A HIGHLAND THING – PART 1 (FORT WILLIAM)

It’s a long way from Devon to the Highlands of Scotland, so we took a leisurely attitude towards the journey north, stopping off in Ledbury, Herefordshire, for a couple of nights where we set up camp under a couple of plum trees on a farm site.

From there we took a night in Lockerbie at a cheap hotel where the receptionist, Lisa, was busy checking in a queue of people in face-masks two at a time in a calm, friendly and professional manner that put the staff of that four star hotel in Prague to shame. The plan was to not have to unpack Peaches and set up camp for a one night stop on the way up and down and this was half way-ish between Totnes and northern Skye, so a Days Inn at a service station fitted the bill perfectly.

The site at Loch Linnhe had closed all facilities due to corona virus so we had to be self sufficient on the gravel pitch we had. But that did not stop them from stacking campers and motor homes cheek by jowel to the extent that we were just about blocked in by the arrivals next to us in our once spacious end pitch.

Due to the pandemic, it seemed, many people had opted to take their holidays without travelling abroad and there were a multitude of hired campers around. Some were crewed by first-timers, like the young couple who arrived next to us and draped fairy lights along the window sill behind the gas burners. She set light to a frying pan later that night. And then there was the toilet tent that was set up to provide a perfect shadow puppet theatre of the doings in the afternoon or evening sunlight. I was quite impressed by the number of hire companies available, so went around one afternoon taking photographs of as many as I could spot on site.

Scotland did offer some interesting culinary fare: I’m not talking of fresh salmon or fried battered Mars Bars. I’m talking haggis pokhoras spotted in Lidl and (more to my taste) imaginatively-named locally made vege sausages…

Although I bent a few pegs trying to put up the glawning, the lochside location was superb at Loch Linnhe and an evening sunset walk along its banks was worth all the little niggles.

The area around Fort William is sublime. You have Ben Nevis, the Glenfinnan Viaduct (used for a famous scene from the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film, where Ron Weasley flies the car under its arches, chasing the steam train which now runs as a Harry Potter tourist attraction along the route) and enchanting towns like Mallaig, at the end of the line where we took a nature watching tour on a boat, spotting seals, porpoises and dolphins. Glenfinnan, at the top of Loch Shiel, is also famous for being the site of the 1745 Jacobite uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and a monument here commemorates the event. But most people when we were there (including some dressed as Hogwarts students) were Harry Potter fans rather than revolutionaries.

Back at the campsite the nature watching continues, with bats buzzing me in the evening. And then the curious robin, that had been inquisitively watching our doings for the past couple of days, finally got it a bit wrong and ended up stuck in Peaches when I returned from our (non-shadow-puppet-show) toilet tent the next morning.

The drive between Fort William and Mallaig gave us so many perfect lunch-spot stops, it was hard to choose where to stop.

Driving around the highlands near Fort William was an absolute joy. The views from the cockpit were frequently stunning,

On one drive, we took a side road at the top of Loch Ailort in the village of Inverailort on a whim to find ourselves beside a spooky, abandoned gothic-looking mansion, worthy of any Harry Potter mysteries and instantly it bought up so many questions. The place had an air of tragedy and loss which I could not put my finger on. Who owned it? Why was it now derelict and boarded up? Who still cut the sweeping lawns and what was its history? What stories could it tell? I had to find out more, so did a bit of searching.

