By Richard Sim, Visitor Services Assistant, National Museum of Costume
Staff at the National Museum of Costume are every now and then surprised to find such a high proportion of visitors as interested in the House as they are in the collection.
Its name, Shambellie House, is derived from the Gaelic sean baile, meaning old dwelling. Built in 1856 for William Stewart, Shambellie House was one of the earliest designs of David Bryce, the pre-eminent Scottish architect of the time. Bryce’s finest work was Fettes College but he is also renowned for many private houses and public buildings including the Bank of Scotland on the Mound, the Royal Infirmary and Clydesdale Bank in Edinburgh. Shambellie House was his smallest construction but retains all the atmosphere of Bryce’s distinctive Scottish Gothic grandeur.
When Charles Stewart, a noted illustrator and grandson of William, donated his unique dress collection in 1977 to the National Museum of Scotland he also consented to allowing Shambellie House to be used as the venue for the costume museum. So it has remained. Yet the House itself has continued to exert a fascination of its own, often reinforcing the visitors’ engagement with the collection by enabling costumes to be seen in the appropriate room and period setting, creating a memorable tableau for the visitor to take away with them.
Though a large house, everything is nonetheless on a very human scale. Nursery, dining room, bathroom and library all draw favourable remarks with their human tales, as do the panoramic views across the Solway Firth and towards the hills.
Suggestive of their historical epoch though these rooms are, of equal interest perhaps are visitors’ comments on less obvious aspects of the House. A heating engineer drew this Visitor Assistant’s attention to the unusual design of the Victorian radiators (though most are from the 1920s); several are fascinated by the system of bells used to summon the servants; the spiral staircase and rounded doors never fail to draw approving comment.
Internally too, the National Museum of Costume is still redolent of its Victorian past. This is in no small measure due to the museum’s deliberate renewal of its Victorian atmosphere during the sumptuous refurbishment of Shambellie House in the 1990s. Thus, the dining room’s red wall paper and carpeting typify the Victorian ambition to project warmth and the hearth.
The drawing room too enjoys archetypal Victorian features being designed to be light and airy, with large bay windows to let in the maximum amount of light. Pale wall colourings emphasise the femininity of a room designed more for women’s use. Conversely, the library was more of a male preserve where after dinner men might retire to smoke, drink port and discuss the affairs of the day in comfortable chairs. The use of dark green was thought to be more masculine and relaxing.
The upstairs rooms at Shambellie, like other Victorian homes, were not “public” rooms and so were more simply decorated, being bereft of the more elaborate cornices which are a feature downstairs.
The basement housed the kitchens, associated storerooms, the laundry and the servants’ hall, where the servants took their meals. The Housekeeper and other female servants had the use of rooms in the attics. The servants only entered the “public” rooms when required, and normally used the spiral stairs, not the main staircase. The house was carefully designed to allow all the floors to be accessible from the spiral stairs, so that the servants and children did not disturb the family. The imposing main staircase from the Hall itself only accessed the first floor.
All in all, the museum reminds staff that they facilitate visitors to enjoy not only an important costume collection but also an architectural gem.