Friday, 17 May 2019

Seasonal Flowers

There's nothing like the imminent arrival of guests at the weekend to motivate some flower arranging. Out with the virtually dried daffodils from the Open Day, and in with what's currently in season: yellow Azalea and the first Rhododendron in flower here which is of a pink/purple variety. All free and all growing in the castle gardens.

kitchen counter 

Azaleas and Rhododendrons

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Faking It

Strike me off the register of antique aficionados. I have just created a composite fake i.e. putting together two unrelated pieces to form a third that deceives the purchaser! During some recent home-making at the castle, I discovered that my £10 Victorian bookcase and my £20 Georgian bureau were the same width. I got Gregor to screw the two together. So while Gregor committed the act, it was my incitement that was decidedly criminal. :-) Gregor had previously fixed up the drawers of the bureau, as they had already fallen apart when the item was for sale.

I created a thing!

My part was to stain and polish the bureau and bookcase to get them to match as much as possible. You can still see a colour difference, but at least the bureau has been brought back to life in terms of tone: previously it had an almost bleached yellow appearance.

The moral of the story is that you can furnish a castle on a budget. You can buy lovely oak bureau/bookcase combinations from around the 1920's very inexpensively, but these have a somewhat domestic look and lack the muscularity of the 19th Century pieces that Balintore seems to need. The muscularity in this instance is only on the surface; the components are rather rickety! :-)

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Mediaeval Well Stone Deciphered

My previous blog entry on the mediaeval well stone discovered in the area prompted a flurry of communications on the topic, and I have been given an extensive update on the findings of the academics by a Kevin Greig. Kevin, amongst seemingly endless talents, is a local historian whose specialities are Glen Isla and producing beautiful beautiful pen and ink drawings of significant stones in the area. The link is here.

I am indebted to Kevin for bringing all the information together, and I have used his text in the following with only minor edits for clarity. My personal theory that the person whose grave the stone marked then lent their magic to the healing well, is not supported by the archaeological evidence, and in fact the archaeology tells a quite different story! I was amazed that the actual story could be so clearly read from the stone itself, and to find out what this story is, please read on.

St Andrew's Well Update

the recently discovered well stone - the small square hole is modern

The recently discovered stone is the same slab mentioned in 1862 (by the Ordnance Survey) as being over St Andrew's Well: the description and location are too similar for this to be in any doubt. The Ordnance Survey describes the well as being built of stone rather than turf and marked by a cross-inscribed slab.

The geology of the slab is sedimentary and not local so it was worked at some distance from the site, most likely past the highland boundary fault. The stone is accurately dressed flat on the front and on the right edge leading in to a curved top. The left edge being worked but rough and unfinished. The top left has a sheer undulating side profile which is as worn as the rest of the slab but the undulation suggests a natural split in the rock.

The incised cross is thought to be either Cistercian (Cuper Angus Abbey) or Cluniac (Arbroath Abbey). The descending line of the cross was added in a cruder fashion later than the initial square "cross potent", though this is interpreted as a simplified "cross pattée".
the cross design was produced in two stages

The square hole incised at the base point of the cross is a modern addition. It started life as a grave slab. The date is unknown principally because it has been removed from its setting both as a worked grave slab and as a well marker but the work is described as an early example. The Cistercian period in Glenisla was circa 1230 - 1550; the Cluniac order was 1197 - 1522.

The associations with the different Abbeys helps no further, though Arbroath is associated with St. Andrew, Cuper is associated with Lintrathen through the Durwards of Peel. Monks from the Abbeys traveled to Glenisla and were accommodated, rather than residing there and the Abbey records have no documented interments in the Glens of Angus. The effort involved in transporting the carved stone a great distance and the cutting and lining of the lade from the Craig of Balloch as well as the religious dedication made the well of some considerable importance in its heyday.

Conjecture Based on the Above

The slab was originally tooled as a grave slab (the right hand edge and curves top and bottom make this likely) and was completed on the face, right edge and top right curve. It was also roughly hewn to shape on the left, but it this process the top left portion split off and was likely abandoned as a grave slab. The red line in the diagram below shows the rough worked left edge when the finished edge is reflected through the middle of the cross.

detailed diagram of well stone

The abandoned worked stone was no longer good enough for the precincts of the Abbey but was deemed appropriate for use in the distant consecrated well. Its unnecessary rounded base being sunk into the shallow water in an upright position at the back of the recess in the embankment setting.

The square hole held a leaded fixture which was nothing to do with its latter use in the sheep dip and is not documented anywhere as a Victorian attraction. This is supported by the 1862 documentation as it being much defaced. This makes it pre-Victorian in period. The slab was a well backdrop and therefore likely that the hole held a chain for a drinking vessel.


The slab was initially hewn beyond the highland boundary fault in one of the monastic orders for use as a grave slab. It was damaged during construction and was re-purposed as a venerated well at Craig of Balloch where it stood till after 1862.

