When in early 2005 the long drawn out restoration of Belmont House approached completion, it dawned on the Belmont Trustees that they were shortly to take possession of their perfect Georgian building; but that they had no money at all with which to furnish and outfit it.
This did not worry them as much as you might suppose. Twice in the lifetime of the project all works had halted for a year while the Trustees secured funding for the next phase. Neither by inclination nor situation, however, were the Trustees disposed to let grass grow under their feet. They produced a short, well illustrated book about the restoration, partly to sell as a fund raiser, but partly also, one suspects, to remind themselves of what they had achieved. And as a thank you, they sent copies of the Belmont book to the other charitable bodies who had helped them.
One of these went to the Pilgrim Trust, who had given financial support on several occasions from their HQ in Westminster. Their secretary had become a firm friend. How good, was demonstrated shortly afterwards. One morning John, Belmont chairman, opened his mail to find it included a cheque for £48000 from the Sainsbury Trust. It transpired that they had seen our book courtesy of the Pilgrim Trust, and had liked the project.
Once the initial shock had ebbed, the Trustees began to plan their strategy. They could now afford to outfit the kitchen. For this they turned to Harry’s Department Store in Lerwick, known far and wide for the excellence of its kitchenware, and with the added bonus that Harry Jamieson himself had long supported the Belmont project. For beds, bedding and linen the National Trust for Scotland had already offered to put us onto their suppliers, for the kind of quality we wanted for this property. We asked tentatively, did they have any surplus furniture they could loan us – some things, diningroom table for example, we definitely did not want to buy new or modern. They said simply – we’re a conservation charity, you’re a conservation charity, we should help each other.
So Mike, John and Wendy spent an amazing day in Edinburgh, exploring the recesses of furniture storage facilities where NTS puts the extraordinary variety of furniture left them, mostly by silly old ladies and a lot of it completely unusable. However amid the dusty crumbling sofas and disintegrating chairs were some gems, and of course we had a very good idea of what we needed.
At lunchtime we retreated to Charlotte Square, where NTS then owned about half of one side of that magnificent Georgian ensemble (these were the days before NTS comprehended the magnitude of their own financial black hole). Downstairs was a coffee shop, a modern take on the 18th c, with painted chairs and tables, a delicious hat stand (now in the porch at Belmont), and a wooden floor painted in diagonal diamonds of black and white.
They took us through to see a superb gilded overmantel mirror, and asked, do you like that. Superfluous question, we were all drooling. It now brings distinction – should further such be needed - to the Belmont diningroom, my favourite room in the house. It was then we learned that Ian Gow, the NTS guru and national authority on furniture and other artifacts, had directed that in view of Belmont’s importance and NTS own imminent downsizing, certain particular pieces were to be offered to us.
In that way we acquired, on longterm loan like all the NTS furniture, our best pieces – the chandelier in the drawingroom, the diningroom mirror, and a set of enchanting dining chairs with needlepoint seats which came from the office of the NTS chief executive. From the café – alas, Babylon – came our kitchen tables and a set of chairs to match. Other larger pieces included a French provincial bureau and campaign chest, and various chairs.
In that way Belmont gained furniture with a history. It was always the case, however, that the Trustees would put their own personal imprint onto the house, and that that would reflect their personal interest in design and the decorative arts. We all found things – a bathroom chair, a desk, the Canterbury in the downstairs sittingroom – and Gill Finnie’s chintz curtains, completely right for the kitchen. We had found several fragile but usable wooden chairs which were reseated and then painted, one of the several furniture restoration jobs which we and volunteers worked on (unfortunately the chaise longue which had survived decades of neglect, was too far gone to be repairable). At the Baltasound kirk sale one year John caused a sensation by bidding on a pair of sturdy small painted chairs, exactly the right height to be bedside tables in the big topfloor garret with the box beds.
Curtains needed to be warm, and we consulted our fabric guru, Kirsty (later, for her sins, a Trustee herself). Her extensive contacts in the Scottish textile scene sourced us the heavy lace curtain in the shower room and a way in to the famous firm, Johnstones of Elgin, whose CEO, as Kirsty knew, was an architecture buff. At Johnstone’s visitor centre in Elgin we were introduced to their chief designer, who showed us their woollen fabric ranges. We were able to buy the considerable amount of material required at cost price. Long may they flourish.
Creativity manifested itself – we had fun. Gill made bead tiebacks for the curtains; we both did cushions. Various rather favourite bits of china appeared – not too many, no clutter. Mike, Belmont Secretary (now Chairman), a well known artist in his own right, spearheaded the acquisition of a collection of modern Shetland art which has been rightly acclaimed. Walking round the house is like walking round a gallery – don’t fall over the beds… from June Redman’s subtle pastels to the abstract oils by Gail Harvey commissioned by Mike for the Belmont Trust.
Belmont is a place for happy memories, whether you visit or whether, like the Trustees and their totally valued manager Sharon, you shoulder the burden of responsibility for this unique house. Most of the artifacts there have a history and all are lovingly cared for by Sharon and her helper Alyson. Teamwork saved the house from ruin, and it is teamwork that safeguards it today.