Mavisbank House

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 7th December 2021.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 11:00 am, 7th December 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give one another and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip 11:01 am, 7th December 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the restoration of Mavisbank House.

I hope everyone is sitting comfortably, because the next 15 minutes or so have something for everyone: Romans, the Enlightenment, social justice and more. That is what Mavisbank House is—something for everyone. At least, it could be, with the right proposals and the right funding.

Mavisbank House, near Loanhead, in my constituency of Midlothian, is a category A listed building, proudly perched in a landscape of registered ancient woodland and high biodiversity. It is considered the most important example of early 18th century Scottish architecture. Words can do Mavisbank House only so much justice. To really appreciate it in all its splendour, people would have had to see it in person a century ago. That is because this architectural marvel now stands as a gutted, neglected, dilapidated shell. It is literally crumbling by the day.

I hope that, at the end of today’s debate, the Minister will agree that this situation can and should be reversed, and I look forward to setting out the ambitious proposals to save Mavisbank House that would turn this ruin into a real asset for the community. I am sure the Minister would be welcome at any time to come and see its current condition.

This is how the Landmark Trust has referred to Mavisbank House:

“Arguably the most important building at risk case in the UK”.

That is a bold claim, but it is absolutely true. To understand why Mavisbank is more important than hundreds of similar Palladian villas in Scotland and in Britain, we need to start with its history.

Mavisbank House was first planned in 1698 and the foundations were laid in 1723, under the supervision of Scotland’s pre-eminent architect, William Adam. Adam has been credited with being the first to bring Palladian and baroque architecture to Scotland, and he was prolific in transforming fusty old castles into grand country retreats. He totally revolutionised his field. In many ways, Mavisbank House was where this revolution began. It was Scotland’s first Palladian villa, a style that soon became ubiquitous among the landed classes. That brings to mind something that stills rings true today: where Midlothian leads, Scotland follows.

Owing to its pioneering style, Mavisbank House was also a bit of an experiment. It was a prototype for the Roman ideal of cultured retreat and classical design that set the pattern for Scottish and British architecture for the next century. It was a bold experiment, and it succeeded. It totally changed the way the landed classes lived and created a new kind of country economy. Its style embodied the Enlightenment ideals of improvement and logic, making it one of the world’s first physical embodiments of this intellectual revolution.

As for who this ground-breaking architectural experiment was being made for, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik was Mavisbank’s first resident. He might not be one of the towering names of Scottish history, but he certainly knew many of the big names and played a part in many of the key historical events that took place during his lifetime. Through him, Mavisbank was placed at the centre of Scotland and Midlothian’s story.

We could take, for instance, Sir John’s contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment. Sir John served as vice-president of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh at a time when the philosophical foundations of a new world of reason were being laid in the closes and wynds of Edinburgh’s old town. In the midst of that distinctly Scottish movement, which, in the words of historian Arthur Herman, “invented the modern world”, Sir John penned essays on everything from the effect of lightning on trees to the size of deer horns, while remaining true to his Scottish roots by penning humorous songs in the Scots language, his ain mither tongue.

Sir John’s love of writing extended to his friendships. On numerous occasions, Mavisbank hosted the great Enlightenment poet, Allan Ramsay, whose Scots poetry influenced giants such as Robert Ferguson and Robert Burns, and whose son, of the same name, became a renowned portrait artist for everyone from George III to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Into that world of Enlightenment and Scottish cultural renaissance, Mavisbank was born. I hope it can soon be reborn in a new, but similar, context. I look forward to the day when intellectual havering and bonnie music can again be heard in Mavisbank.

Aside from Sir John’s philosophical and musical leanings, he was also a Member of not one, but two, national Parliaments—first, the pre-Union Scottish Parliament, and then this place. I could not possibly comment on which of the two Christmas parties he might have preferred, but when he voted for the Union in 1706, who is to say whether it was a case of being

“bought and sold for English gold”?

Surely not.

Whatever the case, that is another example of Mavisbank’s deep connection to some of the most significant moments in Scottish history and it underlines Mavisbank’s status as a building of utmost historical importance. It sat at the heart of conflicts over intellectualism and Scottish independence, as well as the blossoming of distinctly Scottish arts and culture and a renaissance of the Scots language. Those issues are as relevant today as they were back then.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of Mavisbank’s history is that which touches on one of the darker and most shameful practices carried out by our predecessors—the trading of human beings as slaves. If the Minister happens to be a connoisseur of Caribbean coffee, he will no doubt be aware of Blue Mountain Coffee, a Jamaican coffee company whose main plantation is a place called—you’ve guessed it—Mavis Bank. Mavis Bank, Jamaica, was named after Midlothian’s Mavisbank because of the owner’s Scottish roots. It was recorded as a coffee plantation as early as 1808. There are records of the estate selling slaves in the 1820s. On their labour those fortunes were made.

