Untying the Knot
Extract from Chapter Five
We first laid eyes on the sad remains of Tully Tower in 2001 on a cold October’s day. We’d driven up the hillside until the bumpy track petered out, then I pulled over, switched off the ignition and twisted round to look at Emily who’d fallen asleep in the back, listening to her personal stereo. At fourteen she had even less interest in ruinous buildings than I did, but she’d agreed – not very graciously – to come with us, rather than stay home on her own.
‘There’s no need to wake her,’ Magnus said softly. ‘Let her sleep.’ He nodded in the direction of the ruined tower house. ‘We’ll be able to see the car from up there.’ He got out and I followed, lunging to grab hold of the car door as the wind tried to rip it off its hinges. As he zipped up his jacket against the elements, Magnus looked round and said, ‘You can see for miles... No surprises,’ he added, smiling, then he walked up the hill, limping slightly. Magnus was fitter than most men of his age, but he sometimes dragged his shattered leg, suffering silently in cold, damp weather. (I’ve known Magnus for almost a quarter of a century and in all that time I don’t think I’ve ever heard him refer to physical pain. Not his anyway.) As I watched, he began to clamber over piles of rubble, happily absorbed, like a child in an adventure playground. I trudged up the hill after him.
To begin with I wasn’t worried. The tower – what was left of it – was clearly beyond restoration, both in terms of our budget and our expertise, so I just waited, keeping one eye on the car, shivering as rain started to fall. As I stood there, surveying the rolling Perthshire hills – a gaudy tapestry of reds, greens and golds - I could see why someone had built on this spot. As Magnus said, there could be no surprises. Approaching enemies would be visible for miles. If you were prepared to live on this exposed and isolated site, you would feel safe. Maybe that was part of the attraction for my husband.
I perched on a bit of crumbling wall and, to warm myself up, thought about a pub with an open fire serving hearty food. Magnus hobbled back over the stony ground and stood in front of me, his eyes shining, his dark hair corkscrewing in the drizzle.
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘About the site?’
‘Aye! And the tower.’
‘Tower?’ I laughed. ‘It’s just a ruin!’
Magnus looked hurt. ‘It’s a Z-plan tower house. Well, it was. Come on. I’ll show you round.’
Until the mid-seventeenth century tower houses were Scotland’s basic architectural form. Something between a fortress and a manor house, they were built in lawless times by minor lairds. While the nobility lived in enclosed castles that could provide security for a whole community, tower houses were simple but solid family homes. (Many, now renovated, still are.) A tower house was defensible, not defensive. Sites were chosen for comfort and convenience, but in an age when war always threatened, feuds were rife and cattle were rustled, families built upwards with self-protection in mind.
Balvaird Castle, Perthshire, owned by Historic
Scotland is an example of a 16thC tower house.
Imagine a fortified vertical cottage, with one room placed on top of another. Rooms weren’t large, apart from the Great Hall on the first floor. Windows were unglazed, with only wooden shutters to keep out the cold. The plain and windowless ground floor was used as a store and livestock could be gathered there in the event of a raid. Living quarters began on the first floor where cooking was done. Goods were hauled up through a hatch in the floor from the store below and there was no other access to the floors above except from the single doorway on the first floor, protected by an indestructible iron grille, something like a portcullis.
The laird’s bedroom was on the second floor and there would have been smaller chambers above. All rooms were accessed by a turnpike stair (a spiral staircase) housed in a separate abutting tower. Windows were protected by iron grilles and as the tower house rose, the windows became larger and the exterior more complex. Spacious upper storeys would be corbelled out, with decorative brickwork supporting conical-roofed turrets known as bartizans; oriel windows provided panoramic views; gables were crow-stepped and chimneys were tall, creating an exuberant, fantastical building style that was peculiarly Scottish, but could have inspired Walt Disney. Some people – Magnus for one - regard the tower house as the finest achievement of Scottish architecture and on that cold and windy day, he was in his element.
