Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

From Ruin to Restoration – The Scottish Banner

June 30th, 2012

2012_0501april0019PROPERTY WAS once the foundation of wealth so it tells us much about the prosperity of the area that more than one thousand castles and castle ruins are recorded in the north-east of Scotland.

A surprisingly large concentration of these fortified houses and castles is found in the Mearns, historically known as Kincardineshire and bounded by the River North Esk in the south and the River Dee to the north. Some are roofless, lonely guardians of generations of family secrets; just rickles of old stone now – what remains after predatory builders plundered their stonework for later agricultural buildings. Others have disappeared altogether, names and footnotes in history and the only reference to their existence marked as “Site of…” on maps.

But some have survived the centuries and continue to be lived in as family homes. They may have been added to, had bits knocked off, restored and modernised, but they have attracted enthusiasts who have fallen in love with them and been prepared to spend eye-watering amounts of money and effort to bring them back to life again.

Scottish feudal baronies were land-holding titles and titles of dignity granted by the crown as a form of royal patronage in exchange for military service.
The Barony of Benholm was created in the twelfth century and was granted to Hugo de Benham by William the Lion, King of Scots. By 1225 it had passed, through marriage, to the Lundy family who held the lands and the title for more than three centuries.

Benholm Castle, sometimes known as Tower of Benholm, dates from about 1475. While undoubtedly its primary purpose was defensive it was also demonstrable evidence of status. The exact date of completion of the castle is uncertain but there seems little doubt that it was built by Sir John Lundy.

Four-storey and eighty foot high and built of local red sandstone, it is a typical rectangular keep built in the vernacular Scottish style. The six foot thick walls would have been more than able to withstand the assault of artillery available at the time. The turnpike staircase was a further defensive feature. Curving to the right, it allowed defenders coming down the stairs the freedom to wield their swords with their right hand while attackers from below were restricted to using their left.

Entry was by a vaulted passage between two ground floor cellars which led to the Great Hall on the first floor above which were the laird’s apartments. The third floor may have been divided to form two chambers as there are two fireplaces at that level. Above the third floor was a garret with crow-stepped roof and a parapet walkway for lookouts. Later a caphouse was added which included the ultimate luxury of the day, a fireplace where the guards could warm themselves against the snell east coast weather. The final flourish was the addition of bartizans or projecting roundels at the corners.

By 1559 the Barony and castle had passed into the possession of the Keiths, the Earls Marischal, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of the times whose principal seat was Dunnottar Castle. It was said that the Keiths could travel from the Borders to Caithness and always sleep in one of their own houses.

History and Benholm’s story move on and by the Georgian period, circa 1714-1840, the castle’s defensive purpose had become redundant and ownership had passed to the Scott family, wealthy merchants who included David Scott, Treasurer of the Bank of Scotland.

Comfort had replaced security as the dominant feature of country living by this time and in 1760 David Scott built a classic three-storey Georgian mansion alongside the old castle. Georgian architecture is characterised by symmetry and proportion and balance and to live in such handsome surroundings was a clear declaration of prosperity and position.

In 1903 John Rust, city architect of Aberdeen, purchased the property and used his construction skills to build a dam on the stream running alongside the house and installed a generator to produce electricity. Reduced more to a store than a dwelling, the old keep fell into disrepair.

The First World War changed the whole social dynamic, and the concept of Scottish baronies became an anachronism. In the Second World War the house suffered the fate of so many others, being requisitioned by the military and occupied by Polish soldiers. By the end of the war it was in poor condition and was last lived in about 1950.

Abandoned for forty years the castle and house were in a forlorn state when Roddy and Fiona Strachan purchased them in 1990. Quite uninhabitable, they presented the sort of restoration challenge that the Strachans had dreamed of.

Converting a range of outbuildings which had been a game larder, scullery, wash house and store, Roddy and Fiona and their three daughters moved into their temporary home.

The urgent task was to secure the old tower which had a noticeable crack in the north wall, but the deterioration had gone too far and events and the weather conspired against them. During a storm of high gales in 1993 the entire east wall, along with part of the north and south walls, collapsed. The cost of restoration was prohibitive but Roddy cleared the site, saving all the dressed stonework in the hope that a change of fortune might enable him to rebuild sometime.

Putting this setback behind them, all their energies were channelled into restoring the Georgian mansion and creating a family home again. Almost everything worth removing had been stripped from the house. There was no roof and only three window frames remained, fireplaces had been plundered and just the front door and two other damaged doors could be salvaged.

There were, however, sufficient scraps of skirtings, dado rails, plaster cornices and other architectural ornamentation for Roddy to be able to recreate the style of these artefacts and ensure the authenticity of the restoration.

The family were finally able to move into the mansion in 2008. It’s not entirely a recreation of Georgian living, when the first floor would have been the principal living floor as evidenced by the 12foot high ceilings and large windows to capture as much natural light as possible.

The kitchen is very much the heart of the house today. An aumbry and a fireplace dated 1618 were recovered from the rubble of the tower after it collapsed and have been incorporated into the modern room. A circular glass plate fitted into the flagged kitchen floor covers a well which is probably the original well for the castle.

A trapdoor leads to a substantially constructed tunnel which emerges a hundred feet beyond the house. Nigel Tranter, the Scottish historian and author, maintained it had something to do with monks but there is no record of ecclesiastical connections with Benholm. Fiona’s explanation is more romantic – it was a secret tunnel used by smugglers. Roddy is more prosaic; it was just a drain in his view.

Later this year one of Roddy and Fiona’s daughters will be married and the reception will be held on the terrace of the old walled garden. Fiona took on the task of restoring this, using photographs dating back to 1912. A wedding represents a new step forward for this ancient place where people have lived and worked for more than eight hundred years.

Written on Saturday, June 30th, 2012 at 11:46 am for Claivers.