Friday, November 4, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 4

I see from the estate agent's website that Glencripesdale is now under offer so I need to wrap this story up.

In Part 3, we'd reached early 2005 when, six weeks before the opening of a public local enquiry into his plans, estate owner Hugh Whittle threw in the towel on his second attempt to get planning permission for a lodge and worker's house and an upgrade to the pier formed by an old barge beached on the shore to enable extraction of timber by sea rather than by road.

Glencripesdale House bottom and the barge pier top
The next development was that, in April 2005, the planners granted a five year extension to the existing time limited planning permission for the barge pier (as distinct from the previous applications to upgrade it which had been refused) to permit extraction of a further 50-80,000 tonnes of timber. This was granted despite the efforts of serial objectors Mr Colville (owner of holiday accommodation locally who believed there was no need for any further holiday accommodation and fretted that the pier's retention would "permanently damage the amenity, scenic value and ecology of Loch Sunart") and Mr Besterman (owner of Glencripesdale House whose lawyers had drafted a lawyerishly pettifogging objection to the effect the application was flawed because it requested extension of the life of a jetty when what was being discussed was a barge.)

But Mr Whittle didn't attempt to lay siege to the planning citadel in earnest again until August 2008 when he lodged four new applications for: (1) extension and permanent retention of the barge pier; (2) estate worker's house; (3) agricultural/forestry store; and (4) "estate manager's house" - i.e. lodge - on the site of the demolished 1870s mansion house.


There's nothing in the public domain to explain the delay of nearly two years before these applications came before the Lochaber Planning Committee in June 2010 but what we do have this time is the planning officer's report to the committee which you can download here (scroll down to "Planning Applications to be Determined"). What's noticeable from this is the statement that the only reason the officials were bringing the applications before the councillors of the committee (as opposed to deciding them themselves under delegated powers) was "minor departure from development plan and number of representations". This was despite - or perhaps because of - the number of reports Mr Whittle lodged in support of his applications including:-

*Supporting Planning Statement by Brindley Consulting dated June 2008.
*Estate Plan dated 4 July 2008.
*Building Design Statement by Iain Dawson Architecture dated 12.10.07.
*Landscape Strategy.

*Ecological Survey Report by Mackenzie Bradshaw Environmental Consulting date June 2008.
*Drainage and Ground Assessment by JIG Environment Ltd dated May 2007.
*Sea Access Background Information, including Condition Survey (Aug.06),
*Options and Recommendations, and Method Statement by Arch Henderson
*Consulting Engineers and Mackenzie Bradshaw Environmental Consulting.
*Operational Needs Assessment by Smiths Gore dated December 2009.


How eye-wateringly expensive does that lot sound?


 There was also media coverage in the Scotsman and Press and Journal focussing on Hugh Whittle's claim to be the only laird in Scotland without a house on his estate - which is a little bit disingenuous considering he's got another estate, Glenfeochan just south of Oban, which has a very nice house on it:-

 
What was no different this time round, though, were the massed ranks of NIMBYs - there were 57 objections. The planning report doesn't tell us who they were although it did record a statement on behalf of Mr Whittle that "a large number of objectors do not live in the neighbouring communities and/or have responded to a factually incorrect flyer circulated out of Glencripesdale House". They included such perennial nanny state, bottom of barrel scraping chestnuts as:-

*Concerns over servicing due to remote location.
*Impacts on the remote wilderness quality of the area through visual impact of buildings and increased activity associated with agricultural and tourism uses.
*Precedent these proposals would set for further development, both locally and nationally.
*Impacts on local biodiversity.
*Development does not offer significant employment to local people.
*Concerns that applications are motivated by personal financial gain.
*Area is inhospitable for a large part of the year and strategically unsuitable for family life.
*Concerns raised over animal welfare due as veterinary visits would be commercially prohibitive.
*Increased light pollution.
*Increased noise pollution.
*Increased traffic and inadequate access.
*Impact of sewerage disposal on the local environment.
*Pollution from dust.
*Inappropriate size of properties proposed.
*Impact on landscape quality.
*Impact on protected species.
*Estate could be managed by someone living on the northern side of the loch, travelling to work by boat.


That last point is particularly egregious considering an objection to previous applications was the health and safety implications of living alone on the otherwise deserted south shore of Loch Sunart - what are the H&S implications of travelling to work every day across the loch in a boat? The only thing missing is the statutory bat colony (although maybe that's implicit in "impact on protected species").

Estate worker's house - nice work if you can get it
But despite (or - again - perhaps because of) all these objections, the final battle with the planners was less of a bang than a whimper: this time, there was no site visit or public hearing and the minutes of the planning committee record simply that it accepted the planning officer's recommendation that all four applications be granted subject to the conditions that they may not be sold separately from the estate and that the estate itself may not in future ever be subdivided. Both houses must be occupied only by the owner of, or a person employed by, Glencripesdale Estate (no allowance for letting to stalking parties which the committee had been prepared to concede in 2004). This time round, Mr Whittle was obviously not of a mood to argue with these conditions which had proved such a stumbling block previously.

