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4 Feb 2022

Restoration of Scottish castles

Written by Rheanna-Marie Hall
A view of Drum Castle on a sunny day, with bright blue sky behind. The ancient, square stone tower is to the left, with the Jacobean section to the right. Tall trees can be seen behind the castle.
Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire
Castle restoration is a popular topic, and it’s something people like to ask about when it comes to the places in our care. However, is restoration the right word for the work we do? Find out here, discover our projects, and go behind the scenes with a chartered surveyor.

Restoration or conservation?

When talking about caring for historical buildings, it can be confusing to know what the right term to use is. There’s restoration... preservation... conservation... and what about renovation?

In terms of castles, ‘restoration’ is a popular term and it leads to a lot of popular questions: How do we restore old buildings? What is castle restoration? What are restoration methods and techniques?

However, when we talk about caring for our castles and properties, the word we use most of the time is ‘conservation’. Broadly speaking, restoration is focused on returning something to a former condition. Conservation, on the other hand, involves the protection and care of the object, in order to keep it in good condition. It’s a more inclusive term which defines all activity required to protect – which is why we describe our work as conservation rather than restoration.

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“[Historical buildings] are fundamental to Scotland’s identity. They mean so much to us and evoke such powerful senses of place.”
Sarah MacKinnon
Head of Building Surveying (Operations)

Conservation of buildings

Properties of all sizes undergo large (and small!) conservation projects, from repairing the waterwheel at Preston Mill, to erecting the Hill House Box. Here are some examples of the current and upcoming conservation projects that are happening at our castles.

  • The Fyvie Guardians – The 20 stone figures, ranging from musicians and sports players to soldiers and majestic beasts, that stand watch on the rooftop of Fyvie Castle are in a fragile and unstable condition. This is largely due to the many years of Scottish weather that the castle’s vibrant red sandstone has been exposed to. Urgent work is now needed, which will see the Guardians taken down from the roof and conserved by highly skilled specialists.
A stone carving of a man blowing a hunting horn perches on top of a castle turret, beside a pink-harled stone chimney.
One of the Fyvie Guardians
  • The parapet of Brodick Castle – There is a flat stone parapet at roof level in Brodick Castle that lets the water seep through the stone to the rooms below. Over the next two years, we’ll remove areas of cement mortar and replace them with a lime mortar, which will help to let the castle ‘breathe’ and begin to dry out.
  • Falkland Palace statues – Statues from the South Range of Falkland Palace were removed for urgent conservation treatment due to the deterioration of the stonework, as well as damage caused by masonry bees (a type of bee that can burrow and nest in walls). The work involved pinning the cracks and filling the more severe delamination with resin to prevent further decay.

Watch the video: Conserving 500-year-old statues at Falkland Palace

  • Reharling Craigievar Castle – The distinctive, fairytale colour of Craigievar Castle’s pink façade comes from the limewashed harling (a lime-based coating used to protect the stonework underneath). Sections of harling at the top of the tower – which are exposed to the harsh Scottish weather – have become cracked due to water ingress. We need to reapply and repair the harling at the top of the building and then re-limewash the castle to maintain its colour, as well as keep it watertight.
  • The Falkland Palace tapestries – Adorning the walls of the Long Gallery at Falkland Palace are six magnificent 17th-century Flemish tapestries. Further conservation work was planned after they were sent to Belgium for a necessary cleaning treatment to restore the colours. There were areas of the tapestries where the sections of silk threads had weakened, and could no longer support themselves. Textile conservator Sophie Younger applied net patches to the weak sections, by pinning the net onto the tapestry, then stitching it in place. This delicate work has ensured that the tapestries will be able to support their own weight once more.

Read the full story: Stitching the past, the tale of the Falkland tapestries

  • Topiary yew hedges at Crathes Castle – Hedge regeneration is a process that requires patience! The oldest parts of the yew hedges at Crathes date back to 1702, and their appearance is striking. It’s now 20 years since the first works were carried out to restore them: after years of planning from 1995–2000, the first phase of the restoration was undertaken in 2001. Now, the hedge faces that were cut are nearly completely regrown so it’s time to move on to the other sections of hedge that need regenerating.

Read the full story: Restoration of the topiary yew hedges at Crathes Castle

Bird’s-eye view looking down on a lawn with large topiary yew hedges to the right.
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“Carrying out routine, planned maintenance work is an essential aspect of conserving our built heritage. The intention is to catch a defect and repair it before it causes damage to the building and to keep all areas of the building in good working order.”
Annie Robertson
Chartered Surveyor, Aberdeenshire & Angus

Castle maintenance

When we talk about conserving our castles, it’s not just about large-scale projects. Our castles undergo regular and routine maintenance, depending on the type of care.

