Monday, 20 April 2020

Arboreal Cathedral

Backwater Reservoir from hills above Balintore

The best advice I have read for "how to cope in a pandemic" is to plan a timetable of activities to re-inject structure into one's doldrums-esque existence. Naturally, I have failed miserably in this and have even failed in executing the government's stipulated daily perambulation.

In consequence when the need presses, I have been boosting my mood by a long directed walk. Ticking both the boxes (i.e. combining a plan and a walk in a planned walk) seems to be occurring about once a week, and my mind generally has a couple of walks I would like to do pending.

Every 7th row of trees in the forest facing the castle was felled and harvested during the autumn and winter of last year. I am not sure the reasoning behind this strategy. Generally thinning allows remaining plants to grow bigger, but these trees are already massive and only the outermost 2 of the remaining 6 rows will benefit. No doubt someone can educate me.

Anyhow, the plan was to walk up one of these newly formed avenues in the forest, and bask in the majesty of the arboreal cathedral. As for the destination: this was obvious. The forest was on the side of Macritch Hill so I would climb to the top. Macritch Hill merges into Creigh Hill, so I might as well do the double summit, very much in the same way Munroe Baggers bag clusters of summits on a single outing. The map showing both hills and the location of Balintore castle (red marker) is below:

Ordnance Survey map of area

I had only climbed these hills once before with my friend Damian 10 years ago, so revisiting was long overdue. These hills very much define the immediate landscape round the castle, so I think of them as friends. Here is the eventual walk I undertook shown on Google Maps:

Google Maps timeline of walk

I started out on the walk at 10 AM last Sunday. It was, as I had hoped, another beautiful sunny Spring day,  En route to the forest, I spotted some primroses on the banks of the Dairy Burn. I love primroses not just because they are a beautiful and simple first flower of spring, but because of a family connection. When my Mum was first married, money was tight and even a packet of biscuits had to saved-up for. I have never thought about the reason for this before, but it was probably because my Mum had just given up her job. In those less enlightened times, married couples were not allowed to work together in the same branch of the Met Office. She picked primroses in the local woods, potted them up, and sold them door-to-door. She never did tell my father. :-)  I am in awe of the fact she just got on with it

primroses on the banks of the Dairy Burn

The gorse was also in flower. The first flowers of the year are yellow, then this changes into the purple season when all the flowers are purple. It does seem to be the case that Mother Nature goes through the colours in the course of the flowering season, but I have never found this referred to in any text book or web resource, let alone explained. Let's call it the Johnston theory of temporal flower colour cohesion. There was a bunny sunning itself on its hind legs in the middle of the gorse, but I was too slow on the shutter!

gorse in flower

I guess the name for removing every 7th row is heptimate. Decimate is a troubling word, as it has two almost opposite meanings i.e. 1 in 10 removed or (almost) totally stripped . Removing every 7th row is indeed a thing. I found it described in "Plantation Silviculture" by K.R.Shepherd in Google Books.

forest with every 7th row removed

arboreal cathedral formed in forest by removal of a row of tress

Counting the rings on the felled trees showed 25 very clear large rings. At the centre it was hard to decide if the sapling had some prior seasons of much lower growth, so I would put the age of the forest between 25 and 30 years.

felled tree

Inside the forest were some muddy tracks. In fact one turned out to be like quicksand, and I had to retreat as my shoes sunk in deeper and deeper. There were some very large bird footprints in the vicinity, what type of bird is it?

footprints of unknown bird and myself in near quicksand

At the top of the forest by the deer fence was a corvid in a cage. This is a Larsen Trap and it is a way of trapping other birds of the same species, to protect young pheasants or grouse.

The fauna and flora as I climbed steadily higher above the forest became fantastical: lichen with red flashes; large green iridescence beetles; bright red butterflies dancing in pairs and even a little lizard. Despite it being a Common Lizard, it is only the second time I have ever seen one at Balintore.

lichen with red flashes

Common Lizard above Balintore
If truth be told, I did lie in the sun a few times during my ascent of Macritch Hill. This is not just because I am unfit, but it was simply glorious getting warmth from the sun after what has felt like a long winter. The view looking back at the hamlet of Balintore puts everything into perspective, my neighbours are all huddled together in matchbox houses. Even the castle is a matchbox house.

looking back at Balintore from Macritch Hill.

This panorama is taken from the cairn on Macritch Hill:

This panorama is taken from the slightly taller of the two cairns on Creigh Hill.  In fact, I suspect the lower cairn is a shooting butt. Creigh Hill is slightly higher than Macritch, and from the summit you can look down on the Backwater Reservoir over in the next glen. The other body of water you can see is Lintrathen Loch.

