By Tom Robinson5th October 2020

As architectural conservation specialists we are called in to preserve the intricate beauty of many fantastic Scottish buildings, some designed by greats of Scots Baronial and Arts and Crafts styles. We’ve been lucky enough recently to work on preserving, refurbishing and sensitively extending houses by William Leiper and James Austin Laird. We have also found a great deal of inspiration for new build projects from these and others we’ve worked on by James McLaren and Sir Robert Lorimer.

I always get a frisson of excitement on seeing any special example of great Scottish architecture. I have a few favourites across Scotland – buildings I never tire of visiting, which always offer some form of inspiration.

One example is the 1880s Arts and Crafts village of Fortingall near Aberfeldy, largely built by James McLaren. The hotel in the village centre is a lovely example with a solid friendliness emanating from its rounded corners and white render with crow-stepped gables, grid windows, and multiple chimneys. It’s instantly recognisable as a Scottish building. The style is rooted here, later to be taken up and expanded by Charles Rennie Mackintosh elsewhere across Scotland.

The multi-sectioned country house on the Ardkinglass Estate by Sir Robert Lorimer in 1906-07 at the top of Loch Fyne is another of my favourites. Externally the house is dramatic, robust and castle-like with conical turrets, assorted complex-seeming roof-heights and rows of Lorimer’s trademark wall-head dormers. Inside, the ornate plasterwork, great fireplaces, and delicately crafted panelling shine. There is a light touch despite the grandeur. The client, Sir Andrew Noble, was happy to give Lorimer a free rein. And being a `modernist` of his time, Lorimer fitted the house with the most up-to-date 1907 technology including fire-fighting equipment, a phone system, concrete floors, safes, central heating, a lift, and even its own hydro-electric system.

Culzean Castle, Robert Adam’s imposing clifftop masterpiece is perhaps the least obviously Scottish of my selection. Built between 1777 and 1792, it’s an immensely opulent turreted castle. The stately home, now owned by the National Trust, has a pleasing ordered refinement about it. Its signature feature is an oval spiralling central staircase surrounded by classical colonnades lit from above through an oval cupola skylight in the tower roof.

William Leiper’s distinctive red-sandstone building Redtowers, built in 1898, is a Helensburgh landmark. It offers a busy architectural scene for a private residence, with towers, gables, dormers and chimneys, and elegantly decorative leaded windows. Nothing is symmetrical yet the whole composition appears balanced. The splendid panelled reception hall is a particularly excellent example of Leiper’s Helensburgh work.

The Isle of Bute’s Mount Stuart house by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson is an astonishing late 19th-century building. Its scale and lavish detail are at an almost unbelievable level. It is a high gothic palace; a Hogwarts-esque labyrinth which I am happy to admire for its flamboyant brilliance. Just entering the 80ft Marble Hall constructed with various different marbles and complete with an astronomical map studded with glass crystal stars embedded into the vaulted ceiling, will make most jaws drop.

Ardverikie, a Highland estate house built by John Rhind in 1870, is possibly the most recognised Scots Baronial house in Scotland due to its starring role on TV’s Monarch of the Glen. It is a magnificent composition of the quintessential Victorian shooting lodge, on a colossal scale.

Greywalls by Sir Edwin Lutyens (an English architect who worked in Scotland) was begun in 1901 and is the only remaining Lutyens house in Scotland. It’s a long-time favourite of mine. Additions were made by none other than Robert Lorimer in 1911. Lutyens’ work is full of delightful contrasts and surprises. He mixes high classicism with vernacular architecture: baroque broken pediments, oversized voussoirs formed in slate, and openings in high garden walls which reveal glimpses to gardens beyond. Lutyens sets up a strong symmetry then breaks his own rules, and the effects are always interesting. We are working on a house inspired by Lutyens just now. A visit to Greywalls has helped to understand it.

Essentially Scottish buildings

While all of these splendid buildings differ, each is recognisably Scottish. They all have been designed with a strong and confident concept which has been carried through without compromise. I’m thinking of Leiper’s intersecting corner turrets and steep gables – a common Scots Baronial architectural device, but always recognisable in his fanciful French-palace like designs.

Often it’s the delightful surprises in buildings such as these which stay with us. In remote settings, for example, it is a dramatic surprise to encounter buildings full of such romantic splendour.

We need these grand buildings to offer a sense of adventure in architecture. While they’re a reminder of our past, they offer a living connection to it, an inspiration that to build the best buildings you sometimes have to pull out all the stops.

Architectural duty of care

As architects, we also have a duty to care for these buildings. Working on them involves many considerations, particularly understanding the balance of the elements and how each relates to another. An elevation may be intended to have a hierarchy and principle element – and you need to understand the style to respect that balance. If using specific details such as external joinery or stonework it is vital to get them exactly right, too. And now, when we’re sometimes tasked with adding luxury contemporary pool houses, party rooms or extra guest accommodation as well as advising on sustainable upgrades to these buildings, every sensitivity to the original buildings and their surroundings must be taken.

This is not an exhaustive sample of great Scottish buildings by any means. I know there are many more, and I’d be very interested to hear of reader’s personal favourites.

Thinking about these buildings inspires me to keep visiting them, keep taking them in, studying them, finding their secrets and delights. I will never not find it a pleasure to wander through a Leiper or a Lorimer or a Laird – to reacquaint myself with the works of masters.


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