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9 May 2024

Storm damage to Fyvie’s Racquets Court – reflections one year on

Written by Annie Robertson, Project Director – Fyvie Major Conservation project
An old building with broken roof
Damage to the Fyvie Racquets Court caused by a fallen tree
An update on our repair work to the historic Racquets Court at Fyvie, which suffered extensive damage during Storm Otto.

With the increasing frequency of severe weather warnings and storms over recent years, it’s becoming harder to recall the names of each event. However, at Fyvie Castle, the effects of these storms are still at the forefront of our minds. This is not only due to the devastation of the trees that form the beautiful landscape in which the castle proudly sits but also due to damage to the historic buildings themselves. During Storm Otto in spring 2023, the Racquets Court building, which sits beside the castle, was extensively damaged by a large noble fir tree that fell on the building during the 83mph winds.

Despite being in perfect health, the tree fell on the west side of the building, structurally undermining it. Much of the stonework to the main building on that side was dislodged, in addition to the collapse of the glass roof to the main court and part of the slate roof to the lower Skittles Alley. Our team of specialists sprang into action and arranged a crane to remove the tree carefully, the main trunk weighing 50 tonnes. Sadly, the extensive damage left the building in a dangerous condition and exposed it to snow and rain until we could safely put up a wrapped scaffold to offer protection from the elements.

A fallen tree with people wearing high-vis removing it
The team at Fyvie removing the fallen tree

The Fyvie Castle Racquets Court and Skittles Alley, originally known as ‘The Playhouse’, were built by the industrialist Alexander Forbes-Leith in 1903. Inspiration for the Playhouse came from Lord Leith’s transatlantic lifestyle and his marriage to Missouri-born Marie Louise January. It was fashionable for wealthy Americans to construct a building, usually separate from the main house, for games and leisure pursuits. The Playhouse has a Racquets Court, built to American dimensions, complete with a viewing platform for spectators, and a traditional Skittles Alley, imported from America, complete with wooden skittles and balls.

A bowling alley with bowling pins and balls
The skittles alley before the damage

Lord Leith was an avid collector of antiquities, and in this tradition, the south elevation of the building is inset with carved stone collected from Europe, including a marble basin and carved sculptural panels. The main roof over the court is glass, allowing natural light for play. Inside, there is also an area for relaxation complete with a cast-iron stove for warmth in the Scottish winter months.

One year after the damage, the Trust is moving towards rebuilding this unique structure. The last year has seen the building structurally stabilised and made safe, while controlled drying is underway for important timber elements and the collection that was salvaged from inside. Whilst the project has proved challenging, we have been able to learn much more about the building and its special features. This is important to allow us to make the right choices about its future and retain as much original fabric as possible.

A shell of a building with no roof and rubble inside
The devastation caused to the skittles alley

Some key features, such as the Skittles Alley, have been damaged badly. The alley’s origins are unknown; however, it bears the mark of the ‘Amalgamated Woodworkers’ trade union of America. This early trade union responded to the working conditions of increased factory production and was granted only to companies that complied with certain working conditions. We’re still researching to determine the exact manufacturer; however, it is evident that the Skittles Alley was imported as a kit of parts. The main floor comprises three sections, each measuring around 6m long, formed from pieces of maple wood, laid on edge, and bolted together using tensioned iron rods. The ball rails, gutters and bumpers to the ball pit would have all come from America and been assembled on-site by local trades.

Old iron bars lying on the ground outside
Iron rail tracks which were found to be used as lintels for window openings

The building also contains evidence of the legacy of Lord Leith, who commissioned its building. He made his money in iron and steel, so finding iron lintels over the clerestory windows formed from re-used railway tracks was befitting. Each of the 12 window openings has four iron lintels; however, the presence of stainless-steel reinforcing cramps, which were added later, suggests that the lintels had not proved as effective as Lord Leith intended. The Trust has also previously discovered iron in the main body of the castle, attributed to Lord Leith: re-used railway tracks historically stabilised the Seton tower on the south frontage, which is now held by stainless steel bands.

As a conservation charity, the Trust is committed to restoring the Racquets Court and bringing it back into use. We aim to reopen the building in the summer of 2025. The project will involve rebuilding the stonework of the west elevation, repairing the Skittles Alley roof, and restoring the stunning glass roof to the main court. Our focus will then shift to the interior, with the hope of restoring the Skittles Alley for everyone to enjoy once again.

Old building with a scaffolded roof
The building is now under a wrapped and roofed scaffold while the Trust develops the repair programme.

As the Trust celebrates the 40th anniversary of Fyvie’s arrival into our care in 1984, the future of the Racquets Court looks bright, thanks to the hard work of the skilled team involved in the recovery project. The last year has reminded us how special yet fragile our heritage places are, and how vital our work is in protecting them for future generations.

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