Angus MacDonald – A Rum deal

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A gorgeous castle on a Hebridean island with a world-class sea view and a decent skelp of land for sale for possibly as little as a £1. Tempted?

As reported by The Oban Times last week, NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) is selling Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum, with the sales particulars being shown to a few choice potential buyers by Scottish Development International.

The particulars would have you salivating at the beautiful rooms, impressive furniture and jaw dropping beauty of both the exterior of the castle and scenery.

The brochure reveals the castle is in need of repair, but is ‘wind and water tight’. Perhaps these words will have set an alarm bell tinkling in the back of your mind. The truth is the building has quite extensive wet and dry rot, the chimneys need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and a substantial, multi-million pound restoration project is urgently required.

The photographs are misleading, having been taken well over a decade ago. Some of the rooms now have collapsed ceilings and the furniture is deep in dust and debris.

In 1957 the 10,000 hectare island, the castle — then in good condition — and all its contents were bought by the government from Lady Bullough. At that time the population on the island was about 60, recently falling to a low of 22.

In 2003 the castle came runner-up in BBC2’s Restoration series, attracting 143,000 votes. Griff Rhys Jones described Kinloch as a ‘victim of bureaucratic neglect’ and Prince Charles unsuccessfully lent his weight to a refurbishment plan.

The heritage part of Scottish Natural Heritage obviously did not extend to taking responsibility for the upkeep of a rare ‘A’ Category building, which has been on the ‘Buildings at Risk register’ since 2004. Historic Environment Scotland (formerly Historic Scotland) which has a remit to insist on the preservation of historically important buildings, has clearly given a free pass to its fellow Scottish Government agency. In 2019 a report concluded that there was just 18 months left to save the building.

The Kinloch Castle Friends Association was set up 25 years ago under the chairmanship of Professor Ewan Macdonald, who has been a member of the Rum Community Trust. They take work parties to the castle and two years ago in frustration, put forward to Scottish Natural Heritage a fully costed proposal to take over the building, raise the £10m required, manage the restoration and reopen as a hostel, with a café and self-catering apartments. The offer was rejected because there was no guarantee of funding and doubt about the viability of the hospitality business.

In my opinion Kinloch Castle is a good opportunity for a hospitality business. These days many holiday makers seek a different experience — remoteness, adventure, living history. The island of Rum is the most beautiful and varied of all the Hebridean islands, with its massive volcanic mountains, endless sandy beaches, and assorted wildlife, from sea eagles and Manx shearwater to red deer and dolphins. Hill walkers, mountain bikers, academics, kayakers and artists would give their right arm to visit Rum and stay in the beautiful castle.

Public ownership has failed Kinloch Castle, and the population of Rum is a fraction of what it should be. It must be hoped that a perfect buyer will emerge with a love of the west of Scotland, pride in ownership of a unique, historically important building, and deep enough pockets to carry through the expensive restoration. We have a final chance to ignite economic regeneration and trigger a significant population increase of this island.

Many thousands of concerned people are craving a good outcome.