It started with a ladder
It started with a ladder. Not a set of steps that you might use to hang curtains, which would have been useless here, but a formidable two-section extendable ladder strapped to the roof of a muddy Land Rover. The ladder and the Land Rover belonged to Charlotte and Peter Hingston, who farm the land around the river Orrin, 20 miles west of Inverness. I had come to visit the derelict tower, Fairburn, on the ridge above the river. The tower, like Rapunzel’s, was inaccessible from the ground and the great spiral staircase that had once carried visitors up to its stacked rooms had long since disappeared. The stair tower was now just an eerie, tapering shaft with only its upper few steps still jutting out 40ft up. Peter hauled the ladder from the roof bars and extended it to its full length and leant it against an opening. We clambered up, the aluminium creaking noisily, and scrambled in. Here, on what we later discovered was a stone floor over a vaulted basement, the twigs and guano dropped by the rooks had set into a deep carpet that crunched and bounced under foot.
Climbing up the ladder inside Fairburn Tower.
We gazed up through four vacant storeys to the scuttling clouds above. While the roof had long since collapsed, the walls still stood to their full height, giving the building the appearance of a rustic doll’s house where the lid had simply been lifted off. The stone walls were a mysterious punch-card of recesses and niches, openings and doorways, parts of a maze of spaces which had lost their meaning with the fall of the floors that had once defined them. Here a carved fireplace, there a great window flanked by stone seats. Four hundred years before, when the tower had been built, it had been the home and stronghold of the handsome Murdo Mackenzie, illegitimate son, and favoured groom to King James V. In the year of Mary Queen of Scots’s birth, Murdo had left the court at Stirling and come north to start anew.
Standing back from the building an hour or so later it was obvious that something terrible was about to happen. The staircase tower had already parted company with the main building, the vast weight of stone pulling it away. Cleaves wide enough to insert a limb into had snaked their way up to the parapet from cracked lintels at the base. Newly fallen stones showed the cracks were still alive and doing their mischievous work.
A snake-like crack in the stone wall.
Back in Peter and Charlotte’s kitchen, welly boot socks on the aga, over tea and custard creams, we talked about the tower. It had been deteriorating visibly and Charlotte wished something could be done. It has stood, like an old soldier refusing to leave his post, as the centuries had rolled by like seasons, robbing it of windows and doors, floors and ceilings. Decay was now accelerating and one day soon a monumental collapse was surely inevitable.
That was seven years ago.
A few weeks ago in the dying weeks of 2022, I trundled down the track to see fully restored what we had embarked upon that day. It had become something of an odyssey and had drawn many travellers. They included donors and supporters who, with astonishing generosity, had provided the funds; brilliant craftspeople and conservation specialists, historians and researchers whose skills, ingenuity and commitment had crafted and chipped aspiration into actuality.
The building that stood before me was now almost unrecognisable. Roofed, floored, serviced, harled and limewashed, it stood reborn, its new pink hue like a delighted blush as its transformation.
Fairburn Tower fully restored.
As it had started, so it was finishing. This time the ladder was of the small folding variety. A smart set of decorator’s steps stood open on a new timber floor, beside a casement window smelling of linseed, and a repointed and yellow limewashed wall. Standing on it was one of Landmark’s furnishing team. He was doing the final task, something that Fairburn Tower must have thought never to have seen again, hanging curtains. I put the kettle on. John produced ginger snaps. And we marvelled at Murdo MacKenzie’s enduring legacy.
Curtains hanging in Fairburn Tower once more.
We will be opening Fairburn Tower's doors for free public open days on Sunday 14 May 2023. Look out for more details coming soon on our Open Days and Events page.
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