Saturday, 10 April 2021

Church Lights II

The second pair of chandeliers I purchased from Lochee Parish Church, during its current refurbishment, came without shades. Accordingly, I ordered a set of 6 vintage glass shades off eBay. and these arrived yesterday. They are not quite as sharp as the original style of shade shown here, however. they do the job and add a little domestic softness to the bedrooms.

first set of Lochee lights in the purple bedroom

I am so delighted with the Arts and Crafts look of these lights: patinated copper in an arabesque form. In fact each of the 3 arms that swoops down on both lights are reminiscent of an octopus tentacle with sucker-like serrations. Was this intentioned? 

second set of Lochee lights in the (soon to be) red bedroom

The lights in this blog entry are slightly larger than the previous pair described here. You might ask which was my favourite design, and I would say that this pair are scaled perfectly for a bedroom and the previous pair are scaled perfectly for a hallway.  So there is no such thing as a favourite light. Instead one is doing the best one can for the various contexts in the castle.

I was hoping to photograph these lights in sunshine - a not unreasonable expectation given the sunshine over the last few days. However, this afternoon it started snowing again - and this is Saturday 10th April !!!!! - so I just went ahead and took the photos regardless. This is in total contrast to last Saturday which was ridiculously warm and sunny.

The gods decidedly owe us a good summer this year.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Easter 2021 + Competition

Happy Easter to all friends of Balintore. It is amazing to think that Easter Saturday 2 years ago was the castle's first, and joyously very successful, Open Day. I had been hoping that this would become an annual event, but Covid has determined otherwise. By way of compensation, we have organised an Easter competition to win a free stay at Balintore Castle. Today (Easter Sunday 2021) is the very last date to enter. The competition may be found here.

Indeed, don't say goodbye to a 2021 Open Day yet. A joint Open Day and Appetite for Angus event is planned here for Saturday 10th July. We anticipate social restrictions will be largely lifted by then, so you just have to go for it. Further details will be published nearer the time, but there should be quality food and drink on offer.

So what about Easter this year at Balintore? Some friends joined me yesterday (Easter Saturday) to do some painting. I had been wilting under the strain of doing the prepping, taping and painting all on my own . I do not suffer in silence, and my friends Jonny, Solveig and Paul rose graciously to the occasion.

There was not a cloud in the sky, so we decided an al fresco lunch on the castle terrace. The temperature would have been above 20 and it felt like a gloriously warm summer's day, even though the trees are not yet in leaf.

lunch on the terrace

We then decided to be naughty and have a walk round the former boating pond as it was such a lovely day. It felt idyllic. There were frogs and toads mating fecundly, clouds of frog-spawn everywhere and many desiccated black carcasses on the grass and many bloated white carcasses in the water of amphibians who had spent their all in this Bacchanalian revelry.

the boating pond

We collected water cress from the burn, and stuck 3 pheasant feathers in the turn up of Jonny's woolly hat! Paul sat in the dappled shade of a tree on the bank.

a sun-dappled Paul (note castle in background)

Let's put it this way - not a lot of painting was done PM. :-) Even when we returned to the castle, we were exhausted from the uphill journey back, and we needed a sit down and a coffee on the sunny terrace. 

My guests took this last photo just as they drove off around 4PM. It had been lovely all day.

blue skies at 4PM

Today (Easter Sunday) is cold and windy, so taking advantage of yesterday's miraculous weather feels justified in hindsight.

Hope you enjoy your own unusual Easter!


Friday, 2 April 2021

Church Lights

Thanks to the current refitting of Lochee West Church in Dundee, I was offered some vintage chandeliers. I am sure I said yes within a few seconds, as I love historic lighting so much. In the event, the lights turned out to be perfect for the area of the castle being currently worked on so a matching pair of copper Arts and Crafts chandeliers were put up in a hallway today.

first set of hallway lights

second set of hallway lights

There is a second set of larger and slightly more flamboyant copper chandeliers which we have put up in some bedrooms, but we have yet to connect these up and get the full effect.

What is great about Arts and Crafts is that it is an infinitely refined and tasteful aesthetic and not at all showy. So most people love it.

Thanks to sparkie George for rewiring, and getting 3 core twisted flex through holes intended for 2 core twisted flex!

Watch this space for the bedroom lights.

Failing Flush

Several months back Gregor installed a beautiful Victorian cast iron WC cistern for me. However, it never flushed. Yesterday, when Gregor complained about the lack of things to do, I suggested he return to the faulty flush.

