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.
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.
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 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 https://birch-skye.co/
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