“It’s a pity that the castle isn’t open. I wouldn’t have minded seeing inside it”, says the First Mate.
“It’s those turrets again”, I joke. “You just want to see what it is like living in a house with turrets.”
“Nah, not really”, she responds. “Too much cleaning. How do you suppose they kept a place that size clean and tidy?”
We are sitting outside the community café in the sun on the island of Rum, after an exhilarating sail over from Mallaig. It is Sunday, and nothing is open on the island, although we have been told that the small shop at the side of the community hall will open at 1700 for a while. Inside the community hall, a group of people are playing a board game. They are concentrating so hard they hardly notice we are there.
“There were 40 staff employed in the castle at one stage”, I say, remembering something I had read somewhere. “And 14 of them were gardeners. All right if you can afford it, I suppose.”
The castle in question is Kinloch Castle. It was built by one of the previous owners of Rum, George Bullough, who had also built the mausoleum on the west coast of the island we had seen on the way to Canna the previous week. With money no object, he had imported red sandstone from Annan, soil for the gardens from Ayrshire, and had employed 300 masons and craftsmen from Lancashire, all of whom were even given extra wages to wear kilts. The castle had every modern convenience of the time – electricity generated by a hydro scheme, central heating, and even an orchestrion, a musical instrument that could replicate an orchestra! There was also a golf course, bowling green, squash court and heated greenhouses. In today’s money, it took around £15 million to build. All of this was for a residence that was only used for three months during the summer, with the Bulloughs spending the rest of the year at their other properties in Perthshire, London, and on the Continent. The local people were treated like peasants – apparently they were required to get off the road and hide when anyone from the castle went past. Visitors to the island were also discouraged – so much so, it became known as the ‘Forbidden Isle’.
On the way back to the pier, we meet the couple who are from the one other boat anchored in the Loch. He tells us that his name is David Rainsbury (‘Like Sainsbury’s, but with an ‘R’ rather than an ‘S’, he says), and that he writes articles and provides photographs for the Practical Boat Owner magazine. Things are not as good as they used to be when they would pay his flights and accommodation to go our to exotic places to test a brand new boat for a week. Now he is expected to pay for his own flights, as the perk is having free accommodation on the boat for a week. It would be even worse with Brexit, he thinks, as he won’t be able to work in an EU country any more. We have a good chat and set the world to rights. They are heading south, back to the Liverpool, where they keep their boat.
We leave Loch Scrisort the next morning and motor until we catch the wind from the south west. It is gusting at 30 knots, so we reef the sails heavily. Even so, with only a tiny amount of sail out, we whizz along at nearly 7 knots.
Soon we are passing Kilmory Bay on our port side. It reminds me of the book I read earlier in the year, A Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh, on the great botanical hoax carried out on Rum by a John Heslop-Harrison. Despite being already a well-recognised professor of botany, it turned out that he secretly took seedings of rare plants to the island, planted them near Kilmory Bay, and then later, organised expeditions there to ‘discover’ them. Some of his colleagues became highly suspicious at the plants turning up where they shouldn’t, and one of them even visited Rum clandestinely and found evidence that the plants in question had been hand planted with a trowel and even that clumps of them contained weeds from Heslop-Harrison’s own back garden!
One might well ask why he had perpetrated the hoax, but it seems that he had wanted to gain ‘an immortal place in the annals of British botany’ by proving a theory he had had that ice had not covered the Scottish islands during the Ice Ages. But that doesn’t really explain why an eminent academic would want to risk his reputation and legacy to try and prove such an outlandish idea when there is so much evidence to the contrary. Surely he must have known that he would be found out eventually? A rum affair indeed.
It starts to rain heavily. Even though we have the bimini up for shelter, the rain comes in from the side and very quickly the cockpit is soaking wet. The First Mate takes shelter inside, promising to make a hot cup of soup for me if I stay out. Someone has to be on watch, so I grin and bear it, looking forward to my hot soup.
