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A few years ago, I took a party of visitors from Texas into Loch Aline by boat. Jerking her thumb in the general direction of the massive Ardtornish House which dominates the head of the loch, one of the group turned to me and asked: ‘Is that some kind of factory up there?’
Knowing how most Texans like the world to think they have everything bigger and better than anyone else, I thought to myself, I’m not letting you away with that and replied, rather casually: ‘Actually, it is only a holiday cottage’ – which it is. ‘Gee,’ was the response from the lady whose eyes were now standing out like organ-stops. ‘If that’s a holiday cottage, what’s the main house like?’
Mansion houses grandstanding on hillsides or quietly tucked away in secluded wooded glens have attracted admiration and intrigue for generations. There are those which embody Gaelic tradition and others that exude Victorian elitism.
The first are often the living heart of the local community and a source of inspiration and excellence; the second, when their owners say they have a little place in Scotland but don’t get up nearly as much as they would like, become a reminder of an old proverb dating back to the time of the infamous Highland Clearances, about there being nothing so slippery as the doorstep to the big house.
Of course Ardtornish House, built in 1884-95 on the proceeds of gin and wool by Thomas Valentine Smith for sporting holidays, is no manufactory but an outstanding example of a period country villa of the late Victorian era still with its original decorated interiors and furnishings. Its story, and that of many other architectural Highland gems, appears in one of most remarkable books published this millennium.
Highland Retreats – the Architecture and Interiors of Scotland’s Romantic North by Mary Miers – Highlander, historian, writer and the fine arts and books editor of Country Life magazine – is a new and sumptuous work, beautifully produced with hundreds of stunning colour photographs by Paul Barker and Simon Jauncey.
It would be wrong to infer Highland Retreats is yet another coffee-table production. It isn’t. Unlike Aristotle’s bee, it brings together a vast amount of information and images, some never seen before, lovingly compiled and written in a lively style reflecting the author’s enthusiasm for her subject.
In eight chapters illustrated with photographs of historic paintings, drawings and sketches, Miers shows how one of the wildest and most beautiful regions of Europe was transformed into a sporting paradise by industrial wealth and old family money from the south.
Taking Torosay, Ardtornish, Ardkinglas and Cour in Argyll, Dunrobin, Kinlochmoidart, Ardverikie, Kinloch [Rum], Skibo, Corrour, Mar Lodge, Shewglie and numerous others, the author charts the development of Highland shooting and fishing lodges which began long before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to Scotland. Many large houses were commissioned by leading architects of the day containing art work of national importance and equipped with the latest technology. Others were less so.
Lord Malmesbury, who was twice Foreign Secretary, in 1852 and 1858, took Achnacarry Castle and its surrounding deer forest on a 15-year lease from its owner, Donald Cameron of Lochiel. He recorded with amusement the experience of one of his guests, Sir James Hudson, the British ambassador to Turin, who was obliged to spend a night in a bothy after a day’s deer stalking in Glencamagarry on the south side of Loch Arkaig.
‘He said there were seven men, five dogs, three women and a cat in two small rooms and only three beds for the whole party. The maid asked him with whom he would like to sleep and that he answered that if he couldn’t sleep with her, he would prefer Macoll the stalker. The latter, however, replied, “Methinks you had better sleep alone”. So Sir James had a bed to himself, as far as I know.’
Mary Miers’s conclusion is bang up to date. ‘For the makers and inheritors of great wealth, owning large swathes of the Highlands is still a powerfully seductive aspiration. Increasingly, though, the impetus is not so much the desire to buy access to top sport and society as the irresistible urge to manipulate nature.
For those who have everything, playing God in the wilds represents the last major challenge.
And so today, not only sportsmen, but also sporting eco-warriors and other romantic visionaries, are drawn inexorably north with dreams of creating their own Highland Eden.’
I have only a minor criticism of this book. None of the modern photographs has any people in them, making the houses, especially their interiors, seem somewhat embalmed and impersonal, like a book of pressed flowers – pretty, but dead.
Houses mirror their owners’ taste and style. It would have been nice to have been able to have seen something of those individuals who usually stand aside from the ordinary course of life.
Highland Retreats is to be the definitive book on the subject for years to come. Price £45 (Amazon £29.25). ISBN: 978-0-8478-4476-O: Rizzoli New York.