Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Blairquhan Castle

Many thanks to a friend of Balintore Castle called Peter for sending me these scans of a 1971 Scottish Field magazine article on Blairquhan Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland. Blairquhan was completed in 1824 to the design of William Burn, the architect who also designed Balintore. Stylistically the buildings are different: Blairquhan is Tudor-Gothic and Balintore is Baronical. Internally, however, Burn's layouts are often very similar in order to provide extremely practical living accommodation for his wealthy clients.

Peter rewired Blairquhan in 1968/1969, so has a close connection with the building. My own connection is rather shameful: I grew up just 17 miles from Blairquhan and yet I have never visited. The name "Blairquhan", of course, has been in my consciousness since childhood.

The article makes for interesting "period" reading with the implicit assumption that the Hunter-Blair family, who originally commisioned the building, would go on living there for ever. Now we know differently, Blairquhan was sold to a Chinese Company in 2012.

Click on the scans below to read the article. I felt that putting Peter's much treasured article on this blog would preserve it for posterity.

Scottish Field January 1971, Page 33 
Scottish Field January 1971, Page 34 
Scottish Field January 1971, Page 35

Scottish Field January 1971, Page 36

Scottish Field January 1971, Page 37

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Painting Windows in The Sun

Painting is one of the joys of life. It means that all the hard work of preparation has been done, and the easy but maximally transformative part is now at hand. Painting has its own rhythm: it cannot be rushed. The calm deliberation of the activity is intrinically meditative. I never understand why anyone would employ a painter. :-)

And what is better than painting bespoke artisan gothic sash-and-case windows for a Baronical castle in sunshine in the Scottish Highlands? Today was one of the rare days when landscape, task and weather come together to create memorable moments of great pleasure. Adherents of this blog will recall that castle restoration normally involves me rushing about in a state of hysteria in a howling gale. 

painting a window in today's sunshine
The window being under-coated in white in the picture is one of three matching windows that will give light onto the broad guest entrance stairs that lead into the great hall. Of course, being wooden and exposed to the elements for many decades the entrance stairs are no longer there, but the underlying brick slope still remains.

under-coated gothic sash-and-case window for guest entrance stairway
Once the windows are painted, the window openings can be-unboarded and the windows installed. Who knows, there be even be enough light to rebuild the staircase. :-)

Scaffolding The Kitchen

With the third turret restoration recently completed, a considerable amount of scaffolding has been freed-up. This is being put to immediate re-use inside the kitchen, so the walls and ceiling can be plastered and then painted.  The kitchen is such an enormous and tall room that scaffolding the entirety of the space is the only option when employing a plasterer. Plasterers like to do whole walls at a time and they can't wait for scaffolding to be moved about, and I wouldn't want to pay them for doing so either.
kitchen scaffolding: ground level view

When Andy and Gregor were insulating and plaster-boarding the walls and ceiling, they kept moving a small amount of scaffolding around - but they are jacks of all trades! :-) Clearly, it would have been more efficient to have set-up all the scaffolding at the start, but the turret was still being worked on at that time. As far as my memory serves, the restoration of the third turret started last summer - even just one turret at Balintore is a considerable restoration exercise.

Many thanks to Andrew (Andy fils) for moving and setting up the scaffolding in the kitchen. This is a heavy task and there is still some to do.

kitchen scaffolding: high level view

In fact I am having the ceiling of the kitchen "taped" rather than plastered. New build houses are no longer plastered. Instead, the joins between the sheets of plasterboard are taped-over with special tape. Then the screw holes and joins are hidden with filler. This is cheaper than plastering, and makes sense on the ceilings where the end result looks no different. Walls are another matter as these are subject to some wear - and of course plasterboards feels different to an old-fashioned plaster finish.

I will be doing the painting myself to save money, so I shall shortly be swinging Tarzan-like on these "adult" monkey bars. :-)

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Farewell to Rascal

There has been a bit of a delay in publishing this blog entry which I actually wrote 6 months ago. I was hoping to get hold of some better quality versions of some of the photographs. However, it felt timely to publish anyhow, and update the photos if necessary. Reading over what I wrote then, has made me cry again! This should give you some indication of how heartfelt the subject is.

