There can be few places more beautiful on a sunny late summer’s morning than the village of Kenmore, on the banks of Loch Tay.
The white-washed cottages sit crisp and clean against the blue sky. A brace of paddleboarders ease themselves gingerly into the icy water. And a bird of prey swirls and whirls above the endless crenellations of Taymouth Castle.
So what a shame to discover that, behind the scenes, there’s a battle raging across the cobbles of the old village square. A bitterness that billows down the High Street. And that the locals — many of whom have lived in this exquisite setting all their lives — are finding it all a bit much.
‘You lie awake, night after night. It’s not good. Not good at all,’ says Keith Mitchell, the village baker. ‘We’re being bullied,’ agrees Peter Ely, chairman of the Community Council. ‘Horribly bullied.’ ‘It’s a David and Goliath encounter,’ adds Colin Morton. ‘I think we must be David. But it’s not very clear.’
This is an unusual battle that involves three parties — a fantastically wealthy property firm, Discovery Land Company (DLC); an online protest group called Protect Loch Tay (PLT); and a few very frazzled-looking members of Kenmore Community Council, who include Colin and Peter.
The Scottish village of Kenmore in Perthshire is known for its wildlife and woodland estate
Taymouth Castle Development by Discovery Land Company
DLC, founded by Michael Meldman — an American entrepreneur who also set up Casamigos Tequila with George Clooney and Rande Gerber (the husband of Cindy Crawford) — are the newish owners of the castle, along with 7,000 acres of park land, woodland and the old golf course.
The company specialises in developing overtly exclusive and elitist ‘worlds’ around the globe, from the Bahamas to Dubai. It’s in the midst of a £300 million project, transforming the 19th century neo-Gothic castle — now shrouded in scaffolding — into their first Scottish ‘world’. The early and very glossy publicity material promised, well, quite something. Access to an ‘untouched playground’. More than 200 top-end residential units and suites, plus a clubhouse, wellness suite and a revamped golf course sown with grass seed specially imported from the U.S. — because, apparently, American visitors prefer American grass. And all a quick 30-minute hop by helicopter from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
So one might assume that the local community of Kenmore — about 100 adults are on the electoral roll, plus children —would be up in arms. Not least, because they’ve had to sit and watch while DLC has gobbled up their village, bit by bit.
First, the Kenmore Hotel — now closed for refurbishment. Then the village shop — also closed. The boat house (closed), the boat house bar, the yellow curve of sandy beach, and at least a dozen houses.
But not a bit of it! In fact, it turns out the residents are thrilled to bits. ‘We’re getting fibre-optic broadband — we’d been campaigning for it for 15 years. It’s coming. It’s laid!’ cries Bill Oppenheim, who is originally from Kansas, in the U.S., but has lived here for 29 years.
‘They put on a massive Christmas party for us last year, with trees and a lighted walkway down to the loch and a marquee and food!’ says Colin.
I’m told they’re also replacing the public loos, have cleaned up the beach, and now mow all the verges in the village. ‘They’re even sponsoring our Highland Games!’ says Keith. ‘This is a good-luck story. There is no conflict been castle and community. This is a happy tale.’
Or at least it was. Until Protect Loch Tay (PLT) came along and, according to the residents of Kenmore, tried to ruin it all. ‘We still can’t work out what they’re trying to achieve but it’s very upsetting,’ says Peter Ely.
It was started by Rob Jamieson, a taxi driver who drives a car painted as the Scottish Saltire and who lives in the village of Killin, at the other end of the Loch. ‘That’s 17 miles away! It’s another county, for goodness’ sake’, Peter adds. ‘He’s not even from round here.’
From left to right: Mike Meldman, George Clooney and Rande Gerber at the Casamigos House of Friends Dinner
Taymouth Castle, built in 1806, is now undergoing a major £300million restoration project
Nonetheless, helped by his pal Ingrid Ess, Rob set up the Protect Loch Tay Facebook group to discuss the development and, earlier this summer, launched a petition with Change.org. ‘The developers are a group of American billionaires who specialise in gated “worlds” for the super-rich,’ says the petition. ‘This is not what Scotland is about. We don’t need an influx of American millionaires and their speed boats, watersports and helicopter taxis’.
Not surprisingly, it struck a chord. Some were locals. Some were people who had visited Loch Tay on holiday. There was a smattering of Scottish nationalists. And an awful lot of people who’ve never even been to Scotland, but felt strongly anyway. It gained extraordinary traction and now has more than 153,000 signatories from all over the world, many of whom are extremely angry — about everything.
That trees have been cut down. The potential for noise pollution. The danger to the salmon, the environment, the gobbling up of Kenmore. The creation of a ‘gated’ playground for the super rich.
And, particularly, the fact that the project is being spearheaded by ‘rich American privateers’ — linking it to Trump’s controversial golf course in Aberdeenshire and making dark references to the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
According to members of Kenmore’s council, who have been pushing back — hard — the focus of PLT has shifted, week on week. Lately, however, much of the fury has been directed at them.
There have been (unfounded) insinuations about ‘brown envelopes’, shadiness regarding planning issues, and a clamour for the whole council to be replaced. I’ve even heard hushed rumours of council members receiving death threats.
Bloody hell! No wonder they all look so shattered. ‘Suddenly we became the target and it hasn’t been nice,’ says Colin.
‘We turned a blind eye for so long, but we’re elected volunteers. We had to speak out.’ Here, Keith chips in. ‘We don’t know who they are, or where they live — some might as well live on Mars.
