The Great Restoration

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, it was a dull copper color. The whole statue is covered with a layer of copper metal about the thickness of two pennies. But after about 1900, the physical processes that govern the known universe began to take their toll and the copper skin oxidized into a greenish patina that can be seen on the statue to this day.

Roman Mars:
When the statue underwent a massive restoration in the 1980s, the head and shoulder were realigned. The point on the crown that had been digging into her arm for a century was shortened. The defects in the internal skeleton were thoroughly addressed. And of course, the weather-beaten exterior was cleaned. But there was no notion that the statue’s skin should be returned to the dull copper color she was born with. But if they had shined up Lady Liberty to her original copper color, the people of New York City probably would have reacted like this.

Barbara Clark:
I don’t like looking at it.

Roman Mars:
This is not someone from New York, as you can probably guess. That’s Barbara Clark. Five generations of her family have lived in Stirling, Scotland.

Barbara Clark:
My name is Barbara Clark, and I’ve lived in Stirling all my life apart from when I was at university.

Roman Mars:
Stirling is also the home of Stirling Castle, a truly marvelous place that I just love to visit that sits atop a giant crag or hill, overlooking the whole town of Sterling. Some castle has been there since the 12th century and maybe before, but the current buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Barbara Clark:
Well, obviously it’s a part of our lives. We see it every single day, and as children, we played in it. We run all around it.

Roman Mars:
When we think of medieval castles, we usually picture a grand structure with subdued dark stone masonry, but when you gaze upon Stirling Castle today from the town below, you will notice that one of the buildings is different from the others. Since 1999, after a long restoration effort, the Great Hall of Stirling Castle has been bright yellow.

Barbara Clark:
This bright yellow building sticking out like a sore thumb and people were just horrified. I can remember just thinking, “This is a nightmare.”

Roman Mars:
The story of how the Great Hall of Stirling Castle came to be painted bright yellow illustrates the unexpected complexity in the art of restoration. It comes down to this question, when you choose to restore something, which moment in time are you restoring it to?

Barbara Clark:
Some kind of nameless group of people reached that decision and I don’t question their motives, but I question their understanding of the effect that it was going to have on peoples’ feelings towards the castle. Who made that decision?

Roman Mars:
Oh, oh, I know! It was this guy.

Peter Buchanan:
My name is Peter Buchanan. I work with Historic Scotland. My title now is Project Manager. I joined Historic Scotland in 1991 to work on the Stirling Castle Project.

Roman Mars:
Historic Scotland is the government organization charged with educating the public and safeguarding Scotland’s historic treasures. They took over the care of Stirling Castle and started the Great Hall Restoration in 1991. First, let’s get some castle facts straight.

Peter Buchanan:
The castle, a lot of people have this fairytale Disneyland thing in their heads, where it’s all one huge building with turrets.

Roman Mars:
Most medieval castles were a collection of buildings for certain things.

Peter Buchanan:
They had a chapel, they had a palace, they would have had kitchens.

Roman Mars:
The Great Hall is one of those key buildings in a castle, and to quote Bill Bryson in his book, At Home, “No room has fallen further in history than the hall. Now, a place to wipe feet and hang hats, once it was the most important room in the house.”

Peter Buchanan:
It is a huge gathering space, and the one here at Stirling was also for the parliament of Scotland, so the King sat here. They would set laws. They would have banquets and feasts. They would entertain lavishly.

Roman Mars:
When Peter Buchanan adopted the Great Hall of Stirling, it was in an awful state.

Peter Buchanan:
So, Stirling Castle, up until 1964, was a military garrison.

Roman Mars:
From 1800 to 1964, the castle was owned by the War Office, and they did not treat the castle as a historic artifact to be preserved.

Peter Buchanan:
Most of the buildings within the castle were used by them, the Great Hall was used as barrack accommodation.

Roman Mars:
Turning the one big, fancy room into barracks meant adding floors, altering windows, replacing the ceiling, really changing everything. Once the military left, the place was gutted. And when Peter’s team took over in 1991…

Peter Buchanan:
The building was a shell. It still had a military roof on it, but it was left with a huge question mark as to what we should do with it.

Roman Mars:
The typical mandate of historic Scotland is to preserve historic places in the state they were found. But the Great Hall of Stirling Castle required some drastic measures. So, what state do you restore it to? Do you preference the military period from the 1800s or the medieval and Renaissance period?

