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The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

High­land Re­treats

A FEW years ago, I took a party of vis­i­tors from Texas into Loch Aline by boat. Jerk­ing her thumb in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the mas­sive Ard­tor­nish House which dom­i­nates the head of the loch, one of the group turned to me and asked: ‘Is that some kind of fac­tory up there?’

Know­ing how most Tex­ans like the world to think they have ev­ery­thing big­ger and bet­ter than any­one else, I thought to my­self, I’m not let­ting you away with that and replied, rather ca­su­ally: ‘Ac­tu­ally, it is only a hol­i­day cot­tage’ – which it is. ‘Gee,’ was the re­sponse from the lady whose eyes were now stand­ing out like or­gan-stops. ‘If that’s a hol­i­day cot­tage, what’s the main house like?’

Man­sion houses grand­stand­ing on hill­sides or quietly tucked away in se­cluded wooded glens have at­tracted ad­mi­ra­tion and in­trigue for gen­er­a­tions. There are those which em­body Gaelic tra­di­tion and oth­ers that ex­ude Vic­to­rian elitism.

The first are of­ten the liv­ing heart of the lo­cal com­mu­nity and a source of in­spi­ra­tion and ex­cel­lence; the sec­ond, when their own­ers say they have a lit­tle place in Scot­land but don’t get up nearly as much as they would like, be­come a re­minder of an old proverb dat­ing back to the time of the in­fa­mous High­land Clear­ances, about there be­ing noth­ing so slip­pery as the doorstep to the big house.

Of course Ard­tor­nish House, built in 1884-95 on the pro­ceeds of gin and wool by Thomas Valen­tine Smith for sport­ing hol­i­days, is no man­u­fac­tory but an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of a pe­riod coun­try villa of the late Vic­to­rian era still with its orig­i­nal dec­o­rated in­te­ri­ors and fur­nish­ings. Its story, and that of many other ar­chi­tec­tural High­land gems, ap­pears in one of most re­mark­able books pub­lished this mil­len­nium.

High­land Re­treats - the Ar­chi­tec­ture and In­te­ri­ors of Scot­land’s Ro­man­tic North by Mary Miers – High­lander, his­to­rian, writer and the fine arts and books editor of Coun­try Life mag­a­zine – is a new and sump­tu­ous work, beau­ti­fully pro­duced with hun­dreds of stun­ning colour pho­to­graphs by Paul Barker and Si­mon Jauncey.

It would be wrong to in­fer High­land Re­treats is yet an­other cof­fee-ta­ble pro­duc­tion. It isn’t. Un­like Aris­to­tle’s bee, it brings to­gether a vast amount of in­for­ma­tion and images, some never seen be­fore, lov­ingly com­piled and writ­ten in a lively style re­flect­ing the au­thor’s en­thu­si­asm for her sub­ject.

In eight chap­ters il­lus­trated with pho­to­graphs of his­toric paint­ings, draw­ings and sketches, Miers shows how one of the wildest and most beau­ti­ful re­gions of Europe was trans­formed into a sport­ing par­adise by in­dus­trial wealth and old fam­ily money from the south.

Tak­ing Torosay, Ard­tor­nish, Ard­kin­glas and Cour in Argyll, Dun­robin, Kin­lochmoidart, Ard­verikie, Kin­loch [Rum], Sk­ibo, Cor­rour, Mar Lodge, Shewglie and nu­mer­ous oth­ers, the au­thor charts the de­vel­op­ment of High­land shoot­ing and fish­ing lodges which be­gan long be­fore Queen Victoria and Prince Al­bert came to Scot­land. Many large houses were com­mis­sioned by lead­ing ar­chi­tects of the day con­tain­ing art work of na­tional im­por­tance and equipped with the lat­est tech­nol­ogy. Oth­ers were less so.

Lord Malmes­bury, who was twice For­eign Sec­re­tary, in 1852 and 1858, took Ach­nacarry Cas­tle and its sur­round­ing deer for­est on a 15-year lease from its owner, Don­ald Cameron of Lochiel. He recorded with amuse­ment the ex­pe­ri­ence of one of his guests, Sir James Hud­son, the Bri­tish am­bas­sador to Turin, who was obliged to spend a night in a bothy af­ter a day’s deer stalk­ing in Glen­ca­m­a­garry on the south side of Loch Arkaig.

‘He said there were seven men, five dogs, three women and a cat in two small rooms and only three beds for the whole party. The maid asked him with whom he would like to sleep and that he an­swered that if he couldn’t sleep with her, he would pre­fer Ma­coll the stalker. The lat­ter, how­ever, replied, “Me­thinks you had bet­ter sleep alone”. So Sir James had a bed to him­self, as far as I know.’

Mary Miers’s con­clu­sion is bang up to date. ‘For the mak­ers and in­her­i­tors of great wealth, own­ing large swathes of the High­lands is still a pow­er­fully se­duc­tive as­pi­ra­tion. In­creas­ingly, though, the im­pe­tus is not so much the de­sire to buy ac­cess to top sport and so­ci­ety as the ir­re­sistible urge to ma­nip­u­late na­ture.

For those who have ev­ery­thing, play­ing God in the wilds rep­re­sents the last ma­jor chal­lenge.

And so to­day, not only sports­men, but also sport­ing eco-war­riors and other ro­man­tic vi­sion­ar­ies, are drawn in­ex­orably north with dreams of cre­at­ing their own High­land Eden.’

I have only a mi­nor crit­i­cism of this book. None of the mod­ern pho­to­graphs has any peo­ple in them, mak­ing the houses, es­pe­cially their in­te­ri­ors, seem some­what em­balmed and im­per­sonal, like a book of pressed flow­ers – pretty, but dead.

Houses mir­ror their own­ers’ taste and style. It would have been nice to have been able to have seen some­thing of those in­di­vid­u­als who usu­ally stand aside from the or­di­nary course of life.

High­land Re­treats is to be the de­fin­i­tive book on the sub­ject for years to come. Price £45 (Ama­zon £29.25). ISBN: 978- 0- 8478- 4476- O: Riz­zoli New York.

Ard­tor­nish House

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