Sunday 13 July 2014

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