Life below stairs in the big house

Raymond Ross joins a primary school party at Hopetoun House who get all dressed up and ready to work like servants in the Victorian days

Excited primary children (P5 upwards) are getting kitted out in original (not reproduction) Victorian servants' uniforms. We have ladies' maids, housemaids, parlour maids, nurse maids and scullery maids, a butler, valets, footmen and boot boys.

Each is given their uniform and their position in the "below stairs" pecking order at Hopetoun House, which is generally regarded as Scotland's finest stately home. Education officer Jill Inglis and fellow guide and former teacher Susan Grant drill the new recruits, in a humourous fashion, in their duties and good manners. They are taught how to stand, bow and curtsy and to say "Sir" and "Ma'am".

Touring the house, they are encouraged to bow and curtsy to everyone they meet, which raises warm smiles from the tourists.

The children love the dressing up and the role playing. One or two seem quite jealous of their positions in the household and there are moments of alarm when some get a jocular ticking off for supposedly not having dusted or polished properly.

When one youngster describes the voice tube used to summon servants from below stairs as "cool" and another says "OK" in answer to a butler's request, they are reminded that such expressions did not exist in Victorian times and historical alternatives are sought.

After the tour of duties, the "servants" spend a hands-on afternoon learning more about below stairs life and work: how to polish brass using a lemon rind and vinegar concoction, clean carpets with damp tea leaves, make butter in a churn, use a hot flat iron and write with a quill pen and ink.

The Victorian workshop is linked into the environmental studies and expressive arts 5-14 curriculum guidelines. It is one of a range of experiences on offer at Hopetoun House. The houses and homes workshop day, suitable for Primary 2 upwards, teaches about heating, lighting and service bells, includes hands-on activities in the butler's pantry and time in the splendid grounds finding out about animal, bird and insect homes. Other visits can cover such topics as the Georgians and costumes.

The house sits in 100 acres of rolling parkland on the shores of the Firth of Forth. A ranger service offers walks, talks and seminars throughout the year, with options on trees, pond life, sea shores and food chains (tailored to 5-14 environmental studies) as well as rocky shore studies, river studies, natural history trails, sampling techniques and vegetation sampling suited to all levels of secondary education in line with the Standard grade and Higher syllabus for geography and biology.

Packages can be designed specifically to meet the needs of school parties and cater for special educational needs groups.

The Young Hopetoun Club, for children aged eight to 12, meets once monthly on Saturdays and uses the house and grounds as a resource for history, drama, environmental and other workshops.

Hopetoun House, the home of the Earls of Hopetoun, later created Marquesses of Linlithgow, and still lived in, is a 30-40 minutes drive from Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth or Glasgow. A viewing platform on the roof of the house offers panoramic views of the Firth of Forth, the Forth bridges and the Fife coast. The original house was built between 1699 and 1707, designed by Sir William Bruce, with enlargements and alterations made by William Adam and his sons John and Robert between 1721 and 1767. An architectural gem, the opulent interior remains virtually untouched over the years.

The walled garden can be used for picnics. To make a visit more in historical keeping, why not suggest pupils bring an old-style packed lunch, with no modern fizzy drinks, crisps or commercial biscuits?

Further information, contact Jill Inglis, tel 0131 331 2451; e-mail dayvisits or ranger

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