#0046: The Castle By The Pond
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Stretched out before me, under a topaz sky brushed with silver and studded with lead, the rough gravel track heading north east out of Tighnabruaich clings tightly to the shore.
Shining under a varnish of recent rain, it passes through the boatyard and hugs the rocky precipice at Rhubaan, shrouded in purple flowering heather and dark spines of gorse, where it offers breathtaking views across the West Kyle, before rounding the headland and diving into a kaleidoscope of green.
The road twists between huge boulders of scarred Dalradian schist which spent millennia contorted by the tectonic torment of the Highland Boundary Fault, and now find themselves thick with damp moss and choked by bracken and rhododendron. In the springtime, this place is a soft dreamscape of pink blossom but now, in the height of summer, the dense foliage shimmers like emeralds, pierced by the occasional vivid foxglove which forces its way through the undergrowth.
Overhead, a buzzard, fresh from the hunt, carries its unfortunate prey in powerful talons. It soars over the treetops and out of sight, toward the poor creatures doom.
As the track turns sharply uphill through the West Glen, and a waterfall crashes under the road and down toward the waters edge, the trees grow noticeably taller. Dizzying cedars dwarf the Atlantic oak woodland which wins the battle for supremacy against the impenetrable rhododendron of the lower slopes.
As the trees become more dense, I play a game of hide and seek with the West Kyle and, beyond it, Bute, which slides in and out of view through rare gaps between branches. In a fleeting moment, I catch sight of the Maids of Bute as they peer silently out across the water, patiently waiting for their men to return. Then, as the track curves down through the conifers, they vanish once more, and the small, natural harbour of An Caladh sails into view.
Almost immediately, the relative wilderness of the woods gives way to a semblance of manicured order.
The grass is neatly cut.
The woodland feels maintained and well cared for.
Lest they’re dragged overboard under the weight of their fiery, trumpet shaped flowers, coppertip irises, on the cusp of bloom, cling to a solid seawall. Its delicately carved masonry gives way to a narrow slip, which cuts across a rocky shore washed dark olive by seaweed, and reaches out into the peaceful bay where yachts rock gently at sheltered moorings, and oystercatchers shriek as they fly low to the water.
Across the bay, tucked away from the road in well kept grounds, an old boathouse and cottage stand beside a pristine little quay. Nearby, a tall, white beacon silently watches over the scene. Its reflection mirrors that of a lone heron strayed from its nest high in the Scots pines, which tower over the dense mound of rhododendron on the small island of Eilean Dubh at the entrance to the harbour.
I feel as though I have wandered into the grounds of a grand, lochside estate.
And indeed that’s exactly what I’ve done.
There’s been a settlement here since the late sixteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1867 that Caladh was put firmly on the map. Captivated by the quiet beauty of the bay, and its potential as an anchorage for his numerous yachts and paddle steamer, a wealthy civil engineer, George Stephenson, cousin of Robert, the famed designer of the steam locomotive Rocket, drew up plans for a vast country house overlooking the harbour.
I watch a line of ants as they make their way along the seawall. Their relentless march evokes the sense of industriousness which the Victorians brought to their work. The road I just arrived by didn’t exist when Stephenson bought the thousand acre estate all those years ago. Instead, stone was quarried from nearby Caladh Farm and brought to the harbour by boat, where it was hauled to shore, cut to size, and carried to the site of Stephenson’s house.
And what a magnificent house it was.
Dressed in a dense tangle of ivy, a castellated turret topping its six storey tower like a heavy crown bearing down on the head of an imperious old monarch, the rambling, gothic facade of Glen Caladh Castle dominated the bay, offering exceptional views across the Kyles from its countless mullioned windows.
By the turn of the century, when the estate had passed into the ownership of the shoe-making Clark family, Glen Caladh Castle had entered its golden age, boasting such luxuries as a swimming pool, a tennis court, and even a private golf course a short sail away at Rhubodach, on Bute.
But as war began to brew in Europe, Glen Caladh’s heyday as a private estate drew to a close.
World War I saw the castle become a Red Cross convalescence home, where sick and injured soldiers were nursed back to health in these tranquil surroundings, a world away from the brutality of the front line. After the outbreak of World War II, however, the estate was requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a beach pilotage school, under the designation HMS James Cook, where the crews of landing craft learned navigation in the bay whilst, beyond the mouth of the harbour, X-craft submarines glided through the darkness on clandestine training exercises of their own.
As I step away from the sea wall and pick my way through a copse of crooked cherry trees, their branches hairy with lichen, I see irregular shapes lurking beneath the thick carpet of moss on the forest floor. Mounds of stone, strewn across the gently sloping hillside, partially obscured by clumps of fern erupting from every crack.
This could almost be a natural formation. Glacial moraine. Volcanic debris. The aftermath of a vicious landslide.
But that illusion is betrayed by signs of human hands at work.
An intricately cut piece of masonry here. A veneer of polished granite there.
What’s left of the original boundary wall is embraced by the thick root of a great conifer, like the tentacles of a mighty beast risen from the harbour. The tight grip of time dragging the ruins back into the earth.
With war over, the Government was slow to return the house to the Clarks. It lay empty, uncared for, and rotting, like a great whale beached at the waters edge. The building succumbed to dry rot and, in 1960, was demolished, leaving these strange, overgrown mounds of stone as all that remains of Glen Caladh Castle.
Except for one final gift, which was left behind for those who know where to look.
I follow a narrow path away from the harbour and into the woods. As I climb higher, the light rapidly fades as the sky grows dark and a light rain settles over the Caladh estate. It stirs the warm air and brings with it the familiar smells of summer in the forest.
A tall Western Hemlock reaches over the path. Where it comes to rest on the flat, citrusy needles, the misty drizzle gathers into fat drops, which run along the gently arcing branches and throw themselves into dark water below. Bold, silver ripples reach out across the forbidding black surface, their progress only halted where they meet glossy, heart-shaped lily pads, jostling for sunlight in this unexpected clearing in the woods.
Built as a reservoir in case fire ever broke out in the castle, and used as a skating pond back when winters were harsher than today, Caladh lily pond is one of the last recognisable survivors of the old estate.
Now, though, any suggestion of formality and order has been shrugged off by time, leaving behind a beautiful, natural chaos.
The rain gives way to a brief moment of sunshine. I linger, watching clouds reflected in the water and listening to the gentle whisper of a breeze through the treetops. A startlingly blue damselfly cuts an erratic path across the pond, glinting as it crosses a shaft of golden sunlight which falls through the surface and into the depths. Lost forever.
As a monument to the long since vanished castle, built in an age of order, discipline, and unbridled ambition, the wild, forbidding and disarmingly beautiful lily pond is a poor reflection of Stephenson’s vision.
As a fairytale spot with a story to tell, stumbled upon in one of the most captivating corners of Argyll, however, it’s magical.