The "estate manager's house"
So what's to be made of all this? Is Hugh Whittle a shrewd operator who achieved his goal of an upmarket country sports retreat amongst virgin wilderness by deliberately playing the long game with Highland Council and running rings round them with talk of "estate manager's houses"? (Tiresome conditions can always be lifted at a later stage.) Or is he someone who's suffered from the very worst of everything that's wrong with big government and nanny statism - why shouldn't anyone be allowed to build what they want on their own land?

Glencripesdale Estate sale plan
I suppose you have to rationalise it by saying that, if you accept there has to be a planning system at all, then that involves some people being refused permission. If there were no planning system (or there were but it was too easy to get permission), then presumably the south shore of Loch Sunart would now be lined with houses to its general detriment. But would that be so bad and/or would the problem be as bad in practice as might be feared? There were no planning laws in the 18th century when Glencripesdale Farmhouse was built and it's a listed building. And I bet the Newton Brothers' Victorian mansion would be as well if it were still standing. But having said that, I know from experience here in the Azores what happens when planning laws are lax and the fees for "building permits" form a significant part of local authorities' budgets:-

That's a development by the shore at Faja Grande on the island of Flores where I live. It was begun at the height of the southern European property bubble without a thought being given to whether anyone would buy the apartments. The universal reaction is "How on EARTH could they have given permission to build THAT in such a beautiful environment?". It may not appear from a glance at the photo, but the apartments are not finished and work stopped about a year ago. Now the bubble has burst, they never will be finished, no-one will ever buy them, and they will form a blot on the landscape for years to come.

I used to argue with locals here who were averse to development, saying they should count themselves lucky because in Scotland it's practically impossible to get planning permission. I've since modified my view a bit but there's balance to be struck. I'm not sure it's being struck in the right place, whether on the shores of Loch Sunart or of Flores.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 3

Before carrying on from Part 2, I've discovered another historical nugget in the meantime. Until 1952, MacBraynes ran a cargo steamer to Loch Sunart every 10 days from Glasgow. Called the MV Lochshiel, she called at Glencripesdale amongst a number of other places along the way:-

Scan from "MacBrayne Steamers" by Alistair Deayton which you can buy here
With no pier at Glencripesdale, it was a ferry call involving the Lochshiel lying off and being tendered to by the estate launch. It's an interesting reflection on how small remote settlements used to be served by sea and that the mere fact there wasn't a road to your front door wasn't an insuperable barrier. 

Anyway, back in the 21st century, we'd got to the point where, in 2003, the new owner of Glencripesdale, Hugh Whittle, had developed a plan to restore the estate from the Forestry Commission's 1950s mono-culture forestry plantation back to farming cattle among native broadleaves rather as it had been operated by the Newton family in its Victorian and Edwardian hey-day. Changes to forestry and farming management don't require planning permission (p/p) but Mr Whittle also envisaged a new lodge, an estate worker's house and improvements to the "beached barge" pier, all of which do require p/p.


The three planning applications were lodged with Highland Council in spring 2003 but first, a general word about planning. Applications for p/p are decided by reference to the prescriptions of local plans. A feature of the Lochaber Local Plan 1999, the ruling document for the Sunart area in 2003, was "a strong presumption against" new houses in spots as remote as Glencripesdale with exceptions only being permitted where ESSENTIAL (yes, in capitals in the Plan!) for the management of the land. So there was going to be a heavy burden on Mr Whittle to convince the Council that his plans for the estate justified two houses.

As it happened, the planning officials recommended the estate worker's house and the pier upgrade for approval but not the lodge. Presumably intending to keep his powder dry for a future battle on that, Mr Whittle withdrew the lodge application so that only the estate worker's house and pier went before the Lochaber Planning Committee for the first time on 23 June 2003. On that date, the applications were deferred to a site visit and hearing to be held on 1 September 2003.

Looking west down Glen Cripesdale to Loch Sunart and Ardnamurchan

Come the day, only three of the eight members of the planning committee (including the Chairman and the local councillor, Dr Michael Foxley) turned up for the site visit. But they were accompanied by an impressive array of officials and local worthies for the hearing held in Ardnamurchan High School at Strontian afterwards. Along with delegates from both of Morvern and Sunart Community Councils, these included the prime objector to Hugh Whittle's proposals, Adam Besterman, the owner (but not resident) of Glencripesdale Farmhouse who was doubtless very concerned at the prospect of the idyll of his remote holiday home being spoilt by more houses being built nearby.

