Human settlements grow in different places for different reasons. Climate and physical geography are the most common dictators. Port cities grow next to safe anchorages, inland towns where rivers can be bridged or forded or where a fold in the landscape offers the site for a castle and a safe refuge. But not everything makes natural sense. Glasgow flourished despite its shallow river, which had to be canalised and deepened before a decent-sized ship could reach the city; as for Cumbernauld, no obvious reason offers itself at all – other, possibly, than that the land was cheap.
The top of Loch Fyne presents another of these mysteries. Anyone who takes the A83 over the Rest and Be Thankful comes to a collection of buildings at the head of Loch Fyne that seem disproportionate to their remoteness and rural surroundings. They stand behind a large car park and comprise a restaurant and oyster bar, a fish smokehouse, a delicatessen, a garden centre with a café and a souvenir shop attached, and a post office-cum-community centre.
All are busy, even in winter. Forty years ago, none of them existed. Why are they here? The obvious answer is the enterprise of a big local landowner, the late Johnny Nobel, who in 1978 began to sell locally-harvested oysters from a roadside shack, at a time when traffic along the A83 was rapidly growing and Scotland was beginning to develop more adventurous eating habits (though, as Noble would have told you, oysters were a rediscovery for the Scottish diet rather than an innovation). But go a little further back, to the age of Johnny Noble's great grandfather, and a more surprising answer emerges. The trade at this spot in oysters, Chablis, venison sausages and houseplants, owes everything to the arms business and the considerable profits to be made from it.
Christina Noble, Johnny's sister, tells the story in her new book, 'Ardkinglas: the biography of a Highland Estate' (published by Birlinn). Their great grandfather, Sir Andrew Noble, acquired Ardkinglas, the estate at the head of Loch Fyne, in 1905. The Nobles had no great connection with this part of Argyll: Sir Andrew was born to a well-to-do family in Greenock, but left the town aged 15 as a recruit to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, where he learned enough to be commissioned as a young officer in the Royal Artillery two years later. Heavy guns were his special study and he became an expert in muzzle-velocities and the advantages of rifling – grooves inside the barrel – which spun the shells to give them greater speed and accuracy.
According to the 'Dictionary of National Biography,' Noble's work gave us 'the exact science of ballistics.' He, in return, won all kinds of honours and decorations as well as, more importantly, a partnership in Armstrong's engineering and armaments factory at Elswick on the Tyne.
He became chairman in the 1890s, when Armstrong's shipyards began to equip the Japanese navy with the well-gunned warships that defeated the Russian fleet in the war of 1905. As the largest shareholder in a company that by the early years of the 20th century represented 5% of the London Stock Exchange's total capitalisation, he was now tremendously rich, and like many rich men of that era, began to think of acquiring a sporting estate in the Highlands.
In 1905, he bought Ardkinglas from the Duke of Argyll, who wanted to evict two spendthrift nephews who were his lessees. Sir Andrew paid £62,000 for the estate's 45,000 acres, which followed the curve at the top of Loch Fyne and deep into the glens behind it, and spent another £55,000 on building a handsome loch-side mansion designed by Robert Lorimer, who was making his name as a country-house architect. Money was no object: Christina Noble writes that her great grandfather could cover the expense of the new house out of one year's salary and dividends.
Small steamships brought the building materials up the loch: successive cargoes of sandstone, fine timber, Orkney slates, wrought ironwork, good furniture, lavatory bowls and bathtubs, which were landed at two specially-built piers. Two hundred workers, who were encamped in the field next to Cairndow church, took these materials in the hand and finished the house in 18 months. It was the first house in Scotland to include electricity in its original design – the supply came from a private stream-fed dynamo, the technology that Sir Andrew's partner, William Armstrong, had installed more than 30 years before at Cragside, his revolutionary house in Northumberland.
The brief heyday of Ardkinglas as a sporting estate now began. Sheep on the hills made way for deer. Gardeners, chauffeurs, dairymen and laundresses were recruited and took possession of the cottages in the grounds. The 1911 census recorded 240 people living in the parish of Cairndow, and many of those of working age had Sir Andrew as their ultimate employer. As well as the household and garden staff, there were joiners, masons, gamekeepers and shepherds, as well as several tenant farmers who had Sir Andrew as their landlord. Numbers rose and fell with the seasons, not least in the house itself, where the Noble family lived for only a few summer months every year.
The 1911 census, taken on 2 April, counted the house's only inhabitants as two housemaids, a cook, a dairymaid and a hallboy – all of them waiting for the day, presumably, when a car from the station at Arrochar crunched on the gravel in the drive to announce the annual transfer of the Noble family from their London house.
