Where the hearth is

STANDING in the guest bedroom known to the Stewart family as ‘granny’s room’, with the breeze from the open window stirring the drapes that enclose the four-poster bed and the sound of the waves lapping on the stony beach below, you can’t help but be enveloped by the hypnotic sense of peace that emanates from Ballone Castle.

Positioned between Portmahomack and the village of Rockfield near Tain in Easter Ross, one doesn’t easily stumble across Ballone. Rather, it’s a place you have to seek out, winding along the narrow country roads until, suddenly, there it is, the dramatic sand-coloured, turreted structure standing proudly on this seawashed bluff casting an eye over the ocean below.

Indeed, people do occasionally seek out Ballone - now home to Lachlan and Annie Stewart and their children, Lachlan, Archie and Stella - expecting to find a ruin, armed with maps still denoting the 16th-century castle as such. The day of this visit, in fact, a family pitches up on the wooden benches outside, contemplating the view while clearly oblivious to the fact they’re sitting in the Stewarts’ backyard.

Yet while most of us would get a little miffed about strangers appearing in our garden, Annie takes it in her stride. This is what happens when you own a Scottish castle, it seems, particularly one as striking as Ballone.

Annie and Lachlan first decided to restore a castle while they were students at Edinburgh College of Art, where Lachlan was studying architecture and specialising in restoration. In a way castles were in his blood, his great-grandfather having restored Eilean Donan Castle by the Kyle of Lochalsh in the west Highlands in the early 20th century.

The couple were drawn to the medieval aesthetic, and the desire remained even after the Stewarts moved to London where they set up their company, Anta, which offers a contemporary take on traditional Scottish tartans used in everything from textiles and ceramics to, more recently, furniture design.

Having decided to move their expanding business to Scotland (Anta is now based near Ballone at Fearn) the Stewarts set out to turn their restoration dream into a reality and spent months seeking out castles they remembered as ruins - many of which had by this stage been poorly restored - before eventually finding Ballone, a castle Lachlan recalled from his schooldays.

Ballone was built in 1590 as a defensive castle by the Dunbars of Tarbet and was acquired in 1623 by the MacKenzies. The castle saw no action, however, and the MacKenzies moved on to Tarbet House at Milton in the early 18th century after which Ballone stood empty, before falling into ruin.

By the time the Stewarts came across the building in 1990, it was in a derelict state. There was no roof, while anything of value inside had long gone, from the original floor slabs and fireplaces to the lintels and stair treads. Yet having looked at many castles here and abroad, Lachlan was well versed in the theory of restoring a building of this kind, and had made detailed drawings of castle features while on his travels, including one of the fireplace within Ballone’s main living space that was taken from a similar castle.

The couple gave themselves 10 years to complete the project, in time for the millennium celebrations, and set up a temporary home on the site within a hut that had previously served as a railway station at nearby Kildary. Although they could have rebuilt Ballone in a year, budgetary restrictions called for a slower, more mindful approach. "It made us make our decisions very carefully," reflects Annie.

The first three years were spent securing the necessary planning permissions and grants from Historic Scotland before the building work began in 1993. Lachlan oversaw all the work, having hired two masons who learnt the skills of the job as they went along. The building itself gave clues to its history, from the original window openings and alcoves to the steep, spiral stone stairwells, while Lachlan also gained some historical plans from The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross.

Other information was almost accidental: a friend had visited Ballone on a Sunday school picnic years before, for example, and had taken a photo of a window opening that had gone by the time the Stewarts started work.

The couple used traditional materials throughout, digging their own lime pits and making their own lime putty and lime plaster (even when Lachlan works on new-build architectural projects he uses traditional materials). "It was like putting together a massive three-dimensional jigsaw," says Annie, as much of the stone used was already on site, while the rest was sourced from a quarry in Elgin. Meanwhile, the 16 timber beams that support the roof above the main living space were taken from two Douglas firs felled by a lightning storm on the MacKenzie estate in Strathpeffer, the estate owned by the current Earl of Cromarty whose forebears once resided at Ballone.

The Stewarts finished their task a year early, moving into the castle in time for Stella, now 10, to celebrate her fifth birthday party. For all the grandeur of Ballone, the living space has the telltale ease of a family home. The space lends itself to contemporary living with its open-plan sitting and dining areas, while underfloor heating grants the stone floor an ambient warmth.

Anta’s textiles come into their own against this backdrop in the throws, cushions and giant sofas upholstered in the beautifully hued tartans. Annie often takes inspiration from the colours of the landscape. Lachlan also designed much of the furniture, including the heavy wooden dining table and benches. Others were bought at salerooms, while the earliest 16th-century pieces were given to the couple by Lachlan’s parents.

In the bedrooms, the four-poster beds had to be constructed in-situ as the stairwells make it impossible to carry furniture upstairs, while the bath was winched into place before the roof was put on.

The couple’s most recent project has been the walled garden, designed around a Pictish design taken from a cross-slab unearthed at the Pictish settlement at Portmahomack. (Lachlan is currently working on the memorial garden for HRH, The Queen Mother at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh with the design from another cross-slab found near Glamis Castle.) Next they plan to redevelop the adjacent ruined bakehouse and brewery to form a larger kitchen space.

Tourists may set out for Ballone expecting a ruin, but the result exemplifies a combination of talent, extraordinary vision and a labour of love. n

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Anta invites atHome readers to enjoy a glass of bubbly at the Edinburgh store on Thursday between 7pm and 9pm, where there will also be a 20% discount on all products, from rugs to luggage to stoneware. Spaces are limited, so please call to reserve your place. Anta, 32 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh (0131-557 8300)