See all stories
21 Apr 2023

Bringing Back the Binns: Meet the Regional Conservator

Written by Lesley Scott, ACR Conservation Advisor (Edinburgh & East)
Aerial image of the House of the Binns
Aerial image of the House of the Binns
In this third instalment of a series of articles taking you behind the scenes at the House of the Binns, we look at the challenges and opportunities of undertaking our recent conservation project.

Whilst the snowdrops and then the daffodils emerged at the front of the House of the Binns in 2022, activity was well underway at the rear of the property and throughout the inside. This was part of a programme of conservation works to ensure that the property could once again open to visitors in spring 2023.

Undertaking any conservation work in a historic house requires knowledge, attention to detail and teamwork. This helps to determine the best solutions for balancing the security and protection of the collections and historic interiors, as well as for cohesive phasing of the works. At the House of the Binns, we had both external building work and internal works happening simultaneously, which required a careful management of timescales. We needed to co-ordinate many craftspeople, specialist contractors and teams on site, as well as plan for and mitigate any ‘surprises’ that might occur whilst working in the variable Scottish climate.

The Trust’s Conservation & Policy and Engagement & Research teams include building, collection conservation & management and curatorial specialists, all of whom support property and regional teams to manage the heritage properties in the Trust’s care. Our Head of Building Conservation Sarah Mackinnon and our Lead Conservation Surveyor Tara Crooke got the project underway by overseeing the vital roof works over two principal rooms at the Binns; their focus was to ensure the property was weatherproof. Having a secure and watertight building envelope (the parts that separate the outside from the inside, including the roof, walls, windows and foundations) is a very important part of any conservation ideology for protecting the collections and interiors within. The Trust uses and invests in traditional skills and materials to maintain our historic structures, as well as realising longer-term solutions for environmental performance and overall building health. Tara said:

‘An area of flat lead roof over the morning and dining rooms, which had been installed in the 1990s, required replacement due to water ingress. The fall of the roof was altered slightly and more ventilation added in order to improve its performance, with new lead laid by a specialist contractor, all of which will help disperse water more effectively and protect the newly redecorated rooms below as well as the extensive collection within. The lead was laid over the summer of 2022, sometimes in extreme heat and with the added peril of the inquisitive, resident peacocks perching on the scaffold.’

The House of the Binns had been closed for many months prior to the works commencing. Re-opening the rooms may seem a simple task; however, we had to be very careful to protect the vulnerable cultural heritage inside the rooms, both environmentally and physically. Due to the location of the rooms where works were being undertaken, we also had to allow for access by contractors and their equipment. This entailed much planning – both before and during the weeks of collection packing, handling and movement – and a reactive, fast-thinking property team.

There had been moisture acclimation in the collections and in the interior walls and floors, including the historic ornate plaster ceilings. All had attained their own equilibrium moisture content (EMC), which means that they had stopped absorbing or releasing moisture into their surrounding air and had reached a balanced state in their undisturbed environment. We know that changes in exterior environments can influence interior environments, and we understand the resulting effect on collections and interiors. Over time, cycles of absorption and releasing of moisture cause physical changes and damage to internal materials, which all have different EMC points.

Once we had determined that the collection was not to leave the site (in order to best protect it environmentally), a major challenge was to ensure that we could lower the high humidity levels without overheating spaces. This would help to reduce growth of mould spores as well as dry out spaces, allowing us to clean and pack away objects in a controlled way. We wanted to prevent any warping of furniture or cracking of ceilings through moisture being released too quickly from within. However, we had to balance this with having areas warm enough to dry newly painted surfaces during the winter months. Testing heating systems was complicated when external temperatures were dropping below zero and persistent heavy rainfall drove up the humidity levels internally. Our Edinburgh & East maintenance surveyor Megan Gardner spent considerable time adjusting heating valves and monitoring temperature levels during the phasing in of new systems.

The project has allowed us to purchase environmental monitoring equipment, which means we can continue to monitor and adjust our practices as appropriate. When visitors joined us on a special conservation tour partway through the project, we were able to use this equipment to explain our processes and the work we were doing.

During the project, all the main visitor route spaces were affected by at least one element of the works – they were either used as temporary collection storage or entirely cleared of every item, fixture and wall-mounted furnishing to allow access for contractors. We also had to protect the collections from possible vibration and plaster dust during the re-decoration work, as discussed by Kirsty Redmonds, Collections Care Supervisor in our previous Bringing Back the Binns post. The only items we kept in the dining room were three large carpets – due to their length when rolled, they could not fit anywhere else.

Inspired by traditional housekeeping practices, we made use of the outside space during better weather to clean both sides of the carpets. The carpets were cleaned by tamping (brushing the carpet whilst it is lying on the ground rather than hanging and beating it) to remove as much loose dirt as possible before we rolled and covered them, tying them to skates so they could be easily moved to accommodate the scaffold towers during decoration works.

