Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Porter's Lodge

Just before the end of the public road out to the Rhue of Arisaig there's a splendidly remote cottage which rejoices under the rather incongruous name "The Porter's Lodge".


As is so often the case with such names, there's an interesting story - this is it.

A few hundred yards past The Porter's Lodge, at the end of the public road, there's a stone shed with a slate roof looking out towards the islands of Rum and Eigg.


This was the goods shed for Arisaig Pier which used to stand here but has now completely crumbled away. Before the railway to Mallaig was built in 1901, Arisaig Pier was the port of call by steamers for the Arisaig - Morar area given that Mallaig and its harbour (like Kyle of Lochalsh) didn't exist before the railway.


The pier was away out here, about 3-4 miles by road from Arisaig Inn at the end of the road from Fort William, because the loch the village sits at the head of - Loch nan Ceall - has a narrow, shallow and reef strewn entrance unsuitable for steamers to enter as the Google Earth image below shows ...


and the 1858 Admiralty Chart confirms:-


So the MacBrayne's steamers, Claymore (1881-1931) and Clansman (1870-1909), on their weekly trips from Glasgow - which were the main means of conveyance of passengers and goods to the remote parts of the West Highlands before road transport became prevalent in the 1930s - didn't go up the loch. Nor, even, did they come alongside the pier at its mouth because Arisaig was a ferry call - i.e. where the steamer lay off shore and a small launch (the ferry) went out from the shore to meet it.

The eponymous "porter", then, was the ferryman who had acquired his alternative job title because, amongst his duties, was lugging the trunks of passengers - very often gentry visiting the various "big houses" in the area during the season - in and out of the ferry. And the "lodge" was not just where the "porter" lived but also the waiting room for steamer passengers.

A ferry coming out to a ship I know, although you can't see it, to be the Claymore at an unidentified location
I'm obliged to the online edition of the Arisaig, Mallaig and surrounding areas and islands local newspaper, "West Word", for educating me about Arisaig Pier and The Porter's Lodge. The October 2000 edition carries a reprint of an article originally written in 1965 by the Arisaig postman, Pat McCarthy, who lived at The Porter's Lodge and whose great grandfather, Donald MacKinnon, was the last (indeed possibly only) ferryman at Arisaig. The article contains some interesting details such as that the pier was built in 1885 and "the Lodge" a couple of years later. There's a description of the waiting room and a small photo of the pier when it was still in use equipped with a hand crane.

Steamers stopped calling at Arisaig when Mallaig harbour - where they could get alongside - was opened with the arrival of the railway in April 1901. Apparently, MacBrayne's offered their redundant ferryman, Donald MacKinnon, another job in Glasgow but he declined it. Presumably, if his descendants were still living there in the 1960s, they sold him the equally redundant Porter's Lodge - one would like to think at a pretty cheap price as compensation for not having offered him a new job at Mallaig!

The Claymore at Mallaig

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Duncraig Castle

It's the great gothic pile across the bay from Plockton in Wester Ross which featured prominently in "Hamish Macbeth". It was also the scene of the 2004 BBC docudrama "The Dobsons of Duncraig" featuring the extended Dobson family's attempts to transform the castle from dereliction into an upmarket guest house and falling out spectularly in the process.

Photo credit Jeremie Rocher

It's not a castle at all, of course, but a Victorian mansion. It's said the ceilings are adorned with plaster mouldings of poppies and tacked on to its north end (though not visible in that picture) is an awful 1960s modernist institutional extension. This is why.

Duncraig Castle was built in 1866 for Sir Alexander Matheson. He was born in 1805 at nearby Attadale, the son of the tenant farmer there, but made an immense fortune as a partner in the Hong Kong firm of Jardine Matheson & Co. The eponymous co-founder, James Matheson, was Alexander's uncle. The core of JM&Co's business was importing opium into China in exchange for tea to be exported to Britain, hence the poppies on the ceilings at Duncraig: the firm's story was the inspiration for James Clavell's Tai-Pan novels.

Alexander Matheson returned to Scotland, was knighted and bought Attadale before going on to amass a huge estate comprising almost the whole of the parish of Lochalsh (i.e. all the land bordered by Loch Carron down as far as Kyle on the north and west and Loch Alsh and Loch Long on the south east). With his other estate at Ardross Castle in Easter Ross, it made Matheson the biggest landowner in Ross-shire.

Note how some of the tower roofs have since been removed

Duncraig is not Gothic either but what architects call Jacobean, in other words aping the style which followed Tudor when King James VI & I was on the throne of England (1603-25). It's characterised by clusters of tall narrow windows. The architect was Alexander Ross of Inverness who designed a number of Victorian mansion houses and shooting lodges in north west Scotland but also some more humble buildings including many parish schools in the 1870s.

