Some friends of mine are on the hunt for a country property that will accommodate highland ponies and ooze period charm. When it comes to oozing, I am your man. :-) When I discovered Ballinbreich Castle on the Internet recently, I could not believe that such a large and beautiful ruin was so close to Balintore, and yet I had not heard of it. Naturally I teased my friends by suggesting they "view", without any thought that this might actually happen.
When I found out my friends would today be within 2 miles of Ballinbreich for work, I pushed harder. This resulted in me being invited to a small "castles of Fife" expedition. After being cooped up indoors due to covid, the prospect was glorious.
The first stop was an abbey rather than a castle. Balmerino Abbey of the Cistercian Order (founded in 1098) was founded in 1227. With the reformation and subsequent plundering of stone, only structures around the north transept survive. However, these structures are of exquisite beauty with details such as foliated capitals. Due to the extreme age of the building, my normal architectural "dating eyes" could do nothing.
At one time, after the reformation, the building had been repurposed as a private residence. The building could still be repurposed, but it is a tricky brief, as one would want to preserve the magic atmosphere of the ruins. There is still a noticeable spiritual tranquillity on site. Even in ruin, the abbey provides solace for the soul.
|Balmerino Abbey (round the back!)|
This ruined 5 storey L-plan castle dating from 1500 stands rather starkly in the middle of a field. The photographs on the Web looked rather undistinguished and showed a significant amount of collapse, but these did not prepare us for the reality. This is an unusually massive tower house. The scale took our breath away. This was a high status building with large windows, rather than purely defensive slits, that brought light into what would have been a phenomenally large great hall. We could make out 4 of the floors. Part of our confusion in trying to find the fifth floor, was that we were uncertain if the vaulted basement had collapsed or was intact beneath us. There were at least 4 building phases, and the dark, dark stone only enhanced the forbidding character of the building.
Any restoration would have to begin with considerable consolidation, so a lot of money would have to be spent before any accommodation could start to be reclaimed.
|Lordscairnie Castle (stair tower)|
We took a wrong turning while trying to find Denmylne Castle. As far as wrong turnings go this was beautiful, as long rows of daffodils trumpeted our procession along a drive. We were not escorted off the premises, but a car lingered at the end of the drive to ensure that we did leave! The photo shows hail on the windscreen on a day that alternated between sunshine and squalls.
Denmylne, which dates from the late 16th Century, in the grounds of a private house. It is right on the road so will have been seen by many, many people. It is a beautiful building with largely intact walls so would be a relatively simple restoration. The problem is the proximity to a private house, so they would never be separated into two lots. One wonders how much the house with adjacent ruin (possibly bigger than the house itself) would sell for. A house and a ruin is quite a niche market, so if they are some distance apart, they will tend to move to separate ownership.
|wrong turning en-route to Denmylne|
|Denmylne Castle (rear)|
|Denmylne Castle (front)|
The last castle we visited was very much a fitting but unexpected climax to the day. I knew it was sizable, but only when we visited did the actual size of the building emerge. It looks like 5 tower houses have been merged together into a single building. The structures are arranged around a central courtyard, and it is only when you enter the courtyard that the true scale of the building becomes apparent. We were in disbelief. This is a National Trust quality building, dating incidentally from the 14th Century although much of what you can see is 16th Century. To my eye certain sections looked considerably more recent either 18th Century or 19th Century, but I have failed to find out when the building fell into dereliction.
The building boasts the biggest fireplace and chimney I have ever seen. A large hole in the side of the building afforded us a view of 3 lancet arches bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. This section of the building had clearly been the chapel.
The castle is perched on the south bank of the Tay, slightly elevated with shoreline reed beds directly below. These reed beds are harvested commercially every year, as I learned from a BBC documentary on the Tay. I had never seen these reed beds in person before,
A restoration initially felt approachable, as there are certain areas that are more intact than others, so you could start with these. However, on closer inspection, all areas of the castle needed considerable consolidation and it ended up almost as daunting as Lordscairnie.
|Ballinbreich Castle (River Tay in background)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (chapel can be seen through opening)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (chapel)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (teetering arches)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (whopper of a chimney)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (what is this arch?)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (inside courtyard)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (the approach)|
|Ballinbreich Castle (friend for scale!)|
My "way in" when visiting old buildings is to assess how restorable they are. This is not necessarily because I would want to restore another building (but I would) but because I went through this exercise so many times when I was looking for a building to restore in the first place that it has become a habit. Also, it gives the mind something to latch on to, when otherwise one could be overwhelmed by what one sees. For example, Ballinbreich was just overwhelming. There was no way a single visit could do it justice.
There is no one best building. Balmerino won for beauty, Lordscairnie won for "Game of Thrones" realness, Denmylne won for practicality of restoration and Ballinbreich won for impact and its riverside location.
I asked my friends the question "If you could have any of these buildings fully restored with no expense spared, which one would you take?". One of my friends selected Lordscairnie (just as I did) and the other chose Ballinbreich, which on paper should have been my choice. However, you visit these sites precisely because of the gut feelings they induce. These buildings have a lot to teach us about ourselves.