Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Courthill

Courthill is a derelict Victorian mansion house at Kishorn in Wester Ross. I went for quick look round the outside of it on a very wet (and unsuitable for photography) day in December 2011.


I remember Courthill from the 1960s when we used to go on holiday to a cottage in nearby Achintraid when I was a child. I remember my parents telling me the roof was deliberately taken off after the War because the lead was more valuable than the house. That sort of thing that gets a 6 year old thinking - what's so good about lead that it's more expensive than a house? Especially a very big one like Courthill - are you sure it wasn't roofed with gold?


Below is the only picture I've ever seen of Courthill when it was still in use. It was taken in July 1931 and comes from the collection of Robert M Adam held by St Andrews University Photo Archive.


I had to look long and hard at that photograph to reassure myself it was indeed Courthill. But it is - what's in the centre of my photo at the top is off to the left behind the trees but the right hand bit in my photo is what's on the left of the 1931 pic.

As to the history of the house, around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Courthill was the smallest of the three estates which comprised the parish of Lochcarron. It belonged to Major Alexander Macdonald - a great grandson of Sir James Macdonald, 9th chief of the Macdonalds of Sleat, and married to a niece (by another account, a great grand-daughter) of Flora Macdonald, he was also tacksman (tenant) of Monkstadt in Trotternish on Skye where he lived.

An interesting snippet is that this well connected member of Clan Donald held Courthill as feudal vassal of the Earl of Seaforth, the chief of the MacKenzies - in earlier centuries, that might have caused a conflict of clan loyalties but was an irrelevance by the late 18th century.

Major Alexander Macdonald of Courthill & Monkstadt
An overtly English name like "Courthill" in the overwhelmingly Gaelic world of 19th century Wester Ross usually betrays an interesting story. I've not been able to find any explanation except that the name was in existence as early as 1807 when it's marked on Aaron Arrowsmith's map of that year.-

   
It's interesting to note that it's marked as "Court Hill or Laggandown" on the Arrowsmith map (above). Laggandown also appears on the Roy Maps of the 1740s-50s:-


So Laggandown - which I think is Gaelic for "brown hollow" - was the original name of a place which became known as Courthill. I'd guess an 18th century laird who'd made some money abroad settled there but decided its Gaelic name was too uncouth so he changed it to the name of his English wife's parents' house - or something like that. It's the reverse equivalent today of people buying a house in Wester Ross called "Sea View" and deciding that was rather pedestrian and renaming it something more couthy like "Sealladh na Mara" (which I believe to be the Gaelic for "view of the sea").

   
Who changed the name, I can't discover but we read in a footnote to page 276 of Alexander Mackenzie's magisterial "History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles" (1881) that Major Macdonald of Courthill's eldest son, another Alexander, "was never married. He became insane when a young man by an operation performed on his ears for deafness, and lived principally with his brother Hugh [at Monkstadt], and was quite harmless." Whether that tragic circumstance had anything to do with it, I don't know, but the New Statistical Account for the Parish of Lochcarron compiled in 1836 recorded that there were now only two landowners in the parish which indicates that the Macdonalds had sold Courthill to their neighbours, the MacKenzies of Applecross. (The other landowner was Matheson of Attadale.)

In 1854, Thomas MacKenzie, 9th laird of Applecross, sold the whole of his estates, including Courthill, to the splendidly named Francis Godolphin D'Arcy D'Arcy Osborne, 7th Duke of Leeds.

Arsy-D'Arcy D'Arcy to his friends
The sale was part of a common pattern in the mid 19th century in which native families who had owned their lands for generations sold out to Victorian nouveaux riches. But the Duke of Leeds didn't enjoy his new Scottish estate for long. In 1859, only five years after he had bought it, he died and Applecross passed to his nephew, the equally splendidly named Sackville George Lane Fox, Lord Conyers. Two years later, in 1861, Conyers sold the Applecross estate in lots. The central portion - which included Courthill and became known as Lochcarron Estate extending to 32,450 acres - was bought by Sir John Stuart.  

Approximate boundaries of Lochcarron Estate bought by Sir John Stuart in 1861
Stuart was the son of a family from Ballachulish in Argyll who became a barrister in London, then an MP before becoming a senior judge in the English courts. He retired in 1871 and died in 1876. His grave in the old cemetry next to Courthill House can still be seen.