He grabbed my hand and dragged me over to the remains of the tower, the only bit of ruin that looked as if it might once have been a building. I craned my neck to check on Emily and could see she was awake, but had wisely decided not to relinquish the warmth of the car. I gave her a wave which she didn’t return. When I turned back, Magnus was pointing to holes in the walls and talking about gun loops, sketching in the air with his hands. I felt the first faint stirrings of panic. My husband was talking about this place as if it was a possible site for a home. He was appraising a collection of ancient stones as if it was a building. I watched, appalled, as he described doors and windows that weren’t there, pointed to a staircase that led nowhere. But his face was animated, his eyes alive in a way I hadn’t seen in years.
‘Can you not see it, Fay?’ he asked abruptly, his brow furrowed with impatience
‘No, to be perfectly honest, I can’t. All I can see is... ruins. Destruction. Desolation. It’s awful, Magnus. You can’t possibly want to take this on.’
‘Because there’s nothing here! You’d be starting from scratch!’
‘That’s better than taking on something where you’ve got to rip out nineteenth century “improvements”. We’ll just be building. Restoring. That’ll be much simpler. And most of the stone’s already here!’ he said, indicating the piles of rubble scattered in every direction. ‘And the site – well, it’s fantastic! Look at that view! And it will be even better viewed from the first floor.’ He put his arms round me and pulled me to him. ‘What’s wrong? What are you so worried about?’
I laid my head on his chest, glad of a moment’s shelter from the wind. ‘Oh, I’m worried about you. And Emily. And us. How would we live here?’
‘We’ll have a caravan on site. I told you.’
‘I know, but I thought you meant live in a caravan for months, not years!’
‘A couple of years, maybe. Maybe less. It depends if we can get the grants. How fast we build will depend on cash flow. I’ll be doing a lot of it myself, obviously, but it’ll be much quicker if we employ skilled labour.’ I lifted my head and looked into his eyes. They were glittering now and his breath was coming fast, too fast. ‘Someone told me about a local guy who’s a bit of a specialist. We could maybe use him—‘
‘Magnus, stop it! You’re talking about this as if it’s going to happen!’
‘Why shouldn’t it happen?’ He grabbed me by the arms and shook me. ‘This will be good for us, Fay! Good for me. It will give me a reason...’ He faltered and I detected the sudden shift in his mood, saw his shoulders sag as he let go of me, noted the tension round his mouth as soon as he stopped talking about his hare-brained scheme. I felt horribly guilty until I remembered that mine was the voice of reason.
‘You surely can’t be serious, Magnus. I mean, just look at it! It’s hopeless!’
‘Nothing is ever hopeless,’ he said quietly. Plunging his hands into his jacket pockets, he turned his face up to the rain and stared into space, seeing a building that wasn’t there. ‘Nothing is ever hopeless. Not unless you allow it to be. It’s a question of willpower. And sheer bloody-mindedness. Isn’t it?’ He looked at me and grinned suddenly, which frightened me even more than his visionary enthusiasm. ‘You didn’t think I’d ever leave the house again, did you? You didn’t believe I’d ever be right.’
‘I never said—‘
‘No, you never said, but that’s what you thought. You gave up on me.’
‘I didn’t! I never did that. I just resigned myself. To what I thought was... inevitable.’
The original cover of
UNTYING THE KNOT
‘You thought I’d lost my mind. That I’d never come back.’
‘Magnus, please - stop this. I think we should go back to Emily now.’
He wasn’t listening. ‘But I did come back, didn’t I? I came back from the dead. Nothing is hopeless. Whatever they say. Whatever you think.’
‘Look, let’s talk about this later. I think we all need some lunch.‘
He grasped me by the shoulders, too hard, his powerful fingers digging into my flesh. ‘We can do this, Fay. Please, believe me. And we’ll all be happy again! Emily will be a princess in her own daft wee castle and we’ll love each other again! We’ll rebuild!’
He didn’t wait for a reply, he just kissed me and there was never anything I could refuse Magnus when he kissed me. So we bought a mountainous heap of stones for an extortionate amount of money. I couldn’t share Magnus’ vision. I saw what was there. He saw what had been there. What could be there.
So he rebuilt the tower house that had once been Tullibardine Tower. It was meant to save our marriage.
It was the last straw.