Alexander Matheson was also a prime mover behind the construction of the railway from Inverness and Dingwall to Stromeferry in the 1870s. When the line was extended to Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897, it ran along the shore in front of Duncraig and a private railway station was built for the service of the house. This was common practice during the railway boom - it was sort of the Victorian equivalent of today's "community benefit" from building a wind farm except the benefit went to a local grandee (who in fairness had paid for a hefty chunk of the railway so the analogy is not exact.)

Duncraig Castle bottom right looking over Plockton to Applecross, the Crowlin Islands and Raasay - note the railway line along the shore in the left foreground

In fact, Sir Alexander Matheson had died in 1886 so the benefit of the private station was for his son, Sir Kenneth. But as is often the case with nouveaux riches, however, the money to maintain such a lavish country estate was not destined to pass down many generations and Kenneth Matheson sold Duncraig to Sir Daniel Hamilton in the 1920s (not sure of the exact date.) Hamilton also owned the neighbouring Balmacara Estate to the south of Duncraig - that had also belonged to the Mathesons but again I'm not sure if the two were bought together as all part of the same sale or not.

Daniel Hamilton had in common with Alexander Matheson that he had made money in a family business in the east, India this time. He bought a tract of land in a swamp called the Sunderbans in the Ganges Delta in Bengal, reclaimed it and did much to promote the interests of the local peasantry. He was a pioneer of what would now be called "micro-credit", was said to be close to Gandhi and is still remembered fondly in the Sunderbans. Back home in Scotland, he showed the same philanthropic spirit by bequeathing Balmacara Estate to the National Trust for Scotland and Duncraig Castle to Ross & Cromarty County Council for use as a domestic science college. Sir Daniel died in 1939 and these bequests were to take effect after the death of his wife, Lady Margaret. That happened in 1947 although during the war, Duncraig Castle was used as a naval hospital.

Photo credit J├╝rgen Ossa
It was during its time as Duncraig Castle College, in 1969, that the hideous modernist extension was added to the north (left) end of the house. This is plainly obvious in the aerial photo above but fortunately it's largely masked by trees and not really obvious in the view from Plockton which is where most people see the Castle from.

Duncraig Castle College closed in 1989 but it took Highland Council 13 years to decide what to do with the building. Apart from accommodating the production team for "Hamish MacBeth" (1995-97 BBC series filmed on location around Plockton starring Robert Carlyle as a village policeman, in the same mould as "Monarch of the Glen"), it mostly lay empty and deteriorating rapidly: a house like Duncraig - any house - dies quickly if left empty in a damp climate like Wester Ross. In the 90s, I subscribed to the West Highland Free Press and recall endless stories about proposals for Duncraig being rented as a back-packers hostel being objected to vociferously by the residents of Plockton and coming to nothing.

The elevation to the sea is at the bottom as in the picture above and this plan doesn't include the 60s extension to the left
Eventually, in 2002, the Council grasped the nettle and concluded it had no option but to sell the Castle. It was put on the market at offers over £350,000 and bought for £505,000 by Sam and Perlin Dobson, a couple from Nottinghamshire with experience in doing up and selling or renting houses. With plans to renovate it as an upmarket guest house-cum-wedding venue etc. (the Castle has a private chapel) Duncraig would be their biggest challenge. The Dobsons imported Sam's parents and several of his siblings and their families to join in the project - and a BBC film crew for good measure to catch them all falling out big style over the next two years and broadcast it to the nation in "The Dobsons of Duncraig". I didn't catch any of that series myself but you can read the unedifying details in this New York Times article.

60's extension cunningly hidden by the trees on the left 
All we need to know for present purposes is that once the dust had settled on the televised shenanigans of 2003-04 and the rest of the family had been evicted (literally, I gather), the Dobsons continued to run Duncraig Castle as a bed and breakfast for five years with some success. But they put it up for sale in early 2009 at offers over £750,000. I don't know how to link directly to a pdf but you can download the sale brochure from top people's estate agents Strutt & Parker via this link (look for the "Download Duncraig" link near the top of that article).

It was bought by Suzanne Hazeldine who is continuing to run the Castle as a bed and breakfast. Duncraig gets pretty good write-ups on Tripadvisor - you can see how people are just blown away by the location and views and the experience of staying in a "Scottish castle" although a regular theme of comments is having to try and ignore the decayed 60s extension as you sweep up the driveway (it's never been occupied again since the college closed in 1989 and the new owner now has plans to demolish it).

