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, 29 August 2013

A Mighty Strong Mix

I was on site this afternoon and was immediately struck by the speed with which the scaffolding is going up: it's almost breathtaking.  On two sides no less than four levels of walkway are now in place, so from the top one.... can now peer in at the level of the battlements' footwalk.  That progress has been so rapid is fortunate as tomorrow sees a visit from officials from Historic Scotland, who will be at the castle to review progress.  They will also discuss with the project's architect, Francis Shaw of Wighton Jagger Shaw Architects, project engineer Brian Smith, and archaeologist Tom Addyman, the extent of the repairs that will be needed, the repairs schedule, and Brian's scheme for reinforcement of the structure.  As Francis put it, it will be a day of negotiating, during which everyone will be working towards what is best for this wonderful castle.

And getting up close makes even someone as ignorant as I realise just how special this building is.  The quality of stonemasonry is remarkable - just look how straight and true this wall is, and.... neatly this corner has been formed.

But what is perhaps most remarkable is the mortar that holds the whole structure upright.  As builder John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson put it, on most of the jobs he's done involving historic buildings, he could scoop out the mortar with a finger.  Try that on Mingary and all you get is a sore finger.  The mortar is 700 years old and still absolutely solid.

The secret, so John-Paul says, is in the 'ingredients', which are part lime, part shell sand, and part a gravel of whinstone - that's the igneous rock dolerite - which react together to give the mix its strength.  The remarkable condition of the mortar means that much less rebuilding has to happen - which is good news for tomorrow's discussions with Historic Scotland.

Few people appreciate that the castle was originally harled - that is, it had a covering of mortar mix, as seen here.  The result was that the rocks of which the walls were built were completely hidden.  One of the decisions that has to be made is whether to replace the harl - as was done, controversially, at Stirling Castle - or whether to leave the stone walls bare.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Cannonball Found Embedded in Castle Wall

There was a big change visible today as I approached the castle.  The scaffolding walkway around the walls now connects to the entrance to the castle so, with the handrails in place and permission from scaffolder Stephen Holmes, I was able to walk out onto the scaffolding.

Progress with the scaffolding has been spectacular.  I have said before that it's almost a work of art, but when one is on it the overwhelming impression is that it's an impressively solid structure.

The lower walkway is now complete on all sides except the northern, and the men are now working on an upper level which....

....leads round to the southern side of the castle, high above the beach.  The views are breathtaking - particularly when one remembers that the last people to see the world from this particular angle did so in the 13th century.

On the east wall I met Stephen, who is in charge of works while John Forsyth is away, and he immediately drew my attention to something embedded in stonework of the wall above our heads.
Looking up, I could see a hole in the wall, some eighteen inches in diametre, immediately below a narrow crenel in the battlements.

Embedded a good foot into this hole is a cannonball - many thanks to Stephen for climbing up to take this picture.  When the next level of scaffolding goes in, we'll all be able to get a close look at it.

The arrow shows where the cannonball is embedded.

Stephen's is a tremendously exciting find because, as with the blackened gate stones which were found in the moat, it can be traced back to a particular event in Mingary Castle's history.  Since this wall faces out to sea, the cannon that fired it must have been aboard a ship.  It's possible that this dates to the siege of 1644 when one of the ships investing the castle, a Dutch vessel, sank just off the castle.  The wreck has been thoroughly investigated - see the Wessex Archaeology report here - and Historic Scotland, in their report on thr weck site, had the following to say about it:

 Historic Scotland report, a .pdf file, is here.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Moat

This blog post is an attempt to share what, at this stage, I understand of the history of the moat.  The map shows the north end of the castle, with its thick stone walls and the gate in its northwestern wall.  The moat, from which much of the stone for the walls may have been taken, slopes down from west to east.

In its original form, the two walls at either end, 3 and 4, didn't exist, nor did the causeway, 2.  The main gate was connected to the landward side by a drawbridge which, when lowered, rested on the short promontory, 1, seen at the right of this picture.

Rain, and water seeping into the moat, would have run downhill to 5, where it was stopped by a stone wall filled with thick, grey clay.  Whether this water lay in the moat as a puddle, or whether the moat was partly filled with rocks to hide it, isn't clear.  This water passed through the hole seen in the centre of this picture into the bottom of the well, marked W on the map.

A castle has to be able to withstand both direct assault and siege.  While Mingary looks formidable, it had sufficient weaknesses to be successfully attacked by the Royalist Alasdair MacColla MacDonald in 1644 who, as described in the earlier post, here, managed to subdue the garrison surprisingly quickly by assaulting, and burning down the gate.  But the account makes it clear that the defenders were already in trouble: "....the continual thundering of muskate and cannon did so shake the rock as thair wall [well] went dry...."

Further evidence for the weakness of the water supply also comes from an account of the subsequent siege of the Royalist forces which then held Mingary.  The Coventanting general, David Leslie, invested the castle for seven weeks.  An account from the time described how the only water available was from rainwater which gathered in the wall-head.

