architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Highland, Tower

The Apothecary’s Tower, Portree, Isle of Skye

Overlooking the picturesque harbour of Portree, on the Isle of Skye, stands a little tower. It was built in the 1830s by Dr Alexander Macleod, a much-admired man who was known locally as An Dotair Ban, the fair-haired doctor. As well as practicing medicine, Macleod (1788-1854) was also employed as a factor to look after local estates and was respected as an engineer and land-improver.

c.1930s postcard courtesy of a private collection.

The tower stands on an outcrop of rock which goes by two different names, one romantic and one rather less so: to some it is ‘Fancy Hill’ whilst to others it is ‘the Lump’. The latter comes from it’s Gaelic name of Meall na h-Acairseid which translates as ‘harbour lump’. The land was owned by Lord Macdonald, whose estate Macleod managed.

In 1834 a local paper reported that plans were afoot to ‘erect a Beacon, or tower on the summit’, and funds were to be collected by public subscription. The paper was a little coy about naming the ‘gentleman who has taken a warm interest in this local ornament or improvement’, but presumably it was Macleod. His idea was ‘that it should be a neat little octagon tower’ about 20 feet in height with windows of coloured glass. For reasons of economy the panes were to be made of many small diamonds of discarded broken glass, which could be ‘got at Liverpool at 2s the pound’. It is thought that the tower and associated landscaping works were part of a wider plan to establish Portree as a resort.

According to the plaque, the tower informed ships of medical services and served as a dispensary, but no evidence for this has been found, although the tower did become a landmark for sailors.

By November 1835 the tower was complete and the hill had been ‘finely planted and laid out in tasteful winding walks’. The pleasure ground was soon noted in tourist literature and in 1851 Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland noted the ‘neat octagonal tower’ and the ‘tastefully formed walks’. The author concluded that ‘a vacant hour cannot well be more pleasantly spent than in a lounge on Fancy Hill’.

In 1899 Macleod’s grandson, Dr M.D. Macleod, gave an address in which he recalled that his late grandfather had ‘a great love for building and embellishing the appearance of places by erecting Celtic towers and such-like where their presence would improve the landscape’ (he also built the folly Scolpaig tower on North Uist). Macleod also recounted that his grandfather had intended the tower to house a natural history museum.

A little more than a decade after Macleod’s death the tower was deteriorating, and it was described as ‘in ruins’ in 1867.  In 1875 another subscription was opened to improve Fancy Hill, and repair the tower which was ‘falling into decay’. At that date it was first suggested that the top of Fancy Hill would be the ideal location for the Isle of Skye Highland Games, which were then in the very early stages of planning. From 1877 the games were held on another site, but in June 1892 it was reported that a piece of ground on the Lump was being levelled ‘at considerable expense’. The games have been held on this spot now for more than a century – paused only for war and the Covid pandemic.

The charming gates to the Highland Games ground on the Lump.

The tower, known initially as the Beacon, or simply the Tower, later became known locally as the Apothecary’s Tower, in memory of Macleod. Sadly the coloured glass, if ever fitted, is long gone, but the shell of the tower was rebuilt after further storm damage towards the end of the last century. A steel staircase gives access to the battlements with superb views over Portree’s beautiful harbour and beyond.

The Folly Flâneuse can think of nothing better than a sunny stroll to a folly after an excellent cup of coffee. If you are in the area then Birch is the place for refreshments

Thank you for reading and do please get in touch with any thoughts – the comments box is at the bottom of the page. 


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7 thoughts on “The Apothecary’s Tower, Portree, Isle of Skye”

  1. Garance Rawinsky says:

    Good coffee, a sunny stroll, and a folly. What more could one wish for… other than perhaps today, a copy of The Telegraph. For more information…!

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Garance. I was surprised and delighted to find myself noted as ‘online folly connoisseur’ in the paper this morning. A great start to a damp morning in the Highlands which brightened in time for another folly stroll.

  2. Colin says:

    Thanks. As always, informative and a pleasure to read and discover!

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks for getting in touch Colin. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

  3. Charlotte Beecher says:

    In 1987, I was part of an art study tour of Scotland and England. Of our three weeks traveling throughout…we were fortunate enough to have three full days in Portree. We stayed at a wonderful BnB (painted pink) right on the harbor. On several occasions I walked around back of the buildings…up the lush green hill…right to a wonderful tour in ruins. The Apothacary Tower was captivating! And I captured many fine photos in, around, and from within that wonderful relic of history. Thanks for the memories! And thanks for the update. The tower today is not what I experienced those many years ago. Perhaps I will need a return visit!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Charlotte and thanks for sharing your memories. Portree is lovely, and as you remember the views from the tower are amazing. A return visit to Skye sounds an excellent idea!

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