Flits by my feet into shadows. The ballroom
Is lit up, briefly, as I glance through the night.
No light tonight but starlight, but in the castle
People are living through a summer evening.
Just beyond my gaze, someone is flirting.
The stags' wary, wild brown eyes
Look sideways at me as I move in silence
Through darkened corridors. Their gaze
Reassures and reproaches, wanders
over my head
Down time's corridor into the past
Where they are running on the rainy hills
Or where a maid, her face now hidden,
Carries the trays from drawing room to kitchen,
Passing the billiard room, where sounds of laughter
Echo behind me, talk just out of range.
Am I afraid here? No. Although I wonder
What stories I have missed, what truths,
What days have passed, what stories would be told
If I could hear the words, not just the echoes,
If I could be the ghost inside their house.
This week I have started a journey into the past. To be more precise, I've started working in the library.
The history of this castle is not like the kind of history you usually find out about at National Trust properties or in books. It's not tidily painted into a coherent picture by those who have come after. Instead, people have rummaged, delved, thrown away, hidden, lost, re-discovered, re-named and wrongly identified...what?
What would you do if you were given a stately home you didn't really want, couldn't afford to keep up and yet were not allowed to get rid of? Well, that's been the situation here ever since Lady Monica sold the property to the Nation. The castle has been loved, loathed, lived in, snooped around in, stolen from and ignored. Bits of it have fallen down. Bits of the library have been moved, some of the inventory lost. The most fascinating bits - George and Monica's own records - left lying casually on top of other books, at risk from damp, dust and bookworm. But perhaps this very informality has left everything seeming so...lived in. No bookworm appears to have penetrated the library, at least. And the table with its piles of music, photograph albums, random (or are they?) magazines and collections of Tolstoy, seems to have been left just as if George and Monica had started to tidy up but abandoned it in the middle.
Coming down to the library, you feel as if you're at the very end of the castle, hidden away beyond the once-noisy ballroom and just down from the South Wing where Lady Monica had her rooms. You go through a special door to get to it, past the half-tarpon, the stuffed caipercaillie and the relief map of Rum made in the 1890s and still used today, through all the corridors in the semi-darkness (it's always very difficult to find the light switches in the castle even if they are working, so it's generally quicker just to not bother looking for them). It's cold. I've crept in on a dark, rainy day and although it's still a few hours to sunset, the room is already full of shadows, too dark to read except with a torch. There are no working lights - I will have to bring a lamp next time. The stuffed eagle and his victim, the hare, are just dark outlines against the turret window.
But despite the dark, the loneliness and remoteness, the library is a curiously homely place. Once through the door, you see the old stuffed armchair with the velvet falling off; the faded chaise-longue in the middle of the room; the china warriors eternally wrestling each other; the stuffed eagle with its hare, not really what you'd think of first for a library decoration; and the alarming picture of John Bullough, who is ever present in the castle and on Rum generally. John Bullough, George's millionaire, patriarchal papa, said to have been kind to his workers and cruel to his wife; John Bullough who alone of all their family is buried alongside George and Monica at Harris; John Bullough whose remaindered "Speeches, Letters and Poems" fill the spaces behind George and Monica's books in the library, seemingly propping up the bookshelves and hardly to be avoided at every turn; looking distinctly unread.
|Library on a sunnier day|
Somehow this is almost a casual room, almost an afterthought. The many copies of sporting magazines and conventional Dictionaries of National Biography, Encyclopaedia Britannicas and Collected Works of Walter Scott (47 huge books!), live cosily alongside one bookcase full of "Lives" of Great Women, queens, empresses and mothers of kings, and tattered French paperback novels (which I henceforth call "Monica's Bookcase"), another bookcase full of "Great Men," huntin', shootin' and fishin' manuals and books on exotic travel ("George's Bookcase"). Some of the huntin' manuals have crept across on to "Monica's" side. I don't suppose she minded, she enjoyed shooting and fishing and probably hunting as well. There is a whole bookcase full of English novels, too - mostly early to mid-twentieth century with surprises such as E.F.Benson (complete?) and Oscar Wilde (the collected works of). I will have to try hard not to steal them!
Most interestingly, the bookcase behind the door has a lower shelf where more personal things seem to have "found a home" - crammed in, shoved on top of other books or just left askew in the middle of it all. These include "Monica's Lie Book" (a notebook where Monica has invented a character, Nenette, who is writing to an imaginary "Aunt"; but Monica seems to have got bored after three or four letters and turned to identifying game birds instead). Also a travel journal by George of travels to Madeira, with pictures and notes. George's school books. A Bridge book where Monica has recorded her games with Hermione (her daughter) and unidentified guests. And the original Kinloch Castle Library inventory, written by Monica. Her flourishing hand is now becoming familiar.
|Library inventory - additions by Monica|
I come across it again, I think, in a photograph album of men wounded in the Boer War and sent for convalescence to George's yacht, the "Rhouma", which he turned into a hospital ship for the second War. Monica has labelled the photographs "patients on the S.Y. RHOUMA" and added in in the only annotation to one of the photos, "Fisher Childe's grave - found by George" (besides the pictures of patients, there are a few photographs of the South African veldt and graves of soldiers killed in action). Otherwise, the men in the photos are not identified; nor are the two boys at the end, posing with an older man and three stags' heads.
|Unknown patients on the Rhouma; the right-hand photograph labelled "Mitchell"|
|Boys, stags, man|
|Hospital list book|
I didn't know anything at all about the Boer War until I started to look at the records, but George was fascinated by it. Although there is a collection of Winston Churchill's early works in the Library, there is virtually nothing about either the First or Second World War. I'd never thought about the impact of the Boer War on people's lives around 1900; how important it was and how it was THE war for George's generation. (He was just too old to fight in the First World War and died just before the Second). One thinks of Edwardians - especially these ones - as somehow complacent, living in a kind of security unimaginable after 1918. But the men in the pictures are scarred by "their" war too, would have seen their friends die and been frightened of dying themselves.
I wish I could understand better how people thought; what was going through their minds; what their ideals were. When writing about the Bulloughs some people take on a tone of implicit mockery or criticism - they were so rich, they must have been naive, decadent, bizarre. But I want to know what they were actually like. What motivated them. How George saw his own life - growing up rich, but "nouveau riche", part of Society through wealth not birth. What was that like in 1900?
To try to find out I aim to transcribe all the things in the Library that George or Monica wrote themselves. Something that doesn't seem to have yet been done in its entirety (though I may be wrong...new records turn up all the time). I want to do this. But it's a little bit like entering into a ghost world. Sometimes they seem more real here than I do. It was their castle, after all. They often seem, particularly on these dark autumn days, to be just around the corner, or living in a parallel universe where it may be raining outside, but they are taking tea in their conservatory, or playing billiards in the smoking room. Their things - their china, their chairs, their stags' heads, their tennis rackets and even their boots and George's kilt - have not been put away. I know myself that once someone is dead, their "things" are empty - but in this case it feels different, perhaps because I never knew the owners in real life. Perhaps because their things haven't been moved, or have been loved, they have kept an aura of the people who owned them. Not as ghosts, but in the space where our imagination runs forward - or backwards - to try to understand what their things tell us. The difference between them and us is what binds us together.