The Club that Just Won’t Have Him as a Member


Peter De Savary has gone from Land's End to John O'Groats to get into the British Establishment ... without much success. But he's not giving up. From his castle in Scotland, he talks to Vicky Ward

It is chiefly De Savary’s flawless eloquence that has created his rags- to-riches success story. At Skibo Castle in Sutherland, Scotland, his beautiful home and the setting for his latest hospitality venture, the up-market Carnegie Club, he talks fluently to the guests about golf, horse- racing and Chicago. (Most of the guests that day are American.) They lap it up – especially the advice he gives them about how to hit the golf ball into the wind and which is the best course in the area (his). It is only after an hour or so of this that he confesses that he has never played the game. There is a stunned silence. “Gee, Peter,” says a woman from Detroit, “ya gotta be kiddin”.

De Savary, the son of a French-born Essex farmer, left school at 16 (he got kicked out of Charterhouse for sleeping with a master’s au pair). He immediately went off to Canada, where he began work as he meant to go on – on his own.

“At first I set myself up as a private tutor,” he tells me smoothly, seeming to forget until I remind him that his only academic qualification is one O-level, in Scripture. “Yes, well,” he roars with laughter. “Despite that, I managed to build up a small business. Having given the children tuition I would offer to mow their parents’ garden. After a little while I offered my services as a babysitter on top. So from one customer I got three businesses.”

After five years in Canada he moved to America; from there to the Far East, where he applied the same tactics to openings he saw in the oil and steel industries. By 1979 he was a multi-millionaire. He bought a chain of international premises, including one in St James’s, London, which he dubbed the St James’s Clubs. They were among the first clubs to be open to anyone of any sex so long as they could pay.

The clubs did not endear him to the British Establishment. Aside from a bit of casual sniping, it did not really take any notice of him until he staged a British challenge to the 1983 America’s Cup, the world’s biggest yachting event, considered at that stage to be well beyond the wealth and capabilities of the British yachting world.

De Savary’s venture was narrowly pipped at the post by Australia’s Alan Bond. That only reinforced the British upper classes in their belief that De Savary was a flamboyant, tasteless self-made man who did not play by their rules. He did not bank with the old family banks; he did not use traditional gentlemen’s clubs; he didn’t even go to St Moritz in winter. When he bought Land’s End and John O’Groats with the intention of developing tourism, eyesores were predicted. Both were subsequently sold, but De Savary mischievously suggested he might bid for them after they were put up for sale at the weekend.

Anyone bound by conventional English social niceties might find De Savary an embarrassment. He never stops selling. No sooner has he waved off one guest in his vintage Rolls than he is telling his staff to ensure that one of the other couples staying sign up as members. Yet despite his energy, 51-year-old De Savary has reached the end of the road. Skibo is where he wants to remain until the end of his days. He cannot afford for the Carnegie club to fail. It is a kind of continual houseparty in one of Britain’s most beautiful houses, with outdoor activities from golf to riding available on the doorstep. “The world,” he explains, “is no longer conducive to old-fashioned entrepreneurs like me. We relied on personal relationships; now everything is transaction-oriented and hi- tech. There will be a new breed of entrepreneurs, but they will be different from us. They will rely on technology to make money. I am sad about it; I would turn the clock back if I could, but since I can’t, I’m creating my own way of life at Skibo. Here at the club, I and my 400 members can ignore the rest of the world.”

Would he not be more suited to living in America? He looks pensive. “I love it here. I’m British and I’m fiercely patriotic,” he says. “But the Americans are more supportive of entrepreneurs and more forgiving of failure.” Isn’t it odd that someone so un-British, so disliked by the British Establishment, should have his name indelibly associated with the two bits of land that define the island? Not at all, it’s just part of De Savary’s campaign to be taken note of by the very people who appear to despise him.