Clues to the Past: Uncovering conservation secrets at the Burgie Glasshouse

In June, eighteen intrepid volunteers traveled to Scotland to help conserve a 1912 timber glasshouse on the ancient Burgie Estate. The task was not easy, but it seemed straightforward: Repair and clean the timber framing, paint and prime it, then replace the missing glass panes to restore its former beauty and function. In spite of the occasionally “dreich” Scottish weather, our “AstraGals” as they christened themselves, restored beauty to the old timber structure, and got the frame and the historic cast iron sanded, painted, and water-tight.

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Volunteer crew hard at work up on the scaffold!

 

But when eighteen people spend two weeks up-close and personal with a building, you’re bound to find some unexpected surprises…

All of the things we found challenged our ideas and preconceptions about what a historic greenhouse was “supposed” to look like. At first we didn’t look past the surface: everything was painted a crumbling, flaming white, which dovetailed easily with our own aesthetic that it was probably a crisp, glowing structure all of gleaming white paint and glass. But as soon as the first paint layers came off, it became clear this was not the whole story….

It began on Day One with the cast iron gutters, which were covered in peeling white paint and needed to be sanded down before being repaired and repainted. Within a few minutes, the power-sanders had penetrated the white paint and all the rust to reveal… a layer of deep green! This was particularly exciting because the other intact cast iron elements in the interior.. are also painted green. So now we have the idea that the green ventilator levers and brackets aren’t just an accent colour – we’re getting evidence of an actual paint scheme working within the greenhouse.

We were in two minds about the green thing. The trouble was, the green was the absolute bottom coat of all the layers. Generally, ironwork is and was painted with a priming coat of red lead paint, prior to the exterior layers being added. But here, we had to grapple with the question of whether perhaps for whatever reason, they used green paint to prime it, meaning that the visible layers would still have been white. OR, that perhaps the original installers cut some corners and didn’t prime it at all but painted the decorative green straight on.

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The poor gutters – they do look white though, don’t they?

The glasshouse also has a decorative cast-iron finial on the roof ridge of the central house (there were formerly two matching finials, but one was stolen long ago…), and when we prised it off its base and started sanding down its white paint and rust, guess what we found… More green! Curiouser and curiouser…

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How many layers can you spot…?

Our volunteers spent two solid weeks face to face with the timber structure, sanding, chiseling, and repairing every spot they could reach, so it’s no surprise they picked up on things a casual observer might have passed right by. The glasshouse has stood for over a hundred years, and it’s definitely been repainted at least once in its lifetime. But, in some harder-to-reach corners, we were able to spot patches of what must have been the original paint – a very pale green! Now before we get carried away on the idea that the entire greenhouse was actually, well, green, I’m fairly certain that this was the original white lead paint that has aged to grey that just happens to have a greenish hue. Lead paints do tend to go greyer and paler as they age, as lead paint ages differently from modern oil or latex-based paints which crack. Lead-based paints powder away into a fine dust. So, for example, a door that was originally red would after a hundred years be much closer to pink.

Another exciting find was a decorative motif that still survived on some of the doors. Based on the flecks of paint still left, this curved ornament around the handles was originally a deep maroon, and even where the paint doesn’t survive well the outline of the motif is still clearly visible on most of the doors, indicating that it was pretty much ubiquitous throughout the glasshouse. It seemed a curious but distinctive feature, and when we mentioned it to Hamish, the owner, he told us that the Burgie Estate colour was, in fact, maroon.

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These maroon motifs were on almost every door in the greenhouse!

So there we had it, that little motif, that could so easily have been overlooked and carelessly sanded away, was a little piece of the original pride of Alexander Thompson’s new house and gardens. Just a little touch added, to say “Here I am – this beautiful building is mine.”

While the jury is still out on the original colour of the gutters and finial, the next conservation session definitely has plans to restore the maroon motifs to the doors. Paint samples were taken from various parts of the greenhouse to see if examination under a microscope revealed anything that our eyes couldn’t see, and I’m still slowly researching whether the green paint is more likely an exterior coat, or just a priming coat.

Another curious feature which I must have looked at a hundred times but never thought about, was the presence of little pulley wheels attached to certain parts of the greenhouse. Our brilliant volunteers theorised they could have belonged to adjustable blinds, which were sometimes used at greenhouses to provide shade in too-sunny conditions (in Scotland, seriously…?). This sounded plausible enough to me, though I didn’t know much about it, until a week later it turned out the AstraGals were right on the money!

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An example of how a pulley and blind system would have looked.

