Hill House

Hill House 2015

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the upper part of Helensburgh, a small town on the Firth of Clyde, became populated with a series of grand, individually designed villas commissioned by rich businessmen who could afford to move out of Glasgow but still needed to live nearby for work. (Helensburgh Upper Railway Station, opened in 1894, helped to make this possible.)

Many of the houses were very traditional in nature, as I’ll show later, but publisher Walter Blackie was more visionary. He appointed Charles Rennie Mackintosh as his architect, resulting in Hill House (designed 1902), as seen in all its glory at the top of this post.

Not only was Mackintosh’s design innovative, he used innovative materials too. Scottish houses are often harled (roughcast) with lime, but Mackintosh chose to use a more modern material: cement. It was easier to work into the curves and crisp angles of his building, but there was a serious flaw – the Scottish weather. Traditional lime harling allows a building to breathe. If cement roughcast cracks, rain soaks in but cannot evaporate back out. This has caused a lifetime of damp and damage to the walls and interiors – according to the National Trust for Scotland which owns the house, it is “dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water.” NTS has decided to buy time by creating the Hill House Box.

Hill House Box 2019

This shelter, designed by architects Carmody Groarke, is made of steel mesh and will protect the house from up to 80% of rainfall. At the same time the wind can pass through, water can evaporate and, as the house dries out, plans can be made for its future conservation, a process which is likely to take up to 15 years.

We’ve made many visits to Hill House over the years. On our first visit to the Box we were impressed, not just with the boldness of the solution, but also with the way that NTS has ensured that the visitor misses nothing. In fact, you see Hill House as never before. Two walkways allow an incredible bird’s-eye view.

Inside is as beautiful as ever – the Blackie family could just have walked out a few minutes ago. Youngest daughter Agnes has left her bicycle, and Walter has obviously been busy in the cosy library, one of the few rooms without the classic Mackintosh touch.

Elsewhere, the interior design of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald is much in evidence. The pair worked closely together: Charles said “Margaret has genius, I have only talent”. The drawing room and Anna Blackie’s bedroom are particularly fine. You can also see, at the end of the gallery below, examples of both interior damage and stencilling restoration.

After touring the house we wandered outside for a while waiting for the next part of our visit.

At 1pm, one of the guides, the excellent Taylor, led a group of visitors a couple of blocks downhill to compare and contrast two other houses of similar vintage. These were Red Tower (William Leiper, 1898) and the White House (M. H. Baillie-Scott, 1899). Red Tower is traditionally Scottish Baronial in style. It spent some time as a Drug Rehabilitation Centre earlier this century, but has since been taken back into private hands and restored as a 14-bedroom dwelling-house, which is apparently occupied by only two people. Baillie-Scott’s building has more in common with Hill House – he also designed Blackwell in Cumbria, another house I love to visit which always reminds me of Mackintosh. Both The White House and Blackwell pre-dated Hill House, so who influenced whom?

I know from my heritage volunteering with Maryhill Burgh Halls that their architect also designed a house nearby, so I asked Taylor if she knew which one. She went off to get her plan and identified it for me – it was right next door. Cuilvona (Duncan McNaughtan, 1907) is a mock-Tudor villa which is barely visible from the road. However, part of the Hill House walkway looks right down on it, so after lunch (yes, Hill House has an excellent café in its new visitor centre) we headed back in to look. John took the photograph through the wire mesh which is why it’s less sharp.

I had photographed the plan, so we could also identify some of the other houses. Here are Morar House (at one time known as Drumadoon; Leiper, 1903), Ardluss (Leiper, 1900) and Dhuhill (I think – in which case, James Smith c. 1850). Having been empty for some years, after serving as a nursing home, Morar House ended up on the Buildings at Risk Register, but has recently been converted to flats.

There was still part of the afternoon left, so we looked at the map and plumped for a visit to Glenarn, a 10 acre private garden in the nearby village of Rhu, which is open in the summer months as part of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme.

This was a lovely day out. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hill House Box, but I was very impressed with what NTS has done and I fervently hope that it leads them to a permanent solution for conserving Mackintosh’s masterpiece.

Newhailes and Inveresk

Front view

Newhailes, then called Whitehill, was built around 1686 and extended in the 18th century by the Dalrymple family who added a library wing and the ‘Great Apartment’. In 1997, it passed into the care of the National Trust for Scotland. I can report that the interiors are magnificent (you can imagine me swooning over a whole library wing) but access is by guided tour and no photography is allowed, so I can’t show you. However, before our tour we followed the very pleasant trail round the grounds, and I can certainly show you that.

The Trust is busy restoring the landscape, but even in its current state you can still get an impression of how it might have looked to 18th-century visitors. The first curiosities we came across were the Shell Grotto and the remains of a Tea House, both dating from the mid-1700s.

