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Issue 21 - Where the past is in touching distance

Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


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Where the past is in touching distance

Summer being on its way, before the season of midges, I took a friend to visit Appin, in Argyll. We were staying, as it chanced, on Isle of Eriska, until recently the fiefdom of Robin Buchanan-Smith, a retired Church of Scotland chaplain to St Andrews University.

Robin had come upon this mini-island paradise during the 1970s on a yachting excursion, and it was love at first sight.

Loyally supported by his wife Sheena, he purchased the 300- acre estate and together they transformed the 19th century 20-bedroom baronial house that went with it into one of Scotland’s most elegant and welcoming hotels.

Abluff, engaging character, Robin passed away in April, but I am happy to be able to report that Isle of Eriska continues to thrive under his two sons Beppo and Chay. My visit this time was brief but reassuring, not least to confirm that Highland hospitality remains unchanged, but that in this troubled world there are some physical things that can never be spoiled.

And by that I mean the scenery of Scotland’s West Coast. Whatever the weather, it dazzles with its ever changing light.

On Isle of Eriska I took a pre-dinner walk onto the hill to watch a white sun lower itself over the steel shadows of Lismore and Mull across the Lynn of Lorne. To the South lay the town of Oban, Kerrera, the islands of the Inner Hebrides, and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. To the East, over my shoulder, shone Loch Creran, with the looming wilderness of Glencoe and Rannoch Moor beyond.

The past is never distant in Scotland. In this mainland landscape of mountain, moor and loch, the red-coat militia hunted for the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart, but by then he was far to the north of Fort William.

Less than a decade later, they seized the heroic James Stewart of the Glens. Falsely condemned for a killing in which he took no part, the latter met his brutal end on a gibbet near Ballachulish, a man prepared to die rather than betray his friend (see Murder Most Horrid, page 20).

Highland folklore comes to life under such circumstances.

There are still those who consider the appointment in 2002 of Roddy Campbell to run the National Trust for Scotland’s Glencoe Visitor Centre an outrage, “so soon after the massacre.” That massacre perpetrated on 38 Clan MacIan McDonald clansmen in mid-winter 313 years ago by Government soldiers enjoying Highland hospitality lives on in infamy. Simplistically, it was a plot engineered by King William II and III, and his Scottish henchman, Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, to bully the clans into submission.

What made it worse, if that were possible, was that the commanding officer of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, was Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, related by marriage to the MacIan’s younger son. No wonder the visitor centre’s Mr Campbell was received with such mixed emotion.

But back to Isle of Eriska, over its Victorian iron bridge from the mainland. That night we watched three badgers and the house cat promenade at the door of the bar for their evening feed. It had turned cold outside and, snug in front of a wood fire, surrounded by well-stocked book cases, the boom of city traffic and the foibles of humanity seemed a million miles away.

Anightcap of Talisker and nothing could spoil that moment.

The last time I saw Robin Buchanan-Smith was in 1999 and, in his Church of Scotland capacity, he was conducting the funeral of a mutual friend at Rosslyn Chapel, another of Scotland’s enchanted places.

A great debunker of bureaucracy, he was once asked in a questionnaire who was responsible for the filtration of the water which originated from 100ft below his hotel?

“God,” was his reply. Robin would have volunteered the same answer had he been asked about the indescribably beautiful Argyllshire landscape in which he and his family made their home.