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West coast itineraries

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The Buildings of Scotland: Argyll and Buteby Frank Arneil Walker. Penguin, 2000. £35

This is the seventh of 10 or 11 volumes which will eventually cover all of Scotland. It begins with a 'Prelude', an item not seen in previous volumes, in which the author recounts how his father travelled the back roads of Argyll between the wars, selling cloth to remote farms. This is the first sign of a greater infusion of personality than the habitue of these volumes expects.

Not that Frank Arneil Walker neglects the responsibilities which the series seems to demand in ever increasing number: to cover all the significant buildings in its chosen territory, now including cinemas, factories, farms - in fact, any permanent man-made feature of the landscape, such as, in the present case, concrete platforms built for the offshore oil industry and never used.

One of the pleasures of this volume is to trace what oddities creep in once you have widened the field. At times a reader could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland has been an unusually fertile testing ground for harebrained schemes and eccentric visions. Perhaps the most interesting recent instance is St Peter's College, Cardross, a large Roman Catholic seminary designed by Gillespie Kidd and Coia in clear emulation of Le Corbusier's La Tourette and occupied for only 12 years before being consigned to the elements, which have turned it into a Modernist ruin on a heroic scale.

Walker is scandalised by this result, as he is by the discontinuation of the Royal Commission Inventories for Scotland. He shows a sometimes touchy Scottish patriotism which cannot easily tolerate signs of decline or cultural shrinkage. So he goes ahead and describes the Modernist vision as if it survived as the designers intended, skirting round the painful evidence of a fire which injures the scheme. Maybe someone reading his passionate description will be moved to find a use for all this unwanted architecture, as a branch of a Scottish university, say.

Walker's involvement in what he studies seems entirely healthy, though at odds with the principle usually followed by the series that one's own preferences must be kept in check in pursuit of the most complete and useful record. I welcome his attempts to convey the qualities of places in initial descriptions of settlements and especially in his treatment of setting. He rightly says that landscape comes first in Scotland, putting architecture in its place, but writes well about the scope which remains for building to mark or define the landscape around it. This comes out most clearly in entries for castles or tower houses in remote locations, the latter a genre on which Walker has very developed views.

Here is the most extravagant of his evocations, introducing Kilchurn Castle, which 'emerges from the lake like a heaving creature, glaucous with submarine slime'.

I value this not for its literal truth, but for its record of a real encounter, when someone stood in a particular place on a particular day. Readers will not agree with all of Walker's judgements, but most of them will be more gripped by his enthusiastic words about St Oran's Chapel on Iona, for example, than by the long toneless anatomy of Iona Abbey, a form which has its place but which almost no-one reads for enjoyment.

In this volume we get the best of both worlds, the sensuous attention to that volatile chemistry which exists between builders and their users, and the collector's or taxonomist's rage for order, which wants to range every significant fact in the most compact and convenient form. So you will find here the Druidic monuments erected in such profusion in the nineteenth century to commemorate illiterate Gaelic poets or proud self-styled art critics and philosophers. You will find Victorian churches embodying private fantasies of monastic life (Lochawe) and cathedrals 'deconstructed' by exposed steel beams and buttresses propping up failing fabric and creating brutal grandeur in the process (Oban).

You will also find full descriptions of the remaining traditional dwellings (Kintyre and Tiree) and the principal industrial ruins (the form that industry usually takes in Argyll).

And the eighteenth-century planned communities, now enjoying a latterday life of artifice as tourist attractions (Inverary, Bowmore). It is easy to view the Pevsner-kind of record as an assemblage of such pieces, but the present volume continually reminds us that the fixed markers are only relatively fixed and have their final meaning in the lives which build and use, and then alter or neglect them.

Robert Harbison is professor at the University of North London

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