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Issue 39 - Doors Open in Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Doors Open in Scotland

This September hundreds of hidden architectural gems and exciting new buildings will open their doors to the public for free. David Black gives us a taste of what to expect in the capital.

Edinburgh Doors Open Day, first organised in 1991 by the Cockburn Association (Edinburgh’s Civic Trust), has a special significance for the Scottish capital’s community of the curious. Each year around 80 buildings which are not normally open to the public or usually charge an entrance fee throw open their doors to the public for free.

In a city noted for its douce reticence a little light is allowed to flood in for a few brief hours. The old lady lifts a discreet hem and shakes an ankle. We learn, perhaps, that she is not quite what we thought she was.

It needn’t always lighten the heart, but even the disappointments can be educational.

Thomas Hamilton’s elegant temple to Robert Burns is a brilliant townscape ornament but, like his famous Royal High School masterpiece across the road, it is now echoing and empty, and awaits a kinder future.

And what about all those elegant high Victorian churches which seem to have lost much of their 19th century interior gilded opulence beneath layers of 20th century cream paint? As it happens, a surprising amount of opulence survives, from the dazzling glory of the Traquair murals in the Mansfield Traquair Centre to the Tardis-like magnificence of Old St Paul’s, accessed through a modest doorway in the shadow of the North Bridge.

Post-modern opulence has even been reconvened in the kaleidoscopic exuberance of the former Highland Tolbooth Church, now the Edinburgh Festival Hub, and often irreverently referred to as ‘Pugin on acid’ – Augustus Pugin, famously associated with London’s Houses of Parliament, designed the building’s spire.

The secret of this annual fixture’s success lies in its variety. From claustrophobic, airless old prison cells via the original Scots Renaissance splendour of George Heriot’s School Council Chamber to the signature modernism of a newly finished mews house, the choice on offer is a disparate one, and new entries are worth looking for - one of this year’s is a conservatory by architect Crichton Wood which has been added to a Victorian villa in Portobello. Last year it was a garden house designed by Lorn Macneal in leafy Lauder Road. The owners expected around 50 to turn up. In the event the number was estimated to be closer to 1000, though that was fewer, thankfully, than the 6000 or so who queued to get into Playfair’s sprawling West End Palace, Donaldson’s Hospital.

Much of the appeal of this event is what we can best describe as its community dynamic.

No-one is charging for anything. It’s all about goodwill and sharing. Architects, no doubt, get some benefit by revealing their skills as designers and technicians, while corporate firms and institutions pick up brownie points by showing a pro bono willingness to engage with the wider public, but on the whole owners and proprietors are simply putting themselves out for people they’ve never met.

Similar events take place around the world, but different rules tend to apply. Here, the preference is for the old fashioned civic virtue of greeting your neighbours. They arrive, they look around, they go away, all in a spirit of carnival congeniality and an innate belief that our built heritage is something that we should be sharing. For a sedate city whose residents are thought to be overly preoccupied with their own sense of privacy, that is a truly remarkable thing.

Information Edinburgh Doors Open Day, organised by the Cockburn Association in partnership with Edinburgh World Heritage, takes place on Saturday 27 September 2008.

More information, including this year’s programme, can be found at: The Cockburn Association is inviting Scotland Magazine readers to support Edinburgh Doors Open Day and the work of the Association, a registered Scottish charity, no: SC011544, by becoming a Friend of Edinburgh.

All readers who join before December 2008 will be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith.

To join and enter the draw please visit Favourite Edinburgh Places By Ian Rankin St Bernard’s Well This stands on the edge of the Water of Leith by Dean Village. It’s usually kept locked but I was allowed in once to do some filming for a documentary.

Fascinating place, though the waters should probably no longer be sampled for their supposed health-giving powers Fleshmarket Close There’s a lot of history to be gleaned just by walking down this narrowlane, which leads from the High Street to Market Street. A couple of good pubs tucked away there, too. I named one of my books after it, so I must like it.

Interior of Royal Museum, Chambers St.

An obvious one this, but it is about to close for renovations and a major refit and I’m hoping nothing gets spoiled (though it looks like the fish-ponds will go, alas). I could stare up at the ceiling for hours, though like many visitors I’ve seldom been tempted as far as the second floor. Hopefully that’s one thing the refit will change for the better The Thistle Chapel, St Giles Cathedral This is the sort of place you can visit time and again without ever tiring of it, and always picking out some fresh detail or idiosyncrasy missed on previous trips.

In fact, St Giles is packed with fascinating stuff, not least a large bronze relief of Robert Louis Stevenson, who seems to have suffered some public neglect in Edinburgh in contrast to Sir Walter Scott By Alexander McCall Smith The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen St.

In Queen Street the exterior of this building is a delight to look at, and the interior does not disappoint. Large, echoing halls and a marvellous old-fashioned tearoom make a trip to this gallery an absolute pleasure. There are also the paintings, of course Ramsay Garden Although Ramsay Garden consists of private houses, these may be viewed from the courtyard. This, the most extraordinary, fairy-tale bit of architecture in Edinburgh, the site of the house of Allan Ramsay, the wigmaker turned poet, whose son became a distinguished portrait painter. Ramsay’s original house was called, for some strange reason, Goose Pye The Royal College of Physicians in Queen St.

The College has a wonderful hall with busts and portraits of Edinburgh’s distinguished physicians of the past. This place has special significance for me, as my wedding reception was held here and I am an Honorary Fellow of the College. There is also a very important library of rare medical books of the past The Playfair Library This magnificent library was used as a working library by Edinburgh University but is now mainly used for functions. The generosity of the ceilings should be a reminder to contemporary architects to allow a little more headroom than they currently do. The busts around the walls are busts of distinguished professors and scholars of the past. Some years ago the University had them removed for cleaning but the rumour is that the relevant university authorities forgot to note which bust belonged to which plinth – and the names were on the plinths. Who went where?

Is this Aristotle or a 19th century professor of mathematics?

Doors Open events around Scotland Edinburgh is just one of the 32 areas throughout Scotland taking part in Doors Open Day 2008.

For more info visit: Here are some of the highlights to be found outside the capital: HarperColins Archive, East Dunbartonshire Saturday 13th September To tie in with the ‘500 Years of Printing in Scotland’ celebrations, Harper Collins is inviting you to explore its fascinating archive in East Dunbartonshire. On show will be a wealth of historic books and records including some important 19th century bibles and letters from some world-famous writers such as Agatha Christie and J.R.R. Tolkien Dalkeith Masonic Lodge, Midlothian Saturday 13th September The lodge was completed and consecrated in 1766 by the local order of Freemasons and is reputedly the oldest purpose built lodge room in the world Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st September Enjoy a guided tour around Charles Rennie Macintosh’s famous tea room The Cruck Cottage, Dumfries Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th September This type of cottage was once commonplace in Dumfries and Galloway. This restored example is Category A listed by Historic Scotland, and now of a great rarity in Scotland