Sunday, 10 March 2019

Balintore Castle : History and Restoration

The is an article that the Forfar Historical Society asked me to write - a written copy of the talk I gave there. They wanted 2000 words, and I have come in at around 2,500 - hopefully OK.  The slides for my talk were no use for the article as they are just an aide memoire for me to make things up as I go along. Anyhow, I then thought I could cobble an article from material in this blog, but each entry has limited context and I wanted to give the entire "epic sweep" of the Balintore story. The outcome is that I wrote most of the article from scratch and there is new material in here that I have never written down before. Some bits of the blog were inevitably recycled towards the end of the article so apologies for any repetition. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this 

To donate to the Balintore restoration project click here.


Balintore Castle : History and Restoration

by Dr. David John Johnston


Background and Introduction


Balintore Castle
Balintore Castle was commissioned by David Lyon (1794-1872) as a shooting lodge for the elite of Victorian society. The building has miraculously survived to this day, through decades of neglect, dry-rot, looting and vandalism.

When I first encountered the building it was a star entry in Scotland's "Building at Risk" register: an A-listed jewel-box of Baronial architecture. Repair was clearly uneconomic, as the massive oriel window had collapsed. I put the building to the back of my mind, and continued my quest to find a sensible building to restore: one commensurate with my modest budget. Little did I think that years later, I would find myself the owner of Balintore and taking on a restoration that would baulk multi-millionaires.

Discovering the "At Risk" register was the catalyst for looking for somewhere to restore. After seeing the first few pages of wonderful buildings my destiny was fixed. How could such beautiful structures like these be neglected? It was beyond my comprehension, and I wanted to do something about it.

It goes without saying that I like Art and History, but most people with these interests do not engage in restoration lunacy. There must be a larger picture to explain my motivation, that remains ultimately unfathomable. However, part of it is keeping our connection to the past open: honouring the workmen who built the structure; the guests and servants who were part of the fabric, and also the local community for whom the building is their history.

After giving talks in the local area, people come up to me and tell tales of their family's connection to the building. This is like gold dust to me, and I record what I can. In short, between trying to keep my builders paid and legal fights to help save the castle, I am its informal historian and am slowly transferring information to the blog I am keeping on the restoration. Needless-to-say, many generous people have provided information and I am way behind in transcribing this into digital immortality, but I do my best.

Around the year 2000 when I was most actively looking for a place to restore, I saw other buildings at roughly the same state of decay as Balintore. It has been shocking for me to revisit these other buildings more recently, as they really have gone downhill - with repair now clearly uneconomic rather than just borderline. Of course, no building is genuinely beyond repair but few people would take on such a challenge in the wilder regions of Scotland. So while the restoration of Balintore has been painfully slow, the realisation of what the building would be like now if I had not intervened, gives me comfort. There was a definite sea-change the day the building became wind and water-tight. One fight had been won, and there would be no further deterioration under my custodianship.

Of course taking a consolidated structure towards habitability is a further, even more expensive, challenge and this is currently ongoing. You cannot budget for a sensitive, conservative restoration as you never know what damage you will find lurking under floors and behind walls, and patching-in is infinitely more difficult than stripping out and starting again.

It was obvious early-on that the building would have to "sing for its supper" to continue the restoration into the future. The original plan was to restore the kitchen wing as a holiday let, and to consolidate the rest of building. In fact difficulties in obtaining planning permission for the kitchen wing, meant that work on the rest of the the building is father advanced that I ever expected in my lifetime: with most floors and windows now put back.

The delayed kitchen wing will be launched as a holiday let during the Easter weekend of 2019, a full 12 years after the purchase of the building in 2007. Talk about funding gaps! I hope that income from the holiday let will accelerate progress. Thereafter is terra incognita in that the original just-feasible plan for the building will have come to fruition. As many people pointed out to me, you have to be happy with the "journey" not just the "end result" with a project like Balintore, and Easter will see the launch not just of the holiday let, but the second great voyage.

The History of Balintore Castle

A miniscule drawing of a building labelled "Balintor"appears in one of Timothy Pont's maps. Messieur Pont is the legendary cartographer who walked the length and breadth of Scotland in the 1580's and 1590's mapping the country and drawing every building of significance. The drawing looks like a medieval tower house, yet is very close to and strangely reminiscent of the present Balintore Castle, with its tall central tower. So clearly the current Victorian Balintore Castle was not the first one in the area. This begs the question, where is or was the old (presumably mediaeval) Balintore Castle? Is it perhaps hidden inside the current building?

