x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebuilding a castle with a dark history

The Life: Everyone needs a hobby to relax after work, just like James McCallum, who spends his spare time renovating a Scottish castle - with video.

Wormistoune House. Courtesy Avian
Wormistoune House. Courtesy Avian

James McCallum, the co-founder and chief executive of the Dubai energy company Senergy, divides his free time between building sandcastles with his three young children and overseeing the renovation of a castle of his own in Scotland. He bought Wormistoune, the sprawling 17th century tower house set on about 10 hectares near St Andrews, 15 years ago for about £300,000 (Dh1.7 million) when it was little more than a ruin. It is now the family home but they also rent it out a few times each year for weddings and corporate events.

What is the building's history?

Most of us learned in school about the Salem witch trials in America but those were smaller than and immediately post-dated the witch trials that went on in the East Neuk of Scotland. The last of the witches was tried at Wormistoune. We still have in the grounds the very prison cell where the witches were kept, which is really intact, so a lot of Scottish history is in that building.

You have spent 15 years restoring it - what can there be left to do?

When we bought it was kind of just walls. We restored the house … to the height that it was, but I have always believed that it was once taller. Recently, just about six months ago, we got the second phase of our permission from Historic Scotland to take the house back up another floor and a half. We were granted the permission because five years ago after the first phase of the restoration, which took two and a half years to get permission for, we were awarded the Georgian Society for Architecture Award in Britain.

Does being so far away make it harder to oversee the project?

The wonderful thing about living in the digital age is that the drawings are now done digitally rather than manually. They're transmitted to us, we comment on them digitally and we video conference. I don't literally have to be in Scotland.

How much of your spare time do you spend on it?

A lot. At the end of the day to restore a place like Wormistoune is not just a hobby, it almost feels a bit like a duty of care because what you're actually doing is restoring something that will outlast you. You're leaving a mark on the land for future generations and that's something we're very mindful of.

When will you finish?

A place like Wormistoune is never entirely finished but the next phase we expect to start next spring and we think it will take 18 months. The reality is that from originally acquiring the property to having it in the format we originally envisaged will come close to 18 years.

* Gillian Duncan