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Issue 5 - Crowned Triumph

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002

 

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Crowned Triumph

RODDY MARTINE EXAMINES THE INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS OF TELEVISION SERIES MONARCH OF THE GLEN, WHICH HAS REVITALISED THE MID-HIGHLANDS REGION

The castle on the far side of the loch as you drive west on the A89 from Laggan to Spean Bridge in Inverness-shire looks strangely familiar. But then most likely you will have missed the earlier sign informing all visitors to the area that this is ‘Monarch of the Glen Country’. Although the owners had originally hoped to keep its identity a well-kept secret, the castle is, in fact, Ardverikie, whose doppelgänger is Glenbogle Castle, fictional backdrop for one of BBC Scotland’s most successful television series ever.

Of course, when Sir Compton Mackenzie, that flamboyant figure of the 20th century Anglo-Saxon literary world first published the book of that name in 1941, it was a very different Scottish Highlands to the one depicted in today’s television soap.

For a start, Mackenzie’s MacDonald of Ben Nevis was a big, beefy chap who waged war on hikers and hill-walkers and locked them up in his castle dungeons. Today’s clan chieftain would never get away with that sort of behaviour, but then young Archie MacDonald has to contend with all the problems that beset a modern landowner in the Scottish Highlands – bank overdrafts, unsympathetic bureaucrats, dry rot, falling livestock values, leaking roofs, midges and bolshie land reformers.

It was something of a gamble when Ecosse Films, fronted by its talented Executive Producer Douglas Rae, came up with the idea. Having already won plaudits for the film Mrs Brown, starring Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, Rae began searching for other stories that could be set in the Scottish landscape. He had always loved the string of Highland and Island novels written by Mackenzie, culminating in the classic Whisky Galore, based on the shipwreck of the SS Politician which sank off the Island of Barra in 1946. With the writer Michael Chaplin, Ecosse Films came up with a contemporary slant based on the original characters, and with flair and imagination Glenbogle was spectacularly
launched into the new millennium.

With veteran stars Richard Briers and Susan Hampshire giving outstanding performances as the crusty Hector MacDonald and his scatty wife Molly, it could hardly have gone wrong. They were backed up by actor Julian Fellowes, as the neighbouring landowner Kilwillie, who in his spare time wrote the screenplay for the Oscarwinning Gosford Park, and Sandy Morton as Golly, the old family retainer and gamekeeper.

Then there is the young cast – the broody young laird Archie played by Alastair Mackenzie; Dawn Steele as the zany Lexie; Hamish Gray as Duncan, the ghillie, and Rebecca Lacey as Irene Stuart, the new housekeeper.

But nobody could seriously have predicted just how internationally successful Monarch of the Glen would become. At one stage its website was receiving more hits than that of any other BBC programme. Now into its fourth series, poor old Hector has blown himself out of the cast while teaching his dog Useless how to retrieve, Archie and Lexie are engaged, and a newcomer has taken up residence in the kitchen at Glenbogle.

For the inhabitants of the surrounding area, the filming has been a bonanza for tourism, and they are naturally delighted at having been put on the map. Most of the 200 people of Laggan parish at the head of the River Spey are thrilled with their new-found celebrity. Locals are full of praise for the film crew, who have literally doubled the population, although a fire did destroy Kingussie Community Hall which was being used as a set. Nobody was hurt and it needed refurbishment anyway.

However, accommodating the 200 crew to begin with was also a bit of a problem. As was illustrated in the first episode, when Archie returns home from London, mobile phones do not work with hills all around. And there were no fax machines. But who needs faxes when you have word of mouth?

Moreover, the owners of Ardverikie – sisters Annabel Smyth Osbourne, Lucinda Laing and Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington – were at first nervous about publicity. Descendants of the Pennington-Ramsden family who bought the castle and 38,000-acre estate 140 years ago, Annabel, Lucinda and Phyllida understandably valued their privacy. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed a night at Ardverikie in 1847, King Edward VI visited when he was Prince of Wales, and appropriately, it was while staying there that the great Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer painted his most famous picture called – naturally – Monarch of the Glen.

Now, however, the sisters have apparently relented. It would be impossible not to following the tidal wave of interest and the enthusiasm of the local community, and for a price Ardverikie can, on application, and when not in use, be rented for wedding receptions.

The economy of Badenoch and Strathspey is fragile and Monarch of the Glen’s reputation has brought much needed cash into the locality. In addition, the gentle scenery of the mid-Highlands has enchanted viewers wherever the series has been shown. This is the Scotland that is known and loved around the world, the Scotland of dreams and imagination.

As the post-war film of Whisky Galore was seen by many at the time as the saviour of the Scotch whisky industry, so Monarch of the Glen could become the saviour of Scottish tourism. In that great glen in the sky, Compton Mackenzie, the passionate bearded Scotsman whose happiest days were spent in the heather, a glass of uisge beatha in his hand, must be chuckling to himself with delight.