Meet the apprentices involved in reviving centuries-old careers with a little help from Historic Scotland

Apprentice painter  Tracey Clayton. Picture: Julie Bull
Apprentice painter Tracey Clayton. Picture: Julie Bull
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CENTURIES ago, there was one in every village – carving, chipping, hammering and forging, labouring to create buildings that would stand the test of time and become treasured places in the future.

CENTURIES ago, there was one in every village – carving, chipping, hammering and forging, labouring to create buildings that would stand the test of time and become treasured places in the future.

But as modern construction techniques emerged, demand slumped for stonemasons, thatchers and even expert painters with a steady hand and a knack for intricate gold leafing to decorate the drawing-room cornices.

Now, however, the guardian of Scotland’s ancient buildings, Historic Scotland, is leading a new charge in helping to re-establish some endangered skills – and bringing job hope to a new breed of young apprentices in the process.

The government agency announced in November that it was recruiting 30 new apprentices over the next three years, doubling its apprentice numbers. While many will learn the more modern trades of electrician and plumber, others will be taught skills such as stonemasonry and thatching.

And some, such as the agency’s painters, joiners and gardeners, will learn modern techniques using up-to-date tools alongside vital conservation skills and traditional methods.

According to director of 
conservation David Mitchell, the new generation of apprentices will not only help maintain the agency’s 345 historic sites across the country to the highest historical standards, they will also help keep alive endangered trades for future generations.

“Some skills in Scotland are close to dying out or have died out,” he says. “Thatching, for example, is in demand in rural areas, but is close to being lost completely. This is about these skills being lost, but also about raising our estate maintenance standards.”

Historic Scotland currently employs 350 craftsmen and women.

“Apprentices are given on-the-job training and college-based education, just like any other apprentice would,” adds Mr Mitchell. “You can watch one of our apprentices cutting stone and he is using the same technique as a medieval stonemason, the only difference is he’ll be wearing health and safety kit and breathing apparatus.

“Our carpenters and joiners can end up replacing traditional windows or fixing windows at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, even doing joinery tasks at our shops. There are modern and traditional jobs to do.”

With traditional buildings making up one fifth of Scotland’s housing stock, the skills they learn can also lead to jobs outside the public sector, helping drive up standards of repairs and conserving thousands of other buildings outwith Historic Scotland’s collection. It means the jobs are highly sought after, with around 400 applications for every apprenticeship.

“I get angry when people say young folk aren’t interested in a trade,” adds Mr Mitchell. “We have an unbelievable number of applications, usually all good quality people, all ages.”


KENNY Steven, 24, is an apprentice gardener at the 13th-century Dirleton Castle in East Lothian, where duties include tending to the world’s longest herbaceous border.

But plucking weeds and cutting grass weren’t originally on the former Heriot’s pupil’s career path.

He left school to study geography at Glasgow University, but struggled to find a job to match his degree and he ended up working in an outdoors equipment shop.

“I enjoyed my degree, but I don’t feel it lined me up for any kind of dream job,” he says.

Fed up in retail, he decided he’d rather work outdoors in a more physical job. Yet his gardening experience was limited to helping cut his parents’ grass, while his flat in Liberton doesn’t even have a garden.

He joined Historic Scotland last July, working at Dirleton, with its reconstructed Victorian formal garden, arts and craft-era garden and fragrant herbaceous borders. Now he’s completed a Royal Horticultural Society course and later this year will start at Oatridge College in West Lothian working towards an HNC in horticulture.

“It’s not just weeding and plants,” he insists. “You have to learn about chemical spraying, plant types, landscaping and how to operate heavy machinery like cherry pickers.”

As for tending to the world’s longest herbaceous border, while intimidating at first, Kenny now insists it is his pride and joy.

“When I started, I remember thinking ‘is this my job, weeding this?’ Of course, it’s much more than that, but that side was quite daunting. Now if I see a weed I jump on it and get rid of it,” he laughs.


BILLY Reid, 32, from Fountainbridge, is busy working on 40 coping stones at Historic Scotland’s workshops in Abbeyhill, which will eventually be built into the walls of the Maritime Museum at Trinity House in Leith.