At some point the walls marked 3 and 4 on the map were built to enclose the ends of the moat.  It's not clear what their purpose was, unless, by that time, the moat had ceased to have any defensive role, and was partially filled, perhaps for use as a garden.

The drawbridge was replaced by a causeway.  This picture, taken by John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson, shows the rocks that form the causeway sitting on the rubble infill of the moat.

Many thanks to John-Paul Ashley for the photograph,
and to Flying Scotscam for the aerial picture of the castle.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Work on the Scaffold and 'Well'

The scaffolding is now advancing across the north wall of the castle.  It's across the wall at the eastern end of the moat (see left of above picture) and the workmen are currently fixing it across the steel walkway which leads from the car park to the castle entrance.  By tomorrow we'll be able to step off the walkway on to the boarding that runs round the castle wall - or, rather we'll be able to in theory, as we won't be allowed out until they have a handrail in position.

The boarding used on the lower levels of the scaffold structure was temporary, so it wasn't fixed in place.  This walkway will be here for a couple of years, and will have to stay in place in the fiercest of the winter gales, so it's being tied down - picture shows Roger Piccolo of Ashley Thompson at work on this job.  When I asked John Forsyth of JRandM Scaffolding, who is responsible for the scaffold work, whether there was any danger of the boards taking flight, his comment was that, if they did, they'd take the whole scaffold with them.

John added that work was going well on the scaffolding, and he hoped to have the job on the outer walls finished in about three weeks' time, though there was more to do after that on the inside of the castle.

Yesterday, Kenny Macfadyen of Addyman Archaeology finally excavated his way through to the point that would reveal the secret of the well.  Everyone was fairly sure that the well wasn't a well at all, more a cistern into which water from the moat seeped - but now we can see that this is the case.  The clay-filled wall helped to dam back a puddle of water, allowing it to pass through the hole that's now visible into the castle.

This close-up shows the end of the clay wall and the hole that led through to the cistern.  The hole isn't fully excavated yet - we would expect that, when it is, we'll be able to see into the bottom of the well.  None of the archaeologists was there this morning, so I wasn't able to ask about the dark grey deposit which can be seen to the left of the wall.  It may have been a fill to help prevent water seeping away.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

First Steps on the Scaffolding

Work is concentrated at the moment in two areas.  The archaeologists, with the well now clear, are completing their excavations in the moat to allow the scaffolders access to the north side.  Filippo Peritone, in the centre, is working his way across the basement rock looking for any remaining artefacts while Kenny Macfadyen, to the left.... working on the area immediately outside the well.  The well shaft in the castle is behind the stone wall at top centre of this picture.  Just to the right of Kenny is a structure coming towards the point where the picture was taken.  Kenny is starting to dig a section from left to right across this structure to try to sort out what it did.

This is a close-up of where the structure meets the wall.  '1' appears to be part of a low stone wall, the lower part of which, '2', seems to be made waterproof with a grey clay.  If this wall held back the water in the moat to the right, then it would have filtered through to the well just below the '3'.  Excavation of the well has found a fissure in the rocks which may come through to the moat at exactly this point - Kenny's excavation will sort this out.

On the other side of the castle, work continues apace on the scaffolding.  Under the close supervision of John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson, I was taken out onto it for the first time, but only along this short section of walkway.  The whole of the wall should be safely accessible by the end of August or early September, enabling visiting officers from Historic Scotland to take a close look at both the outside of the castle and the tops of the battlements.

JP's men are now working high above the beach, with magnificent views across the Sound of Mull to Morvern and Mull but, as the structure rises higher, so the work becomes more dangerous.  John-Paul is seen here clipping his safety harness on to the scaffolding as he moves along the walkway.

I watched as John-Paul fixed a pole in place.  It was lowered to him from above, and then the two men working on it spent some time adjusting it so it was absolutely upright, before fixing it with several clips.  The whole structure looks like a gigantic work of art that's slowly enveloping the building.

John-Paul told me that, once the scaffolding is up, the plan is to concentrate on stabilising the main building within the courtyard, the 'north range', rebuilding its gable ends so that they can get a roof onto it before winter sets in.  They will then leave the work on the outer walls until the worst of the winter is over, getting back to them some time around March or April.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Tremendous Finds this Week

The week has seen a run of superb finds, both in the castle itself and during the excavation of the moat.  Undoubtably the most beautiful was made by Phil Masters of Ashley Thompson.  Phil - seen here on the battlements - seems to turn his hand to almost anything, but this week he's spent much of his time working some four metres down in the castle well where he's shovelling 'manure' into buckets which are brought to the surface.  Even though it's pitch dark down there, and he's working with a head torch, Phil has a sharp eye for artefacts.  

Archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen of Addyman Archaeology, pictured holding Phil's most exciting find, has to check each bucket as it reaches the surface, and he....

 ....quickly identified this as the stem of a wine glass likely to date from the 18th century.  It may well be of Italian manufacture, but what it shows once again is the high quality of life of the laird and his family who lived in this remote castle at that time.