Oban local historian Iain Thornber was appointed to speak for the majority of the objectors and the NIMBY-ist humbug advanced against the proposals (including the canard that development prejudices tourism) seemed to do the trick - by a majority of two to one (Cllr. Foxley in the majority, the Chairman in the minority) the committee overturned the advice of its officials and rejected both applications. To judge from the obscurely worded minutes of the meeting (you can access the minutes of all the meetings in this saga here), it would seem that, as regards the proposed estate worker's house, the majority were swayed by:-

inappropriate siting with reference to the cumulative impact on adjacent archaeology, or wildlife conservation issues, the amenity of the potential occupier and the visual impact, particularly from Glencripesdale House. 

That seems to suggest that one new house at Glencripesdale was acceptable in principle but not on the exact site applied for. The refusal to allow upgrading of the "barge pier" is more mystifying:-

due to the adverse impact on existing private access road, as a right of way and the conflict of existing users 

Surely the whole point of the pier was to remove impacts on the private access road to Glencripesdale along the shore of Loch Sunart through the nature reserve and its existing users?   

Looking up Glen Cripesdale from the north west.
Hugh Whittle responded with a two-pronged counter attack: he appealed against rejection of the pier and estate worker's house applications and also, the following year, lodged two new applications for both houses. This time, the planning officials had changed their tune and were now prepared to recommend both houses - i.e. the "estate owner's house" (the lodge) as well as "the estate worker's house". But, crucially, this was provided Mr Whittle agreed to a condition that they only ever be occupied by the owner of or a worker on Glencripesdale and that the estate could never be split up - in other words, so that the houses could never be opportunistically sold off as holiday houses separate from management of the estate.

These new applications came before a hearing of the planning committee on 26 April 2004. Once again, the NIMBYs were out in force: the Area Convenor expressed her concern at the number of letters and phone calls she'd received from objectors;  Adam Besterman, the owner of Glencripesdale Farmhouse, placed himself on record that he didn't trust Mr Whittle's motives;  Whittle's agent retorted that he felt the Council had given unjustified attention to Besterman's objections; a Mr Tom Colville, the owner of holiday accommodation in the area pointed out that there was no need for any more holiday homes in the area; and Iain Thornber, the local historian, was back to point out there had never been a large farm on Glencripesdale. That's an odd view of the history but it fell to Mr Thornber to make what was perhaps the shrewdest suggestion of the day: that the Council suspend the grant of p/p for two years to see how Mr Whittle's plans were coming along - in other words to be sure that the grand scheme wasn't just a ruse he'd lose interest in as soon as the permission for the two houses had been secured.

The shore of Loch Sunart at Glencripesdale
After the public had withdrawn, the planning committee members retired to consider their decision. Contrary to his position the previous year, the local member, Michael Foxley, was now in favour of both houses. This was on the basis that, if Mr Whittle successfully appealed to the Scottish Government (a scenario Cllr. Foxley considered likely), the Council would lose control over the conditions to be imposed.

The decision reached was that the estate worker's house was refused (again, apparently, for reasons of the precise siting of the house applied for rather than the principle of a house at Glencripesdale) but the owner's house (i.e. lodge) was approved provided it was single storey and no more than 2,000 square feet. It was also subject to the occupancy by owner and no sub-division of the estate conditions. To meet Mr Thornber's point, the p/p would not be suspended but there would be regular monitoring of progress with the estate business plan (pretty toothless as the Council couldn't revoke the p/p if it wasn't satisfied with the progress). The details of these and a number of other detailed conditions were to be thrashed out between the planning department and Mr Whittle's agents and brought back to the Area Committee Meeting on 17 May 2004 for final approval.

Lower Glen Cripesdale from the air in 2007

Let's take a breather at this point in this planning marathon to review where we've reached after more than a year:-

- "barge pier" upgrade - relatively uncontroversial - REFUSED
- estate worker's house - controversial - REFUSED
- estate owner's house - very controversial - APPROVED

The meeting on 17 May 2004 received the depressing news that Mr Whittle's agents and the planning department were still a long way apart on the detailed conditions for the house. The committee therefore agreed (somewhat reluctantly, one detects from the minutes) that the house might be one and a half storeys and 3,000 square feet and that, despite the requirement that it be only for the estate owner's use, up to ten weeks holiday letting would be allowed. The frequency of monitoring the business plan was also reduced and it was remitted back to the officials to continue the negotiations.

The next development in the saga was something of a bomb-shell - Adam Besterman brought an action for judicial review of the Council's decision in principle in favour of the house. But he could have saved his legal fees because, in September 2004, exasperated at Whittle's heel-dragging in the negotiations over the detailed terms of the conditions, the Council brought matters to a head by formally REFUSING the application for the estate owner's house.

