The publisher’s blurb suggests that Scotch Baronial is the right book at the right time: an examination of political identity in our architecture, at a point when Scottish independence is back on the agenda. May 2021, the most venomous Scottish elections for a long time, which come at a turning point in the progress of Scotland, Britain and Europe too.

The book builds on the work of Charles McKean and Michael Davis, discerning a line from castles built during the Wars of Independence through to the country house builders of the early 20th century. It covers the usual suspects – Inverary Castle, Holyrood Palace, Balmoral Castle – with many others along the way.



The First Castle Age created everything from defensible mansion houses to out-and-out war machines. The former are McKean’s Scots châteaux, such as Craigievar, Castle Fraser and Fyvie, which couldn’t have been built anything other than here. Their outlines with pepperpot turrets and crowsteps are characteristic. The latter, curtain-walled fortresses like Caerlaverock and Tantallon, were assertions of political and military defiance.

The authors analyse the ever-shifting relationship between old-fashioned defensive concerns, classical symmetry, the scenographic arrangement of massing, the relationship between materiality and setting, and the brutal practicality of these castles, which often hides behind a rich tapestry of myth, folklore, tartan and “Hoots Mon” nationalism.

But politics were not the only thing driving Baronial architecture: the clan system and feudal land ownership were critical, as were raw materials such as stone and slate, rather than brick and timber used over the border. Also crucial was cultural interchange through the Auld Alliance, William Wallace’s efforts to make connections with the Hanseatic League, and more prosaic aspects like the trade between Scotland and the Low Countries, a side effect of which was the importation into Fife of pantiles.

The subject area would reward further poking around into the cultural, material and mercantile as well as the political, and the authors turn up one genuinely fascinating parallel: that with Germany’s own search for a representative style, which helps to emphasise Scotland’s role as a pioneer in the expression of nationalism, which seems ironic for a country which lost its statehood three centuries ago.

This first age passed after the Union of the Crowns, but a few decades later Scotland unexpectedly had a Second Castle Age – the Baronial Revival – which was sparked by Walter Scott and his house, Abbotsford. The second age ran from the 1820’s to the years before the Great War, and the authors argue it represents unionist nationalism, an assertion of Scottishness within Britain.

Architecturally at least that was a success, with a vivid re-imagining of the themes, proportions and details of Scots castles in the work of the Adam brothers, the Playfairs, David Bryce and William Burn. They trawled the castles of medieval Scotland for inspiration,

Baronial Revival buildings are like haggis pakora: a good one balances elements from different cultures and reminds us that internationalism is a productive pursuit.  Revival details and materials are Scottish but the massing, parti and outline might pinch from French chateaux, German schlossen and Venetian palazzi.  In fact, rather than falling back on the hackneyed deep-fried Mars Bar in order to slight Scots cuisine – we should celebrate the haggis pakora, which is one of the great inventions of fusion food.   

We should be very grateful to the folks who first came up with the idea, and incidentally it also proves that Indo-Scots cultural appropriation is a Good Thing. Both parties gain – and making a serious point, our identity shouldn’t be copyrighted in the sense that I somehow need permission, or am not allowed to write about people who are different from me.

To do so is what Toni Morrison called cultural apartheid. If only certain people are allowed to write or think about certain things based on their gender, ethnicity, and so forth it would be a terrible loss to the culture of the world as a whole. We would lose sympathy for people from a different background, because they’ve excluded us from their world, and we’d also lose the wonderful cross-pollinations which come about as a side effect.

The Baronial Revival ended with Lorimer and Matthew's powerful Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and what came next was less sure of itself. Similarly, the book’s final chapter covering the 20th century is less convincing, including an attempt to thirl Mackintosh to the Baronial Revival, despite Mackintosh protesting that the Hill House, “…Is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.” The authors also touch on Scottishness in the work of Robert Matthew, Basil Spence and James Shearer, but while their work speaks heavily-inflected Scots, it’s not Baronial.

Critically, Glendinning and Mackechnie fail to distinguish between pasticheurs like Ian Begg, who used Baronial wallpaper for the Scandic Crown Hotel’s façades, and architects such as Mackintosh and MacLaren who transcended their influences to create a heartfelt Scottishness that pervaded the whole building. Their work, along with that of Robert Lorimer, arguably marks the end of Scots Baronial’s authentic influence. However, the focus on figures like Patrick Geddes – who latter reimagined Edinburgh using the Outlook Tower and Ramsay Gardens to combine elements of Scots tradition with twentieth-century aspirations – helps to broaden the discussion beyond merely a “Scottish style”.

A brief vignette of Scots politics covers the creation of the new Scottish Parliament, where Scotch Baronial heads completely off piste. Glendinning and Mackechnie state, “ It is a paradox that the proud talk of a national rebirth – coincides with an underlying reality of international homogenisation and commercialisation.” Historians aren’t always best placed to discern what’s going on in present times, and we’re still working out what Holyrood actually represents both architecturally and politically, as May’s elections will likely demonstrate once more. As such this book is a polite architectural historiography rather than a passionate political manifesto.

Scotch Baronial was originally published in hardback during 2019 and has just been issued as a paperback. The illustrations – small, flat and monochrome – deserve full colour litho printing, but that doesn’t detract too much from this thorough and balanced introduction to eight centuries of Scots Baronial architecture, which should appeal to nationalist and unionist alike.

[This is an expanded version of a review I wrote elsewhere].

Scotch Baronial: Architecture and National Identity in Scotland
Miles Glendinning and Aonghus Mackechnie
Bloomsbury Visual Arts
ISBN: 9781474283472
Hardback £65; Paperback £24.99

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