Sunday Herald - 04 November 2001

Let's avoid making monumental disasters

Muriel Gray feels we sometimes need to leave sites of historical interest alone

The first time I saw Castle Tioram was over 20 years ago, and we came at it from a peculiar angle. Instead of the obvious route along the single track road that snakes alongside the river Shiel, a stretch of unimaginably beautiful water full of fat lazy salmon lying in crystal clear pools, we scrambled from the east, over the hills that enclose Loch Moidart. When the magnificent grey tower came into view, backed by the glittering sea and the green gem of Eilean Shona, it's an understatement to say that it took the breath away. Much of Ardnamurchan's landscape is imbued with a fairytale quality, but nowhere more so than the magical few acres that contain and surround Eilein Tioram and the ruined castle that sits on its rocks. Forests of oak, pine, birch and rowan grow to the sea's edge and lend the water a deep green-blue hue, and the delicate arc of white sand that curves towards the tiny islet shames the designers of computer fantasy games who struggle to invent the beautiful and impossible. In case you think I have completely lost my mind and am trying to persuade the editor that I should be given a hill-walking column, let me plead that this sentimental reminiscing has a point.

The future of the castle currently hangs in the balance, as ministers must soon respond to the final report following a public inquiry that has been running since June 5.

The £350,000 inquiry was prompted by the proposed restoration and roofing of the castle, now owned by millionaire businessman Lex Brown. His application to the Highland Council planning department to convert the ruins into a home and a museum was granted last year, but the Scheduled Monument Consent permission still required to be granted by Historic Scotland is being withheld, marking out the project as an important test case in the debate about how we regard our heritage.

The language in the argument has been strong, with Brown's witness, Professor Edward Cowan, the chair of Scottish history at Glasgow University, accusing Historic Scotland of nurturing a totally negative, patronising and lowland view of the history and culture of the Gaidhealtachd which is as Scottesque as it is grotesque. Blimey! But although the professor's fashionable mode of thought has gained momentum amongst many in the last decade, in this particular instance it needs careful examination.

When I worked in a museum as a designer in the early 1980s, the big question was whether the artefacts, many of them prehistoric and not particularly visually arresting, should be put into a populist display context, or just exhibited simply and clearly, leaving the visitor to use their imagination to furnish the missing visual cues. I was always in favour of the latter, not simply because I was a lazy adolescent, although it was certainly a factor, but because the former almost always meant going down the road of Moss Bros tailor's dummies dressed in iron age garb staring vacantly over cracked bits of ceramic, while an audio tape of domesticated animal noises burbled in the background. In other words, reconstructions are very nearly always utter crap in comparison to the very personal experience an engaged viewer can enjoy when given information, the object, and the space to contemplate both.

One can't help thinking this truth also applies to Castle Tioram. Why is it so negative and patronising to allow us the experience of the genuine castle remains and all they imply and reveal? Surely the word patronising is far more appropriate when applied to the supposition that the public are children, who fail to appreciate an ancient building and its history without a total modern reconstruction and accompanying visitor centre full of tartan gonk key-rings and postcards of seals?

In China where parts of the Great Wall have been reconstructed with great skill and at tremendous cost, the result is merely satisfactory. One is quite aware of how phoney it is and the interest is limited to the physical demonstration of scale. It's only when the visitor ventures onto what's known as the wild wall, the mind-bogglingly long stretches of half collapsed wall, that the imaginative visitor grasps the full import of this structure's history and importance.

The atmosphere in any of the ruined watchtowers makes their existence worth a thousand neatly reconstructed ones, and the sense of wonder and privilege at being able to touch and stand on the real thing is an experience impossible to recreate. The same experience can still be had in Tioram. The location alone, never mind the castle remains, demands that it be left alone. This is no Eilean Donan, stranded on the edge of a fast arterial route, surrounded by ugly little restaurants and bungalow land and photographable only from one direction to hide the detritus of modern highland life.

This is an important castle ruin, secure on an outstandingly magical and secluded little islet, reached only by single track road or by foot over the hills, and by this seclusion Tioram is in the unique possession of perhaps the most haunting, thought-provoking and deliciously disquieting atmosphere of any of our historic buildings. It certainly requires constant maintenance, sensitive visitor management in terms of careful footpaths around the ruins to combat erosion, and of course better signposted historical information to help interpret what remains. But it requires little else.

None of this is to suggest that leaving well alone is always the best policy. Many buildings have been restored to great effect. But to pejoratively state that a wish to protect the invaluable and abstract sensation of reflection and contemplation that Tioram currently provides is patronising, is, in the professor's own words, grotesque.

If Mr Brown's plans are to attract a generation of people to the castle who expect visitor attractions to match the expectations they have gratified at the cinema and on their game consoles, then he is to be resisted at all costs. Of course his motive all along might just have been that he wanted a groovy house. Try The Herald on a Wednesday.

Copyright © 2001 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088