Sunday, 23 May 2021

We're Going on a Deer Hunt

Some friends kindly invited me on a free mini-holiday: a few days in some holiday accommodation going spare in the wilds of the Highlands. In exchange, I offered to do the catering for the first evening. What could be more appropriate for the area than a venison casserole?

Anyhow, I approached the venison farm local to Balintore Castle on the principle that one should encourage local businesses. The owners are lovely and I have patronised them on previous occasions. "We have no diced venison" came the disappointing reply. However, they did usefully suggest an alternative venison farm just outside Forfar. This farm has a Web presence that allows you to make the purchase online, and this I duly did emailing to suggest a pick up time. From the response indicating venison would be coming in the following week for my order, it became obvious that they had nothing in stock at that moment and that I would have to cancel as my departure was in a couple of days.

Greg photographed these deer in Glen Quharity by the castle a couple of weeks ago.

When I expressed my despair to Greg, he suggested I ask the gamekeeper who lives next-door. Duh! Why hadn't I thought of this before? The gamekeeper came back to me very quickly, and he had indeed shot a number of deer a couple of days previously, but everything had now gone to the game dealers.

As the holiday was now looming, I would have to make an emergency trip to the butchers of Forfar. In fact, Forfar is very well provisioned  for butchers and has some excellent establishments. I would have  to be thorough and systematic. I found 5 butchers on Google Maps, and Gregor had already recommended to me the butcher (let's call it butcher "A") most likely to have venison.

I called in at butcher "A". They did not have any venison, but the man behind the counter was extremely polite in such an old-fashioned way, that I was taken back to my childhood in Scotland. Good butchers are a characteristic feature of Scottish towns and have a high standing in the community. This is markedly different from my experience in England. I am always ashamed taking French friends to Scottish cake shops. I love a fluorescent-red strawberry tart but it lacks the sophistication of their patisserie. However, I would stand proudly by any Gaul in a Scottish butcher.

Anyhow, I asked butcher "A": "Who would be most likely to have venison in Forfar?". I was given the name of butcher "B" and made my way there. Butcher "B" not only stuck the knife in: "We do not have any venison." but then gave it a little twist "And what's more deer is out of season!". Without thinking I blurted out "Well, I live next-door to a gamekeeper, and he killed some deer a couple of days ago". This seemed to make the butcher a little angry, and I tried to say something appeasing "Are you saying I shouldn't try any other butchers in Forfar?". "You can try if you want." came the sharpish reply.

I progressed to butcher "C" rather dejected expecting further failure. However, the man disappeared into the back shop, and came out with a huge bag of diced venison.  Success! I suspected I would need most of the bag. He weighed out 1.5 Kg, but then decided to throw in the remainder for free, which amounted to a very generous 2 Kg for the same price. This would never happen in Tesco! A quick conversation with butcher "C" about butcher "B", established the incorrectness of his remark. Deer, apparently, is in season for most of the year. 

I am sufficiently mischievous/didactic (you decide) that I was going to disavow butcher "B" of his misapprehension on the way back to my car. However, the staff member behind the counter had changed by the time I walked past again.

Talking of Tesco, next I popped into Forfar Tesco for celery for the venison casserole. Lidl has been out of celery when I had done my main shop. As an aside, I checked the red meat aisle - Tesco had had diced venison all along!!!

In fact, Greg has told me that this was likely to be the case, but I was rather dubious and it would have been my last resort rather than my first port of call.

Anyhow, the venison casserole I made in the end was so large that it supplied a number of meals, and I am still using it up.

This blog story brought to mind Coleridge's "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.".

I recall visiting Brodick Castle on Arran as a teenager and being overwhelmed by the number of taxidermy stags on the stairs. It took me a long time to find an image on the Internet that confirmed this memory. Perhaps this is the biggest assemblage in the world? 

Brodick Castle

And on a similar theme, is the collection of stag skulls and antlers at Mar Lodge in Aberdeenshire the largest in the world?

