Enduring story behind the ruin on Vallay Island

There is nothing carries the same air of mystery as a large, ruined house which is not particularly old. Why, in the course of decades rather than centuries, has such abandonment and decay set in? There must always be a story.
Arun Sood on Vallay last week, with the ruined house in the background.Arun Sood on Vallay last week, with the ruined house in the background.
Arun Sood on Vallay last week, with the ruined house in the background.

The tidal island of Vallay off North Uist is dominated by such a house. Ruined and rotting, it was once a home to one of Scotland’s most prosperous families. In the 1940s, its last occupant was lost, the key was turned and it has stood there ever since, the reasons for its existence merging into obscurity.

An Edinburgh University academic with North Uist connections, Fraser MacDonald, published an essay for the Royal Geographic Society in 2013 about this ruin which had long intrigued him. He may have put his finger on the reason for such fascination. “Ruins,” he wrote, “are good for stories.

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“Reports of my visiting Taigh Mòr invariably became the catalyst for older people on North Uist to offer recollections. Often a specific detail would act as an aide-memoir. The sheer emptiness of the house – the absence of material effects – was, for some islanders, a place that could only be filled with stories”.

Certainly, the presence of Erskine Beveridge and his family on Vallay spawned many stories in their time and long after. Beveridge’s impact on North Uist was immense because he became its greatest chronicler, in a classic book published in 1911 (and now re-published by Birlinn).

“North Uist – its Archaeology and Topography” is a comprehensive work and it is even more extraordinary that Beveridge’s acquaintance with North Uist, at point of publication, spanned only 14 years – during which he continued to run a business from Fife; oversee construction of the vast holiday home and suffer a string of family tragedies.

The continuing presence of Vallay House is a ghostly reminder of all these stories. Without the house, much of the associated history would have disappeared. As long as it stands, it will beg questions – and, it seems, inspire a flow of creative activity.

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Arun Sood is another who continues to be intrigued to the point of producing a testimony, in words and music. His grandmother, Katie Maclellan, was one of the last to leave Vallay in the mid-1940s, after the Taigh Mòr’s last resident perished, the house fell empty and there was no employment that would allow anyone to remain.

Katie went to work in an hotel in Ardnamurchan where she married and had five children, including Arun’s mother. The grannie died when Arun was 19 and had heard her stories of Vallay and the Taigh Mòr. As he grew older and more curious, family holidays in Sollas “sparked something” and regular visits followed, always collecting “fragments” of the Vallay narrative.

Now 36, Arun lectures in English at the University of Plymouth’s School of Society and Culture, with a PhD in Scottish Literature from Glasgow University under his belt. He is a musician as well as a writer and these strands have come together in a digital album with accompanying book called ‘Searching Erskine’.

Last weekend, Arun was in Lochmaddy for the launch at Taigh Chearsabhagh. To quote the press release: “Searching Erskine is a 12-track album that blurs the boundaries between ambient, modern-folk and contemporary classical, released with an accompanying book that responds to the uninhabited island of Vallay”. It forms the basis of an exhibition which also includes works of visual art inspired by the island.

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Arun says he has not tried to tell the story of Vallay through music and words, far less solve the puzzle of what exactly happened on the day the Taigh Mòr lost its last resident. Rather, he has taken these “fragments” he has picked up over the years and writes around them, to be reflected upon. “It is the allure of uncertainty around events that I find attractive”.

Erskine Beveridge was a quintessential Victorian phenomenon – a successful industrialist who also happened to be a polymath. The family made its money from the finest Damask linen produced in Dunfermline and sold all over the world. The proceeds of Erskine Beveridge and Co. Ltd allowed its owner to engage in his many outdoor interests, chief among which were landscape photography and archaeological digging, particularly in Hebridean islands.

Beveridge produced respected tomes on Coll and Tiree but it was in North Uist that he discovered most to excite him archaeologically. In a preface to his book, he recalled in the third person: “The writer’s earliest introduction to North Uist dates back to the autumn of 1897, when he visited the island for the purpose of comparing its ancient duns and forts with those found in Coll and Tiree…

“The writer well remembers his first visits to the tidal islands of Baleshare and Kirkibost, and the impression conveyed by Grimsay and Vallay when viewed across their still wider fords, giving the impression that these were places apart, habitable only by the most adventurous of mankind” – a category in which Erskine Beveridge clearly included himself.

