Monday, 14 July 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Four

The most beautiful setting of all the West Highland coast castles visited on our mini-tour was Castle Tioram, dating from the 13th century. I have a penchant for the very old, and like other castles from this period in the area it is largely defined by a stark defensive curtain wall. It is situated on a tidal island, and nestles in a landscape of water, forests and hills. 

As Andrew and I approached along a road that couldn't have been more "minor" if it tried, it was clear we were in an area of outstanding natural beauty though somewhat more sheltered and soft than the unforgiving landscape of the coast beyond. The island had two natural beaches: one sandy and one rocky. Andrew and I climbed all over the island to take in all the angles. The approach form the water would have been particularly impressive, with the castle and a tricky cliff path looming high overhead.

Sadly the building is in a considerable state of disrepair and the entrance was barred from safety considerations. The rock on which the castle is perched is splitting, and over the centuries huge portions have fallen onto the beach. It won't be too long, if left unattended, that sections of the castle itself will come down in future rock falls. Infamously, Historic Scotland, refused Scheduled Monument Consent for the owner's plan to save and develop the building. This is regarded generally as a sorry chapter for Historic Scotland. I have not seen the plans myself to form a judgement, but it was definitely a lost opportunity. This building needs help yesterday for it to survive in any form into the future.

Andrew and I jokingly called the building "Castle Tearoom", as he is partial to tea and scones in country houses, and ironically this building is the very opposite of a developed attraction. We had to pick our way across mud flats to access the building and got rather wet in the process. Exploring the island involved a lot of undignified scrambling: in fact one of the panoramas caught the split-second before Andrew slipped flat on his face.

The building has a powerful presence and for a castle that was simply on our route home, it has now become one of my favourites. 

Castle Tioram's pentagonal curtain wall

the interior - taken through the grill at the entrance

the castle is on the tidal island on the right

view around Tioram

view around Toiram - Andrew fell flat on his face just after this was taken

Tioram panorama from the top of the island

Tioram panorama - starts at 45 degrees to horizon to capture most interesting silhouette

Tioram panorama

vertical Tioram panorama from beach

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Three

The ruins of Kilchurn Castle (dating from the early 15th century) on the banks of Loch Awe is one of the iconic images of Scotland. It turned out that Kilchurn was on our route to Castle Stalker, so I was able to see one of my favourite castles in the flesh for the first time. Kilchurn in reality is impressive and far larger than the photos suggest, but it is no longer one of my favourite castles for rather complex reasons that I'll conclude on!

Andrew and I failed to find Kilchurn initially, but bumped into some American tourists at St. Conan's Chapel who had already been and were able to give us directions. No wonder we missed it, it is not sign-posted at all and is only visible from the road in fleeting glimpses if you know what you are looking for. Historic Scotland should do better than this: it is an international tourist attraction and a worthy one at that.

The approach is a rather long walk on a single path crossing marsh-land. The defensive advantage is clear. I was determined not to take photos as the building is incredibly photogenic, and others have taken pictures a million times better than my smart phone snaps would ever be. However, I did take some panoramas and angles, just to fix the building and landscape in my memory. The castle in its landscape seems to suit the panorama, and I was delighted by the moody effects achieved with little effort and cheap technology. The broken ruined skyline of Kilchurn is so beautiful,  it was the only castle I thought should not be restored. 

Now having visited, I feel I was wrong. Accommodation inside the building should be restored, there are vast internal spaces which could be brought back to life at the lower levels without disturbing the skyline. On the day I visited, the upper part of the keep's interior was closed off due to health and safety, so we missed the views from the castle and the majority of the keep's accommodation. This is typical of the disappointment on visiting most Scottish castles - there are ruined walls a plenty, but few interior spaces, and those that do exist are not floored or furnished. So the typical tourist gets an impoverished feel for the building as it was. Reusing parts of the building would make it a much more positive experience, and in no way destroy the romance of a ruin. Kilchurn is not the small quaint building I thought it was, it is a vast palace of sufficient scale that it does not suit the ruination in the same way that a smaller scale castle could.

Loch Awe: looking east

Loch Awe: looking west

Andrew: looking down

me: looking down

west elevation

north elevation

east elevation - leaving the castle behind us

the building is bigger than you might think!

Castles Home and Away: Part Two

The building that delighted me the most during my two day mini-tour of the castles of the West Highland coast was Castle Stalker which dates from 1320. It was not the largest or the most impressive or indeed the most historically significant building, yet all the elements were right. It had been restored over the course of ten years from around 1965 by a family, who are still using it as a holiday home, and it was the one building I visited that was living again. This is the key to me, a building not in use is without soul, and anyone who visits Castle Stalker cannot fail to pick up on the magic embracing atmosphere of its inviting interior spaces.

