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.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Saving Mingary from Collapse - 2

When I visited the site on Tuesday the team from Vertical Technology had completed the 'easy' bit in the moat and were living up to the company's name, hanging off the very vertical cliff below the west curtain wall while drilling into the hard granophyre.  Each of the two men working on the face - John in the yellow helmet and Tony in the blue - are attached to the top of the cliff by two ropes, the main and the safety.  The two ropes running right up the cliff, which go over the battlements and are fixed in the castle courtyard, carry the weight of the drill.

The drill is driven by compressed air and was developed for use in mining.  The two men operating it have to exert considerable pressure on it to work it into the cliff, and it's juddering and leaping around all the time.  They work a maximum of half-an-hour before taking a break.

As team leader, it's Simon's job to act as safety officer, checking things like the ropes, the knots, and that the men are working safely - not, for example, immediately under a large lump of rock that's about to fall off.

In all they have some 80 - 85 holes to sink into the granophyre, the exact location and depth of each calculated by Francis Shaw of Wighton Jagger Shaw and marked on photographs of the cliff faces.  Weather permitting - what is most likely to delay them is high winds - this should take three to four weeks.

Finally, here's another picture of this cheerful team - which includes, at bottom right, the real team leader.

Many thanks to Simon, Tony, John and Roger for the warm welcome I received while watching them work, and to Simon for his patience in explaining what was going on.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

'Fast' Archaeology

We had 'Real' Archaeology, now here is the lads' idea for a bit of fast archaeology.

In fact, Martin Newton is here to clear the access down to the castle so portakabins and other equipment can be brought to the site.  John Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson, who are doing the reconstruction work on the castle, even promised me a cup of tea the next time I visited.

Many thanks to Will Kelly for the pictures.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Saving Mingary from Collapse - 1

The great curtain walls of Mingary Castle are on the point of collapsing because the rock on which they are built, a very hard granophyre, is breaking into blocks which are falling apart - see earlier blog entry here.  To stop this happening - and it might happen at any moment - the blocks have to be pinned back in place, and to do that the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust have called in some experts.

Vertical Technology is a Portsmouth-based company which specialises in, as they put it, "undertaking works complicated by height and difficult access."  This includes a wide variety of jobs from painting bridges to pinning back rock that might fall onto a road, from cleaning stonework on the faces of high city buildings to inspecting inaccessible structures such as steel bridges, and dealing with crumbling castles - they've worked on Lulworth and Old Sarum in the past.

The team which has come to Mingary are, from left, Roger Picolo who comes from Andorra, John Willis who used to instal solar panels, Tony Cottrell, an ex-fireman, and team leader Simon Scales, an ex-salesman of surf-boards.  They may have come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have considerable experience with Vertical Technology and are trained to the International Rope Access Trade Association's very high standards - Simon, as team leader, has been with VT for five years and is IRATA Level 3.

They start by removing a core about 4" in diameter and 6" deep.  They then drill a 35mm or 45mm hole  to a depth of 2m, 3m or 4m until they reach solid rock deep under the castle.  Either resin or grout is then injected, and a threaded stainless steel rod inserted before the resin/grout sets.  Once it has hardened, a 4" 'washer' is slipped over the protruding end of the steel rod, and a nut screwed onto it, heaving the rock back into place.  Finally, the 4" core is fitted back into the hole, concealing the top of the rod.

When they first started work last week, the main problems they contended with were the juddering of the drill and the deafening noise, but then they were only experimenting at an easily accessible location - the castle moat - to see what the rock was like.  But when I went down today to see how they were getting on, the team was working under the west wall, and that was.... impressive.

To be continued....

Monday, 27 May 2013

Mingary's Potential Importance in Tree-Ring Dating

Oak Timbers in the Main Staircase

Dr Coralie Mills, who recently visited the castle to look at the timber - see post here - has written to say, "I counted over forty historic timber elements surviving as lintels - quite remarkable really when you consider the site's exposure to the elements.

"On a more general point, the oak tree-ring coverage for Scotland is patchy geographically and chronologically, and we only have a continuous Scottish oak record for southwest Scotland.  This goes back into the 10th century AD, thanks largely to some early work on timbers from Glasgow Cathedral roof and other medieval sites by Prof Mike Baillie from Queen's University Belfast in the 1970s. He used the Scottish record to help bridge some tricky periods in the Irish oak record.

