See all stories
16 Jun 2023

Bringing Back the Binns: Meet the Regional Curator

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator (Edinburgh and East)
2 women carry a table into a grand room. The wall behind them is red and decorated with many gilt-framed oil paintings.
Conservation and Collections Care staff in the Dining Room at the House of the Binns
In this fifth instalment of a series of articles taking you behind the scenes at the House of the Binns, our Regional Curator has chosen 10 items from the collection to illustrate why our conservation project is so important.

At the heart of the House of the Binns is a family home. However, this is no ordinary home – it has witnessed many key moments that have shaped Scotland’s modern identity. Family stories take us to the royal court of James VI to colonial America and Napoleonic Europe, all illustrating Scotland’s global reach.

The house itself has been extended and renovated many times over the centuries. We think there was a dwelling of some kind on the site when Thomas Dalyell purchased the land at the beginning of the 17th century; in the current kitchen, you can see the original oven. The building was then extended by his son General Tam Dalyell, and a Georgian wing was added in the mid-18th century by the 4th Baronet, Sir Robert Dalyell. This latter extension is where most of the redecorating has occurred over this past year.

Find out more about the conservation project

The House of the Binns was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1944 under the Country House Scheme, a post-WWI initiative to prevent the sale of family estates while ensuring public access. The Dalyell family gifted a large proportion of the house’s contents, the landscaped parkland and grounds, plus an endowment, while living in the house and contributing towards the upkeep and maintenance. Like many National Trust for Scotland places, the interiors were ‘dressed’ in the 1970s and 1980s to make the house ready for public opening. Trust curators at the time added lights, lampshades, rugs, curtains and cushions, as well as redecorating some of the walls. When visiting today, you will find the rooms laid out as the Dalyells have used them.

So why have we worked assiduously to reopen the Binns for public view? I would suggest that it is because the home is a rare picture of one of the oldest families in Scotland. Most other old family homes have had their contents dispersed as descendants have married, died or moved away. At House of the Binns, the collections and interiors have evolved over time to fit the needs of the family. In this article, I have picked 10 items to show you what I mean – from elegant portraits to battered leather cases.

1. A fine portrait of a butter merchant

The land on which House of the Binns stands was purchased in 1612, with money earned largely at King James VI’s court. We think this portrait was commissioned for Thomas Dalyell, who built his house here sometime between 1612–30. The portrait is set into a panelled wall over a mantle in a small room that was Thomas’s ‘little studie’. Now called the Business Room, a door leads directly to the outside, to ensure home and work life were kept separate.

This is a rare portrait by an early Scottish painter. Thomas would have been 50 in 1621, just as George Jamesone was starting his career in Aberdeen (his earliest known work is from 1620 and he moved to Edinburgh in 1633). Jamesone had a short but influential career producing portraits of the Scottish nobility, scholars and leading burgesses. Thomas was a burgess of Aberdeen, which gave him trading powers in the city.

Thomas had been a successful butter merchant, but had also served as Deputy Master of the Rolls under his father-in-law Edward Bruce, Lord Kinloss. The two men oversaw the king’s royal documents, patents, charters and court judgements, and attended the royal court in London from 1603 onwards.

2. A ceiling fit for a king

In 1625, Charles I became monarch upon the death of his father, James VI. He was crowned first in London. The Scottish coronation took place much later, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse on 18 June 1633, after an extravagant week of pageantry, processions and banquets. This was Charles’s first and only visit to Scotland, which included a tour of the royal palaces of Linlithgow, Stirling, Dunfermline and Falkland.

Legend tells that this bedchamber ceiling was installed by Janet and Thomas Dalyell in anticipation of a visit from Charles I. The ceiling’s decorative casts were used in other country houses across Scotland and were specifically designed to symbolise an ancient lineage of legendary ‘worthies’ who represent chivalry, from the biblical King David to Alexander the Great. The ceiling also features the politically relevant symbols of the Stuart kingdoms: the thistle of Scotland, the rose of England, the harp of Ireland and the fleur-de-lis of France (Wales was a principality). Plaster ceilings were becoming highly fashionable in the 17th century and replaced the previous trend in luxury interiors for painted wooden ceilings.

Charles I did not make it to the Binns. On 10 July the royal entourage had set sail from Burntisland in Fife (having departed Falkland Palace) to head across the Forth estuary for Leith when a squall suddenly hit the boats and one foundered. It’s thought between 20–30 people lost their lives that day. News of the disaster travelled quickly to London and Charles was forced to return – cancelling the five days he had scheduled in Edinburgh – to quell rumours that he had died.

