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, 27 February 2014

A Bit of Sunshine

The weather seems to have taken a turn for the better.  Despite a brisk westerly, there were plenty of sunny intervals this morning, and the place is beginning to dry out.  It's noticeable what a difference some sun makes to the feeling of cheeriness round the site.

This view looks from the eastern gable end of the north range towards Mingary House and Glas Bheinn, the grey hill.

Inside the courtyard four of John-Paul's men are making impressive progress with the pointing.  With  the improvement in the weather they've emerged from under the black polythene sheets which have been protecting them from the rain.

The process of pointing is in several stages.  First, the gaps between the stones are cleaned out. Then mortar is pushed into the gap until about an inch is left.  If the gaps are big, a few pieces of stone are incorporated to help fill them.  In the present temperatures the mortar is then left for up to a week to 'go off'.  As the weather gets warmer, it'll take less time.

Once the mortar's reasonably hard, the gaps are then filled until the mortar is 'proud' of the stonework.  Again,  this is left to go off, after which the surface is brushed off.  It's all done with great care, despite the fact that most of these walls are going to have a layer of plaster over them as they'll be inside the refurbished buildings.

 This picture shows the interior of the east curtain wall, where the work is nearly finished.

In the moat, work has restarted on the biomass boiler house.  Three men are working here and, if the weather allows, they should have most of the blockwork finished in about a week.

The boiler house will fill about a quarter of the east end of the moat.  Its roof will be flush with ground level at the front of the building, the gap seen on the left will be infilled, and the roof earthed over.  The wall facing out to the rest of the moat, the one on this side of the picture, will be faced with local stone.  It means that we'll be able to walk across from the car park to the east end of the curtain wall. I don't think it'll detract in any way from the front aspect of the castle.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Weather

We've seen only the most the occasional of breaks in the longest run of wet and windy weather that anyone on the peninsula can remember, so moments such as the one pictured have been rare.

I was down at the castle this morning to look at progress, to find that all the workmen are currently doing the pointing of the interior walls of the courtyard.  There's little else that can be done until the weather picks up.  Hopefully, this will happen by mid-March, when builder John-Paul Ashley of Ashley Thompson is planning to have a much larger workforce in place.  They'll start by pointing the whole of the exterior of the castle, and to ensure that they can work in any weather, the scaffolding will be covered with a weatherproof 'skin'.

That Paul and his men have had such dire weather is singularly unfortunate - but what never ceases to amaze me is how cheerful they have remained throughout.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Mysteries of the Battlements

I joined archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen on the battlements this morning in weather which was a huge improvement on yesterday's, in which he was working almost all day in very miserable rain.

Kenny continues on the painstaking task of drawing the battlements and, in the process, trying to make sense of the changes that have been made to them over the 700 years of Mingary's existence.  Major restructuring of the battlements has happened at least three times and possibly many more, the last at the beginning of the eighteenth century - and all of them are complicated by damaged caused during attacks on the castle.

Kenny doesn't believe that, when the castle was originally built, the walls were as high as they are today.  His survey suggests that they were a good two metres lower, something which can be distinguished most clearly on the outside of the east wall.

If some features of the battlements can be interpreted, he's struggling with others.  A good example of this is the neat, square holes set into the base of the parapet.  These probably housed the ends of wooden beams.  The beams are unlikely to have stretched right across the courtyard to form a roof, so they may have supported some sort of wooden walk-way - though one immediately wonders why they aren't at the same level, so the walkway would have been very uneven; and, in any case, what was the need for a walk-way when the stone top of the wall would have provided plenty of space for movement?

These holes stretch all the way round the battlements at fairly regular intervals - here we're looking across at the inside of the east wall.  Another possibility is that they supported a wooden roof structure which was built up to cover the battlements and provide the defenders with protection from falling arrows.

Whatever it was, the structure pre-dated the laying of paving slabs all along the top of the battlements.  Sadly, many of these flagstones have been lost.  They don't appear to be a local stone, so they are another example of a building material which was brought in, probably by ship.  The ones shown here are cut by one of the kitchen chimneys.

John-Paul Ashley's men have also been hard at work on the pointing on the walls of the courtyard.  This picture looks into the east range which, in the plans, is incorporated with the north range into the main dwelling house.  None of this stonework will be visible as it'll be plastered over.