It is with deep sadness that I have to let you know of the passing of Rascal, the delightful wee Jack Russell that has featured in this blog over the years. Before Christmas the vet suggested his time might be up, because at the age of 14 most things were giving up. However, on a diet of pure chicken (Rascal could no longer manage his solid dog food) and with great care and love from his family, he rallied a bit and there was still some quality of life. However, on the 2nd of February this year, after a last turn round his garden and a final meal of ham and roast beef, Rascal was put to sleep. 

Rascal in his element: Backwater Reservoir by Balintore Castle

Rascal at home: on a gold cushion in front of the fire
It is unbelievable how upset I am, and he is not even my dog. Rascal belongs to Carly, the daughter of my builder Andy. However, Rascal came to work every day with Andy at the castle, where he could experience the countryside and fresh air. In fact, Rascal became such a fitting, that I hope I am not too presumptuous in thinking of him as the "castle dog".

Rascal with Carly

Whenever I needed some fresh air myself or went on a walk with visitors, I would bring Rascal along. A dog enhances the pleasure of a walk many-fold, and I only wish I had had time to have done more of this. His energy levels were unbelievable, even after the longest walk when I was exhausted, Rascal would still be bounding along by my side. He was always as fit as a butcher's dog, and it is only really in the last couple of years that age caught up with him. His hearing went first, then other things including his sight, but he always managed to rouse himself for a walk almost to the end. It is sad and alarming how quickly dogs can age on a human timescale, and it shows that the castle restoration has taken half a dog's lifetime. 

Rascal with a young castle guest called Meghan
I first recall Rascal, when I guess he was 8 or so, sitting up on the scaffolding while Andy was slating the roof beside him. Rascal would occasionally look over the edge and give a little shiver, just like myself. :-) Rascal was a self-contained, independent dog. He was not a "rub my tummy" type. However, if you got his confidence and worked at it, you could still rub his tummy, He seemed to enjoy it, but there was always a bit of suspicion there.

He would guard Andy's car, parked in front of the castle, fiercely while he was sitting on the back seat.  It was all to easy to forget this because of the tinted windows, and if you passed too close, Rascal would throw himself against the glass snarling fiercely. It never failed to give one quite a turn! However, open the door and there would be much tail wagging instead.

On dog walks, he would do the normal thing of marking the territory. However, the "tank" tended to run out on the first 20% of the walk, and it would never cease to amuse me that the remaining 80% of the marking events were dry and ineffectual.

When Rascal disappeared from his garden last year, I was bereft. It turns out he must have got confused in his old age and instead of going back to his house along the country path in the dark, he had walked all the way to the main road and was standing in the middle of this. Thankfully, a passer-by retrieved him, and by the miracle of Facebook he was picked up from a police station very late that evening. The incident showed me how much Rascal had got under my skin.

Rascal had a wonderful life, thanks to Andy, Carly and family and I pass them my sympathy as well as gratitude, that they brought such a lovely dog into my own life. To say I loved Rascal to bits is a complete understatement. Andy knows how attached I was, and understood that I would want to see Rascal in his final resting place in his garden, with the many rosettes he won at the Scone Game Fare. When I went to say goodbye to Andy at the end of my last stay at Balintore, I had just said goodbye to Rascal for what pure instinct told me was the last time. I tried to then say some words of farewell to Andy, but nothing came out as I was so choked-up. 

Rascal in his final resting place at home
Thank you Rascal for being there as the "castle dog" for much of your life, and for bringing joy to us all.

Jack Russell figure marking where Rascal is buried

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Castle Pond Redux

In a previous blog entry I described how I discovered that the castle once had a boating pond and the story of how this pond had once been flooded to provide a top-up reservoir for Dundee. However, in 1957 there was a tremendous storm that washed away the reservoir. The rather sad body of water that remains to this day is even smaller than the original boating pond.

