Saturday, June 09, 2007

Balnagown Castle, Seat of Clan Ross

"Hells Bells", wrote Sir Charles Ross from New York to his factor at Balnagown , "At the moment I am trying to put the United States of America on its feet. This is a big enough task, and I cannot afford to be distracted by a loafer like you who either cannot read, or is suffering from an alcoholic overdose."

The Earldom of Ross had played an important role in Scottish history. Sir Charles was the last of the Rosses of Balnagown. He had fallen out with many people in the 1930s, particularly with the British Government. His invention the 'Ross Rifle' had been an enormous success in the Boer War, but a disaster in the mud of the Great War and the small issue of tax had still not been dealt with. As a result he was in self imposed exile in the USA (and on his third marriage).

He could not return to his Scotland but his ashes made it following his death in 1942. His widow remarried, but she and her new husband could not sustain Balnagown which fell into a state of decay.

The property was bought by Mohamed Al-Fayed in 1972. He has spent some 20 million pounds on the castle which is now beautifully maintained both outside and in. Some members of the clan are upset that he has incorrectly displayed the crest of the clan chief on the gates. Technically of course they are right, but I would suggest that the renaissance of the castle is a fair quid pro quo.

So it was Mohammed Al-Fayed whom I asked for permission to take Judy Neville, nee Ross, from North Carolina to see her clan castle today. We saw William Wallace's Chair which looked as if it had indeed seen 717 winters, we saw the famous Trophy Room and the fabulous dining room, dominated by a full length portrait of Sir Charles Ross, the malign genius who, extraordinarily, sued his mother for the mismanagement of the Balnagown Estate during his minority!

I am often asked why we let so many of our castles crumble away unprotected. The answer is that there are, or were, about 3000 castles in Scotland - more per head of the population than anywhere else in the world - and the money to stabilise, far less restore them all, just isn't there. Happily there are a few people like Mohammed Al-Fayed, who are prepared to invest heavily for no financial gain.

I started with a quote from Sir Charles. I end with another, this to a farm manager: "I employ Miss Chadwick as my financial secretary. You are going into her office and fuddling her brain up with manure for Garty Farm. I telephone her from New York to talk about finance. What happens? Her head is cluttered up with dung and I get no sense out of her. Keep your dung to yourself or I will come over and rub your damn nose in it."

If you would like to be shown round your clan castle then just drop me an email.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Clan MacNaughton and Dunderave Castle

It was a gesture of gratitude in 1222 when King Alexander II gifted lands round Loch Awe and Loch Fyne to Malcolm MacNachten. Little could the king know then that he was seeding this small clan right by the lion's den.

After breakfast at Thistle House this morning we looked across to that den. Shimmering in the morning mist across Loch Fyne was Inveraray Castle, home to the Duke of Argyll and seat of Clan Campbell, still small in 1222 but destined, by conquest and political astuteness, to become a dominant clan in Scotland and to control the MacNachten lands.

But it was reportedly neither battle nor politics that lost the MacNachtens their ancient seat of Dunderave Castle at the head of Loch Fyne. It was the demon drink. John, the last MacNaughtan laird intended to wed the younger daughter of Sir James Campbell of nearby Ardkinglas, but next day he woke up in bed with, and married to, the wrong daughter. They say Campbell pressed MacNaughtan to an overenjoyment of his Loch Fyne whisky. Anyway, John fled to Ireland with his love, the younger daughter. Dunderave passed bloodlessly to the Campbells and the MacNaughton clan chief still lives in Northern Ireland.

Dunderave is now owned by an American eye surgeon generous enough to allow my clients and me to see round his beautifully furnished castle, despite being there on holiday himself. We saw the famous 'Red Banner Room' and pictures of the castle before and after its restoration by Robert Lorimer in 1911. Afterwards there were stunning views down Loch Fyne.

It was a memorable experience for Grant and Barbara MacNaughton from New Zealand. And more was to come as we headed north to Loch Awe. Under blue Argyll skies, we took a boat out to Fraoch Eilean to investigate the oldest standing castle of the MacNaughtons, then we chugged across to Eilean Innishail, ancient burial place of the clan. Innishail is also the current burial place of the Campbell chiefs; I was interested to see the gravestone of the 12th Duke of Argyll who died in 2001... but didn't trouble to point it out.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Last Wolf

There are monuments all over the Highlands commemorating the 'last wolf', but it is generally agreed that the last wolf was actually killed by a man called MacQueen on the upper reaches of the River Findhorn in the year 1743. A lone wolf had attacked a woman and her children so the young laird and clan chief, Angus Maclntosh of Moy, arranged a "tainchel" or gathering to hunt it down. MacQueen, a well-known hunter, was ordered to attend; having asked a few questions about the alleged attack and sightings of the wolf, he promised to be there.

On the day Maclntosh and the local men gathered promptly at Moy Hall, but MacQueen made a casual and belated entrance, dogs at his heel. He was upbraided for his lateness by a scowling Maclntosh.
“Ciod e a chabhag?” “What was the hurry?” came the nonchalant response. MacQueen then lifted his plaid and drew forth the bloody head of the wolf, which he tossed at the laird's feet.

I passed the place a couple of weeks ago. But sadly the Moy Hall of that day burnt to the ground in 1800. It had, unlike so many others, survived the Battle of Culloden and its aftermath. The clan, recruited by his glamorous wife Anne, was 'out' at Culloden, but Angus MacIntosh himself (most strangely to our 21st century eyes) was on the opposing side having become a Captain in the British Army. Not a bad call as it meant that his home was safe.

The wolf would not have believed his eyes today - the green
flood plain of the Upper Findhorn was covered in several hundred deer, almost delicate in their part grown velvet covered antlers!

Further up near Coignafern the river was alive with noisy waders but we failed to see the small herd of wild goats that is normally there or even the golden eagles so beloved of landlord Sigrid Rausing, millionairess and enthusiasatic environmentalist.

Further north at Alladale estate, another landowner with plenty spare cash, Paul Lister has big plans for his 23,000 acre estate. He is going to reintroduce elk, lynx, bear, bison and... wolves.

Goodness knows what MacQueen would have made of it all!