Late one September morning a small boat holding a party of 16 adults and nine children slipped quietly out of Loch Fyne and headed out to sea and into the Sound of Bute. It approached a battleship; the party boarded. The gathering was for the christening of Lady Charlotte Campbell, the daughter of the Duke of Argyll, Hereditary Admiral of the Western Isles and Hereditary Master of the Royal Household of Scotland. The bridge was, suitably, the bridge of a ‘duke’ class frigate of the Royal Navy, HMS Argyll. And the godparents, two suitably grand Scotsmen, Lord Dalmeny and the Earl of Hopetoun. One would almost have expected Lord Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots to have trotted onto the scene dancing a volta, except this was only a few months ago, and the Duchess – Eleanor – was slightly overtired from having finished unpacking an entire castle in time.
‘I unpacked the last box literally as the first guest arrived,’ she says plonking herself down in a drawing room at Inveraray, the 80-room fairytale castle she shares with her husband, Torquhil, the 13th Duke of Argyll. She is tall and striking and has a bouncy, deep, plummy voice. He is slight and fine-featured (he’s 41; she’s 36), the youngest of the 24 British Dukes and captain of the Scottish elephant polo team. It is no mean feat to rewire, replumb, redecorate and heat a castle which was started in 1745 and took 60 years to complete. ‘My parents had a fire in 1975, the roof burnt off, and there was a lot of damage,’ says Torquhil. ‘They put it back together but it was so expensive they didn’t get the opportunity to put the frills on. One of them was central heating.’ Two kitchens, 12 bathrooms and 109 radiators later, the Argylls have just had their first Christmas with heating, broadband and Sky TV.
And what a place to spend Christmas. Though Robbie Burns had a point: ‘Whoe’er he be that sojourns here/I pity much his case, Unless he comes to wait upon/The Lord their God, His Grace/There’s naething here but Highland pride/And Highland scab and hunger/If Providence has sent me here/’Twas surely in his anger.’ It’s a rugged area which really is all about His Grace’s castle at Inveraray – an A-list stately. In the Armoury Hall one wanders past the skullcap that Torquhil’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great great-great-grandfather wore for his post-Restoration execution. It’s got a dose of royal magic: the 9th Duke’s duchess was Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. And it’s got a whiff of fabulous 20th-century sex scandal: it was once the home of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose four-year divorce case scandalised the country in the Sixties. She went from most famous deb of her era – an era when debs were the supermodels of the day – to infamous nymphomaniac. There was the ‘Headless Man’ Polaroid evidence. There was the list of 88 men with whom the 11th Duke claimed she’d had affairs (Hollywood stars, three members of the royal family, and two government ministers). There were revelations of aristocratic sex games. She of course went on to be a Tatler columnist.