It’s delicate and detailed work, but the final-year apprentice stonemason now has a vast range of experience, having worked with stonemasons in the private sector before joining Historic Scotland in 2009.

“I was doing things like labouring and a bit of stone work and joinery,” he says.

“I believe you have to do the ground work and come to the job with some knowledge so you can show prospective employers that you’re committed. An apprenticeship is four years, but it probably takes around six years to build up all the skills and knowledge you really need.”

He worked initially at Dirleton Castle and then at 14th-century Tantallon Castle in North Berwick, where he did vital work on one of the towers.

A bit different to what he thought he might do after leaving school in his home city, Aberdeen.

“I was interested in traditional skills and crafts, but I was thinking of sculpture at art school,” he says. “This enables me to have a trade and work on things that will be there for hundreds of years and also be creative and artistic.”


TONY Walker, 19, lives in Newtongrange with parents Clare and Tony, who helped spark his interest in stonemasonry through a family friend. Now he’s just completed his first-year apprenticeship.

“I knew I wanted to do something with my hands. I didn’t want to be in an office,” says Tony, who went to St David’s High in Dalkeith. “One of my dad’s mates is a labourer for a stonemason, I got some work experience and enjoyed it.”

Finding Historic Scotland’s apprenticeship programme was as easy as hitting the internet, but he then had to battle against hundreds of other applicants to get the job. “Eventually it came down to two of us, we went for a skills test and I got through,” he recalls. “You just need fairly basic qualifications, but you need to be able to show you’re capable of using hand tools. What’s important is having a lot of patience and being accurate.”

During his training, he’ll spend time at Telford College learning elements of modern stonemasonry.

“It’s almost like doing a university degree,” adds Tony. “You have to want to do it, because it is a long time training and it’s hard work.

“What’s great is you’re outdoors, it’s physical, and working for Historic Scotland means the pay is good. I’ve even got a pension started.

“Plus, I think it’s pretty impressive when someone asks what you do for a living and you turn around and say ‘Well, I’m a stonemason for Historic Scotland’.”


HANNAH Ross, 20, from Whitecraig, East Lothian, joined Historic Scotland’s joinery apprenticeship scheme two years ago after laying down the groundwork at college.

Now in what she calls her “perfect job”, she admits that at Musselburgh Grammar School she had no idea what she wanted to do.

“All I knew is that I wanted to do something with my hands,” she says. “I enjoyed craft and design, but I didn’t really have a job in mind.”

She ended up in an entry to construction course at Jewel and Esk College, where she became one of the star students. Then she beat 250 applicants to snatch a role as an apprentice joiner at Historic Scotland.

More recently, she’s helped maintain the windows at Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle, and helped make a stair and platform from solid oak for 15th-century Blackness Castle.

Her apprenticeship means she gets top-level training along with the chance to work with different kinds of wood, using a broad range of methods.

“Normally joiners will work in white wood or red wood at college, but I’m working with all types, using traditional methods. I’m building up a background in modern and traditional skills,” she says.


TRACEY Clayton, 44, of Little France, is in her first year as a Historic Scotland apprentice painter – finally working towards qualifications for a job she’s done for years.

“I worked for a painter and decorator for nine years,” she says. “We were actually working on a contract at Edinburgh Castle and I heard Historic Scotland was looking for apprentice painters.

“The work I’d been doing was pretty basic. This was a chance to learn everything, from gold leafing to paper hanging and conservation.”

The mum-of-two started in March and the job has already taken her to places most never see. “It’s fantastic to go behind the scenes and see things up close. I was working at the palace just before the Jubilee, setting up for the garden party.

“It’s not just being there, you’re up close so you can see the stonework and all the amazing detail, which is fascinating. I used to visit Edinburgh Castle regularly anyway and I live near Craigmillar Castle, so I’m interested in these historic places.”

There are now three apprentices in the family – son Jamie, 20, is an apprentice plasterer and 18-year-old Brett, who lives with Tracey, works as an apprentice painter, both employed by local firms.

“There are apprenticeships out there if people look for them,” says Tracey.

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