"Thus Mingary - if the wood is confirmed as oak - could form a significant new piece in the Scottish tree-ring jigsaw puzzle, representing a far more northwesterly oak site than any others dated so far; and if the material is as early as we hope, this will be a very important development indeed. We will have to see whether it can be dated against the existing rather distant oak reference data.  It may prove possible with sufficient sample replication (ie high sample numbers) and good sequence lengths (ie selecting samples with lots of rings).  The potential is looking good at this early stage, especially because many samples appear to have sub-bark surface intact, good for getting precise felling dates to the year. Alternatively, building up a more local oak reference chronology - using long-lived oaks and other historic timbers - would be the way forward."

Coralie's website is at
and she can be followed on Facebook at

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Why is Mingary Falling Down?

It seems fairly obvious that, if a structure has stood neglected for over 150 years, it's not going to be in the best of shape.  When one allows for the fact that Mingary was already almost 600 years old when the world forgot about it, it is surprising that anything stands there at all.  When one adds the castle's location - on a promontory sticking out into the sea, corroded by salt spray, and exposed to lashing rain and Atlantic gales which, in winter, can exceed 100mph - the castle ought to be a pile of moss-covered stones.

Perhaps surprisingly, it's the interior buildings, the three 'ranges' built inside the protection of the north, east and west curtain walls, that appear to have suffered the most - picture shows what little remains of the west range.  They were built as dwelling places and store rooms, so did not need what the outer walls required - the strength to withstand the pounding of a siege.  The outer curtain walls are incredibly thick, some 2.5 metres (8 feet) of stone along the north, land-facing curtain.  They have withstood the test of time....  until recently.

The curtain walls are as strong as they ever were, but are about to collapse because they are being undermined.  The walls stand on a foundation of hard, dolerite sill but, as with the majority of rocks, it is broken into blocks by joints.  These joints have widened, and the blocks of rock have moved.  This may partly be due to weathering, the break-up and erosion by the sea of the underlying, more fractured rock stratum, or because the weight of the walls, perched as they are on the edge of the dolerite block, are pushing it aside.

The breakup of the dolerite is slow but inexorable, but it has reached the point where, unless something drastic is done urgently, the community will wake up to the pile of rubble it so dreads.  The other day we had an earthquake in the area - a mere 2.8 on the Richter scale, but people heard and felt it - and one person said, "Is that Mingary falling down?"  He wasn't joking.

So the first thing that has to be done is to consolidate the dolerite by underpinning the castle's great walls.  I have no idea what this will cost, the numbers must be fearsome, but the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust has already started this task - more details to follow.  It's not a moment too soon, and we'll breathe a sigh of relief once it's done.

From information and papers provided by Addyman Archaeology

Thursday, 23 May 2013

'Real' Archaeology

Attention shifted this morning to the area immediately to the north of the castle - ringed in this, another of Iain Thornber's excellent photographs.  It is surrounded by walls on all but the south side, these probably dating to the 19th century, the area they enclose having been used more recently for growing daffodils and for silage crops.
Since this is outside the area that's designated as an historic monument, the rules that apply to an excavation are a little different, and are the 'bread and butter' of a commercial archaeologist's job.  So I joined archaeologist Ross Cameron of Addyman Archaeology to see what a 'usual' day in the field was like.

The excavator very carefully scraped off the topsoil to expose a rubbly layer beneath.  One would have expected the area in front of a castle to be used as a bit of a rubbish tip, and there are often settlements around them, with their attendant rubbish, and musket balls have been found here in the past, so I was full of expectation.

Usually, Ross - in yellow - just stands and watches the excavator bucket, but at least today he had some company, from builder John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson and from the Estate's two wolf hounds.  I asked him about his job as a commercial archaeologist, which mostly consists of.... watching an excavator bucket.

It rained.  It hailed.  A north wind gusted to near gale force, driving on the showers.  It was very, very cold.  My brain gave up, but Ross kept watching that bucket.

After four hours of watching the excavator shift the topsoil to expose the 'archaeology', Ross had found two pieces of clay pot.  It was lunch time, and I went home to defrost, but Ross, after warming up with a cup of tea, spent the rest of the afternoon completing the job.  Who'd want to be an archaeologist?

