A random house in Scotland or a metaphor for impermanence

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.

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15 comments

  1. Mike A

    Great posting Enda! I’m too much of a city kid to really appreciate the simplicity of being in ‘the countryside’. Maybe we all need to escape once in a while, eh?

  2. Karen Harley

    What a fascinating post. I come from Fife but Rannoch is my most favourite place………..I have holidayed(in my caravan) there for six weeks every year for all of my 40…..odd!! years. My own parents and my children come too and my friends.
    How wonderful to have somewhere like this and I hope that it continues to be available for the family and friends to visit.
    I also work in a library and found the information about the author very interesting.
    Thanks

  3. eguinan

    Thanks so much for your comment, Karen.

    Rannoch is such a beautiful spot, isn’t it? On arrival, I remarked at how overused the word ‘stunning’; Rannoch’s beauty truly stuns. The parallel between your family and friends’ repeat visits and those of my group is interesting!

    I knew nothing about Mary H Debenham’s books until I got there and was surprised to find such a small digital footprint too. I wonder if she is perhaps known a little better locally?

    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment,

    Best,

    Enda

  4. Gerry Newby

    At least one edition of Mary H Debenham’s books ( The Whispering Winds) has a superb art nouveau cover by Talwyn Morris famous as a Glasgow school designer ( and an associate of even More famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh )
    Quote:
    AS FEATURED IN THE 1899 VOL 15 STUDIO MAGAZINE
    “THE WHISPERING WINDS AND THE TALES THEY TELL”
    BY MARY.H.DEBENHAM PUBLISHED BY BLACKIE IN 1895
    RARE DESIGN AS MORRIS USES THE HUMAN FORM SOMETHING HE RARELY DID ALSO INCLUDES A DESIGN ON THE TITLE PAGE AGAIN USING THE HUMAN FORM
    Some of Mary’s books still seem to be reprinted I believe,( or is this due to books being out of US copyright and project Gutenberg )
    I wonder if original access to the house would have been via the West Highland Railway and then by road and or boat.
    Finally is there a misprint above of 1960 for 1860 ?

    • eguinan

      Hi Gerry,

      That’s interesting about the design. There were many first editions still in the house and some had quite beautiful covers – another reason to preserve the collection!

      I suspect that the railway was the main access route back then with the remaining (relatively short) journey completed by road. The sisters had their staff of course to assist them throughout.

      And thanks for spotting the typo.

  5. Brad Saveall

    Thanks for the site. It is quite interesting. Stumbled across ‘Mary Debenham’ at a small estate sale in the town of Georgia in northern Vermont. I live not too far from there (about a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. While browsing through the books, found “The Whispering Winds and the Tales That They Told.” Thought it would be nice to read to my grandaughters (now 4 and 1). What made really interesting was the inscription: “Eddie Nichols from his teacher G. Mabel Newton, for perfect attendance–June 12, 1903”. Pretty sure he was in the first or second grande. Turns out that Eddie was the eldest uncle of one of my co-workers. He was in his 90s and moving in with a daughter. Mabel Newton had a long, long career as a teacher in Georgia.
    After reading the book I became interested in finding out more about Mary Debenham. You site has been very helpful. Do you know if there is a complete bibiliography of her work available?
    Also, I wonder if a young Agatha Christie might have been friends with Mary. In Murder on the Orient Express, once of the characters was Mary Debenham. A key clue was a linen handkerchief with the initial ‘H’ that was dropped by Mary. Supposedly the ‘H’ stood for Hermione, the character’s middle name.
    Regards,
    Brad Saveall

    • eguinan

      Hi Brad,

      Firstly, my apologies for this very late response to the comment you left on my blog back in February – I’m not entirely sure how it escaped my attention until now!

      Thank you for the interesting story about the Mary Debenhem book you found – how fascinating about that inscription! If these books could tell their tales, I’m sure that particular one would be fascinating. By the way, do your grandchildren enjoy the book?

      Alas, I’m unaware of a full bibliography; she really seems to have been almost erased from history despite all of her success at the time.

      Well spotted too on the Agatha Christie connection. I’ll be seeing my friend (the speaker in the short film) and I will mention your comment to him and see what he knows. So far, he and his family have been fascinated and surprised by the comments the film has generated.

      Thank you again for the wonderful comments and, again, apologies for the lateness of the response.

      Sincerely,

      Enda

  6. Ruth Philps

    I found the Whispering Winds today and just had to research the beautiful cover and author. My book was given to Lizzie Sutherland from Caledonian Head School in 1904 for an essay on “The Fishes of the lochs and streams of Perthshire” by the Perthshire Natural History Museum. What a prized treasure it must have been because it is in perfect condition. Thankyou to all of the other contributors to your blog.

  7. Rose

    Hello there, I have just come across your site while randomly looking up the Debenhams. My great aunt is pictured in a black and white picture in your film. She was the Debenham’s house keeper. What a wonderful film and really interesting site. Thank you!

    • eguinan

      Hello Rose,

      How fascinating that you spotted your relative! I’m going to forward your comment to my friend who is the great-grandson of the sisters.

      The few days I spent there a few years back was my introduction to the Debenhams and their society. What an interesting untold story: thank you for helping put another piece in the puzzle!

      Best, Enda

  8. Malcolm

    Thank you. NIce to see your little homage to Leargan. I’ve been going there with family and friends for over 15 years – my wife much longer. We have great affection for it – the ping pong table, breakfast in the kitchen, the stunning views, the fire in the drawing room on a cold night, even the goats foot lamp on the mantlepiece. We’ll miss it all – as it’s likely to be sold by trustees very soon, to then disappear into our collective memory.

    Cheers,
    Malcolm

  9. Lesley

    Hi, I have just found your site, whilst doing some research on Mary Debenham and what a great story you have unearthed! I have just acquired ‘The Whispering Winds’ ( because I collect and sell Talwin Morris bindings) and noticed that the book has been dedicated to a person called Sylvia ‘With love from the author and her sisters, Christmas 1899’, so I was curious to find out a bit more about Mary. Thank you so much for providing the information!
    Lesley

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