Friday, October 28, 2016


I'm fascinated by incongruously large buildings in remote locations and today I stumbled across two within yards of each other - two for the price of one, as it were.

One part of the west coast I've never been to is the bit of Kintyre south of Campbeltown so I decided to go for a "virtual drive" down there courtesy of Google Streetview. And just past the village of Southend (here), I came across the derelict Keil Hotel.

Looking as if it would be more at home in Southend-on-Sea than Southend, Kintyre, it reminds me a lot of the equally grotesque Strathspey Hotel in Aviemore. Here's a picture of the Keil in its heyday

Picture credit - Robert
Built by retired farmer Captain James Taylor in 1939, it was immediately requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a hospital and didn't open as a hotel until after the War in 1947. It closed in 1990 and has been empty ever since. The building had new windows installed in 2012 (after the Streetview imagery) but I've not been able discover what, if any, current plans there are for its redevelopment: you can read more in the Buildings at Risk Register.

Now I'd been dimly aware there was a big white hotel somewhere in the south of Kintyre but I'd assumed it must be at Machrihanish which is a little bit closer to "civilisation" and even had a light railway from Campbeltown until the 1930s. (In fact, there's a slightly smaller big white hotel at Machrihanish - the Ugadale.) But it seems surprising anyone believed there to be demand for such a large hotel in the remoter location of Southend. I expect it was planned that guests would be bussed in from the steamers that used to arrive regularly at Campbeltown. In the postcard below, you can see three buses at the gate, probably belonging to West Coast Motors who, according to their timeline, took over the service to Southend in 1938:-

In the 1930s, The Clyde & Campbeltown Shipping Company Ltd (a subsidiary of MacBraynes) sailed to Campbeltown from Glasgow six times a week (see here) and the LMS Railway steamer timetable for 1939 (below) offered nine sailings a week in summer to Campbeltown from Gourock and Ardrossan: the Gourock sailings even offered an tour by "motor" (bus) to Machrihanish and Southend although with only a ten minute stop at the latter, there wasn't even time for a coffee at the Keil Hotel, never mind lunch! 

The C&CSC (MacBraynes) services to Campbeltown were not resumed after the War and sailings by the railway steamers were discontinued in 1973 (due to Calmac's disposal of the Waverley, I think) so it surprises me that - not being in tourist hotspot like Aviemore or a hub like Kyle of Lochalsh - the Keil Hotel continued in business as late as 1990.

Well, the Keil Hotel was an interesting enough "find" but upon resuming my virtual drive round South Kintyre, not 100 yards along the road I spot the ruins of what, to judge from the size of its porch, must have been a massive house:-

This turns out to have been Keil House which, before it was burnt down in 1924, looked like this:-

Picture credit - Historic Environment Scotland
It was built at a cost of £28,000 (about £2.9 million in today's money) by James Nicol Fleming, a Glasgow merchant who made a fortune in the 1860s in Indian cotton when the American Civil War had cut off supplies from the Southern States. Building huge country houses was exactly the sort of thing rich Victorian businessmen did except that, by the time J. N. Fleming began building Keil in 1873, he was hiding a secret: he was bankrupt.

His businesses were being kept afloat by an overdraft from the City of Glasgow Bank which, by the time the bank spectacularly collapsed in 1878, was nearly £1.3 million - £140 million in today's money. To make it worse, Fleming had been a director of the bank and the reason it failed was the board's reckless lending to themselves and their cronies and concealing things by false accounting: what appeared to the outside world as the very model of Presbyterian Victorian rectitude, was in fact the private cash cow of a corrupt clique. The CoGB's collapse didn't precipitate a general banking crisis (it was a Baring's, not a Lehman's) but, nevertheless, most of its 1,200 shareholders - a lot of them quite ordinary folk with just a few hundred shares each (list of them all here) - were ruined: not only were their shares rendered worthless but, because the bank hadn't been a limited liability company, they were personally liable for its losses.

Merchants' Hall, Hanover Street, Edinburgh - which I had not realised was previously the capital's branch of the ill-fated City of Glasgow Bank

The directors and manager of the bank were promptly arrested, put on trial and convicted of false accounting but J. N. Fleming, who'd resigned as director three years earlier, vanished. Rumours abounded that he'd been spirited away from Keil on a steamship belonging to the British India line owned by Fleming's friend and fellow Kintyre estate owner (Balinakill) and ex-CoGB director (one of the few to escape with his reputation and fortune intact), Sir William MacKinnon. In fact, the manner of his departure was rather more prosaic but he did turn up in Spain, then the USA before returning to Scotland, handing himself in and pleading guilty to false accounting: he got eight months, the same as the other directors.

I haven't been able to find a picture of J. Nicol Fleming, just this one of three of the directors and the manager of the CoGB on trial in 1879

Meanwhile, Fleming's trustee in sequestration (Scottish word for personal, as opposed to corporate, bankruptcy) was trying to realise his assets to pay his creditors. Naturally, his eyes turned to the Keil Estate but he found it had been bought in the name of his wife's marriage contract trust (that is a trust to hold assets to provide her with a life annuity of £1,000 a year in the event of her surviving her husband). As the purchase had been in 1865, before Fleming became insolvent in 1871, the property was safe from his creditors' claims. The trustee in sequestration therefore focussed on all the money Fleming personally had spent building Keil House and resorted to a law dating back to 1621 which says that, if you give away money to "conjunct and confident persons" (17th century legal speak for friends and family) when you know you're insolvent, then the recipients have to pay back the amount by which they've been enriched. In the litigation which ensued, an interesting insight into the building of such absurdly large houses emerged: the trustee in sequestration claimed that the £28,000 spent building the house had only increased the value of Keil Estate by £10,000 while Mrs Fleming's marriage contract trustees countered that the house actually devalued it!

What the final outcome of all this was is not in the public domain but it's probably not unconnected that Keil was sold in 1883 to Ninian Stewart of Glasgow drapers, Stewart & Macdonald: a minor factoid about him is that he was the first owner of the yacht renamed "Rhouma" by its second owner, Sir George Bullough who built another grand house - but one which survives intact - Kinloch Castle on Rum. Anyway, Following Stewart's death, Keil House was acquired in 1915 for use as a technical school funded by a legacy from none other than J. Nicol Fleming's old friend, Sir William Mackinnon. As "Kintyre Technical School", it continued until the house was destroyed by fire in 1924. The site and surrounding farm were then sold to a James Barbour from Drymen - whose grandson, I believe, still owns it - while the school, now just known as Keil School, continued at a new site in Dumbarton until it closed in 2000.

Picture credit Historic Environment Scotland

So there's a lot of history concentrated in a short stretch of coast but seeing as we're in Kintyre, I'm going to close with a gripe of mine: the peninsula which stretches south from Tarbert south through Campbeltown is called Kintyre. Not the Mull of Kintyre. The MoK is just the headland at the extreme south west tip of the peninsula where the lighthouse is. I blame ...

Note that the location of the video is at Saddell - miles from the Mull!