How two Victorian enthusiasts helped save Scotland’s crumbling castles


From their architectural firm in Edinburgh’s George Street, the two middle-aged Victorian gentlemen stood within walking distance of one of the country’s most impressive fortresses.

From its rocky summit, Edinburgh Castle towered over the rooftops of Auld Reekie.

Wrecked, rebuilt, taken and then recaptured several times during the War of Independence, seized by Edward I and demolished on the orders of Robert the Bruce, by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross of the time, it had known its share of tragedies.

But in 1880s Edinburgh, when the former royal occupants were long gone and peace had broken out, the castle’s greatest enemy seemed to come from within.

Its small 12th-century Chapel of Sainte-Marguerite, which had somehow survived the knocks and knocks that left the surrounding castle buildings in tatters, was a far cry from the protected structure it is today.

“The building is one of the most unique and interesting specimens of Norman work in Scotland,” the couple noted. “But he suffered a lot at the hands of those responsible for the castle.”

The chapel – split up and converted into a powder magazine for the army garrisoned in the castle – was one of hundreds of aging Scottish castles, keeps and fortified buildings scattered across the changing country as memories of the ancients conflicts were waning and new demands were increasing for modern conveniences. it didn’t necessarily mean living in a dilapidated castle.

Some were already little more than crumbled remains, time is running out to record their characteristics before they are completely lost.

And so, armed with packed lunches, sketchbooks and a burning passion for architecture, the two intrepid men embarked on what was to become an amazing mission to protect and record Scotland’s built heritage. .

In just five years, they’ve traveled thousands of miles across the country by train, bike and on foot, visiting around 750 of Scotland’s historic structures – from Outlander’s Lallybroch to Midhope Castle near South Queensferry that they found “in a good state of preservation and still inhabited”. by retirees from the Hopetoun family” – to people like Coeffin Castle in Lismore which was nothing more than “a shattered mass of ruins”.

Their travels, often made at weekends, have resulted in an encyclopedic record of Scotland’s architectural heritage.

Their crenellated, domestic architecture of Scotland spanned five volumes which recorded everything they had found, from the broken chimneys of Stirling Castle to the fragments of Aros Castle in Mull, detailing everything from their locations and gardens , their history, the people who lived there, the repairs – and, often, their absence – and, in some cases, worries about their future.

Accompanying their finely detailed text were equally impressive sketches and plans, meticulously recorded despite the logistical challenges they faced just to reach some of the most remote destinations.

The story of their efforts and passion for Scotland’s heritage has now been brought together in a new book, A Passion for Castles, which also explores the varying fortunes that would befall some of the sites they visited.

According to its author Janet Brenan-Inglis, MacGibbon and Ross came from very different backgrounds but shared a deep enthusiasm for Scotland’s built heritage and a concern for its future which, nearly 150 years later, remains an inescapable record for architects and modern historians. .

“They were both architects and both had a fascination with antique buildings, but they were very different people,” she says.

“MacGibbon came from a wealthy family of builders and prominent citizens of Edinburgh, while Ross was originally a sharecropper from rural Perthshire. It was amazing that he became such an important figure.

After working as an architect’s assistant in Glasgow, Ross became MacGibbon’s partner in his practice on George Street in Edinburgh, where their shared fascination with ancient structures blossomed into their epic hobby.

“They had a theory about the development of Scottish castle architecture and thought there were four distinct periods, starting from the 13th century,” adds Janet.

“They had probably already surveyed a few of them when they decided to write a book. I suspect they were planning a volume or two at first, but the whole thing made the arms and legs fatter.

“They ended up with five volumes with hundreds of beautiful drawings, all done in just five years, which was quite extraordinary.

“It was a time when the rail network had opened up and it was easier to travel to Scotland, but even so they traveled from Shetland to Jedburgh in the Borders to the Whinns of Galloway in the South West.

“They went all over Scotland which must have been exhausting.

“They would leave from Waverley station, their daughters would come with their packed lunches and they would have their sketchbooks with them, and they would go by train sometimes together sometimes separately, all over Scotland.”

The couple, who were in their 50s at the time, witnessed Scotland’s valuable built heritage at a time when some structures were on the verge of being lost for good.

From time to time, their story of how dilapidated some were has raised awareness and impetus for restoration and repairs, which has saved some from further collapse.

At Earlshall Castle near Leuchars in Fife they found ‘a very perfect example of a 16th and 17th century mansion’, but were appalled to see its grand faded interiors and magnificent gallery ceiling ‘let down by pieces in total ruin”.

They demanded that an exact copy of the rotting ceiling be made before it disappeared completely. Within a few years the castle had been purchased and Sir Robert Lorimer, one of the country’s greatest architects, hired to restore it.

“Maybe it’s because they made such a big deal out of it…it was an irreplaceable legacy,” adds Janet.

“I think they were probably the first real conservation pioneers. They campaigned to save some buildings and were horrified by the threat to Scottish castles – so many castles were collapsing and so many were in danger.

Some buildings, despite their efforts, were not saved: three buildings were demolished after the couple surveyed them, including the 15th-century Knights Hospitaller house in Linlithgow which they had vigorously campaigned to save.

At Stirling Castle, the couple found a shadow of the star attraction it is now. “The chimneys”, they write, “are almost the only parts of the internal ornamentation which remain, and even these are badly damaged and disfigured.”

They were also keenly aware of the impact of natural factors – such as sea water – on structures such as the ruins of St Andrews Castle, and raised concerns about weather damage to buildings long before thinking about climate change.

Since their investigation, 50 castles they recorded have been demolished, while around 50 have been restored from ruins, adds Janet.

While a question mark now hangs over some: Historic Environment Scotland recently suggested that some castles and keeps in its care may face ‘organized ruin’ as climate change hits and repair costs rise.

“We need a national conversation about what we’re going to do with castles today…we can’t just shrug our shoulders and say their time has come,” says Janet.

“I think they would be horrified by that.”

A Passion for Castles by Janet Brennan-Inglis is published by Birlinn, £35.


Comments are closed.