Dr Johnson's gem in peril

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It is a house virtually unchanged since the 18th century, a golden age of artistic and intellectual development in Scotland.

Lady Antonia Dalrymple says she will miss the view north over the Firth of Forth to the hills of Fife when she moves from her mouldering mansion to a cottage in the estate grounds.

Though frail and grey, her smile and delicate features are unmistakably those of the young woman in the portrait hanging in the chaotic upstairs sitting room. It was painted from a photograph taken 50 years ago, soon after she came to Newhailes House as the bride of Sir Mark Dalrymple. Her favourite view is over one shoulder.

But 71-year-old Lady Antonia speaks of the future with a certainty not obvious in her advisers. Just one month remains for the National Trust for Scotland to raise the pounds 2.7m it needs to take on Newhailes and start restoration work which could eventually see books returned to a library Dr Johnson called "the most learned drawing-room in Europe".

Though only five miles from Edinburgh, the house is not easy to find. The entrance is off a new roundabout by an industrial estate. Local people know it as the way to a plant nursery. But a fork beyond the stone gate piers leads past a "private" sign and under trees, to reveal the neo- classical villa across a damp lawn amid a carriage turning circle.

The centre block of Newhailes was built in 1686 by the architect James Smith, and extended following its purchase by the Dalrymples, an Edinburgh legal dynasty, in 1707. Decay is written across the exterior, from the stone to the corroded ironwork and rotted balustrade of the stairway.

Inside, the state rooms are sumptuous but marred by damp stains, cracks, woodworm holes and peeling decoration. Baroque plasterwork and woodcarving extend throughout. And in each room there are family portraits set in the panelling, including several by Allan Ramsay, the pre-eminent Scottish painter of the era.

But the most important room at Newhailes is the library. From the 1750s the head of the family was Sir David Dalrymple, the law lord Lord Hailes and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. At the mahogany desk which stands in the shuttered gloom of the two-storey library he wrote the Annals of Scottish History, known as the first "modern" history of Scotland.

Now bird droppings litter the grate beneath the ornate marble chimneypiece and, most chilling of all, the book cases which line three vast walls are empty. (A dusty polar bear skin is stretched out in front of the cold hearth - a wedding present from a big game-hunting cousin of Lady Antonia's.)

The books and Lord Hailes's papers were removed to the National Library of Scotland in 1976 in lieu of death duties following the death of Sir Mark Dalrymple at the age of 56.

But the money that the National Trust for Scotland needs to purchase the contents and fund the restoration and endowment totals pounds 12.7m.

About pounds 8m is expected to come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and support has been offered by the National Art Collections Fund for purchase of the pictures.

That leaves a shortfall of pounds 2.7m to be made up by Trust members. So far pounds 500,000 has been secured. But only a month of the appeal remains before the Trust has to decide whether to go ahead.

If by the end of this month it is not satisfied that sufficient funds are promised then the deal will be off. The Newhailes collection would be sold privately.

"It would mean having Christie's down to auction it all on the lawn," said Lady Antonia. "I think it would be quite dreadful, don't you?"

Many of the treasures would probably leave Scotland, and a matchless archive of the Enlightment would never return to the shelves of the sepulchral library.