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15 May 2024

Malleny glasshouses renewed in major conservation projects

Written by Sarah Burnett
A lawn with a border of flower plants to the left and a greenhouse pictured at the back.
The restored Large Glasshouse and garden at Malleny, in their full glory, August 2023. Image: Neil Hanna
Loved by gardeners and visitors alike, the Malleny Garden glasshouses have been brought back into use by the Trust.

‘As any gardener will know, the usefulness of a greenhouse is limited only by your imagination. Even a small greenhouse helps make a garden more productive, and the Trust’s heritage greenhouses do the same thing. They’re a bit older, a bit bigger, a bit harder to maintain, but essentially do the same thing. Without them, Malleny Garden would not be where it is. Many of our plants will pass through the greenhouses in some way, and they also provide our gardeners with a useful space to get out of the weather to work, or sit and enjoy the plants.’

James Bell, Head Gardener at Malleny Garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is an inspiring advocate for having a greenhouse. However, he also knows the challenges of conserving heritage glasshouses such as the ones at Malleny, especially when they’re part of an A-listed property, have architectural and historic importance, and have endured the Scottish climate for well over a century.

Over the course of 2023–24, the Trust has completed a complex project to repair, maintain, conserve and redecorate two historic glasshouses at Malleny, involving substantial and skilled work to repair their brick plinth walls, replace decayed timber and renew glazing. The project to conserve the glasshouses, which are vital working buildings as well as part of the visited garden, has been made possible by support from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) through its Partnership Fund Grant and earlier Organisational Support Fund, as well as generous support received from the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA (NTSUSA).

The glasshouses at Malleny Garden are likely to date back to 1883–93, with both featuring in an 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Malleny. The Large Glasshouse is known to be designed by MacKenzie & Moncur, still has the M&M brass plaque above the door, and can be seen in its 1892 catalogue. The Small Greenhouse is also thought to be a MacKenzie & Moncur glasshouse, based on its style and similar designs in the catalogue.

Old archive image of a glasshouse interior packed with plants
Malleny greenhouse as it looked in 1989. (Photographer and copyright holder unknown)

Gardener James Bell continues: ‘Like most exterior wood, the wood in our greenhouses eventually needed repaired or replaced. While MacKenzie & Moncur will likely have offered some sort of guarantee on their work, it is unlikely they would have guaranteed the timber for 130 years of outdoor use!’

Given the extent of the work involved, the Trust split the project into two distinct phases, with work on the Large Glasshouse at Malleny taking place during the first half of 2023 and supported by the HES Organisational Support Fund, and work on the Small Glasshouse beginning in August 2023, thanks to the HES Partnership Fund and NTSUSA. Our charity engaged specialist surveyors Adams Napier Partnership to manage the works, which were undertaken by heritage contractors Crown Traditional Craftsmen.

Two women standing in front of a glasshouse under construction
Announcing the HES funding award at the Small Glasshouse, Sarah MacKinnon, Head of Buildings at the Trust (left) and Susan O’Connor, Head of Grants at HES (right). Image: Neil Hanna

Ashley Turner, the Trust’s Regional Buildings Surveyor, said: ‘We’re grateful to the team that delivered both projects, with a complex plan of work that included stripping out intrusive vegetation from the brick walling, raking out and repointing open joints, replacing decayed timber rafters, sills and glazing bars, replacing glazing, and finally redecorating. Care was taken to record the condition of each timber element and to faithfully replicate moulded profiles for replacement timber. All metal elements were carefully taken back to bare metal to be repaired and eventually reinstated in their original position and redecorated. Only where considered necessary and to improve the performance and longevity of the glasshouse were small adjustments made.

‘Among the historic features retained in the conservation project are the Small Glasshouse’s ventilation mechanism, whereby the entire roof apex can be lifted by pulling down a level inside the structure. We’re not aware of any other examples of this ventilation system in Scotland or elsewhere, potentially making it the only one of its kind.’

Ashley continued: ‘Glasshouses are key features within the gardens the National Trust for Scotland cares for, supporting the activities of the gardeners as well as being a focal point within the landscape. Often traditionally constructed from timber, they are particularly vulnerable to decay, therefore it is important that we look after them and undertake regular maintenance and implement regular programmes of repair, restoration and conservation to ensure that they survive for the enjoyment of future generations. In doing so, we’re contributing to the Trust’s objective, outlined in our 10-year Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone strategy, to stabilise and improve the condition of our heritage buildings and structures, ensuring their future and that of our collections and gardens.’

Lawn and flower beds with trees and glasshouse in background
Malleny Garden, with its 400-year-old yew trees and rose collections, is a wonderful place to escape the bustle of central Edinburgh.

With the glasshouse projects completed successfully, the gardeners at Malleny are excited to have full use of them again.

James explains: ‘Today, we use the Small Greenhouse for mostly the same purposes as they would have done 130 years ago – propagating new plants for the garden and for display in the Large Greenhouse, growing ornamental plants and a few vegetables, and over-wintering tender plants. It’s a vital support for the rest of the garden, and without it, managing Malleny Garden and its plant collection would certainly be much harder, and in some cases not possible.

‘We think the Large Glasshouse was built more for display purposes, to show off a little, rather than being a purely practical or productive greenhouse. Today too, we use the Large Glasshouse for the display of tender plants, as authentically as we can to how it would have been 130 years ago. It’s likely that it would have been used for pelargoniums/geraniums and other tender plants, so today we will still have a range of 19th-century cultivars of Pelargonium. We also have a new collection of Primula auricula cultivars, which are appropriate to when the greenhouse was built, and we will introduce a collection of Salvia x jamensis cultivars, which are modern but still follow the greenhouse’s heritage of displaying tender treasures.

‘The newly bought pelargoniums, primulas and salvias are made possible by a kind donation from our Edinburgh Members’ Centre to help restock the greenhouse with new and interesting plants, so we’re very grateful to them for their generosity, as well as to HES and NTSUSA for supporting this important project to protect the greenhouses and their heritage for future generations of Malleny visitors.’

In 2023, the Trust was awarded a three-year grant, totalling £1,062,000 of funding support, from Historic Environment Scotland’s Partnership Fund to allow us to conduct vital conservation work across our built heritage properties while gaining a deeper understanding of the structures and their requirements. Our charity will undertake a programme of conservation maintenance at numerous sites around the country, utilise technology to delve more deeply into our built structures, and invest in further training and skills development.

Find out more about the Historic Environment Scotland’s Partnership Fund

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