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Issue 41 - The restoration

Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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The restoration

I have often observed that Scotland appears to have far more historic ruins per square mile than any other territory in Western Europe. The obvious conclusion is that it has something to do with our national obsession with cherishing the idea of the past, but what has consistently troubled me is that nobody ever seems to be interested in restoration. Too expensive, is the usual response. Others with a misguided sense of romanticism fatuously insist that when a building falls victim either to the elements or to a fire, it should be left to disintegrate since this is part of its history. Well, that did not stop Her Majesty the Queen from restoring Windsor Castle.

During the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II, it was as if planners through the United Kingdom were intent on finishing off the work of the German Luftwaffe by pulling down every derelict old building that they came across. In time their vandalism became so pronounced that a rearguard action sprang into life to protect our national heritage.

All well and good, but this still left a whole raft of fine old historic properties in Scotland in a state of limbo. Only recently has the situation started to improve with the restoration of such gems as Archerfield House in East Lothian.

In my youth I remember exploring the ruins of Penicuik House, south of Edinburgh, and marvelling at this classic example of a Palladian masterpiece gutted by fire on a summer night in 1899.

A relict of the Scottish Enlightenment, Penicuik House was the collaboration of two remarkable men, Sir James Clerk and John Baxter Senior. The Clerk’s wealth originated in the late 17th century from John Clerk, a Merchant who owned an Emporium in Paris from which a wide variety of goods, including works of art, were bought and sold. It was this John who acquired the Newbigging estate in Midlothian, and it was his son John, a committed land improver, who was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles II.

The second baronet, also John, inherited the estate in 1722. As a student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, he had set off on a two year Grand Tour of mainland Europe, and returned to Scotland to become a prominent figure in the emerging Scottish Enlightenment. The fact that substantial coal deposits lay beneath the family land enabled him to excavate for Roman antiquities, plant the Penicuik Estate, and build Mavisbank, another breathtakingly beautiful mansion house near Dalkeith, which also became the casualty of a fire.

However, it was not until after this Sir John’s death in 1755, that his son Sir James turned his attention to demolishing Newbigging House, and ultimately creating Penicuik House, the shell of which remains to this day. In his lifetime, it was to host all of the significant figures of his age, its design, although criticised by some as being old fashioned, considered a masterpiece. Thereafter, the estate passed to his brother, then to his nephew, and on to a great nephew who inherited at the age of 11. Although the architect David Bryce was employed to build extensions in 1857, the house was thereafter leased out.

It was while it was being tenanted, however, that the fire broke out. While the Clerk Family subsequently re-modelled and moved into the stable block, Penicuik House itself remained a dramatic ruin throughout the 20th century, and the likelihood of it ever being saved was increasingly remote.

Then in 1985, the Penicuik House Preservation Trust was formed and, in 2002, everything changed. James Dawnay became chairman, and Sir Robert Clerk, the current baronet, sold some of his land to fund a £2 million endowment. A partnership was formed with the Scottish Lime Centre Trust, and an extra £4 million of funding made available through Historic Scotland, the National Lottery and private subscription.

Training is at the heart of the current six year project which will see 30 to 40 building trade apprentices working fulltime to re-roof the Western Services Wing to provide workshop facilities. Courses, demonstrations and open days are to be held on site, and it is expected that in the region of 2,000 individuals will benefit from the training. A major initiative to replant the 390 acres of policies is underway with repair work on the many bridges, tunnels, and follies. However, the primary object is to make the building safe, and thereafter a complete restoration is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Why is this so important? Well, it shows that it can be done.

Nobody can deny that money is not an important factor, but it is long term vision that makes things work. It just takes the determination of a few people who are tired of seeing empty historic shells sitting about the landscape and have the energy and commitment to bring them back to life.

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