Mavis Bank, Jamaica, was home to the atrocity of treating human beings as property, for the profit of wealthy Scots, all under the name of a couthy manor house back in the old country—back in Midlothian. That is not an image of ourselves that many of us want to confront, but confront it we must, because it is the truth. By exploring the history of Mavisbank House, we are forced to come face to face with those injustices of the past. We are forced to recognise the horrors of Scotland’s role in the slave trade and learn the lessons needed to build a more just future.

I consider it a great honour to have as one of my constituents Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who not only discovered the game-changing barley abrasion process in brewing, but has been a prominent campaigner for social justice and human rights for many years. He grew up in Jamaica and became Scotland’s first black professor in 1989. Sir Geoff has used his wealth of life experience and incredible strength of character to campaign for many years against racism and the legacy of slavery, most recently as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last year, Sir Geoff was a prominent voice calling for the Melville monument in Edinburgh to be reinterpreted through new signage, to reflect Dundas’s support for “gradual abolition”, which delayed the abolition of the slave trade by some 15 years. In the past, Midlothian was instrumental in the racist horrors of the slave trade, but Midlothian residents such as Sir Geoff give me hope that we can contribute to the dismantling of the racism of today.

In the light of Mavisbank House’s huge significance to architecture, the Enlightenment, art and the pursuit of social justice, it is an absolute scunner to see the state of it today. This building of national and European significance is in a state of extreme dilapidation. In the 1950s, the forecourt was used as a scrapyard. In 1973, the house was gutted by fire. It has never recovered and sits as an empty shell, slowly crumbling. Things got so bad that it was scheduled for demolition in 1987; it was saved only by a public outcry and a High Court interdict. Decades of neglectful ownership have left us at a point where we now do not even know who owns it.

It does not have to be this way. There is nothing inevitable about Mavisbank falling into disrepair, and plenty of buildings in a similar state have been given a new lease of life. In the case of Mavisbank House, the Save Mavisbank project has set out a new vision for how this incredible piece of history can be brought back into the present to benefit Midlothian. The Save Mavisbank project is led by Historic Environment Scotland and supported by the Landmark Trust. The project seeks to unlock Mavisbank’s huge potential for environmental, health, economic and cultural benefits, and aims to give this amazing asset back to the community. The project wants not only to recreate the house as it was in yesteryear, but to bring it to life again, with real value for the surrounding communities. The Save Mavisbank project aims to

“return glass to its windows, urns to its rooftops, heat and light to its rooms, laughter to its terraces, living and learning to its stairwells and courtyards”.

The project’s vision is for the remains of Mavisbank House to be compulsory purchased and reunited with the surrounding landscape, in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. The estate would become a natural and historical landscape where people could come to enjoy its beauty, learn its history and take home some of its knowledge. This pioneering plan includes a skill centre, a community wing, visitor accommodation, a community green space, walkways and a participatory rewilding project.

Let me take some time to consider key aspects of the proposals, and the benefits they could bring to Midlothian and to Scotland. I am deeply grateful to Rhona Brankin, chair of the Mavisbank Trust, for her deep knowledge of the site and her passion for the proposals, as well as everyone else involved, including those who showed me round when I have visited. Restoring Mavisbank is much more than preserving a piece of heritage; it is a chance tangibly to improve the lives of people in a former mining area that needs investment. The process of restoring it, maintaining it, and then hosting programmes at Mavisbank it would create jobs, skills and training opportunities—this is a massive investment opportunity. Creating skills and jobs is a core component of the project, whether in landscape management, horticulture, stone masonry or heritage science. On top of that, Historic Environment Scotland’s Engine Shed skills centre could provide a crucial link to wider training activities across the country.

Let me come to the fantastic tourism value of the site. Midlothian is blessed with world-renowned heritage sites such as Rosslyn Chapel, Penicuik House and Dalkeith Country Park, to name but a few. The addition of Mavisbank House would create what Save Mavisbank has called a “string of pearls” along the Esk Valley, cementing Midlothian as a visitor destination right on the doorstep of Scotland’s capital. An invigorated tourism economy, and all the accommodation and catering businesses that that would bring, is much needed post-pandemic.

