An Argyll island with a fascinating past its seller may not even know – because selling agents Knight Frank make no mention of it – has gone on the market.
You’d need a spare £3 million to pick up the 238 acre Eilean Righ, a long sea-snake of an island on the east side of Loch Craignish, with the deep channel in and out of the loch lying between it and the islands of Eilean Mhic Chrion and Eilean Dubh. These two islands shelter Ardfern Yacht Club on the west shore of the loch.
Knight Frank say of the island that it is ‘an exceptional private island on Scotland’s most attractive coastline’ – which everyone who lives in Argyll knows at first hand to be accurate.
They note that it is 15 miles from Lochgilphead, about 100 miles from Glasgow Airport – and 25 minute distant form there by air.
The current owner knows this timing well, coming and going by a private helicopter, kept in a 500 square metre hangar on the island.
The island has a ‘fully refurbished four bedroom principal house with planning permission to extend’; and ‘a three bedroom farmhouse’ (listed in the Canmore records of the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
The buildings are hidden above thick woodland at the top of a steep path running up from a slipway on the east-facing side of the island. They form a courtyard of dwellings known as The Square and marked on the map here in the Canmore records.
There are two slipways and a jetty in total, two moorings and a boathouse. The properties have mains electricity and high speed broadband which we understand is provided via a microwave link from the mainland.
There are private beaches and sea fishing in what is one of the most notable sailing grounds in an area with the best in Europe.
That’s all the agents have to say about Eilean Righ – but there is so much more.
Those who have seen or remember hearing of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film, The Last Emperor, will know of Reginald Fleming Johnston, the English civil servant appointed in 1919 as tutor to the 12 year old boy, Pu Yi, who had become Emperor of China – and, as it turned out, the last one.
Johnston and an American woman, Isabel Ingram, who tutored the Empress Wan Rong, were the only foreigners ever to be allowed inside the inner court of the Qing dynasty. Johnston lived both in the Forbidden City and the New Summer Palace and was decorated with senior imperial titles.
Pu Yi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. Johnston went on to become the second civilian Commissioner at Weihaiwei and ran the territory until it was returned to the Republic of China on 1st October 1930.
Back in England, the University of London appointed him Professor of Chinese, based at the respected School of Oriental and African Studies. Knighted by 1935, Johnston retired in 1937. He had stayed in contact with Pu Yi, even during the latter’s voluntary assumption in 1932 of the role of nominal Regent and Emperor of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukou – Manchuria and eastern Mongolia.
On his retirement, Johnston moved to Eilean Righ in Loch Craighish, which he had bought a few years earlier. There he created a Chinese Garden with Chinese sculptures, decorated part of the farmhouse with Chinese tiles – and flew the flag of Manchukou from a flagpole in the courtyard. He is also said to have had a couple of little junks which he used to sail over to Ardfern.
Johnston did not enjoy Eilean Righ for long. After a short illness, he died in Edinburgh in 1938, at the age of 64.
His will requested no religious ceremony on his death. His wishes were respected. He was cremated, with his ashes scattered on the island and on Loch Craignish. Letters and papers were burned, again at his request. How many related to Pu Yi?
Johnston’s book, Twilight in the Forbidden City, was used as a source for Bertolucci’s film, along with Pu Yi’s own autobiography – and Johnston was played by Peter O’Toole. Now that’s talking.
Eilean Righ may be relatively small but it was clearly important in ancient times. It’s name suggests a kingly connection although we have been unable to find any reference to what that may have been. It has two Iron-age forts, or Duns, one is about a third of a mile north of the house and yielded some modest artefacts during a 1982 excavation. The second is south west of the house.
Hamish Haswell-Smith, in his irreplaceable book, The Scottish Islands, A Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island, records that Dun Righ, the highest point and about half way between the house and the south end of the island, has a large cup marking on a lichen covered rock on its south side.
According to Haswell-Smith, Johnston had modernised both houses in 1934, before he moved to live there in 1937. He is said to have had a Buddhist temple in the courtyard.
After Johnston’s death, Eilean Righ was bought by a retired Indian army officer, Major Campbell, who lived there with his family until the beginning of World War II when they moved over to live in Ardfern.
Then it was bought in 1959 as a holiday home by Lord Wilfred Brown and his cousin Mr Robert Banks Skinner.
During these twenty odd years it lay empty, rumour has it that the yachting fraternity made the odd exploratory landing and carried away some souvenirs. Certainly the Chinese tiles on the farmhouse seem to have gone, as have the Chinese sculptures in the garden.
Haswell-Smith reports stories that when Johnston died, valuable china and porcelain were thrown into the loch – but says that he has not been able to authenticate this.
In 1992 the island was sold to James Waldegrave, Viscount Chewton, brother of former government Minister, William Waldegrave. Chewton renovated the houses in 1993, early in his four year ownership from 1992-1996.
The current owner and seller is Christian Siva-Jothy, a financial industry figure former partner in Goldman Sachs who bought the island in 1999, carrying out major renovations of the properties. He is a former Partner in Goldman Sachs where he was in charge of Proprietary Trading, retiring in 2005.
Islands attract many but ultimately satisfy few.
Only those genuinely content with their own company and deriving pleasure from being subject to the vagaries and vicissitudes of weather and tide, learning to live by a rhythm beyond control or prediction, have what it takes to last the course.
Flying in and out of a tiny inshore island does make visits more possible for distant owners who can afford it – but the essence of islandness is in living by the water and flying can only obliterate that fascinating dependancy.
The photograph top shows Eilean Righ from Eilean Mhic Chrion (McNiven island) off Ardfern Yacht Club. © Patrick Mackie, reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.
The black and white photograph shows Reginald Fleming Johnston and an American woman, Isabel Ingram, who tutored the Empress Wan Rong, pictured together. By Kenmayer, this photograph is in the public domain.