Friday, 27 May 2016

Molotov Cocktails and Dirty Protests

During the current mêlée of work at Balintore Castle to make the kitchen wing habitable, all forms of washing facilities have been lost. Getting ever dirtier is a fate, nay responsibility, for the would-be restorer of a castle.

A friend in Dundee, motivated by charity or olfactory onslaught, offered to let me have a bath in his flat. The relief of cleanliness is inestimable by those unaccustomed to building restoration. The bath water assumed the colour of a peaty highland stream.

The next day, the ironic duty that fell upon me was sweeping chimneys. Needless to say I was black afterwards, and have remained so since.

I managed to clear the chimney which served the right hand range in the old castle kitchen. There were three blockages as I pushed the drainage rods up the flue, but by attrition first compacted dirt, and then secondly nesting twigs would fall as each blockage was breached. I ran out of strength at the third blockage, but Gregor my carpenter gave a final push which broke through. We did not manage to get all the way to the top of the chimney, but 18 draining rods, each 3 feet long took us up 54 feet which is most of the way, and the test fire we lit underneath suggested there was a good upwards draft, though smoke filled the kitchen. Originally, the range would have been sealed in whereas we were testing an open fire in a coal basket. The plan is to connect up a wood burner.

The next chimney to sweep was the one connected to the top room in the entrance tower - to provide some heat while the kitchen wing is out of commission. Slowly we are moving through the building clearing the chimney stacks. After doing each stack, Andy my roofer, puts wire netting over the corresponding chimney cans to prevent the rooks putting more twigs down as they attempt to build nests.

I managed to get three lengths of drainage rod up the flue in the entrance tower top room, but it hit a solid-feeling earth blockage. The initial run of flue is essentially horizontal, perhaps 30 degrees, so there was no way anything loosened (if at all) would fall down by itself. Gregor had no joy either. Andy volunteered to rod downwards. At the top of a long ladder leaning against the vertiginous chimney stack, in a safety harness, Andy thrust purposefully and forcefully downwards with a long length of 2" by 2" wood and then with the drainage rods but each time nothing gave way.

It was going to have to be the age-old technique of dropping down a burning rag to set fire to the twigs lodged in the chimney. Rags were soaked in diesel, dropped down, and clearly twigs were burning as smoke poured out of the chimney. Rooks wheeled around and looked-on, alarmed as one of their homes was being immolated! The burning carried on for around 30 minutes, but prodding with the rods showed no improvement, pouring diesel down gave an impressive "woof", but the blast of the explosion put out the fire and further burning rags gave no noticeable progress.

Andy with his safety harness, draining rods and 2" x 2"

Andy drove to a neighbour's to procure petrol as this is more flammable, and at one stage a Smirnoff vodka bottle full of petrol was passed hand to hand. Yes, Andy was fighting the avian wars with a Molotov Cocktail. Despite our high hopes, this failed to do any better than the diesel.

The next suggestion was to use a gas burner from the bottom. The flame head was taped to the drainage rods, lit, and then thrust up the flue. Each time the flame went out after a few seconds as the oxygen burnt out in the flue. Physics in action, or is that physics in stasis? The problem was that as the chimney was so completely blocked and for quite some distance, that burning solutions were not proving successful as air could not flow in any shape or form to assist the process, though Gregor did smell diesel from inside the fireplace suggesting some had dripped to the bottom.

At that stage of maximum despair I had to made a trip to a carpentry workshop in Kirriemuir. When I came back, Andy told me that the new wood stove I had bought for the top room was no good either. I entered the room thoroughly dejected, but looking around I saw the little wood stove burning away merrily. Hurrah - I was a happy bunny! There was, however, a huge hole in the wall! Andy and Gregor had made this hole exactly at the position of the bend in the flue: removing 5 buckets of earth from the vertical section when went upwards and 2 buckets of earth from the horizontal section when went to the left. In short this chimney would never have been cleared without this radical approach. A hundred years of rook twigs had turned to a dense rich compost. In fact the compost was soaking wet with rainwater and this explained the damp green patch in the wall that had always been there - directly in front of the bend in the flue. One damp problem now solved. Andy later blocked off the new hole. At the end of the day, Andy swept the remaining two chimneys in the same stack and netted them all - the other two were considerably less problematic.

new stove finally working - note hole in wall solution

When I tried to go to bed that night, I discovered there was a rook in my bed! There was only one entrance to the narrow room, so there is no way I could escort it out without it getting into a flappy panic so I had to crash elsewhere in that castle that night and hope by morning that the rook was gone.

The next morning the rook had indeed gone, but it had pooped spectacularly in my bed. The smell was indescribable and the subsequent laundering deeply harrowing. By coincidence, the rook's nest had only been a few feet from my bed and now that its overnight accommodation had gone, it had used mine instead - complete with "dirty protest" to illustrate what it thought of our activities. These are very smart animals indeed.

