Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Housekeeper's Room Progress

This blog is a useful way for me to record features of the castle before they are "lost" in the process of restoration. There are two surviving pieces of original woodwork in the house-keeper's room, and I wanted to record the paint colour before I repainted, hence this blog entry.

The restoration saga of the housekeeper's room started in January of this year, when Gregor started building a new wooden sub-floor. You can see how little has survived in this room, with exposed stonework on most walls.

16th January 2020

By April, a new window had been installed, the flooring was down and the walls had been strapped and plastered. 

18th April 2020

By yesterday (25th May) the tiling and painting was complete and wall units had been installed. The space was starting to look like a proper room again. There is clearly further work to be done, but it feels like the back has been broken. Further progress will be shown on the blog when it happens.

25th May 2020

And finally to that paint colour. The surviving bits of woodwork are the architrave and skirting board on the left of the door below. The colour is a light grey/brown which occurs elsewhere in the servants' areas. I got identical mouldings made. These have been painted white for some reason, but you can see that the profile is identical. I will be repainting all of the woodwork a greeny-brown which also appears in the servants' areas, as this darker colour works better with the dark woodwork and gives a consistent look and feel to what has already been restored.

grey-painted surviving woodwork on left
A detail of the original paint colour is shown below:

close-up of original paint colour

Any Old Iron

This is the bit of restoration I absolutely hate: throwing historic things away that give an insight into how life once was at Balintore Castle. It is the decision that is the most painful: what to keep, what to throw-away and where to store what you keep. The core of the decision in my view is re-use. There are brass mechanisms for the bell system, which are totally intact and beautiful especially when polished up - to be kept. There are sections of rusted iron fender - which are really too far gone to be repaired - these can go. The decision is multi-factorial, as there is one relatively intact iron fender in the castle.

At least I can document what is thrown out. Some items flung today may be seen in the photo below. From top to bottom: iron fender super-structure; polygonal iron banding from round the brick "copper" in the scullery; Fido's bowl; not a watering can but a vessel for maids to take hot water to guests' bedrooms; and finally the corner of a fender.

any old iron

I only just realised at this very moment that Fido is derived from the Latin word for trust!

And finally, to dis-spell the stress, is a magical lighting moment witnessed today during the iron scrapage. A geometrically perfect spider's web in the castle's basement is selectively back-lit from a circular opening at ground level.

backlit spider's web in castle basement

Monday, 25 May 2020

Castles in the Air

Messieurs Gryphon and Griffin guarding the current Balintore Castle reading pile

I have been putting the book "Castles in the Air" by Lady Jean Fforde on my Christmas list for some time. Finally, after many years of Santa's oversight, I decided to bite the bullet and bought the book for myself.

The reason I wanted to read Lady Jean's autobiography is that she grew up in Buchanan Castle (1858), which is the sister castle to Balintore Castle (1860). Buchanan was designed by the same architect, William Burn, and is the closest building in style as well as being incredibly close in period. I was hoping I might discover more about how life had been at Balintore, and I was not disappointed.

There was much revealing information on how a country house functioned in the 1920's and 1930's when Lady Jean was a girl. I was excited to get chapter and verse on the function of a Still Room, as there is one at Balintore see here. I was also thrilled to find out about the roles of the butler and his three under-butlers. The under-butlers were public facing, but the butler himself was more of a manager. Who knew?! There is a butler's pantry at Balintore, though I suspect Balintore's butler was more hands-on as this building is considerably smaller.

Lady Jean's family spent Autumn and Winter at Buchanan Castle in Drymen, and Spring and Summer at Brodick Castle on Arran. She documents the considerable ritual of moving household on such a regular basis. Why two castles you may ask? This is due to the merging of two aristocratic dynasties: Buchanan Castle comes with the Duke of Hamilton title and Brodick Castle comes with the Duke of Montrose title. Hence the plural "castles" in the book's title.

