Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Kilberry Castle

What is there to say about Kilberry Castle? Well, it is a building miraculously frozen in the Victorian era. The castle has essentially not been altered or redecorated since then. Though in need of much work, it is an increasingly rare survivor from the 19th Century, so much so, that if it were located anywhere else than in a remote location half-way down the Mull of Kintyre, it could be opened as a museum.

The building dates from the 15th Century, with major additions by David Bryce in the 19th Century. David Bryce was a pupil of William Burn, who designed Balintore Castle. Kilberry has been in the ownership of the Campbell family right up to the present day for nigh on 500 years.

It seems to be the case that the survival of the interior during the turbulence of the 20th Century is down to the remarkable Marion Campbell, an archaeologist and antiquarian who clearly recognised the value of the surviving fabric. Throughout the building there are collections of ethnographic and Wunderkammer curiosities, and these betray, to my eye, the hand of Marion.

When the building appeared on the market, it was quite so special that my friends and I immediately planned a trip to view it. My friends are genuinely interested in purchasing a historic building in the Scottish countryside, so Kilberry pressed their buttons.  I came along putatively as someone with experience of restoration, though in all honesty my button was pressed too. :-)

The trip was cancelled due to other engagements, but then it unexpectedly went live again and we set off with just a few days notice behind us. The plan was to "wild camp" nearby for the night before the viewing, given the long journey involved. My friends had packed a Dutch Army marquee that was perhaps 20' x 20' and up-market camping beds that raised us off the ground for sleeping, so it was a luxurious experience - far removed from any of my previous experiences in a tent.

We had a barbeque by a white sandy beach, and as it got dark we created a fire pit on the beach itself, told tales and, err, consumed a little alcohol. We had talked about some wild-swimming, but I knew I would be mortified to do this in front of anyone else, so the next morning I rose earlier than everyone else, walked through a forest to a very private beach with shelved white sand that we had discovered the day before. I managed to get my torso under the water - which is more than I had managed to do at the Scottish seaside as a child. I bravely swam a few strokes and I find myself surprised to be writing this, but the water was not cold after the first shock. What stopped me swimming further was the embarrassment (I was in my underpants) and the fact I had sneaked off without telling my friends so they might have been worried about me. The trip through the forest to get to this secluded section of beach on foot had been a good 30 minutes.

When I returned to camp, I hung my underpants on the guy rope of the tent to dry. I felt very proud of myself, having overcome that fear barrier of swimming in the sea in Scotland which had hung over me my entire life.

The estate agent Jo met us at Kilberry and showed us around for 45 minutes. We we all fully masked throughout. Then Jo said we could have 45 minutes in the castle on our own until her next viewers came at 2 PM. You could tell she knew we had been waiting for this moment with great pleasure. Masks were flung off, and we zoomed about the building like excited school children. I am a hesitant photographer, but took about 200 photos in the next 45 minutes without really thinking about it, as I knew this was potentially a "last chance to view".

So Kilberry is special, really special, and everyone in our party felt the same. We were all worried that the building might fall into the hands of an unsympathetic purchaser. Things should be left, modulo some building maintenance, exactly as they are. Anything else would be an architectural crime.

The visit helped to put Balintore into context. Both Kilberry and Balintore are in the baronial style, both are rather the worse for wear, and both are a Victorian time capsule. Balintore is larger (20,000 square feet c.f. 13,000 square feet), but is in a far worse condition. Given the free choice between Balintore and Kilberry, I would choose Kilberry due to its deep history, 22 acres of grounds and its peerless position by a white sand beach. However, given the purchase cost of Kilberry (overs over £650k); the restoration cost (at least £1m) and given the impracticality of bringing in building materials due to its extremely remote location, Balintore was starting to look, dare I say it, much more practical.

What particularly struck me at Kilberry was the power of taxidermy to transform an interior. There were many impressive pieces, mostly from India, and it would be a crime if these specimens were ever removed from the building. I have been collecting a few items for Balintore, and the Kilberry experience confirmed this was the right thing to do.

My friends similarly decided that Kilberry was impractical for them, but each came to me individually during the trip to say how much they loved the building and really wanted to take it on. For all of us, the trip had been a little bit of magic: camping in a warm and sunny Scottish summer, relishing the rush of an early post-lockdown trip, and enjoying the historic atmosphere that imbued the castle.

The following selection of my photographs speak for themselves:


  1. Exquisite! Overwhelming sense of arrested time--I want to move right in!

  2. Wonderful blog. Really enjoyed reading of your escapades particularly the wild swimming. I finally learned to swim in Prestwick seas ..the buoyancy helped. Intentions to join wild swimming group down here. Kilberry is impressive indeed.

    1. Delighted you managed to swim at Prestwick beach - it always defeated me. :-) Go for that wild swimming!

  3. The listing. With floor plans!


    1. Thanks for the link to the listing. Did you spot the piper's bedroom in the floor plans? :-)

    2. Yes, David! And the shoe hall, too!

    3. Missed the shoe hall - wow!