Behind the Scenes at Gladstone’s Land: a 17th Century renovation project

Image 3. Screenshot from Virtual Edinburgh Tour showcasing the painted ceiling on the third floor, detailing a cockatoo (?). 

Anna Brereton and Kate Stephenson were hosts for this year’s IIC Congress tour. Together they created a 17-minute video that took us on a virtual tour through Gladstone’s Land, the subject of this blog post. Gladstone’s Land is one of the oldest buildings on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and a towering testament to tenement life in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The tour “really wets one’s appetite” for Scotland – as noted by audience member Helen Hughes – owed in large to the hearty enthusiasm of its guides.

Despite being momentarily distracted by Guy Fawkes celebrations going off at Arthurs Seat just around the corner, both Brereton and Stephenson managed to present a lovely discussion on the restoration project in full. Topics ranged from audience research, public engagement, conservation strategies and environmental parameters to the unlimited potential for further historical and archival research. The talk ended with a short pitch on the Gladstone’s Land holiday apartments which, after watching the tour and reading this blog, should inspire a feature on everyone’s post-lockdown bucket list.

Audience research: understanding one’s visitors

Currently, there is a Trust-wide initiative that formally and informally investigates younger age groups. In an effort to broaden their understanding of/for visitor reach, the National Trust have launched surveys via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The research centres on what inspires, motivates and engages children, youths, teenagers and young adults at National Trust historic sites and houses. The standard age of the demographic most often visiting these places is predominantly 60+, and although the Trust doesn’t wish to alienate this particular group, understanding how to engage other demographics will help to develop new strategies for making historic sites and houses appealing to all.

Engagement: the objects that can and can’t be touched

Several times throughout the presentation both Brereton and Stephenson animatedly mention that much of the collection on display will not be original. They also talk about the public interacting directly with the objects themselves. With this in mind, Griffins posed the following question to Brereton, “Will you make any distinctions within the collection regarding what visitors can and can’t touch? And how will you avoid confusing visitors who may be used to not being allowed to touch anything?” Brereton responded that, for the most part, objects of high value will be placed above reach. Efforts are being made to avoid putting barriers up altogether. “The last thing [we] want to do is box everything off completely.” Therefore, the solution was to include replicas in the exhibits that people could touch whilst retaining authentic material at a safe distance. The 17th-century bedspread is an example of this. The same fabric has been reproduced to form the bed curtains, the aim being to direct those who wish to touch the fabric away from the real heritage item. Obstacles that are a part of the setup have been strategically placed to block people from getting easy access to the bedspread itself.

The idea of the collection being experiential reminds me a little of what was discussed in another IIC Congress presentation by Sarah-Jane Rennie. Rennie talked a little about the collection at Rouse Hill House and Farm in Sydney, and the efforts being made to preserve spirit of place instead of the tangible evidence of a moment in time. In a similar vein, the immersive quality of Gladstone’s Land is fuelled by a curatorship that encourages a refocus on the tangible. It will be interesting to note any guidelines (if any) that are put in place to remind people that although they can interact with the objects on display, they must still respect the items as being part of a National Trust collection. And I wonder how Gladstone’s Land will avoid confusing visitors who may be used to not being allowed to touch anything.

Environment: managing the internal and external fabric of Gladstone’s Land

Brereton and Stephenson note the building is in pretty stable condition. Humidity is being closely monitored, as well as light levels. A member of the team at Gladstone’s Land makes a round of the space at least once a week, therefore if anything were to rise or dip below the required measures, they would know about it. “The only real problem”, Stephenson said, “is the dust.” However, once the cleaning starts in December 2020 this won’t be so much of an issue. The next big step, in terms of managing the building’s internal fabric for visitors, would be to remove the layers of protective tissue from the ceiling. This provides the perfect Segway into the next question answered by the panel: “are there any treatment plans for removing the wax varnish applied in the ‘30s from the painted ceilings, or will the National Trust’s simply remove the tissue after all the furnishings are in place?”

Image 1. Screenshot from Virtual Edinburgh Tour showcasing a Gladstone’s Land room in the stages of instalment, with objects cloth-covered to protect from dust.