We skirted the Cow Park (where I am standing) and the Sheep Park (where John is standing) which are divided by the Ladies’ Walk. This is the artificially raised path to the right of the other picture. It’s very overgrown now so you walk alongside it, but its original purpose was to elevate ladies in both body and mind, with views back to the house one way and out to the skyline of Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills the other.

This is the view of the house from the back:

From here, we moved round to the front to meet the guide for our tour.

Our day wasn’t finished yet, because close to Newhailes is another NTS site, Inveresk Lodge Garden. We had another lovely stroll here, although by this time it was raining. That’s a day out in Scotland for you! Beautiful sunshine in the morning and cold and wet in the afternoon. Musn’t grumble – it accounts for the lush greenness. Enjoy!

Two Towers

Clackmannan Tolbooth

A four mile circular walk between two towers – Clackmannan and Alloa – starts at Clackmannan Tollbooth. This was built in 1592 as a court, prison and administrative centre, but only the west gable and bell-tower now remain. Next to it, you can see a boulder sitting on top of another boulder – this is what gives the town its name. It’s the “Clack” or Stone of Mannan, named after the Celtic God Manau, which started life to the south of the town before being moved to Clackmannan Tower and then to the Tolbooth in 1833. Next to that is the shaft of the Mercat Cross which dates back to the 1600s and still shows signs of wear from the chains of prisoners who were attached to it as punishment. The ball finial was added in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

After admiring this rather odd collection of structures, we headed out of town to Clackmannan Tower, the oldest parts of which date to 1359. It suffered subsidence and partial collapse because of mine-workings in the 1940s, but Historic Scotland has repaired it. It’s only open occasionally though, and this was one of the days it had to be admired from outside.

The hill on which it is perched has contrasting views to either side – one way to flat farmland running down to the Forth; the other to the Ochil Hills – and a lot of cows.

Continuing along the hillside, Alloa came into view and we descended through trees to a small burn.

After we crossed the bridge, the next part of the walk was through a residential area as the town has now surrounded the Tower.

This is one of Scotland’s largest surviving medieval tower houses, the ancestral home of the Earls of Mar from around 1368. It has a very surprising interior though. If you enlarge the pictures above, you might be able to see the lines of previous extensions. A mansion was attached to the tower in 1680 and the 6th Earl renovated the house in the early 1700s, inspired by the elegant villas he had seen on his Grand Tour of Europe. The mansion burnt down in 1800 and was rebuilt 38 years later. It then fell into ruin and was eventually pulled down around 1960. The tower was left derelict until 1988 when Clackmannanshire Council set up a preservation trust under National Trust for Scotland supervision to restore it and it was opened to the public in 1996. Unfortunately, though, photography is not allowed inside so you will have to take my word for it that the interior is much more elegant than the exterior suggests – or see the pictures on the NTS site. I did use my phone to take this photo in the Ladies though – the message amused me!

You have been warned!
You have been warned!

One place you can take pictures is from the roof of the Tower, from which we could see back to Clackmannan Tower where we started.

Our route back took us across the flat ground near the river which we had spied from above at the beginning of the walk. This is the Black Devon Wetland nature reserve – the Black Devon being a river running into the Forth. To start with, we had a row of pylons to guide us, then we veered off across farm tracks back to Clackmannan.

I’m linking this post to Jo’s Monday Walks. She’s following mountain goats this week and her other contributors have been all over the place! Check the link for some great posts.

Geilston Garden and Tom na h’Airidh

View from Tom na h'Airidh
View from Tom na h’Airidh
Tom na h’Airidh is a small (354m) hill behind Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde. (The name is Gaelic for “Knoll of the Shieling”, a shieling being a summer residence for cattle and goats.) We recently climbed to the top following the route on the excellent walkhighlands site – but we’d already made a couple of stops before we got started.

Geilston Garden is a National Trust for Scotland property at Cardross, just outside Helensburgh, and we spent the morning strolling round there. It surrounds Geilston House (which is not open to the public) with informal sections resplendent at the time with rhododendrons and azaleas……

….and behind the house, a beautiful Walled Garden dominated by a 100-ft Wellingtonia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the centre of the lawn (and plenty of benches to admire it from).

Well, if you’ve read any of my other walks you will know the importance of lunch so after the exertions (?) of our morning stroll we headed down into Helensburgh to sample the tapas at La Barca (not bad at all). I like to think our climb burned the calories off, but I fear not.

The first part of the walk up Tom na h’Airidh is through oak woodland and forestry plantation – not particularly photogenic and extremely wet underfoot, so there was a fair amount of cursing going on. Once out of the trees, the open moorland was a bit drier (but not entirely so). My two objections to Scottish hillwalking are bogs and tussocks and this walk had both in abundance.

