It was love at first sight when glamorous Margaret Sweeny the future Duchess of Argyll set eyes on Inveraray Castle on the west coast of Scotland. Understandable, despite the castle’s neglected state, given the romantic looking conical roofed turrets and glorious position in vast parkland edging Loch Fyne.
Rich and spoilt Margaret, debutante of the year in 1930 and the “Mrs Sweeny” namechecked in the Cole Porter song You’re The Top, is said to have become enamoured with restoring the castle inherited by her married lover, Ian Campbell, the eleventh Duke of Argyll.
In the new BBC and Amazon Studios drama series, A Very British Scandal, Ian (played by Paul Bettany) is depicted taking Margaret (Claire Foy) to Inveraray and dismissing it as “a plague pit” and “a pile”. But Margaret responds, “You didn’t tell me it was so beautiful. It just needs love and attention”.
And that’s what Margaret gave it, investing a small fortune of her father’s, self-made millionaire George Whigham, money in restoring it. There was not to be a happy ending for the couple who married in 1951 (his third, her second). The duke was debt ridden, alcoholic and seemingly fond of marrying heiresses, the television drama reveals. When Margret’s father cuts off the money supply he moves to divorce her. The series shows eyebrow raising behaviour from both the duke and duchess though Margaret’s step daughter in law and royal biographer Lady Colin Campbell says on her youtube channel that the actions attributed to the duchess are erroneous.
An ugly divorce case spanned the late 1950s and early 1960s resulting in Margret being dubbed “the dirty duchess” on account of her diaries and love letters supposedly showing her promiscuity and infidelity. Not to mention an infamous Polaroid showing Margret, recognisable by her trademark pearl necklace, engaging in a sexual act with a “headless man” the identity of who she refused to reveal. In recent years (Margaret died in 1993) Lady Colin Campbell has said the duchess told her it was the Pan Am Airlines executive Bill Lyons.
Today there is no mention of Margaret on the castle’s website. The current duke, Torquhil Campbell, however allowed the cast and crew to film at Inveraray which is about 60 miles from Glasgow.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an important part of our family history. I’m not sure my grandfather will come out of it in the best light, but what happened, happened,” he told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.
The story of Inveraray Castle begins well before the eleventh Duke and “Marg of Arg”. An earlier castle on the site was built in the 1400s by the Campbell Clan who date back to 1260. The existing castle was commissioned in 1719 based on a sketch by John Vanbrugh who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard in England. The latter was the filming location for the Duke of Hastings’ fictional Clyvedon Castle.
Inside, the striking Armoury Hall has the highest ceiling in Scotland and a staggering display of ancient weapons at every turn. Both the State Dining Room and the Tapestry Drawing Room have walls hand painted by French artists. Behind a secret door is the China Turret featuring a collection of Eastern and European porcelain. The relaxing Saloon includes a Gainsborough and a grand piano on which songs for the musical My Fair Lady were composed. Downton Abbey fans may recognise Inveraray as the fictitious “Duneagle Castle” from the 2012 Christmas Special currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
It was Margaret who first opened Inveraray to the public in 1953 to raise funds. The castle and its grounds will be open to the public from March 28th to October 31st this year with private tours available. Or you can hire the place for an exclusive stay through Scottish castle specialist Loyd & Townsend Rose with use of the State Dining Room for which you can engage a chef, and the Saloon which I can vouch for being a splendid place for a nightcap.
The six bedrooms all have en suite bathrooms (thanks to Margaret, Torquhil says). I have stayed in the exquisite, Duchess’ bedroom – in a turret complete with floral designs, four poster bed and a view of the grounds from its many windows. As well as the formal gardens, there’s 60,000 acres of estate for stalking, shooting or just walking. And the loch is famed for its oysters which you can sample at the nearby Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.
Margaret was not the first famous chatelaine. Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, married the future ninth Duke of Argyll. The elaborate covered entrance was said to have been created for her wedding to shield the princess and the monarch from the elements and a writing desk given by Victoria on her daughter’s marriage can still be seen here.
The present day duke and duchess and their children live in the castle but in an apartment tucked away in the former servants’ wing. They are a personable couple, magnanimous about opening their home to around 100,000 paying visitors a year. As the duchess has said, “Thanks to them, I’ve got a roof above me.”