There is a Gaelic proverb that says that there is no more slippery place than the doorstep of the big house, and if this is true then Barbara Mackintosh, who has died at 84, must have spent a good deal of her 60-odd years as the legendary hostess of Inverailort Castle on her hands and knees making sure that theirs had a better adhesion.
In so many ways the castle was a horror, a huge grey bourach of a building that its late owner Lucretia “Putchie” Cameron-Head once described as being like a tumble-down biscuit factory.
Yet to many hundreds of Scotland’s rich and poor the castle was more like a giant mother than a factory, a mother whose arms were always open wide in welcome, whose kettle was always on, and whose scones were always fresh and sustaining.
Lochailort was indeed the exemplary open house estate, perhaps the last of the Great Halls, and Barbara Mackintosh was its much loved gate keeper.
For several hundred years the castle has lain brooding in a dark damp hollow on the shores of Lochailort, half way between Mallaig and Fort William and during the war it was requisitioned by the army to be used as the headquarters for a training camp for commandos, a ravishment from which its scratched panelled corridors and much-booted varnished doors never quite recovered.
One of those who visited the camp during this period was a certain Pauline Cameron-Head, a broth of a girl of Irish lineage who was working as an ambulance driver, and who was seduced into marriage, so the legend runs, by the laird with promises of tins of cigarettes and jam, but in truth she was probably more intrigued by the good that she could achieve as the wife of the somewhat diffident laird than all the free jam and numbies that he offered.
The laird died in 1957 when a still childless Mrs C-H was only 40. Almost immediately she invited Barbara, the shy though sparky scion of a neighbouring estate, the job of cataloguing the library. She was to stay for the rest of her days.
Barbara was the daughter of a doctor in Kinross whose family had made its money in the law and shipping and although she might seem sometimes have seemed shy behind the stifled giggles and fay charm there was a wry smeddum and wealth of social skills.
She quickly became the ring master of a busy household where as many as 20 guests might be seen around the dining room table, many of whom might have come from the world of Gaelic revival, inner city social work or the brutal battles of national politics.
She had been privately educated but had spent much of her youth stravaiging in the west Highlands and could mix in all companies.
Other than Annie Macbeath, the long-suffering cook whose entry to heaven had long been assured, there were no staff and always a mountain of dishes to be washed, logs to be chopped or hinds to be culled and although Barbara was never heard to give an order it was she who ensured that the whole unlikely machine was oiled, organised and energised and that the guests wore ties (never cravats) at dinner and made sensible conversation that revolved more around conviction than convention.
Much was achieved for the nation at that dinner table. Typically it was here that John Lorne Campbell thrashed out his ideas for a Highland sea league, Seton Gordon practised his paragraphs, Iain Noble bounced his ideas for a Gaelic University, Ardnamurchan’s Moby Dick Mclean got his outward bound adventure school through a tricky planning process and many of the first ideas for modern fish farming both defined and experimented with in the loch outside the castle.
Barbara was the laird of the back kitchen and queen of the domestics.
It was she who instigated the turning of the parlour into the post office, the private library into a public one, the use of the ball room as a retreat for washed-out campers and the conversion of some of the out buildings into a cross between an animal hospital and a zoo.
Not all the visitors stayed. Geoff Shaw, the first convenor of Strathclyde Region, was once discovered holding a political meeting in the front lobby where, amongst the sleeping outboard motors and withering tweeds, he was seen to be formulating housing policy with colleagues.
Barbara’s typical response was to bring them all mugs of tea.
Mrs Cameron-Head died in 1994 leaving Barbara, her first lieutenant and friend, to hold the fort, which she did admirably, though the Gaelic Camelot was never quite the same. She is survived by an ocean of friends, many of them animals.