The architectural historian Charles McKean visited me at the castle to try to settle this conundrum. I had overslept on the Saturday of his visit, having been at work late the night before. I was awoken by a knock on the door of my tiny caravan, and had to greet the great professor for the first time startled out of sleep and in my jim-jams. This was all the more mortifying as my father had some of McKean's books, so I was aware of his reputation from a young age. Fortunately, he turned out to be one of the most gracious men I have even met, with absolutely no airs, and I treasure the memory of the time we spent together.

He found no evidence of any mediaeval fabric within Balintore Castle, and everything points instead at a pure Victorian confection, The castle sits on a levelled terrace designed to capture the view, whereas mediaeval castles were situated at strategic locations, at road junctions or by streams.

At the end of the day, Professor McKean emailed me to say that he was virtually certain that Balintore House, at the bottom of the west drive of Balintore Castle, was the old Balintore Castle. Balintore House, which was the home farm for the Balintore Estate, looks like a Georgian building on the outside, but this assuredly disguises a mediaeval core.

So the answer to the conundrum was "hidden in plain sight" and I felt such a fool for not making the connection myself. I had spent years, looking for signs of a ruined mediaeval building in the area!

Balintore Estate was bought by David Lyon around 1858 so he could build his own romantic movement castle. Balmoral Castle had been built in 1856, just 30 miles away, so Messieur Lyon was right on trend just as he had been in the fashion department as a young man.

the fashionable David Lyon

The architect was William Burn (1789-1870) who started his practice in Edinburgh, but was so successful he moved to London. His studio was incredibly prolific: being responsible for the building or re-working of over 500 stately homes. Burn almost single-handedly re-introduced the distinctive mediaeval Scottish Baronial style to Victorian Britain earlier in his career. So when Burn designed Balintore very late in his career, it is clear he took all the motifs of the Baronial and lovingly applied these in a devotionary swan-song. To this day, visitors can still point out details in the stonework that I have missed.

a water-colour from 1864 - shortly after construction
I have not fully patched together the chain of ownership for Balintore. When David Lyon died just 10 years after the construction of the castle, his brother William inherited it. The names of a number of shooting tenants emerge from the records including the marvellously monikered Compte de Berteux and Colonel Courage. However, I cannot help but feel that castle was a white elephant. Balintore was never lived in year-round, although that was how shooting lodges operated with occupancy just in summer and autumn. 

the playboy Compte de Berteux as a young man


The one character who seems to have stayed in the building on a longer term basis is a Lady Langman (1878-1963) who spent time every summer at Balintore. Lady Langman falls within living memory, and by all accounts, though somewhat intimidating, was a "game gal" throwing parties for the local children. Someone I recently spoke to was taken as a little girl, by Lady Langman to the bathroom on the top floor of the castle to see a mechanical doll swimming in the bath there.


the presiding Lady Langman
Her man servant used to wipe the dry rot off the walls, so that Lady Langman would not see it. A visiting child was told not to comment to Lady Langman. on the green mould growing on the dining room walls. I understand the first undeniable indication of dry-rot at Balintore was during Lady Langman's residency in 1957, when a wardrobe fell through the floor. I believe I have found the most likely section of floor, as there is some rare evidence of repair. We have called this room Aunt Nellie's dressing room, as Nellie was the family name for Lady Langman.

Although no longer inhabited after Lady Langman's death in 1963, the castle was used occasionally by shoot beaters for overnight accommodation into the 1980's. At that stage there were still books, furniture, paintings and crockery. The sale of the castle by the Kinnordy Estate in 1984 without any land was really the end. The building passed through the hands of a number of developers but any good intentions dissipated when the scale of the project hit them.

Piecing together the time-line, the major deterioration of the castle seems to have occurred as late as the 1990's. With around 5 large holes in the roof caused by the skylights falling through and with blocked box-gutters all the way round the roof, water ingress essentially caused dry rot to run riot through the building. A roofer told me that 90% of the damage to the building could have been prevented by simple roof maintenance.

I made an attempt to purchase the building in 1999, expressing my desire to restore the building, but no response was obtained from the then owner. Angus Council embarked on a compulsory purchase procedure around this time. Little did I know this was a legal precedent in Scotland, and arguably in the UK as well, so legal proceedings took an incredible 8 years.

I was unable to visit the castle during this period as seeing it deteriorate, aware I was powerless and not knowing if the compulsory purchase would ever work out was more than I could take. Then suddenly and almost out of the blue in 2007, the compulsory purchase came through. The Council had invited open tenders for the building in the meanwhile. Two other parties applied, but my own longstanding application, was to my huge relief favoured. The Council sold me the building in February of 2007.

