Troubled National Trust sells off Leith landmark

THE 16th-century town house where Mary Queen of Scots was welcomed when she arrived to claim the Scottish throne has been sold by the National Trust of Scotland (NTS) as part of its drive to improve its troubled finances.

After years of neglect, Lamb's House in Leith has been bought by one of the country's leading conservation architects for a sum believed to be around 1 million.

Nicholas Groves-Raines, an architect who has restored many other historic buildings of that period, hopes to transform the derelict A-listed building into a family home and offices for his architectural practice.

The sale reflects the more pragmatic approach being taken by the NTS towards its finances after several years of financial uncertainty.

The Trust has sold a few of its lesser-known properties in an attempt to balance its books, but Lamb's House is the most significant piece of Scotland's heritage to have been taken out of NTS ownership in recent years.

The Trust's precarious financial position led to controversy last year when the conservation charity cut 65 jobs and mothballed properties in order to save money. The organisation's cash reserves, which should be at about 17m, stand at 4m.

"Caring for heritage properties is an increasingly expensive business and we recognise that we have to get the balance right," said Kate Mavor, the NTS chief executive.

"We have limited resources and believe these should be directed towards the properties that people can visit and enjoy. The Trust cares for these places on behalf of the nation and access is one of our core principles.

"We give very careful consideration when deciding to sell a property and the financial and conservation benefits have to be balanced. As is the case with Lamb's House, this not only reduces the call on our funds, but helps secure the investment needed to maintain these buildings, ensuring they survive for future generations."

With its crow-stepped gables, tall chimneys and massive fireplaces, the A-listed house was once the finest residence in Leith.

It was there that Mary Queen of Scots sheltered on a misty morning when she sailed into Leith Harbour from France on 18 August 1561.

The first owner was a wealthy merchant named Andrew Lamb. A contemporary record claims the young Queen "remainit in Andro Lamb's hous be the space of an hour" while messages were sent to Edinburgh informing nobles that she had come home.

For a building with such a distinguished past, its more recent history has been chequered. For decades Leithers have been dismayed by the deterioration of the building and in the 1930s there was a serious risk that it would have to be demolished.

It was almost burnt down in around 1936 when children broke in and lit a bonfire. The then Marquess of Bute bought it for 200 in 1938 and spent thousands on its restoration. In October 1958, it was acquired by the NTS.

Since then one of its incarnations has been as a day centre for the elderly. More recently there were plans to convert it into flats. In 2008, the NTS and EDI Group, a development firm linked to Edinburgh City Council, were given planning permission for the scheme but the project stalled due to planning complications.

The Trust's director of properties and visitor services, Pete Selman said: "Lamb's House is a Leith landmark. This deal will ensure that the building is restored to its former glory and that it will survive for many hundreds more years. Its new owners are experts in the field of building conservation and will ensure that the development is sensitive to the age and importance of the building."

Groves-Raines has a track record of restoring ancient buildings. The dwellings his practice has worked on include Forter Castle in Glenisla, Liberton House in Edinburgh, Traquair House in Peebleshire, Edinample Castle in Perthshire and Bankton House in East Lothian.

Groves-Raines said: "This will be the fifth A-Listed building of this period in Scotland which my wife, Kristin Hannesdottir, and I have restored. Lamb's House will become our family home and will include new premises for our architectural practice. We are delighted by the opportunity to be involved in this project."

Groves-Raines will work with the NTS, Historic Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council Planning Team throughout the development process.

The 78-year-old NTS, which owns some of Scotland's most historic properties, such as Culzean Castle, is Scotland's largest conservation charity with more than 300,000 members. Its financial problems came to a head last year when falling income put the cash reserves it requires to run its portfolio of expensive properties and land at perilously low levels. As a result of the cash crisis, some of its lesser visited properties were mothballed.

At the time, Mavor stressed there were no plans to close "any of our important properties" but left the gate open for the Trust to dispose of other buildings.