Road to the Isles

First, a word about Argyll. It’s unfashionable to link something as seemingly banal as landscape to issues of politics. Politics is supposed to be about the government, about process and rights and we separate it from sentiment because emotion has no place in our judgment about the way we want our society to work.
Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t agree with this cold reading of our affairs, firstly because it’s not the way I feel but mostly because it isn’t true. Almost every lesson of psychology when it is linked to decision-making betrays the truth – that we all follow our heart when asked to decide. We are more likely to support people we like and will seek ways of justifying our decision against logic if necessary. We want what makes us feel good, not necessarily what is good for us. (I may be bastardising David Hume a bit).

These sentimental reasons reinforce our opinions and explain why an optimistic campaign is trumping a negative one. It is a major element of my politics and was never stronger than in the weeks before the 1997 general election when I travelled around Scotland to produce a light-hearted on-air diary about the campaign going through our deprived inner-city areas, down to Berwick and the Border, over to Ayr, Aberdeen and up to Portree. It was in seeing Scotland as it really is, with its the breadth of physical landscape, watching towns come to life in the early morning and speaking to the shopkeepers and customers, office workers and cleaners that I got a rounded view of our country. We all have our own Scotland, our individual little bit, but it was in seeing it on a universal scale that my eyes were opened. From the high rise flats in Springburn to returning via the north of Skye with its rock towers I had a powerful sense of belonging and a conviction that no matter how varied the environment, we are one.
The A82 out of Glasgow always brings a shiver of excitement, up through Glencoe, and the Corran Ferry drops us in Ardnamurchan. When I first went there 25 years ago it was a revelation – single-track roads, sheep wandering in front, tree-topped rocks and miles of bogland. Much remains of course but every mile or so there is development…new houses, many wood-fronted, Scandinavian-style brightly painted with porticoes and balconies, an attractive new primary school, there is the distillery newly-built and a new store expected in Acharacle by the summer. There has been upgrading at the Salen Hotel, at the Community Centre in Kilchoan and the Post Office Team Room in Archaracle. There is a sense of activity and vibrancy.

As well as traditional voices, there are many English accents as people relocate for a different way of living. European money is funding some of this and EU rules affect business. When we met Fergie Macdonald, the Ceilidh King, at Mingarry, he showed us around the family venison business that looks like a hut by the side of the road but inside, as European rules demand, is as scrubbed and organised as an operating theatre. He’s a man of some character and could be the advertising front man for Ardnamurchan and Moidart. Anyway, I left with two steaks and a set of antlers.
If anything encapsulates the bleakly beautiful and unyielding nature of the West Coast it is, for me, Castle Tioram on Loch Moidart. It sits stubby on the rock promentary, totally exposed and defiant, broad-shouldered and built for defence without compromise except for the addition of two upper floor turrets from the 17th century, like earrings on a shaven-headed thug. This is an ancient keep, not a crenelated fairy tower – a no-nonsense, fuck off Scottish castle. It makes me proud just to look at it.


For some reason though it is being allowed to crumble into the sea having been judged bizarrely as too valuable a ruin. Couldn’t the work along the coast at Mingary Castle be used as a model. The Trust there has a 999 year lease and is returning it to its proper condition and will add tourist facilities, if the money can be raised.
By the way the distillery is the work of Better Together donor Donald Houston who owns the Ardnamurchan Estate. He seems to be very active in developing the business side of the estate from what I saw. I’m not sure myself how a man who can afford to put £500,000 into a political campaign needs £1.8m in taxpayers money for a business venture but HIE will know the answer to that. There’s no missing Donald’s proud British loyalties when you visit Glenborrodale Castle, his luxury lodge overlooking Loch Sunart – he has a giant Union Jack up the flagpole on the front lawn…how we laughed.
Donald’s doing his bit locally no doubt but I recall on my first foray to the far west, the same estate was owned by General Accident. Yes, a London insurance company, cash-rich from the Thatcher boom, owned tens of thousands of acres of our country as a wilderness hideaway for its busy executives and their clients. It’s only a question of money, not of entitlement or of rights, that’s what determines who owns Scotland. Today it’s Donald Houston and in ten years time? Let’s hope the next Scottish government gets serious about land reform and opens it up to more democratic approaches instead of leaving the lives and employment of so many in the hands of the laird. (Do you think this may be a reason Donald is so keen for Scotland to vote No?)
Our journey west was a reminder of what a magnificent country this is and why it is a ridiculous farce that we don’t run it for ourselves. With independence we can be even more enterprising and add fairness and equality to economic development.

And thanks to our hosts Susan and Kenneth at who have shown how one of our key industries in earnings and employment – tourism – is so successful.