Christina Noble describes Highland estates as the 'pleasure domes' of Edwardian grandees. Their houses, sometimes misleadingly known as shooting lodges, as though they were just one step up from a but-and-ben, were designed for fun and hospitality. After a day spent salmon-fishing in the glen or stag-stalking on the hill (or, in the case of Ardkinglas, cruising down the loch on a grand motor yacht), guests would return to welcoming servants, hot baths, good food and drink, and soft beds. Rather like a sauna, the Highland estate mixed a little discomfort – the moorland trudge through the rain – with a lot of pleasure.
But at Ardkinglas the wealth that bought this way of living didn't last. The 'Dictionary of National Biography' notes: '…the [Noble-Armstrong] company went into relative decline early in the 20th century. Noble had become unimaginative and conservative in engineering design, autocratic in dealing with his managers, and dynastic in his approach to his succession…'
Sir Andrew died in 1915 and his third son, a director of Armstrong's, became Ardkinglas's owner. The first world war had kept the company busy; profits were good. But when demand for its guns and ships shrank in the years after the armistice, the company's ambitious diversification into other trades – paper-making, cars, railway locomotives – turned out to have cost too much in borrowed money. Like its rival engineering company, Vickers, Armstrong's was close to bankruptcy when the Bank of England instigated a merger of the two in 1927.
Ardkinglas, too, became problematic. What was to be done with a pleasure dome its owners could no longer afford? Christina Noble's book thereafter becomes a revealing account of the struggle to turn an Edwardian luxury into a viable enterprise for the sake of its owners and the community they had to some extent created. As well as her own memories, it draws on scrapbooks, diaries and journals – and many interviews – to establish an intimate picture of Argyllshire life from the start to finish of the last century. There is some heart-searching about a laird's 'obligations' and 'responsibilities' towards the continuing well-being of his locality and his tenants and old retainers.
Many landowners would have cut their losses and run south. Instead, one of Sir Andrew's grandchildren, John Noble, and his family moved in the opposite direction. By the end of the war, Ardkinglas had become more or less their permanent home rather than a summer retreat from London, but the estate's income from rents, fishing and shooting and small amounts of farm produce came nowhere near meeting its costs. Subsidies were needed from John Noble's wife to keep Ardkinglas on its feet and the prospect of death duties hung like a black cloud on the horizon. When Johnny Noble inherited the estate from his father in 1972, he faced a bill of at least £57,000 to secure property worth £161,000.
The barrel was scraped. Paintings were sold. Japanese souvenirs presented to Sir Andrew Noble by a grateful Admiral Togo went to auction. Land was let to a firm that made garden gnomes, unsuccessfully. Little about Johnny, the new laird, suggested the persona of a driven entrepreneur: Eton, national service with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (he was a member of the dance team), an up-and-down career in the wine trade, lovely manners, and an endearing sense of mischief. But he saw potential in the shallows at the head of the loch and in 1978 founded a company, Loch Fyne Oysters, that had £100 in capital and, as its only assets, a wooden pleasure boat, a plastic dinghy and a leaky wet suit.
Oyster-farming wasn't as easy as it looked, but he and his business partner persevered and in 1986 opened the roadside shack that sold shellfish and smoked fish: the beginnings of a small empire that at one stage in its development part-owned the Loch Fyne restaurant chain that still stretches across Britain. Other members of the Noble family opened a brewery further up the glen, while the author of this book, though she doesn't say so, played an important part in establishing a wood-chipping plant and a community hydro-electric scheme.
By the time Johnny died in 2002, about 250 people were employed in Cairndow – a great many in enterprises that were either founded or in some way enabled by the Noble family. As Cairndow's total population – working age and otherwise – was only 180 by then, the village had more workers than houses to put them in. People commuted 30 miles morning and evening.
The swords of the early 20th century, you might say, had been beaten into ploughshares by the century's end – or at least transformed into oysters, beer, smoked salmon and brown bread and butter. The success of this local enterprise makes it far from a typical Scottish story, though the story's ending makes it a typically global one. In 2007, the 37 branches of the Loch Fyne Restaurants chain were sold for £68 million to the brewers and pub-owners Greene King, which is headquartered in East Anglia. Then in 2012 Loch Fyne Oysters, the original business in Cairndow, was bought by Scottish Seafood Investments in what was called 'an eight-figure deal': in other words, for anything between £10m and £99m.
Scottish Seafood Investments is an investment vehicle set up jointly by the Scottish Salmon Company, owned in Norway, and a private equity company, Northlink, which is backed by Yura Lopatinsky, the Ukrainian banker and property investor. In the few published references to him, Lopatinsky is described as 'publicity shy.'
As Christina Noble reflects towards the end of her story, few people in Cairndow in 1910 might have known that their landlord's wealth came from building battleships for the Japanese, but at least they would know who he was. He went among them in his carriage. They would have seen the great gun-maker in church.