Mansion opens doors to old ways of life

18th April 2003 at 01:00
The house and estate of Newhailes, a few miles from Edinburgh, offer a rare opportunity for pupils to experience social history.

This is not simply because the education tours involve role-playing with pupils dressed in period costume; nor because the content of the tours are based on diaries, notebooks and portraits associated with the Dalrymple family who owned Newhailes from 1709 until it was taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in 1996.

What makes Newhailes unusual is that it has not been restored to one particular period, the intention being to show how the house developed over the centuries.

The effects of years of wear (and change) have not been removed, so that visitors can view the rococo decoration, the carvings, banister rails, stair treads, wood, paint and gilding and detect where hands have passed, paused, rubbed and touched. As the guidebook puts it: "This house has been used - lived in - and it testifies to the generations. It is living history."

Schools can visit either the house or the grounds, with tours as short as one hour; or they can spend a day exploring both. The educational focus is on how the family, servants and estate staff lived.

"Upstairs" features include the library once described by Dr Johnson as "the most learned room in Europe", a Chinese sitting room and the original parlour with its rococo seashells. Based on the diaries of Miss Christian Dalrymple, chatelaine of Newhailes from 1792 to 1832, pupils can learn about etiquette, how the gentry socialised and how they danced.

"Downstairs" they can see the original cavern kitchen, which dates from 1686 and was still in use in the 1940s. It includes a huge iron range built at the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk. The tour of the house ends with an exit through the long servants' tunnel - "a classic exercise in social segregation" says the guidebook - which used to keep servants and tradesmen out of sight from "polite society".

The grounds of the estate boast many unusual features and follies, including a ha-ha, a shell grotto, a water garden, a tea house built over running water, water cascades, a curling pond and a cabinet garden which functioned as an extension to the library. It was an architecturally cut clearing in the woods opposite the garden door to the library and was used as an area for contemplation and discussion.

"We have a range of integrated activities and a unique landscape of historical and architectural interest as well as a wildlife landscape," says interpretation officer Helen Foster. "And we are setting up a reminiscence group of people whose parents and grandparents worked at Newhailes so that they can come and talk to school parties."

Ranger Dan Watson leads school parties around the estate to look at all the wildlife. Local pupils can also join the Newhailes Detective Club, whose monthly Saturday activities involve treasure hunts and night walks to look at bats and moths.

Newhailes, outside MusselburghEducational visits from pound;1 a child, adults free. Free advance visits for teachers. Contact interpretation officer Helen Foster, tel 0131 653 5591Schools membership of the National Trust for Scotland, allowing free access to all NTS properties, pound;20-pound;80 a year depending on pupil roll, tel 0131 243 9301, e-mail

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