Adam Besterman's Glencripesdale House - photo credit Gordon Brown
At their meeting on 1 November 2004, the planning committee noted glumly that the Council was now the respondent in three appeals to the Scottish Government (the other two being the pier and the estate worker's house from back in 2003 - remember them?). They were all going to be conjoined in a single public local inquiry and the committee members noted that a specialist planning lawyer from Council headquarters would attend to put their case. The PLI was scheduled for 25 April 2005 but, six weeks before that date, Mr Whittle withdrew his appeals on the basis that his landscape architect had identified less controversial sites for his proposals, these presumably to be the subject of a third round of planning applications. 

Again this post has become too long. I'm going to break here but promise to bring the Glencripesdale planning saga to a conclusion in Part 4. Meanwhile I leave you with a picture of the 5th Duke of Argyll (1770-1806)


Something tells me that, when he planned changes at Glencripesdale in the late 18th century, he didn't have to employ landscape architects to dance to the tune of a planning committee. He probably WAS the planning committee.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate - Part 2

Before continuing the story, I discovered after I finished writing Part 1, a rental (rent roll) of the MacLean of Duart estates in 1674 shortly before they were taken over by the Earl of Argyll. You can see that here and it includes £200 plus 6 quarts of butter and 6 stones of cheese payable for "Glencribastill". And on the Roy Map of 1747-55 (see that here), it's "Glen Cribsdale" so these two references probably give a big hint as to how "Glencripesdale" is pronounced.

"Glen Cribsdale" on the Roy Map
Also, the tenant in the 1674 rental is given simply as "Lochzeill" which I take to be a reference to Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of Clan Cameron. If so, it's an interesting reflection that, as long ago as the 17th century, one clan chief could be another's tenant, co-existing in an atmosphere of delivering up finished dairy products as opposed to the more traditional norm of thieving each other's cattle at the point of a claymore!    

Anyway, carrying on, we'd reached the 1960s when the Forestry Commission (FC) had converted the Newton brothers' Victorian and Edwardian mixed sporting and farming estate into a mono-culture forestry plantation of exotic conifers. It was a fate suffered by many Highland estates in the post-War era when the economics of maintaining rich people's playgrounds had ceased to be viable.


When Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government came to power in 1979 (an era of fiscal austerity much like today), it promptly resolved to stop funding the FC's endless deficits and decreed that, henceforth, it would have to make up its losses by selling off parts of its vast landholding.

Hence, the 18th century Glencripesdale Farmhouse was sold off in 1983. I'm not sure if he bought it directly from the FC or from a previous purchaser but, for the last 10 years or so, the farmhouse has been owned by one Adam Besterman. As well as farms in Gloucestershire and Wales, he owns Auch Estate near Tyndrum - a remarkable coincidence that that was where the Stewarts who bought Glencripesdale from the Duke of Argyll in 1821 farmed. (Auch is the farm below Beinn Dorain in the horse-shoe loop of the railway to the east of the A82 between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy.)

Auch from the A82 - Beinn Dorain on the left
At some stage - I would guess in the 1980s - the north east portion of Glencripesdale Estate along the south shore of Loch Sunart was transferred from the Forestry Commission to Scotland's conservation quango, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). This was due to the internationally important  native oak woods along the shore of the loch left unaffected while the FC had planted of exotic conifers elsewhere on the estate. This land was eventually declared a National Nature Reserve - brochure about this here (pdf download: it's shortly to be "de-declared" as an NNR for reasons you can see here. That doesn't mean the oak trees will lose their statutory protections as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it just means there won't be a re-print of that brochure.)

In 1993, the remainder of Glencripesdale (the bit with the Sitka Spruces on it) came to the top of the Forestry Commission's disposal list and was sold to a Danish trio called Niels Tandrup and Viggo & Helle Sorensen.

Their first priority was to fell the commercial plantations established by the FC 35-40 years earlier and now reaching maturity. But how to export the timber? Rather than having heavy lorries laden with logs thundering down the private track along the shore of Loch Sunart through the fragile habitat of the National Nature Reserve, the Danes hit upon the innovative solution of exporting the timber by sea. To facilitate this, a steel barge was beached on the shore to act as a makeshift pier to load logs from. Though crude, it was an early and far sighted instance of extraction of timber by sea which has now become best practice, even for the Forestry Commission itself.

The "barge pier" at Glencripesdale - Picture credit Keith Cunneen
In 2002, the Tandrup/Sorensens sold the property to Hugh Whittle, the owner of Glenfeochan Estate just south of Oban. He developed a dream for Glencripesdale which was to progressively fell the remaining FC plantations of exotic commercial species as they matured and, in a very long term (30+ years) plan, gradually restore the estate to the mixed environment of farming Highland Cattle amongst native woodlands much as it had existed under the Newtons a century before.

This is all very much in tune with the latest officially endorsed fads in conservation and, as part of an integrated plan, Whittle also planned a new lodge on the site of the Newtons' demolished mansion and an estate worker's house. The remaining commercial timber would be exported via a consolidated version of the "barge pier". With the prospect of grant assistance from an enthusiastic Forestry Commission (who are far keener nowadays on restoring native woodlands than establishing commercial timber plantations) and SNH also keen to see restoration of a part of the native woodland for which Loch Sunart is famous, he lodged the necessary planning applications for the houses and pier upgrade with Highland Council.

