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Issue 81 - The Castle of Spite

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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The Castle of Spite

Mary Gladstone unravels a family scandal

Carbisdale Castle embarks upon a new chapter in its long and fascinating history.

You can’t miss it! Carbisdale Castle’s looming walls dominate the skyline. Perched high on a cliff overlooking a famous salmon-river, the Kyle of Sutherland; few castles enjoy such a grand setting.

Inside, and beneath the battlements, there is a feast for the eyes. With its impressive public rooms (grand gallery, ballroom, dining room, library and drawing room), Carbisdale was, for decades until it closed in 2011, the largest and grandest Youth Hostel in Scotland.

Almost 100 years old (the building was completed in 1917), it is the last castle on this scale to have been constructed in Scotland. However, in spite of its turrets and gables, it is not truly a baronial castle, resembling instead a large country mansion.

And furthermore, attached to the Edwardian structure is a name that harks back to the 17th Century. Carbisdale was where the legendary James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, fought his last battle. As a Royalist, he won six victories against the Covenanters but it was at Carbisdale that his luck ran out. His forces were routed and although he initially escaped, Montrose was captured and taken to Edinburgh to be executed.

Carbisdale’s other name is Castle Spite because it is situated in the old county of Ross-shire where its occupants could look over to Sutherland and scorn it. Created by Mary Caroline, widow of George Granville William Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, her life was full of scandal. The Duchess married three times and foul play, possibly by her hand, was suspected with the death of her first husband; she was imprisoned for six weeks in Holloway Jail, and after the 3rd Duke’s death, she conducted a legendary feud with her in-laws over his will.

Mary Caroline was the daughter of Richard Michell, an Oxford University academic and in 1872 she married Arthur Blair, factor to the Duke of Sutherland. In October 1883, while on holiday near Loch Tummel, Blair went off on a shooting expedition where he slipped into a burn and was shot through the heart. Was the death by accident, a suicide, or a murder?

Rumours persisted that the Duke, or even Mrs Blair, had shot Blair as, by this time, the two of them were having an affair with each other.

With his great wealth, the 3rd Duke of Sutherland was an ‘improving landowner’ who invested lavishly in the building of roads, bridges, harbours and slipways. He was responsible for the railway-line that ran from Ardgay across the Kyle of Sutherland to Golspie, where stood his ducal seat Dunrobin Castle.

In November 1888, the Duchess Anne, the Duke’s first wife, died (she may have taken poison), whereupon he and Mrs Blair repaired to his Florida property where they were married in March 1889. The Duke thereafter lived for another three years before he died from a perforated ulcer.

His family, particularly his eldest son, the Marquis of Stafford, hated his stepmother Mary Caroline. When the Dowager inherited a fortune in her husband’s will, the new Duke contested it. During the litigation, Mary Caroline appalled solicitors by burning crucial documents and for this act, she was fined £250 and sent to Holloway gaol. On her release, she secured a huge sum of money; while the 4th Duke kept his properties, the Dowager got the money.

‘Both were reduced to absolute affluence,’ reported
The Times newspaper on 8 June 1894. The Duchess received £5,000 per annum and £500,000, but the Duke’s official historian claimed it was £750,000 or £850,000. Today, that would be worth a total £40–50 million. The money was paid in notes (Mary Caroline mistrusted her son-in-law with a cheque) in specially minted £1,000 bank notes.

After her husband’s death, however, his Dowager was denied access to Dunrobin Castle and denied the possession of a dower house in Sutherland. Although she already owned several English properties, including a house in London’s Belgrave Square, she wanted a Scottish country estate.

In 1903, therefore, she purchased Culrain Lodge, situated ½ mile from the village of that name on the south bank of the Kyle. Standing on the very edge of Ross-shire overlooking the Kyle across to Sutherland, she determined to convert the existing property into a castle.

Work began in 1907 and with this act, Mary Caroline compounded her vindictiveness. As they steamed past Carbisdale in their private train, the 5th Duke of Sutherland and his family would give instructions for their carriage blinds to be pulled down so that they did not have to see his step-mother's castle. When it came to designing the castle tower, the architect placed a clock on three sides but not on the wall facing Sutherland. “She would not even give them the time of day,” they said of her.

Carbisdale Castle, with its two storeys, and additional service floors below, has 200 rooms and one window more than at Dunrobin. The long, lower gallery houses a collection of Italian marble female figures. Most striking within the décor, is the preponderance of the female form.

Perhaps this provides a clue as to why in the Duchess’s will, her nieces received twice as much money as her nephews. Since this was in the Suffragette era, was the Dowager influenced by the movement and had she become a feminist?

In 1934, 22 years after the Dowager Duchess’s death, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Salvesen of Messrs Salvesen & Co, the great Leith based whaling and shipping company, bought the castle for £1,500. Salvesen was a genial host who, on retiring at night, would playfully pat the bottoms of each statue as he crossed the gallery. Who knows if, on his way upstairs, he spied Betty, the castle’s ghost!

During World War II, the castle sheltered King Haakon VII of Norway. Here, surrounded by heather and pine trees, the Carbisdale Conference was held and an agreement reached between the Allied Powers that Norway after victory would become an independent state and not be allowed to fall into Soviet hands.

On the Colonel’s death in 1942, his son inherited the castle. As Honorary Vice-President of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, Captain Salvesen presented Carbisdale to the Association. With 40 bedrooms (totaling 150 beds), the building soon became a mecca for visitors, attracting in excess of 20,000 guests each year. After severe frost damaged in 2010, the youth hostel closed and was put up for sale.

Now, as it approaches its first century, magnificent Carbisdale Castle has found a new owner who will hopefully transform it to its former glory. In May of this year, the group behind the newly formed Carbisdale Castle Ltd announced plans for a £6.5million investment to create ‘the most desirable luxury hotel in Scotland.’ Plans are being drawn up and it certainly looks very impressive.

We wish them well.

Visitor Information

Carbisdale Castle
Sutherland, IV24 3DP