The view from Lady Matheson's Room
Meanwhile, Highland Council used the proceeds of sale of the Castle as an endowment for the Duncraig Educational Trust Scheme which makes grants to young people from the Highlands pursuing further education - it seems a reasonable compromise considering the Council couldn't retain Sir Daniel Hamilton's bequest of the building itself.

To bring some other threads of the story up to date, Jardine Matheson & Co is still very much in business and still trading in tea, though not opium. Now known as just "Jardines", the company is still based in Hong Kong, privately owned and run by Scots, the direct descendants of founder William Jardine. Though not a household name itself, perhaps Jardines' best known subsidiary is the Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel chain.


The private railway station, with its miniature octagonal waiting room, remains open as Duncraig Station albeit just a request stop now. I can understand why they kept it open while the college was still going but you can't help thinking it must now be near the top of Network Rail's "to close" list - if I were a railway buff (which I'm not really enough of), I'd be making a point of getting on (or off, or both) at Duncraig soon before the opportunity is lost for ever.

Photo credit Seoras
Sir Alexander Matheson's uncle, James Matheson, the co-founder of Jardine Matheson & Co, also bought a Scottish estate, the whole island of Lewis. And he built in 1847 a castle of similar style and dimensions to Duncraig which also became a college. Happily, though, Lews Castle at Stornoway has managed to retain its further education function to the present as Lews Castle College, a campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Lews Castle, Stornoway - Photo credit Steve
 As far as I know, however, there are no poppies moulded in the ceilings of Lews Castle as there are at Duncraig Castle.


And finally, I expect Sir Daniel Hamilton would have approved of the recent trend towards community ownership of Scottish country estates in the Highlands. Indeed, I wonder if he's not kicking himself in his grave that he didn't leave Balmacara-Duncraig to Plockton Community Trust (or some such) rather than the National Trust. I wonder who he left his estate in Bengal to?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Salisbury's Dam

Wherever you find an overtly English name in the Gaelic-Norse cultural milieu of the West Highlands and Islands, there's usually an interesting story behind it.

Extract from the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map via Streetmap.co.uk
Sounding as if it would be more at home on the Zambezi, Salisbury's Dam is in fact to be found on the headwaters of the Kilmory River on the island of Rum - or rather that's where its remains are because the dam burst very shortly after it had been completed. This is the story.

Picture copyright RCAHMS
The island of Rum has a fascinating history. It's the site of the earliest yet recorded human settlement in Scotland - a nomadic Mesolithic hunter gatherers' camp dating to around 7,000BC. In medieval times, the island belong to the Clan Macdonald of Clanranald and was purchased from them by the Macleans of Coll, the price being a galley - tradition has it that its timbers were found to be rotten and that Clanranald regretted the deal and had to be held prisoner by Coll before he gave up possession of Rum. But despite the boisterous clan history, the Macleans had little compunction in clearing (or "assisting to emigrate" depending who you listen to) almost the entire population - around 400 people - in the late 1820s in order that the island could be let as a sheep farm. So thorough was this clearance that the farmer actually had to import some families who had been cleared from Skye to act as his labour force. The farm did not prosper, however, and the tenant went bankrupt in 1839. In poor financial shape themselves (in common with a number of clan chiefs at the time), the Macleans sold Rum in 1845 to the Marquis of Salisbury.

"Part of the Isle of Rum" by William Daniell, c.1815. Daniell tended to exaggerate his pictures vertically.
Although he continued to farm the island, Salisbury's main reason for buying Rum was to run it as a sporting estate. This was part of a common cycle - in the 1790s, Hebridean islands became valuable for their kelp (seaweed). When the bottom fell out of that market in 1820s, sheep farming was the thing. When that became less profitable not long after, sporting estates became all the rage following the trend set by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at their newly acquired Balmoral. The fact that there weren't any deer on Rum to stalk did not deter Salisbury in the least - they could be imported from his English estates. But it was his plans for developing the salmon and sea-trout fishing which were the most audacious.

There are three main rivers on Rum with catchment areas as shown on the following map:-

From Bartholomew's Half Inch scale Sheet 14 "Arisaig and Rum" (1931) 
The Kilmory River (catchment outlined by dark red dots) flows north to meet the sea near the north-most point of the island; the Kinloch River (yellow dots) flows east to drain in to Loch Scresort; and the Abhainn Rhangail (turquoise dots) has its source in a loch near the centre of the island called Long Loch (also marked on early maps by its original name of Loch Sgathaig) and flows to the south west coast at Harris. 

