Kinloch Castle, a crumbling-but-iconic landmark on the Isle of Rum with a nominal value of £1 — but the buyer will need very deep pockets…
July 25, 2021
Kinloch Castle has been seeking a buyer for years, but as its condition worsens the renovation and repair costs for this magnificent Scottish property are estimated to be in the region of £20 million. Can a new owner be found?
A benevolent buyer is sought to save Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum — which Betjeman called ‘an undisturbed example of pre-1914 opulence’ — put on the market by NatureScot (formerly Scottish National Heritage (SNH)).
Lancastrian multimillionaire Sir George Bullough built the turreted, red-sandstone house in 1897–1900 on the Inner Hebridean island to host stalking, fishing, shooting and high-society decadence and the rooms are still as they were in its heyday, with a Steinway grand complete with scratches from dancing ladies’ heels, four-posters, a sprung-floor ballroom with gold-damask walls and even a vintage dental surgery.
The world’s last functioning orchestrion remains in situ, a complicated instrument that belonged to Queen Victoria and emulates a 40-piece orchestra, which alone requires a £50,000 restoration.
Looking out to Loch Scresort from Kinloch Castle, built in 1897 to designs supplied by Leeming and Leeming of Halifax. Not Used CL 12/08/2009 Photograph: Simon Jauncey/Countr
Intestine-like pipes of sophisticated Edwardian plumbing can be seen, together with decaying landscaped gardens with the remains of a palm house that was once full of hummingbirds, turtles and alligators.
Kinloch, set in seven acres, remained open as a museum until last year and its servants’ quarters were a hostel until 2013. Numerous fundraising efforts have hoped to tackle the leaks, dry rot and woodworm — including one by The Prince of Wales’s Regeneration Trust — but they failed to amass enough for restoration, now estimated at £20 million. A recent report rejected an application from the Kinloch Castle Friends Association to take the castle, citing funding problems and and worries over the proposed business plan for turning the castle into a tourist destination. The report listed the castle’s value at a ‘nominal figure of £1’, but the new owner will have to prove that they have the resources to save this Category A landmark.
‘We have been trying to find an acceptable and affordable future for Kinloch Castle for over a decade,’ explains a SNH report of 2016, which adds that, if the building can’t be restored and a cost-effective use found for it, it ‘should be demolished’.
‘Local feeling is very anti private landlord,’ explains Mary Miers, author of Highland Retreats and former Country Life Fine Arts & Books Editor. ‘The people of Rum don’t want it to be another millionaire’s playground, rather an asset for the community—they suggest a bistro and bar with accommodation. But the challenge is to find a buyer.’
Speaking of his fear that the castle should fall into ‘inappropriate hands’, Prof Ewan Macdonald, chairman of the Kinloch Castle Friends Association and member of the Isle of Rum Community Trust, blames ‘public-sector ineptitude. To take eight years to decide to sell it is breathtaking… The building has deteriorated’.
‘The most important thing is the interior,’ adds Miss Miers. ‘It’s not all necessarily in great taste, but this is an outstanding ensemble of turn-of-the-century furnishing and technology that has survived against all odds.
It represents the golden age of that curious phenomenon, the Highland Season, when all of privileged and nouveau-riche society flocked north each summer to be entertained in luxurious palaces in the wilds. Few of these grandiose shooting lodges were more romantically situated than Kinloch, which stands at the head of Loch Scresort, backed by volcanic peaks.
Kinloch Castle (Scottish Gaelic: Caisteal Cheann Locha) is a late Victorian mansion located on Kinloch, on the island of Rùm, one of the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland. It was built as a private residence for Sir George Bullough, a textile tycoon from Lancashire whose father bought Rùm as his summer residence and shooting estate. Construction began in 1897, and was completed in 1900. Built as a luxurious retreat, Kinloch Castle has since declined. The castle and island are now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, who operated part of the castle as a hostel until 2015, and continue to offer tours of the main rooms to visitors. The Kinloch Castle Friends Association was established in 1996 to secure the long-term future of the building.
Kinloch Castle is protected as a category A listed building,and the grounds are included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland, the national listing of significant gardens.
