A Hebridean romance
Mary Miers tells the story of a Victorian shooting lodge owned by the same family for 147 years and we publish here, for the first time, photographs taken by Country Life shortly before the house and its contents were sold
Mary Miers tells the story of Torosay Castle on the Isle of Mull, a romantic Victorian shooting lodge
On August 24, 1912, 600 Macleans gathered on a grassy promontory on the Sound of Mull to celebrate the return of their 14thcentury clan seat into Maclean ownership. Several generations of chiefs had dreamt of regaining their ancestral heartland, but only the previous year had the dream been—in part, at least—realised when the elderly Col Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean, 10th Baronet and 26th Chief, bought the ruin of Duart Castle with a sliver of ground (later extended) from its then owner, Walter Murray Guthrie, a week before his death.
now, as Sir Fitzroy hosted the first ever modern clan gathering, he read out a letter from Guthrie’s widow: ‘As the day draws near for you to formally hoist your banner on the Castle of Duart, so long the property of your ancestors, I feel strongly that I ought to change the name of my house and estate to what I believe it was formerly called, ie Torosay [after the parish—torr rasach, meaning shrub-clad hill]. I wish to leave the name of Duart to you alone, who have certainly the senior right to it. I shall be glad if you will announce this desire on my part to your clansmen.’
Old Duart (Fig 5) is a leitmotif in the story of Torosay Castle, the Victorian mansion built across the bay in 1856–58, which adopted the name of Duart in the 1860s, and which Mrs Guthrie now renamed. Following the forfeiture of Maclean lands to the Earls of Argyll in the late 17th century, the old castle had been relegated to a military garrison and later a cowshed. Simultaneously, under the influence of Picturesque taste, it acquired a new role as a romantic eye catcher pivotal to the relandscaping of the estate.
Restored by the Glasgow architect Sir J. J. Burnet in 1911–16 (initially the intention had been just to consolidate it), the castle became again a clan rallying point and the home of a Maclean chief, while continuing to play a vital part in the architectural ensemble of Torosay, whose relationship to its gardens and wider landscape is its most memorable feature.
The story of Torosay exemplifies that of many Hebridean and West Highland estates colonised by incomers in the 19th century. It is bound up with the sweeping changes that transformed the pattern of landownership at a time of economic crisis, when many families were forced to sell their hereditary lands. In Mull in the 1820s, there was a ‘dance of estates’ as properties changed hands, initially between interconnected local families.
Duart, including the farms of Torgormaig, Achnacraig and Achnacroish, was the jewel
in the crown of the Argylls’ lands on Mull, which the profligate 6th Duke became obliged to sell. In 1821, Charles Macquarrie bought it for £35,000 with the intention of selling it on at a profit so he could buy back his ancestral island of Ulva. This he did in 1825, when Duart passed to the first non-gaelic speaker to own land in Mull.
Col Alexander Campbell was the son of a Glasgow sugar merchant descended from a cadet branch of the Campbells of Argyll. Having served in wars all over the Empire and inherited the Possil estate in Lanarkshire, he threw himself into the role of improving landlord. At Duart, he introduced new agricultural methods, created the wooded landscape setting of what was then the main resi- dence—pretty Achnacroish House—and employed a gamekeeper.
Unlike many other merchants and speculators attracted by the relatively low cost of land—who then evicted their multiple tenantry and introduced profitable large-scale sheep farmers—campbell endeared himself to the local community. He and his wife supported the kirk and, with their five daughters, did much to help the islanders at a time of unremitting poverty and oppression.
Having weathered the economic storms of the 1830s, Campbell died in 1846, leaving his property to his only son. John Campbell—‘the Dragoon’—set about developing the deer forest and replacing the Georgian house on his Mull estate. With the Stevensons’ pier at Craignure newly built, he was able to import suitable materials to build a smart new mansion by the fashionable Edinburgh architect David Bryce. Achnacroish House, as it was then known, functioned as a seasonal residence and shooting lodge.
Bryce, a former pupil and partner of William Burn, had built up a successful practice best known for designing or remodelling country houses and castles in the style later dubbed the ‘Scotch Baronial’— an inventive reinterpretation of late-medieval buildings that has become synonymous with his name.
Few sites lend themselves more dramatically to this architecture of romantic revival and Bryce responded by raising the house up over a full basement and orientating it to
Fig 1 preceding pages: The south front, with its terraced gardens attributed to Lorimer. Fig 2 above: The entrance lobby, with stairs leading up to the main hall on the piano nobile
Fig 3: The dining room, furnished with a set of Edinburgh Regency chairs and a sideboard original to the room. The paintings are by Sir John Leslie: a portrait of his daughter Olive and A Sermon, a monk preaching in the Roman campagna, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853