Every year a group of friends travel to a most remote location in Scotland to spend a few days together. These people know each other for years, but the make up of the group constantly (albeit slowly) changes. I was invited in 2009 but was not in a position to go even though I was aware that non-acceptance is poor form. I got another chance this year and I went, not really knowing what to expect.
The short form: Leargan is the name given to an odd house in a most spectacular location overlooking Loch Rannoch in the heart of Scotland. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Edinburgh. I would have said the middle of nowhere, but seeing as the road actually stops (yes, it ceases to be – nowhere to go) just down the road, it’s pretty much beyond nowhere and into wtf-land. Our phones didn’t work. There’s no central heating. There’s nothing much to distract you other than your companions.
Ha! There’s always something to distract an introvert! As the others hiked up hills, went fishing for things to eat and were bracingly social (as the well-educated English tend to be), I travelled inwards. The house was built by four spinster sisters, one of whom was Mary H Debenham, author of a great number of children’s stories and more. One day when everyone else had left to go hiking, I stayed behind and set about looking at the place through the lens of my camera.
What I found saddened me somewhat. I discovered first editions of Mary’s books from the late 19th century complete with cuttings of contemporary newspaper reviews, personal notes and intricate illustrations. These may have remained undisturbed for over 30 years. It struck me that here was a successful author who now was pretty much forgotten. Despite her success, she has no entry in Wikipedia. Amazon has but a couple of her books (and those from some pretty esoteric publishers). She was a success, but how does her impermanence reflect that success?
Here’s the official blurb on Leargan, this singular place built by singular people. I hope my digital efforts in video and here might give Mary and her sisters a little additional leg up to recognition, but ultimately, they’ve done their bit. For the last 70 odd years Leargan has played host to groups of various kinds. Families, friends, oddballs.
It, and they, live on in some weird way as long as we do.
Leargan was built by the four unmarried daughters of Frank Gissing Debenham – a successful London Estate Agent who lived at Chestnut Park in Hertfordshire. ‘FGD’ and his family had been visiting Scotland since the mid 1860s various properties in the Highlands over the years, principally for stalking, shooting and fishing. The association with Rannoch started in 1895 and continued after FGD himself dies in 1912.
After the untimely death of their only married sister, the Debenham sisters brought that sister’s daughters on holiday to Rannoch each year. When the property in Rannoch the family has rented for about 25 years became unavailable, the sisters decided to build their own house on a site chosen for the exceptional views over Loch Rannoch. Leargan received its first visitors in 1926.
The Debenham sisters continued their extended holidays at Leargan for the rest of their lives with friends and family and with staff from their home at Hertfordshire. The last surviving sister, Phillis, spend her 90th birthday at Leargan in 1966.
Each of the sisters left her interest in Leargan in a Trust to be used when the last of them died as a family holiday home for the descendants of their father born before 28th July 1965. The present Trustees are Michael Petter, Nicholas Beresford-Jones, Moray Grant and Tony Roques.
Over the years the Trustees have allowed not only the beneficiaries, who number 18 persons, but also their descendants, close relatives and friends to use Leargan. All visitors, including the beneficiaries are asked to contribute a users charge and pay for electricity consumed.
Over the years the Trust has benefited from individual generosity of members of the family and others to pay for improvements to the fabric and equipment for the property. Leargan retains its character of being a family house and is not a commercial venture. It has still many of its original features and memorabilia of those who built it and have used it for over eighty years which gives it its special character.