‘’Tis so raw-boned’: William Morris in Scotland

Scotland was not a country with which William Morris was particularly enamoured. His visits there, often undertaken with some reluctance, were only ever of a practical nature. In spite of his instinctive dislike for the place, however – displayed especially in the accounts of his passing visits in the 1870s – Morris travelled frequently to Scotland during his socialist years, making the journey at least once a year between 1883 and 1889, and often multiple times in one year. This post is intended to be a comprehensive account of Morris’s movements and experiences in Scotland, from his first visit in 1871 to his final trip in 1889.

Morris’s experience of Scotland was mainly urban and mainly confined to the Lowlands. Towards the larger cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee he was at best indifferent, at worst actively disdainful. Morris’s opinions on Scottish architecture were almost entirely negative, though his universal scorn on this point was sometimes balanced out by his admiration for parts of the Scottish countryside, as well as the pleasure he evidently took in any hint of a connection with his beloved Walter Scott. Morris was only to visit Scotland’s Highlands once, and even that visit constituted little more than a brief day’s excursion between appointments. Never a sightseer for more than a few snatched hours at a time, Morris was almost always in Scotland on business.

Morris’s first visit to Scotland was in July 1871, when he was travelling to Iceland via Granton, which was then a small port on the outskirts of Edinburgh. On July the 6th he boarded an Edinburgh-bound overnight train at London, along with his travelling companions Charlie Faulkner and Eiríkur Magnússon. ‘[A] third-class rail-way journey by night’, he noted in his diary, ‘is neither eventful nor pleasant; we droned away as usual in such cases, though I for my part was too excited to sleep’.1 Crossing the Tweed the following day, Morris entered Scotland:

[N]orth of the Tweed the country soon got very rich-looking with fair hills and valleys plentifully wooded. I thought it very beautiful: we had left the sea now; but every now and then we would pass little valleys leading down to it that had a most wonderfully poetical character about them; not a bit like one’s idea of Scotland, but rather like one’s imagination of what the backgrounds to the border ballads ought to be: to compensate, the weather was exceedingly like my idea of Scotland, a cold grey half-mist half-cloud hanging over the earth.

Compared with Morris’s later remarks, these first impressions are comparatively favourable. The green, fertile country around Berwickshire and East Lothian, with its hints of Walter Scott, appeals to him, perhaps because of its resemblance to so much of England. Indeed, part of the charm of this part of Scotland seems to lie in its being, for Morris, not really Scottish.

Arriving in Edinburgh – or ‘Edinborough’, as Morris calls it – the three travellers catch a glimpse of the city while awaiting their onward train: ‘we went up for a few minutes into the dismal street where people were taking their shutters down, then wandered about the station, felt frowsy, and drank ineffably bad coffee in the refreshment-room till the train started for Granton.’ In spite of his low spirits, Morris seems initially impressed by the rugged splendour of the more historic parts of Edinburgh:

As you come up to Edinborough it looks striking enough certainly, and is splendidly set down, with the huge castle-rock rising in the middle of it and on its out-skirts the quite wild-looking mountains about Arthur’s Seat; underneath lies what is left of Holyrood: once upon a time it must have been an impressive and poetical place, but I should think always very doleful.

Such praise is curtailed, however, as the tawdry reality of nineteenth-century Edinburgh2 is brought into focus: ‘the dolefulness remains, the poetry is pretty much gone: the station is a trifle more miserable-looking than the worst of such places in England: looking up from it you see high houses going up the sides of the deep gorge it lies in; they are black, they are comfortless-looking and not old now’.3 Evidence of nineteenth-century poverty and dilapidation have, for Morris, negated any sense of romantic grandeur.

In Granton, ‘a dull, dull place with the slip-shod do-nothing air that hangs about a small port’, Morris, Faulkner and Magnusson met with their fourth companion, W. H. Evans. Struggling to ascertain the exact time of the arrival of the Diana, the boat in which he was to travel to Iceland, Morris began to fear that he might be about to have his ‘first experience of a Scotch Sabbath’. Breakfasting at a ‘dismal big inn’ – probably the Wardie Hotel on the Lower Granton Road – Morris remarked positively (a rarity while he was in Granton) on the view ‘over the firth and its islands, the going and coming trains, and the steam-ferry to Burnt Island that lies on the other side of the firth.’

Escaping into Edinburgh after breakfast, Morris’s gloom failed to dissipate. He had his hair cut ‘in terror of the dreaded animal, Faulkner all the while egging on the hair-dresser to cut it shorter’. Afterwards, Morris and Faulkner ‘drove about a bit in an open chaise thing with the uncomfortable feeling that one doesn’t know where to tell the driver to drive to, and that he and everybody else are pointing the finger of scorn at us for being strangers and sightseers’. Morris’s hostility towards Edinburgh only seems to have grown during this brief excursion: ‘well, we drove into the Grassmarket and other parts of the old town; there is little left now that is old in look, and all is dirty and wretched-looking in the old town, and the new town provincial and pretentious to the last degree’. He returned to Edinburgh ‘well tired’4, and that night stayed at the Granton Hotel on the east side of Granton Square.

Waking early the next day, Morris looked eagerly for the sight of the Diana, dogged by ‘a sort of feeling that we shall never get away from Granton, and indeed, it is a place to inspire that feeling’. At length the boat was spotted, and preparations made to sail the following day. At this point Morris’s spirits seem to have lifted, though he was no better disposed towards Edinburgh than he had been hitherto. On the 8th of July, the eve of his departure, Morris remarked in a letter to Philip Webb that ‘when I really want to cut my throat I shall go to Edinborough to do so; it will be an easy matter so to do’.5 With that parting shot, Morris left Granton harbour aboard the Diana the following morning.

Sailing north up the east coast of Scotland, Morris was again unimpressed by the scenery, declaring it a ‘a very dull and uninteresting-looking coast’. Passing Fair Isle, between Shetland and the Orkneys, Morris’s interest is momentarily piqued by a connection with Icelandic saga: the island, Morris notes, is where ‘Kari stayed with David before he struck the last strokes in the avenging of Njal’. Beyond that, however, along with the decidedly prosaic observation that ‘Fair Isle and Shetland are both high conical hills to look at’, Morris’s interest seems mostly to be confined to the operations of the seamen aboard the Diana, the quality of the sailing and his and Faulkner’s continuing seasickness.6

Beginning his return journey to London after almost two months travelling around Iceland, Morris and the rest of his party departed the harbour at Reykjavik on the 1st of September. By the 6th, they were off the north coast of Scotland. Passing the southernmost Orkneys, ‘we could just see the low bank of the islands against a beautiful golden sunset, as we sailed along in great rest and peace’.

The following day, the Diana sailed alongside the Aberdeenshire coast, not much more than ‘a long grey line’ as far as Morris was concerned. His recent experience of the dramatic Iceland scenery made the comparatively dreary coastal landscapes of Lowland Scotland even more unpalatable than before: ‘I thought the Scotch coast wondrous dull after all the marvels we had seen; even the Firth of Forth and its islands.’ Arriving in Granton in the evening, Morris and his companions were ‘glared at stolidly by a line of Scotchmen and boys, whom somehow it occurred to most of us Englishmen to fall to and chaff, which amused them and us till the gangway was thrust ashore’. After a brief farewell stop at an Edinburgh tavern, Morris boarded a train to London, though with his sense of geographical scale significantly altered by recent experience: ‘So into the train, thinking what a little way it was from Edinburgh to London.’7

Morris returned to Iceland in 1873, again sailing in the Diana from Granton harbour. Morris records this journey in considerably less detail than on the previous occasion, with most of his impressions of Scotland during this trip being confined to a letter written to Philip Webb a few hours prior to his departure on July the 11th. Again, in this letter, there is the sense of gloomy pessimism which seems to pursue Morris whenever he is in Granton: ‘I feel as if I had been away several months already’. There is also a hint of national chauvinism in Morris’s account of the Scots he encounters: ‘The Scotch people I have seen seem to me to keep well up to their character: 3 very drunken tradesmen we saw on Wednesday going along arm in arm obviously congratulating themselves on being the cream of the human race, were types to rejoice the heart of a Taylor’.8 Morris’s impression of Edinburgh (spelled correctly this time) is at least a little more favourable than it was during his last visit: ‘I found Edinburgh … to have a strong flavour of Scott & his novels this time. I went into the high Church [St. Giles’ Cathedral or the High Kirk] (sadly bebuggered as it has been9) rather a mean church always I fancy, but smelling strongly of Davie Deans & the rest.’10 It seems that suggestions of a favoured work of literature – whether Walter Scott or Icelandic saga – are, for Morris, particularly capable of redeeming otherwise unlovely aspects of Scotland’s buildings, landscapes and localities.

