The Mingary Castle restoration blog was written by Jon Haylett, who lives in the local village of Kilchoan. Now that restoration is almost complete Holly and Chris Bull will take over to report on bringing the Castle back to life.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Year in Review

A year ago, the 700-year old walls of Mingary Castle were on the verge of collapse.  The joints in the igneous sill on which the castle stands were opening up and the huge blocks of rock falling outwards, threatening to take the whole castle with them.  Rocks from the upper parts of the curtain walls were falling into the courtyard, many of the lintels over the doors and windows of the north range were about to fail, access was so dangerous that the area was fenced off, and the occupants of the castle were pigeons, starlings, mice, and the occasional passing mink.

Today, the huge blocks of sill have been pinned so they won't fall and the curtain walls stabilised, extensive archaeological investigations have been carried out, the structure has been photographed and mapped to provide a detailed record for future research, the building has been sheathed in a network of scaffold so that every part of the walls can be easily reached, a start has been made on removing loose mortar and on the massive task of re-pointing, and a temporary roof has been constructed over the north range.

If all goes well, by the end of 2014 the castle will once again stand proudly in its position dominating the northern entrance to the Sound of Mull.  Construction work will re-start on 6th January and, if there are no delays, by the end of this year the project should be completed and the castle ready for its new role as a top specification letting property.  This will enable the castle to pay for its maintenance into the foreseeable future.

Progress so far has been possible because the Trustees have managed to raise enough money to finance it, but funds are now critically low.  With the coming of the New Year, the Trustees are appealing once again for financial support so that the project can be completed on time.  Please, if you can, donate something, however small, through mydonate - there's a permanent link at top right of this page.

The Trustees wish all the friends and supporters of Mingary Castle a happy,
healthy and prosperous 2014.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Work on the castle has shut down for Christmas which, in one way, is just as well - we're having one of the worst runs of storms that I can remember in the years I have been here.  We woke to yet another gale this morning, a southerly which is bringing the seas straight in onto the beach below the castle, but everyone is very confident that the scaffolding will withstand anything the weather can throw at it.

The Trustees wish all our readers and supporters a very Happy Christmas.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

From Sleeping Accommodation to Bathroom

When work started on the north range, a small tree - it was very small, someone referred to it as a 'bonsai' - was growing out of the wall on the second floor of the stairwell.  Recently, this was removed by the workmen to expose a small entrance which led into what looks like one of the passageways that runs within the north curtain wall.

This picture shows the entrance.  The change in colour of the stonework is where the wooden floor of the second floor used to run, so it was quite a low entrance.

Peering into it, and up to the right, one can see that the space goes back about a metre, and that there are distinct horizontal marks along the back wall.  It's also rapidly evident that, while it was originally part of a passageway, it was blocked off to right and left to form a small and very cramped room.

This picture looks down into the space to the stone floor.  There's hardly room to swing a cat but the suggestion is that it was used as a sleeping area with bunk beds, perhaps for some of the servants.

The plans, as submitted to Historic Scotland and Highland Council, show that the passageway of which this forms a part is going to be opened up again, and this section is being converted into a bathroom.  The red arrow shows the location of the entrance.  I hasten to add that the bathroom will be bigger than appears in the photographs because the back of the existing space has been walled up to strengthen the outer wall - something which also blocked the lancet windows which, as can be seen from the plan, will be reinstated.

The Mingary Castle plans are available to see at the Highland Council website, here.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Castle Battered by Four Storms

In the last week, four gales have battered the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the strongest, last night, being described by locals as the worst the area has experienced in ten years, with winds peaking at force 9.  The storm was at its height between one and three this morning, so by the time I went down to the castle the weather was clearing - which didn't prevent a heavy hail shower from turning the ground white.

Despite the appalling weather, building work has continued apace, and not a pole nor a board has moved in the huge network of scaffolding that envelopes the castle - though sharp observers may have noticed that the bright red plastic rubbish chute has disappeared from the front of the building, not because of the gales but....

