Exciting wallpaper research at Auchindrain

We are delighted to announce that we have been awarded the Merryl Huxtable Bursary from the Wallpaper History Society, which will allow us to find, sample, conserve, and store wallpaper from across the township.


Auchindrain, as the last example of a Scottish joint-tenancy township, is mostly known for its unique and internationally important assemblage of buildings set in a historic landscape. In the early years of preservation in the 1960s, the museum focused on the vital mission of documenting and conserving the structures of the buildings. Little was done to study, record and preserve the interior decoration of the houses. Despite having hundreds of photographs showing farming life and the exterior of the buildings, almost no photographic records remain of the insides.


This bursary will allow our Assistant Curator to spend time looking under wooden panelling, in the attics and in all the dusty corners to find anything that’s left and will include documenting remains of coloured distemper – a type of early emulsion paint – which was also commonly applied to the walls. The houses targeted will be our three longhouses – Eddie’s, Stoner’s, and Martin’s – as well as Building R by the carpark which we believe was converted from a barn into a house at the end of the 19th century.


Each fragment of paper will be stabilised using conservation grade glue and paper, stored in archival quality binders, and accessioned into the museum’s collection which is recognised as of national importance by the Scottish Government.


The first house we're taking wallpaper samples from is Eddie’s House. This longhouse consists of a best room, a closet, and a kitchen, which is right next to the byre for the families’ animals. It’s thought that this house was built in 1829 for a newlywed couple, using the stonework from a building already on the site. Generations of that same family, the MacCallums, lived in the house until 1954.


Very few remnants of wallpaper remain within the best room as we believe much of the wooden panelling was removed in the 1960s due to damp. And within the adjacent closet, too, we believe that the wooden panelling and any wallpaper was stripped away leaving just the limewashed stone walls. But at the very back of the wooden shelf just above the door of the closet was a tiny amount of paper depicting green leaves, a similar pattern to the spongeware pottery we find in Eddie’s garden. It’s probable that the walls, shelves, and rafters were papered within this room, as well as within the best room, for insulation as well as decoration.


We’ve manged to find 4 samples within the hallway which leads in to the living area. These are tiny fragments of a blue coloured paper directly on the lime plaster wall and three layers on top including a murky brown wood-like pattern, a brick-style pattern with hints of blue and orange floral decoration, and a geometric paper with a shiny surface. So rather than entering a small dark room you'd be greeted with bright colours and patterns.


Within Eddie’s kitchen it’s almost impossible to miss the built-up layers of wallpaper which cover one wall and the roof timber above it. We’ve taken two samples from this wall, one from the box bed which we’ll discuss next time, and the other from the alcove to the left of it. We’ve been told by ‘young’ Eddie MacCallum, the son of our last tenant, that this alcove was a cupboard with wooden sides and door when he was a boy in the 1950s, but it was almost certainly a box bed before that.


The top layer of this wallpaper has been limewashed, and we can date it to ‘young’ Eddie’s childhood due to some pencil graffiti which you’ll see in our next post. Excitingly, our samples revealed 20 layers of paper beneath this, ending in sheets of the Illustrated London News from 1882 pasted directly on to the wooden panelling. So, we can say with confidence that all the wallpaper on this wall illustrates changing tastes and styles over this period of 72 years.


These samples don’t just give us examples of interior decoration: they can also help to date some of the architectural features too. Originally the whole area occupied by the family would have been an open space which contained a central hearth, perhaps with some wooden partitions to create different areas. We’ve known for a while that the tenants of Auchindrain had chimneys installed within the gable walls of their houses in the 1860s and 1870s, which gave this house its current layout. The newspaper dating to 1882 suggests that the gable chimneys went in just before this, probably in the late 1870s, before the new wall and boxbed was built to trap as much of the fire’s heat in to the kitchen as possible.



The box bed within Eddie’s House looks like it’s got as many layers of paper as the alcove next to it, but it’s actually got a lot less. The top 3 layers are the same, but from there onwards several of the bottom layers found within the alcove aren’t there, and two that we found within the box bed aren’t in the alcove. We don’t know why there’s a difference between the two spaces, but perhaps by being next to the walkway the alcove got more use. The top layer here has several pencil drawings done by a child, including a face and a boat, probably done by ‘young’ Eddie MacCallum as we know this was his bed until the family moved into the New House in 1954. And once again the newspaper at the very bottom appears to be from the 1882 London Illustrated News. It’s been pasted over a very dirty ceiling beam which looks like it’s been blackened by years of soot from an open hearth, telling us that the ceiling beams are old and possibly original to when the house was built. The planks that make the front of the box bed are plain wood now, but hidden between the side of the bed and the external stone wall we’ve found two green and pink floral wallpaper fragments. It seems that every exposed wooden surface within the house had a layer of paper at one point – the brighter and bolder the better.



