I despise insects. Pretty things like Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles I don’t mind, because they make no attempt at trying to make me anemic. Mosquitoes, midges and ticks however, I would willingly blast of the face off this earth with a bazooka, were I properly equipped. I’m allergic to insect bites too, so it made perfect sense to be in the middle of a Forest in the Highlands being besieged by a selection of these creatures as me and Ben sought to visit a place of pilgrimage that was of great interest to us.
This is Braemore House near Ullapool, north-west Scotland. It’s constructed out of Gneiss (which is a blue coloured stone which is abundant in the north of Scotland) and edged with durable Sandstone from Glasgow. It looks more like a castle than holiday home, and it was built in the 1860’s for Sir John Fowler as country retreat.
Fowler. Hmm. Now where have we heard that name before?
Ever since we’ve been researching Montague Fowler here at Cemetery Club, one word kept popping up. Braemore. Braemore this, Braemore that. When we found out that Sir John Fowler, one of the most eminent Victorian men of the age and the man who co-designed the Forth Bridge was actually Monty’s father, the scale of the building captivated us and we wanted to see if it was still standing. We found the above image on Google but nothing more contemporary. The hunt was on.
Whilst chief engineer for the Metropolitan Line, he purchases the estate of Braemore and over the next few decades entertains the great and the good there – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edwin Landseer (painter and sculptor of the Lions of Trafalgar Square), John Everett Millais, the list goes on – many clattered nigh-on five hundred miles from London to witness and be party to the stunning views the house commanded of Loch Broom, nearly seven hundred feet above sea level.
We’d never been to Scotland before so decided to marry this little bit of rural exploring with a holiday, presumably in the same spirit that Sir John bought the estate as a place to get away from the grind of London. We mentioned this to the owners of the B&B we were staying at and the legacy of the family came to the fore. ‘Oh, John Fowler? Fascinating man. Do you know he built a bit of the Metropolitan Line behind his house up here to try out different tunnelling techniques?” Ben and I looked at each other and suddenly found ourselves in a car, hurtling towards the house.
We parked in a quiet Car Park and vanished into the depths of a mature forest that held Spruces and Pines in a tight, insect-ridelled maze. What looked like a short walk on Google Maps had failed to reveal the topography of the Highlands, and when we saw a slope of about 50 degrees our task of finding the Fowler holiday home suddenly seemed to rival a mission led by George Mallory.
Ben marched on in his wellies like some sort of mountain goat, whilst I delicately stumbled over bracken, heather and grasses like a timid Heron. As we ascended, what we thought was the peak made way for another peak, and another peak, until we both found a picnic bench to collapse on, at which point I swore very loudly.
“We’ve come this far” Ben said. My legs were killing me and I was beginning to wonder if any blood transfusion services were nearby as the Midges and flies got bolder in every attempt to drink my haemoglobin. Resolving myself to his astute observation, we carried on until we reached the main gravel drive which Google Maps indicated was the main driveway. I’d run out of Irn-Bru by this point, and wondered what Monty would make of it all, resting peacefully beneath his granite cross in Brompton, probably wondering why two men in their late twenties would be doing this.
We followed the path for another twenty minutes and were confronted with a gate. ‘Braemore Estate. Keep out’. Up ahead, a driveway which led to a large turning circle, with a house directly behind it. This was it. Ben remained behind as the sign clearly indicated private property, but I was of a more forthright nature. Any questions asked – I’d say we were Fowler fans and that we wanted to see a place where genius was nurtured and executed.
I opened the gate and walked up the path. Flanked by sheds of tractors and cars on one side and a small lodge, the other, the house crept into view.
What’s this then? I was expecting a magnificent stone building. What must the Archbishop of Canterbury have thought if he saw one of the leading lights of British Engineering living in a Barratt home?
Part 2 on Thursday will look into a what happened to the Highland home of the Fowler clan and a rather surprising little feature of this Highland hideaway….