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A mighty Morvern bull

I am not one of those people who revel in coincidences. Some friends seem to attract them – to be coincidence-prone, as others are accident prone, or prone to catching a cold.

To one not normally a magnet for such events, an inquiry about an historic Highland bull from an unexpected and unrelated quarter, on the eve of the 120th autumn show and sale of Highland cattle in Oban last week, was all the more memorable.

In October 1897, a talented artist came to Morvern as a guest of London distiller Thomas Valentine Smith, who inherited the 41,000-acre Ardtornish estate from his father in 1871.

Her name was Margaret Collyer (1872-1944). A graduate of the London Royal Academy of Art, she built up a considerable reputation as an accomplished animal painter.

She moved easily in the fashionable salons of Bohemian London, where she met Flora Smith, the eccentric sister of the wealthy Valentine Smith, who also owned the most remarkable prize-winning fold of Highland cattle of the late 19th century. Flora, who was unmarried, gathered around her an eclectic group of well-known painters, writers and scientists, many of whom were summer visitors to Ardtornish.

Flora became Margaret Collyer’s patron and this, along with one of her father’s two-year-old bulls taking top prize at the 1893 Highland Show, most likely accounts for her visit.

The champion Highland bull was called Victor V11. His father was An Iasgair and his mother Phroiseag Dhubh. Brindle in colour, he was described as a stylish symmetrical bull possessing all the characteristic features of the breed who, since he was two years old, had been winning medals at the Inverness, Perth and Edinburgh livestock shows.

Margaret Collyer left an interesting record of her visit to Morvern to paint the Ardtornish cattle. She describes coming ashore at the landing stage in Loch Aline with Rory, her Irish terrier. There she was met by Duncan wearing a coachman’s uniform and an old pair of plaid breeks with a horse-drawn machine of great antiquity. It resembled a governess cart too small for the horse, which he belted with the end of the reins to make it move, all the while saying things to it in a language she felt was as well she couldn’t understand.

Margaret thought the lochside road to the Smith family home, was ‘very pretty’, but the hideous modern stone mansion standing at the head of the loch was a shock to her artistic senses.

Reaching her destination, Duncan exchanged his disguise as a coachman for one of butler, ushering her into an ugly, but very warm, hall. She wrote: ‘There was nothing trivial or flimsy about this house. The carpets were thick Turkey, the chairs heavy mahogany, the doors of the same wood and three inches thick. But what it lacked in daintiness it gained in warmth and comfort. I have seldom lived in more thoroughly accommodating rooms, for although I was alone there for a couple of months, I felt no loneliness.’

She was enthusiastic about the object of her journey, describing Smith’s cattle as superb in size, colour and coat, and the most magnificent animals she had ever seen. It was October and they were getting their full winter coat, the fringes on their foreheads and legs were fully 20 inches long, which she felt was necessary to withstand the cold winters.

Victor V11 was produced and, although she said he lived wild and free, he was remarkably quiet. In order for her to capture him on canvas in all his glory against a sky background, he was allegedly dragged by six or seven men to the top of a high rock every morning. Once posed, and plied with salt, which she filled her pockets with each day, he stood peacefully and never once charged at her easel or umbrella with his huge horns.

Margaret Collyer was so taken by him she called her subject The Lord of the Isles after the MacDonald chiefs who lived at the nearby old castle of Ardtornish overlooking the entrance to Loch Aline. It seems that she had no need to exhibit this particular work in London as it was sold privately while still on her easel – the most likely purchasers being the Smith family.

Looking today at Margaret Collyer’s painting, which is about to come on the open market, it is impossible to say where on Ardtornish it was done. A large amount of artistic licence has obviously been applied to the locality and the bull’s exaggerated stance, its wild eye, windswept coat and curly tail. For all this romanticism, it is a stunning work of a fine Highland bull.

It is not known where Smith got his stock. It may have originated from an old fold belonging to John Sinclair, another distiller, from Tobermory and owner of the Fiunary estate. Other cows, including The Fiunary Queen, came from James Duncan of Glensanda and Benmore, Dunoon.

Smith died aboard his 500-ton steam yacht, the Rannoch, in Gourock Bay on August 8, 1906, leaving £147 million in today’s money.

Iain Thornber