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Having stayed at Inverailort for 20 years I am often asked about the late Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort (that was her full name) and seeing two letters referring to her in The Oban Times and Lochaber Times last month, I thought many might be interested to know more about her as she was a most unordinary character.
One of her sayings was ‘You never own an estate in the highlands – it owns you, and with it comes a responsibility and a duty to the people who live on it and who are dependent on you’.
It is a pity more landowners did not share her belief and follow suit.
She didn’t think factors were necessary. Yes, you needed a good lawyer and an accountant, but if you required a factor to make day-to-day decisions you perhaps should not own the estate in the first place!
I was pleased to see more than one reference to Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort (1917-1994.) in the Lochaber and Oban Times recently.
Putchie’ Cameron-Head of Inverailort, otherwise known as ‘Mrs CH’, was much loved throughout the Highlands of Scotland for her essential Christian kindness and an ability to lead and persuade by example.
Tall and striking with her tartan suits and black choker, gentle voice and sense of fun, she was born of Irish parents in Glasgow in 1917.
As a child aged two, she, along with her sister, was rescued by the gardener when their house in Ireland was set on fire by the Black and Tans – whom she referred to as ‘The Boys’.
She was a plump child and was nicknamed by her father ‘Putchie’ after the Michelin Tyre Man, a name that stayed with her for life.
Inverailort Castle – her husband Francis Cameron-Head’s home at the head of Loch Ailort – had been requisitioned by the Armed Forces for the training of commandos under Colonel David Stirling of SAS fame.
When the couple married, the writer Seton Gordon was Francis Cameron-Head best man.
The young couple went to live at Dunain Park outside Inverness until 1945, when they were able to return to their beloved Inverailort, where she made the big house (which she often referred to as looking like a broken-down Victorian biscuit factory) into the heart of the local community – which these places should be, but so seldom are these days.
Together with Francis, who died in 1957, she started the Glenfinnan Highland Gathering in 1945 at the head of Loch Shiel; sadly, she did not live to celebrate its 50th anniversary or the 250th anniversary of the Raising of Prince Charlie’s Standard.
The hospitality of her convenor’s tent at the Gathering was legendary. As many as 400 visitors, family and friends during the day enjoyed ‘hangman’s blood’ – a dangerous cocktail of whisky, brandy, gin, cider and other ingredient, lunch and afternoon tea.
For more than a year she herself delivered the mail to Glenuig in a small launch until her vigorous lobbying caused the Lochailort -Kinlochmoidart road to be completed.
When the Post Office closed its local office in the Lochailort railway station she converted her morning room into a sub-branch, a role that it fulfilled until her death. Her library became the public library and the ballroom hosted summer camps for children of many charities.
The house attracted a stream of guests from all backgrounds and nationalities. Whether you were seated ‘above’ or ‘below the flowers’ in her large dining-room full of Cameron heirlooms, you were assured of an interesting and diverse mix.
She was a major force in the political life of the Highlands, and many were grateful for her advice and influence.
Her projects were legion; they included bringing fish farming to the Highlands, in Unilever’s Marine Harvest Ltd, which leased part of Loch Ailort and were given land and buildings at a peppercorn rent; the presidency for 17 years of the Lochaber Handicapped Association; and helping to raise money for the new Belford hospital in Fort William (where she died on 22 June 1994). She was also a generous supporter of the local Catholic community. She was chairman of the Inverness County Council Social Services Committee for several years, and also Deputy Lieutenant of the county and a Justice of the Peace.
For these and innumerable other public 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 Games!
There is an old Gaelic proverb that says there is nothing more slippery than the doorstep of the big house. If this is true then Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort must have spent a good deal of time on her hands and knees making sure that hers had a better adhesion.
No wonder that when she died it was said a bright light went out in Lochaber.