Monday, 23 December 2019

Merry Christmas 2019

Spending Christmas Present in a historic building, as this year at Balintore Castle, naturally puts one in mind of Christmases Past. What kind of celebrations went on at the castle, and who took part in them? The cynic in me says that winter was out of season for a shooting lodge, and that the building would have been closed down save for a small skeleton staff. The romantic in me, says that the lure of an isolated castle, in a wintry and snowy landscape is irresistible for the festive season. And certainly, my friends have been drawn here in the last month or so as we bravely try to party our way out of the depths of winter. I love having them around.

You know it's the Winter Solstice when your solar powered watch stops, and this has happened a couple of times in the last week. The situation can be remedied easily by propping the watch in front of a window for a few hours, but the cessation of horological time has given me a wrong steer on the perceived efficiency of my housework. :-)

As an adult, Christmas particularly holds echos of Christmases past when one was a child, and brings back memories of loved ones no longer with us. This march of mortality is captured perfectly by Dickens' "A Christmas Carol".  The author also captures better than anyone I know, the bleakness of that bone chilling cold that I have myself experienced at the castle. Thankfully things have moved forward at Balintore, and I am writing this blog entry in a toasty enclosed room heated by a large wood-burner. I can recall the very same room with no windows and the bitter wind whipping through. Snow, blown in from the outside, lay on the floor and I clutched for warmth by holding tightly onto my cup of tea.

I thought it would be fun to play with Past and Present, by turning a modern photo of Balintore taken earlier in the month into sepia (via Google Picassa) and by colourising my favourite old photo of Balintore staff (via the website). The colouriser is advertised as deep learning but as far as I can tell most clothing is painted navy blue if at all. The result is fun, but a pale imitation of what a human artist could do, so beware the technological hype. I passed monochrome versions of the hand-tinted postcards depicted in this blog entry here through the same algorithm. It failed miserably - the building stayed resolutely monochrome and the only injected colour was the blue of the sky.

Christmas 2019 in Victorian Sepia

Victorian Servants in 2019 Colour

This winter has thankfully been largely snow free with just 3 days of lying snow earlier in the month. Even without snow, the low sun and mist of winter can produce wonderful lighting conditions. The panorama below was taken last week by an early morning visitor to the castle. 

early morning December light at the castle

2019 has seen much restoration activity at the castle, with an Open Day at Easter to show the public the progress being made. Such was the success of this event, that another Open Day is planned for around Easter time in 2020, and I will announce the date on this blog in due course. I was concerned that the Open Day was a lot of effort for no return, but I was very wrong. A price cannot be put on the new contacts and wonderful new friends made.

An exciting plan for 2020 is to hold some pop-up restaurant events in the Servants' Hall in the basement. This space, after all, was where the male and female servants dined together so the pop-up plan is good building karma. Of course, the restoration work for the Servants' Hall lies in the future, but knowing that the space will be re-used and enjoyed is the biggest motivator.

I would like to thank all "friends of Balintore" for their support during the last year. If you are reading this blog entry, then you are already a friend of Balintore by definition. I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and all the best for 2020.

Monday, 9 December 2019

1932 Fashion

In "The [Dundee] Courier and Advertiser" dated Monday, November 21, 1932, may be found this article:

article dated Monday, November 21, 1932

I have transcribed the caption from the photograph:

ANGUS SPORTSMEN who took party in Edzell Gun
Club's shooting match on Saturday. Left to right--Mr J.
Fenton, Balintore Castle, Glenisla; Mr W. Smith, Fetter-
cairn; Mr G. Caithness, Craigendowie, Lethnot; and Mr
D. Howe, Marykirk. Messrs Caithness and Howe are
international shots.

While the two figures on the right may be international shots, Mr. J. Fenton from Balintore Castle (on the left) is the standout because he is rocking his look of baggy tweed suit and tweed hat placed backwards on his head. It is unclear if Mr. Fenton is the owner of the castle, the shooting tenant, the gamekeeper or a relative of the gamekeeper. Around this time, there was a gamekeeper called W. Fenton whose name, we found written on one of the shutters.

