Period Property of the Month - June 2008
Peter and Gillian Clarke braved the remote southern uplands of Scotland to buy and restore a ruined tower.
A ballad of the borders
This is a region where you can drive for miles without seeing another car or house. And where the sense of remoteness, of not knowing where you really are, makes four miles on these unmarked winding roads seem like 40. But finally I spotted it, a tough little stone tower dominating its wide valley, outfacing all comers as robustly as it did four centuries ago.
Those were the lawless times of the so-called Debatable Land, the wide fertile valleys and rolling hills of the Scottish Borders. Raids by the marauding English met fierce retaliation. Powerful families, the reivers, operated as small-scale warlords, for whom violent thieving, often from their neighbours, became a way of life. Their stock-in-trade was livestock. Cross-border hostilities were sanctioned by the Scottish king, who encouraged local lairds, even those with modest landholdings, to construct strongholds to shelter their hard-as-nails families and immediate retainers. Others were protected within a walled 'barmkin', or precinct. Kirkhope Tower, sited strategically near an ancient river crossing in the Ettrick valley, was built in 1540 by the Scott family of Harden. Legend tells us that it was to this family stronghold that Young Wat (who survived these wild times long enough to become Old Wat) brought his beautiful bride Mary, The Flower of Yarrow. A century after the tower's construction, it was described as being amongst the principal houses in Selkirkshire, although it bears little evidence of the affluence that characterised English manor houses at that time.
Described in a 1980s guidebook as "in a ruinous condition and rapidly degenerating", the tower was little more than an evocative relic when the Clarkes took on the massive task of saving it.
Peter and Gillian Clarke had the vision and courage to buy the ruin in 1995. Quite apart from the crumbling masonry, all of which had to be repaired and replaced where necessary to the highest conservation standards, there was literally nothing inside the battered shell. The Clarkes inserted new floors and decided to put in place an external timber staircase giving access to the first floor. Interior walls were renderred with lime plaster and wash. All the work was carried out with minimal interference to the historic fabric. The original spiral stairs housed within the massive walls were recreated to access the other floors.
Tragically Gillian died two years ago but Peter continues to live here, taking pleasure in the interiors they created together. In fact Peter, who was a former PA to Karl Popper, Enoch Powell and Sir Keith Joseph, remains as busy as ever as a coloumnist for The Sunday Times, Private Eye and The New Statesman. He also had the distinction of being voted 'Scab of the year' by NALGO for promoting the contracting out of local authority roles!
The tower has all the classic features, with a solid, square, thick-walled construction of five floors housing a vaulted undercroft for storage or livestock and more comfortable family accommodation upstairs.
Peter and Gillian wanted two bathrooms and so, while originally each floor of what Peter calls a "vertical cottage" would have formed only one room, they created a bathroom next to the master bedroom and a smaller shower room above.
Visitors enter the property today via an external timber staircase. This gives access, through a small lobby, to the kitchen/dining-room, delightfully welcoming with its handsome table and simple fittings. Within the uncompromising architecture, small pieces of decorative china and glass and well-chosen textiles create an intimate and convivial atmosphere for this room where the couple (and now Peter alone), could entertain.
The Clarkes chose the third floor to house their elegant sitting room. Historically, this chamber provided the 16th Century laird's family with slightly more comfort. It has a fireplace and seats by the large window. However, neither this nor the window opposite would have been glazed and were more likely to have been covered with stretched vellum. The fourth floor houses two smaller bedrooms and an upper landing.
A three-sided rooftop parapet allowed residents to watch out for marauders over a wide area. The chimney occupies the fourth side. Two rectangular corner turrets have also been restored to their original form. This tower is a glorious example of Old Scotland restored to modern glory.