Deep in the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands sits an abandoned mansion, a sprawling estate once home to the Duke of Westminster and his fashion mogul lover, Coco Chanel. The property, untouched for decades, is now on the brink of destruction due to severe neglect. But as it slowly crumbles away, historians are on a race to discover what secrets this mysterious fortress holds. Take a look inside the former love nest — and the murky secrets of its inhabitant.
The Urban Explorer Who Started It All
It was the ultimate gift for history buffs, not to mention those fascinated by interior design. “Urban explorer” Matt Nadin uploaded a video of himself exploring the ruins of a Scottish mansion. The now-derelict structure had once housed French fashion mogul, Coco Chanel. In the almost hour-long video, viewers were able to get a peek inside the sprawling mansion that once hosted world leaders and celebrities.
Nadin, who explores abandoned properties with his partner Andy, was especially interested in the mysterious mansion hidden in the Scottish Highlands. As he explored one dilapidated room after another, he couldn’t help but wonder: who would let such a grand estate decay into its current state, and why?
A Dream For Outdoor Sportsmen
Rosehall is the name of a small hamlet nested in the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands. The settlement sits on a rural patch of wilderness where two rivers meet, the River Cassley and the River Oykel. These two rivers have attracted guests and land developers for decades because of their large populations of salmon and trout.
The land around Rosehall estate is an outdoor sportsman’s dream. In addition to rivers ideal for fishing, vast forests filled with deer surround the property. According to the Scottish government’s department of Forestry and Land, herds of fallow and sika deer were once held in a “walled deer park”. But in the midst of this tranquility, there had once been catastrophe.
Though Rosehall estate is frequently described as a hideaway for the designer Coco Chanel and her aristocratic lover, its origins far predate the ill-fated couple. Rosehall manor was originally constructed in the early 1800s, but burnt down shortly after, and was later reconstructed.
The large mansion captured the eye of Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, who was already familiar with the famous hunting grounds surrounding it. In 1920, the Duke purchased the estate, adding it to his collection of homes dedicated to outdoor sports. The home would also become a secluded place for a not-so-secret love affair.
The Not So Glamorous Roots Of A Fashion Icon
While Coco Chanel may be considered the epitome of class today, the designer’s roots were far from luxurious. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born into poverty in a small French town. Unable to care for their children, Chanel’s parents sent her and her siblings to live in an orphanage.
It was in the orphanage that Chanel learned how to sew, and later began working as a seamstress. In addition to sewing, Chanel was interested in singing. Chanel would perform in a cabaret, where she earned the nickname “Coco”, which she would later adopt. Knowing that she wouldn’t find success on stage, the performer returned to her original hobby.
From Orphanage To High Society
Disappointed that her stage career hadn’t panned out, Chanel continued working as seamstress. It was then that she met a man who would change her life forever, the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan. Chanel, who was only in her early twenties, became Balsan’s mistress.
Balsan invited the former orphan to live with him in his countryside mansion, routinely spoiling her with diamonds and other expensive gifts. For the next few years, Chanel would get to experience a life full of glamour and decadence, one which would inspire not only her designs, but fuel her desire to always live in luxury. And it was through Balsan’s wealthy social circle that Chanel would meet one of her most notable lovers and financiers: Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel.
A Fashion Empire’s Unlikely Start
Arthur Capel, a friend of Étienne Balsan, became enamored with the French seamstress. Capel wanted to see his lover succeed in the fashion industry, and bought her an apartment in Paris. He also used his wealth to finance her first hat shops, which later became clothing shops.
Capel was known for his style, and it is often believed that he inspired many of the style elements Chanel is known for today. Many fashion historians believe that the bottle design of Chanel’s legendary fragrance Chanel No. 5 was inspired by the toiletries Capel often traveled with, and his favorite whiskey decanter. Capel and Chanel enjoyed an almost decade-long affair — but it was not to last.