There is one final test to verify that it sandstone, not limestone. A drop of vinegar on the back would fizz if it was limestone. If it is, it would not have survived exposure to the peat acid in the Craig of Balloch spring and would further deepen the conundrum of its origins.

Monday, 13 May 2019

The Pies Have It

Blog entries of late have taken a rather serious, near academic, turn. So what better time to revel in the glorious small details of life ...

Restoring Balintore Castle has entailed much transiting between Scotland and England, and having freshly arrived at the castle from a period south of the border, cultural differences are thrown into sharp relief.

Buying petrol today, I saw something that you would simply never see in England, a hot counter virtually monopolised by Scotch pies. Same form factor, just differing fillings ranging from "steak and gravy", through "chicken curry", "chicken and gravy" to one of my favourites "macaroni cheese". A macaroni cheese Scotch pie is triple starch: the pastry, the pasta and the sauce - yums!

hot counter monopolised by Scotch pies

When my friend Andrew visits for a day's castle restoration work, he will often bring two steak Scotch pies and two apple Scotch pies. I love the fact that the pudding has the same form factor as the main course, and together they form a quick, easy and delicious lunch when one does not want to be tied down with food preparation.

I don't think my English friends will be able to believe their eyes at this pie display!

As a child I loved fruit and vegetables of all varieties (and still do) but I found meat
and fish rather difficult.  A mince Scotch pie was right at the limit of what I could manage
- in consequence these got served up quite a lot during my childhood. My thresh-hold for
fish was even lower - here a fishcake was at the limit of acceptability.

As an adult I have no such reservations with food and although I am still "wary" of fish this is a theoretical "in the head" thing and practice never backs this up. And it has to be said, if you go to the right small shop in the locality of the castle the quality of the Scotch pies (particularly a good steak one) can be superb - far better than I recall from childhood.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Mediaeval Well Stone Discovery

There has been much recent excitement due to the discovery of a mediaeval well stone in the vicinity of Balintore Castle. This carved stone not only marks the presence of its well, but the cross inscription shows a “healing well” which together with other archaeological evidence in the area indicates there once was a religious community nearby.

recently discovered mediaeval well stone

It is thrilling to learn that Balintore was, if not the Lourdes of Angus, then certainly a spiritual place of some small pilgrimage. Nowadays, the site of the well would be considered remote, but in the Middle Ages “remote” was the norm, so Balintore was no more remote than most other places.

There has been a delay in writing this blog article as there was concern about the security of this archaeological artifact. It was discovered when a sheep dip edging was overturned, but now is in a safe place. I should really say “rediscovered” as the stone appears in the Victorian written record. As I am constantly finding out during my restoration, the Victorians were often a step ahead! In a 1862 name book:

St.Andrews Well: A well known name applied to a fine spring of pure water near "Longdrum". It is built with stone. On the top of a slab is a carved figure, much defaced, supposed to be a cross.

However, by 1958 the well and its associated stone had been lost:

This well, or spring, no longer exists. A cavity in the short embankment by the streamside denotes its site. The sculptured slab was not seen.

Visited by OS (J L D) 22 September 1958.

I was taken to see the place where the stone is now safely stored and to the site of the original well. What a privilege!  It is clear that the position of the spring has changed over time, and the associated stream now passes perhaps 10 metres distant  from the original site of the well.

well stone in safe location with museum quality supports

site of original well - note faint carvings on other stones

The cross can, it seems, be directed at the Cistercian order or “Benedines”, a breakaway from the Benedictine order. The coat of arms shows the cross with flared arms. This feature was often simplified to the end bar to each arm as on this stone. The simplicity of the cross would indicate a rural site away from an abbey.

a Cistercian coat of arms

The stone, if a spring marker, would have been oriented vertically with the base showing signs of being below the earth and possibly with some chip marks where pinning stones were hammered in to secure it. There are still some tests to be carried out e.g. morphological and chemical analyses which will reveal whether the stone is from the locality. However, my layman’s eye says it is from the surrounding landscape.

One would hardly call the cross ”much defaced”, but it is definitely aged as the cross is rubbed gouged rather than chiseled which would date it pre-15th Century. Interesting that St. Andrew’s Well would have a Cistercian cross rather than a St Andrew’s cross but that is how it would have been if created by/for the abbey.

Carving experts say it has changed function from well to grave slab and back to well again, which pleased my layman’s eye as my immediate thought on seeing a photo was “grave stone”. However, in the flesh, although roughly the shape of a coffin, it is perhaps just half the length.

I await, with much keenness, the full results from the evaluation of the stone by experts. This blog entry includes some of their initial tentative findings, so expect updates on the details and I will provide any required attributions.

