History repeating: the National Trust for Scotland

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is one of the largest landowners north of the border with 130 properties, including 26 castles, palaces and country houses, and over 78,000-acres. Yet like a feckless son who has inherited plenty but isn’t living up to his responsibilities and squandering his inheritance, so the NTS has been ignoring its duties and now has to face the financial reality of their mistakes – with possibly far-reaching consequences for its country houses.

For many landowners, the 1920s and 30s were a lavish time. Yet, often the land which provided the income was heavily mortgaged and although this could cover expenses it usually left little in reserve. Landowners were ranked according to their acres which led to many to over-extend themselves – leaving them vulnerable if a crisis arose. Although the First World War had had a devastating impact on the lives of many both in the big house and on the estate, for those who came through it must have seemed that life might be able to be resumed from before the war. However, life had changed and although some owners were able to see this and adapt, others refused to face financial facts leading to lavish and unsustainable overspending. This later manifested itself with the massive land and art sales of the 1930s as financial recklessness raced right up to the front door of the main house and forced out the owners.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was formed in 1931, over 30 years after its southern sibling.  It now runs 130 attractions which include some of the finest country houses in Scotland such as Haddo HouseCulzean Castle, and Pollok House.  However, in marked contrast to the National Trust for England and Wales, the NTS hit a £13m financial blackhole in 2009 which led to staff redundancies, the selling of their Edinburgh HQ, and worst of all, the mothballing of various properties.  A formal, independent review of the NTS has just been published which makes it clear that they had been living in much the same way as the country house owners of the early 20th-century and now largely faces the same choices they had.

Like those dissolute owners in the 1920s and 30s who initially refused to face reality, the NTS have finally admitted that they have been living beyond its means and would now require a significant cash injection to cover its debts. For the country house owner in the 1920s and 30s they could always hope to marry an American heiress – but with this option denied to the NTS they’ll have to beg from the public.

Interestingly the NTS has also admitted that just 12 of its 130 properties are fully endowed, leaving the other attractions to have to make up the shortfall. The southern National Trust have, since 1968, used a complex calculation known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which takes account of the probable cost of repairs and maintenance, likely revenues, wages costs etc to assess what level of endowment they would have to receive from the donor before they could agree to accept a house and has led to them rejecting many on that basis.

It seems that the NTS have abandoned this sound practice and over-extended themselves. It has also admitted it doesn’t even have a complete asset register of what properties it actually owns or a list of the necessary repairs to maintain the properties.  So like the owners of the houses who suddenly faced a dramatic downturn in the economy and their income, they are faced with some stark choices which the struggling owner in the 1930s would recognise well: sell or turn over some properties to other uses.

The owner in the 1930s also had the option to demolish or abandon a house and many hundreds were lost over the next couple of decades. Thankfully this option is not open to the NTS so what’s likely to happen? Unlike the National Trust for England and Wales, not all the Scottish properties are ‘inalienable’ meaning they could be sold.  The NTS have however said that no property of architectural significance would be – so we are unlikely to see Culzean Castle in the local estate agents window but some of the smaller country houses may be tenanted on a long term basis.  Some may also turned over to other organisations for community use – though this has a naturally detrimental impact on the fabric of the house through increased wear and tear.

The NTS has shown that, as usual, it’s the owner who’s the problem not the houses.  Even an organisation which has admittedly done much to preserve and protect country houses in Scotland over the last 80 years can become part of the problem.   Let’s hope that they take this opportunity to reform the ‘byzantine’ governance structure which has led them into this crisis and that it creates a leaner, more financially stable organisation better able to look after the country house treasures they have inherited.

More details: ‘NTS to be told: sell treasures or go bust‘ [The Scotsman]

The danger of interpretation: Abbotsford House, Scotland

Abbortsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)
Abbotsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)

For Abbotsford House in Scotland, home of the famous author Sir Walter Scott, the recent news that it was to receive a £4.85m Heritage Lottery Fund grant is the sort of news which should be welcomed as that level of funding can usually remedy any necessary maintenance or repairs.  However, the grant is not actually to be spent on the house (despite headlines such as ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]) but mainly on a new, separate visitors centre.

