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Buildings

From iconic castles and famous birthplaces to Victorian villas and 18th-century watermills, we care for and manage important historical buildings across Scotland.

Big facts

Here are a few facts and figures about our buildings:

  • We care for 271 listed buildings.
  • It’s not just the big houses that we look after. We’re responsible for everything from gate pillars and walled gardens to fountains, doocots and ice houses.
  • Our Annual Repair Grant (ARG) partnership with Historic Environment Scotland has been running for more than 30 years. Over the last 3 years it has enabled us to paint over 1,000 windows, repoint more than 4,000 square metres of walling and clean more than 10km of gutters.
  • Our ARG programme has supported more than 700 jobs and 83 apprenticeships, and used more than 60% local labour and local materials during our works. The programme also employs a wide range of professional skills, from surveyors and architects to ecologists and material scientists.
  • We need a wide range of skills and materials to look after the 1,600 built structures on our estate. These include stonemasons, carpenters, roofers, plasterers and blacksmiths, who use a wide range of traditional materials such as thatch, slate, clay, stone, lime and timbers of all types.

What kind of buildings do we look after?

As important as our castles and stately homes are, they actually only make up a small proportion of the buildings we look after. We also manage plenty of modest buildings that shine a light on how rural and working-class communities have evolved. Together, the Trust’s places celebrate the unique architectural history of Scotland.

Large cherry trees, laden with blossom, stand at either side of Newhailes House

Historic houses

Whatever the size or style of a house – whether it’s a tiny thatched cottage or a stately home – if it has a significant role to play in Scotland’s history, we’ll work to preserve it. We care for the birthplaces of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns and renowned geologist Hugh Miller, as well as Newhailes House in Musselburgh, a breathtaking Palladian house from the 17th century that played a significant role in the age of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Craigievar Castle alongside the old barmkin wall and outbuilding

Castles

We care for 11 castles, as well as a royal palace. Each of these imposing properties has its own story to tell, both in terms of the people who lived there and their architectural style. You can see the pink fairytale turrets of Craigievar in Aberdeenshire, which is said to have inspired the design of the Disney Cinderella castle, or a far more austere style at Drum Castle, which dates back almost 700 years.

An exterior view of Moirlanich Longhouse

Vernacular buildings

‘Vernacular’ architecture tends to refer to modest historical homes and functional buildings that were built using local materials and traditional techniques. They’re a huge part of our rural history: places like Moirlanich Longhouse – a fabulous cruck-framed dwelling from the 19th century that we’ve preserved and partially restored – show us how farming communities of the past might have lived.

Wharfedale reliance printing press

Early industrial buildings

We look after a number of mills and other working buildings. Places such as Barry Mill, near Carnoustie, where you can still watch grain being milled every Sunday, and Robert Smail’s Printing Works, in the Scottish Borders, with its fully operational Victorian letterpress, shine a light on Scotland’s industrial, agricultural and commercial history.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.

Architectural treasures

Scotland is the birthplace of some of history’s most innovative and important architects. Plenty of our buildings celebrate the work of famous Scottish designers like Robert Adam, who redesigned Culzean Castle and was responsible for the iconic Georgian style of Edinburgh’s New Town, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who inspired generations with his work at the Hill House.

Working with buildings

Our interest isn’t just in ancient ruins – we also love the rich interiors and collections of historic properties. We care for a number of places that are still living, breathing homes, and in some cases we welcome guests to stay overnight or use the building as a unique venue for events. It’s a great way to make sure that our buildings are still a part of Scottish life.

In this way, we’re different from the likes of Historic Environment Scotland, but we often work with them and other organisations with a shared interest in protecting historical sites. We all have the same goals: to grow our understanding of Scotland’s buildings, to better protect our properties by being more proactive, and to find new ways for people to engage with our historic homes and castles.

Exteriors

You can tell a lot about a building from its exterior. When you visit our built properties you can learn about centuries of Scottish design, architecture and craftsmanship before you’ve even set foot inside the door.

We have a unique range of buildings in our care. We don’t just own defensive castles and imposing mansions but a wide variety of vernacular buildings too – there’s no single period or style that we care for. Every property has something to teach us about Scotland’s heritage – when they were built, what for and who by.

