Fate of historic Scottish houses under severe threat

Concerns over collections as National Trust for Scotland closes three properties



The future of one of Scotland’s most prestigious mansion house collections, belonging to Hill of Tarvit near St Andrews, is in doubt following the decision by its owners, the National Trust for Scotland, to recently close the property (28 June).

The turn-of-the-century residence is one of three important Scottish National Trust properties—along with the famed Glasgow landmark Hutchesons’ Hall (1802-05) and Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire (1650)—forced to close their doors as part of a cost-cutting exercise at the troubled conservation organisation which safeguards 130 sites.

When asked if the collection could be transferred to the ownership of another public institution, be sold or dispersed, a Trust spokeswoman responded: “We are currently considering options for the future care and conservation of the collections at [the three] properties which will be closed to the public.”

The move has raised fears over the fate of the Hill of Tarvit collection. “The house contains the finest furniture in any trust house, raising serious concerns as to whether it can remain there. No less disturbing is the proposal to let Hill of Tarvit to a tenant,” said Marcus Binney of the conservation campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage.

Hill of Tarvit, described by the trust as “perhaps the finest Edwardian mansion in ­­Scotland”, houses the collection of the late Dundee financier Frederick Bower Sharp. The house and gardens were remodelled in 1905-06 by the renowned Arts & Crafts architect Sir Robert Lorimer, ­incorporating Sharp’s holdings of 16th-century Flemish tapestries, Chinese porcelain and Chippendale furniture.

In total, “11 loss-making trust properties were identified as being at risk of closure or required to be run differently,” said a trust statement. Sixty-five staff are also facing redundancy in a bid to reduce an £800,000 deficit reported by the trust last September, raising fears that the curatorial department will suffer job losses. The head of the trust’s collections, archives and library services, Katrina Thomson, has resigned, and uncertainty remains over the future role of Ian Gow, the chief curator.

The trust describes itself as “a charity, independent of both the Scottish Government and the larger National Trust based in England”, making it accountable to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. It was unavailable to comment on the historic house closures.

Claims that the trust is also in financial difficulty—partly be­cause of a £3.8m shortfall for a proposed £21m Robert Burns museum in Ayrshire—have been denied by chairwoman Shonaig Macpherson.

The trust must “reduce its costs to weather the recession”, said Ms Macpherson. “Whether we like it or not, heritage organisations in Scotland have witnessed a decline in visitor numbers for more than a decade,” she added. Commentators remark that this is in contrast with the English National Trust, which is experiencing a boom in visitor numbers this year.