In fact, there are still rooks in the building and every-so-often in the night I am woken up by the noise of a rook's flappy-walk as it makes its way along a corridor and tries to get into my bedroom with me. To discourage overnighting with a rook, I normally shout something like "GERROUT-OF-IT", not a sudden noise which might make them panic but a prolonged exclamation to inform them of my presence. Normally they turn around and do the flappy-hoppy thing back down the corridor.

The evening following the traumatic night of the avian dirty protest, I could hear a rook attempting to enter my bedroom yet again. I bemoaned my fate and shouted my usual "GERROUT-OF-IT". Imagine my embarrassment to discover it was not a rook but my neighbour who had entered the building for a social call! As knocking on the front door of such a big building does not work, my friends know just to let themselves in.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Invermark Castle

Carpe Diem is never more applicable than during rare good weather in the Angus Glens, so today's sunshine and warmth put a trip to Invermark Castle on the cards. This is the single remaining castle in the Angus Glens that I have yet to visit, or rather more accurately this is the last unvisited out of the six shown on the Angus Glens' web pageI have visited the other castles in the following order:

  1. Balintore Castle
  2. Forter Castle
  3. Cortachy Castle
  4. Edzell Castle
  5. Inverquharity Castle
My friend Andrew and his father were up for the visit, so we all made a day of it. Invermark is located well up Glen Esk, so although it is not far from Balintore Castle as the crow flies, I was surprised at how long the journey felt after entering the eastern end of Glen Esk. So much so, that we decided to stop off at the Glenesk Retreat for coffee and cake even before we started sightseeing. The proved to be the correct decision as the road to Invermark Castle was subsequently blocked by sheep being herded, and had we not had refreshments beforehand we would have been gnawing fingers off. The Glenesk Retreat is more than just a cafe/restaurant: it contains a small folk museum and resources for the glen community. The staff are amazingly friendly and chatty, and we were made so welcome that I would go back again and again.

Invermark Castle turned out to the perfect Scottish tower house: massively solid and vertiginous with the walls still resolutely intact up to the wall head. There have been two building phases: the first three storeys in the early 16th century and then the fourth storey in the early 17th century.

Invermark Castle: north and west elevations
Invermark Castle: south and east elevations
Invermark Castle: south elevation - at last some fenestration!
I was struck by the almost total absence of windows on three of the elevations: there were some slits in the stonework but that was about it apart from the later openings at the top level. I was relieved when I did find a few modest windows at the south of the building that you cannot see from the path which runs adjacent. This is a serious defensive structure and consequently would have always been extremely dark inside. Andrew's father said he was pleased he lived in an age when one did not have to hide behind high defensive walls. I pointed out that living behind high defensive walls was a huge improvement compared to not doing so! :-)

Invermark Lodge

old parish church by Loch Lee

Given the good weather we were tempted further along the road to look at Invermark Lodge (1852), and further yet to the quaint ruined late 17th century old parish church on the banks of Loch Lee. I climbed up the inside wall of the church yard to look over to check how close the loch was. The loch was lapping right against the walls! I wondered whether this has always been the case, perhaps the level of the loch was raised when it became the water supply for Brechin. In any case, few churches can have such a spectacular setting.

Invermark Lodge (1852) is one of the premier shooting lodges in Scotland and it nestles perfectly in the contours of Glen Esk. It is built of Aberdeenshire granite - just a few miles north of Balintore the geology switches from lowland sandstone to highland granite.

One can more than understand the attractions of the surroundings of the lodge on a day like today, even given that Glen Esk has one of the highest concentrations of Adders in the UK. Winter must be a different story altogether, as the region is even more remote and even higher-up than Balintore. It is likely that Invermark Lodge is cut-off a number of times each winter. I am grateful to Andrew's Dad, who worked in forestry, for teaching me the difference between a Silver Birch and a Downy Birch today. I had previously thought they were the same species.

current (19th century) parish church Interior

On the walk back, we explored the current parish church. The interior is
a time capsule of devout but dour 19th century Scottish Christianity: beautifully fitted out in wood; still equipped with a foot-pump organ and a gas light for the raised pulpit. I am fascinated by the phenomenon where remote places often transport you back in time as well.

A delicious late lunch, during a second visit to the Glenesk Retreat, confirmed how great a place this is and before departing and driving home we explored the attached museum. A number of rooms were set-up in the Victorian period, and given I am trying to do this at Balintore, I was enthralled and on high alert as to what worked well and what was less successful.

I absolutely loved Invermark Castle, and given free rein on which building to restore I might have gone for this. The interior has totally gone, so a restoration is a simple and relatively inexpensive matter of replacing the roof and the floors, unimpeded by existing structures.  The level of resources so far expended on Balintore Castle would have completed the restoration of Invermark several times over. I had originally intended to restore a tower house, knowing that this was a more tractable though still considerable exercise.

Given the architectural and historic significance of Invermark, only a highly authentic restoration would be permitted, if at all, and of course it belongs to the Dalhousie Estates rather than me! My own personal take is that most historic ruins should be sensitively restored: buildings only fully make sense when in use. At the very least floors and roofs should be put back, if nothing else, so we can explore the structures in indoor comfort.