Keil House was once described as the most palatial house in the country. The ruins of the house now lie on the shores of High Keil, Southend, at the foot of the Kintyre peninsula. The location is close to that of the later Keil Hotel, which lies derelict, a short distance to the east.
Keil House - old and new
The name of Keil was derived from the older Kilcolmkill, the cell of Columba, and referred to the landing of Columba at Kintyre in 563. His followers established a church there, later enlarged during the 12th or 13th century, and continuing as a place of worship until c. 1670.
Initially established as minister of Kilcolmkill in 1611, the Reverend Duncan Omey was appointed first minister of the parish of Southend when it was established in 1617, by from the merging of the parishes of Kilcolmkill and Kilblaan by a Commission of The Scottish Parliament. The new parish had no manse, so the minister and his family resided in Keil House, which they had occupied for some years, as tenants. In 1622, the Bishop of Argyll granted a charter of the twenty shilling land of Kilcolmkill, and reserved four acres of glebe to the minister, Duncan Omey. On his retiral from the ministry in 1641, Omey remained proprietor of Keil.
In 1819, Omey sold the house to Dr Colin McLarty of Chesterfield, Jamaica, who had been residing in Sanda House. In 1835, the house passed to his son, John Freeman McLarty, and then to a Glasgow merchant, James Nicol Fleming. Fleming had made personal fortune by 1865, and would have the old house rebuilt, but had rented Killellan House from 1863, before he purchased the house and estate of Keil, near Southend, transferring ownership to his Marriage Contract Trustees. While the McLarty family were said to have impoverished themselves by putting their money into the land when they owned it, in order to try to improve it, Fleming's approach would subsequently prove to be of a contrary nature.
1865 - The new house
Fleming had made his fortune from cheap Indian cotton, sold to Britain for an inflated price. By 1865, he was a director of the City of Glasgow Bank, and owner of Keil House. Unhappy with old house, Fleming commissioned a Glasgow architect, Campbell Douglas, to design a grand house more appropriate to his status. Local sandstone was quarried for the construction, finishing stone was imported by sea, rooms were panelled with the finest wood, and finished with the most ornate plasterwork. The completed house was said to have had more windows than Buckingham Palace, so two windows were blocked to reduce their number in deference to the monarch.
The existing gardens were expanded, and enclosed by high walls and new access gates, with the original front door of the old house providing one such entrance. The house was approached by a driveway lined with iron railings, with a lodge added to the gatehouse at the entrance. Additional cottages were built nearby, with the new Keil House and surroundings being completed in 1870. The arch over the main entrance to Keil House had been surmounted by a plain stone slab, intended by Fleming to receive his coat of arms, but this was never to happen
Unfortunately, Fleming's grand plan for the new house stretched even his considerable resources, and the house was financed on less than 'secure' securities. Even more unfortunately, his fellow directors at the City of Glasgow Bank were indulging in the same questionable business practices, and in October 1878, the bank collapsed and its shareholders found themselves £5 million pounds in debt. Fleming left Keil, and the following account describes his departure and subsequent fate:
Within a year all was gone, The City Bank had collapsed and, with net indebtedness of £832,000 to it, and £400,000 due to various correspondents in respect of Bills, Fleming had fled, initially to Spain (eventually reaching Chicago) and was in process of sequestration. Before leaving, he transferred Gartvaigh to the City Bank. His Trustee, after appointment, settled outstanding servants' wages and later tried unsuccessfully to sell Keil in an arrangement with the Marriage Contract Trustees. Rumours abounded as to how he had got away and what was his mode of transport. it was said that he had boarded William Mackinnon's yacht from Dunaverty Bay. Others spoke of a newly launched B.T. ship taking him on. Enquiries made by the Glasgow papers led them to believe that the weather had been too stormy for a small boat to live in the seas running off Dunaverty. However, the police soon concluded (and there is evidence to support this view) that he had lived in London for a few weeks before his flight abroad.
