Café Cùil, was a ‘wee Scottish eatery’, as the sign above the door read, on a busy road in London’s Dalston.
Named after the Gaelic word for nook or nest, for three years it brought a slice of Scotland to the homesick as well as locals in this East London postcode.
Now, it’s come across the border, as owner Clare Coghill, 29, who won Sky television’s My Kitchen Rules in 2017, recently transplanted her bijou venue to the Isle of Skye.
“After years of living and working in London, I always dreamed of one day returning home to Skye and opening my own eatery,” says this chef.
Coghill was raised on the island as her family owns Sligachan Hotel, which is just ten minutes drive from the new cafe’s location in the village of Carbost.
“Although we grew up on an island, which some might think was relatively cut off from society, from a young age I was meeting people from all over the world who came to work a season at the hotel, and often met very interesting guests”, she says. “Growing up in a hotel taught me about the ins and outs of hospitality and how to work very hard”.
This experience may explain how Coghill managed to transform her new business property in just six weeks, by painting it dark blue - “to mirror the ever changing outdoor landscapes” - filling the walls with work from local artists, adding furry seat cushions from Skyeskyns and making the space look as appealing as its name might suggest.
The three-year-old building has the Cuillin Ridge behind it, looks out towards Loch Harport, and is close to popular destinations including the Fairy Pools, Talisker Brewery and Glenbrittle Beach.
Since Coghill last lived on the island, there has been an explosion of visitors. Apparently, 180,000 people visited the Fairy Pools pre-lockdown, back in 2019, and numbers are creeping up again.
“Skye is the second most popular tourist destination in Scotland after Edinburgh”, she says. “It's so great to see it being recognised for its rugged beauty and tourists from around the globe contributing to the island's income, though the attention can also have its drawbacks. As the infrastructure was built with a small population in mind, the single track roads and public facilities are struggling to keep up with the influx of annual visitors. Lockdown on Skye was particularly special for the locals, because it felt as if we had the island all to ourselves again for the first time”.
Now the peace has been broken and they have to share it again.
These days, tourists and residents don’t have a shortage of foodie places to visit. Coghill also rates Birch coffee house in Portree, fine dining restaurant Scorrybreac and Edinbane Lodge, and she went to school with all of the owners of these places.
To retain her work life balance, Coghill only offers brunch and lunch at the cafe, and sticks with local produce. You won’t see an avocado, with all its accompanying air miles, on the menu. She has also subtly tweaked her offerings since London, since there seem to be different tastes among customers here and there.
“I was really surprised when I opened the cafe in London to see the choices that the average East Londoner was making,” she says. “The tattie scone stack came in as a firm favourite, purely because I don't think many people there had tried tattie scones or square sausage. I think it was a total novelty. Up here, I have noticed that people on Skye are big meat eaters, and prefer the heartier dishes and local shellfish. It's nice to see them choosing the island's produce”.
The most popular dish in the Skye iteration of the cafe is the Lochalsh beef brisket rarebit with poached egg and onion jam, which features Cuillin Brewery Ale in the Orkney Cheddar sauce. The spring menu also offers poached eggs on toast with veggie haggis, caramelised leeks and peppercorn sauce, as well as that tattie scone stack, with square sausage, Isle of Skye black pudding, fried egg and sriracha. It’s exactly what you’d want to eat, after tackling the Cuillins.
As well as using local producers, she hopes to continue to employ Gaelic speakers from the surrounding areas.
“It's so important for me to be able to champion the Gaelic language and culture through my cafe. I want to be able to create a safe space for people to speak and enjoy the language,” she says. “I am a fluent speaker of Gaidhlig and grew up speaking it with my peers. As I grew older, I noticed that it was in need of revival. I want to ensure I do my part in keeping it alive so I have a fully bilingual Gaelic menu, and handwritten signs on the wall that say 'bruidhinn Gaelic' (speak Gaelic) and 'tha Gaelic beo' (Gaelic is alive!)”.
This is all quite different from her previous lifestyle in the big smoke, but Coghill felt that coming home was the right decision.
“There are definitely elements of London that I miss. There was something so enjoyable about having access to any type of cuisine at any time of day, and being surrounded by multicultural dining options was very inspiring,” she says. “After a while, however, the desire to be back in a rural space with access to local produce was really appealing, and I'm so glad we took the plunge”.