When Thomas Mouat decided to build a new house in Unst he set sail to Leith. This was in 1775 when the first part of Edinburgh’s New Town was being built, a huge extension to the medieval old town. He met with William Bell, a well-connected wine merchant in Leith who we assume would have helped with introductions around the city as Thomas planned his mission to study contemporary houses and build his own – a project which would result in Scotland’s most northerly Georgian house.
Thomas selected an imposing site for his house, over the hill from the established community at Uyeasound. The new site was a large area of gently sloping south facing land with a commanding view over the sea to the south and across to Yell. Unencumbered by past development the land offered scope to build his new house, not just the house but a designed landscape with the house as the centrepiece. There was to be a central avenue leading to the sea where flit boats could land. Behind the house a symmetrical farm steading sat with a smaller farmhouse between the flanking farm buildings.
We know that he toured houses around the Lothians and was particularly impressed with Hopetoun House. At that time there were many classical country houses springing up in Edinburgh’s hinterland, some now engulfed into the urban fabric as the city expanded around them. We don’t know who designed Belmont, perhaps it was based on a house design taken from a fashionable pattern book, but Thomas certainly adapted the design to suit his requirements, his budget and the site of the house in Unst. Belmont has flanking pavilions connected to the main house with curving walls. So too does Hopetoun, albeit on a huge scale, but perhaps the inspiration for the more modest Belmont. Whatever the source of the design Belmont is perfectly proportioned but modest in scale. The new country houses had designed landscapes with driveways, gates and water features stretching out and firmly fixing the house into the surrounding landscape. Thomas had dykes and gate pillars stretching down to the sea, and a symmetrical layout of parks in front of the walled gardens. One of only two extensive designed landscapes in Shetland, its importance recognised by being included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland (revised 2016).
Carpenter and stonemasons workshops would have been booming in Edinburgh at that time, making doors, windows and all the interior joinery needed to build the new city. Fireplaces, skirtings, facings, panels and decorative plasterwork features were being made in huge numbers. Thomas could have the pick of these. He chose wisely and shopped modestly, selecting simple elegant moulded joinery for the principal rooms on the ground and first floors, and boarding for the walls in the attic floor. He saved the best for the dining and drawing rooms, both have dado panelling and in the drawing room he added a stunning fire surround with carved limewood urns and garlands. He must have bought a length of egg and dart wooden moulding, he used it as intended around the fireplace and the door into the drawing room. The small length left over was used to frame the fireplace in the attic box bedroom.
The only decorative plasterwork in the house is a simple ceiling rose in the drawing room. Thomas was well aware that the Shetland craftsmens’ skills probably lay in working with wood rather than fancy plasterwork so all the cornices in Belmont are made of wood, again bought by the yard in Edinburgh and shipped north. He cared for every detail – the drawing room still has a rare example of painted marbling on the stone fire surround. Being a family home, without lots of of staff to run it, Thomas wisely placed the kitchen to the front of the house - certainly unusual at the time and giving the cooks the benefit of the sun and views to the sea.
The front door surround is made from Craigleith sandstone, shipped from Edinburgh and erected in Shetland. So too the decorated stone urns which once crowned the pediment and front gate pillars at Belmont. All that remains are eroded bases, weathered away by 200 years of Shetland weather. There is a niche in the pediment but no evidence that any sculpture or bust ever sat there, that would have been too showy for Thomas. He reused brick as a coping on the curved walls of the forecourt, these red clay bricks likely arrived in Shetland from Fife or other east coast ports as ballast, and were probably used as their strong red colour gave a contrast to the pale harled walls.
With so much of the house material imported into Shetland Belmont was almost a kit house but not Shetland’s first, the Norse had shipped over timber structures from Norway and erected these, protected by a surrounding thick wall of local stone. (Indeed, the excavated remains of a Norse house still stand on the hill looking down onto Belmont.) The roof structure was assembled from timbers sent north, the components of the trusses are clearly marked by incised roman numerals and were erected, in order, from west to east. Lime was shipped into Unst and stored in a small stone building built into the wall down at the shoreline. This lime was used along with many oyster shells to bond the local serpentine rock and form the outside walls of the house. More red brick was used inside, as infill – sound deadening - in the timber partitions. The spaces between the floor beams were packed tight with dried sphagnum moss, again providing sound deadening and some welcome insulation.
The building of Belmont was a huge project for Thomas, from considering all his design options to buying the materials needed in Edinburgh, arranging ships to transport these north and managing the construction project in Shetland. Although grand for Shetland the house is small by country house standards, it suited the location and no doubt Thomas’s pockets. This modest approach had undoubtably saved the house into the 20th century, it was liveable with no huge underused rooms to heat and maintain. Money was still tight and Belmont was spared any major alterations other than a small wing tacked on in the Victorian period. There was never piped water, drainage or other services in the old house. When the Belmont Trust took over the house in 1996 the paint colours were still largely those which Thomas selected. The drawing room had never been repainted and the original Oval Room Blue could be seen where paintings and mirrors had once hung. The attic rooms were a cheery straw colour and timberwork throughout the house was a warm white. So perfect were these colours that they were reused in the restoration.
Thomas’s labours were worth it – you just need to experience his perfect miniature Georgian country house to understand why.