In response to the blog entry, I was sent a photograph that pre-dates the 1957 flood, showing the reservoir in its sizeable glory.

reservoir before the 1957 storm

I was delighted to receive this photo and determined to re-create it by finding the same vantage point on the hill behond the castle. The visit of Canadian friends during some glorious sunny weather last week was the perfect excuse to go hillwalking and finally to do the detective work. It appears that the original vantage point is now inside an area of forest, so the closest sensible matching viewpoint was a little above the forest where the castle just comes into view. It is clear that the current pond once extended almost to the dark green trees on the left, and extended between the two dark green clumps of trees on the right. In fact, light green silver birch trees are now growing in the regions where the pond used to be. Silver birches are known to suit damp conditions. So finally there is conclusive proof of the reservoir story.

depleated reservoir today

Another piece of evidence is this sluice gate sitting high-and-dry well above the current level of the pond. The structure has the same shape as an ancient Egyptian temple and is encrusted with a virulent orange lichen. The effect is both archaic and other worldly.

reservoir sluice gate

I wrote the story of the discovery of the pond as an email to friends. Now seems the appropriate time to put the text on this blog and thereby to close the current chapter in the boating pond's story.

Discovery of the Boating Pond

One day, my friend Andrew mentioned that he would like to try and find the remains/foundations of a boat house which appears in an old map of Glen Quharity. As it was a lovely sunny evening, I said "What about now?". We followed some of the old glen "roads" on the map, which I guess were never more than dirt tracks. but which were now grown over.

After getting rather lost in the woods, we glimpsed the castle through the trees, and got back our sense of direction. We then got lost again following the bank of a river, but climbed up a forrested rise, and glimpsed a body of water shining through the trees. Our destination! In fact what looks like a tiny lake from the castle is clearly, at ground level, a huge and totally man-made boating pond with stone-built banks. The boating hut, on the north shore, is more or less intact - thanks to a liberal coating of creosote.

So this is Balintore Castle's boating pond!!! The configuration in relation to the castle made it a certainty. When an Edinburgh architect was offered the castle in the 70's for £100, a "loch" was included. This must have been it. I hadn't realised until now that this pond/loch had been a major part of the castle's entertainment infrastructure. The amount of manpower required to dig this out, line it with stones and create the supply and drain must have been phenomenal. The drain sluices have collapsed somewhat, so the pond is lower than intended. If the sluices were fixed, it would be twice the size.

As we arrived, a heron flew off and there was a rather upset swan in the middle of the water. We decided to leave northwards along a track that had clearly been the carriage access from Balintore Castle.

As we were on the point of leaving, Andrew asked "Shall we look inside the boat house?". I replied "We would have to climb down that big slope and back up again - it's going to be very tiring.". Suddenly with a "What the hell!", Andrew headed off helter-skelter down the slope. I had no option but to follow.

Miraculously, the door to the boat house opened . "What's that?" asked Andrew peering in with his torch. "It's looks like polythene sheeting." I replied looking at a pristeen white mass in the corner of the building. "It's a swan." said Andrew. "It must be sleeping" I said, as there was no sign of decay or damage. "No, it's dead." said Andrew and sure enough there was a very slight but still unmistakable odour of decay, reminiscent of dead seagulls at the beach. So the swan in the lake was the distressed and bereaved mate - a neighbour had mentioned seeing a swan lingering in the area.

The whole trip had a magical quality: passing along overgrown tracks and then discovering that the castle had a boating pond. With the dead swan, the story took on a further mythic dimension. Of course, neither of us had a camera! We subsequently found out that the game-keeper at the time had removed the dead swan from the water and placed it in the boat house. The skeleton of the swan remains to this day.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Kitchen Fireplace and Insulation

newly installed fire canopy in action in castle kitchen
It is with huge relief that I can report that the new fireplace made out of the opening that once hosted the kitchen range at Balintore Castle appears finally to be working. This has only taken 5 years! The blog entry documenting the earlier failure can be found here.

