Mingary Castle Restoration Story

The long abandoned ruin of Mingary Castle has been painstakingly renovated by a team of highly-skilled craftsmen, who have made good the crumbling stonework, long lost roofs and floors buried deep in undergrowth. The following excerpts, documenting the progress, are taken from a diary by Jon Haylett, who lives in the local village of Kilchoan.

8 May 2013

A First Visit

It was a beautiful day yesterday for a first visit to historic Mingary Castle, where the huge task of conserving and restoring the castle has just begun. Months of detailed study has already been done, mainly in surveying the castle and researching its history. The latter is particularly important because, although the building is going to be conserved so that its main structure will be available for future generations to enjoy and study, the castle will not be left as an empty building: it will live again, and the alterations that will be done to enable it to earn its living must be extremely sensitive.

28 May 2013

Saving Mingary from Collapse

The great curtain walls of Mingary Castle are on the point of collapsing because the rock on which they are built, a very hard granophyre, is breaking into blocks which are falling. To stop this happening - and it might happen at any moment - the blocks have to be pinned back in place.

30 July 2013

Starting The Scaffolding

When I visited the site last Thursday the first scaffolding was beginning to appear at the base of the sea gate wall.

By this morning the scaffolders were working their way around to the west wall, and beginning to find solutions to the multiple problems of erecting scaffolding on the Mingary Castle site. They were able to put the base of the scaffolding straight onto the limestone of the wave cut platform; this meant that it was necessary to dig out the shingle beach which covered it to expose the rock.

Bearing in mind that the scaffolding will cover the whole of the outside of the castle, estimates suggest that it will take about eight weeks to erect, if all goes well, will be in place for upwards of two years, and must withstand gales and fierce seas during the worst winter months.

7 August 2013

Cannonball Found Embedded in Castle Wall

There was a big change visible today as I approached the castle. The scaffolding walkway around the walls now connects to the entrance to the castle so, with the handrails in place, I was able to walk out onto the scaffolding.

From the south side of the castle, the views are breath-taking - particularly when one remembers that the last people to see the world from this particular angle did so in the 13th century. Looking up, I could see a hole in the wall, some eighteen inches in diameter, immediately below a narrow crenel in the battlements.

26 September 2013

Exterior Scaffolding Complete

The exterior scaffolding on the castle is now complete. There are four levels - or 'lifts' - round the southern walls, with six lifts along the northern walls to give access to the main building inside. The structure was an impressive sight in this morning's bright sunshine.

Projecting to the right, the north in this picture, are three loading levels which are now served by an electric pulley system, enabling heavy loads to be raised. The only thing that's missing are the access stairs, in a tower which will be bolted on to the outside.

19 November 2013

A Turning Point

Winter has arrived. Last night the wind swung into the north and brought in frequent hail showers. By this morning, the wind had dropped but light flurries of snow were drifting out of a grey sky. But, with the snow comes excellent news from builder John-Paul Ashley. While his men are still working on cleaning and stabilising the stonework on both the north range and the battlements, his stonemason has started pointing in the main range.

Pointing, for those who are as ignorant as I, is pushing mortar in between the stones to replace the mortar that's been eroded away through the ages. This is a turning point for Mingary Castle because it signals that the process of rebuilding this great monument has begun.

Great care has been taken to keep as many of the individual blocks of stone in their original position as possible, but many of them are very precarious. A good example is this huge stone lintel which stands over one of the fireplaces in the north range. It was okay at the nearer end, but at the far end it was teetering on a few pieces of rock. It's now stable.

30 January 2014

First Building Work Starts

Up to now, the work on site at Mingary Castle has been surveying, stabilising the bedrock, mapping and recording, archaeological investigations and excavations, and cleaning and preparing the walls. Now a corner has been turned as, for the first time, the builders start on the rebuilding of the structure.

This is not an easy site to work on. Although drainage has now been hugely improved - the moat, as it was designed to, flooded regularly - getting the concrete down into it has been a major undertaking.

15 February 2014

700-Year-Old Graffiti Found in Chapel

Some graffiti has been found scratched into the plastered walls of the chapel. And this isn't any old graffiti. Archaeologist Tom Addyman reckons it was put there when the chapel was first built within the three metre thick north curtain wall, some time between 1265 and 1295.

13 March 2014

Winter's End

In a community like this one, where much of its daily business is outdoors, the weather is always a topic of conversation, and the same's true on a building site. We've had a truly dreadful winter, with unprecedented quantities of rainfall, and more gales than anyone can remember.