Sir Walter Scott (b.1771 – d.1832) played a key part creating a literary context for the developing Picturesque movement which sought to reject the rigid formality of the Georgians and create a more organic architecture, which he developed in the construction of his own house.

The theory of the Picturesque raised the importance of how one ‘felt’ about a scene or view – a definite break with the austere, ‘correct’ classicism which so dominated.  The exploration of more fluid forms had started in the 1750s and had been adopted by such noted figures as Sir Horace Walpole for his own house at Strawberry Hill in Surrey.  However it was a local Surrey parson, the Rev. William Gilpin, whose guidebooks were to lead the way for those who came afterwards such as Herefordshire squires Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight who had the funds to realise these ideas.

Inspired in part by the idealised landscapes of the artists Nicholas Poussin or Claude Lorrain, architects sought to provide an almost ‘arcadian’ vision of buildings integrating naturally with an environment, forcing them to think of the building and environment as a whole rather than simply viewing their particular work in isolation. This also affected the plan of the house, with rooms now being aligned along the best viewing lines rather than simply lined up. One architect who took on this new style was John Nash who met Uvedale Price in about 1790 during Nash’s time in Wales.  Price was at the time building a small summer house and Nash, after meeting him, proposed a typical villa – a design antithetical to Price’s own philosophy.  Price instead guided Nash to design a new house where rooms followed views, and the overall design echoed its rocky coastal location; as he wrote ”The form of it is extremely varied from my having obliged him [Nash] to turn the rooms to different aspects‘.  Castle House, sadly demolished in 1897, was a watershed in the rejection of the dominant Georgian style and Nash quickly developed new designs based on these radical principles which became his distinctive ‘cottage orne‘ style.

Sir Walter Scott didn’t set out to link literature and architecture – in fact his ‘Waverley’ novels were simply a quick way to make some money after financial difficulties.  The books, which he initially wrote anonymously, were the first truly successful historical fiction, and brought Scott considerable wealth and, once his authorship was known, praise.  It was this wealth that enabled him to set about creating his ideal house.  Raised in the Scottish borders he had a close affinity for the natural landscape and so the Picturesque style would have appealed.  However, Scott ensured the existing designs for Abbotsford House had a distinctly Scottish twist, creating what is known today as the ‘Scots Baronial’ style so closely associated with our romantic notions of Scotland today.

Scott bought a small farmhouse in 1811 and engaged William Atkinson (b.c1774 – d.1839) who, between 1814-24, created the house we see today.  Atkinson was not considered one of the best ‘Gothick’ architects, with Howard Colvin thinking that his designs lacked the elegant charm of the 18th-century work and the scholarly accuracy of the 19th-century.  However at Abbotsford, the architectural vocabulary he employed – steeply pitched slate roofs, turrets, bartizans, and crowstepped gables – became the standard language of Scots country houses for anyone not following the Classical style.

So Abbotsford House is an architectural genesis – the first of it’s kind.  It seems a shame to lavish millions on a separate interpretation centre in a modern design which will only compete with the existing architecture of the house and estate.  It’s also a competition the new building is unlikely to win.  Perhaps it would be better for the money to be spent on sensitively incorporating the displays and materials from Scott’s life and work into the home he so lovingly and thoughtfully created.

More details: ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]

Official website: ‘Abbotsford House

Background: the Picturesque movement [Wikipedia]

Ury House restoration project still in doubt a year on

Ury House, Scotland (Image: Geograph)

When the developers FM Developments went into administration in 2009, it put in jeopardy a huge development scheme which was to fund the restoration of the historic Ury House.  The size of Ury House meant that any scheme was going to have to be ambitious to provide sufficient funding and this one involved the building of 230 homes and the creation of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  The developers had been praised for consulting with local residents and had the full support of the council for bringing jobs and no small measure of glamour to Stonehaven. Now, a year after the collapse, it’s still not clear if the scheme will proceed at all, leaving the spectacular ruins of Ury House at further risk of decline.

