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

Friday, 26 June 2015

A Tour of the Site

For me, these weekly visits to Mingary Castle have been a privilege, and very much enjoyed.  Yesterday's tour began just to the east of the site, from which the east curtain wall can best be seen.  Work has been continuing to finish the pointing of the exterior of the walls, and the section along the bottom of this wall, largely invisible under the scaffolding, is now done.  That leaves only a small section by the water gate, and this huge task will be completed.

On this side of the castle site an area of ground is being cleared by Martin Newton working one of DA Boyd's diggers. This will be landscaped and then made available for use for events connected to the castle - for example, it will be large enough to accommodate a marquee.

Builders Ashley Thompson and their long-suffering workforce have had to put up with storms, poor communications along miles of peninsula roads, long dark winter nights, internet and mobile phone blackouts, long separations from their families, a damp and grey spring and early summer and, now, the dreaded Highland midges. These miserable beasts, whose sting is completely out of proportion to their minute size, are weeks late in appearing because of the weather, so have a lot of ground to catch up.  This picture shows Billy who, for some reason, is the local midges' favourite meal.

Entering the courtyard one is struck by how light is is, even when the weather is overcast.  Next week the scaffold is going up again in the courtyard and work will start on a light-coloured harling - an exterior rendering on the stonework traditional to the Highlands - which will brighten this area even more.

It's good to see Sebastian Evans (left) and Tim Birbeck of TSB Ironcraft of Rishton, Lancashire, back this week to complete work on the iron railings which run along the inside of the battlements, up the steep external stairs, and along the walkway in front of the top floor of the north range.  When they left after their last visit at the beginning of June, they went away with templates for the stair rails, and it's these that they have been fitting.

Even the best-laid plans sometimes don't quite work: the railings have had to be altered on site, but the finished effect is superb.

My tour then continued along the length of the walkway which runs along the front of the north range, looking down into the courtyard, first at the east range, where the lads from Ashley Thompson are completing lining the small room at the right of the building, then.... the west range where, again, the small room on the ground floor at left, just by the water gate, is being fitted out as a store room.

I finished in the north range, where work continues with the panelling and ceilings in the lower rooms, but the highlight of the day was finding one of the partners in Ashley Thompson, Mark Rutherford Thompson, hard at work in the bathroom in the one-time chapel, grouting the tiles that have been fitted by workman 'H'.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Lights On!

Last week the cutting and laying of the small Caithness stone blocks throughout the central part of the courtyard seemed an almost insuperable task, yet this week they're finished - which gives a good idea of how fast main contractor John-Paul of Ashley Thompson, pictured, and his men are progressing with this project.  In the west range, to the left of J-P....

....plasterers Neil Hobson, right, and the boys from Neil Hobson Plastering are finishing off four days work on site, after which the plastering in here is complete.  Their next job, in about three weeks time, is harling the courtyard-facing walls of the three buildings.  For this, the whole courtyard will have to be scaffolded, so scaffolder John Forsyth will be back to take down the remaining....

....scaffolding round the outside of the castle and reassemble it in the courtyard.

So Chris Taylor, right, and Chris Dickinson are out in the rain and cold clambering through the scaffolding to finish the last of the pointing which remains to be done, on the east curtain wall and around the water gate.

Working in rather warmer and drier conditions in the north range, electrician Tigger is installing lighting in the rooms where the oak panelling is in place - here in the bookshelf in what will be the sitting room.

More panelling is arriving in batches. In this room on the second floor, panelling to dado-rail height is going in to what will be one of the main bedrooms.

Having finished laying the Caithness stone floor throughout the intramural passages, 'H' has started tiling the bathroom within the north curtain wall.

With the oak panelling going in, the second fix electrics under way, and the tiling started in one of the bathrooms, one can begin to get an idea of what the interior is going to look like.  But this is best seen....

....on the top, attic floor where the oak flooring has been oiled and, for the first time, the fitted electric lights can be turned on.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Caithness Stone

At this stage, two years into the project, one might have expected an element of weariness to have crept into the work on this project - but not a bit of it!  On the contrary - and perhaps it's helped by the long-awaited improvement in the weather - the pace of work at the castle over the week since I last visited has, if anything, accelerated.

I started today's visit on the battlements, where all the railings are now in place and workmen Chris and Richard were clearing up.  The railings down the stairs will be in place shortly.  As can be seen, the battlements are a perfect viewing point for the ships passing in the Sound of Mull - the Northern Lighthouse Board's Pharos was at anchor off the castle last night.