As Regional Conservator, my focus in the project was to support the property’s Collections Care team. I ensured they were trained and fully prepared for moving, handling, packing and temporarily storing the mixed heritage collections. This requires experience and knowledge, both in ensuring safe and practical working methods as well as understanding the condition of each item and how our interactions might affect each piece. By bringing in specialist art handlers with years of museum and gallery experience and working alongside a conservator, our combined knowledge could be shared, resulting in an effective Collections Care team, who were up-skilled in the best collections care practices.

One of our main challenges was internal storage space, as every object, piece of furniture, curtain and light fitting removed from the two large principal rooms was kept at the property throughout the building and internal refurbishment works. Only one collection piece left the site: a pair of mid-17th-century Civil War cavalry boots, believed to have belonged to General Tam Dalyell.

Read more about General Tam Dalyell

At the Trust, we are aligned to preventive practices, but in this case the boots would have become more unstable and at risk of further deterioration had we not intervened. The boots are made of vegetable-tanned bovine leather. The leather surface in some areas was vulnerable, with splits and a surface hue that required remedial treatment to remove and stabilise. As the boots are to remain on open display, they also required internal support to prevent them from sagging over time.

The boots were carefully packed to support them as well as maintain a stable environment, and were transported by art couriers to specialist leather conservators at Northampton Leather Conservation Studio. Here the conservators undertook surface cleaning and consolidation work, and provided a new internal mount. Although Binns legend states that the boots would walk themselves home if ever removed from the house, we ensured a return trip with art couriers!

Whilst the objects from the project areas were safely packed away, our Regional Curator Antonia Laurence Allen was researching the archives to find evidence of past decorative schemes in order to re-create historically accurate interiors. We wanted to reflect the Georgian era, when the Morning Room and Dining Room were built. Although no evidence of former decorative schemes remained in the room spaces, we know that during this period styles often emulated the patterns and textures of fabrics – damask wallpaper was very popular. Red was often used in dining rooms in Georgian times, while bedrooms and morning rooms tended to be lighter and brighter. Antonia finally based the dining room wallpaper on a colour that can be found at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, built between 1817–25. Sir James Dalyell, 5th Baronet and Walter Scott were friendly at the time, which adds some authenticity to this choice. Antonia said:

Sir James Dalyell hired William Burn to adapt the Binns in 1810. This was an architect who advocated Walter Scott’s romantic Scotland, and James Dalyell hired him to transform the Binns into a baronial castle. James himself was friends with Walter Scott, and the author visited the Binns during this period. So, when I saw the original dining room at Abbotsford, which had dark red wallpaper, and the red damask fire screen there, which still survives today, it felt like the evidence I was looking for.

I chose a dark red for the dining room that makes it feel plush and masculine while accentuating the gilded portrait paintings. The damask has pineapples and vinery that can be found in the plasterwork around the house and complements the reds in the Turkish curtains. And for the morning room, a pale yellow that lifts the room, providing a sheen that gives the damask a tactile quality and mimics wallpapers found upstairs in the bedrooms.

The conservation programme at the House of the Binns has given us the opportunity to plan for future conservation work. The roof above the morning room and dining room is once again secure and we now understand more about the condition of collections and interiors from the planning, building and reinstatement processes. In our next blog post, Visitor Service Assistant Maravillas Sanchez-Morales from the Collections team will discuss the role of specialist art handlers. She takes a look at how we approached removing, assessing, protecting and returning paintings and mirrors to the walls to ensure their long-term conservation.

We have achieved and learnt a lot during the Bringing Back the Binns project, but the conservation of the collections and interiors remains ongoing. When visiting, you will be able to see the Collections team undertaking conservation in action, as they (supported by a wonderful team of volunteers) undertake routine surface collection care cleaning to remove the dust that inevitably accumulates from project works. They ensure the property remains well presented, well cared for, well documented, engaging and relevant, for the benefit of everyone.

We will continue to collect monitoring data so we can understand each room’s environmental conditions. This allows us to plan resources and prioritise those items most requiring stabilisation, additional support or remedial treatment. During the project, we have employed sustainable practices to future-proof our preventive care practices, replacing two large principal room carpet underlays that were made of wool felt (which were recycled) with inert material to both deter moths and give the ancient carpets better support.

As the House of the Binns is now open again, the next steps for collections conservation is to monitor and examine the effect that the reopening will have on light-sensitive materials or floor surfaces. We are considering how we can ensure our collective cultural heritage continues to be accessible, as we safeguard its care through maintaining high standards of conservation practice.

Explore House of the Binns

Visit now