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Issue 26 - A Rum ideal

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 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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A Rum ideal

One of the most impressive houses in Scotland can be found on the remote Isle of Rum. Marieke Smegen pays it a visit

Imagine an extravagant 19th century house, built by 300 people, during a period of three years. The house is built to impress - and only the most privileged people are allowed to visit. This describes Kinloch Castle: an imposing house on the remote Isle of Rum.

The castle was built in 1897 for Sir George Bullough: a rich English industrialist who inherited the Isle of Rum from his father. While his father had been content with the reasonable Kinloch House, Sir George decided he needed something bigger and much better than that.

Kinloch Castle covers 50 square metres over two levels. It cost £250,000 to build at the time – which is around £15 million in today’s terms.

For Sir George, Kinloch Castle was nothing more than a grand shooting lodge. Guests would stay in the castle and go out shooting the hundreds of deer that had been introduced to the island. Lavish parties also took place in the private ballroom that was shielded from the servants by serving hatches.

The gardens at Kinloch were very impressive. Several ships had delivered huge amounts of soil for the grand gardens to be designed. There was a great variety of exotic plants and extensive lawns. The conservatory attached to the castle housed hummingbirds, while the pond was home to alligators and tortoises. Sir George loved the exotic.

In the Boer War, Sir George helped look after wounded soldiers. His huge ship Rhouma was sent to Africa to aid the injured. They were taken back to Rum and cared for in the castle. Even after all the expense and work, Sir George and his wife Lady Monica only used Kinloch as a holiday home.

However, in 1914 the fate of Kinloch Castle changed. Sir George was sent to war and his ship Rhouma II was used as a minesweeper. Kinloch Castle used to have around 100 staff. All but three were sent home. The end of the war brought Sir George and his wife Lady Monica back, but the house was in decline.

Sir George died in 1939 on a golfing holiday in France.

He was buried alongside his father at the mausoleum on Rum. Lady Monica paid the island occasional visits, but sold the whole island, except for the mausoleum, to the Nature Conservancy in 1957.

Today, more than a century on, Kinloch Castle still stands. It is now run by Scottish National Heritage (SNH) and opens to the public for daily tours. The interior has largely been kept intact, although the back of the castle is now used as a hostel.

In some respects the castle seems out of place on this rugged, largely uninhabited island. Visiting an island such as Rum and looking around a castle as imposing as Kinloch is therefore quite special.

In the summer, there are daily ferries from Mallaig (Caledonian MacBrayne) or Arisaig (Arisaig Marine). You can visit Rum for a day, or stay over in the hostel or on the very basic (free) campsite.

Rum itself has only around 28 inhabitants. Most people work for SNH. There is a resident carpenter, and a resident mechanic. The mechanic looks after the landrovers on the island – the only vehicles suitable for the tough roads.

Rum is very popular with hill walkers and stalkers. Deer had free rein between the early 20th century and the 1970s. As a result, there are now far too many on this tiny island and the stalkers are brought in to kill off a number of deer every year.

Some inhabitants of Rum work in the hostel. In the afternoon they take tours of the preserved parts of the building. Going on one of these tours is like going back in time.

Possibly the most imposing bit of the castle is the entrance hall. The floor is covered with animal skins, some of them with real tiger heads still attached. The walls are decorated with stag heads – shot by Sir George himself. A Steinway grand concert piano stands prominently in the middle, while huge portraits of Sir George Bullough and his wife Lady Monica look down on you.

The bedrooms are extravagant and the dining room is big enough to seat 16 people. The showers have incredible plumbing, with showerheads coming from above, the sides and even below.

Then there is the ballroom, and the library with more than 1,000 preserved books, a smoking room for the gentlemen and a games room with a huge billiard table. It all looks impressive now, so imagine what it would have been like in 1897.

The house was the second to have electricity in Scotland, and it was the first with an internal telephone system. It also had air conditioning and double-glazing; both things that were almost unknown in the United Kingdom at the time.

The hallway houses one of only three ‘orchestrions’ in the world. It plays orchestral music the same way as a street organ does, but it consists of 40 different instruments. Sir George bought the instrument from Queen Victoria who died before it could be installed at Balmoral Castle. He paid £2000, an equivalent of £120,000 nowadays.

Kinloch Castle is an amazing building, but it is in decline. It is desperately in need of restoration: the silk wallpaper and ceilings are badly damaged by humidity, the orchestrion has woodworm that is eating away at the instrument and curtains and furniture are fading.

SNH is a government agency concerned with preserving nature, not buildings. This may explain why nothing is being done about the state of the castle. Numerous uses for the castle have been discussed, but no positive conclusion has been reached.

In the meantime, people should not miss out on seeing this castle. Every paying visitor helps the preservation, and you never know – someone might just come along and save this prestigious landmark.

The hostel on Rum is open from March to October. Tours of the castle take place during these months.