Many thanks to Iain Thornber for permission to use his photograph.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Dendrochronologist

This afternoon's visit to the site was primarily to meet another expert who has been brought in to help with the task of understanding Mingary Castle - Dr Coralie Mills, a dendrochronologist who is based in Edinburgh.  She is here to do a preliminary survey of the wood that remains in the building, and to write a report which will outline the work she could do which will help in the archaeological investigations into the castle's history.

Dendrochronolgy is the science of dating wood by the variation in thickness of the annual growth rings in a tree.  Good growing conditions during a summer produce wider rings than bad years, and the record has now been pushed back several thousand years.

When I arrived Coralie was looking at the three wooden steps in the north range, recently exposed by Tom Addyman, which were part of the main staircase which led up from the front door to the upper floors.  She was fairly certain that they were oak and that, although the central part of each plank was badly eroded, the sections sunk into the wall might provide enough tree rings of good enough quality to be dated.

To be able to carry out a dating, Coralie needs to be able to identify the species of tree that the wood came from, she needs a reasonable number of rings, a number of samples from the same phase of the building and, ideally, some of the sub-bark surface, the last ring formed before the tree was felled, which gives the earliest date when the wood could have been put into the building.

Earlier, she has been up into the original staircase, above, which was built into the east curtain wall of the castle.  Here, wooden planks had been used to form a ceiling, and these were cut in a somewhat unusual and  interesting way along the length of the tree trunk.  All but one look to have been installed at the same time.  There is a good chance of being able to date these and, since they are in an original part of the building, they might be very early.

I am most grateful to Coralie for the time she gave me to explain her work.  She was looking forward to being involved with the archaeological exploration of this magnificent building, which she thought was the oldest she had ever worked on.

Coralie has an excellent website at
and she can be followed on Facebook at

Mingary's Importance

To start to appreciate the importance of Mingary Castle, we have to understand the role of castles in mediaeval and pre-mediaeval times.  Their job was to dominate an area militarily, and the most important castles therefore dominated major route ways.

When Mingary was in its heyday, most movement was by sea.  Travel on land was dangerous, uncomfortable, unreliable, and slow.  Further, the people of the west coast had the Norse amongst their ancestors, and therefore, the sea in their blood.  So most goods and people travelled by ship.

The ships of the time were galleys - pictures of them are carved on local headstones - but, although descended from Viking longship designs, they were cargo ships, incapable of riding out storms at sea; so they hugged the coast and followed the safest routes.  Mariners moving along Scotland's great western routeway (left)  would avoid going round the western side of Mull, preferring the far calmer Sound of Mull - and Mingary sat in a controlling position at the northern end of the Sound.

To give a modern analogy, Mingary was like taking one of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 destroyers and sitting it next to the M8 motorway; and Mingary's version of highway patrol cars would have been small, fast ships that were pulled up on the beaches on either side of the castle, ready for immediate launch if a passing vessel required intercepting.  Mingary therefore dominated the sea out as far as the islands of Tiree, Coll and Eigg.

As well as being a fighting machine, Mingary was a statement of power.  Today, the stone of the curtain walls blend in to the landscape, but we know from recent archaeological work that the outsides of the walls were harled, and that their colour was a slightly pink shade of white.  Like a lighthouse, the castle would have been visible from miles away, and its statement would have been that no-one passes the Sound of Mull without Mingary's permission.

In our modern system of routes, Mingary is way off the beaten track, stuck out at the end of a long peninsula, far from the modern nodes of settlement and transport.  Some of the castle's importance therefore lies in its very neglect, with the result that much of its original structure is still there and visible.  That it became so remote had another benefit: it wasn't changed, so it remains a iconic example of Gaelic architecture uninfluenced by Norman, English or other outside ideas.

While it was probably built by the MacDougalls, Mingary became one of a chain of castles in the Lordship of the Isles, part of the great MacDonald fiefdom, and the seat of one of Clan MacDonald's most important and powerful septs, Clan MacIain.  The Lordship was almost a kingdom in its own right, for it often operated outside the jurisdiction of the Scottish king.

Remote, little known, it would have been so easy to allow Mingary to collapse into a picturesque ruin.  That work has now started to rescue it is thanks to the efforts of the man who owns the Ardnamurchan Estate and Mingary itself, Donald Houston, who has set up the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust.  The Trust faces a huge task, not least in researching and recording before the work of stabilising and preservation can begin.  An appeal for funds will be launched shortly, and it is hoped that people from all over the world will join together in helping to preserve this wonderful piece of Scottish history.

