Over the festive break, Tom and I watched the BBC’s A Very British Scandal (which I’m not honestly sure I’d recommend unless you enjoy the unedifying spectacle of monstrously entitled people behaving truly monstrously).
Inveraray castle, in Argyll, is at the centre of this story of wealth, privilege and marital dysfunction: just as Pemberley improves the attractions of Mr D’Arcy to Elizabeth Bennet, so the gothic castle built by the 3rd Duke of Argyll heightens the appeal of the 11th Duke to Margaret Whigham.
But long before the 11th Duke publicly humiliated his adulterous wife during the process of their 1963 divorce, Inveraray had been a place defined by theatre, spectacle, and power.
By Scottish castle standards, Inveraray’s is quite modern – developed by the 3rd Duke in the 1740s to replace a fifteenth-century original. The crumbling edifice of the old castle is shown here in a print by Paul Sandby, nestled in among the buildings of Inveraray’s old town, and sitting beneath the hill of Dun na Cuaiche.
The 3rd Duke of Argyll was one of the most powerful men in Scotland. Wealthy and influential, he was a prominent promoter of the union, a key northern ally of Walpole’s government, and the organising force behind the quashing of the 1715 Jacobite uprising. By the 1740s, the Duke had begun to speak of retirement and estate “improvement”, but his plans for the landscape around Inveraray were no less ambitious than his political activities. The Duke employed Roger Morris and William Adam to help him with Inveraray’s redevelopment. These men – like talented draughtsmen brothers, Paul and Thomas Sandby – also worked for the British Board of Ordnance, whose business it then was to develop an effective military infrastructure to contain the Jacobite threat. Huge amounts of British government money were being poured into Argyll to quash potential uprisings, and the Duke capitalised on the military situation and his network of Ordnance contacts, ensuring that any planned road passing his ancestral seat would work to his best advantage. In the 1740s, hundreds of men worked in terrible conditions, building the “King’s Road” to and through the Duke’s Inveraray estate via Glen Croe and Glen Kinglass, Loch Long and Loch Fyne.
With the help of Morris and Adam, the Duke drew up plans to demolish the old castle, and decided to build himself a new one, taking good advantage of the dramatic prospect of Dun na Cuaiche (complete with small commemorative monument) as well as a long avenue of beech trees that had been planted by his ancestors in the previous century. And if the Duke also gave the town of Inveraray the same demolition treatment – moving the old settlement and its populace away from his castle, further down the lochside – then the beech avenue would not only provide an effective screen for his new home from the surrounding locale, but create a situation for his property (and name) that was deeply, impressively picturesque. This was landscape as theatre, estate improvement as pure spectacle.
The Duke knew that his plans for a new town, as well as a new castle, in Inveraray, were likely to face difficulties. Poaching, the removal of fencing and other petty thefts had been the source of growing tensions between his estate and the local populace, and the enormously wealthy Duke still feared being fleeced when it came to buying back parcels of land from smaller property owners. His plan to “remove the town of Inveraray about half a mile down the loch” had, he wrote, to be “kept a great secret or the feus there will stand in my way or be held up at very extravagant prices.” The Inveraray properties that the Duke wanted to “remove” for his own convenience were by no means inconsiderable and included a school, 21 stone houses with 10 or more windows (ie, substantial properties, subject to window tax), several groups of cottages centred around the town’s tollbooth and market cross, and the dual Highland / Lowland church which ministered to both of the town’s Gaelic and English speaking populations. No trace of the old town remains today.
Despite some local opposition, the planned “removal” of the town began, but remained incomplete at the time of the death of the 3rd Duke in 1761. Work on both the new town and the castle recommenced with the accession of the 5th Duke to the title, and, with the help of countless labourers, bricks from Glasgow, and slates carried by water from the quarries at nearby Easdale, the new town of Inveraray with its carefully thought-out sight-lines and right angles, its neat, whitewashed Georgian buildings, and its substantial harbour and pier – all constructed to best picturesque advantage against the spectacular backdrop of Loch Fyne and the surrounding west Highland mountains – began to take shape.
