The Mingary Castle blog is written by Jon Haylett, who lives in the local village of Kilchoan.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Out of the Chrysalis

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.

Scaffolder John Forsyth and the lads working for Ashley-Thompson, who carried all the scaffolding pieces up by hand have, in ten days, got it back down to ground level and have only stopped because John has gone off on a well-deserved holiday.  He'll be back shortly to complete the job.

This picture shows the north curtain wall, ten foot thick and over 40 high.  The top few feet and the battlements are relatively recent, but the bulk of what we're looking at is 13th century with just a few bits of modern restoration - like the new stone round the lancet windows.

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.

This picture shows just a small part of the masses of scaffolding and other fittings neatly stacked near the castle.  Just to give an idea of the scale of this, there are twelve tons of scaffold clips. They, and the two trailers already loaded with scaffolding planks, are waiting to be moved, along with all the rest of it, to Ardnamurchan Estate's sheds at Caim, where they'll await transport back along the peninsula.

For those of us that come along occasionally to admire, the emerging building may be a wonderful sight but, for the Yorkshiremen working for Ashley-Thompson, and Mark Thompson himself (at right), there's no time to stand and stare.  But they seemed to be particularly cheerful yesterday morning - something about the contractors who had delivered the railings for the inside of the battlements having problems getting the heavy steel sections from the car park ....

....into the courtyard and then up the very steep stone stairway.... the battlements.  It certainly wasn't easy work - look closely at the expressions on Chris and Richard's faces - but I think what drove them was that the railing contractors came from Lancashire.

If what's going on outside was exciting, there are some gems beginning to appear within the buildings.  These are the steps in the intramural passageway, built within the original massive stone walls, running down from just outside the chapel to the first floor level.  The white plaster 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, where Martin and James are working, 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.

There's so much going on in and around the castle that one hardly notices the weather, but it has been exceptionally cold and wet for May.  Not that this has deterred the beautiful wild orchids, which have been growing here for centuries, from producing their annual display.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Scaffolding Comes Down

As promised, the scaffolding started to come down on Monday, and most of the team have been hard at work on it ever since.  Sadly, while the weather was fine for the first couple of days, it has turned wet today.

Scaffolder John Forsyth is back on site working with Ashley-Thompson's men to make sure everything comes down quickly and safely.  He'll be here for about ten days, by which time he hopes to have the main part of the structure down to ground floor level.  It took him fourteen weeks to put the whole thing up, and it'll not take four to bring it down.

So far, there haven't been any serious problems - bearing in mind that this first started to go up in July 2013.  Some of the bolts on the clips have rusted - this one isn't anything like as bad as some of those at the base of the structure which have been bathed by the sea twice a day - and they've had to be cut away using an angle grinder.

Perhaps surprisingly, there have been bigger problems freeing the threads of these 'band and plate' couplers, some of which have required a three-foot steel bar and a lot of effort to move.  Even more surprisingly, John describes the scaffolding boards as being in better condition than when they went up, having weathered gently in two years of mild Atlantic airstream.

Everything's coming down the way it went up - by hand.  It's a process that isn't helped by the wet weather, which makes poles and boards slippery. Then each length of scaffold pole, each type of clip, each coupler, each board is organised into standard parcels to go away by road, a total of six articulated truck-loads.

This was the last opportunity to climb the scaffolding to visit a couple of my favourite places. This is the cannonball which is lodged in the west curtain wall, accessed on the scaffold's second 'lift'. I like the way the stonemasons have given it a neat alcove in which to spend its next 700 years.

This was also a chance to take a last close look at stonemason Damien's handiwork on the lancet windows, and the neat little leaded windows carefully made for each of them.

Not everyone is excited about the scaffolding coming down. This pipit has a nest somewhere in the castle's stonework, is busy feeding a growing family, and has found the scaffolding perfect as a landing spot.

With  most of the workmen dealing with the scaffolding, progress has slowed indoors. Joiner Martin Theaker, seen here in the master bedroom on the second floor, has just taken delivery of the next consignment of oak panelling from Gary Bibby Joinery, but it needs to stand for a few days for it to 'acclimatise' before it's fitted to the walls. 'H' is laying Caithness stone flags in the hallway at the bottom of the stairwell, and the plumbers have returned to put underfloor heating into the last of the rooms in the East and West Ranges.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Pace Increases

This may be the last picture of the castle looking like this.  One of several subcontractors due on site early next week is John the scaffolder and, if all goes to plan, he'll be taking down the remaining scaffolding so we'll be able to see the exterior of the castle in all its refurbished glory.

