for a reverential meal in a hushed room, dining on pretty but not-quite-up-to-scratch meals and freezer-to-fork cafés and restaurants. Now, we’re after higher-quality, pared-back fresh local ingredients served with a helping of friendly fun, whether in somewhere smart and sophisticated or lunchy and casual.

Take Larah Bross, aka Mama Bross, a miniature yet larger-than-life Canadian comedian turned bagel-shop owner in Edinburgh. Her cries of ‘fill yer hole’ and cheeky TikTok videos telling students she’ll include the number for a weed guy with their student-discounted bagels put the fun in lunch. (She’s joking about the weed guy, by the way.) Folk queue around the block for her organic Montreal-style Bross bagels and she’s gone from one to six shops since 2017. Food critics Grace Dent and Marina O’Loughlin are fans. From the Brunchfield bagel with scallions, hot-smoked Scottish salmon and crispy capers, to specials such as the Pride Month rainbow ‘Holes of Hope’ bagel (profits went to LGBT Youth Scotland), this woman is nailing it – fun and fantastic food together.

This wave of relaxed dining has also heralded a new fleet of street-food outlets, unthinkable 10 years ago. But we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or the well-fired morning roll with the deep-fried Mars Bar, if you will. Traditional ingredients are being reimagined. Take Edinburgh’s Pitt Street Food Market, self-declared ‘home of award-winning street food, craft beer brewed in Edinburgh, wine, desserts & live music’. Here, Barnacles & Bones sells superb Scottish seafood and beef, served simply. Their short rib, cooked low and slow in sherry gravy, is delectable.

However, back at Monachyle Mhor, Tom tells me that the main signifier of how foodie Scotland has become is actually the double espresso. From Dundee to Dumfries, Stirling to Stornoway, you can now get great coffee, often from beans roasted in Scotland. As I write, Douglas Hardie, founder of the Highland Food and Drink Trail and co-founder of Bad Girl Bakery, tweets, “A lovely, posh tourist just asked if I had heard of a flat white and was I comfortable making one for him. Why, yes, yes I have and, yes, I am. Isn’t it amazing that you can get a coffee in such a remote and wild place as Muir of Ord?’

So, brushing aside the occasional patronising visitor, Scottish food is becoming democratised, as it should be. Good food – and great coffee – is for everyone. Scotland has fantastic natural ingredients – the sweetest seafood, organic hill lamb, Highland beef, wild venison, salmon every which way, beautiful berries – and whisky, natch.

We’re also now a nation of enthusiastic foragers. Foraging experiences are popping up everywhere: five-star Dunalastair Hotel in the Highlands has a two-day autumn foraging holiday. Elsewhere, you can infuse your own gin, blend your own whisky, milk a goat and make bread. Today’s experiential travellers want to be involved.

As for those joyless meals in hear-a-pin-drop surroundings – they’re on the way out. Pam Brunton, chef-owner of Inver, the brilliant Scandi-Scot restaurant with bothy rooms, signalled the change when she set up beside Loch Fyne in 2015. Her food features ultra-local ingredients and revived and revamped old Scottish dishes. Mackerel, carrot and seaweed is a typical starter (before Inver, Pam cheffed at Noma and Fäviken). Her food is served in Inver’s bright dining room – not fancy, very relaxed, with no dress code. Her partner Rob says, “That world of older folk in stiff environments has changed. When I look across the dining room and it’s full of varied clientele, it makes me proud that we’re involved in a changing approach to dining”.

Vegans are increasingly well catered for, too. The UK’s first totally vegan hotel, Saorsa 1875, opened in Pitlochry in 2018. I visit half-expecting an earnest sensibility. Far from it – it’s also all about the fun. Smiley 20-something tattooed Jack McLaren-Stewart is the face of the business and shows off his Shoreditchesque boutique hotel. Nightly five-course communal dinners are worth a stop off. I drool over wild mushroom agnolotti with creamy walnut pesto. Saorsa 1875 wears its green credentials proudly too, planting a tree via The Green Earth Appeal for every dinner they serve.

Today, I can name scores of places to eat well in Scotland, which I couldn’t in the past. I’m delighted to celebrate now as a time of pure dead brilliant enjoyment of great scran in this country. Do come and join in the fun. | | | | | | |

Photography by Marc Millar Photography and courtesy of Bross Bagels and Monachyle Mhor