The history of Kilmory - Headquarters of Argyll and Bute Council

Although Kilmory’s deceptive castellated appearance and air of antiquity have caused it to be popularly referred to as a castle, it is in fact simply a rambling nineteenth century mansion house. Both the house and its extensive grounds were largely created by one man, the highly individual, near eccentric Sir John Powlett Orde of Kilmory and North Uist, over a period of fifty years from 1828 until his death in 1878.

St Mary’s Chapel

The name Kilmory is old. Much older than the house and derives from “Cille Mhoire”, the gaelic form of St Mary’s Chapel, a mediaeval church which formerly stood nearby. The site of the church can be recognised today by the old burying ground on the left hand side as one enters the drive up to Kilmory.

One of the earliest references to the name is to be found in a charter , which must date from the years 1231-1241, in which the “penny land of Kilmory which lies above Loch Gilp with the Chapel of St Mary built on the said land” was granted by one Duncan, son of Fercher, and Lauman, his nephew, to Paisley Abbey.

In 1558, shortly before the Reformation, the church and lands of Kilmory were given to John Lamont of Inneryne by Robert, Abbot of Paisley. They must then have passed quickly into Campbell hands, for we find them held by Donald Campbell of Kilmory in 1575, and they remained in Campbell hands until 1828.

The mansion-house of Kilmory, we should note in passing, remained a small, exceedingly simple dwelling, roofed with thatch until the end of the eighteenth century.

The last of the Campbells of Kilmory, Peter Campbell, appears to have been a man of moderate wealth, with extensive estates in Jamaica as well as Argyll. Between 1816 and 1820 he built a modest addition to Kilmory, but the extent of this addition cannot now be determined with any precision . Presumably, the south facing wing incorporates part of his work, although, as we shall see, it has been entirely overlaid by later work. His initials with the date "1816" are to be found carved on gate-pillars on the south side of the wall enclosing the grounds.

Full Development

It was under Peter Campbell’s son-in-law, Sir John Powlett Orde, that the house and gardens reached full development. Sir John, born in London in 1803, was the only son of Admiral Sir John Orde, a former Governor of Dominica. His uncle, Thomas Orde, had married Jean Mary Powlett, a natural daughter of the 5th Duke of Bolton, and had added Powlett to his own suname to become Sir Thomas Orde-Powlett, later 1st Baron Bolton. The John Powlett Orde in whom we are interested was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and at the age of 20 years succeeded his father as baronet. Shortly afterwards he married Eliza, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Peter Campbell of Kilmory and on the death of his father-in-law in Jamaica in 1828 he acquired the estate.

Improvements in "the English style"

 The new Laird of Kilmory at once set about improving his estate with great energy, adding to it by purchasing the adjoining properties, constructing estate roads and buildings, planting and enclosing and laying out the pleasure-grounds round his house.

As part of these improvements Sir John swept away what was left of the old Kilmory House and began to build a new house on the site, in a fashionable, up-to-date Gothic style – what a contemporary account calls “in the English style”.

Joseph Gordon Davis

To carry out this remodelling of the house he chose a London architect, Joseph Gordon Davis. As yet little is known about Davis’ career, but evidence suggests that between 1833 and 1836 he must have spent a large part of his time in the vicinity of Lochgilphead attending to various commissions. We know that he planned some minor alterations to Duntrune Castle for Neil Malcolm of Poltalloch, and one suspects his hand in some of the farm and cottage building “in the English style” that are scattered around the Poltalloch Estate.

Also, we know that he designed Kilmartin Parish Church in 1833 and Kilmartin School in 1835, both of which commissions he secured through the influence of Neil Malcolm, the principal heritor of Kilmartin Parish. In addition, Davis fitted out the Courthouse at Inveraray for a grand Regatta Ball in 1836, being obliged to interrupt work at Kilmory by taking his workmen to Inveraray to do so. Either Sir John or Neil Malcolm, who was a well-to-do London West Indian merchant, could have brought Davis from London to Argyll.

How much of the building is Davis' work? The entrance block, containing the Council Chamber above an arched carriageway, must be his. So also must the octagonal tower, and a good deal of the south facade overlooking the lawns. The relationship between thecentral entrance block, with its thin symmetrical, rather prim Gothic style, and its two flanking towers is not an easy one, an uneasiness accentuated by the harled finish of the one and the dressed ashlar of the others. Later additions were made to the north of the house (there is a datestone of 1863) but the architect of this later work is not known.

The Chinese Fashion

By all accounts Davis' interior was one of restrained splendour, 

the main public rooms being decorated after the Chinese fashion. The showpiece was the Chinese Drawing Room, now the Council Chamber, but the Dining Room and Octagonal Drawing Room in the tower must also have been grandly decorated. The principal staircase "which" as Sir John remarked "is much admired", is reputed to be of Italian workmanship. The walls of the public rooms and of the staircase were covered in damask and paper expressly made in China for this house. The antique furnishings were also of note, many having originated in Portugal. Alas, the damask coverings and antique furniture were all disposed of many years ago.