After seeking advice and discussing the topic further with Karen Dundas of Scottish Wall Paintings Conservators, it was deemed impractical to attempt removing the varnish. Rather than “interfering”, Brereton believes that it’s better just to leave it as it is. Over the last hundred years there has been quite a lot of invasive treatment inflicted on the paintings. Stephenson mentioned during the tour that sections of the wall were retouched in the 70s and 40s. The National Trust are now applying a less-is-more approach; a philosophy deducing that it’s less about stripping the layers back and more about keeping the building’s historical blueprint visible to all.

Another object of interest is the several-hundred-years-of-paper-and-paint sandwich on the wall in what will become the Gladstone’s Land communal eating area. As with the wax-resin varnish layers in the upper floors, the aim with this historical segment is to simply highlight it for the benefit of all. The new plan involves having the area framed and attaching an inscription that talks about the sample and its relevance to the rest of the house. It really is a very interesting object in and of itself. According to Brereton during the removal of wooden panelling in other parts of the house more fascinating titbits of historiographical information have been discovered, such as original plasterwork and shelves. Once you start peeling back the layers, who knows where the journey might take you.

Archival/Historical research

Every floor will in essence reflect the residents and the businesses that existed there. Stephenson notes how lucky the team were with curating the draper’s shop, because they were able to base their knowledge of its complex compendium of things on a recently discovered series of accounts. These accounts presented the team with a direct link to the past. The research team were able to establish what was being sold and for how much, and how the business in general was running from the merchant’s shop and ship. “The idea is to reproduce these things as faithfully as possible, so that they really do feel part of the experience. They’re not presented specifically as interpretation, they’re just there. It gives an added layer to be able to actually…read and look through the desk and things like that. And you will find this information and interpret as you go.” (In regards to decoding the painted ceiling it might be worth looking into the following suggestion posted by audience member Katy Lithgow: “I imagine you are already aware of the Addy et al. article 2017 which discusses the use of pattern books as a source for the images, and their religious symbolism – like the painted closet of Lady An Bacon at Ipswich…. another angle for interpretation.”)

The holiday apartments: a short pitch

“The flats are available for anyone that wants”, begins Stephenson. Gladstone’s Land is set to open on the 1st of April 2021. You can opt for guided or self-guided tours; the latter will allow you to wander around at your own pace. If you opt for the prior, however, you will have a choice of three fantastic tours: the first will take you on the 500-year history of trade in the building; the second will guide you through women’s lived experiences and a history of sect; and the third involves a walking tour that will take you as far as Georgian House. If that hasn’t sold Gladstone’s Land to you already, you can even stay in one of the amazing 5-star apartments.

Image 2. Screenshot from Virtual Edinburgh Tour showcasing view from one of the holiday rooms.

Situated at the heart of the Old Town, guests in the Gladstone’s Land holiday apartments can soak up the atmosphere of historic Edinburgh while enjoying one of the best addresses the city has to offer. The Harrison, Gladstone and O’Neill flats are a great base for exploring the city and further afield. Forming an essential part of Edinburgh’s Old Town silhouette, the flats sit on the second and fourth floors of the property and provide a cosy escape from the bustling city below. (https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/gladstones-land/things-to-do)

As indicated in the quote above, each of the flats has been gifted the name of one of its past residents. Small snippets of information alluding to Harrison, Gladstone and O’Neill surround. From journal entries to wall inscriptions, hidden facts about them can be located throughout the holiday flat which, despite being a luxury apartment, advertently holds an intrinsic connection to the rest of the building.

Gladstone’s Land also has a liquor licence, so you can sip a glass of wine or two whilst taking in the beauty of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Or perhaps you’d prefer to shimmy down an ice cream from Gladstone’s 17th-century parlour. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

After hearing the pitch both Isobel Griffin and I jointly agreed, “Great, we’re in!”


You can learn more about Gladstone’s Land via the following social channels:

Website: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/gladstones-land/things-to-do

Podcast: https://gladstonesland.podbean.com

Facebook: https://en-gb.facebook.com/GladstonesLand/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/GladstonesLand?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gladstonesland/?hl=en


About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a 2019 Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute. She earned her Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne and her B.A./B.F.A (Hons) in English and Ancient History with a specialisation in Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. Alexandra completed a postgraduate certificate on Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art in Umbria, Italy, and is currently working at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge, U.K. 

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


Thanks to the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.

For more information on the IIC Edinburgh Congress 2020 visit: https://www.iiconservation.org/congress/Edinburgh

And for other daily discussions and session insights, read: https://www.iiconservation.org/congress/edinburgh/blog