The first house had burnt down in 1645, and the second house was subsequently completely rebuilt as the Ury House we see today in 1855 for Alexander Baird in a fine Elizabethan style by the architect John Baird.  Baird was one of the most successful of the architects working at this time even if he rarely followed fashion.  His work at Ury was a continuation of the style of Wilkins and Burns they had developed 40 years earlier but was of a high quality which is still visible even today in the shell of the house. As a first stage of the work of the restoration, extensive scaffolding had been erected around the house in January 2009.

The proposals for redevelopment of the 1,500-acre estate included the conversion of the house into nine townhouses.  Unlike in many other cases of ‘enabling development’ where the setting of the house is compromised through the encroachment of the housing, the plan put forward placed the residential estate well to the east of the house, thus protecting it.  With the bankruptcy of FM Developments these plans have  been thrown into doubt and local planning officers are now working on the assumption that the development will not go ahead – despite local councillors being determined to resurrect the scheme.  Unfortunately the danger is now that another, less sympathetic, developer will take on the project but may try to cram more houses in or extend the area of the estate taken for housing. This would be a real shame. Although the ideal but unlikely outcome would be the restoration of the house as a single family home, this project had developed as a good example of enabling development practiced in the right way, with sensitive restoration of the main house, protection of the setting of the house, and productive use of the estate.

More details: ‘Future of Ury mansion site in doubt‘ [The Press and Journal]

Future of Ury mansion site in doubt

Midmar Castle – all that glistens isn’t quite golden

Midmar Castle, Aberdeenshire (Image: The Times)

It seems that an interesting story used to help speed up the sale of a house but for Midmar Castle in Aberdeenshire even a tale of sunken gold hasn’t helped secure a sale a year after the house was launched. The category-A listed castle was launched on the market on February 2009 with a fulsome write-up in The Times relating how the value of the house had underwritten a risky – but ultimately successful – expedition to recover £50m in Russian gold which had gone down with HMS Edinburgh in WWII.

The castle was originally started in 1411 but was greatly extended in the late sixteenth-century by the remarkable local granite-masons known as the Midmar school. They were responsible for Midmar and four other castles built nearby – Crathes, Frazer, Drum, Craigievar – all of which are now owned by the National Trust apart from Midmar.  Based on the traditional defensive z-plan with three main towers, this is an impressive and historic home.

The original price tag of £5m (set by Knight Frank who have now been replaced by Savills) for the house, gardens, outbuildings and surrounding 185-acres has now dropped to £3.5m – which represents an average drop of over £100,000 for each month it has remained on the market.   This may reflect some over-optimistic valuations but it’s still a superb, historic castle set in a perfect mini estate – ideal for anyone who wishes to experience the Scottish country lifestyle but doesn’t want the thousands of acres which often come with a house of this quality.

Property details: ‘Midmar Castle, Aberdeenshire‘ [Savills]

Want to work in an Adam-designed office? Cumbernauld House for sale

Cumbernauld House, Lanarkshire

One alternative to demolition for a country house whose time as a home had come to an end was conversion to offices.  Many houses were thus saved from the wreckers pickaxe although some conversions were more sensitive than others, with some unfortunate houses being reduced to shells with the historic interiors severely compromised.  Some were very successful such as Donington Hall (headquarters to BMI), Mamhead House (formerly HQ to a local construction firm but well looked after and now back as a home) and Gaddesden Place (now home to a software company).

One such house which was converted in 1955 and in need of a sympathetic new owner is the grade-A listed Cumbernauld House in North Lanarkshire, currently for sale at offers over £1m.  Built for the Earl of Wigton in 1731, the house was designed by William Adam (1689-1748), one of the leading architects of his day, and includes some of his typical flourishes such as arched windows, channelled masonry and carved tympana.  Although the Adam interiors were lost in a serious 1877, the reconstructed interior is still noteworthy.  Currently empty, this house deserves a new lease of life and would make a suitable and impressive headquarters – although part of me does faintly hope that someone might want to take on the challenge of turning it back into a home.

More details: ‘Cumbernauld House‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage] – as Building of the Month this link may not work after Feb 2010 but there is a dedicated website at : www.cumbernauldhouse.com

Credit crunch hits prices of country estates in Scotland

It sells but at what price? (Image: http://www.sxu.hu)

Despite the ever hopeful claims of the estate agents that a good country estate will always sell, it appears that, at least in Scotland, the average selling price has fallen sharply.

