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 January 2014

First Building Work Starts

Up to now, the work on site at Mingary Castle has been surveying, stabilising the bedrock, mapping and recording, archaeological investigations and excavations, and cleaning and preparing the walls.  Now a corner has been turned as, for the first time, builders Ashley Thompson start on the rebuilding of the structure.

This view looks down from high on the scaffolding of the north curtain wall into the eastern end of the moat, where the foundations for the biomass boiler are going in.

At the far end there will be a large hopper into which wood chippings from the extensive coniferous plantations on the Ardnamurchan Estate will be poured.  These come through a new facility on the Estate which chips the logs, and then dries the material - as one would expect, using wood chip heaters.   From the hopper, the chips pass through to a boiler, the heat from which will provide both the central heating and hot water for the castle apartments.

This is not an easy site to work on.  Although drainage has now been hugely improved - the moat, as it was designed to, flooded regularly - getting the concrete down into it has been a major undertaking.

This, the latest picture, shows the slab almost complete.  The pipes from the boiler pass in to the castle via the hole at the base of the north curtain wall.  This used to allow water from the moat to fill the cistern which was used as a well.  The pipes then go up the well into the building itself.

The boiler has been a high priority because of the need to dry out the walls in the castle before they can be plastered.  As soon as it's finished, it'll be commissioned, which means that J-P's men will be nice and warm as they work.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Desperate Measures

This is a view of the top of the battlements of the northwest wall, below which lies the main entrance into the castle courtyard.  There are all manner of defensive structures here, many of which enabled Mingary's defenders to repel attacks on the main, land gate - see the plan of the castle in the right hand column.

Kenny Macfadyen, who is an expert on Scottish castles and is currently making a detailed map of the castle's walls, pointed to something which I can see but would never have thought about.  Look closely at the two 'windows' at the level of the scaffolding boards.

Here's a view of them from the other side.  They're largely made of slate, with stone lintels across the top, and they're immediately above the gate.  There's something unusual about them.  Can you see it?

It's the slate that interests Kenny.  Even today, when we can import cheap slate from places like China and Spain, it's expensive stuff.  At the time this wall was built, it would have been very expensive indeed.  So why, with tons of stone readily available around the castle, was this precious material used to build this part of the wall?

The two windows can be seen in this picture, taken from the other side.  They're part of a sort of 'peninsula' of the battlements which extends over the gate, giving views down onto both the outside and inside of the entrance.  It is, therefore, an absolutely vital part of the castle's defensive structure.

This is the view even further round, looking into the 'peninsula'.  Why are those slates there?

Kenny makes the suggestion that, during one of Mingary's sieges, this part of the battlement was severely damaged.  It had to be rebuilt while the siege continued.  Since they couldn't go outside the castle to collect stone, the defenders, in desperation, tore the slates off the roof of the north range, easily accessible from here, and used them to rebuild their defences.

Many thanks to Kenny Macfadyen.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Mingary from the West

I have lived in this village for some eighteen years, and wandered all over the Ardnamurchan peninsula taking pictures, many of them of Mingary Castle, yet I had never taken one from the west until last week - which is a great pity as this side offers wonderful views of the castle.

The land from which these pictures were taken lies between Mingary and Kilchoan village.  It consists of a low ridge, the northern end of which is called Torr Solais, the hill of light.  It's Ardnamurchan Estate land, rough grazing used for cattle and sheep, though the section closest to the castle has some very fine pedigree bulls in it.

The point jutting into the sea just beyond the castle is called Rubh' a' Mhile, 'mile point', the summit beyond is Ben Hiant, Beinn Shianta in Gaelic, the blessed mountain, while the headland to its right is Maclean's Nose.

The grassy area on this side of the castle, set in a glen with its small burn, is the site of the clachan which housed the people who once served the castle.  They were cleared from their homes when the Estate was 'improved' in the early 18th century, at which time the field walls were built - probably out of stone taken from the houses.

This view of the castle shows how the scaffolding had to be built up from the beach in order to support the sections along the west and south walls.  The base of the scaffolding has since been inundated in the recent storms which have hit the peninsula, but nothing has moved other than a half dozen scaffolding boards, which have been blown out of place.  We're still wondering whether this is the current biggest scaffolding structure on any building in Scotland.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A Beautifully Detailed Record

Archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen from Addyman Archaeology has been taking advantage of the accessibility of every part of the castle to conduct a detailed survey of the whole structure.  Kenny, whose specialism is Scottish castles, told me that he could happily spend a whole year working his way round this structure, the oldest and possibly the most interesting he has ever seen.

At present, Kenny is making a series of intricate drawings of the walls.  Each section is carefully measured before being transferred to a large sheet of graph paper.  To be honest, what he produces is as much a work of art as a scientific record, but this detail enables him to pick out the complex history of the building.

