Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rodel - Part 2

That picture is from the Rodel Hotel's website.

Built in the early 1780s, I believe the hotel may be the oldest continuously inhabited house in the Outer Hebrides. It was built (not as a hotel, of course) by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray. He bought Harris in 1772 for £15,000 from his cousin, MacLeod of Dunvegan whose ancestors had owned the island as clan chiefs since medieval times.

Captain MacLeod had made a fortune in the Far East and this was an early example of a nouveau riche buying out the "old guard" of clan chief landlords. Having a retinue of armed clansmen no longer cut the mustard in the late 18th century as it had in previous centuries. Many chiefs failed to adjust to the new realities, got into financial difficulties, and had to sell off their estates - often to more financially astute relatives (who didn't have to carry the baggage "chiefship") in the interests of "keeping it in the family".

This is not unlike the modern day equivalent of the Tetrapak heiress, Lisbet Rausing, buying Corrour Estate in Lochaber and lavishing a fortune of her "new money" building this new lodge there in the early 2000s:-

(Above picture Copyright Graham_jma.)

Captain MacLeod's new house at Rodel would have been just as startling and arresting in its context as Lisbet Rausing's new lodge at Corrour in the 2000s: in Harris in the 1780s there would have been nothing larger than a black house in the whole island.

MacLeod didn't just plan a fancy new house, however. He also wanted to create employment on Harris. The main industry in mind was fishing. You can see from the top picture in this post that Rodel has a sheltered harbour but the Captain also built the piers you can see outside his house. A writer in 1786 also spoke of "a manufacturing house for spinning woollen and linen thread" - that would have been a big deal in Glasgow in the 1780s never mind Harris so the effect must have been dramatic. Below is a painting of Rodel drawn in 1819 by the water-colourist William Daniell:-

The Captain's house (now the hotel) and piers are clearly visible to the left. The house on the right is still there but roofless and empty. Behind is St Clement's Church, another distinctive feature of Rodel to this day and one of the finest medieval churches in the whole of Scotland, never mind the Hebrides (I'll come back to the church in a later post).


Alas, Captain MacLeod's grand schemes and investments didn't ultimately prosper. Fishing has always been a fickle trade and the taxes on salt (essential before refrigeration for preserving fish to get them to the consumer) were against him. His grandson cleared Harris of its tenantry - the people the Captain had hoped to give employment to - to convert the island to extensive sheep farming before selling it to the Earl of Dunmore in the 1830s.

MacLeod's 18th century schemes to develop fishing and give employment were terribly reminiscent of Lord Leverhulme's schemes to the same end on Harris in the early 20th century just up the road at Leverburgh (the clue's in the name). Leverhulme started the company still on the go today as the multinational Unilever but his pet project to develop fishing on Harris died with him in the 1920s - I'll come back to that episode in Harris' history in a later post as well.

And I've just realised I haven't got round to explaining why the Rodel Hotel isn't that grey colour as seen in the previous post because they haven't got round to painting it yet. But as this post is already way too long that will have to wait for next time as well. I leave you with a picture of the hotel - Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray's new house built in the early 1780s - in 1991 before it was renovated:-

1 comment:

  1. A lovely part of the world. I remember visiting Rodel church after staying in AM BOTHAN in Leverburgh. My teacher decided he would point out all the carving of vulgar ladies on the side of the church!