Castles: Taking on the ultimate doer-upper

It could be one of Britain's finest houses. For now, it's a crumbling ruin – but the Government will help fund its restoration. Helen Brown hits the high roads with a specialist castle dealer as he looks for a buyer with a sense of adventure
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The Independent Online

With the afternoon sun soaking into its lichen-licked walls, the ruins of Baltersan Castle glow the honeyed "gowd" of a Robert Burns poem. The remains of this romantic, late 16th-century Ayrshire landmark, just 13 miles from Glasgow Prestwick international airport, have just come on the market for the seductive price of £195,000. That's right – slightly more than a Dorset beach hut, slightly less than many one-bedroom flats in Brixton. And what's more, Historic Scotland will give the buyer of the ruin £492,000.

Of course, Baltersan Castle comes with a more substantial fiscal moat to cross than just its asking price. In order to secure that half-a-million-pound grant, you'll need to invest £1.5m in its restoration.

But any potential buyer will need more than money. As anyone who has ever bought a ruined castle will tell you, the project will require a substantial investment of time, vision, dedication and true love. James Brown, the current owner, has to admit that he has been punching above his weight since buying Baltersan (pronounced Bal-tair-son) in 1992.

"I'm just an ordinary man from a working-class background," he sighs, "but I've been gazing balefully at castles since I was five years old. After discovering McGibbon & Ross's classic, five-volume work on Scottish castles, I began scouring Scotland for somewhere I might buy. Those books being a century old, I found myself rolling up at places that had been converted into Victorian villas – or just a few stones in a field. But then, in the late 1980s, I found Baltersan. After a year of negotiating with the owner, the Marchioness of Ailsa, my offer of £5,000 was gazumped by a lady who offered £36,500. She could have got it for £5,500 if she'd known!

"In the early 1990s, this lady went bust and I bought it from the liquidators for £26,000. And it was then that I began to learn that a dream can become a heavy burden."

Brown spent the next 10 years fighting for planning permission and negotiating with the landowners for more than the "postage stamp" three-quarters of an acre that came with the ruin. "I'd finally agreed the grant from Historic Scotland, and agreed terms with the landowners. But I needed the private investment to create a private residence club. And it was at that last hurdle that I fell. I've spent £150,000 keeping architects and lawyers in gin and tonics. I even went on Dragons' Den to ask for the money, and was eaten alive.

"But I have reached my limit. I'm 61 years old now, I've cleared 1,000 tonnes of soil and rubble, catalogued artefacts, and sorted and stored the reusable masonry. I've taken the project as far as I can, and now it's time for me to have a life before death."

According to Jamie Macnab of Savills – a man who has been selling Scottish castles since 1990 – roughly 10 castles come on to the British market each year, generally priced between £400,000 and £5m. Macnab's formal title is James the Younger Macnab, and his family's Clan Macnab castle – Eilean Ran at the head of Loch Tay – was demolished by Oliver Cromwell's armies. The first castle he sold was Hatton Castle in Aberdeenshire, built in the 14th century and owned in the late 20th century by the Oliphant family. "By the time I got involved," says Macnab, "one of the Oliphants was working mad hours as a minicab driver in London just to keep the place going... until things were taken out of his hands."

"Castle buyers," explains Macnab, "are eccentrics. They're looking at buildings that make very few concessions to modern living. Your basic castle is a tower. The next stage up is an L-shape, and finally a Z-shape. You're looking at places designed around a great hall, with spiral staircases that run clockwise so that a right-handed swordsman could still fight. Today, people want a large family kitchen. They want bathrooms. I sold one castle where the facilities were so primitive that every bedroom needed a potty, which, when they were full, were put in wardrobes to keep the moths away!"

Modern castle-dwellers range from the old-school aristocrats (such as the Duke of Sutherland at Dunrobin Castle) through to successful businessmen (such as Mohamed Al Fayed, who owns Balnagowan Castle). Other castles (such as Skibo and Fernie) are run as clubs and hotels. Often, the private owners are so eccentric that they can make sales difficult. Macnab was once selling a castle whose owner's son tragically died halfway through the sale: "He buried the son in the garden – and that made selling it pretty much impossible."

Then there's the work that's been done. When Queen Victoria made a home of Balmoral, there was "a sudden vogue for Scottish castles, and many ruins were engulfed by the grand romantic Victorian style. Some people like that, but others feel the updating has diluted the purity of the original."

As an enthusiastic estate agent, Macnab started out getting deep into the history of the buildings he was marketing. "I would produce four pages of history, only to discover that buyers wanted the basic spec – the dimensions, number of bedrooms, acreage and plumbing details. The Russians, the Americans, the Brits: they're looking for a prestige home, not a museum.

"That said, the oddest places still sell. Some colleagues of mine were marketing a farm. There was a pile of stones in the grounds that once had been a castle, and they decided to put it up as a separate lot. It went for a fortune to a businessman from Hong Kong!" Perlin and Sam Dobson, property developers from Nottingham, bought Duncraig Castle, in the Highlands, five years ago. Their story is a lesson – and an inspiration – to prospective castle owners. "We went up to Scotland on our honeymoon," says Perlin, "and we saw Duncraig advertised for £360,000 in the national press. It had everything – 40 acres, a private chapel, a private beach, the view over Loch Carron... when we got to the top of the tower, I said, 'Oh man, I need this'. Of course, that was before I learnt about the Scottish 'offers over' sales system."