I would like to think that as a later resident of Balintore Castle that I have picked up the style mantle. But I don't think this!

Changer d'Avis

There have not been many "changes of mind" in the castle's renovation. As there is so much of the castle to tackle, and a very limited budget, changing one's mind is an un-indulgable luxury and one has to always try to move in the forwards direction instead. As I am restoring the castle back to its original state as far as is practicable, then there are not really any gross stylistic changes of mind, but there are a few things I would like to revise. Certain detailings are slightly out of alignment and there are areas where I wished I had put in more insulation, etc.

The entrance hall originally had a flagstone floor, but the flagstones have long since been stripped out. A strip of flagstones survives under the fireplace and this will be kept. At £400 a square metre, new replacement flagstones are not an option. Accordingly, the plan was for the entrance hall to be floored in marble tiles. A typical Victorian look would be a checkerboard pattern at a 45 degree angle, so something in this vein would be suitable.

However, subsequent to a concrete sub-floor being poured in the entrance hall, the idea arose of building the entrance hall staircase economically out of reclaimed hardwood flooring, that had come from Eassie Community Hall just 10 miles away. The related blog entry is here. Then putting two and two together, it was obvious that doing the entrance hall floor in the same wooden flooring would tie the decor together and indeed avoid the expenditure of marble. So last week Greg jack-hammered up the old concrete sub-floor, which actually had done good service in the last few years. 

breaking up the existing concrete sub-floor

It pained me greatly to undo work already done, but it was a no-brainer that the wooden floor was the way to go. Such is my embarrassment over the wastage, that the title of this blog entry is in French: somehow it is a lessens the admission of the faux-pas.  The good news was that we managed to get 10 cm of insulation under the new wooden sub-floor; there had been no insulation under the previous concrete sub-floor.

rebuilt wooden sub-floor - looking west

rebuilt wooden sub-floor - looking east

The reclaimed flooring has been in storage for the last 8 years in the Great Hall - another point of shame. However, this makes the joy at finally using the material all the greater. At present, we are still laying the flooring as you can see in the image below. There was a great deal of preparatory de-nailing. We also spayed the flooring in an anti-dry-rot solution, given that there are still occasional leaks in the Great Hall so the storage conditions were not the driest.

laying hardwood flooring - looking east

So much to my joy, the entrance hall has undergone a recent spurt. There are still missing moldings (architraves and skirting boards), but the order with a carpentry workshop to duplicate extant moldings is just going ahead.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Early Christmas Meal

With the onset of the cold weather and the short days, I realised that my mood was starting to plummet. I am generally rather upbeat and indeed a friend remarked that I would have to be, having taken on the restoration of a vast ruined edifice. However, when it is dark most of the time and one is living with no heating, I defy anyone to not have a wibble. I am pretty cold-hardy but when the pain starts in my hands and feet, enough is enough. As I write this blog entry, I currently have an electric fan heater playing over my feet. At other times I direct the fan heater to blow over my fingers, so these do not seize up while typing.

Anyhow, my solution to improve my mood this winter is to have a dinner party every month throughout the season. The first dinner party was at Halloween, and this really cheered me up. The second, which has just taken place, was on the 6th December and again this did its magic. I was too hysterical with the cleaning and catering to take any photographs, but thankfully the friends who attended obliged, and the photos in this blog entry are theirs. I have noticed that in the throws of catering hysteria, one does not feel the cold at all. I suspect it is due to the high adrenaline levels, so there are unexpected beneficial side effects of winter dinner parties.

The Christmas tree and table decoration are courtesy of an accomplished friend of Balintore. This delegation allowed me to focus on the catering. If you wish to recreate this dinner party in the comfort of your own home, you can find the recipes as links in the picture captions below. All the recipes are foolproof - I do not attempt anything that is not. :-) The "yin and yang" poached pear dessert is my original creation. The Victorian dinner service mentioned in a previous blog entry here, had its first proper outing!