As Chartered Surveyor Annie Robertson explains: ‘[Castle maintenance] encompasses all areas of the building, from the roof and walls to the internal services and below ground drainage. Planned maintenance can include cleaning out gutters, fixing slipped slates, repointing or limewashing walls and painting windows, as well as engaging with specialist conservators to deal with material issues relating to stonework or painted decoration for example. We also carry out conservation work to features of the interior, particularly those of significance such as fireplaces, panelling and painted decoration.’

Then there’s the day-to-day interior maintenance which is part of the conservation of our castles, typically done by our visitor services teams and volunteers:

  • Humidity and temperature are constantly being monitored at our properties: historical buildings and the objects inside of them can be damaged by extreme (and sometimes not so extreme) changes in both, so it’s important the rooms are kept within specific levels.
  • Our historical buildings are also monitored for bugs. Sticky trap checks for insect paths are undertaken every three months at Trust properties. Pests can cause many problems, such as by chewing delicate surfaces. They can also be hard to spot until there is significant damage, so it’s important to be vigilant and check properties and collections regularly.
  • A deep clean encompasses absolutely everything in a property – from the books and pictures to the intricate plasterwork. In our castles this means a lot of careful work, especially when they are home to a large collection. There are also considerations of high-ceilinged rooms, or large and heavy pieces of furniture: in some cases it’s necessary to put up scaffolding, and bring in specialist removers for some of the objects. At Kellie Castle, for example, a complete deep clean is done on a five-year cycle. This is because the castle has no storage space, so furniture has to be shifted from one room to another while cleaning takes place.

Read more: discover the deep clean at some of our castles

The deep clean kit including conservation vacuum and soft gloves

Several of our castles also undergo a closedown during the quiet winter months. Properties that are ‘put to bed’ have their furniture and collections specially protected. This can include packing away smaller items in acid-free tissue, rolling up carpets, closing shutters, and putting sheets over the furniture.

Watch now: Putting Kellie Castle to bed

Behind the scenes

With Annie Robertson, Chartered Surveyor, Aberdeenshire & Angus

‘It’s important to conserve our heritage structures as they form a huge part of our cultural identity and they link us to our ancestors and who we are. They tell the stories of our past, and the role the Trust plays to safeguard and allow access to share these special places is essential to their survival. A lot of my work isn’t very glamorous and involves talking about roofs and drains! It’s all essential in caring for our places however, and it does give you the opportunity to see up close the craftsmanship of our places. I get the ‘sky tour’ of a lot of properties thanks to cherrypicker inspections.

In recent months I have been working on a project to deal with water management to the 13th-century Old Tower of Drum. The open wall walk at the head of the castle provides a constant battle to keep the structure dry, and in light of climate change predictions we are currently looking at bolder interventions to manage the problem. We are currently planning for a large project to limewash and patch repair harling at Craigievar Castle, which is challenging given limitations on access to high level areas. I am also working on the repair of the 1898 concrete fountain at Haddo House, repair of the lean-to structure at Leith Hall, the conservation of armorial panels at Castle Fraser, as well as lots of projects which involve working with stonemasons to care for masonry walls.

I also have a major project at Fyvie Castle, which is to address the condition of the carved and ornate stonework around the building as well as fabric repairs such as roof repairs, timber repairs and external decoration. This also includes understanding structural defects to the property and we are embarking on a two-year monitoring programme before we can make any decisions about the future work required. The work we do is hugely varied and no two days are the same!

I have been very lucky in my career to have worked on some amazing conservation projects, on everything from castles and tower houses, to Palladian mansions, water mills, cottages, bridges, and structural features in designed landscapes.

One of my favourite projects with the Trust was to repair the clock tower at Haddo House. The clock itself – by Gilet, Bland & Co and dated to 1879 – was no longer operable as the movement had seized and the dials were in a poor condition and could not be read. We engaged with a specialist horologist and the movement was taken away to be repaired and serviced. The dials were repaired and repainted and through historic paint analysis they were returned to their original colour which was a beautiful deep blue. The numbering on the clock had previously been painted with gold paint which had dulled. The numerals were redone using gold leaf which catch the light and can be easier read from the ground. We also got the bell working – much to the annoyance of the residents of the estate!

I also enjoy getting access to spaces that very few people get to see, under floors and in lofts where you can find some hidden gems such as graffiti. One of my best finds was in the plastered shaft of a lightwell at Haddo (so above the glass). It was accessed by a small door in an area of the loft which was very difficult to get to and involved traversing areas of the roof structure. Inside the lightwell I found lots of signatures from the tradespeople who had accessed the space to work on Haddo over the years, some of them dating to 1880 when the wing was refurbished.’