J-P's men have also been making progress on the biofuel plant.  For a moment the slots left in the breeze block walls reminded me of the holes on the battlements, but I was assured by H that they were left so he could join in two diagonal walls which would take the weight of the hopper into which the wood chippings would be delivered.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

700-Year Old Graffiti Found in Chapel

For the first time, the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust has gone to the trouble of issuing a press release because Tom Addyman and his cheerful band of archaeologists have turned up something very special.  They've discovered graffiti scratched into the plastered walls of the chapel.  And this isn't any old graffiti.  Tom reckons it was put there when the chapel was first built within the three metre thick north curtain wall, some time between 1265 and 1295.

During the recent clearance work on the chapel, Tom found the graffiti in at least four areas of its walls.  It’s pretty simple stuff, the sort of marks that would have been made by an illiterate man.  One 'picture' looks remarkably like Ardnamurchan lighthouse (top photo), another seems to be a ship, above, while....

....a third suggests to me that the plasterer's name may have started with a capital 'I'.

But there's more.  If the graffiti came from the beginning of the chapel's story, our archeologists have found evidence of its end.

During one siege, a cannon ball smashed though the wall just beside the double lancet window - and parts of a cannon ball that may have done the damage have been found. The picture shows the lancet window with poorly built wall to the left and below it - compare this to the wall at right - clear evidence of how the defenders made a desperate attempt to rebuild the stonework from within before the whole massive curtain wall collapsed on them.

Realising that the chapel offered attacking gunners a weak spot in the north wall, the defenders filled the damaged end of the room with rubble and anything else they could get hold of – including two pieces of cannon ball (above, beside a ten centimetre scale), the bones from sheep and cattle eaten during the siege, and the leather heel of a shoe - this found, not by the archaeologists but by Ardnamurchan Estate's Ricky Clark. Later, in more peaceful times, the rest of the room was infilled, but this was done much more neatly.

Cannons came into widespread use from the 16th century, so the Trust's archaeologists hope to be able to date the siege accurately from the cannon ball and the shoe heel, above, both of which are being sent to experts.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Snow Brings Problems

It's a misconception that all areas of the Scottish Highlands have lots of snow in winter.  The west coast, of which the Kilchoan area is a typical example, has very little and, when it comes, it's usually gone again within a day or two.  So the snow that arrived overnight, and continued to lower levels through this morning, makes a change from the succession of wet days we've been enduring, but it doesn't help John-Paul Ashley's builders in the slightest.

Since the beginning of the week they've been cracking on with blockwork of the biofuel boiler house, which is growing rapidly at the eastern end of the moat.  The pillars on the far side will bear steel girders which will carry further girders running across the roof, onto which a platform will be built.  This will probably be grassed over, so one will be able to walk from the car park across to the base of the north curtain wall.  Further, the wall on this side of the boiler house will be faced with stone, so the building will effectively disappear.

This picture shows Liam at work on the blocks, but it's far from easy.  The mortar is taking an age to 'go off' - that is, harden - because of the low temperatures, which were struggling to make 2C when I was there.  One can still push one's finger into the mortar between blocks that were laid a week ago, and some of it may take almost a month to go off fully.  Also, since blocks need to be reasonably dry when laid, they have to keep well covered the great piles of blocks which have been brought down ready to be laid.

While three of the lads are working in the moat, others were hiding behind the plastic covers on the top lift of the scaffolding against the east wall.  Since most of the current weather is coming in from the southwest, the plastic is an attempt to keep the wall dry while....

....Michael (above) and J-P start the long task of pointing the walls - that is, painstakingly pushing mortar into the gaps between the stones to replace mortar lost over the past few hundred years.  The work along this section is relatively quick as this wall, which will be internal to the refurbished east building, will be 'harled' - that is, have a layer of plaster covering it - so the pointing and stonework won't be visible.

Meanwhile, in the recently-excavated chapel, archaeologist Kenny Macfadyen was creating some more of his beautifully detailed drawings as he charts the interior of the room.  Kenny is expecting to be around for a fortnight, after which the archaeological work on site is finished - though there are hours of work still to be done back at Addyman Archaeology in Edinburgh.

Friday, 7 February 2014

A Turning Point

This was the view from the castle this morning, looking through the spiderweb of scaffolding across a wonderfully still loch to the far shores of Morvern.  The picture was taken from just outside the watergate on the southern side of the castle.  Turning....

....I took this picture of the gate with its fine sandstone surround glowing in the warm sunlight.

Just round the corner, three of John-Paul Ashley's workmen were doing the last of the 'weeding' - removing the vegetation from the outside base of the castle walls.  They're a cheerful trio, all from Yorkshire and complaining about the cold - from left to right, Matthew, Skully and Adam.

