Monday, 4 November 2013

Mensa, Mensa Puzzle: A Balintore Detective Story !

It was from talking to a neighbour, that I found out an original table from Balintore Castle was installed at Inverquharity Castle (circa 1440) just 8 miles away. The contents of Balintore Castle, had been sold off at auction, as far as I can tell, in the 1980's. As I knew of no other items of furniture from Balintore Castle, this was quite a discovery!

I subsequently met the owners of Inverquharity Castle at a social event. They had restored their building in the 1960's, very much part of the advance guard of castle restoration in Scotland. At that time, only two other castles in Scotland were under restoration: one of which was Inchdrewer Castle which I talked about in a previous blog entry. The owners of Inverquharity were fabulous company: we talked castles all evening and had to be forcibly separated by the host so we would mingle with other guests. :-) As regards the table, I was told very politely and with a wry relish that "You are not having it back!". 

Several years later, I learned that Inverquharity had been sold, so I chased up the original owners and was told that, due to its size, the Balintore table had been left behind. I contacted the new owners, and they were not averse to the notion of reuniting the table with Balintore Castle, and indeed they had been contemplating making a new refectory table with an amazingly huge slab of wood they found in Inverquharity's woodshed: a piece of solid chestnut (?) perhaps 10' x 5' x 4". I have never, ever seen a refectory table top made from a single piece of wood!

I was invited to visit Inverquharity Castle to view the table: a very appealing piece of furniture indeed in a warm almost orangey pitch-pine. The table was large, plain and workmanlike and had allegedly come from the Servant's Hall at Balintore Castle. The sides had been cut-down somewhat to allow people to sit down at it with their legs underneath. I also viewed the slab of chestnut in the woodshed, and was shown some of the original 15th Century timbers that had been pulled out and replaced during the original restoration.  Quite a wood collection! Out of the corner of my eye I spotted what looked like an old Victorian pine kitchen table which had been used for wood-working - a large vice was screwed to it.

Inverquharity Castle Great Hall (from estate agent's brochure)
The new owners of Inverquharity were generous enough to give me and my friend Andrew a lengthy guided tour of Inverquharity Castle itself. My thanks go to them. I was more than in my element and ultimately was left reeling, The building is the most intact early tower house, I would suspect in the whole of Scotland. The principal tower appears largely unaltered since the day it was built. The great hall is even more spectacular in the flesh than the picture in the property brochure (below) would lead you to believe. It is a museum quality building, yet in use as a private residence: something to be celebrated. It could certainly give any National Trust property a run for its money. The tour left me in no doubt how much the new owners love the building, They had already shored up the superstructure of the building and had made it weather-proof, and were in the process of bringing the interior sensitively up-to-date with modern standards of habitability. 

I was left with the strong impression of custodianship. as the building was transitioning between owners. Individuals are the reality of how historic buildings survive into the future. Both the restoration in the 1960's and the current work are vital links in that chain. Take away either work phase, and the building could be lost like so many others. I found this commitment deeply moving, and put my own involvement in Balintore in a new deep time context.

As I drove away from Inverquharity Castle, Andrew said he thought the old kitchen table in the woodshed was from Balintore. "So what was the table we were shown in the dining room then, I asked?". It was confusing, but Andrew did have a point - the woodshed table had the right massive look - you could see Mrs. Patmore from "Downton Abbey" vigorously kneading dough on it! What's more there had been tales of the Balintore table needing 5 people to lift it, to be then handled by a mechanical lifter. The dining room table was large and heavy, but two people could manage to move it.

I phoned the original owners: "Which was the genuine Balintore table?". They then revealed, there were two Balintore tables at Inverquharity: the Servant's Hall table in their dining room, and the kitchen table in their wood shed. Full marks to Andrew for his detective work! In fact, he further suspects their dining room table actually comes from the dinner service room at Balintore, as the table is more of a servery table than a dining one. He spotted a similar table in a servery in another historic building he visited. There is another contrary theory that diners sat further from the table in the past, with the table-cloth spreading outwards on top of their laps. A contemporary painting supports this.

With the exchange of a few shekels - the two tables were recently brought back to Balintore Castle, I cannot stress enough how important and joyful this was to the building and me. :-) It marks the turning of the tide. For many decades, item after item have been stripped from the building.  I scheduled the furniture move on the same day as a small celebration in connection with the victory against the proposed windfarm development adjacent to the castle. Not only would I have an available workforce, of at least 5, to manhandle the tables, but I could use the Servant's Hall table that very day for the food buffet. The kitchen table will need some"Mary Rose"-style timber work, as it has been out in the rain for several decades, but it feels good to have it back at the castle, and it can serve as a style guide for the kitchen restoration.

Reclaiming the tables for Balintore has been a tale of many years involving detective work; waiting patiently; trying to seize opportunities and of course the kind cooperation of a couple of generations of Inverquharity Castle owners! Thanks to them and the veritable army of table-wranglers Andy, Andrew, Brian and Paul.

table pick up at Inverquharity

table wranglers (left to right): Andrew, Andy, Brian and Paul
Andrew checks the rigging, before setting sail.
tables arrive back at Balintore

table in use that very evening


  1. A good read, David - it has me re-living the evening's celebrations and thoroughly enjoying it all over again - the table, the candelabrum, the venison, tirimisu, (both!) - Balintore by bonfire-light, the cold !! - and all the great people.......What a singular and memorable evening! :-)) Carmel.

  2. Enjoyed your Inverquahrity story. Congratulations on finding those two tables. I told you I had the opportunity to explore the tower in about 1966-67. Did you have the opportunity to try out the medieval toilets I mentioned? At that time the square extension was not there. I don't know if the built it on original foundations. That would have been all that would have existed in the 60's. There are a lot of medieval towers tucked away in fields in north Angus, friendly times! Only Inverquarity and Invermark, up Glen Esk, had 4 walls and only Inverquahrity was roofed.

  3. Came across this while researching a painting of Inverquharity. Fabulous story and great to know the tables have returned home.