Who Built Scotland: A History of the Nation in Twenty-Five Buildings?

Historic Environment Scotland, £20

Review by Harry McGrath

THE introduction to?Who Built Scotland?states that “What we build always reveals things that are deeply and innately human. Because all buildings are stories, one way or another.” It goes on to implore readers to examine everything around them and “think,?really think” about how it got there.

By way of inspiration, Historic Environment Scotland selected five authors who, in turn, chose 25 buildings ranging from those containing the earliest hearths to others raised in stone, wood, glass and concrete. The writers are a kenspeckle squad: Alexander McCall Smith, Alistair Moffat, James Crawford, James Robertson and Kathleen Jamie.

If the contributions are to be distinguished one from another it is not by the quality of the writing which is uniformly high but by the passion which each writer brings to their subject. McCall Smith, for instance, begins his essay on Iona with a reservation. He states that “In our secular societies, especially in those of Protestant background, we feel vaguely uncomfortable at the notion of the spiritual quest, and even more uncomfortable than that at the idea of the journey in search of a miracle.” With that as a factory setting, it’s not surprising that the result is a superior but somewhat remote guide to the history of Iona. Similarly, in The Italian Chapel he quotes his father who believed that “Italians are good at making things”. This stereotype begets an unexceptional piece on the building of the chapel on Orkney, supplemented by an extract from one of his novels.

Contrast that with the passion Alistair Moffat brings to his chapter on Cairnpapple Hill near Bathgate which he wants us to regard as a national treasure. Cairnpapple’s henge dates from 3800BC and the site has both Bronze Age and Christian graves. Moffat invites us to join him as he journeys from an empty car park to the summit. Prehistory, he says, is “about mystery”. For 1000 years farmers climbed the hill “to worship in ceremonies lost to us” and Cairnpapple represents “an extraordinary continuity of sanctity”. As in his previous visits to the site, he is alone “which is both a privilege and a pity”. This is a nice way of articulating one of the sub-themes in some of these essays: the power of the tourist gaze to both recognise and despoil. This rather lovely, meditative essay ends by identifying another danger. Moffat notices a wind turbine on the lower slopes: It’s “a sacrilege and should be removed.? Our ancestors deserve all the respect we can give them.”

Elsewhere one can’t help but feel attracted to the buildings where there is a personal connection. James Crawford’s fascinating piece, The Great Hall, Stirling Castle, would have been a welcome distraction back in the day for those of us trapped in it while listening to Lord Wheatley perorate on the duties and responsibilities of the latest crop of University of Stirling graduands. I have no memory of what the roof looked like then, but was surprised to read here that the beautiful exposed timber framing which supports it today only dates to 1999.

In even younger years, my father was the first headmaster of the new St Margaret’s RC Primary School in Galashiels, Patricia Maxwell-Scott was a patron of sorts and the house and grounds at Abbotsford were attended by a Polish family from the school. The origin of the Catholic connection to Abbotsford was beyond my childish ken, but I was struck, even then, by the way that summer days spent playing there were often uninterrupted by tourists. Notwithstanding the Borders Railway and the rediscovery of Abbotsford, James Robertson manages to replicate this atmosphere by visiting during the house’s winter closure. He stands in the dining room where Scott died with, as his son-in-law John Lockhart put it, “the sound of the ripple of the Tweed over its pebbles distinctly audible.”

This is a very good book; edifying and, at times, revelatory. But it could have been a great one. The introduction points out that picking 25 buildings inevitably means that “both the obvious and the obscure will have been missed”. However, it’s not so much buildings that are missing as people. It’s a very male enterprise, even beyond the obvious gender imbalance in the contributors. Only Kathleen Jamie is consistently aware of the fact that women were also involved in building Scotland. In Geldie Burn, for instance, she senses the invisible traces of people’s lives in the area “Especially women’s.” And in Anniesland Court she meets a group of elderly women who lament the way life used to be in the great 1960s tower on the Crow Road.

In the same essay, Jamie touches on another missing element, recalling how at primary school she chanted the names of Scotland’s five new towns: Cumbernauld, Livingston, Irvine, East Kilbride, Glenrothes. None gets a mention in the index while Edinburgh has sixty. Yet the movement of so many “ordinary” Scots from city to new town was remarkable. The hopes, dreams, triumphs and disappointments that accompanied this exodus are best embodied by Cumbernauld Town Centre. As a teenager, I thought of it as a great spaceship leaking green slime from its undercarriage. Liz Lochhead, whose poetry Jamie quotes in “Anniesland Court”, was an art teacher in Cumbernauld. It would have been interesting to have her take on an edifice that touched a lot more lives in the last fifty years than, say, the buildings of Charlotte Square.