When Death’s dark stream I ferry o’er,
A time that surely shall come,
In Heav’n itself I’ll ask no more,
Than just a Highland welcome.
In his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell elucidated the many indignities of life for a boy at an English prep school in the 1910s. One of the lesser humiliations surrounds what Orwell termed a “cult of Scotland” that “pervaded” grim St Cyprian’s school. “Our picture of Scotland was made up of burns, braes, kilts, sporrans, claymores, bagpipes, and the like, all somehow mixed up with the invigorating effects of porridge, Protestantism, and a cold climate.” These heroic visions of the wild North, bequeathed to the Edwardians from romantic Georgian and Victorian views of Scotland, were—typically for Orwell—signs of something much more sinister: class distinctions. “The real reason for the cult of Scotland was that only very rich people could spend their summers there. . . . Scotland was a private paradise which a few initiates could talk about and make outsiders feel small.”
Mary Miers, in her exemplary new book on the great houses of the Scottish Highlands, takes a justifiably rosier view of Scotland. While not ignoring the book’s context, which she identifies as “the appropriation of the North of Scotland as a playground for the rich,” Miers celebrates the long-overlooked architectural achievement in the Highlands. Doubtless this neglect derives, to a degree, from a lack of sympathy (if not outright hostility) on the part of architectural historians for the stereotypical “tweedy buffer” who, having taken a season’s shooting or stalking, one summer decides to build a chimera cobbled together from architectural details spied elsewhere. (Think of Pope’s lampooning of the “imitating [fool]/ . . . Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door.”)
The truth, is, as Miers shows in her detailed study, much more nuanced. The author’s employment as an editor at Country Life has clearly served her well. She avoids the cant of academic art historians while still approaching the work in a scholarly fashion. Miers’s project is, therefore, one of reclamation. Aiming to correct misconceptions, she takes as her focus “the seasonal residence correctly termed shooting lodge . . . . No domestic building is better placed to convey the mood and drama of the wildest landscapes and this book charts its architectural development, from Picturesque rustic retreat and Scotch Baronial fantasy to modern villa and minimalist eco-lodge.” And so from a fairly narrow starting point, Miers unfolds a fascinating tale, one that has furthered our understanding of the architecture of the Scottish Highlands.
Along the way we are introduced to an array of entertaining characters. I’m partial to the so-called “Sobieski Stuarts,” a pair of Welsh chancers who claimed to be Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mislaid grandsons. The two became the toast of Highland society, building a lodge on the Earl of Moray’s land at Findhorn and a Baronial fantasy castle on Lord Lovat’s Eilean Aigas. The latter incorporated “a twin-throned hall filled with ‘antique’ weapons, banners, hunting trophies, tartan, Gothic furnishings, and Jacobite memorabilia,” all of which must have thrilled A. W. N. Pugin, who visited in 1842.
In the Highlands, remoteness was no excuse for parsimony.
Miers does a masterly job in evoking Highland life during its long flowering following the end of the Jacobite threat after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. One of the primary attractions was the annual slate of ghillies’ balls, where each estate’s employees and visitors would dance reels through the long summer nights. Georgiana Swinton, born a Sitwell, nostalgically recalled her yearly stays at the Gordons’ Kinrara in the 1830s: “I remember well the beautiful dancing of Cluny Macpherson [descendant of a famed Jacobite chieftain of the same name], and our difficulty in avoiding the invitations of the old shepherd, who was not over-clean.” By the 1850s, it was recognized that Scotland had indeed been given over to the English. The Inverness Courier described the Highland Season as “much more an assembly of English sportsmen and Southern tourists than of the aristocracy of the Highlands,” and at the Northern Meeting, a public show of Highland games and entertainments, “the kilt predominated among the Saxon part of the meeting, [with] the majority of the Highlanders present . . . wearing the less picturesque garb of the South.”
In the Highlands, especially once the English arrived in force, remoteness was no excuse for parsimony. Duchess Jane Gordon entertained at Kinrara on a prolific scale. Cognac, rosé champagne, and sherry were delivered by Fraser Wilson of Inverness, while delicacies came all the way from London, courtesy of Mackay & Co, “purveyors of Truffles etc to hrh the Prince of Wales.” William Dawson, a Piccadilly grocer, was known to send up “pickled tongues, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmegs, macaroons, lemon pickle, milk chocolate, Turkish coffee, raisins, cocoa, and Indian almonds.”
Much impetus behind the fashion surrounding Scotland must be ascribed to those arch Scotophiles Victoria and Albert, whose long stays and significant improvements at Balmoral, on the River Dee, initiated a vogue among the English for journeying northwards during the summer. “Scotch air, Scotch people, Scotch hills, Scotch rivers, Scotch woods, are all far preferable to those of any other nation in or out of this world,” so Victoria said in 1849.
