Seton House (1789-90), by Robert Adam (© Savills).
Artillery Row

The sentinel sleeps in Lothian

A new book is full of architectural treasures that the Scottish Government should do a better job of treasuring

Lothian in The Buildings of Scotland series
by Jane Geddes, Ian Gow, Aonghus MacKechnie, Chris Tabraham, & Colin McWilliam
(New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2024)
ISBN: 978-0-300-25904-9 (hardback)
956 pp., 136 col. & 66 b&w illus.

Rosebery Steading, Rosebery House, c.1800 (© Stephen Wallace).

This is a revised and enlarged second edition of Lothian except Edinburgh by the late Colin McWilliam (1928-89), published in Harmondsworth by Penguin Books Ltd. in  1978, and which I had the privilege of reviewing in The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, cxxvii/5276 (July 1979), 510-11. The new version is a great improvement in terms of the splendid illustrations alone, replacing the somewhat murky half-tones of the original, though many of the new, coloured plates show the same buildings, but with far greater clarity. Generally, McWilliam’s prose and scholarship have been respected, and this very handsome volume is a more than welcome addition to The Buildings of Scotland series, which has been impressive for many reasons, not least the fact that they have generally been free from the snide Bauhaus-flavoured asides of Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), sourly denigrating work by those who did not fit neatly into his imagined certainties of a Gropius-tinted future: Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) was one such victim who was far more fairly treated in the Scottish volumes than in The Buildings of England

Another strength of the series dealing with buildings north of the Border has been the inclusion of essays on mausolea, monuments, burial-grounds, and memorials: the English books have often skimped badly on graveyards and cemeteries. Lothian, regrettably, has no separate section this time, although memorials, monuments, and mausolea are mentioned in an essay dealing with church furnishings and monuments, some of the more spectacular examples being illustrated, such as the great Jacobean confection in the parish church of Dunbar by Arras-born Maximilian Colt (fl.1595-1645) commemorating George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar (d.1611).

Monument to George Home, Earl of Dunbar, by Maximiliam Colt, in Dunbar parish church (© Stephen Wallace).

So what about the geographical area covered? West Lothian, Midlothian, and East Lothian are grouped around the city of Edinburgh. They occupy a considerable area lying between: (on the north) the coasts of the River Forth, the Firth of Forth, and the North Sea; (on the north-west) what is now Central Scotland; and (on the south) parts of Lanarkshire and the Borders (formerly Berwickshire, Peeblesshire, Roxburghshire, and Selkirkshire). Each of the three parts of Lothian has its own very distinctive character. There are some fine mediæval buildings, including the Romanesque church of St Cuthbert, Dalmeny (12th century), a fragment of the Preceptory church at Torphichen (12th century with 15th-century remodelling), the parish church of St Mary, Haddington (15th-16th centuries), and, of course, the amazing former Collegiate church known as Rosslyn chapel at Roslin, dating from the latter part of the 15th century, but unfinished, and much restored and altered over the centuries. Concerning the last, much nonsense has been written about it involving wild speculations about the Holy Grail, etc., thoroughly debunked by Robert L.D. Cooper in his The Rosslyn Hoax? (2007): it was, in fact, an extremely richly decorated chantry-chapel, associated with the elaborate rituals concerning prayers for the dead to ease the torments of Purgatory but which were abolished by the unusually violent Reformation in Scotland. So it is astonishing that so much survives of such a lavishly carved vaulted interior, including the celebrated “Prentice Pillar” (which is not a pillar, but a pier) with twisted enrichment, ultimately an Antique form, but good 15th-century exemplars can be found on the Continent, notably at Braunschweig cathedral and elsewhere. The Rosslyn pier, however, is uniquely elaborate and luxuriant, with winged serpents, a human figure, a horned ram, and musician angels. As this book notes, “the main interest at Rosslyn is its superabundance of genuine late-mediæval sculpture”.

The extraordinary pier known as the ‘Prentice Pillar’ in Rosslyn Chapel, c.1450 (© Stephen Wallace).

Now the draconian attacks on Catholic belief in Scotland included prohibition of burial within churches in order to sever the connections between the living and the dead and thus further weaken traditional customs such as prayers for the dead, because the new religion held that no interventions by the living could have any effects on the fates of the souls of the departed. The aristocracy and gentry, however (not to mention the well-heeled), wished to continue to be buried as near the old churches as possible, and liturgical changes often made this feasible if parts of a church became redundant: the sacristy of St Mary’s, Haddington, for example, became the “mortuary chapel” of the Maitland family, later Earls and Dukes of Lauderdale, some of whose members are commemorated by the huge Lauderdale monument, “of metropolitan quality and magnificence, exceeding even that of George Home at Dunbar”, set against the north wall, and featuring four recumbent alabaster effigies set under twin archways. The figures are rare in post-Reformation Scotland, reflecting Stuart “courtly taste”, for James VI & I (r. as King of Scots 1567-1625, and from 1603 as King or England and Ireland as well) had set precedents with the tombs of Mary Queen of Scots (r.1542-67) and Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland (r.1558-1603) in Westminster Abbey. The magnificent Lauderdale monument must date from c.1638-45, and has been attributed to William Wright (fl.1630-54).