....because it's been moved into the eastern end of the north range, as rubble coming down from the cleaning of the walls will shortly be able to be taken out through the courtyard.

Despite continuing fierce gusts of wind, I was able to climb the scaffolding to get some views of the surrounding coast.  This view looks eastwards towards the mouth of Loch Sunart, with the point called Maclean's Nose in the left distance.

Work is winding down for the Christmas break - which will be greatly appreciated as most of the men are housed in caravans, and trying to get some sleep in a caravan in a force 9 isn't much fun.  Builder John-Paul Ashley (centre) is seen with the last of his workers, who finish tomorrow: John O'Neil, left, and Iain MacPhail, right. Here's wishing the lads a very happy, enjoyable, and well-deserved holiday - and we look forward to seeing them back here on 6th January.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


This graphic has recently been added to the home page of the Mingary Castle website to give everyone an idea of how we are faring in raising money for the work at the castle.  As can be seen, we've raised just over 10% of the total estimated cost.  While this leaves us with a very long way to go, in the present squeeze on charitable donations in the UK, it isn't too bad a start.

The left hand bar shows the estimated expenditure under each heading.  Professional fees are a significant cost, and are high because, as well as having to pay for survey, design and engineering, we have incurred huge costs for the archaeological work.  This was something which we were required to do by Historic Scotland, yet it attracts no funding from the lottery or other big national funds!

Consolidation, which continues but included the spectacular pinning of the granophyre base of the castle, was also a massive cost; and, as might be expected, the building works will cost upward of a million pounds.

So the Trust can report that it has made a sound start to raising the £2.3 million this restoration needs, but this still leaves us with a huge mountain to climb before we can complete the work.  While some generous donations have come in through the BT mydonate link at top right of the website page, we're considering running a number of activities which will help to boost funds.  However, before we proceed, we'd like to appeal for any ideas which readers may have - the sort of thing which you, as a supporter of the Mingary project, would feel comfortable sponsoring.

We'd also like to make another appeal to you.  We've applied to as many charity support funds as we can, with mixed success, but if you know any fund that might consider supporting the Mingary project, please let us know using the Contact Us link at top right of this page.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Work Progresses

The scaffolding in the castle courtyard is now complete, with the whole area a maze of walkways enabling every centimetre of the walls to be easily accessed.  At present some of John-Paul Ashley's men are working on the loose mortar, while others are continuing with the pointing in the north range.

This is the only section of scaffolding which suffered during the recent storm and, as can be seen, it's back in place.  Wind speeds measured locally suggested that some gusts reached 90mph last Thursday, with the strongest from the northwest, a direction from which the castle is reasonably protected.  This also explains why the only scaffolding to move was at the top of the northwest corner.

Following the storm we've had days of rain and, with temperatures staying firmly above 10C, the humidity has been high.  This hasn't helped the mortar being used in the pointing in the interior of the north range to go off.  Each wall is more or less damp.  This section is on the interior of the north curtain wall, and it's particularly damp, with droplets condensing on the flat surfaces of the stones.  The large stone visible here is running with damp, and the surrounding mortar is taking up to a fortnight to go off.

The recent high temperatures may have caused this gorse growing near the castle to spring into unseasonal flower.  Work will stop over Christmas and won't start again until 6th January of the New Year, when the men will begin pointing the walls outside the north range.  That's some nice, cold work for them to look forward to.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Secret Passageways

The great curtain wall that forms the north side of Mingary Castle has a number of small lancet windows let into it - this picture was taken before the scaffolding was raised.  These windows are an original feature of the castle, and they are evidence of passageways and rooms which were built into the wall.

These passageways, or galleries, are shown in some plans of the castle, and I was fortunate to be able to gain access to the one shown at bottom right in this plan of the second floor of the castle, in the company of builder John-Paul Ashley of builders Ashley Thompson.

