The laird of paradise: Uncovering the real Colin Tennant

Colin Tennant, also known as Lord Glenconner
Colin Tennant, also known as Lord Glenconner
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When Colin Tennant saw Mustique from a yacht as he sailed the Caribbean, the Scottish aristocrat decided there and then to buy the island, and went on to transform it into a place synonymous with glitz, glamour and a certain princess. But a new book by a confidante of this extraordinary man suggests much of the legend was a myth, finds Lee Randall.

All his life, Colin Tennant insisted that he lived by the three Ps: The Princess, The 
Public and The Press. To that I’d add a fourth: The Party. Few of those who regularly peer at the lifestyles of the rich and famous depicted in the media can forget images of Tennant sporting a lavish crown, a turbanned Princess Margaret trailing behind a native wearing nothing more than a gold codpiece and fluttery foil train, or images of Mick and Bianca 
Jagger as a gilded Scarlett O’Hara and her pirate consort.

Colin Tennant with Princess Margaret on Mustique

Colin Tennant with Princess Margaret on Mustique

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe Tennant. A visionary, he could spot potential in the scrappiest bit of land or most unlikely person. He was fatally charming, but had a temper as explosive and devastating as a lightning flash. Traumatised by his parents’ divorce, he grew up needing constant reassurance – yet no demonstration of love was ever enough. But his most famous public legacies were his friendship with Princess Margaret, and the creation of Mustique, the tropical island synonymous with glitz, glamour and celebrity.

Nicholas Courtney was Tennant’s land agent on Mustique in the 1970s, but over the many years of their friendship, evolved into Colin’s confidante, and the result is a new biography, Lord of the Isle, The Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant. The friends were nearing the book’s finish line in 2010, but sadly, Courtney wound up using his plane ticket for St Lucia to attend Tennant’s funeral, instead.

Tennant, Lord Glenconner, was the scion of a famous Scottish family whose vast wealth enabled him to put his money where his mouth was when espousing mottos such as: “You never regret an extravagance.” Yet despite thinking nothing of blowing £20,000 on a gold box for holding toothpicks, he refused to fly first class until the last years of his life. He maintained several homes, but was equally content living in one room without plumbing while building his plantation on that island. He had affairs before, and 
during, his marriage with some of the world’s most renowned beauties, even discovering in the last year of his life that he’d sired an illegitimate son, yet he remained on close terms with his wife, Anne – though it’s safe to speculate that the longevity of their marriage owed something to residing thousands of miles apart.

He first saw Mustique in the 1960s, from the deck of a schooner. It had been on the market for three years, for £60,000. Tennant offered the owners £45,000, having fallen under the spell of the island’s sandy beaches. His offer was accepted. Which is how he came to own Mustique without setting foot on the place.

Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, on the island of Mustique in 1973

Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, on the island of Mustique in 1973

Courtney writes: “Colin returned to Mustique full of trepidation as to what he had bought. It was very run down. There were no proper roads: the fencing and stockades had long since perished, and only about 11 acres (out of a total of 1,385) were under cultivation. There were herds of feral cattle and goats … damaging what little crops and provision grounds there were.”

Everyone told him he was mad, but that only stiffened Tennant’s resolve. He vowed: “You mark my words, I will make Mustique into a household name.” And in that, he succeeded to an extraordinary degree. Courtney says: “Colin created this myth that this place was hugely grand and exclusive, but it wasn’t. He would sell to anybody who had the cheque. Where it became exclusive was that he was visited by all his grand friends. The early years were like some great big Scottish house party, all great fun and amateur theatricals. We all laughed a lot. It was very, very jolly. But it wasn’t really that grand; Mustique sort of grew into it. My analogy is to think about the early days of silent films, when they made cowboy movies. Real cowboys saw the Hollywood version of themselves, and started dressing like Hollywood cowboys, whereas before they were perfectly ordinary farmers. Similarly, Mustique eventually grew into itself. Of course, Princess Margaret was always there, she was the megastar, the sort of grandee. And Mick Jagger came. He used to visit the island, but he only bought a place there just after Colin’s 50th birthday party, which would have been in 1976. He’s actually the resident who’s been there the longest. So it had an aura of grandeur about it which was really misplaced. It wasn’t grand, but it became grand.”

Other glitterati who visited included Patrick Lichfield, David Bowie and Iman, Bryan Ferry, Jerry Hall, Chris Blackwell, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe and a who’s who of European aristos. Once, when Colin was away, the Queen and Prince Philip popped in, resulting in a telegram reading: “We have just spent two happy days in your beautiful island, and send you and Anne a thousand thanks for an unforgettable 

Few realise that for years Tennant financed the entire Mustique infrastructure out of his own pocket – hence his frequent resort to the sale rooms to flog his iconic works of art. When asked to identify the biggest misconception about Tennant, Courtney tells me: “The myth is that he was always very, very rich. He was very, very rich, but he spent it all, sometimes unwisely. He was very extravagant in some ways, and hugely generous. He was a great collector and had a very good eye, but he sometimes didn’t buy wisely. He was rather like a small child and he lost interest in what he’d bought. He’d experienced it, was how he put it. And once he’d experienced it, he was ambivalent about whether it fell out of the pram or was sold off.”

Conversely, what was Tennant’s most overlooked achievement? “Apart from creating Mustique, personally speaking, I think one of his greatest legacies was that he created so many people. By that I mean that he was really interested in people and loved to see them get on. Colin always saw the best in people and pushed them forward.”

Here in Scotland, he maintained Glen House, near Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, in some style, refurbishing it and hosting many a lavish party or shoot there. As a child he’d spent many school holidays at Glen, visiting his father. Most of his playmates were local children or children of the estate staff. Courtney says: “He adored fishing in the burns, and knew all the wild flowers. But later on, when he was much more of a hedonist, London and the south held more excitement. He wasn’t your typical Scottish Laird, but he did love Scotland and the people.”

Because his eldest son Charlie was a heroin addict, in and out of recovery until the end of his short life, Tennant knew he couldn’t handle the responsibilities of a great estate. He made Glen over to his second son, Henry. Charlie signed away his rights in exchange for being looked after, medically, for the rest of his life, and to inherit the West Indian properties. After Charlie’s death, in 1996, his son Cody, born two years earlier, became the Fourth Baron Glenconnor.

Courtney says: “Although it might sound very harsh, it’s not everybody’s joy to inherit a large estate, because with it comes responsibility. It’s also very expensive. What Colin handed over [to Henry] was just the house and estate and contents, but there was absolutely no money that went with it for the upkeep.” Henry died in 1990, of hepatitis C. Today, run by Henry’s widow Tessa and her son, Euan, Glen is a thriving concern, used as a holiday destination, and for weddings, corporate events, fashion and film shoots.