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20 Jul 2021

Our tenth decade begins

A young boy sits on his dad's shoulders as they walk down a castle driveway. The little boy is wearing a bright yellow coat with a fur hood.
‘The National Trust for Scotland serves the nation as a cabinet into which it can put some of its valuable things, where they will be perfectly safe for all time, and where they are open to be seen and enjoyed by everyone.’

These were the words of Sir John Stirling Maxwell at the Trust’s first AGM, just a year after our founding in May 1931. He clearly articulated our aim to safeguard Scotland’s cultural and natural treasures for the benefit of the nation.

Today, we are Scotland’s biggest membership organisation and custodians of 8 National Nature Reserves, more than 100 historic properties, 38 gardens and 300,000 precious objects.

‘Although the Trust’s activities have widened since Maxwell’s time, his principles remain at the core of everything we do,’ says Trust archivist Ian Riches. ‘Our founders would be amazed to see the breadth of our work today and the important part the Trust plays in Scotland’s identity.’

None of this would be possible without our members, and we are hugely grateful for all your support. To mark the National Trust for Scotland’s 90th birthday, join us now as we reflect on our pioneering work over the past nine decades and look forward to developing new ways to conserve, share and promote the places we all love – for the next decade and beyond.

A close-up of heather growing on the hillside in Glencoe. The sun shines brightly in the background.
Glencoe NNR

1930s

The National Trust for Scotland is born

Sir John Stirling Maxwell, owner of Glasgow’s Pollok House and surrounding estate, was one of a group of influential men who had advocated for the establishment of an organisation to preserve Scotland’s heritage, similar to but separate from England’s National Trust (which had been formed in 1895).

The National Trust for Scotland was officially founded on 1 May 1931, with the stated purpose of caring for and preserving ‘Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. Crookston Castle – famous for its connections to Mary, Queen of Scots and Robert Burns – became the first property in our care.

Through the 1930s, we acquired a number of properties, including Burg, Culross Palace, Gladstone’s Land and the birthplaces of Thomas Carlyle, Hugh Miller and J M Barrie.

With the support of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and its president Percy Unna, we acquired Glencoe in 1935; we’ve worked tirelessly ever since to care for its remarkable landscape, wildlife and paths.

And then just a couple of years later, in 1937, Alexander Munro of Leanach Farm presented the Trust with two areas of land on Culloden Battlefield (an ownership that would expand as we continued to grow), kickstarting our role in conserving this property that is so crucial to the story of the Jacobites.

A black and white photo of four people standing beside an old, very tall stone wall. A smartly dressed couple hand over a large key to a man wearing a long wool coat. In between them stands a boy wearing a kilt, who watches the ceremony.
Ceremony to gift the House of the Binns

1940s

The call for cultural conservation grows

The Second World War strengthened public belief in the importance of conserving Scotland’s heritage for future generations. By the war’s end, we were responsible for 40 natural and cultural heritage properties and had cemented our position as Scotland’s leading conservation charity.

Introduced in 1942, the Country House Scheme allowed owners of properties with historical or architectural significance to donate them directly to the Trust, enabling us to both conserve and provide public access to these buildings. Through this scheme, our first country house, House of the Binns in West Lothian, was gifted to the Trust by the Dalyell family in 1944.

One of our most-loved properties, Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, was donated to the Trust in 1945 by the 5th Marquess of Ailsa. He also asked that the top floor be gifted to General Eisenhower, to thank him for his role during the war. Eisenhower first visited Culzean in 1946 and stayed there four times, including once while US President.

Hill of Tarvit in Fife was bequeathed to the Trust in 1949. From 1951 the house’s upper floor was leased to the Marie Curie charity, which opened its first home for cancer patients here. It remained a Marie Curie Home until 1977.

