Knockderry Castle

The Leavitt family from Utah, US are moving ahead with restoring a neglected 19th century Scottish baronial castle on Loch Long.
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Chelom and David Leavitt, the owners of Knockderry Castle
The ex-Utah prosecutor David Leavitt and his wife Chelom have always dreamed of owning a Scottish castle—not a welcoming white limestone chateau in the Loire Valley, but a brutal and austere baronial mansion on a foggy loch. Suddenly, just such a castle came on the market. The 19th century Knockderry Castle on Loch Long was up for grabs and it was now or never. Although the castle can't be described as a centuries-old building, it is a very challenging project. Restoring Knockderry will take a lot of effort: David and Chelom have to take care of the water, electricity, and sewage systems. They have to make the roof waterproof, repair the doors and windows, and take care of the garden, which has been neglected for decades. From the outside, the building looks perfectly intact, but inside, it is nothing short of a ruin, unsuitable for living. The Leavitt family is inspired to bring through the restoration project and make the imposing Scottish residence with its stunning, if somewhat gloomy, lake view their home, and maybe a little more than that!


Castles and Palaces (CnP): So what the hell did you do? Why on earth do you need a run-down castle in damp and foggy Scotland? There are plenty of chateaux in France for less money?

Chelom: We have been looking at hundreds of castles in many countries for decades. France IS definitely beautiful, but Knockderry just spoke to us. It might have partly been due to the raining, foggy Scottish landscape—it's magical! When I walked the landscape of the castle, there was a little mist on Loch Long and I was sold.
David: I agree with Chelom.
CnP: You once admitted that "Scotland was always on the top of our list." Why?

Chelom: It doesn't hurt that they speak English, but even so sometime the common language is new to me. Words like "wee bit", lassie, and brilliant charm me. Additionally, Scotland is a pretty friendly country. People are really authentic.
David: I love the rainy foggy Scottish countryside and the language is a real plus.
CnP: Your wife saw an ad on the Internet and you said, "Let's do it!" Or how did it happen?

Chelom: I've been looking for decades and this one hit all our wants and needs. We kept looking into more details and right before the bids were due, we decided to take the plunge and go for it. When we won the bid we still weren't legally obligated to buy so we were able to examine the property and buildings. Even so, it was a big step.
David: The timing was just right. I realized the only thing keeping us from doing it was just our fear. If we didn't do it now, we would never do it.
CnP: When did you first visit Knockderry castle? What did you feel then?

Chelom: We first visited October 2022. It was a little bit of a raining foggy day and I felt pretty sober about taking on such an enormous project. But there was a peace on the property and in the building. That has always mattered to me—buildings have a feel and this castle's feel is serene. It's sad that it has been so neglected but I could see the grandeur and vibrance of the place.
David: I saw a run-down building and Chelom always has a sense about building and houses and I trusted that.
CnP: What did your kids say when they found out they had an entire castle to play with?

Chelom: Four of our kids are married and they thought we were a little crazy to complicate our lives with such a big project. Our younger kids who have seen the castle think it's pretty cool.
David: Our kids have always known we're a little crazy and this confirmed it for them. Now they are a little excited about the project.
CnP: How bad is the state of the castle now? Does it have all the major systems - like running water, electricity, sewage - up and running?
Chelom: The major systems are in bad shape—all are being replaced. Some we need to wait for the historic approvals, some we can start on now. The septic system took some real sleuthing to figure out that it was emptying into the loch—Yuck! So that was one of the first items of business.
Chelom: Additionally, the roofs were leaking in about six major areas. We now have the roof fixed and the castle is watertight, which is super important in Scotland.
David: We're replacing and modernizing every aspect of the castle's infrastructure—from plumbing and heating to electrical. To me that's part of the fun of the process.


CnP: Do you live in the castle or nearby? How suitable is the castle for living?

Chelom: Not suitable at all at this point. We are working on getting heat to the castle before it's too cold so that work can continue through the winter. We don't live close by but we have great people on site and great security. We make frequent trips to the castle and are in contact with contractors and architects nearly every day.
David: We turned off the water to the castle because just a month before we purchased it a pipe broke and cause some damage. We turned off electrical to avoid the risk of fire and the castle has no heat whatsoever. So the main push is warm and safe.
CnP: The castle has 18 fireplaces. Are they enough to keep the building warm, or is central heating installed?

Chelom: Central heating is being installed as we speak. It will be toasty warm but will also have the lovely ambiance of 18 fireplaces.
David: One of our goals is to make this 19th century castle 21st century warm, efficient, and comfortable.
CnP: Knockderry Castle was put up for sale in the middle of 2022 after a legal battle that lasted two decades. It started with a business debt of just £230 that was not paid by the then owner, Marian Van Overwaele. The debt grew to around £30,000 and that is when all hell broke loose. Did you know this story before you bought the castle?

We learned about this story after we had won the bid. As we were making the decision, this story weighed on us because it seemed like really poor decisions were made on both sides of this story. In the end, we realized that this castle was being neglected and was only going to get worse. We have no part of this previous story, but wanted to be a part of the castle's future and restoration. As for the previous owners, we haven't met them.
CnP: Do you have all the authentic plans and drawings of the castle? Will you use them to guide you during the restoration?

