A Rossdhu Childhood

From Sir Malcolm Colquhoun

I was born in December 1947 on the kitchen table at Camstraddan House, just outside Luss, in the austerity days immediately following the war. My grandfather, Sir Iain Colquhoun, who lived at Rossdhu, the "big hoose" just down the road, was to die unexpectedly in November 1948, at the unfeasibly early age of 61, following a battle with lung cancer – probably the only fight he ever lost. And so, soon afterwards, my family – my parents, my older brother and sister and I, and "Seakin" (Miss Eakin) the nanny – moved into Rossdhu, our family seat for more than 600 years.

Rossdhu was what, in the great scheme of things, you might term a "small" big house, not (thank goodness!) one of the vast palaces requiring scores of servants to minister to the needs of the family. Still, at around 70 rooms, it was quite big enough; the "laird's loft" in Luss Church seats around 30, so it seems reasonable to suppose that in 1874, when the church was built, that was the size of the household.

Nor was it an especially grand house. It started off as a simple square Georgian residence when it was built in 1772, replacing the earlier Rossdhu Castle whose stones were used in its construction. It only really became a big house some fifty years later, with the addition of the two wings, giving the shape you see today. And if it ever contained important paintings and priceless furniture, we shall never know – for in 1906 Sir James Colquhoun, 8th Baronet, died leaving the contents of Rossdhu to his 22 year-old wife Ivie, whom he had met and married two years before. She held an auction, of which no record exists, and Sir James's successor, his cousin Sir Alan John, had to buy back all the furnishings he required. He was not a wealthy man, so any truly valuable contents probably passed out of the family for good.

Sir Alan died in 1910 and was succeeded by his son Sir Iain. A wildly romantic character, the greatest Scotsman of his generation, he was revered and adored in equal measure, his death mourned by millions. But he was no businessman, so when my father Sir Ivar succeeded to the estate its finances were in a parlous state, and a huge chunk of it to the north of Tarbet on Loch Lomondside had to be sold off to meet the demands of the taxman. Money was in short supply, and life in Rossdhu was far from luxurious. As children though, we adored it – it was a magical place to be, with 600 acres of parkland in which to roam and the loch to swim in (and there were no speedboats in those days).

The nursery floor was at the top of the house, where Seakin and her staff of three (two nurserymaids and a cook) held sway. It was a wonderfully cosy, self-contained world, routine, ordered, the fire always burning, the huge box in the corner that was the radio permanently tuned to the Home Service (except first thing in the morning when it was the Light Programme), "here is the news, read by Alvar Liddell", filled with reports about the doings of the people of the day – Eisenhower, Churchill, Eden, Attlee, Dulles. I hadn't a clue what they did, but I knew they must be important.

It was quite a feudal existence, a little self-sustaining community. I suppose our household must have numbered about twelve – in addition to the nursery staff there were Mr and Mrs Rink the butler and housekeeper, Mr McLetchie the gardener, Davy Walker the odd-job man, Violet the housemaid, a cook and a scullery maid whose names I can't remember, and Mr Thompson the chauffeur. This all seemed perfectly normal; perhaps the strangest thing about being brought up in a big house is that, to a child, it simply never occurs that not everyone lives in the same way.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that one grows up insulated from the world and largely without friends to play or share things with. Although there were birthday and tea parties and my sister often had Mr Thompson's daughter Rosemary over to play (I wonder what became of her?) there was an inevitable sense of aloofness between the big house and the local community, valiantly though my parents tried to counter it. But at the time it didn't matter, because the house was always full of people – my mother was a wonderful hostess and a renowned cook – so there was the constant coming and going of friends and relations to stay, shooting parties, house parties, dinner parties, innumerable official visitors. Between 1948 and 1972, when we finally moved out of the house, there are more then 3,000 names in the visitors' book.

When I was five I started lessons in Luss with Miss Shearer and her sister Miss Ina, who lived in a tiny cottage opposite the village shop. Every day I would walk up to the end of the drive – about a mile – and catch the bus into Luss, doing the trip in reverse at 12.00 when lessons ended. Then it was lunch, always in the dining room, the enormous table with twenty four chairs around it, my father at the end. There were endless rabbit pies, and mutton, and cabbage that had been boiled for an hour (to this day, if I close my eyes and think about it hard enough, I can make myself ill), and rice pudding – my favourite. And the cold! My word, it could be cold. There was an enormous and antiquated cast-iron boiler in the bowels of the house, connected to cast-iron radiators by cast-iron pipes two inches in diameter, but since (I was told) it used half a ton of coal every day, it was hardly ever used. This didn't really matter, since it made no discernible difference to the temperature in the house anyway. We used to sit in one of the main rooms of the house – the library, the smoking room, the ante-drawing room (or, if there were guests, the drawing room) depending on the time of year, and there would always be a roaring log fire. Vast quantities of logs were consumed, brought to the house daily by Davy Walker in a horse-drawn cart provided solely for this purpose.

Then, in 1954, my entire world collapsed – Seakin handed in her notice! She had been on holiday to her native Tipperary, and there bumped into an elderly, exceedingly rich, American gentleman with the improbable name of Arnold Archibald. It turned out they had been at primary school together in Clonmel fifty years before. Arnold had made good in banking in California, his first wife had died, he proposed to Seakin . . . and that was that! They lived in San Francisco, and thereafter she and Arnold used to come and stay as guests at Rossdhu every year, travelling first-class all the way – something we certainly couldn't afford to do – but the idyll was over and life was never the same again.

I went to boarding school at 8, and from then until 1965 when I left school I came back to Rossdhu for the school holidays. But the writing was on the wall, and with the advent of Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1964 it was obvious that an entire way of life was coming to an end. Staff were impossible to find and retain, and by the time the 1970s came my parents were down to just two, the ever faithful Violet and Mr McQueen, my father's chauffeur/gardener/general factotum, plus a couple of dailies from the village. You can't run a house the size of Rossdhu on that, so in 1972 my father decided enough was enough. My mother was furious, and so was I. But he was unmoved. "Your mother and I" he told me "rattle around this place like peas in a pod". So he moved back to Camstraddan, the smaller house by Luss where, almost thirty years before, he had started his married life.

Of course, as we all know the story has a happy ending. The house was open to the public for a while, which didn't work very well (I did say it wasn't really a very grand house), before being leased away to a golf-course operator. It eventually ended up in the hands of Lyle Anderson, the American entrepreneur who created the Loch Lomond Golf Club, who completely restored the house and, in the process, saved it from certain ruin.

My great-grandson, whenever he is born, might just live to see the house come back to the family again. Meanwhile, I go there regularly and marvel at what has been done, able to relive my childhood memories, in the knowledge that the house is secure for posterity and for the clan – whose home it is, just as much as it is mine.