Rùm was owned by Alexander Maclean of Coll in the early 19th century. At that time, during the Napoleonic Wars, kelp from the Scottish islands was a valuable commodity, being used to produce soda ash for use in explosives. After the war, prices collapsed and Maclean was forced to lease the island to a relative, Lachlan Maclean, for sheep farming. As a result, the entire population, which counted 443 people in 1795, were cleared from the island by 1828, only for new tenants to be brought in from Skye and Muck to service the sheep farm.
Lachlan Maclean constructed Kinloch House, on a site to the north-east of the present castle, but was forced to give up the lease in the late 1830s. Hugh Maclean of Coll then sold the island in 1845 to Conservative politician James Gascoyne-Cecil, 2nd Marquess of Salisbury (1791–1868), for £26,455. Lord Salisbury reorganised the sheep farm, constructing new cottages linked by roads to a pier at Kinloch. Salisbury also reintroduced red deer and game. He passed the estate to his son, Viscount Cranborne (1821–1865), on whose death it was inherited by his brother, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, later 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. However, he sold Rùm in 1870 to Farquhar Campbell of Aros. The shooting lodge at Tigh Ban was built around this time.
From 1879, the shooting lease was taken by John Bullough (1838–1891), a textile-mill owner from Lancashire. In 1884 Bullough purchased Meggernie Castle in Perthshire, and in 1888 he bought Rùm for £35,000. His intention was to create a shooting reserve, and he introduced new stock of deer and game birds, as well as planting trees. When he died in 1891, his son George Bullough inherited, and built a mausoleum to his father on the island. The first mausoleum, decorated with ceramic tiles, was compared to a public toilet, and Bullough had it demolished, replacing it with the Doric temple which stands today.
He then commissioned a London firm of architects, Leeming & Leeming, to design a luxurious new house. Work on Kinloch Castle began in 1897, employing 300 men from Eigg and Lancashire. The house was built in a castellated Tudor style, using red sandstone from the Isle of Arran. It had its own electricity supply, and also had modern plumbing, heating and telephone systems. A mechanical orchestrion, manufactured in Germany, was installed to provide music in the hall. Kinloch Castle was completed in 1900, at a total cost of £250,000, although further changes were made following Bullough's marriage in 1903. Formal and informal gardens, including a water garden, Japanese garden, bowling green and golf course, were laid out by 1912, using topsoil imported from Ayrshire. A walled garden with glasshouses was erected, which also briefly housed alligators.
During the Boer War, Bullough lent his yacht Rhouma as a hospital ship, bringing wounded soldiers back to Kinloch Castle. For this service he was knighted in 1901. Kinloch Castle was occupied by Bullough and his friends during the shooting season each year, but they visited less frequently after the First World War, and the estate was neglected. The island's population dwindled from 100 in 1900 to 28 in 1951.After Sir George Bullough's death in 1939, the castle and the island were held by trustees, who sold the estate in 1957, retaining only the family mausoleum. In 1967 Sir George's widow Monica was buried at the mausoleum, alongside her husband.
The island was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, a government agency with responsibility for natural heritage, for £23,000, and was designated a National Nature Reserve in line with Lady Bullough's wishes. Ownership of Rùm and Kinloch Castle passed to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on its formation in 1992.
The castle appeared on the BBC television series Restoration in 2003, as part of a bid for funds to restore the structure, reaching the final stages of the competition. Although it did not win, its cause was later taken up by the Prince's Regeneration Trust, a charity founded by Prince Charles which promotes heritage-led regeneration schemes. Funds were sought for an £8 million scheme to restore the castle, however this scheme did not progress.
Kinloch Castle is now managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, supported by the Kinloch Castle Friends' Association, a registered charitable organisation set up in 1996. A number of repairs have been carried out in 2010 and 2011, although the long-term future of the building remains uncertain.Tours of the castle continue to be available, timed to coincide with ferries where possible. Highlights of the tour include the under-stairs orchestrion and a variety of gifts from the Emperor of Japan.
A section at the rear of the castle was operated as a hostel for visitors to the island. Guests had a choice of bunk rooms, or could upgrade to one of a handful of "Oak Rooms" with four-poster beds. The hostel area was kept separate from the museum rooms of the castle. The hostel closed in 2015.
In 2017 the Kinloch Castle Friends' Association began to examine the possibility of creation of a Community Interest Company to take over the running the Castle from SNH. In March 2018, the association decided to formally apply for an asset transfer of the castle and policies and to negotiate the transfer of the contents of the castle. The initial aim is to reopen the hostel accommodation in order to generate income to help to support the castle whilst external funding is sought for more major restoration work.