Lady Jean is incredibly self-deprecating: amongst the many talents she does not possess are shooting and spelling :-), and it is clear she feels somewhat of an "ugly duckling" growing up. However, there is still the confidence of great privilege e.g. she used to spend her summer holidays in Monaco, playing with Prince Rainier and his sister, with whom she became very close.

The book has no literary pretension or filtering and Lady Jean just tells it like it is, so ultimately it is of great value to the historian. I initially thought that the writing was too un-structured to get on with. It does jump about here and there somewhat, with no themes emerging. However, I got used to the rhythm and ended up enjoying the book very much.

Lady Jean (11 November 1920 – 13 October 2017) is of that amazing wartime generation and only passed away at a great age surprisingly recently. She worked directly under Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, but describes the experience as rather dull. :-)

As a child, she witnessed the last chapter of the country house operating in its full Victorian splendour, and she confesses towards the end rather sadly that in her lifetime Buchanan Castle ended up as a ruin with huge trees growing through it. The castle was eventually badly managed as a hotel, by a family member, and literally went to wrack and ruin. I have visited the substantial ruins of Buchanan Castle on two occasions. Brodick Castle is now under the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland. The family's loss of Buchanan and Brodick could be considered mismanagement on one hand, and on the other, as simply the Zeitgeist moving against the large country house.

Life on Arran in the 20's and 30's struck me as particularly idyllic. At that time, the family virtually owned the whole island. I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland directly facing the Isle of Arran, yet have only visited once on a day trip as a teenager with a friend. Arran struck me then as a kind of paradise. The day was sunny and hot and there were bays and coves to explore, and I was knocked out by my visit to Brodick Castle. My love of this building is clearly an early clue to my leaning towards the Baronial. "Now, this is a proper castle." I thought, after my disappointment at the pallid Adam interiors of the local Culzean Castle viewed when I was even younger.

I could not get my head around how my family had never visited this wonderful island that was so close to where we lived. A school friend used to moan about always going on holiday to their holiday home on Arran. To me this sounded particularly wonderful, as my family never went on holiday.

As I was reading this book, a friend of Balintore suggested I read a book called "Castles in the Air" by Judy Corbett, documenting the author's journey restoring Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia. A book with the same title and about someone also on a restoration journey and suggested by a friend whose judgement I trusted?!?!?! There was too much karma involved, I simply had to read the book.

This book was very different, with distinct literary ambition. Judy is a book binder, a zealous reader, and a skilled writer. At first, I thought the book was over-written and coming through too many filters, emerging from the colourful imagination of the author and her obsessive interest in history. However, the book quickly settled into a more comfortable tone, at once humorous but possessing real emotional intensity. The restoration drive for Judy and her husband Peter was overwhelming and almost without reason, and the real hardships they suffered struck an enormous chord with me.

I was delighted to hear that others suffer from multiple longstanding leaks in their roof, and single digit interior temperatures. Sometimes, I rue the fact that Balintore is in the chilly highlands, but am comforted that a Welsh Castle is equally cold and indeed I also recently learned that French castles are the same via the delightful Chateau Diaries vlog. Apparently, getting a castle's interior above single digit temperatures is reassuringly difficult in France too. I have often wondered if a French castle would be warmer.

I actually knew a lot about Gwydir Castle already, though I had not put the name "Gwydir" to the stories. It has a tendency to flood and has accordingly appeared in the news, and most famously Judy went on a quest to locate the wood panelled interior of one of the large rooms in "Gwydir" which was rumoured to have been sold to William Randolf Hurst, the US newspaper tycoon on whom the film "Citizen Kane" is based. It is an absolutely fascinating detective story. I shan't give any spoilers!

There is much karma here as I have been fascinated from my early teens by Hurst and his acquisition of historic European interiors for his Californian Castle, San Simeon which was fictionalised as Xanadu in the Orson Wells' film. In fact, collecting cheap reclaimed items for Balintore has made me reflect on myself as "a Hurst on a budget". :-) It gets even weirder as I managed to finally acquire some old panelling myself, and this is arriving tomorrow. Please await the blog entry.