These were all really little more than large streams so the plan was to increase the flow in the Kinloch River by diverting the headwaters of the Kilmory River and Abhainn Rhangail into it. This would add the area outlined by pink dots to the Kinloch catchment and create - so Salisbury hoped - a decent salmon river running past the lodge at Kinloch (this was before Kinloch Castle was built and the lodge at the time no longer exists).

The best account of these works is in "Rum: A Landscape Without Figures" by John Love. He had access to the Salisbury archives and still found it hard to piece together the exact chronology but the first operation, in 1849, seems to have been the building of a dam at the south end of the Long Loch (aka Loch Sgathaig) to raise its level and send its overflow northwards into the Kilmory River instead of south into the Abhainn Rhangail. This dam still exists and can been seen on Google Earth.


At first, there seems to have been a more modest scheme not including the Kinloch River and involving another dam at the north end of the Long Loch and an artificial cut to the Kilmory River. This dam collapsed about two months after it was completed. It seems to have been rebuilt in 1850 and to have stood for a while although there is no trace of it now - I suspect it was removed during a later phase of the works.

The Long Loch (Loch Sgathaig) standing on the dam at its south end - photo credit John Craig
In 1852, the work to divert the headwaters of the Kilmory River (already augmented by the overflow from the Long Loch) into the Kinloch River began. This involved the creation of a new loch by the construction of a dam across the Kilmory about half a mile north of the Long Loch. From this new loch, an artificial channel about 600-700 yards long would take its overflow east to the headwaters of the Kinloch River. This dam is the one the remains of which are marked on the OS 1:25,000 map as "Salisbury's Dam" and photographed above. It famously collapsed just after it was completed in August 1854, sending a torrent of water down Kilmory Glen.

Kilmory River - photo credit Richard Webb
Many accounts give the impression that hydro-engineering on Rum stopped there, the whole thing an expensive fiasco, but this is not so. The idea of a dam across the Kilmory River was abandoned but the following year, 1855, a new channel about half a mile long to run from the Long Loch to the Kinloch River was begun. It seems, however, that Lord Salisbury finally tired of the expense and halted this work shortly before it was completed.

Whether his lordship ever caught a salmon in the Kilmory or Kinloch Rivers is not recorded but he died in 1868 and his son (three times Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902) sold Rum in 1870. The purchaser was Farquhar Campbell of Aros on Mull (an estate which, by coincidence, had also once belonged to the Macleans of Coll). He let the island to grazing and sporting tenants, one of the latter of which, a Lancashire industrialist who had made a fortune in the manufacture of spinning and weaving machinery called John Bullough, bought it in 1888. He was succeeded as owner by his son Sir George in 1891.

The Bulloughs' main interest in Rum was as a sporting estate. Their biggest legacy was the construction of the magnificent Kinloch Castle in 1897 but they also picked up where Salisbury had left off in the importation of deer to improve the island's stock and hydro-engineering to improve the fishing. Not only did they finish off the artificial channel to lead the waters of the Long Loch into the Kinloch River which Lord Salisbury had baulked at completing in 1855, the Bulloughs also commissioned an entirely new cut to the west of the Long Loch (aka Loch Sgathaig) to divert the principal tributary of the Kilmory River into the loch and thereby indirectly into the Kinloch River. Thus was Salisbury's scheme finally completed, albeit without his eponymous dam and about 50 years late. It's all visible on Google Earth as seen below (click to enlarge)


A to B is the cut to lead the overflow from the Long Loch north into the Kilmory River. From Salisbury's Dam to D via C was the cut to lead the headwaters of the Kilmory River into the Kinloch River. B to C was Salisbury's "Plan B" to take the overflow from the Long Loch to the Kinloch River after his dam failed. E to F is the Bulloughs' cut to divert the main tributary of the Kilmory River into a burn running into the Long Loch and thus indirectly into the Kinloch River.

This system all still exists although in places the works have been breached to allow water to flow back into its natural course down the Kilmory River to alleviate flooding in Kinloch Glen. This is what the lower reaches of the Kinloch River look like today in a spate:-

Kinloch River in spate - photo credit Anne Burgess
I've never fished it but I'd guess the fishing on the Kinloch is what estate agents call "challenging" which means it's theoretically possible to catch a migratory fish but, in practice, very unlikely.

Just looking over the Bartholomew's half inch map (pictured above) again, I note also "Schooner Point" next to "Wreck Bay" which sound like they too have an interesting story attached to them. But perhaps most intriguingly of all there's "Ashworth's Model Loch". I suspect I shall be revisiting the place names of Rum in future posts.