And it was Balmoral that dictated the prevailing style of decoration in the Highlands, at least as interpreted by later practitioners. It is true that, as Miers puts it, “architecturally Balmoral was relatively uninfluential,” owing to its status as a shooting lodge (albeit an elaborate one) rather than a Baronial seat. But its main influence was in the sphere of decor: the fashion for tartan everything and “glazed chintzes sprigged with thistles,” which one wag noted were “in such abundance that they would rejoice the heart of a donkey.”
Queen Victoria idealized the Highlands, going so far as to take up Gaelic, in what George Scott-Moncrieff later called an expression of “Balmorality”, which Miers identifies as that “patronising attitude and ridiculous pastiche of incomers playing at being feudal chieftains.” But while some locals were upset by the din caused by continuing royal patronage at Deeside, Victoria’s love for the Highlands proved a lasting boon to the region. With the arrival of the railroad in 1866, tourism became a major draw, and for the new rich—whose fortunes were minted by the burgeoning industrial revolution—“the possession of a deer forest was now the ultimate status symbol. Anybody aspiring to be part of fashionable society had to do the Highland Season, while all over the North shooting boxes were being replaced by mansions for entertaining on a lavish scale.” Victoria’s passion for Scotland may have been suspect, but it had lasting architectural ramifications, spurring the great later-nineteenth-century boom in house-building in the North.
The extension of the rail to Scotland allowed access to the North’s untamed reaches. London was connected to Inverness by 1858, and by the end of the century trains could leave Euston the previous evening and arrive in the Highland capital by 1:30 the next afternoon. “Grouse Specials” were advertised, and sporting parties made up the majority of the traffic, conveying complete households: sportsmen, servants, horses, and dogs to their treasured moors. “The deerstalker express,” as the sleeper service became known, allowed for the building of grand houses in ever-more-remote places, populating the glens with houses presented in a Scottish vernacular, but containing most of the comforts of London life.
Remote but comfortable is the phrase to describe the now-imperiled Kinloch Castle, on the remote Hebridean Isle of Rum. Kinloch follows the general rule of Highland architecture: the less Scottish the owner, the more “Scottish” the house. Miers rejects the old canard that the builders of Kinloch were paid an extra shilling and change to wear kilts while working, but says that the tale “sums up the unbridled fantasy of an Englishman’s island paradise with its own invented tartan, bagpiper, and toy fort.” George Bullough, who inherited the entire Isle of Rum from his textile magnate father in 1897, imported everything via ship: deer and birds, seventy acres of plantings, 250,000 tons of west coast topsoil for the golf course and Japanese garden, and all that Isle of Arran sandstone for the bartizaned house. The result is a turreted apparition, rising almost out of the dunes and containing exceptionally fashionable interiors operating in a sort of Jacobean pastiche with plenty of stag heads. As Ian Gow has shown, the Scotch Baronial interior was a nebulous thing, and owed as much to Jacobean antecedents—with heavily carved wood and tapestried walls—as to any genuine Scottish idiom.
No price was too high for the appearance of Scottishness, especially to an Englishman.
No price was too high for the appearance of Scottishness, especially to an Englishman. And the more reference to deer, that noble beast of the glens, the better. Stag heads as a decorative interior element are well known. But antlers could also be used on the exterior of Highland houses, as at the Duke of Hamilton’s Dougarie Lodge, on the Isle of Arran, where the whitewashed exterior bore over two hundred pairs. These exterior antler decorations, which are new to me, have something of what Horace Walpole called, in a different context, the “true rust of the Barons’ War.” By the late nineteenth century, the cult of the stag had pervaded Scottish architecture, stretching beyond merely the Highlands; Miers posits that it was by then “not uncommon to find stag heads presiding over an elegant Adam interior, as at Newliston near Edinburgh, where the walls were oak-grained to enhance the effect.” It must have been a winsome, if slightly discordant sight.
Keen architectural insights such as the above are to be found throughout. Miers calls Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle, on the Dornoch Firth in Scotland’s far North, a “parody of a Highland Baronial stronghold, which doubled as a cosmopolitan country house.” With its turrets, towers, machicolations, and fortified parapets bearing characteristic merlons and embrasures—parody is just the word. “The effect is that of a grand hotel, the architecture purchased by the yard,” said John Gifford in the Pevsner Guide for the Highlands and Islands. How fitting, then, that Skibo has become a glorified hotel under the guise of a private club. The impression given by Skibo is one of overwhelming, indeed parodic, Scottishness, reinforced to the last by a sign over the main gate reading “Will ye no come back again,” echoing the famous Jacobite anthem “Bonnie Charlie.” Whereas once Skibo sold Scottishness to that Scot-turned-American-turned-Scot Carnegie, now Skibo sells Scottishness to anyone who can get past the membership committee and is willing to part with £25,000 up front and £8,000 per annum.
