Scotland is a nation with a superb built heritage. People travel here from around the world to see our ancient monuments, our castles, our grand houses, our places of worship and our more recent architecture. Meanwhile, Scotland is also a nation with an outstanding literary tradition and a wealth of superb writers. Here's a thought: why not bring the two together? Why not get some of our best writers to write about some of our most significant buildings?
"Who Built Scotland: A History of the Nation in Twenty-Five Buildings" by Kathleen Jamie, Alistair Moffat, Alexander McCall Smith, James Robertson and James Crawford has done exactly that, and the result is a book that is by turns inspiring and fascinating; a book that gives perspective to Scotland's many and varied architectural traditions; and a book that gives context to the Scotland we see around us today. The book's introduction sets the tone: "What we build always reveals things that are deeply and innately human. Because all buildings are stories one way or another. They each offer their own threads to pull, threads that lead you to ideas, emotions, hopes, dreams fears and conceits. So go on, look at everything around you and think, really think, about how it got there."
Each author has contributed five pieces, and each of the 25 contributions is 10-15 pages in length. The sections are ordered chronologically, from traces of prehistoric settlement found at Geldie Burn in Aberdeenshire from 8000 BC, right through to Sweeney's Bothy on the Isle of Eigg, which was built in 2014. The intervening 23 contributions range in their coverage from the well known to the much less well known: from buildings or structures that obviously had to be included in this collection, to others which many readers will never have heard of before. What is particularly nice is that the contributors have obviously been given a very open brief on how to approach each of their five subjects, and the resulting pieces vary widely in style, with a number being very personal.
Among the subjects that really had to be covered in a collection of this sort are Calanais and Mousa Broch from ancient times, Iona Abbey, Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle from the medieval period, and the Bell Rock Lighthouse, Abbotsford, The Forth Bridge and the Glasgow School of Art from rather more recent times. Less well known or less expected inclusions range from Innerpeffray Library and the derelict Mavisbank House to the Italian Chapel in Orkney, Sullom Voe oil terminal in Shetland and the Inchmyre Prefabs: with the last of these giving a deeply personal insight from Alistair Moffat into a way of life that was once quite common across Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK) but is now largely forgotten. There's one sense in which the title of the book is misleading, for you find rather more than 25 buildings between its covers. Some contributions cover themes or groups of buildings rather than individual structures. For example "Geldie Burn" looks at a number of ancient structures, and at shielings; "Mousa Broch" looks at brochs more widely across Scotland; and "Auld Alloway Kirk" looks at four disused or ruined churches. The effect is to broaden further the scope of the book and add to its already considerable lasting value.