How a castle restoration brought one family joy

The owners of a crumbling castle had to dig deep to turn it into an impressive family home

It’s not all that unusual to have a bit of a gap between getting the keys to a new property and actually settling in, especially when there are a lot of outstanding repairs to be made. But it took fully seven years before Sarah Mack and David Stephen could even think about moving into their new home in Aberdeenshire. Today, given its pristine interior and fine finishes, it’s hard to imagine what might have caused such a delay. One glance at the towers and turrets that make up the façade, however, supplies plenty of clues.
This, after all, is no ordinary house. It’s Barra Castle, in Oldmeldrum near Inverurie, and parts of it date from the early 16th century. It sits on the site of a battle fought and won by Robert the Bruce in the early 1300s, when an earlier castle stood here.
By the time David, a farmer, inherited it from his father, Barra had been through many different hands. A long, slow decline meant it was in a perilous state of repair, and indeed it was only partially habitable. When Sarah, a former broadcaster and newsreader for ITV, first laid eyes on it, she almost cried. “It might have looked like something from a fairytale,” she recalls, “but inside was a totally different story – it was damp, dark and virtually derelict.”
It must have been tempting to walk away but, after much deliberation, the couple decided to try to make the best of the opportunity. At that time they were living in a three-bedroom farm­house with their four young sons and they were ready for a bigger home. “I could see the advantages of moving into somewhere with so much space,” says Sarah. “But we had so much to do before we got to that stage.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t simply a case of calling in the local plumber and electrician or rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into the renovations. Barra is an A-listed building, and as such nothing could be altered inside or out without the agreement of Historic Scotland. Yet fundamental changes were essential if the building was ever to function as a family home. “The castle had only been partially occupied for many years and the layout was pretty much as it had been when it was extended in the 18th century. One big problem was that there was no kitchen, only a tiny kitchenette on the first floor,” recalls Sarah.

This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 178-190, issue 107.

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What A centuries-old castle, now completely restored
Where Aberdeenshire
Words Mairi MacDonald
Photography Douglas Gibb