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The Old Castles and Mansions of Scotland
Taken from Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 445, Volume 18, New Series, July 10, 1852


The father of mental philosophy, Aristotle, begins his work on ethics by telling us, that nothing exists without some theory or reason attached to it. The following out of this view leads to classification--that great engine of knowledge. We see things at first in isolated individuality or confused masses. Investigation teaches us to separate them into groups, which have some common and important principle of unity, though each individual of the group may be different from the others in detail. Thus we arrive at the great classifications of natural science, with which every one is more or less familiar. But the works of men have their classification too, for in human effort like causes produce like effects. Most people know what schools of poetry, painting, and music are. In architecture, we know, too, that there are great divisions--such as classic and Gothic. But many have yet to learn how far classification may go; and it is a new feature to have the peculiar national architecture of Scotland separated from that of England, and its peculiarities traced to interesting national events and habits. The common observer is apt to think that all buildings are much alike, or that each is alone in its peculiarities. Before classification can take place, there must be a collection and comparison of leading characteristics; and this is not easily accomplished with the edifices scattered over a whole country. It may be said that it was never done for Scotland, until Mr Billings completed his great series of engravings of the baronial and ecclesiastical antiquities of Scotland.

Taking the former--the baronial--for our text, we find ourselves now for the first time in a condition to discover the leading features of the Scottish school of architecture, and to connect it with the history of Scotland. We know that until the wars of Wallace and Bruce, the two countries, England and Scotland, could scarcely be said to be entirely separated; at all events, they did not stand in open hostility to each other. Endless animosities, however, naturally followed a war in which the one country tried to enslave the other, and where the weaker only escaped annihilation by a desperate struggle. It is not unnatural, therefore, to expect that the habits of the two countries diverged from each other as time passed on; and this process is very distinctly shewn in the character of the edifices used by the barons and lairds of Scotland. A very few of the oldest strongholds resemble those of the same period in England. The English baronial castle of the thirteenth century generally consisted of several massive square or round towers, broad at the base, and tapering upwards, arranged at distances from each other, so that lofty embattled walls or curtains stood between them, making a ground-plan of which the towers formed the angles. The doors and windows were generally in the Gothic or pointed style of architecture, and the vaulted chambers were frequently of the same. There are not above three or four such edifices in Scotland. The most complete, perhaps, is the old part of Caerlaverock, in Dumfriesshire; another fine specimen is Dirleton, in East Lothian; and to these may be added Bothwell, in Clydesdale, and Kildrummie, in Aberdeenshire.

This style was long followed in England. It is known as the baronial, and architects in all parts of the country, when building a modern mansion in the castellated manner, have invariably followed it. It is easy to see, however, that it was early abandoned in Scotland, the people not taking their forms of architecture from a nation with which they had no connection but that of hostility. The first species of national baronial architecture to which they resorted was a very simple one, characteristic of an impoverished people. It consisted of little more than four stone walls, forming what in fortification is called a blockhouse. The walls were extremely thick, with few apertures, and these suspiciously small. But these old towers or keeps were not without some scientific preparations for defence. In the more ancient baronial castles, the large square or round towers at the angles served to flank the walls or curtains between them; that is, supposing an enemy to be approaching the main gate, he could be attacked on either side from the towers at the angles. To serve the same purpose, the Scottish keeps had small bastions or turrets at the corners, which, projecting over the wall, flanked it on each face. The simple expedient here adopted is at the root of all the complex devices of fortification. The main thing is just to build a strong edifice, and then, by flanking outworks, to prevent an enemy from getting up to it. In other respects, these square towers were scarcely to be considered peculiarly Scottish. They are to be found in all parts of the world--along the Wall of China; in the Russian steppes; in Italy, where they are sometimes remains of republican Rome; and in Central India. They constitute, in fact, the most primitive form of a fortified house.

When we come a century or two later, the difference between the English and Scottish styles becomes more distinct and interesting. Almost every one is acquainted with that beautiful style of building called in England the Tudor or Elizabethan, with its decorated chimneys, its ornamented gables, and large oriel or bow windows. It is not well suited for defence, and denotes a rich country, where private warfare has decayed. This class of edifice is rarely, if at all, to be found north of the border; but much as it is to be admired, a contemporary style sprang up in Scotland entirely distinct from it, yet, in our opinion, quite fitted to rival it in interest and beauty. It was derived, in some measure, from Flanders, but chiefly from France. The Scots naturally looked to their friends as an example, rather than to their enemies. Many of the Scottish gentry made their fortunes in the French service, and when they came home, naturally desired to imitate, on such a scale as they could afford, the chateaux of their allies and patrons. The state of the country, too, made it a more suitable pattern than the Tudor style. France was still a country of feudal warfare--so was Scotland; and it was necessary in both to have defence associated with ornament. The chief peculiarity of this new style was, the quantity of sharp-topped turrets, which form a sort of crest to the many details of the lower parts of the buildings. These are not solely ornamental; they succeeded the bastions of the old square towers, and served the same purpose. Among the secondary peculiarities of these buildings, may be counted an extremely rich and profuse ornamentation of the upper parts--probably the only portions out of the way of mischief. Indeed, the edifice is sometimes a mere square block for two or three storeys, while it is crowned, as it were, with a rich group of turrets and minarets, gables, window-tops, ornamented chimneys, and gilded vanes. In many instances, the great square block of older days received this fantastic French termination at a later time--as, for instance, the famous castle of Glammis, in Strathmore.

