Thursday, 11 December 2008
To the Rodel Hotel...a strange tale of Royal Household
I tried to get to the Rodel Hotel last month when I was in the Western Isles. Alas, it was shut. this piece was written 18 months ago for the American magazine Scottish Life.
"The Rodel Hotel" wrote the poet Louis Macneice, who stayed there in 1938, "is at the end of everything."
Doubtless he was sipping a glass of Royal Household whisky as he wrote. After all, it was the only place you could get that particular dram at the time, unless you were a member of the British Royal Family. Nowadays, if you fancy a wee taste of that particular cratur? Och well, thereby hangs a tale or two.
Transport links to the Hebrides are better than ever, but the southern tip of Harris still offers a sense of tranquil remoteness. The hotel, completely refurbished in 2001, is now a comfortable, characterful and very welcoming place of escape. And yet Rodel is at the crossroads of Hebridean history, a place resonating with warfare, paganism, tragedy, religious and social upheaval; and the strange tale of a whisky brand called Royal Household.
But there's more to Rodel than a hotel and its whisky. St Clement's Church is the finest Medieval building in the Western Isles, famed not only for its Christian carvings but also for the pagan ones which are referred to rather archly by one guidebook as 'not to be viewed too closely by those of a sensitive disposition'. You can visit the 16th century tomb of Alexander 'Crotach' (Humpback) Macleod, disfigured in a battle with the Macdonalds on Skye, and in the stony silence, maybe catch the distant echo of claymores clashing.
At the nearby hotel, you will receive a warm welcome from the owners Donnie 'Rodel' MacDonald and his wife Dena. And there you can hear tales of this lovely house, built in 1751 by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray as his personal mansion, after his purchase of the entire Harris estate for £15,000.
It has had its ups and downs, this imposing building by the pier. Lairds, from Macleod to Leverhulme, have come and gone, their plans to regenerate the island and turn it into a money-making proposition dashed against the hard Harris rock. The last great hope for industrial regeneration in Harris was a superquarry at nearby Lingerabay, which would, in many eyes, have scarred the ancient landscape irrevocably. A lengthy government inquiry stopped the development in its tracks.
You can smell the tang of whisky in many of these stories, from the anointing of the cornerstone back in 1751 as the building work commenced, to the clinking of glasses in the legendary Rodel Hotel bar as debates raged about the pros and cons of quarrying away a large lump of Harris. For 15 years, until 2001 when the refurbishment work was completed, only the bar remained open, with many a tale told even now of the characters to be found drinking there. Including the gentleman who would happily remove his glass eye and pop it into his whisky. If he liked the look of you.
But the comfort of whisky was never needed so much as in the 19th century when this part of Harris was ruthlessly cleared of crofters for the sake of intensive sheep grazing. Cottages were destroyed and many of their inhabitants forced to emigrate.
Among the landowners and their managers, though, trouble brewed. And in one legendary case, sex was at the root of it.
It was all to do with the lovely Jessie of Balranald, daughter of the North Uist factor, who had attempted to elope with her beloved Skyeman Donald MacDonald. Her father had been determined to marry her off to his new assistant factor, Patrick Cooper. Her uncle John was
factor of Harris, living in what is now the Rodel Hotel. There Jessie was kept under lock, key and the watchful eyes of her fearsome aunt. Until one night in 1890, when Donald, doubtless fuelled by some uisge beatha , arrived to remove her, by force if necessary.
There was, to use a Scots word, a stooshie. Donald ransacked the house until he found Jessie, but her Uncle John locked the pair in. Outside, would-be suitor Patrick Cooper had arrived, and was threatening to shoot all and sundry. In the end, Donald and Jessie broke out through a window and made their escape. Donald was later acquitted of burglary and kidnap in a famous court case, and the happy couple emigrated to Australia. You can see a pictorial version of their story today in a stained glass window at what is now the hotel.
And if you're very lucky, you will also see a bottle of the legendary Royal Household whisky. You will not be allowed to taste it, though.
I first heard about Royal Household from a doctor friend who practised in Harris 30 years ago.
"It is the best whisky I ever tasted" he told me. "It had a great deal more malt in it than any other blend, and it was quite extraordinarily smooth. I only got a taste because my daughter had just been born. The bottle was kept in the gantry with the label hidden, and it was only served to a select few."
My curiosity well and truly piqued, I decided to pursue Royal Household. Jim Murray's 2007 'Whisky Bible' reviews it very favourably ("a wonderfully sophisticated blend"), but gives no indication of availability. Extensive searching through whisky catalogues revealed that it is sold only in Japan, and this was confirmed by Michael Alexander at multinational drinks company Diageo, who own the rights to the name.
"As far as I know, it's a straightforward blend, sold only in Japan,'"said Michael. "it's not supplied to the Royal Family." The magic of the tale was fading. I spoke to friends in Haris, who seemed curiously reluctant to tell me what they knew. "I have heard" said one, cautiously, "various stories. You had better speak to Donnie himself."
And so I found myself listening to the lilting tones of Donnie Rodel, as he described the joy of the hotel's revitalisation and its success since reopening fully in 2001. So, what about Royal Household, Donnie? What is the truth? Was a passing Royal princess rescued from the foaming deep by one of your ancestors? Perhaps Edward and Mrs Simpson stored a secret cache of spirits at Rodel for some of their early assignations? Alas not.
Said Donnie: "My grandfather, Jock MacCallum, owned the Neptune or Club Bar as it was known in Stornoway, and in the 1930s he bought the Rodel Hotel. He made some arrangement with what was then James Buchanan Ltd, who made Royal Household, for the Royal Family at the time, and somehow he became the only retail stockist, first in Stornoway, then at Rodel." The dram's status, however, was assured when the the last order arrived, some time in the 1950s.
"It became impossible to get any more. Since then, we've guarded what we have carefully, and now there are only a few bottles from the 1950s left." Could I have a dram, then, were I passing? "No. I would open a bottle for a member of the Royal Family, though. Princess Anne was in Rodel a few years ago, on a yacht, and if she'd come into the hotel, I'd definitely have opened a bottle."
But what made Royal Household so special? Was it the finest whisky ever to grace the Rodel Hotel's gantry? Donnie is not so sure.
"My mother absolutely hated it. She would drink any whisky other than Royal Household. it had a much greater proportion of malt than other whiskies, mainly from the Glentauchers distillery in Speyside, and some liked it. But some did not."
Now at the Rodel Hotel public bar local folk drink "Russian whisky", mostly "Vodka, I mean." And Donnie shakes his head. "For the connoisseurs, it would be Black Bottle and Famous Grouse."
So until any wandering member of the Windsor Clan asks for a wee nip of the whisky that once graced the shelves at Buckingham Palace, the last few bottles of Royal Household remain firmly corked Let me recommend, however, a glass of Black Bottle or indeed Grouse, should you ever find yourself in Rodel. You can the assembled ghosts of Jessie of Balranald, the furious Patrick Cooper, still drowning his sorrows in ther corner, Louis Macneice, and even 'Crotach' Macleod, limping in from yet another battle. But you're just imagining Edward and Mrs Simpson chatting conspiratorially in a corner. That's just a story...