Our scene opens on Woodend, a charming villa, ‘embosomed in trees’, on the Isle of Bute, 1829. The tranquility of the setting is swiftly broken by the arrival, off the Liverpool steamboat, of one Mr Edmund Kean, actor, with ‘a Lady’ on his arm and six servants, a carriage and a pair of riding horses in tow.
Edmund Kean had come to Bute to escape the temptations of London because, despite his success and acclaim, he lived the life of a drinker and philanderer but life on Bute did not necessarily go as planned…
Edmund Kean first came to the island in November 1823 to examine land with a view to building a residence there. By February 1824 he had secured a 99 year lease from the 2nd Marquess of Bute for the land beside Loch Fad. Here he built Woodend, a two storey villa with wings at each end. Initially Lord Bute was pleased to have a famous actor on the island, inviting him to Mount Stuart for dinner. The owner of Rothesay Cotton Mill, Robert Thom, even commented that Kean’s residence was ‘another feather in the cap of this island’ claiming he himself was ‘the chief cause of…[Kean] fixing his residence on Bute’.
Indeed, no language can do justice to the varied charms of the situation; it must been seen to be appreciated. Wilson’s Guide to Rothesay and the Island of Bute, 1848
However, in June 1825 lightning struck near the house, killing a dog and up turning a cart of earth; a sign if ever there was one that Edmund’s presence on the island was to be blighted. Thom, Kean’s greatest supporter, even wrote to the Bute Estate Factor, Archibald Moore, in March 1824: ‘…You are aware that Mr Kean is quite in raptures with Bute just now, & has nothing more at heart than to have his home built…But it has always occurred to me that his raptures are too intense to be lasting…’ and after a few months of wet weather he was ‘…likely [to] desert the place altogether.’
By November 1825 Kean and his wife had decided to leave Woodend untenanted while Kean’s agent had to deny ‘several infamous and malicious reports’ that Kean was deeply in debt. Kean does not appear to have set foot on the island again until 1829, where we began our story. This time Moore commented that Kean was ‘much emaciated’ and ‘the lady’ who accompanied him was his mistress not his wife. Moore was also delighted that a set of scenery Kean intended to use to establish a small theatre on Bute had caught fire while it was being stored in Glasgow. He commented ‘…we have sufficiency of immorality without a theatre in our small community, especially were it to be patronized by such an immoral character as Kean’. And so, Kean fled Bute in debt and disgrace, dying in 1833, leaving his heirs to inherit his debts and the contents of Woodend were sold to settle the arrears owed to the Bute Estate.
Woodend was, in later years, home to other notable, but perhaps less infamous, residents. These included mid-nineteenth century engineer James Nelson and, in the 1940s, Lord David Stuart, son of the 4th Marquess of Bute. The house, now re-christened Kean’s Cottage in honour of its most notorious inhabitant, was renovated in 2016 as a beautiful holiday let.