PROPERTY / Life behind the battlements: A perpetual quest for firewood and negotiating seven storeys are among the trials faced by castle dwellers. Rosalind Russell meets enthusiasts

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Good King Wenceslas looked out to see the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el, he could have been gazing at Raymond Morris. Except, of course, kilts were not common in Bohemia, AD924. Neither are they common in Walsall, where Raymond Morris was born and brought up, before (inexplicably) he decided to become a Scotsman. He joined the Gordon Highlanders for his national service in 1948 and has never looked back. He no longer owns a pair of trousers. Raymond's fantasy was complete when, in 1985, he and his Scottish wife Margaret bought the near-derelict Balgonie Castle near Markinch in Fife and he became the 30th laird.

Owning your own castle - with the option of pouring boiling oil on the heads of unwelcome visitors - is the sort of dream to indulge in when the neighbours have become unbearable or you can't find a parking space outside your own front door. But common sense usually kicks in: you would need to buy a vacuum cleaner for every floor; valets would cost a fortune, even using a gang of YTS trainees; and what about the enormous heating bills?

No problem with the latter at 14th-century Balgonie Castle. It has no central heating. Raymond collects wood from the surrounding area to burn in the only one of the castle's 30 fireplaces that is ever used. And then only at 5pm. And only in winter . . . when the snow is deep and crisp and even.

'We just wear extra clothes to keep warm,' Raymond says. Aged 63, he sports a full set of whiskers and a beard which at least keeps his face from freezing over. His ponytail is period, not pop star. 'We have 60 steps up to our living-room and I'm up and down them all day. It's not healthy to live in intense heat. We keep active and get plenty of fresh air. We have a wood-burning stove, and whatever wood I've collected, I also carry up the 60 stairs. I bring it from over a mile away.'

If they get really cold, the Morrises can always huddle up to their three Scottish deerhounds. The castle looms dramatically against the skyline, a sheet-sized banner fluttering from the massive walls proclaiming 'Open Every Day'. It consists of a tower - 10ft thick at the bottom, 6ft at the top - in which live the Morrises with their 27-year-old son Stuart; the courtyard and other buildings are in varying stages of poetic ruin.

Raymond paid pounds 38,000 for Balgonie - unoccupied for the previous 160 years and vandalised - and is gradually restoring it as faithfully as he can. Funds are raised by charging visitors pounds 2 each to look round, and by hiring out the romantic 14th-century chapel - lit only by candlelight - and the Great Hall for weddings. There have been 100 in the last three-and-a-half years (including one couple from Australia).

'And we have public services in the chapel once a month,' adds Raymond. 'Empty castles are no use to anyone. This is our life, we are not playing at it. It involves hard physical work seven days a week.

'We are open to the public every day so somebody has to be at home. We are a living castle; we bring people into our living quarters. I think sometimes they feel embarrassed, a little voyeuristic. So many castles these days are empty museums. But yes, it is an enormous intrusion.'

The laird does not drive, so newspapers are collected by walking into Markinch: a total mileage of 900 a year. He is, he admits, an optimist. 'We have no privacy, no social life and it's 100 per cent commitment from every member of the family. My son is as mad about castles as I am. He is an archivist and a good portrait painter. My wife is a tapestry weaver. I am currently refurbishing a medieval pointed ceiling in one of the rooms. We've spent 30 years taking old buildings apart and rebuilding them. This is absolutely the last one we're doing.'

Architect David Leslie's views on castle living are distinctly less spartan. He and his wife, a former hairdresser, bought the remains of the ancestral home, Leslie Castle, 30 miles from Aberdeen, on St Andrew's Day 1979. The Leslie family had sold it in 1638.

'It's difficult to describe just what bad condition it was in,' says David, now Baron Leslie if he wanted to be swanky. 'It hadn't been occupied for the previous 150 years. A lot of the materials had been removed to build other houses. It was an open shell which the elements had taken a hand in destroying.'

They came, they saw . . . and they fell in love. It was three years before work on the castle could even begin, to allow for research and the planning formalities to be agreed with the various interested historical bodies. The Leslies, with two young daughters, Angela and Yvonne, were living in a very modern house above their business. 'Slightly different to what we have here now,' observes David Leslie drily.

It was, he admits, a great relief when work was finally finished and they were able to move in in 1985. 'A momentous day] My wife and I were involved at all stages of the building. We could have stood back and let someone else do the work, but were personally committed to it. We went to stained window classes, to learn how to make them for the castle: we had to make 56.'

The heating bills, says David Leslie, are not as horrendous as you might expect. 'Quite reasonable for a building of this size with six en suite bedrooms. But the castle is built vertically, which means that invariably you are always on the lookout for things which can be carried up or down, to save yourself a trip later.'

It is, he says, good exercise, negotiating the seven floors every day. To help make it pay its way, the Leslies take in paying guests; David - who is still a full-time architect - serves at table. They have had up to 24 guests dining in the Great Hall.

'We don't have much free time, but we enjoy it. We are committed to what we are doing and we all pitch in. We will never part with the castle; it is a major part of our lives.'

One castle owner in Yorkshire - too shy to be named - feels her commitment keenly. In the space for 'occupation' on her passport, she has entered castle-wife. The most unlikely people throw caution to the wind and buy castles: one is owned by a successful optician, another by a London art gallery owner.

If you believe you have what it

takes - including, of course, enormous amounts of money - there are several castles currently on the market. Kinnaird is a five-storey, 12th- century fortalice (fortified tower) at Inchture in Perthshire. It was built to withstand attacks from hordes of rabble-rousing thieves and robbers, and to that end has arrow-slit type windows, a portcullis and a large dungeon. One of the benefits of ownership is the right to claim reserved pews in the village church. James IV stayed there in 1617, to go hunting with the owner, the Earl of Newburgh. Knight Frank & Rutley are asking for offers over pounds 500,000.

Near Largs, in Ayrshire, 16th-

century Fairlie Castle - with views over the Firth of Clyde - needs total renovation. There are no services connected to it but, say agents Savills encouragingly, the walls are intact. There are no internal floors or roof. The agents are asking for offers over pounds 60,000. Also on sale through Savills, but on a much grander scale, is Hatton Castle, a reconstructed Z-plan castle 10 miles from Dundee. Restored by the Oliphants, whose family acquired the land by marrying a daughter of Robert the Bruce in 1317, it is built of harled stone, with crow-stepped gables. It has underfloor heating, and seven bedrooms. Listed Category B, it is expected to fetch over pounds 325,000.

Knight Frank & Rutley (Edinburgh office) 031-225 7105; Savills (Edinburgh office) 031-226 6961.

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