Obituary: Prof Charles McKean, architectural historian

Charles McKean
Charles McKean
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Born: 16 July, 1946, in Glasgow. Died: 29 September, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 67.

PROFESSOR Charles McKean was one of Scotland’s best known and most outspoken architects and had a reputation worldwide as one of the most respected experts on historic Scots architecture, author of more than 30 books and 100 academic papers.

He was architecture correspondent for The Times and later for the fledgling Scotland on Sunday, The Scotsman’s sister paper, after its launch in 1988. Although born in Glasgow, he became fascinated and enchanted by the historic buildings of two other cities, Edinburgh and Dundee.

He was a professor at the University of Dundee from the mid-1990s and remained its Professor Emeritus of Scottish Architectural History when he died in an Edinburgh hospice on Sunday.

He was also a colourful critic of both Edinburgh Council and Historic Scotland, last year describing the capital – in an article in The Scotsman – as “one of the worst cities in Europe for visitors”.

He was ending his six-year term as outgoing chairman of Unesco’s Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) at the time and his comments sparked a massive reaction – both positive and negative – among Scotsman readers and the wider public as far away as North America.

Some newspapers began referring to the capital, in the words of the old Ewan MacColl song, as “Dirty Old Town”.

In the Scotsman article, he described the council as “paranoid” and said the historic heart of Edinburgh lacked interpretation of its history for tourists and suffered from “general 

He attacked the level of roadworks on major thoroughfares, tourist-unfriendly closures at attractions and what he called a failure to clear up rubbish at peak times.

He also urged the permanent removal of buses from Princes Street and insisted that the new trams must have a stop at the city’s main railway station, Waverley.

“You only have to look at other cities like Vienna and Lyon to see the difference,” he said. “If you are curious about something here (in Edinburgh), there is nothing to tell you what it is,” he said.

This is not to say that Charles McKean did not love Edinburgh. He did, and liked nothing more than to wander down the Royal Mile admiring its beauty, its quirks, its nooks, its crannies, its closes and even its graffitti. He loved Riddles Court on the Lawnmarket, although he pointed out several years ago: “If you were in Siena, Italy, the flats would be lived in, with window boxes and flowers. For now, this is a dead space.”

He also loved Trunk’s Close “with its mix of old and new, its light and space”. He was a strong proponent of international help to save and maintain the Old Town, similar to the efforts to save Venice.

He said: “People will leap about and say: ‘The Old Town is occupied, it’s working, what more do you want?’ But it’s not as good as it should be, within a European state.”

Although he held many honours and awards, he was perhaps best known among his peers as chief executive, secretary and treasurer for a quarter of a century – from 1979 to 1994 – of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) the professional body founded in 1916 for all chartered architects in Scotland and based in Edinburgh’s Rutland Square.

Having edited the journal London Architect from 1970 to 1975, he became architecture correspondent for The Times from 1977 to 1983 and later for Scotland on Sunday in its early years. He also served, from 2011 until his death, as president of the Scottish Castles Association, taking over from Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood who had served for 11 years. McKean had long been a passionate supporter of saving Scotland’s castles and was the author of the authoritative but controversial book The Scottish Chateau, which changed the way conservationists looked at this nation’s “fortified heritage”.

Charles McKean was born in 1946 in Glasgow but moved to Edinburgh to be educated at Fettes College from 1960-64. After a year at the University of Poitiers in France, he graduated BA (Hons) from the University of Bristol in 1968. (Many years later, in 1994, he would receive a Doctorate in Literature – D.Litt, with Honours – from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen).

It was in the 1980s that he fell in love with Dundee and saw beyond its “eyesore” grey 1960s concrete buildings. “Dundee has lost its memory and sense of identity,” he said.

“Once famous for its jute, jam and journalism, only journalism is left. For a long time in the 20th century, Dundee became the invisible town and wasn’t even mentioned in Scottish history books.

“I want to put Dundee back on the northern European stage where it used to be.”

