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Issue 93 - Castle on the point

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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Castle on the point

Charles Douglas visits Glengorm Castle on the Isle of Mull

In the 19th Century, the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, off Scotland's west coast, became fashionable locations for rich men to indulge their fantasies. Even Queen Victoria herself visited the island of Mull in 1847, anchoring the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert at the small coastal town of Tobermory.

Some years earlier, James Forsyth, the son of a plantation owner in Jamaica, had inherited the Dunach Estate to the south of Oban in Argyll from his uncle Alexander Forsyth, an Edinburgh lawyer. Having returned to Scotland to take up his inheritance, he purchased the Sorne Estate on the northern tip of Mull, which was part of the hereditary landholdings of the Macleans of Coll. In 1856, he also acquired the adjoining Quinish estate from Hugh Maclean of Coll.

James thus joined the rising ranks of the socially ambitious, land-rich Victorian hierarchy in Scotland. Through trade and commerce, such men were wealthy enough to indulge their fantasies at the expense of long-established crofting communities, whose occupants often regarded the incomers with contempt and despised their lack of island pedigree. The worst kind of landlord, yet typical of the times in which he lived, James Forsyth rapidly set about clearing tenant crofters from the land that their families had occupied for generations. This was to make way for a magnificent turreted castle on the point overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and commanding distant views of the Uists, Rhum and Canna.

While the building was underway, James and his half-German wife Maria Magdalena Muller, whose personal wealth played a significant part in financing the project, occupied a plain 18th Century stone house called Sorne. To be fair, they also made other substantial improvements to the estate. The old pier at Quinnish was extended, steadings were built at Antuim, Druimnacroish and Achnacraig, and a new road constructed between Sorne and Quinish.

In 1858, the fledgling Edinburghbased architects Kinnear & Peddie were commissioned to build a house in the Scots Baronial style befitting of a Victorian gentleman. The influence of the older architect David Bryce, who completed Torosay Castle at Craignure (See: Scotland Magazine #25) much about the same time, is evident. The interiors are almost identical. The dining room, library and drawing room are laid out symmetrically. However, the turreted facade is reminiscent of a Rhineland Schloss.

Using local granite shipped from quarries on the Ross of Mull, the stones nevertheless had to be transported from the pier, a distance of two miles to the site by horse and cart. As an indication of the Forsyths' obsession with both mortality and genealogy, the outer walls are adorned with carved adornments of four biblical quotes and four coats-of-arms. Spanning the imposing entrance is the carving of a rugged rope with knotted ends. Inset, is an inscription of an extract from the 127th psalm: ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it’. This may have reflected the feelings of those who worked on the site. But fate is fickle and Forsyth was not to see the realization of his dream. Shortly before its completion, he was killed in an accident while riding between his two Mull estates. Inevitably, his death was cited as the fulfilment of a curse put upon him by the estranged tenantry. His son, James Noel Muller Forsyth, was aged just 18 when he inherited and went on to build the steadings at Quinish as well as enlarging Quinish House. The story goes that when he sought advice from an elderly woman about what to call the now completed castle, she told him ‘Glengorm’. This is the Gaelic for ‘Blue Glen’, a veiled reference to the blue grey smoke of the burning crofts of the township of Baliacrach, which was sacrificed to make way for the landlord's ambition. The various origins of the Glengorm name are set out in Janet Nelson's most excellent booklet The Story of Glengorm, published in 2016 and available to purchase from the castle.

In 1874, James Noel Forsyth sold Glengorm Castle to William Lang, a Clyde ship owner, from whom it passed in an auction in 1887 to James Cowan, a paper maker and philanthropist. In 1895, the estate was sold to Frederick Morgan, who died in 1910, whereupon Glengorm was bought by Margaret Lithgow, eldest child of the founder of the Lithgows shipbuilding empire. Margaret was the perpetrator of many discrete acts of generosity towards the local community and was the sole benefactor of the island's first lifeboat, which launched some months after her death in 1938.

The layout of the rooms was subsequently much altered and the Edinburgh architect William Johnston introduced various practical improvements in the early 20th Century. The interior walls of the entrance hall and small estate office were removed to create a spacious reception room. The old office fireplace was enlarged and redesigned for a larger room, and a local stonemason carved the mantel from sandstone. A grand staircase in teak became a feature in the reception hall. The staircase, as well as the bookcases in the library with their sliding glass-fronted doors, were allegedly constructed by ships' carpenters seconded from Lithgows shipbuilders during a lull in construction work on the Clyde. Glengorm Castle sat empty during the Second World War but, in 1949, the estate was purchased by Margrave Estates Ltd, who controversially harvested all the mature trees and, just a year later, sold it to Dr Richard Fawcitt, a consultant radiologist, and his wife Jessie. The Fawcitts should be given unqualified credit for saving Glengorm as it was by then in a pretty run down state. In 1962, the property was bought by John Brockbank Carr who installed mains electricity and generally repaired the interiors. In 1970, Glengorm was acquired by the Nelson Family who retain it to the present day. Raymond Nelson had trained at Sandhurst and gave up a successful army career to become a farmer. When he first took his wife Jane to Glengorm she was not, as she recalls in her book, at all happy about the prospect of living there. “But the next morning I was won over by the landscape I saw from our bedroom window, the green fields rolling down to the sea and the huge blue sky. The sun showed Glengorm in all its beauty and magic, and my resistance evaporated.” Now protected as a Category B Listed building, Glengorm Castle is operated as a B&B but retains the atmosphere of a family home. It is now owned by Tom and Marjorie Nelson who, along with their children, warmly welcome visitors to enjoy a stay in these splendid surroundings. In addition to richly decorated bedrooms, the house also has three self-contained serviced apartments and a number of cottages on the estate are available for holiday lets. The entrance hall is furnished as a communal sitting room and the wood-panelled library boasts a complimentary selection of Scotch whiskies. Dinner is not served, but there are several nearby pubs and restaurants. Communal breakfasts at a long table are a most memorable experience. Nearby on the estate, the Glengorm Coffee Shop & Art Gallery, housed in the original farm steading, is open from Easter until November and serves local produce.