Part of Historic Environment Scotland

Paint and finishes



Paint and other finishes have been used for centuries to protect and decorate surfaces. Traditional interior finishes are the focus of this guide.

Four such types of finish are found in Scotland:

  • limewash
  • soft distemper
  • oil-based paints
  • varnishes and stains

Find out about the characteristics of each finish.

Benefits of traditional finishes include breathability, a more attractive finish and greater depth of colour. They’re also often safer and more environmentally friendly than modern paints. You should try to use traditional finishes and follow historic colour schemes wherever possible.

While patterns and scenes created using paint were important, the use of colour itself often had added significance. Some pigments were so rare and expensive that certain colours were impressive status symbols in themselves.

When choosing paints for interior areas, you should consider the finishes that would have been used traditionally.

Sourcing traditional paints is straightforward: all of the finishes mentioned in this guide are still made today. They may be manufactured in a different way, but they remain very similar in composition, colours and performance to those used in the past.

Decorative paint finishes that mimic natural materials such as wood and stone have been used for centuries to enhance interiors. Take care during any paint or wallpaper removal: early marbled or grained decorative schemes may remain beneath.

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