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In which I talk rot

November 26, 2010

My husband and I were strolling through the ballroom the other day, as you do, when  – no, I should just stop there. It’s all sounding so marvelous, dahling.

Truth will out, however. My husband and I were, I should say, clearing up the ballroom after a function the other day – stacking up coffee cups, hauling tables about and so on – when one of us noticed a peculiar white patch high up on the velvet covering the walls.

‘What do you suppose that is? I don’t remember it.’

It was too high up to see clearly. We speculated for a minute or so, then went blithely on our way. Ah, the innocence of youth.

Last week, older and wiser eyes recognised that white patch for what it was. Dry rot. These two words strike terror into the heart of every owner of an old house. Dry rot grows in damp wood and has the ability to spread through bricks and mortar, destroying timbers as it goes. It is hugely destructive, fiendishly difficult to eradicate and horribly expensive to deal with. And we have a serious outbreak in some of the most historic rooms in the castle.

Listening to the grim-faced gathering of assessors, factors and builders this morning, I had one of those moments when you question what you are doing with your life. When I heard the estimate for the cost of treatment I actually had to sit down, mentally crossing things off our family lifestyle. When the senior factor rubbed his cold hands and said, ‘So, we need a plan of campaign. What’s the first thing we need to do?’, it was all I could do not to shout ‘Sell up and run away to the Bahamas!’

In a damp climate, almost any house can fall victim to this fungal plague. Historic buildings do have their additional complications, however. The oldest part of this castle dates back to the mid-fifteenth century, but wings and towers have been added on in every century since, building up a rambling mish-mash of corridors and roofs. It is in the join of a tower to a later wing that the dry rot seems to have started, with water somehow getting in through a gap. Exactly how that water was able to gain entrance in the first place is the crux of the matter, on which hangs all hope of an insurance payout. A few days ago, therefore, I was up in a little room in the afflicted tower with one of the factors, having a first look at the extent of the rot. To see it, we had to squeeze past stacked up furniture and step over a pile of fallen plaster. The factor looked down at the plaster, and up at the ceiling, which is crudely patched with chip-board.

‘What happened there?’ he enquired.

‘Oh, the ceiling collapsed a couple of years ago,’ I replied nonchalantly. ‘It wasn’t long after we’d had to move this furniture in here from the store-room next door. We just never got round to clearing up the mess.’

‘Why did you have to move all the furniture out of the store room?’

‘Can’t remember…there was some reason…oh yes, that was because the chimney in that room collapsed and split open.  We had to empty the room for the builders and plasterers to do the repairs. Come on, it’s Baltic in here, there’s no heating in this tower. Actually there’s no heating anywhere in the house this week: the boiler’s broken down again.’

At that point I started to chuckle. The factor started to laugh too. What else could you do? So we stepped back down the spiral staircase to carry on with the day: he to the office, me to the kitchen and the blessed warmth of the Aga. As Winston Churchill used to say in infinitely more trying circumstances, ‘Keep Buggering On’. (Sorry mum.)

See also: What it feels like to inherit a castle in Scotland

23 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2010 12:22 am

    oh dear.
    You are destroying all my romantic notions of castle living.

  2. dancingbeastie permalink
    November 26, 2010 12:25 am

    Yeah, mine too! Sorry, will try to up the glamour in future posts. 😉

  3. Jessica permalink
    November 26, 2010 12:58 am

    I’ve always wondered why they call it ‘dry’ rot when it’s caused by moisture. Sending you warm thoughts from chilly BC.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 26, 2010 10:05 am

      Apparently it sucks up all the moisture from the timbers and leaves them to crack and crumble to dust. You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve learned in the past few days!
      I’m impressed that you are still typing! Thinking of you.

  4. November 26, 2010 10:43 am

    ohdear-ohdear-ohdear. I know the feeling (although our house is a lot smaller). Had to laugh at those typical stages you’re describing: First there is this slightly nauseating worry, then you think you might be lucky, after that the whole proportion of it sinks in and you get a panic attack (Bahamas! I’ll keep that in mind for our next time…), followed of course by desperation, crazy laughter and finally the practical approach, which is all what’s left to get on with it really.
    To top it all off, you grow more attached to that pile o’bricks with every disaster: It’s a clever scheme old houses developed for their own survival!

    BTW: Love your apron!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 26, 2010 11:19 pm

      It’s kind of comforting to know that many people have been in the same boat – even though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I am very taken by your theory of it being a scheme of the house: it makes it more bearable, thanks!

