Allan and Kathleen Wares.

 

OCTOBER 2001 - NO. 120

Mackay clan history will be a key to business success

The success of Allan and Kathleen Wares’ new business venture at Bighouse Lodge, near Melvich, depends not only on the luxury accommodation and quality of service offered to a wealthy clientele, but also on the drawing power provided by the history of the clan Mackay whose most powerful cadet branch built the house less than twenty years after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

“The Mackay angle is something we want to promote as much as we can,” explained Allan Wares. “We are digging into the history and piecing it all together through the national archives. There is quite a story here, and when we get the web site up and running the Mackay angle will be quite a large part of it.”

The large B-listed mansion house, which rivals prominent houses built by Mackay chiefs at Tongue and Balnakeil, had its new Mackay conference room officially opened by depute first minister Jim Wallace MSP at a special ceremony on August 24 after the completion of a £300,000 refurbishment.

Dutchman Peter Honig sold it the present owners, who in 1983 moved in to make it their permanent home. As well as the house, there is a large garden. Its walls and unusual pavilion, thought to have been built at the same time as the house, are A-listed. A house in the grounds known as The Barrocks was also bought by the Wares family, but was then sold on to Geoffrey Minter of Sandside Estate, Reay. The rest of the Bighouse Estate was sold to a commercial forestry company. Sandside was for a short period in the seventeenth century in the ownership of the Mackay’s most famous chief, Donald, the first Lord Reay, from where he took his title.

Bighouse enjoys a fine setting on the estuary of the Halladale river. There are no signposts pointing the way, down a winding single track road. Near the only junction, you can see a large stone pillar, signifying the start of an old toll road into Caithness. There are still coins in a stone bowl at its foot.

The house, at the end of the road, is large and, according to architectural historian Elizabeth Beaton, “severely symmetrical”. It has twice been added to in the post-Mackay period, which began in 1830 when it was sold to the Sutherland Estates for £58,000. It was to be the “end of an auld sang,” the last of the Mackay houses (and lands) to go under the hammer. By then it contained thirty-five rooms.

The three spacious bedrooms — like the public rooms, beautifully decorated — complete with en-suite facilities, are being let, but another six will be added in the next phase of the development, says Allan, will cost in the region of £100,000. All the work so far has been carried out without grant aid, although a non-commercial loan contributed in part to the family’s recent, substantial outlay.

Allan and Kathleen Wares are unlikely owners of such a property. They are young — they have an 11-year-old daughter, Hannah — businesslike and of the district. This is pretty unusual for the owners of a historic house in the Highlands. Local ownership is also becoming uncommon in the hospitality business. Kathleen is a Mackay of nearby Portskerra, where her parents and brother live, and all that that means in terms of knowledge, lore and connections which provides that something extra that is often taken for granted but which money cannot buy.

Allan hails from Thurso, only half-an-hour’s drive away. The Wares clan, he explains, are an offshoot of the Sinclairs, the most prominent family in Caithness. They are known to have made many forays into the Mackay country, but not all were of a warlike nature, for William, the first Mackay of Bighouse, was himself a Sinclair on his mother’s side, according to the authoritative Book of Mackay.

Allan, who works in the health and physics department of Rolls Royce Associates at Dounreay, is a Mackenzie on his mother’s side. Her family arrived in Caithness from Assynt sometime in the nineteenth century.

“I’m half a Mackenzie of Brackloch,” he said. “They came to Caithness on their way emigrating to Canada. One of them became ill on the way from Lochinver, so the boat stopped in Scrabster and they had to get off. They bought the farm in Caithness, and didn’t go to Canada after all.

He added: “My mother was doing the family tree and was over in the Assynt area making contacts with people. She met someone who advised her to go and speak to Nan Murray — she lives in Portskerra — my mother never knew they came from the same place and were related. So she pieced it all together, with Nan on her doorstep”.

