Scotland is blessed with a wealth of historic buildings, from majestic castles to grand country homes, but for me some of the most interesting are the ones which offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of our forebears. The National Trust for Scotland is well aware of the importance of preserving these places; the Tenement House in Glasgow, the Weaver’s Cottage in Kilbarchan and Robert Burns’ birthplace at Alloway are some examples – however one place which manages to combine cosy domesticity with the look and feel of a Scottish Baronial mansion is Hill House in Helensburgh, designed by the outstanding Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and a short, scenic drive from your self catering accommodation at Ballat Smithy Cottage.
There’s a huge amount of information available from NTS and other sources for anyone who wants to know more about the history of this beautiful but crumbling building, but there’s no substitute for seeing for yourself, and I visited recently filled with curiosity about a place which is no ordinary visitor attraction.
First and foremost this has clearly been a much loved family home, and it’s easy to imagine the laughter of children playing in the spacious hallway or running straight from the garden into the elegant sitting room. But how many family homes are designed by a creative genius whose eye for space, and light, and detail, and proportion produces an effortless beauty which, like Mackintosh’s predecessors the Adam brothers, is utterly timeless? Hill House is superb.
The National Trust for Scotland is a charity with a well deserved reputation for immaculately maintained, beautifully presented properties, however the Scottish weather combined with a serious misjudgement by the genius architect has created an issue which I suspect has challenged the organisation as it’s never been challenged before. Mackintosh chose to use cement render to clad the building, instead of the traditional lime render, because he had seen it used with success in Spain – as we all know, a hot, dry country. Scotland, especially the West of Scotland, is anything but hot and dry, and the cement render combined with relentless wind and rain turned out to be a disaster. Every tiny crack or blemish allowed water to seep in to the soft sandstone walls, effectively turning this magnificent creation into a giant sponge, soaking wet.
Imagine the headache – you have an architectural gem of iconic importance, and it’s slowly but inexorably
disintegrating before your eyes. What do you do? Answer – you put it in a box!
The Hill House is probably the most remarkable historic building you’ll ever visit – where else would you have the opportunity to walk around the outside of the building and look down on the roof? NTS has erected a colossal steel shed over the entire structure, to protect it and allow it to dry out, at the same time creating a unique and unforgettable twist to the visitor experience. This was a very bold move which was not without local opposition, and technically it’s only temporary to buy time while conservation experts decide what to do next, but I loved it and I hope it will be retained in some form.
Definitely a place which should be on the list of everyone who comes to stay at Ballat Smithy Cottage – there’s a great café too, and if you’re interested in late 19th and early 20th Century architecture there are some other real beauties in the surrounding streets!