The passageway that runs along the length of the north wall is shown as open in the plan but is, in fact, blocked by the neatly built stone wall seen in the shadows in this photo.  It's not clear why, or when, the passages in the northern curtain wall were blocked.

To the right of the picture there's what looks like a stone seat, which can also be seen.... the bottom left in this picture, which looks out of a small window, now covered by a sheet of polycarbonate roofing.

In the plan, the passage that ran towards the courtyard is correctly shown as blocked.  This passage was destroyed when....

....a chimney was put in during the 18th century renovations.  The stonework of this structure is highly unstable and will be removed, enabling this passageway, along with all the others, to be reopened.  The renovation allows for open fires, but the chimneys for these will be built out into the rooms.

The prospect of opening these passageways is very exciting.  I'm very anxious to be there when it happens.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Baptism of Wind

The first Atlantic storm of the winter battered Mingary Castle and surrounding area last night and this morning, with gale force winds which destroyed power lines, brought trees down, and left the peninsula without both land line and mobile telephone signal.  Over 24mm (an inch) of a mixture of rain, sleet, hail and snow fell in twenty-four hours.  To make matters worse, high water of a spring tide coincided with the peak of the gale, at about seven this morning.  It was a chance for John Forsyth's scaffolding to show whether it could survive a full Highland storm.

It acquitted itself magnificently.  The only damage was when about ten of the scaffolding boards along the top walkway ripped through the ropes which held them to the poles, but even then they didn't come down.  It will only take John-Paul Ashley's men a few minutes to fix them.

Of more concern than the wind was the fear that a high tide, pushed along by a westerly gale, would bring seaweed and flotsam against the base of the scaffolding on the beach to the west of the castle.  This would have given the waves much more drag against the base of the scaffolding, which might have brought the whole thing down.  The seaweed came in, a length of rope wrapped itself round some of the poles, and a tree trunk narrowly missed the structure, but it has stood up to this first test.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Warm Heart Glows in the Castle

This smoke coming out of the top of a chimney at the top of the north range is a further major step in the process of turning this magnificent castle from a ruin into someone's home, because it's a sign that, for the first time in some 200 years, there's fire warming the heart of the building.

As you would expect, the heating system is very appropriate for a structure of this vintage, consisting of two cast-iron, solid fuel stoves which John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson builders has been able to borrow locally.  The first is in the eastern room, next to the well, and the other.... in the western room.  As can be seen, there's no shortage of fuel for the stoves as the Ardnamurchan Estate has thousands of acres of coniferous forestry which is ready for felling.  A third stove will be joining these two shortly, a much bigger one which will heat the central section of the building.

The next great heating milepost will be when the woodchip boiler has been installed in the moat.  It will have the capacity to heat all three ranges.  And, looking beyond that, a moment will come when a great log fire is burning in one of the many original fireplaces in the building.

While some of the workmen have been enjoying the warmth while they continue with the repointing on the inside of the north range, John Forsyth, the scaffolder, has been outside in the rain, working on the final stages of this huge scaffolding job.  When he's finished the courtyard, every square inch of the castle's walls will be accessible from the hundreds of metres of walkway which now surround it.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Mixing the Mortar

I was down at the dry store early this morning to see a batch of the mortar being mixed for use in the continuing task of stabilising the stone walls in the north range.  The store is a quarter of a mile from the site, and I was there to meet....

....Iain MacPhail, one of the workmen whom John-Paul had described as being very good at this task.  Iain - pictured here earlier in the year -  is a local man, from a crofting family in the small township of Achnaha in the centre of the peninsula.  Sadly, Iain wasn't there - he'd had to go off to see the dentist at short notice - so John-Paul stood in for him.

Everything is extremely efficiently organised for the task, one which, in so many ways, is just like cooking.  There's equipment, in this case a pan mixer, 1, there are the ingredients - 2 is whin stone and, in the sealed bucket, lime putty, 3 is hydraulic lime in a bag, 4 is the Durham beach sand, and 5 is a bucket of water - and then there's....