Sir John Stuart of Lochcarron's grave - photo credit Roddie Macpherson
Sir John was succeeded by his son Dugald Stuart but in 1882, only six years after he came in to his inheritance, he sold Lochcarron Estate to Charles James Murray, the MP for Hastings (as in "Battle of ...". He later moved to be MP for Coventry 1895-1906.)

As to the history of Courthill House (as opposed to its surrounding estate), my main source of information is the scottisharchitects.org website. This merely records that "alterations and repairs" were carried out in 1856 by architect Alexander Ross. I suspect that understates what happened in 1856. I'd guess that hitherto Courthill was an unpretentious Georgian farm house and what Ross did was convert it into a Victorian mansion house. I suspect the Duke of Leeds, having just bought the whole Applecross Estate in 1854, fixed on Courthill as his seat and commissioned Ross to transform it into something befitting his ducal station (perhaps as a conscious departure from the MacKenzies' seat at Applecross itself)

The architects.org website records further additions in 1883 after the Murrays acquired the house and more in 1901 including the addition of a conservatory. Extensions to Courthill can be seen between the 1875 and 1902 editions of the Ordnance Survey Map below. Generally, it seems to have expanded east and north (that's to the right and behind in the photos above):-


Provost of Inverness 1889-95, the architect Alexander Ross, was responsible for a number of Victorian buildings in this part of Scotland including Gairloch Hotel and Duncraig Castle. There's more about him, with a photo, here.

In 1885, Charles Murray's daughter, Elspeth, died aged just 4. In 1900, tragedy afflicted the family again when his eldest son, Lieutenant Alastair Murray of the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action during the Boer War aged 22. Amongst the 1901 additions to Courthill was a chapel which included stained glass windows in memory of Elspeth and Alastair. More information about the chapel with pictures on Undiscovered Scotland.

Picture credit James Yardley

According to the Undiscovered Scotland website linked to above, the Murrays lost part of their fortune during World War I and came to live at Courthill full time as a result. This sort of suggests they were "slumming it in the holiday home" but I don't know what other estates or houses they had. Maybe it was just a case of having to sell the Edinburgh and/or London townhouses. 


C J Murray died in 1929 and his wife four years later. Despite their wealth and privilege, they'd had their fair share of tragedy and worry and apparently the death of Mrs Murray  in 1933 was when Courthill was abandoned. The Murrays' surviving son, Charles, junior, had meantime built himself another, no doubt smaller and more manageable house elsewhere on the estate. I don't know, but I'm guessing that house is Couldoran, a few miles north of Courthill on the road to Shieldaig.

Couldoran with the hills of Applecross behind

Charles Murray, junior, died in 1945 and that was the catalyst for the sale of Lochcarron Estate. It was sold in lots in 1946 and the purchaser of the lot with Courthill House on it, having no use for the house and finding it a liability, took the roof off and sold the lead to avoid having to pay rates on it. I don't know who the ruin belongs to now but the Murray family retained the chapel in 1946 and eventually gifted it to the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1979. It's still in business as a church (with wheelchair access as well) - further details here.

 
 Above is the partially blocked main gate of Courthill. The three stars in the crest are a feature (yellow on blue) in the arms of both the Dukes of Atholl and the Earls of Dunmore, both peerages held by Murrays. The Courthill family are descended from the Dunmores except that the stars in the Atholl and Dunmore arms are both two on top and one underneath contrary to the pattern at the gate of Courthill. I wonder if C J Murray unofficially adopted an ancient Murray motif with a minor adaptation so as not tousurp the arms of his more exalted cousins? Below the crest on the gate is an inscription in Gaelic (I think) but I don't know what it means.

Courthill seen from Google Earth
As I've typed this story about Courthill, I couldn't help thinking about Downton Abbey. The TV series portrays an image of these country houses as being somehow timeless, permanent and enduring. But so often when you dig in to the history, you discover just how ephemeral many of them actually were. Courthill has now stood empty and ruinous for almost as long as it was in use - just 75 years or so from the 1850s to the 1930s.

Picture credit Joe Dunckley