Kirsty Gunn: Tartan fudge is a poor substitute for a '˜Land' we can all call home

Some things are worth preserving. That's an expression we hear all the time, don't we? And think we agree with it because, in the way of most homilies, agreement is built into the phrase. We don't stop to ask: What, for example, are the 'things'? Or why, anyhow, should they be 'worth' it?

The magical Gladstones Land is more on the radar of tourists and research visitors than Scots. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The magical Gladstones Land is more on the radar of tourists and research visitors than Scots. Picture: Ian Georgeson

At the moment there’s a big discussion going on over the future of Gladstone’s Land, the 16th and 17th century townhouse in the heart of Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket that was taken on by the National Trust for Scotland back in 1934. Like so many of our national treasures, the property goes unacknowledged by a lot of people. Where is it? What is it? Calling a house “Land” . . . What’s all that about in the first place? Is this one of those “things” that are just too darn fancy for their own good, with no value at all for – and here comes that phrase beloved of Holyrood, and as manipulative as a homily, when you come to think about it, that also has us nodding along meekly without protesting as to what it might mean for us – “the Scottish PEOPLE”?

Like so many National Trust and Heritage properties throughout Scotland, Gladstone’s Land is probably more on the radar of eager tourists and international research visitors and historians than it is on the “To Visit” list of most Scots. After all, we come across “heritage” and “history” whenever we step out the door. Indeed, for some, the door needn’t even be stepped out of, for it is the door itself that’s historical – whether that of an 18th century tenement or a Highland crofthouse. So, no need to make a point of paying for it, might well be our thinking, too. Our past is already, thank you very much, at hand.

And for sure, it’s always been quite hard to see, Gladstone’s Land. It’s set back from the road, is part of it, and, lately, harder than ever to gauge and enter because of the front area having been set up now as a sort of gift shop, and so easy to mistake from one of the many similar kind of outlets up and down the length of the Royal Mile selling tartan this and tartan that. Who would know that if they pushed past the teddy bears in kilts they would be coming upon the magic of something they didn’t expect and was waiting for them all along, right there in the middle of town? Yet here it is, a clearly defined space that is principally domestic in nature, given over to describing function and the sensibility of the kinds of people who would have lived there, both formal and chaotic, grandly imaginative and humble.

And who would have though that it would be quite so through-the-wardrobe and Alice-in-Wonderland-ish, the feeling of walking through the rooms of this “Land”, the term used to describe individually owned houses back in the 16th century, accompanied by one of the many volunteer guides who take you through every part and who know everything about the area and Edinburgh as well, and bring to their job a vivid sense of engaging with the past as you walk with them in the present in the past. Yes, magical is exactly the right word. More magical than so many of the more endowed grand houses set up for floods of visitors who need to be shepherded through cordoned off rooms in parties, mostly geared towards taking in the paintings on the walls and the furniture in the rooms than celebrating the actual feeling of being within the body of a house, as it were. Gladstone’s Land feels like you’re IN the past, not just looking at its features.

Yet it’s for these exact reasons, perhaps, that its charms are hidden, somewhat, from view, only quietly spoken for, that closure is threatened. Well not closure, but change of use – which amounts to pretty much the same thing. For its magnificent upper rooms with the glorious painted ceiling are now to be featured as details in a rental agreement. Gladstone’s Land is being put up by the National Trust for Scotland as a short-term let. Those strange and curious rooms that are so affecting will be decked out with Ikea furniture and tea and coffee-making facilities, and closed to anyone who, in the past, and in the words of David Hamill, one of the volunteers who wrote about the property recently for this paper put it, could swing by whenever they wanted and enjoy it “on a drop-in basis”. The new set-up may be a nice enough arrangement for those who paid to have a few days there, perhaps, but leaves the rest of us feeling a bit left out, somehow. That something we always thought of as ours, is now someone else’s.

For the thing about “heritage” is that it shouldn’t be a cliche or a homily. We shouldn’t get its values muddled up by notions of popularity or recognisability or sensationalism. It shouldn’t need to be “a success story”, that old jingle, or “a great hit”. Heritage is not a Disney film with people in kilts. Even if we don’t always know about a place that is part of our past, we want to believe we can know, and access and be inspired by it, whenever we want. To have a feeling of heritage at our back, as it were. And in our sights. Perhaps it’s a bit like “right to roam” – another well-used phrase but unlike “heritage” because we all know what “right to roam” means, that it gives us access, all of us, to all of Scotland to range around in. So “heritage” could be part of the same sort of sensibility, that we might, emotionally, feel invested in all of Scotland’s past, all of us . . . on a “drop-in” basis. It’s part of the Scottish sensibility, maybe, that doesn’t want to be penned in, that also doesn’t want to be told: “No entry”?

That’s why I don’t like the idea of Gladstone’s Land being turned into a for-profit lettings venture. Whether or not it keeps itself going in some version of its current configuration – and Keith Halstead of the Trust assures us that he does want to “bring out its true heritage as a trading and living space” by “rethinking” the space, and will be letting people phone in advance to see if they can make a time to visit when there are no lodgers there and anyway they can always access the shop – the fact is: why should everything, absolutely everything, have to be fixed to a buy and sell model? What’s that quote of Oscar Wilde’s about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing? Well . . .

Getting a packet of fudge with a tartan ribbon is no substitute for the feeling of a house bang in the middle of town that you can call in on whenever you want to. Whether or not we choose to visit, that’s what home is.