Spec­ta­tor

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Les­lie Ged­des-brown re­calls a red­hot rel­a­tive

THE Bodleian Li­braries ex­hi­bi­tion on vol­ca­noes (un­til May 21) has been a great suc­cess among both sci­en­tists and schoolchil­dren, they tell me. And who can not be fas­ci­nated by the real thing seen from a re­spectable dis­tance? I will never for­get Etna with red­hot lava run­ning down its sides.

The Vic­to­ri­ans took ex­plo­ration a bit fur­ther. Hew’s great grand­fa­ther’s cousin James was a Glas­gow chem­i­cal man­u­fac­turer, a bach­e­lor and rich enough to be known as Croe­sus in the fam­ily. Steven­son’s hobby was yacht­ing and he would take par­ties of Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ters round the Mediter­ranean (sounds like fun). On one of these trips, he spot­ted the is­land of Vul­cano, which was lit­tle more than a vol­cano, a few de­pressed con­victs and a Ro­man Catholic priest (who was soon given his march­ing orders) as its only in­hab­i­tants.

With­out any ap­par­ent re­search and only a sin­gle visit, he bought it for £8,000 to use its sul­phur. He then built roads and fac­to­ries for the new in­dus­try, modern- ised the build­ings and ex­tracted the sul­phur from the vol­cano’s crater and tried to har­ness its heat through a steam en­gine.

He built a charm­ing sin­gle­storey house, which the is­landers called the Castello de’ll In­glese. Here, he planted figs and fruit trees and 12,000 Mal­va­sia vines. His Vul­cano wine be­came fa­mous in the fam­ily. A few bot­tles were even found when an old cel­lar was cleared out in 1940. There were also lawns and grass ten­nis courts.

Then, it all went wrong. In 1873, huge clouds of smoke rose from the crater, blue and green flames leapt from its floor and boul­ders were hurled into the air. This didn’t seem to worry Croe­sus, who sus­pended work un­til the vol­cano had qui­etened down.

How­ever, 14 years later, Vul­cano had a grand erup­tion that lasted two years. Eye-wit­nesses tell of huge ex­plo­sions that threw ‘bread-crust bombs’ into the air, one of which crashed through the castello roof. Black ash cov­ered the whole is­land and the sea boiled. Croe­sus hur­riedly left in his yacht and re­turned only once more, saw the dev­as­ta­tion and de­cided to sell. The buyer was an Ital­ian farmer, Gio­vanni Conti, whose great­grand­son still owns the is­land.

Greatly dar­ing, with my hus­band be­ing called Steven­son, we vis­ited the is­land a few years ago. It’s a weird place. In front of the castello, now a disco, is a sul­phurous mud­bath heated by the vol­cano. Once, Croe­sus bathed there for his health and, now, vis­it­ing tourists do the same.

Hew climbed up the crater, past burn­ing sul­phur and smoke, which the ex­perts call ‘mild sol­phatic ac­tiv­ity’. At the top, there was the in­evitable Ger­man woman sun­bathing in a bikini. For weeks af­ter­wards, our clothes smelt of bad eggs.

The vines sur­vived the erup­tion and wine is still be­ing made in Vul­cano.

Be­ing in­ter­ested in an­tiq­ui­ties, James bought a col­lec­tion of an­cient Greek vases and stat­uettes ex­ca­vated on the nearby is­land of Li­pari. This is thought to be the best col­lec­tion out­side Si­cily. He gave them to the Glas­gow Mu­seum, where they can still be seen.

While all this was go­ing on, this ex­tra­or­di­nary Vic­to­rian was also fi­nanc­ing a war against Arab slave traders in what was Nyasa­land (now Malawi). He had never vis­ited sub-sa­ha­ran Africa, which he said was deadly to any­one over 30, so he ran the war from Glas­gow. When things went bad, he was vis­ited in his yacht by Ce­cil Rhodes, who took over.

Croe­sus is not for­got­ten on Vul­cano. Pho­to­graphs of him in a jaunty yacht­ing cap fig­ure on the nap­kins and pro­mo­tional leaflets for the Can­tine Steven­son, the now re­stored castello. There is even an idea to use his Scot­tish coat of arms on the new Vul­cano wine la­bels.

‘With­out any re­search, he bought the is­land for £8,000

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