Landmarks wiped off map forever

IT IS a heartbreaking catalogue of wanton cultural vandalism and neglect. Ian Gow, curator of the National Trust for Scotland, has produced a hard-hitting book that reveals how hundreds of the country's most distinguished homes were destroyed in the decades after the Second World War.

But Gow says his work should serve as a stark reminder that more than 1,000 of Scotland's finest buildings remain at serious risk of being allowed to rot away to nothing.

Disuse, the sky-high cost of maintenance and fire are all ongoing threats to some 1,300 architectural treasures north of the Border, says Gow, despite the tough new planning laws designed to protect them.

Gow's book, Scotland's Lost Houses, analyses in detail 20 out of an estimated 200 important buildings lost north of the Border since 1945.

Gow mourns the destruction of such celebrated houses as Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, which was the biggest country house of its kind in Scotland. Hamilton Palace, which used to be at the centre of a major coal-mining area, was demolished in the 1920s because of subsidence caused by local workings. Gow predicts that if the palace had been saved it would be one of Scotland's leading tourist attractions, rivalling many of its English counterparts.

The Old House of Hedderwick in Angus was effectively allowed to fall apart. The failure to find funds to maintain the building led to the collapse of the roof in 1982 - a loss which Gow says robbed the country of an alfresco baroque design unrivalled in Scotland then or since.

Gow says the dilapidation and staged demolition of Balbardie in West Lothian in 1956 and 1975, due to a lack of funding, diminished the heritage of the work of one of Scotland's most celebrated architects, Robert Adam.

Perhaps most extraordinary is the explosive end to Perthshire masterpiece Murthly, which was demolished in a series of controlled explosions in 1948.

Built in 1831, it was never inhabited, says Gow, and came to be seen as a folly for its owner Sir John Drummond Steuart, who had it built as part of a "palace race" with his fellow Perthshire landowners.

But such harsh fates for Scotland's historic houses is not a thing of the past, Gow warned last night.

"Sadly, we still lose some very interesting houses. If somewhere like Hamilton Palace was still there today it would be quite difficult for a private individual to pay the heating bills and keep the roof intact.

"In the case of Rosneath in Dunbartonshire - now famed as a caravan site - it became lost because people saw it as unfashionable.

"What will happen over time is that more houses will lose their contents and will have to find new uses as people struggle to find the money to live in them.

"Somewhere like the Mavisbank estate, which features in the book, is very special. Because a lot of people are worried about it, it is more likely to be saved - it has a body of opinion and literature behind it.

"The most at-risk buildings are the ones that people don't know, that haven't been open to the public and therefore simply aren't as well known."

The past decade has seen some high-profile - and highly controversial - debates around how properties are listed and the potential dangers if owners cannot maintain the upkeep on costly large houses.

In 2003, Scots laird Alistair Dickson was fined 1,000 for demolishing B-listed Lanrick Castle, the former home of the Clan Gregor. Dickson, whose building was on the at-risk register, was found guilty of contravening building regulations and not obtaining the correct permission for the demolition.

The laird hit back at authorities, saying fire and storm damage had left little alternative but to demolish the property.

Meanwhile, A-listed Mavisbank, on the outskirts of Edinburgh - once a beautiful estate but now in derelict condition - is just one of the many estates that have been saved at the 11th hour with the promise of a cash injection, but its long-term future still hangs in the balance.

Last night, calls were made for more money and more lateral thinking to preserve some of Scotland's most important heritage.

Chris Lewis, a Mavisbank trustee and chief executive of Greenspace, the not-for-profit organisation set up to help those committed to the planning, design, management and use of public parks and open spaces, said: "There is still a problem with funding. The sad irony is that many of the properties at risk are competing for the same funds, and often a large amount of money will go towards one big project.

"Each of the homes at risk is part of Scotland's heritage and part of that specific local community. So many of the new builds now are very low in quality and built with a 20 to 60-year shelf life. We need to keep preserving the fabric of our older Scottish homes because it provides a kind of continuity for the present."

A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland suggested owners would have to think of alternative uses for their properties, in many cases for the long term, and said: "From our point of view it is about finding new uses [for the remaining homes] or finding appropriate adaptations. Finding a use for a building is the biggest protection it's got."

Charles McKean, Professor of Scottish Architectural History at Dundee University, said: "We may live in a different world from the one Gow shows in his book but houses are still being demolished and many houses are now marooned by the land-holding laws.

"It's not a battle won. When these beautiful big houses were built all those years ago they were occupied by complete communities. That is not the case now.

"With Scotland it is easy to believe we are a country in which the best is behind us. That's not the case - it is just about finding a use for our remaining houses economically."