Few mansions can rival the seaward approach to Kinloch Castle at the head of Loch Scresort on the Isle of Rum for setting. The height of its main tower and the mountain backdrop may not rival Balmoral's, but no British monarch residing there ever exercised such control over those that dwelt in their domain as the owner of the island and Kinloch Castle did. Rum once had a population of almost 500 people who were cleared, eventually to create a 'forest' for deer that the owners could then shoot at their leisure. Feudalism makes land ownership far more important than the people on it. Nothing much has changed in that respect in Scotland for 1,000 years.
Human beings have lived on Rum for 10,000 years, perhaps the earliest inhabitants of post-Ice Age Scotland. Some of the country's earliest Christian symbols are there too, carved on stone pillars, and there is evidence of cultivation stretching back five millennia. Every inhabitant of the island was removed almost 200 years ago. Following a brief period as a sheep farm that would have degraded much of the pasture and any arable land, red deer were reintroduced to what had once been an afforested landscape but which was now denuded of trees. At over 40 square miles in extent, by far the largest of the Small Isles, Rum had become a desert.
From a playground for billionaires, the island became a plaything of government in 1957, when Lady Monica, the 88-year-old widow of the castle builder, Sir George Bullough, sold it in its entirety to the Nature Conservancy Council. It is now owned by the successor agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), on behalf of the Scottish Government. For 50 years the island has been dedicated to the study of red deer, while its prime man-made asset, Kinloch Castle, has effectively been left to rot. The castle has little architectural merit, but is a 'monument to excess', a time capsule of Edwardian indulgence, and an outstanding memorial to the delinquency of Highland landlordism.
Kinloch Castle was given the top category A listing as a historic building by the predecessor of Historic Environment Scotland, another Scottish government agency, in 1971. I first visited the castle 15 years ago, and have returned there regularly since. A small, but expensive, hostel building has been constructed to replace another temporary one beside the castle that was almost useless. Meanwhile, little has been done by SNH to stabilise the fabric of the castle to prevent further extensive deterioration. A last ditch effort by the Kinloch Castle Friends Association (KCFA), seeking to conserve and utilise the castle to provide much needed bed and breakfast accommodation through a Community Asset Transfer application, has just been refused by SNH.
KCFA's case was based on the economic development potential of the castle to benefit the surrounding area. Unlike neighbouring community-owned Eigg, visitor numbers to Rum are small, yet it is of great environmental, archaeological and historical interest. Rum may share its name with several other islands worldwide, but the place is utterly unique. In most of the Highlands red deer are viewed as a pest – a serious road hazard that only serves to preserve a severely damaged landscape of unnaturally limited diversity – yet millions have been poured into studying them on Rum at the expense of almost any other human activity there.
The buck stops with the Scottish Government, and they need to act to rectify this preposterous situation. Urgently.