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Issue 79 - Guardian of the Kilbrannen Sound

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015

 

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Guardian of the Kilbrannen Sound

Rory Knight Bruce visits Saddell Castle in Argyll & Bute

When Paul McCartney wrote his 1977 pop song Mull of Kintyre, he draped a popular scarf around the shoulders of this historic southernmost peninsular of Argyll. Shooting the video for the song accompanied by the Campbeltown Pipe Band, it is little wonder that he should have chosen for its backdrop the 16th Century Saddell Castle, saved for Scotland by the Landmark Trust in 1975.

With associations stretching back to the 12th Century Celtic warlord Somerled, whose son Ragnall mac Somairle (Ranald) founded the nearby now ruined Saddell Abbey, Saddell Castle itself is based on a Scottish Tower House built between 1508 and 1512 for David Hamilton, Bishop of Argyll. In 1556, his successor James Hamilton, handed it over to his half-brother James Hamilton, second Earl of Arran, in lieu of repayment of debts, and Arran promptly exchanged it with James MacDonald of Dunnyveg for that chieftain's lands on the Isle of Arran.

In retaliation for MacDonald's support of his kinsman MacDonnell of Antrim in the Irish Rebellion of 1558, however, the castle was attacked and ransacked on behalf of Queen Mary Tudor of England by Thomas Ratcliffe, Earl of Sussex, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Although rebuilt in 1670, by then all of the Clan Donald lands and properties in Kintyre had been confiscated by James VI and gifted to Archibald Campbell, seventh Earl of Argyll, who founded nearby Campbeltown. It was his son the eighth Earl and first Marquis of Argyll, who handed the castle and its lands over to William Ralston of that Ilk, whose monument stands in the churchyard at Southend.

Although largely uninhabited after 1774, in William Dobie’s
Perambulations of Kintyre, published in 1833, he wrote: ‘I was gratified to find so perfect a specimen of the accommodation furnished by one of our ancient kinds of Scottish Baronial residence.’ Today, it is possible to rent Saddell Castle, with its sea views, woodland and an abundance of rhododendrons, all year round.

Above a fireplace is a bottle and carving dating from 1893, with the name of Ronald Rooght. He is thought to have been the master builder who restored the castle for the then owner, Colonel Dugald Macleod.
In addition to the MacDonalds, Campbells, Macleods and Ralstons, the names of many Scottish families have been associated with Saddell over the years including McNairs and Macleans. Those bearing these names today often come to stay and to walk in the footsteps of their forebears. In 1938, the estate was bought by Captain, later Colonel, Pat Moreton to indulge his passion for shooting, stalking and fishing, and his descendants still regularly return to stay at Saddell.

The accommodation offers self-catering for eight people over four floors, complete with dungeon and (if the enthusiastic comments in the guest book are to be believed) several friendly ghosts. There is a wood burning stove in the drawing room, panelled bedrooms simply and elegantly furnished, barrel vaulted bathrooms and pets are welcome.

Within the grounds there are several gentle walks, longer woodland walks and, of course, the sight and sound of the Atlantic seaboard, where seals bask on rocks and eagles fly above. From most rooms there are views to Ailsa Craig, the Isle of Arran and the Ayrshire coast.

For those wishing to remain within this ancient cocoon, the battlements on the top floor give the most commanding views. On this uppermost part of the castle is a play room, complete with table tennis table and a piano. A winding and quite steep staircase connects the floors but one imagines the hub of any stay will be the kitchen/dining room, with its wooden refectory table, and the panelled drawing room with its fire and plentiful supply of logs.

As with any holiday on the Mull of Kintyre, the first logistical question is not what to do but how to get there. It is a four and a half hour drive from Glasgow but this journey can be enjoyably broken after two hours by a visit to Loch Fyne Oysters to stock up on smoked salmon and oysters, with coffee or lunch in the restaurant.

A little further on is Inverarary castle, ancestral seat of the dukes of Argyll and itself well worth a visit. It is from here, passing through the towns of Lochgilpead and Tarbert that the journey into the Mull of Kintyre really begins to take shape.

“Many people bring their own provisions and don’t really venture out,” says Glen Baxter, caretaker at Saddell for the past decade. “They wish to immerse themselves in the glory and solitude of the place.” Certainly privacy is a feature here although, when the actor Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, stayed a couple of years ago, word got out and, for a time, locals thought the nearby fishing port of Carradale was going to be turned into a film set.

But there is much to see and do here providing you have warm and waterproof clothing and perhaps a swimsuit and pair of binoculars for the intrepid. Just beyond the lodge gates are the remains of Saddell Abbey, now reduced to a small but ancient graveyard plot complete with 14th Century standing stones. The still pretty small port of Carradale once prospered as harbour to herring fleets.

Between the short drive from Saddell to Carradale is Torrisdale Castle, home for more than a century to the Macalister Hall family. Here they have a Crafty Sheep Shop and organic tannery, open in the summer months, where the fleeces are uniquely soaked in mimosa bark in old porcelain laundry sinks. “My wife Mary came from the island of Soay near Skye, and her mother did this before her,” Donald Macalister Hall explained. The fleeces make small rugs of charm and comfort.

But it is at Campbeltown itself that a resident of Saddell Castle will find every indulgence. There is a magnificent public swimming pool and library with many local reference books. At the harbour side information centre, where Shirley Bannatyne has worked for thirty years, all events details are on hand and she can tell people how to hire a piper or caterer for a special occasion. “How do we find a live haggis on the hill?” has been her most asked question.

In Main Street are the butchers, a dedicated whisky shop, fishmonger, grocery and chemist. The Kintyre Smokehouse, run by well known local character Archie Macmillan offers unrivalled smoked salmon and cheeses. No visit to Campbeltown would be compete without a comprehensive tour of the Springbank Distillery which takes about an hour. Although it is currently closed, Campbeltown boasts the oldest cinema in Scotland, the art nouveau Picture House, which is scheduled to re-open with two screens and a café in 2016 following a £1.1 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

For the sporting minded, there is the wonderful and inexpensive 18 hole Dunaverty Golf course at Southend, a 15 minute drive south of Campbeltown. You can hire golf clubs here and enjoy one of the gems of Scottish links golfing with forgiving fairways, smooth greens and breathtaking views to the small island of Sanda. It is here at Southend that St Columba is said to have landed from Ireland in 563.

Meanwhile Saddell Castle continues to replenish its history. In May 2015, to celebrate its 50 year, the Landmark Trust will install for one year a life size sculpture by Antony Gormley entitled ‘Land’.

Information

Saddell Castle
Kintyre, Argyll & Bute PA28 6RA
Tel: +44 (0) 1628 825 925
www.landmarktrust.org.uk
Available from £465 for four nights:
Carradale Bikes and Buggies (for mountain bikes and mobility scooters): Ian Brodie on
+44 (0) 1583 431 348
Pony Trekking at Cross Hill Farm, Peninver: +44 (0) 1586 551 791
Campbeltown Information Centre:
+44 (0) 1586 552 056
Kintyre Smokehouse: +44 (0) 1586 553 580
Springbank Distillery: +44 (0) 1586 551 710 (Tours from £6.50 per person).
Dunaverty Golf Course, Southend:
+44 (0) 1586 830 677 (18 holes from £28)