A report conducted in 2002 by SNH summarised the social significance of Kinloch Castle and the diverging attitudes towards it as follows:
Kinloch Castle has an extremely high social significance, as both a representative of a type of development and lifestyle which exerted considerable influence over land-use in Scotland, and also as associated with a very specific social history of interest in itself in terms of its glamour, its notoriety and the unusual "completeness" to which lifestyle evidence has survived.
The report indicated that Kinloch Castle did not represent any significant design or technical values but this was made up for by the fact that it was a monument to a certain type of social lifestyle existing at the time.
Kinloch Castle is of an externally uninspired design with an unusual though not unserviceable plan, built by clearly competent but yet undistinguished architects who may well have been in some respects "prisoners" of their client’s strong will to the detriment of the overall conception......In terms of general construction technology, Kinloch offered no advance on existing practice.
The social-political monument that it does represent is described as "[A]n extreme example – an "exemplar" even - of the worst kind of highland landlordism" as well as "representative of a social phenomenon for which his (Bullough's) period was noted: third-generation new wealth, opulent lifestyle, sporting interests embracing horseracing, and belonging to the "smart" set (who saw genial but luxuriously-living Edward, Prince of Wales as their exemplar) rather than subscribing to Victorian morality"
Jim Crumley, a Scottish nature writer, described Kinloch Castle as "a monument to… colossal wealth and ego and acquisitive greed… It is a building without a redeeming feature.. a loathsome edifice. It perpetuates only the memory of the worst kind of island lairds… a hideous affront, but nothing that a good fire and subsequent demolition couldn’t rectify".
As Its Population Soars to 40, Rum Isle Glimpses a Future in the Mist
With four new families recently arriving, the remote and rainy island in the Hebrides is experiencing its version of a population surge, although residents new and old concede living here isn’t easy.
By Stephen Castle Photographs by Andrew Testa
ISLE OF RUM, Scotland — No doctors. No restaurants. No churches. And worst of all for some: no pubs.
Life on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides is not for everyone.
But Alex Mumford, one of the approximately 40 people living on the Isle of Rum, says he loves it, although he admits getting a drink could be an adventure, with the nearest pub on the neighboring island of Skye.
“We thought about kayaking across and dropping in for a drink and then kayaking back,” Mr. Mumford said. “But it’s 10 miles over and 10 miles back, so it’s probably not ideal.”
Despite all the challenges of making a home here, the island has seen something of a recent population explosion, at least in percentage terms.
Just a couple of years ago, this isolated outpost had fewer than two dozen residents left, and only two students enrolled at its school. So islanders, heavily outnumbered by Rum’s deer, appealed for newcomers to apply to join them.
Several thousand emails arrived expressing interest. From around 400 applications judged to be serious, four couples were selected, most with young children.
Rum’s widely publicized search for new faces drew attention to what is a wider problem across Scotland’s more than 90 inhabited islands, many of which are experiencing similar existential crises.
“Over the last 10 years, almost twice as many islands have lost populations as have gained,” said a 2019 Scottish government document, which warned that projections suggest they were “at further risk of depopulation.”
That has been averted in Rum, at least for now.
Despite torrents of rain when they arrived in the winter of 2020, then a summer plagued by midges — persistent biting flies — the newcomers are still here, the families in four new, Nordic-style wooden homes rented at attractive prices.
Mr. Mumford, 32, who moved here with his partner from Bristol, a city with more than 460,000 people at the other end of Britain, works both as an administrator at the village school and as a visitor services manager at the Bunkhouse, a hostel for visitors.
People called their decision to move “crazy,” Mr. Mumford said. “I think that the people who are crazy are the people that live box to box with people in flats and cram on trains in rush hour. For me, it was an obvious, easy choice.”
He added: “I was just done with working full time for a large company.”
Most other new arrivals have kept jobs they already had, working remotely thanks to Rum’s broadband internet access, installed by a salmon farming company that employs one islander full time and brings in other workers periodically.
What the island lacks in restaurants and pubs (its lone cafe opens only in summer), it makes up for in natural beauty. At sunrise, Rum is bathed in red light, while seals bob along the waterfront and herons swoop overhead.