Allan and Kathleen first tried their hand at bed-and-breakfast, aimed at the top end of the market, and enjoyed the experience thoroughly, upgrading the facilities all the while.

Allan said: “We’ve done rewiring and all the rest of it. We’ve spring water here, a private supply that comes from five or six springs over in Melvich — the Dutchman had renewed that system.

My paternal grandfather was one of the most extensive graziers and dealers in the North, and though his family have resided for many generations on the spot whence I address you, he carried on a partnership with the then Mr Mackay of Bighouse, in the extreme part of Sutherland, who was, I think, his cousin german. The nature and magnitude of their business led them to every corner of the Highlands and Islands to purchase. I need hardly observe, that in these early days, this was a profession requiring men of information, integrity, and public confidence; and in a period when the embers of rebellion lay unsuffocated, from 1715 to 1745, gentlemen travelling, loaded with money, now more easily and safely conveyed, required, to secure personal safety, that address which ingratiates the individual with all class of Highlanders.

Of course, the appearance of those who supplied their pecuniary wants, would be a time of festivity, where whole districts assembled to receive the proceeds of their sales; and business being finished, and the glass in circulation, the best song would naturally be called for before they separated; especially when this happened to be the period of most enthusiastic interest to the Highlands, perhaps since the days of Ossian, and which produced the best of their songs, and the most beautiful of their melodies. In point of song, my predecessor, independent of being a man of good education, stood almost unrivalled (the late Alexander Fraser of Culduthel, the most sprightly singer of Highland song known in the North, alone excepted.) They were, however, inseparable, as the best deer hunters and sportsmen of their day, and remarkable for a social and convivial disposition, anxious and interested to acquire a notion of the peculiarities and sentiments, in point of loyalty, of the different districts through which the one so frequently travelled, as well as to obtain the music and words of their best songs. Mr Mackay of Bighouse was also the patron, protector, and landlord of the celebrated Rob Donne, the Sutherland poet, and a taste not inferior to either of the other two. Hence in the perigrination of such men, the best performer would be called upon; or, if found imperfect, visitors of their stamp would generally be welcome guests, in the house of a friend, where the air or song wished for might be acquired in perfection, and naturally expected to give their best in turn. But biennial journeys for a series of years gave men who had a taste for the like, and in the moment of impulse, advantages and opportunities of acquiring these melodies that cannot be equalled by any labour in search of them at the present time, being then preserved at late wakes and other public meetings now in desuetude — nor were the love songs of the dairy maids, during their annual summer grazing, the least effectual means of their preservation— the echo of whose sound melodious voices made their native hills reverberate the praises of their lovers and other sportsmen frequenting their sheilings; and where, no doubt, a part of the present work was compiled.

— Excerpt from Captain Simon Fraser’s preface to his celebrated Knockie collection of Highland music, published in 1815.

Among their most interesting guests were Australians who had managed a retirement home in Rockhampton, the “beef capital” of Queensland. In their care had been four spinster sisters, whose parents — Elizabeth Jane Mackay (born 1850) and husband Colin Campbell MacKay (born 1830) — had emigrated from the Borders in 1870 and were direct descendants of the Bighouse Mackays. They lived on a ranch called Bighouse, twenty miles north-west of Rockhampton. According to the couple, the sisters had donated their parents’ possessions to the local museum, including their mother’s wedding dress. The last of the line — of a family of nine children, none of whom married — the sisters had lived on the ranch all their lives.

“We always wanted to do something like this,” said Allan. “You get opportunities like this coming along in life — and you either let them sail past you or you grab them. We could see the potential, although there wasn’t much inside, but it was basically sound, heated all winter and in good condition.
With Dounreay executives already showing great interest in the corporate hospitality possibilities of Bighouse and a worldwide interest in clan history, Allan and Kathleen are confident they’ll get their money back. “We’ve got a quality product and we expect to get people all year round. It’s a beautiful setting and location.”

Contact Bighouse on 01641 531207.

Click for photos of Bighouse Lodge

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