Here we are at the top, with the cairn to prove it – I look very pleased with myself!

Time to enjoy more views as we retraced our steps back to the car….

….which was parked outside Hill House, masterpiece of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The house (also NTS) was closed by then – I’ve been inside many times but never blogged about it. Another time!

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walks – visit her site for more cyber-walking.

The Dunmore Pineapple

Dunmore Pineapple
Dunmore Pineapple
This is a lovely, short loop (under 3 miles) starting at the Dunmore Pineapple. The 4th Earl of Dunmore gave this eccentric building to his wife as a birthday present in the 1770s. Pineapples were exotic and highly prized delicacies symbolising power, wealth and hospitality, so I can see the point he was trying to make – but it must have been rather a large gift to keep a secret. These days, it belongs to the National Trust for Scotland which rents it out as a holiday home.

After leaving the Pineapple’s grounds, we walked through an avenue of Giant Redwood trees. A detour uphill took as to the ruined Elphinstone Tower (1510) and its overgrown graveyard. I found it sad to see the tombs so neglected.

The path then led us through farmland and an avenue of much smaller trees before crossing a road into the Conservation Area of Dunmore Village. What a pretty little place! It was rebuilt in the 19th century by Catherine, widow of the 6th Earl, in an English style with houses round the village green. The fountain was brought specially from London and has recently been restored. The house with the horse-shoe shaped door (bottom left, click to enlarge) used to be the blacksmith’s, or smiddy.

The path continued with fields of oil-seed rape on one side and the Firth of Forth on the other. Across the water, we could see Clackmannan Tower.

After the quaintness of the conservation village, it was then a surprise to come across a brand new and very modern house.

Finally, we crossed the road again and returned to the Pineapple via Dunmore Park. This was built as a family home in the 1820s, became a school in the 1960s and is now practically derelict. According to the route notes there are plans to turn it into luxury apartments, but it may be too far gone for that.

Dunmore Park
Dunmore Park
I loved this impressive array of buildings from different eras in a very short walk, and the views weren’t bad either. Pop over to Jo’s Monday Walks to see where everyone else has been.  



Scottish Snapshots: Branklyn Garden

Scottish Snapshots is a series of short posts about places I visited in 2013 but didn’t write about at the time

Branklyn Garden is a National Trust for Scotland site in Perth. It’s a small (2 acres) but magnificent garden with an impressive collection of unusual plants, including the rare Himalayan blue poppy. My Mum and Dad love gardens so I took them there one afternoon last summer. We had a lovely time as you can see below.

Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle
Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle, which has a beautiful cliff-top setting on the Ayrshire coast, was the home of the Chief of Clan Kennedy until the family donated it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1945 in lieu of inheritance tax. These days, you can tour the 18th century house with its Robert Adam architecture, relax in the gardens or walk the trails in the surrounding grounds of the country park. My sister and two nieces have just been up visiting from London, and this was one of the places I took them – it satisfied the teenagers and the 50+s, so comes highly recommended. We did all the above, and enjoyed a good lunch in the Home Farm Restaurant too – very tasty baked potatoes. That sounds basic, but we visited other places (which shall remain nameless) where the lunches were not nearly as good for the same sort of price. Our only complaint about the day would be that the leaflet you are given on arrival is rather inadequate for walking the estate – there are far more paths than are shown on it, and very few signposts on the ground. However, getting a wee bit lost is part of the fun, and there are so many paths you couldn’t walk them all in one day anyway. A reason to go back!

Birnam Hill and Dunkeld

Today was lovely and bright and perfect for a walk. We climbed Birnam Hill, a circuit of about 5 miles and around 1300 feet of ascent. If you’ve heard of Birnam, you’ve probably read or seen Macbeth! Not that there’s much of Birnam Wood left these days, what with the railway and the A9 both cutting through it.

Going clockwise on the walk, the slope is relatively gentle with good, broad paths until the final ascent which is steep (with steps to help) and muddy. The views at the top, over to Highland Perthshire, are fantastic, especially on such a clear day.


The way down is steeper and muddier, but I’m glad we went that way so that we didn’t miss the views back down to Birnam and Dunkeld. I think I look quite intrepid here!


Beatrix Potter spent several holidays in Birnam and wrote her first picture letter here, which later became The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and there is now a museum and garden dedicated to her. I’m not too sure what some of these bunny rabbits in the garden are up to!


After a good lunch in the Birnam Inn, we strolled over the Tay to Dunkeld and spent the afternoon exploring the cathedral and wandering by the river with its Thomas Telford-designed bridge. Many of the houses in the town are owned by the National Trust for Scotland.





After that, it was back to the hotel to prepare for dinner with our appetites restored. I do find that fresh air makes me very hungry!