The Beauty and the Beast – Conservation Contrasts at Edinburgh University

If you’ve known me recently, it’ll come as no surprise that I’ve recently begun an MSc in Architectural Conservation at the University of Edinburgh. I mean, historic buildings, Scotland, and my continuing reluctance to let go of the University lifestyle – it ticks all my boxes! It’s been pretty grueling commuting in from Glasgow every day, but we’re all still here at the end of week one, so so far so good!

I’ve spent the past year and a half totally immersed in the history and theory of conservation for my last thesis, so in some ways I’m still just doing what I’ve always been doing: reading articles and books about conservation, and going to castles and historic sites not only to revel in their beauty and atmosphere, but to silently make snarky judgments about their conservation decisions and historic interpretation. This master’s course is going to take me way beyond what I’m able to master myself, and teach me all the things I wish I knew about how buildings work, how to read their layers, and about the actual physical work of preserving them.

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The crew in front of Stirling Castle

But the single biggest change is that now finally I’m not alone. I’m not going to lie, spending two years writing a massive thesis with no classes to attend, and nobody in the department working on anything even remotely related, was actually a bit of a lonely process. My world was rocking: I’d discovered a whole discipline that seemed to synthesize all my interests, I was engaging with philosophical debates, applying them to what I saw at castles and historic sites, and trying to draw meaningful conclusions out of all of it – but there wasn’t really anyone around to share it with, bounce ideas off, help refine my thinking, etc. But now, besides the actual faculty of the Edinburgh department, there are twenty other people all doing the same thing, with roughly the same goals: to learn and understand as much about the field of conservation as possible within these nine months. Let the geeking-out commence! 😀

What’s more, I’m not the only one in the class sharing my experiences with the internet! Taylor Dickinson has a blog, which you should definitely check out, particularly as she’s done an impressive recounting of the details of our trips to Stirling Castle and to Newhailes House. She also has lots of great photos that show the details of the two sites – I’m terrible for forgetting to take pictures!

The first week has been spent getting acquainted with the history and theory of conservation, how it began, developed, and where it stands today. The gist of it is that conservation efforts as we recognize them really developed in the Renaissance as part of the nascent understanding of history as a thing separate from the present. The rediscovery of ruins like the Roman Forum and classical sculptures like Laocoon not only inspired artists, as we were all taught in high school, but also forced questions of how to care for these historical relics that were suddenly being valued, rather than used as quarries for new building material, as the Coliseum had been for over 1,000 years. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally to industrialization in the 19th century, the modern idea about history being a thing different and separate from the modern day solidified, as did appreciation for the specialness of historic places as places that evoke and hold evidence of the past. But opinions differed about how to care for them, with some championing lavish restorations that often played fast-and-loose with historical accuracy, and others preferring to leave things more or less in their current state, just keeping them from deteriorating further. Finally, after massive destruction during WWI and II, a trend began for international agreements ratified by many nations, in effect agreeing upon a “global” ideal standard for conservation. Today restoration is generally unacceptable according to the standards of the charters, and the preferred method is a conservative approach of small-scale maintenance and repair. In reality though, conservation policies run the entire gamut from restoration to preservation and everything in between.

As a kind of taster for the first week, Glendinning (our programme supervisor) arranged for us to see two cases in Scotland that exemplify the two extremes of conservation policy: Stirling Castle, and Newhailes House.

Stirling Castle used to be a spectacular Renaissance palace complex built by James IV and V, but in the 17th century the monarchy departed and the military moved in, and all the elegant buildings were converted into barracks, storerooms, and other more utilitarian defensive structures. Since the military vacated in 1964 and the castle came into state care, the later alterations to the major buildings were stripped away, and the buildings restored to their 16th century appearances. Now Stirling has a bright, lavishly decorated great hall, chapel, and palace, populated by costumed interpreters bringing the spaces to life and engaging with the millions of tourists that Stirling attracts annually.


Not pictured: 50 visitors all trying to squeeze into the same room.

Now Newhailes House, a 17th/18th century suburban mansion outside Edinburgh, you’ve probably never heard of. Although begun in the 17th century, the greatest building phase dates from the early 18th century, when the Dalrymples, new owners, extended it and refurnished it in the latest Rococo fashion. Part of what makes the house unique is that, since the Dalrymples bought it and began redoing it in 1709, the family continuously inhabited it and changed almost nothing, until the final owner gave it up to the National Trust for Scotland in 1997. Now for a house that’s over 300 years old, it looks pretty good. But as far as something that’s been continually lived in and hardly updated, by the measure of other historic properties it looks pretty shabby. The furnishings are a bit threadbare, the external render is sloughing off in sections, and the interior wallpapers and paint are in rather poor condition. Rather than renewing and refreshing everything, the NTS has kept it almost precisely as they found it, preserving all the shabbiness, even the watermark from an old leak in the ceiling, just stabilizing everything – to the tune of 4.5 million pounds – to keep it from deteriorating further. In contrast to Stirling, where visitors stampede through the palace at will and shuffle for a place to stand, Newhailes is only viewable by small-group guided tours, in which a volunteer guide will carefully explain the complex, and controversial, conservation policy.


I suppose this is what they have in mind when they say “gently mouldering…”

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