The Lauderdale monument (c.1638-35), possibly by William Wright of London, in St Mary’s church, Haddington (© Stephen Wallace).

If no redundant chapel or part of a church were available for entombment, “burial aisles” were added to churches: an example is the Archerfield aisle, tacked on to the parish church at Dirleton in 1664, employing a mixture of Classical and Gothic elements, executed in a robust, if somewhat bucolic manner. It was built for James Maxwell (1576-1650), 1st Earl of Dirleton from 1646. Other examples of parts of churches which became “burial aisles” were the north chancel chapel at Pencaitland (Winton aisle); the chancels at East Linton, Lasswade, and South Queensferry; at Carrington the mediæval church was demolished and on the site rose the 18th-century Ramsay mausoleum (aka Whitehill aisle); and at East Calder, the old parish church of St Cuthbert became a ruined shell for three “burial aisles”. There are other examples of such “aisles” which could take the forms of walled enclosure (e.g. at Tranent and Whittinghame); low-roofed structures (e.g. at Oldhamstocks and Duddingstone); and two-storey annexes to churches consisting of a sealed vault below and a “laird’s loft” above, sometimes equipped with a fireplace and even a “close stool”, reached via an external forestair. Good examples of the last are the Hopetoun loft (1708) in the parish church at Abercorn, the Lothian loft at Newbattle (1727-9), and the Dalrymple loft (c.1730) at Morham. 

Scottish burial-grounds are themselves very rewarding, for the Reformation also prohibited any symbols or allusions to Catholicism, so tombstones often feature such things as the tools signifying the craft or trade of the person commemorated, and are sometimes entertaining in the spirited execution of their pictorial imagery, not least when reminders of mortality are vigorously portrayed in skulls, bones, scythes, shrouds, coffins, and hour-glasses, where the sculptors gleefully hammered home the message that we all must die. Among other works associated with death are some superb mausolea: one is the Gibsone tomb in Old Pentland burying-ground (c.1839), an austere Græco-Egyptian edifice by Thomas Hamilton (1784-1858); a second is the Hopetoun mausoleum in the kirkyard at Abercorn (1831), a Romanesque performance with fantastic dragons and gargoyles much in evidence, the whole designed by William Burn (1789-1870); and a third is the mausoleum (c.1792-8) of Francis Charteris of Amisfield (1723-1808 — 7th Earl of Wemyss from 1787) in the gardens of Gosford House, a massive stone pyramid set on a square base with prostle tetrastyle Tuscan porticoes, the columns of which are somewhat starved. The original architect of this Neo-Classical tomb seems to have been Thomas Harrison (1744-1829), but the design was altered in execution, for Harrison originally intended fluted Doric (which would have been much more robust) instead of the thin and somewhat weedy unfluted Tuscan columns that were actually employed. Harrison could create works of greatness (e.g. at Chester Castle [1788-1822]), and carried out alterations for Wemyss at Gosford House, which had been under construction since 1791 to designs by Robert Adam (1728-92).

Fountain (1538) of James V, King of Scots (r.1513-42), mixing late Gothic and early Renaissance elements, at Linlithgow Palace, by the Master-Mason to the King, Thomas French (or Franche, fl.1520s-40s), reconstructed 1935-7, further restored in 2003-4, but in 2023 sprayed with paint and damaged (Crown Copyright: HES).

The Lothians boast several mediæval castles, including Dirleton, Hailes, Crichton (with its stunning Renaissance northern loggia in the courtyard [1580s] by William Schaw [1549/50-1602]), and Tantallon; some tower-houses (mis-named “castles”) at Borthwick, Lennoxlove, and Prestonpans; and, of course the great Royal Palace at Linlithgow, first referred to as such in 1429, in the east courtyard of which is an amazingly lavish Renaissance fountain of 1538. Then there are some magnificent country houses: these include Dalkeith Palace (1701-5) and Newhailes (1702-20), both by James Smith (c.1645-1731); Hopetoun House, remodelled and extended 1721-46 and 1750-4 by William Adam (1689-1748) and the Adam Brothers, James (1732-94) and Robert; Penicuik House (1761-78) by Sir James Clerk (1709-83), John Baxter (fl.1730-70), and James Blaikie (fl.1761-70), with later additions; and Seton House (1789-90), by Robert Adam, the most perfect of the “castle style” he employed during the last 15 years or so of his life. Among later, smaller houses are Hamilton House, Preston (1628), Ford House, Ford (1680), and Greywalls, Gullane (1901-2), by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). Both the Hamilton and Ford houses boast octagonal stair-turrets, are rendered, have crow- or corbie-stepped gables crowned with large chimneys, and are pleasingly and modestly composed using a vernacular tradition that informed later architects, notably Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929 — whose Whiteholm, Gullane, of 1906, is a good example) and Sir Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921). More recently, that tradition has influenced Ben Pentreath, whose work at Longniddry South for the Wemyss & March Estate (still going on in 2024) is admirable: the authors of this book refer to the “familiar East Lothian materials of slate, pantile and harling” as “both reassuring and organic”. Pentreath was earlier involved (with Lachlan Stewart) in the development (from 2008) of Knockroon, Cumnock, Ayrshire, for the Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust, with input from the Prince’s Trusts: the concept derives from Léon Krier’s plans for Poundbury in Dorset, with a strong injection of Scots traditions. 

