Late historian Charles McKean’s book honoured

The late historian Professor Charles McKean. Picture: Jayne Wright/TSPL
The late historian Professor Charles McKean. Picture: Jayne Wright/TSPL
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A LEADING historian who died after a battle with cancer last year has been honoured with Scotland’s flagship literary prize, despite never seeing the finished work.

Charles McKean, one of the nation’s most respected experts on architectural history, spent a decade working on an epic study of 18th century life in Scotland.


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The 640-page long tome - which charts the development of 30 different towns across the country, the living patterns of their inhabitants and the changing laws of the land - was named Scotland’s “book of the year.”

The honour, which has been awarded annually since 1982, has previously been won by a host of Scotland’s best-known writers, including William McIlvanney, Alan Warner, Kate Atkinson, Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead and Norman MacCaig.

The Saltire Society, the cultural body behind the awards, last year handed it to the Fife-born poet and novelist John Burnside, with his second collection of short stories.

The overall winner, announced at a ceremony at the Our Dynamic Earth visitor attraction in Edinburgh, was drawn from shortlists for six different honours at the Saltire Literary Awards, which were unveiled at the annual Wigtown Book Festival in September.

Among this year’s leading contenders were established authors AL Kennedy, Anne Donovan and Ali Smith, broadcasters Sally Magnusson and Kirsty Wark, and first-time novelist Kate Horsley, for her “Frankenstein sequel”, which is set in Orkney.

However the Saltire Society’s judging panel hailed the overall winner as “a pioneering study of Scottish urbanisation”, describing it as a “magisterial” piece of work.

Entitled “The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment 1740-1820”, it was to prove a lengthy labour of love for Professor McKean and a long-time colleague at Dundee University, Bob Harris, professor of British history until 2006, when he moved to Oxford.

The two academics deployed dogged detective work to co-write the book, travelling the country and studying hundreds of documents, legal cases, inventories, town council minutes, plans, drawings and even travellers’ tales.

Published in August by Edinburgh University Press with a recommended hardback price of £120, it explores everything from the population boom in 18th century Scotland, economic and social improvement and the decay of ancient privileges and restrictions to the difference between the burghs of the Georgian era north and south of the border.

The judging panel said of the winning book: “The strengths lie in the fact that it delves into the archives to give authoritative information about the development of towns in the age of Enlightenment.

“Overall we felt this was a book that people will value for many years to come. It gives a clear sense of the way in which the Enlightenment had influence all over Scotland, the changing shape of society in the period and the ways in which this was manifested in our burghs. It is also extremely well researched and readable.”

Born in Glasgow in 1946, Charles McKean was to become a distinguished architecture journalist, who worked for a spell well with Scotland on Sunday, sister paper to The Scotsman, as well as The Times and the London Architect journal.

Widely regarded as the pre-eminent historian of Scotland’s buildings and towns, he served as chief executive of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, the professional body for the industry, from 1979 to 1994, before joining Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in 1995. He was appointed professor of Scottish archictectural history at Dundee University two years later and served for six years as chairman of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.

He passed away in September 2013, a month after his last meeting with his co-writer, to discuss illustrations for the unfinished book.

Professor Harris told The Scotsman: “Charles and I met when he started working at Dundee University.

“The original idea for the book was that there seemed to be a gaping hole in our understanding of Scotland’s past. Very little had been written about most Scottish towns in the period from the late 17th century through to the early 19th century. Quite a lot had predictably been written about Edinburgh and a bit was known about Glasgow, but we didn’t really know much about what was happening in the rest of the country over this period.”


First Book of the Year: Moontide, by Niall Campbell. A collection of verse inspired by the writer’s upbringing in the Western Isles, with its seascapes, myths, wildlife and long dark winters.

History Book of the Year: Scottish Gods, by Steve Bruce. An exploration of how Scotland’s religious landscape has changed over the last century.

Literary book of the Year: How to be Both, by Ali Smith. The Inverness writer, who won the Saltire’s best debut novel prize in 1995, was shortlisted for the Man Booker for her latest novel, a dual-time tale of art, love, injustice and redemption.

Poetry Book of the Year: Bones and Breath, by Alexander Hutchison. The latest collection from the Buckie-born writer, now based in Glasgow, who had his first collection published in 1979.

Publisher of the Year: Sandstone Press. Formed in the Highland town of Dingwall by Robert Davidson, the company has scored a number of notable successes, including two Man Booker nominations in the space of three years.

Research Book of the Year: The Scottish Town in the Age of Enlightenment 1740-1820, by Bob Harris and Charles McKean.


Obituary: Prof Charles McKean, architectural historian


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