I caught up with archaeologist Andrew Morrison in the chapel, where he was packing up having completed the excavations there.  His last job was to expose the flagstones which form the step down at the chapel entrance.  The picture also shows the sandstone door surround.

Earlier in the week he had exposed another of the lancet windows.  This one, on the first floor of the north range, was cut into the whole thickness of the north curtain wall.  It has a neat little flagstone windowsill, and then a lower flagstone level which I assume was the level of the original wooden floor.  There's a fourth lancet in the north wall but this won't be opened up as it was damaged during one of the castle's many periods of renovation.

Andrew seems fairly sure that the work he's done over the last three weeks is the end of the excavation stage at Mingary Castle.  He's expecting Kenny Macfadyen to be here next week to complete the last of the drawings, after which the castle is handed over to the builders.

It seemed to me that today was quite a major milestone.  The lads are completing the last of the clearing of the walls before pointing starts next week.  The archaeologists are all but finished.  The plans have been passed by Historic Scotland and Highland Council.  We now move into the building phase.

BUT.... I'm very conscious that getting to this point has been horrendously expensive.  I don't know the exact figures, but I understand some £700,000 has been spent by the Mingary Castle Preservation and Restoration Trust against an income of £250,000.  The building work is going to need some £1.5 million.  The Trust desperately needs help.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Castle Chapel

After Monday's gale, today's visit to the castle was a joy, and the first thing I did was to walk round the scaffolding in the sunshine.  Just below the point where this picture was taken, some of John-Paul Ashley's men were working on clearing the last of the vegetation from the base of the castle walls, a job that would have been impossible on Monday.

The main purpose of the visit was to talk to archaeologist Andrew Morrison, a Canadian from Vancouver Island, who is carrying out the last of the excavation work.  All that remains is for Kenny Macfadyen to complete his beautifully detailed drawings next week, and for Addyman Archaeology to prepare their report.

Andrew was on his knees in the intramural chamber, working in the entrance at its east end, where he has discovered a step down to what was probably a mortar floor.  He described how the room could not have been a later addition, that it must have been built as an integral part of the castle's north wall, so it dates back to some time in the period 1265 to 1295.

He showed me clear evidence that the ceiling was formed of trunks of trees about 30cm in diameter which had been split lengthways, laid with the flat side down, and then filled above with mortared rocks.  Pieces of wood - see picture - and the cylindrical outline of where the logs used to lie, are preserved in the ceiling.

At the far end of the room the floor was wooden.  The 'bench' which I described in Monday's post is a primary feature - that is, it was built at the same time as the room.  Archaeologists are by profession cautious people, and it took considerable discussion before Andrew would finally admit that the builders wouldn't have wasted their time on a bench, or a bed, or anything that wasn't important, and that the only thing he could think of which would fit the evidence is an altar.  In fact, the only argument against this explanation is that it stands at the west end of the room, whereas most churches have their altar at the east end.

The picture I now have of this room is that it was entered from the east end through a wooden door with carved sandstone coins.  One would have stepped down into a narrow room with a plaster floor, plastered walls, and an oak ceiling.  At the far end stood an altar with a wooden dais in front of it, a flagstoned top, and the double lancet window allowing in light from its right.  To me, there is now little doubt that the room was built in the 13th century as the castle's chapel.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Intramural Room now Clear

I'm losing count of the number of storms that have battered the peninsula since mid-December.  When I fought my way down to the castle this morning we were in the middle of another, this one a southeaster blowing a full force 8 and gusting above that.  The weather may be extreme, but the scaffolding is standing up to it very well - though walking on it round the outside of the castle is dicing with death.

My main interest today was in checking the intramural room to see progress there.  This view is taken from the angle between the north and northeast walls, looking through the doorway, and shows that the room is now largely clear - and that it stops just past the double lancet windows.  So it is a room rather than a passage.

This picture shows the west end of the room, which has just been cleared.  There's no evidence at the moment that the room continues.  At its end is what looks like a stone bench.  The double lancet window is on the right, but.... hasn't been completely cleared yet.  Nor has the floor been fully exposed, but what is already evident is that it was far from even along the length of the room.

This is a close-up of the 'bench'.  The archaeologists, who might have some idea of what it is, are still at work in the castle, but won't return until later today.  I hope to be back in the next couple of days to find out how they now interpret this room.

Outside, the huge amount of rubble that has been brought out by John-Paul's men has been carefully sorted.  The good-quality stone at right will be cleaned and re-used in the building.