I am asked how can I deal with the stress of the restoration. Most people panic if their heating boiler breaks down. I have lived at the castle without heating, without water, without sewerage, without electricity and, worst of all, no Internet. However, the stress of this is as nothing compared to the 8 years of the compulsory purchase, which failed 3 times during this period and I was told by the Council each time that it was all over. 


Thankfully, the presiding conservation officer at Angus Council was a fighting chap and jumped right back into the ring. Happiness is being able to move forward at the castle, every bucket of rubble moved out of the building is a minor victory and despite the enormous set-backs on the way, something has always been moving forwards and that is all one needs for hope.

Archive Photos

When I give guided tours of the castle, people often ask me about the number of servants. Having studied the servant accommodation, I generally give an estimate of 12. This would  have included both the domestic staff at the castle and the ladies's maids and gentlemen's man servants that guests would have brought with them. Census returns show two full time residents: a housekeeper and a maid, who presumably kept the building ticking-over out of season.

I had images in my head of the staff and had daydreams of going back to the heyday of the castle to see what it was like, but sadly knew this was not possible.

However, in June of 2018 I was made aware of that an archive of historic photographs owned by the Storrier family, had only recently been made public. The Angus Archive service scanned these in high resolution for me. These turned out to be simply wonderful and give a glimpse of Balintore Castle in its full 19th Century magnificence. I will show 3 of the photographs here.

archive photo 1

The first photograph looks to be the only one that shows "guests" as well as "staff". To my eye, the three people sitting on chairs on the left, as well as the boy in front are guests. The cap of the seated gentleman on the right and his literal separation from the three guests (social divide?), is instant condemnation to the lower ranks. Here a smiley gamekeeper is photo-bombing the party at the rear, quite an achievement for the 19th century, and one feels that he is very much his own man and would be great company. This gamekeeper appears in more of the photos than anyone else so his changing appearance is a useful cue to putting the images in temporal sequence. The changing ladies' hairstyles is another clue that the photographs were taken years apart rather than in just a single shooting season. 

archive photo 2

The second photograph shows the brass lion's head bell pull on the right hand column very clearly. Long since gone sadly! The smiley gamekeeper has a little grey in his beard, so I suspect this is the latest photo. All the women have a "bouffant" hair thing going on, that may be Edwardian. I love the wee "grouse boy" who is holding three grouse, each of whom is half his size! There are some surprises at least to me - the sheer number of servants. There are 12 women servants here and that's just for starters and not even counting the men.

The third photo shows a younger gamekeeper, so I suspect this is the earliest photo. This is my favourite as it shows the servant retinue in its full Victorian heyday with cook (ample figure and not wearing a customer-facing lace cap!) and footman (light jacket with tails).

archive photo 3



Restoration Photos

Most of the restoration effort has been on the roof. This is rather unfortunate as for the first few years, people were reporting there was no progress at the castle. The truth of the matter was they could not see what was going on up on high! I bought the building with no knowledge as to the condition of the roof, because at that stage it was inaccessible. The roof turned out to be a curate's egg i.e. good in parts. If it has been in any worse a state, it could have totally broken the budget. 

Restoring a turret is particularly demanding of the carpenter's skill. Here we have patched-in to the existing woodwork. The vertiginous topping-out ceremony once the resarking was complete, was one I declined to attend.




 The devastation in the vast Great Hall is clear from this photo. It was still open to the elements at this stage and snow lay on the ground. There is no longer any water ingress.


In contrast, the castle kitchen below is shown well on its way to completion. This is just before the screeding for the underfloor heating was poured.




In January of this year (2019) a friend, who works at the Landmark Trust, and I made a start at furnishing the kitchen wing. The castle scullery, shown below, has been set up as a "snug" or small sitting room. When I bought the building, its stone slab floor had long since been looted; there was bare earth underneath and most of the plaster had fallen off the walls and ceiling. Did I mention that the roof leaked? My fingers are crossed that everything will be in place for the Easter launch date.






13 comments:

  1. Looking good! I need to visit again sometime this summer!

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  2. That is a great overview! Keep up the hard work. Very impressive.

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  3. Wonderful overview and lovely photographs of the staff! I am particularly intersted in the gamekeepers. I have recently discovered that my husband's great great grandfather worked as a gamekeeper in Balintore in 1891. We are coming out to Scotland from South Africa in September and plan to visit Balintore. Looking forward to seeing your progress!