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One of the “mystery” pulleys identified by our volunteers.

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Close up!

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They don’t look like much, and it looks like someone tried to burn them, but I’m almost positive these are our blinds!

You see, down in the old boiler room are some rather strange-looking objects, that look like they’ve been thrown down there as a pile of old rubbish. I’d seen them a dozen times, but never wondered much about them, but once the seed about “greenhouse blinds” had been planted in my head… It suddenly clicked. Not only did we have the pulleys as evidence for the blinds, we actually had the blinds themselves sitting down in the boiler room all this while! This is incredible not just because we now know for certain that there were blinds, but now we even know precisely what they looked like and what they were made of. Until we can go down and rescue them and see what state they’re in, we won’t know whether they’re salvageable to actually re-install them. But maybe someday, when we find the expertise and/or a bit of funding, we can recreate the blinds to their original historic appearance. Gotta keep dreaming…!

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Travel to Scotland for a Conservation Adventure!

Adventures In Preservation, a leading heritage conservation non-profit, is pleased to announce its upcoming session – restoring a historic greenhouse in the north of Scotland!Burgie Poster 2 Corrected
Participants will help repair and restore the 1912 glasshouse of the historic Burgie Estate, learning traditional craft and building skills in the process. The project will include hands-on training in window glazing, glass-cutting, and cast-iron conservation, as well as introductions to the gardening and arboriculture practiced on-site. The project not only benefits a beautiful historic structure, but also supports the effort of its owner, Hamish, who has dedicated his life to the environmentally-sustainable cultivation of trees, which he nurtures in the glasshouse.
The project takes place in two week-long sessions: September 24-30, and October 1-7, 2017. Participants can attend both consecutively, or just one.
The participation fee includes:
  • Transportation to and from Inverness airport
  • Accommodation in a house in the Scottish countryside
  • Catered meals
  • All work and safety equipment
  • On-site training and supervision by a specialist in Scottish conservation
  • A 2-day tourguided excursion to the Isle of Skye (during the second week)
For registration and further details on a truly unique opportunity to travel, learn, and help preserve a piece of history, please visit AdventuresInPreservation.org
You can also follow the project on Facebook by liking Adventures in Preservation and The Burgie Glasshouse and Arboretum Restoration Project. If you can’t attend but would like to contribute, donations are greatly appreciated, and will go directly toward the material costs of the restoration. Adventures in Preservation is a 501(c)(3) and all contributions are tax-deductible.
To register, donate, or for any enquiries, please get in touch at trips@adventuresinpreservation.org, or call our trip director Judith Broeker on (303) 444-0128.
And watch our new project trailer!

The Allure of Castles: Dunscaith

The Western Isles of Scotland are a magical place. Although many were once heavily populated, famine, migration, and clearances have left them peopled mostly by ghosts, and the structural remains of past peoples.

For me, it is the archaeology of remote places that create that particular “magic of the desolate” that was so beloved of Romantic poets and painters. From undateable cairns to Iron-Age broch forts, all the way up to the roofless stone crofts of the past century, remote Scottish islands like Rum, Barra, Orkney, Shetland, and the world-famous St. Kilda are littered with evidence that for a long time these places were of great importance to a great number of people. Important enough to fight great sea-battles over, pitting Norwegian Vikings against fledgling Scottish kings; important enough to defend with castles and hill-forts and brochs, expensive and labour-intensive statements of dominance and power; important enough to erect cairns, stone circles, and massive burial mounds for figures whose long-forgotten names are commemorated only in the remains of structures that required an astonishing feat of labour, engineering, and social cooperation by the “primitive” peoples who build them.

For whatever they can tell us about history, to me such remains ask a question that thrums in the insistent western wind, and repeats with the waves that pound inexorably at the barren coast: Where did everyone go?

The Isle of Skye is hardly the remotest of the islands, and is by far the most visited by tourists (on account, I have always suspected, of its beautiful name), but its not difficult to find places on Skye that evoke that same feeling of poetic desolation, particularly if you can manage to turn off the well-traveled road that takes the ubiquitous coach tours from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.

At the very south of the island on the Sleat peninsula, a rough single-track with a constant obstacle course of sheep leads seven miles to a small cluster of houses called Tokavaig (in such places, a collection of three or four houses is enough to earn a name on a map), just past which, on an outcropping of rocky coastline, are the remains of a castle.

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You knew there had to be a castle involved eventually, didn’t you?

