The Scottish Hotel is one of Tiberias’ best kept secrets. Now a magnificent luxury hotel owned by the Scottish Church it provides first class accommodation. The story began in the 1880s, when a group of Scottish missionaries led by a surgeon, Dr David Watt Torrance, came to the Holy Land to preach, convert, and heal. Torrance built a hospital in Tiberias which served patients from as far away as Damascus.
After the foundation of Israel, the new state built its own hospital in the region in 1959, the three buildings housing the Scottish Hospital were converted into a hospice for pilgrims, and then a modest guesthouse, owned by the Church of Scotland.
By the 1990s, the guesthouse was desperately in need of repair due to lack of investment, and the Church faced a dilemma. Either sell it and its beautiful grounds by the Sea of Galilee, including a little cemetery where Dr Torrance and his family are buried or invest in it. Expert advice suggested that the best way of recouping any investment would be to turn it into a first class hotel, which would hopefully not only pay its own way but would generate profits for the Church. The Galilee is a very special place for Christians, full of Biblical resonances. It provided a perfect location for a Christian hotel.
In 1999, the church’s General Assembly voted to invest around £10 million ($16m) to upgrade the property. Critics said it was outrageous to do this at a time when the Church at home was having to sell off properties and merge congregations, not to mention struggling to finance HIV/AIDS projects in Africa.
But supporters of the development won the day, insisting that the hotel could become a place of reconciliation in the Middle East. The General Assembly was particularly won over by Palestinian Christian delegates, who pleaded with the church not to abandon its position in Israel.
The Church were aware that if they sold the property it would be bought by Israelis, which they felt would be a blow not just to Christianity and to the Palestinians, whose cause the Church of Scotland strongly supports.
The Rev Andrew McLellan, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland, initially led the campaign to abandon the project. But today, Dr McLellan is convener of the World Mission Council and he has completely reversed his position.
Today the Scots Hotel exists, and thrives. The three old hospital buildings have been superbly refurbished, retaining the Ottoman feel of the late 19th Century while incorporating some Scottish elements in the furnishings and interiors.
The gardens are magnificent. You do not have to be a pilgrim to enjoy sitting in the shade of flowering jacaranda trees and date palms, contemplating the meaning of life. It was declared Israel’s Boutique Hotel of the Year 2008. It is truly a hidden diamond in Tiberias and well worth a visit.