The recent key insight to get the smoke to draw up the chimney instead of into the room was realising that the large rectangular void was essentially an inglenook fireplace, and I googled for "problems draw inglenook". Apparently, most inglenook fireplaces will not draw naturally and they need a "fire canopy" to focus the flow of air, so that the velocity becomes large enough to take the smoke with it.

Thanks to eBay I recently picked up a MASSIVE second-hand fire canopy for £65 in Worcester. Sourcing items for Balintore has taken me the length and breadth of the country. I schedule these pick-ups to be en route when I am making other journeys - so the logistics are finely honed.

The canopy made such an enormous difference that Andy actually shook my hand! Investing in one and transporting it 400 miles had been somewhat of an act of faith on my behalf so I was delighted.  There is still a small amount of smoke in the room, but hopefully by sealing the canopy in position instead of propping it up with a bit of wood, and perhaps installing a "granny" on the chimney pot, the level of smoke will become acceptable.

You will see the canopy is 8 inches off centre. This is because the inside of the chimney turned out to be not quite symmetrical. Andy said he has the tools to do some surgery on the top of the canopy to centralise the set-up.

Now that there is a source of heat in the kitchen, it is time to keep the heat in. And in the last few weeks, there have been great strides in insulating and then lining the kitchen in plasterboard. On the left is the before picture with insulation in progress. On the right is the after picture with the left-hand wall, the far wall and the ceiling insulated and lined. The kitchen is such a big room that the cost of the materials alone is frightening. The right-hand wall is fully internal and therefore the lathe-and-plaster survived the worst effects of water ingress and could be left alone. Fortunately, it is more important to insulate external walls.

To keep the historic lines intact there was a limit on the depth of insulation that could be used. This is typically around 50mm as the lathe-and-plaster is 2 inches thick. Sometimes we managed a little more, sometimes the lines dictated a little less. So I'm pleased that we have installed as much insulation as possible, and that the historic interior has been kept "as is". Restoration is very much a finely tuned compromise. On the other hand, this is not a source of great worry or deep thinking as the building shows you the way. The pictures are courtesy of my friend Andrew.

                before: insulation being installed                              after: insulation and plasterboard in place

Friday, 27 May 2016

Molotov Cocktails and Dirty Protests

During the current mêlée of work at Balintore Castle to make the kitchen wing habitable, all forms of washing facilities have been lost. Getting ever dirtier is a fate, nay responsibility, for the would-be restorer of a castle.

A friend in Dundee, motivated by charity or olfactory onslaught, offered to let me have a bath in his flat. The relief of cleanliness is inestimable by those unaccustomed to building restoration. The bath water assumed the colour of a peaty highland stream.

The next day, the ironic duty that fell upon me was sweeping chimneys. Needless to say I was black afterwards, and have remained so since.

I managed to clear the chimney which served the right hand range in the old castle kitchen. There were three blockages as I pushed the drainage rods up the flue, but by attrition first compacted dirt, and then secondly nesting twigs would fall as each blockage was breached. I ran out of strength at the third blockage, but Gregor my carpenter gave a final push which broke through. We did not manage to get all the way to the top of the chimney, but 18 draining rods, each 3 feet long took us up 54 feet which is most of the way, and the test fire we lit underneath suggested there was a good upwards draft, though smoke filled the kitchen. Originally, the range would have been sealed in whereas we were testing an open fire in a coal basket. The plan is to connect up a wood burner.

The next chimney to sweep was the one connected to the top room in the entrance tower - to provide some heat while the kitchen wing is out of commission. Slowly we are moving through the building clearing the chimney stacks. After doing each stack, Andy my roofer, puts wire netting over the corresponding chimney cans to prevent the rooks putting more twigs down as they attempt to build nests.

