Tom Burnett-Stuart owned a range of historic, listed buildings around Portsoy’s Old Harbour, which was built in 1692 and is category A listed by Historic Environment Scotland.
In a remarkable act of generosity and care for the people of Portsoy, Tom left the buildings in his will to be conserved and revitalised by the North East Scotland Preservation Trust (NESPT).
In addition, Tom’s bequest includes two self-catering holiday cottages at the Old Harbour, three cottages in Whitehills, and a “sizeable” sum of money to be used to protect the architectural integrity of the Old Harbour.
As well as protecting and conserving the buildings, the bequest secures the viability of the NESPT for the foreseeable future.
Every inch a Banffshire man with a deep respect for its people
As the younger son of landed gentry from Marnoch, he might have been expected to find a job in the City or running the family estate. But after Eton (he had first attended Marnoch School), National Service and a spell in the steel industry, plus a diploma in engineering, he came home in his twenties to make a living in the burgeoning Scottish tourist industry.
Initially he investigated everything from motels in the Highlands to the manufacture of evil-smelling tartan fibreglass trays in the basement of his mother’s home. Finally, recognising the unique properties of the marble-patterned serpentine rock that came from the cliffs and beaches of Portsoy, he learnt how to polish and cut the unpromising looking grey stone to reveal its distinctive deep reds and greens.
He was reviving a local industry. Portsoy marble had been a major export in the 18th Century and was reputed to have been used for fireplaces at Versailles (Tom searched the entire palace in vain, he admitted, although it was certainly used at Hopetoun House).
Tom bought his first building behind the imposing Corff House, which now houses the Portsoy Marble Shop, for a few pounds in 1964, and established a workshop turning out polished stone gifts and jewellery, employing the late George Macrae and Jimmy Merson, while John Watson became an expert carver of animal figures.
The hair-raising, if ingenious, range of pulleys, polishing machines and electrical wiring he rigged up would give today’s health and safety inspectors nightmares.
The business grew, and Portsoy Pottery was started with Brian Shand, and the shop was run by a succession of devoted “girls” as Tom called his local ladies who happily put up with his often-idiosyncratic ideas of display and marketing.
Gradually, Tom bought up surrounding semi-derelict buildings around the Old Harbour as they became vacant – at the right price. For he was an inveterate bargain hunter and dealer at heart who hated to see anything go to waste. He would invariably return from the town tip with more than he had taken. No farm roup or auction sale was complete without Tom, no abandoned quarry left unscoured for old lintels, dressed corner stones, joists and “useful bits” of redundant machinery hauled home in a succession of battered Mini Pickups later supplanted by equally abused VW vans. Yet everything was earmarked for a purpose.
Tom was deeply appreciative of the skills and techniques of local joiners and masons. He became an early champion of the then almost lost art of lime harling (render) and heartily disagreed with most of the official conservation bodies over its correct mix and use. For he undoubtedly possessed a “thrawn” or stubborn streak. Fortunately, this was leavened by an easy manner and infectious sense of humour.
It was never certain Tom had a clear idea what he would do with the buildings – 6 and 7 Shorehead are now popular holiday cottages – but of one thing he was sure, they should be conserved and brought back to life using local skills and not fall into the hands of others with no grasp of local building tradition.
Consequently, Shorehead has become a sought-after period film location, featuring in the 2016 remake of Whisky Galore! and last used in the winter of 2021 for Peaky Blinders.
Tom’s crowning success, completed shortly before he died, was the restoration of the old Shorehead Grain Store. He was particularly proud of the new windows, not least because he doggedly tracked down a maker in France who could produce them 40% cheaper than anyone in the UK and which he collected in his VW van from Calais.
Tom sadly passed away in January 2020.
Tom’s Legacy and NESPT
North East Scotland Preservation Trust (NESPT) is a building preservation trust that exists to bring derelict, disused and redundant buildings back to life in the Aberdeenshire area and beyond.
The NESPT holds charitable status and operates as a company limited by guarantee.
With thanks to the very generous bequest left by Tom Burnett-Stuart, the work of the NESPT will continue.