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Scottish castles - the restoration of Barholm Castle


Janet Brennan Inglis describes how the chance sighting of a 'castle for sale' sign led to the huge project of renovating 16th-century Barholm Castle.

In summer 1997 the Brennan family were travelling along the A75 on our way home from holiday in Portpatrick, when we saw the sign ‘Castle for sale’.  Intrigued, we doubled back and followed the steep and narrow winding road uphill to Barholm Castle – and immediately fell deeply in love with the grey ruined tower that we saw in front of us.

To cut a very long story very short, after two years of negotiation over the purchase, we bought it (very cheaply) and after four years of discussions with Historic Scotland we received permission to restore this scheduled monument and grade-A listed building into a domestic dwelling, along with a generous assistance grant. Rebuilding work began in July 2003.

By the end of 2005 building work was more or less complete and the castle just about furnished enough to allow friends and neighbours to be invited round for a New Year drink. We were working abroad in Holland at that time and it took another six months to get the house finished internally and fully equipped to let out for self-catering accommodation to help pay for the upkeep.

We furnished it to allow guests to ‘live like a laird’ with four-poster beds and antique furniture, and the ceiling of the great hall painted in sixteenth century style. It proved extremely popular – which was just as well, as we needed to recoup the huge cost of the renovations somehow.

A history of Barholm Castle

Barholm Castle was a stronghold of the Barholm branch of the McCulloch family from the sixteenth century until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the family abandoned it and moved to Barholm House, their newly built Adam mansion near Creetown.

That fine country mansion was demolished, like so many others, in the 1960s, and the family line died out at about the same time. Barholm Castle, which had become unfashionable and inconvenient, fell into long-term ruination after about 1760.

The roofless ruin that we purchased consisted of little more than four walls and a stone spiral staircase, and after over 200 years of unoccupied neglect, was in a very poor state of repair.

A huge zig-zag crack down the west side was ‘stitched’ with stainless steel ties to stabilise it, the long-gone wooden floors were reinstated and a roof was put on, allowing for modern building activities such as fitting interior walls, electricity, plumbing and central heating.

Rebuilding stone by stone

During the restoration work one of the worst moments came when the architect phoned me in Holland and asked, ‘Are you sitting down, Janet?’ I braced myself for bad news, to be told that all four storeys of the south wall would have to be dismantled to the ground and completely rebuilt, stone by stone, as the wall was bellying outwards.

This was probably because a seventeenth century laird had expanded the Great Hall fireplace and chimney, as an advertisement of his status, and the wall finally could not support the weight any more. 

In the end though, the restoration of Barholm was complete, the exterior of the building covered with limewashed harling, which is as it would have been before it was abandoned.

The fireplace in the Great Hall is splendid now and nothing is nicer than a roaring log fire in the winter months.

In 2011, we retired and moved into Barholm Castle, and it is an enormous privilege to live there. Having carried out research into Scottish castle restoration during the previous five years for a PhD degree, I decided to write a book about all the people we had met who had undertaken similar projects and to try to answer some of the questions which had arisen during my research: What is a castle? What does restoration mean? Who are the people who rescue these buildings? What are the politics behind the restoration movement?

The result is my book, Scotland’s Castles: Rescued, Rebuilt and Reoccupied, published by The History Press in July 2014.

Scotland's Castles: Rescued, Rebuilt and Reoccupied by Janet Brennan Inglis is published by The History Press at £14.99 and is also available as an ebook. Scotland’s Castles is an illustrated celebration and account of the renaissance of Scottish castles that has taken place since 1950. 

(Images copyright Janet Brennan Inglis; line drawing copyright Andrew Briggs)

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