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Having settled upon Vallay as the centre for his research, it was a short step for Beveridge to buy the island in 1901; not just Vallay but also the adjacent farms of Griminish, Scolpaig and Balelone. Then he commissioned the construction of Vallay House at a cost of around £8000 – maybe £2 million in today’s money, with every conceivable convenience.

This was a period of great land unrest in the Highlands and Islands, nowhere more so than in North Uist which had been the scene of mass evictions well within living memory. The Congested Districts Board had not included Vallay in a scheme of land to be broken up into crofts on the grounds there was no fresh water supply. In desperation, the cottars appealed but without success.

Against this background, it is not difficult to guess what the crofters’ and cottars’ initial reaction to Beveridge’s arrival on the island as proprietor might have been. For starters, Beveridge had the money to overcome the water problem – he paid to have it piped in with money no object.

Of the house itself, Fraser MacDonald wrote: “It had 16 rooms downstairs and a few less upstairs with plenty ancillary accommodation for servants. This ample provision should be understood in the context of its remoteness; every brick and beam needed to be brought in by steamer and, depending on tides, offloaded on the shore for its final journey by horse and cart to the house site. Even the soil for the garden was imported by boat”.

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MacDonald added wryly: “These materials, once so carefully selected, transported and arranged are now subject to the same ecological decay that buried Beveridge’s cherished Earth-houses”. This referred to the fact that “from the proximity of the house, Beveridge effectively unearthed the Atlantic Iron Age” including seven Earth-houses.

While the explorations continued, the tragedies piled up around the Beveridge household. His wife and mother of seven children died before the Taigh Mor was completed. Their eldest son was confined to a mental institution from which he never emerged. After Beveridge re-married in 1908, an infant son died of meningitis. Yet somehow he carried on writing, digging, cataloguing, taking pictures.

More evidence of his time in North Uist can be found in another classic book published in 2014, Wanderings with a Camera in Scotland – a priceless record of the landscape, people and architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet this material too had been on the brink of destruction. The collection of 800 glass plate negatives was found by chance in the early 1960s in a Dunfermline mill that was scheduled for demolition.

The Beveridge family name is not now most closely associated with Dunfermline linen or North Uist archaeology but with the report which laid the foundations for the National Health Service and welfare state. It is not Erskine who is recalled in this way but his cousin William who visited Vallay House in 1919.

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Fraser MacDonald writes: “George met him off the ferry at Lochmaddy and took him for a late night dram or two while they waited for the tide to change. The visitor was puzzled that his worldly cousins should ignore British Summer Time – then a recent innovation – in favour of solar time that governed the all-important tide. The days proved restful, so much so that Sir Willliam did not, as he had hoped, finish writing his inaugural lecture as Director of the London School of Economics”.

The following year, Erskine Beveridge died at the age of 69. The story thereafter was, for the next 25 years, one of decline. The business which provided the riches went steadily downhill. The stewardship of Vallay House and the North Uist estate passed to George, one of two surviving sons, who found himself under continuing threat from land raiders, while being well-liked personally. Only Vallay was not turned into crofts. George was for a time engaged to be married but this was broken off and he slipped further into a fondness for drink. Or so it is written and re-told. For who now knows the full story? As Arun Sood says: “It all had slightly dark undertones” – which helps explain the fascination.

The end came when George crossed to the mainland in November 1944 and failed to return. His body was found the next morning and the cause of death put down to “accidental drowning”. The contents of the Taigh Mòr were sold off and no subsequent owner took much interest in its fate. Today, Vallay is in productive use, owned and worked by Angus MacDonald with his herd of Highland cattle.

“Searching Erskine”, the exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh, will run until 5th May. The words and music are accompanied by art work inspired by Vallay from Rosalind Blake, Meg Rodger and Emile Kees. It will all help ensure that this is one haunting story behind a ruined house that is not forgotten any time soon.