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7 Apr 2022

Seagrass and fish glue: principal practices at Culross

Written by Lesley Scott ACR, Conservation Advisor (Edinburgh & East)
A lady wearing a face covering uses a small tool to make repairs to a carved wooden headboard of a bed.
We employ traditional practices and materials to maintain and care for our historic interiors and collections at Culross Palace.

Culross Palace, with its orange pantile roof and rich yellow ochre lime-washed walls, is one of the Trust’s earliest acquired properties, purchased in 1932. Only a short trip from Edinburgh, it transports you to a time of artisans, industry and trading by sea. The tiny rooms and painted interiors wonderfully evoke 17th-century Scotland, but they require a sympathetic and considered approach to their care and maintenance. We often find ourselves looking to the materials and techniques that were applied in past centuries.

This winter, we turned our attention to the floor matting in some of the rooms. Fitted decades ago, it was designed to mimic the kind of floor mats Sir George Bruce and his family would have used in the early 17th century. However, the seagrass had become worn, torn and was coming away from the walls. It was slowly unravelling, and we were concerned it would become a trip hazard.

With over seven rooms to re-floor, we decided to approach the project in two phases – the main rooms of the Palace took priority. We have a four-post bed on loan from the National Museums of Scotland (NMS), which is in the Bedchamber for the Principal Stranger. As the bed would have to be moved to allow the flooring to be laid, we decided to simultaneously carry out the conservation recommendations of NMS consultant furniture conservator Sarah Gerrish.

The upper section of an ornately carved wooden four-post bed in Culross Palace. In the background, a lady is standing looking up at it.
The wooden four-post bed in the Bedchamber for the Principal Stranger at Culross Palace | Image by kind permission of National Museums Scotland

First things first! After packing and decanting the furniture from the three rooms, we had to carefully move the fragile (but very heavy) bed. This enabled Alisdair Flynn, a traditional upholsterer and interior furnisher based in Edinburgh, to remove the old matting and fit the new flooring. ‘It’s not every day that you receive a call from the palace’ recalled Alisdair after Culross staff contacted him to enquire whether he might be able to help supply and fit new seagrass matting.

At first, we thought we should dismantle the bed to facilitate work in the space, but on closer inspection it was determined by Sarah that it would be safer for the bed to be kept complete, to minimise risk of damage to its large canopy. This meant that our regular removal company needed to move the bed in such a sequence, over a couple of weeks, that allowed Alisdair to lift the old matting, prepare the floor and fit the new matting.

However, upon lifting the first piece of old matting, he was immediately presented with the challenge of removing decades-old hardened glue.

“The previous seagrass installer had, in a moment of madness, applied glue directly onto the floor boards … in a ‘pretty’ swirling pattern which had to be removed; perhaps he had been inspired by the fabulous ceiling artwork?!”
Alisdair Flynn
Traditional interior furnisher
A man stands in a wood-panelled room at Culross Palace, rolling out a large roll of new seagrass matting to cover the floor. He wears a head torch as the room is very dim.

Working on one half of the room at a time, Alisdair had to adapt to the challenges of working in a 400-year-old coal and salt merchant’s house. Nothing seemed to dampen his enthusiasm, even when Storm Arwen arrived in late November, seemingly finding every opening of the dwelling’s loosely fitted windows and draughty doors.

Scraper at the ready, he gently removed the old adhesive from the floor surface and revealed some fine looking Douglas fir floorboards. They are not ancient – perhaps from the 1930s – but they were beautifully laid out by some long-forgotten highly skilled carpenters.

We had briefed Alisdair that we needed to ensure the new matting was easy to lift and relay, to allow for Collections Care Supervisor Kirsty Redmonds and her team to monitor the floorboards for any pest activity, most notably woodworm. We certainly didn’t want more glue, which is not a recommended conservation treatment in 2022. We also didn’t want permanent fixings securing the matting around the edge of the room. As the new matting shrinks over time and footfall creates movement, it was important to find a way of fixing the flooring into place. Alisdair devised a series of removable brass carpet pins and he taught the staff how to remove and replace them swiftly and safely. He worked for 20 days straight to complete the work – fitting into a schedule of moving collections and putting the property ‘to bed’ for the season.

Alisdair remarked that he was certainly hindered by the cold and lack of natural daylight whilst working during the winter – additional task lighting is a Collections Care ‘must’ in order to see what you are doing in the small windowed Palace. But he was warmed by the thought of how these rooms would have been in the time of Sir George, when he and his family lived and worked in the Palace. A roaring fire would certainly have created a comforting heat in this unique property.

Work on the four-post bed, which had been wrapped and protected during the flooring works and placed in the centre of the room, could now begin. Sarah checked it over for any loose areas of inlaid wood on the headboard. She noticed that some areas of old glue had failed and dried out. To prevent these pieces from falling out, she carefully eased them out as she meticulously scrapped away the old adhesive and then reattached the pieces into the centuries-old wooden panels using fish glue.

“[Fish glue is] very forgiving, it’s completely reversible and it’s traditional; it’s what they would have used. Other hide glues I have had to use warmed, but this can be used cold, which is better for the object.”
Sarah Gerrish
Furniture conservator
The upper section of an ornately carved wooden four-post bed in Culross Palace. In the background, a lady is standing looking up at it.
A lady works on a section of an ornately carved wooden headboard. She has taped a number of inlaid sections into place.
Sarah reattached loose inlaid sections on the headboard. | Image by kind permission of National Museums Scotland

Over two days, assisted by ICON Bute intern Victoria Herbert, who was consolidating weak areas previously ravaged by woodworm, the bed was cleaned; large unstable cracks were filled and toned in using pigments; and the inlaid wood was re-adhered. Having painted on some wax, Sarah and Victoria finished off by gently buffing the wood surface before the bed was put back in place and redressed with its crewelwork curtains and cover.

Our winter conservation activities have used the skills of trained craftspeople, employing traditional methods alongside modern materials, on both the four-post bed and seagrass matting. This approach serves the end purpose well but also keeps true to the visual feel of a bygone age, is suitable for a property of this age, and aligns with the overall conservation principles of the Trust.

Protect Our Places, Protect Our History

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