A view of Hirta in St Kilda, with the ruined remains of roundhouses in the foreground. Steep cliffs drop down to the blue sea in the distance.
St Kilda | image: Martin Payne / Shutterstock

1950s

Protecting Scotland’s natural heritage

Ben Lawers, our first property acquired primarily for nature conservation reasons, has a wealth of arctic-alpine plants, including many species rarely found in the UK. Since assuming the care of Ben Lawers in 1950, we’ve made it our mission to protect its unique natural heritage. In 1975, it was declared a National Nature Reserve. Our pioneering work here includes restoring montane willow scrub, conserving peat bog and expertly maintaining the mountain footpaths to control erosion.

From the central Highlands we head to Scotland’s most isolated island archipelago: St Kilda. In 1957 we took on responsibility for safeguarding these incredible islands. Around 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda is home to nearly a million seabirds, including the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins. But the human history is equally significant. The last members of the St Kildan community were evacuated on 29 August 1930, their way of life no longer sustainable. Our responsibility extends to ensuring their stories are never forgotten.

In 2005, St Kilda became the UK’s first dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its natural and cultural importance.

A view of the mercat cross in the centre of the village of Culross. The town square has cobblestones and is surrounded by white painted buildings with crow-stepped gables.
Some of the characterful buildings in Culross | image: Kraft-Stoff / Shutterstock

1960s

Little Houses; skilled gardeners

When buildings in Culross were designated for slum clearance in the 1930s, the fragile community of this historic Fife burgh was under threat. A campaign to rescue its old houses and preserve the village’s historical character began in 1932, the same year that the Trust bought Culross Palace.

Evolving from our early conservation work in the former royal burgh, we launched the Little Houses Improvement Scheme in 1960. This focused on restoring houses while retaining their period features, and then selling them on as homes to raise funds for the next project. Without this scheme, the character of Culross might have been lost forever. In total, more than 165 buildings across Scotland today have been restored under the scheme.

Our activities were certainly diversifying.

Also in 1960, we established the School of Heritage Gardening at Threave, for students of horticulture looking to learn both the theory and practice of gardening. Led by our garden experts, the School’s training programme sees students work in Threave’s grounds, glasshouses and walled garden, as well as visit other properties in our care to develop the skills needed for a successful career in horticulture.

Read more about the School of Heritage Gardening

A view of Kellie Castle in Fife, with the flower-filled gardens in the foreground.
Kellie Castle

1970s

Membership grows

This decade saw the National Trust for Scotland take on some remarkable historic buildings for the nation, beginning in 1970 with Kellie Castle, home of the artistic Lorimer family.

Under the management of the Trust’s Director Jamie Stormonth Darling, we also took over the care of Castle Fraser, Drum Castle and Haddo House in Aberdeenshire; Priorwood Garden in Melrose; and Greenbank Garden in Glasgow.

The Robert Adam-designed townhouses at numbers 5 to 7 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh had come to the Trust via the National Land Fund in 1966. Following careful restoration of the interior, we opened No. 7 to the public in 1975 as the Georgian House, a vibrant new tourist attraction that enabled visitors to immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the former inhabitants. Crucially, the Georgian House gives an insight into those who lived ‘below stairs’ as well as those above.

In 1979, the Trust acquired the Isle of Iona, where our archaeologists have since uncovered some fascinating artefacts from the island’s past.

None of this would have been possible without the Trust’s membership, which trebled in the 1970s to a total of more than 100,000 members.

An exterior view of the Hill House in Helensburgh, shown at the top of the garden lawn. Large trees and shrubs surround the garden,
The Hill House

1980s

Hello to the Hill House

Heralded as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic masterpiece, almost every element of the Hill House in Helensburgh was designed by the architect and his wife Margaret Macdonald. The property came into the care of the Trust in 1982; soon afterwards we embarked upon extensive restoration work following serious leaks in the roof. The north gable was rebuilt and the exterior was repainted in its original grey; interior wall decorations were also preserved and replicated to complete the scheme. We redeveloped the garden as well, in line with the style favoured by large houses at the beginning of the 20th century.