Longniddry South, housing designed by Ben Pentreath and others (2023) (© Charles O’Brien).
Hopes (1820s) (© Stephen Wallace).

There is one, almost perfect, Neo-Classical house called Hopes, near Gifford, in the former East Lothian, described in 1835 as “lately built”. It appears to date from the late 1820s or early 1830s, and is square on plan, with a symmetrical entrance-front and a wonderful square saloon-cum-staircase, the upper gallery of which features an antæ Order based on the Choragic monument of Thrasyllus, Athens (319-279 BC). It is a beautiful building exquisitely detailed, but the architect is unknown. However, certain features suggest to me that there might be a connection with the Dumfries-based architect, Walter Newall (1780-1863), who did some very distinguished work, sadly undervalued by the authorities in power today in Dumfries & Galloway.

There are doocots (dovecotes) a-plenty in Lothian, built originally to provide meat during the lean Winter months: a 16th-century example survives in the Phantassie Doocot, East Linton, a village near which is the Preston Mill, dating mostly from the 18th century. And of course there are handsome bridges, notably the Union Canal aqueduct (c.1820) by Hugh Baird (1770-1827) over the River Almond at Lin’s Mill, Kirkliston; the Lothian Bridge over the Tyne Water at Ford (1827-31) by Thomas Telford (1757-1834); and, most stupendous of all, the gigantic Forth Railway bridge at South Queensferry, designed by John Fowler (1817-98) and Benjamin Baker (1840-1907), constructed by Tancred, Arrol, & Co. (1882-90).

High Street, South Queensferry, dominated by the Tolbooth steeple (1720) (© Stephen Wallace).

There are some fine townscapes too: the High Street, South Queensferry, dominated by its Tolbooth Steeple (1720), is delightful, lined with generally unobtrusive, modestly scaled, and traditionally detailed buildings, although the crass insertion of municipal housing in 1964-5 has damaged it. Indeed, public housing generally in Scotland since 1945 has not been æsthetically helpful to either town or country, and the authors of Lothian are far too kind in their judgements, though they admit that in the 21st century “the focus for delivering large housing schemes has switched to reclaiming former mining territory and consuming fertile farmland”. They are very muted, too, in their descriptions of the third-generation new town of Livingston, the plan of which was designed primarily for cars. “Although on paper the basic grid has a visual logic, on the ground the road system is a challenge to navigate”. The weasel-word “challenge” gives the game away: in fact it is a nightmare, not only to navigate, but as a habitat for human beings as well, in spite of large sums being spent on “public art”, rightly derided by many of the inhabitants. There was the usual failure of precast concrete systems for housing (de rigueur for adherents of Modernist dogma) built in 1964 which had to be overhauled in 1984 rather late in the day after the lives of tenants had been made miserable. 

Since 1978 much has changed. McWilliam’s book described numerous small mining villages separated by great swathes of fertile countryside in which lay scattered, productive farms. From the 1980s mining ceased, spoil-heaps were re-used as road metal, and the hearts of the mining villages were hollowed out. Many mines were replaced by industrial and technology “parks”, creating the enormous hangar-like sheds so out-of -scale and so hideously visible from the air. Massive areas, such as the disused railway-tracks, have reverted to nature. Villages, once with their own local industries, have virtually disappeared, swamped by sprawling housing-estates, wasteful of land, and devoid of any redeeming æsthetic appeal. Old farm buildings are either demolished or converted for housing, while working farms continue, but with big machines and vast new sheds. All this is serviced by new roads, often dual carriageways, many hopelessly under-designed (e.g. the congested A720, completed in 1989).

Ford House, Ford (1680) (© Stephen Wallace).

