Open door to Mitfords’ island retreat

The striking white mansion on the island of Inch Kenneth off the coast of Mull
The striking white mansion on the island of Inch Kenneth off the coast of Mull
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THE piano is still there, along with the recordings of German marching songs with swastikas on the covers. So too are the dining table and the four-poster bed, in the positions in which they were used by the infamous Mitford sisters.

Now the 87-year-old artist, who owns the extraordinary Mitford family “time capsule” in a mansion on a Scottish island, says she wants to open the property to the public.

Yvonne Barlow bought the island of Inch Kenneth off the west coast with her late husband Andrew in 1967 from Jessica Mitford, a passionate Communist who was the second youngest of the sisters.

The island, near Mull, belonged to the notorious aristocratic family for 30 years and its house was sold fully furnished with the Mitford’s old belongings in place. The tall, white building also contains a number of pieces of Nazi memorabilia collected by Unity Valkyrie Mitford, once a close confidante and rumoured lover of Adolf Hitler.

Barlow, whose work is about to undergo a major retrospective in London next month, said she had passed the ownership of the island and the house on to her two children. “We want to preserve it in its present state if we possibly can – it doesn’t take much to wreck the peace and quiet – and eventually have some sort of trust to look after it,” she said.

“I think the public should be able to visit it. It’s important that people should have that experience. But not in their hundreds, perhaps just half a dozen at a time, so they can enjoy the peace, which is so rare, and hear the sound of the waves.”

Unity Mitford attempted suicide in Germany by shooting herself in the head the day Britain declared war on the Nazis in 1939. Hitler is said to have paid for her trip home for treatment after the bullet lodged in her brain. She lived out her days on Inch Kenneth, dying from meningitis in 1948.

Unity’s gramophone and collection of marching songs are still kept in the drawing room today. “Jessica sold it to us lock, stock and barrel,” said Barlow. “She took a few personal items but left all the furniture and various things. The piano is still there and even a table that was specially designed for the bay window in the dining room.”

She added: “There is also a collection of right-wing books which must have belonged to Unity. Funnily enough there was no copy of Mein Kampf [Hitler’s autobiography]. I suspected it may have been removed or destroyed.”

One of the few items that has been changed in the house since the Mitfords’ time is the flag that hangs from the flagpole in the hall – now a Scottish Saltire rather than the Nazi swastika that was once hoisted there by Unity, who was so passionate in her belief in the Nazi cause that her bedroom in the house was covered in pictures of Hitler.

The island was bought by Lord Redesdale, the father of the Mitford sisters, in 1939, from Sir Harold Boulton, author of the words to the Skye Boat Song. It was frequented by the entire family, including Nancy, who wrote Love In A Cold Climate, and Diana, who married British Union of Fascists’ leader Oswald Mosley. Lady Redesdale, mother of the seven Mitford children, died there in 1963. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitford sisters and the only one still alive, has spoken of the island’s different moods, describing its “fearsome cliffs… white sands and small coves”.

Barlow has captured the island in oil paintings over the previous decades during storms and rough seas, spending many happy holidays there with her family. The works will be part of the retrospective at the Belgravia Gallery, London.

She says she often took artistic friends to Inch Kenneth, including the novelist John Berger, who won the Booker Prize in 1972 with his novel G.

“It has changed all of our lives,” she said. “None of us could row a boat in high seas or milk a cow before, but we can now.”

She remembers meeting Jessica Mitford – known as Decca – who had run away from home at the age of 19 to fight with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Communist Party.

“She was very charming and easy to talk to,” Barlow said. “Lord Redesdale disapproved of Jessica becoming a Communist so he cut her out of the will and left the island to her sisters.

|Jessica was so angry about this she bought their shares out so she owned the island. I believe she offered it to the Communist Party but they weren’t interested, so she put it on the market, and we happened to spot it.”

Barlow, who lives in London, has not been able to visit the island in the past year because of health issues, but hopes to go again soon.

“When you arrive on Inch Kenneth in a dinghy and come up on to the sand there is a wonderful silence,” she said. “It is absolute heaven. You hear the skylarks singing and you feel you’re in a magical world.”

n ecowing@scotlandonsunday.com