3. The comb of a royalist

In 1637, Charles I and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud introduced a new Book of Canons to replace John Knox’s Book of Discipline in Scotland. They also imposed a modified Book of Common Prayer. These proposals were met with anger by many members of the Scottish clergy, who had not been consulted on the changes. A campaign of petitions led to the creation of the National Covenant – a document that explicitly rejected any new adaptations of Scots religion but categorically stated loyalty to the Crown. In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, staunch Royalists Thomas Dalyell and his son Tam stood with large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, clergy and burgesses to sign this Covenant.

However, things changed swiftly for Tam Dalyell when the Covenanting movement shifted from protest to punitive resistance. In November 1638, the Glasgow Assembly removed the Book of Common Prayer, abolished the offices of archbishop and bishop, and started to punish anyone refusing to subscribe to the National Covenant. This division between the Covenanters and the Crown forced Tam Dalyell to make a choice; he chose to support the king. The fighting that ensued claimed the lives of thousands in Scotland, and ultimately led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (English Civil War) and the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649.

Reputedly, on hearing of the king’s execution, Tam pledged that he would not cut his hair nor his beard until the Stuarts were once again on the throne, as a way of repenting for the cruelties bestowed on the monarch by his countrymen. Tam went on to earn the sobriquet ‘Bluidy Tam’ for his brutal treatment of Covenanters over the following decades.

Horn is an effective material for fashioning a single-piece comb, as its hardiness makes it less likely to fall apart. Horn is also smooth, making it the perfect tool for combing a very long beard.

4. Small sculpture of a Scots Greys soldier

On 14 May 1660, Charles II was proclaimed king and restored to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had previously been crowned King of Scotland at Scone in 1651, before he was forced into exile after being defeated in the Battle of Worcester later that same year. Tam Dalyell fought with the Royalist forces and was captured during this battle; he was then imprisoned in the Tower of London. At some point in the following year, he escaped and returned to Scotland. Cromwell put a price on Tam’s head, which ultimately made it too difficult for Dalyell to remain in the country. He left for Russia in 1654, applying to be in the service of Tsar Alexis I.

Here, he spent some years fighting in the Russo-Polish War (1654–67) and noticed how the Russian military used white uniforms to camouflage themselves in the snow. Tam returned to support Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660. He became Commander-in-Chief of the king’s army in Scotland. In 1678, Tam raised a new regiment and, remembering the white uniforms of the Russian soldiers, he sent for grey cloth from Flanders to create new uniforms that could conceal men fighting in the gloomy mists of Scotland’s hills.

This was the birth of the Royal Scots Greys, as they officially became known – or ‘the Phantom Army’ as they were notoriously called. They existed for several centuries until they were incorporated into the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in the 1970s.

It’s likely this small sculpture was completed when the Scottish National War Memorial was being built in Edinburgh Castle, as Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson worked closely with the project architect, Sir Robert Lorimer of Kellie Castle. There is a specific memorial to the Royal Scots Greys and Household Cavalry in the south-east bay. Jackson also designed the statue of Robert the Bruce displayed at Bannockburn.

5. Indian curtains

By the mid-17th century, Scots’ trading and financial activity was expanding to include markets in India. The previously strong trade in the Baltic and Europe was on the wane for several reasons, including the French Revolution, which affected the smooth transit of goods and people, and the increase in profits from sugar plantations in the West Indies.

In 1688, a dramatic turn of events transformed Scotland’s political landscape when the Protestant King William and Queen Mary came to the throne after the deposition of James VII. This ultimately led to the Acts of Union in 1707, which opened new economic opportunities for Scotland, including access to the English colonies in America and the global routes of the East India Company.

Magdalen Dalyell was 15 in 1688 and lived at the Binns with her brother Thomas, the future 2nd Baronet. This was a momentous year for her – she married her neighbour, James Menteith of Auldcathie. They went on to have 12 children. In 1717 her brother died, and she presented herself to the Lords of Council and Session to fight for her right as heir, challenging her nephew Thomas Shairp, who was attempting to claim the house and title. The courts found in favour of Magdalen.

At some time during these years, Magdalen and her daughters made these curtains, and they have hung in the house ever since. Cotton was imported from India and then America in the early 18th century – it was a high-status textile. These curtains are a statement of both wealth and status for Magdalen, who had won her place as the head of her family. After the death of her husband in 1724, she passed the title inheritance to her eldest son, James Menteith Dalyell, and emigrated to America with her two youngest daughters. They joined her second son, Thomas Menteith, in Virginia.