Many thanks to the attendees for their wonderfully therapeutic company, their gifts and their assistance. You can even catch a rare glimpse of the Laird of Balintore in the photos. :-) The observant will notice that I forgot to defrost my prawns for the starter and had to improvise with a fortuitously donated avocado.

table decked for early Christmas meal

smoked salmon in lime and honey dressing starter
the guests take their places

venison in red wine casserole

pears poached in red wine & pears poached in white wine

Christmas table decoration

Thursday, 5 December 2019

A Pilgrimage to Preston

I am an admirer of Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier". A mere 18 miles way I was recently on the road myself undertaking a pilgrimage to Preston. What is certain, is that my epistle (this blog entry) is of inferior literary quality...

Aside from the low cost, there are virtually no positives of Megabus travel. Dundee to London is 12 ½ hours of being locked into an uncomfortable seat. Reading on a bus gives me a nauseous headache, so I can only manage large print books for short duration. The resulting journey is both mind and body numbing. The best I can do is to try to "zone out" via sleep.

Do not doubt that there was the corporeal penance of religion for this secular pilgrimage. The pre-desiccation one undertakes, to avoid the widely ill-reputed on-board facilities, is a trial in itself.

Similarly, there are virtually no benefits of travelling to Preston. :-) It will therefore perhaps surprise our reader that travelling through the centre of Preston on the Megabus recently gave me a spike of unexpected pleasure, for out of the window I spotted Preston Minster: the huge Victorian edifice from which I bought some monumental radiators on eBay. See the blog entry here.

I never, ever, expected to see this building, but recognised it instantly due to previous internet research. Of course I did not have my camera ready, but on the latest trip on the Megabus on the 30th November, I was poised.

Preston Minster from the Megabus: 30th Nov 2019
reclaimed radiators from Preston Minster

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Large and Slow Service

I was told, by someone who caters for shoot banquets in the area, that posh china is required for visitors to Balintore Castle. The building, after all, is a shooting lodge. I did not need any convincing to ditch the IKEA plates and bowls, and hunt down such china as an auction challenge, as I had spotted that huge Victorian dinner services can go for a complete song. Interestingly, Greg had insisted I needed plain white modern crockery. You can't win! :-)

After missing out on a number of occasions, I finally bagged a late 19th Century dinner service for £20 on the 23rd July of this year. The china was in five cardboard boxes, and the auction catalogue photographs only partially showed the contents of one box.  It was going to be a gamble.

auction catalogue photo: 1 of 2

auction catalogue photo: 2 of 2
I was dreading the transportation cost to Balintore as the auction house is in Surrey, but as I was going to be in Oxfordshire imminently for a week, I booked the delivery for that week even though specifying dates comes at a price premium.

The dinner service never arrived, but the transportation company kindly agreed to ship it to Scotland instead, as they had missed the delivery window that I had paid for. In fact the service did not arrive for the next 4 months, and was left at the bottom of the castle drive in the dark and in the rain, only last night!

I was at my wit's end as the reasons provided for non-delivery throughout this period increasingly stretched credulity. I was left unable to determine whether these were fabricated excuses or whether life really is that strange. Having had to go through court actions for non-delivery of other items by transport companies, I was dreading more of this pain.  Anyhow, it was a huge relief when the china did arrive. I had to get a neighbour to help me move the china to the castle with his car, as I currently have no functioning vehicle. I had moved some of the china in a ruck-sack, but given the quantity it was going to involve many more hikes up and down the long and steep castle drive.

Here are some of the alleged reasons for non-delivery:
  • driver stuck in France
  • driver stuck in Norway
  • puncture
  • broken alternator
  • van un-fixable
  • van impounded
  • broken wrist 
Apparently, the last one goes as follows: the van hire company spotted the plaster cast on the driver's wrist and refused the rental. I was promised the driver would wear an anorak on the next trip to the hire company. :-) Given all of these hurdles, one has to admire the tenacity of the transport company.