It almost appears as if this style, which has its own peculiar beauties, had been adopted out of a national antagonism to the contemporary style in England. The Tudor architecture has always a horizontal tendency, spreading itself out in broad open screens or wall-plates, diversified by occasional angular eminences--as, for instance, in the tops of the decorated windows. But in the Gallo-Scottish style everything tends to the perpendicular, not only in the long, narrow shapes of the buildings themselves, and their tall, spiral turrets, but in the many decorations which incrust them. This decoration has an extremely rich look, from the quantity of breaks, and the absence of bare wall or long straight lines. Thus, to save the uniform plainness of the straight gable-line, it is broken into small gradations called 'crow-steps.' Every one who looks at old houses in Scotland must be familiar with this feature, and must have noticed its picturesqueness. It appears to have been derived from the Flemish houses, where, however, the steps or terraces are much larger, and not so effective, since, instead of merely breaking and enriching the line of the gable, they break it up, as it were, into separate pieces.

The Scottish style has not, indeed, slavishly adopted any foreign model. It is, as we have remarked, chiefly adopted from the French; but it has characteristics and beauties of its own. No one, we believe, had any conception of their extent and variety, until they were brought to light by the artistic labours of Mr Billings. In some instances, to bring out the full effect of the ornamental parts of these buildings without overloading his picture with the more cumbrous plain stone-work, he brings forward, by some artistic manoeuvre, the crest of the building, as if the spectator saw it from a scaffold or a balloon level with the highest storey. The effect of the rich Oriental-looking mass of decoration thus concentrated is extremely striking, and one is apt to ask, if it is possible that the country so often characterised as bare, cold, and impoverished, could have produced these gorgeous edifices. Their number and distribution through the most remote parts of the land are equally remarkable. Among Mr Billings's specimens, we have, in the southern part of Scotland, Pinkie, near Musselburgh; Auchans and Kelburn, in Ayrshire; Newark, on the Clyde; Airth and Argyle's Lodging, in Stirling. Going northward, we come to Elcho and Glammis, and to Muchalls and Crathes, in Kincardineshire. It is remarkable, that the further north we go, the French style becomes more conspicuous and complete. Many of the finest specimens are to be found in Aberdeenshire. Fyvie Castle, which was built for a Scottish chancellor--Seton, Earl of Dunfermline--is almost a complete French chateau of the sixteenth century, such as the traveller may have seen in sunny Guienne or Anjou; and there it stands transplanted, like an exotic, among the bleak hills of the north. It is only natural to find in connection with such a circumstance, that Seton received his education in France, and passed a considerable part of his life there. Whether from such an example or not, the Aberdeenshire lairds seem to have been all ambitious of possessing French chateaux; and thus in the county of primitive rock, where there is certainly little else to remind us of French habits or ideas, we have some admirable specimens of that foreign architectural school in Castle Fraser, Craigievar, Midmar, Tolquhon, Dalpersie, and Udny. Nearer Inverness, we have Balveny, Castle-Stewart, and Cawdor.

The same foreign influence is exhibited in our street architecture, some specimens of which are engraved in the work to which we have referred.[4] Every one knows that the lofty Scottish edifices with common stairs--houses built above each other, in fact--give our large towns a character totally different from those of England; but it is equally clear that the practice was derived from France, where it is still in full observance literally among all classes, since the different social grades occupy separate floors of the same edifices. In the _coup d'etat_ of 1851, it will be remembered, that in making the arrests of the leading men supposed to be inimical to Louis Napoleon, one of the difficulties--as the affair took place at midnight--was to know the floors in which they lived; for these great statesmen and generals inhabited houses with common stairs.

We have here discussed one special feature of Mr Billings's work, on account of the remarks which it suggests; but it is only right to mention, before parting with it, that it contains engravings of every thing that is remarkable in the ancient architecture of Scotland, whether it be called civil and baronial or ecclesiastical. Certainly, the remains of antiquity in North Britain were never previously so amply and completely illustrated. Nor is it without reason, that some contemporary critics have maintained this to be the most entire collection of the sort which any nation possesses. The chief merits of the views consist in their accuracy and effect. They are wonderfully clear and minute, so that every detail of the least importance is brought out as distinctly as in a model, while this is accomplished without sacrifice of their artistic effect as pictures.

FOOTNOTES:

[4] Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland. By William Burn and W. Billings. 4 vols. 4to. Blackwoods, Edinburgh.


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