The swastika over Mull

Unity Mitford's armband
Unity Mitford's armband

Across a scant strip of water from the Isle of Mull lies the tiny island of Inch Kenneth. Named after the Saint who built a monastery there in the 6th century, it was later visited by Boswell and Johnson. Today it lies almost empty save for the ruins of the monastery, some stones which represent the house where the two men stayed, and a much later property, a cold Victorian house, built in the 1930s by Sir Harold Boulton, the writer of the Skye Boat Song.

It was in this house that one of Hitler’s most fervent followers, some even say his lover, draped the walls with Nazi flags and banished the sound of the sheep with rousing German music. It was here that Unity Mitford tried to mend her broken heart – and deal the effects of a bullet in her brain.

The Mitford sisters were the It girls of the 1920s. Brilliant and dangerous they danced their way through the London set. Diana married the fascist Oswald Mosley whilst her sister Jessica married a communist. Unity herself seemed less interested in political parties but was obsessed with one man; Adolf Hitler.

Diana and Mosley might have been Unity’s introduction to Nazism, but when Unity moved to Germany in 1934, her interest in fascism flowered into a passion for Nazism. Her nephew, Jonathan Guinness, believes Unity was enchanted by the pomp of the Nuremberg rallies:

“The key to understanding Unity is to realise that she was a very visual person,” wrote Guinness in The House of Mitford. “She went there and was amazed by all the parades and uniforms. And the music played a big part too. It all captivated her.”

She was also captivated by Hitler, who she hounded. When her perseverance paid off and she finally met him she wrote to her father: “I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit dying. I suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world.”

When Diana and Mosley married in Goebbels’s drawing room, Unity and Hitler were there to watch. Despite his friendship with Eva Braun Unity, continued to pursue the Führer, attending rallies and offering a Nazi salute to people she met, irrespective of whether she was in Germany of England. This conduct led to outraged attacks on her in the British press. The Daily Telegraph went even further by reporting, incorrectly, that she was engaged to Hitler.

As the prospect of war approached she despaired, telling her sister Diana that she would kill herself if it happened. This proved to be no idle threat, as she shot herself through the head on the day that war was declared in 1939. Although the suicide attempt failed, doctors could not remove the bullet from her brain. It was said at the time that Hitler visited her in hospital, giving her a badge to remember him by.

Her family arranged for her to return to England, where she stayed a while at the family house. She never fully recovered from her wound, both physically and emotionally. Her family became increasingly concerned about the invasive press attention and the effect that was having on her health.

They decided to take her to the isolated island property they owned off Mull. There on Inch Kenneth, Unity could recover in the clean, crisp air, without the worry of press hounding her on the doorstep.

The house belongs now to Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter and is still accessed by a small rowing boat, depending on weather. The natural harbour on the beach leads up to the house, darkly nestled against the lee of a small hill.

It is damp and in need of repair. Eerily much of the interior remains as it was during the time of Unity’s visit. Wagner operas are stacked beside the ancient gramophone in the drawing room. A photo of Hitler stands on her bedside table. Missing, though, is the swastika that used to hang down in the hallway, replaced instead by a saltire.

Maggie Mackechnie, a Mull islander, remembers the house and Unity. She recalls how Unity used to be rowed across and visit the village:

“She used to drag her leg and as she came across she’d yell out to my mother to put the kettle on.”
MacKechnie nursed Unity when she fell ill in 1948: “She couldn’t be left alone. She was in bed, and there was nothing but Hitler photos all over the room.”

Another local who remembers Unity is Neil MacGillivray. A Gaelic-speaking crofter he tells visitors with glee that he is “the only man alive today who’s danced with Unity Mitford”. He met her a number of times but, like all the locals, left her in peace.

“People up here didn’t bother her. That’s why her father brought her here – to live out her life in peace.”

But Unity didn’t live there in peace for long. Her injury left her weakened and prone to illness. In 1948 her bullet wound became infected and MacKechnie had to take her by ambulance to Oban where she was diagnosed with meningitis. She died two days later.

The house itself is a ghostly reminder of this complicated woman, but it is not the only evidence of Nazi Germany on Mull. MacGillivray has more than memories to remind him of Unity: “Do you know what I have here?” he asks, holding up a scrap of material in a see-through sandwich bag.

“This is Unity’s swastika, she wore it everywhere, at the rallies in Nuremberg and then all round the mainland, and now I have it here.”

The small red band with the all-too-familiar black cross is as clean and sharp looking today as it must have been all those years ago. Unity might well have been wearing this armband as she sat next to Hitler. She may have worn it as she pulled the trigger. And she may well have kept wearing it as a reminder of the man she became so unfortunately obsessed with, whose memory she kept alive in the cold, dark house on Inch Kenneth.

  • Mosley and many others came from the Labour Party which never tires of labeling their opponents as “Nazis”. Pots and kettles and pot duibhs?

    • Donald Murray

      Must confess Donald Anderson has a strange view of history.

      If he wants to find supporters of Nazism, they can be found in all parties – part of the beast’s appeal. However, the strongest legacy can be found in the Astors and Rothermere. The conservative ‘Daily Mail’ was practically a cheerleader for Hitler.

      Time the poor man went away and studied the period!

      • Neil

        It’s undeniable that Mosley was a Labour MP before founding the British Union of Fascists.

  • Pamster

    The island eventually passed to Jessica Mitford, a Communist in her youth, teenage volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and later a civil rights campaigner in the US, who was very involved with the Freedom Rides, and as a journalist covered the exploitation of the funeral industry. So as well as the Nazi connection there are more positive political associations for Inch Kenneth!

    • Meems Ellenberg

      Inch Kenneth was actually bequeathed to Thomas Mitford, the only son of the Redesdales. When he was killed in action in Asia at the very end of WWII, the island was to go to the surviving daughters. Jessica let it be known that she would donate her part of the island to the Communist Party, and Lord Redesdale cut her out of his will.

  • were she alive today one wonders what she would make of u-tube (one for your older readers!)

    • I worked in Mull for a couple of years in the mid-sixties. At that time the locals had stories of mysterious lights being see at night during the war off Inch Kenneth. This they attributed to visits from U-Boats and their crews to their sympathiser on the island!

  • Meems Ellenberg

    And it wasn’t her father who brought Unity to Inch Kenneth. She lived there from approximately 1941 until her death with her mother, Sydney Bowles Mitford-Freeman, Lady Redesdale.