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2 Oct 2020

Scent at Gladstone’s Land

Written by Clara Weale, scent designer
A photograph of a dark corner of an old kitchen. A wooden armchair sits beside a stone fireplace with various pots and pans beside it. Utensils hang on the wall behind the chair.
​In autumn/winter 2019 we put together a new interpretive programme. Experiencing Collections was a series of experimental interventions at six properties (Brodie Castle, Culzean Castle, Gladstone’s Land, Haddo House, Kellie Castle and Pollok House), devised and produced by six different creative practitioners working in collaboration with our operational teams, curators and conservators.

The idea behind the Experiencing Collections project was to develop, produce and, importantly, to test new techniques and interventions that could inspire and engage our visitors.

At Gladstone’s Land, we decided to explore the property through the evocative yet under-explored sense of smell. Clara Weale, a scent designer who works with both personal and environmental scent, led the project. Through working with the team and volunteers, and taking feedback from visitors, she developed a series of scents and odours that added a subtle enhancement to the property, enabling the guides to tell some of the stories through smell.

Located at the top of the Royal Mile, Gladstone’s Land represented a highly desirable place to live in 17th-century Edinburgh. During this time, the streets of the city were essentially open sewers, with residents flinging waste out of the windows with the warning call of ‘gardyloo!’. Ideally, you would want to be living at the top of the hill, like the inhabitants of Gladstone’s Land, rather than towards the bottom where the waste would flow.

There is no doubt that these ‘bad smells’ – human waste, rot etc – are highly entertaining for younger visitors especially, and if used correctly can greatly enhance the telling of stories. On the other hand, the ‘novelty’ factor of them is perhaps not something that always feels appropriate. We decided to incorporate the use of these scents only within a controlled tour setting, contained in a jar. The scent of an ‘open grave’ was created for use during Halloween tours, which focused on Edinburgh’s history of body-snatching.

Two young boys grimace as they smell an open small bottle. The label of the bottle reads: Open Grave. One boy holds the stopper out in front of him.
Experiencing some 17th-century scents!

It would be easy to focus on this malodorous history, but (to be blunt) there is nothing new or insightful about how the content of a chamber pot smelled! We know that the inhabitants of Gladstone’s Land were wealthy people, so what might they have done to ensure their domestic environment represented a sanctuary from the street? We began a process of research, participatory design and formulation to create a scent for the Painted Chamber that would act both as an atmospheric addition, setting the tone, and as a cue for storytelling.

Desk research into contemporary scent practices was undertaken, which revealed a recipe for Scottish hand water (thyme, lavender and rosemary). It also highlighted other ‘functional’ herbs: lady’s bedstraw (used to stuff mattresses) and southernwood (used to protect clothing from insects.)

Three women hold a large wooden bowl. Two of them are smelling scented sticks from it. One is smiling, the other is grimacing!
Different scents bring to mind a range of associations. | Image: Tiu Makkonen

We then held a workshop with the team at Gladstone’s Land. Participants handled dried herbs, crushing them with a pestle and mortar and sharing memories as they arose. Each herb was introduced individually, with information about their historical uses and how they related to Gladstone’s Land. Lavender proved to be a divisive scent – pleasant to many of the older participants but too ‘strong’ or ‘old fashioned’ for some of the younger noses present. This provided a great opportunity to talk about the associations, cultural and personal, that are part of scent.

The final blend created featured large quantities of lady’s bedstraw (a sweet, soft, tonka bean, fresh hay-type odour), thyme and rosemary (both historically popular as scents and also for their antibacterial properties), with smaller amounts of lavender and southernwood. From this dried herb blend a tincture was created – the herbs were placed in an equal amount of alcohol and infused for a period of several weeks.

The tincture was then used as one of the ingredients in a scent that was diffused into the Painted Chamber. This scent is not a faithful reconstruction of how exactly the room might have smelled during the 17th century – but it was designed to ‘colour in’ some character for the room and to act as a catalyst for conversation.

A close-up of a standing lady, gently pulling a decorative curtain towards her face and smelling it. She smiles.
The scented bed curtain at Gladstone’s Land

Within the Painted Chamber at Gladstone’s Land is a beautiful four-poster bed. It looks very inviting, so much so that the team have to work hard to keep people from sitting on it! The curtains surrounding the bed are part of the supporting collection and we thought that, by scenting these, we could create an alternative way for interacting with this piece of furniture.

The ‘Scented Bed’ offered an opportunity to play with the tension between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ smells. Human and sweaty scents were explored, in combination with rich heritage perfumery materials (ambergris, musk and resins) to create an impression of a bed slept in by the wealthy former inhabitants of Gladstone’s Land. This water-based scent was sprayed daily onto the curtains and a nearby basket of fabric scraps.

Read more about the Experiencing Collections tours at Gladstone’s Land

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