Because of irregularities discovered during his directorial involvment with the Bank in 1674 and 1875 a warrant was issued for his arrest. The change in his status is perhaps best reflected in two items relating to the Kintyre Show, The courier in 1675 announced a prize for "four bushels Long Oats" being won by "J. Nicol Fleming, Esq. of Keil". In October 1873 a prize for "four bushels Short oats" was attributed simply to "J. N. Fleming". Thereafter his doings stopped being reported by both the Courier and the more radical Argyllshire Herald - possibly because of his wife's family's connections with the owners of both, and almost certainly because of the prominence of her family in local affairs
He returned to the U.K. in late 1881 to petition for his discharge from bankruptcy, when his estate had paid 1/4d. in the £ and before a change in legislation requiring a payment of dividend of at least 5/- as a condition for discharge took effect. He was arrested in January, 1682 and served 8 months' imprisonment (the same sentence given to his erstwhile colleagues in 1679) after pleading guilty to a reduced charge. On his release, William Mackinnon paid for a holiday to the Nile for Fleming, his wife and a daughter.
In later years he continued his connection with Kintyre; his obituary recorded him spending summers at North Park, from about 1894 until his death. The writer hopes that in his twilight years, with his frenetic energy dissipated by age, he found repose and respect there for, despite the immorality of much of his business dealings, he was undoubtedly a man of great and many talents.
He was interred in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. His estate was valued at £15:17:6d.
Mrs Fleming survived until her 91st year, dying in 1931, and lies in Kilkerran Cemetery with her parents and other members or her family. The connection with North Park continued until the death of their youngest daughter, Miss Margaret Isobel Fleming - Daisy - in December 1946. With her passing ended her family's residence in North Park, extending over a century or so. - James Nicol Fleming of Keil. A Logan Mitchell.
The house lay empty until Ninian Bannatyne Stewart, another Glasgow merchant, son of one of the founders of Stewart and McDonald of Glasgow, acquired the property from Fleming's trustees in 1883.
Following Stewart's death in 1912, the remaining family then sold the house and estate to the trustees of the Mackinnon Macneill Trust in 1915, who had been looking for suitable premises in which to establish a school, and would go on to develop Keil House as the Kintyre Technical School.
We also received a broadly similar account of Fleming's departure from Keil, but with no references, so is included for interest only: "Fleming did not flee directly to Spain by boat, but actually fled to Manchester, where he was eventually arrested at his brother-in-law's house. He received a sentence of eight months hard labour for his activities. Upon his release, Sir William Mackinnon arranged a convalescent trip to the Mediterranean for Fleming, his wife, and two elder daughters, aboard the SS Rewa, a passenger cargo vessel. Upon their return, the family took up residence at North Park in Kilkerran Road, Campbeltown, former home of Mrs Fleming's parents."
Kintyre Technical School
The school was the vision of one man, Sir William Mackinnon (March 13, 1823 - June 22, 1893) 1st Baronet of Loup and Balinakill, who, together with his nephew, Duncan Macneill, left bequests to begin the Mackinnon Macneil Trust with a mandate to "provide a decent education to deserving Highland lads". The trust's funds were allowed to grow, and in 1915 were used to found the technical school in Keil House.
The school was open to boys from the counties of Argyll, Inverness, Bute, Arran, the Western Isles, and the Highlands. Free places were awarded to 12 year old boys who had passed the primary school qualifying examination, and students entered into a three year course centred on engineering and agriculture. Roman Catholics were not welcomed in the early years of the school.
Students were gathered for the school by annual Bursary Tours, where Talent Scouts would seek potential candidates and convince their parents of the benefits of education at Keil, and that fees were not an issue. Final entrance was by written examination and personal interview with the headmaster.
The successful entrants were subjected to an education centred upon personal responsibility, and the boys were divided into squads, each led by a chief and deputy. Other than cooking, the boys carried our all domestic duties, including all the washing, cleaning and tidying throughout the house and kitchen.
Outside, the boys worked in the gardens and fields, tending the fruit and vegetable gardens, planting and harvesting the crop fields, and maintaining detailed records from the school's weather station.
