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30 Aug 2019

The National Trust for Scotland and World War II

Written by Ian Riches
Black and white photo of the ruin of Crookston Castle
Crookston Castle – the National Trust for Scotland’s first property, given by Sir John Stirling Maxwell in 1931
World War II obviously had a dramatic impact upon life in Britain between 1939 and 1945. But how did this major event affect the National Trust for Scotland?

The National Trust for Scotland was established under the Companies Act in May 1931 with the purpose of caring for and preserving ‘Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. For the first ten years the Trust, with a very limited staff, acquired only a few properties. Those places that came into our ownership were mainly countryside areas such as Glencoe, Burg on Mull and land around Rockcliffe in Dumfries & Galloway. We also acquired the historic battlefield site of Culloden and some smaller properties – mainly the birthplaces of famous Scots, such as Thomas Carlyle, Hugh Miller and J M Barrie. The larger castles and country houses were to come later.


One of the interesting side issues about this post-1931 period is not just the properties that came to the Trust, but the many properties which were under consideration that the Trust decided against acquiring. As Trust Chairman Sir Iain Colquhoun stated in the Annual Report of 1933: ‘since its [the Trust’s] inception rapid development would be dangerous; we have therefore pursued a policy of considered caution’.

What did change was the National Trust for Scotland’s status. The organisation was initially formed as a limited company and subsequently applied for a private Act of Parliament. This was passed as the National Trust for Scotland Confirmation Order Act of 1935. A further Order of Parliament in 1938 enabled the Trust to enter into Restrictive or Conservation Agreements, which allowed the Trust to help preserve areas of land without taking ownership; most notably this included the Pollok Estate in Glasgow.

The Restrictive Agreement for Pollok took place in early 1939, at about the same time that architect Robert Hurd wrote the first account of the National Trust for Scotland in his book, Scotland Under Trust. This summarised the early years of the Trust and the properties that were acquired. In his foreword to the book, Sir Iain Colquhoun stated that ‘during the few years of its existence, the National Trust has become such an integral part of Scottish life …’ Thus within its first eight years the National Trust for Scotland had firmly established itself within the consciousness of the nation and the Scottish way of life. Later that year, of course, events of far greater significance were to impact that way of life.

The first mention of the Second World War after its outbreak in September 1939 was in the Minute of the meeting of the Trust’s governing body, the Council, at the end of November when it was announced that the Trust’s Secretary and Treasurer, Lt Col E D Stevenson had been mobilised. Before he left for Fort George, Stevenson made arrangements for the Trust’s Law Agent, Arthur Russell, to take over his duties but with even more limited staff. 

A typewritten extract from the Minute of the 1939 AGM
Extract from the Minute of the 1939 AGM

In the following year’s Annual Report it became apparent that while the war continued the Trust’s activities were going to be necessarily cut back. As the extract below highlights, the Trust was ‘… to mark time and to decide how best the work could be carried on and the properties of the Trust administered with the reduced income.’

And yet, despite the reduction in its activities, the Trust still continued to function. There were 182 new members recruited in 1939 and some properties remained open for visitors. Although no actual visitor numbers are recorded, the 1939 annual accounts show that admission fees were still being received for those visiting Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, Thomas Carlyle’s Birthplace, Balmerino Abbey and Crookston Castle (£69, 3 shillings). This was to continue into 1940 and 1941, although for the following few years there are no records of admission charges.

Between 1940 and 1944 both the Annual Reports and the Minutes of the Trust’s Council were reduced in volume, reflecting the reduction in Trust activities. Whereas before the outbreak of war the Annual Reports included details of all Trust properties, with illustrations, lists of benefactors and, remarkably, a list of every National Trust for Scotland member, for reasons of economy these items were omitted until the 1945 report.

In parallel with this the Trust’s Council only met five times between January 1941 and December 1944, and mainly discussed routine matters of administration and the maintenance of properties. Looking through the accounts from 1942, an interesting observation is that the National Trust for Scotland invested in War Bonds, War Savings Certificates and Defence Bonds to support the war effort.

