Islay House was known as Kilarrow House until the middle of the eighteenth century. It was given its new name by Donald Campbell the Younger after he remodelled the house in the 1760s. Four lookout towers were built on the island, and the two known simply as the East and West towers, survive today in the park.
Donald Campbell junior (c.1737-1777), so-called to distinguish him from his grandfather Donald ‘the Great’, inherited the estate in 1753 whilst still in his teens. After a Grand Tour lasting 5 years, he returned to the island. He then began to improve his estate which stood near Bridgend overlooking the sea loch, Loch Indaal. By early the next century it was described as a ‘handsome mansion […] in grounds tastefully laid out, and embellished with plantations’.
In 1766 Campbell began to build the handsome model village of Bowmore, which would eventually replace the ancient settlement of Kilarrow. In December of that year he advertised the venture and invited ‘mechanics’ of all kinds, but especially carpenters, coopers, net-makers and all those versed in the linen and fishing industries to move to the island and prosper there. Built on a grid system, the ‘new town’ centred on the circular church, which a 1767 account described as ‘now building after a new Model in the Form of the Pantheon at Rome’. It’s a rather loose interpretation, and for rather obvious reasons the Hebridean version has no oculus in the dome. Instead there is a central pillar supporting the structure.
At around the same time Campbell may have ornamented his park with a belvedere or lookout tower. The East Tower, which stands on the knoll called Cnoc na Croiche (‘hill of the hanging’, after the Gallows which once stood there), is a rubble-built octagon, over 11 metres high, which formerly contained 4 floors, although it is now simply a shell.
Above the door is a carved cartouche containing the initials DC, for the builder, and GR, which is assumed to show allegiance to George III (George Rex). The presence of this plaque has led to the assumption that Donald Campbell built the tower, but an alternative theory is that the stone was removed from the house when it was remodelled in the early 19th century, making the tower the work of Daniel junior’s brother and heir Walter (died 1816).
Few contemporary descriptions survive but in the middle of the 19th century it was described as having ’embrasures in the bank for small cannon, giving it the character of a miniature fortification’. Some of these cannon survive today in the undergrowth around the tower, including one that can be identified as dating from the reign of George III.
Until fairly recently the East Tower, on its slight eminence, was clearly visible from the passing road, but it is now becoming obscured by young trees, and with the rooftop platform lost, so too is the view to the loch.
Further from the house, the West Tower is the simpler of the two follies – a squat square tower built of rubble with rough castellations. It carries no inscription, but was built by Daniel Campbell’s descendants as a lookout tower and battery (there were also towers armed with cannon at Bowmore and Port Askaig, both now demolished). They were built to protect Islay during the Napoleonic Wars, and a flashpoint may have been the events of December 1813, when an American privateer, the True Blooded Yankee, entered the loch and plundered ‘several vessels’ before setting them alight.
In more peaceful times both towers were maintained as ornaments within the pleasure grounds of Islay House.
Both towers are listed category B, and both appear on the Buildings at Risk Register in Scotland, although in the ‘low’ category suggesting that general maintenance is all that is required.
Islay House, now a hotel, is a rambling building which has been extended since it was described in 1827 as a ‘large uncouth structure’.
Speaking of which, the Folly Flâneuse’s uncouth companion, who has not made an appearance in these pages for some time, has clearly found something more to his taste than follies…
Islay House is currently on the market, if you fancy life as a Hebridean hotelier you can read more here https://www.knightfrank.co.uk/properties/residential/for-sale/bridgend-isle-of-islay-argyll-and-bute-pa44/edn012287140
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