Not that progress hasn't been considerable despite the weather. The pointing of the interior of the curtain walls is now up to battlement level. The next stage here is to rebuild the walkway and replace the flags so that the pointing can be completed, after which the whole courtyard interior is to be plastered.

At the same time, the gable ends will be rebuilt on the main building, the 'north range', after which the new roof will go on. To do this, the chimneys and their flues will have to be installed. With the roof on, work can continue apace in the interior.

5 June 2014

Progress in the North Range

We've enjoyed some fine weather recently but the wind is in the north today, bringing a fine drizzle and colder-than-normal temperatures. What the weather's going to do next is of considerable importance as, within the next ten days, the builders need to take off the temporary roof on the north range. It's done great service through the winter, but the end gables and interior structural walls which will carry the new roof need to rise above the temporary roof line.

Meanwhile, work on the chimneys continues. In one of the interior structural walls, the vertical divisions between the chimneys can be seen - they're called mid-feathers. This wall has almost reached the point where the stonemasons can't build it any higher until the temporary roof is off.

26 June 2014

Attic Rooms Take Shape

Progress in the castle continues to be rapid. On the north range, the wooden roof plates, the timbers which run along the tops of the stone walls to take the roof are in position, while the floor joist supports, which will carry the wooden floors of the attic level, are being fixed in place. The attic itself appears quite a small space, but will be one of the best areas of the house as it will have dormer windows which look out over the battlements and across the Sound of Mull.

Within the courtyard, the stonemasons are hard at work rebuilding the inner courses of the walls up to battlement level. This stonework looks extremely good, but the plan at present is to cover the exposed interior of the curtain walls with a layer of plaster.

8 July 2014

The Roof Goes On

Having been away from Kilchoan for a few days, I set off for the castle this morning with some excitement, as things have been moving forward very quickly recently - but I hadn't expected the progress I found: the roof structure on the north range, the main building within the courtyard, is almost complete, and will be finished by Thursday.

Meanwhile, Damien Summerscales has completed the repairs to the interior of the sea-facing curtain walls, and laid the foundation of the walkway which will run round the battlements, and which will be topped with whinstone flags. Residents will be able to walk from the attic room right round the battlements.

Inside the north range, the scaffolding has largely been dropped. This shows the wall plates which are going in the support the joists for the first floor, with more timber being carefully manoeuvred in through one of the lancet windows. From this level, scaffolding will be built up to enable the joists to go in on the remaining floors.

29 July 2014

Progress on Every Level

Once again, a huge amount has been achieved since my last visit.

Stonemason Damien, working on the interior gable, has cut through the roof timbers and is completing the chimney.

The first studwork has gone in at the west end of the second floor. Builder Mark Rutherford Thompson told me today that some 43 tonnes of wood have been brought in to build the roof and the three floor levels, every bit of it carried in by hand.

At the east end, work has continued on the gable end, where a chimney has to be built up.

Meanwhile, on the first floor Nick is laying the plywood floor which will carry an insulated floor that will house the underfloor heating. At the rate they're progressing, they'll need the plumbers and electricians in soon to do their first fix.

On the ground floor, the old door between the main, west room and the back of the stairwell has been reopened.

4 September 2014

The Windows Go In

Over the last week the Georgian-style windows have been going in to the north range.

Whichever way you look at the courtyard-facing side of the building, the windows are very smart indeed. The whole building seems to have come back to life and will look superb once the slates have gone onto the roof - the slaters are due in the next week or so.

27 September 2014

Progress in the Chapel

Deep inside the north curtain wall, the builders have been steadily working away in the chapel area.

The transformation has been remarkable. When I first entered the room, water was dripping from the ceiling and, despite the steel props everywhere, it felt as if, at any moment, the whole roof would collapse on us.

No such fears today! Reinforced concrete lintels, held in place by lengths of steel with L-shaped cross section which have been bolted to the walls, have been manoeuvred in to hold up the ceiling. Above this is a layer of damp-proof membrane so, although there are still one or two drips coming through, the place is drying out.

The outer wall, which had been severely damaged by cannon fire, has been rebuilt and pointed. Huge chunks of oak now form the lintel above the unique double lancet window. The space is now almost ready to be transformed into its modern use, as two bathrooms.

30 October 2014

The Crenellations Compromise

The weather over the last week has been.... terrible. Some 200mm, four inches, of rain has fallen, causing water to pour through the walls of the castle.

Despite these dismal conditions, building has continued apace, and one of the main areas of development has been along the battlements.

As with most castles, when Mingary Castle was under siege, the main defence came from the tops of the walls - the battlements - which consisted of a walkway protected by an outer wall. This wall had crenellations - higher parts, the merlons, separated by lower sections, the embrasures.

