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 Mackays 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 familys 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-hours 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 mothers 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 mothers side. Her family arrived in Caithness from Assynt sometime in the nineteenth century.
Im 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 didnt 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: Weve done rewiring and all the rest of it. Weve spring water here, a private supply that comes from five or six springs over in Melvich the Dutchman had renewed that system.
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 mothers 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.
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 wasnt much inside, but it
was basically sound, heated all winter and in good condition.
Contact Bighouse on 01641 531207.