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26 Jan 2023

Bringing Back the Binns: Meet the Visitor Services Manager

Written by Helen J Knox, Visitor Services Manager at House of the Binns
House of the Binns in winter, seen from across the snow-covered lawn. Tall trees stand to the left of the house, almost silhouetted against a wintry blue sky. A wooden bench stands just in front of the house.
House of the Binns
To celebrate House of the Binns reopening this spring, we are sharing a blog about the recent conservation work that has taken place. In this first instalment, the Visitor Services Manager gives an overview of the Bringing Back the Binns project.

Hi! I’m Helen, Visitor Services Manager at House of the Binns, near Linlithgow. Since starting this role nine months ago, I can honestly say no two days have been the same – you can never guarantee how things will unfold, however much you plan for the day!

House of the Binns has been the home of the Dalyell family since the early 17th century. Many famous, and some would say infamous, family members have played key roles in the history of Scotland. The house was given to the Trust in 1944 by Eleanor Dalyell but remains the family home to this day. The house has been closed to visitors for a few years due to a large-scale conservation project. Unfortunately, as with all projects in old houses, not everything went to plan, and we encountered several delays along the way. Now, the property has been repaired and restored where necessary, and is compliant with latest regulations. The collections too have been conserved in line with best practice, ready for our re-opening in spring 2023.

A view of the exterior of House of the Binns in early spring, with the vines of a creeping plant covering the walls. A row of daffodils can just be seen in front of the house. Bare tree branches frame the shot, silhouetted against a pale blue sky.
House of the Binns, near Linlithgow

Our biggest task at House of the Binns was to replace the flat roof over two of the principal rooms: the dining room and morning room. However, this work had to be postponed due to the pandemic. At all our properties, basic routine checks and essential maintenance continued during the lockdowns but we had to put the major planned repairs on hold for a while.

The National Trust for Scotland is fortunate to have excellent external partners to call upon when undertaking specialist work, and the Bringing Back the Binns project has involved a number of skilled craftspeople. We have worked with several well-established Scottish family companies, including roofers, stonemasons, plasterers, electricians and decorators. Coming out of the lockdowns, the availability of specialist craftspeople was an issue as their skills were in high demand. Delays in scheduling work were compounded by a lack of materials and increasing prices. Without the relationships we have built with our specialist suppliers, we could have faced very long setbacks.

Once we were able to begin, and in conjunction with the Trust’s Conservation and Building teams, we decided to empty the collection from these rooms. Moving, condition-checking, cleaning and relocating 800 items was a major task, taking our three-person Collections Care team and two art handlers 18 days to complete. The whole collection remained on site and was carefully catalogued, with a report created for each item including information about where it is stored. Kirsty Redmonds from the Collections Care team will write about this in more detail in next month’s Bringing Back the Binns blog.

You can also listen to Episode 7 in the third series of our Love Scotland podcast to hear more about the cataloguing of the collection at House of the Binns.

In addition to the two principal rooms, other areas of the house have also undergone repair and redecoration – when a property has been left untouched for a few years, some deterioration is inevitable. All of the behind-the-scenes checks on electrical installations, and the upgrading of fire and intruder alarms and CCTV, were completed to schedule. The normal maintenance and surveying of a historic building has also been undertaken.

After a particularly wet June, we had a heatwave in the summer of 2022, which caused some problems with the early 17th-century ceiling in the High Hall. Cracking was noticed in a corner, which was monitored daily. Unfortunately, over a particularly hot weekend, some settlement occurred and we had to call on a ceilings expert to advise our plasterers on the best solution. However, as you can see below, it would be difficult to know now that the corner has been repaired.

Being given the opportunity to reopen House of the Binns to National Trust for Scotland members and other visitors is an amazing privilege. The house is steeped in history, and learning more about the Dalyell family and their roles in the development of Scotland and the United Kingdom is fascinating. The House of the Binns collection contains many interesting items, some of which have well-known histories and others that are less well known. Over the next few years, we will be creating new tours tailored to particular aspects of the Dalyell story and the collections. Recently, the first members to visit the house for several years enjoyed our new Collections Care tour, providing an insight into the different aspects of collection conservation that usually go unseen.

Keep an eye on our Events page for details of future tours

In addition to the house, the grounds are well worth a visit. The views are magnificent; on a clear day you can see as far as Ben Lomond in the west; across to the Trossachs and Fife in the north; and from Binns Hill (where the tower stands), the Forth Bridges, Pentland Hills and West Lothian. There are self-led walks that take in the tower, other significant points of interest and of course the flora and fauna. Depending on the time of year, you may see snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, meadow flowers and stunning autumn creepers. House of the Binns is well known for its peacocks, which can be found wandering the grounds near the house. You may also encounter hares, curlews, ravens and many other wildlife species.

For those wanting an organised walk, we run an annual Two Houses and a Castle walk in conjunction with the ranger services from nearby Hopetoun House and Blackness Castle. I will also be developing an annual events programme, resurrecting the popular Easter trail and organising talks on the history of the house and grounds later in the season.

As I write this in January 2023, the decoration of the dining room has yet to be completed, portraits are still wrapped in storage, and most of the collection is still packed away in boxes. We are beginning the process of recruiting and training seasonal staff and volunteers. There is still a huge amount of work to be completed, but the team is ready to focus all efforts on reopening in the spring.

We can’t wait to share our passion for the house, collection and stories with everyone.

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