Of Morris’s return journey from Iceland in September 1873 there are no detailed accounts, though it may be assumed that his passage again took him between the Orkney Islands and Shetland and south along the east coast of Scotland.

morris league

Morris would not return to Scotland until 1884, during which year he made three separate trips north of the border, all in the name of socialism. On the 17th of November, during a meeting sponsored by the Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL), Morris delivered ‘Misery and the Way Out’ at Edinburgh’s Hall of the Literary Institute on South Clerk Street.11 The audience at this lecture was roughly 3,000. He returned to London a day or two afterwards but was back in Scotland again on the 23rd of November to deliver a lecture before the Glasgow Branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In December, Morris was in Scotland for a slightly longer period of time, during which he embarked on a socialist lecture tour. On the 11th of December he gave a lecture at the Greenock Branch of the Land Restoration League, and on the evening of the 13th he delivered his ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’ at Picardy Hall in Edinburgh at a meeting sponsored by the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL (Morris and John Bruce Glasier first met on this occasion). On the morning of 14th Morris gave an impromptu speech to the Glasgow branch of the SDF at their branch rooms, and in the evening of that same day he delivered his ‘Art and Labour’ to the Glasgow Sunday Society at St. Andrew’s Hall, to an audience of around 3,000. After the lecture, Morris again addressed the Glasgow branch of the SDF. He arrived back in London on the 16th.12

The tour of December 1884 was, of course, marked by political strife within the British socialist movement. The SLLL had been founded earlier that year as a Scottish affiliate of the SDF in Edinburgh, and the SDF’s own H. M. Hyndman – as well as Hyndman loyalists in the SDF’s Glasgow branch, which had only recently been formed – almost immediately began to regard it with hostility, suspecting it of anarchist leanings. Serious divisions made themselves evident at the meeting of the SDF’s Glasgow branch on the evening of the 14th, when a letter from Hyndman attacking the SLLL’s co-founder Andreas Scheu was read out. At the end of that same meeting, the Glasgow branch secretary W. J. Nairne is supposed (according to John Bruce Glasier’s account) to have publicly needled Morris on the question of Marxist theory, having treated him as an opponent for most of the evening. Outraged at Hyndman’s machinations in Scotland, Morris formed his ‘cabal’ almost immediately upon his arrival back in London, and shortly thereafter split from the SDF to form the Socialist League (SL).13

Political issues aside, it is also on this tour that Morris records his first impressions of Scotland and its people for more than a decade. In a letter to his daughter Jenny he records ‘Wet weather in Glasgow, and my impressions of that huge den by no means pleasant; though some of the country one runs through from Edinburgh is beautiful’. In Newhaven, which was then a fishing village and small port on the very outskirts of Edinburgh, Morris recounts a more pleasing experience:

I went a long walk with Scheu yesterday afternoon which brought us (after dark) to Newhaven; we took omnibus [sic] there … and the said vehicle was half full of fish-wives and their babies: they were not beautiful ones like Christie Johnson14, but were clean and neat, and were dressed in the proper style with jackets of bright chintz; and were a relief from the usual dulness of Scotch street life.

Again, a literary connection brings Morris momentarily out of the gloom which usually descends whenever he is in Scotland, and he is able briefly to take some interest in its more colourful inhabitants. He is soon engulfed again, however, when he is faced with the prospect of Scottish architecture: ‘The house building is terrible both here [in Glasgow] and at Edinburgh, & in short almost wherever one comes across a house in Scotland: so coarse and raw so to say: it seems wretched that they should spoil the lovely country with them.’15 It is not immediately clear what Morris has in mind when he is making these criticisms – does he mean the new tenements and suburban villas? Is it the pomp of the fashionable Scots Baronial style he dislikes? Or is he referring to the more ponderous variety of neoclassicism popular in Scotland during the Georgian and Regency years? As will be seen, the charge of rawness or barrenness is often repeated, but never clarified.

Morris returned to Scotland for another lecture tour in April of 1885. This tour was, mercifully, to be considerably less eventful than that of the previous year. On the 23rd, Morris travelled by train from London to Glasgow, a journey which he spoke of in a letter to Jenny: ‘I had a wet day to travel to Glasgow on, so that I missed the sight of that fine country between Lockerlie [presumably Lockerbie] and Carstairs’. There is a theme emerging here: when Morris does praise Scottish landscapes (a rarity in itself) it is always the country between places which he praises – the places themselves (the cities and towns) are usually not much more than a necessity to be borne.

During the day on the 24th, Morris was taken out on a steamboat excursion up the Clyde to Lochgoilhead, a small Highland village on the northern shore of Loch Goil, in Argyll and Bute. That evening, having returned to Glasgow, Morris read out some of his own poetry at Pillar Hall, Queen’s Rooms. The reading was part of an effort to raise funds for the Glasgow branch of the SL, which also sponsored the meeting. The following day Morris travelled to Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘Work as It Is and as It Might Be’ at the Free Tron Hall, in Edinburgh, at a meeting sponsored by the SLLL. Morris was pleased with what he found in Edinburgh: ‘the meeting was once more good there & the Branch in high spirits because they made some money by it: they have some very good and thoughtful men among them.’ After the meeting, Morris was detained by the sculptor J. Pittendreigh McGillivray, much to his chagrin: ‘a socialist sculptor (nomine McGillivray) victimised me by making me to sit to him’. On the 26th Morris travelled back to Glasgow from Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’ at the Albion Hall, in a meeting sponsored by the SL’s Glasgow branch. Morris was a little less enthusiastic about the state of the SL in Glasgow: ‘a good lot, but wanting instruction badly’. After the meeting, Morris again sat for McGillivray.

On the 27th Morris left Glasgow for Chesterfield, where he was due to attend yet another meeting before staying the night at Edward Carpenter’s residence at Millthorpe. Writing to Georgiana Burne-Jones from Millthorpe the following day, Morris reflects briefly on his most recent experience of Scotland: ‘I have been getting on pretty well in Scotland, but whether pock-pudding prejudice [‘pock-pudding’ was a derogatory Scottish term for an English person] or not I can’t bring myself to love that country, ‘tis so raw-boned.’16 Morris notes with pleasure the progress of socialism in Scotland – as he would continue to do over the next few years – but the country itself is quite simply not to Morris’s taste. Echoing his earlier criticism of Scottish architecture, Morris finds Scotland to be simply too raw to ever be truly appealing, though whether he means this in an architectural, topographical or even a cultural sense is not made clear.

Yet another socialist lecture tour was to take Morris back to Scotland in June of 1886. Though limited to the country’s Lowland region – as indeed all Morris’s lecture tours had been and would continue to be (with the exception of the brief excursion to Lochgoilhead in 1885) – this was nonetheless to be one of Morris’s most extensive tours of Scotland. It began on the 21st, when Morris caught the 8pm train from London. Morris’s impressions of this journey take what is by now a predictable form: ‘woke as the train went out of Stirling & showed a very raw-boned town but a lovely country: plain & mountains with Tay17 amidst it very lovely. Perth also blue-boned but a most beautiful situation especially down the water of Tay.’ Again, Scotland’s urban or semi-urban environments are coarse and unlovely, while the country surrounding those places is pleasant and beautiful.

Over the following seven days, Morris gave lectures and attended meetings in Arbroath, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Bridgeton. The tour began in Arbroath on the 22nd of June, where Morris was unusually positive about his surroundings – in a short article written for the Commonweal, Morris describes Arbroath as ‘a pleasant stone-built town’ and praises its ruined abbey and church, while in a letter to Jenny he writes that Arbroath is ‘not a bad sort of a town for Scotland’, and again praises the town’s abbey. While by no means effusive, Morris’s uncharacteristic enthusiasm might be said to have a distinct cause: Arbroath possesses a direct connection with Walter Scott. Both in his article for the Commonweal and in his letter to Jenny, Morris notes that Arbroath is the model for the town of Fairport in Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), and he confides to Jenny that while in Arbroath he has been ‘walking on the sea shore not trying to remember Miss Isabella Wardour’. These purely scenic and literary observations are, however, tempered by Morris’s newly acquired materialist emphasis: ‘[t]he industry practised there [in Arbroath] is sail-cloth making, and it is a in a very dismal condition at present. There was much suffering in the past winter.’

Morris’s political experiences in Arbroath were well-recorded in the pages of the Commonweal, as was the whole of the 1886 tour. During the day on the 22nd, Morris writes, he took a walk with his host, ‘a Free Kirk minister and a Socialist’. The pair came across a field labourer ‘who was resting from his job of harrowing at a field’s end’, and Morris proceeded to enquire into the specifics of his working life:

I should premise for the benefit of our English readers, that Scotch field-labourers are hired by the half-year, and receive their “meal and milk,” lodging in a “bothy” – or a not too luxurious pig-stye – and a sum of money. This friend, who was a brisk and intelligent young man, told us that wages were low, and that he was now receiving £9 for the half-year, instead of £12, which he used to receive … I was told afterwards that wages had fallen back to what they were ten years ago … A foreman, our friend told us, was now getting £28 per annum, which used to be the wages of a full private labourer.

Morris the materialist is again in evidence here. Indeed, Morris’s new materialist focus, as well as his immersion in the world of Scottish socialism, has allowed him to engage with the working people of Scotland in a much more empathetic manner than he did in the 1870s, during his brief stays at Granton. No longer demeaning stereotypes or amusing diversions, working-class Scots are people in their own right, existing in particular circumstances and subject to particular constraints.

In the evening, Morris lectured to an audience of ‘upwards of 600 very attentive persons, mostly of the working-class’, at a meeting sponsored by the Arbroath Lecture Committee. According to Morris’s account his lecture was positively received, and ‘A fair amount of literature was sold.’

The next day, Morris delivered ‘True and False Society’ at the Oddfellows’ Hall on Forrest Row, Edinburgh, in a meeting sponsored by ‘the fag-end of the Industrial Remuneration Conference of last year.’ Despite pessimistic predictions, the event was well-attended and lively. A vote of thanks was moved in Morris’s favour by ‘a clergyman’ (the chairman), as well as the Reverend John Glasse, who was also speaking, and a third speaker, who ‘poked some ecclesiastical fun at [Morris], interlaced with buttery compliments.’ Speaking to branch members afterwards, Morris records that ‘[t]hey seemed rather depressed; lack speakers; and so find it difficult to make much way.’ Indeed, in spite of the success of the recent meeting, Morris received from the branch members a gloomy picture of the state of Scottish socialism: ‘One comrade said that in talking to fellow-workmen they would agree with everything that he said in favour of Socialism, but could not be brought further than this passive adherence.’ Still, there was some cause for optimism: there had been ‘commendable efforts’ to sell the Commonweal, while the University Society were ‘starting a kind of progressive debating society, appealing to trades’ unionists and co-operatives to join it’.

