We must stop in Batu Gajah, I say. And my Singaporean travelling companions on our drive north along peninsular Malaysia’s west side go, Hmm.
I was driving so I could decide, and we turned off the expressway onto the old road towards Batu Gajah, in the state of Perak. We did not go to the town itself, with its small collection of colonial buildings, a church and graveyard I’ll look for another time.
Kellie’s Castle was where I wanted to go and planned to stay no more than 30 minutes because lunch was waiting for us in the coffeeshops of Ipoh’s old town.
Well just look at it.
I’d been just once before, with my children when they were small and didn’t mind where I drove them. Kellie’s Castle is simply a bizarre sight that emerges out of nowhere, but there’s quite a story behind the ruins of what might have been a grand leftover from colonial times.
The short version, taken off posters on the castle wall and various websites for visitors goes something like this:
1890: Twenty-year-old William Kellie Smith arrives in Malaya from Kellas, near Dallas in Scotland, to work as a civil engineer. He makes his fortune in business, construction, rubber and tin mining.
1903: He marries Agnes, an heiress. Some accounts say she was his childhood sweetheart, others say he met her on a ship and wooed her in a hurry. He brings her to Perak’s Kinta Valley, and they are part of the tiny community of colonials living in and around Batu Gajah. There are fewer than 10 white women. The couple have a daughter, Helen, and live in Kellas House, the home Kellie built. When Agnes gives birth to Anthony 11 years later, Kellie decides the house won’t do now that he has a son and heir.
1915: Kellie decides to build a mansion on the hill like no other. He wants a castle, no less, with Scottish, Moorish and Indian features in the architecture. Work begins in 1915 and it takes a while because the plans are so grand. Then his Indian labourers are struck by a deadly flu and pause to build a Hindu temple to appease the gods. Kellie’s fortunes also swing over the years.
1926: Tragedy. On a short trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Kellie is struck down by pneumonia and dies, aged 56. Agnes can find no reason to remain in Malaya and returns to Scotland with her children. Work on the unfinished castle halts, and the place remains abandoned and ignored for decades.
Then, I’m not sure when, the ruins of Kellie’s Castle and Kellas House next door were discovered and became news again. I vaguely recall a story in the old Asia Magazine that used to come free with The Sunday Times when I was growing up in Kuala Lumpur, about the Scotsman who dreamed of having a castle smack in the middle of Malaya and how the ruins of the uncompleted project were gradually overrun by forest and undergowth.
It took a little more time before someone saw the potential for an unlikely tourist attraction, a movie location, a backdrop for wedding photographs. When my children and I visited, it was not long after the 1999 remake of Anna and the King was shot in the area, starring Chow Yun-Fat and Jodie Foster. The movie’s elaborate palace sets built nearby were a Must See, even though the fixtures and trimmings were already coming off their plywood backing.
To explore the castle, my children and I just jumped out of the car and went up the hill. Today the place is a lot more organised for tourists. There’s a man who collects a fee when you park your car, and you have to buy tickets to enter the castle grounds.
They’ve done up some rooms in the castle with somewhat shabby furniture and there’s an artist’s impression of what the building might have looked like if it had been completed.
Half an hour is long enough to walk through the place, peek into the rooms, look out the windows, clamber up to the roof where you can take in the views and wonder at the things men do. Thirty minutes more will let you wander through the remains of Kellas House behind.
Poor Kellie dreamed big but did not live to complete his castle and play host at his first show-off party to celebrate his accomplishments as an adventurer who had succeeded in the tropics, married well and sired a daughter and an heir. How that would have signaled to everyone that he had arrived.
Instead, for years afterwards people would look at the remains of the incomplete building, so grandiose and out of place in this quiet corner of Perak, and they would call it Kellie’s Folly.
Some swear the place is haunted, with reported sightings of Kellie, his wife Agnes and daughter Helen. Sometimes the scent of burning incense would waft mysteriously within its halls, they say.
But perhaps those are just stories to draw visitors off the expressway to pause and gawk at the curiousness of it all, to pose for pictures and ask: Hey, what is this place?