Warning! This post is entirely off topic. It has nothing to do with Findhorn. It’s a rave about my favourite Scottish cities and their architecture. And there’s a little politics thrown in as well.

With the referendum on independence fast approaching, all things Scottish are in the air at the moment. So I’m prompted to expand on comments I made in an earlier post (Mountain Walk) about my love of my adopted country and, for that matter, of Europe in general. Even though I grew up in NZ and later lived in Australia, I have always felt much more strongly drawn to living in Europe. And I know exactly what the attraction is; it’s the visibility and accessibility of the history and heritage that I feel here. NZ and Australia both have ancient indigenous cultures of course, but neither Maori nor Aboriginal history is very accessible to an uninitiated white fella. And visual evidence for it is not much found in cities. In Europe, on the other hand, history is written into the very fabric of cities. One just needs to walk down any High Street, linger in any back alley, or loiter anywhere in the centre of most cities to sense the heritage of the place and its people. In my experience, that same genius loci is nowhere to be found in Australia and NZ. The cities are just not old enough. The urban fabric does not evidence the change and adaptation that represents the passing of time and building of collective memory.

Referendum aside, I also am prompted to write on this topic because I recently spent a weekend in St Andrews, a traditional Scottish seaside town famous for two things – its university and the game of golf. For a life-long golfer and once academic, the place has tremendous appeal; I love St Andrews. It’s a compact city, very walkable and almost unchanged in terms of its layout and scale for a thousand years. Most buildings in the centre of town are at least 500 years old. Some go back much further. The now ruined St Andrews’ cathedral, for example, was once the most important religious site in the whole of Europe, attracting pilgrims from all over the continent. Consecrated by Robert the Bruce around 1300, the cathedral, and consequently the town, flourished for the next 250 years. But at the height of the Reformation in the 1500s, the building was trashed by a Protestant mob following a rousing sermon by firebrand preacher, John Knox. The building was abandoned and the stonework became a source of construction material for the region.


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Still standing tall amongst the ruins is the 1000 year old tower of St Rule’s Church, a building that preceded the cathedral. The top affords stunning 360 degree views of the cathedral site, town, ocean and harbour. The town’s three main streets, North, South and Market Streets, are set on axis with the cathedral and tower which in medieval times would have guided pilgrims to their destination. North and South Streets are both lined with ancient university buildings looking like mini-Hogwarts with their towers and battlements. Between them lies Market Street, lined with small specialty shops, narrow at the ends but broadened in the middle to form a marketplace. The whole ensemble of streets and buildings ‘speaks’ (nay, ‘shouts’) to me of a thriving medieval life of religious fervour, academic learning and bustling street action. Furthermore, the layered and patched stonework – the visible evidence of recycling and reuse over many centuries – tells stories of successive periods of human progress followed inevitably by periods of demise. This is what I love, most of all, about living in Europe – being at once reminded of the luminosity and achievement, as well as the frailty and impermanence, of what it is to be human.

Scotland’s two best known cities are, of course, Edinburgh and Glasgow. And what different places they are. I love them both, but for quite different reasons. Edinburgh is, at its core, another medieval city. Glasgow is a much more modern and mercantile place. Edinburgh has, in fact, a split personality – the old and the new. The Old Town, centred around the Royal Mile and Castle, is famous for its urban density, steep narrow lanes and street life. The Royal Mile forms a spine, anchored at each end by two buildings that couldn’t be more different. Edinburgh Castle is located at its head and the new architecturally ‘out there’ parliamentary building at its base. Between them lies a mile of historical and cultural magic, particularly during August when the world’s most famous festival of the arts completely takes over the town. I have been to three Edinburgh Festivals, two in the 1970s and one much more recently. I count them amongst the most memorable experiences of my life.

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Edinburgh’s New Town is separated from the old by a narrow but topographically dramatic strip of open green space. It is as distinctive as the Old Town but strongly contrasting, with its formal street layout, splendid Georgian architecture and unified urban fabric. Set amongst it are some wonderful opportunities for adventure and escape. One of my favourites is Leith Walk, which passes, almost secretly, through a densely vegetated ravine with a deep and fast-flowing river. It leads to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art which is really two galleries in one, both distinctive in their own right for their neo-classical architecture housing some quite radical contemporary art. They are separated from each other by a road and an engaging work of land art created by Charles Jenks. Edinburgh is, in fact, a city bursting with art galleries. One of my favourites is the National Portrait Gallery, another distinctive historical building, recently refurbished in slick, minimalist style. The contrast between new and old could not be more stark, but the intervention is all the more successful for that. And then there are Edinburgh’s two most visited art museums (mostly, I think, because of their location in middle of that nature strip between the Old and New Towns): the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery. And these are just the large institutional galleries. There are a myriad of small private galleries as well. Edinburgh really is a city for the art lover.