On the 24th Morris gave the same lecture as he had done the previous day, sponsored by the same organisation, at the Waterloo Rooms in Glasgow. The meeting was again well-attended despite ‘apprehensions of a failure’, with the audience ‘perhaps more in assent than at Edinburgh’. Closing his account of this meeting in the Commonweal, Morris remarks that ‘the Scotch are much given to “lion-hunting,” and that therefore it is necessary for a Socialist who wants to get at the facts to discount a certain amount of the enthusiasm with which he is received, if he happens to have any reputation outside Socialism.’ He also comments on the presence of a ‘good sprinkling … of Land Restorers’ in Glasgow.

On the 25th, Morris lectured in Dundee, again delivering his ‘True and False Society, at a meeting once again sponsored by the committee of the Industrial Remuneration Conference. Morris records that he had ‘much such an audience as at Glasgow, only that they lacked the instruction that our Branch has, with all drawbacks, given to the Glasgow folk’. He also takes time to note that ‘Trade is very slack at Dundee; the jute business nearly gone, Indian competition having destroyed it. I was told that there are few places where the difference between the classes is more felt than it is at Dundee.’ Ending his political account of Dundee, Morris recommends the formation of a branch of the Socialist League there.

Returning once again to Glasgow, Morris delivered ‘The Political Outlook’ at a meeting sponsored by the Glasgow branch of the Socialist League, which again took place at the Waterloo Rooms. A large audience – over 600 – was again in attendance, and the meeting was broadly successful, though Morris records that ‘several got up and went out almost as soon as I began: it seems there was some mistake as to my subject, as there was a religious meeting elsewhere in the premises, and some of the proper audience thereof had wandered into our hall.’ After the meeting a special tea was held in Morris’s honour, at which he recited the speech made by John Ball in the Market Place in A Dream of John Ball. The tea went on past midnight, and at its close branch members accompanied Morris back to his hotel singing the ‘March of the Workers’.

The final lecture of the lengthy tour of 1886 was on the 28th of June, at Bridgeton, in the east end of Glasgow. Morris delivered ‘Socialism’ at the Temperance Institute on James Street, during a meeting sponsored by the Glasgow branch of the Socialist League. Morris’s impressions of Bridgeton itself were not favourable: ‘a most woeful abode of man, crying out from each miserable court and squalid, crowded house for the abolition of the tyranny of exploitation.’ Neither was the meeting there much of a success – the audience only numbered about 200, with the ‘monotony of acquiescence … only broken by an eager religionist, who turned his question-time into a kind of sermon addressed to us’.

Reflecting on the whole of the tour, Morris finds that ‘the condition of opinion in the Scotch towns that I have visited is encouraging.’ He records that ‘the halls were mostly well filled, and the audiences more than attentive – almost enthusiastic’. Morris is confident that ‘the ideas of Socialism are taking hold’ in Scotland. Finally, he observes with pleasure that ‘Nor will the attachment to puritanic religion, which has been held up as such a bug-bear to us, be a very serious barrier to Socialism … the Scotch, it seems, no longer care to mix religion with their politics’. ‘Here, then,’ Morris concludes, ‘is good hope of harvest’.18 On the 29th of June, Morris returned to London.

Morris returned to Scotland once more that year, on September the 26th. He was there, unusually, for commercial reasons – he was travelling to Manchester and made a detour to Edinburgh to inspect the new Morris & Co. window that had recently been installed in St. Giles’ Cathedral. In a letter home to Jenny he sketches a gloomy but not altogether negative vision of the city: ‘The smoke hung low on Edinburgh yesterday so that the mountains looked like strong outlines against the sky and the ugly detail of the houses was a good deal hidden so that there was something very fine about the whole view from the castle hill’. Describing the Morris & Co. window in St. Giles’, Morris is implicitly critical of the quality of the rest of the cathedral’s furnishings: ‘Our window is fine & looks a queer contrast with its glittering jewel-like colour to the daubs about it.’19

Morris returned to Scotland numerous times in 1887, and in April of that year he embarked on yet another socialist propaganda tour of Scotland. Morris records each of these visits in his Socialist Diary of 1887.20 On the 14th of March, Morris lectured at the Tron Hall in Edinburgh. The audience, Morris records, was ‘slender in number’ but ‘attentive and intelligent and very enthusiastic’. Morris here echoes his optimism of the previous year: ‘things seem on the rise in Scotland.21 In Edinburgh our branch is doing better, though the SDF are more active, as they have more working-men amongst them; our people are on quite good terms with them: best of all the general feeling of advanced political people is turning our way there.’ The day after his lecture at the Tron, Morris visited Roslin, a small town on the River North Esk, just south of Edinburgh, within which is located the heavily ornamented Rosslyn Chapel. Writing of this visit, Morris returns to his old habit of denigrating the buildings of Scotland (as well as its weather, perhaps more understandably) while praising its landscapes: ‘a beautiful glen-ny landscape much spoiled temporarily by the remains of last week’s snow, and permanently by the misery of Scotch building and a manufactory or two’. Morris’s enthusiasm for Rosslyn Chapel itself, a building of the fifteenth century, is conspicuously muted: ‘strange indeed, unquestionably romantic; but the work coarse and quite lacking the deft skill and crispness of medieval work; the romance laid on with a trowel, as if by an amateur determined to be romantic’. That evening, Morris returned to London by the night train.22

On April the 3rd Morris embarked on what he had come to call ‘my regular Scotch tour’.23 His first meeting was in Glasgow, where he met with comrades from the Socialist League and spoke at their usual Sunday meeting on Glasgow Green, ‘the audience something like our London ones but I should say more intelligent, knew better what was being spoken about, I mean.’ In the evening, Morris delivered ‘True and False Society’ to an audience of around 1,000, with Cunninghame Graham MP in the chair. ‘The lecture was well received,’ Morris records, ‘and a Socialist resolution carried’. The following day Morris was in Dundee, speaking as ‘part of the fortnightly entertainment’ put on by David Macrea, a parson formerly of the United Presbyterian church until his expulsion for heresy. The audience, Morris writes, ‘was large, “respectable”, mostly lower middle class, and seemed rather startled, but not unfriendly.’ On the morning of the 5th Morris travelled to Edinburgh to deliver another lecture: ‘audience small … the chairman, a very good fellow was not a good chairman; but we carried our resolution, though clearly there were many dissentients at one time in the hall: those who agreed seemed very hearty.’ That night he slept at the residence of the Reverend John Glasse, before heading to Glasgow the next day, where he ‘met the Branch and friends at a tea-party’ in the evening.

On the 7th of April Morris was in Hamilton, where he found most of the SL branch members ‘in [the] last depths of depression’ as a result of the defeat of the recent miners’ strike. The mood at the branch meeting that evening was sombre – ‘there was rather a chilly feeling over all’ – though Morris notes that ‘A comic event enlivened us of a drunken man in the gallery who insisted on mistaking me for his representative Mr Mason, and quarrelling with me on some political matter which the liquor told him I was saying.’ The 8th of April saw Morris in Paisley, where he delivered ‘Socialism: the Way and the Means’ at the Good Templars’ Hall. In the chair was Robert Cochrane, the Provost of Paisley, ‘a curious old body once a chartist I think.’ On the 9th, a Saturday, Morris was in nearby Coatbridge, where he spoke at an open-air meeting in ‘a sort of open space by a canal at the end of that miserable cinder heap, lighted up, as night came on cold and clear, with the flare of the iron furnaces.’ Morris describes the meeting as ‘pretty good’, though he writes that he was forced to ‘compete [for the attention of the crowds] with a cheap-jack and the Salvation Army’, and was at one point ‘disturbed by a drunked [sic] Irishman’. On Sunday Morris was back in Glasgow, where he spoke at ‘quite a big meeting on the Green’ before he left for Newcastle. ‘The Glasgow Branch is in good condition’, Morris writes, ‘apparently are working hard, and are getting a good deal of support’. Morris goes on to note that ‘Kropotkin’s visit has turned them a little in the Anarchist direction, which gives them an agreeable air of toleration, and they are at present quite innocent of any parliamentary designs.’ ‘The feeling amongst the working men about’, Morris concludes, ‘is certainly in favour of Socialism; but they are slack in joining any organisation as usual: still the thing is taking hold.’

A letter Morris wrote to Jenny on April the 14th, shortly after he arrived back in London, provides an insight into Morris’s own personal impressions of Scotland during the tour of April 1887. He is not particularly impressed with Glasgow Green, describing it as a ‘doleful open-ish garden’. Of Dundee, however, he is less critical: ‘the place on the water side looking on Dundee and its “Law” or hill was beautiful.’ Morris’s journey from Dundee to Edinburgh on the 5th stirs memories of his first trip to Scotland, as he remarks to Jenny that ‘one has about 30 minutes sea from Fife across the firth to Granton, whence of old times I set sail to Iceland.’ On the 6th of April, Morris writes, he made a brief stop at Linlithgow on his way from Edinburgh to Glasgow: ‘there is the 15th century palace, a ruin, but nearly complete on the border of a little lake, and a fine Church the nave quite untouched, the choir made very ugly by the presbiterian [sic] fittings, & stupid by a feeble attempt at restoration.’ Of the tea party he attended later that day, Morris remarks that it was ‘rather slow; our Scotch friends not being very good at that sort of thing they are so shy.’ Evidently he is still occasionally inclined to view Scots in slightly stereotypical terms, though here it is more or less good-natured. In Paisley, Morris is able to indulge his architectural and historical interests: ‘A doleful place to look at, but with the nave of the old abbey Church yet left, a fine 13th century building; which must have been very fine indeed when its long aisleless choir was standing, of which but a few walls are left.’ Coatbridge, however, has no such distractions: ‘’tis an iron working place where at night the flaring furnaces put out the moon and stars.’24

In March of 1888, Morris was on another socialist lecture tour. The tour began on the 21st of March in Kilmarnock, ‘a not very important town on the edge of the mining district.’ Morris, again with the eye of a materialist, observes that the town’s main industry is the railway works and makes a note of the low wages currently being paid to the local miners. Morris delivered ‘Monopoly’ at Clerk’s Lane Church, to an audience that was ‘fair in numbers’ and ‘attentive’ but ‘not demonstrative’ and mostly middle class. Morris also notes that a branch of the SLLL has just been formed in Kilmarnock, though he is pessimistic about its prospects. That evening Morris travelled to Penkill Castle in Ayrshire, to stay with the artist William Bell Scott. He spent the following day there with Scott. In a letter to Jenny, Morris judges the castle itself to be ‘so much spoiled that one can take but little pleasure in the architecture thereof’. On the other hand ‘the place is lovely: it lies on the hill-side on a spit of ground with a beck running on each side … from the tower you can see the great wide firth (of Clyde) Ailsa Craig plain to see, & the mountains of Arran lying in the distance’25. In a letter to his mother written a few weeks later, Morris notes that Penkill is ‘somewhere about where the scene of Guy Mannering26 is supposed to take place.’27 Even during these days of lectures and branch meetings, Morris is still alert, as he has ever been while in Scotland, to the slightest hint of Walter Scott.