Roman Mars:
Strategically, the castle had been important for hundreds of years.

Barbara Clark:
Stirling’s role in the history of Scotland has been central since practically the earliest times of first recorded kings.

Roman Mars:
Castle Hill overlooks a bog on one side, and the bridge over the Forth River on the other, so for hundreds of years, it was the place that controlled trade for the whole region. Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned there.

Peter Buchanan:
And it was seen that the cultural significance of these things outweighed the significance of the military period.

Roman Mars:
Using this logic, they decided to restore the Great Hall to a state it was about 300-400 years in the past. But that kind of restoration is not simple. First of all, the records aren’t all that consistent.

Peter Buchanan:
I have a series of etchings of the Great Hall. Unfortunately, they all show slightly different things. Traditionally, you have ridge beasts, heraldic beasts on the top of Great Hall.

Roman Mars:
These are big, stone statues of unicorns and lions that sit on the apex of the roof.

Peter Buchanan:
All of our etchings show these, but they show different numbers of them. So the etchings, they’re great to give a kind of, an idea of what the castle might have looked like, but as a tool for the restoration, they weren’t much use.

Roman Mars:
To help figure out where the ridge beasts should be placed on top the building, they had to figure out the original structure of the roof. Sometime in the 20th century, the roof had been completely replaced by the military, but the original hall had this glorious hammer-beam roof. A hammer-beam roof is a medieval technique that uses wood beams as a network of cantilevers and trusses on the inside to make the roof strong over such a big, wide open room. You can see all the timber when you look up from inside the hall. It’s stunning. It’s a jigsaw pizzle of beautiful triangles that are amazing to behold.

Roman Mars:
Triangles are the best. Because the ridge beasts weighed three-quarters of a ton, they could only be placed where the hammer-beam roof was the strongest. This is as true now as it was 300 years ago.

Peter Buchanan:
We’ve got a hammer-beam roof to construct, and we’ve got no hammer-beam roof left. We want to get it right, but we need clues to be able to do that.

Roman Mars:
They found one diagram. A cross-section of the hammer-beam roof of the Great Hall from 1719. But since it’s the only record, it’s hard to know if it’s completely accurate. Since there was no other information about what the roof looked like, they began researching these surveyors from 1719 who drew the diagram and they found that other diagrams they drew of other castles were very accurate.

Peter Buchanan:
So here’s our leap of faith. This is where you start to have to use conjecture in your restoration to make value judgements, and we’ve decided that we will put the whole of the structure back, so this what we’re basing it on.

Roman Mars:
So using that one historic document, they reconstructed the roof which determined where the heavy, stone ridge beast would be placed on top. One discovery begets another and another and the original building comes into focus. And that’s the detective work of restoration. Careful research, discovery, verification, sometimes conjecture, leaps of faith. It’s this beautiful amalgam of history, science and art. The hammer-beam roof was completed in 1999, and everyone who sees it, including the Stirling folk, seem to agree. It looks really great. So far, no controversy. But as we know, the roof was not the only thing to change. So the controversy is coming.

Peter Buchanan:
The building, when we took it over in 1991, it was almost completely gray stone. There was none of the original finishes left. But in one corner, just under the west bay, there had been a little lean-to shelter, built in front of the door. And when we took it away, we found a complete panel of the original lime wash.

Roman Mars:
Lime wash is pure lime, meaning calcium oxide, not the green citrus fruit. It also contains earth-based pigments. It’s a coating that’s meant to protect the stone masonry. In the case of Stirling, they found a significant yellow-ochre layer of lime wash. The bright yellow was very intentional. Hundreds of years ago, the built world was basically brown. But on this giant hill, there was this great, yellow piece of ostentatious bling that signaled for miles that this was a place for a king.

Peter Buchanan:
And we did huge sample panels, all of the lime wash is all around the building, to show people what it might have looked like and what the colors might have been, and we brought a lot of people from the Stirling area to see this as well because what we were intending to do, based on the analysis and the information we had, was to put the finishes back.

Roman Mars:
And that is exactly what they did, which is why the Great Hall is yellow, which did not exactly go over well with the people of Stirling.

Peter Buchanan:
Strangely in restoration terms, it’s the one element that we had the most evidence for.