But the House for an Art Lover is in Glasgow, a city which for me means just one thing – architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. CRM is one of my architectural heroes; I adore his work. He was designing around the beginning of the Twentieth Century. This was the period of Art Nouveau and Mackintosh was the foremost proponent of the style in Britain. He was strongly aided by his wife Margaret McDonald, a talent behind much of his decorative work. But Mackintosh was not just a designer of eye candy. He was one of the first pioneers of modernism – one of the few architects of his generation to embrace and combine the decorative and symbolic elements of Art Nouveau with the restraint and functionality of modernism. In so doing, he melded two ostensibly incongruous styles. The two buildings which I most admire for this wizardry are the House for and Art Lover (upper pics) and the Glasgow School of Arts (lower pics).

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The House for an Art Lover was designed for a competition in 1901 but not built until 1996. The building is not as Mackintosh would have had it, given that it was built 100 years later than intended and is a tourist attraction with a shop and cafe. But still, it well demonstrates his amazing capacity to synthesise beauty and functionalism. It’s a modernist building in conception but exquisitely beautiful in its detailing and ornamentation – so beautiful, in fact, that I am moved to tears whenever I visit. I wept recently for the School of Arts too, but for an entirely different reason. Last May, it was gutted by fire. Designed between 1896 and 1906, The GSA is considered CRM’s finest work, similarly exhibiting his talent for synthesising the decorative with the modern. Its library in particular, was one of the most revered architectural creations of any era, anywhere in the world. The library is now entirely gone, although if things go according to plan it will be faithfully reconstructed when the building is restored.

I want to complete this mini-tour of my favourite Scottish art and architecture with something different; else you might get the impression that all art establishments in Scotland are housed in 100+ year old buildings. The Burrell Collection is displayed in a superb contemporary building designed in the 1970s. In 2013, the building was A-listed by Historic Scotland in recognition of it being one of the country’s best examples of ’70s architecture. It’s beautifully set within a Glaswegian park and thoroughly integrated into the surrounding landscape. Huge walls of continuous glazing fill the building with light and offers sweeping views across parkland and into surrounding woods. The design team included a Norwegian woman, Brit Andresson, who immigrated to Australia soon after the building was completed. There she taught architecture for 40 years. Brit was one of my professors in the 80s. She was a real inspiration, responsible for cultivating (along with others) a distinctive ‘Queensland Style’ through her own work and also her pedagogy.

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In two weeks Scotland votes in a referendum to determine its independence. At the moment, the locals are talking of little else. I imagine the media are similarly obsessed although I really have no idea; these days I get my news only from a few carefully selected web sites. But that’s not to say I’m disinterested. Quite the contrary; I feel so strongly about this issue that I recently registered to vote for the first time in my life. Yes, that’s right, I have never ever voted, even though I lived for 30 years in Australia where voting is compulsory. I have been, until this week, a conscientious objector to voting. Such is my level of disdain for mainstream politics. My attitude was formed well before I became eligible to vote at age 21. At the tender age of 18, the Australian government sought to conscript me to fight in Vietnam, a war which I anyway abhorred. Fortunately, my birthday was not drawn from the hat in their ridiculous ballot. Not that I would have gone if it had been. As a student radical, I was deeply involved in helping conscripts escape the draft. And around the same time I also was resisting Apartheid with a criminal vigour that could have had me locked up for years. But that’s another story – one that won’t be told here. Suffice to say that my political views precluded voting back then and, indeed, have done ever since … until last week when I voted in the independence referendum (by post). I voted YES! Why? For me the matter is simple. As I’ve already said, in this post and a previous one (Mountain Walk), I’ve developed a deep love for Scotland – so much so that I can even appreciate its mainstream politics. The Labour Party has taken the majority of seats in Scotland in every election since the ‘60s. But seriously, Scotland is a uniquely magical place with a distinctive history and culture. It’s different to the rest of Britain in so many affirming ways. So why shouldn’t its people have the right to self-determination? As for the detail of the argument, I can do no better than to quote George Monbiot who writes for the Guardian newspaper….

To vote no is to choose to live under a political system that sustains one of the rich world’s highest levels of inequality and deprivation. This is a system in which all major parties are complicit, which offers no obvious exit from a model that privileges neoliberal economics over other aspirations. It treats the natural world, civic life, equality, public health and effective public services as dispensable luxuries, and the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor as non-negotiable…. Independence, as more Scots are beginning to see, offers people an opportunity to rewrite the political rules. To create a written constitution, the very process of which is engaging and transformative. To build an economy of benefit to everyone. To promote cohesion, social justice, the defence of the living planet and an end to wars of choice.   (Here is the full article)

I rest my case … well, George’s actually.