Dunscaith Castle (or Tokavaig Castle, in honor of the village) was originally a stronghold of Clan Donald (or MacDonald), but there is no definitive beginning date for the structure, the earliest terminus ante quem being sometime in the 14th century, when the castle is already referred to as changing hands (ergo, already built in some form) to the MacLeods.

But it’s not the history of the castle that continues to fascinate me – it’s how little we know of it. Other than its capture by James I in the 15th century, its abandonment in the 17th century, and its designation as a protected scheduled monument in 1934, almost nothing is known about it.

And the question that obsesses me is, How can that be? How can a place that has been continuously inhabited for at least the past millennium forget its own history?

Now of course I speak from a particular place: the severing effect of warfare and emigration means that I only have four generations to keep track of since my ancestors came to America from Poland and Austria-Hungary, and any knowledge of or ties with family who still live in the Old Country are mere luck. The astonishment I felt when I found out that my Polish relatives have equally little idea of our ancestry beyond a few generations – despite living in the same village for centuries – was enormous.

I am a historian (if only a fledgling one), and so I understand the forces that lead people to lose their own history: lack of documentation, indeed of literacy means that for most people in most places, preservation of history must be oral – how many families do you know that maintain a formal oral memory, like the King Lists of Ancient Ireland? Even today the surest way to preserve family history is orally. Sure, if you wanted to know the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather, there are many resources to hand that can give you the answer, with a little digging. But even this requires a kind of “re-discovery” of genealogy, not to mention requiring an interest in the first place. Whereas if you were told from a young age that your great-grandfather’s name was Stefan and he was born in Detroit… The knowledge is that much more able to play a part in your cultural consciousness and self-identification. It is known, rather than learned or studied.

Dunscaith Castle has a manifold allure. Its situation on an almost-island connected to the mainland by a particularly treacherous bridge makes it exciting – you can vividly imagine the castle defending itself under siege, rival clansmen trying desperately to take that bridge.

And the setting is spectacular – surrounded by sea on three sides, with majestic views of the sun setting behind the mountains of Rum.

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But even though it’s a scheduled monument under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it has this overwhelming air of forgotten-ness. Through warfare and clearances, the people of Tokavaig have survived in an unbroken line from the people who built and lived in this castle. Where is their self-history? How did Dunscaith Castle go from the fiercely contested regional stronghold, to “That old run-down thing? The clan hardly uses it any more,” to “Wow, what an amazing old pile of stones. I wonder who built it, and why?”

And that, in a nutshell, is my castle quandary. How do we come to forget what’s been right in front of us all along?

The Allure of Castles

If I really go back to the very beginning, my love affair with Scotland began with a castle. I was volunteering on an organic farm in Fife, and one afternoon I was taking a walk in the surrounding countryside, when I saw this in the distance:

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Really it was much farther away, only just recognizable as “a great big cool-looking thing.”

So obviously, I had to tramp through every farmer’s field and cow pasture in outer Kirkcaldy until I reached the bloody thing! I never did manage to get inside it – I could say I was deterred by the enormous “Danger – Unstable Ruins” sign, but let’s be honest, it was really the impenetrable thicket of nettles that kept me out.

Pitteadie Castle. Run of the mill 15th/17th century tower keep with a fairly intact but unremarkable structure and few remaining decorative features. That’s how I understand it now, after I’ve spent a year intensely studying castles. But then, in that adventurous summer of 2011… It was awe-some.

I might chock it up to having never seen a castle before. Now, I’d recently spent two days in Edinburgh and, yes, visited the castle, but I feel it doesn’t count. It may sound rich to say that Scotland’s most famous castle is not really a castle at all, but honestly I don’t consider Edinburgh Castle a castle. In look, in atmosphere, in historic material – it’s more of an 18th century fortress turned into a tourist attraction by the lure of the crown jewels and a few key restorations. But I digress.

So I stand by my guns, that I was a castle virgin until I came across Pitteadie, and that that unmarked, neglected, shabby ruin of a building was the starting point for my castle addiction, although it took me several years and several more trips to Scotland to recognize it.

I had been staying in Fife for a week already. I had been briefed on “things to do and see” in the area quite thoroughly, I was assured, by several people, including my host family, yet somehow no one had mentioned that marvelous old Pitteadie Castle was only a fifteen minute walk northward.

And so I think it boils down to this: What kind of magic must there be in a place where marvels like this are so commonplace, so frequent, as to not be worth the mentioning? If this country, this Scotland, could hide a treasure like that beautiful bloody ruin out of sheer blasé-ness, what other heart-stopping secrets must be out there, hidden behind watchful forests, lurking in the deep glens, waiting for discovery down winding single-track roads?image1(2)