Monday, September 12, 2011

Glencripesdale Estate

I'm not sure how you pronounce it (I think it's "Crippiss-dale") but it's for sale at offers over £2.6 million through estate agents Bell Ingram - you can download the sale brochure here.

Glencripesdale is 4,580 acres (1,850 hectares) of the Morvern peninsula, eight miles from the end of the nearest public road on the remote south shore of Loch Sunart in north west Argyll. It's history spans the clash of medieval broadswords to the flying of 21st century writs for judicial review: it epitomises nicely the blood, sweat and consultancy fees of Highland landownership through five centuries. 

Since medieval times Morvern had been the territory of the MacLeans of Duart. In the 1670s, they distinguished themselves by becoming the first clan in history to lose their patrimony not by blood-feud but by defaulting on their mortgage payments. Unfortunately their lender wasn't the Nationwide Building Society but the chief of Clan Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, an unforgiving creditor who had assiduously bought up MacLean debts specifically with a view to foreclosing on them. 

In the second half of the 18th century, the Dukes of Argyll (as the Campbell chiefs had become) reorganised their estates, including the former MacLean land in Morvern, by renting them as commercial sheep and cattle farms in place of the communal peasant farming which had prevailed hitherto. This was an early phase of what became known as "the Highland Clearances". That's an expression which covers a multitude of not properly understood sins but, whatever the rights and wrongs, the Argyll estates in Morvern are significant for having left an architectural heritage of 18th century farmhouses built by these incoming capitalist farmers. You can read an article about them here (Big pdf download.)

Glencripesdale was one of these farms and its farmhouse was typical of the genre. It was built by its tenant, Duncan Campbell of Gleunure, around 1775. A farmhouse may seem a pretty mundane thing but the fact is Glencripesdale is one of the oldest farmhouses (as we understand them today) in Scotland. It retains the original wooden sash and case windows installed when it was built 230 years ago. 

Morvern - Glencripesdale house
Glencripesdale Farmhouse - photo credit Gil Campbell
In the 1820s, it became the Argylls' turn to succumb to debt. In the first half of the 19th century it was virtually par for the course for clan chiefs to lose their estates to creditors, including such illustrious names as MacNeil of Barra, MacDonald of Clanranald and MacDonell of Glengarry. The Campbells managed to retain their core estates around Inveraray but most of the former Maclean lands in Mull and Morvern went under the hammer to meet the gambling debts of the 6th Duke, a friend of the Prince Regent. It was an ironic reversal of fortunes vis a vis the MacLeans of Duart 150 years earlier.

Glencripesdale was bought by Donald Stewart of Auch in 1821 and by the 1840s, the farm belonged to his son, Alexander. Nicknamed "Glenstool" for reasons unknown, he features in the journal of James Robertson, the Sheriff of Tobermory on Mull in two entries in 1843:-

"On my arrival at [home] I found Sandy Stewart Glencripesdale with his pretty bride, and his brother in law Niel Stewart, Foss, and a young Edinburgh lad, Bob Renton, sitting round the Table with a quantity of biscuits, glasses and an empty Wine decanter before them. I procured a reinforcement of solids and liquids, and we passed an hour or two very jovially. Mrs Stewart retired at half past 11 and Niel and his young friend went down to the Inn at the same time to roost. Sandy took his three tumblers of toddy and enlarged wisely and emphatically on the incomparable felicity of the married state which he strongly recommended to my consideration and adoption.

Wednesday 9 August 1843 

When I was dressing Glenstool came in to my room looking drumly and unrefreshed; he complained of our late sederunt [sitting] last night. I denied the premises, upon which he exclaimed hurriedly: "aye aye its well for you to say so, but mind - I had to give a horn to the wife after I went to bed - mind that, mind that - that makes the difference, you see", rubbing his hands and winking ..."

Married life doesn't seem to have agreed with Glenstool, however, as he was dead less than three years later.

In 1871, the third generation of Stewarts sold up. By the later 19th century, the primary interest in Highland estates was no longer as farms but as sporting estates where nouveaux riches could entertain their guests stalking deer, shooting grouse and fishing for salmon - it was the Victorian equivalent of today's Russian oligarchs buying Premiership football clubs. 

The purchasers of Glencripesdale were the Reverend Horace Newton and his two brothers, one also a clergyman. Heirs to a vast fortune derived from the fact that their family happened to own the land a big chunk of Birmingham had been built on during the Industrial Revolution, they immediately adorned their Scottish acquisition with a new mansion house beside the 18th century farmhouse: it was so opulent even the servants' bedrooms had hot and cold running water.

Picture scanned from "The Western Seaboard - An illustrated architectural guide" by Mary Miers which you can buy here
In a pattern repeated all over the Highlands of Scotland in the high Victorian era, Glencripesdale was built into a community of retainers - 100 strong, at its peak - dedicated to the Newtons' summer house parties. There was a school, a shop, church services in the billiard room and annual Highland Games on the lawn. Farming was not totally eschewed and a prize winning herd of Highland cattle was built up although this was hobby farming albeit on a megalomaniac scale.

These Victorian and Edwardian sporting estates never really recovered their former glory after the First World War. During the Second War, Glencripesdale House was requisitioned by the army for special operations training and left in poor condition, a fate suffered by a number of big houses in the West Highlands. In 1955, the estate was sold to the Forestry Commission. Having no use for it, the FC arranged in the early 1960s for the army to return to dynamite the Newtons' mansion house which had been roofless since the late 1940s. This was also the fate of many big houses on estates bought by the Forestry Commission after the War. 

It's said it took the army two attempts to blow up Glencripesdale House due to the fact that it was built of concrete. In the 1870s, the Newton brothers were very early exponents of building in concrete and, while their mansion house is no longer visible, there are still some more humble survivors of their concrete buildings to be seen such as the pier and storehouse by the shore of Loch Sunart pictured below: like the 18th century Glencripesdale Farmhouse, it's a mundane enough structure but it's is one of the earliest concrete buildings in Scotland:-

And that's probably a good point to leave this overlong post at. In Part 2, I'll resume the story with the latest generation of Highland landlords after the Forestry Commission sold Glencripesdale in the 1980s and 90s.


  1. Very interesting Neil, considering I spent a fair amount of time in that part of the world as a child I have no recollection of visiting the estate. Looking forward to part 2

    1. Jane Speller (nee Cross)September 5, 2012 at 12:50 PM

      My Father and his family used to spend June to October every year at Glen from the mid 1930's. They would hire a train from London and ship up the entire household from Fleet in Hampshire where they lived. They had a twenty year Lease on the property, and our family name is CROSS. Jane Speller, Provence