Research by the estate agents Strutt & Parker has shown that between 2008 and 2009 the average selling price of the 13 country estates – defined as “significantly more than a house with some land but not farms or forestry properties” – sold in that period the average price dropped by £2.6m. Of the 13 sold, seven were sold for less than the asking price.

Full story: ‘Country estates caught in credit crunch as prices halve in 12 months‘ [The Times]

Caldwell House – a nearly-lost Adam classic

Caldwell House, Scotland (Image: intriguing_rly@livejournal)

Sometimes houses suffer in so many ways and yet, despite their eventual condition, it’s still possible to imagine them being restored to something approaching their former glory.  Caldwell House near Paisley in Scotland is definitely one that would require a purchaser with deep pockets and a slightly cavalier approach to budgeting – but they would be rescuing a classic house by the famous Scottish architect Robert Adam.

In 1773, Baron Mure of Caldwell commissioned Adam to design a grand home for him. For Adam it was to be the last of the ‘castle’ houses he designed, a style he’d started with at Ugbrooke House in Devon (1760s) and Mellerstain House in Berwickshire (1770).

It remained the family home of the Mures until 1909.  In the 1920s the House was sold to Glasgow Corporation and became a hospital for mentally handicapped children. The institutional changes were severe and included the removal of the main staircase to accomodate a lift shaft and the addition of numerous poor-quality outbuildings.  After the hospital closed in 1985 the usual pattern of neglect and vandalism set in, with a major fire in 1995 resulting in serious damage to the interiors and the loss of the roof.  In spite of being a Grade A listed building, it is now empty and has sadly been neglected and allowed to decay and has been on the Scottish Civic Trust’s Buildings at Risk register for some years.

As this shocking set of photos show, the house is now in a terrible condition.  However, the shell still evocative and it’s rural location would ensure privacy and so ought not to be written off yet.  Perhaps the family motto of the Mures – “Duris Non Frangar”, which means, “not to be broken by adversity” – would be an appropriate one to bear in mind when taking on this monumental restoration.

Scottish castle rental remains popular

Aldourie Castle, Scotland (Image: castlesandcottages.co.uk)

Despite the recent financial troubles it seems that there is still many who happy to pay up to £25,000 per week to stay in the best Scottish castles, such as Aldourie (right), over the New Year.  Sue Bourne of ‘Castles and Cottages‘ has about 50 castles available for rent with many booked over the festive period – though she noted that people are booking later either to try to secure discounts or even just to ensure they have the job to support such an expense.

These rentals provide a valuable revenue stream which helps to offset the huge cost of running these houses and it’s encouraging to see that demand is holding up.  Extensive void periods may have an impact in terms of the funds available for the essential maintenance or restoration these houses require.   So ‘hurrah’ for the wealthy!

Full story: ‘Scottish castles keep the downturn at bay‘ [ft.com]

Quick news roundup: Gelli Aur, Raasay House, overseas buyers

Welsh mansion appeal for armed forces retreat‘ [BBC News]

Raasay House: ‘Work to start on fire hit centre‘ [BBC News]

Overseas buyers snapping up country houses‘ [Country Life]

Georgian Group Architectural Awards: Cairness House

Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The 7th Annual Georgian Group Architectural Awards have again highlighted that there are still those who will take on a neglected house and breathe new life into it.  Of particular interest is the winner of the ‘Restoration of a Georgian Country House‘ category, Cairness House in Aberdeenshire.

This interesting and elegant house was originally built in the 1790s as the centrepiece of a 9000-acre estate by the architect James Playfair for Charles Gordon.  The house remained with the family until 1938 after which it unfortunately experience a prolonged period of decline over the next 70 years including use as a farmhouse and even bedsits, and was riddled with dry rot.  Julio Soriano-Ruiz and Khalil Hafiz Khairallah are to be loudly applauded for showing that these houses can be restored and that the excuses of the developers, whose claims of dry rot has resulted in the demolition of other houses up and down the country, should never be accepted at face value.

Full story: ‘Georgian Group Architectural Awards‘ [Country Life]