Despite the call for consolidation, the 1940–44 period did see the Trust continue to acquire properties, including the Falls of Glomach which was gifted to the Trust in 1941. The Hermitage was passed to the Trust by the Duchess of Atholl in 1944 in accordance with the wishes of her late husband, the 8th Duke of Atholl, who was the Trust’s first President.

The Second World War did impact on some Trust properties. In January 1942, the Minute of the Council meeting noted that Crookston Castle (given to the Trust by Sir John Stirling Maxwell, and its first property) and Bachelors’ Club were both being used by local contingents of the Home Guard.

In December 1942 one of the more important topics discussed by the Trust’s Council was to have a longer-term effect on the National Trust for Scotland and its future activities – the Country House Scheme.

This had been a successful development in England, where large country houses like Wallington and Cliveden had been given over to the National Trust. The increase in maintenance costs of such properties encouraged their owners to pass them over to an organisation, usually with an endowment. The owners could remain living there, but the property would be open to the public on certain days of the year. 

Because the National Trust for Scotland had received a number of enquiries along these lines, it was decided to introduce this scheme in Scotland. A pamphlet outlining the details of the scheme was prepared and produced by a special Trust Sub-Committee in 1943.

The inside cover and first page of a leaflet outlining the details of the Country House Scheme
The leaflet outlining the details of the Country House Scheme

The first country house to be presented to the Trust under this scheme was the House of the Binns near Linlithgow. This historic property, together with over 80 hectares of parkland and an endowment of £4,000, was transferred to the Trust by Colonel and Eleanor Dalyell in 1944. The official ‘handing over’ ceremony as documented in the photograph below didn’t take place until sometime afterwards.

Black and white photo with a lady handing a document to a man, with a boy and a man standing behind
The handover ceremony of the House of the Binns to the National Trust for Scotland

The Trust’s Annual Report for 1945 (actually written in March 1946), the first since the end of World War II, was almost akin to a huge sigh of relief. For the first time since the outbreak of hostilities the report’s 80+ pages contained a summary of the Trust’s activities during the war, detailed descriptions of all the Trust’s properties – now numbering 45 – as well as many illustrations together with a list of the Trust’s members. 

The report states that, despite the Trust’s activities being restricted during the war years, the properties were well maintained and the Trust continued to attract new members. There was also a wide-ranging review of the property portfolio and how the Trust could move forward. For instance, the mountainous and countryside areas in the Trust’s care, including Glencoe, Dalness and Kintail, constituted ‘a practical beginning to the projects for establishing National Parks’ in Scotland.

One of the more significant developments towards the end of the war was the Trust’s acquisition of Culzean Castle in Ayrshire. Alongside the importance of the building, its contents and policies, the Trust offered a part of the castle as a guest flat to the US General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower for his use.

A page from the 1945 Annual Report detailing the Trust’s acquisition of Culzean Castle
The 1945 Annual Report detailing the Trust’s acquisition of Culzean Castle

It would be fair to say that World War II had a more indirect impact on the National Trust for Scotland rather than affecting it overtly. But that’s not to say that the conflict passed by the Trust without impinging on its activities. For the duration of the war the Trust decided to restrict its endeavours or, in the words of the late Duke of Atholl in 1939, ‘to cut our cloak according to our cloth’. But the National Trust for Scotland certainly wasn’t put into cold storage – new properties were acquired, additional members were registered and two Trust properties were used by ‘Dad’s Army’, the Home Guard.

Perhaps of greater significance was the Trust’s intention to continue its work and plan for the post-war future. In the words of acting Chairman A O Curle in the Annual Report of 1940, to ‘… be ready, when the war was over, again to carry out its trust with full vigour’. This is evident with the introduction and implementation of the Country House Scheme. Subsequent acquisitions of larger built properties in the shape of Culzean Castle, Leith Hall and then slightly later Threave House & Garden and Crathes Castle, set the Trust on a road which was to lead to it becoming Scotland’s largest conservation charity.

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