Book Review: Churches in Early Medieval Ireland

The Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church
Richard Fawcett (Yale, £50)

The world of Scottish medieval-church architecture has always been a little daunting to approach. Nobody who visits such celebrated monuments as the abbeys of Melrose and Kelso or the collegiate chapel at Rosslyn could doubt for a moment either the ambition or interest of their architecture. Yet to an audience familiar with English buildings at least, they look disquietingly alien. That impression is sharpened by the fact that many technical details that suggest a date or inspiration for the architecture turn out to be false friends. Meanwhile, smaller churches, for all their undoubted charm, are easy to dismiss as rustic.

This volume by Richard Fawcett, the doyen of Scottish medieval architectural studies, transforms the situation. Here, at last, is a richly illustrated, clearly written and authoritative account of the subject. Focusing exclusively on church buildings, it charts the changing face of Scottish ecclesiastical architecture from the foundation of the Scottish kingdom in the 12th century to the Reformation in 1560.

Among the points that come across most powerfully is that Scotland’s church architecture can’t be viewed as provincial or derivative, but rather as constituting a vigorous and sophisticated architectural tradition in its own right. A tradition, moreover, that has been shaped by the politics of the Scottish kingdom and consistently shows an impressive awareness of wider European fashions. For example, Prof Fawcett explores the acknowledged influence of English buildings on Scotland in the 12th century, yet also sets out a compelling case for the much wider European inspiration of this architecture.