  5. November 26, 2010 10:49 am

    Uh oh! I’m glad I don’t live in a castle, sounds a lot to look after.

    Sorry to have missed you at Kinrossie by the way,


    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 26, 2010 11:21 pm

      I was over in your neck of the woods the other day. Perhaps we’ll be able to meet up one of these days, you never know!

  6. November 26, 2010 12:30 pm

    Oh dear. Don’t know much about dry rot but doesn’t sound good, yes I think sometimes all you can do is laugh and retreat to somewhere warmer! Hope you manage to sort things out, sending anti-dry rot thoughts your way!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 26, 2010 11:21 pm

      Much appreciated, thank you!

  7. November 26, 2010 12:50 pm

    Oh no – I do feel for you! And given the history and family heritage it’s not something you can walk away from easily either (well except in a fantasy to the bahamas!). Hope the insurance company come up trumps and you don’t have to sell of the “family silver” to pay for it?! I have damp problems in this old wee house I can’t imagine dealing with it on a larger scale – and even I have fantasies of selling up and moving into a small eco-friendly DRY wee hoose some day! (But then I look at the view and settle for some damp in winter….!).

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 26, 2010 11:25 pm

      Oh yes, an eco-friendly, dry wee house…with double glazing (imagine) and under floor geothermic heating….sigh…But seriously, I’d be bored in 5 minutes on a tropical island. As you say, there are compensations to living in this climate – the views, the quality of life. We are enormously fortunate. As for the ‘family silver’ – we shall see…!

  8. November 27, 2010 9:30 am

    Oh dear! Dry rot is a terrible thing. A friend of mine had dry rot in her flat and had the terrible struggle of getting the other people in the building to chip in, because if it is in one flat it is in the building itself. Urg. I hope the damage is not too extensive. Cook up something nice and try not to think about it for a wee while.

  9. Erika W. permalink
    November 27, 2010 1:58 pm

    Oh dear oh dear–enormous sympathy. I can still see in my memory the enormous billowing mushroom clouds of dry rot in my husband’s great grandfather’s house (just a solid Victorian family home in Dulwich, London) in the wine cellar. The house was shortly sold and pulled down for the plot value alone.

  10. Margaret Lambert permalink
    November 27, 2010 2:42 pm

    For some reason small children always draw houses with simple triangular roofs- they must instinctively know something about simple structures and building maintenance.
    It’s unfortunate that some of the buildings we admire most are also the most complicated to keep in good repair. Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes are iconic in their design, but are notorious for having faulty roof designs, though most are less than a hundred years old. Their repairs are astronomically expensive as well.
    I appreciate reading about the maintenance of the castle, along with the somewhat less complicated projects, like birthday cakes.
    Laugh as often as possible!

  11. Erika W. permalink
    November 27, 2010 4:03 pm

    Vide Margaret Lambert: Oh yes, staying in Mackintosh’s Hill House, in Helensburgh was a dreadful eye opener! appallingly designed roof with faulty leaking joints all over and porous brick walls facing the winds off the Firth of Clyde–absorbing moisture like blotting paper. Year round expensive repairs were needed and mazes of scaffolding in back–where National Trust visitors were not encouraged to go!

  12. dancingbeastie permalink
    November 27, 2010 4:24 pm

    Thank you all for your sympathy. This kind of thing comes with the territory, I guess, and it is unusually nice territory, so we must just count our blessings and get on with it. Interesting that FLWright and CRMackintosh houses should have similar problems to each other, given that they are close contemporaries. (I admire them, but wouldn’t want to live in them – very clinical I think.) I would say that perhaps it was a triumph of style over substance except that, despite walls up to 6 feet thick, we are hardly in a position to criticise at present!

    • November 28, 2010 2:28 pm

      I’m a huge fan of FLW and CRM – but if i ever had the good fortune to live in one of their houses I would want to put lots of comfy sofas and fabrics in which rather defeats the object! I did hear that some of FLW’s houses are crumbling as he used a concrete mixture which was state of the art then but not very robust for now!

  13. November 27, 2010 5:41 pm

    Oh My!! Oh Dear!! Oh S**t – what to do – renters walk away – owner/residents of small houses bite the bullet and fix it – a castle is a more massive investment. Hope you get a handle on it soon!
    Chin up – hug that aga and eat plenty of cake and coffee, BTW – enter my giveaway draw – you are very likely to win and it’s a nice prize… check giveaway post on
    Other than no heat and dry rot – have a nice weekend!


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