On the 23rd Morris was scheduled to give a lecture in Leith, which was then officially separate from Edinburgh. The lecture was a failure: only five people turned up, so the event was cancelled and the admission fee refunded. All was not lost, however, as Morris and his comrades decided to hold an impromptu open-air meeting on Leith Walk, apparently with some success. A crowd of ‘upwards of 200 persons’ assembled, and ‘listened for an hour and a half’. On the 24th Morris gave a speech on behalf of the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL in West Calder, a ‘wretched little mining town’. Morris and his comrades ‘did not expect much of a meeting on a Saturday evening in such a place’, but a bell-boy was sent round to whip up an audience, and in the end ‘some sixty persons, all workmen’ attended, who ‘made an excellent audience as to attention and spirit.’

The next day saw Morris in Glasgow, where he was scheduled to give an open-air speech to the local branch of the SL. Heavy snow forced postponement, and Morris instead spent the day in conversation with local branch members at their rooms on John Street, ‘very much to my own pleasure as without flattery they were, as I have always found them, hearty good fellows and thorough Socialists.’ In the evening Morris delivered ‘Art and Industry in the Fourteenth Century’ at Glasgow’s Waterloo Hall, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SL. ‘All political parties in Glasgow have been depressed of late’, Morris wrote later in the Commonweal, ‘but the knowledge of the [socialist] movement and sympathy with it have grown very much … The first novelty of the subject has worn off, and those who attend the meetings now are those who look upon the matter seriously.’ Later in the evening Morris was entertained by Professor Henry Dyer, who spoke to Morris of his time in Japan, much to Morris’s interest and apparent amusement. On the 26th of March Morris was in Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘The Society of the Future’ at the Trades Hall on 142 High Street, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SLLL. Morris was pleased with this meeting, remarking that the audience was ‘one of the very best audiences I ever spoke to, and missed no point in the lecture.’

On the 27th, Morris lectured at Buchan’s Hall in Barrack Street, Dundee, at a meeting sponsored by the SLLL. Morris records ‘much the same kind of audience’ as he had had in Edinburgh, ‘except that there were more middle-class persons amongst it, who made themselves useful by asking questions easily answered’. Morris notes that Dundee is home to a branch of the SLLL, ‘manned by energetic workers, whose work, however, is difficult, because ordinary party politics run high in Dundee, and the Radicals there have not got further than the Gladstoneite programme’. The final stop on the tour of March 1888 was Aberdeen – this was Morris’s first and only visit to that city. On the 28th of March he delivered ‘Monopoly’ at the Lecture Hall, at a meeting sponsored by the Aberdeen branch of the SLLL. The audience was ‘thin’ and, again, mostly middle-class, but ‘attentive and not disposed to carp.’28 The local branch of the SLLL he found to be made up of ‘some energetic and intelligent men, a good deal kept down … by the ordinary Radicalism of the place’. Writing to his mother, Morris was uncharacteristically positive about Aberdeen as a place: ‘The old town, which has always been separate from the new, with its own Corporation &c is a very pleasant place: it has the Cathedral in it and the College, and the country beyond is very beautiful.’29

Summing up his experiences on the 1888 tour, Morris writes in the Commonweal that he is ‘very favourably impressed by the outlook for Socialism in Scotland. There can be no doubt that progress has been made since last year, in the teeth of great difficulties.’ Morris declares that in spite of the hostility of the press, the oppressive practices of anti-socialist employers and ‘the traditional puritanism of the country’, the socialist movement is ‘gaining ground steadily’ in Scotland, and especially in Edinburgh.30

Morris was to make the journey to Scotland twice in 1889. His first visit constituted a brief tour, from the 9th to the 13th of February, beginning in Glasgow where he gave a lecture to the local SL branch on the evening of the 10th, having taken the night train to Scotland the previous day. On the 11th Morris gave a lecture to art students on the subject of Gothic architecture, and on the 12th he gave an address at the Glasgow School of Art on the subject of Arts and Crafts. On the 13th Morris was in Edinburgh to deliver a lecture to the branch of the SL there.

In a letter to Jenny composed back at home in Hammersmith, Morris writes of his journey from London to Glasgow: ‘Day dawned with a beautiful many coloured sunrise a little before Glasgow over a dull and dreary country.’ At Glasgow, he found himself in the depths of a Scottish winter, recalling later that ‘as Glasier and I went through the streets it looked like a city frozen to death; for there was scarce anybody abroad, and all was grey. The river too was nearly covered over with ice.’ The next day was mostly spent with John Bruce Glasier at his home – Morris notes that Glasier’s mother ‘is a Gael and can talk her native tongue.’ Writing of his journey from Edinburgh to Macclesfield on the 14th of February, Morris is in a critical mood: ‘I could not help noticing that even by then we had got to Carlisle [sic] how much daintier & prettier all the detail of the country was than in Scotland. Indeed ugly Scotland is much uglier than ugly England.’31

Morris’s second and final tour of the year took place in the autumn. On the 30th of October he delivered the presidential address to the Applied Art Section of the National Association for the Advancement of Art (NAAA). The address was delivered at Queen Street Hall in Edinburgh, and the speech was ‘The Arts and Crafts of To-Day’. That afternoon, Morris was chairman of a meeting of the same section of the NAAA at the National Portrait Gallery, also in Edinburgh. The following day Morris was again acting as chairman, this time for a general conference of all the NAAA sections, which again took place in the National Portrait Gallery. Morris was not particularly impressed by any of these meetings, and said as much in a letter to Jenny: ‘I was in the chair at some monumentally dull papers; and you may imagine how I fidgeted, my dear.’

The political leg of Morris’s second tour of 1889 began on the 1st of November, where he delivered a lecture on socialism at Oddfellows’ Hall in Edinburgh, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SLLL. On the 2nd Morris was in Glasgow, along with Walter Crane, Emery Walker and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson. At Glasgow’s Albert Hall Morris delivered ‘On the Origins of Ornamental Art’, during a meeting sponsored by the Socialist League’s Glasgow branch in cooperation with the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL. On the 3rd of November Morris was again in Edinburgh, speaking at a reception organised by Edinburgh socialists at the Waterloo Rooms. On the same day Morris travelled back to Glasgow to chair a lecture given by Walter Crane to the local branch of the SL at Glasgow’s Waterloo Hall. He returned to London the following day, never to visit Scotland again.32

Scotland seems to bring out the best and the worst in Morris. It is in Scotland, indeed, that Morris can be glimpsed at his most cantankerous and most quarrelsome. At times he is downright unkind, even chauvinistic (especially during his fleeting visits in the 1870s), treating everything he sees with a certain glowering disdain not altogether without a degree of ‘pock-pudding prejudice’. When Morris is in this frame of mind, everything in Scotland becomes ugly, or more simply bad – from the houses to the coffee – and not even the odd pleasing landscape or the occasional suggestion of Walter Scott can completely redeem it. And yet Scotland also sees Morris at his most active and his most generous. Giving freely of his time and resources, Morris worked tirelessly during the 1880s to draw the people of Scotland into the cause of socialism and advance the cause of the working class there. During his innumerable lecture tours north of the Tweed – amidst all the speeches, addresses and branch meetings – Morris engaged wholeheartedly and in complete earnest with the people of Scotland, finding amongst them a great store of dedicated and intelligent comrades and friends.



