Vague Memories: Old colour in the city: The re-introduction of Copperas render in Scotland

Fiona McLachlan, Beichen Yu

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Scotland is a country of stone and slate, of quiet, modest buildings that sit comfortably in the landscape. Occasionally, houses may be painted, but unlike central Europe, the majority of buildings in Scotland are defined by their material-based colour palette. Vibrant colours on buildings are less common in this context and, where used, can spark controversy, similar to public reaction when archaeologists discovered the gaudy colours applied in ancient Greece. Conservation of the built heritage is of vital importance to the economy and identity of the country, yet it brings dilemmas. Evidence may be ambiguously interpreted, memories are not always clear, and may therefore be subject to creative invention.

This paper will consider the role of colour in constructing social and cultural memory. The recent re-introduction of a half-forgotten technique of using ‘Copperas’ (iron sulphate) to colour lime render has been met with varied responses. Some favour the liveliness of strong colour within an otherwise homogenous environment others find the appearance incongruous. When added to lime, the mixture initially turns green, but then quickly changes to a strong gingery-ochre colour and, used as a coating, adds a layer of weather protection to rough stonework. The mineral was commonly used as a dye in the making of cloth. By the 1960s, the technique had become forgotten, but a few examples of buildings with distinctive warm orange colour remained, etched into cultural collective memory - even if neglected in reality. The use of lime render declined. In the late 19th Century, external harling and render was stripped to expose the underlying stone or brick with the intention of revealing, what was then felt to be, the authentic beauty of the nature stone. During the 20th century, lime mortar was often replaced by modern cement to avoid regular maintenance, but was proven to cause damage. The advantages of the traditional technique for the restoration of historic masonry buildings, has since been recognised. In addition to the technical performance, the distinctive ‘glowing’ colour contributes to a cultural identity and sense of place and provides a vivid contrast with the landscape.

The paper will suggest that the reintroduction of the ‘old’ colour can give an instant appearance of age and a historical and cultural value even when applied to contemporary properties. One example will be explored in depth- Bonnington House- an eighteenth century rural house, renovated and substantially extended in 2014. The traditional technique not only suits the climate and can provide protection, but the colour can contribute to the acceptance of change within significant historical environments. Unlike a contemporary paint finish, the technique creates an uneven, imperfect patina and unpredictable varied tones – a more lively appearance than the usual homogeneity of paint. The paper will suggest that it can also be controversial by challenging accepted social preconceptions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 2016 Colour-Culture-Science Conference
EditorsMaria Godyń, Bożena Groborz, Agata Kwiatkowska-Lubańska
Place of PublicationKrakow
PublisherJan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)978-83-948545-3-9
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2018
EventCCS – Colour-Culture-Science Conference - Krakow, Poland
Duration: 23 Nov 201624 Nov 2016


ConferenceCCS – Colour-Culture-Science Conference

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