Monday, July 22, 2013

Beyond The Crow Road

The current re screening of the TV adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road on BBC4 evokes powerful bittersweet memories for me. Just after the original screening  I stayed with some of my kids and a female friend with her two youngsters in what in the series was the family home of the central characters; the cursed McHoan family. In reality, the McHoan's gothic pile was Ardpatrick House; a stunning Georgian mansion on the shores of West Loch Tarbet and set amidst 1500 rolling verdant acres at the very tip of the Knapdale Peninsular on Scotland's sublime Argyll coast.

It was an unbelievably perfect week in late May of beautiful weather-high temperatures and blue skies day after day- the estate exploding with wild flowers and fruit blossom set against a frieze of vibrant shades of green. Across the bay the islands of Gigha, Jura and Islay simmered  in the gloaming. Dream islands caught in a hanging fire. I fell in love with the place and returned most years until unfolding familial events made it no longer possible.

The estate was jointly owned by three brothers who were bohemian in their lifestyle and perhaps values. Admiral qualities in my book, but perhaps their lack of hard nosed business savvy and acumen, in hindsight, could be considered a distinct disadvantage when it comes to running a complex large Scottish estate. However, the dark clouds that were gathering over Ardpatrick had not arrived just yet and in our blissful ignorance my friend Debbie and I with our awestruck children, feasted on the rich marrow of the place. We were staying in the West Wing of the big house with some of the crofts on the estate also occupied as holiday lets. What with locals living on the edge of the estate and with guests and visitors,the place was alive with children.

Bill Patterson as Kenneth McHoan 
in The Crow Road

As we turned off the road which hugs the Knapdale coastline and swung up to Ardpatrick, we noticed some benders and buses in the trees with smoke curling through the pines. It was that sort of place. Ken Kesey had arrived here in his Psychedelic bus in the 70's with the Merry Pranksters: one evening I looked out of the window to see Vogue models dressed like 60's Sci-fi babe, Barbarella posing on the lawn. The late Rodger Deakin, environmentalist and writer records in his cult book Waterlog, how he swam across the cold loch and warmed up in one of Ardpatricks’ Victorian cast iron baths...soaking in the houses' typically brown peaty water! 

Ardpatrick House

Artist and writers washed up here like a creative tide and the enchanted vibe was tangible.

Too many memories of that week to offer more than a few but some magical moments stand out. Walking late at night along the seashore with Debbie and seeing two white horses cantering along through the surf. Rider less and ripping through the spray in just sheer joyful wild abandon. We could still hear their progress long after they had dissolved into the night ...Watching the red sky melt beyond Gigha (God's Island) until the island became just a distant dark smudge on a red and black Rothko canvas.The sky still a glowing ember after the midnight hour.

Setting off one early evening with young Luke to circumnavigate the jagged peninsular. We lay on a rock and watched sea otters weaving through the waving fronds of sea weed beneath the ice clear waters. Arriving late at a tiny hut on the tip of the peninsular- which was anchored down against the prevailing westerlies with steel cables-like the house in The Shipping News. I felt so weak with a raging thirst I drank a carton of tomato juice which I found there which was a year out of date. We got back to the big house after dark. They'd sent out a search party for us! 

 Hanging on to the back of Alisters’ little deux chevaux as we drove along the tow path and across thistle fields to the island where we would cast drift nets and catch mullet under the bright mid evening pink sky. The sea thrashing and foaming as the silver mullet were pulled in....Throwing a rucksack full of climbing gear in a little pea green boat and rowing across the loch to climb on the red mossy cliffs of Dun Skeig; we also climbed on The Coves, an area of sea cliffs looking out to Jura.... Drinking single malt by fire light in ‘Kenneth McHoan’s' study as a fox stood outside on the lawn looking in.

Six year old Luke Appleby's 
first climb at the Coves

Within a few years a simmering feud between the brothers had swallowed up a fortune in legal fees and eventually the court ordered the estate to be sold. Sadly, there was to be no millionaire bohemian knight in shining armour who would ride in and and keep the estate as an entity. Maintaining the magical vibe. For incurable romantics, the worst possible scenario came to pass. The estate was bought by an Edinburgh property company who,as to be expected,implemented a ‘ground zero’ refurb on the place. Converting the main Ardpatrick House into luxury apartments, tarting up the beautiful crofts until they resemble bland characterless Barrett Homes. Applying for and gaining planning permission from the feeble Highlands and Islands local planning dept to build equally unimaginative new homes. In short, tearing the guts and soul out of the place. The final nail. Finding out the other day that Maggie’s cottage’ a simple croft on the shores of the loch without any mains services and described as ‘an artist’s studio’ has been demolished with permission granted for a new build on the site.

I suppose a golden era is not a golden era if it lasts forever. Debbie died suddenly two years ago, the children grew into young adults and the house and estate were transformed from a blissful bohemian paradise into a Homes and Gardens Sunday supplement feature.So goodbye Ardpatrick, televisual home of Iain Bank’s doomed McHoan family and in real life, home to a family whose lives were as equally complex if not as tragic. I shall never return as I would find it to painful to see your heart ripped out and sacrificed on the alter of the market.In my mind though, forever the reflection of a dream.

Gone but not forgotten: Maggie's Cottage: Photo John Macfadyen 


  1. Touching piece. Why oh why do these brutes have so much power to "improve" the perfectly good to destruction?

  2. So good to read this! my family and I stayed in ardpatrick for a month every summer for years! It is still there, not quite the same but the landscape is just as beautiful and you can camp!

  3. thank you for this lovely piece, its like a requiem for an old friend