Gregor set about his investigation. The photo below indicates the point of failure: a rusty metal pipe with a big hole in it. Not only would the cistern never fill as water escaped down the hole, but even assuming it did fill, the syphonic flush would never have worked as air would have rushed in through this hole, so the water would not be lifted up inside the cast iron bell structure which covers this pipe.

The bell structure below is also very rusty but it is such a massive piece of cast iron the essential structure remains.

Gregor has stuck a piece of plastic pipe over the remains of the existing metal one. When the sealer has hardened, we can retest. Watch this space!

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Exploding Taps

This is what -18 °C looks like! 

the two sets of exploded taps

Gregor left work at Balintore Castle on a Friday evening and everything was OK. On the Monday morning a vigorous fountain was spouting from these taps. The extreme low temperatures had cased the metal of the tap bodies to split open. Interestingly both sets of taps had split at the same point to the right of centre. In addition, the left hand tap has a narrower split on the left too.

There was significant flooding, and the carpet had to be dried out over a bannister rail for over a week. The extreme cold also caused some breaches in the roof, and rain flooded in to complete the inundation. Not a point of high morale.

When I purchased new taps, I noticed this model was on sale on eBay for around £15 so this may account for the thinness of the metal. As with most things at Balintore, the sink and taps were bought second-hand.

I invested in slightly more expensive taps, but there was an advantage to the fact that the weak point was accessible rather than in pipework behind walls or under the floor. Gregor has never seen metal split like this due to the cold, and it was a first for me too.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Balmerino, Lordscairnie, Denmylne & Ballinbreich

Some friends of mine are on the hunt for a country property that will accommodate highland ponies and ooze period charm. When it comes to oozing, I am your man. :-) When I discovered Ballinbreich Castle on the Internet recently, I could not believe that such a large and beautiful ruin was so close to Balintore, and yet I had not heard of it. Naturally I teased my friends by suggesting they "view", without any thought that this might actually happen.

When I found out my friends would today be within 2 miles of Ballinbreich for work, I pushed harder. This resulted in me being invited to a small "castles of Fife" expedition. After being cooped up indoors due to covid, the prospect was glorious.

Balmerino Abbey

The first stop was an abbey rather than a castle. Balmerino Abbey of the Cistercian Order (founded in 1098) was founded in 1227. With the reformation and subsequent plundering of stone, only structures around the north transept survive.  However, these structures are of exquisite beauty with details such as foliated capitals. Due to the extreme age of the building, my normal architectural "dating eyes" could do nothing. 

At one time, after the reformation, the building had been repurposed as a private residence. The building could still be repurposed, but it is a tricky brief, as one would want to preserve the magic atmosphere of the ruins. There is still a noticeable spiritual tranquillity on site. Even in ruin, the abbey provides solace for the soul.

Balmerino Abbey

Balmerino Abbey

Balmerino Abbey (round the back!)

Lordscairnie Castle

This ruined 5 storey L-plan castle dating from 1500 stands rather starkly in the middle of a field. The photographs on the Web looked rather undistinguished and showed a significant amount of collapse, but these did not prepare us for the reality. This is an unusually massive tower house. The scale took our breath away. This was a high status building with large windows, rather than purely defensive slits, that brought light into what would have been a phenomenally large great hall. We could make out 4 of the floors. Part of our confusion in trying to find the fifth floor, was that we were uncertain if the vaulted basement had collapsed or was intact beneath us. There were at least 4 building phases, and the dark, dark stone only enhanced  the forbidding character of the building.

Any restoration would have to begin with considerable consolidation, so a lot of money would have to be spent before any accommodation could start to be reclaimed.

Lordscairnie Castle

Lordscairnie Castle

Lordscairnie Castle (stair tower)

Denmylne Castle

We took a wrong turning while trying to find Denmylne Castle. As far as wrong turnings go this was beautiful, as long rows of daffodils trumpeted our procession along a drive. We were not escorted off the premises, but a car lingered at the end of the drive to ensure that we did leave! The photo shows hail on the windscreen on a day that alternated between sunshine and squalls.

Denmylne, which dates from the late 16th Century, in the grounds of a private house. It is right on the road so will have been seen by many, many people. It is a beautiful building with largely intact walls so would be a relatively simple restoration. The problem is the proximity to a private house, so they would never be separated into two lots. One wonders how much the house with adjacent ruin (possibly bigger than the house itself) would sell for.  A house and a ruin is quite a niche market, so if they are some distance apart, they will tend to move to separate ownership.

wrong turning en-route to Denmylne

Denmylne Castle (rear)

Denmylne Castle (front)

Ballinbreich Castle

The last castle we visited was very much a fitting but unexpected climax to the day. I knew it was sizable, but only when we visited did the actual size of the building emerge. It looks like 5 tower houses have been merged together into a single building. The structures are arranged around a central courtyard, and it is only when you enter the courtyard that the true scale of the building becomes apparent. We were in disbelief. This is a National Trust quality building, dating incidentally from the 14th Century although much of what you can see is 16th Century. To my eye certain sections looked considerably more recent either 18th Century or 19th Century, but I have failed to find out when the building fell into dereliction.

