Drought! Now there’s a word you do not hear very much nowadays….but that is what they are suffering from in the far north-west of Scotland. Fire-scorched hillsides, dry burns and most serious of all whisky-distilleries which must cease production, because there is a dearth of their basic ingredient. We disembarked from the Hebridean Princess to visit Osgood MacKenzie’s extraordinary gardens at Inverewe to find a parched landscape and moreover little in flower as many frosts (unheard of in these parts) have deterred the rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs. By way of compensation it is warm and sunny under a cerulean sky, and the views over the loch need no embellishment.
As usual our sedate progress around the Castles and Gardens of the West is an unalloyed pleasure on this idiosyncratic little vessel. This ship is not for those who seek the joys of the casino or the shopping mall, this is not the boat to “strut your stuff” in your Jimmy Choo’s and designer frocks. No, here you come to rediscover the art of conversation with the interesting and well-informed. The enjoyment of delicious food (how do you prepare a five course meal for 45 people in a galley the size of broom cupboard?), served by a charming group of staff at an unhurried pace, is an all-too-frequent occurrence disastrous for the waistline. But you can work it off with a walk (or even a cycle-ride) to the dotty and dilapidated splendours of Kinloch Castle. This extraordinary pile (as it once nearly was) sits on the island of Rum as inconspicuously as the Shard in Sheringham. Built by the nouveau-riche George Bullogh from Accrington, this monster of late Victorian taste overflows with the spoils of his extended world-cruises as well as the latest “mod-cons” of the age. These include an Orchestrion with the power of several brass bands, a “power-shower” like a sentry box and even their own supply of electricity. The latter helping to heat the hot-houses where resided the orchids, humming-birds and alligators.
The penchant for super-rich Victorians to encumber the Highland landscape with unwieldy edifices (often by architect David Bryce) was underlined by my lecture The Lure of The Highlands and Islands, which helped to explain to the assembled company that the possession of a Highland estate was a must-have for any newly rich plutocrat, the more extravagant and opulent the better. By contrast, Duart Castle, home of Clan Maclean, is the real thing, albeit rebuilt in 1911.
Overlooking the Sound of Mull, with the 19th century upstart Torosay Castle across the water, Duart reeks of ancestry and the bloody feuds and treachery which seems so much a part of the history of these parts. Here we were entertained by the Clan Chief, Sir Lachlan Maclean, to a reception as a part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of Hebridean Island Cruises. As we returned to the ship eagles wheeled overhead from their roost in the nearby pine trees.
Meanwhile the seals lolled on their rocky chaise-longue as we glided past, almost as supine as ourselves after the surfeit of gastronomy, glens, gardens and architecture. After a visit to polychrome Tobermory we were relieved to return to Glasgow and the dispersal of our cruise in torrential rain…so the whisky industry is probably safe for the foreseeable future as are the gardens of the western highlands. Just one of the incomparable treasures to be found in this idyllic corner of the British Isles… Hebridean Princess is pretty good too!