Mar Lodge

And as a final exercise for the reader, are the deer that Greg photographed young Red Deer or Roe Deer? The deer are rather far away, but don't look spindly enough for Roe and are herding like Red, but I cannot make out any large hinds or stags that would make them clearly Red.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Snooker Table Journey: Balintore Castle to North Cadbury Court

Locals often told me about the snooker table in the Great Hall at Balintore Castle. Long after the building had fallen into dereliction, and long after the oak flooring had been removed from the hall, the leviathan of a table remained precariously balanced on joists. Locals and shoot beaters would still play games on the table quite literally risking the pitfalls! 

The table was clearly the dominant memory of individuals visiting the building in the 60's and 70's. Due to its enormous weight, it was not so easy to remove from the building as other fixtures and fittings. However, when I bought the castle the snooker table had long since gone and I assumed that that was the end of it. How wrong I was!

You can see the snooker table at Balintore around 1968 at the front right of the image below.
the Great Hall around 1968

Many years after I had bought the castle, I was approached by an Archie Montgomery of North Cadbury Court in Somerset who is in current possession of the table. He was interested in creating a diorama of the countryside around Balintore on the walls of his snooker room, as an homage to the original location of the table and indeed in memory of his maternal grandmother Lady Eleanor Langman, who, hands down, is my favourite past resident of Balintore Castle. Everything I hear about her, further confirms this view. Archie's mother, must have had some of the same qualities, as she is the one who boldly rescued the snooker table from its perilous position in a disintegrating building.

Archie once dropped me off by car at Balintore, and I invited him into the Entrance Hall to ask him if he remembered it. Had the restoration put it back the way it used to be? Archie sadly could not remember the Entrance Hall. "You have got to realise David that that last time I was here, I was five! However, I recall that there were long corridors in the basement". I was able to confirm that his memory of the basement was correct.

The diorama took a number of attempts, over a number of years, as perfect weather conditions were required and the exact stitching together of the component photographs seemed to go wrong quite often. I was eager to assist with the project, as I loved the idea of what Archie was trying to do. I recall making contact with the last photographer and inviting him to stay in the castle whenever he wanted.

 Out of the blue, around six months later at 11PM just as I was about to go to bed, I received a message that the photographer had arrived at Dundee Station and would be with me shortly. In fact, he turned up at 1AM and I have a memory of making some food for him after the long train journey. Thankfully, the following day was utterly glorious, and the buzzing of a drone echoed round the castle turrets for much of the morning.

Archie mentioned that Lady Langman was very sensitive to atmosphere and that she was very much involved in the decision to buy Balintore Castle, as it had a good feeling. Lady Langman was also very much involved in the later decision to buy North Cadbury Court, for a similar reason. So in a sense Balintore and North Cadbury Court are tied together through the spirit of a remarkable woman. 

North Cadbury Court: View 1

North Cadbury Court: View 2

North Cadbury Court dates back to 1300, and was purchased in 1910 by Sir Archibald Langman. Sir Archibald had only recently returned from the Boer War where he had donated a field hospital. He and his friend and surgeon, Arthur Conan Doyle, were briefly taken prisoner by the enemy. North Cadbury Court overlooks Cadbury Castle (previously known as Camalet) which is a Bronze and Iron Age hillfort which has been associated with King Arthur's legendary court at Camelot.

You can stay at North Cadbury Court and whichever guest scores the highest break on the snooker table over the next year will win a free holiday at Balintore Castle. It is a delight to keep the connection between the two buildings alive. I must take up Archie's generous invitation to visit North Cadbury Court. The bedrooms include "Balintore", "Kinnordy" (the estate local to Balintore), "Camelot", "Merlin" and "Nellie" (the family name for Eleanor Langman). I love the juxtaposition of Balintore names with those of Arthurian legend.

Balintore's snooker table at North Cadbury Court: view 1

Balintore's snooker table at North Cadbury Court: view 2

Balintore's snooker table at North Cadbury Court: view 3

Who better to tell the story of the rescue of the snooker table than Archie himself, and I am grateful for his account for filling in a vital chapter of Balintore's history:


