The entrepreneur Vanessa Branson has a habit of transforming vacation houses into evocative—and perfectly turned-out—hotels. In 2002, when she was looking for a holiday retreat in Marrakech, she happened upon the courtyard of a former private residence. Two years later, she opened the renovated space as El Fenn, one of the chicest riad hotels around. And now Branson is reimagining , a remote Scottish island she purchased decades ago, as a dream destination for guests hoping to escape the harshness of modern reality.
Branson discovered Eilean Shona in the mid-1990s with her then-husband, Robert Devereux, when they were searching for a holiday home in the Inner Hebrides. “We answered an ad and drove six hours out of our way to see it,” recalls Branson, whose brother is Sir Richard Branson. Originally the site of an 18th-century hunting lodge, the island has an illustrious history—the author J.M. Barrie spent summers here in the 1920s and wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Peter Pan while staying on Eilean Shona—and was home to a gabled manor house and a scattering of charming cottages. Visitors arrive by boat from the mainland, passing by the ruins of a medieval castle.
“It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is here,” she says. “It might, in fact, be Neverland. There is no ambient light, so the night skies are just brilliant, and no noise pollution, so all you hear is nature. When the tide comes in, one part of the island turns into a blue lagoon."
Initially she and Devereux began renovating the main house, reroofing it and adding modern infrastructure, like a boiler, so that they could have all the luxuries and comforts of the mainland. Pregnant with their fourth child, Branson, who always makes the design decisions, had a tight deadline to decorate the main house, which has 12 bedrooms, a library with a billiard table, and a drawing room with an open fireplace and a grand piano. “I had five weeks to do everything before the baby was born, so I went to John Lewis and bought 100 towels and 100 pillowcases,” she recalls. Twenty years later, most of the linens have withstood the test of time. “If you buy the best, it only hurts once,” she says.
Another design commandment that Branson has consistently followed, whether at Eilean Shona or El Fenn, is to “start with art.” In the early 1990s, she co-ran a contemporary art gallery on Portobello Road in London and represented the abstract artist Fred Pollock. Near the end of the renovation process, she invited Pollock to the island to paint an exuberant abstract mural in the dining room and then used the palette of those bold colors to inspire her design decisions for the rest of the house. That meant orange-painted walls in a bathroom and red Moroccan carpets and a gilded armchair upholstered in a turquoise silk in the sitting room. “The juxtaposed colors really make the rooms vibrate,” Branson says.A few years ago, with her children all grown up and no longer vacationing regularly at Eilean Shona, and with the continuing success of El Fenn, Branson decided to open up Eilean Shona to paying guests. (One can either rent the whole island, just the main house, or one of the individual cottages.) One of the first reservations came from the actress Frances McDormand and her husband, the director Joel Coen, who, it turns out, are fans of Alexander Ross, the architect who designed the island’s old schoolhouse, along with Inverness Cathedral. At the time, the schoolhouse hadn’t been used for almost a century and was more of a folly than a guesthouse. “We used it as a picnic destination,” Branson says. “The roof was half falling in, and we would start a roaring fire and share the space with nesting birds.” McDormand and Coen’s impending visit motivated Branson to restore the two-story building, adding gas lamps, a Victorian roll-top tub with a view of the sea, and an outdoor shower.
Last spring Branson refocused on the main house, restoring the faded Pollock mural and bringing in dozens of new artworks, including several charcoal drawings by William Kentridge. South African artist Beezy Bailey was commissioned to gather driftwood on the island; the resulting Tinker Bell–inspired sculpture now hangs over the sitting room fireplace. Meanwhile, the palette got even bolder: “Good art sings out with a strong color behind it,” she says. “The main house is really meant to be a party house, a place to celebrate with friends and family. I didn’t want things to get too perfect and fussy.”
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Siweb.