a postcard from Argyll

I have written here occasionally about my penchant for old postcards and have quite a few in my collection from the part of Argyll we’ll be exploring in our new club and forthcoming book.

Sometimes these postcards are as interesting for what’s depicted on the back as on the front.

It is also fascinating to see the same views presented, again and again, in different iterations.

Postcards are carriers of the nostalgia of visitors to, rather than the residents of, a landscape, and it is interesting how they become bound up in the meanings of a place. Such meanings are certainly at the heart of somewhere like Tighnabruaich, which didn’t really exist until the widespread sale of feus in the nineteenth century. A place which was effectively no-place before the wealthy commercial men of Glasgow began developing their second homes along the seashore, Tighnabruaich has perhaps always been a place of leisure, holidays, nostalgia.

And if postcards preserve, in the aspic of nostalgia, the relatively recent human history of places, they also commemorate things and spaces which are no longer in existence.

Glen Caladh was developed by the civil engineer, George Stephenson (1819-1905) (nephew of the famous ‘rocket’ Stephenson). Like his uncle, the younger Stephenson’s business was engineering, and he was involved in the design of several important railways and bridges (including the Sutton swing bridge, and the Victoria tubular bridge in Montreal). A keen sailor, Stephenson appreciated the good anchorage and easy connections of the Kyles of Bute. At Caladh (Gaelic for harbour, or haven) he built a large castellated villa of his own design.

Caladh’s interiors included costly novelties, such as a lavishly decorated mahogany dining room with a Robinson Crusoe theme, and maple carvings depicting scenes from Tam o’Shanter. The Stephensons then sold the Caladh estate to another nineteenth-century industrial family, the Ingham-Clarks: manufacturers of varnishes and paints.

At Caladh, the Ingham-Clarks’ hospitality became renowned. The family entertained wealthy industrialists and, later, early film stars – all of whom travelled to Caladh by water (there being, then as now, no access by road). Locals would occasionally spot celebrities being transported to the castle by the local “bum boat” from Tighnabruaich.

During the Second World War, Caladh, like so many Argyll estates, was subject to military commission. The quiet beaches, lochs, and coastline around the Kyles of Bute were ideal for naval training purposes, and in 1942 Glen Caladh Castle became HMS James Cook. Officers were stationed in the castle building, and 50 Wrens lived in a group of Nissen huts hastily erected in the grounds of the estate. A beach pilotage school was established, and crews were trained in the operation of landing craft that were later used in the D Day operations. After the war, the estate fell into disrepair, and Stephenson’s grand building was finally demolished as part of a territorial training exercise in 1960.

Today, as you sail or kayak around the Kyles of Bute, you might pause for lunch on Eilean Dubh, the burial island of the Ingham-Clarks. Or you might walk from Tighnabruaich as far as the tiny Caladh lighthouse, whose beacon once guided visitors to the estate, as they arrived by water.

If you know where to look, you can take a well-worn path into the hills behind where the castle once stood. And if you know how to read the stones and plants along this path, you might trace the story of the Victorian shaping of this landscape, before coming across the estate’s old lily pond.

But how do we understand a place when it apparently reveals so few clues of its important past? How do we learn about the story of a landscape when there might seem to be not much to see? What layers of history lie forgotten in the natural and built environment of contemporary Argyll? And what should we perhaps now try to remember?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking as we explore the fascinating and often surprising history of Argyll’s Secret Coast through essays, photography, designs (and some local food and recipes as well). Tom and I will be joined on our journey by expert contributors Gilbert Márkus, Stephen Mullen, and Alex Hale, as well as talented local writers Michael Hartley and Jamie Stewart Lloyd Jones. Will you join us?

Club sign-ups are open until January 6th.