I trust that all our members are keeping safe and healthy, and I hope that many of you have seized the opportunity to take advantage of this Government-advised Isolation. When I left Barra Castle in 2007, I kept all the contents, and when I retired in 2015, after four decades teaching at Charterhouse, I had collected even more piles of papers. So, you can imagine the fun I am having going through old boxes: filing, recycling or firing, depending on sensitivity, each document. Many treasured memories have come to light already. One book titled Mary Stuart written by John Hunter in association with Dr Richard Oram caught my attention but apparently our John Hunter denies authorship so Richard must enlighten us.
One Country Life magazine from Nov 2014, destined for the recycling bin, turned up a lovely article titled ‘Find a safe haven in Scotland’. One property was Keith Marischal, theme of a recent article on Sir Robert Mathew the eminent architect famed for his ‘Brutalist’ style.
The other was Balbithan Castle near Inverurie which I was recently able to explore before the new owners move in. We were able to confirm that it used to have a round tower which was torn down when the wing was added, we found the turnpike stairs had been reused on the landing of the new staircase. In the attics we confirmed that the top storey had been removed, probably in C19th as this was clarified by a blocked door at the top of the stair turret and truncated access to the turrets in the wing. The good news is that the new owner has plans to refurbish this lovely peaceful property. The story is that the C16th Laird was so incensed when a cannonball fired from Hallforest, a castle on the other side of Kintore, landed in the courtyard of Old Balbithan that he vowed to build a new tower in a safer location.
In the same issue amongst a group of photos from the Country Life Fair was one of an ex pupil of mine riding a rocking horse. You don’t forget a girl called Lettice. I have a fond memory of her bringing her violin on our field trip to Cumbria. One evening she entertained us and the other residents with an impromptu concert in the hotel bar. No wonder she was a finalist in ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
Another of my old boys is completing his Architectural history course this year and we met for tea when I was passing through Edinburgh. He was finishing off his thesis on Ian Gordon Lindsay. The list of this architect’s contacts was fascinating. He was involved with the restoration of Iona and Pluscarden Abbeys. The list of castles is most illuminating and invoked a plethora of memories: Aldie, Druminnor, Wemyss, Tulliebole, Duart, Inverary, Cawdor, Old Breachacha (home of Project Trust on Coll) and Carberry Tower where the Scottish Castles Association lunched recently. One of his friends was Manny Forbes, an ancestor of mine, who was responsible for presenting Barra Castle with the Irvine heraldic stone - pictured, left, where you can clearly see the Irvine Holly Leaf with a date of 1637. This was the final piece to leave Barra when I handed over the key of the castle to the new owner in October 2007. It now resides at my cottage.
Before the ‘Lock-Down’ came into force I was able to do a recce of Roxburghshire in anticipation of a future tour. I was inspired by a list provided by Brian McGarrigle of must-see sites. Exploring Roxburgh, Cessford, Bedrule, Barnhills and even Fatlips was a muddy but exhilarating experience even as the next snow shower moved in and I am eager to return to the region. Now that we have longer evenings and a dry spell of weather it is frustrating that we have been unable to explore new places but at least we have ample chance to catch up on reading as well as researching sites that we hope to visit in the autumn!
One of the last talks I attended before Isolation was by Mike Taitt about the restoration of Terpersie Castle. In the audience at Banff he had the wife of Lachy Rhodes who was the original owner who inspired the restoration of the ruin and Kirstie Preston (nee Forbes-Sempill), originally brought up at Craigievar, who is the current owner. Kirstie told the assembled company that Terpersie was a delightful, comfortable home and when she bought the 3-bedroom tower house she paid £70,000 less than a similar sized property In Aberdeen would have cost!
Gardening has been a great method of keeping fit especially since I am building a dry-stone wall as part of the landscaping around my cottage. I am also using the time to scrape off the cracked paint on the hull of my old Mirror dinghy, built when I was a schoolboy supposedly working for my O levels. I plan to have it repainted ready to be able to visit those island castles that have been inaccessible in the past as soon as the lock-down is lifted. I already have Loch Kinnord castle in my sights and need to be able to row the owner across safely.
Is it not strange how even in Isolation we adhere to our customary routines? Every morning whilst my porridge is bubbling away, I open the curtains in the drawing room and switch on the picture light above James Giles’ painting of Tolquhon Castle.
There is still plenty of challenges ahead. I must take the opportunity to continue developing my database on castles by counties. Currently I have approximately 1,500 listed and many of my late brother’s files still need to be sorted. Then I must pick up my melodeon again – isolation is the perfect scenario for such an instrument in my incompetent hands. I have built up a wonderful collection of malt whisky and under the present circumstances I treat myself to a wee dram every night – purely for medicinal reasons and tonight I will toast the health of all members of the Scottish Castles Association.
The important point is to keep safe, keep busy, keep healthy and keep in touch so that when we feel footloose and fancy-free to meet up again, we can have a spectacular celebration hopefully in the autumn.
Robert Bogdan, Scottish Castles Association Chairman