An architectural historian with the Royal Commission on the Architectural and Historical Monuments of Scotland which subsequently merged with Historic Scotland, Diane Watters was asked to co-author a history of the National Trust for Scotland's Little Houses in Scotland scheme which was published in 2006. What follows is based on her presentation to the 20th anniversary AGM of the Fife historic Building Trust in 2017.
Founded in 1960, LHiS won the FBS Foundation medal along with other rehabilitation projects in Italy and Germany during 1975 which was celebrated as the European Architectural Heritage Year. The medal recognised the scheme's provision of a local focus to campaign against modernist urban planning, providing social regeneration with underlying gentrification at a time when the conservation movement run by the Civic Trust was headed up by royal and aristocratic representation.
Although the late 1970s and 1980s were the scheme's most productive Years as it got into its stride preserving, restoring and selling houses of note, it had its roots in 1930s attempts to save the ordinary old houses of Scotland's small burghs which might otherwise have been lost to slum clearance, shifting after the war according to the political climate and the ever-increasing role of the state.
Culross became the exploratory model when the newly-created National Trust for Scotland in 1932 bought the Palace and nine other properties with donations from members of the public. The Royal Burgh had retained its medieval street plan but gone into decline from the eighteenth century, and as the 1930 and 1935 Housing Acts brought about pressure for new municipal developments, a national crusade was launched to save what the modernists regarded as slums matching European opposition to modernity. In 1927 architect Frank Mears formed the Council for the Preservation of Rural Scotland which, inspired by the writing of his father-in-law Patrick Geddes, saw the small burghs as a symbol of a proud independent older community. A pamphlet in 1936 by the 4th Marquess of Bute prompted the commissioning from Ian G Lindsay of a national inventory just at a time when the Saltire Society under Robert Hurd was instigating its Housing Awards. Mears was also involved with the infant national Trust for Scotland under Sir John Stirling Maxwell who later chaired RCAHMS, and these overlapping relationships prompted a climate that sought to embrace all Scots rich and poor alike. Thus Bute saw himself as a a champion of the poor, pressing for better education and urging that instead of being forced out of their surroundings by slum clearance, they should be able to await in a short time the refurbishment of their existing homes.
Lindsay surveyed 1047 properties across 92 burghs in just one year, providing his findings to the Scottish Office so that when a building on it was proposed for demolition the local authority would be asked to give proper consideration to its retention. An informal procedure, this was of course toothless but it was to form the basis after the War for listing with Lindsay as the first chief inspector.
Having acquired properties and stabilised the Palace, NTS in Culross began restoration of its small houses in earnest using private architects and publishing extensively a record of its achievements. the Trust was at its most vocal when campaigning against generic modern types of construction like prefabs, but it always provided solutions. If a Rembrandt came to light covered in dirt, said Lindsay, no sane person would throw it in the bin, and new legislation provided grants for more of the properties on his list, with in all cases the applicant to be the owner and cooperation with the Council to ensure that the restored houses went to local people ,as early antipathy to local authorities faltered in the post-war era.
At Culross Lindsay's concern was for visual unity, and he would rip out interiors while retaining slates, gables, lintels and windows. An appeal in 1959 raised £60,000 which enabled restoration of 30 properties. He also build new homes such as flats for the Scottish Special Housing Association, but was better at restoration and his houses for Polish refugees were acclaimed for being as comfortable within as to look at from outside.
The renovation of nos 5 and 6 Rumford in Crail came at a time when the NTS was becoming concerned that Lindsay's approach was too slow and costly. Advocacy of a changed approach was led by Jamie Stormonth Darling who introduced sale to the highest bidder instead of renting to members of the local community. Thus began the approach of a revolving fund to support the next project which is commonly used to this day by other historic buildings trusts, and the 1959 Housing Act helped by reducing from 20 to 3 years the time-limit for having to repay grants so that NTS could now complete its realignment away from landed gentry and towards the Scottish Development Department. Architects Wheeler & Sprosson restore Rumford with new windows, pantiles and harling, prompting the Earl of Crawford to complain about their invasive and unscholarly approach, but Darling was more concerned that Rumfield only just broke even with public donations.
Restoration in 1962 of The Gyles in Pittenweem which contained a kippering stack and fishermen's hall won architectural design prizes including a Saltire award, and Wheeler & Sprosson went on to specialise in slum clearance sites on land affected by mining subsidence, performing conservation surgery so as to demolish the nineteenth century elements while retaining the best of the seventeenth and eighteenth. At Burntisland they placed a new block next to a restored one, and in Dysart from 1958 into the 1970s they set about mixing old and new in a modern layout. When councillors wanted 43-47 High Street demolished, they allowed W&S to reconstruct. Records gifted by the firm's head Anthony Wheeler to RCAHMS show how the approach had now moved away from social cohesion towards built fabric, as though Culross had been an aberration.
When in 1965 NTS sought to restore old houses at Pan Ha' in Dysart, the change was evident as they pushed for profitability, cutting costs and seeking greater flexibility so as to able to do more, with greater involvement by outside banks and individuals but a new LHiS staff structure with in-house restoration expertise initially headed by Colin McWilliam and masters of works taking on design roles. Sculptor Hew Lorimer, son of Sir Robert but not himself a qualified architect, and Schomberg Scott were key figures with the role of NTS becoming a clearing-house for expertise. Restoration of the Bay Horse Inn by Scott saw internal gutting for a forceful rebuilding by Scott, and was opened by the Queen Mother in 1969 but while praised by conservationists it was shunned by the Saltire and Scottish Civic Trust awards.
LHiS had broken through to more affluent purchasers, quickening the pace of Lindsay's one building per year to twenty-five in a decade (plus thirty-seven new dwellings), but with greater speed Darling had brought a lowering in standards. Bruce Walker became critical of the increasing commercialism with thick harling and standardised door surrounds, seeing in the resultant lack of vernacular a yuppifying of Fife.
NTS's response was that it was hard to achieve an economically viable structure especially with the higher standards envisaged by the growing conservation movement, and from the 1970s economic crisis had shifted priorities again with more competition for available properties. LHiS's focus moved elsewhere with 1990s schemes in the Gorbals and Glasgow's East End, and NTS's own changing circumstances brought down the curtain on a programme which had helped give it a distinct identity.