A lifetime of memories at Glencoul House

This article by Liz Quinn originally appeared in the Northern Times

Uninhabited, boarded up houses in inaccessible Highland glens and lochsides are often visible to travellers, tourists and walkers as they explore the countryside. Apart from the crumbling ruins of Clearance times, these are much later dwellings, mostly of late 19th century origin, built of substantial stone and slate roofed. Most remarkable are those situated in splendid rugged isolation, in the most dramatic and precipitous mountain landscapes of the north west, unconnected to road or double track, and devoid of all modern amenities and services.

Just such a place was Glencoul House which I viewed for the first time from the MV Statesman while on a cruise up Loch Glencoul to view the Eas a' Chuil Aluin waterfall, the highest in the UK. But it was not so much the waterfall that intrigued me, it was the house, standing proud beneath the cliffs, its secrets of past lives securely locked within its grey stone walls; its once bustling rooms blacked out for half a century with wooden boards.

"Who lived there?" I enquired of the skipper. "Willie Elliot," was the reply. "He was the last about 50 years ago." I watched the house until it was out of sight. How could one survive in such a place, without electricity, phone, shops, neighbours, road. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find out, far less meet anyone that had stayed there, but much to my astonishment all was about to be revealed.

The day after my article about Willie Watson's boat trips from Kylesku, was published in the Northern Times I was in Lairg newsagents when assistant Ishbel Mackay said: "Liz! It wasn't Willie Elliot who was the last inhabitant of Glencoul. It was my father. I was brought up in that house for ten years, from 1943 to 53." I was speechless. She was a former next door neighbour of mine from Ord Place until we moved to different parts of the village. A few days later we got together. Ishbel dug out a tin of old black and white photos and the idyllic life at sunny Glencoul came back to life.

The substantial two storey stone house and adjoining cottage was built by the Duke of Westminster for his estate keepers around 1880, at the same time as a similar slightly less isolated dwelling was built on Loch Glendhu, the northern arm of the loch. Willie Elliot, I discovered, had certainly been an inhabitant of Glencoul, having been born there towards the end of the 19th century. He and his brother Alasdair had been called up for the 1st World War and never returned, Alasdair having been killed at the Battle of the Somme and Willie catching a fatal flu bug at the end of the war in France. The Duke had a cross erected in their memory on the hill above Glencoul House and it can be seen today, standing out white against the rocks, by passengers on the MV Statesman as it makes its daily voyage to the waterfall at the head of the loch.

Alick MacLeod, his wife Nan, and three year old daughter Ishbel, moved into Glencoul in 1943, and they were to be the last family in residence there before moving to less isolated quarters in Kylestrome ten years later. "How did you manage at Glencoul?" I asked. "Without electricity, telephone, neighbours, road, everything that 21st century man can't do without!" She declared: "We were quite happy. We lacked for nothing. The houses were quite posh for their time, despite their remoteness. We had a sitting room with fancy fireplace, a range in the kitchen, scullery and milking parlour. A door from the kitchen led into the cottage where I had my schoolroom. I was the only pupil taught by my teenage cousin from Skye, side school teacher Morag MacLean. She had a bedroom next door to the schoolroom. Upstairs in the main house there were three bedrooms and a bathroom with flushing loo and outside we had a walled garden with potatoes, turnips and fruit bushes. There was a barn at the far end, a stable for the horse and a sheep dipping trough."

She continued: "Once a week my father took our boat with outboard motor over to Unapool, further up on the opposite side of the loch, where he met the travelling van and collected essential supplies. There was no time to be lonely at Glencoul, as there were all the animals to look after, the horse, cows, sheep, dogs, cats, geese, ducks and hens. My mother milked the cows and made butter and crowdie. We had our own eggs, meat and fresh trout from the streams. It was my job to look after the pet lambs and one year when there was only one I put a collar and lead on it and took it for walks!

"Some weekends in summer we had visitors who came by boat or walked over the mountains from Glendhu. That was a great occasion and my father would get out the button box and we'd have a ceilidh. "He laid down strict rules about where I was to go outside the house, because of the dangerous cliffs. My favourite place was the tidal island just offshore. I played on the island at low tide where I had a house amongst the rocks with shells and stuff in it. There were five small islands altogether. We named them, High Island, Port Island, Long Island and Round Island and the smallest was un-named. The waterfall was visible from the house and on windy days the spray used to blow back up the rocks.

"My father was always busy outside and every year he walked the cattle and sheep across the mountains on a path over the cliff to Loch Glendhu and right round the other side to Kylestrome, from where they were transported to market in Lairg or Dingwall.

"Getting the mail wasn't a problem, because the postman for the glens on the estate stayed with us. He collected the mail by boat from Unapool three times a week. "In winter we were quite cosy. A coal allowance came by boat and we had peats for the fire as well and a tilly lamp on the table. We had a battery operated wireless for the Home Service and a wind up gramophone for playing Scottish Country Dance records. Both my father and mother knitted during the dark nights. In fact it was my father who taught me to knit! When the snow came I had a snowplough made of wood with a big stone on it. I tied a piece of string at the front and pulled it up and down making tracks out to the hen house and the geese."

By the time the half century had turned Ishbel was at school in P7 at Achfary, where she stayed during the week with an aunt at Lochmore, before going to secondary school in Dornoch. Before leaving Glencoul House in 1953 they had radio telephone contact with Kylestrome Lodge and a wind generator for electric light, although there had to be a gale blowing for it to operate satisfactorily. A major event of 1953 was the Queen's Coronation and, to mark the occasion for the isolated wives on the estate, the Duke of Westminster paid for them to go to London something they would never forget.

After all these reminiscences Ishbel declared: "I've thought more about that house in the last few days than I have in the last 50 years!

A few days later I answered a call on the phone and a man's voice with a strong west Highland accent enquired if I was Liz Quinn. Having confirmed this he said: "This is Willie Elliot." I held my breath Willie Elliot back from the 1st World War? No! It was another Willie Elliot who had been born at Glendhu, sister house to Glencoul, in 1933. He told me: "Glendhu means the dark glen and for three months in the winter the sun never shines on the house because of its position under the cliffs. We used to get supplies from a steamer carrying goods to the Highlands and Islands from Hamilton Murray in Glasgow. It came twice a year and was a great event. We took our small boat out to meet it and chests of tea sugar, flour and porridge meal were transferred out on the loch. There was always a box of goodies for the children that I looked forward to. My father had the horse and cart waiting at the shore with the wheels in the water and the chests were transferred again from the small boat to the cart for the journey to the house."

He continued: "Glendhu was built in 1889. There are lots of stories from the years we spent there. One was the rat incident. My mother discovered it in the bedroom and was screaming and looking for something to wallop it. She let fly with an iron bar, but instead of hitting her target she made a hole in the plaster board and the rat said 'thank you', jumped in and disappeared!"

The substantial old stone houses of Glencoul and Glendhu have withstood 50 years of dereliction from the early 1950s, but the 21st century is about to bring a new era to the once proud and bustling houses of the isolated glens. Glendhu has already been revamped, under instructions from the Duke, and plans are afoot for it to be used as a holiday home for under privileged children and their helpers. It is expected that Glencoul will follow and it waits for the day when its shutters will be released, bringing sunlight and laughter once again into its empty rooms, and children running across the heather outside to rediscover the secrets of the islands in the bay although the slow paced self sufficient idyllic family life of the 1930s and 40s is sadly lost and gone for ever.