‘I’m not on the council. I’ve never done any public speaking in my life. I’m usually very shy. But this is our village. We’re fighting for our home.’ Keith has lived here pretty much all his life. He points out to me his first bedroom as a little boy, high in the eaves of the (now closed) Kenmore Hotel. Later, he and his wife ran the shop and now their bakery business. Which means he is all too aware of how the fortunes of the castle — and, by association, the village once built to serve it — have fallen.
Built in the 19th century by the Campbell family, it was once one of the grandest castles in Scotland, with an estate of half a million acres, a west wing designed by the great architect William Adam; and a stupendous heraldic ceiling which took a full decade to paint. Queen Victoria loved it so much when she visited in 1842 that, inspired, she immediately rushed off to buy Balmoral.
Taymouth Castle was bought in 2018 by Discovery Land Company and John Paul DeJoria, a hair care magnate who is married to former Playboy model Eloise Broady (pictured together)
The Campbells had been astonishingly rich but, somehow, by 1922, Sir Gavin Campbell, the first Marquess of Breadalbane, had lost the lot and the castle was sold to the MacTaggart family. After that, it had various incarnations — a hotel, a World War II hospital, a school — none a great success.
All took their toll on the exquisite interiors, but they also brought jobs, trade, and life to the village. Which was quite the place to live. Think music recitals and monthly dances in the school hall. Kenmore’s own Highland Games, along with an annual spectacular on the banks of the Tay to mark the start of the salmon season.
‘We’d have the great and the good of Scottish entertainment. It was rammed — and just look at the backdrop!’ cries Keith, arms thrown wide at the immaculate countryside. There were shops, the hotel, a masonic lodge, a campsite, bakery, a community nurse and regular visits from fish and meat vans.
The school and church were busy and tourists flooded in. And while the castle cracked and crumbled, the grounds remained open to all — for driving lessons, blackberrying, dog walks. ‘That’s the thing that Rob Jamieson and his petitioners don’t understand. It can never be a “gated community”, because of Scotland’s “right to roam” legislation,’ says Colin.
Sadly, Rob is not keen to chat but suggests I talk to Ingrid, who tells me over coffee that she’d be fine with a luxury hotel, but is most worried about noise pollution and guests arriving by helicopter and that she has been living at the other end of Loch Tay for barely a year.
Which is, of course, long enough to worry about environmental destruction anywhere — and quite right, too. But perhaps not long enough to have a handle on the gentle implosion of this community.
It was in 2005, when the castle went up for sale, that things really nose-dived. Amidst allegations of fraud and bankruptcy, several consortiums tried and failed to get it off the ground. ‘There were a lot of false starts and a lot of hope,’ says Bill Oppenheim. So the castle remained empty, the trees hadn’t been touched for over half a century and the golf course fell into disrepair. ‘I moved back in 2000 to enjoy a retirement of golf and fishing,’ says Peter, who was born here. ‘But then they shut the golf course.’
There was a brief flurry of excitement when both Madonna and Cher expressed interest in buying the castle. But, rumour has it, they both pulled out because of the public access. ‘They weren’t allowed to close the gates! And Madonna didn’t much like the thought of that,’ says Colin.
Taymouth Castle in Perthshire has had previous uses as a wartime hospital and a drama school
Even Scottish Heritage said ‘thanks but no thanks’ when they were offered it for free. It would cost far too much to put right.
The village buildings weren’t much better. The shop needed work and the hotel (where, in its bar, Robert Burns penned a poem directly on to the wall in 1787) well, the less said about its state, the better. ‘I wouldn’t have let my dog stay in there!’ says Keith. Meanwhile, businesses struggled. The gift shop closed. No one can remember when the public loos were last in action.
It didn’t help when a slew of houses in the village square, once occupied by the chef, the barman and the community nurse, were snapped up as holiday cottages and things became even quieter in the off-season. ‘We were just waiting for the castle to fall down,’ says Bill Oppenheim.
Then, as if by magic, up popped DLC and snapped it all up, along with historic planning for a hotel and a couple of hundred houses, for a reported £9 million. Today, as I potter around knocking on doors, everyone seems excited. Heather Smith, 81, was born here and worked in the castle during its era as a civil defence school. ‘It’s wonderful inside! I don’t know why people are being negative — it’s just silly.
‘Maybe they’re jealous. But what could be nicer than a bit of life about the place again?’ Next door lives Valeria, 38, originally from Ukraine. ‘I am a chef, I might finally get a job here. My husband is already working on the site. It has been very dead here, but hopefully it is changing.’
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth running. There are rumours that some villagers have been pressurised to sell — bringing echoes of Michael Forbes, the farmer who refused to decamp from the middle of Trump’s golf course development in Aberdeenshire.
One chap, whose house sat within the castle grounds was reportedly told by DLC ‘it makes more sense for us to own your house than for you to’. They offered more and more money until finally, he gave in, cashed in, and relocated to another property in the village. Meanwhile, some have accused DLC’s communications of being clumsy and vague (which is perhaps why it has just relaunched its website).
‘We’re not idiots. No development is perfect,’ says Peter. ‘We’ve pushed back on a lot of things already and we’re not happy with all of it, but we’re ready. We have to save the castle and our village.’
Because for the people of Kenmore, that’s what it comes down to. Yes, some might justifiably be appalled by the money, the idea of a rich elite jetting in, but the residents of Kenmore are at peace — and finally looking forward, rather than back.