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Gladstone’s Land visitor attraction on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile reopens to visitors after £1.5m restoration

© Stewart AttwoodDr Kate Stephenson, who worked on the project, at Gladstone's Land
Dr Kate Stephenson, who worked on the project, at Gladstone's Land

One of the Royal Mile’s oldest buildings is reopening to the public after a £1.5m restoration.

Gladstone’s Land, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, will start a new chapter of its 500-year-old history at the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town when doors open on Friday.

In a new approach from conservationists, the six storey tenement on Lawnmarket will allow visitors to interact and connect with the exhibits, with no ‘do not touch’ signs or velvet ropes.

Items can be picked up, chairs sat on and drawers and cabinets can be opened to reveal secrets about the property’s past. Interactive food tours are also planned for later in the month where visitors can even taste what our predecessors would have eaten.

The renovation includes a brand new coffee shop and ice cream parlour, continuing the spirit of the building’s long commercial use.

Rescued from demolition by the Trust in 1934, over the last 40 years the focus had mainly been on the life and times of merchant Thomas ‘Gledstanes’.

He bought the building in the early 17th century, extended it and commissioned its famous Renaissance-style painted ceilings.

Now though, thanks to years of meticulous historical research led by visitor services managers Dr Kate Stephenson and Anna Brereton, the lives of other residents of the property over the centuries are being told too, with three floors of rooms laid out to reflect how they would have lived and worked.

© Stewart Attwood
Catriona Peattie, left, and Rachael Tumbarello at Gladstone’s Land

The real-life stories of individual residents and the trading history of the address shows the rise and decline of the address and also reflects the fortunes of the Old Town as a whole, bringing Gladstone’s Land to life in a wholly new way.

Based on the will of wealthy 17th-century merchant John Riddoch, one room shows the recreation of his stockroom with the likes of ginger, sugar, pepper and cinnamon abounding. Another space shows a drapers based on the surviving trade accounts of a late 1700s business trading in silks, laces and printed cottons, including costumes for visitors to try on.

A whole new floor of Gladstone’s Land is opening for the first time, presenting an early 20th-century boarding house inspired by Mary Wilson, a widow who in 1911 placed a newspaper advertisement offering a room in her apartment as suitable lodgings for ‘two or three respectable men’.

On the street level, a new coffee shop has been created which is peppered with references to the property’s past. Gladstone’s Land can lay claim to be the oldest continually trading place of commerce in Edinburgh and the coffee shop (an important part of Edinburgh’s culture for centuries) continues that tradition.

As well as the decoration of the space and ingredients in dishes inspired by the property’s past, the ice cream parlour on the same floor includes a specially created ice cream flavour. Researchers developed elderflower & lemon curd as the property’s first bespoke flavour, using documents related to the first sales of ice cream in Edinburgh in the 1900s and tastes associated with the property’s history.

Self-catering apartments on the upper floor have also been redesigned to create beautiful flats for holiday lets, profits from which will support the Trust’s wider conservation activities.

General Manager for Edinburgh & East Stuart Maxwell said: “When we closed in February 2020 we expected that we’d be opening the doors to the new Gladstone’s Land in August last year but world events took over. We’re really pleased to reveal what’s been going on behind the hoardings and give people the chance to reconnect with this incredibly special place.

“Work really started many, many years ago when the team came up with the idea of shifting the focus away from the prosperous merchant who owned the property to the people who actually lived and did business there and who may resonate more so with people today. By poring over documents such as wills, ships’ logs, trade accounts and newspapers we’ve been able to put together an incredibly detailed portrait of the individuals who inhabited the property over the last 500 years.

“And we’re then presenting it in a way that is quite new for the Trust. Visitors are allowed to touch almost everything in the property and there are surprises at every turn for the curious. As well as the sense of touch, the immersive experience will involve sight, smell and taste too. There’s something there for everyone, from the specialised historian to the first-time museum goer.

“We know how much people love Gladstone’s Land and we can’t wait for them to reconnect with its impressive history, and explore the new experiences that have been added to bring those centuries to life.”