Chanel Changes The Fashion World
Boy Capel ended up marrying an English aristocrat, only to die in an accident one year later. While Capel gave Coco Chanel the financial backing to make her fashion dreams come true, she was hard at work expanding her style empire. Chanel had become well known for her stylish hats, but was interested in exploring the emerging world of casual clothing for women.
During that time period, women’s clothing had traditionally included restrictive undergarments, like corsets and heavy fabrics. Chanel wanted to change this. She designed a line of clothing for active women, created from soft, simple fabrics like jersey. Chanel’s fashion gamble soon paid off, as her business began to boom. She was soon able to pay back Capel’s loan, and open another store.
From Paris To England’s Elite
By the late 1920s, Chanel’s fashion empire had grown immensely. She was now the owner of five properties on one of Paris’ most famous and fashionable lanes, the rue Cambon. In addition to selling her own designs in her boutiques, Chanel focused on designed costumes for ballet productions. She made a key friend: British socialite, Vera Bate Lombardi.
Lombardi helped Chanel enter the usually tight-knit high ranks of British society. It was through her that Coco Chanel was able to meet British political figures such as Winston Churchill, and members of the royal family such as Edward, Prince of Wales — the future King Edward VIII. While the two were traveling in Monte Carlo, Lombardi introduced Chanel to someone who would change her life forever.
Often referred to as “Bendor”, the 2nd Duke of Westminster was one of the wealthiest men in the world during the early 1900s. Not only was he rolling in cash, but the aristocrat had developed a reputation as being a playboy, thanks to his good looks, and interest in partying.
In 1925 in Monte Carlo, during one of these extravagant parties, he would meet the woman who would capture his heart for almost a decade: Coco Chanel. They had a strange connection: Boy Capel’s wife’s first husband, killed in World War I, was the Duke’s half-brother. After Chanel accepted his invitation to dine aboard his yacht, the two began a passionate affair that would span not only across years, but various countries.
An International Affair
Chanel’s affair with the Duke was filled with international travel, extravagant gifts, and scandal. The Duke, who was one of the richest men in Europe, often lavished his woman with expensive jewels and works of art. He also purchased several properties for his French lover.
In addition to purchasing an apartment for her in London’s ritzy Mayfair district, he also gave Chanel a large lot of land on the French Riviera. She would later build a villa on the parcel of land, called La Pausa, featuring unique designs that reminded her of the orphanage where she grew up. Over in Britain, however, she founded a world of delights.
Parisian Fashionista To Outdoor Sportsman
In addition to wooing Chanel with countless bouquets of exotic flowers and baskets of fresh fruit, the Duke of Westminster enjoyed surprising his lover with expensive jewels. In her book Living With Coco Chanel, author Caroline Young describes an event in which the Duke hid a large emerald in a box of vegetables that were delivered to Chanel’s apartment.
The Duke was so wealthy that he had simply forgotten about the precious stone! Chanel, who had been introduced into British high society by her first British aristocrat lover, Arthur Capel, was now completely immersed in the opulent world as the Duke’s mistress. She began to relish in the British customs, fashion, and of course, tea time. Within that world, she needed a space to claim as her own.
From Fashion To Fishing
As a frequent guest at the Duke’s Scottish estates, Chanel was able to explore her more “outdoorsy” side by taking part in hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports. It is believed that Chanel’s fishing abilities helped her catch a whopping 17-pound haul of salmon from the nearby river.
Joining Chanel and the Duke was their close friend, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill. Records show that Churchill visited the couple in 1927, and that he was particularly amazed at her fishing skills writing, “She fishes from morn till night, & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon.” Not at all what one might expect from a fashion connoisseur! Chanel’s surroundings were changing her.
How The Scottish Touch Changed Chanel Forever
Chanel’s time spent in the Scottish Highlands not only improved her sporting abilities. It heavily influenced her style. As she had done with past lovers, Chanel would often take clothing from the Duke’s wardrobe and alter it to make them more feminine. She would often wear his riding clothes, which allowed her to have more flexibility than the traditional, movement-restricting women’s riding gear.