Inverailort House is a hunting lodge built for MacDonald of Clanranald and dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, possibly earlier – the house is notable for the number of additions which make no attempt to blend in and the core could well date back to the 1600s. It was substantially enlarged enlarged on a number of occasions between 1828 and 1880 by Major General Sir Alexander Cameron. It was subsequently owned by James Head, a director of several shipping lines, who married into the Cameron family in 1890. In the late 19th Century, Christine Cameron, the wife of James Head, was a keen photographer. She took many photographs of the house and surrounding area. Most of the glass plates were lost or destroyed when the military took over the house during World War II, but the surviving photographs have been published in a book. She is said to have died of a broken heart after much of the contents of the house were badly damaged by the army when they emptied it. At the start of the war, Christine Cameron of Lochailort House was told that it would probably be requisitioned so it would be best to offer it as a hospital or a school, but she would not listen. Whilst in London she received a telegram to say that the whole house and estate had been requisitioned. She returned as quickly as possible but all the furniture had been loaded into lorries and taken to Fort William for storage. No inventory was taken. There were storms which had washed away some bridges so three of the lorries unloaded the antique furniture and used it to bridge one of the rivers. When she learnt about this she had a heart attack and went to stay with a relative. She died some time later. The subsequent owner, Francis Cameron-Head, died in 1957 and his widow lived at Inverailort until her death in 1994. Her companion Barbara Mackintosh continued to live at the house until her death in 2015. Her obituary in the Daily Telegraph tells her interesting story:

Barbara Mackintosh is described in her obituary as a “Hostess and post-mistress and last chatelaine of Inverailort Castle.”  For more than half a century, she and her friend and companion, the late Mrs Lucretia Cameron-Head, dispensed old fashioned Highland hospitality.

The 50-room house, resembling a cross between Kensington Palace and Paddington Station, is the accretion of several centuries and stands near the head of Loch Ailort between Fort William and Mallaig. Originally one of MacDonald of Clanranald’s old shooting lodges, it was enlarged in 1828 by Major General Sir Alexander Cameron with the proceeds of a military pension, a propitious marriage and French loot brought home from the Battle of Waterloo. It went on to acquire east and west wings under the ownership of James Head, a director of several shipping lines who married into the Cameron family in 1890 and died in 1922.

In 1940 Inverailort and its 12,000 acres was requisitioned by Lord Lovat and David Stirling as a Special Training Centre – out of which was born Britain’s first Commando unit. The Cameron-Heads (who had amalgamated their names in 1910) watched impotently from the nearby Lochailort Inn as their pictures, china and furniture were carted off in Army trucks. Within days the entire estate was converted to a barracks and assault course for 3,000 commandos.

When the war ended, the Cameron-Heads’ sole heir, Francis, returned with his young bride Lucretia to take up residence. They described what they found as “a broken-down Victorian biscuit factory”, but went on to turn it into the living heart of the local community.

Since the River Ailort was well-known for its early run of sea trout and the deer forest was one of the best in the West Highlands, there were seldom fewer than 20 guests in the house for 11 months of the year, despite the rooms being, in the words of an American journalist, “as cold as the kiss of death”. Passers through might include cabinet ministers, crofters, playwrights, fish-farmers, television presenters and even the odd Russian Prince. A regular guest at dinner was a Roman Catholic priest who had called in to say Mass in the Castle chapel and had simply stayed on.

When Francis Cameron-Head died in 1957 his widow (“Putchie” to all who knew her) invited Barbara Mackintosh to join her as a companion and general factotum in running Inverailort. Old-fashioned standards continued to be strictly maintained. An unmarried Australian couple were ferried to different railway stations and put on separate trains to London after they had been found sharing a bath. When another unmarried couple, vaguely related to Putchie, turned up wanting a bed for the night, they were briskly dispatched to single rooms at opposite ends of the house, while a guest in a bedroom midway between the two was instructed to get up and intervene if he heard the floorboards creaking during the night.


Barbara Mackintosh was born in Kinross on October 13 1931 and was descended from a Thomas Mackintosh who sailed with Captain William Bligh on Bounty. Her father and grandfather were doctors and landowners and from them she inherited a strong interest in medicine and healing.

She was educated at Ochtertyre House, an exclusive girls’ school outside Crieff in Perthshire.

Little is known of her early life but upon her arrival at Inverailort she quickly blossomed as the ideal co-hostess, major domo, housekeeper and hen-wife. To these duties were added maintenance of the local weather station for the Meteorological Office, and even running the local Post Office when it was relocated to the morning room following the Royal Mail’s decision to withdraw its services.