Anyhow, I washed and counted the dinner service and assessed the condition. Miraculously, there was only a single casualty of the transport: a side plate had split in two. Aside from this, there were just two historic cracks (you can tell from the staining) and one historic repair.

the entire dinner service

large bowl 15
large plate 38
small bowl 8 2 cracked
small plate 11
side plate 12 1 split
outsize serving dish 1
large serving dish 2
medium serving dish 1
small serving dish 1
tureen 1 historic repair

I thought it would be interesting to date the service. The mention of SPODE and COPELAND dates it to after 1847 see here.  The lack of an impressed date-mark puts it to before 1870, see here. The COPELAND mark (without &SONS) implies before 1867, see here. The style of the COPLAND mark implies 1851 to 1885, see here.

So amazingly, with limits of between 1851 and 1867, the service belongs to the same era as the castle (1860). Naturally, these deductions could be way off. You have to pay a fee to the Spode Archive in Stoke-on-Trent to date your china, so perhaps someone reading this blog, can assist? The pattern number is 9499.

this COPELAND mark indicates 1851 to 1885

inside tureen lid

bottom of large bowl - is "J" the artist?

tureen - lid does not really fit

edge detailing

centre detailing

Saturday, 16 November 2019


Work has been proceeding on the staircase leading from the entrance hall to the great hall at Balintore Castle. When I bought the castle, this area had no roof and there only were a few rotten sections of tread and stringer (i.e. the stepped supporting beam) lying on the ground, so a total rebuild was required. Last week, now that the stairs themselves are in place, handrails were installed.

I had bought sections of reclaimed handrail at Taylor's Auction in Montrose way back in 2013. In fact I had spotted the handrail lying in the corner of the auction room throughout many auctions. Sometimes, they were for sale; sometimes they were not - but in any case they never sold. I would have bid on them, but I did not believe I would be able to carry then out the auction house. Some sections were 5m long, and the profile is very hefty - so they are both heavy and awkward.

off-cuts of handrail exposing a hefty profile

I asked my builder at the time, Andy, to come to the auction room and see if he could move them. Andy said "nae bother" and I did a deal with Mr. Taylor on the price. Andy proceeded to balance each handrail on end in one hand, traversing across the big warehouse space weaving between the fluorescent lighting - very much in the manner of a circus performer. The staff at Taylor's gasped in amazement at this feat of simultaneous balance and strength, and retreated to the walls of the warehouse just in case a handrail toppled over.

For the last 6 years the handrails have been sitting in the castle's great hall, so it was a huge relief to see these finally getting used. Everything at the castle is monumental in scale, and I knew that anything other than the most monumental of handrails would look out of place. They must have been installed in a public building or great house as there was perhaps 40 metres of handrail altogether.

Of course, the handrails were fitted to a particular flight of stairs. The consequence is the bends and twists in them are not appropriate for Balintore. However, the bends and twists contain the best craftsmanship and I was determined to re-use as much of this as humanly possible. We recycled bends that were roughly 90 degrees, by making top and bottom ends of the handrail curve into the wall, which looks better in my view, than the handrail just ending. Sometimes we made the handrail run into a perpendicular wall, where appropriate, so there was not a termination issue.

new guest stair handrails
a before photo for reference - note support for handrail in wall structure
this is before the before picture - the staircase as I found it when I bought the castle!

guest stair handrail: bottom left detail

guest stair handrail: bottom right detail

guest stair handrail: top left detail

guest stair handrail: top right detail (running into wall)

There was enough handrail remaining to also do the stone servant staircase, which also leads off the entrance hall. Here Gregor, my carpenter, knew what to do. He often moonlights from Balintore to fit handrails on massive new builds, and the technique is to join a short section of handrail at the end going downwards i.e. two 45 degree cuts. We did this on all the ends on the servant's staircase to be consistent. I even found a curved section of handrail (horizontal through to the exact stair angle) which fitted perfectly in the servant's stairs. So I believe, optimal use has been made of the old craftsmanship. Too much reuse would look wrong, as old components become less and less appropriate for their new locations.

new servant stair handrails

servant stair handrails: bottom right detail (note use of curve!)

servant stair handrails: bottom left detail

servant stair handrails: top right detail

servant stair handrails: top left detail

The photo below shows three beautifully carved sections of handrail, that simply would not fit at Balintore.

unusable but beautiful oddments

I cannot bring myself to use these as firewood, even though the well seasoned hardwood would burn extremely well. And in fact, these and the remaining sections of handrails could fit the stairs I want to build in the castle's ruined gate lodges, so I will keep them for now!