The Duke’s business connections allowed her to source fabric and other material from nearby mills. Chanel began incorporating Scottish tweeds into her clothing collections, giving birth to her signature “Chanel tweed suit”. She also began using Fair Isle print knits to create sweaters and cardigans. It was time to settle down in Scotland.
A Place To Call Home
As their love affair continued, the Duke decided to purchase another Scottish manor close to his other properties: Rosehall estate, a 22-room mansion sprawled across more than 700 acres. But there was a problem. While Chanel had no problem embracing the Duke’s sporty lifestyle, she decided that the manor was not decorated to suit her taste.
So, the Duke decided to allow Chanel to redecorate the mansion as she saw fit. Immediately, Chanel painted the house using beige and neutral colors, a color palette she frequently used in her French homes. Hand-painted wall paper was imported to decorate the walls, giving the Scottish abode a distinctly Parisian touch. She even installed a bidet, which some believe was the first bidet to be installed in Scotland. What would their friends think?
The ‘Love Nest’ Makes Room For Britain’s Most Famous Figures
Because the Duke of Westminster often held hunting parties, or hosted prominent guests, Coco Chanel wanted to make sure that the home reflected her famously impeccable taste. The two-story home was filled with large rooms to host, with ample seating around the fireplaces. The property featured five separate buildings, stables, gardens, and an intricate maze of corridors and wings.
On visiting Rosehall estate in 1927, Winston Churchill remarked, “This is a very agreeable house in a Highland valley. Well-equipped with salmon, trout, and snipe. The air is most exhilarating, keen and yet caressing. It is quite different to England. Coco got three fish yesterday.” But not everything was as pastoral as it seemed.
Trouble In Paradise
On the surface, Chanel’s relationship with the Duke seemed perfect. But beneath the couture clothing and mansions, trouble was brewing. Chanel’s fashion business had now reached international levels of success, and she had expanded her stores from France to England.
Even when she tried to base her manufacturing in England in order to spend time with her lover, there was constant tension in their relationship. The Duke of Westminster wanted an heir, and Chanel was unable to conceive. It was often reported that Chanel told the Duke, “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel.” She supposedly rejected his marriage proposal.
The Scottish Fantasy Comes Crashing Down
Eventually the Duke and Chanel’s relationship had reached its boiling point. Biographers repeat stories about the couple’s fights, including one which ended with Coco Chanel allegedly tossing an expensive piece of jewelry into the sea. With their affair over, so were the idyllic days spent frolicking in the Scottish Highlands.
In 1930, upon ending his fling with Coco Chanel, the Duke sold their ‘love nest’. He had moved on from his French lover and set his sights on a younger woman. In his quest to produce an heir, he married Loelia Mary Ponsonby. Although the Duke had remarried, he and Chanel would continue to maintain a relationship until his death, decades later. But the future was not forgiving to Chanel.
New Threats Challenge The Fashion Mogul
With the end of her affair with the Duke, Coco Chanel turned her attention to her growing business. While income from her perfume continued, there was no doubt that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had affected business around the world.
Chanel’s success was also being threatened by changes in fashion. By the 1930s, the flapper aesthetic had gone out of style, replaced by a more fitted, conservative look. Chanel also faced competition from Italian designer Else Schiaparelli, a fast-rising star in the fashion industry. Critics mocked the costumes Chanel designed for a major theater production, claiming they made the actors look like “ambulant mummies or victims of some terrible accident”. Looming on the horizon was something far worse.
“Not A Time For Fashion”
By the late 1930s, Chanel was more focused on the threat of war in Europe than on her fashion empire. In 1939, she closed down her couture fashion house, leaving 4,000 employees unemployed. According to the French designer, it “was not a time for fashion”. Germany invaded France in May 1940.
