September 16, 1996 12:00 PM

IT IS 7:59 A.M. IN THE FAR NORTH OF Scotland, and the guests at Skibo Castle, which perches imposingly on a mist-shrouded hill near Dornoch Firth, are tucked in under tartan covers, their cockles most likely still aglow from the decanter of local Glenmorangie scotch on each night table. In just one minute, though, they will be wide-awake, summoned from their dreams by the castle bagpiper, who patrols the grounds every morning and plays reveille, Highland-style.

For this unusual wakeup call—and for a host of more familiar pleasures—the well-heeled of the world, including British royalty, have trekked to the castle, about 600 miles north of London, for the last year and a half. Yet despite the world-class amenities—7,500 acres that include an 18-hole golf course, a heated Olympic swimming pool, a spa and a pistol target range—Peter de Savary, 52, the castle’s owner, likes to downplay what he is providing. “I tell them, ‘We’re not running a hotel,’ ” he says. ” ‘You help yourself; you’re at home.’ ”

Among those who have taken him at his word have been Jack Nicholson, Anne Archer, Michael Douglas, Sean Connery—and, last month, Prince Andrew. “It feels like I’m in somebody’s home. I’ve never been anyplace like it,” says Archer, who visits with her husband, Terry Jastrow, president of Jack Nicklaus Productions.

Skibo, built in the 1890s by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born Pittsburgh steel magnate, to entertain the likes of Edward VII and Rudyard Kipling, was in disrepair in 1990 when de Savary and his wife, Lana, 41, dropped by, hoping to buy paintings by an artist friend of Carnegie’s who was a distant relative of Lana’s. “We stopped out in front,” says de Savary. “I said to my wife, ‘This place has a real spirit. If we get out of this car, we’re going to own it.’ ” In less than a week, for a mere $8.5 million, de Savary was laird of Skibo.

With government loans and the help of a Wall Street investor, he poured in $20 million over four years to transform Skibo’s 16 suites and 16 lodges into a Highland playground and the cornerstone of the Carnegie Club, a planned worldwide network of upper-crust getaways. If this sounds like the arithmetic of high finance, that’s math with which de Savary is familiar. The son of a furniture manufacturer and a homemaker, he was born in the English county of Essex and grew up in Venezuela when his divorced mother moved there after remarrying. Leaving school at 16, he embarked on a string of careers—from commodities broker to oil investor to real estate speculator—and proceeded to win, and lose, spectacularly. Despite the 1994 collapse of a property holding company that cost him $80 million, he says his net worth is still over $100 million. Because de Savary’s wealth is privately held, and therefore difficult to verify, The Sunday Times did not include him in this spring’s annual list of the 500 richest people in Britain, which has a bottom line of $52 million.

Given his track record, it’s not surprising that de Savary didn’t listen to skeptics when he bought Skibo. “Everybody said it was a daft idea,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘You’ll never create a club in the tip of Scotland.’ ” But create it he did. For an annual fee of just over $3,000, Carnegie Club members can stay as often as they want, at $550 a night. Nonmembers can also stay, at $760 a night, but only for one visit—they have to become members if they want to return.

De Savary claims Skibo, in just its second year, is already profitable. Still . involved in a slew of other ventures, including oil and real estate, he practices hands-on management that some might call high-handed: Three months ago, he was fined $5,000 by a labor-management tribunal for “humiliating” and “intimidating” a chef he had fired in the fall of 1995. De Savary, unrepentant, defends his action. “If a staff member is surly, lazy, rude, disinterested or does bad work,” he says, “then I cannot tolerate that.” The firing offense? The chef, according to de Savary, had prepared a below-par cold meal for a group of rich Americans.

His guests deserve the best, says de Savary. In return for such pampering, they have just one obligation. Every night, he asks that they raise their glasses to Andrew Carnegie. Then it’s off to bed, until the piper comes again.


JOANNE FOWLER at Skibo Castle

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