SANDY and Alisoun Grant made the minimum of change necessary, with respect for the building’s age and great character, to turn Inverquharity Castle into their home
‘WHENEVER we were away on holiday, we’d visit old buildings and often reconstruct them in our mind’s eye,” Alisoun Grant says, reflecting on the journey that brought her and her husband Sandy to Inverquharity Castle in the late 1960s.
The couple were living in Nigeria at the time, where Sandy was working as a lawyer. “Both of us had a strong interest and enthusiasm for medieval and renaissance architecture – for architecture in general,” she explains. Realising that their time in Africa was coming to an end, the couple began planning their return to Scotland. “We thought, why don’t we restore a building ourselves?” she recalls. “Instead of doing this in our mind’s eye, let’s do it.”
The couple returned to Scotland on their next leave from Nigeria and started searching for a property, which eventually led them to this 15th century tower house near Kirriemuir in Angus. Why a tower house? “We weren’t looking for a tower house per se, but because we were looking at architecture of a certain period, chances are it would be a tower house,” Alisoun explains. “We wanted something that was advantageously placed, and that we loved the look of.”
Back in 1968, when the Grants first visited Inverquharity Castle, as Alisoun says: “If you looked at the building from a certain angle, it looked exactly as it does now.” However, upon closer inspection, it was clear how much restoration work this historic building required to transform it into a home.
The original L-plan tower house was built in the early 1440s by the Ogilvy family, who owned the property until the late 18th century. A century beforehand, the Ogilvys had built a new house at nearby Kinnordy. “As far as we can see they maintained Inverquharity as a place to visit,” Alisoun says. There was a caretaker’s cottage, but by the time the Grants arrived that cottage was just a pile of stones. The wing (or jamb) of the tower had long been demolished – most likely in the late 17th century – and the roof was in very poor condition.
The Grants were guided in their approach to Inverquharity by having viewed other properties of this style, and they worked with architect William Murray Jack, who specialised in historic buildings. “We wanted to live in this building on its own terms with the minimum of tampering,” Alisoun explains. The couple were determined that they shouldn’t impose their will on the property. “We wanted to care for it, and to enhance it,” she says.
The restoration began in 1970 and was completed three years later. The couple were still based in Nigeria during this time and Alisoun would visit and stay with friends to oversee the progress. As she says: “There might have been a question to be asked and if we were both out of the country it would have involved telegrams!”
The first task was to reinstate the building’s roof as the original had been removed after vandalism had left it unstable. As Alisoun points out, had the giant ridge beam broken and fallen on the vault below, fracturing this, it would have been the beginning of ruin.
The wing was also reconstructed and, quite apart from the aesthetics of the tower, this addition was necessary to make the building function as a home. The tower house is arranged over four storeys: ground, first, second and third floors. The wing has created a morning room on the ground level; a dining-kitchen on the first floor; a bedroom with a bathroom and en suite dressing room on the second floor; and two bedrooms and a shower room on the upper level.
“The kitchen is the powerhouse,” Alisoun says, “and we have this unusual advantage in that the morning room and kitchen have light from three sides, so you can always have sunshine.”
The front door into the tower is protected by an iron yett (the license for this was granted by King James II in 1444) which opens into the main entrance hall. From here a timber staircase – which the Grants installed and modelled on a design taken from a 17th-century house in Cupar – leads to the vaulted dining room, which in turn leads into the dining-kitchen. A turnpike staircase leads up to the Great Hall on the second floor, which is arguably Inverquharity’s highlight with its high vaulted ceiling and wide fireplace, and the master bedroom suite is above this, on the third floor.
“The original inhabitants would have been appalled at our love of naked stone these days,” Alisoun reflects of the exposed stonework in the dining room and Great Hall. As an example of their ethos of ‘minimum tampering’, when the stone was being cleaned in the latter and the couple realised how much was coming away, they stopped the process. Originally, these walls would probably have been plastered, Alisoun explains, perhaps with painted decoration on the vault and likely with wall hangings, but the simplicity of the raw stone - the walls are seven foot thick in some parts of the tower - only adds to the building’s character.
While stonework can look cold, the pinkish hues here don’t. “It looks quite austere from the outside, but so many people have commented on the wonderfully warm atmosphere of the place,” Alisoun says. This is also thanks to Alisoun’s treatment of the interior, which is punctuated with colour, from the deep green walls in the dining-kitchen – a hue the couple had used in their Nigerian home – to the upholstered furniture and fabrics featured throughout.
When choosing the palette for the master bedroom, Alisoun took her cue from the external stonework. “At its pinkest it’s a lovely rich colour, with vivid yellow lichen that matures to a pale grey, so you get these blobs of grey and yellow on the pink,” she says, and the palette is echoed in the checked fabric used here.
Furnishing the tower was fairly straightforward as the couple had both inherited furniture, “and it was simply wonderful going round and looking for things”, Alisoun says. “We found a lot of late 17th century furniture that, in its sturdy elaborate-ness, is a lovely contrast to the stone walls.” Interestingly, if tackling this now, Alisoun might have adopted a different aesthetic. “I’d love, as an experiment, to have furnished a house like this with uncompromisingly contemporary, beautifully designed Scandinavian-style furniture,” she says, which is an intriguing proposition.
The Grants also worked on the grounds, which extend to around 11.85 acres, including wooded policies, gardens and a pond that was a bog when they took on the property. “People have rhapsodised about the views from the tower, and the feeling of being up amongst the tree tops,” Alisoun says.
So how do you follow a tower house? For the Grants, their next venture will involve single storey living. Four decades on from their arrival at Inverquharity, the couple can leave knowing that they have restored this building for the century to come, and more.
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