Many thanks to Addyman Archaeology for background information & advice.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Aerial Views of the Castle

Aerial views of buildings like Mingary Castle give a first-class view as well as a wonderful sense of place.  We were therefore extremely fortunate that local historian and archaeologist Iain Thornber, who writes a regular column in our local newspaper, The Oban Times, happened to be passing the castle yesterday in a helicopter - and in perfect weather conditions.  He took these pictures, and has generously allowed us to publish them.

The first shows the castle in its setting, with Mingary House to the left and the Ardnamurchan Estate steading (farmyard) at upper left.  The tide is fairly low, so the complex of bays are clearly visible: the one immediately to the left of the castle is called Port Ur.

The second picture shows the castle from the west.  The hard rock of the dolerite sill on which it was built is clearly visible, along with one of the unusual features of the local geology: another outcrop of hard rock which has created the angled promontory on the sea-side of the castle, a feature which was exploited by putting a sea gate to open on to it.

The north range, the main building within the courtyard area, is clearly seen in this view from the south, as well as the sorry state of its roof.

Here the castle is seen from the east.  Archaeologists have recently identified a number of small buildings in the rough land on this side of the castle.  These aren't marked on the earliest maps, and they do not appear to form part of the Mingary clachan, the old village that existed on this site up until the clearances of the mid-nineteenth century, so they may date back to an early stage in the castle's history.

Lastly in Iain's circuit of the building, the castle is here seen from the north.  In this view, the dry moat is clearly visible, as well as the massive size of the north curtain wall and the parapet that runs all round the tops of the walls.

At some point during this week it is hoped to start excavating the area of land on the north, landward side  of the castle.  The reason for doing this early is that, when the main excavation starts shortly, this will be used as a service area for the archaeologists, builders and others working on the site.  This was possibly its role in the past: a village is usually associated with a castle.  I am looking forward in some anticipation to what will be found.

Many thanks indeed to Iain Thornber for the pictures.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A Gem from the Dungeon

It was one of those brilliant, crystal-clear Highland mornings this morning when I arrived at the castle.  The builders from Ashley Thompson, who are helping the archaeologists by removing the heavier material, were in the process of moving the castle's front door, and needed some help.  It took five of us to lift it through the entrance and along the narrow causeway across the moat.

Builder foreman Richard Argent spent most of his morning deep in the castle's dungeon.  It's full of rocks from the walls that seem to have been dumped in there, so he was working his way carefully through them, lifting them out one at a time, when....

....he came upon a little gem.  It's a horseshoe, but it's tiny.  Much speculation followed as to why it was so small, and why it was in the dungeon.  One suggestion was that it may have come from a Shetland pony, perhaps one which belonged to the little daughter of the laird of the castle.

The team's breaking up for the moment, with archaeologists Andrew Morrison (left) and Ross Cameron (right) returning to the office to write up their report for Historic Scotland, while Richard remains on site.  The archaeologists will be back next week to supervise work on the area in front of the castle.  This is being cleared to make way for the works equipment being brought in the for next stage, clearing all the interior of the castle and underpinning the curtain walls.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Finds Start Rolling In

It was inevitable: once the excavations started on a building like Mingary Castle, which has been abandoned for over 150 years, the finds were going to start rolling in - and yesterday was the start of it. In the last twenty-four hours the two archaeologists working on the site have filled umpteen plastic bags with little treasures which are going away to be conserved.

When I went up to the site this morning, they could hardly contain their excitement.  Addyman Archaeology's Ross Cameron, working in the West Range, had found a coin.  It's remarkably well preserved but, other than removing some of the mud, he hasn't touched it: identification will have to wait until it's been cleaned by experts.

Nearby he found a round piece of slate with a hole bored through the centre.  I had no idea what it was, but Ross knew - it's the weight at the bottom of a spindle used for spinning wool.  It's a particularly touching find as it provides a link from the twenty-first century to women who were spinning and weaving their clothes perhaps hundreds of years ago.

Even more exciting is what I described in yesterday's post as a 'bucket'.  It's something far more complicated, having two pieces of rounded metal coming in to it from either side, as well as a riveted rim.  Ross doesn't know what it is, but he hopes to expose more of it in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, Andrew Morrison has been soldiering on in the (very wet) moat, and has been further rewarded with finds as varied as bones and large metal nails. But the most exciting artifacts he's unearthed have been china.  These pieces look like Chinese ware, though it may also be English, and may date from the 18th or 19th century.

