Castles: Rhum legacy of a wealthy egoist

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The Independent Online
Kinloch Castle, on the island of Rhum, may well be Britain's greatest monument to self-indulgence, writes Paul Buttle. And it makes the focus of a spectacular trip. The extravagance of Kinloch Castle still shocks, 100 years after it was built. Were it on the mainland it would be far better known. But then, the remoteness of its location off the west coast of Scotland makes the place doubly strange.

Seen from the mainland, 15 miles away, Rhum looks a striking island: a cluster of dome-like peaks seemingly afloat in the midst of the sea (an image often seen in the film Local Hero). Two hundred years ago the island had a population of around 400. But in the 1820s it was simply "cleared" when the residents were put aboard two ships that took them to Canada.

The island was made into a huge sheep farm, but the venture failed. Thereafter it became merely a playground for the absurdly rich, where they could spend time hunting and fishing.

Few landowners in Scotland at the turn of the century were more absurdly rich than George Bullough, who inherited the island from his father in 1891, and a huge fortune to go with it.

George's wealth had been amassed in the Lancashire cotton industry by his father and grandfather. His grandfather, something of an inventor, had founded a business manufacturing machines to serve the cotton mills; the business later expanded to America. George was one of the wealthiest men in Britain when he came into his inheritance. And whilst his father and grandfather had devoted their lives to amassing that wealth, George devoted his life to spending it.

Part of that spending involved building Kinloch Castle. Because George wanted a red castle, the stone for it had to be cut and shipped in from the Isle of Arran.

Similarly, because the soil on the island was too poor to produce the type of luxuriant grounds he wanted to have around the castle, that, too, was shipped in; half a million tons of it, from Ayrshire. The castle was completed by 1901 and equipped with all the latest refinements then available, including central heating and electricity - a small hydroelectric plant having been built behind the castle to provide the supply. In the grounds were large greenhouses in which turtles and alligators were kept; humming birds flew in the conservatory.

In today's money it cost George all of pounds 70m to build what was essentially a holiday home, used for just four weeks a year - he had other mansions elsewhere, as well as an ocean-going "yacht" the size of Britannia.

The main hall of the castle is a baronial extravaganza: a herd of stags' heads line the walls, the skin of a polar bear covers the floor a few yards from a Steinway grand piano. In the rest of the castle is a ballroom with a musicians' gallery, a dining-room with mahogany panelling, a sumptuous games room with a full-length snooker table, and a small library stocked floor to ceiling with leather-bound books.

All this, to provide a little rest and and comfort after a hard day spent on the island's heather-clad hills, blasting away at the red deer. Clearly, tramping those hills did not instill in George any regard or desire for simple living.

The visits went on for 20-odd years after the castle was built, and then they stopped. George and his wife packed up their bags one summer and never returned to the castle. They left everything: the paintings, the furniture, the porcelain, the statues, the books, the cellars stocked with wine. Millions of pounds' worth of valuables they simply abandoned to gather dust, never sending for any of it. George died in 1939 playing golf in France; his widow, Monica Lilly, died nearly 30 years later, in 1967.

Eleven years before Monica Lilly died, she offered the castle and the island to the Queen, who politely refused it. A year later she sold the island and everything on it, including the castle and all its contents, to Scottish Natural Heritage, for the knock-down price of pounds l an acre - a total of pounds 27,000.

Although George and Monica Lilly never stayed in the castle again, they made one final visit to Rhum; and they are still there. On the far south side of the island from the castle is one of the strangest burial sites in Britain: a mausoleum in the shape of a Greek temple, standing in gaunt isolation, looking out over the Atlantic. It was built for George's father, and now George rests on one side of him and his wife on the other.

Close by the mausoleum are the ruined remains of several former island homes - last occupied more than 170 years ago. Similar ruins can be seen in the north of the island, at Kilmory.

I found Kilmory an entrancing place. Looking north across a sweeping sandy beach, you can see the Cuillin mountains of Skye, and to the south are the majestic peaks of Rhum itself. A herd of stags grazing on the short sward added an almost surreal atmosphere on the day I was there. Normally these animals take flight as soon as they see a human being, but here they have become almost domesticated.

In the midst of the herd was a small cottage. It had a affecting simplicity, especially surrounded by all that natural beauty, and looked a near ideal place to live. I wondered why it was that George Bullough never thought the same, but instead spent all those millions, building what in essence is and always has been, despite all that expenditure, a ludicrously ugly edifice.

The museum section of Kinloch Castle is open from April to October, though tours outside these dates are sometimes possible. For information on the castle and the rest of the island, contact Rhum National Nature Reserve, the Reserve Office, The White House, Isle of Rhum, Inverness- shire PH43 4RR (01687 462026).

Getting there: short of hiring a helicopter, the only transport to Rhum for most of the year is on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Mallaig (01475 650100). The MV `Lochmor' takes between 90 minutes and four hours, depending on the routing. She operates three or four days a week throughout the year. The fare for a five-day return is pounds 9.35 for foot passengers. In summer, the timetable on Wednesdays and Saturdays allows for day visits to be made; at other times, you have to stay overnight.

Accommodation: the Reserve Office (01687 462026) can arrange places to stay around the island. You can also stay in a self-catering hostel at Kinloch Castle (call the manager on 01687 462037). The attached restaurant is open during the summer.