Judy often refers to spirits from the past informing a building, and I was taken aback by the most convincing account I have ever read of a ghost, written by this intelligent and articulate woman. I do think about these spirits myself on occasion, especially as the motivation for restoration must surely be romantic in origin; it most certainly is not financial. :-) I definitely have kindred feelings with Judy and her artist and art historian husband Peter, so much so, that I feel I know them and would comfortably drop in at Gwydir - even though on paper I am a complete stranger. In any case, they are used to people taking liberties with their home. I have experienced the strange effect of castles on visitors myself. Judy is astonishing rude/truthful/amusing about badly behaved visitors and guests. There is no doubt they will be able to identify themselves from the prose. I felt much better about staying polite with my own recalcitrant guests, even when this is difficult, simply knowing that Judy sometimes gives up the fight.

No explanation was given of why "Castles" (plural) appears in the title, but I suspect it could be due to the layerings of Gwydir Castle in the writing: a historic reality, a ruin, a place of dreams, a modern restoration and as a home of great spiritual reward,

poster for 1952 British film "Castle in the Air"

While I was reading the second book, another friend of Balintore recommended a film to me called "Castle in The Air". This really was too much. I had to view that movie.

The lead character, the earl of a rather dilapidated Scottish Castle, played by David Tomlinson, spends most of the film trying to sell his castle, which he considers un-sellable. The irony is that I have spent a lot of time trying to buy such a property. :-)

I did enjoy the film, and it is quite a gem, but it is somewhat creaky and is very definitely a stage piece rather than a cinematic one. Broad farce is much more suited to the stage. What saved it were the energetic performances by some of the great British character actors. The stand-out was Ewan Roberts (genuinely Scottish) who played the earl's servant Menzies. He accurately captured a certain wry Scottish vernacular. Some of the castle's interiors are a type of English Gothic one would never see in Scotland, but architectural accuracy in fiction is not a deal-breaker, even for me. 

The poor quality of the film print and digitisation on YouTube and the dated drama made it feel like the film was made in 1932 instead of 1952.

The jokes about the low temperature were too close to the bone. :-)

I initially thought the film was going to be an English cartoon version of Scotland, but the film truly fits into the Scottish canon, and I am delighted to know of it.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Crazed Runes and Sheep

The cobalt blue edging tiles being installed in the housekeeper's room have an extraordinary property: they sing. When handled they make an occasional tinkle, that sounds like a far-away fairy bell. 

However, they also made this sound after I had initially attached them to the wall, and this is how I first became away of the phenomenon and assumed that the tiles must be coming off the wall somehow. It was worrying. It was then I noticed they also made this sound when first taken out of their box. I was relieved and enchanted. My tiling was not at fault - hurrah! The tiles have a life and indeed a singing career of their own.

I summoned my builders and a friend to witness this prodigy of physics for themselves. One friend thinks it is a property of terracotta, as her terracotta plant pots sing in a similar fashion, and the tiles are indeed unusually made from a red earthenware. I suspected the noise is related to the properties of the glaze - perhaps differential expansion?

This was weird enough, but yesterday I started wiping away the thin film of grout that is left behind following the grouting. If I had wiped too firmly I would have seen nothing, but a gentle wipe reveal runish glyphs on the surface of the edging tile, which are presumably ultra-thin cracks in the glazing. Are these cracks responsible for the singing?

Now the tiles were using the written form to communicate with me. We distinguish between natural and man-made phenomena all the time: it is part of being human. However, there is something deeply unsettling when we see something that betrays a human hand, when no human could have been involved.

This first tile writes in Norse runes:

runic crazing in glazing

This second tile writes in Roman numerals:

Roman numeral crazing in gazing

Lock down makes us do things we have always thought about doing but never get around to. Anyhow, while touring castles on the west coast of Scotland with my friend Andrew, I spotted a shrub with vivid red flowers, growing in gardens all over the place. It was showy and above all it must be hardy to thrive in these exposed gardens: just the plant needed at Balintore Castle, I concluded, where gardening effort is minimal so return on investment must be great. 

