Blackburn House required one of the most extensive restoration projects ever undertaken by SHBT. Upon completion, the project won two prestigious awards from The Georgian Group and Edinburgh Architectural Association.
Simpson & Brown
Blackburn’s significance lies in both its architecture and the way it is intimately connected with the wider history of 18th-century Britain. The man responsible for Blackburn’s construction, George Moncrieff, was a plantation owner and an agricultural reformer. His choices for the design and decoration of Blackburn reflect his time spent in the West Indies as well as contemporary British architectural and decorative fashions.
George Moncrieff was a self-made-man, who travelled to the West Indies at a young age and amassed a considerable fortune as the owner of a sugar plantation in Antigua. The use of enslaved workers and an increasing demand for sugar in Europe meant substantial monetary profits for the plantation owners. Like many others, Moncrieff retired to his native Scotland and invested his fortune in a country estate.
The ‘Barony of Blackburn’, as it was then known, was well-situated on the main road between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Moncrieff used his fortune to not only purchase the estate, but also make a series of improvements. These included the construction of Blackburn House, completed by 1773, as well as changes to way the estate was farmed, the removal of Blackburn village to its present site, and the introduction of new industries. These alterations were largely practical and forward-thinking in nature, designed to increase the profitability of the estate. However, they also demonstrate Moncrieff’s willingness to spend large sums of money in order to increase his own comfort; by moving Blackburn village, he put it both closer to the main road, enabling him to make money off passing travellers, and also further away from his new house.
By the time Blackburn House was complete, Moncrieff was in his sixties and had no children. As a result, after his death in 1798 the estate passed to his nephew, who sold it in 1805. The purchaser, an entrepreneur and coalmaster, was chiefly interested in the commercial potential of the estate and therefore in 1810 disposed of the house with only a small portion of land. From this point until the mid-twentieth century, Blackburn House was invariably purchased by those who had made their money elsewhere and used it either as a secondary residence or a rental investment. After World War II, a series of owners attempted to support the house with the income from the attached farm, but the small size of the landholding made this impossible and as a result the condition of the property gradually worsened until it was uninhabitable.
From the front, Blackburn House appears to be a classic, two-storey Palladian villa, with a columned portico and curved walls visually linking the main block to its flanking pavilions. However, from the back, we can see that the house actually has four stories, the attic and service areas in the basement being hidden from the front. The curved walls hide working courtyards, with the pavilions in use as stables and for agricultural purposes. Inside, the house has a fairly regular, symmetrical layout, but is unusual in its use of timber for the internal wall structure. This is likely a direct result of George Moncrieff’s life in the West Indies, where properties were often entirely wooden. The principal ground floor rooms contain ornate rococo-style plasterwork that was highly fashionable at the time and is unusually elaborate for a house of this size.
Blackburn House was listed as a Category A building in 1971, around the same time it was finally abandoned. The listing prevented the house from being demolished, but did nothing to stop the accelerating deterioration. In 1991, the Blackburn House Preservation Trust was established to try and save the building, but the Trust’s vision of creating a centre for architectural conservation ultimately failed due to lack of funding. As the house remained empty, it became subject to vandalism, undoing much of the protective work already undertaken. A Feasibility Study commissioned in 1998 by the Cockburn Conservation Trust (now part of SHBT) established that a business use would offer the best opportunity for Blackburn’s long-term survival and enable a limited amount of public access. The property was purchased in 2005 and SHBT oversaw the entire restoration project.
The frailty of the building’s fabric meant the restoration had to be carried out in carefully planned stages. Simpson & Brown architects were employed to manage the process and implement the design elements necessary to bring Blackburn into 21st-century use. The first priority was to rebuild the roof in order to stop water pouring down the interior walls. In order to do this, a complex system of propping was created to support the internal structure and protect key features such as the staircase and plasterwork. Once the building had been once again made watertight, the extensive woodwork within the house was given time to dry out naturally, meaning that much of it was able to be saved, despite the presence of extensive dry rot. Outside, the screen walls and pavilions were restored to their original appearance. This included the use of a traditional lime finish, evidence of which was found during the restoration process.
Although many modern conveniences such as electric lighting, sockets, and a lift were installed, these were kept well hidden within the main block in order to facilitate the building’s potential use as a period film-set. The interior of the pavilions were converted into spacious modern offices and the surviving doocot became a dedicated interpretation space. During the final stages of the project, the surviving rococo plasterwork was delicately restored by local craftsmen and lost areas were recreated.
Blackburn House was officially reopened in 2009 by the former Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, Linda Fabiani. The project cost a total of £3.65 million. It was supported by money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Fund, Historic Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, West Lothian Council and the Architectural Heritage Fund. In addition to receiving both The Georgian Group’s Restoration of a Georgian Country House Award 2008 and Edinburgh Architectural Association’s Conservation and Regeneration Award 2009, the project was also shortlisted for a Europa Nostra Award 2011, received a commendation in the Building Conservation category at the RICS Scotland Awards 2009 and was nominated at the Scottish Civic Trust My Place Awards 2009.
Since its reopening, Blackburn House has been continuously occupied by a variety of businesses, with a particular focus on the creative industries. It accommodates school visits and is open to the public by appointment or on particular days during the year.