The Highland Club is the latest in a series of dramatic and historic transformations that the site has witnessed over the past 300 years.
After what is known as the first Jacobite rising in 1715, and the defeat for the time of the Stuart cause, the Hanoverian government thought it desirable to select some central spot in the Highlands for the establishment of a garrison, and thus overawe the warlike clans that had originated the rebellion. The most suitable place seemed to be the little Highland village of Kilchuimein (which in Gaelic means the ‘the cell or church of Cumin’ probably from the ‘Cumineus Albus’ who was abbot of Iona 657-669) standing at the head of Loch Ness. It was the middle point of the great Glen of Albyn, and commanded the only available roads and passes in that part of the country. A barrack was accordingly erected on the site of the garden of the present Lovat Arms Hotel in the year 1716.
The Fort, Augustus
The barrack eventually was considered insufficient and a regular fort was built by General Wade in 1729, upon a strategic peninsula beyond the village, having the River Oich on its NW side, the River Tarff on the SE side, and the deep waters of the loch in front. It was capable of accommodating 300 men. The four blocks of buildings stood round a square of some 100 feet in extent. There was a bastion at each angle mounting twelve six-pounders. A ditch, covert-way and glacis completed its defences.
The fort was named after George II’s youngest son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Wade had planned to build a town around the new barracks and call it Wadesburgh. The settlement grew and eventually, as well as the military station, took the common title of Fort Augustus. Among the Gaelic speaking population the village still retains its ancient name of Kilchuimein
The fort sustained a two-day siege at the hands of the Jacobite forces, as they were marching south-wards before engaging with Cumberland at Culloden. A shell directed from the neighbouring “Battery Rock” exploded the powder magazine, and the insurgents took possession. This was in March, 1746. Two months later, when the Stuart cause had been completely vanquished, the victorious Hanoverian forces, under the Duke of Cumberland, once more resumed ownership. From the walls of the fort issued the terrible companies who laid waste and almost depopulated the surrounding country. The barbarities by which Cumberland completed the subjugation of the Highlands have earned for him the title of the “Butcher.” In a district where formerly Protestantism was unknown he left scarcely a single Catholic.
The surrounding lands formed part of the estate of the Frasers of Lovat, until the connection of the Chief of the Clan, Simon, Lord Lovat, with the Stuart rising, resulted in the forfeiture not only of his property but of his life. He was carried as prisoner in a litter to Fort Augustus and confined in one of its dungeons before being taken to London, where, after impeachment as a rebel, he was executed on Tower Hill.
The fort, restored to more than its original strength after Culloden, continued to be occupied by a garrison for more than a century. “General Wade’s Road,” as it is still called, skirting the south side of Loch Ness, connects Fort Augustus with Fort George, another military station a few miles from Inverness. In other directions are equally good roads, also the work of the Fort Augustus’ governors.
At the outbreak of the Crimean War, in 1853, the garrison was withdrawn, and after a period of abandonment the fort was sold by the Government to Thomas Alexander, Lord Lovat, the representative of the reinstated Frasers of Lovat, who secured the buildings and adjoining lands for £5000. For many years the dismantled fort was occupied by various small tenants, a portion being reserved to the owner to serve as a shooting lodge.
Today much of the original Hanoverian military architecture remains intact including one of the four original bastian walls and the parade ground, now grassed over and surrounded by the cloister. Of particular interest is the ground floor of the Moat House which clearly expresses the military Hanoverian architecture which formed the guard rooms and the reception area (now covered) was where the drawbridge was operated from.
St Benedict’s Abbey
In 1876 Simon Fraser, 13th Lord Lovat passed the site and land to the Benedictine Fathers of the English Congregation of the Order, who wished to establish a monastery in Scotland. The monastic buildings were begun a few months later and were in August 1880 sufficiently complete to permit of a solemn inauguration of the establishment.
The two bastions forming the extremities of the south wing along with the building that stood between them, the “Dukes House”, were entirely demolished. Major parts of the monastery were designed by Peter Paul Pugin, the son of Augustus Welby Pugin, architect of the Palace of Westminster and Joseph Hansom of the cab fame.
Up to the year 1882 St. Benedict’s monastery remained under the jurisdiction of the Anglo-Benedictine Congregation thereafter being turned over to an independent Catholic Benedictine Abbey. A large church designed by Pugin the Younger was commenced in 1890, replacing a temporary wooden one.
Fort Augustus Abbey School
In 1878, in one wing, a school for 50-60 boys of the upper classes was conducted by the monks, with lay masters, for about sixteen years. This was eventually extended to create Fort Augustus Abbey School which at its height accommodated 150 boys.
The Main school comprised of this original school wing – “The Old School”, a new wing built in the 1960’s to accommodate the science block and theatre (which is now the Raven Wing) and a block taken over from the Monastery known as the Brother’s Wing. The school operated until 1993 by which time the dwindling demand of pupils in the region and the decreasing population of monks led to its closure.
The Highland Club
A variety of enterprises from heritage centres to outward bound schools attempted to make use of the buildings but the site was eventually abandoned. In 2003 The Santon Group, a respected developer of listed buildings, purchased the dilapidated Grade A listed buildings and grounds. A £30million conversion of the site into The Highland Club was embarked upon finally being completed in 2012.
Today the austerity of monastic life has given way to the warmth of modern leisure living.
The Santon Group is dedicated to preserving the special character and many beautiful features of the Abbey, its cloisters and the great towers that make it such a landmark. However, inside a programme of total renovation and discreet building has transformed the original spartan accommodation into 97 distinctive one, two and three bedroom apartments. In addition, there are twelve charming cottages in the grounds. Planning permission has recently been granted for three further unusual homes – The Cricket Pavilion Residence, The Clock Tower Apartment and The Sanctuary Apartment.
Wherever possible period features have been retained …. so don’t be surprised to find a gargoyle or two gazing down on you … or even a stained-glass window in your living room.
Points of Interest
The Haile’s Relief
Within the Moat House, next to the letter boxes, and embedded in the wall is an extremely interesting and valuable early Roman stone relief, presented to the Abbey some years ago by Mrs Turnbull of Hailes (Midlothian), into whose garden wall it had been built centuries before. The relief, part of which is in perfect preservation, represents, seated in front of an altar or shrine, the figures of the three “mother-goddesses,” or matres campestres, whose cult was widely spread in certain districts during the first and second centuries of the Christian era. Altars with these triple figures have been found in various localities in Germany, France and England; but the extraordinary and unique interest of the Hailes relief is that it is the only one known to exist in Scotland. The central figure holds in her hand a large bunch of grapes-an almost certain proof, experts believe, that the shrine was designed and wrought by sculptors from the Rhine-land. The relief is duly scheduled in the lists of H.M. Office of Works (Scotland) as a monument of national importance.