Looking back into empire…

Mount Stuart

Michaela was just showing me some of the photographs she sneakily took on our visit to Mount Stuart yesterday. Sneaky because they do not approve of people taking photographs. I always wondered why. Is it because the flash might affect the posh fabric, or because they want us to buy images from the gift shop?) She is not one for breaking rules, but makes an exception in the cause of the class consciousness (80s throwback there in honour of Margaret Thatcher.)

Mount Stuart (according to our tour guide) was one of the last great houses to be built in this country; the old one burnt down in 1877, so the owners set out to spend spend spend in high Victorian style- a display of wealth beyond what most people can dream of even now. Electric lighting, central heating, heated indoor swimming pool, every modern convenience, priceless paintings by old master, Gothic carving and painted walls, Stained glass. No expense was spared.

stained glass, mount stuart

Marble chapel, Mount Stuart

What was created was already going out of fashion as it was completed in the years before the first world war. Baronial towers, a marble chapel, religious imagery everywhere. It must have seemed like the centre of Gods order for the universe- the rich man at the centre of his own world.

The house was only possible because of one thing- vast quantities of cheap labour. In the building (involving years and years of work by hundreds of skilled craftsman) and then in the running (an army of gardeners, housekeepers, kitchen staff etc.)

The interesting thing is that, in some respects it was never finished. Each column and stone cornice in the house was to be intricately carved- but not all of it was finished. Our guide told us this was because so many people were killed on the slaughtering fields of the first world war that the skills were simply gone.

unfinished carving, mount stuart

You could argue that this war was the logical end for all this stacking up of empire plunder- a war that should of ended all wars. It did not work out quite like this though. And the interesting thing is that this massive house is still privately owned.

This from Wikipedia;

John Colum Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquess of Bute (born 26 April 1958 in RothesayIsle of Bute), styled Earl of Dumfries before 1993 and from this courtesy title usually known as Johnny Dumfries, is a Scottish peer and a former racing driver. He does not use his title and prefers to be known solely as John Bute.[1] The family home is Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute

…He ranked 616th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2008, with an estimated wealth of £125m. (26th in Scotland with £122m in 2006)

He lives with his family in London and at Mount Stuart House, 5 miles south of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, PA20 9LR.  In 2007 Dumfries House inCumnockAyrshire was purchased for the nation for £45 million.[5]

John Bute, a rich man, who is the son and grandson of many other rich men.

It really is difficult not to love his house- but the culture that made it possible still casts a huge shadow over all of us- and in many ways, our current government, stacked as it is with rich men who are the sons of other rich men, will be very at home there.

Swans on Bute…


It was an autumn day ringed with rainbows
With a brilliant light panning across the water
Polishing everything it touched into beautiful Technicolor

For a while the rain swept in
Hammering the surface of the loch to a million tiny ripples
Like frosted glass
Then just as soon, the still sea water became a mirror again
Holding the hills like Turner,
Or Rembrandt.

There is a purity to the air
Sparkling like the fine optics
Of the pair of new binoculars I borrowed once as a boy

I drive the coastline, heading for the ferry
And slow down as a family of swans cross the road
Through the gate of the boatyard
Mum and Dad dazzle in the sun
Whilst their dowdy offspring
Waddle in line astern

The absurd beauty of the day turns me all Beatrix Potter
And I wonder at the nature of their errand.
A complaint about a dirty mooring perhaps?
Or a measuring for a new set
Of webbed feet?

Shaking away the sort of smile
That lingers on the soul
I watch the last signet safely over the pavement
And scuttle back towards a more objective

It’s better for the image you know.

Port Bannatyne, Isle of Bute.