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From fine and decorative art to furniture, books and associated archives, the National Trust for Scotland’s collections bring us closer to the people who lived and worked in our buildings.

We care for around 300,000 objects in over 50 properties, including one of the greatest collections of art in Scotland. By studying the contents of our castles and houses, we can learn more about the people who built, furnished and worked in them.

Unlike museums, we house our collections in their original locations. Visitors to Broughton House can see works by ‘Glasgow Boy’ E A Hornel in the place they were created. At Brodie Castle we keep paintings by Dutch Old Masters, as well as the Brodie children’s original toys. Kellie Castle, once owned by famous artistic family the Lorimers, contains everything from fine furniture to sketches made by a young Sir Robert Lorimer when he was bedridden with scarlet fever.

Everything tells a story – from clothes to candlesticks and teapots to oil paintings. By keeping so many historical artefacts in their original setting, we’re able to paint a vivid picture of Scotland’s rich and varied past.

Big facts

These eyecatching figures show just how many objects and artefacts we look after. Included in our collections are:

  • over 3,000 paintings
  • over 2,000 items of costume
  • over 100 chandeliers and at least 600 candlesticks
  • over 2,000 chairs and around 200 sofas
  • over 2,000 plates, around 300 teapots and 45 chamber pots
  • a number of libraries that together contain more than 80,000 books

In our historical archives we hold around 120,000 items, such as estate records, personal letters, photo collections and the odd bit of film or audio. We do our very best to make sure that these archives remain at the properties where they belong, although there are one or two special exceptions where we’ve had to move a valuable archive to the National Trust for Scotland’s headquarters.

At Robert Burns Birthplace Museum alone there are over 5,500 artefacts. These include Burns’s handwritten manuscripts, books and letters, as well as musical instruments, writing sets and even the wedding ring worn by his wife, Jean Armour.

The National Trust for Scotland Photo Library in Edinburgh contains around 250,000 colour images and 90,000 black and white prints. There is everything from 1870s glass plates of St Kilda to high-quality digital images. Together, they make up a visual memory of our places and act as a vital resource for our staff, as well as volunteers and external researchers.

An oil painting of a young lady in a gilt frame. A chandelier hangs in front. The lady is dressed in an expensive silk gown and holds a small crown in one hand.
Portrait of Susanna, Countess of Eglinton, at Culzean Castle


Curating our collections is all about looking at the big picture – uncovering the whole story of a time or place through the items and artefacts to hand. The curators who work with our collections are experts in researching and displaying objects. They interpret artefacts in a way that tells the story of Scotland’s people and buildings, using items from maps to ceramics to give a voice to the people behind them.

We’ve picked out a few favourites in our 50 Interesting Objects series, including priceless paintings, famous manuscripts and even a Dutch pancake pan, but if you’re anything like us, you won’t want to stop at 50! Luckily, you can see thousands more objects in their original setting by visiting our properties.

Part I: 50 interesting objects

Part II: 50 interesting objects

Part III: 50 interesting objects

Part IV: 50 interesting objects

Part V: 50 interesting objects

A group of 19th-century owl-shaped drinking horns, with 9 small owls and 1 very tall one.The bases are made from a light-brown horn, and all have a silver owl head on top, with orange eyes.
Some amazing drinking horns at Brodick Castle

Documentation and digitisation

Every item in our collection needs to be documented in detail, and we use a number of powerful databases to store collections information and digitised images. Our archivist is responsible for cataloguing and storing the paper and electronic records that we create; our photo librarian manages a database of images; and our collections management team compile and maintain the catalogue of the fine art and object collections.

Digitisation is a way of giving better access to our collections by creating digital copies of documents and photographs and by photographing objects. It also ensures preservation of key information held in paper records – like a back-up.

For all documentation, cataloguing and digitisation work, it’s essential to be able to link a database record with the object or document that it relates to. Object numbers help us to do this, and if you see a number marked on an object in one of our properties, this will link to a record on our database. When we move an object, we record this number and update the database to keep our information up to date.

Two people stand beside a tapestry on a tall wooden stand. One measures the width of the tapestry with a tape measure; the other takes notes on a notepad.

Project Reveal

In the summer of 2017 six separate inventory teams, weighed down with laptops, ladders, labels and cameras, began the painstaking work of cataloguing and photographing all the collections displayed and stored in 47 different National Trust for Scotland properties.

