Book Review: How to Read Scottish Buildings by Daniel MacCannell.

How to Read Scottish Buildings. By Daniel MacCannell. Published by Birlinn Ltd., West Newington House, 10 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH9 1QS, UK. www.birlinnco.uk. £9.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $14.99. 2015, reprinted with corrections 2017. 224 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

This is a practical book, sized to fit in one’s pocket or purse, unlike many books on architecture. I wish I’d had it with me on my recent trip to Scotland when I was taking photographs of many buildings because I would have been able to take better photographs of many of the features mentioned in the book. In the meantime, I can use the book to more accurately analyze the photographs I have. This is where researchers will benefit when examining family photographs that include buildings.

This is not a book about the famous buildings: cathedrals, palaces or royal castles, which are only mentioned in passing. It is a guide to the curious, attractive, sometimes even beautiful old Scottish buildings for which there are no plaques, no websites, no costumed guides or colorful pamphlets or ‘ancient monument’ designations. The book “is intended to provide travelers and residents with an impartial, brief, clearly illustrated guide that allows them to place Scottish buildings and groups of buildings with regard to their ages, styles, influences and functions, as well as the messages that their builders, owners and occupants intended to convey” (p.9). In this it succeeds. It will help you determine if you are looking at an outstanding, typical or inferior example of a building feature, a style, or a period building. The book is designed to teach a deductive approach that can be applied equally well to Scottish buildings in any setting, in any region, or originating in any  time period. The author acknowledges that there may be regional variations, and some are touched upon, but the overall principles apply everywhere.  

Mr. MacCannell divides Scottish architecture into six style periods, which are explained and illustrated. The six style periods are: Style before 1540 – Middle Ages into the Renaissance; Style 1540-1660 – Baronial glory days and the overthrow of the church; Style 1660-1750 – de-fortification, symmetry and the emergence of architecture as a profession; Style 1750-1840 – Pan British Neo-Classical style consolidated, amid increasing scale and the first stirrings of ‘retro’; Style 1840-1920 – ‘retro’, diversity, mechanization and unparalleled prosperity; Style after 1920 – ‘retro’ perfected, Art Deco, Brutalism and green architecture.

The following section examines the cross-period issues that may create problems for the observer, but may, with some knowledge and understanding, aid in narrowing down dates, such as: dated stones; arms; marks of quality that transcend periods; symmetry and the notion of ‘Georgian style’; ownership; and how to read a house built in multiple periods.

The next section looks at the individual external features of a building starting at the roof, and working down looking at windows, walls, doors and all their multiple variations. You will understand what to look for and how to distinguish between original and ‘retro’ versions of features after reading this section.

The book concludes with a table, designed for quick onsite estimation of time period. It looks at the observable features and describes what to look for in each period, knowing that some features go across multiple styles. The style periods go across the table and the features described like the buildings start at the top and work down. The table is not a summary of the prior section but contains significant information not mentioned elsewhere.

This is a practical book well worth looking at by anyone interested in Scottish architecture and the everyday buildings in which our ancestors lived. Users will come away with better understanding of how designs changed over time.