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1 Nov 2019

The deep clean

Written by Emily Rodway
Volunteer mothbusters wearing specialist back-mounted vacuum cleaners at Newhailes House. They hold the nozzles pointed at the ceiling.
Our team of volunteers tackling the moths at Newhailes.
Some of our properties are closed to the public in winter – but that doesn’t mean the work there comes to a halt. Staff and volunteers take the opportunity to deep clean the buildings and their contents, check for any damage or pest issues, and cover up the collections in order to conserve them for the future.

Cleaning Craigievar Castle

‘The two-person Craigievar team start right at the top of the castle and work their way down, cleaning everything carefully and thoroughly,’ explains Visitor Services Supervisor John Lemon.

The team use soft brushes and conservation-grade vacuum cleaners to remove dust from the castle’s collection of artefacts, as well as specialist waxes to restore shine and prevent damage. While they’re up close to these precious objects, they examine their condition carefully. ‘We particularly look out for beetle or woodworm attacks,’ says John. ‘If we find any new activity we take action immediately, for example injecting new flight holes in structural timbers with insecticide to help control pest activity.’

Most of Craigievar’s furniture and artefacts are left in situ during the shutdown, protected against dust and damage from sunlight by specialist waterproof and breathable Tyvek fabric covers.

In total, putting the castle to bed takes two people around four weeks. Then, throughout the winter, John will visit at least three days a week to check the humidity and temperature levels and make sure the castle is safe and secure.

A former volunteer with the Trust, John Lemon is devoted to his job, which he took on in 2016 after coming out of retirement. Occasionally, he has to use cross-country skis to get to Craigievar in challenging winter conditions, and in January 2018 he ended up spending four nights sleeping at the castle, after a small fire took out the intruder alarm. Now, that’s dedication.

A room in Craigievar Castle with almost every item of furniture wrapped in white sheets.
A wrapped-up Craigievar!

Carefully does it at Kellie Castle

Giving Kellie Castle a complete deep clean takes five seasons of winter shutdowns. Conservation volunteer and guide Elizabeth Bracher, a retired nurse, coordinates the activity every year, overseeing a team of staff and volunteers who work methodically from room to room. Like John at Craigievar, Elizabeth has received the George Waterston Award from the Trust for her efforts.

A new five-year cycle of deep cleaning starts at Kellie this winter. The castle has no storage space, so furniture has to be shifted from one room to another while cleaning takes place. The deep clean encompasses absolutely everything – from books and textiles to the ceiling plasterwork. ‘The main drawing room and dining room at Kellie are enormous,’ says Elizabeth. ‘We have to put up scaffolding and bring in specialist furniture removers for some of the very big objects.’

The collection at Kellie differs from that at many of the Trust’s castles in that the majority of the artefacts are relatively modern. Its most recent residents were the sculptor Hew Lorimer and his wife Mary, who took over the lease in the 1930s and had to furnish the castle from scratch as its former contents had been auctioned off.

‘There are lots of modern fabrics at Kellie Castle,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But one of the most interesting things about deep cleaning and putting the house to bed is that you’re handling examples of other people’s creativity. We see how things have been done – at Kellie there are drawing pins and safety pins holding some items together. Mary Lorimer furnished the house in a time of austerity, so she just did the best she could.’

No double the castle’s former residents would be impressed by the dedication of Elizabeth Bracher and her team, who undertake everything from sewing bespoke Tyvek covers for the furniture to climbing the scaffolding to inspect the ornate plaster ceilings (although, having had a hip replacement, Elizabeth admits she won’t be swinging from the rafters!)

The drawing room at Kellie Castle, with a decorative plaster ceiling and several rugs on the wooden floor. There is a fireplace with a screen at the far end of the room. A piano stands to the left.
The beautiful drawing room (formerly the Great Hall) at Kellie Castle

A big Christmas at Brodick

In recent years there’s been a surge in visitor numbers to Arran, which, under two hours from Glasgow by rail and ferry, is one of Scotland’s most accessible islands. Following a particularly busy summer season, the Operations Manager at Brodick Castle, Dr Jared Bowers, has decided this year to keep the castle open right through to Sunday 22 December. During the final month before the winter shutdown, the castle will host special Christmas events and will be decked out in seasonal finery.

There are some special considerations to take into account when decorating a building as old and important as Brodick Castle. ‘If you bring in a Christmas tree or a pile of logs, you’re potentially bringing in hibernating insects, which will then warm up and start wandering around the property,’ warns the Trust’s national preventive conservator, Mel Houston. ‘We’ve had incidents in the past where logs used in displays or fireplaces resulted in fire beetle and woodworm being introduced into the property. You’ve also got to make sure that holly doesn’t scratch surfaces and that foliage from berries isn’t trodden into carpets. And you can’t use sticky tape on 18th-century paintwork!’

Fortunately, as with their colleagues around the country, Jared and the Brodick team can consult the Trust’s expert conservation team to ensure that a month of celebrations leaves no trace. Then, once the festive season is over, the task of putting Brodick Castle to bed for the winter will begin – packing away the smaller items in acid-free tissue, rolling up the carpets, closing the shutters, putting sheets over the furniture – all ready for a deep clean.

A month before it reopens for 2020, Brodick’s three-person collections care team will clean everything: ornate candelabras, clocks, huge heavy vases and much more. ‘We have a very large collection – arguably the largest in the Trust – so there are thousands of objects that have to be looked after,’ says Jared.

Entrance hallway of Brodick Castle packed with artefacts
The entrance hallway in Brodick Castle

Mothbusting Newhailes

Occasionally, the process of deep cleaning needs to be taken a step further. Such was the case last winter, when a moth infestation was tackled at Newhailes House in Musselburgh.

Sticky trap checks for insect paths are undertaken every quarter at Trust properties, and in 2016 the traps at this 17th-century Palladian-style country house had revealed a significant increase in the number of webbing clothes moths. Despite regular localised treatment and targeted cleaning, it was clear the infestation was getting worse – so the Trust’s preventive conservation team embarked on a moth-busting programme, utilising two industrial freezers, each large enough to hold carpets and sofas as well as smaller items.

‘We have to be pragmatic,’ says Mel Houston. ‘There’s no expectation that we can eradicate moths completely, but at Newhailes House we had to get them down to the previous very low levels. The project involved identifying any movable collection items vulnerable to moths and then killing the eggs, larvae and adult moths by freezing the items at -35C.’

The building itself was also treated methodically to avoid re-infestation. Where necessary, chemical treatments were applied between floorboards, but most of the work involved repeated hoovering with conservation-grade vacuum cleaners, which volunteers wore mounted on their backs, Ghostbusters-style!

This was a unique situation and obviously we hope we won’t have to intervene to such an extent at any of our other properties in the future. But next time there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, we’ll know who to call – the mothbusters!

Two people kneel on the floor and wrap acid-free tissue paper around the legs of a wooden chair with an embroidered cushioned seat.
Mothbusters at work at Newhailes

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