Friday, September 7, 2012

Shuna Castle

Picture credit extra-minty
Duncraig Castle was at least Victorian but, having been built in 1911, Shuna Castle is not even Edwardian! The only feature it shares with any real castles (bar these faux battlements) is that it's empty and crumbling. In reality, it was no more than a rather pretentious farmhouse. And as I'm not certain even its owners ever called it a "castle", from hereon I'm going with the Ordnance Survey and calling it Shuna House.

Something I've always been interested in is small islands with disproportionately large and grandiose houses on them. At 1,100 acres (450ha), the island of Shuna, 15 miles (25km) south of Oban, is relatively big compared to its house in the spectrum I'm thinking about but Shuna House is the only example of the genre I've ever had afternoon tea in.

Mapping from National Libraries of Scotland
I read in Hamish Haswell-Smith's "Scottish Islands" that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Shuna seems to have been contested between the local clans, the Campbells and the MacLeans. But as was so often the case, the island passed around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries from its ancestral owners to alien nouveaux riches. When owner James Yates died in 1829, he bequeathed Shuna to the City of Glasgow with the stipulation that the income be devoted to benevolent purposes. That didn't mean benevolent to the population of Shuna so Glasgow sold the island to invest the proceeds in something more profitable to its own citizens.

The north end of Shuna before the "castle" was built as seen on the OS 6 inch map of 1880
At the 1891 census, the population of Shuna was 11 meaning it was, in effect, a farm. Soon after, the island was bought - I believe - by Sir William Gully, speaker of the House of Commons. He was raised to the peerage as Viscount Selby upon his retirement from that office in 1905.

Mr Speaker Gully as cariacatured in Vanity Fair in 1896
The 1st Lord Selby died in 1909 so it may have been his son, James, the 2nd Viscount, who saw the crenellated new "farm house" on Shuna to completion two years later. If I'm sounding a bit vague about my facts, it's deliberate: I know the Selbys were the owners of Shuna for much of the 20th century but I've not been able to nail that it was they - and/or which one of them - who commissioned Shuna House.

Said to have cost £300,000 (about £30 million in today's prices), the architect of Shuna House, according to the Buildings at Risk Register, was a local, Neil Gillies from Lochgilphead. He is said to have died on the Titanic - more about him here where it's interesting to note his connection to the nearby Crinan Hotel.

Picture credit Andy Holmfirth
Zooming forward 60 years to the mid 70s, I remember dropping anchor off Shuna in my father's yacht (a functional and unpretentious 26' Westerly Centaur) and going up to the house. He had a business connection with the then chatelaine, Fiona Gully, and it was considered a ploy to call at her island home.

An attractive, vivacious lady in her mid 30s, a native of Iona, Fiona wasn't Viscountess Selby. Her husband was the younger brother of the then Viscount. I don't know what internal family arrangements had led to this "cadet branch" of the Gullys living on Shuna while the Viscount Selby of the day lived nearby on mainland Argyll. It doesn't matter because the Hon. Mrs James Gully (to give her her formal title) welcomed us into Shuna House irrespective of the details of her tenure.

We were given cups of tea in a cluttered but homely room. It obviously wasn't "the drawing room" and Fiona made no bones about the fact that the deteriorating condition of the house which her family were having increasing difficulty maintaining obliged them to retreat progressively into an ever smaller number of habitable rooms. I vividly recall a toddler trundling round the room on a tricycle ramming the furniture. Fiona interrupted the conversation to admonish the child: "Darling, please don't do that!" before turning back to her guests and saying, in a tone of charming self deprecation "It's Queen Anne, you know!"

Shuna House on Google Earth - the fact the road runs to the farm buildings but doesn't continue to the house suggests nobody's at home anymore.
The Gullys eventually gave up the unequal struggle of living in Shuna House in the mid-1980s. They went to live on the neighbouring larger island of Seil (the one that's connected to the mainland by "the Bridge over the Atlantic") but continued to farm Shuna.  

According to this website, it's the fact that Shuna House was flat roofed that had a lot to do with it being such a nightmare to maintain. In the course of googling information for this blog, I discovered an article in the Glasgow Herald in 1987. It reports that Edward Gully was being challenged by the Council for not having planning permission for the caravan he kept on the adjacent mainland to sleep in on the nights when he couldn't get over to Shuna (no public ferry) and it was too long a drive back round home to Seil. The point of mentioning this is the horrid irony that the article is next to an advert for "A permanent answer to leaking flat roofs":-

Too late for Shuna House, alas!

I was prompted to write this blog post by having chanced on this set of photos on Flickr showing the empty Shuna House in an advanced state of decay. Of these, the most arrestingly sad was the one below of the bathroom furniture clinging precariously to the walls after the floor beneath them had collapsed:-

Photo credit extra minty
If, on that day in the mid-70s when we called, uninvited, and were given tea, I'd asked if I could go to the loo, that might have been it.

Also in the course of googling the "research" for this post, I was sorry to find that Fiona Gully died in May 2012, far too young at 68. Another rather sad little coda to the tale was to learn of the death in a car crash in 2001 of Fiona's husband's nephew, Edward, the 5th Viscount Selby at the even younger age of 33. Noting that he was living on Mull at the time while his mother occupied the "family seat" at Ardfern, on mainland Argyll close to Shuna, Lord Selby's obituary in the Glasgow Herald also recorded that, having been a financier, he had been working latterly as a check out operator in the Tobermory and Oban branches of the Co-op.

Shuna House - photo credit rosyb
"How the mighty fall" was the expression that came to mind as I surveyed the evidence of the Gullys of Shuna. That's not to suggest, of course, that a person is any more or less worthy according to whether he be the holder of a great office of state like Speaker of the House of Commons or a check out operator; whether he lives in a castle or a council house. But it's another example (amongst many) of a man achieving a prestigious position, being rewarded with a peerage, buying a Scottish island and commissioning a "castle" on it. And yet, within four generations, his "dynasty" is a set of really very ordinary people struggling to make a living while still bearing the baubles of former splendour such as a largely meaningless title and a crumbling mansion they can no longer afford to maintain.

So far as I know, Fiona Gully's husband still owns Shuna and farms it in partnership with their sons. You can hire a holiday cottage there - see the island's website.

Photo credit extra-minty


  1. Really great to read such a well-researched post about Shuna House, especially from someone with a little experience of what it was once like. I spent a week on Shuna Island last year, primarily to visit the house as I’m rather fascinated by the abandoned mansions of Scotland. I’ve subsequently been attempting to piece together sparse findings about its history and incidentally just mentioned it on my own blog yesterday.
    The post you link to on derelict places was in fact written by me shortly after my visit and refers to a conversation with the couple who now manage the holiday lets. They told me that the current owner who grew up in the castle remembers it as ‘cold, wet and draughty’ due to its flat roof and says it never worked properly as a house. As I also mentioned in that post the house is still full of furniture – it wouldn’t surprise me if the Queen Anne is buried under the rubble of collapsed floors somewhere! I too came across the Herald article of 1987 but failed to notice the ironic advert below.
    Really pleased to have found your blog, you’re certainly inspiring me to explore more of the West coast.

  2. I've just come across your blog whilst searching for information on an island I visited with my family in 1984 or 85. It was Shuna and we stayed in the Pier House.
    I vividly remember us walking up to the castle. The incumbent farmers at the time had just left so the island was completely uninhabited the week that we were there. The house was intact but deserted. We peered in through the windows to see the furniture and soft furnishings all still in place but faded and very dusty. It can't have been empty for long. It was very sad and eerie - the image has stayed fresh in my mind though! Great to read a bit more about it, thank you.