From the battlements the Caithness stone can be seen going in to the courtyard. It looks absolutely tremendous, but there have been some problems - witness the steps which haven't been finished.  This is because, despite careful packaging, some of the special blocks....

 ....have been damaged, possibly while being transported along our local winding, potholed road from the Corran ferry, a road which main contractor Mark Rutherford Thompson cheerfully describes as, "The worst road in Scotland."

This has been the fate of other materials being delivered to the site, the difference in this case being the reaction of Caithness Stone Industries Ltd, whose John Sutherland, on being informed of the problem, has gone out of his way to ensure that replacement blocks will be on site as quickly as possible.

Mark's seen here starting on the next stage in the courtyard, laying the 'cobbles' in its centre.  These, again, are the beautiful Caithness stone, but they've been supplied in small rectangular pieces - seen piled to Mark's right - each of which has to be shaped for the triangular courtyard by removing a wedge from two opposite sides.  Since there are some 2,000 pieces, this is a long job which Mark has speeded up by forming a wooden template to use on the circular saw.

Caithness stone is everywhere, both inside and out.  Last week this room, once the chapel and to be a bathroom, was having its floor laid. It's now grouted and complete, with the bath in place and the walls at the further, invisible, end ready to tile.

The same stone has also been laid throughout the ground floor of the west range, which will be the housekeeper's quarters.   This is the sitting room, the room beyond being the kitchen.

A week ago joiner Martin was working on the walls here and in the rooms above, but they are finished and ready for the plasterers next week, while he's moved on to....

....the attic room in the main, north range, where he's fitting the oak flooring.

Here's another milestone, with Tigger from R&B Electrical and Renewables back to start the second fix of the electrics.  He's also working in the attic room.

Finally, I walked down the finished steps to the viewing platform, where I sat for a few minutes enjoying the sunshine and the view, and admiring the towering magnificence of the south curtain wall.

Thursday, 4 June 2015


After yesterday's beautiful early summer day, which cheered everyone immensely, we're back to grayer weather but, with the tide low, it was possible to get round on the beach below the castle to take pictures of the emerging structure.

No more of the scaffolding is down, but the south curtain wall was cleared earlier so that....

....the steel frame for the viewing platform, accessed from the courtyard through the water gate, could be assembled on the foundations prepared by Ashley Thompson's men.  Manufactured by Glendale Engineering of Wooler in Northumberland, just south of Coldstream, it's being assembled on site by....

....another of the small, independent companies of which we've seen a number working here. This is Donkin Engineering, run by father Rob (left), and son Graeme Donkin.  Their normal work for Glendale is in agricultural machinery, such as cattle rams, so this job is quite a change for them.  But it hasn't been easy - the position is steep and very exposed to the weather.

The colour will be changed to blend in to the surroundings.

At the top of the castle, more steelwork has been going in - the railings along the top of the facade of the north range and along the inside of the battlement walkway.  Both have been manufactured by North Valley Forge....
....and are being installed by a couple of their men, Craig McLoughlan (second from right) and Steven Haycock (right), along with Sebastian Evans (left) and Tim Birbeck of TSB Ironcraft of Rishton, Lancashire.  The uprights holding the railings are set in 200mm deep holes drilled into the underlying stonework, which makes them pretty firm, but the setting is further strengthened using a material called Chemfix.

They'll be finished by the end of the week but will go home with templates for the sections of railing along the steep stair down to the courtyard, which will then be manufactured - so we'll see them back in the next few weeks to complete the job.

Meanwhile, Ashley Thompson's men keep hard at work at the many tasks which still have to be done. 'H' continues to lay the Caithness stone tiles in the intramural passageways: he's seen here working his way along the chapel floor.

Stonemason Damien (right) and Billy are in the moat strengthening the base of the north curtain wall, along an area which couldn't be reached while the scaffolding was in place.  They're having to rebuild large sections which have badly deteriorated over the years.

The project's architect, Francis Shaw, has been on site for a couple of days, and while I was talking to him a sea eagle flew across the front of the castle.  Along with the dolphins which visit the bay immediately in from of the castle, watching these magnificent birds will be one of the features for anyone renting the castle in the future.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Radio Presenter's Visit

Yesterday afternoon, Mingary Castle was very pleased to welcome Mark Stephen, well-known presenter of BBC Radio Scotland's popular 'Out of Doors' programme which is broadcast on a Saturday morning.  He's seen here with researcher Laura Cuthill talking to builder Mark Thompson.

The weather was - briefly - kind so, with most of the scaffolding down, Mark saw the castle at its best.

He recorded an interview but has promised to return in the near future to spend more time both at the castle and on West Ardnamurchan.

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.