Brough Lodge: a remarkable site on the Shetland island of Fetlar Brough Lodge

A brief history of Brough Lodge and the Nicolson family

Archive photo of Brough Lodge. Zoom Archive photo of Brough Lodge.The history of Brough Lodge and the Nicolson family, who lived in it for three generations, is a chequered one.

On the one hand, Sir Arthur Nicolson, the original builder of the house, comes over as a ruthless landowner who evicted his tenants. On the other hand, his successors – a branch of the family who had close connections with the writing of the unofficial Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda - denounced his actions and were forced to rebuild the neglected house and estate.

The Nicolson family received a title known as a baronetcy of Nova Scotia in 1629. The title remained dormant for a while in the 18th century until it was revived in 1825 by Sir Arthur Nicolson who built Brough Lodge. The lands in Fetlar had been acquired in 1805, in payment of a debt by Andrew Bruce of Urie, the estate's previous owner.

When his designs were drawn up for the house, Nicolson had just returned from a tour of Europe, where he had drawn inspiration for his building project. This partly explains its mixture of architectural styles, and is what makes it so unusual.  Shetland has no other building like it.  The chapel on the edge of the grounds, for example, is made of red brick, very ususual in Shetland buildings of the period, and is reminiscent of village churches in France or Italy. According to a drawing from 1869, it once had a tall, thin spire and bell tower.  There is no known historical use of the chapel for religious purposes, and it may have been constructed as a folly or showpiece.

The tower / folly at Brough Lodge. Photo courtesy of John Coutts. Zoom The tower / folly at Brough Lodge. Photo courtesy of John Coutts.The oval-shaped tower in the grounds may have been contemporary with the manor house, or it may have been built slightly later. It is another example of a folly-type structure, even though it occupies the site of an actual Iron Age broch, and it originally had three storeys, joined to the land by a footbridge which has now disintegrated. It was used at one stage as an astronomical observatory, which contained a large telescope, and the lens for the instrument has been preserved at Fetlar Interpretive Centre.

From the 1820s onwards, changes on the estate known as the "Clearances", which emulated trends in mainland Scotland, were to affect the whole social and economic structure of the island. They laid the foundation for a general decline in Fetlar's population, which continued unbroken until recently. Sir Arthur enclosed a large proportion of his estate land to graze cross-bred sheep, and evicted the tenants from those parts of the island, so that most of them had to leave to find a living elsewhere.

Probably around the 1840s, after he had cleared his tenants from the north part of the island, Sir Arthur built another folly known as the Round House, a strange, semi-classical invention with pillars. It was originally intended as a summer house, but Sir Arthur is reputed to have once spent the night in there and heard inexplicable noises. Ever after this the building was only used as an office for the collection of estate rents. Legend says he had used the stones from evicted tenants' houses to build the Round House and that the noises were the voices of wandering souls.

This first Fetlar-based Sir Arthur is also reputed to have had a son (called Arthur) who died young, and who gave rise to a local legend. Apparently, Sir Arthur had a vision in which he saw the legendary King Arthur, who asked what he most wished for. When he replied that he wished for a son, King Arthur promised him this on condition the son be named Arthur, and that he build a 'praying house' dedicated to the King himself. It is the most northerly Arthurian story in Britain.

When Sir Arthur died childless in 1863, the baronetcy passed to a cousin, Arthur Bolt Nicolson, son of Captain James Nicolson of Aith in the Shetland Mainland. He had spent much of his young life in Australia where he held a commission in the 4th King's Own Royal Regiment, serving in New South Wales around 1831. He sold his commission and returned to Britain some years later, but in 1853 returned to Victoria and worked for a time as Commissioner of Goldfields. He died in 1879 in Australia, and it is unlikely that he was ever in Fetlar, as he inherited the title but not the estate land in Fetlar. The first Sir Arthur had ensured a life-rent for his widow, Lady Eliza Jane Nicolson, and she continued to derive income from the estate until her death in 1891.

Sir Arthur T.B.R. Nicolson Zoom Sir Arthur T.B.R. NicolsonAfter her death, Captain James Nicolson's grandson Arthur T.B.R. Nicolson, who had inherited the title after his father died in 1879, finally inherited the use of the estate land, and was living in Fetlar by 1893. When he took over the estate, he complained of the appalling condition in which he found both house and stock. The house had apparently been virtually roofless since the death of Sir Arthur (Lady Eliza Nicolson had been living in Cheltenham). The new Sir Arthur wrote that "the tenants complained most bitterly to me of the way they had been treated by Lady Nicolson, saying that she would not do anything for their comfort. Some of them also gave this as the reason why they had not paid their rents."

The new laird made repairs to Brough Lodge so that he and his family could reside there, and he gradually put the estate affairs back in order. He had grown up in Australia where he was born in 1842, and he was educated at Melbourne College. His family was heavily involved in public life and he himself became a well known philanthropist in the region. He was made a Justice of the Peace for Victoria and later for Shetland.

He married Annie Rutherford, whose family have a long and colourful history in Australia and Scotland. Her father, John Rutherford, and his brothers, left Kildonan in Sutherland in the mid 19th century, and gradually amassed a fortune in land and stock in Victoria. Annie grew up on various sheep stations, and her extended family earned a place in the Australian history books when they were held hostage by Daniel Morgan, one of the countries most notorious bushrangers. Annie's cousin, Christina McPherson, penned the music for the unofficial Australian anthem, Waltzing Matilda.

