For those who work at Scone Palace, the first day of a new season feels like the start of a new school term. The following seven months lay ahead, waiting for the staff to leave their print on them, like pristine exercise books waiting to be filled with stories. Their pencils are sharpened, their shoes are polished and their uniforms are washed and pressed. As the shutters are opened, allowing shafts of light to fall once again into briefly forgotten corners, there is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. Spring has arrived and it has not come alone. It has bought a host of visitors with it to breathe life back into the old walls. As the weeks pass, the season builds with the laughter and voices of inquisitive minds. By high summer, the palace and gardens reach a crescendo. Scone is doing what it does best; providing a brief escape from daily life and nurturing the imaginations of visitors, both old and new.

But during the winter months, Scone is a different place. The state rooms withdraw from public life and retire into the solitude of winter. The transient footprints of visitors past have been covered with leaves and snow, and all around a hush descends. But this silence lies on the surface of a hidden industriousness. For although the palace is closed to visitors, the offices, shops, kitchens and corridors are buzzing with activity.

If you were to stroll past the kitchen in January, you would be greeted by the sweet, tangy smell of Seville oranges, because January is marmalade-making month. The marmalade - which is Lady Mansfield’s personal recipe - is made daily in small batches then used in the Coffee Shop and sold in the Food Shop. Winter also gives Fraser Bell, Scone’s Head of Catering, time to source new local suppliers. Next season the Coffee Shop will be using bread and sweet treats from two local bakeries. Looking further ahead, he is also hoping to work with a coffee bean supplier in Perth to create a hand-roasted blend of coffee made especially for Scone Palace.

In addition to making and finding high quality foodstuffs, the winter months also give Frazer time to evaluate the efficiency and seasonality of the menu. This year, as part of his intention to create a more ‘field to fork’ ethos, he is introducing a Kitchen Garden Salad; a seasonally inspired dish that will reflect and celebrate the produce grown at Scone. This dish, along with the new High Tea menu, will herald the beginnings of a tiered menu, offering more choice for our visitors. Moreover, this new menu will reflect Scone and Scotland’s larder.

Such quiet industry can be heard in the Shops too. The tills may be temporarily silent, but Head of Retail, Katrina Macdonald, is thinking ahead. Once the palace has closed, she becomes a master of statistics, evaluating what her customers liked and what they left behind. It is the perfect opportunity to source new brands and products so that both shops continue to evolve and reflect the popular retail trends in the marketplace. But of course the Gift Shop at Scone is not like any other high street store, it is unique. Here visitors pick up trinkets and souvenirs that remind them of their day at Scone and their time in Scotland. And so, sourcing a mixture of relatable gifts, those specific to Scone and Scotland is always a priority. Last season, the Gift Shop introduced a new line of Harris Tweed products which proved very popular and this season will see Katrina build on that success by offering an exciting new line of similar products.

Like Frazer, she too needs to look beyond the season ahead and predict future customer expectations. To this end, she is hoping to introduce more original art prints, especially those of Scottish artists, and promote the work of local makers and artisans. Alongside the physical shops,there is the online shop to consider also. This virtual retail experience is relatively new but in time she hopes to build it up in a way that reflects the in-store experience.

For the three curators who help maintain the palace, the colder months bring with them a daily checklist. Graham, Simon and Dale become winter soldiers; standing on sentry duty, refusing to allow the mercilessness of winter to enter the building. They patrol the perimeter, looking for cracks in the palace’s red stone armour through which winter can seep in to wreak havoc, leaving chaos in its wake.

As they make their way along the many corridors, stairwells and hallways that weave in between the one hundred rooms of the palace, they scan for damp patches, puddles, drips and trickles. Did the plumbing hold steadfast against the unrelenting brutality of the Scottish winter? Did the building remain loyal and unmovable to its Victorian engineered heritage? Mostly, the answer is yes. But each morning the ritual of Winter Watch starts all over again. Doors to darkened rooms are opened with bated breath, only to be closed again with a relieved exhalation; the ancient roof was chivalrous once again, gallant in the face of peril. Indeed, it took a 10 year rolling programme of leak chasing and fault line fixing to seal the roof. In truth, this battle is never won - but the caretakers fight the good fight! And so, once the high winds have ceased whipping the palace walls and the rain has softened, the age-old unending watch goes on as Graham, Simon and Dale venture up onto the roof to check the damage, carefully surveying all 2500 sqm of it.

Like any home in springtime - and it’s easy to forget that Scone Palace is a home - the mammoth task of spring cleaning begins. The house keeping team, led by Ann-Sophie, dust off their brushes and start the process of reviving each room in preparation for visitors. The fireplaces are swept and cleaned after the demands of winter. The patchwork of wooden surfaces, from mahogany to rosewood, are polished and buffed to a gleaming shine. The ornate picture frames are tickled with twirling and swishing brushes, and metre after metre of flooring is cleaned and treated, ready to withstand another season of sole searching!

Alongside the daily sweeping, polishing and buffing, this time is also used to carry out any restoration or decoration. Winter is the perfect time for Stephen Brannigan, the Head of Palace to take an inventory and create a list of essential works to be carried out. This winter, the longest carpet in the palace, the one that runs the length of the Long Gallery had to be taken up in order to be straightened. Not a simple job when it measures 45 metres in length! However, it did give staff the rare opportunity to reenact the curling demonstration given by the 4th Earl to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1842. He has also overseen the redecoration of The Ambassador’s Room and the lowering of the paintings in it. During the work, the rare opportunity to open a hidden door behind the Ambassador’s bed became briefly possible.

Like all of the managers at Scone, the priority for Stephen is improving the visitor experience. Winter gives him the chance to analyse the highs and lows of visitor feedback and share these with the family. It’s a time to invest where needed in order to provide a visitor experience that is accessible, interesting, memorable, and of course, good value. And so, this season visitors will have the opportunity to access information on their phones and tablets via a series of QR codes. Each code, once scanned, will tell the visitor the story behind each room and the people associated with it. Guides will still be on hand for those visitors who want a more personal experience, but visitors will have a choice as to how they want to learn about Scone and its fascinating history.

And so, as March takes hold, the staff begin to gather again for training and familiarisation. Guides walk the well-acquainted route through the state rooms reminding themselves of the stories and artefacts in each. The faces in the portraits look down as if to say, ‘Welcome back. Did you have a good Christmas?’ The catering team gather in the kitchen and cafe, greeted by the comforting smell of baked goods and homemade soup. With their aprons securely tied, they are ready to feed the thousands of visitors who will be in search of refreshment. The shop assistants dust, straighten, stack and fold - after they have coveted all the new stock of course! And as though it were only yesterday, we are ready to start all over again. The palace awaits..

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