There are even proposals for on-site accommodation at Mavisbank itself. That would also offer a chance to pioneer how the heritage sector should approach challenging sites such as this in the future. Mavisbank is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious heritage restoration projects ever planned in Scotland, so just think of the lessons that could be learnt from it if we took it on.

The health and wellbeing benefits of this project are numerous too. NHS Lothian’s support for the project points to the fact that the proposals include “green health prescribing”—using exposure to nature to tackle mental and physical health problems. Save Mavisbank’s community surveying found that one of Mavisbank’s qualities most valued by visitors is the sense of tranquillity and green space. Why not harness that for health benefits? It is an approach that started gathering steam only in recent years, and, with NHS Lothian on board, Mavisbank could be at the centre of this movement—just as it has been with so many movements in the past. Gardening is a big part of this, and with its ample grounds there is even the potential for allotments, which are something in very high demand in Midlothian.

I have not even mentioned the potential for digital reconstruction projects, live theatre, and arts spaces. It is a vast and varied space; it is almost a case of, “Name something the community needs, and Mavisbank has the potential for it.” I am sure the Minister needs no telling just how rare that kind of opportunity is. Incredibly, there might even be the remains of a Roman fort in the grounds of the house—a rare thing in unconquered Caledonia. The Romans might not have made it very far in Scotland, but they did make it to Midlothian, and I am sure they found it well worth the journey from Rome, just as with our EU friends nowadays who find their way there. Imagine how that potential site could benefit local schools and nearby universities studying archaeology—yet another string to the bow.

Importantly, collaboration and community engagement run deep in the Save Mavisbank proposal. It is the product of collaboration between the Landmark Trust and Historic Environment Scotland and comes after four years of close working through a joint project board meeting monthly in Scotland and England to draw up the scheme.

On a local level, Midlothian Council has confirmed its support and its willingness to take forward the compulsory purchase of the house, and the people of Midlothian themselves have had a voice throughout, as a community representative has sat on the project board since its inception. Consultation with community stakeholders has been key.

Beyond that, both NHS Lothian and NatureScot formally support the proposal. NHS Lothian would be brought on board for the social prescribing programmes planned for the house’s grounds, and NatureScot would be a key partner in the environmental programmes. There is huge local enthusiasm for saving Mavisbank, demonstrated by the project’s audience research. Current efforts are indebted to the community-led Mavisbank Trust; its efforts to rescue the building were by the community and for the community.

However, saving Mavisbank is completely contingent on funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Put plainly by Save Mavisbank,

“if the National Lottery Heritage Fund cannot support this project it will not proceed”.

Following an initial failed lottery bid in 2013, Save Mavisbank was advised to reapply, which makes it particularly disappointing that the latest proposal was again rejected in July.

Potential challenges, which could have impacted the application, included issues with parking and general access, but those are easily surmountable. Save Mavisbank has considered having multiple different entrances spread throughout the ground, and the improvement of paths and signage are in the proposal. More steps could be taken to move that forward.

In the 2021 bid, the project’s partners had committed to finding £10 million, on top of the £8 million it sought from the lottery. Funding for the project is there; the lottery is just the missing element in it. In spite of their bitter disappointment, everyone previously on board remains committed to the project, which is coming together. So many different bodies with a shared motivation and passion is really quite something to behold. We cannot allow that momentum and energy to fade into nothing.

That brings me to the reason for this debate: to bring Mavisbank to the Minister’s attention. Obviously, I recognise that a big hurdle here is the question of funding, specifically from the lottery, but there are some key ways in which the Government could do their bit to help save Mavisbank. Will the Minister meet with me and representatives from Save Mavisbank to discuss how we can take this forward? That would be the best way to get into the detail of the issues.

To draw my contribution to a close, us Scots pride ourselves on our history and our ability to keep it alive and vivid in our own culture. However, the track record in giving due respect to architectural heritage has been quite shocking in the past; ancient tenements have been demolished for car parks and castles have been allowed to crumble into the sea. Mavisbank cannot be allowed to join the list of important buildings that used to exist. Let us not repeat yesterday’s mistakes and allow a piece of history to disappear, then mourn its loss after it is too late. Let us act while we still can. I will share some words directly from the building itself, translated from the Latin carved into the stone:

“And may what the numerous ages erode be restored intact, and may it be granted that the older you are, the more beautiful you may shine.”

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 11:19 am, 7th December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank Owen Thompson for securing this debate on the important topic of Mavisbank House.