Contemporary responses to Inveraray make for fascinating reading. For the sight of a modern gothic palace, an “improved” Georgian new town and a “wild” Highland landscape (whose aesthetic drama had been heightened by the 3rd Duke’s strategically designed roads and bridges) might seem, when combined together, both impressive and unusual. The sense of Inveraray as a made place, an aesthetic construct of evident huge cost, was best summed up by Samuel Johnson’s bald remarks when visiting the 5th Duke of Argyll in 1773: “what I admire here is the total defiance of expense.” For Robert Burns, meanwhile, the extremes of wealth and poverty so evident in Inveraray’s carefully designed landscape, struck a grotesque and troubling note “There’s naething here but Highland pride / And Highland scab and hunger.”
Approaching Inveraray by road in 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth seemed not to know quite what to make of the “showy scene, bursting upon us . . . .so little like an ordinary town.” For her, Inveraray seemed so manufactured, so artificial, that the sight of it marked a curious shift from reality into its representation. The town was:
“different from any place I had ever seen, yet exceedingly like what I imaged to myself from representations in raree-shows or pictures of foreign places— Venice for example—painted on the scene of a play house, which one is apt to fancy are as cleanly and gay as they look through the magnifying glass of the raree show or in the candle-light dazzle of a theatre.”
This was obviously a landscape which, just like theatrical scenery, was designed to skillfully manage the perspectives of those who beheld it. Though the Wordsworths remained quietly unimpressed by the Duke’s excessive and fashionable “turreted mansion . . . fitted up in modern style,” Dorothy was certainly powerfully struck by the relationship between the built and natural environments in Inveraray, which dazzled her even as she acknowledged their manufactured aesthetic effects. Gazing out of her inn window onto a view of Loch Fyne under moonlight was just like raising the curtain on a fantastical stage:
“when I drew back the curtains of my window I was repaid for the trouble of panting up-stairs by one of the most splendid moonlight prospects that can be conceived: the whole circuit of the hills, the castle, the two bridges, the tower on Duniquoich Hill, and the lake with many boats — fit scene for summer midnight festivities! I should have like to have seen a bevy of Scottish ladies sailing, with music, in a gay barge.”
By the time Wordsworths visited Inveraray in 1803, it was already a place in which reality and its representation had become bound up together. Popularised in several picturesque tours of Scotland, and later, in series of printed views, many early nineteenth-century tourists felt that they knew Inveraray from its images well before they saw reality.
Certainly, J.M.W Turner couldn’t stop depicting Inveraray. He visited during his first tour of Scotland in 1801 and spent several days sketching around Loch Fyne and Loch Shira in the late July of that year. Perhaps because he was then working on a commission for a watercolour from the Duke of Argyll, Turner seems to have spent more time in Inveraray than anywhere else during this tour, and this is testified to by the numerous images of the town, its fisherfolk, and its dramatic environs in his “Scottish Pencil” and “Scotch Lake” sketchbooks, which later bore fruit in several exhibited paintings and popular prints.
Two images sketched on that tour were to find their way into Turner’s Liber Studiorum – his exploration of a modern ideal of landscape art, inspired by Claude Lorrain’s Liber Veritatis . In the first image, Inveraray’s resilient herring fishermen battle the churning waters of Loch Fyne in their small canopied boats, with the West Highland mountains and the distant castle acting as points of stillness in a turbulent landscape.
The other image selected by Turner for Liber Studiorum shows Loch Fyne, and the distant town, in much calmer weather
The busy work of the herring fishermen continues around the shoreline, but it’s a day of smooth sailing. Clouds hang in, rather than speed across the sky, and, behind the town on its hazy promontory, the distant hills form a soft landskein of light, shade and shadow.