What followed was an exhausting seven years of bureaucracy and red-tape which I'll pick up in Part 3.

Native oak trees in Glencripesdale National Nature Reserve - photo credit Gordon Brown

         

Monday, September 12, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate

I'm not sure how you pronounce it (I think it's "Crippiss-dale") but it's for sale at offers over £2.6 million through estate agents Bell Ingram - you can download the sale brochure here.

Glencripesdale is 4,580 acres (1,850 hectares) of the Morvern peninsula, eight miles from the end of the nearest public road on the remote south shore of Loch Sunart in north west Argyll. It's history spans the clash of medieval broadswords to the flying of 21st century writs for judicial review: it epitomises nicely the blood, sweat and consultancy fees of Highland landownership through five centuries. 


Since medieval times Morvern had been the territory of the MacLeans of Duart. In the 1670s, they distinguished themselves by becoming the first clan in history to lose their patrimony not by blood-feud but by defaulting on their mortgage payments. Unfortunately their lender wasn't the Nationwide Building Society but the chief of Clan Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, an unforgiving creditor who had assiduously bought up MacLean debts specifically with a view to foreclosing on them. 

In the second half of the 18th century, the Dukes of Argyll (as the Campbell chiefs had become) reorganised their estates, including the former MacLean land in Morvern, by renting them as commercial sheep and cattle farms in place of the communal peasant farming which had prevailed hitherto. This was an early phase of what became known as "the Highland Clearances". That's an expression which covers a multitude of not properly understood sins but, whatever the rights and wrongs, the Argyll estates in Morvern are significant for having left an architectural heritage of 18th century farmhouses built by these incoming capitalist farmers. You can read an article about them here (Big pdf download.)

Glencripesdale was one of these farms and its farmhouse was typical of the genre. It was built by its tenant, Duncan Campbell of Gleunure, around 1775. A farmhouse may seem a pretty mundane thing but the fact is Glencripesdale is one of the oldest farmhouses (as we understand them today) in Scotland. It retains the original wooden sash and case windows installed when it was built 230 years ago. 

Morvern - Glencripesdale house
Glencripesdale Farmhouse - photo credit Gil Campbell
In the 1820s, it became the Argylls' turn to succumb to debt. In the first half of the 19th century it was virtually par for the course for clan chiefs to lose their estates to creditors, including such illustrious names as MacNeil of Barra, MacDonald of Clanranald and MacDonell of Glengarry. The Campbells managed to retain their core estates around Inveraray but most of the former Maclean lands in Mull and Morvern went under the hammer to meet the gambling debts of the 6th Duke, a friend of the Prince Regent. It was an ironic reversal of fortunes vis a vis the MacLeans of Duart 150 years earlier.

Glencripesdale was bought by Donald Stewart of Auch in 1821 and by the 1840s, the farm belonged to his son, Alexander. Nicknamed "Glenstool" for reasons unknown, he features in the journal of James Robertson, the Sheriff of Tobermory on Mull in two entries in 1843:-

"On my arrival at [home] I found Sandy Stewart Glencripesdale with his pretty bride, and his brother in law Niel Stewart, Foss, and a young Edinburgh lad, Bob Renton, sitting round the Table with a quantity of biscuits, glasses and an empty Wine decanter before them. I procured a reinforcement of solids and liquids, and we passed an hour or two very jovially. Mrs Stewart retired at half past 11 and Niel and his young friend went down to the Inn at the same time to roost. Sandy took his three tumblers of toddy and enlarged wisely and emphatically on the incomparable felicity of the married state which he strongly recommended to my consideration and adoption.

Wednesday 9 August 1843 

When I was dressing Glenstool came in to my room looking drumly and unrefreshed; he complained of our late sederunt [sitting] last night. I denied the premises, upon which he exclaimed hurriedly: "aye aye its well for you to say so, but mind - I had to give a horn to the wife after I went to bed - mind that, mind that - that makes the difference, you see", rubbing his hands and winking ..."

Married life doesn't seem to have agreed with Glenstool, however, as he was dead less than three years later.


In 1871, the third generation of Stewarts sold up. By the later 19th century, the primary interest in Highland estates was no longer as farms but as sporting estates where nouveaux riches could entertain their guests stalking deer, shooting grouse and fishing for salmon - it was the Victorian equivalent of today's Russian oligarchs buying Premiership football clubs. 

The purchasers of Glencripesdale were the Reverend Horace Newton and his two brothers, one also a clergyman. Heirs to a vast fortune derived from the fact that their family happened to own the land a big chunk of Birmingham had been built on during the Industrial Revolution, they immediately adorned their Scottish acquisition with a new mansion house beside the 18th century farmhouse: it was so opulent even the servants' bedrooms had hot and cold running water.

