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2 Nov 2022

Crathes painted ceilings project: successfully completed

Conservator Karen Dundas explains the complexities and highlights of the Crathes ceilings project.


We are in the process of consolidating paint to make sure that it's secure. Consolidating the plaster on the frieze for decoration that dates back to around about 1600. Just to make sure that everything is in really good condition and is stable and will survive for longer.

We had to consider -- mostly for the other spaces in the castle which had been over-painted by the Victorians -- we had to take into account that we've got two different paint layers and think about how they differ, whether they differ, understand how they can be treated and whether it's possible to use the same materials for both.

It's amazing, in that it's one of the few buildings that still has decoration from the Scottish Renaissance intact. All down the east coast of Scotland, there are bits and pieces of this kind of decoration. Crathes is one of the few survivals, and the Trust are amazingly lucky because they've got quite a few properties like Gladstone's Land in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile and Culross Palace in Fife, where decoration from this era still survives.

I think exciting things like finding orpiment, which is a pigment that would have been used in special situations where somebody has got quite a bit of money. It's arsenic sulfide, so it's quite poisonous. But it is amazing because you can't tell it's there. It looks a bit grey-white. And then when you've consolidated it and the surface is cleaned a little bit, you see the yellow and that's exciting. Finding remains of decoration that pre-dates the early decoration is exciting.

People are fascinated and it's really great to be able to discuss what you're doing. It's been a real experience explaining to the public about what we do and how we're conserving the ceilings and we're not over-painting them. We are making sure they're secure, making sure the decoration survives as long as it possibly can, and that the Trust are caring for the decoration in the property.

A painstaking conservation project on the historic painted walls and ceilings at the 16th-century Crathes Castle is now complete.

We were able to successfully complete this essential conservation work thanks to a £250,000 Annual Repair Grant funded by Historic Environment Scotland (HES). Crathes Castle is one of the few places in the country that has intact original decoration from the Scottish Renaissance.

The grant enabled us to consolidate the painted ceilings at Crathes to protect their beauty for future generations. Conservation experts also analysed samples of the original paint to enrich our existing knowledge of materials, pigments, techniques and the castle’s evolution. In addition, the HES grant will support other conservation-standard repair projects at National Trust for Scotland properties over the coming year.

Karen Dundas, Accredited Wall Painting Conservator, said: ‘The work that we have done at Crathes was an extremely delicate procedure as we’re dealing with over 400 years of history and various levels of intervention.’

“In spaces where early decoration survives unaltered, it was thrilling to see original designs and colours come to life as we very carefully secured and cleaned the paintings to reinstate their full glory.”
Karen Dundas
Accredited Wall Painting Conservator

Standing against a backdrop of rolling hills and set beside glorious gardens, Crathes Castle is every inch the classic Scottish tower house. Built by Alexander Burnett in the 16th century, it was the home of the Burnett family for over 350 years. But the family’s roots in Aberdeenshire go back even further, to 1323 when Robert the Bruce granted them nearby land. He is also said to have gifted them the Horn of Leys, which takes pride of place over the fireplace in the castle’s Great Hall.

The painted ceilings date back to the beginning of the 17th century and demand constant conservation due to the combined impacts of fluctuating humidity and temperature, seasonal movement of timbers as well as operating as a popular visitor attraction. The conservation project on the painted walls and ceilings, carried out as part of our ten-year Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone strategy, helps to provide visitors with an engaging and authentic experience as they explore the history of Crathes Castle.

Amy Eastwood, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, said: ‘We are delighted to continue our long-established funding relationship with the National Trust for Scotland through the Annual Repair Grant and see the great work constantly being done to preserve some of the country’s most iconic sites. Scotland’s heritage assets bring a whole host of benefits to local communities, from boosting economies to increasing wellbeing. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the works carried out by the Trust over the next 12 months at these properties that have been part of shaping Scotland’s story.’

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