Thomas had prospered as a merchant and landowner, having sailed over from Glasgow in 1724. He owned a tobacco plantation run by enslaved people. Apparently, before Thomas died, he asked his enslaved workers to carry him out into his flower garden so he could choose the spot where he wished to be buried.

6. Tea bowl from China

China and Scotland had traded in the 17th century but this increased during the second half of the 18th century. Scottish merchants started to settle in the port city of Canton to work directly with tea brokers, in order to meet a growing demand for the drink. This coincided with faster ships – clippers – and developments in the ports at Leith and on the Clyde. In the 1770s work began in earnest to de-silt the Clyde to enable larger ships to dock further up the river. The development of Broomielaw transformed Glasgow’s dockside and its cityscape, as Scots flocked here to make their fortune. Glasgow would go on to become Scotland’s largest industrial centre – the Clyde dockyards were the beating heart of Scotland’s wealthy modern nation.

In the mid-18th century, Sir Robert Dalyell, 4th Baronet created the current Laigh Hall by joining two cellar rooms together and heightening the ceiling, as well as adding the arcade and a new front entrance. He also added the dining room and morning room. He then ordered armorial china featuring the family coat of arms and the motto ‘I Dare for Right and Reason’ as a wedding present for his wife, Elizabeth Gartmore. In the 81-piece dinner service, about 60% is Chinese, imported from Canton (now Guangzhou); the remainder was ordered from Derby later, when English factories had mastered the technique.

Read more about armorial china in the Trust’s collections

The service was the height of fashion and was purchased to impress his wife’s wealthy family, who had benefited from the slave trade, making their fortune from cotton and pimento plantations in the West Indies. Robert himself joined the army in 1745 and was based in Holland; he married late in life (in 1773) and had to repair the house (which he had tenanted) while he was on the Continent. The china service and extensive home renovations were probably his attempt to create a suitable residence for his wealthy young bride.

7. A lady’s luggage

Scotland became an increasingly popular holiday destination in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, largely due to the fiction of Sir Walter Scott. His penmanship was echoed by many other travellers, including women like Sarah Murray, who published one of the first practical Scottish tourist handbooks in 1799, and Anne Grant, whose Letters from the Mountains (1773–1807) offered a more poetic, idyllic version of Highland life. Travelling was for the wealthy elite and required a network of friends and family due to a lack of inns or suitable places to stay. It also required suitable carriages and luggage. Murray thought it imperative to take bedding, pillows, blankets, crockery and cutlery with her in the 1790s, as accommodation was highly irregular.

In the summer of 1831, the first passenger steam train was introduced in Scotland (on the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway). This seismic moment would open up the country to middle-class travellers or ‘tour-ists’.

However, this was still some time away when Harriet Dalyell used this hat box. The daughter of the 4th Baronet and Elizabeth Gartmore, Harriet was a lady of considerable means and would have travelled with a retinue. This hat box was part of the leather luggage she took on her honeymoon after she married John Wilkie of Foulden in 1804. We also have a small watercolour of John dressed in a Highland costume holding a longbow. He was a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the sovereign’s ‘Bodyguard in Scotland’, and the painting is thought to illustrate a costume designed by Walter Scott for the ceremonial state visit of George IV in 1822. This was an extravagant set of events in Edinburgh when King George famously wore Highland dress, which had previously been banned.

Read more about the Royal Company of Archers

The label inside the lid of Harriet’s hat case tells us that the luggage came from a company in Edinburgh, which had a factory on Leith Wynd and a shop on South Bridge. Thanks to a series of improvements throughout Edinburgh, which included the construction of the South Bridge from 1785, Harriet and her friends were among the first to witness the growth of the New Town and the modernisation of Scotland’s capital city.

8. A Turkish coffee pot

Scottish administrators, soldiers and merchants set sail to British colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries, extending the global reach of Scotland’s ambitions. Many diplomats and merchants also lived and worked in lands beyond the British Empire, including across the Ottoman Empire.

Trading bodies like the Levant Company (est. 1592) and the East India Company (est. 1600) sent agents to these regions. The men were commonly known as consuls and oversaw the transaction of silks, spices and other ‘exotic’ goods that were becoming highly fashionable in cities like Edinburgh. The consuls reported on progress to the British Foreign Office, as well as being the ‘eyes on the ground’ for any political and economic issues. While these British diplomats enforced their views on local people, Middle Eastern arts, culture and writing made a significant impact on Scottish homemakers, who were inspired by the carpets and silks, decorative arts and culinary goods – this was the moment coffee was introduced into Scotland.