Picture scanned from "The Western Seaboard - An illustrated architectural guide" by Mary Miers which you can buy here
In a pattern repeated all over the Highlands of Scotland in the high Victorian era, Glencripesdale was built into a community of retainers - 100 strong, at its peak - dedicated to the Newtons' summer house parties. There was a school, a shop, church services in the billiard room and annual Highland Games on the lawn. Farming was not totally eschewed and a prize winning herd of Highland cattle was built up although this was hobby farming albeit on a megalomaniac scale.

These Victorian and Edwardian sporting estates never really recovered their former glory after the First World War. During the Second War, Glencripesdale House was requisitioned by the army for special operations training and left in poor condition, a fate suffered by a number of big houses in the West Highlands. In 1955, the estate was sold to the Forestry Commission. Having no use for it, the FC arranged in the early 1960s for the army to return to dynamite the Newtons' mansion house which had been roofless since the late 1940s. This was also the fate of many big houses on estates bought by the Forestry Commission after the War. 

It's said it took the army two attempts to blow up Glencripesdale House due to the fact that it was built of concrete. In the 1870s, the Newton brothers were very early exponents of building in concrete and, while their mansion house is no longer visible, there are still some more humble survivors of their concrete buildings to be seen such as the pier and storehouse by the shore of Loch Sunart pictured below: like the 18th century Glencripesdale Farmhouse, it's a mundane enough structure but it's is one of the earliest concrete buildings in Scotland:-


And that's probably a good point to leave this overlong post at. In Part 2, I'll resume the story with the latest generation of Highland landlords after the Forestry Commission sold Glencripesdale in the 1980s and 90s.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Mallaig to Lochboisdale Ferry

The island of South Uist (pop. 1,950) in the Outer Hebrides considers itself badly served by Caledonian MacBrayne's car ferry services.

SU's primary connection with the mainland is the ferry from Lochmaddy on North Uist (linked to SU by causeways) to Uig on Skye (linked to the mainland by a bridge). There are eleven departures a week in summer and the crossing takes 1h 45m.

Lochmaddy

But the downside is that, depending where you live on SU, it's a drive of anywhere between 22 and 47 miles - distances unparalleled on the islands served by Calmac - to even get to the point of departure at Lochmaddy. Then, when you ariive at Uig, it's a 230 mile drive to Glasgow.

Total time from SU to Glasgow via Lochmaddy-Uig (including Calmac's vehicle check-in time of 45 minutes) - 8h 55m; total cost (60p/mile plus ferry fare for car and one passenger) - £190

There is an alternative. There's also a ferry from Lochboisdale on South Uist to Oban. At 5h 10m, it's the longest crossing in the Calmac network but on the plus side, Oban is only 96 miles from Glasgow - less than half the distance from Uig.

Total time from SU to Glasgow via Lochboisdale-Oban - 8h 25m; total cost - £130 

Calmac ferry MV Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale - Photo credit Allan Macdonald
But the big problem with the Lochboisdale-Oban service is that there are only four departures a week (compared with eleven from Lochmaddy to Uig) and one of these sails via Castlebay on the neighbouring island of Barra (pop. 1,000) adding another 1h 30m to the journey (though nothing to the cost). The lower frequency is not just because of the much longer crossing but also due to the same ship also being Barra's only link to the mainland in a "triangular" service to Oban.


What the people of South Uist would ideally like is a dedicated ferry running from Lochboisdale to Mallaig. This is a crossing of 3h 20m and Mallaig is 150 miles from Glasgow so the total journey time is 7h 55m - quicker than going via Uig or Oban. Because Calmac's fares are calculated on the basis of "Road Equivalent Tariff" (i.e. the fare is the same as it would cost to drive to the mainland as if there were a causeway, currently set at 60p/mile to include fuel and all other costs associated with running a car such as tyres, insurance and depreciation etc.), it's possible to predict the cost of SU to Glasgow via Mallaig at £145 - £45 cheaper than going via Lochmaddy. In 2006, Calmac proposed a scheme for a Lochboisdale-Mallaig service with fourteen departures a week (in summer; seven in winter) so let's put the three options on a grid:-

The Mallaig option looks like a total no-brainer until you factor in that Calmac said it would need a new ship to operate the service. This was because the people of Barra had made it clear they wanted to retain Oban as their mainland port (it's a much longer crossing to Mallaig from Castlebay than it is from Lochboisdale) so it wasn't just a question of relocating the existing services from Oban to Mallaig. The prospect of c.£25m for a new ship gave Calmac's paymasters in the Scottish Government a big problem.