  1. The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. By May Morris, 24 vols (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1910-1915), VIII, p. 1. (Afterwards CW).
  2. Much of Edinburgh’s Old Town had, at that point, become a kind of picturesque slum, with the city’s wealthier residents having decamped to the eighteenth-century New Town many years previously.
  3. CW, VIII, p. 3.
  4. Ibid., p. 4.
  5. The Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. by Norman Kelvin, 4 vols in 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984-96), I, p. 141. (Afterwards Collected Letters).
  6. CW, VIII, pp. 9-11.
  7. Ibid., pp. 184-185.
  8. As Norman Kelvin helpfully points out in a footnote in the Collected Letters, Morris is probably referring to Tom Taylor (1817-1880) here, who was a dramatist and editor of Punch from 1874 to 1880. Taylor was partly educated in Glasgow and in 1873 wrote a play about Scottish people entitled Arkwright’s Wife: An Original Domestic Drama (Collected Letters, I, p. 195).
  9. St Giles’ underwent extensive restoration twice during the nineteenth century.
  10. Collected Letters, I, p. 195.
  11. Salmon and Baker incorrectly locate the Literary Institute on a non-existent Clark Street.
  12. Nicholas Salmon and Derek Baker, The William Morris Chronology. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996, pp. 138-139. (Afterwards Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology).
  13. E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, pp. 350-357; Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber & Faber, 1993, pp. 497-500.
  14. Kelvin notes that Morris is here referring to the eponymous heroine of Charles Reade’s 1853 novel Christie Johnstone, the beautiful and courageous daughter of a Scottish fisherman (Collected Letters, II, p. 347).
  15. Collected Letters, II, p. 347.
  16. Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 147; Collected Letters, II, pp. 426-427.
  17. Norman Kelvin notes that W. J. Mackail silently corrected Morris’s geographical error here – from ‘Tay’ to ‘Forth’ – when publishing an excerpt from this letter in his biography (Collected Letters, II, p. 560).
  18. Collected Letters, II, p. 559; Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 164; William Morris, ‘A Letter from Scotland’, Commonweal, Vol. II, No. 25, July 3rd 1886, pp. 105-106; William Morris, ‘The Sequel of the Scotch Letter’, Commonweal, Vol. II, No. 26, July 10th 1886, p. 114.
  19. Collected Letters, II, p. 578.
  20. William Morris, ‘William Morris’s “Socialist Diary”’, ed. by Florence S. Boos, History Workshop, No. 13, Spring 1982, pp. 1-75. (Afterwards ‘Socialist Diary’).
  21. As Florence S. Boos points out, Morris’s optimism resulted from strike action by the Federation of Scottish Miners. This action was, Boos notes, short-lived, as the parliamentarism of the SDF became increasingly popular amongst the Scottish working class (‘Socialist Diary’, p. 43).
  22. ‘Socialist Diary’, p. 43.
  23. Collected Letters, II, p. 633.
  24. ‘Socialist Diary’, pp. 47-50; Collected Letters, II, pp. 641-642.
  25. William Morris, ‘Socialism Militant in Scotland, Commonweal, Vol. IV, No. 117, April 7th 1888, pp. 106-107, p. 106 (Afterwards ‘Socialism Militant’); Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 196; Collected Letters, II, p. 759.
  26. Walter Scott published Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer in 1815.
  27. Collected Letters, II, p. 767.
  28. ‘Socialism Militant’, pp. 106-107; Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, pp. 196-197; Collected Letters, II, p. 760.
  29. Collected Letters, II, p. 767.
  30. ‘Socialism Militant’, p. 107.
  31. Collected Letters, III, pp. 31-34.
  32. Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, pp. 221-222; Collected Letters, III, p. 118.




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Why Churches?

The practice of visiting historic churches (especially of taking, say, two busses out to a remote village to do so) is not at present a fashionable one. In parts of the popular mind, it is something to be filed alongside clingfilm-encrusted egg salad sandwiches, lukewarm pints of Doombar and an unhealthy obsession with the genetic make-up of the Anglo-Saxons. Anyone under thirty visiting a church – and I say this from experience – is liable, if anyone is about, to be met with confused looks and an unspoken What are you doing here? 

In spite of all that, there are very few things I would rather do with an idle afternoon than tuck a Pevsner under my arm and spend a couple of hours peering at a chancel arch. It is a fixation I don’t think I can really help – churches, and all their architectural elements, are objects of endless mystery and fascination to me. As a relatively young person, and as someone who is (I like to flatter myself) on some level engaged with, and not completely pessimistic about, modernity and contemporary culture, I have often struggled to reconcile this fixation with the perceived fustiness of the average church-snooper. I don’t generally like Philip Larkin (at all) but I think he provided a useful outline of the stereotype when, in his poem “Church Going”, he singled out the “ruin-bibber randy for antique”. I love churches (not to mention canals, real ale, folk music and the South Downs) but I don’t necessarily recognise myself in this image.

It was William Morris who, for me, pointed towards a way forward. Morris was both a committed radical in political terms and what might today be called a serious anorak when it came to churches. Successor in part to the (mostly) backward-looking High Tory radicalism of figures like Pugin, Ruskin and Carlyle, Morris rejected their conservatism to develop a view of Gothic architecture which pointed towards the possibility of a method of working which was exuberant, unfettered and free of alienation. His utopian vision consisted of this Gothic method of working spread amongst society as a whole, manifesting itself not in a Merrie England of jovial peasants and pleasant cottages (as is often erroneously assumed) but in a boundless proliferation of as-yet-unknowable artistic forms.

I don’t want to go on too much about Morris because a) I think everyone should go and read him for themselves and b) that’s not really the purpose of this short blog post, which is essentially to justify my weird hobby (and maybe to insist on its reclamation from the ruin-bibbers). My opinions on churches certainly derive from my reading of Morris, but they are, I think, mine nonetheless, and I want to try and work them out here. For me, historic churches – especially those built in the Gothic style – are structures radically free from the grim architectural triumvirate of dull utilitarianism, thoughtless extravagance and slavish imitation (they have this in common with the best works of Modernism). Gothic builders adapt, negotiate, synthesise and create – the basic structural forms are all of a type (pointed arch, vaulted ceiling, roll moulding, nave, chancel, transepts and so on), but the way those forms are used – their dimensions, their placement, their decoration – is wonderfully elastic. Gothic architecture flowers into a dense foliage capital, flies off into a rib vault, thuds back to earth in a heavy column, flits about in a web of tracery, whispers fervent prayers high up in the clerestory, laughs in a gloomy corner with a leering grotesque. Scattered about, meanwhile, are lurid wall-paintings, serene brasses, morbid tombs, little carved figures. The little figures especially seem to reveal themselves at random, dancing, drinking wine, sinning, repenting, doing good works, farting.

The best historic churches, then, point to something outside of the flattened, cynical parts of our contemporary moment, the horizons of which seem sometimes to be irrevocably shrinking. Whether crudely or masterfully done – and Gothic architecture can, wonderfully, accommodate both – they gesture towards a latent capacity in people to think, feel and labour in a way which is by turns urgent, curious, tranquil, thrilling, profound, active, irreverent, bizarre, loving and fearful, and moreover to embody these emotional capacities in a collective sense, in the work that they do and the places where they gather. Historic churches are, more than most buildings, the work of innumerable and unknowable hands, often reaching across centuries to embrace one another, and in this they are works of empathy as much as works of masonry. This (I like to think) is not to indulge in nostalgia – I don’t think we should all jack it in and become stonemasons. Churches are, like everything historical, objects of our most remote futures as much as they are of our murky past. They are the tangible crystallisations of hidden potentialities which are at once strangely outside of us and irrevocably tied to us.

There are those who will try and tell you that churches stand for Something Quintessentially English, or that they represent the value of tradition, or piety, or even “the countryside” in some horrible fossilised sense. They are wrong. Churches are living works of art, as much as any work of art can be said to be the product of living brains and limbs, and the things they have to tell us are far stranger, and far more radical.


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My grandmother and the Holocaust

NB: I have put this post on this blog because I don’t have anywhere else to upload it. It is not directly relevant to architecture.

Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary film Shoah took eleven years to make, six of which were dedicated to gathering testimony in the form of recorded interviews. Originally commissioned to make a two-hour feature film, Lanzmann ended up amassing over three-hundred and fifty hours of footage, which, after five further years of editing, he managed to pare down to just over nine hours. Those nine hours are the form which the finished film took (the outtakes themselves have been made into four separate feature films). The film’s length is one of its most vital attributes: the Holocaust, it is suggested, was such a vast, sprawling historical evil – such a colossal, world-shattering catastrophe – that a serious attempt to create a documentary account of it must contort itself far beyond and out of the established forms of conventional filmmaking.

I think of this fact when I think of the life of my paternal grandmother, Ruth – ‘Nanny’, as I knew her (‘Nanny’, perhaps, to her numerous great-grandchildren too). Born in 1929 in what was then the city of Gleiwitz, on the border between Upper Silesia (then German territory) and Poland, she was part of a Jewish family, and was herself Jewish – Kapitza was the family name. Gleiwitz would become known to posterity through the ‘Gleiwitz incident’ of 1939, during which members of the SS posed as Polish militants and attacked a German radio station in order to provide a pretext for their invasion of Poland later that year. Of her childhood in Gleiwitz (now the Polish city of Gliwice) she said very little – or, at least, very little to me. Her reticence on the subject is completely understandable, of course, but the truth is that I was, for most of the time in which I knew her, too young to understand her experiences during that time, or, later, not appreciative of their extent and profound importance. In 1938 (one year before the Gleiwitz incident), along with her mother (her father had died some years earlier from tuberculosis), she fled Gleiwitz for England, settling eventually in Preston, Lancashire, where she remained for the rest of her life. She converted to the Catholic faith, something which for her possessed a deep and abiding importance. She also met my grandfather Ronald – ‘Grandad’ – in Preston, and in due time her surname was changed from Kapitza to Spurrier. In 2015, on the shoulders of her children and grandchildren, her coffin was carried into the graveyard at St Mary’s church in Fernyhalgh, a small red-brick building of the eighteenth century, surrounded by fields, where she was buried next to the primary school at which she had once been a teacher.

I think of my grandmother when I watch Shoah because that film has led me to understand something about the importance of her experience. I have sometimes felt as though my family’s connection to the catastrophic historical wound of the Holocaust is somehow insufficiently direct. There are scores of people alive today who had parents or grandparents murdered, who had sisters, brothers, wives, husbands or children murdered; who came close to death themselves. Neither myself, nor my father, nor any of his siblings are Jewish in a religious sense, though the bizarre and arbitrary system of Nazi racial classification would identify my father as ‘Mischling [‘mixed blood’] of the first degree’, and me as ‘Mischling of the second degree’, theoretically barring us from higher education and restricting who we could marry (if we had lived in German-annexed Poland at the time, as my grandmother did, it is likely that we would have been classed simply as ‘Jewish’, and exterminated).

