Shedding new light
The Scottish Chateau: The Country House of Renaissance Scotland By Charles McKean. Sutton Publishing, 2001. 312pp. £25 Few subjects can have been covered more widely than Scottish castles - a well-known bookshop chain quotes some 40 on its computer.Any new book, then, has to present the material in a completely different way, or be very attractive visually, if it is to stand out in this company.
Visually, McKean's book is certainly attractive and surprisingly comprehensive.
It contains a huge array of photographs, both black and white and colour, and, thankfully, plans. Also included are the author's own conjectural restorations of the buildings based on material gleaned from Slezer, Billings or MacGibbon & Ross, the key source books. Regrettably, though, McKean's drawings do not do justice to the ideas expressed in the text.
But this is not just another picture book - it has a serious intent. The seemingly paradoxical title, The Scottish Chateau, should give the clue. Basically, McKean's thesis is that the 'Braveheart' image of Scotland's history, particularly that of the 16th-18th century, simply will not do - that far from being Caledonia 'stern and wild' and a country ravaged by national and internecine strife, it was a relatively peaceful kingdom.
Hence the homes of the nobility - those romantic keeps, tower houses and castles - were defensive structures in name alone;
their bristling bartisans, machicolations and crenellations were features to impress the neighbours rather than threaten the foe.
Not only was this often the case, the author argues (with a certain amount of special pleading) but one can discern in their plans, common dimensions, construction methods and informing sensibility, the emergence of a Renaissance Classicism similar to that on the continent at the same epoch - only modified by constraints of money and materials.
McKean's 'eureka'moment came when he was preparing some architectural models for an exhibition at the RIAS in Edinburgh in 1990. While working on such structures as Huntly, Pitsligo and the Palace of Boyne, he became aware of certain common rhythms and themes informing very different buildings, Medievalism giving way to a new Classicism.
The 'chateau' of the title is therefore the author's renaming of this much-loved building type, without the defensive connotations of 'castle' but with the civility implied in the French word. With only a quarter of these buildings remaining in one form or another, and architectural evidence scant indeed, it is tempting to say that the author is seeing what he wants to see - just as MacGibbon & Ross, in their five-volume Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, had seen what they wanted to see more than 100 years ago.
The reason why McKean's view of Scottish architectural history would seem to be nearer the truth than that promulgated by these early researchers is that it provides foundation for that amazing, and otherwise totally surprising, efflorescence of national and artistic life that was the Scottish Enlightenment in the 1780s - a phenomenon all too often seen as a cultural virgin birth.
This is, then, a handsome and fascinating book, each of its 12 sections throwing new light on the evolution of the castle over some 200 years. Domestic life, the layout of gardens, the house and its furnishings, are just a few of the many related subjects that receive the author's close attention. The depth of research is staggering, and McKean's enjoyment of his subject brims over on every page.
Richard Jaques is an architect in Edinburgh