AN archaeological investigation spanning 20 years has led to the rediscovery of lost grounds at a building which stood at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Newhailes House and Gardens was described in the 1750s as having the “most learned library in Europe” and was owned by Sir David Dalrymple, with some of the greatest scholars and writers of the Enlightenment period frequenting it.

Originally called “Whitehill”, the Musselburgh house – built by Scottish architect James Smith in a style influenced by Venetian architect Andrea Palladio – was purchased by the Dalrymple family in 1709.

The surrounding landscape underwent major improvements in 1812, before becoming difficult for the family to maintain.

Some key features in the grounds were subsequently being vandalised and reclaimed by the undergrowth, including its notable shell house, which was inspired and designed by Jenny Dalrymple.

But the estate, house and its contents were donated to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) back in January 1997 by the trustees of the late Mark Dalrymple – which paved the way for two decades of detailed investigation involving historians, hundreds of volunteers and locals.

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Now, the original features have been rediscovered, in addition to the grand plan for the property – meaning people can walk the old paths and experience the grounds as visitors to the property would have at the time.

Nearly 200 fragments of the estate’s tea house were retrieved from the burn running through the property, in addition to two original shell-decorated timber planks from inside the shell house. New light has also been shed on the history of the property’s old walled kitchen garden and the ladies walk.

Daniel Rhodes, one of the NTS archaeologists who helped lead the investigation, said: “Visiting today, there is a hidden gem element to the property as the features are tucked away within the landscape.

“A lot are still ruinous, we have never renovated them, but that almost adds to the experience. They are showing every single part of their history, when the family stopped looking after them and when the property opened to the public – before the National Trust for Scotland took over the property.

“They are showing their age. We have carried out stabilising work, but this is part of the romance of it.

“We started off by walking the landscape, identifying the physical elements and what we can see.

“We combine that with maps, plans, family diaries and estate books. We then piece all of those different parts together as a desktop body of work. Then we go out and start to uncover the hidden elements.

“Getting our hands on it physically and exploring the property is what revealed the full art of it to us.”

The ground-breaking methods used in the build have also been uncovered, including the retrieving and utilising of industrial waste from local sites such as the nearby saltworks and Prestonpans Pottery.

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These raw materials were used to bring to life the shell house, which had a “reflective and lava-like appearance”.

“We have not restored the shell house, but we have rescued everything that fell off it,” said Rhodes. “We have collected all of the pieces over the years and analysed how they all fitted together, to create a picture of what it looked like in its full glory. It’s a unique building. It shows the efforts and thinking of Jenny Dalrymple, who took responsibility for the design of the building. It has a very unique and ‘personal’ personality.

“Some of the materials are also very unique, some were actually industrial waste. It’s a very modern approach to building. They have recycled all of these industrial materials and used them to make this artistic statement.”

The grounds at Newhailes are now open to the public following NTS site closures as a result of Covid-19.