A dreich trip back from Glasgow was enlivened by the stories Big Jim put out over the address system. As we rolled past the ancient Clock Lodge outside Kilmory he told us one version of the story of the strange causeway, still visible at low tide across the head of Loch Gilp. According to Jim a former inhabitant of the tower was suspected of kidnapping the Lochgilphead cats and carrying them off for some wizardly purposes, as a result of which he was shunned in the town. To avoid the catcalls of residents he acquired a wooden sledge so that his horse could drag him to Ardrishaig.
Jim’s story is improbable, not least because a couple of tides would have sufficed to erase the tracks of the largest sledge and the story belongs to the century before last. Apart from this why should Lochgilphead be stuffed with ailurophiles while the residents of Ardrishaig, just a couple of miles away, cared nothing for their felines?
What follows is just what I’ve discovered so far and by no means complete, but worth recording as part of our social history. Any comments helping to complete the story will be welcome.
Our story begins on 15 June 1826 when Sir John Powlett Orde, the hereditary second baronet and son of Admiral Sir John Orde, married Eliza Woollery Campbell, then in her early twenties and daughter of the laird of Kilmory.
Admiral Sir John was a prickly chap who readily fell out with colleagues, including John Jervis, Lord St Vincent and Horatio Lord Nelson. In 1805 he was ordered to strike his flag, despite which in the curious ways of the Admiralty he continued to be promoted, ending up as Admiral of the White in 1810, by which time he had secured a shore job as member of Parliament for Yarmouth, which he kept for life.
The second baronet was born at Portman Square, St Marylbone on 9 June 1803, followed the usual path of the English upper class with an education at Eton and inherited his father’s title in 1824 while still a student at Oxford. His marriage to Eliza put him in charge of her affairs, as in those days the husband became the legal guardian of his wife. Three children followed in quick succession and sadly Eliza died during or shortly after the birth of the third, Eliza Margaret in June 1829.
Meantime Eliza’s father had died in 1828 leaving her not only his substantial estate in Kilmory but also a plantation in Jamaica, all of which passed to Sir John on Eliza’s death. This windfall meant that the young widower could now live well on the wealth created for him by literal slaves in Jamaica and virtual ones in Argyll. He was soon rich enough to buy another estate at Lochmaddy. It’s difficult to imagine the gulf that must have existed between Sir John on the one hand and the wretched folk who supplied his wealth, divisions not just of wealth, but culture, religion and language.
In 1832 Sir John married a second wife, Beatrice Edwards of Harrow, had the original Campbell house knocked down and commissioned the English architect Joseph Gordon Davis to design him an enormous palace befitting his social status. The result was Kilmory Castle, today the headquarters of Argyll & Bute Council. It is described by Frank Arneil Walker as an
“impressive, residential fortress…ugly and agglomerative…designed with undeniable bravura….No doubt battlemented towers and vaulted halls afforded some symbolic reassurance to a parvenu gentry whose wealth had no historic relationship with the land but had accrued from trade or industry.”
We can add that Kilmory is haunted by a green lady – Eliza’s ghost perhaps?
And a report from the Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust in 2008 noted about Sir John Orde
“An innovator and inventor, curragh racer and scourge of local fishermen, from the time he took on Kilmory he worked to convert it into a smooth running estate embracing up to date farming methods and indeed moving farming forward. He took an active interest in local democracy, sitting on the Police board and taking part in early local government in the area but remained unpopular with local people. His workforce on the estate, which was large and diverse, was well paid but fiercely regimented and his amalgamation of several tenanted farms to put together the Home Farm, meant the removal of tenants at best to waged labour on the farm and at worst to eviction from the land.”
That is the background to what follows, based on local legend and looking more likely than the business with the cats. It seems that one day Sir John was driving through Lochgilphead when some boys held on to the back of his carriage. He struck at them with his whip to drive them off, causing one of them to fall off and die under the wheels. This caused such a lot of resentment that Sir John could not go through the town without suffering abuse. He decided to have a causeway constructed across the head of the loch, for which the Clock Lodge was constructed as a gatehouse.
This expensive, entirely selfish project had the no doubt intended by-product of obstructing navigation rights, there being at the time a fishing fleet of small boats operating from the public pier half a mile above the causeway, which had been built in 1831. There was a massive public outcry which eventually resulted in Sir John being compelled to breach a space in his new construction to allow free passage.
The date of the incident isn’t clear, but there are suggestions that the Lodge is newer than the castle, perhaps dating from the 1850s. It has been on the market for some years and it will be a brave person who takes it on.