The Dobsons – who now run a B&B from Dunrcaig – ended up paying around £500,000 for their huge home, which had 15 bathrooms, no central heating or hot water, and sub-standard roofing – and as they completed the sale, the winter chill was setting in. Five years and £300,000 worth of investment on, Perlin says, "I'm only just acclimatising. I wasn't brought up on fairy tales – I'm a practical person – and there are days when the £3,000-£4,000-per-quarter electricity bills come in and I wonder why we're here. There are also days when our eight-year-old daughter loves running about the place. But I'm eight months' pregnant, the place will always be cold and damp, and the nearest hospital is 90 miles away. Even the nearest Tesco is 70 miles from here.

"I'm also aware of a responsibility we have to the building: I have to do things to the interiors the way they should be, not the way I'd necessarily choose in a modern house. But I like to think we're restoring the building's grace. We love it. And even though we're only a quarter of the way through the restoration, and we need to keep the dehumidifiers running, we'd never go back."

Perlin Dobson's advice to anybody looking at investing in Baltersan cuts both ways. "I'd say at least double any renovation costs. Be prepared for tradesmen to shake their heads and vanish. But in our case, our castle had been a hospital and a school. Because we were working with preconstructed infrastructure, it can take a guy who's popped in to fix the shower three days to figure out how to turn the water off.

"With Baltersan, you've got an advantage. You might think that just having the walls is a negative, but you can actually put in a modern infrastructure in terms of plumbing and electrics. It might actually work out cheaper in the long run."

Macnab's advice is to be aware that Historic Scotland's involvement is a blessing and a curse. "They will want only their own certified craftsmen involved and that will be more expensive. They're nicknamed 'Hysterical Scotland' up here. There are people who've been fighting for years to turn their ruins into functioning buildings because Historic Scotland like the romance of ruins, and if things are going to be restored, they'll have to be 'just so'.

"That said, I think it's fantastic they're involved. A buyer is going to end up with an incredible property. And, of course, the one thing these places were built for is security. You're never going to have a problem with burglars."

As for Baltersan Castle – which is just six miles from Turnberry and 25 minutes from Scotland's other west-coast Open Championship course at Royal Troon – the restoration already has listed-building consent as a Category-A building, and full planning consent. Rebuilt, it could serve as a five-bedroom family residence, a second home, or a holiday retreat for a group of joint owners to share throughout the year. Present reconstruction plans envisage a revival of the old ground-floor kitchen and first-floor great hall, with library-cum-sitting room, four en-suite bedrooms, plus an outlook room/bedroom with private bathroom.

James Brown, the owner who has taken Baltersan to this stage, is willing to offer his expertise to new owners as project consultant. He admits that it is usually impossible to turn a ruin into a home and get a return on your investment, "but I hope Historic Scotland's investment will cancel that out," he says. "And I hope it finds a buyer who won't treat it as a toy, who won't want to create a homage to Braveheart. This place is poetry in stone, with connections to Keats, Burns and Ruskin. It has a remarkable history and I don't like to think a 'ruin' is a 'defeat'.

"Mark Twain once said, 'Buy land because they're not making it any more'. I say, buy a 16th-century castle because they're not making those any more, either."

Baltersan Castle, Ayrshire, offers in excess of £195,000 for an investor with £1.5m Agents: Strutt and Parker, contact Geoff Lockett 0141-225 3880 View at:

... And here are some we did up earlier

Easterheughs Castle Fife

Price: offers in excess of £1.5m (freehold)

Agent: Savills (0131-247 3711)

Jack Vettriano's former home and artist's studio in Fife has gone on the market for offers over £1.5m. Easterheughs Castle, where the popular artist completed some of his most famous work, is owned by ex-Liverpool footballer Jimmy Carter, who says that Vettriano had decorated the place with "gothic red on the walls and candles everywhere". Vettriano turned a separate, nearby property in to his studio, where he completed his most famous collection, Lovers and Other Strangers, exhibited in New York in 1999. It boasts five bedrooms, three reception rooms, two bathrooms, one-

bedroom apartment and about two acres.

Tillycairn, Near Dunecht, Aberdeenshire

Price: offers in excess of £825,000

Agent: Strutt & Parker (0845 261 1742)

With views across the unspoilt Don Valley and within easy reach of Aberdeen, Tillycairn is laid out on five floors comprising this five-storey stone towerhouse with kitchen, dining room, cloakroom, great hall, laird's room, seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, double garage and 4.6 acres. The castle boasts a harled Craigievar pink exterior under a slate roof and was built in 1550. Poor Tillycairn was once a ruin, but has been carefully restored retaining the character and architectural integrity of the original structure. Some 21st-century modernisation and upgrading is now required.

Caitloch House, Thornhill, Dumfriesshire

Price: offers in excess of £995,000

Agent: Savills – contact Judith Jenkinson (0141-222 5862)

Built in 1604 for the Fergusson clan, and extended in 1843, Caitloch has been lovingly maintained. There's a grand drawing room, a cosy sitting room and a dining room which opens on to the kitchen. It also has a library and cloakroom on the ground floor. There are five bedrooms on the first floor – the master is en suite. Two more bedrooms are located on the second floor and a there's a magnificent billiard room with a vaulted ceiling. The traditional stone outbuildings include a double garage and stabling. All this only 10 miles from Dumfries.