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McKean's diatribe was more fire than fact


Before I am dismissed as a paranoid Scot, I had better declare that, despite my name, I am an English architectural historian who, on moving to Scotland, was surprised at how little Scots celebrated the riches of Scottish architecture.

The sight of a Scots expatriate in full cry about the 'hame country' - whether mawkishly extolling the far-away scenes of heath and heather, or thundering from the pulpit against the narrow, parochial, provincial society he/she has thankfully left behind - is always a colourful one, and guaranteed to conjure up a kind of sentimental, impassioned Victorian rhetoric - blusteringly confident, yet laced with overtones of insecurity - that is long forgotten in mainstream modern British society, whether north or south of the border.

John McKean's recent diatribe in this vein against the 'inferiority complex of parochial [Scottish] nationalism' (Review, AJ 8.7.04) would have sat well in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror or some other populist tabloid. But it was less appropriate - putting it mildly - in the context of a scholarly book review, where the main requirement is to describe and evaluate a book in a balanced and accurate way.

In fact, on first reading McKean's 'review' of Scottish Architecture, my initial reaction was one of disbelief that it could be about the same book that I had bought three days earlier.

After that came astonishment that such a shoddy farrago of inaccuracies and distortions could have been allowed to appear in a reputable journal.

For in McKean's Presbyterianstyle sermon of denunciation and heavy sarcasm, all pretence at accuracy is drowned out by the relentless, rhetorical drumbeat.

The mistakes begin even with the price (£8.95, not £9.95), but just two examples of major distortions will have to suffice. McKean lambasts Scottish Architecture as 'desperate to sense primordial continuity' between prehistoric and modern buildings, when the book's entire conclusion chapter is, in fact, devoted to a comprehensive deconstruction of all such ideas of 'national continuity' or 'essential identity'.

And he claims that 'virtually the first cultural reference beyond architecture' concerns the late-18th century - having presumably neglected even to skim-read the first three chapters, with their wealth of background material on, for example, the 12th-century Renaissance, the Reformation or the dynastic struggles of the 17th century!

Please, AJ, do find a more serious reviewer for any future 'Scottish books'. Otherwise, it might be better not to cover them at all.

Ian Campbell, Edinburgh

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