Sunday, March 08 2009
Kildalton Castle was actually a grand Victorian house built by Islay distiller and MP John Ramsay in 1870 as a home for his second wife Lucy and also as the centre of a huge estate of some 54,000 acres which included a great deal of property including both the Machrie and White Hart hotels. The First World War put paid to the fortunes of many families up and down the country however and sadly the Ramsays were no exception. The estate had to be sold. It was purchased in 1922 by John Talbot Clifton, who was perhaps one of the most colourful residents that Islay has ever known. He must have been attracted by the average game bag for the last seven seasons which apparently included 150 blackcock, 800 grouse, 600 woodcock, 350 snipe, 60-70 salmon and 36-40 stags.
Clifton was born in 1868 in Lancashire to a fabulously wealthy but hopelessly dysfunctional family. He was an impulsive, indeed obsessive traveller who explored Canada, Siberia, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, Africa and South America, shooting things as he went, and then eating them. Some of the things he shot (and then ate) were new to science so were named after him, such as a type of wild Siberian sheep and also a Canadian marmot. He once ate a dinner of mammoth recovered frozen from the Arctic permafrost and shot a Canadian musk ox, using its head as a pillow during the journey home.
He married a girl called Violet, who was fanatical about orchids and was probably even more eccentric than her husband. They met in Peru in 1906 after Clifton had heard she had shot her horse because she couldn't bear the thought of anyone else riding it. Returning to England, Violet failed in her attempt to buy a couple of African pygmies (apparently buying pygmies was against the law even then) and produced five children, who she can have seen but rarely because she was always off travelling with her wild and impetuous husband. Continue reading....
After various excitements during the First World War, Talbot seems to have given up on England and bought an estate in Ireland. He had to leave in a hurry however because he shot and severely injured Captain Eugene Gilan of the IRA, which was not a good career move. Their argument was over a car (Talbot owned lots of lavish and enormous automobiles), and the IRA had taken a fancy to his splendid Lanchester. He offered them a Ford instead, but apparently that wasn't good enough and things got out of hand. He required police protection for a year, but eventually made his peace with the Republicans who even gave him his Lanchester back.
By then however, Talbot and Violet had fallen in love with Islay and purchased Kildalton. Violet wrote a successful, if inevitably odd, book about her husband called 'The Book of Talbot' in which she describes autumn on Islay as 'Fire and blood, anger and desire'. Violet reckoned Kildalton was the only home Talbot was ever really happy in - and he busily set about shooting the wildlife - in 1926 the best stag shot in Scotland met his end at Proaig.
Happy he may have been at Kildalton, but he was not to spend many years enjoying the fruits of his estate. He may have mellowed a bit, and even spent some time playing his flute to the seals which then, as now, obligingly came curiously close to see what was going on. If the reality was that, having lured them to him, he then shot them, at least we are spared the details.
Wanderlust was to pull him away from his island paradise soon enough, and he was off to see a friend of his in Persia. Andrew Jefford in his book 'Peat Smoke and Spirit'¬Ě says that: "This journey later led to the Sheik of Bahrain, his brother, and two of their eight wives coming to stay at Kildalton, where they enjoyed watching the wild rabbits but were terrified by having a fire lit in their bedrooms. During a journey he undertook alone across Central Africa in 1926, Talbot acquired a black servant from Chad called Mohamed Noa whom he took back with him to Islay. He was more ill than usual during this typical Calvary of a trip. "Am better but very weak" reads a typical diary entry, written between Lake Chad and the Sudan. "Managed to sit my horse for two and a half hours. When we come to the six hours trek without water I shall collapse. My horse stumbles every step. Damn. Rather interesting country. I vomit all the time."
Despite these difficulties, in 1927 Talbot set off for what was to be his final trip, with Violet and Mohamed in tow. Their destination was Timbuktu, but they never made it. Talbot's deteriorating health forced them to turn back from Bamako in Mali. From Dakar, he took a ship for the Canaries where the heavy smoker was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died three weeks later.
His devoted wife accompanied her husband's body back to Islay (she had him embalmed for the trip), sleeping by his coffin every night. A great horse carried the hearse away from Kildalton Castle on his last journey and twelve Ilich bore their master to his last resting place at Cnoc Rhaonastil. His wife tossed a single wild violet and a bunch of orchids into the grave and never wore her jewels again. Kildalton, sadly, began a terminal decline. It is now a ruin. Carl Reavey
Talbot Clifton's funeral cortege leaving Kildalton Castle
Andrew Jefford - Peat Smoke and Spirit¬Ě 2004
Violet Clifton - The Book of Talbot 1933