The problem with the tops of Mingary's walls at the time rebuilding started was that they were ragged from loss of stone. Every piece of rock, and all the mortar, has had to be carried up manually. One of the builders estimated that there was sixty tonnes of it in all.

The full effect won't be visible until the outer scaffolding comes down.

30 November 2014

Coping Stones on the Battlements

A couple of weeks ago pallets of York stone slabs arrived on site to be cut for the coping stones on top of the battlement walls. They came in several standard sizes, which were then cut and shaped by the stonemason. To do this, he had to climb up to the battlements and make a template for each piece, since very few would conform to a standard size.

Once ready, each slab then had to be lifted up the scaffolding, by hand using a pulley, and then carried round to its position.

29 November 2014

North Range Revealed

I was late going down to the castle this week so missed what should have been a Champagne event - the dropping of the scaffolding on the courtyard side of the north range.

There's still some way to go however. The windows have a couple of layers of paint to go on them, which will be a slightly lighter shade of grey, there is some leadwork to be completed, and the York stone cappings on the gable ends are still being worked on.

There's a chill wind blowing today so I popped into the north range to warm up, which took all of two minutes as the place is like an oven, so the walls are now drying out nicely. Even the chapel, which was very damp when I last saw it, is making progress.

Meanwhile, in the courtyard, work is underway on the west range. This part of the project has been delayed by a problem with the supply of York stone, and some of the blocks that have now arrived have been damaged in transit - another example of how the location of this build have made the logistics so much more difficult.

15 December 2014

Fighting the Storms

Last week was a dreadful week, with severe gales, heavy rain, hail, sleet and snow and, to add to the fun, frequent lightning strikes which have brought eleven power outages, some of them as long as nine hours.

Despite this, the team has kept working, and it's easy to see some of the results. In the west range the first floor joists are now in place, as well as the huge oak beams, which hold up the fireplace and an alcove.

The other room on the ground floor in the west range is much smaller. A new floor has been installed, as well as the joists for the first floor.

9 January 2015

Back To Work

All seems to have gone well during the Christmas break, the only slight problem being that the biomass heating system struggled with the damp wood chippings, with the result that the north range hadn't dried out as much as hoped.

I had my first real chance to talk to the electricians contracted to install the electronics into the castle. They explained the difficulties of the job. For a start, there's miles of wire to go in, but it’s working around the solid walls and through doorways with concrete lintels that are some of the real challenges.

Before I left I climbed up to where work on the courtyard wall of the west range is continuing, with the window mullions of York stone going in.

12 February 2015

Courtyard Buildings Take Shape

The three 340kg York stone heads for the dormer window are in position and look magnificent. Having rebuilt the scaffolding in front of the range, and added strengthened scaffolding platforms under each of the windows, it then took six men, a block-and-tackle, two days' work and, "a lot of blood, sweat and tears," to get them into place. Each head sits on a wooden dowel set into the underlying stone lintel, and is held to the sarking (the roofing planks) by two L-shaped brackets.

All that remains of the exterior work on this range is the leadwork and slates.

The exterior of the east range is also moving on fast. The one external addition to the buildings in the courtyard is the room joining the original east range to the north range. While in the early plans it was to have a glass roof, it will now be slated, but it'll still be a light room as the front will have three floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

The electricians are well on with the first fix in the west range, a job which should be finished in a week.

20 February 2015

Scaffolding Collapse

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, builder Mark Rutherford Thompson was almost thrown out of his bed by a crash, which he immediately thought was the scaffolding collapsing around the castle - or an earthquake. It was neither, but sound of the impact made by a 7,500 tonne freighter travelling at 12 knots as it struck the rocks at nearby Mingary Pier. The Lysblink Seaways is now the subject of a major maritime accident investigation and a huge salvage operation.

The slaters have been here since Monday, starting on the east range, which is nearly finished. It'll take them another two weeks to finish both east and west ranges. One of their specialisms is leadwork, of which a considerable amount is needed in the intricate roofing of the east range and around the dormers in the west.

Each time I walk on to this site, I have my breath taken away. The effects of the white insulation which is going into the walls on the north range is suddenly to make it look like a house, and no longer a dank, dilapidated stone castle.

19 March 2015

Fine Weather

The builders have long ago learnt to make good use of fine weather, so there's been plenty of progress on the exterior. The two chimneys on the west range have had to be raised a couple of feet and the pointing round the paving stones of the battlement walkway has been completed.

The lead is like a work of art, with neat welds and sections of rubber between the sheets to take up any expansion. Once the Chandlers are finished, the walkway will be paved with York stone slabs to match those around the battlements.