An example of the sort of thing he is recording is this, the top of the original battlements - they were built on at a later date so are now much higher.  The originals were crenellated, and rose to just below the level of the scaffolding.  '1' is an embrasure, a point where the battlement was lower, enabling defenders to look out; '2' is the next embrasure, while the merlon, or raised section between them, is about 7 feet long.  A third embrasure is visible at left.

In due course, Kenny's drawings will form part of the detailed report that Addyman Archaeology will be presenting, one which, I sincerely hope, will be available to the general public.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Opening an Ancient Window

The team of archaeologists and builders very kindly waited until I arrived at the castle this morning before starting the process of opening the first of the lancet windows.  It was with a real sense of excitement that stonemason 'H' started work on the outside, while....

....John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson began on the inside, carefully removing the blocks of stone and the mortar.

Considering it's been there so long, the mortar is incredibly hard, so it took a good half-hour, and some gentle persuasion with a small pneumatic drill, before....

....they finally broke through.  Even then, it took a lot more time to clear the rest of the material so we could, for the first time in 500 years....

....look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.

The wall here is only about 60-80cm thick, and this explains why it was so important to infill the room once cannon threatened the fortifications - and it also explains why they went to such lengths to ensure that the fill was solidly mortared in.

And here is the view from the window, looking north across what were once clan lands.  This narrow window had several functions.  During a siege, defenders could fire arrows and crossbow bolts down onto their attackers.  In more peaceful times, the gap would have allowed light and fresh air into the room.  And one can quite imagine someone sitting, looking out at, and enjoying the view.

As soon as the window had been cleared of the larger rocks, archaeologist Andrew Morrison of Addyman Archaeology began a detailed examination of it.  Sadly, he still hasn't found anything, such as an artifact or a piece of charcoal, which would enable him to date the infill, but what he did find....

....was a groove running round the inside of the window.  It's quite likely that this is evidence of there being some way of closing the window, perhaps by placing a wooden board against it.

Over the last two days the men have been tunnelling westwards towards the second, double lancet window.  I have stopped thinking of it as a 'passageway' as this term is only appropriate if it opens out at the far end, and there's no sign at present that it does.

This view looks along the length of the room, with the newly opened window on the right .  They've now reached the 'cubbyhole' which was accessed from the stairwell, and Andrew is fairly certain that, far from being dug into the fill, it was formed at the time the intramural room was filled in.  While it's purely speculation, it might be that the cubbyhole was some sort of strong room in which valuables were kept.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

For Sale - Mingary Castle

Yes, you can now buy a bit of Mingary Castle at a price which, considering its age, many would consider very reasonable indeed.

The Trustees of the Castle, who have somewhere over £2 million to raise to preserve this wonderful building and bring it back to life, are asking supporters to sponsor a stone, starting with the stones of the east wall, shown in this picture.

The stone you select will be assigned to you alone, its serial number, exact location and a name that you may choose for it will be entered into the records.  It's a way in which you can become associated with the castle and with the effort to save it.  To become part of Mingary Castle's support network, go to the 'Sponsor a Stone' link at the top of this page, and click 'Go Sponsor a Stone'.  Stones that are red have already been sponsored.

Amongst other things, the process of choosing a stone is fun - and your support is very, very much appreciated.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Lancet Window Revealed

This was the view looking southeast as I approached Mingary Castle around nine this morning, very much looking forward to seeing the progress on excavating the passageway and rooms within the north curtain wall.
Using a small pneumatic drill to loosen the blocks of stone that have been mortared into the space, John-Paul Ashley's men have worked their way a further two metres, so it's slow going.  They're now standing in what is recognisably a room, with a stone floor - covered by a sheet of plywood to protect it - an oak ceiling - now lost - and stone walls.  But what's most exciting is that they've finally exposed the back of the first of the lancet windows, visible in the above picture just to the right of the Acrow prop.

This is a view of the window from the other side.  I'm anxious to see it opened up, so we can look out of a window last used some 500 years ago, but stonemason 'H' is cautious, as the sandstone blocks of which the window's frame is made have been eroded and weakened by centuries of fierce Ardnamurchan weather.  I'm suspicious that the real reason is that, with the window blocked, it's warm in the space in which they're working.

This view of the north curtain wall shows where they've got to, a metre or so to the right of the lancet window at top left.  Between there and the double lancet window lies the small room which has been cut into the wall from the stairwell side.

Archaeologist Andrew Morrison is seen here standing in what was the stairwell.  He believes that this cubbyhole was cut into the north wall long after the intramural rooms were blocked up, perhaps in the c1700 refurbishment.

'H' is drilling somewhere behind Andrew's head, working his way towards the cubbyhole.  From the plans, the double lancet window is to the left of the cubbyhole, and the passageway is believed to stop there, but it may well extend beyond it.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Room Discovered Within the North Wall

I didn't manage to get down to the castle yesterday to see progress on the excavation of the intramural passages, so it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I approached the front entrance this morning.  The pile of rocks put to one side to be cleaned and reused during the building phase promised well, and.... I climbed to the third level of the interior scaffolding I met Iain MacPhail, one of the workmen with builders Ashley Thompson, carrying another large block of stone out of the northeast corner of the building.  The entrance to the passages is just beyond him, to the right.