On the way back to the castle, taking a route I had never taken before, I fell up to my waist into a stream. I had assessed it just to be boggy ground, and decided that running across was the best way not to get wet. This was a spectacular miscalculation. My fawn coloured jogging bottoms were brown with mud and sagging with the weight of the absorbed water. Naturally, just 5 minutes later, I passed the first two people (dog walkers) I had seen all day. To preempt a "What happened to you?!" I got in first with a "Good Afternoon". I wonder what tale they are telling about the "Creature from the Black Lagoon of Balintore"? :-)

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Dead Animals in The Sun

In the early morning, the sun in the east can occasionally send shafts of sunlight deep into the dark un-restored parts of the castle. It feels as magical as the passage at Newgrange in Ireland being lit by the Winter Solstice sun. This morning, the light illuminated the castle's taxidermy animals with the assured hand of an old master. 

The images below shows the back-stage waiting areas for the expectant cast, who will shortly be performing in the theatre of the Entrance Hall, where Victorians traditionally corralled their bestial un-dead.

As the assemblage of animals is a temporary, random and unplanned pile, there is a certain uncomposed and transient beauty to the scene, that I felt I should capture before it disperses. The stoat is a particularly handsome fellow, with an astonishingly etiolated body. His name is "Tiny Tim" not because he plays ukulele, but because he is tiny and was a gift in the Christmas season.

current antique storage room

The herd of deer below escaped from an un-known Highland Estate somewhere near Inverness and migrated to Balintore en masse via the casting couch of a Glasgow auction room. I am presuming the new owner of the estate disliked what must have once been a formidable collection of taxidermy.

Lady Langman's bedroom, currently used for storage.

Anyhow, just like genuine thespians in the current pandemic, my animals are keen to be more than head shots in agents' books or photos in a blog and once again perform to the public.

Saturday, 18 April 2020


I have been super good at saving existing building fabric at Balintore. It makes the restoration more difficult and more expensive, but anything that has survived at Balintore is nothing short of a minor miracle to me and why on earth would I rip it out? This would be to fall just before the final hurdle, so to speak.

We patch into old lath-and-plaster walls with new plasterboard rather than strip off the old plaster and start again. I obtained listed building consent to use plasterboard from Angus Council, who in turn consulted with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) on the matter.

I instructed my builders that it would be legitimate to chop a straight edge in the old plaster, to make a clean join at the expense of saving every little last bit of sound old plaster. However, for once Gregor was even more zealous than myself. Observe the dilettante patching-in at the bottom left of the image below. :-) This is the housekeeper's room in the basement which are currently working on. The door leads down to the linen store, which the housekeeper supervised. The layout is oddly split-level as there is a short run of steps hidden beneath the protective Oriented Strand Board (OSB) sheeting we have put over the floor.

patching in old plaster with new plasterboard

Greg completed the plastering of the housekeeper's room on Friday. Here is panorama of the recently plastered wall, I took today (Saturday). Greg was panicking on Thursday as the high suction from the sections of Victorian lime plaster had made fine crack lines appear in the final skim coat. However, as we had PVA-ed all surfaces thoroughly and to my eye the skim coat had indeed firmly adhered, so there was no chance that it would crack off. I suggested a second skim coat would be subject to less suction, and would probably go on without cracking. Thankfully, Friday proved this to be the case.

housekeeper's room with final skim coat of plaster

We also started patching in wooden mouldings in the entrance hall on Friday. In the image below, you can see the original skirting moulding on the left, and the new skirting moulding on the right. We made an exact copy of the original profile. You may not believe this, but the original moulding is cast concrete painted to look like oak! When we were making the new skirtings it was actually cheaper to make them in genuine oak. Nowadays, the cost is in the labour not the materials. There was an incremental cost of a few hundred pounds to use oak instead instead of pine so it was a no brainer. The labour costs in casting concrete would have been phenomenal! Of course, by not stripping out the old concrete, we have the challenge of re-painting it to look like oak. The technique is called "graining" and it is carried out by using two shades of brown paint - a light and a dark - and by using special metal graining combs. I obtained a set of graining combs on eBay for £10. I am not sure I am up to the challenge. However, even painting the concrete a mid-brown would probably make it blend in acceptably, and having the original skirtings to me is far more important than decorative perfection.

patching in modern stained oak skirting to old painted concrete skirting

Gregor did not want the new oak mouldings stained as modern practice and modern aesthetics is to leave the natural pale wood colour. He told me it would be sacrilegious! Call me a Victorian aesthete, if you like, but I infinitely prefer my oak to be a mid to dark brown, however artificial this is. Luckily, there was no way the natural oak colour would have blended in with the existing oak or existing colour scheme. We held the pallid oak in place and it looked wrong, wrong, wrong.

This does not mean that staining the oak the correct shade of brown was easy. There are three "oaks" in the castle: the concrete painted to look like oak; the pitch pine painted to look like oak; and the genuine oak. The  painted pitch pine had got lighter over the last 150 years (paint does that) while the genuine oak had darkened with age. Originally, everything would presumably have been the same shade. So we basically had to stain the oak until it fitted in best when we held it in the different contexts i.e. a compromise exercise.