As the hon. Member said, there was indeed something for everyone in his speech, which highlighted a good smattering of famous names from our history and acknowledged, quite rightly, that not all of our history is glamorous or uncontroversial. We have some challenging facts in our history, which we also need to face head-on, as he quite rightly articulated. As he clearly laid out, Mavisbank House is testament to a unique aspect of Scottish and British history and is one of the most important at-risk heritage sites in the country. The Government share the hon. Member’s concern that this unique piece of Scottish and British history has fallen into such disrepair.

The hon. Member rightly mentioned the importance as Scotland’s most pre-eminent small country house and first palladium villa. It was built by two towering figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Sir John Clerk and William Adam. Sir John Clerk was a poet, politician, musician, classicist, mathematician and philosopher, which puts us all to shame, and he played a vital role, as he mentioned, in the Act of Union. The house Sir John built at Mavisbank was a testament to the man and his time. Mavisbank would go on to become an iconic landmark, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom.

I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Mavisbank, but I appreciate the hon. Member’s offer and would like to take him up on it at some point. I have seen pictures of the site, which are quite alarming, and I share his concern at the potential loss of this important historic monument. I also share his sentiment that it is a vitally important heritage asset for the local community. Mavisbank House is a fine example of the power of heritage and culture to create a sense of place. Heritage sites such as Mavisbank House are also vital for the local economy, attracting visitors and providing high-skilled jobs, and I was pleased to hear the hon. Member mention the importance of those important skilled jobs in the heritage sector.

The hon. Member mentioned his understandable disappointment and frustration at the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s decision not to fund the scheme through the heritage horizon award. The National Lottery Heritage Fund is an arm’s length body of the Government, as I am sure he will know. It is for the fund rather than me or Government to decide or dictate which of the many worthy bids receive funding. Since its formation in 1994, it has awarded more than £3 billion to almost 10,000 areas, historic buildings and monument projects across the UK. In Scotland alone, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has distributed more than £890 million to 4,727 projects since 1994. In the hon. Member’s constituency of Midlothian, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has invested £17 million in that time, of which more than £12 million has funded built heritage projects such as the Penicuik heritage regeneration project and many more important historic places and assets across Midlothian. The hon. Member mentioned Penicuik in his speech, so we see the importance of that name in his local area.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has worked tirelessly to support the heritage sector through several alternative funds. However, I share the hon. Member’s disappointment that Mavisbank House was not able to secure heritage horizon funding. I have been assured that all due processes were followed—I do not think he was questioning the process—but the harsh reality was that the heritage horizon award was a highly competitive fund designed to revolutionise the UK’s heritage through investment in “ambitious, innovative and transformational projects.”

I am told that, fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on perspective—other schemes matched those objectives even more clearly than Mavisbank, leading to the difficult decision to reject its bid for funding. Although Mavisbank also met those criteria, limited funding can only go so far. An example of a successful bid in Scotland was the Cairngorms national park authority, which was awarded £12.5 million. That award will fund an ambitious seven-year programme to achieve transformational change for people and nature in north-east Scotland. It will bring together 45 different partner organisations to look at cultural heritage, environmental protection, climate change and biodiversity, and deliver meaningful improvements to people’s health and wellbeing. Though that is a great example of a project, it does not distract from the hon. Member’s compelling arguments about Mavisbank, covering many of those areas as well.

I understand that the National Lottery Heritage Fund has been in contact with the hon. Member, as well as with Historic Environment Scotland and the Landmark Trust, which I acknowledge play a pivotal role in securing our national heritage. I understand that the National Lottery Heritage Fund has provided feedback and is looking at alternative options for Mavisbank House. I urge him to explore all available options—he is clearly doing that—to save Mavisbank House, including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, a funder of last resort for assets of national importance in the UK. I am sure that, as one of the most important at-risk heritage sites in Scotland, Mavisbank House would have a strong case. Of course, any decisions are at the discretion of the National Heritage Memorial Fund board, but I am sure that, given the case that I have heard articulated today, he would get a strong and sympathetic hearing. As hon. Members will be aware, heritage is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, and I also therefore urge the hon. Member to continue conversations with the Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for bringing the house and this fascinating piece of history, which his speech articulated so well, to our attention. I am happy to continue conversations with him, the Scottish Government and any other stakeholders. It sounds as though he is already engaging with a very large number of stakeholders, and Mavisbank House is fortunate to have him bringing so many people together and supporting this bid with such passion. I am happy to help in any way I can—with the caveat that I cannot promise funding that is not directly under my control—with this really important project. I wish him and everyone involved the best of luck in securing funding for this unique heritage site.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.