Project Reveal was the biggest digitisation project that we have ever undertaken. Covering properties across Scotland, from Broughton House in Kirkcudbright to Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage in Cromarty, it has provided us with an updated and accurate record of every item in our care.

Project Reveal uncovered some hidden treasures and stories about our collections, and with all the work taking place in full view of visitors, we were able to reveal some of our conservation methods as well.

A black and white photo of a group of men and women sitting on a golf course

Morton Photography Project

In many of our properties, and in the central archive in Edinburgh, we hold a vast and eclectic collection of photographic material, including cameras, 35mm slides, paper prints and glass negatives. Images range from sweeping panoramas of Glencoe and the farmlands of Angus to snapshots of daily life in the Western Isles and the Border towns.

In 2014, the Morton Charitable Trust provided the funds for fieldwork centred on our photographic collections. The money helped us to purchase equipment, train staff, digitise collections and invest in volunteers, all with great success. The project resulted in a series of digital exhibitions, highlighting the role of photography in people’s lives.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

A man stands in front of a large painting and uses a tool to carefully clean the canvas.
Caring for one of our large paintings at Hill of Tarvit

Preserving our collections

Our collections team work with the public to curate and preserve all our artefacts. To make sure our collections have a long and happy life, we take a preventive approach to conservation, where the focus is on preventing any potential damage instead of waiting until we’re forced to fix it. 

Of course, different objects – textiles, books, watercolour paintings, footstools, etc – need different kinds of care. Our conservators can clean or arrange for conservation of an object. We also identify the conditions different items need and try to reduce the damage caused by factors such as temperature, humidity and UV light, by putting controls in place and training staff to care for collections through careful cleaning and housekeeping.

Keeping our collections in their original historical setting can make conservation trickier, but it’s worth the extra work.

Take a look at how we clean some of our largest collection items

Two environmental monitors sit on a shelf beside some framed butterflies, in Canna House. The wallpaper in the background is yellow with a white leaf pattern.

Synergy: environmental monitoring in the National Trust for Scotland

All of our collections, both on display and in storage, are vulnerable to deterioration from environmental factors such as temperature, relative humidity, visible light, ultraviolet radiation and pollutants. Proper monitoring is essential to preventive conservation, as we try to maintain the right conditions to preserve the fabric of our buildings and the objects in our collections.

In 2018 we upgraded all 28 of the Trust’s Hanwell telemetric environmental monitoring systems, to make sure they’re fit for purpose. The new Hanwell Synergy system provides live data from over 1,000 sensors for anyone at the Trust who needs to look at conditions in our properties. At the time, this was the largest project in the UK to make up-to-the-minute information available in the heritage sector.

Two men look at a very large oil painting, that lies on its side on a special transport trolley.
A painting being carefully moved into place

Acquisition and disposal 

As Scotland’s biggest conservation charity, we look after our collections for the people of Scotland.  

We work within standard guidelines for museums and galleries, and follow a carefully worded policy on what we’ll accept into the collections. The main focus of our collecting policy is to acquire objects that are directly linked with the properties we care for and the people and stories associated with those properties. Before accepting anything into our collection we ask ourselves: Is this particularly important to our understanding of a time or place? Is it an outstanding example of a certain type of design or craft? 

Likewise, when we review our collections, we sometimes need to dispose of objects that don’t meet these criteria. Caring for objects that have no relevance to our properties can be a drain on resources and in these cases we follow a careful disposal policy, transferring objects to other museum collections to keep them available to the public.

Loans and exhibitions

We don’t mind seeing our collections fly the coop every once in a while. Our artefacts and artworks have travelled all around the country and across the world.

We arrange for the lending of items like paintings, sculptures and furniture on a case-by-case basis – sometimes for short-term exhibitions and sometimes for a longer spell. The work involved is complex, and the negotiation and careful planning for packing, transport, insurance and handling is seen to by our own expert registrar.

Read about the adventures of Colonel Gordon’s portrait

Professional standards

The Collections Team works to certain strict industry standards. The Museum Accreditation Scheme, the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics and ICON International Conservation Organisation provide organisations like ours with frameworks for good museum practice. We work closely with colleagues across the Trust to share this practice with our partners and our properties.

We have created a series of Collections policies that guide our decisions on how we care for, develop and promote our collections.

100 ways

in which we’re loving and protecting Scotland, for you.