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38 thoughts on “Road to the Isles

  1. interesting commentary on scottish perspective,not quite your rousing narative

  2. Derek – interesting article, but can I just point out that Ardnamurchan is not in Argyll?

  3. A beautiful piece Derek and written from the heart. We go North West to Gairloch every year for three weeks and never ever tire of the experience. In face our two grandsons have come up to Gairloch every year since they were born and Rowan will be 17 this year and Torin 12. All the family were there for our Golden Wedding 2 years ago and what a wonderful time we had.

    What a coincidence re Fergie. He played at my late daughter’s wedding in Ardgour House. But then Scotland is that kind of place – meeting friends and family all over the country.

    Once again thank you for your lovely article and keep them coming.

  4. Lex Brown, the owner of Castle Tioram, has been seeking permission to restore it for over a decade. For a long time Historic Scotland seemed set on it remaining a ruin. It would be interesting to know where things stand now.

  5. CashForQuestions

    Better watch the sweary words Derek you might upset some of the shrinking violets on Wings over Scotland

  6. There is no way the next Scottish Government cannot be serious about Land Reform. I am a committed YES but if it was to fudge this issue I might wonder why I bothered.

    The responses on ScotGov website to LRRG are a joy to behold – from the unanimous NO to change from Scottish land and Estates to that of the magnificent Andy Wightman. In a recent TV programme it was revealed a Dane who had bought a big estate here as an investment, paid high land taxes to the DANISH government for the privilege of such ownership !!

    • I didn’t see the TV programme but the Dane who bought that Highland estate has let it be known that he gets away with all sorts of “improvements” in Scotland which would never be tolerated by the Danish Government.

  7. Just for accuracy Derek, General Accident was a Scottish company, headquartered in Perth until it merged with Commercial Union back in (I think) 1999.

    Agree with you re Castle Tioram. The rule that old buildings must be left to decay as it’s more ‘authentic’ is lunacy. I’ve often thought what could be made of Linlithgow Palace if the government had the vision to reconstruct it. A Scottish museum of Mediaeval History perhaps?

    • Close, it was actually 1998 when General Accident merged with CU. Its world headquarters was on the south side of Perth, just below the M90 motorway, in the building where its successor Aviva is now. The Ardnamurchan estate was bought as an investment and run commercially. I never heard of it being used as a perk for senior executives or clients, but the houses and cottages were promoted heavily to staff as holiday houses (at a commercial rate).

  8. Other countries are much more positive about the sensitive restoration of historic buildings for modern uses. I suspect that Historic Scotland’s strong attachment to ruins has its origins in the romantic Scottish Unionism promoted by Sir Walter Scott. Leaving our built heritage in a ruinous condition helps to keep our national story safely in the past.

  9. If memory services, Lex Brown first walked in the door of my (then) office in 1998 to discuss Tioram, and it was not until there was an SNP administration that we saw any move away from “Ruin in the Landscape” approach. Alas, I suspect the opportunity came too late and we now simply have the managed decay of yet another irreplaceable part of our heritage. Whilst the heads of those at Historic Scotland responsible for the original debacle have all rolled, it is scant consolation.

  10. Nice holiday snaps Derek!

    Yes, agree with you and others here that land reform is a top priority in an independent Scotland. It’s important not just for the scenic parts of Scotland – which are many – but would make an important difference to land ownership throughout Scotland. I’ve been reading Lesley Riddoch’s book ‘Blossom’ and it has really convinced me that land reform would be transforming to Scotland.

    • So glad someone else has read Blossom. On land issues, it must be a priority in our new Scotland. Folk need land to build, grow food, to call their own, be proud of.

  11. With wines of Burgundy and sourcing venison, Derek seems to be establishing a diverse and well-stocked club.

  12. ”A no nonsense, fuck off Scottish castle”.

    I like that!

  13. I’ve been too Castle Tioram quite a few times. I remember some twenty odd years ago when you could go inside and you could step and climb up to the higher parts of the ruin. I’m not saying it was perfectly safe but at least we had access and the sensible fearties among us could choose to keep their feet on terra firma. Now it’s all secured to prevent access with keep out warning signs spelling out all the risks associated with unauthorised entry. Slowly it deteriorates and gradually loses it’s battle with the elements. Should a ruin be allowed to gradually become more of ruin or could we develop it or at least find a way to preserve and secure it in its current state? This is an important monument and it is a part of Scotland’s heritage. Private ownership of this building is not working in the interests of Scotland. So, genuine question to which I have no answer. Could a yes vote make a difference to this?