Although rather shy, she loved a good party and earned something of a reputation for her mischievous sense of humour. She also had a great love of animals. If she was away from home when chickens were due to hatch, she would carry the eggs around in her coat pockets to prevent them from going cold. She also cared for a large colony of cats that patrolled the castle, keeping it free of vermin, including “Paul” (named after Pope John Paul II), who was rechristened “Paul Paisley” after taking over the manger of the hall crib and throwing out the baby Jesus.

Following Putchie’s death in 1994, Barbara carried on living at the castle, entertaining visitors, welcoming former commandos and continuing her duties for the Met Office and the Royal Mail.  She is survived by her beloved orange poodle, William, an orphaned greyhound , two geese, six guinea pigs and 50 hens.

Barbara Mackintosh, born October 13 1931, died April 3 2015

This kind of explains why there is a pet cemetery in the grounds of Inverailort House.

But the history got better. As a teenager, I had read the autobiographies of David Niven (“The Moon’s a Balloon” and “Bring on the Empty Horses”). He appeared in a great many films such as the Pink Panther Movies, Around the World in Eighty Days, Casino Royale (as James Bond), the Guns of Navarone and a great many others. Only a gentleman of such refined bearing and a certain face could carry off a moustache such as his and he was something of a hero to me in my youth, even though many incidents from his autobiographies were recounted from a first-person perspective, but actually happened to other people, especially Cary Grant, which he borrowed and embroidered. And I could never carry off a moustache such as his.

Niven had connections to Inverailort House.

During the Second World War, Inverailort was one of a few mansions in the area used as a training base by agents of the Special Operations Executive. Here British agents were taught ruthless techniques of intelligence gathering, sabotage and survival which were later directly adopted by the CIA. One of those based there was David Niven.

Niven had been at Sandhurst and in 1930 left commisioned as a second lieutenant in the British army. He did well at Sandhurst, which gave him the “officer and gentleman” bearing that was his trademark. He was assigned to the Highland Light Infantry but grew tired of the peacetime army. He saw no opportunity for further advancement. so resigned after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, which was interfering with his plans for dinner with a particularly attractive young lady. At the end of the lecture, the speaker (a major general) asked if there were any questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, Niven asked, “Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train.”

After being placed under close-arrest for this act of insubordination, Niven finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him: Rhoddy Rose (later Colonel R. L. C. Rose, DSO, MC).  With Rose’s assistance, Niven was allowed to escape from a first-floor window. He then headed for America. While crossing the Atlantic, Niven resigned his commission by telegram on 6 September 1933.  

The day after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Niven returned home and rejoined the British Army. He was alone among British stars in Hollywood in doing so; the British Embassy advised most actors to stay.

Niven was recommissioned as a lieutenant into the Rifle Brigade and was assigned to a motor training battalion. He wanted something more exciting, however, and transferred into the Commandos. He was assigned to a training base at Inverailort House.

During the war, when about to lead his men into action, Niven eased their nervousness by telling them, “Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!” Asked by suspicious American sentries during the Battle of the Bulge who had won the World Series in 1934, he answered, “Haven’t the foggiest idea, but I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother!”

Niven ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he received the Legion of Merit, an American military decoration, presented by Eisenhower himself.

So the tragedy I felt stemmed from the fact that Inverailort House had been requisitioned by the War Office at the end of May 1940 for use in the training of irregular forces such as the SOE and as a direct result of this, reputedly, led to the death of the lady of the house from a broken heart. It had connections to a legendary British movie star who was also a decorated war hero. One curiosity of the interior is the untouched official signage confirming Inverailort’s significance as the Special Training Centre established here in 1940. The army moved out of the house on 20 August 1942 and it was then taken over by the Royal Navy when it became HMS Lochailort and was used for the training of naval cadet ratings to be officers on small craft used by Combined Operations. The Royal Navy moved out in January 1945.

I love a travel that sends you on a journey of discovery both in time and space. Thanks to Inverailort House I got plenty of that up in Fort William.

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