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[EXP] The Mourne Homesteads Project - Mourne Heritage Trust brings back to life traditional buildings in Northern Ireland

Demonstrating that the once almost derelict structures can be transformed into comfortable 21st century family homes

Rural topic(s): (Agri)-tourism and rural heritage

Type: Success story

Date of writing: May 1, 2010

Author(s) of this page: Delia Sambeteanu

Organization(s): Mourne Heritage Trust


The Mourne Homesteads Project is an innovative scheme seeking to find ways of addressing the loss of traditional buildings in the countryside of Northern Ireland. It has two strands - the renovation of traditional dwellings in the Mourne for full time use by local people and an education and training scheme in traditional building skills.


Regional background

The Mourne Mountains, Slieve Croob, their farmed foothills and coast in Northern Ireland are designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This designation brings a commitment to safeguard the natural beauty, wildlife and historic heritage of the area, whilst at the same time promoting its enjoyment to the public. The area is located in the southeast corner of Northern Ireland (570 square Kilometres) and stretches across the boundaries of three District Councils, namely Newry and Mourne, Banbridge and Down. The spectacular scenery of mountains, coast, farmed drumlin and hill country comprises a diverse range of habitats and a large number of historic and traditional buildings and artefacts (churches, castles, memorials, fine buildings, traditional farmsteads, gates and gateposts). There are approximately 400 listed buildings and 1700 derelict vernacular buildings in the AONB and most of them are of 19th century origin. The traditional and vernacular buildings play a very important role in the formation of the character of the Mourne landscape. Soon after its foundation, the Mourne Heritage Trust became aware of the alarming rate at which these buildings, together with the skills necessary to preserve them were being lost. They also observed an exodus of young people due to the ever rising cost of property. Although there were already many measures in place to deal with tourist accommodation, there were none to tackle the issues of permanent homes for local people.

Stakeholders /Organisation

The Mourne Heritage Trust was established in 1997 as a partnership of central and local government agencies, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and environmental, community, recreational, landowning and business interests to provide for the management of the Mourne and Slieve Croob Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Its mission statement is:‘To sustain and enhance the environment, rural regeneration, cultural heritage and visitor opportunities of the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and contribute to the well-being of Mourne’s communities.’

The Trust works in the following key areas:

  • Natural Environment Enhancement and Protection

  • Visitor Management and Visitor Services

  • Built and Cultural Heritage · Sustainable Tourism

It also deals with: awareness raising and promoting understanding; rural and community regeneration; strategic management and co-ordination. Its distinctive success is the Mourne Homesteads Project that resulted in bringing back from dereliction seven buildings, as well as encouraging traditional building skills development.

Aspects of sustainable development/ Activities

Preservation of the built and cultural heritage

The Mourne Homesteads Project is an innovative scheme seeking to find ways of addressing the loss of traditional buildings in the countryside. It has two strands - the renovation of traditional dwellings in the Mourne for full time use by local people and an education and training scheme in traditional building skills.

  • Bringing seven buildings back from the edge of dereliction

The project started in May 2000 with the appointment of a Built Heritage Officer and the formation of a working party. A feasibility study was set up and, as a first step, the level of support for work in this field was tested. As a result, 178 owners of traditional buildings showed their interest in the scheme that would bring their buildings back into use.

From the initial returns, the Trust selected 25 properties for in-depth investigation. The assessment criteria that were taken into consideration included general condition, structural stability, access for people and vehicles, services, viable curtilage and whether the improvement brief could be accommodated. Nine buildings were chosen that scored the highest against the assessment criteria. In addition, they also represented a variety of building styles and types and were spread across the AONB. Seven out of nine projects were completed (two of the properties were withdrawn by their owners). A second part of the feasibility study revealed about 600 buildings in the AONB that were deemed suitable for restoration.

The third part of the feasibility exercise was to secure funding. This proved to be the most difficult part of the entire project. Different aspects of this scheme attracted support from different funders. The Trust set in place a specific and tailored administrative system to support the project. Funding for the initial stage of the project was secured from the Pilgrim Trust. The Heritage Lottery Fund acted as the main funder of the project, being particularly interested in the skills development aspect of the programme. Courses in skills such as thatching, lime working, dry stone walling and traditional masonry were conducted on a cross-border basis with support from Co-operation Ireland and Duchas. Improvement of the outbuildings and curtilages was possible thanks to funding from the Rural Development Council. Northern Ireland Housing Executive provided a grant for each property in return for the delivery of a rigorous specification outlining modern standards of internal accommodation. The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation also provided substantial funds for the general support of the programme. The necessary loans were provided by the Architectural Heritage Fund with the interest paid by the Ulster Garden Villages Limited. For one of the properties, which is a listed building, the Environment and Heritage Service provided further grant support.

None of the work would have been possible without the excellent design work of Alistair Coey Architects Ltd, the quality surveying and legal services provided by Hastings and Baird and Johns Elliot and the highly skilled and sensitive building works carried out by two local Mourne firms (Castledara Developments and Cousins and McKee). All the work was carried out in cooperation with the owners of the properties, who also made a financial contribution proportionate with the increase in value of their homes.

The re-use of existing buildings and the fact that there was an active involvement and subsequent occupation by members of the local community demonstrates a high level of sustainability. Working sympathetically with the special character of the buildings and in harmony with the immediate environment enhanced the sustainability further.

  • Training in traditional building skills

In conjunction with the Mourne Homesteads building project, educational and training programmes in the essential skills required to recognise, restore and reuse Ireland’s disappearing vernacular buildings have been developed. Most buildings over 60 years old were constructed using methods and materials no longer familiar to the building trades, and modern material can often damage these historic structures. The courses are delivered by a variety of skilled tutors including Mourne Heritage Trust staff and professional team, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), Northern Ireland Housing Executive staff, the staff of Narrow Water Lime Service and visiting lecturers from the society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). The training sessions are aimed at those who need to develop practical skills and those who need to understand and specify requirements (officers, architects, surveyors, planners, construction managers and contractors).

Challenges / Perspectives

There have been many challenges and difficulties to overcome in the course of the project. Many more still remain. There are numerous vacant traditional buildings within and beyond the AONB. The future of these buildings depends mainly on their owners’ decisions. It is also essential that others, particularly the Government, create a policy environment in which private owners are encouraged to preserve these buildings. This can be done through planning and grant policies that can proactively favour repair and reuse over replacement. The existing policies should recognise the intrinsic importance of traditional buildings.


The Mourne Homesteads Project has demonstrated that the preservation of traditional buildings is not only possible but also hugely rewarding to our society. It represents one of the most successful co-ordinated attempts to reverse the unfortunate decline of this type of buildings. It is an example of how the partnership work of different organisations and the knowledgeable guidance of the Mourne Heritage Trust transformed once derelict structures into comfortable 21st family homes, with the unique character that only time and history can provide. It would be ideal if every owner of such buildings is willing and has the financial means to restore them.


Scale of intervention : Regional

Keywords: cultural heritage, protected area, territorial project, rural heritage, traditional knowledge

Places: United-Kingdom

Actors: association

Methods: raising awareness, resources mobilization, technical assistance, non formal learning