Meanwhile, the best finds from the moat are being made by Ricky Clark.  Ricky works in the Ardnamurchan Estate office, but he's been helping the archaeologists by working a metal detector across the site.  Archaeologists disapprove of metal detectors, but Ricky has shown that, properly supervised and deployed at the right times and places, they have a valuable part to play in an excavation like this one.

This picture shows all Ricky's finds from one, quite short afternoon session.  While some of the objects are recent, two may be parts of another cannonball, there are several nails and an intriguing length of chain, while both the objects in the bottom left hand corner are lead, the smaller possibly being another, but very distorted musket ball.

This is another day's finds.  At top right is half a cannonball, weighing just on 4lb.  This is significant, as a common weight for cannon balls was 8lb.

To the left of the cannonball are two musket balls.

 Ricky weighed them as 18g and 51g, both of which are fairly standard musket ball sizes.

Photo: Ricky Clark
Then, on Thursday afternoon, came news that Phil was finding bottles, most of them shattered but....

Photo: Ricky Clark
....this one complete.  Since they are now digging near the bottom on the well, these are likely to be the oldest artefacts in it.  Dating them will give an idea of when the well ceased to be used for drawing water and became some sort of rubbish dump.

The Museum of London has a comprehensive collection of pictures of 17th to 19th century wine bottles, here, in which there are several that look like this one, but we'll have to wait for a definitive identification until Tom Addyman of Addyman Archaeology has had a look at it.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Building Progress

Just outside the castle entrance is a trailer full of the finest compost, rich, organic, dark and friable.  The rumour is that it's destined for Ardnamurchan Estate's extensive vegetable gardens, though I'm not sure where they are.

The source of this compost is inside the castle, within the north range: it's coming out of the well.  Some of builder John-Paul Ashley's men look like old-style coal miners, climbing some ten foot or more down the narrow well shaft to dig out its contents.  Picture shows Iain MacPhail from Achnaha who is taking turns with others to spend 30 minute shifts working in the confined and somewhat smelly space.

This picture looks straight down the well to where Iain is working.  Each shovelful of compost has to be pulled up in a bucket and then barrowed out of the building.

When I asked archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen, who is overseeing the work, why the well was full of first-class compost, he said that it was quite likely that it was well-rotted human excrement.  He had seen other sites where the well, after it had fallen out of use, had been converted into a convenience.  Certainly, using it would have been preferable to the open-air garderobes on a wet and windy day.

Meanwhile the two scaffolders, supported by John-Paul's workmen and enjoying the fresh air, are making great progress.  The beams which shift the upper level so it's against the castle wall are now in place on two sides, and, by this morning....

....a walkway connecting the scaffolding on the western wall to the car park was in place.  This view looks down on it from the castle entrance.  Materials can now be moved straight from the car park along the scaffold network.  Despite this, I still haven't ventured out onto the scaffolding.

This is the building team on site at the moment, enjoying their morning break.  On the bench at front left are Roger Piccolo, left, and Iain MacPhail.  At the picnic table at right are the two scaffolders, John Forsyth, left, and Stephen Holmes.  From left to right along the back are Phil Masters, Howard, Lewis MacLean from Acharacle, John-Paul Ashley, and Wayne Heavey.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Excavating the Moat

I arrived on site this morning to two exciting pieces of news.  First, Ricky Clark, who works in the Ardnamurchan Estate office and is a keen amateur archaeologist, had been working in the moat over the weekend and had found part of another cannonball and another musket ball.  The second piece of news was that Historic Scotland had given the go-ahead to dig out the whole moat, conditional on some trenches being excavated first.

The top picture shows the only excavation done in the moat as of the end of last week, at the eastern end.

This picture shows the western end, and the area below the 'causeway' approach to the castle door, with the castle at left.  The moat below the causeway, beyond the red line, was excavated by Tom Addyman of Addyman Archaeology over the weekend.  He proved that the left two-thirds of this causeway is relatively recent,  built to replace the original drawbridge and founded on the rubble and earth that had collected in the moat - so it's not surprising there's a crack running down it due to subsidence.  The drawbridge itself came down to rest on the wall at the right of the picture.

Archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen was there this morning to dig a trench straight across the moat, roughly at its mid point.  This confirmed that the western end of the moat is shallow, infilled with earth and a few rocks.  Kenny is standing on bedrock, so the depth of the infill is between 05m and 1.0m.

As soon as he had completed the section, the small digger, driven by Howard, started clearing the east end of the moat, with Kenny watching to see if it turned up anything of interest - which it did, in the form of pieces of pottery, bones, glass and other artefacts.

This picture is taken from the drawbridge end, and shows the excavation by early afternoon.  Filippo and I helped Kenny by clearing the remaining earth down to the bedrock, the job partially completed at right.

Then the big digger, worked by Martin, moved in to help.  By this time the small digger was an the east end of the moat, where it's much deeper.  The suggestion is that this was a 'sump' where water collected before filtering into the castle cistern (or well) through a stone wall below the main wall of the castle - to the right of Kenny in the luminous rain gear.

The exact arrangement that allowed this to happen isn't clear yet.  Kenny is hoping to excavate the area in the next couple of days.