I managed to get three lengths of drainage rod up the flue in the entrance tower top room, but it hit a solid-feeling earth blockage. The initial run of flue is essentially horizontal, perhaps 30 degrees, so there was no way anything loosened (if at all) would fall down by itself. Gregor had no joy either. Andy volunteered to rod downwards. At the top of a long ladder leaning against the vertiginous chimney stack, in a safety harness, Andy thrust purposefully and forcefully downwards with a long length of 2" by 2" wood and then with the drainage rods but each time nothing gave way.

It was going to have to be the age-old technique of dropping down a burning rag to set fire to the twigs lodged in the chimney. Rags were soaked in diesel, dropped down, and clearly twigs were burning as smoke poured out of the chimney. Rooks wheeled around and looked-on, alarmed as one of their homes was being immolated! The burning carried on for around 30 minutes, but prodding with the rods showed no improvement, pouring diesel down gave an impressive "woof", but the blast of the explosion put out the fire and further burning rags gave no noticeable progress.

Andy with his safety harness, draining rods and 2" x 2"

Andy drove to a neighbour's to procure petrol as this is more flammable, and at one stage a Smirnoff vodka bottle full of petrol was passed hand to hand. Yes, Andy was fighting the avian wars with a Molotov Cocktail. Despite our high hopes, this failed to do any better than the diesel.

The next suggestion was to use a gas burner from the bottom. The flame head was taped to the drainage rods, lit, and then thrust up the flue. Each time the flame went out after a few seconds as the oxygen burnt out in the flue. Physics in action, or is that physics in stasis? The problem was that as the chimney was so completely blocked and for quite some distance, that burning solutions were not proving successful as air could not flow in any shape or form to assist the process, though Gregor did smell diesel from inside the fireplace suggesting some had dripped to the bottom.

At that stage of maximum despair I had to made a trip to a carpentry workshop in Kirriemuir. When I came back, Andy told me that the new wood stove I had bought for the top room was no good either. I entered the room thoroughly dejected, but looking around I saw the little wood stove burning away merrily. Hurrah - I was a happy bunny! There was, however, a huge hole in the wall! Andy and Gregor had made this hole exactly at the position of the bend in the flue: removing 5 buckets of earth from the vertical section when went upwards and 2 buckets of earth from the horizontal section when went to the left. In short this chimney would never have been cleared without this radical approach. A hundred years of rook twigs had turned to a dense rich compost. In fact the compost was soaking wet with rainwater and this explained the damp green patch in the wall that had always been there - directly in front of the bend in the flue. One damp problem now solved. Andy later blocked off the new hole. At the end of the day, Andy swept the remaining two chimneys in the same stack and netted them all - the other two were considerably less problematic.

new stove finally working - note hole in wall solution

When I tried to go to bed that night, I discovered there was a rook in my bed! There was only one entrance to the narrow room, so there is no way I could escort it out without it getting into a flappy panic so I had to crash elsewhere in that castle that night and hope by morning that the rook was gone.

The next morning the rook had indeed gone, but it had pooped spectacularly in my bed. The smell was indescribable and the subsequent laundering deeply harrowing. By coincidence, the rook's nest had only been a few feet from my bed and now that its overnight accommodation had gone, it had used mine instead - complete with "dirty protest" to illustrate what it thought of our activities. These are very smart animals indeed.

In fact, there are still rooks in the building and every-so-often in the night I am woken up by the noise of a rook's flappy-walk as it makes its way along a corridor and tries to get into my bedroom with me. To discourage overnighting with a rook, I normally shout something like "GERROUT-OF-IT", not a sudden noise which might make them panic but a prolonged exclamation to inform them of my presence. Normally they turn around and do the flappy-hoppy thing back down the corridor.

The evening following the traumatic night of the avian dirty protest, I could hear a rook attempting to enter my bedroom yet again. I bemoaned my fate and shouted my usual "GERROUT-OF-IT". Imagine my embarrassment to discover it was not a rook but my neighbour who had entered the building for a social call! As knocking on the front door of such a big building does not work, my friends know just to let themselves in.