Find out more about the introduction of new foods into Scotland in the 17th century

House of the Binns has Turkish Kelim rugs (turned into curtains), brass hanging lamps and a pair of Turkish coffee pots and tables, all brought back by Sir Robert Dalyell, 8th Baronet, who was Consul in Erzerum, Turkey (1859); Iași (Jassy), Romania (1862); and Ruse (Rustchuk), Bulgaria (1865–79). Robert had ‘Pasha’s Room’ set up in the house, in an attempt to recreate the Middle Eastern décor he had become accustomed to while living abroad.

9. Metal goblet with a handle

It’s estimated that nearly 150,000 Scots lost their lives during the First World War. While Scotland had just a tenth of the UK’s population, its soldiers accounted for a fifth of Britain’s war dead. In the decade after the war, around 8% of the country’s population emigrated, due in large part to a decline in industrial manufacturing. Employment insecurity was greatest in the cities and in heavy industries like shipping, coal and jute; unemployment grew as soldiers returned from war.

In 1913, the 9th Baronet, Sir James Bruce Wilkie Dalyell had only just inherited the House of the Binns, having moved from his home in Foulden, Berwickshire. The following year, he joined his battalion in the regiment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in Egypt.

While he was away, the family occupancy was interrupted at the Binns since the property was leased out to naval personnel based at the port of Rosyth. In December 1914, the navy’s Grand Fleet was moved to the Firth of Forth, from their usual home off Orkney. The fleet was immense, comprising hundreds of sailors who staffed an incredible range of vessels, including battleships, destroyers, seaplane carriers, repair ships and minesweeping gunboats.

The Scottish Borderers battalions fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the Somme and Gallipoli. This small goblet was fashioned by Sir James c1917, from shrapnel he collected on the battlefield at Gallipoli. It represents a creative energy to re-fashion the horrors of war – the metal that spilt human blood has been transformed into a chalice for wine (or the Holy Grail holding the symbolic blood of Christ).

Sir James returned home to a country struggling with food shortages and unemployment. The Binns, like many country homes, had been staffed by a retinue of people pre-war. However, with financial and social upheaval, as well as new expectations from the men and women who had risked their lives for one another, circumstances were now radically different.

James employed a severely reduced house staff, which included a general factotum, a gardener, a cook and two maids. The estate factotum he brought in was Bert Norton, an Englishman who had fought beside him at Gallipoli. Family lore recounts that a close bond was established between the two men; Dalyell offered Norton employment when work was scarce in 1919. Bert remained with the house for 20 years.

10. A dog with a bone

In 1944, Eleanor Dalyell joined the Country House Scheme since she faced increased maintenance costs as the direct inheritor of the Binns. The agreement with the National Trust for Scotland was like many forged between country houses and organisations across Britain: the owners could remain living there, but the property would be open to the public on certain days of the year.

Eleanor’s son, Tam Dalyell, became the 11th Baronet, although he never used the title. Tam became a Labour MP for West Lothian in the 1960s and during the following decade grew increasingly aware that English MPs were able to vote on matters affecting the English town of Blackburn in Lancashire, but not on matters concerning Tam’s own constituency town of Blackburn in West Lothian.

In 1977 he made a speech in the House of Commons, when Jim Callaghan’s Labour government proposed a devolved assembly in Edinburgh. Dalyell argued it would be unfair for Scottish MPs to have equal rights to vote on English-only legislation. Why, as a Scottish MP, could he vote on issues relating to English health, education and environment when an English MP could not vote on similar Scottish matters?

In this cartoon, the English freelance artist Charles Griffin – who worked for various publications, including Punch and the Daily Mirror in the late 1970s – insinuates that Tam, like a dog with a bone, was unlikely to let the matter lie even at the behest of his party leaders. This character trait was apparent throughout Tam’s career and could be seen in his vocal opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, which led 121 Labour MPs to vote against their party’s motion to engage in military intervention.

By this time, Tam was a well-known figure in politics; he was the man who asked the ‘West Lothian question’ – a phrase later coined by the Ulster Unionist MP Enoch Powell, in response to Dalyell’s 1977 speech on devolution. Tam was a vocal opponent of Scottish devolution when it was debated in both 1979 and 1997, as he saw difficulties that would arise being led by two governments. A devolved Scottish Parliament was created in 1999 after a clear majority voted in favour of devolution in the second referendum. This charged matter still colours and shapes British politics today.

I encourage you to come to the House of the Binns to see these objects for yourself! We run guided tours that must be booked in advance.

Book your tour now

I am profoundly grateful to Kathleen Dalyell for her generous support.

Explore House of the Binns

Visit now