INCH KENNETH lies off the west coast of Mull, strung out between Ulva and Iona. It is the tiniest of islands – a sheltered crescent of land that is fertile and lush, whose charms have attracted the attention of wealthy patrons seduced by its inaccessibility and tranquillity. Protected by the natural harbour, a cold Victorian house lies empty through the winter, only to briefly come alive in summer when distant owners visit.
On a changeable March day the island is alternatively swept over with snow, or warmed by the sun. The silence is ruffled by softly breaking waves and the bleating of sheep. Seventy years ago the island danced to a different sound, as Wagner operas and German marches bled from the house. Unity Mitford, the self-acclaimed Nazi-loving daughter of the owners, Lord and Lady Redesdale, was hiding on this lonely island, sheltering from a scoulding press and an enraged public.The six Mitford sisters were exciting, dangerous, beautiful girls. There was Pamela, Deborah and Nancy, the writer. But there were others whose behaviour was as extreme as their politics. Diana married the fascist Oswald Mosley, while Jessica eloped and became a communist. Unity spent much of her adult life in a reckless pursuit of the man himself, Adolf Hitler.
In 1934, Unity moved to Germany. Her nephew, Jonathon Guinness, thinks that it was the Nuremberg rallies that turned Unity from someone who took a mild interest in fascism into a passionate Nazi.
"The key to understanding Unity is to realise that she was a very visual person," says Guinness, who wrote The House of Mitford. "She went there and was amazed by all the parades and uniforms. And the music played a big part too. It all captivated her."
Her conversion to Nazism was quickly followed by an obsession with its leader. "From that moment on she became determined to meet Hitler," notes Guinness, "and nobody could shake her."
Unity spent months stalking Hitler before her perseverance paid off. She wrote to her father gushingly on the day in which she met the Fhrer:
"I am so happy that I wouldn't mind a bit dying. I suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world," she effused.
Hitler and Unity were soon close friends, her sister Diana marrying Mosley in Joseph Goebbels's drawing room, with Hitler as a witness.Photographs of Unity attending rallies and her habit, even in England, of smacking up a Nazi salute in local shops began to attract attention in the national press who wrote outraged leaders about the Nazi-loving socialite. The Daily Telegraph went further by suggesting, incorrectly, that she had become engaged to Hitler.
As the possibility of war between Germany and Britain drew closer, Unity began to despair, telling her sister that she would kill herself if there was conflict. It came as little surprise to the family when she shot herself in the temple on the day war was declared in 1939.
The suicide attempt was unsuccessful but doctors were unable to remove the bullet in her brain. She was left slightly disabled, initially unable to read and write. She was changed both physically and emotionally by the injury.
Unity was taken home but her clumsiness and refusal to condemn Germany brought her into conflict with her father. The press continued to harass the family, so he arranged for Unity and her mother to spend the remainder of the war on Inch Kenneth.
The benevolent island worked for Unity. Her health improved and she turned to religion, conducting services in the ruined chapel. She was rowed over to Mull twice a week where she became well known in the village.
One person who remembers her visits to Mull is Neil MacGillivray. Now 90, he revels in his pronouncement that he is "the only man alive today who's danced with Unity Mitford." Maggie MacKechnie, another Mull islander, recalls how Unity walked up and down the road visiting people: "She used to drag her leg and as she came across she'd yell out to my mother to put the kettle on."
There were rumours at the time that Royal Naval boats were positioned round Inch Kenneth ready to intervene if Unity's German friends came to rescue her. But she was left alone by the locals.
"People up here didn't bother her," explains MacGillivray. "That's why her father brought her here - to live out her life in peace."
Unity may have found peace, but her admission that her time in Germany was the happiest of her life is borne out by the traces of her that can still be found today in her former island home.In the drawing room, bleached by the sun shining in through the bay windows, Unity's gramophone is open. Her musical tastes were specific: German songs, marches and operas. A Scottish flag now hangs limply in the hall from the same pole Unity used to hoist her Nazi swastika.
MacKechnie, who nursed Unity when she fell ill in 1948, recalls the swastika and going into Unity's bedroom for the first time.
"She couldn't be left alone," MacKechnie recalls. "She was in bed, and there was nothing but Hitler photos all over the room."
Two days after MacKechnie's visit, Unity’s health deteriorated. Her old scar started to bulge and she was taken to Oban where she was diagnosed with meningitis, a result of the bullet embedded in her brain. She died the next day.
Lady Redesdale continued to live on the island until her death. Daughter Jessica inherited the house but sold it in the 1960s fully furnished.
The house has changed little through the decades. Unity's books on the life of Hitler line the bookshelves and her floral bed is still in the small bedroom. Although the photographs of Hitler have long gone, not all of her treasured items are lost.
MacGillivray reminisces about his time on the island. He stops himself and, with a chuckle, walks to a pile of photos, digging down to find his favourite memento."Do you know what I have here?" he asks, before bringing out a small plastic bag. "This is Unity’s swastika, she wore it everywhere, at the rallies in Nuremberg and then all round the mainland, and now I have it here."
The small red armband with its black swastika is as bright and sharp looking today as it was when Unity wore it. She may have worn this band as she sat beside Hitler in the opera, as she listened to the Nazis announce the rise of Germany, as she pulled the trigger of her mother-of-pearl pistol. Today it lies far away from the fanaticism and fascism of Nazi Germany, out of place and incongruous among the books and coffee cups in an old man's croft.