The Estate of Ardtalla is currently owned by Ardtalla Estates Ltd, a company set up in the 1970s to consolidate the ownership of several farms that had been acquired by the Mactaggart family of Glasgow in the 1950s. The lands of Ardtalla had since 1855 formed part of the Kildalton Estate. Kildalton had been sold in that year in the wake of the bankruptcy of Walter Frederick Campbell, formerly owner of almost the entire island; the new owner was John Ramsay, who in 1840 had become the proprietor of the Port Ellen Distillery. The Kildalton Estate occupied the southern part of Islay, the remainder of the island having been acquired by the immensely wealthy Victorian entrepreneur James Morrison.
The Mactaggarts are descended from Neil Mactaggart, a coppersmith in Campbelltown in Kintyre, who emigrated to Glasgow in the early nineteenth century to work in distilleries there and further afield, including Islay. His son John born in 1867 went to work for the building firm of Robert Mickel, leaving to start his own building firm J.A.Mactaggart & Co in 1901. Glasgow was booming and John Mactaggart built up his fortune through hard work and shrewd investment, selling as many flats in each block as would be required to pay the cost and retaining the remainder for renting out. He was the first builder in Glasgow to include bathrooms inside his flats. In 1925 John’s son Jack joined with Andrew Mickel to form the company Mactaggart and Mickel, still a major housebuilder in Glasgow, although the Mactaggart connection with it ended in 1946.
Jack Mactaggart took a lease of the Kildalton Estate on Islay in 1938, however Kildalton Castle was requisitioned for RAF Coastal Command during the war whose officers were first building and then flying from the Islay aerodrome at Glenegedale to protect convoys through the North Channel between Islay and the Irish coast. Jack was based from 1943 until his death in 1960 at Nassau in the Bahamas.
Returning to the family’s roots in the whisky industry, Sir John Mactaggart, the current head of the family, served as chairman of the Bruichladdich Distillery Company from its formation in 2000 until 2012 when the distillery was sold to the French company Remy Cointreau.
Mactaggart is the Gaelic name for Mac an t-Sagairt, the son of the priest, which name supposes a marrying priest-hood, a custom which the early Celtic church permitted, in contrast to the Roman catholic church of today. Whether the Mactaggart family’s priestly ancestors were connected with Islay is unknown, but in “Tales of Islay – fact and folklore” it is observed that:
On the hillock across from the (Kildalton) chapel one can see what looks like the remains of an ancient chapel overlooking the field called Pairc an t-Sagart or Lon an t-Sagart (the Priest’s field).
Before the advent of the Mactaggarts to Kildalton in 1938, the estate had been acquired in 1922 by the adventurer Talbot Clifton, heir to “ancient vast estates in the Fylde”, (Lancashire) whose life is vividly described by his widow Violet in “the Book of Talbot”, (1933). Violet describes his travels in Alaska, the “Barren Lands” of north Canada, Africa, “Boreas” (Siberia), Tibet, Burma, Ecuador and Peru, the Persian Gulf, finishing with his final expedition in 1928 to Mali in search of the fabled Timbuktu. From The Book of Talbot:
Now fell the Christmas of 1927, but the story of the wonderful Child hardly at all moved the Gaels of the Island of Islay. “What more could he have done so as to make this people smile?” wondered Violet. Only at Kildalton there was rejoicing: a festal tree, a man with his pipes and, at midnight, the first of the threefold Masses. Whaups and sea-pies flew crying around the house seeking their meat, and as Talbot and Violet walked back after the Sacrifice they heard the wings of the birds, and their crying. Talbot explained – that on the tides the living of these birds depends, and that they mark the changes of the ebb and flow of the sea rather than the change of light to darkness. Now was high tide and they were seeking for food in the fields, and in the greenswards near the house; but at low tide they would search along the shore for their sustenance. These birds could see in the dark, and their lives were in concord with the change of the tides; but the lives of men are in concord with the day and the night. The wash of the waves; the cry of the curlew, and of the oyster-catchers; the cadenced Latin conjurations – such were the sounds of that Christmas night at Kildalton.
Talbot Clifton died from fever at the age of 60 on Tenerife, and his body was returned to Islay for burial on the Green Hill of Cnoc Rhaonastil. Of the funeral:
The men of the Isle had resolved on a Highland funeral. Twelve of them offered themselves as carriers of the coffin when it should leave the cart to be carried the steepest part of the way. About a hundred men followed. The women of Islay are never present at the burial of the dead, but to-day, because they knew that the widow and children would follow the dead, some of them had gone to a knoll over the grave and there awaited the coming of the mourners. The piper, who had come from far away, also waited among the short trees, piping the lament, the Flowers of the Forest, whilst fell the soft Scots mist. Once again, just as after Talbot’s death, but now for the last time, Violet felt an enveloping beatitude, an invading sweetness.
The monk said: ‘Come to his assistance, all ye saints of God! Meet him all ye Angels of God!’ A little later, although the Green Hill is not the hunting ground of eagles, and although they shun the nearness of men, yet there fell a winged shadow over the grave. And those who looked up saw a golden eagle that twice soared, and twice stooped, and then swung away out of sight. Violet thought, ‘is this to tell me that his youth is renewed like the eagle’s’.
The tomb erected by Violet at Clifton’s grave on Cnoc Rhaonastil is marked by a stone cross with the inscription:
Here lies my beloved
John Talbot Clifton
Lord of the Manor
Laird of Kildalton
Died 23rd March, 1928
The Life is Changed
Love Never Faileth