The building boasts the biggest fireplace and chimney I have ever seen. A large hole in the side of the building afforded us a view of 3 lancet arches bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. This section of the building had clearly been the chapel.

The castle is perched on the south bank of the Tay, slightly elevated with shoreline reed beds directly below. These reed beds are harvested commercially every year, as I learned from a BBC documentary on the Tay. I had never seen these reed beds in person before,

A restoration initially felt approachable, as there are certain areas that are more intact than others, so you could start with these. However, on closer inspection, all areas of the castle needed considerable consolidation and it ended up almost as daunting as Lordscairnie.

Ballinbreich Castle (River Tay in background)

Ballinbreich Castle (chapel can be seen through opening)

Ballinbreich Castle (chapel)

Ballinbreich Castle (teetering arches)

Ballinbreich Castle (whopper of a chimney)

Ballinbreich Castle (what is this arch?)

Ballinbreich Castle (inside courtyard)

Ballinbreich Castle (the approach)

Ballinbreich Castle (friend for scale!)

Ballinbreich Castle

Ballinbreich Castle


My "way in" when visiting old buildings is to assess how restorable they are. This is not necessarily because I would want to restore another building (but I would) but because I went through this exercise so many times when I was looking for a building to restore in the first place that it has become a habit. Also, it gives the mind something to latch on to, when otherwise one could be overwhelmed by what one sees. For example, Ballinbreich was just overwhelming. There was no way a single visit could do it justice.

There is no one best building. Balmerino won for beauty, Lordscairnie won for "Game of Thrones" realness, Denmylne won for practicality of restoration and Ballinbreich won for impact and its riverside location. 

I asked my friends the question "If you could have any of these buildings fully restored with no expense spared, which one would you take?". One of my friends selected Lordscairnie (just as I did) and the other chose Ballinbreich, which on paper should have been my choice. However, you visit these sites precisely because of the gut feelings they induce. These buildings have a lot to teach us about ourselves.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Lady Airlie's False Witness

On the back of a Balintore ghost story reported in a newspaper, which I presented in a previous blog entry, I purchased the biography of Mabell Countess of Airlie entitled "Thatched with Gold" which allegedly holds the original account of the story. 

The ghost story is in there all right, only it relates to Airlie Castle not Balintore Castle, and the newspaper article segues a known Balintore ghost story with the Airlie Castle ghost story, so it reads as a single narrative. So I must apologies for my earlier blog entry which repeats the confusion of the newspaper article. In fact, I had wondered if precisely this mistake had been made as the landscape described in the story was not identifiable as Balintore to me, but could have been an area of the gardens I visited on an Airlie Castle open day.

Oddly enough, in this area of the Airlie Castle gardens which was leading down to the river and which I was exploring on my own, I got a very chilled feeling and decided to head back to the castle. I recall puzzling that here was an idyllic castle in idyllic grounds, yet I wasn't getting the expected pleasure from exploring them. The two other things I recall from the open day are a severe case of box blight in the walled gardens, and that all the family members had the same nose. :-)

Airlie Castle is just 8 miles due south of Balintore, and well worth visiting if you get an opportunity.

I very much liked Airlie Castle, despite the gloom of that one location, particularly the mammoth curtain wall from the 15th Century which somehow anchors the habitable part, an 18th Century mansion house, to the past. 

Fortunately, the biography is a good read. Lady Airlie was the Lady of the Bedchamber (i.e. the most important lady-in-waiting) for Queen Mary, so there are good royal anecdotes, which ensured the book a reasonable circulation when it was published posthumously in 1962.

Airlie Castle use to serve as the dower house for Cortachy Castle, so Lady Airlie moved there when she was widowed by the Second Boer War of 1899. This gives the context for the ghost story in the book, which I shall now present complete as an antidote to the confusions of the newspaper article.

