THE contemporary experience that most closely approximates to a medieval clan feud is the ferocity of the debate conducted among those who concern themselves with the conservation and restoration of historic buildings.
In the past decade the successive controversies involving Historic Scotland, the agency responsible for the stewardship of ancient monuments, have aggravated the atmosphere of crisis surrounding the issue of castle restoration.
The latest contribution to this debate is a book, which the author modestly describes as a “discussion paper”, by Michael Davis, entitled The Scottish Castle Restoration Debate 1990-2012. It is informative and well argued rather than prescriptive, but makes some highly significant points very effectively, aided by good quality illustrations. Davis, more indulgent than some critics towards Historic Scotland, argues for a slimmed-down agency “served but no longer led by career administrators and executives”, focused on its two core functions of protecting historic buildings and maintaining state-owned properties open to the public. He acknowledges the need for ministers to receive strong advice, “but it should not be advice from a narrow area of belief within the architectural conservation church”.
That is the nub of the whole controversy that has engulfed this issue in recent decades: the conflicting philosophies of conservation, with one particular orthodoxy being enforced by bureaucrats of a certain persuasion. Historic Scotland has prevented three attempted castle restorations in recent times: Duntarvie, Rowallan and, notoriously, Castle Tioram. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the agency had some kind of case in the instances of Duntarvie and Rowallan, still the fiasco of Castle Tioram left it bereft of credibility.
In 1997 Lex Brown bought the ruin of Castle Tioram, in Moidart, and proposed to restore it at his own expense as a private residence, but with a Clan Donald museum open to the public occupying the ground floor. His proposal was completely sympathetic to the historical structure and materials, and respected the architectural character of the building. His scheme was supported by Highland Council and other agencies, but Historic Scotland objected to the granting of scheduled monument consent, which blocked the restoration. Experts warned that this historic building was on the cusp between viability and collapse. Historic Scotland remained unmoved. Its motives for opposing restoration were expressed in the weasel phrase “cultural significance” of the monument.
The “cultural” mantra is the catch-all principle invoked by fanatics who basically regard all restoration as vandalism. Their ideal landscape is represented in illustrations to the novels of Sir Walter Scott: shattered towers and roofless cloisters smothered in ivy, a Georgian/Victorian notion that inspired landowners to construct bogus ruins on their estates to cultivate an atmosphere of gothic romanticism. Their influence within the planning mechanism has acted as a drag-anchor on Scottish castle restoration. Not until 2011 did Historic Scotland, confronted by the visible deterioration of Castle Tioram, execute a volte-face and withdraw its opposition to restoration.
By then the agency was embroiled in internal strife, haemorrhaging expert personnel amid accusations of bullying and the chief executive’s resignation. Whether this dysfunctional agency is abolished or radically reformed beyond recognition may be academic; but to reinvent it as a charity, as the Scottish Government reportedly intends, is hardly appropriate.
Clearly, it would be farcical to take a tiny stump of a ruined castle and build a 21st-century reconstruction around it; but a totally viable ruin such as Castle Tioram is a different matter. The fact Historic Scotland, which blocked the restoration, nodded through the gruesome alteration of Caldwell Tower, illustrated in Davis’s book, betrays intellectual incoherence. Purists’ opposition to “speculative” reconstruction is absurd: if a castle had remained occupied throughout its history successive owners would have carried out many alterations. Arguably the most important part of Davis’s book is the section Restoration Theories, in which he writes: “Structures have been repaired and have been altered at many times in their past, and we form part of that continuum.”
The victims of jobsworths infused with an ideological zeal to resist restoration have been that rarefied but hardy breed of castle restorers. Some of them devote a lifetime to their task, more accurately described as a vocation. They may live for years in caravans while they strive, with minimal financial resources, to restore a building with which they have fallen in love. They may appear masochists, but in fact they are true romantics. Historic Scottish architecture has an elegance of style and proportion that makes it one of this country’s glories; keeping it alive is a patriotic endeavour. As Michael Davis observes, “the past has not yet ended”.