For a time there was a suggestion Calmac could charter a ferry called the Claymore. She had been built by Calmac in 1978 specifically to serve Barra and South Uist from Oban but was retired from that route in 1989 and in 2006/07 was surplus to the requirements of Pentland Ferries, a private company running to Orkney. But there were serious question marks over the suitability of a 30 year old ferry to serve South Uist again and the suggestion lapsed.

The Claymore at Castlebay, Barra in the 1980s

And so the Mallaig option remained in the long grass until 2011 when things changed by Calmac taking delivery of a new vessel, the Finlaggan, to serve the island of Islay. The reason why that made a difference to South Uist is that Islay had been being served by two ferries, the Isle of Arran and the Hebridean Isles. With the advent of the Finlaggan, one of these two - it's not yet been decided which on a long term basis but generally assumed to be the IoA - will become available to be redeployed elsewhere. So it can become the Mallaig-Lochboisdale ferry, right?

Well not quite. As ever, things are not quite so simple. The reason is that, before the Finlaggan came along, one of the two Islay ferries was also the fleet reserve, liable to be called away at any time to cover for a break-down elsewhere in the network. This happened in summer 2010 and caused howls of protest from Islay that they were being deprived of one of "their" ferries. But with the advent of the Finlaggan, the theory was that the Isle of Arran would be released to be on permanent stand-by, tied up somewhere but ready to sail at a moment's notice: Islay would never again be deprived of one of its two ferries.

Calmac ferry Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale - photo credit Allan Macdonald

But couldn't the Isle of Arran not at least be sailing between Lochboisdale and Mallaig rather than be tied up idle when there are no other calls on its time - would that not be consistent with the "pilot study" of the route local politicians are calling for? Well possibly but these pilot studies tend to be genies it's difficult to put back into bottles: as soon as the IoA was called away from South Uist, the same local politicians would doubtless be hurling abuse at Calmac/the SG that "their" ferry had been taken away. And there may be other calls on the IoA - Arran (the island, not the ferry) is looking for a bigger second ferry to run there in summer next year, an option that would doubtless be far more profitable to Calmac (i.e. less of a drain on the taxpayer) than SU ...

So what to do? Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Not even please some of the people all of the time ... Glad I'm not the Transport Minister.

Leaving South Uist on the LOTI
Leaving Lochboisdale - Photo credit Hugh Spicer

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cladh nan Sasunnach

On the east shore of Loch Maree in Wester Ross, near its head, there's a spot called Cladh nan Sasunnach - it's Gaelic for "the sassenachs' graveyard".

Cladh nan Sasunnach - Picture Credit Nigel Brown

Quick aside about the word "sassenach". It's commonly supposed to be a term of abuse used by Scots to describe the English. Wrong. It's simply the Gaelic word for a non-Gael. So in the eyes of a native of Wester Ross, someone from Edinburgh is as much of a sassenach as someone from London. It's a Gaelic corruption of the word "Saxon".

Anyway, the southerners interred by the shore of Loch Maree were not some isolated troop of redcoats slaughtered by a posse of vengeful clansmen in the aftermath of Culloden. The truth was something rather more prosaic - they were the employees of a local ironworks.


Or so tradition tells. Scholarly investigation suggests the fragmentary remains barely visible in the bracken are of a much older graveyard. But what is undeniable is that there was an ironworks on the shores of Loch Maree in the early 17th century which did employ "English" (which could have meant Lowland Scots). It's reputed the earliest industrial ironworks (as opposed to cottage industry supplying purely local needs) in Scotland: it's not a coincidence there's also a spot called Furnace on the east shore of the loch near Letterewe.

But the lure to this remote spot was not local deposits of iron ore but trees which could be cut to make charcoal to fuel the smelters to produce the metal: in the tree-less land Scotland was at the time, it was a case of the raw material mountain going to the fuel source Mohammed.


It's not the last time strangers have been buried in a remote Highland location in pursuit of a valuable metal. Fast forward 300 years and 70 miles south to Kinlochleven near Fort William. In an isolated spot in the hills a couple of miles above the village, you'll find the Navvies' Graveyard.

Picture credit RCAHMS
It contains the graves of 21 navvies (labourers) who died between 1905 and 1909 building the Blackwater Dam which looms behind the cemetery. One of the graves is marked "Not Known" and another is of "Mrs Riley who died at the dam March 27 1909". I don't know her story but perhaps the navvies (Irish?) lived in a camp on site with their families ...

Picture credit - John Ferguson



The dam was built between 1905 and 1909 to create a reservoir to power a hydro-electric power station for an aluminium smelter at Kinlochleven. At the turn of the 20th century, aluminium was the new wonder material but, once again, it was not deposits of ore locally (bauxite is imported from countries like Australia) which attracted development to this virgin site (Kinlochleven was merely a remote roadless farm before 1905) but the local energy resource. It takes twenty times as much energy to render aluminium from its ore as it does iron and, in the early 1900s, the only way to produce that economically was hydro-electricity for which mountainous and wet northern Argyll is ideally suited.

