Highland Retreats: The Architecture and Interiors of Scotland's Romantic North by Mary Miers - review by Fergus Fleming

Fergus Fleming

Northern Highlights

Highland Retreats: The Architecture and Interiors of Scotland's Romantic North


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Highland lodges occupy a peculiar and sometimes baffling architectural niche. Designed primarily as holiday homes, they sprout in the middle of nowhere, often of palatial extent and constructed with every flourish of style. To the modern eye they are sources of wonder. What race of giants could have built on such a scale in so difficult a terrain? Yet there they stand and it would be hard to imagine the landscape without them. Too purposeful to be dismissed as follies, they represent dreams that have somehow found a foothold in reality. It is this rich vein of imagination that Mary Miers explores in her excellent Highland Retreats.

When visitors came to the Highlands in the late 18th century, they did so in search of such voguish concepts as the sublime and the picturesque. They were rewarded amply, for here were majestic moors and mountains where one could wander for days. And if there was a bit of fishing or shooting to be had, then all the better. As far as the lairds were concerned, it was something they had been doing for centuries. If others were willing to pay for the privilege, then let them come. After all, it wasn’t as if there was much other money in the offing, particularly as the Highlands were so difficult to reach.

In 1798, we are told, the journey from London to Edinburgh took just two days by coach – imagine the pace, the organisation, the hurly-burly – but to penetrate the Highlands would have taken many days more across stone tracks with only rudimentary hostels along the way. Luckily, those who undertook the journey were inured to discomfort. Miers tells of people who started in the early morning, hoping to shoot a stag, carrying a handful of food, walking for miles and drinking from whatever burns they came across. If they didn’t corner their quarry they would sleep in the open and carry on the following day. After an outing in the wild they returned to accommodation that was often notable for its simplicity. Let Wordsworth spout about Lake District daffodils; here was Romanticism reduced to its rugged core in a way that could be found nowhere else in Britain.

The appeal was infectious. During the 19th century, more and more Brits went north for a holiday in the heather. Often they built modest houses for themselves. But the floodgates opened in 1852 when Queen Victoria purchased a ‘retreat’ at Balmoral (remarkably, she could afford it only because an eccentric miser had bequeathed her £500,000 in his will). Her notion of Scottishness comprised a flurry of tartan (kilts, carpets, curtains and upholstery), a skirl of bagpipes at every meal and, in the evening, a parade of reels. Purists sneered and called it ‘Balmorality’. Nevertheless, it became a social requisite for her wealthy and status-hungry subjects to follow suit.

Gone was the notion of a simple holiday home. Instead, extraordinary sums of money were thrown at the wilderness, producing ever more grandiose edifices in which plutocrats and their guests stayed during the few summer months known as the Scottish Season. Gone, too, were rickety journeys by coach. Railways now threaded their way through the glens, making the furthest corners accessible from London within twenty-four hours (though the sixth Duke of Portland complained that the service on the Perth–Aberdeen stretch was delayed by the driver stopping to plant his potatoes). Some of the more remote lodges had dedicated railway halts. One such was on the Corrour estate, where Britain’s highest railway station was built in 1894, 1,339 feet above sea level. From there, the guests of its owner, Sir John Stirling Maxwell, were transported by steam yacht to his lodge at the head of Loch Ossian. A group of speculative landowners financed the construction of an entire line to serve the estates between Fort Augustus and Invergarry. With improved access, the bit of shooting enjoyed by earlier tenants escalated into a frenzy.

Nor was the excitement confined to British aristocrats. In 1899 the US steel magnate Andrew Carnegie remodelled Skibo Castle in Sutherland to create an astonishing pile that had two hundred rooms and a glasshouse containing a marble swimming pool (with heated seawater) that could be floored over for hosting balls. But even he was upstaged by the son of a Lancashire textile magnate, George Bullough, who built Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum. An extraordinary confection accessible only by sea, it boasted Adam Revival chimneypieces, Parisian furniture, Jacobean-style panelling, sculpted plasterwork, tiger skins, grand pianos, a billiard table and the latest Shanks bath-cum-showers with six functions (douche, wave, spray, jet, plunge and sitz), not to mention an ‘orchestrion’ that could replicate every instrument in ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’.

Few lodges were so excessive, but by the time the millionaires had finished almost the whole of north Scotland had been appropriated as a playground for the wealthy. At its peak the allure of the Highlands could affect matters of state: Queen Victoria’s advisers complained that it was impossible to administer the empire when she was at Balmoral; Woodrow Wilson stayed at Skibo while determining the shape of postwar Europe. They also attracted crowds of artists and writers: Edwin Landseer was omnipresent; several lodges were designed by the socialist architect Philip Webb; between the wars there was even a Hebridean version of the Bloomsbury group.

Those heady days are over. With the fortunes that created them now exhausted, many lodges either lie in semi-ruin or have been demolished. Those that survive – along with the communities they support – do so thanks to the efforts of a few diligent landowners and in a political climate that is, to say the least, inhospitable. Nevertheless, Corrour Lodge has been reinvented spectacularly in glass, old buildings are being resurrected and new designs are on the drawing board. Dormant for a while, the dream that first impelled people to build in the Highlands appears to be making a comeback.

Outwardly this is a coffee-table book and presumably it will be sold as such. Containing as it does a wealth of period images, complemented by recent photography (Paul Barker and Simon Jauncey deserve plaudits here), it fits the bill perfectly. But that would be doing Highland Retreats an injustice. If you look beyond the pictures, you will find Mary Miers has written an illuminating, nicely poised and rather beautiful tale of a unique episode in British architectural history.

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