The leadwork specialists are here to build the lead gutter on the walkway around the roof of the north range. The lead is like a work of art, with neat welds and sections of rubber between the sheets to take up any expansion. Once finished, the walkway will be paved with York stone slabs to match those around the battlements.

4 April 2015

The Dungeon's Future

There was plenty of progress to be seen since my last visit. The courtyard drains are largely done, and the upper part terrace isn't far from having its Caithness flags laid, but the main progress has been is a small, underground room off the courtyard.

There seems to have been some uncertainty as to what the dungeon was going to be used for. Standing in the entrance and looking down into the dungeon, one can see how confined the space is - it measures 9ft by 4.5ft, and is 8ft high.

It's hardly a living space. However, there's plenty of room, and certainly the right temperature, for it to store a few bottles - so it's to be the castle's wine cellar.

14 May 2015

The Pace Increases

There's just so much going on at the moment.

The first of the panelling in the sitting room has been fitted, and, although some of the sections have yet to arrive, the room looks superb.

The plaster ceiling is completed between the wooden beams, which will be hidden under oak panelling covers.

The Caithness stone floor is down in the kitchen, and plastering complete in here as well. In fact, everywhere one goes in the north range one sees evidence of the plasterers' handiwork.

I finally caught up with the plasterers working in what was the chapel, now to be a pair of bathrooms, where they were applying the top coat. It's been a bit of a tricky job working in here as, along much of the walls, the plaster has had to go on top of a waterproof layer that looks like bubblewrap.

Next week the pace hots up even more. As well as the scaffolders and the arrival of the panelling for the study and dining room, the breakfast room windows will be fitted, the plumbers are back, and the balustrade all round the inside of the battlement walkway will be fitted.

29 May 2015

Out of the Chrysalis

Looking from the ferry terminal one can see that, on the south side, the scaffolding is right down to sea level, and people waiting for the ferry can now see the attic rooms of the north range, with their four dormer windows, protruding above the level of the battlements.

It's like a magnificent butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, a 700-year old castle returned to its pre-mediaeval grandeur after all the years of battle against the weather, human neglect, wars and sieges, collapsing foundations, pounding waves, burrowing animals and invasive vegetation.

If what's going on outside was exciting, there are some gems beginning to appear within the buildings. The steps in the intramural passageway, built within the original massive stone walls, run down from just outside the chapel to the first floor level. The white plaster here is superbly contrasted against the dark Caithness stone flags. Laying the flags is an intricate job as there are no straight lines, and it's complicated by there being electric heating under the stone.

The interior of the west range is unrecognisable. This is to be the accommodation for the housekeepers when the castle becomes available for rent later this year, and a very comfortable place to live it will be.

26 July 2015

A Hive of Activity

The place is a hive of activity. Contractors move between jobs, helping where needed. On the ground floor, lengths of oak panelling are marked off, ready to be cut to size to cover the beams in the dining room.

On the floor above, they're laying the oak flooring in the sitting room, the job of panelling the beams now complete.

The panelling is stunning, beautifully made and fitted, with every section of oak matching perfectly so no joins can be seen. It has been a long job but the quality should ensure that the finished work lasts for centuries.

In the attic bathroom, the stone floor has been laid, the marble surround to the bath fitted, the marble shelves built, and all the marble walls tiles completed, all ready for the plumber to come in next week.

20 August 2015

The Courtyard Transformed

Over the last few weeks a transformation has been taking place within the castle. It's part of what is so exciting about the concept behind the refurbishment of this magnificent 13th century Scottish building - that the bare, formidable exterior which, other than the crenelated battlements and the protruding chimneys, is little changed from how it would have looked 700 years ago gives way on the interior to an 18th century dwelling, a place of which a contemporary country laird would have been comfortable in and proud of. So the walls of the three buildings have been harled, and the effect as one walks into the courtyard is magical. The place is lighter, and there's a softness which contrasts with the bare rock interiors of the great curtain walls which rise above the buildings.

27 August 2015

Four-Posters Installed

There were big changes visible to the approach to the castle, with the layout of the gardens at the front of the castle beginning to take shape and the base for the access road almost completed.

The scaffolding is now down throughout the courtyard so the full impact of the harling can be appreciated.

All the lead hoppers and downpipes are in place, another feature which is a statement both of pride in the work that has been completed on this building in 2015 and of the intention that it will last for many years to come.

While work continues on the oak panelling in the north range, two sandstone fireplaces have now been fitted, this one in the sitting room. On the left, ready to go in to it, is a multi-fuel stove.

A sign that the project is nearing completion is the arrival of some of the beds. Three four-posters are now in place, having been carried up into their rooms and assembled.

