Monday, May 19, 2014


Perusing the 1920s Ordnance Survey One Inch map of upper Strath Glass last autumn, my eye alighted on Guisachan House. Plenty of shooting lodges up these glens, I thought, but few imposing enough to be surrounded by that grey stipple the map legend identifies as "Parks and Ornamental Grounds". A moment's googling produced this picture:-

Picture from Picture from Lucky Lady Farms
Turns out the Golden Retriever breed was developed at Guisachan by its 19th century owner, Lord Tweedmouth. That name rang a bell in my lawyer's brain and a little more research reminded me of an acrimonious litigation with a megalomaniac American railway baron with a side interest in "cigar ships". But beside these eccentricities of Victorian society, the story of Guisachan and its neighbours reveals in microcosm a lot about the broader sweep of Highland history over almost 800 years.

North west Inverness-shire was the heartland of two clans, the Frasers and the Chisholms. The boundary between their territories was the Amhuinn Deabhag (pron. AV-in JIV-ak) as the River Glass is known above its confluence with the River Affric at Fasnakyle. And here's the first thing a study of Guisachan's past reinforces: it's often assumed the Highlands clans are quintessentially Celtic and aboriginally ancient, the very antithesis of the incoming Anglo-Norman feudalism which took over the rest of the country.

In fact, many clans are no such thing. The Frasers were originally a Norman family who had been loyal feudal vassals of the Scottish crown in south east Scotland for almost 200 years before a junior branch migrated north around the turn of the 14th century to establish themselves in Inverness-shire where they promptly "went native". So too with the Chisholms. Whether it's actually true that a Frenchman called "De Chese" adopted the suffix "holme" from marriage to a Saxon heiress is debateable but the fact is that this was another family of exotic origins which finally settled in Strathglass where they morphed into a clan around the turn of the 15th century.

Be all that as it may. Around 1540, Thomas, 4th Lord Lovat (as the chief of Clan Fraser was styled), endowed his second son, William, with the lands of Guisachan. His son, Hugh, inherited the lands of Culbokie on the Black Isle in 1556 from an uncle and, as a result, the Frasers of Guisachan styled themselves thereafter as "of Culbokie" - even after they lost Culbokie and other estates to their creditors in the 1670s and Guisachan was all they were left with.

In 1746, William "Younger of Culbokie" fought at the Battle of Culloden as an officer on the rebel side while his father - "Old Culbokie" (8th of Guisachan) - remained peacefully at home. This was a common tactic amongst Jacobite clans: the son carried the family's honour to war while the father kept out of things in the interests of "it wisnae me" deniability after the event. But it didn't prevent Guisachan House being burnt by Government troops after the battle and for a while both father and son were fugitives before being officially pardoned in 1747. When William the Younger succeeded to Guisachan upon his father's death in 1755, he built a new house which is pictured below:-

Note that the caption says Guisachan, seat of Fraser of Culbokie
The next heir, another William, 10th of Guisachan, owned sugar plantations in the West Indies. Latterly, he owned a plantation at Berbice in what's now Guyana in South America. In the course of trying to liquidate his investments on the eve of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, it was written:-

With regard to Mr Fraser of Culbokie’s negroes, I fear the present is an inpropitious time for the sale of them, depressed as the West Indies are by the fanatics, collision of interests, and a temporizing government. I think if he gets from £100 to £120 a head for the negroes including children they will be well sold.  

That quote is from the excellent Slaves and Highlanders website. At the risk of digressing too far off topic, looking at Guyana on Google Earth, it's fascinating to see all the Scottish place names which were presumably plantations owned by Scots named after their ancestral homelands. For example: Pomona (Orkney), Suddie (Black Isle), Skeldon (Ayrshire), Rosehall (Sutherland), Goldspie (Golspie, Sutherland) and Nigg (Easter Ross). There isn't a Guisachan or Culbokie in Guyana that I could find but there is a Belladrum which was another Fraser estate in lower Strathglass (nowadays best known for its annual festival).

Belladrum, Guyana - photo credit silent_cam
The next laird of Guisachan (Culbokie), the 11th of the line, Major William Fraser, was also the last for he sold the estate in 1854. That's probably a good point to break the tale but before moving on to the purchaser in Part 2, I can't resist another digression into Major Fraser's subsequent career.

He bought Kilmuir Estate on Skye - the northern two thirds of the island's Trotternish peninsula - from the chief of the Clan Macdonald, Lord Macdonald of Sleat. It was he who built that distinctive folly in the shape of a Martello Tower which overlooks Uig Bay:-

The folly survives but the lodge which Fraser also built at Uig doesn't because it was washed away by the infamous Uig Flood of 1877. A flash flood of the River Conon, which drains into Uig Bay, carried away not just the lodge but also the local graveyard and it was said that, amongst the rubbish and debris found in the remains of the lodge garden were coffins, skulls and bones. There were those at the time who claimed this as divine judgement on Fraser for his cruel treatment of the tenantry on the estate in the time of "the Clearances". Be that as it may, he had bought Uig Estate for £85,000 and spent about £40,000 improving it. He sold it in 1888 for £110,000 involving an overall loss of £15,000. The sale was two years after the Crofters Act came into force and an intriguing parallel is the emancipation of crofters with the emancipation of slaves which had stung the previous generation of Frasers of Culbokie (Guisachan) financially.

Uig Lodge and Grave Yard - both washed away by the flood between the date of survey (1875) and publication (1879) of the OS 25 inch map, 1st edition

Back to Guisachan in Part 2