The Buildings of Scotland: Borders By Kitty Cruft et al.Yale University Press, 2006. £29.95
How can you go wrong with a book on the architecture of the Scottish Borders? The land appropriated by Sir Walter Scott has so many stratified layers of diverse history and so much associated romance.
Yet while it may look like one entity from the outside, bound together by the meanderings and tributaries of the River Tweed, for those who know it well it is an area of contrasts and diversities.
The jagged coastline of Berwickshire, the majestic landscape of Roxburghshire and the uplands of Peeblesshire are geographically not far apart, but they are remarkably different in character. The area is rich in both building types and periods, encompassing great abbeys, craggy towerhouses, grand country houses, impressive county towns, planned and unplanned villages, innovative bridges and four-square harbours.
Unfortunately, on reading this volume it becomes clear very quickly that this was an overly ambitious undertaking.
There is far too much breadth and depth in the Borders to allow its architecture to be forced into a single volume, and it would have been far better to split the area into its traditional constituent counties, allowing the authors more space to breathe. Despite that, the pre-1700 material is treated in exemplary fashion. The descriptions of ecclesiastical architecture, such as the abbeys of Dryburgh and Melrose, and of tower-houses, such as Neidpath and Ferniehirst, are models of precision and deft analysis, despite the evident shortcomings of the editing.
The same, sadly, cannot be said of the coverage of domestic architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, liberally spread as it is with startling elisions and some giddy imprecision.
There are numerous pejorative adjectives, which imply refined aesthetic judgement but rather connote a kind of old-fashioned architectural snobbery and lack of engagement. 'Lumpish' and 'lumpy' appear so often you might wonder whether the writer is an expert on architecture or porridge.
While architectural personification can occasionally be treated wittily in the right hands, it quickly becomes a source of irritation when overused. The idea that buildings are best described with human characteristics such as 'aloof' and 'bullying' perhaps reveals the eye of a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist rather than that of an architectural historian.
Nevertheless, there are some valiant attempts to cover the venerable country houses of the Borders, such as Traquair, Floors, Mellerstain, Thirlestane and Manderston.
The problem is that this volume is trying to have the last word on everything when, with so much engaging material to cover, there is only space to be succinct. Had Pevsner's firstedition Buildings of England been the model, it might have been possible. Colin McWilliam managed it with the Lothian volume. As it stands, this poorly edited book is an impressive but flawed attempt to corral the Borders into a single-volume straightjacket.