I contacted a gardener friend, Paul, recently to identify the shrub. He immediately came up with the name Pieris, and googling revealed that I had most likely seen the "Forest Flame" cultivar which is described as a "show stopper". I had mistaken the bright red young leaves for flowers, but had correctly thought the shrub a bit Azalea like. The Pieris and Azalea are related. Paul indicated that rabbits hate it. As rabbits decimated my herb garden last year, I placed my order pronto. This was war.

the dream - the Pieris I aspire to

On Saturday morning early, I planted out all 6 baby shrubs. The ground is so hard I had to use a crowbar to break it up so I could excavate planting holes. The effort was not inconsiderable. On Saturday evening, 4 of the plants had been dug up and I found they had been dragged off around 10 feet in varying random directions from where I had planted them. It had to be the crazed sheep that are roaming around the castle grounds at present, that have escaped from the neighbouring field.

You do not think of sheep as being malevolent, but obviously they didn't eat them but just caused wanton damage - why? I replanted and surrounded
 the shrubs with stones. On Sunday morning, one of the shrubs had again been dug up. I added more stones to the defensive walls later that day, see the following photo:

the reality - fortress baby Pieris
This really is war.

Monday, 11 May 2020


I know a restoration project is all about creating the atmosphere of ages past, but this morning there was an unexplained overshoot, when this creature appeared unbidden in the kitchen wing:
Before investigating the warp in the fabric of space-time, I will have to make inquiries of my worryingly wayward builders, who might just be responsible. With his snout pressed against the glass, Balintorisaurus is clearly looking forward to getting outdoors again. He is over 70 years old so self-isolation is the new normal.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

A Quick Stain

My carpenters, Gregor and Liam, installed their bespoke kitchen wall cupboards in the housekeeper's room in the basement yesterday. When you are restoring a castle, cabinets from B&Q (even if it were open for business) would look entirely wrong. These cabinets feature pitch pine gothic Victorian doors from box pews, and a modern white pine and plywood carcass.

The doors were obtained from Ben's reclaim yard outside Bath, and must have had my name written on them as I bid on them on three separate occasions some years apart. The tale is worthy of another blog entry. The doors are incredibly weighty, being solid wood and 1 ½ inches thick.

wall cupboards before staining

Today, I decided to give the new wood on the front of the unit a stain to see if I could match the warm colour of the antique pitch pine. This is not an easy task as I was using walnut crystals which you brew into a kind of ink. Depending on the strength of the ink and the number of coats applied, you can obtain almost any shade of brown. It is all too easy to go too light or too dark, and all too easy to leave visible brush strokes - so it is very unlike a conventional forgiving stain.

Anyhow, hopefully the after stain look (below) is acceptable enough. New fast-grown wood never looks quite as good as old, but hopefully by bringing them to the same colour the difference is minimised. This staining took all of 15 minutes. The harder part is staining the interiors, tops and bottoms of the unit which will take many hours this evening.

wall cupboards after staining

door detail

I am absolutely delighted with the look of the cabinets. It was very much an act of faith that the pew doors could be repurposed in this way, let alone fit in with the ambience of Balintore Castle. Both Balintore and the doors are theoretically in the gothic style, though perhaps the doors are a little too ecclesiastical. Having said that, some stately homes in the high gothic style, are themselves somewhat church-like. And indeed, why not benefit from the secularisation of society by reclaiming the quality fixtures and fittings? :-)

I have instructed Gregor and Liam to make another wall unit for the housekeeper's room, and this should be installed tomorrow. With two matching units the decor becomes more coordinated and deliberate. And yet another wall unit is now planned for the still room, which is also currently under restoration. The large job lot of small doors, once repurposed, will establish a coordinated look amongst the basement rooms.