There is, in fact, a large quality of oak mouldings to be added to the entrance hall including door surrounds and arch surrounds not just skirting board. You can see the new footing for an archway moulding in the image below. The arch vaults over the stairs which lead to the great hall. With the layout of this arch moulding, there was more guesswork than with the skirtings as this part of the castle had been open to the sky and nothing had survived. In fact, even the presence of this moulding was guesswork. Actually, I should probably use the term "working out" rather than guesswork, as there must have been a moulding here and it would undoubtedly have been the same moulding that went round the doors, some of which has survived.

new skirting and new arch footer block in entrance hall

So there was a little bit of "give and take" between Gregor and myself as we figured out how the mouldings would have originally sat and joined up. In most cases, it was clear but in cases where there was doubt - one had to rely on personal aesthetics as to what looked best. There was a little difference between Gregor and myself here, but we got to a working solution. It is impossible that we could have reconstructed the woodwork exactly as it was, but I suspect we are very, very close. This is one reason, I have wanted to find interior photographs of the castle. Thankfully, very little of the castle was totally open to the elements, and fragments of mouldings have survived elsewhere all over the place.

I will write more blog entries as the rest of the new mouldings get installed.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Fifty Shades of Green

As described in a previous blog entry,  painting the Entrance Hall at Balintore Castle has proven unexpectedly problematic. Here is an update on the saga.

From the remaining evidence, the original wall colour was a very slightly yellow cream. I suspect this was to all intents and purposes the Victorian version of white - whether it had discoloured over the lifetime of the castle is uncertain. Where there has been a particular colour choice in the castle, I have tried to put this back as it was. However, where there was just a neutral colour or evidence of wallpaper, I have taken this as a cue to seek inspiration for a new colour choice.

For the Entrance Hall, a large tin of British Racing Green was duly bought. Despite 5 coats, the paint never once painted true. It somehow defied the lays of physics, and from the one well-mixed tin of paint, various shades of green appeared. The resulting patchy appearance was unacceptable. Gregor was definitely unconvinced by the racing green and I speculated on the possibility of sabotage. :-)

patchy "British Racing Green" paint

Anyhow, the racing green was darker than I had wanted or expected and it had quite a high proportion of black in it. So while I had got to like the effect, when a replacement green was chosen from a different paint company, I went for something lighter and of a more intense green shade. Everyone I showed the colour charts to picked out an "Emerald", as I had myself.  :-) With the builders and my friends on board, the order for two 5 litre tins was placed.

When Greg opened the first tin, a shocking pastel green was revealed, almost a pea green. See the top tin in the photo. When the second tin was opened, a much darker green was revealed. See the bottom tin in the photo. The dark green was lovely and was precisely what I wanted, so I presumed this was the emerald, and I contacted the paint company to send me a replacement tin for the pastel error. The company seemed to be in denial that the colours could be different saying that their mixes were checked against colour charts and I had to photograph labels for them, which revealed the same mixing codes.  Finally, they sent a replacement tin. However, this time the green was a new one matching neither of the previous tins. :-( See the middle tin in the photo. Despair was setting in. The green was between the other two in tint, nearer the darker one, but still distinctly different.

three tins of the same (?!?!?!) "Emerald" paint

I requested yet another replacement tin but the company were reluctant stressing that they could not have made a mistake, yet admitting that the colours in my photograph were very different. Eh? They wanted to collect the tins of paint I had already been sent instead. At this stage I was made to feel like a criminal i.e. cadging extra cans of paint from them. I communicated that my previous purchases from them had perfect colour matching, is an attempt to reinstate my bona fide customer credentials, However, once I agreed to the tin pick-up, the company said they could not pick them up as they were not in their original packaging. Eh? I tried explaining that the packaging was just black plastic shrink wrap, and there was no way this could be recycled but I could wrap in an equivalent manner myself and duck-tape the top. No response on this, but finally they agreed to send a second replacement tin.

Anyhow, the second replacement tin did match the first replacement tin - phew! Presumably by the laws of probability this has to be the true Emerald. The first two tins must have been a momentary hiatus in the mixing shop. The Emerald painted true thankfully. There is still some cutting-in to do with the Emerald as well as some patching-up work, so I cannot say whether the war has been won yet, just the previous battle.

The Emerald shenanigans consumed many evenings of email work and delayed the re-painting of the Entrance Hall by a month.  However, I like the colour very much indeed and cannot wait for the new oak mouldings and skirtings to be installed in the room, as it is the contrast of the rich green and the dark oak that gives the real Baronial pleasure. Colour perception is a very odd thing, as we painted over the British Racing Green with the more vivid Emerald, the racing green turned brown!

correct "Emerald" paint in situ