A CENTURIES-old gem nestled in a churchyard in a rural Scottish village may not be our best-known tourist attraction but its exquisite carvings and stonework are renowned around the world.

Now the Hans Hamilton Tomb, in Dunlop Kirkyard, East Ayrshire, which has suffered years of water degradation, has been painstakingly restored to its former glory in a £71,000 multi-agency project that has taken almost 30 years to come to fruition.

The tomb dates back to 1641 and is a memorial to the first Protestant minister of the Kirk, John (Hans) Hamilton – who died in 1608 – and his wife Janet.

It was built by James, 1st Viscount Clandeboye, who was the eldest of six sons and a founding member of the Protestant Church in Northern Ireland. He was also chosen by King James VI and I to lead the Plantation of Scots into Ulster, taking the crypt’s significance far beyond Dunlop.

A central feature of the tomb is a stone sarcophagus that contains the remains of the Hamiltons. On top of this are two large marble statues of the couple kneeling in prayer, facing each other across a portable prayer desk, with an inscription on the wall above, marble side pillars and a Hamilton coat of arms carved in stone near the ceiling. The marble monuments would originally have been painted in bright colours, as was the custom in the early 17th century.

Because of its vivid painted statuary the Hamilton tomb was for many years known locally in Dunlop as “the Picture House”.

The marble has now faded to its natural grey-white, but traces of the original colours are still visible, especially within the folds of the elaborate garments worn by the couple.

Next door to the mausoleum James also built schoolhouse Clandeboye Hall for the children of Dunlop, which is still in use today as a parish hall. Both these simple stone buildings are listed Grade A by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Frances Hamilton, a direct descendant of Hans Hamilton, has played a key role in the campaign to restore the monument, which began in the early 1990s and involved the Kirk, East Ayrshire Council and family descendants all over the world. He was said to be “delighted” with the restoration.

Grant funding from HES and the council, Dunlop Kirk, the Ulster Scots Agency, Hamilton family sources and the Clan Hamilton Society in the US, enabled the restoration to go ahead.

Councillor Jim Roberts, East Ayrshire’s cabinet member for economy and infrastructure said: “It is testament to the dogged efforts of a few individuals, including Frances Hamilton, that we’ve seen this painstaking restoration come to fruition.

“David Mitchell from Dunlop Kirk spent over 20 years fundraising and campaigning, while Graciela Ainsworth, a specialist in sculpture conservation, has been involved since 1991 when the statues were removed to prevent further damage due to the leaking roof. It’s great to see them back in situ and keeping dry.

“The tomb is so interesting on many levels, as an example of 17th-century building and design, as a memorial to a much loved parish minister and also as a place of pilgrimage for Hamilton descendants and everyone with an interest in the history of the Scottish Plantations into Ulster and the origins of the Protestant religion there. For us in East Ayrshire it’s good to see such an important architectural gem preserved for future generations to understand and enjoy, and we hope that it will prove a draw for visitors from all over the world.”