Extract from "Thatched with Gold" by Mabell Countess of Airlie

Airlie—the smallest castle in Britain—was romantic and mellow with age, but uncomfortable in many ways when she moved into it. Built in the fifteenth century on a promontory at the conflux of the Melgum and Isla rivers, it had been originally an almost impregnable fortress, accessible only on its south side, which was protected by ten-foot-thick stone walls and a drawbridge. But it had borne the brunt of the Ogilvys' loyalty to the Stuarts, and in 1640 the whole building had been burnt to the ground by the Earl of Argyll and his clansmen. A later Lord Ogilvy had rebuilt it from the old battle-scarred stones but on a reduced scale. There were only three masters' bedrooms and two small servants' bedrooms in the main building. Guests slept in a cottage which had been built on.

Lady Airlie spent many hours of the day in the centuries-old ‘Stone Room'. It was no bigger than a closet, but its windows looked down on the lovely sweep of the River Melgum and in it she wrote her books. Freed from the responsibility of the vast Cortachy estate, she usually gave the whole morning to writing.

The small castle was easily run. Her household—in addition to Louisa Roffey, the maid who had been with her since her childhood—consisted of two country girls. With none of Cortachy's facilities for entertaining, she maintained its traditions of hospitality. In the months of September and October Airlie was always filled with guests. Many of them still remember the big Scottish teas with fresh-baked scones and cakes and home-made jam; the game pies and newly caught trout served with delicious sauces; the russet apples from the old walled garden.

The Queen and Princess Mary stayed several days at the castle in September 1921.

‘The Queen had said to me rather wistfully at Windsor earlier that summer how difficult it was for her to get a real holiday since she could no longer go abroad to stay with the old Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as she used to do', Lady Airlie wrote. “On an impulse I exclaimed, “How much I should like to ask Your Majesty to Airlie if it would not be too small!” She answered warmly that of course it would not be too small and that she would be delighted to come. But in my eagerness to give her this rest which she so badly needed I had forgotten that her conception of small” and mine might be different. She brought with her, besides Princess Mary, the very minimum of people, but even so they comprised a gentleman in waiting and his servant, two dressers, a detective, a footman, a chauffeur and under-chauffeur. I passed over the problem of finding rooms for all of them to Louisa, and in some miraculous way she solved it successfully.

“The visit was a very great pleasure to me, and I felt that the Queen and Princess Mary enjoyed it too. No two people could have been easier to amuse. I had arranged several motor drives to places of interest, and one or two luncheon and dinner parties, but they were equally happy sitting quietly in the gardens.

"Princess Mary had a very strange experience at Airlie but I only heard about it from the Queen long afterwards.

‘On the evening of their arrival the Princess went for a walk in the gardens while her mother rested before dinner. Quite alone she wandered along the paths in the evening sunshine and through the thicket, which has always been known as "The Den”, towards the little bridge spanning the River Melgum. As she reached it she was seized with such an inexplicable and overwhelming sense of fear and horror that she turned and ran the whole way back to the house. When she went up to her room she was shaking from head to foot, but “The Thing”— whatever it was—had made such an impression on her that she could not speak of it, even to the Queen, for several days.

‘This has happened more than once in the case of new arrivals at Airlie, always at the same spot and at about the same time—between six and seven in the evening and very often the experience has been followed by some tragedy.

'In the nineteen-thirties I had a party of young people staying with me at Airlie for the Forfar Ball. They included Winston Churchill's daughter, Sarah, and my grand-daughter Clementine Mitford, Jock Colvillei and Prince George Chachavadze. They arrived early in the afternoon and after tea the girls went up to rest in their rooms while Jock Colville, at my suggestion, borrowed a fishing rod and went down to the River Melgum.

'After a while he grew tired of fishing and began to walk along the path in the evening sunshine, just as Princess Mary had done. Suddenly he was transfixed with a sense of terror which he said was “impossible to describe". It deepened until as he reached the little bridge he could fight against it no longer, and ran full speed back to the house.?

'I myself had more than one encounter with what I came to call the unseen presence of evil in The Den. I could never forget a walk which I took by the River Melgum on a lovely day in May soon after I settled at Airlie. The sun was still shining when I entered the wood in the early evening with my dog-a little Aberdeen-trotting blithely ahead. All at once he stopped dead, and I supposed that he had seen someone or something through the trees. I looked round, but not a soul was in sight, and then suddenly I felt that overwhelming, devastating fear. After that I remembered nothing but a wild scramble up the side of the steep bank, holding on to roots and trees, stumbling, falling, climbing, regardless of danger, with one impulse only, to get away from some frightful evil. When at last I reached the top I sank down on a log and called repeatedly to my dog. Nothing would make him cross the ground from which I had fled but eventually he came round to me by another way.

‘After that I always avoided the path by the River Melgum and begged my guests to do the same.'