|Community hall...home of the tea shop!|
It is French day in the community tea-room today. Gavin and Laura have created a delicious French menu and we are greeted by cries of "Ah, bonjour, er, ca va?" as we enter the community hall. Edith Piaf is singing of tragedy on the small CD player. We eat the most delicious croque monsieurs that I've ever tasted, even better than in France! Laura bustles in and out of the kitchen, glamourously six months pregnant with her hair piled high and red lipstick on. There is a list of famous French people, to which we add the name of Lady Monica Bullough, who was born of a French family (today, as we're being French, we like to call her Lady Monique), before becoming - eventually - part of the English establishment. Not through her marriage to millionaire George Bullough or ownership of Kinloch Castle, although that helped; but through their daughter Hermione's marriage to the Earl of Durham and subsequent elevation to Countess.
Before this, Lady Monica had undergone several transformations. Her French family had come to England where, despite their relative poverty, she had become known in Society - with a capital S - for her magnificent beauty and elan. Her first marriage in London made her fairly rich, but did not last, and she seems to have all but abandoned her first daughter, Dorothea; her second marriage, to George Bullough, lasted all their lives and brought her to the Highlands as well as taking her around the world on their yacht; there was a second daughter, Hermione, although Kinloch Castle tells us little about her.
I know very little about Monica, either, but everything in the castle seems to speak of her: the boudoir with the oil portrait of a naked lady, face turned away from us, drinking tea elegantly on a rug; the incredible bathrooms with their scary jacuzzi settings (douche, plunge, spray, jet, splash...); the secretive ballroom. Her portrait in the Great Hall is especially fascinating. She is about my age, but incredibly beautiful with a look of daring and wit in her almost casual pose and half smile, her challenging, dark gaze off to the side and what seems like a wave of her hand towards the artist - well, paint me if you must...but I'd rather be out having adventures! Nothing dreamy or wistful about her! She looks ready to begin life all over again, rather than languishing in the approach to middle age, and seems full of energy, almost about to get up and run off, abandoning the picture. She looks happy, in fact. And every picture of her that I've seen carries this sense of urgency, risk and fun; she looks as though she could be seriously funny.
|Lady Monica's portrait in the Great Hall of Kinloch Castle (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)|
There are photos of her running about barefoot on their huge yacht and catching giant fish in the Caribbean with sharks lurking around the boat. I am fascinated by the stories about her too: the parties, the lovers, her dedication to the island, her teetotalism (in spite of the parties), her continuing visits to Kinloch and Harris, on the other side of the island, long after "Society" had changed beyond all recognition and her husband was long dead.
It is easy to make up stories about her; easy to imagine the cliche of the moneyed beauty, entertaining a risqué and hedonistic crowd in the heyday of slightly scandalous hedonism - like a female Edward VII, near-monarch of all she surveys, in the secret ballroom with no windows to tell tales. But I wonder very much about the truth.
|The lady on the rug. Our favourite picture (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)|
|River falling from Coire Dubh - not unlike the path (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)|
Although our lives here are a hundred years and a million experiences apart, I can't help comparing my situation with hers. This morning, stood at the bottom of the hill about to climb up to Coire Dubh (the Dark Corrie, a "basin" in the mountain where tons of ice once collected before spilling over to make a giant glacier), I looked up and there were three paths; the path proper, and to either side, a rushing stream, curling around rocks and falling every few feet in peat-coloured waterfalls. But my path was a riverbed too; stony and full of trickling water, turning to a morass of mud every so often so that my boots stick and I have to pull them out with a squelch, or with the water getting so deep I have to wade through it. It's beautiful, with clover, heather and gorse to either side, saplings of oak and hazel (is it? I realise I know practically nothing about trees and flowers), the smell of rain and down below, Loch Scresort in the changeable light of the islands.
|Clouds gathering over the hills (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)|
Who chose this path first? How did the first people know which was the right river bed to walk up when it was dry, how did they know which one would be least flooded? And who has been up here before me? Thousands of people of course; but specifically, I am sure that there would have been days - official or unofficial - when Lady Monica came up here; perhaps as one of a shooting party, but perhaps she just woke up some mornings and thought, "I'll walk up the hill today," and did it. How circumscribed was her life? How free was she to decide, having made the big decision - to leave her first husband - what to do about all the smaller decisions? What did she feel about her position, her situation, the expectations around her? Did she relish them, or did she open her eyes in the morning with a sense of surprise - much as I have been - about where she was and how things had turned out? Did it matter, in their marriage?
In ours, because we are free - in the sense that society expects nothing of us, really, except to earn our keep and stay out of trouble - every decision can be fraught with anxiety; there is the potential to get things wrong all the time, when you don't have any written rules. I'm looking for the rules of the island, but then it occurs to me they are still being made up and I can still make them up. I'd like to be more like Monica: more daring, more beautiful, more adventurous. I hope she's looking down on me today. And I hope I can find out more about the reality of her life, not just the clichés!
|View of "our" castle from Coire Dubh (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)|