Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dundonnell House

While searching the web for something completely different, I came across the picture below of Dundonnell House at the head of Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross:-


The picture is from Thomas Pennant's "A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772" but what grabbed me about it is that Dundonnell House still looks almost exactly the same today, 240 years later. The only difference is that it's had an extra half storey added (the dormer windows):-

Picture credit Sylvia Duckworth
Pennant was a Welsh naturalist who made two tours in the Highlands of Scotland in 1769 and 1772, a time when very few people did such a thing: before even Johnson & Boswell's more famous tour in 1773.

The circumstances of Pennant's visit to Dundonnell, on his second tour in 1772, were rather fraught. He had departed on the sailing vessel he'd chartered for his trip from Isle Martin just north of Ullapool (which hadn't yet been built in 1772) with the intention of returning south except the boat was driven by contrary winds into Little Loch Broom where it anchored. Although a couple of hours were agreeably spent there fishing, conditions soon deteriorated:

"The night was most tempestuous: our situation was disagreeable, as Mr Thompson [the master] thought our vessel would drive [drag anchor], and that he should be obliged to cut his cables [anchor chain], and put to sea; which, under the circumstances of a black night, a furious storm, and rocky narrows, did not contribute to the repose of fresh-water seamen."



The following morning appeared to bring a respite in the weather but no sooner had Pennant's vessel weighed anchor than:-

"a furious squall arises, and blows in blasts like a hurricane, driving us before it at a vast rate, till we arrived within a mile of the bottom [i.e. head of] the loch. Drop anchor, but without effect; are obliged to weigh again, while the furious gale engages an attention to the sails, and flings into a double perplexity in this narrow strait, where for an hour our tacks [changes of course] were almost perpetual, and the vessel frequently in no small danger. The blasts from the mountain were tremendous, not only raising a vast sea but catching up the waves in eddies, and raising them up to a surprising height. At length we were relieved from distress by a successful anchorage."

In layman's language, the boat was being blown up the loch and, if the anchor hadn't taken hold, it risked being beached at its head. I have proverbially "been there, done that" and it's frightening enough in a modern yacht with an auxilliary engine to get you out of trouble!

Looking towards the head of Little Loch Broom - photo credit Liz Smith
Anyway, despite - or perhaps because of - his ordeal, Pennant recorded laconically:-

"Most agreeably detained with the good family of Dundonnel ... . Observe after dinner that Cloud-berries, that grow on the adjacent mountains, were served as a dessert."

At the time of Pennant's visit, Dundonnell House was brand new having been built just five years earlier in 1767 by his host, Kenneth, 3rd MacKenzie of Dundonnell. Inevitably, I found myself researching the history of this part of the country and here it is:-

The "Barony of Lochbroom", which comprised the quadrant of west Ross-shire stretching from Loch Maree to Loch Broom, had been granted in the mid 15th century by Alexander Macdonald, 10th Earl of Ross (but better known to history as 3rd Lord of the Isles), to his second son Celestine for a "blench duty" (nominal ground rent) of sixpence a year. The Lochalsh family, as Celestine's successors styled themselves after other lands contained in the same grant, ended in the male line after just three generations with the death of his grandson, Donald Gallda, in 1519. His estates passed jointly to his two sisters, one of whom was married to William Dingwall of Kildun and the other to Alexander Macdonald of Glengarry. In 1543, the Dingwalls sold their half share of Lochbroom to John MacKenzie of Kintail, the chief of clan MacKenzie. In 1572, John's grandson Colin obtained the Glengarry share after a lengthy feud with the Macdonalds and thus consolidated the whole of Lochbroom in MacKenzie hands.


Two generations later, in 1623, the MacKenzie chief, another Colin, was ennobled as Earl of Seaforth but by the third quarter of the 17th century his nephew, Kenneth, the 3rd earl (pictured above), was in financial difficulties. He responded by selling parts of his estates to his kinsmen. This was typical of clans at this time: the kinsmen rallied round to save the honour of their chief by bailing him out and, as far as the chief was concerned, having the clan territories in the hands of kinsmen was functionally the same in clannish terms as owning them himself. Thus, in 1673, Seaforth sold the lands of "Achtadonnell" to his kinsman (third cousin, once removed), Roderick MacKenzie of Redcastle. In 1690, he exchanged Achtadonnell for property belonging to another distant cousin, Kenneth MacKenzie of Glenmarksie (at the bottom of Lochluichart). The latter promptly renamed his acquisition "Dundonnell" and embarked on a programme of expanding his new west coast base by purchasing other neighbouring parts of Lochbroom. He was also involved as "chamberlain" (factor or steward) of Assynt Estate in Sutherland and lived for a time at Ardvreck Castle by Loch Assynt.

The reliably photogenic ruins of Ardvreck Castle by Andrew McKie

The first laird of Dundonnell's son, another Kenneth, continued to buy up neighbouring property and the process was continued by the 3rd laird, Pennant's host, who built Dundonnell House and died in 1789. Around 1816, the house was raised by an extra half storey lit by dormer windows (compare the picture from Pennant at the top of this post with the photo after it) but the fortunes of the family were very soon to crash spectacularly.

