Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Bringing Barholm Castle back to life

Barholm Castle in a ruined state

Barholm Castle in a ruined state

Unlike many of those who purchase a castle, we did not trawl Scotland's ruined castles looking for one to restore. We simply fell in love with Barholm Castle the moment we saw it. In July 1997 we had been holidaying at Portpatrick on the Mull of Galloway and were on our way to stay with family in Dumfries. We had started out the drive with no thought of buying anything more than a lunchtime sandwich, when we saw the 'Castle for Sale' sign on the A75. We took out the ordnance survey map and looked.

Barholm Castle (ruin) was marked, about a mile up a minor road off the A75, towards the 6000 year old megalithic burial stones of Cairn Holy. 'If we don't go back and look now, we never will,' I said.

How could we turn it down when it seemed to be meant for us to restore?

We turned the car round and went to search for the castle. At the end of a very steep, winding and narrow B road, we turned into a farmyard and there, right in front of us, was the stunning ruin of a 400 year old tower, high above the Solway Firth, with fantastic views across Wigtown Bay and as far as the Isle of Man. We fell in love with it instantly. The walls were still standing, but there was no roof, and trees were growing out of huge cracks in the walls and on the parapet. To our besotted eyes, this only added to its charm.

Barholm Castle before restoration

Barholm Castle before restoration

During the previous 25 years had visited almost every ruined castle in the south of Scotland, where we were both brought up, and many across Europe. We had also enviously eyed up a number of restored properties and fantasised – as one does – about living in one ourselves. To fuel this particular fantasy, we decided to look in at the estate agents handling the sale in Dumfries, just to find out the price.

Barholm Castle was priced at a bargain £65,000. How could we turn it down when it seemed to be meant for us to restore?

We didn't – although had we known that costs would escalate to more than 12 times the purchase price and that it would be two years before the sale would be complete, five years before there was even the prospect of being able to start any restoration work, six years before work would actually begin and nine years before it was finished, we certainly would have baulked.

Viewing and purchase

The first thing we needed to do with some urgency was to make a viewing appointment with the owner. This was before the days of mobile telephones; whenever we phoned his house there was no reply and nor was there an answering machine. At the last moment before we were due to return to our home in Holland, we managed to get hold of him and arrange an appointment to look round inside.

We picked up the key from his house close to the castle, and with that visit we sealed our decision. Chilly and dark, even in the August sunshine, the castle interior had a gloomy, romantic attraction and we could see the scope for a fantastic adventure in restoring it. Grass grew on the great hall floor and ivy with stems the thickness of tree trunks covered the walls. There were owl pellets scattered around, which we later discovered came from a resident barn owl, who frightened us once or twice swooping silently down from the parapet. Through the empty windows we could see the sea way below, across the fields. Up above, fireplaces hung on the walls with no hearths and no floors to reach them. We could see the entrances to what must be garderobes in the corners, but there was no way of reaching them or seeing inside. The spiral staircase was complete to the top, although dodgy in places, and we were able to climb up to the first floor corridor and look out across what would be the master bedroom and down the void to the great hall floor, which was the vaulted storeroom ceiling. We could look up to the sky and see the wall walks and the garret rooms, and had we been brave enough, we could have climbed right up the tiny turret staircase and clambered onto the caphouse roof to look at the fantastic views.

As soon as we put in an offer for the castle, which we did almost immediately, we started looking for knowledgeable people to talk to about restoration. We commissioned the well-known Scottish conservation architect, Ian Begg to make a visit and write an informal feasibility study for us. He was enthusiastic about Barholm and upbeat about the possibility of restoring it, which gave us great hope. However, he warned that we would need 'plenty of money' and to spend at least £200,000 on building costs. In 1997 this was a fortune! Could we manage it? We were awed by the thought of finding and spending so much money. Since then, of course, costs have more than trebled. Two things have saved us – one is that the value of our house in Holland has also trebled since we bought it, and the other is the generous grant aid which we have received from Historic Scotland. Without it, this would not have been feasible.

Directing operations from overseas

Although we are both from the south west of Scotland, and still have family there, we have lived overseas for many years, so we had to deal with a battery of solicitors, archaeologists, architects, engineers, surveyors and civil servants from a base in The Netherlands, rather than face to face. E-mails and competitive telephone rates made communication bearable, although for the first few years not every firm seemed able to cope with the high- tech demands of e-mailing. As we entered the 21st century, more small Scottish firms began to accept the use of technology in communications, thankfully.

Throughout the restoration, I steadfastly denied that we were at any disadvantage being overseas, although with honest hindsight I have to admit that life would have been so much easier if we had been on hand. But the only way we could finance such a project on public service salaries was because we live overseas. I had e-mail and telephone communication with the architect and others on analmost daily basis and we went across to Scotland every 8 weeks or so once work had started. I suppose that we were no different from those brave people in Britain who decide to renovate a dilapidated hill farm in Tuscany or a chateau in Burgundy at a distance. Indeed, we were at the advantage of working within a familiar system, in our own language and within our own culture, although there was much we did not know about building contracts. Everything we did was a leap of faith and we were on a steep learning curve the whole time.

