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13 Jan 2022

Hidden secrets in our buildings

A view looking up and across a large manicured lawn to Culzean Castle. It is a bright sunny day.
Culzean Castle | Image credit: Ecos/Shutterstock
Clues to the lives of former residents can be found throughout the Trust’s castles and country houses. This story takes a look at a few fascinating examples.

Traces of tradespeople

Holmwood, Glasgow

Over the past three years, the Trust has undertaken a major project to redecorate Holmwood in accordance with Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s original designs. While our decorators were applying gold leaf to the cornice and ceiling in the drawing room, they uncovered what appear to be remnants of the original decorators’ materials. Stashed behind the wooden frieze were scrunched-up old gilding papers with tiny remnants of gold leaf still hanging on. We believe they date back to the mid-19th century. Curator Emma Inglis explains: ‘It almost sent shivers down my spine, because this was a tangible connection with when the house was first decorated.’ Some of the papers were taken away to be stored, but we’ve left the rest tucked away where we found them.

A view looking along the length of a grand drawing room to the large bay windows at the far end. The walls are wood panelled with blue and gold decoration. A large blue rug covers the floor. A leather sofa with carved wooden legs stands just inside the bay.
The drawing room at Holmwood | Image credit: Dougie Cunningham

Symbols in the plasterwork

House of Dun, Montrose

The remarkable 18th-century plasterwork in the saloon at House of Dun includes hidden Jacobite symbolism, hinting at the true political leanings of the home’s former owner. David Erskine, 13th Laird of Dun, was a senior judge working for the Hanoverian government but he was also a relative of Jacobite leader John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar. The plasterwork created by Joseph Enzer at House of Dun includes many symbolic images and motifs – from white roses to a depiction of Mars, the god of war, with his foot on the crown. Poseidon on his chariot is thought to represent the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland from over the seas.

A view of elaborately carved plasterwork on teal-blue walls in a grand drawing room in a country house. The panel above the fireplace features Mars with one foot resting upon a round crown. The plaster design continues onto the ceiling, where more classical scenes can be seen. An embroidered fireguard stands on the fireplace.
Plasterwork in the saloon at House of Dun

Stairs tucked into turrets

Culzean Castle, Ayrshire

‘One of my favourite hidden secrets is how architect Robert Adam used the little towers on the corners of Culzean Castle for service staircases,’ says curator Sarah Beattie. As a large estate, Culzean would have had hundreds of servants, and the ‘hidden’ staircases enabled those working in the castle to go about their tasks without using the main staircases with the owners. For example, the turret you see to the right of the front door as you look at the castle houses stairs leading up to the blue drawing room. ‘I initially assumed the turrets were purely decorative,’ says Sarah. ‘They’re actually really functional and offer a nice insight into life behind the public rooms.’

A view of the entrance to Culzean Castle. A large courtyard lies before it, with a wee semicircle of grass to the left. Wooden A board signs stand either side of the front door. Behind the entrance stands the castle, with its turrets and chimneys clearly visible.
The entrance to Culzean Castle

The subtlety of Mackintosh

The Hill House, Helensburgh

Like the owners of Culzean Castle, the Blackie family, who lived at the Hill House in Helensburgh at the start of the 20th century, would also have employed servants. Traditionally, the door leading from the servants’ area into the public rooms in houses such as this would have been insulated with green baize fabric to prevent noise and odours from travelling through. But not at the Hill House! As Visitor Services Assistant Alison McIntosh-Prentice explained in one of our recent members’ talks, ‘Mackintosh didn’t want to interrupt his flow of design and colour scheme, so he did not have a green baize door. Instead, the door was designed with a panel of stained-glass squares.’ Look closely and you’ll see that one stands out – four tiles up from the bottom on the right-hand side, a single tile is coloured green in a nod to the traditional design practice.

A hint of booze and bubbles

Pollok House, Glasgow

The wine cellar at Pollok House may have lain empty for decades but a faint smell of alcohol still lingers. The original metal wine racks remain in situ, as do the slate slabs in partitioned alcoves where we assume that bottles or barrels were once stacked. In the nearby corridor, an old SodaStream machine, about a metre high, is chained to the wall. ‘It’s got a big tank attached to it,’ explains curator Emma Inglis. ‘You would take your bottle of drink down there and carbonate it, and I think there are still some spare bottles in the wine cellar.’ We believe the SodaStream was installed in 1908, when Pollok House was extended to include the basement service corridor and service wings.

A view of the back of Pollok House on a bright day, with wide stone steps leading up to the parterre gardens directly outside the house. The house is a classic Georgian 'square' shape, with a small wing either side.
Pollok House

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