So extravagant that he had to flee to France to escape his creditors, the debts of the 5th laird, another Kenneth, mounted until, in 1824, the estate was placed in the hands of a trustee who had to resort to selling parts of it off. With no children of his own, Kenneth bequeathed the remainder of Dundonnell to his wife's brother, a lowland lawyer called Robert Roy, to the exclusion of the laird's brother, Thomas, who had expected to inherit. The Roys' attempts to establish themselves in the estate after Kenneth's death in 1826, provoked local resentment and a series of disturbances known as "the Dundonnell Atrocities" involving shots being fired at the house and Roy's carriage horses being killed. Himself also a bankrupt, Thomas MacKenzie could ill afford to challenge his brother's will but a legal fighting fund was set up by "the country Gentlemen of Ross-shire": as many of these were MacKenzies, this was a sort of last fling of clannishness in a 19th century context. After five years of litigation  - known as "the Dundonnell Cause" which you can read all about here - the bequest to Roy was overturned on the grounds that Kenneth MacKenzie, a simpleton, had been prevailed upon by his avaricious wife and brother-in-law. But it was a pyrrhic victory for the estate was by then utterly bankrupt and the trustee appointed by the late Kenneth sold it in 1834 for £22,000 to Murdo Munro-MacKenzie of Ardross. But it wasn't long before Dundonnell was back in the courts, embroiled in another disputed inheritance.

Dundonald [sic] at the head of Little Loch Broom in 1832 on John Thomson's Atlas of Scotland
Shortly after he bought it, Murdo Munro-MacKenzie entailed Dundonnell. That meant it had to pass down a pre-determined sucession of heirs, none of whom could sell the estate or bequeath it to a stranger. This was the dilemma of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice: due to Longbourn being entailed on male heirs, there was nothing their father could do to prevent it passing to their nearest male relative, the unctuous clergyman, Mr Collins. The same theme featured more recently in Downton Abbey: Lady Mary could not inherit and the estate had to pass to distant cousin Matthew. But when Murdo Munro-MacKenzie's son Hugh died in 1869, the bar to his only child, a daughter called Mary, succeeding was not that she was a woman (for the Dundonnell entail seems to have been unusual in allowing female heirs to succeed) but that she was illegitimate.

Mary's father, Hugh Munro-MacKenzie, had bought two properties marching with Dundonnell on the south east, Mungasdale and Strathnasheallag. As these were not entailed he could bequeath them to his daughter in his will which also included a sweep up clause bequeathing to her any other unentailed property he might own at his death. Mary sought to claim Dundonnell itself by challenging the entail on the basis of an alleged technical defect in the deed creating it with the result that the estate would be carried to her by the sweep up clause. The case was defended by the heir of entail, Mary's uncle Kenneth, a sheep farmer in Australia: he argued that the entail was valid and, even if it wasn't, the sweep up clause in his brother's will was not in explicit enough terms to carry property to an illegitimate female over the head of a legitimate male heir. As a lawyer, I can tell you Mary's challenge to the entail was legally quite hopeless. But the weakness of her case didn't dissuade her from pursuing it all the way to the House of Lords who eventually threw it out (decision here) with the consequence that she had to sell Mungasdale and Strathnasheallag to meet the legal bills.

I don't know how Dundonnell passed from the Munro-MacKenzies but by the 1940s it was owned by Sir Michael Peto. An officer in the Coldstream Guards who had served with distinction during the First World War, he rebuilt many of the cottages on the estate with the proceeds of a compensation claim from having stepped into a lift upon the door opening only to discover the car was still one floor below and falling and breaking both his legs. In 1948, he was also instrumental as landowner in attempting the resettlement of the abandoned crofting township of Scoraig. The scheme failed due, Sir Michael plausibly claimed, to the County Council refusing to fund a road to the peninsula (the reason, no doubt, why it was abandoned in the first place). But the abortive attempt may have planted the seed for what later became a thriving settlement of what, 30 years ago, would have been termed "hippies" but are now old enough to be classed merely as people who live "off grid".

Glasgow Herald 6 September 1948
In 1956, Dundonnell was sold to the Roger brothers. Three bachelors who had inherited their parents' self made fortune, the most celebrated was Neil: known to his friends as Bunny, he was a couturier and socialite noted for his flamboyant parties. You can read about the Rogers here. Alan Roger (his obit here) created a bonsai garden at Dundonnell. I can remember visiting it in the 1970s on one of these "Scotland's Gardens" open days when a rain soaked yellow paper notice fluttering by the roadside would advertise one off access to a garden not normally open to the public. I recall seeing a large, florid looking gent in his 70s in a white linen suit and broad brimmed panama hat with a ring with a massive red stone in it. Which of the Rogers he was, I don't know but he certainly had a artistically rarefied air about him

Sandy and Neil Roger
Sandy Roger died in 1980, Neil and Alan in quick succession in 1997. Dundonnell was left to the son of their Chinese man servant. He put the estate on the market and I have a copy of the sale brochure.



A bedroom at Dundonnell as pictured in the 1997 sale brochure
The estate was bought by Sir Tim Rice and his wife Jane although I gather they've since separated and Lady Rice lives at Dundonnell alone now. She remains the nominal landlord of the off-grid and still roadless crofters of Scoraig. I leave you with a photo I took in December 2013 of crossing Little Loch Broom from one part of Dundonnell Estate (Scoraig) to another (Badluarach) by a method Thomas Pennant would have recognised on his unscheduled visit back in 1772.

   

2 comments:

  1. Great article Neil, thanks.
    Rode past there the other day and thought it might have an interesting back story. More than I realised….

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for this article Neil. I believe my ancestors came from Badluarach so found this interesting. Alistair MacKenzie

    ReplyDelete