To her credit, Miers doesn’t shy away from recent political developments and the negative impact they will surely have on her treasured Highlands. The Scottish independence movement has dulled enthusiasm for the purchase of Highland sporting estates, with prospective lairds jittery over the thought of an independent Scotland ruled by the Scottish National Party and wholeheartedly embracing the E.U.’s “ever closer union.” The redistributionist, potentially confiscatory Land Reform Act of 2015/2016, passed in the Scottish Parliament, surely has others spooked. The bill provides for the forcible sale of land for the use of sustainable development, should the owner of the land be unwilling. This is the sort of thing pursued by authoritarian regimes (think of the Kenyan politicians now promising “land rationalization,” a euphemism for government-sponsored theft) and has understandably damaged the market.
Although Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and the leader of the snp, has tabled the prospect of a second independence referendum for the moment, the specter looms. Despite a sound defeat in 2014 and the loss of twenty-one MPs in the June 2017 snap election, Sturgeon recently indicated that she would like to put independence to a vote again some time before the next slated Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. No doubt she is encouraged by the overwhelming (if unrecognized) vote for Catalonian independence. But even if Sturgeon is foiled in another referendum, as is expected, the climate for country landowners in Scotland looks unlikely to improve. Sturgeon has announced that despite a 2016 campaign promise not to levy an increased income tax in Scotland, she would consider raising the rate soon. This will not cheer current landowners—who already shoulder the burden of taxes in the economically depressed country—or prospective buyers. Nor will the Scottish government’s recent commitment to a ban on fracking.
But even with uncertain political winds, the Highlands continue to prove a draw. Where traditional owners have fled, unconventional ones have appeared. In 2016 the Qatari royal family purchased Eilean Aigas House, an early 2000s confection designed by ldn Architects to look as if it had been successively built up since the 1680s, thereby incorporating Baroque and Palladian designs within a single structure. (There’s something particularly delicious about attempting to avoid the parvenu trap of erecting a gleaming pile in a long-settled place by consciously spending large sums of money on a house to make it look like it hasn’t been built all at once.) Where Sassenachs once roamed, playing dress-up in rough tweeds, now Qataris reign. Other new owners are seemingly less baleful. Second only to the Duke of Buccleuch among Scottish landowners is the Danish fashion entrepreneur Anders Holch Povlsen, who has given over a major portion of his many thousands of acres to reforestation and eco-tourism.
Where traditional owners have fled, unconventional ones have appeared.
Even those without the means to join the 432 private individuals and companies who own almost half of Scottish land may enjoy traditional Highland pursuits. Sporting estates regularly host “Macnab” days where the aspiring sportsman can have his hand at bagging a salmon, stag, and brace of grouse in a single day, thereby taking off the plot of Buchan’s novel John Macnab. The “Royal Scotsman” train has been refurbished, and for £4,500 riders can enjoy five all-inclusive days onboard a luxuriously appointed train (a rolling Balmoral) visiting some exceptional Highland sights: Eilean Donan, Ballindalloch, the Rothiemurchis estate, and Glamis Castle (“Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more”).
But whereas the splendors of the Highlands were once thought to belong to merely some few initiates, anyone with a check to write can now be a laird for a week. And even without ready cash, the Highlands still beckon. A 2003 law enshrined the traditional Scottish “right to roam”: all land is essentially public to traipse across. And splendid scenery is always free within the Cairngorms National Park. Setting out from Tomintoul, the highest town in the Highlands, one can walk for miles along the Speyside Way, a marked, groomed path following the famous whisky-giving river, here part of the Glenlivet Estate. Through high grasses leading to heathered hills one can spot cattle, hare, deer, and, during the nesting season, all manner of waders: redshank, lapwing, snipe, and the rare curlew, which I had the good fortune to spot while on a stroll this past July. Upon reaching the viewpoint at the top of the path, one can peer out over the winding, silty banks of a Spey tributary to glimpse a derelict yellow stone shooting box in the distance—the quintessential Highland view, all free of charge.
Miers has given us essential insight into the enduring allure of a place both wild and civilized. Beyond the book’s scholarly bona fides, it is presented in an attractive format, merging the large illustrations of a coffee-table book with robust captions and evocative quotations. The tome will not soon be surpassed. This book shows that the architectural and cultural patrimony of the Highlands is very much worth fighting for, even as the snp has designs on remaking the Highlands in its own collectivist image. One wishing to get a sense of la belle vie in the Highlands should naturally consult Buchan’s John Macnab and Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling. To that list of essential reading can be added Mary Miers’s Highland Retreats.
1 Highland Retreats: The Architecture and Interiors of Scotland’s Romantic North, by Mary Miers; Rizzoli, 288 pages, $65.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 20
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