Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 28.02.19

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I have been privileged to have had some wonderful hospitality around the world but none better than in the Highlands and Islands.

Here, despite a quickening pace of life, the tradition is still very much alive. It is not new. The ancient Greeks demonstrated their piety by giving hospitality to humble travellers who turned out to be disguised deities and in the Bible we find: ‘Be not forgetful to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ – (Hebrews 13.2).

Even in civil wars, such as the Jacobite risings, visitors were never asked who they were or their business. And, for as long as they remained under his roof, their host considered it was his sacred duty to protect them regardless of the circumstances. Visitors stayed for months often proving ruinous to the provider.

At the burial of one of the Lord of the Isles, in Iona, nine hundred cows, valued at three merks each, were consumed. One of the most outstanding examples of hospitality in the West Highlands in modern times that I know of, used to be found at the annual Glenfinnan Gathering.

Inverailort Castle, home of the Cameron-Head family. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Inverailort Castle, home of the Cameron-Head family. Photograph: Iain Thornber

Here, every year from 1945 to 1993, its convener, Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort, who was not rich as the world now understands riches, provided free lunches and afternoon tea, to around 300 friends, piping stewards and judges, dancers, policemen, helpers, overseas visitors and many others whom she had never met.

Glenfinnan is not a huge gathering, like Braemar. There are no royal visitors. The great names from the sporting world don’t appear here. It is a domestic day out. But it worked.

Mrs Cameron-Head, who lived across the hill at Inverailort Castle on the shores of Loch Ailort, would summon a cohort of willing helpers from all parts of the country weeks before the day of the gathering which, incidentally, is always held on the Saturday nearest August 19 when the Jacobite standard was raised in 1745; these unpaid auxiliaries would peel potatoes, make venison stew and prepare buckets of jellies and trifles. Some would be detailed to make scones, others shortbread. In the early morning of the great day a convoy of cars carried the food and drink ten miles to Glenfinnan – their drivers hoping that they wouldn’t get bogged down on the field before they reached the convener’s marquee which legend had it came from Mons, or was it Sandhurst? ‘Do come in, come in,’ she would say to anyone peering through the open door of the old canvas marquee. ‘The dog will only bite if he doesn’t like you.’

A good deal of Gaelic could be heard and there was none of the bitter class differentiation that sours so much in the Highlands. Everyone was there, and they all spoke to each other like family – helped along no doubt by Hangman’s Blood, a dangerous cocktail of whisky, brandy, gin, cider and other ingredients.

Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort, otherwise known as ‘Mrs CH’, was much loved throughout the Highlands for her essential Christian kindness and an ability to lead and persuade by example. Born in Glasgow in 1917 the kinswoman of Viscount Gormanston of County Meath, she was tall and striking with her tartan suits, black neck-choker and a sense of fun. As a child aged two, she with her sister was rescued by the gardener when their house in Ireland was set on fire by the Black and Tans.

Over the next 17 years, the family had 21 different homes in France, England, Scotland and Ireland – ‘Mummy liked moving’ – before deciding to go to Alderney in the Channel Islands for three weeks. They stayed for three years. She was educated at Stover School, near Newton Abbot, in Devon, where she became the school’s first head girl.

After school she taught until the Second World War, when she became an organiser of the Land Girls and then a Red Cross ambulance driver with The Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps. In 1941, she was posted to Lochailort with the commandos. There she met Francis Cameron-Head and in 1942 they married.

He was Laird of Inverailort whose home had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy for the training of commandos under Colonel David Stirling of SAS fame. The writer Seton Gordon was best man. They went to live at Dunain Park outside Inverness until 1945, when they were able to return to Inverailort.

There they found their castle badly damaged by the hundreds of troops that had been stationed in it and on the surrounding fields. Chandeliers and deer had been shot at, parquet floors swabbed down like decks, antique furniture used to make a temporary bridge and the place was alive with rats.

‘We could hardly complain,’ Mrs Cameron-Head said later. ‘Hundreds of those who passed through Inverailort were now dead or wounded. Our sacrifice was pretty small by comparison. We saw the damage as honourable battle scars.’

Francis Cameron-Head died in 1957, leaving his young widow to run the large estate – a task she undertook with characteristic style. ‘There are three things a Highland laird must be,’ she would say, ‘and they all begin with R. Responsive, Reliable and Resident. You don’t own a Highland estate, it owns you.’

When Royal Mail withdrew the post office from the local railway station, she converted her morning-room into a sub-office, and for over a year she herself delivered the mail to Glenuig by small launch until, after vigorous lobbying, the link to the Mallaig road was built.

Guests came thick and fast from all walks of life. There would often be as many as 25 round the dining room table and the Secretary of State for Scotland was quite likely to find himself sitting next to a crofter, a professor of history, or an expert on fish-farming to a priest who had come to say Mass en route to Eigg and had stayed on.

Mrs Cameron-Head’s hospitality which she gave so freely and without publicity, was not confined to a day at Glenfinnan, but flowed through the many local projects and charities she supported. They included bringing fish-farming to the Highlands and starting the present Belford Hospital, where she died in 1994.

The castle was also in constant use by the  Territorial Army and each Sunday, Mass was celebrated for worshippers from around the area in the upstairs chapel.

An enthusiastic Gaelic supporter, she provided a venue for Gaelic youth camps organised by Comunn na h-oigridh and to catechistical and scout camps run for rural children. The presidency for 17 years of the Lochaber Handicapped Association gave her the opportunity to charter carriages from British Rail to bring its members and helpers to Lochailort station from where friends with cars transported them down to the castle for lunch and games.

‘What’s the point of living in a large house if you can’t share it with others less fortunate?’ she would ask.

For these and innumerable other services, she was appointed OBE in 1971. She typically remarked that it was no doubt because she was the only Irishwoman to run a Highland Gathering.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com