What watching (and then re-watching) Shoah has taught me is that to attempt to establish any kind of hierarchy of suffering when speaking about the Holocaust is to view it in fundamentally flawed terms. Lanzmann refused to structure his film in chronological order, arguing that to do so would be to impose an artificial sense of order on a historical cataclysm so sprawling and horrific as to defy sense-making. The Holocaust is not a singular historical event, the details of which can be sifted through and neatly ordered into categories, and neither can it be made sense of in isolated parts (though the thorough study of its every minute detail, from its earliest causes to the specifics of its organisation, is, of course, an absolute necessity). The Holocaust was, and remains, an incomprehensibly vast ocean of grief and anguish, a knotted, tangled, boundless forest of acute human cruelties and centuries-old oppressions, a teeming mass of trauma on a huge and complex scale. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, spoke the following words to Lanzmann in an interview for Shoah: “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” That poison is spread deep and wide, and one affected part cannot be separated from any other.

Related image

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

My grandmother avoided the onslaught of the Wehrmacht by one year. That act of escape – which meant exile, at the age of nine, from the country she had known since birth, as well as separation from her entire family, most of whom, I am told, were murdered in the succeeding years – led eventually to the creation of a very large family of her own. It also led to my existence. I never asked her about her life before I knew her, nor did she readily speak about it. What I know about her life – which is still not very much – I have pieced together through other people: I learned at her funeral that she often remembered the horse-drawn carts that would clatter through the streets of Gleiwitz. She remembered also being pelted with stones as a young girl on her way to school.

In 2016, my brother and I returned to the country of my grandmother’s birth. We did not visit the city now known as Gliwice, though we passed through its immediate neighbour, Katowice, on our way from Poland to Vienna. We had been staying in Kraków, from where we visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz – now Oświęcim – which were only thirty-five miles or so from Gliwice. We had arrived on an impossibly slow, impossibly antiquated train. In the main camp – Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau – neither of us spoke much. I was fixated on just how industrial the entire place appeared, and could not help but contemplate how many of my ancestors had ended their lives within its confines (a contemplation in which, so some of the faces around me seemed to suggest, I was by no means alone). We returned to Kraków on a bus laden with tourists. In the cathedral at Vienna, my brother lit a candle.

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Imaginary Edinburgh

If you go to Edinburgh’s New Town and stand at the corner of George Street and Hanover Street, looking south towards The Mound, you will be duly rewarded with a compelling piece of architectural symmetry. The weighty columns of the stubbornly Greek Royal Academy building greet the eye first, their thick rotundity rooted resolutely to the earth. Behind that, the belligerent pinnacles of the Elizabethan-style New College bristle just above the skyline. Farther off still, the spire of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall (now ‘The Hub’), a Pugin-esque soot-blackened needle, looms malevolently over its neighbours. If you are standing in the right place – dead in the middle of Hanover Street – you will see these buildings line up spectacularly, as though each had sprouted out of the one before it (I made a poor attempt to photograph this spectacle about a year and a half ago, the results of which are below).

edinburgh symmetry

I owe this observation to a lecturer, speaking at the Scottish National Gallery, whose name and even occupation I have utterly forgotten (my apologies, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this). This nameless speaker made a comparison between the aforementioned architectural assemblage and the genre of painting, popular between the 17th and 19th centuries, known as Capriccio, in which an artist places together numerous buildings – often imaginary, often historically disparate – in a kind of sublime, fantastical vision. This genre was taken to its heady extremes in the 19th century by artists such as Charles Robert Cockerell and Thomas Cole. Our speaker even suggested that his Hanover Street assemblage had been deliberately constructed as a tangible manifestation of this artistic genre.


‘The Professor’s Dream’ (1848) by C. R. Cockerell


‘The Architect’s Dream’ (1840) by Thomas Cole

altitude comparison

‘Altitude Comparison’ (1840), by C. R. Cockerell

The existence of such a thing in Edinburgh points to some of the city’s wider architectural qualities. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid once described Edinburgh as “a mad god’s dream”. Mad gods aside, he was right: Edinburgh is a dream. Or, more accurately, Edinburgh is a vision – that is, Edinburgh is a city which, far more than most cities, has been consciously shaped, sculpted, pressed into service.

The two dominant architectural styles in Edinburgh are wildly divergent, something which serves to emphasise its artificial qualities. On the one hand (and the one side of the railway, often enough), stern but harmonious neoclassicism. On the other, the deadly serious whimsy of the Scots Baronial style (arrayed both throughout and around the city are innumerable rows of 19th century tenement buildings, which seem able to veer from one idiom to the other without any noticeable stylistic break, a considerable architectural feat, and one of the myriad reasons why many of Edinburgh’s Victorian tenement buildings deserve to be thought of as examples of some of the best domestic architecture in Europe – but that’s another blog post altogether). Edinburgh’s twin styles are reminders of its dual character – ‘The Athens of the North’ to some, ‘Auld Reekie’ to others.

In the 18th century, the Nor’ Loch – now the site of Princes Street Gardens – was drained, and on its northern banks construction of the New Town began. Everything about this project was classical – it emphasised proportion, harmony, good taste and good manners. Thus Edinburgh’s first real reincarnation began: no longer a cluster of vernacular buildings grouped around a defensive structure, Edinburgh (or at least part of Edinburgh) became a seat of the Enlightenment, all columns, pediments, friezes and rusticated ground floors. “Men of genius and learning” (Hume’s words) could live in elegantly proportioned houses, amble down perfectly straight thoroughfares, into precisely measured squares (or rather, agoras).

Of course, the architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town served a political purpose as much as an intellectual or aesthetic one. In many ways it was a built reflection of Britain’s ascent to imperial and economic power during the 18th century, which was contemporary with the ascent of the House of Hanover to the British throne. Evidence can be found in its street names, reflecting this new monarchical order – George Street, Hanover Street, Charlotte Square, Frederick Street. Even the names of its principal mews tout the rising power of the (relatively) newly formed union between England and Scotland – Thistle Street and Rose Street. Indeed, an early plan for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town took the form of a Union Flag. The aim was to show that Edinburgh’s political elite, in its embrace of a precise, strictly ordered, technologically impressive architectural idiom, considered itself an inextricable part of the rising power of Great Britain. This was a new, fearless, confident architecture for a patriotic, aggressive, expansionist era.


Edinburgh’s second reinvention was borne of patriotism just as much as its first, only this form of patriotism had a different focus. To be extremely reductive: during the period between the last few decades of the 18th and the first few decades of the 19th centuries, through its success in industrial and imperial ventures (including the slave trade, it should not be forgotten), Scotland experienced an influx of new wealth and status. An intense interest in Scottish identity and the question of Scottishness followed. The social and cultural strands leading to up to this phenomenon are far older and more complex than is generally assumed, dating back at least to the mid-18th century, with such cultural objects as James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, and having its roots both in Enlightenment thinking and in Romanticism, as well as numerous other intellectual, artistic and social trends. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a newly wealthy and prominent Scotland took very seriously the question of establishing Scottishness, and the task of propagating it. The twin forces of radical insurrectionism and Jacobite resentment were genuine fears for the Scottish establishment at the time (events such as the Radical War of 1820 suggest their fears were not entirely unfounded). By uniting the people of Scotland under a new banner of ‘Scottishness’, it was hoped, dissident elements would be quashed amid a resurgence of popular patriotism. The most striking manifestation of this project was the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822, in which the patron saint of Scottish myth-making, Walter Scott, played a leading role. His Royal Highness, dressed in entirely invented ‘Highland dress’ (see below), the guest of Scott and his newly created Celtic Society of Edinburgh, was touted as a ‘Jacobite monarch’ with ironclad Stuart heritage, in an attempt to quell his Jacobite critics. Traditions were invented, pageantry displayed, and ‘ancient orders’ created out of aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs.


The architectural manifestation of this movement – which persisted right across the 19th century, reaching its zenith from the 1860s to the 1890s, establishing itself across the globe wherever a Scottish diaspora existed – was, of course, the Scots Baronial style. Anyone resident in Edinburgh for more than a few hours will be familiar with it: turrets with pointed conical roofs, small windows, crow-stepped gables, crenellation, battlements. Bourgeois houses made to look like miniature castles and tenement blocks with arrow slits. This style and its offshoots produced some very good work and some very bad work, but the fact remains that it is everywhere in Edinburgh, and indeed is probably one of the reasons why tourists often speak of Edinburgh as being so ‘magical’ or so palpably ‘historical’. Scots Baronial is fantasy on a grand scale, an act of architectural dress-up – it wants you to believe in a world of noble lairds rather than feudal overlords, of honourable battles rather than pointless internecine conflicts, of Walter Scottishness rather than just Scottishness.


A typical example of Scots Baronial architecture: St Leonard’s Hall, Edinburgh (1869-1870)

In this way Edinburgh was remade again, a city heaped upon a city, put to work as a piece of propaganda – a showpiece for an ascendant political order. The Edinburgh that exists today – or at least, ‘old Edinburgh’ as it exists today – might thus come to be seen as an accumulation of political visions – ideology in brick and stone. Not that other cities are necessarily free from such qualities, rather ‘old Edinburgh’ seems uniquely and overwhelmingly created, conjured up by successive generations of illusionists in service to their political paymasters. This process is ongoing, in newer and perhaps more pernicious forms (the replacement of the decades-old Old Town Bookshop by a vaguely Harry Potter themed tat shop gives some indication of the nature of the current trend), and shows no signs of abatement.

This is not to indict Edinburgh on the charge of dishonesty, or to condemn it as a kind of Caledonian Disneyland – Edinburgh’s propagandists and theatrics have created some thrilling buildings and landscapes over the centuries. It is simply to point to the fact that there is more of pageantry and pomp in Edinburgh than there is of tradition and custom, more of illusion than there is of solidity, and more of statecraft than there is of spontaneity.