Despite owning her own apartment, Chanel lived in the Paris Hôtel Ritz. Although she had escaped to her country home in the Pyrenees, she returned to Paris. While living in the luxury hotel, Paris was taken over by the Nazis. The Nazi occupation of Paris would be the setting of one of the fashion mogul’s darkest times — and the deepest of stains on her legacy.
Designer, Spy, Collaborator
As resident of the Hôtel Ritz, Chanel often crossed paths with German officers, who used the hotel as a German military headquarters. It was during this time that Chanel began an affair with a young Nazi military officer, Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage.
Dincklage worked for the German military intelligence unit, Abwehr. As lovers, he allowed Chanel to interact with some of the highest ranking members of the German military. It was during this time that Chanel allegedly made the most controversial decision of her life. She decided to become an agent for the German Nazi intelligence unit.
Familial Obligation Causes Chanel To Make The Ultimate Sacrifice
According to some historians, Chanel’s interest in working alongside the Nazis was personal, and complex. Her nephew, André Palasse, was being held in a German prison camp. Chanel felt that by working alongside Dincklage, she might be able to convince the Germans to free Palasse.
Chanel was soon introduced to another high-ranking Abwehr member, Baron Louis de Vaufreland. He offered the designer a chance to free her nephew, in exchange for her loyalty and service. It was during this time that the French fashion designer went from couture to clandestine. She became registered as Abwehr Agent F-7124, given the code name “Westminster” after her former lover and Rosehall roommate.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher
According to the book Sleeping with the Enemy by Hal Vaughn, after being given a new identity by the German intelligence, Chanel traveled to Spain to obtain “political information”. Using her fashion business as a guise, she met with colleagues and diplomats.
The members of the Abwehr were impressed by her commitment. Chanel’s nephew was released from the German prison camp. In 1943, Coco Chanel was asked to go on another mission to Spain. This time, she was tasked with one of the greatest challenges: to meet with the British ambassador to Spain and convince him that the Germans were considering surrendering.
The Rosehall Connection
As the Allies gained strength over the Germans, according to recently unclassified documents, Chanel took part in “Operation Modelhut”. This was a German military operation which used Chanel’s personal connection to British prime minister Winston Churchill. In 1943, Chanel was to use her friendship with the prime minister to convince him to seek some sort of negotiation with the Germans.
The plan was devised by SS General Walter Schellenberg, and the designer herself. Years later, while being interrogated, Schellenberg defended the mission, describing Chanel as “a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him”. After the war, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal. After his release due to terminal illness, it is believed that Chanel paid for his medical care, and his funeral.
A Close Call
Operation Modelhat would end in disaster after Vera Lombardi, a mutual friend of Coco Chanel and Winston Churchill, would denounce the fashion mogul, outing her as a German spy. Lombardi, who had been in an Italian prison before being released by Chanel, would go back to prison and Chanel was able to escape back to Paris.
By 1944, Paris had been liberated from the Nazis. Chanel had fled to Switzerland in order to avoid charges of collaborating with the Germans. Though she was questioned after the war, it was largely suspected that Churchill himself intervened, protecting her from being punished for her involvement. She remained outside of the public eye until 1954 when she revived her fashion house. But all this time, something in Scotland had been forgotten.
A Promising Bright Future For the House With The Dark Past
Today, the Rosehall estate is a slowly decaying remnant of the past. After Chanel’s separation from the Duke in 1930, the manor was quickly sold. No record indicates that the French designer ever returned to the Scottish Highlands. Following the sale of the property, the manor was quickly abandoned and sat uninhabited until 1967.
From that year, the estate went through various potential buyers, who quickly abandoned their plans after seeing the extent of the building’s damage. In early 2020, it was announced that Rosehall was purchased. The buyers plan on converting the historical hideaway into a hotel. Historians hope that in re-purposing the mansion, the new owners will incorporate designs that pay respect to Chanel’s stylish legacy and her love of the Scottish Highlands.
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