Chelom: Our architects have researched to find as much information as possible and there is little information. We do not have the original plans and because the castle was remodeled five times much would have changed anyway. We did find a drawing of the library and a few photos, but sadly there hasn't been much of the original plans to draw from.
David: Our very first tasks was to commission a 3D rendering of the castle to assist us in the restoration.
CnP: The castle is sometimes described as having the "finest domestic interiors of its style in Scotland." You once said that water was streaming down the walls of the beautiful main room. What's so precious there now, after years of neglect?

Luckily the water damage in the Music Room can be reversed. We are working with an art restoration expert now who has removed the mold and is stabilizing the paintings and we will decide on how to best restore any small areas that are lost.
Chelom: The woodwork is also an example of some of the finest work of this era. The woodwork is intact, and we are working with some craftsmen who specialize in restoring the areas that have some damage and revitalizing the areas that just have some wear due to time.
CnP: You believe that every old castle needs a good scrubbing every century or two. How is it actually legal in the UK to wash the layers of history off a Grade A listed building?

Chelom: There is some debate about this idea even in historic restoration circles. Some buildings have been cleaned to their original finish without damage and some have retained the effects of time. I don't know that one way is right or wrong—there are just tradeoffs. There are no legal issues however, if you have the proper permissions and permits.
David: We will utilize a cleaning system that is approved by Historic Scotland—the regulatory agency responsible for historic buildings—to remove the exterior mold and grime.
CnP: You paid £1.2 million for the old building that needs your care and attention - how much will the restoration cost you—any idea?

Chelom: Not sure, but we have a budget that we are trying to stick to. Once we finish the basics, we'll move ahead with phase two and so on. It would be great if we were able to restore the walled garden and orangery, but for now we are just focused on the main castle and small cottage. The restoration will be more than the original price tag by quite a bit.
David: This is a multi-year process and we will do it a step at a time to make sure it is done the right way.
CnP: You found an original doorbell, which is pretty amazing! Any other blast from the past on the castle grounds?

Chelom: The grounds are filled with fun finds—gates that haven't been opened in decades, graffiti from WWII, and a closet that was filled with old clothes. There is also a safe that we haven't yet opened. We're hoping it's filled with gold bars!
David: There are spectacular finds around every corner.
CnP: So you had mosquitoes and then you were terrified by hordes of spiders! But what about your castle ghosts? The one standing in the window scaring away curious travelers doesn't count!

Chelom: I am not a fan of spiders, but we had decades of spider carcasses and spiderwebs in some rooms and that was a little spooky. I have heard rumors of ghosts at Knockderry but no evidence as far as I can see. If there are ghosts, they must be the enchanted kind because the vibe at the castle is really healing and nourishing.
David: Chelom is convinced that the castle is not haunted but enchanted and that is what drew us to the castle from the beginning.
CnP: There used to be a Viking stronghold on the site of the castles (there are stained glass windows in the living room depicting King Haco of Norway, whose fleet sailed Loch Long) what remains of those distant times, and why not carry out excavations onsite?

Chelom: We have done some research (as have all the professionals who are working on this project) and remains of the Vikings on site are not obvious, but we will always be on the lookout.
Chelom: There is a rock in the basement that seems to be the anchor of the castle and there are some earlier foundations that we will get more educated thoughts about.
David: The historic documents that we and our architects have located suggest that any remnants of a Viking fort was torn down when the castle was originally built.
CnP: You've quoted your father as saying that "if you're going to eat an elephant, you can't focus on eating it all at once. You've got to eat it one bite at a time." Tell me how many bites of this elephant have you eaten so far?

Chelom: Maybe just a bite or two. This is going to be a long process and we are not in a hurry. First, being in a hurry creates stress and anxiety and mistakes.
Chelom: We are being purposeful about our duty to this beautiful historic building. Second, the process can be fun so no need to rush it. There are probably about 100,000 bites to this elephant.

David: It's a very big elephant. We purchased it to enjoy the process. Had we wanted a turnkey castle, that's what we would have purchased. We bought Knockderry, in part, to enjoy this process.
CnP: What's your master plan—will you just keep the castle as your private residence or do you plan to offer stylish accommodation for other castle lovers? Maintaining such an old building comes at a price, and having a hotel within its walls could help cover some of the costs!

Chelom: Such a good question. We are still trying to figure that out. It's a beautiful place and we want to share it with other likeminded people and while preserving the environment.
David: We are restoring it as our home, but we also want to make it available to other who appreciated it and admired it for such a long time.
CnP: Don't you regret buying this castle and embarking on such an adventure? After all, the castle is not all about romanticizing, isn't it?

Chelom: Like anything meaningful the romantic comes with a heavy dose of the reality. We are smack dap in the middle of the reality and that can be heavy some days. But we have a vision and that vision keeps us focused on the next steps.
I haven't regretted it yet. I don't think I will.
CnP: Many people dream of having a castle of their own—you are no exception (me too, by the way!) Please give some advice to a dreamer who wants to follow suit!

Chelom: Know what's out there and be realistic about the price, what your talents are, and what it will take (time, money, energy) to restore a castle (or cottage). Make lots of vision boards and know what you like and what is not your style.
Chelom: There are lots of historic castle-type buildings that need some love—find one that suits you and your budget. I think there are a lot of us who feel this connection to the past through these buildings and it's fun to get castle-nerdy with these likeminded people.
We very much hope that you loved the story by David and Chelom who have bought Knockderry Castle on the shore of Loch Long in Scotland!
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Photo credits: @Knockderry Castle

You can follow David's and Chelom's adventure in Knockderry on their castle blog WHATTHEHELLDIDWEDO.

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