Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Tindall Era, 1922-1954

From Caird Biggar, 1941-46

I was very much a Blair Castle-ite. My first term at W.D. was the school’s first term at Blair, and my last term was the school’s first term back at Winchester. (I then went to Winchester College, where I was in Trant’s). My first term was to have been at Glenapp which was quite close to my home in Kirckudbrightshire. I was all ready to go there when my parents were told that Glenapp had been taken over, and the search was on for a new location. The term eventually began at Blair Castle in about November.

The first thing I recall about Blair Atholl was the very strong contrast between the seasons. How dark it was in winter evenings, how spooky it was scurrying in pyjamas and dressing-gown from the dormitories in the main part of the castle (Green, White, Picture, etc) down to remote bathrooms in the South Wing, miles away down long corridors with innumerable antlers, each pair sticking out of a ghostly white skull. (Our favourite bathroom, incidentally, was the Duke’s, where the bath was so big that one climbed up a step to get into it!) Also in winter I remember how the lights used to go dim when frost affected the stream of water which was channelled down from the hills to work the castle’s own little power station.

By contrast, in summer, I remember how impossible it was to go to sleep at lights-out, when double British summertime, combined with the northerliness of Perthshire, meant that it was broad daylight until nearly midnight. We surreptitiously read our books, hoping the Patrol Leader of the Buffaloes was asleep, or more likely reading his own book.

The most memorable thing about Blair was the “Ducal Estate” and the wonderful grounds around the Castle. Near the castle the grounds were laid out according to the Victorian concept of the “romantic highlands.” There was the “Hercules Walk,” a formal grass-covered ride, leading behind banks of rhododendrons up to a great statue of Hercules. There was a garden with mock battlements and cannon, around which peacocks and squawking peahens paraded. There was the statue of Diana in the woods, and the Marble Grotto overlooking the River Tilt. There was the Back Drive, the grand Front Drive, the West Drive, the Nine Mile Drive. Looking down from a hill above the West Drive there seemed to be another castle, until one realised they were mock towers – a “whim.” I thought it was all splendid!

Scout games like “Smugglers and Excisemen” were tremendous fun in all that space. Our Scoutmaster, “Ricky” Ricardo gave us a lot of freedom and we went for miles over the hills, up the mountain streams, crashing through the larch woods, sometimes startling the huge capercaillies (they looked as big as flying turkeys!), and frequently getting ourselves lost.

Even when Sister Guy put us on the “off-games” list, because of a cold or something, we had fun on the walks we had to go on. There were always things to see, plenty of ornamental lakes to fling stones into, or better still, to whizz things across if they were frozen over in winter. Sometimes the attractive gym Mistress, Miss Coombes, would be in charge of such walks, and then we were apt to visit a wartime sawmill near the Castle which was operated by a band of real live Canadians. We were fascinated to see how the huge tree trunks were handled and sawn up. Miss Coombes, we thought, was more fascinated by the Canadians, and vice-versa.

A few miles from Blair Castle, up the river Garry, there was a wonderful Salmon leap where one could watch salmon all the time trying to get up a tremendous waterfall. Very few ever seemed to manage it. The Canadians from the saw mill were also aware of them, and thought they would do a little experimental fishing – with hand grenades. The water bailiffs were not amused.

There were plenty of red deer to be seen up on the moors. As there was no deerstalking during the war, the ghillies had to cull some of the stags, and from time to time we saw them returning from the deer forest with a stag slung across the back of a sturdy pony. We knew that also meant we had a chance of getting venison for Sunday lunch.

I was always wildly keen on sports and games of every sort, and was tremendously helped and encouraged by the much loved “Griffin” (D.H-Griffith). I can remember sports day on the lawn by the river Banvie and my winning 100 yds., hurdles and long jump on the same day. I was very proud of my prizes, which added up (I think) to 4s.6d. in National Savings stamps! In time I was captain of the school soccer team, the cricket team and, I think, the rugby team. My bad luck, however, was that we hardly ever had any matches because there were few other schools to play against, so my youthful glory was rather hollow! We did at least play against the younger boys from The Leys School, and sometimes beat them at soccer, although they were of course bigger and older than us. The Leys School had been evacuated from Cambridge, and were in the huge Atholl Palace Hotel at Pitlochry.

We all spent a good deal of our leisure time in “Shakespeare,” which was really the castle ballroom. The walls were decorated with the inevitable stags heads, and with lots of spears and ancient weapons – trophies of some overseas military campaigns. One day a large assegai fell off the wall. Miraculously it only took a small nick out of a boy who was sitting on the floor, and who might have been nastily “speared.” I suspect that those of us who saw it happen were rather disappointed that there wasn’t more bloodshed! I suppose the trophies must have come from regiments with which the Duke was associated. They can hardly have been won by the Duke of Atholl’s private army, which ceased hundreds of years before to be of any real size. Incidentally the private army still exists, albeit only a token force of about 3 soldiers.

Most of the Duke’s other treasures were carefully locked away in parts of the castle which were strictly out of bounds to us. Four or five boys (who had better remain nameless) decided that further exploration was needed. They managed to work their way into one of the locked rooms, through the ceiling, I believe. Terrible was the wrath of K.B.T. when the culprits were caught, because someone on the staff discovered some “souvenirs” which they had “borrowed” from the room. I can’t quite remember if anyone was expelled, but it must have been a very near thing.

Last summer I was on holiday in Perthshire and paid a very nostalgic visit to Blair Castle, which is now open as a “stately home,” and a very fine one too. Well worth a visit for anyone. The State Dining Room, with its magnificent fireplace and plasterwork is now hung again with priceless picture. I remember it best as “Picture” dormitory (with its walls bare), with our iron bedsteads in rows. The Hercules Walk is still there, although rather overgrown. Hercules also is still looking down from his pedestal, although someone seemed to have injured him in a particularly painful place!

The red deer are still up on the moor, and perhaps the capercaillies are in the woods. Certainly the peacocks are still much in evidence, and very popular with visitors trying to photograph them. Alas, the salmon leap on the Garry has long since gone, as the hydroelectric schemes have taken nearly all the water from the river at that part.

I could go on a lot longer about Blair, but I am quite sure you will feel I have already rambled on more than enough, so I will stop.

P.S. You might be interested in the 1936 prospectus which I have photocopied and enclosed. I love the emphasis on ventilation and drainage, and all the name dropping on the list of references!

Caird Biggar