Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Belle Isle: Epilogue

Esmond Brown with Lavinia Baird at Belleisle Courtyard, 1972


It was quite by chance, when browsing on the Internet one evening, that I came across your blog and article about Belle Isle.

It was extraordinary that I should stumble upon it at that time, for the article had only just been posted. 

I made contact with your good self and explained I had been brought up in Belle Isle Castle.

I was most surprised by your interest.

I owe you a real debt of gratitude for the encouragement that I should share some of my recollections and you have been very kind in publishing a number of these articles.

I had been meaning for years to put down on paper all that I remembered of what had been an extraordinary upbringing and you have given me the push I needed to do just that.

 I am the only one who remains from that period, with the exception of my brother Gerald who came on the scene from 1959 onwards.

I have decided to make this my last article.

I want to stop before someone asks me to shut up!

I thought it would be appropriate that these last recollections should be about Nicholas Porter, Lavinia Baird and Belle Isle itself.



Nicholas Porter had been educated at public school in England.

As a young man, he had worked with horses in Argentina.

When World War One broke out, Nicholas returned and fought alongside his elder brother, John Grey Porter. 

They were posted together with the 9th Lancers.

Nicholas’s brother was second-in-command but was killed in a battle at Cambria.

Nicholas was shot in the same action and lost the use of one of his arms, but survived.

Nicholas also had a younger brother, William Waucoup; and two sisters, Audley Josephine and Coralie, better known as Cosie.

William Waucoup died at Belle Isle when he was aged fifteen, from appendicitis.

Of Nicholas’s sisters, Audley Josephine married James Baird, a Scottish landowner from Fife; and her daughter, Lavinia, became the next heiress to Belle Isle. 

The estate was entailed, Nicholas Porter had no children and, ultimately, Lavinia succeeded him in 1973.

The second sister, Coralie, married twice. Her first husband was Sir Merrick Burrell

There are photographs of the glittering wedding party at Belle Isle around 1920.

Coralie’s second marriage was to Captain Richard Outram Hermon of Necarne Castle in Irvinestown (formally Castle Irvine), who’s own history became closely associated with Belle Isle in later years.

Nicholas had become the heir to Belle Isle upon the death of his elder brother, John Grey, and inherited in the 1930s when his father, John Porter Porter, died. 

By this time the demesne of Belle Isle had reduced to around 450 acres.

Nicholas had been married as a young man but his wife, Amy Gunther, died in the 1930s.

He never remarried.



Nicholas was every inch the country gentleman, a very courteous and charming man.

He was typically dressed in tweeds and always wore a tie and jacket.

Nicholas sported a moustache and beard, had a sunny disposition, a twinkle in his eyes and was liked throughout the county. 

He always carried a very large, brightly coloured silk handkerchief and was known to produce one with a flourish in St Michael’s Church at Derrybrusk on Sundays and blow his nose loudly, much to the amusement of the assembled congregation!

The Belle Isle Pew was at the front of the church on the left hand side.

As a child I often accompanied Mr Porter to church and sat with him.

Not by choice, I might add, but it was one of the things Mr Porter was particular about. 

With the exception of Nicholas Porter, the Belle Isle household was not a church-going one.

I think he saw me as a young heathen, in need of Christian instruction, and I was marched off to church on a regular basis!

Nicholas's sneezes and nose-blowing used to make me squirm in church because I knew all eyes were looking at our backs.

Nicholas, however, was blissfully unaware of the effect this simple act caused.

He was confident and secure in his position and gave the service his full attention!

Nicholas Porter was easy going and had a tolerant and understanding nature: The matter of attending church was an exception.

He did have one other eccentricity: he would sometimes insist that every young person who happened to be on the Island of Belle Isle salute him if he drove past in his Land Rover or car. 

Other times he did not bother!

On one occasion, walking home from school and self-absorbed, I neglected to salute and received a severe ticking off - not from him directly but from my mother, to whom he had complained.

I did, however, have an affectionate relationship with Nicholas Porter as a boy.

I would tramp round the fields with him when he went on his regular inspections around the place at that time.

He often walked round the fields and took a great interest in everything that was going on. 

He would sometimes take me into Lisbellaw, the village a few miles distant from the castle, in his Land Rover when he drove there to pick up his newspapers.

Almost inevitably he would buy me some sweets in Nawn's

He was always good to me and I spent a lot of time in his company when I was small.

I often went to talk to him in the morning- room at Belle Isle Castle where he had his desk and wireless.

It was his favourite room and the one he used most of all.



Nicholas Henry Archdale Porter was without issue.

The estate of Belle Isle had been entailed for three generations.

The third generation and Nicholas’s heiress was his niece, Lavinia Baird.

Lavinia’s father was William James Baird, of Elie, Fife in Scotland.

Her mother was Audley Josephine Porter, Nicholas Porter’s sister, who had been raised at Belle Isle. William and Audley were married in 1918.

William was a member of the Baird shipping family and he inherited the Elie Estate at Fife in Scotland. 

William James and Audley Josephine were divorced after eighteen years in 1936. Lavinia, who had been born in 1923, was fifteen years old when her parents parted.

Audley Josephine relocated to Rutlandshire.

Lavinia was brought up at Elie and subsequently in Rutlandshire.

In her adult life Lavinia became involved with St John’s Ambulance and was the County Superintendent of St John’s Ambulance Brigade between 1955 and 1957.

She was invested as an officer of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in 1956. 

She was also Staff Officer to the Superintendent in Charge between 1959 and 1960.

She worked closely with Lady Mountbatten.