Gregor pointed out that the handrails were all hand-cut and not by machine. The result of this is that the profiles of the different sections vary slightly, but of course as long as each section fits the next, this is not noticeable. As we were joining lengths in different orders to fit the Balintore stairs, this discrepancy is apparent as slight ridges at joins. Rest assured, that we will be filling, sanding and re-staining joins, so things will be smooth and seamless as one runs one's hands along. So bear in mind that the photos shown are work in progress, as befits a restoration blog.

I had some random visitors today that said they had assumed the handrails were original to the castle, so I was delighted!

Excuse the green walls. This was supposed to be a British Racing Green, but each time it came out of the huge single tub of paint, it dried a different colour and none of them were my idea of British Racing Green. That is why the walls look highly patchy! How the same tub of paint could yield such different light and dark tones is quite beyond me. And yes, we did mix it. You live and learn. I will not buy that brand of paint again, and I have subsequently found a different brand that gives excellent coverage with other colours. So I will look for suitable green by the same company.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Winter Has Come

Given the current weather and the end of the "Game of Thrones" TV series, I think one can with some justification say "Winter has come.". For the last few weeks there has been a distinct sharpness in the air, and my builder Greg and I have been feeling pain in our fingers due to the cold. Gregor, Greg's father, has been altogether more stoic, while Greg and myself have been having a good daily moan on the topic. I currently have an electric fan heater blowing warm air over my fingers to enable me to type. Without this my fingers would seize up and be in considerable pain.

A friend has bought me a lovely pair of tough and warm gloves which are great for manual work. However, it is sad how many jobs require exposed flesh. Typing with finger-less gloves was a failed experiment - part of the problem is that I am not a touch typist and that any gloves obscure my view of the keyboard.

This blog entry is planned as a snapshot in time of life at Balintore Castle now that we are entering the coldest season. As of today, there is now snow in the high hills surrounding Balintore, and it is only a matter of time before snow comes to the castle. A severe winter is one where the snow stays at castle level; a mild winter is one where the snow falls but has melted by the end of the day. I am hoping for a mild winter.

The glens of Angus are a complete contrast to where I grew up on the west coast of Scotland, which thanks to the Gulf Stream,  had snow very occasionally. In fact, summer only arrives in Angus for me, with the melting of the snow in the high hills, and this can hang on well past Easter.

Greg snapped some Red Deer grazing in Glen Quharity a couple of days ago on his drive to work. It is rare to see Red Deer this low down and is a sure sign of the turn in the weather. The much smaller Roe Deer are generally what one sees around Balintore. Although it looks like snow in the photo, it is just a very hard frost.

marauding deer in Glen Quharity

The local gamekeeper once explained to me that Red Deer this low down are known as "marauding deer", and that you can shoot them with the landowner's permission, due to the threat to agricultural crops, etc. I do not know the full legal ins-and-outs, except to say that normal rules do not apply, and of course in certain, venison loving, circles marauding deer are looked upon as providing a culinary opportunity. I love the term "marauding" in this context as it turns the deer into ungulate pirates whereas I have yet to see a deer that is other than timid!

Gregor has been repairing the Grand Saloon doors so we can basically close off this area of devastation from more restored parts of the castle. The photo below shows the current door bring worked on today. Gregor has replaced a missing section of the bottom rail (bottom left) and also the missing section of molding in this area. So we definitely have that good conservation "make do and mend" ethos. The whole door was falling apart so this has been extensively glued and cramped - pretty much a miracle as I only have one cramp! 

repairing a Grand Saloon door

Things do not only move forward. There is a leak in the new roof above the new entrance stairs we are building. We have not put any hardwood cladding on the lower stairs due to this leak. But now the leak has got so much worse so it has irreversibly damaged plasterboard (now removed) and soaked the existing hardwood cladding. The leak has been fixed about 5 times already, so I cannot tell you how demoralizing this problem is, spending money over and over again with things going backwards instead of forwards. :-( Note that staple of all leaks, the expectant and overflowing bucket!