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  4. Thank you so much for welcoming us in today - unannounced ! The project is quite breath taking and your energy and enthusiasm are infectious. What an amazing and worthwhile under taking. I’ve read your blogs and seen your on line descriptions which all add to the picture. Quite amazing!

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    1. It was a pleasure to show you around - lots of good brainstorming on ways to push things forward more quickly. If you want to connect on facebook you can find me as "MrBalintore". Facebook messaging is a good way to swap email addresses.

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  5. David dear, in a recent comment I sent a link to a post on my own blog where I mentioned Balintore Castle as being victorian and perhaps less in peril than other much older buildings. This phrase seemed unsensitive given that all old buildings deserve a second change and I see that you have poured you soul and all your funds into this restoration. I apologise for this. I have followed this building over the years as its a meer 3 hours South of where I grew up although I now live in France. I am so happy that this castle has found its 'carer' and I sincerely hope that things continue to go well for you in this project. My very best wishes Stephanie

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    1. I did keenly and somewhat sadly note your remark that Balintore is "much less valuable than many older ones". I am pleased you have revised this stance. :-) Ironically, I was initially planning to restore a mediaeval tower house and this would have been more core to who I am. However, Balintore is A-listed and was in a perilous state and badly needed some love, so I had to think deeply about what I was going to restore. Balintore was not going to be a simple project of perhaps 5 years duration as I had originally planned but a lifestyle choice. I am very fond of the baronial/gothic, but given the sheer scale of the structure, it would have to be put to use generating income for itself.

      The age of a building is not necessarily related to the degree of peril, and in fact Victorian buildings are possibly at the greatest peril as they may have woodwork succumbing to dry rot and they are often on a grander scale, which people nowadays do not want.


      Many thanks for your kind wishes for the project.

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    2. David dear riddled with guilt I modified my blog entry and added a link to your blog to allow people to follow your amazing progress. It is true what you say about Victorian buildings. I did an article on my blog on Invergordon and the history of the castle. There had been a very old and probably important castle but it was torn down and Robert Adam designed and built another and THIS was then torn down to build a Victorian Gothic pile which in jsut a few years was also torn down, now there is a housing estate !! Here is a link if you wish to see. xx
      https://madnessmademurray.blogspot.com/2019/05/the-rise-and-fall-of-highland-town.html

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  6. The painting of David Lyon is thought to have been painted in the 1820s.

    His wealth was inherited from his father who amassed it by trading with the West Indies and through his being a slave plantation owner.

    David Lyon himself received a great deal of "compensation" in 1835 when slaves on the Jamacian plantations he inherited from his father were emancipated.

    On his grave in London is inscribed: "Of Balintore Castle, Forfarshire, N.B.” “N.B.” apparently stands for North Britain.

    He was in his mid- sixties when Balintore was constructed, he was not young. And as you say he died ten years afterwards. His main home was in Sussex (S.B. as you might say) - he could hardly have lived further from Balintore. Though buried in London he died in Nice. My guess is he spent a lot of time in the south of France.

    So, the question is:- How much time did he get to spend in the castle? Very little I suspect. For him I think it was a status symbol symbol, an odd status symbol as few people will have seen it. And why was he attracted to Angus? - his most illustrious antecedents came from that area.

    I'm interested him him as he was an M.P. for the rotten borough of Bere Alston in Cornwall.

    Good luck with your project - possibly one day I might book in there.

    Paul Buttle (email buttlekeswick @ googlemail.com

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    1. Thanks Paul for the biographical information. I suspect David Lyon did not spent much time at the castle. It was probably more of a rich person's prestige project, following the example of Balmoral Castle, which was completed just 4 years earlier. David Lyon was related to the Boyes-Lyons at Glamis Castle.

      Balintore Castle is only 10 miles from Glamis and only 30 miles from Balmoral, so this may in part explain the location. The other factor is simply finding a suitable estate to redevelop - the Balintore Estate existed long before Balintore Castle.

      David Lyon married late, around the time of the castle's construction. The marriage was not a happy one and allegedly unconsummated, so no doubt he had other things on his plate and Nice was a good way to escape the Mrs. :-)

      You are very welcome to visit and stay at Balintore.

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  7. Wow! Wow! Wow! We can not wait to visit next month!! What a journey you've had! Wait till we tell you ours with our old bakery on Bute! We've been at it for 11 years!
    See you soon!
    Catherine & Ronnie

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  8. Wow! Wow! Wow! We can not wait to visit next month!! What a journey you've had! Wait till we tell you ours with our old bakery on Bute! We've been at it for 11 years!
    See you soon!
    Catherine & Ronnie

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