Many years ago, my mother's mother came from a lovely estate in Angus, north of Dundee, called Kinnordy, to marry my London-based grandfather. She retained the use, and I think the ownership, of a remarkable castle on the estate, called Balintore, built on the most stunning site. Designed as a grandiose sporting lodge in 1860, complete with spires and turrets it stands on the sunny southern edge of a heather-clad grouse moor, looking south over rolling farmland to the distant Sidlaw Hills. It was to this castle that we would annually trek as a family to spend two weeks of the summer holiday, a journey that itself took two wearisome days. My grandmother died in 1963, when I was six, so my memories of time spent there are vivid yet indistinct. In particular I was terrified of the gardener's wicked billy goat that would lure the incautious into the range of its tether chain, but I loved my grandmothers large set of realistic Victorian stuffed toy animals and picking the wild raspberries along the drive. There is a clear picture in my mind of dark, candle-lit suppers while some poor family member was volunteered to
brave the lashing rain to climb the hill behind and clout the water-driven electricity turbine, so to free the eel or bit of stick that had extinguished the flickering electric. A peregrine falcon nested each year in one of the damaged turrets. Of course the grown-ups enjoyed themselves daily with shooting and fishing, but of that I have no recollection, nor of the snooker table.

At "Big Granny's" death the castle returned to the custodianship of the cousins running the rest of the estate and the rear-guard action against dry rot and roof decay was well and truly lost. Furniture was distributed around the family, the floorboards were looted, and we never holidayed there again. The coup de grĂ¢ce was the huge oriel window on the second floor hurling itself out onto the lawn, thus leaving a mortal wound in the side of the building, and vast granite blocks like icebergs strewn over the old tennis court. In an ever worsening spiral of disrepair this Grade A listed monument changed hands, as a ruin, between a succession of romantic dreamers before it ended, on the Compulsory Purchase payment of £80k in the hands of the less glamorous Angus Council. 

It was thus at this point of Balintore's nadir that the Somerset lunchtime conversation turned to the snooker table. My mother had heard tell that though the castle was being badly vandalised the table, centrepiece of the Great Hall, still rested solely on the exposed floor joists, the floorboards having long gone. Local keepers and shepherds still enjoyed the use of its ripped baize by candle light and a bottle of whisky, as the castle collapsed around them. It was resolved immediately to save this last heirloom, which had remained un-pilfered only because of its inconvenient weight. A plan was hatched and my intrepid mother left for Scotland with the land-rover and horse trailer (containing a bull sent for the farm there), some spanners, my brother, a cousin and a great deal of determination. 

It turns out that modern tables have eight legs and four slabs of slate, the vast flat stones that lie under the baize. This one, though full size, had six legs and only three slates, each of which weighed about a third of a ton. Thus dismantling and removing the components without floorboards and stairs needed more time and ingenuity than normal, but nevertheless, triumphantly, it returned back to North Cadbury Court where attention was lavished upon it by workmen from Thurston (London) who had constructed it 150 years before. Their records, for some reason in the Victoria and Albert Museum, showed it to be in fact a billiard table, made of the highest quality. It is now enjoyed regularly by guests at the Court.

In the year 2007 Balintore Castle had the great good fortune to be purchased by Dr. David Johnston. This dogged individual is the first owner for nearly thirty-five years to afford the building any compassion, or investment, at all. Slate-by-slate and stone-by-stone single-handedly he is overseeing a small team as they patch up some of the more serious wounds on the building and already one of the towers has been renovated to provide a most unusual B&B. His ambition is to gradually restore some of the former glory and allow the building to be let out as a venue for guests, or some such return..

When my mother died in 2010 I had a vision to keep alive the Scottish connection, particularly with Balintore which had supplied her with so many happy memories. After ten years and several false starts a cameraman was discovered last year with enough enthusiasm and ability to see through the task of capturing the essence of Balintore Castle, the home of the snooker table, on a panorama. For some while Andrew Holt studied the meteorological charts waiting for propitious weather before leaping on a plane and spending a couple of days filming using a drone, in a calculated mathematic manner designed to transfer the very high definition image proportionately onto the walls of the Snooker Room. At his recommendation a local company, Whitespace of Bristol, experienced in image printing, were commissioned to create a wallpaper to the exact size of the room and in mid January their skilful team hung the fabric to perfection. The result is a 360 degree virtual visit to the glen.

While David Johnston's dream continues, mine has finally been realised. (A good little article is found at

Post Script

The wild raspberries still grow along the drive and the gardener referred to was Willie Crow who had one eye and lived in the castle with his wife.