Part of this seductive invitation is the remarkable location of the building: a small rather stark island, not much larger than the footprint of the castle itself. Indeed such is the picturesque charm of this castle on an island in Loch Laich, that it is a well known image to be found on many a calendar and greetings card.

picturesque Castle Stalker on the dull day we visited

Ironically, from the castle itself, the view does not live up to those from the other buildings visited. The hills round the loch are rather low - far from the spectacular highland scenery one might expect. And on the rather dreich day we visited, the grey water merged into the grey hills moodily smudged
together by the mist. 

view from the Castle Stalker

The point, however, is the splendiferous isolation afforded by the castle. The building cradles you in its cocoon, and for the outside world to get to you, it has to take a trip by boat. The owner stressed the difficulty of getting the shopping in, during stormy weather, but frankly I though how marvellous and would personally lay down stores to outlast any siege the outside world would want to impose.

embarking on the voyage to  the castle
approaching the castle
Andrew disembarking - disproportionately delighted to have survived the short crossing

The restorers were a Surrey solicitor Lt. Col. D. R. Stewart Allward, his wife Marion and their friends and family. Lt. Col. Allward's ambitions were to own a Rolls Royce, have four children and own a castle in Scotland. All ambitions were achieved! The current owner is a son, and his parents have their ashes built into the fabric of Castle Stalker, which gives some idea of the emotional attachment. I wasn't sure if I had heard this correctly and was going to ask, then realised it might sound insensitive if I had got things wrong. However, Andrew heard exactly the same thing. The current owner spent his summer holidays as a child, restoring Castle Stalker with his parents so his connection with the building is a very special one indeed.

Although the family do clearly make use of the building as a holiday home, there was a tacit admission that it was underused and I couldn’t help feeling that people would pay for the privilege of staying there. For me the boat trip over was not onerous but part of the adventure. My personal enthusiasm is not without royal precedent. Castle Stalker had been used by King James IV as a hunting lodge, with an adjacent island boasting the largest deer and a nearby river pouring forth the largest salmon. An outcrop of rock we passed in the boat had been known for at least 600 years as Cormorant Island, and sure enough there was a cormorant perched there. Human history and nature's history are intimately entwined.

The owner mentioned that the family had free rein with the restoration with no input from Historic Scotland or the local Council whatsoever. I wished I had taken on a building in that era - the thing that is slowing the restoration of Balintore down the most is the bureaucracy. And I have to say that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with the restoration of Castle Stalker - everything that had been done is true to the building. In fact, the modern plumbing  and modern wiring were visible snaking across the historic fabric of the building so the existing structure was in plain view. In fact, the whole ethos of the work done was the beloved reversibility of modern restoration practice.

From some interior photos I saw before my visit, I was concerned that the inside may have had too much of a taint of the 70’s. However, in the flesh my concerns proved unfounded. The pieces of furniture in the castle were indeed bespoke products of the 70’s - but these were executed with great craftsmanship, and were in perfect keeping with the building. Above all I was delighted that no interior designer had been allowed anywhere near Castle Stalker! It had been furnished by the owners with care and love as a home, and it was in no sense a “stage set” of the type that would adorn a country living lifestyle magazine.

the homely and home-spun great hall - note massive Hemlock ceiling beams

armoury in great hall:  reproductions of historic Scottish weapons and targes (shields)

Above the fireplace in the sitting room was a marvellous and massive carved oak beam. It was too large/heavy to take over by boat so the consensus was that being wood it would float and could be towed across to the castle. It sank like a stone, and had to be dragged along the sea bottom. The fireplace jamb/leg on the left is original and is intricately carved. However, the wear is such, that it is impossible to decipher what the carvings were once of. My eye wove dragons in there! :-) There are rumours, if memory serves, of American soldiers taking the right jamb during WWII.

massive over-mantle beam in sitting room - the left fireplace jamb is original

The transport of the massive Canadian Hemlock beams, used to rebuild the floors, was more successful. These did float!

Castle Stalker was famously used in the filming of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and the owner had happy memories of playing one of the soldiers. We had to guess which soldier he was in a still from the film. I got it down successfully to a choice of two. :-)

Castle Stalker is not generally open to the public. A small number of tours are made available during the summer months, so gaining access is quite a privilege. This privilege feels all the more special as the owner takes you over in his boat. The “crew” are clearly good friends of the owner, and they were just learning to handle the new dual-hulled boat. Much hilarity ensued. The new boat is rather swish, and has a shallow enough draft to enable relatively easy embarking and disembarking.

The only visitors who showed up on the tour were an American couple, Andrew and myself - so we had a much more personalised tour than standard. The Castle Stalker tour is quite simply a "must see".

thanks go to the current owner for his marvellous tour
this sign amused 
spiral staircase to the battlements