Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

A Castle Owner's Pilgrimage

Tom Clarke of Howgill Castle (Cumbria), Lochhouse Tower (Moffat), Kilmartin Castle (Argyll)

Tom Clarke on a castle tour
Tom on a castle tour

It seems that all my life I was destined to live in old houses. I was born in an old farmhouse, 1000 ft high situated in the Westmorland hills, the house was lit by candles and the only running water was that which ran off the roof.

26 years later I bought for myself an old farmhouse, dated 1734. This had mullioned windows but was unique in that it had an enormous bulge at the front, this caused my mother to remark "I think Thomas your house could fall down." My mother was proved wrong as the house is in the same condition after a period of 60 years.

After another 18 years, I bought my present home Howgill Castle. This was described by the local press as semi derelict, and the locals predicted it would never be lived in again. Also my mother- in-law commanded that I should not take her daughter to live there. However the matrimonial tie proved greater than the maternal one so that, together, over nearly 40 years we have eventually made it into a comfortable home.

Howgill is a 1340c building formally battlemented. These were removed in 1650 by a local builder called Addison and an architect named Machell, these two men claimed that they had been "the first introducers of regular buildings in these parts", Machell claimed "that he regularised Howgill castle with much art and small cost for Sir William Sandford from an irregular building to a very elegant and uniform structure". The battlements were replaced by an ionic balcony and double transom windows curiously carved. These were all taken away in 1733 resulting in the present Georgian appearance I must add that also in 1650 a very fine oak staircase was added to provide access to the upper floors.

In 1601 that famous border reiver Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Hollows tower came here and stole one of the best horses belonging to Sir Richard Sandford.

A gentleman who lived here in 1745 helped to add to my interest and love of Scotland, his name was General Honeywood who married one of the Sandford daughters. General Honeywood was engaged in fighting the Jacobites at Clifton Moor which is 10 miles from here, this skirmish engaged the Jacobites on their return march from Derby, 12 brave Highlanders were killed and interred in a communal grave at Clifton. General Honeywood returned here wounded. Prince Charles' Men were the victors in this engagement.

About 30 years ago I came upon a wee house on the shore at Gairloch in Wester Ross. This house was situated about 5 metres from the sea. I set about rebuilding, it is situated on a most marvellous position, for 25 years I used it as a holiday home and a base for walking in the West Highlands it was whilst on my journeys to Gairloch that I passed a restored castle and a ruined tower house, and so started my love and interest in these type of buildings.

Kilmartin Castle in 1962

Kilmartin Castle in 1962

The castle which I have often visited is Kinkell Castle, four miles north of Inverness. The owner/restorer Gerald Laing wrote an inspirational book about his exploits which I read. The tower I became interested in was Fairburn Tower near the village of Contin, the would-be restorer showed me his plans for restoration, but I believe that these plans have not come to fruition.

One of the most interesting things about Fairburn Tower concerns a man called the Brahan Seer, who lived in the 1600s. He prophesied the downfall of the Seaforth Mackenzie's of Fairburn Tower: "The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall loose their entire possessions, their castle will be uninhabited, and a cow will give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower." These things did indeed happen, the tower was used by a farmer for the storage of hay, the cow followed the trail of hay to the top floor, where she calved. People came from miles around to see this strange sight. As a farmer I have often wondered how they got the cow and calf down from the top floor.

Lochhouse Tower - Kilmartin Castle

Kilmartin Castle, Argyll and Lochhouse Tower, Moffat

Eventually, in 1988, I bought the ruined 16th century Z plan Kilmartin Castle in Argyll. My son-in-law, when seeing the ruin, asked "Is the man deranged?" There was a lot of work to be done including removing the trees growing inside. I was ably helped in the consolidation and restoration task by my wife Olive, so that by 1995 we had the roof on. We think that now it is near original.

"Is the man deranged?"

Whilst we were awaiting planning permission to restore Kilmartin I bought a dilapidated Tower House in the borders called Lochhouse Tower. I was rather discouraged when a near relation asked "Tom, why do you have to buy these old places?' However the former 16th century stronghold of the Johnstones is now a comfortable dwelling.

I would wish to encourage any potential castle restorers not to be over duly discouraged as this exercise is very rewarding and interesting, there seems to be more life in stones than bricks and blocks, stones need to be joined together to create a living whole. Finally, although I do not know for sure, one day I might live in a new home for old people but at least there will be proper running water and electric lighting. May I thank you for reading about the experiences of a pilgrim.

Added: 24 Feb 2010 Updated: 29 Mar 2018
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