Turner returned to Loch Fyne twice in 1831. This time he travelled around on the new steamboats that plied the length of the loch, to and from Inveraray, and where he was no doubt joined by picturesque travellers like Welsh writer and artist, Eliza Constantia Campbell, who were keen to discover the landscape that Turner’s own prints had helped to popularise.
Like many visitors, Turner was clearly repeatedly intrigued by Inveraray’s peculiar dialectic of Georgian “improvement” and Highland romance, of Scottish fantasy and Scotland’s reality; in the dramatic aesthetic relationship between the town’s natural and built environments, and the equally dramatic contrast between the hardworking poor inhabitants of Inveraray with the rich, leisured individuals who had redesigned their living landscape.
In 1845, Turner returned, not in person, but in imagination to this same viewpoint, depicting the same scene from the pier, the same calm Loch Fyne waters, the same hills fading beyond the horizon to the sky. This later oil-painted Inveraray is devoid of human figures, and apparently emptied of the things and buildings so carefully designed by eighteenth-century humans. It’s an immersive, experiential, late-Turner landscape; a place where you taste the colours of the weather, and breathe its distinctive aesthetic in. Yet, just like the landscape which had been constructed by the eighteenth-century Dukes of Argyll as a raree-show of their wealth and power; just like the picturesque landscape theatre that Turner had himself depicted so often earlier in his career, so his late Inveraray is also a made place, a place that raises the same questions about perspective, about what it means to own a landscape, about what exactly we are seeing when we look at Scotland, at its lochs and mountains, at its buildings, roads and waterways, at the people who live and work there.
If you are interested in exploring some more of these questions in relation to the landscape of Argyll, (along with some fine Highland fare and a whole lot of knitting!) then please do come and join us for our new club exploring Argyll’s Secret Coast – there’s just a few more days left to sign up.
Fascinating piece – thank you so much Kate. We drove through there in the summer on our way back from Islay (another thank you to you for the inspiration!) and found it a very strange place. But we didn’t know the history. Knowing it makes it even stranger.
I wish I had read this before I wasted my time watching the whole show! I was knitting at least…
My first trip to Scotland I work up in Inverary at dawn and I still find it the most beautiful part of Scotland. Which is saying a lot! I love this new club which will take me through the area!
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Thank you for this fascinating piece with the wonderful accompanying artwork. What a treat.
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Love this post. And here’s something that reminded me of your Carbeth Creature – https://ukieology.com/?fbclid=IwAR2OzSJJZvcuEFS_zkk7LH7mciqGKKso3LrAnVSfMwK-EKJQDBeilCIUUho
What a fascinating piece, Kate! Thank you.
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Having just been to Inveraray on a very misty/rainy day this past October (first time back since I was a child when we used to camp in Scotland), your post certainly provides me–much like Turner’s paintings–with a greater perspective and understanding of the place. It is so unlike other places I’ve been on the Argyll peninsula.
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Thank you for the essay and the insights into Inverary. I love seeing the pictures of the area and it did spark a discussion about landscapes, money and power, especially as we’ve spent a lot of time this holiday walking in NT places where the landscape has been altered over centuries and certainly not for the benefit of the working people of the area. I don’t have a TV, thank heaven, but I have seen the reports of this programme in various newspapers and it sounded horrendous – it sounded like sensationalism with no realism, as is much of the costume drama produced now.
What a wonderful piece, full of history, fabulous paintings, and questions. Thank you Kate. I too started to watch A Very British Scandal, but was forced to stop half way through the first episode, so disgraceful I found the spectacle of over-privileged, under-moralled members of the British aristocracy. The way you fill in the background here is edifying. After reading your writings, I always feel I have learned something.
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Totally agree with Robbie Burns and no thank you to the movie. what an ugly story. Excellent essay but so sad.
Thank you for this seriously considered essay. It is so interesting and gives insight to these wealthy people who then as now give not a jot for the people who live in and tend our beautiful country. Mx
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I love your opening para – if I had a telly, I’d know not to watch A Very British Scandal! It sounds as though it would irritate me beyond words…
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you and me both, Pam.