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Modernist Sussex And a Way Out of Crisis

Brighton & Hove is supposed to be a radical city. Or, at least, Brighton is. Or, at least, parts of Brighton are. It’s certainly worth noting that the Brighton Kemptown constituency has voted Conservative in the last two general elections. Either way, Brighton has a reputation – occasionally a proven one – for political unorthodoxy and resistance. In spite of this reputation, however, the place is more or less bereft of radical architecture. By radical architecture is here meant architecture which (successfully or unsuccessfully) seeks in its intended purpose, its design and its organisation of space to remake – and to remake in a progressive, sometimes revolutionary way – the lives of the people living, working and existing in its presence. There is some passable modernist building in Brighton, certainly: some good (and some not so good) housing estates, some of which display a genuine sympathy for and attention to their intended occupants. On the whole, however – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly – the best radical architecture in Sussex is to be found exactly there: in Sussex.

Outside of Brighton – a ‘People’s Republic’ as some would have it – the county of Sussex (divided in the 19th century into West Sussex and East Sussex but in all areas except administration essentially a coherent unit) is not particularly suggestive of radicalism in any concrete sense. In its modern form Sussex is broadly deserving of this characterisation – electorally it mirrors its coastal setting: a sea of blue. Its essential components are demoralised seaside resorts, quiet market towns and quieter villages: no Poplarism or Red Clydeside here. But this hasn’t always been the case: During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the people of Sussex rose in their droves. In the time of the English Civil War the MP for Chichester, William Cawley, was a regicide – one of those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I, the ‘man of blood’. In Lewes in the later 18th century, the famous radical Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, first began to become involved in matters of civic society. The predominantly rural county of Sussex was a centre of riot, rick-burning and running battles with the Yeomanry during the Swing Riots of the 1830s, in which wretched and oppressed agricultural labours fought tooth-and-nail for a scrap of what was every day being ripped away from them by enclosure and the rise of a mercantile agriculture. The unofficial motto of Sussex is widely held to be the phrase “we wunt be druv” – an assertion of the individual agency and independence of the rural Sussex worker against the ruling order.


Following the advent of the 20th century, radical Sussex might be said to have withered on the vine. There were collectives of nominally progressive artists and thinkers, such as the members of the Bloomsbury Group who had gathered themselves at Charleston, but the majority of them were characterised by a conspicuous withdrawal from the realm of political thought and action. The University of Sussex might still be said to carry the torch, although its management appear to have committed to cashing in on its radical credentials for the purposes of marketing (something thankfully met with resistance by some of its staff, and certainly by a sizeable but diminishing portion of its students).

And yet, dotted along the coast, from Bexhill to Saltdean, from Falmer to Chichester (yes, Chichester) are examples of the work of architects and planners who, during the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century, created buildings expressly designed to facilitate new and exciting forms of living: to provide environments in which the lives of the people were not secondary considerations – inconvenient intrusions on aesthetic innovation – but the founding principle from which exciting and explicitly modern structures would emerge. It must be said that many, if not all of these buildings are not the work of local architects. This is immaterial, however, because it is their situation which matters – amidst aggressively quiet villages and UKIP strongholds these buildings provide for the contemporary observer a reminder of what is available to us if we remain open to the possibilities of a radically remade future.

The best and most famous of these buildings is the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. It was built in 1934 at the behest of the socialist aristocrat (a more common paradox than you might think) and mayor of Bexhill Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr (this is a sobering reminder that despite progressive leanings much of what constituted the British left’s purportedly progressive agenda, especially during the Attlee years, maintained a distinctly patrician administrative structure). Nonetheless, the Pavilion itself is a triumph: confidently modern and emphatically public. Its architects were  Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both internationally renowned proponents of resolutely forward-looking modernist architecture in many of its various forms. The Pavilion faces outward towards the sea in what might almost be interpreted as a gesture towards internationalism. Indeed, its enthusiastic embrace of the emphatically Continental style known as International Modernism is especially remarkable given that the style is practically unknown in Britain. Its clean, straight, industrial lines, its ocean liner-isms, its openness and navigability, its central location, its concrete and steel body, its deliberate newness – all these features are combined into a structure built explicitly for the use and leisure of the majority of visitors to Bexhill: day-trippers and bank holidayers; working people. The De La Warr Pavilion presents – like its counterpart the Saltdean Lido, 30 miles and 2 years away – a genuine faith (a naïve one, perhaps, but an admirable and still relevant one) in the capacity of industrial and technological progress to create better conditions of life for everyone.


The De La Warr Pavilion


Saltdean Lido

More examples exist: there is, of course, Basil Spence’s Sussex University campus – a piece of considered and thoughtful Jaoul-inspired modernism brilliantly alert to the complex and rewarding relationship between modernity and history, centered around an agora – an explicitly focal space of public gathering in which can still be seen stalls, gatherings, marches and rallies. There is Chichester Festival Theatre, a theatrically bold concrete structure which projects the theatre’s pentagonal stage – an embodiment of the public-spirited philosophy of ‘theatre in the round’ – resolutely outwards onto and beyond its public face, loudly declaring that art is not there simply to be collected in private dwellings or performed to wealthy fee-payers, but exists for the enrichment of all. There are even little houses such as the one five minutes from where I grew up in Bognor Regis, nestled amongst mock-tudor semis and monotonous bungalows. Though less public-spirited, Beach House, designed by Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin – a committed socialist who famously declared that “nothing is too good for ordinary people” – again asserts in its own quiet way the capacity even in dour, craven old England for radical architecture to exist in spite of it all.


Falmer House, Sussex University


Chichester Festival Theatre

These buildings are geographically circumscribed by a county known in our day for its conservative politics (Brighton excepted). In the same way, the current political moment seems characterised in many places by petty selfishness, aggressive ethno-nationalism, rampant misogyny and cynical pessimism. Though many of them may not have succeeded in their ambitions, the buildings of modernist Sussex still stand as challenges from history, reminders that even though our prospects seem hopeless, things have not always been as they are and need not always be as they are. A better world is possible, and it is our duty to build it.


Beach House

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The Utter Pointlessness of Brighton’s i360

From thence to Venice, Padua, and the rest,
In one of which a sumptuous temple stands,
That threats the stars with her aspiring top,
Thus, hitherto has Faustus spent his time

The history of architecture’s preoccupation with height at various points in its development needs no introduction, and neither does the recent spate of steel-and-glass Babels springing up in London and elsewhere. Jonathan Meades’s excellent program on architecture and the vertiginous provides a beguiling introduction to an exhaustive subject, and to write a paltry blog post on it would seem to be at once a little hubristic and fairly pointless.

What does beg a brief consideration, however, is the intrusion of such an Icarian structure into a place so apparently averse to the lofty and the vertical: Brighton. The Queen of Watering Holes has recently had bestowed upon it – by that benevolent patron British Airways, no less – a monumental pole of such prodigious height that the remainder of Brighton’s seafront appears like a diminutive model town in comparison. The ‘British Airways i360’, as it is clumsily termed, has been constructed opposite Regency Square (the residents are, I’m sure, quite thrilled to have such monumental and exciting new architecture obscuring their view of the sea), on the site of the entrance to the old West Pier, now a picturesque wreck. The ominous connotations of such a monument to decay and collapse do not, however, seem to have deterred the i360’s developers (who, to their credit, have fully restored the old West Pier’s charming mid-19th century ticket office).


The point of this engorged beam, first of all, is difficult to determine. On their website, British Airways implore the prospective i360 passenger to “take a flight to the skies and see Sussex as you have never seen it before”, ignoring the fact that for the majority of Brighton’s residents who have paid even a cursory visit to the hills and beacons of the South Downs, they most certainly have seen Sussex in this way before. Hollingbury Hill, Whitehawk Hill, Mount Caburn, Ditchling Beacon, even the top floor of the tower blocks at Whitehawk and Sussex Heights: all these vantage points provide vast and delightful vistas of Brighton and its surrounding country, to the extent that to spend vast amounts of money and resources on the pursuit of a view which (I imagine) could effectively be termed only slightly better seems at best a little pointless, at worst a tremendous waste (especially at a time in which Brighton is in the grip of a major housing crisis). The i360 is a building the only purpose of which is to facilitate what is, in effect, already possible (I should point out that, at the time of writing, I haven’t been up the i360, and if, come the time for my ascent, the sheer majesty of the hitherto inconceivable scenes arrayed before me cause me to lapse into a glorious reverie, I will willingly cede the point). There is, it must be pointed out, an argument that the i360 will be another Guggenheim, attracting tourism and cultural interest to Brighton. What this argument appears to ignore, however, is that Brighton’s very appeal lies not in polished surfaces and sumptuous set-pieces but has, since the 18th century, lain in raffishness, deviance, liminality and play. From the North Laine to St James’s Street, Brighton’s architectural soul has ever resided in archaic Victorianisms, absurdly sumptuous Regency caprices and on-the-fly vernacular dwellings. To turn it into another ‘top-end destination’ would obliterate its original attraction altogether.

Brighton is, of course, no stranger to fanciful architecture. The Royal Pavilion springs to mind as the most immediate example, and indeed its forceful whimsy was subject to considerable ridicule at the time of its construction and afterwards. The 19th century radical William Cobbett harboured particular disdain for the Pavilion, which he satirically termed ‘The Kremlin’:

“Take stalks 9 inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of [a] box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s ‘a Kremlin!’”

As I have argued before, the Royal Pavilion is by no means an innocent building. But its architecture is, ultimately, historically and (arguably more importantly) aesthetically meretricious in some sense. If nothing else, it is a genuinely beguiling building which occupies a comparatively unique position in the architectural pantheon and thus deserves to be maintained. It is difficult to argue the same for what is effectively a colossal metal pipe with a ring around it. At best it might stand as a monument to the crass tastelessness of the 21st century.