The remaining time was devoted to the school's academic and technical curriculum, plus homework, PT, sports, and sea-bathing, which included life-saving. The school's remote location meant that parental visits were not a feature, and the boys only left to see the dentist in Campbeltown. The doctor visited regularly, twice each week, and holidays were non-existent.
The school maintained its routine for some nine years, until December 7, 1924, when fire destroyed the building. Fifty-five boys and four masters escaped the massive blaze with only their personal belonging before the roof gave way. The house was doomed from the start, as the fire-fighting equipment and water supply were simply inadequate to deal with any larger than a small fire, had it been caught early enough. The fire brigade was similarly hampered by the isolated location, based in Campbeltown, they arrived an hour after the alarm had been raised, only to find their hoses were not long enough to reach the sea and draw water. The fire is believed to have started in a wood store below the science room. Although the house was insured, the cover was insufficient to allow the house to be restored, so the school had to seek an alternate home.
The school was able to re-open shortly after the disastrous blaze, having moved into Helenslee House, Dumbarton, originally home of the Denny shipbuilding family, and set within some 50 acres of grounds. The new Keil School opened on January 24, 1926, and was marked by the 67 foot flagpole from Keil House, one of the few items salvaged from the site.
In 1926, the Mackinnon Trustees sold Keil to James Barbour, farmer of Gartfern, by Drymen, Stirlingshire, at a public auction in Campbeltown, and the Barbour family still farm Keil today.
Education continued at Helenslee until the outbreak of World War II, when its proximity to the Clydebank shipyards rendered its location unsafe. The staff and pupils were evacuated to Balinakill House, Clachan, the mansion of Sir William Mackinnon, built when he was at the height of his career.
With the pupils decanted for the duration, the school became home to a detachment from the Free Norwegian Navy.
When the war ended, staff and pupils returned to Helenslee, and the school continued as before. By the 1990s, the school began to accept girls, younger pupils, day pupils and pupils from abroad. Financial demands meant the school was unable to sustain itself, and in June, 2000, was closed. The trust remains active, and using the proceeds from the sale of the former school's property and land, continues to offer bursaries and assistance to young people.
A statue of Sir William Mackinnon, first erected in Mombasa, was relocated in Kinloch Park, Campbeltown, next to the new Community centre, having been moved there from Helenslee House following the closure of Keil School.
Sir William Mackinnon (March 13, 1823 - June 22, 1893) 1st Baronet of Loup and Balinakill
The curriculum offered at the technical school echoed Mackinnon's own background. Born in a Campbeltown tenement, he began his working career in a grocer's shop, and opened his own shop in the town's main street while still in his teens. Although the business was a success, he sought more than the town could offer, sold up and left for Glasgow. This did not bring the fortune he was seeking. Having worked in a silk warehouse, and then in the office of a merchant engaged in the Eastern Trade, in 1846 he sailed to Bengal. Together with an old school fellow, Robert MacKenzie, who was engaged in the coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal, they founded the firm of Mackinnon, MacKenzie & Company. Within eight years, he had become a successful trader, forming the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company in 1854, which became the British India Steam Navigation Company, one of the greatest shipping companies in the world. His achievements brought the offer of a knighthood, which he declined. He went on to form the British East Africa Trading Company 1888, having taken advantage of the new access provided to East Africa by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Created a Baronet by Queen Victoria in 1889, he died in 1893, and final wish was to be buried in Scotland, at the Kintyre village of Clachan.
It is worth noting that Mackinnon almost became a victim of the former owner and builder of Keil House, James Nicol Fleming, described above. Mackinnon became a director of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1858, and resigned in 1870, eight years before its collapse, which was described as one of the most serious crises in Scottish financial history. Mackinnon was sued by the liquidators for £250,000 in a claim based on advice he gave on American railway securities. Protracted litigation followed, and led to his complete exoneration of the charge after it was demonstrated that the later actions of the remaining directors was contrary to the advice he had given.
- Gallery with four old photographs of Keil House ruins and Keil Hotel
- Photograph of Keil House
- Kintyre Technical School, Keil School
- Keil School, Dumbarton
- Keil Through the Ages, James Barbour, 1988
- West Dunbartonshire, World War II Retrieved November 10, 2015.
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