An hour later, I am still waiting. “Sorry”, calls the First Mate. “I forgot.” In the old days, crew were keelhauled for less, I remind myself through chattering teeth.
We arrive at Carbost in Loch Harport in the late afternoon. There is a place left at the pontoon, so we tie up. There is a piper there in full kit playing a stirring tune on his bagpipes. At first we think that they must have heard that we were coming and that it is a welcome for us, but we realise that it is a farewell to another boat which is just leaving.
“They were in the pub last night when we were playing music, and I promised them I would pipe them off if they bought me a beer”, the piper explains. “By the way, we are playing again tomorrow tonight, so why don’t you come?”
The next morning, Barbara and Roy come down to the boat for lunch. They are old friends from Bedford days and are holidaying on Skye at the same time as we are passing, so we have made plans to meet up. Their children grew up with ours, so we spend time catching up with what each one is doing now they are independent.
Their daughter, Nina, is planning to row the Atlantic next year as part of the Talisker Challenge and to raise money for charity. It seems very apt given that we are moored just right next to the Talisker Distillery itself.
“Do you think she will really do it?” we ask Roy.
“I think she will”, he says. “She is a pretty determined lass when she decides to do something.”
We are impressed. “Perhaps we could sail alongside her in Ruby Tuesday?”, I tease the First Mate. She looks at me disdainfully.
That night we stay with Barbara and Roy in their holiday cottage. In the afternoon, we decide to walk to the ruins of Caisteal Uisdean (G: Hugh’s Castle). This castle was built by Hugh MacDonald, who, by all accounts, was a bit of a lad. Believing that his father had been killed by his Uncle Donald, the chief of the MacDonald clan, he embarked on a quest for revenge, first of all by stealing cattle, stirring up battles between different branches of the clan, and eventually piracy against Donald’s ships. None of that seemed to work too well, and so, at his wits end, he hit on a cunning plan to invite Donald to his castle for a housewarming party, during which he would have him murdered. What could go wrong?
Even though Hugh probably had other qualities, the ability to plan doesn’t seem to have been one of them, as unfortunately he got his invitations mixed up. The instructions to the murderer got sent to Donald, whose invitation in turn went to the murderer. Not overly impressed, Donald had him captured, imprisoned him in the dungeon of Duntulm Castle further up the coast, and fed him only on salty beef and fish with no water until he died of thirst and joined all the other ghosts in the castle. Not a pleasant way to go!
On the walk back, we pass a number of polytunnels on the shoreline. Someone jokes that they are probably for growing cannabis, but they turn out to be for making salt from sea water. Apparently Skye salt is for sale throughout the island. The First Mate promises to buy some the next time she is shopping.
We have dinner that evening in the Sligachan pub. Mainly a watering hole for walkers and climbers, there is a relaxed ambience there, and the food is good. A story we had heard the last time we were here comes back to me of a Gurkha soldier who had once run from the hotel to the top of nearby Glamaig, 775 m in height, and back again in 75 minutes, unheard of in those days, so much so that the MacLeod chief had refused to believe that it was possible, and challenged him to do it again to prove it. The poor Gurkha set off again, and this time managed to do it in just 55 minutes!
The next day, Roy and Barbara are keen to do some sailing, so we decide to take a spin out to McLeod’s Maidens, three sea-stacks that are supposed to represent the wife and daughters of one of the McLeod chieftains who were drowned near here.
I think to myself that the largest stack has a passing resemblance to Queen Victoria, but perhaps most women’s dresses looked like that in those days.
We come back along the cliffs on the east side of Loch Bracadale hoping that we might see some sea eagles, but we don’t see any. They must have seen us coming.
In the evening, we have a drink in the pub in Carbost, the Old Inn. It is packed out, with standing room only, as there is live music on tonight. The musicians are all local, the piper on the pontoon amongst them. The atmosphere is great and the music inspiring. There is something satisfying about seeing Gaelic music and traditions being kept alive.