Something as simple as a roof can tell us all kinds of interesting things. Sloped roofs were often designed that way to shed the rain and snow, but in other cases people wanted their roofs to be shallow so they wouldn’t be seen. Thatched roofs show us what materials were available to different communities. They also shine a light on the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the people who once lived here.

And then there’s the windows, doors and walls, and their different materials, techniques and functions. Some of our buildings were designed as fortresses; some as works of art. Some lead the way for classical architecture; others bring different styles together to do something completely new.

Here are five very different exteriors, each with their own story to tell:

Interiors

From ornate ceilings and fireplaces to windows, doors and floors – the interiors of our buildings help us to piece together the story of Scotland’s people and places. They reflect how tastes have changed over the centuries, and they give us endless opportunities to enjoy exquisite craftsmanship and design.

Studying the interiors of our buildings has transformed what we know about the people who have lived and worked in Scotland. And not just the lairds who owned castles and collected fine art, but also simple rural families making do with tiny spaces. Interiors have shaped our understanding of Scottish design, architecture, culture and society through the ages, and across the country.

We strongly believe that the best way to appreciate a collection is in its original setting, and where there’s an interesting interior, there’s often a collection of objects or an archive to go with it. In fact, they’re such close companions that people often ask us what the difference is between the two.

Put simply: if you can move it, it’s a collection. But if something is a part of a room setting or built into the building’s structure – say a staircase or some intricate plasterwork – then we file it under interiors.

Here are some of our favourite interiors:

Conservation

Sometimes we want to preserve a property because of its significant age or design, sometimes for its cultural value, and sometimes for the simple fact that it pleases the eye. Through projects like the Annual Repair Grant (in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland) we’re able to look ahead and properly maintain our properties, no matter how big or small. In some cases we’re even able to equip properties for modern living, giving them a new lease of life.

Buildings that aren’t properly maintained require far more money and time spent repairing them down the line. That’s why we focus on research and surveying, on sharing knowledge between professionals and local craftspeople, and on improving estates so that they’re able to maintain buildings steadily throughout the year.

Accreditation where it’s due

The mercat cross in the cobbled village square in Culross, surrounded by white 17th-century houses.

The Little Houses Improvement Scheme at Culross

The Little Houses Improvement Scheme (LHIS) was launched in 1960 to restore historical houses of character and make sure that they could be resold. Since then, over 165 buildings throughout Scotland have been restored under the scheme.

The LHIS evolved from the National Trust for Scotland’s pioneering approach to conservation in Culross. In the 1930s many of the town’s buildings were targeted for slum clearance and Culross’s fragile community was under threat. A campaign to rescue the old houses and preserve the burgh’s historical character began in 1932, and by 1960 the Trust owned nearly 50 ‘little houses’.

The LHIS was created with a focus on selling houses after restoration to raise funds for the next project. Restoring Culross’s little houses meant a delicate balancing act between retaining crucial period features of the buildings, whilst also making adjustments for modern living (in some cases this meant removing and replacing whole roofs and floors). The work established the Trust’s commitment to purchasing and restoring historical buildings as homes.

Were it not for the ‘little houses’ initiative, the character of Culross and other burghs like it in Fife would have been lost. As a result, the LHIS won the prestigious European Prize for the Preservation of Historic Monuments in 1976, and in the 1980s the focus of the scheme broadened to include further urban regeneration projects across Scotland.

Black and white photo of the Hill House, showing the gravelled drive sweeping up to the main entrance.

The Hill House – conservation challenges of a modern monument

The Hill House in Helensburgh is commonly regarded as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic masterpiece. It was built in 1903 for Walter Blackie, a successful Glasgow publisher, and his young family. Mackintosh’s unique architectural style dispensed of traditional architectural detailing, and made way for an early modernist building. His choice of new building materials, particularly Portland cement roughcast, enabled his architectural vision.

However, the building has suffered from damp ingress for many generations, so in 2012 the National Trust for Scotland commissioned Andrew Wright (Conservation Architect) to produce a report in order to develop a repair strategy.

