The scandal-ridden Duchess and her 'strange' Highland love nest
It sat deep in a Highland glen, a 'strange encampment' built by a scandal-ridden Duchess so she and her lover, the celebrated artist Edwin Landseer, could lie low and escape the whispers of polite society.
The Duchess of Bedford, wife of John Russell, sixth Duke of Bedford, had sought retreat from the chatter about her extra marital love life and ordered the construction of number of huts in Glen Feshie in The Cairngorms in the early 1830s.
It was here that the couple were to retreat, the two having first met when the Duchess’s husband commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his wife.
Landseer, widely thought to have fathered the Duchess’s tenth child, went on to become synonymous with the 19th Century Romantic depictions of Highland life so adored by the English upper classes, with Monarch of the Glen perhaps his most famous work.
He painted prolifically in Glen Feshie and decorated the chimney stack of his timber bolthole with fresco of deers, long since washed away.
Comic actor Charles James Mathews, who visited the huts in 1833 on the invitation of Landseer, described the huts in an account of his trip, which is documented by author Patrick Baker in his book Cairngorms, a Secret History.
Mathews said: “I never saw anything so half original in conception of so perfect in execution as the whole thing. The appearance was that of an Indian settlement.
“The buildings themselves looked like the poorest peasant’s cottages, the walls made of turf and overgrown with foxglove and the roof of untrimmed spars of birch.”
Landseer’s captured the settlement in Duchess of Bedford’s Hut, a painting dated 1833.
Baker describes the huts as a type of “Highland Arcadia” created at the “limits of permanent human habitation”.
He describes them as having a “false modesty” with the “intentionally primitive” huts giving an impression of “comfortable slumming”.
With a portico decorated with antlers, Baker notes the background of the painting which depicts a decanter and a silver candlestick holder placed upon a well furnished chest of drawers.
Baker describes how the Duchess had craved isolation given the chatter about her private life and the failing health of her elderly husband.
Glen Feshie proved to be the ultimate sanctuary.
Baker said: “It was here during her stays at Glen Feshie huts, distanced form the suspicions of her husband and the prying eyes of Georgian society that she conducted a love affair with a young artist 20 years her junior.”
A mention of the huts is made in Queen Victoria’s Highland Journals after she arrived in Glenfeshie in 1860, seven years after the Duchess’s death. Landseer, seriously unwell with mental illness, long outlived his love.
The monarch’s diary said: “We came upon a most lovely spot – the scene of all Landseer’s glory – and where there is a little encampment of wooden and turf huts, built by the late Duchess of Beford, now no longer belonging to the family, and, alas! All falling into decay – among splendid fir-trees, the mountains rising abruptly from the sides of the valley.”
Queen Victoria returned to Glen Feshie a second time.
She wrote: “We gazed with sorrow at their utter ruin. I felt what a delightful little encampment it must have been and how enchanting to live in such a spot as this beautiful solitary wood in a glen, surrounded by the high hills.”
Meryl Murray, of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society, visited the site several times to research her book Glen Feshie.
She said remnants of the settlement sat four or five miles into the glen at Ruigh Aiteachain, where a separate mountain bothy used by walkers still stands.
Ms Murray added: “It really is an idyllic spot. It is not at great altitude but it has a feeling of being really remote, surrounded by mountains and scattered Caledonian pines.”
3 Anders Povlsen Fashion tycoon’s 169,695 acre land includes 43,000-acre Glenfeshie estate in Inverness-shire.