Stags loll nonchalantly around the outskirts of Kinloch, the only settlement, while eagles inhabit the island’s volcanic peaks.
Yet if this is an alluring island, it’s also one with a difficult history. In the 19th century, the Gaelic-speaking population was evicted during the so-called Highland clearances when landlords created big sheep farms.
By the end of that century, Rum was the playground of George Bullough, an eccentric English tycoon who built a hunting lodge known as Kinloch Castle, complete with a menagerie that reportedly included a pair of small alligators. Strangers were discouraged from visiting, and rumors spread of louche parties behind the castle’s walls.
None of the island’s current residents have lived here more than three decades.
Fliss Fraser, 50, is one of the longest-tenured residents, having arrived in 1999. She now runs the Ivy Lodge bed-and-breakfast.
She conceded the island’s appeal can be hard for some to appreciate.
“Some people come here and look around and say: ‘It’s misty, it’s muddy, it’s raining, there’s nothing to do, why would you be here?’” she said as she looked out onto a scenic shoreline from which she swims even in winter. Rum, she added, “either grabs people or it doesn’t.”
In summer islanders enjoy spectacular, deserted beaches, spontaneous barbecues, plus the occasional ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), or a party with traditional music.
On the downside, the community, while very supportive, is so small that nothing stays secret for long.
It is best not to fall out with neighbors because they are impossible to avoid. And islanders need to be resourceful. When Ms. Fliss requested a technician from the mainland to fix the phone box outside her home, she was instead sent a replacement unit to install herself.
The arrival of new families has rejuvenated the school, boosting its roll from two to five, according to Susie Murphy, 42, one of two teachers taking turns to come from the mainland. “It’s been really challenging but really good fun,” she said.
The school, which was once a small church, teaches children up to age 11 or 12. Older students have to go to a high school on the mainland, returning to Rum on weekends, weather and the ferry permitting. The lodging for visiting teachers is a well-equipped trailer home, or caravan.
“When the weather is wild the caravan shakes,” said Ms. Murphy, adding that sleeping could be difficult in September because “during rutting season the deer roar right through the night.”
Kim Taylor, who runs the cafe in summer, also has a small venison business. Little has changed in that line of work for more than a century: The carcasses of animals culled to keep the deer population sustainable are brought from the hillside by wild ponies.
Rum has no real agriculture, something one of the arrivals, Stephen Atkinson, 40, hopes to change by keeping some pigs. He has yet to secure permission. The village is owned by a community trust and most of the rest of the island by NatureScot, Scotland’s nature agency, so decision-making can be slow.
Though he said winter nights can be depressing, Mr. Atkinson, who moved to Rum from northern England, isn’t deterred by the rain.
“We live in a world now where people associate sunny and hot weather with positivity and happiness and rainy and dark as negative,” he said. “But there is beauty in everything, and I quite enjoy cold, windy and stormy weather.”
With so few people, the social interactions that do occur can be intense, Mr. Atkinson noted, with a short trip to the village shop stretching into an hourslong outing with all the requisite stops to chat.
“We always say that in some ways it’s not remote enough,” joked Mr. Atkinson, who moved here with his partner and young son.
As the islanders ponder the economic future of their home, they see clear potential for new tourism work, perhaps as guides for walking tours or as local experts for the adventurous looking to swim and kayak in the rough water.
But how many visitors should be encouraged is contentious. Apart from the two rooms at Ms. Fraser’s bed-and-breakfast, Rum has some camping facilities and the Bunkhouse hostel, which Mr. Mumford is renovating.
The big question is what to do with Kinloch Castle, which offered lodging to visitors and tours of its grand rooms but closed during the pandemic.
NatureScot is considering proposals, but restoring the deteriorating building could cost millions of pounds. And some worry more tourism could threaten the wildness of Rum’s landscape and the quietness of life that attracted the residents in the first place.
Its newcomers seem to have embraced Rum’s tranquillity and slower pace, though Mr. Mumford admits to occasional irritation that friends and family in England picture him living on a sort of Celtic treasure island, rather than navigating the challenges of a remote settlement.
As he sheltered from driving rain one recent day, waiting to discover if his car would return from a mainland garage on the ferry, Mr. Mumford made the mistake of calling his father and expecting a little sympathy.
“Are you enjoying paradise?” his dad inquired.