  14. On the contrary, the private sector brought forward a fully-funded solution for Tioram including a community trust to take it on after Mr. Brown’s custodianship came to an end. Planning permission was granted, and I have to say that Highland Council and Dr. Foxley drove an extremely hard bargain in terms of public access, performance bonds, archaeological work, and so on. It was only Historic Scotland who stood in the way.

    Public sector intervention is certainly one solution, but an expensive one. There are something like 2,300 properties on the Buildings at Risk Register (BARR) for Scotland, and only a small proportion of these will be saved. Perth City Hall, anyone?

    As we move forward, we have to consider what can be saved using public funds and where there might be opportunities for public-private colaboration.

    Will a Yes vote make a difference? Well I suppose that an oil dividend might mean that the current freeze on Historic Scotland funding loosens, but it’s hard to see that happening and hence the need for more innovative solutions.

    • A Yes vote ought to make a difference. I don’t buy the BT ‘obsessed with independence’ argument, but there’s no doubt that several issues have been left on the back burner – primarily land reform. It’s a highly contentious and difficult policy area, and it will probably take years (despite the LRRG) to come up with something that can be implemented simply and progressively, while steering its way around the many obstacles from human rights to EU laws that will have to be navigated.
      But once we have secured independence, we can put far more effort and energy into these issues – because that simple statement that we want to take our own decisions will be a huge incentive to get on with the job.

      • I agree kininvie with your sentiments. There is a slow but growing appetite for community ownership. It is becoming the norm in many of our remote rural areas- see North and West Harris Community Trusts for example; and did anyone see the reports on a potential bid for one of the co-op farms at Blairgowrie.
        I for one would like to see reform of local government whereby local communities are provided with the legal and financial tools to own and manage services and community assets.

  15. If the Land Value Tax ever gets off the ground,perhaps tax breaks could be considered for private land owners who have “ruins” on their property on the understanding that agreed restoration will take place over a specific time frame.

  16. You should take up the issue of land reform more frequently and in more detail Derek: I can see that you are warming to it! Perhaps you could start by taking a look at the current proposals by the Forestry Commission to sell off Rosal forest in Strathnaver in one lot.

    The relevant thread in Andy Wightman’s blog shows that this is a complex issue with a range of views on what would be best for the greatest public benefit. But the decision by an SNP Minister to give the go ahead to a sale which could conceivably transfer a publicly- owned forest to a single private owner whose true identity could quite legally be hidden is a strange one. And this in the month when the Land Reform Review Group is expected to produce their report.

    It would be good if issues relating to land reform could move a bit more centre stage in the run up to the referendum. Maybe you could investigate?

  17. Dr JM Mackintosh

    Hi Derek,

    Before your holidays I was going to suggest that you dropped in to see Fergie. He is a true Highland Legend and a great supporter for the Yes campaign.
    See this for his new Yes single (not Anderson, Wakeman, Howe, Squire & Bruford)

    Another funny thing – I was also going to recommend to go to see Castle Tioram. Like David I have been there many times and it was great to get into the castle before it was closed off.

    I do not see why this castle cannot be saved – most of our famous west coast castles were in a ruininous state before being restored – many were a lot worse than Tioram; Eilean Donan, Duart, Kisimul and Stalker are some fine examples.

    SNH should really review this and let Tioram be conserved and rebuilt for the nation.

    Perhaps, the Clan MacDonald are still seen as being too anti-establishment to be celebrated as the former leaders of the Gaelic Highlands and Islands ?

    Hopefully, this may change come September 18th.

    • was tioram not Clan Ranald territory?

      • Dr JM Mackintosh

        Yes – but they are all McDonalds…
        MacDonald of Sleat,
        Clan Ranald,
        McDonnell of Antrim,
        McDonnell of Glengarry,
        McDonald of Dunnyveg and the Glens,
        McDonald of Keppoch,
        McDonald of Ardmamurchan,
        McIain of Glencoe.

        However, although they ruled most of the west of Scotland and part of Northern Ireland for a long time there is not one of their old castles left habitable.

        Hence it would be good to have one restored – Tioram is the one.

  18. Jamie McIntyre

    Actually, Derek is right, Ardnamurchan is in Argyll. The old county boundary runs down the middle of Loch Shiel and the River Shiel. That is not of course the same as the modern local authority area of Argyll & Bute, but many people locally still refer to the county not least in postal addresses.

  19. The land reform issue will require significant changes to the tax system to be properly addressed, something impossible without … independence.

    • Agreed, hence my comment above. A land tax escalation based on something like the old Macaulay assessment since 250 acres in Lothian, enough to allow a family a great way of life, is somewhat different to the same area up in Melness.

      The idea of one man owning 53000 acres as an investment beggars belief and makes us a laughing stock.

