Work on the 18th century mansion Belmont House in Unst is now in the second phase of its restoration and is on course to transform the former laird’s house into a five-star holiday destination.
Preliminary work on the £1.2 million refurbishment the Georgian mansion started in 2005, and ensured the building, which had been neglected by an absentee landlord and bought by the Belmont Trust, was saved from collapse.
The first part of the second phase, finished 18 months ago, was a complete external restoration making the house wind and watertight. Slates were missing from the roof, causing it to leak, and some of the roof and floor joists were rotten. These have now been repaired and the harling and doors restored. Windows have been replaced with single glazing, in keeping with the original building.
The second part of the second phase, a £537,000 re-fit of the inside, started before Christmas and is going to schedule. When it is finished next summer it will have been restored far beyond its original splendour, benefiting from the modern additions of plumbing, electricity, central heating and a fire sprinkler system.
The classically symmetrical house, built by Thomas Mouat in 1775, is regarded as one of the finest Georgian houses in Scotland and retains many original features. It had never been modernised and its rooms had only been repainted once, around 1840. However in the years it had stood empty ceilings had collapsed and some floors were rotten and had to be taken up.
According to trust secretary and architect Mike Finnie, around three-quarters of the house was intact, but a quarter had decayed badly.
Now work is being carried out by Shetland Amenity Trust’s North Isles squad to restore the property “as faithfully as possible”. Mr Finnie said: “The house never had plumbing or electricity and it has been a big job going in for the first time.”
The installation of water pipes and central heating is being done “sensitively”, he said, and a fire sprinkler system is necessary because the building is Grade A listed.
Traditional sheep wool insulation is being used in the roofspace, walls will be reconstructed with traditional lath and plaster and rooms repainted in “authentic” colours, still visible from the remaining surfaces. The drawing room walls, for example, were found to have Chinese blue paintwork; there was a rich ochre in the dining room; and yellow and red in a small writing room lit by a large Venetian window.
Timber panelling, said by the trust to be of the “highest quality”, will all be restored, as will cornices and door surrounds. And it will be an exciting time, with everything from baths to kitchen taps having to be chosen.
The timber floors will remain, where possible, although so far there is no budget for carpets or furniture.
By next summer the Georgian residence will take on a new lease of life as self-catering accommodation which will sleep up to 12 people, marketed through the National Trust for Scotland. It is envisaged that it will become popular for weddings and corporate events, a market that Mr Finnie has identified.
Seventy per cent of the project’s funding has come from outwith Shetland, mostly from Historic Scotland, with the rest, almost £400,000, coming from the council and its trusts.
But after awarding a final £100,000 grant last August, the council vowed that no more public money should be put into the project.