Driving along the A75, a road Dr Janet Brennan-Inglis and her husband had travelled many times before, a newly erected sign came into view with three words that would change their lives: “Castle for sale”.
It sparked enough intrigue for them to take a turn off the main road and up a narrow, twisting lane where, at the end, Barholm Castle sat, as it had for centuries, derelict but captivating.
Like so many of Scotland’s ancient buildings, the 16th-Century tower house near Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, was in need of rather a lot of repair, but it was on the market and looking for a loving owner to return it to past glories as a homestead.
The rest was history – something Brennan-Inglis would delve deep into as the challenging project of renovating the ruins into a family home sparked extensive research into Scotland’s past and a number of books on the nation’s castles.
“It was 1997 and we’d been on holiday at Portpatrick,” she said. “We were going back to Dumfries and saw that sign. I said to my husband, ‘Let’s go look – if we don’t look now we never will’. We just fell in love with it when we saw that ruin in front of us.”
Overlooking Wigtown Bay and the Machars of Wigtownshire, the tower house was once a stronghold of the McCulloch family and reputed to have been a hiding place in 1566 of reformer John Knox.
It had, however, been in a state of disrepair since the mid-18th Century and required extensive rebuilding work. “It had been abandoned about 1750,” said Brennan-Inglis. “It was completely ruined. I think we were probably incredibly naïve when we started. We didn’t know anything about restoring buildings so it took us a long time. It was a challenge.
“It took two years to buy the place and four years to get all the permissions and everything we needed and then another three years to actually do the building work.”
Once complete, the castle was rented out for holiday lets until Brennan-Inglis, originally from Ayrshire, moved back to Scotland having worked in education in the Netherlands for 25 years.
She and husband John, who is from the Dumfries area, eventually moved in and have called Barholm Castle home since 2011.
“It has a fabulous setting,” she said. “The views across Wigtown Bay are just amazing and it’s a perfect size and it has a perfect amount of land.
“It has its challenges. I’ve got a bit of a sore hip today and I run up and down three flights of stairs several times every day. It keeps us fit! The doorways are not very high – I think if you were tall it might get tiresome.
“Our windows are actually very small because in the 16th-Century glass was very expensive. We had to have some relaxations to allow the rebuilding to take place.”
Brennan-Inglis’s new-found expertise in castle renovation led to her completing a PhD on the subject. She is a former chair of the Scottish Castles Association and is chair of the Galloway group of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), as well as a board member of Historic Environment Scotland (HES).
In the course of her research, she came across the work of David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, two Edinburgh architects who surveyed, measured and sketched Scotland’s castles in the late 19th Century, after travelling the length and breadth of Scotland on train, bicycle and foot.
They published their extensive work as The Castellated And Domestic Architecture Of Scotland From The 12th To The 18th Century in five volumes from 1887 to 1892.
Brennan-Inglis’s latest book, A Passion For Castles, charts their lives and work, alongside how the landscape has changed for the buildings over a century later.
“They had surveyed Barholm along with 720 other castles,” she said. “After I did my PhD I toyed with the idea of looking at all of them, updating it and seeing what had happened to them since the 1880s. I discovered an article by Professor David Walker about MacGibbon and Ross. Their stories were so interesting, and they’ve never been publicly told before. And I thought, gosh, I can’t write about their castles without writing about them.”
The first part of the book tells the life stories of MacGibbon and Ross, before detailing how they planned and implemented their pioneering survey of Scotland’s castles.
“They weren’t the least bit precious about saying a castle’s got to be this or that,” Brennan-Inglis said. “They were interested in all Scottish castellated buildings.
“They covered a vast range from tiny laird houses, like where I live, to huge fortresses like Stirling and Edinburgh castles.”
Scotland has about 1,500 castles of different shapes and sizes and in all manner of states. Many are in the care of HES, such as Edinburgh and Stirling castles, and NTS maintains the likes of Aberdeenshire gems Fyvie, Crathes and Drum castles.The majority, though, are owned privately or by clans or councils.
Making sure our built history is preserved, Brennan-Inglis believes, is crucial and would carry on the legacy of MacGibbon and Ross. “They were really, really energetic conservation campaigners,” she said. “They weren’t just recording the architecture, they cared about the conservation of the buildings.
“Each one is unique and has an interesting history. There are some people with accidental castles – quite a lot of farmers have ruins on their land. They don’t particularly want them there and don’t have the resources to restore them.
“It’s very costly to conserve ruins, particularly with climate change and the challenges that brings to many buildings. Scotland has to find a way of making sure our built heritage is secure.
“I don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen over the next few decades, whether it’s going to be public funding, private investment, or a mixture of the two. It’s a big challenge for us, but conservation is essential.”
A Passion For Castles: The Story Of MacGibbon And Ross And The Castles They Surveyed, Birlinn, £35
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