Often, on our visits, there was disappointingly little progress to be seen. If we had been there on a weekly, or even daily basis, the frustration of seeing little day to day movement might have been unbearable, and I'm not convinced that there is anything which we could have done or said which would have made any difference. The architects who acted as project managers were on the case, chasing things up at every opportunity and visiting site on a formal basis every two weeks. However, as our bi-monthly visits approached, the anticipation would build up and become overwhelming. We lead busy lives in Holland, with lots of responsibilities and activities to talk about. But when a visit to Scotland approached, all of our conversational openers were uniform: "When we get to Barholm....."

Barholm Castle restored

Barholm Castle restored

The past 9 years did not go smoothly. The two greatest virtues for anyone restoring a ruinous building are patience and tenacity, and I suppose we have at least demonstrated the latter. A bottomless purse would be a major asset, too. We didn't have one, and the main leitmotiv of our troubles was for the first few years financial. Unexpected expenses would pop up like bad pennies, throwing us into a state of panic. The exchange rate of the pound and the euro (previously the guilder – we started so long ago) became of obsessive interest to us. Its peaks and troughs could plunge us into the depths of despair or up into a cautious degree of euphoria. Our house in Holland is still mortgaged to a frightening degree. Thanks to prudent housekeeping on the part of the quantity surveyor the basic costs of the project were kept more or less within budget, although the final costs have not yet been quantified. They are likely to be something over £800,000.

The other theme which has dogged us has been time. The project over-ran by nearly a year and a half, almost doubling the 18 months it was supposed to take. This caused us not only impatience, but financial worries, as professional fees mounted well beyond the projected amount and our expected letting income failed to materialise. Eighteen months was perhaps optimistic, although not unreasonably so, as we were assured after every site meeting that things were running to schedule. Towards the end of the project, when we had already struggled with a year's overrun, we found the many things which still did not go to plan extremely tiresome. I began to run out of steam. Earlier in the project, I would frequently fire off lengthy letters with umpteen points of complaint, laying out exactly what was wrong and precisely how I wanted it put right. I was fuelled by righteous indignation, which gave me the energy to keep making sure things were right. By the end, however, some days I barely had the energy to make a brief phone call to rearrange delivery times because some idiot had mucked up when and where something would arrive, which seemed to happen on a weekly basis. I suppose the idiots in question were lucky to escape the sharp end of my tongue; I was just too weary to engage with them. I did summon up the demons of angry energy every so often and keep the letters churning out, but each one took a lot of effort.

One of the highest hills in Galloway is Criffel, which dominates the landscape all around Dumfries. We have climbed it several times, and, just like Everest (admittedly, Criffel is a little lower), it has a series of false summits, where the hapless climb er is lulled into a sense of security by a ridge which appears to be just short of the top, but in fact is still some distance off. The disappointment of realization is terrible, like the disappointments we felt, over and over again, as the project seemed to be almost finished, but never was. However, finally it is complete and we can begin to treat the building like a home.

Barholm Castle almost defeated us at times

Would we do it again?

Almost certainly not, had we known in advance just how long and hard the path would be. I like to joke that now that the castle is no longer ruined, we are ruined instead. That's financially and emotionally. I find it hard now to recapture that sense of adventure and fun which we felt in 1997; the years that followed were filled with so many disappointments, difficulties and anxieties. It is customary, in accounts such as ours, to claim breezily to have had great fun during the restoration and to have enjoyed every minute. We certainly did not. We are both experienced in managing difficult projects and juggling many complex activities, but the difficulties of restoring Barholm Castle almost defeated us at times and we have come out of the project feeling bruised and battered.

Barholm - beautifully restored inside & out

Barholm - beautifully restored inside & out

Do we regret it?

No, not at all – regrets are always foolish and we have a beautiful home which has exceeded our expectations. Looking at the photographs of the grey ruins it is very hard to imagine how we thought it would look when finished. I don't think we ever had a really clear vision of the finished product, just an idea that an amazing transformation could be made and inspiration from the restored castles we had visited. When we had a small New Year party after the restoration was nearly finished, my uncle looked at the photographs of the original state of the building and asked, "How did you know it would look like this when it was finished?"

We think our building looks beautiful now, both inside and out

'This' was the great hall with rugs on the slate floor, a painted ceiling, comfortable seating, embroidered curtains and a bookcase full of local books. "We didn't," I said. "It just happened." The furnishings make the castle look like a home, but they were the icing on the cake, the much anticipated, pleasurable part of the restoration. Compared to the years of hard work organizing and administering the project and the craftsmanship involved in the rebuilding of the south wall, the restoration of the fireplace, the making of authentic windows, the stabilizing of the floor, the placement and painting of the ceiling beams and the installation of heating and lighting systems, the contribution of carpets, cushions and curtains was quite minor in the grand scheme of things. We did put a great deal of time and effort into choosing them, however, and they did make a significant difference between an empty building and a home.

Finally, we think our building looks beautiful now, both inside and out. For more information on the project, see our website

Added: 14 Apr 2010 Updated: 16 Oct 2023
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