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.


  1. What a fab idea, as you have such a large place I am sure that you will always find things that no one else can accomodate in their builds and perhaps for not much more than smaller scale items. xoxoxoxo

  2. The addition of the "before " photos underscores the careful thought that went into the design of this imposing re-created stairhall. The elliptical ceiling, the carefully fitted handrails, the niche at the top of the stairs...David Lyon would think that someone with taste was smartening up the old place!

  3. Thanks for the vote of confidence. My architect friend did his Ph.D. on William Burn, who designed Balintore Castle, and he said the ceiling would have been curved. There is actually no evidence for this, but when the reconstruction took place, it felt right.

    This part of the castle involved some guesswork as only the stone walls were left. However, the adjoining space had some surviving detailing, which we are continuing through.

    Are you John Feuchtenberger? :-)

  4. The same. My house in the West Virginia hills
    bears a similar relation to Balintore as Wemmick's "castle" in Great Expectations does to Windsor, but I empathize with your incredible work!

    1. Thanks for the link - this was the one by which I worked out your identity. I greatly admire your wholescale use of architectural salvage to build a soi-disant Frankenstein's monster. This is far more incredible than the bumbling and slow restoration at Balintore castle. I do use a lot of architectural salvage for the restoration, but the aim is to get close to what was there before, rather than a creative original work as with you. I love Great Expectations.

  5. Who knew that a blog post about a handrail could be so delicious?

    Well done! Well done!

  6. Wonderful to meet you David :) I've been reading all of your wonderful blog posts :) We'll try to come by for another wee visit if we're up your way again.