KINLOCH Castle is a building that evokes as strong emotions as any in the Hebrides. This Victorian pile couldn’t look more incongruous plonked in the wilds of Rum. It wasn’t built to fit in, more to celebrate one family’s dominance of the “Forbidden Island” and its already Clearances-ravaged community.

Until recently it looked like Kinloch Castle would be reclaimed by nature, but this grandiose ghost is now set for a new lease of life on this always intriguing isle.

Rum could scarcely be more dramatic. It is jagged hulk of an isle that scares kids in cartoons, an elemental escape forged by the elements, forged from some of the oldest rocks on the planet: Lewisian Gniess and Torridonian Sandstone. Its mountains are not only called the Rum Cuillin; they also echo the beauty of their big sisters across the water on Skye.

I’ve been lucky to sail into Rum over half a dozen times, each time bewitched by the daunting wall of mountains that finally offers the respite of Loch Scresort, a broad bay that offers rare shelter today, as it has over the centuries to clans and marauding Vikings. Even easing out of the Atlantic swell nature still reigns supreme, but then you catch sight of this sandstone monster. Red Arran sandstone shipped all the way to Rum. This is unmistakably Kinloch Castle.

It’s quite a heft around the bay from the pier, enough to drink in the natural beauty of a bay I’ve seen porpoises and otters splash in, stags startling across my path. The sinewy “village” dots wee houses, a tiny school and an unlikely glamping site and there it is in all its Victorian-into-Edwardian excess.

The English industrialist John Bullough bought Rum back in 1888, but it was his son George Bullough who went on to concoct Kinloch House as the most notorious building in the isles. The extravagant construction was ridiculous at a time when the poor didn’t even have foodbanks. Over 300 men worked on Kinloch Castle for three long years (Bullough insisted the men wore midge-tempting kilts), using not only that imported sandstone, but also 250,000 tonnes of fertile Ayrshire soil.

The setting for Bullough’s notorious parties was crafted for wanton debauchery. The mock baronial pomposity of the exterior was accompanied inside by a rare orchestrion, a massive statue of a monkey-eating eagle and tiger rugs with their heads still on. Kinloch was one of the first places in Scotland to get electricity; embryonic air-conditioning expelled cigar smoke and drinks were served through a peep hole.

Guests could play croquet, tennis and even golf. The lavish gardens were tended to by a dozen gardeners, who it’s said were later packed off to the trenches. These grounds were not just alive with exotic flora, but also housed hopelessly confused alligators and turtles.

After Lady Bullough finally sold Rum in 1957 it became a National Nature Reserve. Its sea eagles and red deer thrived, but Kinloch Castle didn’t enjoy the same protection, limping on until 2015 as a hotel and then a hostel.

One resident I met last year, Chainsaw Dave, recalls that Kinloch retained its party reputation with his own wedding: “It was more a full-bloodied football match than a wedding to be honest. The last guests staggered home after a fortnight”. But Kinloch had been on Scotland’s Buildings at Risk Register since 2004. Today it’s in a parlous state, with wet and dry rot throughout the property, failing ceilings and crumbling chimneys.

Last time I was on Rum late last year there was much debate in the local store – the hub of Rum community life along with the adjacent community hall – on Kinloch Castle’s future. Since NatureScot took over there has been speculation that rather than find a buyer for Kinloch Castle the dilapidated building would be allowed to gracefully seep back into the landscape as nature wrapped her tenacles around it.

Events have moved on since and NatureScot have just announced a prospective buyer, a man who would not only pay the token £1 selling price, but who is willing to fork out for the estimated minimum £20 million of repairs needed. Subject to approval, 63-year-old English businessman and Tory donor Jeremy Hosking, will steer Kinloch Castle into a charitable trust that will ensure repair, conservation and – eventually – community and public access.

Whether the new set-up comes to fruition or not it seems NatureScot are now both determined that Kinloch Castle is not only preserved, but brought back to life, and also that the fragile community become involved. I say fragile community, but there has been positive news recently. In summer 2020 NatureScot ran a competition for four new families to move into a quartet of purpose-built new eco homes. The competition saw entries from all over the world, with more3000 applications.

Today the new families have moved into the new homes, swelling the population from 22 in 2001, to over 50 residents. Rum has seen many dark days – not the least many aspects of the time of the Bulloughs – so it would be ironic, perhaps fitting, if the resurrection of Kinloch Castle became part of the survival of the community on Rum.

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