Supporting traditional skills

To make sure Scotland’s heritage is in safe hands, we like to support traditional building skills and crafts – everything from thatching to plasterwork. Whether at a stately home or a remote cottage, some of the finest examples of traditional craftsmanship can be found in the Trust’s places.

At every possible opportunity we’ll employ local craftspeople. At Culzean Castlewe directly employ a team of stonemasons, who also spend their time helping to educate the public and sharing their knowledge. 

We support apprenticeships, to encourage young people to learn traditional skills. And we get behind the work of places like The Engine Shed in Stirling – it promotes traditional materials and skills, and is a hub for anyone working in building and conservation.

Two stonemasons work on a building beside a boarded-up window. The man kneeling in the foreground wears a mask and holds a large tool.

The Culzean stonemasons

The Trust decided long ago that part of preserving our historical buildings meant promoting the traditional skills that make preservation possible. At Culzean in South Ayrshire, where much of the property is made from local sandstone, we used to have to bring in the skilled stonemasons we needed to maintain the walls, chimneys, fountains and viaducts.

Contracting labourers is expensive, though. And when those labourers leave, their skills go with them. So in order to spend our funding better, and to ensure that traditional building skills and crafts are protected, we decided to build our own in-house team of stonemasons at Culzean.

There’s a long history of stonemasonry at Culzean – there were some 400 stone quarries in the area when the property was developed in the late 18th century, and there are stones on the beach that were worked on by local masons more than 200 years ago. Now, our in-house team are using the same historical techniques and tools to keep the property in good shape. The money that might have been spent on contractors has been invested in exciting projects such as the Walled Garden and the refurbishment of Ardlochan Lodge.

At the same time, we’ve set up an apprenticeship scheme that teaches young people all the different aspects of stonemasonry, from hand tooling and carving to using lime mortars. Our apprentices work alongside the professionals, helping to maintain Culzean Castle and the other structures on the estate. Their education and training is fully supported, and we’re delighted to be giving young people across the country the skills they need for a worthwhile career.

A man stands on a ladder leaning against a thatched roof, and carries out repair work.

Re-thatching projects

In October 2016, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Historic Environment Scotland launched the results of a comprehensive survey of Scotland’s thatched buildings. The survey showed that the number of thatched buildings across 22 local authority areas had dropped from 331 to only 221, with thatch often being replaced by whatever was closest at hand.

It’s vital that thatched buildings survive, as they provide a window into what was once a very common vernacular building material, and indeed a way of life. We look after 12 thatched buildings, with many different building types thatched in different materials. We’ve overseen re-thatching projects at Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage in Cromarty, using reed, and at Souter Johnnie’s Cottage in Kirkoswald, where we used longstraw on the ale house.

In trying to preserve our thatched buildings, we were confronted with two major issues: finding local materials and finding local skills. In one particular case, failed crops and collapsing Scottish supplies meant turning to Eastern Europe for the material we needed. In Alloway, we had to convince recently retired thatchers to return for one last job.

And so we’ve taken on the task of leading efforts to address both these concerns. We’re committed to trying to plug skills gaps – in Ayrshire, the Trust’s local roofing contractor worked alongside the retiring thatcher, so that skills could be passed on. We’re also looking to our own estate to provide necessary materials, encouraging sustainable ways of sourcing and harvesting.

Protecting the environment

It’s no surprise that we use sustainable design when we build new places, such as the visitor centres at Culloden and Glencoe. However, the greenest buildings are often the ones that are already built, and so we take on the unenviable task of trying to reduce the energy we use at our existing buildings. Castles and country homes don’t offer much scope for energy-saving measures, but making even a small difference in all of our buildings can lead to a big difference overall.

A row of single-storey buildings stand beside a path. The buildings are wooden and stand on stilts. A tall mountain looms in the background.

Engaging visitors

More than 1 million people visit our historic buildings every year, and we do everything we can to entertain and educate them, with a variety of learning and out-reach schemes. These include behind-the-scenes visits at Haddo House, scaffold visits at Glenfinnan Monument and schools events at Culzean Castle.

Did you know?

Above Castle Fraser’s Great Hall is a quirky feature called the Laird’s Lug. This is a chamber that was built for the sole purpose of allowing the laird to eavesdrop on his guests. How’s that for hospitality?

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