for People with a Passion for Period Property

Period Property of the Month - April 2008

Robert Dawson Scott visits an enchanting tower in the Scottish Borders which has been brought back to life with the use of traditional methods and materials.

A castle made for two

Barns Tower, with the stables of Barns House behind, stands on a little whinstone eminence. Built of the same material, the tower grows out of the living rock. The soft apricot-coloured limewash blends into the surrounding woods.


On the entrance level, once you have wrested open the cast-iron yett, the cobbled floor invites you to dump all those muddy Hunters and damp Barbours before heading up the stone stairs. Be sure to duck – the  lintel is low! A utility room, shower and loo are tucked away in the corners on either side of the old sink.

It's all very well having a scheduled ancient monument in the grounds of your estate. But when you can actually see it out of the window of your own house, and have to watch it going to rack and ruin on an almost daily basis, the pressure to do something about it gradually becomes irresistible.

So it was for Lady Elizabeth Benson, daughter of the Earl of Wemyss, chatelaine of the Barns Estate near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. She had already brought Barns House, a pretty little Georgian country house, back into use as a family home after it had been used as a school and even a youth hostel. The Tower, however, was in a far worse state; the roof had all but collapsed, timbers rotting, a wide selection of the local wildlife in residence.

There is however some accumulated restoration expertise when it comes to tower houses in the Borders. The region is dotted with them, all built at the behest of James V who, in 1535, instructed everyone with land valued at 100 or more to build a 30ft square defensive tower as part of a plan to get the lawless Border reivers back under control. Quite a few are still inhabited. Lord Steel, the former leader of the Liberals, lives in one a couple of valleys away from Barns and it was he and his wife Judy who recommended the architects that Lady Elizabeth eventually instructed, a firm based in Linlithgow called Pollock Hammond.

Barns Tower, originally built by the Burnet family, has the same simple floorplan as all the others; one room stacked on top of the other. They all look much bigger on the outside than they are inside as the solid whinstone walls are four feet thick. For some long forgotten reason, Barns is a little smaller than the others, each side about three feet shorter than normal. It all conspires to make it the perfect romantic hideaway for two (in today's terms, that is; it probably sheltered a whole village, animals included, in the 16th century). Luckily, given the layout, no elaborate redesign of the structure was required.

The kitchen panelling all comes from one Colorado White Fir tree which grew within a few hundred years of the building. It conceals some original panelling which had to be covered up for fire safety reasons. The floor is stone of uncertain origin, possibly from Caithness. The lighting is entirely modern, using low-voltage halogen spotlights on tramwires and, in upper floors, other spots let into the ceiling.

The big challenges were practical; stabilising and repairing the fabric of the building, the absence of any services, and the size of the staircases, which meant that anything you wanted on an upper floor had to be brought in through the window. After a lot of initial investigation, work finally began in 2001. And here, Lady Elizabeth demonstrated how centuries of noblesse oblige sometimes allows one to think just that little bit bigger.

When she was told the work would need scaffolding all round the building for nine months, at a cost of 10,000, she simply bought the scaffolding outright. In the event it stayed up for 18 months, a major saving on the restoration and a continuing benefit for the rest of the estate where at least some of it is in almost constant use

It had been her intention to have all the work done by the estate's permanent staff. But that would have meant stopping too much of the estate's day to day business so in the end she engaged a number of specialists including a father and son team of joiner and electrician from Darlington, whom she had first met when they came to install a kitchen at a property in London. About a dozen separate craftsmen worked on the project.

A glimpse of the "secret" stair - a second stone spiral staircase in the walls which runs just the one storey from the lounge to the bedroom. The floors are all from the same Colorado White Fir.

The extensive re-pointing, outside and in, of the rough whinstone blocks, was carried out by Laing Traditional Masonry from Aberdeen who also laid on the wet dash lime render, sometimes known as thin harl, on the outside. The roof slates were recovered West Highland slate. The interior limewash plaster "on the hard" - direct onto the stone - was carried out by the local firm of Grandison whose reputation runs right across the UK. Lime based plasters absorb and then release moisture, allowing old buildings with no cavity walls to breathe. More modern gypsum based plasters seal in the moisture and then crack and fall off. Estate joiners built new windows (though not the metal conservation grade rooflights in the bedroom), and doors, and the kitchen units. The table and chairs in the kitchen were made by the Wood School, part of Borders Forest Trust at nearby Harestanes. Almost all the installation and interior fitting, as well as repairing the original floor and ceiling, was done by the Darlington duo, Ken and Brian Jones.

What's more, just about every piece of timber in the building comes from the estate. Lady Elizabeth says it was really a piece of luck that they decided to keep the timber from the mature elm trees they had to cut down when Dutch Elm disease arrived in the Borders 20 years ago. But this seemed the right occasion to use it; it went into the doors and table. There was also a huge Colorado White Fir which had been felled not a quarter of a mile from the Tower which was turned into panelling and flooring. Other pieces of ash, beech and oak were available from normal estate work.

When it came to the interiors, Lady Elizabeth happily mixed up old and new, with one eye on the end use of the building as a commercial let where reasonably robust furniture would be required. The resulting mixture, wood fires in big old hearths alongside modern spot-lighting, new sofas and sidetables alongside older pieces, feels less like a compromise, more like somebody's home, relaxed and unfussy.

And it can be your home too - for a weekend anyway. You can rent the tower through the Vivat Trust. Give them a ring! Tel: 0845 090 0194

The bedroom in the eaves of the tower has open roof trusses but in a nod to modernity, conventional plasterboard conceals insulation boards to keep it warm. The steps up through the doorway lead nowhere but the window. It is possible there was once access to the roof to keep watch but the restorers could find no trace of it.

Key Points for a Restoration on this scale

  • Keep everything that is salveagable. There will be more than you think - even structural beams which are rotted at the ends, as many were here, can have new wood spliced in over a short length.
  • Get your structural engineer (you'll probably need one) to talk directly to the craftsmen and negotiate how to achieve whatever is required. You will probably find better and cheaper ways of doing it.
  • In the light of the above, consider working directly with separate trade contractors rather than hiring a firm of builders - who all sub-contract anyway.
  • Live with the deficiencies of the building. If you want plumb-straight walls and no draughts, go and build a new house instead.
  • Materials are critical. Many more people are aware these days that you should not used modern gypsum-based plaster and cement on old stone. This is more than just period fetishising; the lime based materials really do help the building breathe.
  • The Scottish Lime Centre in Charleston, Fife ( 872 72) was an invaluable source of information and advice on plaster, pointing and harling. You don't even have to live in Scotland.