demoralising leak in entrance hall

A friend brought some lovely lilies with an astonishing combination of red and blue flowers on the same stem, so this has been lifting the ambiance of the kitchen wing: much needed when the shorter days drop the mood. Indeed, I was complemented on my Christmas display, but a seasonal statement was not my intention at all. The red candles, no doubt, were the red herring. The blue flowers have opened first. so will the red flowers open second or first turn blue? What excitement!

gift of chromatically astonishing lilies in kitchen wing 

Such are the demands of castle restoration, that I have only just watched the last episode of the last season of "Game of Thrones" roughly 6 months after it first aired. I wasn't able to duck one major spoiler that flew through the air towards me during that time, despite my best efforts, but thankfully the ending as such was still a surprise. Naturally, as a castle restorer, how could I be anything but a fangirl? I joined "Game of Thrones" in Season 3 or Season 4, and my friend Andrew created the rather witty artwork below in 2013: look very carefully. :-)

Balintore Castle vs. Game of Thrones

"Game of Thrones" is, I believe, the most popular TV series of all time and this popularity says something about the Zeitgeist. In part it is technological, the series has global reach due to the Internet and with High Definition we now have immersive drama, which is particularly powerful in the fantasy genre. However, the strength of "Game of Thrones" was not the fantasy but the elemental and Shakespearean quality drama. Having struggled with the books (genre fiction rather than literature) I suspect it was the synergy of acting, casting and production which really lifted the property into the stratosphere. In the same way, I infinitely preferred the "Lord of the Rings" films to the books, which were an exercise in longeurs and geeky philological self-indulgence. This is not to run down Martin or Tolkein as authors - the best works originate as literary sources - but life is simply too short to read everything.

My life and "Game of Thrones" have entwined somewhat over the years, with their respective polarisations of north and south. "Winterfell" in the north, is clearly Balintore Castle in the chilly winter as at present, and the "King's Road" leading to the south is clearly the M6 leading to my humble semi-detached abode in Oxfordshire.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Drawing Room Fireplace Mystery

The matching pair of white marble fireplaces in the drawing room at Balintore Castle have long since gone. It is likely that these were amongst the ones that were sold off, as they were the finest at the castle, and I have found no fragments of while marble in the rubble. I almost met the gentleman who had purchased around 3 marble fireplace from Balintore Castle at a dinner party. Unfortunately he could not make the event, and is sadly no longer with us, so the trail has gone rather cold. My ambition, quite naturally, would be to visit the extant fireplaces wherever they are and to take a good set of photographs.

A long time ago a friend emailed me a scan of a poor photocopy of a photograph of one of the dining room fireplaces, but I have been unable to locate this for years. I finally bit the bullet a couple of days ago and bought the digital image from the CANMORE database, which is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. I am limited to showing a low resolution copy on this blog, but the image is clear enough. This is one classy, extra tall, vaguely gothic, monumental French marble fireplace with a shell motif. The architect of Balintore, William Burn, used French marble fireplaces with shell motifs in other locations such as some of the bedrooms at Thirlstaine Castle, which I visited some years back. Burn had a great interest in fireplaces, as his father had been a stonemason and made fireplaces for a living,

one of the drawing room fireplaces at Balintore Castle - long since removed
So can anyone tell me where these fireplaces are currently installed? I believe it to be stately home or castle somewhat further north.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Treading on a Fortune?

One of my rugs caught the eye of some lovely visitors of Persian extraction. Apparently, though the Arabic script is difficult to understand, the rug was specially woven for a named individual who is one of the descendants of a prophet. Apparently, lineage from prophets is revered in Islamic culture, so my rug could be worth something.

can anyone translate this Arabic - is it the key to a fortune?

As far as I was concerned, it was just a cheap woolen runner to clad the cold stone floor of a corridor. The design appealed, of course, as I love Arabic script.

Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to write down the details so can anyone translate the Arabic and tell me if I am sitting, er treading, on a much needed restoration fortune?

rug with Arabic script in corridor