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Conserving Historic Buildings

When The National Trust for Scotland is offered a building as a gift - or is asked to save a building - experts need to consider many different factors including the building's heritage value. The Trust's Acquisition Policy guides the team while they are making their decision.

When a building is accepted into the Trust's portfolio, the Buildings team decide whether it should be conserved or restored. They will consider its age and history, its condition and whether (or by how much) it has been altered over the years. Many old buildings have undergone some alterations - so the quality of these will be considered (do they have historic value, are they an integral part of the building, are they an essential part of the building's history?). The eventual use of the building is also considered.

Before the Trust conserves or restores a building, the specialists need to understand why they should do this, as well as the best methods to use. Methods may vary. The Trust conservation programmes for Holmwood House and Newhailes were quite different, for instance – but both programmes maintained the integrity of the buildings.

Most buildings are conserved and then opened to the public. However, the Little Houses Improvement Scheme (part of the Trust's Buildings department) works differently. It saves and restores small buildings that are in poor repair and then passes them to a tenant or new owner. They become useful places for the local community.

How does the Trust conserve Buildings?

At The National Trust for Scotland our approach to building conservation takes into account the special character and location of the buildings, which are often found within important historic and natural settings. We strive to manage the buildings in a way that is sensitive to the existing built fabric and surroundings while following good conservation practice and promoting their continued use and enjoyment by the public.

We are guided in our work by the NTS Conservation Principles, and several international charters such as the Burra Charter, the Stirling Charter and the ICOMOS Venice Charter. Once the significance of a building has been assessed, then a conservation strategy is developed.

Conservation, as defined in the Burra Charter, means 'all the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance. It includes maintenance and may according to circumstance include preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptation and will be commonly a combination of more than one of these'. The terms preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptation are collectively defined as the conservation process. Each involves a greater or lesser degree of change to the fabric of the building.

Definitions of these terms can be found in the Glossary at the bottom of the page.

What is an Historic Building?

Historic buildings can be any size and any type. Modest dwellings, great houses, religious, industrial or agricultural buildings can all be historic. A building from the recent past can be as 'historic' as an ancient building.

What makes a building historic is its importance or significance to people living now. They are buildings that help us understand the past and enrich the present - and will be significant, we believe, to people in the future. A building may have aesthetic, historic or social significance. Conservation is about retaining significance as much as it is about the preservation and repair of the fabric.

This may all sound rather vague. In order that a building's significance does not become a matter of taste or fashion, International charters, such as the Australia ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), Burra Charter and Historic Scotland's Stirling Charter, guide conservation professionals in the assessment of significance.

In Scotland buildings of special architectural or historic value can be listed. A listing aims to protect the character of the building and guard against unnecessary loss or damage. Under the listing legislation the term 'building' is broadly defined and can include walls, fountains, sundials, statues, bridges and bandstands. Whole areas of architectural or historic interest may also be protected through being designated as conservation areas.

Listed Buildings

There are 3 categories of listing in Scotland:

• Category A
Buildings of national or international importance, whether architectural or historic, or fine examples of some particular period, style or building type.

• Category B
Buildings of regional or more than local importance, or major examples of some particular period, style or building type which may have been altered.

• Category C(S)
Buildings of local importance, lesser examples of any period, style or building type, as originally constructed or altered; and simple, traditional buildings which group well with others in categories A and B or are part of a planned group such as an estate or industrial complex.

There are also several World Heritage Sites in Scotland, areas of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They include: Old and New Towns of Edinburgh and St Kilda.

Checking for a Listed Building

Lists of the buildings in Scotland of special architectural or historical interest are compiled and maintained by Historic Scotland on behalf of the Government. They are organised by Council areas, in parishes, burghs or city wards. There are currently about 46,000 listed buildings in Scotland.

Area lists are available for inspection in local authority offices while a full list is lodged at both the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and Historic Scotland, in Edinburgh. You can also search the lists online on the Historic Scotland website.

It may be possible to obtain information about your historic building, whether it is listed or not, at the RCAHMS (including photographs and drawings) or in your nearest public library or local history centre. If it is within the boundaries of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site then the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust could have information relating to it.

There are also a number of standard reference books on historic buildings in Scotland, including:

• The Buildings of Scotland series published by Penguin
• Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (Volumes 1-5), David McGibbon & Thomas Ross
• The Rutland Press Illustrated Guides

Definitions of these terms can be found in the Glossary below.


Those marked with an asterisk are as defined in BSI (British Standards Institute) 7913:98 Guide to the Principles of the Conservation of Historic Buildings. Those marked with two asterisks are as defined in Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter, 1999.

Modifying a place to suit proposed compatible uses.

Action to secure the survival or preservation of buildings, cultural artefacts, natural resources, energy or any other thing of acknowledged value for the future.

Physical material of which a building or artefact is made.

Routine work necessary to keep the fabric of a building, the moving parts of machinery, grounds, gardens or any other artefacts in good order.

Maintaining the fabric of a place in its existing state and retarding deterioration.

Re-establishment of what occurred or what existed in the past, on the basis of documentary or physical evidence.

Work beyond the scope of regular maintenance to remedy defects, significant decay or damage caused deliberately or by accident, neglect, normal weathering or wear and tear, the object of which is to return the building or artefact to good order, without alteration or restoration.

Alteration of a building or artefact which has decayed, been lost or damaged, or is thought to have been inappropriately repaired or altered in the past, the objective of which is to make it conform again to its design or appearance at a previous date.