Lady Annie Nicolson Zoom Lady Annie NicolsonLady Annie Nicolson wrote a daily diary of her life at Brough Lodge until she died in 1936, and left us with a fascinating and accurate record not only of life at Brough during that period, but also of events in the island in general. The "special occasions" also make interesting reading. For the Coronation of King Edward VII, for example, a party was held at Brough for the schoolchildren of the island. However, no-one heard until the next day that the Coronation had been postponed as the King had to undergo an emergency operation, and the celebration at Brough had been too early. A similar party was held for the Coronation of George V in 1911, but had to be postponed for several days because of bad weather (a recurring theme in the diaries). The following is the entry for the day the party finally took place:

"Helen and Barbara made 200 little cakes in the afternoon - after supper we made up 100 bags of sweets (5oz in each) and 80 bags with 1 orange, 1 bun, 1 piece of baker's bun cake and 1 piece of cake Helen made. When the children finally arrived on 24th June Arthur and Arthur J. put up goals in the Lower Park for football, and I took out "Aunt Sally", also the hobby horse. The children came at 3 with flags, and singing and in great glee. We met them at the Courtyard door, and when they were all in they sang the National Anthem, then got their mugs & cakes. Then they came into the hall and sang, then went to the Lower Park to have games. Then they came in and had another tea. (no fruit the 2nd time), and as they were leaving, Arthur gave each a medal and they got a bag with cake and an orange in it, and a smaller bag of sweets, and about 8 they left all very happy. We had a "Welcome" outside the Court Yard door and "God Save the King" on the wall inside, and flags."

Eardley and Vera. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom Eardley and Vera. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.Sir Arthur T.B.R. Nicolson died in 1917, leaving behind five children: Arthur J., Stanley, Lionel, Vera and Eardley. Eardley was born with brain damage, and a succession of local nurses were employed to help look after him, although Lady Nicolson seems to have taken full control when he had one of his "turns", which could be frequent. Eardley died in his twenties, only outliving his father by a few years.

Arthur, Stanley and Lionel. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom Arthur, Stanley and Lionel. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

All the other boys were educated at Merchiston, and later at Edinburgh University where they studied law. They came back to Fetlar most holidays, but occasionally spent time with relatives (generally on the Rutherford side) in England. Sir Arthur J. Nicolson left a diary of one of these holidays in 1899, when he witnessed troops leaving London for the Boer War.

During World War One, the three eldest brothers all held commissions in the Royal Naval Reserve. Sir Stanley Nicolson, as he later became, left an extraordinary photographic record of daily life on board ships of the British fleet, including emotional images taken during his work patrolling ships of the interned German fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney, at the end of the war. The photographs are available for viewing as digital images at Fetlar Interpretive Centre.

Stanley Nicolson and crew aboard HMT Chirsin. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom Stanley Nicolson and crew aboard HMT Chirsin. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

German fleet at Scapa Flow. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom German fleet at Scapa Flow. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

German fleet being scuttled. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom German fleet being scuttled. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

German ship being scuttled. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom German ship being scuttled. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

Sir Arthur J. Nicolson took over the running of the estate after his father's death. The estate was entailed to the baronetcy at the time, meaning that whoever inherited the baronetcy also inherited the estate. Sir Arthur J. Nicolson disentailed the estate, a common reaction amongst estate owners after World War 1, as their heirs had often died in the fighting. The move allowed them to retain the property within their own family, even if they lost the title. In the case of Brough, however, this had ironic consequences for the future.

Dolores Elaine Cubbon. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom Dolores Elaine Cubbon. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.In 1927, Sir Arthur married Dolores Elaine Cubbon, a New York debutante who had been raised by her aunts. Her association with Sir Arthur seems to have happened quite suddenly, so that her own close friends were taken completely by surprise when she announced her forthcoming marriage, and most of them had yet to meet Sir Arthur. After a high society wedding in New York, Dolores had cold feet, and her trip to Fetlar ended in London. The marriage was annulled soon afterwards.

Sir Arthur J. Nicolson continued to run the estate in Fetlar, however, until he died of a stroke on 25th April 1952. He left the estate to his brother Stanley, who had been living at Kinglassie House in Fife with his wife, Jean Landles. When Sir Stanley died in 1961, the full implications of disentailing the estate began to unfold, and Sir Stanley was able to leave it to his wife, although she could not inherit the baronetcy. On her death in 1987 the estate and house finally passed out of the family altogether when Lady Nicolson left it to her own niece, who eventually transferred the property to Brough Lodge Trust.

Kathleen Mary Moon. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom Kathleen Mary Moon. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.The third brother of the family, Lionel, moved to London and worked for various large companies, including Marconi. He married Kathleen Mary Moon, and their daughter, who lives in the south of England, is now the only surviving member of the family at the time of writing (2010).

The only sister of the family, Vera, married Lord Herschell in 1919. The wedding took place at Brough Lodge, with the Earl of Zetland anchored off the island decked in bunting. Lord Herschell was Lord in Waiting to the King, and was present at the coronations of Edward VII and George V. Lord and Lady Herschell took a house in the Isle of Wight for a few summers in the 1920s, which they called Fetlar House, and where they received regular visits from Queen Mary during Cowes Week. Their son, who had inherited the title, was a founder member of Brough Lodge Trust and an indefatiguable source of encouragement until his death in 2008.

The Earl of Zetland anchored off Fetlar on Vera Nicolson and Lord Herscell's wedding day. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust. Zoom The Earl of Zetland anchored off Fetlar on Vera Nicolson and Lord Herscell's wedding day. Photo courtesy of Fetlar Museum Trust.

Lady Jean Nicolson, Sir Stanley's wife, lived on in Brough Lodge until the 1970s when she fell ill and was transferred first to a sheltered house on the island, and then to a home in Lerwick, where she died in 1987. The house remained empty thereafter, although items and photographs found there can be seen at Fetlar Interpretive Centre, and the enormous collection of family papers is now kept at the Shetland Archives in Lerwick.

Join our mailing list

Join our mailing list