....the recipe, neatly pinned up on the wall with simple, step-by-step stages.  At present, because there are only three men working on the pointing, they're making a half load which lasts them all day.  In summer, they'd be making a mix every couple of hours as that's the working time they have in warm temperatures, but at this time of year, with the temperature lower and the air damp, they have up to two days working time on a load.

First to go in was the lime putty, which very much resembled cream cheese, followed by the whin stone.

The pan mixer had these blended very quickly, the mix looking very much like a cake with currants.

The other ingredients followed quickly, care being taken at all times to make sure the mix never became too dry.  It all looked incredibly easy, but I have a nasty suspicion that this was only the case because J-P has done this a few times before.

A lot of care was taken towards the end, as the last of the sand was added and then just enough water to get the perfect consistency.  A quick test is to take some of the mix out on a trowel, and then hold the trowel upside down: if it sticks, it's right.

Here, chef John-Paul is seen beginning the process of removing the mortar from the mixer.  It's put into plastic buckets, and these are then sealed until they're ready to be used.

This last picture shows the mortar loaded onto the little, all-purpose dumper truck to be taken over to the castle.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Winter Morning

A winter morning, looking down the Sound of Mull from the castle.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Who Built Mingary Castle?

Before you turn away - no, I'm not reopening the argument about whether it was the MacDonalds or the MacDougals who built the castle.  The question I'm asking is a little more down-to-earth, because the real builders were, of course, the workmen who, some time around 1300AD, spent at least three years, probably in some pretty hideous conditions and almost certainly in some terrible weather, constructing it.

There are two basic possibilities.  One is that Mingary was a local product, with a local design responding to local requirements, and built by local workmen using local techniques which had developed over a long period.  Ross Cameron of Addyman Archaeology, who came all the way down to Kilchoan last week to give us a thought-provoking talk on the dating of West Coast castles, subscribes to this view - and his arguments are very cogent.

The other possibility is that it was designed by someone who was a specialist castle builder, who travelled round building castles, such as Castle Tioram, above, albeit taking into account local design requirements, but used techniques he had largely learned elsewhere.  He may have brought with him some specialist workmen, though he probably used local men to do the heavy work.  Then, of course, there's a full spectrum between these two possibilities.

I confess I liked Ross' argument, that the castles of the west coast show little affinity for castles elsewhere in Scotland, and certainly no design connections to Norman-English castles; and that the Highland Scots had plenty of previous experience in building large stone structures.  I liked Ross' argument until people began to talk about the mortar used at Mingary.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time recently with Francis Shaw, the Mingary Preservation & Restoration Trust's architect from Shaw & Jagger Architects, while he talked about the mortar.  It is very unusual, and finding it at Mingary shines a new light on who built the castle.  Francis has also written about it, and this is what he has to say:

"The mortar is similar to 'Roman Concrete' requiring both the use of hot lime and hydrated lime reacting with a pozzolan - in Mingary's case, whinstone. The mortar's structural integrity is ensured by its rapid curing, making it possible that Mingary was built in two, three or four years.  This is significantly less than the timescale I first believed, of circa seven years.

"This building technology is generally believed to have been 'lost' after the fall of the Roman Empire, being rediscovered with the discovery and translation of Vitruvius (around 1414AD).  The evidence from Mingary's mortar (around 1300AD) makes it clear that this was not the case. The mortar used in contempory buildings in England does not appear from evidence to use the reactive quality of the two limes in conjunction with the catalyst properties of pozzolan.

"My views are speculative but I believe this construction methodology was either imported into Scotland in the late twelfth or thirteenth century from the Middle East, possibly during the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1265 and 1291, or the only other hypothesis is that construction methods had survived in the Highlands from the time of the Roman occupation."

Francis' ideas suggest that someone who had, perhaps, worked on castles for the crusaders in Palestine, such as Krak des Chevaliers, above, and learned there the use of Roman concrete, later returned to Scotland and was involved in building Mingary.  I would love to know whether any other contemporary castles, particularly along the west coast, have the same mortar.  If they do, then the idea of an itinerant, ex-crusader master castle builder becomes more likely.