There's just so much going on at the moment.  The first of the panelling has been fitted by joiner Martin Theaker (right), under the watchful eye of Mark Rutherford Thompson.  This is the sitting room and, although some of the sections have yet to arrive, the room looks superb.  All the panelling has been designed by architect Francis Shaw, and is in natural oak. Martin and his assistant James McGinley had to constantly clean their hands with baby wipes as they fitted it to prevent any marks on the wood surface.

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.... sees evidence of the plasterers' handiwork.  This picture looks up the temporary stairs, the well having been plastered and is now drying out.  In due course there'll be oak panelling to half height up the stairs.

Up in the attic the plaster has dried fully, so Billy is busy painting. With four coats to go on, he has a job to keep him happy for a few weeks.  These rooms are pleasantly light with the sun streaming in on a fine day.

Still chasing the plasterers, the intramural passage has had its bottom, 'scratch' coat applied to the walls and the ceiling done.

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.

While the plasterers will be away at the end of today, John-Paul Ashley will carry on with some plastering in the east range until they return to complete both east and west ranges in a few weeks' time.

James is seen here fitting the tracking in the east range, in the room which is to be a utility and service room for the breakfast room, while....

....Martin is in the west range fixing timber to square up ready to instal the wooden staircase that goes from the ground to the first floor.  Half way up there's a landing which leads out to the level of the west garderobe and the lift down to the dungeon/wine cellar.

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.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Canadian Visitors

Builders John-Paul Ashley and Mark Rutherford Thompson were both on site to welcome two special visitors to the castle this morning, Libby Richardson (left) and her niece Sara Wright.  Libby is from Wynyard and Sara from Saskatoon, both in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Libby is the the great, great, great, grand-daughter of Margaret Riddell MacDougall who was born in Mingary Castle and lived there for approximately twelve years. Margaret was the great niece of Sir James Riddell, the third of the Riddells who held the Ardnamurchan Estate during the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The sun came out for the ladies' visit, and we were able to show them over the main building, which is where Margaret would have been born and brought up.  Its exterior now looks much as it would have done in Sir James' time. Margaret's family later emigrated to Canada, and most of her descendants remain there today.

In response to a reader's request, while we were there we looked in on the west wing, where work continues, to check on the two small alcoves.  They've been repointed but will be covered by insulation, plywood and plaster, so they won't be visible when the room is completed.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Caithness Stone

The first thing one notices approaching the castle today is the almost-completed stone facing to the moat side of the biomass boiler house.  It's been beautifully executed out of local rock by stonemason Damien, and would have been finished but, with the weather much wetter again - we had snow late last week - Damien....

....has been moved across to preparing some Caithness flags for step treads.  Each of these, and there are fourteen in all, has to have a 'bullnose' along one edge - cut so the edge is rounded.

To do this, Damien needs four different grinding wheels, starting with the diamond one on the left.  It's a slow, painstaking process because, compared to the York stone used on the battlements, Caithness stone is very much harder, having been laid down as a fine sediment in a lake bed during the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago.  Each flagstone takes Damien half-an-hour to prepare - another example of the high quality of the workmanship on this job.

The flagstones are for this small stair in the east range, between the upper breakfast room and the lower utility.  The latter is a room in which dampness is still coming through the wall which is part of the curtain wall, which is causing some concern, though all the stone will shortly be hidden behind tracking onto which  a breathable membrane is fitted followed a layer of 18mm ply, which will be plastered.

The Caithness flagstone floor runs from the breakfast room through the kitchen and hall into the dining room (above), where 'H' has just finished laying it.  The picture hardly does justice to this beautiful stone, as each piece is a slightly different colour, and 'H' has taken great care in laying it to vary the colour shades across the room.  This morning he was scrubbing the finished surface.  Later, because the stone is slightly porous, he'll be sealing it.

Upstairs in the north range the plasterers from Neil Hobson Plastering have returned and are steadily working their way - on their stilts - through the building, which should see them here for most of this week and next. I'm no connoisseur of plasterwork, but the results looks super.  They'll be returning later to complete their work in the east and west ranges.

