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Issue 25 - Magic on Mull

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Magic on Mull

Charles Douglas visits Torosay Castle on the Island of Mull

It provides an absorbing day-trip by ferry from the Argyllshire coastal town of Oban and back, but the attractions of the West Coast island of Mull deserve more time, if you can spare it. Caledonian MacBrayne runs a 40 minute service from Oban to Craignure on Mull’s northern shore, and from here roads lead north to Tobermory, the island’s only town, and south west towards the ferry to Iona.

If you take the car, then Torosay Castle and gardens is a run of 11/2 miles along the A849, but on foot there is a more direct and shorter forest walk. Better still, take the miniature railway from the Old Pier Station. The kids will love it.

David Guthrie-James and his mother Bridget inherited Torosay Castle in 1945, and though they briefly allowed it to become a hotel called The Tangle of the Isles, by 1972 it was decided that the family had the option of either letting it fall into decay, or of restoring it and sharing its many charms with others.

It was David who, with a railway enthusiast neighbour, came up with the idea of building the little 10-inch narrow gauge railway, a mile and a half long. Today, magnificent Torosay Castle, with its spectacular gardens and Statue Walk, is the home of David’s son Christopher.

David Guthrie-James was an intriguing character who served as Member of Parliament for Brighton Kemp Town, then North Dorset, in the south of England. As a young man he rounded the Horn as a deck hand on one of the last purely commercial Finnish four-masted barques, and towards the end of his life he dedicated much of his time to attempting to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

In 1950, he married Jacquetta Digby, daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, and younger sister of the late Pamela Harriman, former wife of Randolph Churchill, who was United States Ambassador to France at the time of her death in 1997. The scrapbooks in the Archive Room, filled with newspaper cuttings about the family collected over a century, can monopolise an entire visit.

Originally there was a much smaller Georgian house here, but this was demolished in 1850 when the eminent Scottish architect David Bryce was contracted to create a home in the Scottish baronial style. This was achieved before the estate was purchased in 1865 by Arbuthnot Charles Guthrie, the prosperous younger son of the cofounder of a small merchant bank called Chalmers Guthrie of Dundee and London.

He was Christopher James’s great-great-great uncle, and it was his nephew, and immediate heir, Murray Guthrie, who in the early 20th century enlisted Sir Robert Lorimer, another great Scottish architect, to create the three Italianate terraces and the Statue Walk which today connect the castle with the old walled garden.

Washed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, it is these gardens, and the Statue Walk, which provide Torosay with its greatest visitor attraction. Within the twelve acres of policies are roses and other climbers, underplanted with perennials. Steps down are flanked by marble urns filled with echevarias, leading to a circular lawn which features a marble statue of Artemesia surrounded by berberis, potentillas and junipers.

A further flight of steps leads to the Statue Walk where there are 19 lifesize limestone figures created by Antonio Bonazza (1698-1763).

Murray Guthrie acquired this remarkable collection from a deserted villa near Padua in Northern Italy, and they were brought to Torosay at the turn of the century.

They represent gardeners, gamekeepers, and fishermen and women, and are set against a hedge of Fuschia magellanica, which grows at their feet.

Murray Guthrie died in 1911, but shortly before his death he sold the ruins of Duart Castle, which sat upon his estate, to Sir Fitzroy Maclean, the 77- year old chief of Clan Maclean. Today the two properties, in sight of one another across Duart Bay, are almost complementary.

A visit to one invariably means a visit to the other (see Scotland Magazine: Issue 20), providing an opportunity to reflect not only upon the ancient warfaring days of the Hebrides, but the Victorian prosperity which followed the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

Within the Torosay Castle, in contrast to Duart Castle, the trappings of Victorian and Edwardian prosperity are evident for all to see. On the walls are family portraits and an array of stags’ antlers.

Torosay remains very much an informal family home, and even the tea room which offers home baking and a gift shop selling local produce, makes you feel that you are a welcome guest.

Torosay Castle and Gardens,
Isle of Mull
PA65 6AY
is open daily from Easter to 31st October 1030 to 1700.

Gardens open 0900 to 1900 in summer and daylight hours in winter.

Web Site:
Tel: +44 (0)1680 812421
Fax: +44 (0)1680 812470