  20. One of the big things a devolved Scottish Parliament can tackle is land issues.

    That it hasn’t is a bit of a mystery to me.

    andygm1 – an intriguing idea about Linlithgow. It used to look like the chateaux on the Loire before it went on fire in the 17th and 18th centuries. It would look stunning restored – mind you we are so accustomed to our old buildings being ruinous or bare stone, look at the fuss when part of Stirling castle was repainted in the authentic fashion.

  21. Not sure why or if I’ve only really just noticed but the use of Facebook for ‘local community councils’ being able to get the info out there seems to me to be on the up.As well as people like Derek ( and other political blogs ) highlighting what is going on all over Scotland, ‘stuff’ that normally could pass by until you read it’s been done (by the big Council) in their newspaper is now coming under proper scrutiny – long may it continue! I assume the community empowerment Bill is stage 1?
    A few years ago, three buildings, bequeathed to the area were left to fall into disrepair, until the weather took its toll, the land they sat on was deemed more valuable.An adjacent golf club had been approached re their land and I remember talking to a London financier,( who’d kept his membership up for his holidays,)being very enthusiastic about the land being sold, despite no longer living in the area,so not affected by the proposals. Could you imagine anyone living in Venice or Verona saying, “that buildings got a few cracks and looks a bit old let’s knock it down and build something that looks like gyproc ?”
    I’ve never driven round a corner and thought “my God there’s a pound” but I have turned a corner and thought wow- “that view, how lucky am I?”

  22. I don’t think it’s banal to link the landscape to politics. We are no country without our beautiful, stunning landscape. I remember the day it came clear, in 2007, that the SNP had won the Scottish election. I was driving home through the country and the sky was cloudless, thinking what a more beautiful country it now is that the stranglehold of Labour on Scotland had finally been loosened.


  24. Dr JM Mackintosh


    It is getting quite funny. Every day there is another new scare story.

    It must take some coordination between the No campaign, the UK establishment, the BBC and MSM to keep up the steady stream of nonsense.

    Never mind only 153 Project Fear scare stories to go!

  25. Bob McCracken; now that comment from you did make me smile. Fawlty logic from HM Govt. surely.

    And then we have a new bright “that’ll show them” scare theme for the man in the street from Bitter Together on the cost of a pint of lager in the Scandia countries, quickly followed by a counter by Yes of average earnings in each of these countries. Does lighten the mood.

  26. Nice holiday snaps Derek. I know the area well, have caravan at Glenuig, started going up there in the early ’60’s (!) Wanted to ask a boring technical photo-question : are these black-and-whites a special dig. application, ie. have they been photoshopped or whatever, for a heavy sky, as in red filter. I’m in the middle of a black-and-white project about Edinburgh Old Town, and it would be useful if there was some trick I could use, other than simply desaturating. I should know about this sort of thing as I’m a professional, so-called, but am somewhat technologically challenged. Took me years to master photo-chemistry, then had to start again with dig.. Not that I miss the dark-room. I enjoy reading your ‘blog. cheers, John R

    • John Hi
      They were shot on an iPhone 5 using its built in filter. Easy peasy. Mt iphone4 also has it. Just a one touch keystroke in camera mode. No magic. Good luck.

  27. Castle Tioram stands boarded up and “crumbling into the sea” because its owner of 17 years neglects his responsibilities for this finest and most beautifully situated of all Scotland’s castles.
    Historic Scotland have made it plain that they would support and grant-aid maintenance and consolidation work, irrespective of what happens to the castle in the longer term.

    The reasons Historic Scotland continue to regard rebuilding of this scheduled ancient monument as inappropriate can be found in detail on their web pages:

    I especially recommend the HS Board paper of 2006 which meticulously goes through the ways in which rebuilding would damage the structure, archaeology and cultural value of the castle:

    Declaration of interest: I am a Trustee of the Clanranald Castle Tioram Trust, the community charity formed to bid for the castle in 1997 – the year when Lex Brown bought the castle despite HS’s views on rebuilding being set out in the sales particulars.

    • Peter Drummond

      Interestingly, I only remember one person at the inquiry having to withdraw some of their evidence due to a lack of substance. Can you remember who it was that suffered that painful 45 minutes in the witness box in Acharacle Primary School, Denis?

  28. Peter Drummond

    In fact, let’s look at what Historic Scotland say now:

    The owner of Castle Tioram and Historic Scotland have begun new discussions on bringing the Castle back into residential use. It is very early in the process and any proposed works will require scheduled monument consent from Historic Scotland and will be assessed in line with the Scottish Historic Environment Policy. There is currently no application for scheduled monument consent for Castle Tioram with Historic Scotland.

    I’m not sure that this quite squares with the picture painted by Denis!

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