24 September 2015

Hanging Structures

The difficult task of hanging the chandelier in the breakfast room was completed while I was away. The difficulty arose partly from the ceiling being sloping but mainly because of the weight of the cast iron, which meant the builders had to dig through the plasterwork ceiling to find a secure anchor point.

Also very busy have been the two electricians, who have just turned on the lights for the first time in the west wing.

8 October 2015

Skills Traditional and Modern

Materials for Mingary's latest metamorphosis are arriving all the time. This morning saw the delivery of the the bannisters on the main staircase in the north range, every piece made of solid oak and are very heavy to carry.

Traditional skills are being blended with the very latest technology. In one of the bedrooms on the second floor of the north range, specialists are about to install a cabinet under a Mediaeval lancet window to house all the switches for the internet, TV, telephone, data and other cabling.

In ten rooms there are these little Heatmiser control boxes, which are connected to the wi-fi, enabling the biomass central heating to be controlled remotely through a smart phone.

The arch leading through to the garden at the front of the castle is finished, and work continues on laying the Caithness flagstone pathways around the garden.

26 November 2015

The Longest Wall

When I arrived at the castle, stonemason Damien “the wall-building machine” was hard at work on the stone wall which runs down the west side of the gardens in front of the castle. He says it's the longest straight stone wall he's ever built, measured at over 50 metres.

Inside, the plasterer was working his way round the buildings, touching up those places on walls and ceilings which have been damaged, for example where the electricians have had to move a light.

This sort of work, and the presence of the plumbers who are sorting out one or two problems, is a sign that the job is moving steadily towards completion.

The lovely oak panelling continues to arrive steadily and, as fast as it comes, it's fixed into place. Last week the panels which line the stairs had just arrived. They're in place now, and this section of stair will be finished once the skirtings appear.

5 December 2015

Grey Days

If the sky is cloudy - and that, now that we're plunging towards mid winter, is how it seems to spend a lot of its time - then it hardly gets light all day.

Walking round the site, one has the impression that there is relatively little left to be done. Shelving is being added to a bookcase in the castle study and the builders are waiting for more of the room panels to arrive, and for the rest of the fittings for the stairs.

Most of the plumbing and electrics are now finished, with only one or two things remaining to be sorted out - like there's a glass screen to separate off this bathroom on the top, attic floor. Much of what's left will be finished before the workmen leave for a very well-deserved Christmas holiday on the 18th, but they'll be back for the last big push on 4th January.

28 January 2016

And End in Sight

The weather has been highly variable over the past couple of weeks, with some fine, clear days and some impressive gales. The workmen were rocked around in their caravans on Monday/Tuesday night by a gale that hit hurricane force on the north coast, and they're in for another rough ride over the next 24 hours.

Progress has continued to be rapid and, as a result, there's some very good news: the castle itself will be handed back to the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust next Friday, when the first of the furnishings which have been in store will also start to arrive.

So today's visit saw impressive steps forward indoors. Almost all the beautiful oak panel work is now in place, leaving the joiners to concentrate on a mass of finishing-off jobs like fixing the brass fittings to the doors. These are great quality, as one would expect from the suppliers, a very old, family-run hardware firm, established in 1899.

The maze of wires and pipes associated with the electrical side, the alarm system, and the fire breather system all now come neatly into a little cupboard under the stairs.

Another trade was hard at work in the main room in the west range. Sandra Jeffrey, who is responsible for all the crewel-work curtains and hangings, has about three weeks work remaining. She's seen here working on one of the hangings for the four-poster in the second bedroom in the north range.

It'll be a couple of months or so before the castle opens for its first guests but the main build, after almost three challenging years, really is approaching completion.

4 February 2016

Almost There...

Holly and Chris Bull, the castle's managers, will be starting to move furniture into the three ranges early next week, after the builders have spent the weekend on the final small jobs and tidying up. Some major things will be completed later, like the sea wall, the drawbridge, and the lift in the dungeon/cellar, but the impression one gets as one walks around is that the rooms in the main, north range are almost ready for occupation. In fact they aren't, with the first letting scheduled for mid-May, because there is still a huge amount to be done.

About half of the curtains have been measured and hung, but all except those in the west range, in which the builders have finished work, have been taken down again and re-wrapped in polythene because there's still too much dust around.

The period furniture, which has been in store on the estate, will be coming in on Monday or Tuesday.

Various jobs have been finished off outside as well. For example, the iron safety bars have been fitted in the crenellations along the battlements, the work done with all the neatness that has been characteristic of this build.

If you would like to experience the results of this amazing restoration for yourself, you can book Mingary Castle through Celtic Castles.

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