James Playfair lived from 1755 to 1794. He was a Scottish architect remembered primarily for his work in the neo-classical tradition. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Playfair was born at Benvie near Dundee, where his father, the Reverend James Playfair, was the parish minister. His was a very talented family. One of his brothers was the scientist and mathematician, Professor John Playfair while another was the engineer and inventor of statistical graphics, William Playfair. James's son, William Henry Playfair, became an even better known architect than James himself, and was the man who more than any other shaped the Edinburgh of the early 1800s.
James Playfair's first major commission was the Town and County Hall at Forfar, which he designed following a competition. He came to prominence after being asked by Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, to design Melville Castle, near Dalkeith in Midlothian. Perhaps his best known building was Cairness House, four miles south of Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire. This was built between 1791 and 1797 incorporating an earlier house built in 1781.
Cairness House is one of the best examples of Neoclassical architecture in the UK. Its design shows how strongly Playfair was influenced by the French architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicholas Ledoux. The house comprises a 110ft main block, flanked by two raised bookend wings. A pedimented Roman Doric porch sits to the centre. A pair of lower pavilions adjoin at the back. and from these a huge semicircular service wing encloses a courtyard at the rear of the house.
James Playfair died in 1794, when Cairness House was only half built. It's completion was overseen by his close friend and collaborator, the English neo-classical architect, Sir John Soane. Most of James Playfair's papers were purchased after his death by Sir John Soane and are held at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.