Over in the west range, Martin and James are working on the upper floor, which will be part of the living accommodation for the caretaker, fitting tracking, breathable membrane and 18mm ply throughout.

In my blog entry of 17th April, I seem to suggest that John-Paul Ashley is the sole boss of Ashley Thompson, the builders at Mingary Castle.  He is, of course, a partner in the firm with Mark Rutherford Thompson. My apologies to Mark.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Stabilising the Dolerite

Architect Francis Shaw of Shaw & Jagger and the project's structural engineer Brian Smith of Arc Engineers were on site yesterday morning to look at the last remaining major engineering problem of this work - what to do about the dolerite layer which lies below the granophyre.  This picture was taken back in 2010, before any work began.

Readers will recall that the granophyre was stabilised in a spectacular way back in May 2013 by inserting steel rods which pinned back the falling blocks of rock, an operation which saved the castle's curtain walls from tumbling into the sea.

Even though it showed signs of erosion by the pounding of seven centuries of storm waves, the dolerite wasn't fixed at the same time because it is exceptionally hard, and was quite strong enough to bear the additional weight of the scaffolding.  But, now that the scaffolding is close to being removed, decisions have to be made about stabilising the dolerite.

Francis, right, and Brian, pointing, spent some time with builders Mark Rutherford Thompson (to Brian's left) and John-Paul Ashley (left) looking at the problem.

Not only does Brian have to come up with a way of stabilising the rock, he is also determined that any 'fix' will last a good few hundred years.

While decisions have yet to be made, the outline of Brian's ideas is shown in this sketch. The bulk of the 'fix' is concrete, held in against the dolerite using two metre 'rock nails'.  Outside this concrete is a further layer of corrosion-resistant concrete to which a facing of local rocks will be held using high-grade stainless steel brackets through which a reinforcing wire mesh will be threaded.

It's little wonder that Mark looks worried in this picture as it will be J-P and he that are doing the work.  But it's the sort of challenge they seem to relish, though there's one other problem the builders to contend with - the tide comes in twice a day and covers this area.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Specialists on Site

This build never did hang around, but the pace on site yesterday was, if anything, more energetic than ever, an impression heightened because the resident building team has been joined on site by three specialist contractors.  That said, the first thing one notices on approaching the castle is stonemason Damien who, having finished raising the retaining walls at the east end of the moat, is now deep in the moat itself building a stone facing wall on the side of the biomass boiler house. This time he's using mortar - it's a big wall!

While work is continuing within the breakfast room and above the west garderobe, the first contractor I met was Alex Millson from Leeds, who is contracted by Aberford Interiors to fit their top-end kitchens.  He was working in the main kitchen at the east end of the North Range, a room in which the plaster is still drying on the walls.

Alex runs his own business, Millson Joinery, and has worked in France and New Zealand as well as all over the UK - amongst other talents, he speaks fluent French and is a trained shipwright.  He's been at Mingary since Monday and said he would be finished by the end of the day - though he'll be back to fit more units in the kitchenette and utility in the East Range.  Like so many of the skilled people working on the castle, he doesn't have the need for his own website, but can be contacted at

In the other main ground floor room, which will be the dining room, plasterers Neil, Jess and Dave were still on site.  They were hard at work on the ceiling, two of them moving round the room on stilts.  The exposed beams will be panelled in due course.

In bedroom 2 on the second floor I renewed the acquaintance of Gary Bibby (left) of Gary Bibby Joinery, whom we last saw up here in January.  Gary's been busy making the oak panelling that will be fitted into several of the rooms - full panelling in the dining room and sitting room, and half height 'dado' panelling in the bedrooms, office and stairwell.  The first panels, for the sitting room, are already built - though after today's visit and a re-measuring of the rooms, a few modifications will have to be done.

He's seen here with 'resident' joiner Martin Theaker who will be fitting the panels as they arrive.  The panels are unstained oak and will come with just a coat of Danish oil. They'll be delivered room by room in sections - because access is so limited - and it'll be Martin's job to assemble them, a task he says he's looking forward to.  The sitting room panels will be here in a week or so.

Up in one of the attic rooms John-Paul was working on the dowelling on the corners, preparatory to plastering this room, but.... the other main attic room Neil and his men have finished the plastering, and one can see.... the doweling works.  All this needs now is a bit of builder's caulk to fill the gap between wood and plaster, some paint, and the job's done.