Moving on from Eddie’s, the next house we looked for wallpaper in was Martin’s House. Another longhouse, this was home to the Munro family until 1915, and then briefly the home of the MacNicol family. After this, Eddie MacCallum used the kitchen as a storage space for turnips and removed one of the walls of the closet so that cattle could shelter within the enlarged ‘best room’. By the time Auchindrain became a museum in the 1960s the house was in a very poor condition and underwent conservation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Taking this history into account, we thought there was little chance of finding much wallpaper in situ, but as always, Auchindrain surprised us.


Due to the changes to the house during it’s time as a cattle shelter, several of the building’s interior features had to be remade and the box beds and ceiling within the best room are new. The rafters remain original, however, and it’s here that we found both wallpaper and newspaper. The latter is too faint to either remove or read a date on, but the paper sample is big enough to see the pattern and colours. Despite having already found the colourful patterns within Eddie’s House, it’s still a shock to find a wallpaper as bright and patterned as this. Imagine it covering the whole ceiling – it would definitely make the room look more homely than it is today.



Within the closet, although the west wall is new, the east wall remains original. Small additional pieces of wood have been nailed on to the wall over the years, perhaps to fix shelves or hang things from and these have trapped an intricate acorn patterned green wallpaper and another floral pattern, this time with orange flowers and green leaves.


The history of Auchindrain’s buildings can be confusing, with every interior and exterior having gone through many changes over the years. Stoner’s room is no exception to this. We have no pictures of the interior of Stoner’s House before the museum took over, but pictures taken in the early 1970s show the walls lined with wallpaper which disappears by the 2000s. This was initially a bit confusing for us looking back today, so we had to do a bit of digging to see if it was original or not.



The wallpaper pictured in the 1970s photos looks to be in very good condition, which hints that it isn’t original given that this house had been abandoned and the room used to store potatoes. We also know that early museum staff lined the kitchen box beds with new wallpaper around this time, so we’ve come to the conclusion that the paper in the best room is part of the early museum ‘set dressing’. But by looking closely we’ve found some older paper that remains too.


The first of these, a muddy brown pattern, was the only sample found on the wooden wall panelling. There were a lot more on the ceiling, although much of this appears to be plain lining paper, probably used to insulate and stop dust from falling through from the attic above. The two patterns found on the ceiling are a textured floral fragment, as well as a bluey grey woodgrain pattern. Wood effect wallpaper may sound odd, but it was a very common pattern in houses of this type, even papered over wooden boards to mask the real woodgrain.



During winter last year Auchindrain staff became aware of a leak within the best room of Stoner’s House and investigated by removing some of the wooden panelling which lines the north wall. Little did they know that they would reveal layers of wallpaper and newspaper behind, finds which started this wallpaper project rolling.


The stonework revealed is damp and fragile, but in areas there remained small patches of paper clinging to the limewash below. The newspaper – The Scotsman, April 2nd 1878 - is some of the earliest we have found on site, and retained small patches of a pink floral patterned paper. On top of this are four more layers, ranging from floral to geometric to tile patterned. Although the patterns have dulled with age, there are still a few fragments that show how bright the colours would once have been.



We’ve always believed that this wooden panelling was installed around 1907, when the house underwent modernisation and the stairs were added, which allowed access to new bedrooms and storage upstairs. So, like in Eddie’s House, the Stoner family accidentally created a 30-year timeline of their changing interior tastes which remained uncovered until now.


Now that the site is closed for the season and we’ve packed the set dressing away in boxes, it’s a great time to look at the rooms within our buildings carefully, examining them for any traces of colour on the walls. The most common wall finish throughout Auchindrain is limewash, applied directly to the stone that makes up the interior walls. Not only does this provide a protective coating and smooth out the rough surfaces making them easier to clean, but limewash has mild antibacterial properties which mean that it’s great for kitchen and pantry areas. As well as white, we’ve found three other colours used frequently across the site – pink, blue and green.


Green is best seen in McIntyres’ House, Building R, by the carpark, where the rafters of the entranceway are painted in an olive shade which is complemented by a green and white geometric wallpaper. And within Eddie’s House too, there are hints of green within the kitchen. But the most remaining colour can be found within Stoner’s house, where layers of pink and blue can be seen throughout the kitchen, and the best room shows the remains of two blue walls. This colouring isn’t limewash, but “distemper” a traditional finish made from pigment, chalk, and a binding agent such as animal glue. In Ireland the pigments used to make a blue colour was Reckitts Blue, more often used whilst washing “whites” to help them stay fresh and bright, but we’ve not heard of that use within the Township.


Within McIntyres’ House we also have a very small example of painted decoration. A line of black has been used in imitation of a dado rail, above which the wall is cream and below it green. This was a technique used elsewhere in the township too. Early records from the museums archive tells us that within the kitchen of Stoner’s House the underlying colour scheme was a creamy white, with a three-inch red band running around the doors and windows which had been done in red “keel”, the greasy material used to mark te fleeces of sheep. We know that keel it was something readily available in the township, and it is what was used for the graffiti on the roof timbers of the Wool and Bull House.


Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting project!