This augurs ill for the future, for there was a time when things were looking up on the conservation front, and when a greater æsthetic awareness was being promoted, notably by Frank Tindall (1919-98), who inaugurated the Haddington Town Centre Improvement Scheme in 1962, conserving older frontages while sensitively developing backlands for small-scale housing developments. Tindall, who had been appointed East Lothian Planning Officer in 1950, was highly influential in preserving the historic fabric and character of East Lothian villages, e.g. Gifford. Tindall owned Ford House, with its interior fittings remarkably intact, thanks to careful work (1961) by his architect-wife, Mary Constance Tindall (1924-2014), and a tactful annexe (2007) by their son, Benjamin Tindall (who has also carried out numerous conversions and other works in Lothian and elsewhere). Also important were initiatives by Elizabeth Ivy (1916-2008), Duchess of Hamilton from 1940, to repurpose old and neglected buildings, especially in or near Poldrate, for community benefit: called The Lamp of Lothian Trust, it was established in 1967. The National Trust for Scotland was also involved in rescuing houses at risk of demolition or destruction through neglect: these included Plewlands House, South Queensferry (1953), and Inveresk Lodge (1959). In 1960 the Trust launched its Little Houses Improvement Scheme: under this programme smaller buildings of significant local importance and character were restored: a good example is Hamilton’s Land, High Street, Linlithgow, dating originally from the 17th century or earlier. 

One of the greatest problems for historic buildings in Scotland is the future of churches. More and more face redundancy and sale. One of the reasons lies in the rise of numerous dissenting congregations  from the 18th century onwards, each needing new churches, so that many places were lumbered with a surplus of religious buildings as congregations dissolved and their churches were abandoned. Another factor, of course, is the rapid decline of support for the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), leading to numerous parish churches being left empty and unused, a phenomenon noticeable all over the country. The pre-Reformation choir of Dalkeith’s St Nicholas Buccleuch parish church, a singularly important building, “continues its unhappy decline for want of a roof and of maintenance, when a public use could surely be an option”. It is impossible to ignore the fact that, apart from Roman Catholic and Episcopal congregations, the people of Scotland are abandoning churches, so many may not survive for long.

As elsewhere in Scotland, there are several empty and neglected historic buildings in Lothian towns, notably in Bathgate, and, as this book notes, “the destruction of the Victoria Hall in Linlithgow (2019) has impacted strongly on the historic town centre’s character. Also on the downside, if far more significantly in terms of age and rarity value, the bridge connecting Dunbar’s castle to the 1510s blockhouse was allowed to collapse through neglect c.2000. Most of Penicuik’s mills have gone, though some have been converted to flats, and sit now within enormous housing developments”. 

I sense that all is not well with much of the governance of Scotland, for its great legacy of unique architecture and agreeable towns and villages is being neglected and often badly damaged. When one considers the Scottish Parliament Building (1998-2004), sited at the foot of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, opposite Holyrood Palace, with its unreadable allusions to upturned boats (why boats, upturned or otherwise, pray?), and fatuous claims that its applied “decorations” drew inspiration from the painting The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (c.1784) by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), it cannot be said to respond to its context: it has no connections whatsoever to indigenous Scottish architecture of any period or any kind, and ignores especially the great Classical architectural legacy that was such an integral part of Edinburgh. Here is a frightening instance of a country with a splendid and unique heritage of great architecture turning its back on that heritage to acquire an expensive “iconic” building devoid of meaning, stuffed with banalities, and with problems of maintenance and design that have already proved to be very expensive to correct: all to claim a spurious “Modernity” and an illusion of “Progress”, and perhaps by doing so it concealed a queasy sense of national disappointment in its tedious mediocrity.  

The principal source of information for Lothian was the meticulous research of the late John Vernon Gifford (1946-2013), who was responsible for several volumes in The Buildings of Scotland, namely Highlands and Islands (1992), Dumfries and Galloway (1996), Fife (1998), Perth and Kinross (2007), and Dundee and Angus (2012). He was also co-author of Edinburgh (1984 — with Colin McWilliam, David Walker, and Christopher Wilson), of Stirling and Central Scotland  (2002 — with Frank Arneil Walker), and Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire (2016 — with Rob Close and F.A. Walker again). I confess I have a few niggles with Lothian, despite its obvious virtues: first, I miss Gifford’s obvious love for, and expertise in, Scots burial-grounds and funerary monuments, but even more, I hunger for his sound comments on incompetent architecture and his pithy remarks on the inappropriate and the ugly. This new book is far too tame in that regard, for too much of the lovely countryside and little towns and villages has been ruined by crass and often vile developments. Secondly, several other volumes in the series include dates after names in the index, an admirable and useful aid for the reader: they are omitted here, and that is a huge loss. Thirdly, the illustrations for the Glossary are rather dated, and could be greatly improved with many more additions. And lastly, the series continues to be printed in China: why, when so many competent printers in these islands could do the job, some of whom are crying out for work?    

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