Keith Halstead: Trust us – we have a plan for Gladstone’s Land use

23,000 people visit Gladstones Land every year. Picture: Ian Georgeson
23,000 people visit Gladstones Land every year. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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David Hamill’s thoughtful comments about the ­National Trust for Scotland’s proposals for Gladstone’s Land (Comment, June 19) reminded me that, just like everything in life, even heritage has to change.

Gladstone’s Land is a prime example of a building where adaptation has been the key to survival. Dating back to the 16th century, it has served many purposes – as a tenement, shop and slum. By 1934, it was so unloved by the good burghers of Edinburgh that they intended to demolish it and that was when NTS stepped in.

Our original plan was to restore the building and put it back to use. The ground floor was let to an antiques dealer in 1938, with other rooms used as offices.

Then, ideas changed. ‘Working heritage’ fell out of favour and it was deemed that museum-style reconstructions were what the public wanted. So, that is what was done – approximations of what were thought to be period room layouts were enacted, drawing unoriginal furniture, fixtures and fittings from elsewhere.

Now, after much painstaking research, we know that these reconstructions are wrong. We have an almost complete history of who lived and worked in Gladstone’s Land. For example, we now know that in the 1620s the kitchen range as displayed would never have been indoors as communal ovens in the back court would have used.

If this new information hadn’t been enough to justify a rethink, then hard facts make it inescapable. Despite 1.5 million people passing by on their way to Edinburgh Castle each year, only 23,000 chose to visit Gladstone’s Land. The building is awkward: it has a small entrance and its confines mean that it is only possible for people to tour in small groups. Contrary to what David Hamill says, this is not a question of money – the property actually turns a small profit –but NTS has to consider long-term conservation and presentation. Across our estate, we are thinking about different ways to manage properties to ensure their survival and relevance.

We have examples where ‘awkward’ properties have been given a new lease of life. For example, Hutcheson’s Hall in central Glasgow never worked as a ­visited property – but having been leased to a restaurateur, it is now being seen and enjoyed by more people than ever.

A similar arrangement at Gladstone’s Land would be a return to the Trust’s original vision while continuing nearly 500 years of commercial and residential use. It will become a living, breathing part of the Royal Mile once again. We can present the fruits of our research in new and exciting ways and ensure that tour groups still access the spectacular painted ceilings – on more floors than currently seen.

To be clear, we are very grateful to David and all of the other volunteers who have supported us over the years and hope this continues, as will our care for this historic building and its marvellous painted ceilings. But we want to bring out its true heritage as a trading and living space through the wealth of social history, characters and events which we now know about. We are sure our rethink of Gladstone’s Land will enable us to convey an even richer insight into Edinburgh’s story.

Keith Halstead is the National Trust for Scotland’s head of special projects