The Grounds of the Estate

The grounds, or policies, around the house also received Sir John's particular attention. William J Hooker, Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and later Director of Kew Gardens, is reputed to have laid out the grounds about the year 1830 and to have furnished many of the exotic shrubs and plants that flourished there. On his Kilmory estate (he also owned North Uist in the Western Isles) Sir John laid out roads and bridges and erected various farm buildings.

One curous structure near Kilmory is a large embanked circular enclosure, the exact purpose of which arouses controversy. Some people have identified it as being for exercising horses whilst others think that it was related to experiments in making silage. Sir John was a regular exhibitor at the Highland and Agricultural Society's annual show, at which he won various prizes. His designs for fieldgates, in particular, caused admiring comment in 1848 and 1850. He brought sheep, cattle and horses from far away countries to find out how they would fare in the Scottish Highlands. These included llamas and several varieties of Indian cattle.

The Creation of Kilmory Village

Perhaps influenced by the rising importance of the nearby villages of Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead, both of which had been planned and created in the first decade of the nineteenth century by an adjoining proprietor, John McNeil of Gigha, Sir John, too, planned his own village.

It was, admittedly, a very diminutive one known as the village of Kilmory, built close to Lochgilphead from which it was separated by a tiny burn. The tenements of the village lined the streets leading up to the White Gates beyond which were the grouunds of the Kilmory estate. Paterson's Lands or Paterson Street commemorates the name of the builder, Archibald Paterson, who obtained a feu of the site in 1829. A quay was constructed for the use of the fishermen in the 1830's at Sir John's expense, whilst Lady Orde provided a girls charity school. The village maintained its fragile identity until the 1840's but was increasingly considerred to be part of Lochgilphead until 1858 when it was formally incorporated within the boundaries of the Police Burgh of Lochgilphead.

Riots and Assaults

Sir John had a colourful, almost eccentric personality. His relations with the villagers of Lochgilphead were occasionally stormy. Even today tales about about him are remembered, one of which concerning the building of the Clock Lodge and the causeway across Loch Gilp, is frequently recounted.

The Clock Lodge, a German style building faces the causeway just outside Lochgilphead. Oral tradition tells us that one day while Sir John was passing through the village of Lochgilphead, a few boys held on to his carriage as it went along. To drive them off, Sir John flicked backwards with his whip, causing one of the boys to fall to his death beneath the wheels of the vehicle. The incident caused a lot of resentment in the village and to avoid abuse and assault from the villagers, Sir John had the causeway constructed across Loch Gilp, thus by-passing the village. Whatever truth there may be in this story, it is perhaps worth noting that in 1832 criminal libels were served "on sundry persons at Lochgilphead acused of rioting and assaulting J. P Orde " which, it is tempting to believe is a reference to this incident.

Fishermen's Dispute

Another story, set down by Marion Campbell of Kilberry in her delightful "Argyll the Enduring Heartland", tells of Sir John's dispute with the local fishermen about the drying of their nets. At the core of this story must be Sir John's position as one of the Argyllshire Road Trustees.Section 61 of the Argyllshire Roads Act 1843 expressly forbids the hanging of nets and sails within 30 feet of the centre of the highway. It seems reasonable to suggest that the story relates to an incident when Sir John attempted to implement the Act on his own estate. We certainly have a record of fishermen being fined 8/4d under the Act "for trespassing in Kilmory" which suggests that Sir John was using the Act for his own interests. Whatever lies behind both stories, perhaps we have a faint echo of that "radicalism" that lay behind so many incidents in the early nineteenth century.

Breaking up the Estate

Sir John Powlett Orde died in 1873 and was buried with other members of his family in a private burying ground within the grounds of the house. His grave is marked by a simple monument. His personal estate, including shares in the Dingwall and Skye and the Callander and Oban Railway companies, was valued at £17,584, of this figure, just over £3,000 was made up by the value of the furniture and gold and silver plate in Kilomory House and his house in North Uist. In his will, interestingly enough, he mentioned "all my musical instruments" which he left to his wife, perhaps suggesting that he, and she, had some musical ability.

Kilmory House passed out of the Orde family in 1938. Thereafter there were a number of owners. For many years it was a Hostel and Conference Centre of the National Association of Mixed Youth Clubs. Later it reverted to a private hotel, but when it came on the market again in 1974, shortly before the re-organisation of local government in Scotland, it was acquired by Argyll County Council specifically for use as the Headquarters of Argyll and Bute District Council.