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:

Monday, 19 July 2021

Courtyard Troughs II

This is a follow-on post from the earlier entry on the courtyard troughs that we planted-up for the 10th July open day.

The open day has come and gone, so I had a chance to re-photograph the troughs today as they are, I reckon, at their flowering peak.

Just as the plants in the troughs have gown so have the weeds in the carefully weeded courtyard, for which I must apologise. Friend of Balintore, Simon, wanted to re-weed the courtyard on the evening of the open day - but we were so against the wall with other more essential tasks - that I forbade it.

Simon told me I looked as though I had the troubles on the world on my shoulders during the open day. :-) No truer words were spoken. My builders had been called off the job unexpectedly 4 days before the open day, so at 1:30 AM on the morning of the open day, I was still filling, sanding and painting the Servants' Hall.

Unexpected last minute withdrawals, meant I was trying to print out copies of the event's handout at 6 AM, just as my printer was beginning to fail; running out of toner and running out of paper. 

At 11 PM before the open day, I was putting chalk arrows and numbers on the floors for a self-guided tour round the building. Friends had come up with the genius idea of using chalk and then bought some chalk supplies the evening before. This did save a lot of effort compared to signs - as it was easy to add in extra marks for clarity rather than print another sign.

As "freedom day" (from most covid restrictions) was rescheduled from before the open day to after the open day, extra work was involved to ensure we followed covid protocols. And although we did have contingency planning for this, the sheer amount of hard work involved took its toll. In the end the 10 volunteers did a brilliant job to achieve covid compliance and the standard reached was exceptionally high.  

Coupled to an un-expected, but gratifying, high turnout which caused parking issues - the stress levels were running high on the day. Volunteers bravely jumped onboard to help marshal the situation. In the afternoon the crowds thinned out somewhat, and things settled down so I was finally able to enjoy chatting to guests. 

One might ask "Why do I put myself through this?". :-) Well, with a A-listed building like Balintore, bought with a compulsory purchase enshrined in law, there is a need to be publicly accountable and to show the ongoing restoration in progress. Also, having an open day forces a number of things: getting phases of the restoration completed (or almost completed) for public presentation, and focusses the mind wonderfully on what the next phases might be - not just in terms of the restoration but in terms of how things may operate. For example, post open day we are currently considering a much higher level of community involvement. 

And of course, without the open day we would not have, friend of Balintore, Karel's wonderfully planted up troughs. :-)

the cool colour trough

the warm colour trough

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Top Floor Cushions Covers

Thanks to friend of Balintore, Violet,  for sewing cushion covers for the window seats that Gregor built on the top floor of Balintore Castle.

The colour of the paint in the "purple room" is called "Highland Thistle". I am afraid the name did sway me, because it felt so appropriate for Balintore. Accordingly, Violet covered the cushion in a thistle print out of her rag bag, and picked up the wall colour by covering the buttons in a purple velvet. The pitch pine lining in the window seat is from Lochee Parish Church in Dundee, and the patina is so great, I could not bring myself to paint over it.

seat cushion in purple room

I told Violet I was going to go for a mid-green paint for the "green room". However, by the time Violet chose a green fabric from her rag bag, I still had not nailed the paint colour. I finally chose "Greenhill" from B&Q as it was on special offer. When Violet's cushion arrived, I was astonished how closely the colour of the fabric and the paint matched. Kismet!

seat cushion in green room

For the "red room" I supplied Violet with a forgiving damask, that would blend with anything warm. Again, the paint colour was chosen afterwards, and thankfully there was no glaring clash. Note how Violet has carefully centred the pattern.

seat cushion in red room

Violet did this amazing work for free! I gave Violet some Python programming hints for her Data Science college course homework in return. However, this doesn't count as it was such fun! 

It goes without saying, that I am delighted with the cushions and the clear attention to detail which in my view lifts the atmosphere of the rooms.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Servants' Hall Progess

The Servants' Hall in the basement of Balintore Castle is my second favourite room after the Great Hall. The Great Hall is such an expensive restoration challenge, that I have started a GoFundMe page to help raise the required funds.   However, the Servants' Hall is a more practical proposition, although we only started working on this space relatively recently.

This blog entry is a significant checkpoint for the Servants' Hall restoration work, as we have now finished plastering the walls and finished plastering the ceiling. All the plaster had fallen off the ceiling due to water ingress, and most of the plaster has fallen off the walls. Any remaining plaster was on lathe-and-plaster which had been destroyed by dry rot. The bottom half of the walls (concrete render rather than lathe-and-plaster) had mostly survived, so we patched new materials into this. Permission had been obtained from Angus Council to use plasterboard on the upper half of the walls.

Greg gives surfaces he has newly plastered a coat of white paint to check the quality of the finish. After this, there may be some subsequent filling. Plastering the curved ceiling for days at a time was a particular challenge, and Greg put his neck out. However, he was very stoic about this and I only found out from his father Gregor much, much later.

The transformation had been a delight to view - with the space moving from the distinctly derelict to something one could imagine living in, courtesy of the smoother wall and ceiling surfaces.

You can see we have left a beautiful stone arch exposed. When fabric is lost, there is an opportunity to do something a little different, and I couldn't bring myself to hide this arch under plaster even though this was the original decorative schema.

servants' hall looking north

Another reason for taking these photos was to record the original colour of the room before we paint it again. The colour was a cream which can be seen on the bottom half of the walls. Obviously, much of this has become discoloured and stained over time. 

servants' hall looking south

servants' hall looking east

My favourite area of this favourite cruciform room is the cross-vaulting in the ceiling where two arches meet at 90 degrees. You can see the hooks for a chandelier here. The chandelier is currently being cleaned. We are still working on this room and it is getting more and more presentable on a daily basis. I am hoping to get a fire going in the fireplace to heat up the room. Even on a warm summer's day like today, it is always slightly chilly as it is partially below ground. Only very, very occasionally on a boiling hot day, is this chill actually welcome. :-)

Monday, 21 June 2021

Courtyard Troughs

Friend of Balintore, Karel, is a keen and knowledgeable gardener. As I am neither, it was no hardship and indeed a huge relief to delegate the planting of the troughs in the castle courtyard to Karel in preparation for the castle's open day on the 10th July.

The hostas and lavender have survived from the previous year, but everything else is new. Karel was careful to install some more plants which would survive over the winter, whereas I would have just gone for cheap and cheerful colour without the superior longer term approach of an expert.

The enclosed castle courtyard is the one area which is not subject to the onslaught of rabid rabbits and sheep. All my plantings elsewhere have been munched - so the lesson has been learned.

Anyhow, I am very much looking forward to the troughs becoming a riot of seasonal colour.

Karel's blue trough planting

Karel's warm colour trough planting

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Chandelier Restoration

Friend of Balintore, Karel, has bravely stepped in to restore the chandeliers in the servants' hall. I probably brought the lights about 10 years ago and put them up in this basement room just to cheer myself up. It is only recently that we have started restoring the room around about the chandeliers.

Over the last 10 years in the damp and cold basement, the iron of the lights has rusted, and the recent plastering work has covered the glass shades in plaster.

Karel cleaned the plaster off the glass shades. In the image below the "before" shades are on the left and the "after" shades are on the right.

glass shades before and after restoration

Karel removed the rust from the chandelier framework and then repainted the whole thing black. He even built a dedicated chandelier restoration framework, on advice from Gregor.

Karel and his repainted chandelier