Book Review: Scotland’s Lost Houses

There is no more emotive subject for an architectural publication than the needless destruction of the country house, and Ian Gow’s new book, Scotland’s Lost Houses, is an outstanding example of the genre. Published by Aurum in collaboration with the National Trust for Scotland, this companion to Giles Worsley’s hugely successful England’s Lost Houses leaves us in no doubt as to the magnitude of Scotland’s contribution to the apocalypse that prompted the V&A’s tide-turning ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition in 1974. Ian Gow’s work is a successor in an altogether different mould to SAVE’s Lost Houses of Scotland (1980) and Scotland’s Endangered Houses (1990), for it is much more than simply a campaigning document cataloguing a series of tragedies.

Beautifully illustrated with evocative black-and-white photographs, many of them previously unpublished, it is also a scholarly architectural history and a tribute to the pioneering work of the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS), where the author worked from 1979. The NMRS was set up in 1941 to record Scotland’s architecture in the face of first wartime bombing, and then the widespread pressures of demolition and redevelopment that had such a devastating effect in the 1950s and 1960s.

Woven into the enjoyably readable text are lovely touches, such as the portrait of a former colleague, the late Colin McWilliam, who brought an eccentric and original eye to the job of recording threatened houses in those dark early days of the NMRS survey. One of his striking photographs shows iron school- dormitory beds ranged along a dado beneath sumptuous Chinese wallpaper in a room at William Adam’s Minto, a house which, incidentally, was demolished in 1993.

A notable feature of the book is the use it makes of different photographic collections, ranging from the unrivalled archives of Country Life and the wealth of material held by the NMRS, to little-known portfolios, such as that of Charles Brand, ‘demolition agent to the gentry’, whose proud, blow-by-blow record of Murthly’s demise is particularly riveting. Indeed, the choice of houses included was greatly influenced by the interest of particular photographic records known to the author, with visually stimulating results. Melancholy views of Roseneath surrounded by caravans, and of Panmure’s stripped interiors on the eve of demolition contrast with Thomas Annan’s glass plates of a fully furnished Hamilton Palace in the 1880s, which include rare views of bedrooms. With so much fascinating information included in the text about the photographers and their different techniques and approaches, it would have been interesting to have had the source of each image included beside the caption.

Not all the houses featured have been completely lost. Mavisbank, that great Scottish cause célèbre, makes a familiar appearance, although it is at last the subject of a promising rescue scheme. But of course, it is the interior that is the irredeemable loss, and it is as a record of lost interiors and collections that this book is so important.

The National Trust for Scotland’s Curator since 1998, Ian Gow is the authority on Scottish interior decoration, and this book contains unrivalled information on the subject. His chapter about Hamilton Palace, for example, brings to life a magnificent interior that, had it not been demolished in 1919, might now be as visited as Chatsworth. One unexpected entry, as it is now one of the Trust’s most popular visitor attractions, is Crathes. The author tells the interesting story of the work carried out by Schomberg Scott to resurrect the castle after a devastating fire in 1966.

Mr Gow ends with a sobering nine-column list of other demolitions. But where are Minto and Lanrick, or Kilmaron, whose detonation by the army I witnessed from a field in 1984? The answer is suggested by the title of the appendix ‘The NMRS Demolition File’. This is just the official record; the list would be longer still if it included other important losses.