I recall my mother telling me Lavinia had been Lady Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp and travelled extensively with her all over the world. 

Lavinia apparently had dined at Buckingham Palace and was acquainted with the Queen.

Lavinia also kept a bolt-hole in London at Ashley Gardens.



The first I knew of Lavinia were comments overheard at Belle Isle at the time when her mother, Audley Josephine, died in 1952.

Lavinia was reputed, at that time, to have said “Oh, it is just one of those things!” 

The general opinion was that she must be a cold fish indeed! However, because Miss Baird was the heir to Belle Isle, she could not be ignored.

Large wooden crates started to arrive at Belle Isle in the 1950s.

These were deposited in the empty seventeenth century wing.

They contained items from the properties that Lavinia had sold in Scotland and Rutland and that she intended to relocate to Belle Isle.

My father was charged with unpacking some of them.

It was a delicate task for they contained, among other things, complete dinner services of enormous proportions and porcelain objects d’art.

I remember that in many instances they were lovely.

What I would not have appreciated at that time was that they were probably worth a fortune!

Lavinia had started to come and stay at Belle Isle regularly and these visits increased as the years went on.

She was installed in the blue bedroom overlooking the Lough and I was kept out of the way when I was little.

I remember hearing her voice which was very posh!

The most clipped and refined tones of the Queens English; a lazy, well-modulated drawl!

I eventually met Lavinia and she turned out to be very nice indeed.

She had a ready laugh, a terrific sense of humour and was as sharp as a needle!

She was genuinely interested in everything and everyone. 

She took a shine to my mother and my father had a great respect for her.

Lavinia became involved in Belle Isle many years before Nicholas Porter died and spent a lot of money on the fabric of Belle Isle even before she inherited it. 

Her involvement in the local farming community in Fermanagh is well documented, so I will not repeat those details here.

Instead here are some amusing anecdotes extracted from a chapter I have written about Lavinia Baird.

My mother, Pearl, and Miss Baird got on very well; Lavinia would follow my mother around as she worked, chatting away to her.

I wished I had taken more notice of the tales my mother told me at the time.

Lavinia could be heard from quite a distance, “what should we do with this Purll?” or “I rather like that, Purll, do you think it might do?” 

My mother’s name Pearl translated by Lavinia’s dulcet tones into Purll and sounded very grand!

My mother would invariably agree, “I think that is just right, Madam,” or something along those lines. 

It would be wrong to say my mother always agreed: she would give her opinion freely, but often she would go with the flow; she had learnt that ‘madam’ would do as she wanted anyway.

It was amusing to watch Lavinia and my mother together, for my mother would be trying to get on, or reach a point where she could nip out for a cigarette; however madam tended to follow her around...

Huge changes were made in the castle by Miss Baird: The old kitchen was replaced by a new one which was now located in what had been the old servants hall.

The logic behind this was that it was nearer the Gallery and Miss Baird wanted to make the gallery into her dining-room. 

The old dining-room became her drawing-room. Furniture was relocated on a grand scale and everything was moved.

The doors to the rooms in the front hall, and on the upstairs landings, were stripped down to bare wood.

Miss Baird was always talking about the ongoing renovations and asked me once what I thought of the stripped doors.

I was honest and said I did not think they suited the place. Madam was sniffy!

My mother said later that I should just have agreed that they were lovely; madam was going to do what she wanted anyway!

And finally an amusing story told by Miss Baird: on the occasion in question Miss Baird, my mother and I were standing in front of the old dining-room drinks' cupboard.

My mother had been doing some work in the dining-room and I was with her; Miss Baird had made an appearance and, after some general chit-chat, told us a tale concerning her grandmother Josephine Porter at Belle Isle in the past:- 

In the 1920s a house maid at Belle Isle was cause for concern, she appeared to be ‘slightly under the influence’ sometimes, but never bad enough for Mrs Josephine Porter, Nicholas Porter’s mother, or the Housekeeper, who at that time was Daisy McDougal, Dougie’s aunt, to be sure. 

She did her job well enough and could not be faulted but seemed to slur her words occasionally and miss the odd step!

And she smelt of onions!

The story was not exceptional but the telling was hilarious because the very aristocratic and well spoken Miss Baird adopted a slight stagger and started to slur her words, “I never did, madam. I don’t know what you can be thinking, I ain’t done nothing wrong.” 

The upshot of the story was that the maid had been taking the odd ‘nip’ and replacing the spirit with water.

As the need increased so did the watering! 

To the horror of Mrs Porter having dispensed drinks to guests on a social occasion in the 1920s the ruse came to light: "Did you put some water in my Gin, Josephine; I really think it is a bit orf!” 

Mrs Porter was mortified that she was serving watered drinks!

Needless to say the maid was dismissed and the spirit cupboard was locked from then on!


THANK YOU for reading my little articles.

I hope they have provided some flavour of a time that has gone forever and trust that I have not disturbed the peace of those who have gone before. 

First published in April, 2010.


ray howe said...

just read julians reports of his childhood and later years at belle isle and necarne and found it to be bittersweet, The idyillic childhood and later loss of friends and tragic passing of his sister Audrey. He creates a feeling of a bygone age and generation and its good that the details are recorded in print. Some more details of his and his sisters history and what happened to the family farm could contine the coloumn.

graham johnston said...

very interested in the Lavinia Baird connection since I now live in Elie House in fife where the Bairds were living before she inherited Belle Isle...I am researching some of the history of Elie house so it would be interesting to hear any more informaton about her time there.
graham johnston