McKean began organising walking tours of Dundee, helping not only tourists but Dundonians themselves to understand their architectural heritage.

Helped by a bit of publicity from Dundee-born Ricky Ross
of the band Deacon Blue, he pointed out the history of the city’s St Mary’s Tower (known as the Old Steeple and Scotland’s highest surviving medieval tower at 160 feet) and Gardyne’s Land, a complex of listed buildings.

“While Edinburgh has incredible examples of a medieval city, Dundee’s City Fathers obliterated much of its past,” he said. “By the 60s and 70s, most of Dundee’s architectural heritage made way for car parks, shopping centres and walkways, turning a once beautiful city into the eyesore many see it as today.

“What I’m trying to do is to get as many Dundonians and visitors to explore the city for themselves. It’s like giving them the city back. It starts with curiosity and ends with pride.”

Prof McKean had fellowships of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Historical Society.

He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, as well as an Honorary Member of the Saltire Society.

Having led hundreds of walking tours of Dundee for more than 20 years, he was given an Honorary Stephen Fry award by the city’s university last year.

“Charles McKean was a major voice in Scottish architecture and history, and someone who made a tremendous impact on everything he did,” Professor Christopher Whatley, vice-principal and head of the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Dundee, told The Scotsman last night.

“He played a critical role in establishing History at Dundee as a leading UK centre in the discipline.”

Iain Connelly, president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, added: “Charles was an extraordinary and inspiring individual. His combination of infectious enthusiasm and immense erudition has helped Scotland’s attitude to our historic architecture.

“He shook up the Royal Incorporation during the 1980s to create a vital and relevant organisation which continues to participate fully in the public life of Scotland.”

Professor Charles McKean died in St Columba’s Hospice, Edinburgh. He is survived by his wife Margaret and sons Andrew and David.

Appreciation by Phil Drummond

I FIRST encountered Charles’ relentless enthusiasm for architecture exactly 25 years ago, when he gave a series of guest lectures at Strathclyde University on Art Deco in Scotland. Greatly perturbed at what he rightly identified as the loss of buildings which were not yet fully appreciated, he saw it as his task to enthuse the architects of tomorrow with an understanding of worth.

He was, of course, entirely correct and within a few years we began to study and protect our 20th-century architectural heritage in a much more focused way.

Charles was key member of the conversation throughout his life, more than happy to offer help and advice – sometimes with a strong dose of timely badgering – to those who required it. He enjoyed debate, to really debate the underlying issues, and to look at how we could care for our historic sites without preserving them in aspic.

He stressed time and time again the need for a forward-looking vision for our architecture, converting me to his cause on the back of a fascinating list of projects from Denmark to France by way of Germany.

The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) likewise has good reason to be grateful to Charles. He served on our national committee during the early 1990s, bringing to bear his hands-on understanding of architectural importance to the campaign to protect historic buildings. He was involved in our 1984 Scottish Pioneers of the Greek Revival, regularly contributed to our annual Journal, wrote pieces for our members’ magazine, organised a conference on Scottish Architects’ papers, and supported our work across the country.

The shelf in my office is awash with architectural books, but those by Charles – and there are a great many – are better thumbed than most. His RIAS/Landmark/Rutland Press guides provide excellent illustrations of what has been lost as well as what still exists. His work on the Scottish Chateaux has pencil notes down the margin on points to discuss further, while The Scottish Thirties is a survivor from that very first lecture he gave me. Looking back, I’m not sure how he ever had the time to sit down and I’m not entirely sure that I ever saw him do so.

Charles’s exuberant architectural opinions and helpful advice have sustained me throughout my career, whether a lengthy missive or arriving at a lecture with a series of thought-provoking questions amidst what I had hitherto and mistakenly thought was a well-rounded case. The AHSS and I will both miss him greatly; we are all the poorer with his untimely passing.

Peter Drummond

National chairman
Architectural Heritage 
Society of Scotland