Roman Mars:
They actually had physical pieces of the exterior lime wash all over the castle. The hammer-beam roof on the other hand, was based much more on conjecture.

Peter Buchanan:
But everyone loves the hammer-beam roof?

Roman Mars:
When Peter’s team was putting on the yellow finish, the Great Hall was completely covered in scaffolding and plastic. This may have contributed to the intensity of the reaction from the locals, once it was unveiled. He’s Stirling resident, Barbara Clark again.

Barbara Clark:
The entire hole was shrouded in tarpaulin, for about 10 years. And nobody knew really what was going on. We knew they had lots of stone masons up there, but nobody knew anything about anything else, so when the great unveiling came, it was a total surprise. It just looked so awful, and to this day, I don’t like it.

Roman Mars:
When I asked Peter Buchanan what he would have done differently if he had to do it all over again, he says he would do all the same restorations, but he would have been more aggressive about outreach.

Peter Buchanan:
We could have tried harder. We set up for a couple of weekends down in the center of Stirling, to explain what we were doing. We had lots of groups, and lots of people around to see the samples before we went any further. But really, getting that message our through the media and getting people to understand it is very, very difficult. And when it is a change on this scale, I think that possibly, a bigger marketing campaign should have gone out there.

Roman Mars:
This is was 15 years ago, before Twitter and Facebook made it easier to reach people.

Peter Buchanan:
Certainly we’ve learned the experience from the Great Hall as to how we should be getting messages out. If people really understand what you’re doing and really buy into it from day one, then I think it makes it a lot easier to be accepted.

Roman Mars:
All restorations are unique. I don’t think the Statue of Liberty should have been returned to copper when it was restored. As a landmark, people fell in love with it, and it gained its significance when it was green. It made sense to keep it that way. But I found being in the bright yellow Great Hall at Stirling Castle really exciting. I’m sympathetic to the fact that the color was shocking to the residents who grew up with it looking completely different. But its brightness brought it to life for me, and made me reinterpret my faded and ultimately wrong image of the past.

Roman Mars:
It’s now assumed that nearly all the Greek and Roman sculptures that we know and love were painted bright, vibrant colors. Even though most of us can only imagine them as white marble. When I see color reconstructions of ancient statues, I think they look ridiculous. But I can’t help but feel that I know the Greeks and Romans a little bit better after seeing what they thought looked good. I feel the same about the Renaissance artisans who designed the color schemes inside and outside Stirling Castle.

Peter Buchanan:
They were mixing colors that really didn’t match, and they were using them in extraordinary ways. They were having great fun, and showing an awful lot of wealth and power in the process.

Roman Mars:
But this is probably the first and last such restoration for Historic Scotland. New scanning and 3D rendering technology means that you can “restore” a place and teach people what it looked like at any point in history, inside the virtual world of a computer exhibit, without doing anything drastic to the actual physical structure at all.

Peter Buchanan:
To be honest, I’m much happier with that approach. We can do extraordinary things now, through technology that we couldn’t have done 15 years ago. And it’s a really, really easy way to educate people to show them what things might have been like without being too heavy-handed to the monument. So I suspect the Great Hall will remain as a unique restoration in Historic Scotland’s history.

Roman Mars:
Which totally makes sense, but every once in a while, it’s nice to be bold and daring, like our ancestors were. And slap on that bright coat of paint and see just how vivid the world once was.

Credits

Production

Special thanks to Peter Buchanan and Barbara Clark for speaking to me about this story. Please forgive me, Ms. Clark, but I like the yellow. All images courtesy of Historic Scotland. Crown Copyright Historic Scotland. Bonus audio: The Allusionist by Helen Zaltzman. Subscribe now!

Comments (18)

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  1. can’t listen to it here on the site, second episode this has happened. after clicking “listen” it responds with “error: request not found” still listen through iTunes so i’m not missing out.

    1. roman

      It’s faded significantly since its unveiling, but I agree, it looks good!

  2. Jolin Warren

    I really enjoyed this episode, thanks for putting it together. One small thing, though, is the end makes it sound like the colour restoration was a one-off. Whilst it might be that Historic Scotland doesn’t do that again with its properties, there is still a strong current in the conservation movement in Scotland that we should not accept all old buildings as drab grey. As well as the Museum of Edinburgh cited above, Greyfriars Kirk had its walls restored to yellow in 2003, and Fyvie Castle recently had its walls restored to its original pink(!) harling.

