Our first four hours on Skye, the wild, windswept island off the north-west coast of Scotland, were shrouded in mist. Not the self-inflicted kind that would follow an overfamiliar acquaintance with the local Talisker malt whisky, but rather the natural kind. No sooner had we sailed over the sea to Skye than the clouds descended to meet the lochs and heavy, lashing rain greeted us round every corner.
The reason for this trip was not just to leave urban life far behind but also to satisfy a professional curiosity. Twenty years ago Shirley and Eddie Spear made the same journey but in their case the move proved permanent. They came to rest in the small hamlet of Colbost, a few miles across a sea loch from the town of Dunvegan on the north west coast of the island, and opened a restaurant that since become a place of pilgrimage for the greedier visitors to Skye. They called it The Three Chimneys because, rather than the single chimneystack on most crofts, their nineteenth century combination of crofts and the former village store boasts three, and six chimney pots. They have since added six comfortable bedrooms and breakfast room in a separate, though still croft-like building. But was their decision to move, I have long wondered, quite so whimsical?
"Yes, it was," Shirley explained with an almost schoolgirl giggle that has not deserted her despite twenty years at the stoves. "I have always loved cooking since I was wee and I have always found the buzz of restaurants really exciting. But like so many, at the outset I didn't follow my heart and I trained as a journalist with DC Thompson in Dundee. Then I went to London where I worked in the Press Office of British Gas. Then there was a meeting of minds and Eddie and I decided to make the move."
After the initial decision the next stage was certainly not easy as the banks, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to share the same confidence in the Spears' dream. Unable to secure a commercial overdraft, they used the credit cards that those same banks had more than willingly given them, supplemented by an account with the retailer John Lewis, to furnish the restaurant. And when they appreciated that their business would only grow if they added bedrooms they had to turn to an English bank because the local manager did not believe the extension would pay for itself without the extra investment of a gym and a conference room which the Spears absolutely refused to contemplate. Now, Eddie added with a smile, they are inundated with offers from banks.
Twenty years is a long time to be cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Did it, I wondered, still excite? This time the response was a little more hesitant. "Well, I certainly couldn't do it without the cup of tea Eddie brings me every morning in bed," Shirley confessed, "and there some mornings when I do just want to run away. But above all it's the people who keep me going – our customers and the team we have built up here. And the view from the breakfast kitchen window. The kitchen in the restaurant faces up the hill so it doesn't have a view across the loch. But when we built the bedrooms, the one detail I specified was that there must be a large window at my height in the kitchen so that I can prepare the breakfast and watch the seals play on the rocks."
Creature comforts aside, what is particularly appealing about the restaurant is that it is still so simple. The entrance leads directly into the bar, which can get very cramped, where Eddie greets and takes orders, but the overall impression is still of eating in someone's private house, or rather croft. The walls of the two rooms of restaurant, which together house only eleven tables, are still of bare stone albeit with the addition of numerous woodcuts from the Raven Press, next door but one in the hamlet. And clever use is also made of the local slate which appears in the round as place mats and as small but heavy clipboards for the paper menus. It must have been carrying around several of these every day of the week which convinced Eddie that there was no need for the gym the bank was proposing.
The lure of the local culinary resources continues to burn as brightly, if not more so. "I wanted to cook here," Shirley confessed, "because it's as raw as you can get. The prawns, the langoustines and the crabs are still caught locally in creels and all our scallops are dived for rather than dredged from the bottom of the sea. Then there's the wild salmon, Highland lamb and beef and now there are two commercial growers on the island, Brigitte and Malcolm, who supply us with salad leaves and vegetables all year round."
What the islanders now appreciate is that by putting Skye on the culinary map, the Spears have raised standards for others to follow, critical in a region where traditional vocations such as crofting and fishing are in decline. Shirley spoke with great enthusiasm of the Food Link Van which was set up four years ago and now links all the major suppliers from as far afield as the West Highland Dairy on the mainland and those who grow shi-itake mushrooms on logs of the south coast of the island with the restaurants and hotels striving for quality on Skye. Logistics are tricky in this part of the world – the nearest laundry, for example, is 90 miles away on the mainland because, to protect the purity of the lochs, there isn't a commercial laundry on Skye.
And if logistics are testing, so too is setting out the menu to appeal to such a diverse audience: her vital, local market who support her most of the year; dedicated walkers; tourists and those who come religiously from far afield because it is the most suitable place for a celebration. On both evenings we ate there I heard a waiter say to two different customers as they were leaving, "See you next year" – not a comment you are likely to hear in any metropolitan restaurant.
Shirley's approach is a sensible three-course menu with four choices at each course and the option of a fourth course which incorporates a couple of soups or half a dozen of the most refreshingly invigorating Skye oysters. Her way with the creamy meat of crabs from nearby Bracalade is impressive: they are served dressed with a piquant salsa, as a hot soufflé with a side salad or as a warm tart with a cherry tomato vinaigrette. A brochette of king Sconser scallops and monkfish was absolutely first class and her desserts, a dark chocolate nut brownie, a gooseberry fool with homemade gingerbread and the hot marmalade pudding with Drambuie custard, which Shirley claims has been so popular since she opened that it has to appear on every lunch and dinner menu, are equally successful – although nothing at the Three Chimneys is cheap.
The main courses, however, let the kitchen down because they are heavy, too reminiscent of what was on offer a decade ago before an emphasis on a lighter style became important. Isolation may be to blame but I think it is also partly to do with the ethos prevailing when the Spears began professionally when price and perceived value were judged by quantity alone rather than the overall feeling of well-being that the meal engenders. Admittedly, different criteria are essential for judging a restaurant located on the edge of a nautical wilderness where the economics of running a restaurant are unusual. " Our quietest time of the year, " Shirley remarked, "is early December because, not surprisingly, we don't get many office parties here." In July and August on the other hand, the restaurant has a two to three week waiting list.
The Three Chimneys worked its magic not just on me but also on our daughter, who was as enthusiastic about the 13-hour car journey from London as any thirteen year old is likely to be. As we walked from our room to the restaurant, still in the rain, there was a double rainbow stretching over the hills with one foot dropping into the centre of the loch. "Now I can see why we came here," she said.
The Three Chimneys, Colbost, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, IV55 8ZT. 01470-511258, www.threechimneys.co.uk Double room £190. Dinner £48 four courses.