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Few places on earth can claim a link to an elite killing squad and Jemima Puddle-Duck, or at least one that isn’t a classified government secret.
The remote Roshven peninsula between Lochailort and Glenuig in Moidart has one such rare connection. Now the lucky buyer of an 18-acre house plot there, for a mere £450,000, can boast about it over dinner, backdropped by a stunning 270 degree sea view of Rum, Eigg, Muck and the Cuillin of Skye.
Over the years, Roshven’s wilderness has attracted a curious bunch of humans to its heather clad knowes, pine and ancient oak woodland, rocky foreshore and secluded sandy beaches.
The as-yet unbuilt four-bedroom house, which already has planning permission and an architect’s design with curved towers and turrets to fit in with existing Roshven Estate buildings, is called Commando Rock.
The site’s last owner named it so after the tree-trunk ladders, now long gone, that the famous green-bereted special forces soldiers had left behind on a dramatic rocky outcrop called Creag na Speireig, the ‘Crag of the Sparrow Hawk’, during training in the Second World War.
A century earlier, the Crag of the Sparrow Hawk was the scene of a more peaceful covert mission, to capture the ways of the Highlands’ wild and rural life in paint and pencil.
In 1854 the Roshven Estate became home to one of Victorian Britain’s most popular illustrators Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn, and her husband Hugh, a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University.
During her life there, Blackburn created a priceless legacy of paintings covering every facet of the life and customs of her time, depicting local people going about their everyday work: cutting peat, gathering bracken, harvesting and making hay.
The best of her work is to be found among her paintings of Roshven’s wildlife. Once she had been a pupil of Sir Edwin Landseer, who declared that ‘in portraying animals, I have nothing to teach her’.
She was a keen observer of bird behaviour, once sketching the ejection of nestling meadow pipits by a blind and naked hatchling common cuckoo – a phenomena earlier described as impossible by the naturalist Charles Waterton. Charles Darwin refers to Blackburn’s observations in his sixth edition of On the Origin of Species.
She drew compulsively, illustrating 27 books in her lifetime, most famously Birds Drawn From Nature in 1868. This was the book given to a young Beatrix Potter, which further impelled her blossoming devotion to wildlife.
Potter recalled years later, in her journal: ‘I remember so clearly — as clearly as the brightness of rich Scottish sunshine on the threadbare carpet — the morning I was ten years old — and my father gave me Mrs Blackburn’s book of birds drawn from nature, for my birthday present. I remember the dancing expectation and knocking at their bedroom door, it was a Sunday morning before breakfast. The book was bound in scarlet with a gilt edge. I danced about the house with pride [that] never palled.’
The two women met in 1891 and 1894. Potter found her heroine ‘a broad intelligent observer with a keen eye for the beautiful in nature. I consider that Mrs Blackburn’s birds do not on average stand on their legs so well as Bewick’s, but he is her only possible rival’. She was as impressed by Blackburn’s personality as by her painting: ‘I have not been so much struck by anyone for a long time,’ Potter wrote in her journal.
The botanist Mary Noble argues persuasively that Potter modelled Jemima Puddle-duck, at least in name if not ornithological behaviour, on Jemima Blackburn.
Now that this dream coastal retreat on a private peninsula is under offer, only time will tell what a new owner will bring to Roshven’s unique story.