From the small room in this corner, one can now look through the doorway into the area they're excavating - and what they are finding is very exciting indeed.  What I expected to be a low and narrow passage built into the original north curtain wall has opened out into a room nearly two metres across and high enough to stand up in.

Sadly, the lintel stone which once supported the top of this doorway has disappeared and, at present, one cannot see the floor of the chamber. Archaeologist Andrew Morrison from Addyman Archaeology explained that they are deliberately leaving a layer of rubble to protect it as they remove the stone blocks, but he has had a quick look at what appears to be a stone-flagged surface.

As one steps through the doorway one can see the roof of the room.  It was originally supported by oak beams but, again, these are long gone.  It's difficult to describe the sense of excitement when one steps into a room which was probably blocked up some time in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, around the time that newly-invented cannons threatened these walls and the MacIains - for it would have been this powerful sept of the Clan MacDonald who would have controlled Mingary at that time - decided to infill the chamber to increase the wall's strength.

Chris Hagyard and Liam Kelly are the two workmen carrying out the excavations, and one could hardly find a more cheerful pair, working, as they are, in damp, cramped and difficult conditions.  Archaeologist Andrew Morrison is in constant attendance.  What he's searching for is the slightest clue to the date this passage was blocked up.  So far he's found nothing beyond a few fragments of bone, possibly the leftovers of the lunches brought in by Chris and Liam's equivalents when they were working in here five hundred years ago.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Stories in Stones

I returned to the castle this morning anxious to see what progress had been made in digging out the intramural passage, to find that, despite their best efforts, the men working on it hadn't got far.  The passage wasn't filled with rubble as expected but with blocks of rock, each of which was mortared in.  Archaeologist Andrew Morrison believes that this was done to strengthen the walls once cannon had been invented.

But the three men working in this dark, confined space had found something very interesting.  Builder Liam Kelly of Ashley Thompson points to the sandstone blocks of a doorway, with the passage they're excavating behind him.  There are straight cut marks on the higher blocks, as if the builder who erected them had used the rock to sharpen a tool.  But look closely at where he's pointing....
....because someone has carved the initials WS into the sandstone.  Since this is part of the original intramural passage, it seems quite possible that this was done when the castle was being built, some time around 1300AD.  It's another very personal connection back to the people who worked on this great building all that time ago.

After I left them to their dank, cave-like existence, I joined archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen who is working in the fresh air high on the north curtain wall.  He too had found a story written into a stone.  What he's pointing to.... the impact mark made by a missile, most probably a cannon ball, when it hit a large lump of very hard dolerite rock.  This rock forms the end of a merlon, the higher part of a crenellated battlement, and the gap visible to the right is an embrasure.  One can almost imagine a defender peeking out through the embrasure during one of Mingary's sieges at the moment the cannon ball hit the rock.  He must have had quite a fright.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Passageways Reveal their Secrets

It was great to be back at the castle this morning, even though the recent weather has been atrocious: during last night we had over an inch (27mm) of rain, and many of the local roads were flooded.

Along with the rain, since mid-December we've enjoyed a succession of gales, most of them starting in the southeast - so they've been blowing straight into the face of the castle - before swinging round into the southwest.  Yet as I climbed the scaffolding to take this picture, looking east along the coast towards Ben Hiant, I met John O'Neil, who reported that, over the Christmas and New Year holiday, only three scaffolding boards had moved.

But the real excitement lay within the castle.  There, archaeologists from Addyman Archaeology are back on site while the passageways which run within the north and east curtain walls are opened up.  This picture shows Canadian archaeologist Andrew Morrison watching while Matthew Hagyard of Ashley Thompson builders works to break through into a passage which has been sealed since about 1700.

This picture shows where the work is taking place.  The workmen are in the northeast corner of the castle at 'A', and are breaking into the passageway that runs along inside the massive north curtain wall towards 'C'.  We have no idea what is in this passageway, though there has been some suggestion that the double lancet window may be that of a chapel.

However, J-P Ashley and his men have already managed to clear the passageway in the east wall which slopes down from 'A' to 'B'.  The problem with this passage is that it had been filled when the chimneys were put in during the early 18th century renovation, and much of the stonework was in a dangerous condition.

This picture looks down the passage from 'A' towards 'B', with the chimney supported by an Acrow prop.  Sadly, some of the stone steps have been damaged or removed, and.... of the oak ceiling, which is visible in this view looking up from 'B' to 'A', have been destroyed.

Work within these passages will continue for the next few days, so I hope to make regular trips to the castle to follow what happens.

As if the morning hadn't been exciting enough, as I walked back up the field to the Ardnamurchan Estate offices at Mingary Steading, three huge sea eagles flew over.  They've been described as 'flying barn doors', and seemed totally in keeping with the castle over which they soared.