Photo of Castle Tioram courtesy Dave Wilkie on Wikimedia Commons, link here.
Photo of Krak des Chevaliers courtesy Wikipedia, here.
Many thanks to Ross Cameron and Francis Shaw.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Turning Point

Winter has arrived.  Last night the wind swung into the north and brought in frequent hail showers.  By this morning, the wind had dropped but light flurries of snow were drifting out of a grey sky.  But, with the snow comes excellent news from builder John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson.  While his men are still working on cleaning and stabilising the stonework on both the north range and the battlements, his stonemason has started pointing in the main range.

Pointing, for those who are as ignorant as I, is pushing mortar in between the stones to replace the mortar that's been eroded away through the ages.  This is a turning point for Mingary Castle because it signals that the process of rebuilding this great monument has begun.

Great care has been taken to keep as many of the individual blocks of stone in their original position as possible, but many of them are very precarious.  A good example is this huge stone lintel which stands over one of the fireplaces in the north range.  It was okay at the nearer end, but at the far end it was teetering on a few pieces of rock.  It's now stable.

This wall, part of the central gable, is another example of an original wall that's been saved, and been stabilised following pointing.

In the same way as there are hundreds of different cake mixes, the mortar mix J-P's men are using has a 'recipe'.  It consists of:

1 part hydraulic lime
1 part lime putty
        - for anyone who wants to read about the basics of different sorts of lime, click here.
7 parts Durham beach sand
2 parts whin stone.

Mortar takes time to 'go off' - harden - and it's helped if the atmosphere is warm and dry, so all the windows in the north range have been fitted with polycarbonate sheets, the sort of thing that's used on conservatory roofs.  In addition, two pot-belly stoves will be at work in the near future.

It was cold for the men working in the building this morning.  I joked with them that, shortly, it'll be as warm as a sauna.  They weren't convinced.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Castle in its Landscape

These pictures, taken last weekend from Beinn na h-Urchrach to the east of Mingary Castle, give an impression of the landscape in which it stands. Much of the western end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula is wild, open moorland covered in coarse grass and heather, which supports sheep and red deer.  The few areas of better land tend to lie in pockets along the coasts.  The valley in the foreground here, that of the Allt Choire Mhuilinn, is an exception, and we have plenty of evidence that it has been occupied since at least Neolithic times.

The stripes that run down the hillsides are evidence of relatively recent workings, the rig and furrow system used by the local people for years until the Riddell family set about 'improving' the Estate in the early 19th century.  The clachans' stone walls, like the one that weaves across the land at lower right in the picture, were replaced by the higher, more substantial walls of the sheep farmers, one of which can be seen just to the right of the castle.

This relatively fertile valley runs some four kilometres inland and is at least two at its widest - this picture is a continuation to the right of the one above.  For a castle such as Mingary to exist, it needed a reliable source of food to support both the MacIain laird who held it as his seat from the early 14th century, and the many retainers who depended on him.  While the other West Ardnamurchan clachans - the small, communally-run settlements occupied by MacIain clan members - would have contributed to this, one can see that the the castle might have been heavily dependent on this rich valley, which was occupied by three clachans, Mingary, Choire Mhuilinn and Skinid.

This map, held by Ardnamurchan Estate, shows the area covered by the photographs.  It was drawn by mapmaker William Bald in 1806, shortly before the improvements began.  The fields of the three clachans are coloured - red for Mingary, yellow for Skinid, and blue for Choire Mhuilinn.  Bald was a meticulous mapmaker, and the size, in acres, of every field was marked, as were the houses occupied by the clanspeople.  His map is, therefore, a record of a way of life that had almost ceased to exist fifty years later, by which time most of the people had either left Ardnamurchan, many to go overseas to places like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, or had been moved to the new crofting townships.