I am particularly intrigued by the transition from grave marker to well stone. Was the interred person of a “saintly” disposition i.e. someone whose magic would have enhanced the power of the healing well? This is pure speculation of course, but there is presumably no other way to illicit the fascinating human narrative, that underpins this artifact, once treasured and now treasured again.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Hand-Tinted Postcards, Subtle and Not So

My thanks go to Colin McLeod of Dundee for providing this scan of his rare hand-tinted postcard of Balintore Castle. Colin spoke to me during the recent open day, and indicated this gem was in his collection of 40,000! And yes, I have got the correct number of zeros in this figure. :-)

early 20th Century hand-tinted postcard of Balintore Castle

I may as well quote Colin's expertise verbatim:

The card was published in the D&SK ‘Ideal Series’ [Davidson & Son, of Kirkcaldy]. It is not dated or used, but it is a ‘divided back’ postcard, so cannot have been printed before 1902, and as the publisher had the card printed in Saxony, it cannot be later than 1914. 

With the hand-tinting and odd, rather unrealistic two-tone palette for the stone of the building, this is very different proposition to the other (black and white) postcards I know, which are shown in a previous blog entry.

The unforeseen and delightful consequences of having an open day!

On seeing this blog entry, friend of Balintore and fashionista Écossaise extraordinaire, Solveig sent me this image of a second postcard.

second hand-tinted postcard of Balintore Castle

A minute of so of study shows it is the self-same photograph but cropped differently and given a much more subtle crepuscular hand-tinting. Much more to my taste. The plants are in the same position and at the same stage of growth, and from the agreement of object alignments in the two images, the position from which the two photographs were taken is identical.

The difference in cloud effects reveals remarkable pre-Photoshop skills!

For completeness the reverse of the second postcard is show below. The postmark of the 2nd August 1909 supports Colin's earlier dating.

reverse of second postcard

And for further completeness, courtesy of StreetView, here is the charming property to which the postcard was addressed: 48 Rothwaite Road, Liverpool.

destination of second postcard

Friday, 10 May 2019

Aldbar Castle

On Thursday, Gregor and I attended a building materials auction viewing at Aldbar Farm which is in the vicinity of Balintore Castle. Yes, you can be rightly startled at the utter glamour of castle restoration! :-) However, a business had stopped trading so there was a real possibility of some bargains at this dispersal sale.

I was navigating, but on some instinct Gregor decided to drive past the minor left turn indicated by the SATNAV and proceeded somewhat further down the road. We stopped to ask two farmers in the corner of a field for directions. "Go back and turn into the fancy entrance on the right" were the directions. Thankfully, I have a thing for the fancy entrances, and this had not gone unnoticed. :-) This proved to be the left turn prior to the one indicated by the SATNAV.

The "fancy entrance" on closer inspection was a stunning pair of romantically overgrown gate lodges. I made Gregor stop so I could take some photographs. With gate lodges this well styled and having perfect Gothic openings, there has to be an equally stunning "big hoose" in the vicinity.

fancy entrance - well modulo purple wheelie bins

ruined gate lodge at rear of entrance gates
The auction venue turned out to be what I call a "model farm", which is generally built to impress rather than just for function, often borrowing architectural detailings from the main house. I took a photo of the farm complex, but there was simply no sign of the big hoose. 

auction venue - a crenelated and be-towered model farm

On the walk to the auction, I introduced Gregor to wild garlic, which was growing wild in the woods. I had not seen this since childhood, but some distant almost ancestral memory stirred. Gregor only hesitantly sampled the plant, after I had eaten a leaf. He concluded it has a smoother and superior flavour to commercial garlic, with a greater pungency.

wild garlic

In the flesh, some large doors that were for sale did not live up to my high expectations from the photo in the auction catalogue. The doors were just cupboard doors, not interior doors, and smaller than I'd estimated. However, there were building materials and building tools galore and I put in my low bids. One unexpected find was a pile of wooden moldings which are carbon copies of the ones in the castle, albeit on a slightly smaller scale - I put my bid in!

At the auction on Friday (today), I won a job lot of scaffolding battens which are needed to reach the roof of the Great Hall, 3 Victorian fire inserts, sundry bits and bobs, and the wooden moldings! I won about half my bids, which is probably a sign that one is pitching at the right level.

Today, I decided to google for the big house and found out this was "Aldbar Castle" which consisted of a large 16th tower house with baronial extensions dating from 1844 to 1854.  The side view shows the great depth of the mediaeval part, and that the Victorian facade, which matches the gate lodges, is just one room thick. The building was devastated by a fire in 1964 and totally demolished later that year. I can almost understand a Victorian house being demolished in 1964, but to demolish a medieval building in 1964 is horrific. The stone walls would have without doubt survived and the term "uneconomic to repair" does not excuse the crime. I finish with some photos of the exterior and interior of Aldbar Castle to show the glory of what has been lost.

The moral of this story is that the attempt to restore one Baronial building which was almost lost, has revealed the even greater loss of another.

Aldbar Castle - front

Aldbar Castle - entrance
Aldbar Castle - dining room


Aldbar Castle - library

Aldbar Castle - side view