Key projects

These mini case studies provide a more detailed look at some of our conservation work across Scotland.

Re-thatching projects

In October 2016, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and Historic Environment Scotland (HES) 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 the National Trust for Scotland has taken on the task of leading efforts to address both these concerns. We’ve 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.

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

The Culzean stonemasons

The National Trust for Scotland 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.

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.
Stonemasons at work.

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.

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

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. 

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