    Restoration is always a case-by-case basis, but I wouldn’t say that Stirling Castle’s Great Hall was a one off. I think there’s a growing realisation that if we’re going to outfit a building on the inside to look ‘authentic’, then maybe the outside should be authentic too, as the inhabitants would never have let the harling fall off and leave the bare stone exposed. There are countless small domestic buildings (tenements, small houses) that have similarly had their lime harling and colour restored.

  3. Fraser

    This was my first 99% invisible podcast that I have listened to, simply because it was in the featured list and I wanted something to listen to whilst on my lunch break. The weird thing is, my office is a five minute walk from Stirling Castle, it was a really cool experience to have something I’m so familiar with talked about. Thanks, I loved it!

  4. JDM

    Great episode. Google Street View has an interesting walk around Stirling Castle, including entering the Great Hall. Worth checking out for those of us who can’t get to Scotland immediately.

  5. ploosqva

    I don’t think that comparing Stirling Castle to the Statue of Liberty is justified. I thought the patina was actually part of the design. Didn’t Bartholdi take that into account and actually choose copper so that only over time the statue gained its final look?

    As for restoring historical building, I don’t think that using original, bright colors should be discouraged. I see how a single restored building looks odd, when the rest of the castle wasn’t restored. But on its own it looks great. See the recently restored Wrocław Town Hall: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/3T5wRCwOGbE/maxresdefault.jpg. I think it looks stunning. The bright colors help emphasize some darker, stone elements and make the entire building stand out from the surrounding. Exactly how a seat of power should

  6. jesse

    The moist mouth sounds emanating from the woman is so irritating, i couldn’t finish this. This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Make Librivox audio books impossible to finish because at some point the narrator will switch to a person who sounds like a toothless person snacking on peanut butter.

  7. Rick Williams

    Great story. My father, brother and I visited Stirling Castle in 1995 in the midst of a golf trip. My wife and I are planning another trip to Scotland in 2017 after I retire … this gives me a very good reason to revisit the castle.

  8. Andrew deGruchy

    I visited Stirling Castle when is was not coated yellow. It looked good in my opinion in its state of “degradation.” I believe a more accurate interpretation would be that it should be like gold in its final appearance. No one needs a doctorate in conservation to innately know that this is what was intended for the splendor that would make the unmistaken bold statement- the home of the Royals. It is simply and logically to be gold and not yellow- out of the mouths of babes. No doubt “restoration” is to put something back to its intended condition. But the “do nothing approach” should have won here if the decision makers didn’t know how to do that. I think heads would have rolled, (literally), in medieval times with the same reaction from the hierarchy and the townspeople In utter aghast if the castle were allowed to be left yellow. So all audio comments that lean toward people wanting to throw up is good and natural as an honest reaction like the body literally needing to throw up from the insult upon it from food poisoning. It isn’t right and it is obvious. Gleaming, worshipful gold makes sense, even though it may have originally been achieved by employing a lime finish using a lost methodology to turn it to gold, (kind of like the alchemy in copperice in lime washes), and not anxiously dare impose the wrong hue just to have done something. It’s a matter of national pride. If the Statue of Liberty were restored to shiny copper, with the knowledge that it would go to a chocolate brown until finally getting the Verde green color that all knew her to be, the people of New York and the world would be patient and understand. Stirling Castle will remain an eyesore until the second of the two enemies of conservation is honestly addressed. The first enemy is water which at least can be processed. The second and more wicked enemy is Ego.
    Whomever can combat this effectively will rule the world. If Scotland wants to make that statement then the color will change.
    Better a fingir aff as aye wag-waggin Fuils an bairns soud never see things hair duin. Rise above dear Scotland!!

  9. Jon P

    Just listened to this podcast… In my head, I was visualizing a canary yellow, and was greeted with this look. It is the first shade of yellow I can say I really like. Great show Roman, it has hashed up the debate with my family and friends if the Statue of Liberty should have been brought back to the original copper and left to patina again, I am a fan of that idea.
    Great show, thanks for the recommendations on other podcasts as well!

  10. Lesley Hourston

    Southerland is a spelling mistake. It should be Sutherland.
    I like the colour. As a child I looked up at the grey castle every day from my garden.

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