Another unique place that came into our care during this decade is Robert Smail’s Printing Works, the oldest commercial letterpress printers still in operation in the UK. Parts of the business, including some of the presses, date back to the Victorian era, and we decided to keep it as a working printing press. Found in Innerleithen in the Borders, the building gives an insight into Scotland’s industrial past – such as its archive of 52 giant guard books (showing a copy of every item printed between 1876 and 1956) and the caseroom that reveals the intricacies of the art of typesetting, with over 400 cases of type.

In 1989 our then-patron, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, officially opened House of Dun in Montrose to the public.

Find out more about our recent conservation work at House of Dun

Pine trees grow either side of a wide river, that flows over a rocky drop.
Pine trees at Mar Lodge Estate

1990s

Conserving the Cairngorms

The National Trust for Scotland took over Mar Lodge Estate in 1995. This spectacular area of land includes four of the five highest mountains in the UK and a rich wealth of Scottish wildlife. As it was our largest countryside property, we wanted to share our plans with our membership (now 200,000-strong), so we produced two special inserts in our members’ magazine and held an open day to explain how our conservation work would benefit the estate.

We soon began efforts to regenerate the native Caledonian woodland and to protect the populations of black grouse and capercaillie. Mar Lodge Estate is one of the most important areas for nature conservation in Britain, and in 2017 it was awarded National Nature Reserve status – becoming the largest NNR in the UK.

A view of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum seen from the grassy area in front of the entrance porch. Colourful panels adorn the walls.
The new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

2000s

Sharing Scotland’s stories

On Wednesday 16 April 2008, the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, we officially opened our beautiful new visitor centre at the battlefield site, making the legacy of Culloden accessible to an ever-widening audience.

Meanwhile, plans were underway to celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s Bard at the dynamic new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, which opened to the public on St Andrew’s Day in 2010. Succeeding the Burns National Heritage Park, the museum brought together all of the Alloway sites, including Burns Cottage, Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig o’ Doon, allowing visitors to follow in Burns’s footsteps, see objects from his life and hear his stories.

We continue to share Robert Burns’s legacy, most recently through the Burns Big Night In, which brought his poetry to life via talented contemporary performers, reaching people all over the world.

Royal patron

HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay has been the Trust’s patron since 2003 and takes a close interest in our conservation work across Scotland.

Two people stand beside a tapestry on a tall wooden stand. One measures the width of the tapestry with a tape measure; the other takes notes on a notepad.
Members of the Project Reveal team cataloguing our treasures

2010s

Digitisation and innovation

In July 2017 we launched Project Reveal, cataloguing and photographing our collections of objects, so we can share more of their stories in events, publications and online.

Sadly, we also became aware that one of our most beloved properties was in need of urgent care. With invaluable financial support from members and donors, the Hill House conservation programme enclosed Mackintosh’s iconic building in a large steel ‘box’, which will act as a drying room while conservationists repair the water-damaged exterior walls. Walkways around the box allow visitors to see conservation in action while viewing the Hill House from never-before-seen heights!

Red squirrel jumping across a tree in Crathes Castle Estate
Red squirrel

2020s and beyond

An exciting future

Throughout our 90-year history, the National Trust for Scotland has evolved to meet the challenges of each decade. Now, as we look forward to our first centenary in May 2031, we have an exciting opportunity to contribute to Scotland’s future.

The tumultuous events of 2020 demonstrated how quickly situations can change, but they’ve also shown how precious our natural and cultural places are to us all. We need to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, Scotland’s invaluable heritage is protected for generations to come.

As the country’s largest conservation charity, we have a vital role to play in the national effort to tackle climate change and threats to biodiversity. We also want our heritage to be accessible and relevant to more people than ever, and are making plans to offer new participation opportunities, so everyone can enjoy and learn from our national treasures.

As we enter our 10th decade, we are ambitious about what the Trust can do to benefit Scotland’s society if we take a brave and creative approach to the future. Over the months ahead, we will take time to conduct research and gather ideas. We want to take this journey alongside our members – so sign up for email updates and watch this space!

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