This piece of earthenware is interesting as it bears a rose surrounded by oak leaves, which suggests an English connection.

There's a fair amount of glass lying in the moat.  This is the neck and top of a bottle which has a wonderful pearly lustre.  As with the pottery, Andrew wouldn't be drawn on dates: that's a job for experts.

I particularly liked this piece of glass, almost certainly window glass.  It's incredibly delicate and thin, and one can quite imagine it in the leaded windows of the Principal Range.

The two archaeologists are hardly scratching the surface of this huge task.  Once Addyman Archaeology have the go-ahead from Historic Scotland, we'll be witnessing an archaeological event of truly historic significance.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The First Artifacts

Someone always gets the worst job, and today it was the turn of Canadian archaeologist Andrew Morrison from Victoria, Vancouver Island.  Andrew, who has a degree from Edinburgh University and is now taking a masters at Glasgow, is a member of the Addyman Archaeology team which is excavating the castle.

On a chillingly cold day, with frequent hailstorms, Andrew's job was to dig a trench in the bottom of the moat which runs along the north wall of the castle.  The trench is designed to answer several questions: how deep was the moat, was it a dry moat - which has been assumed up until now - or did it contain water, and....

 ....what was the significance of the area of walling at moat-level at the centre of this picture to the left of the rucksack, because behind it lies the castle well?  'Well' probably isn't the right word, as the geology is such that the hole in the ground is unlikely to have filled with groundwater from under the castle, but was more likely to be a cistern, a container into which water could be piped.  We know from documentation that the castle fell in at least one siege because the 'well' dried up, so where was the - very unsatisfactory - source for the water?

Andrew's luck was about to change because, when I visited this morning (it was raining), he'd just broken a small hole - he's pointing to it - through into what looked like some sort of pipe, and he could see standing water below.

Because this castle is so well preserved, and because it really hasn't been explored up until now, this is the sort of thrilling discovery that is going to become commonplace as the project develops.  The sense of excitement among the archaeologists working on the site is palpable.

And then Andrew's (wet) day suddenly got even better.  In the mud at the bottom of his (now very wet) hole he unearthed a piece of leather.  It's not the first artifact to be found - they already have a bucket - but it's very exciting, and a worthy reward for a wet and cold morning's work.

Tomorrow they start to excavate the well/cistern.  I'll be there to see it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Courtyard of Mingary Castle

The extremely dangerous state of the building has meant that, for many of us who live locally, the courtyard of Mingary Castle remained a mystery.  The building isn't overlooked, so it's impossible to see across the high walls from the land, so the only information available came from from sites like Canmore, here, and the the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland's  book, 'Argyll Volume 3'.  So I felt very privileged indeed to join the archaeologists in the castle on Wednesday and be shown by Tom Addyman some of the main features of this fascinating monument.

The above, much simplified diagram was compiled some years ago from the RCAHMS book.  It shows the interior buildings to be in three 'ranges'.
The north or Principal Range is the largest - marked '3' on the diagram.  Much of it dates back to the 16th century, but has been extensively altered over the centuries - all the windows seen here are 17th to 18th century additions, cut into the earlier wall.  In its original form, the lowest level was a cellar.  Above it, a magnificent hall rose to the roof.  To the right of this building - the east - were stairs which led to small rooms built into the main external walls - one of these may have been an oratory.

The range on the west side, '2' in the diagram, contained the kitchen and some accommodation.  Again, it is originally 16th century, with alterations dating to the late 17th, early 18th century.  To the right of this picture can be seen the passageway that leads to the main gate in the north wall.

In the south wall is the water gate.  Some idea of the amount of rubble in the courtyard can be obtained by looking at the low level of the bottom of the door and the level of the arch on the right.  The line of the roof of the Kitchen range, on the right, can clearly be seen on the south wall.

The range along the east side, '1' in the diagram, is much the most recent, being late 18th century.  It has two rooms on the ground floor.  The one on the left has a room above it, the small one on the right doesn't.

I am no archaeologist but, having spent two hours in the building, I was overwhelmed by the story that experts can tell from a detailed the study of these crumbling walls.  But as much remains a mystery.  For example, the left-hand room in the last picture is plastered, and this has clear evidence of a thin partition running right across the room just to the left of the door, so there appears to have been a tiny 'entrance hall'.  Why?