Just as the iron works by Loch Maree are long gone, so too the aluminium smelter at Kinlochleven is no longer. It shut in 2000 although the power station is still operating, feeding electricity in to the national grid. And the Navvies' Graveyard remains in a nice example of how history has a habit of repeating itself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Grampian Hotel, Dalwhinnie

I'm a great fan of 1930s art deco architecture and here's a fine example which is sadly no longer with us: the Grampian Hotel at Dalwhinnie on the A9 between Perth and Inverness:-


The second floor was a later addition as this earlier postcard from another angle demonstrates:-


The Grampian Hotel stood on the road to the station at Dalwhinnie, just off what was the old A9 through the village by-passed since the late 70s. The hotel was still standing relatively recently as you can see it on Google Earth imagery dated 2005:-


But it had gone by the time the Google Streetview car was driving round in 2008/2009:-


I'm sorry to have missed it. Except for the snippet that apparently Barbara Cartland regularly stayed there, there's frustratingly little information about the Grampian Hotel available online - you'd normally expect the demolition of an art deco building to have generated quite a lot of interest

Anyway, the Grampian Hotel was one of a number of road-side hotels built in the 1930s to capture trade from what was, at the time, the relatively new-fangled but growing craze of motoring. They were a sort of new generation of coaching inns and also a sort of previous generation of motorway service stations and "travel lodges". The A9 itself was considerably upgraded in the late 1920s in response to the growth of road traffic having been little changed since General Wade built it as a military road in the mid 18th century.

Another example of a hotel built in the 1930s in response to the growth in motor traffic is the the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, although this was built in a more vernacular style of architecture:-


A new hotel was necessitated here by the realignment of the A82 between Tyndrum and Glen Coe in the early 1930s carrying it round the east end of Loch Tulla and by-passing the centuries old coaching inn at Inveroran at the west end of the loch. (Happily, in more recent decades the Inveroran Inn has gained a new lease of life from walkers on the West Highland Way which follows the line of the old A82 past its front door).

Some other examples in art deco style are:-


The Royal Stuart Motor Hotel on the old A9 just south of Inverness, like Dalwhinnie by-passed by the new A9 since the late 70s. I remember this when the old A9 still went past its front door in the early 70s on our way to family holidays in Wester Ross - passing it meant we were nearly at Inverness and thus at a significant waymarker on what was at the time a long, long drive from Edinburgh. The RSMH is still very much in business today as the New Drumossie Hotel

As you'd expect, there are some good examples along the A8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Going from east to west, first, there's the Maybury Roadhouse in Edinburgh situated at what, in the 1930s, would have been one of the most important road junctions in Scotland - straight ahead on the A8 for Glasgow; middle fork for the A9 to Stirling (this was where the A9 used to begin before it was cut by the building of the "new" runway at Edinburgh Airport in the mid 70s: now it's just the road to the airport cargo terminal); and right up Maybury Road to take you to the A90 at Barnton for Queensferry.

Maybury Junction in 1945
Fittingly, Maybury Road and the Roadhouse were named after the engineer Sir Henry Maybury who designed the road in the late 1920s as part of a scheme to bring Edinburgh's road network up to date for the motor era. The Roadhouse is now a casino:-

Maybury Roadhouse - photo credit Pete Cracknell





Further west on the A8, at Whitburn, there's a building I don't know the original name of except that it's now the Royal Regent Cantonese Restaurant:-


Like the A9, the A8 was also re-engineered in the late 1920s/early 1930s to meet the demands of the new motor age. Although built as a single carriageway, the verges and bridges were built wide enough to accommodate a future upgrading to dual carriageway. In fact this never happened and the M8 motorway was eventually built in the 1960s along a different line but you can see this all in the extract below from Google Earth. The Royal Regent is the building at the top and the 1930s A8 is the road coming in diagonally from top right - note its wide verges and the equally wide "ghost" bridge over the River Almond just left of the roundabout. The M8 runs along the bottom.

Further west still on the old (1930s) A8 before it was by-passed by the motorway is the splendid Newhouse Hotel.


Note the petrol pumps to the right emphasising the establishment's importance to the motorist. The Newhouse Hotel is still in business as a Premier Inn, although recent alterations have masked its art deco features somewhat:-


And finally, back in Edinburgh, another building in the same genre is the Hillburn Roadhouse on Biggar Road (A702 to Biggar and Abington) on the edge of the city in Fairmilehead. Like the Maybury, it was not built as a hotel but as a bar-restaurant catering to passing motorists. More recently it was known as the Fairmile Inn but has been empty and vandalised for a number of years.


Well, I've strayed quite a long way from the Grampian Hotel at Dalwhinnie - and nowhere near a kyle or a Western Isle - but if you know of any other 1930s or art deco "roadhouses", wherever they may be, then do leave a comment.