The story of the Blackburns, who bought Roshven Estate in 1854.
Hugh Blackburn was Professor of Mathematics at Glasgow University. Jemima, his wife, was the youngest daughter of James Wedderburn, Solicitor general for Scotland, who died before her birth in 1823. Her mother was Isabella Clerk, of Penicuik. When she was four, her aunt, Mary Clerk, gave Jemima a copy of Bewick’s “Land Birds”. Whether this was by chance or because she already showed an aptitude for drawing, thenceforth Jemima declared Bewick to be “her master” and went on to become an extraordinarily gifted painter of birds and animals. At twenty, she was introduced to Sir Edwin Landseer who lent her sketches of his own to copy but said that in the painting of animals he had nothing more to teach her. Apart from one or two lessons from Landseer, she had no formal training but drew inspiration from visits to the studios of McNee, MacWhirter, Millais and Ruskin. While still in her early twenties, working almost full time as a painter and printmaker, her first two volumes of illustrations were published by William Blackwood. Her next publisher was Constable of Edinburgh. Landseer was so impressed by her work that he arranged for a series of six of her watercolours to be presented to Queen Victoria’s children.
Perhaps the peak came with the publication of “Birds drawn from Nature” (1868) of which The Scotsman declared: “We have seen no such birds since Bewick’s” and Beatrix Potter wrote in her diary that her father gave her a copy on her tenth birthday, and was another to observe that Bewick was “her only possible rival.” By this time the Blackburns had been in possession of Roshven for a dozen years and were on friendly terms with some of the most celebrated figures of the century. Their guest lists for both Roshven and their Glasgow house include Lord Kelvin, John Ruskin, Sir John Everett Millais, Anthony Trollope, Lord Lister, Benjamin Disraeli and Jemima’s first cousin, James Clerk Maxwell. No doubt because of her rather comfortable circumstances, she was dismissed by some as “an amateur”, but one commentator wrote: “… no professional artist has worked more unremittingly, or studied nature and the means of transmitting its subtle mysteries more deeply”. This puts her squarely among the immortals.
Near Fort William
Examples of Jemima Blackburn’s paintings still adorn the walls of Roshven, casting further light on the building of the house and the family’s 150 years as owners of the estate.
In 2007, Angus and Michie MacDonald (that’s us !) bought the estate and embarked on the massive task of bringing the building into the 21st century. The architect was Michael Gray of Edinburgh; he worked with local builder Alistair Carmichael and 28 people, among them specialists from all over Scotland, stayed on site for three years in static caravans.
DAVID BRYCE RSA (1803-1876) was arguably Scotland's most eminent mid-Victorian architect exerting an influence far beyond the boundaries of his own country. In 1823, he joined the Edinburgh practice of William Burn (1789-1870), becoming Burn's partner in 1841 and effectively taking over the practice in 1844 when Burn moved to London.
The "Scottish Baronial" style, which has many admirers as well as detractors, has been described as "in essence Bryce's creation", but adaptability was high among his great qualities as "his splendidly proportioned and finely detailed Fettes College (1863-9)" bears witness. His work on Roshven, commisioned by Hugh and Jemima Blackburn was completed in 1857.
Along with some other big houses in the region, Roshven was requisitioned during the Second World War by the army and used in the training of commandos and special forces.