I am wary, at this point, of straying into ‘what an eyesore’ territory. Some wonderful works of modernist and Brutalist architecture in Britain have been derided and torn down because of their deliberate departure with pre-existing aesthetic norms, and architectural boldness is, I think, a principle to be clung to. But openness to the possibilities of a new and possibly strange future does not entail blanket acceptance of bad architecture – everything is and should be open to analysis, and the i360 does not stand up to analysis. It is stark without being dramatic, intrusive without being challenging, unadorned without grace and uniform without harmony. It looks like an industrial chimney, without even the Promethean theatrics of a billowing smokestack.  The i360 is not even fanciful enough to be a grand failure – rather, it will no doubt remain lodged in the earth for aeons, ferrying streams of people up and down its weathered shaft until England itself is consumed by the sea, after which it might at least act as a momentary refuge for a terrified family before it plunges them, unthinking, back into the ocean.

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“A brickbat flung in the public face” – the failed Brutalism of Edinburgh’s St. James Centre

Jonathan Meades, in a recent column on the neglected merits of postmodernist buildings, wrote that “Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit late. Much of the finest work has already been destroyed.” He’s right: lengthy is the list of perfectly serviceable – and at times masterful – late-Modernist buildings to have collapsed under the weight of collective disdain. During the later years of the twentieth century, ‘carbuncles’ were lanced, ‘concrete eyesores’ dislodged and the architectural legacy of Brutalism slowly (but not completely) eradicated from the body of British architecture.

We are hardly in unfamiliar territory here. The plight of Brutalist buildings is well-documented. Likewise, the subsequent  re-assessment and re-appraisal these buildings have enjoyed is, as Meades observes, not difficult to miss. Brutalism is suddenly fashionable. Popular blogs breathlessly laud its aesthetic principles, films by prominent directors take it as their subject (or rather lacklustre cinematic adaptations of excellent novels do) and long-neglected housing estates are subject to (questionable but illustrative) ‘renovations’. The reasons behind this – and the ramifications of it – are myriad, and doubtless dealt with better elsewhere. This is not my purpose.

In an atmosphere of what can appear at times a permanent and rigid division of opinion – philistine Tricorn-defilers on one hand, wide-eyed Trellick-fetishists on the other – it seems necessary to say: back to the buildings themselves! It is far too easy to think of aesthetic movements in the abstract, conceiving of them in terms of recurrent themes or prominent features. This is a dangerous trap to fall into – architecture is not a set of principles. Architecture is what is built. The merits of architecture must be primarily considered in terms of the material specifics of buildings – what it is like to enter a building, how it feels to walk around it, what it looks like from the street, the mode of living which it facilitates. Certainly the broader trends of an era or a movement are perfectly subject to analysis, and in such a case it is sometimes necessary to think in generalities, but if it is not grounded in built specifics – in tangible examples – then such a debate is worthless. It would be like a literary analysis without any quotes. Defenders of the school of Brutalism (myself included) would do well to remembers this as much as its detractors. The hopelessly misguided ‘Brutalism Appreciation Society’ group, popular on Facebook and inclined to heap praise on anything that even vaguely mimics the language of modernism, is a particularly irritating example of the ill-considered adulation which dogs Brutalism’s renaissance. All that glitters is not gold – all that is concrete is not unfairly condemned.

With this in mind, I want to turn to a building which, in its 40 years of life, has been almost universally despised by the residents of the city in which it stands. The St. James Centre in Edinburgh is scheduled for imminent demolition, to the apparent delight of the good Burghers themselves. In the face of such universal scorn it’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the ill-fated underdog, and last week I determined to have a look around it before it vanished for good.


The St. James Centre was designed in 1964 by Ian Burke & Martin, and completed to a slightly altered plan by Hugh Martin & Partners in 1970. It was built on the site of St. James’s Square, a collection of late-eighteenth-century terraces which over time became first a neglected slum and later a centre for the printing industry. The old square is described in the Edinburgh edition of The Buildings of Scotland as having possessed “a bleak nobility”. Demolished in 1965, in its place was built the current structure.

The authors of Edinburgh’s edition of The Buildings of Scotland – John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker – write of the new St James Centre in a tone which, while not entirely condemnatory, is by no means sympathetic. They ascribe its existence to “Mammon, devoutly wooed by a Town Council naturally eager for modern development”. They speak of its “huge intrusive bulk” and its “callously blank backside.” It is not entirely difficult to see what they mean – from Calton Hill, a prominent Edinburgh vantage point, much of Edinburgh’s New Town is rendered entirely invisible by this vast and hulking mass of concrete. At street level, the Centre is unsympathetic to the structures surrounding it, dwarfing the neat Palladianisms of the Register House and the Dundas mansion, looming over them like a golem. It is not a pretty building.

But then, who cares? ‘Prettiness’ is not a precondition for good architecture. Buildings that coddle and sooth are rarely memorable, and frequently insipid. The whole appeal of Brutalism is in its willingness to embrace the uncertain and the strange, the disconcerting and the unnerving – in its willingness to leap optimistically into the possibilities of the future, even if they appear at first to be hostile (perhaps because they appear at first to be hostile). Architectural critic Reyner Banham described Brutalism as “a brickbat flung in the public face.” The St. James Centre is not entirely lacking in such a quality – climbing a concrete staircase which projected out over the road, I felt a little of that slightly terrifying vertiginous thrill which Brutalism is so fantastically capable of producing. Looking out from the top of Arthur’s Seat I felt my eye drawn to the Centre’s gleefully obtrusive mass, rising out of the ground like the great plug of basalt from which I was viewing it. When I got up close to the rough but uniformly fluted concrete which much of the building is clad in, I felt at once a sense of vast, deep geological time – the long timescales of rock and stone – and a sense of explicit modernity, with its attendant process of uniform industrial manufacture. This was a profound and electrifying disjunction, and a reminder that Brutalism is as concerned with texture as it is with form.



Ultimately, however, the building is a failure. Its failure lies, surprisingly, in its timidity. Its designers were afraid to engage with the possibilities of a Brutalist aesthetic which has at its heart confrontation, experiment, expression and strangeness. It is too uniform, too half-heartedly rectilinear to evoke that sense of fracture and dislocation which Brutalism is so capable of. At the same time, however, it is just irregular enough in its massing that it fails to become, as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation is, exhilarating in its uniformityIt tries to speak in the language of Brutalism, and occasionally manages a sentence or two, but as a whole it fails to grasp the intricacies, afraid to speak too confidently for fear of being misunderstood. A tower here, a disjointed block there, but the whole adds up to little.

Inside, the imaginative capacity of the architect all but disappears – whether as a result of a later renovation or simple architectural laziness is not clear. The appeal of Brutalism is as much in heavy, sparse interiors as it is in confident, brash facades, but all that is to be found inside the St. James Centre is a series of bland shopping centre-isms, lit by a timid pitched ceiling of opaque glass. There are no experiments, no capacious echo chambers or weighty low ceilings, no sweeping curvilinear pillars or exposed stairways. Crucially, there is no bare concrete. Likewise, the King James Hotel is standard hostelry fare (the notable exception to which is the bizarre but delightfully perverse wedge-shaped hotel bar, complete with a deliberately misaligned grid of a ceiling and long, low windows). I cannot speak to the merits of the offices contained in the higher levels, having not been able to enter them. Thankfully, Gifford, McWilliam and Walker of The Buildings of Scotland can: they are “the image of system-built bureaucracy”.


In this way, then, the St. James Centre is an important building, though not one worth battling to preserve. It is a lesson in nuance, in understanding the appeal of Brutalism as something beyond rough concrete, spiral car parks and monochrome photos. Architectural failures are often as informative as successes – their inadequacies and absences illustrate  by implication the merits of a style properly executed. The St. James Centre, though condemned to disappearance, is just such an illuminating failure.

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On ‘Old Buildings’

‘Old buildings’ are things you go out of your way to see. You might see them environed by sunset on a tourist’s Instagram account, or on a leaflet encouraging you to pay money to be shown round them. They are characters in the advertising campaigns of travel companies, crudely approximated on tea towels and mugs, thrust in your face at airports.

Sometimes they are not well known. Sometimes old buildings sit squat amongst grandeur and pomp, maligned and unobserved. Perhaps they do not conform to a particular historical aesthetic. Perhaps they are too plain. Perhaps they have been tinkered with over time so that they do not even appear old anymore, their sequestered histories still stubbornly persisting in the form of a strangely low ceiling in a back room, or the shock of a clumsy wooden beam amongst modern stucco. But they are old buildings too.

Every time – genuinely every time – I have made an effort to explore or contemplate an old building, I have been left with a slight sense of failure. It is something like yearning, or the feeling of having left something unobserved. Staring intently at the rounded arch of a Norman church, I have told myself that here is history – ancient minds devised this, ancient hands fashioned it, ancient eyes saw it. I have strained in my imagination to strip the scene of all the trappings of modernity, to imagine the building I am looking at ‘as it was’, peopling it with characters in period costume, speaking in unfamiliar ways. I have tried to imagine the consciousness which created this particular feature. Why was it beautiful or practical to them? Why did they use the materials which they did? Why so crude, or so ornate, or so ordered? The experience is like looking at an old grave. It might hold you rapt for countless reasons, but what can never be replicated is the truthful experience of its original historical moment. You can stand at an ancient grave, you can know who is buried there, you can perhaps even feel a sense of loss; what you cannot feel is the grief of those who looked at the headstone and saw the name of their friend, or their parent, or their sibling inscribed there. You can look at the design of the tombstone – unadorned, MEMENTO MORI carved at the bottom – and appreciate its purpose, the aesthetic considerations behind it, the fashion which necessitated it in the mind of the bereaved, but the peculiar contemporary subjectivity which charged its design with meaning is lost. Like a modern historian speaking an ancient, long-dead language, the content may be explicitly historical, but the moment of reception is always absolutely new.


It might appear as though I think this is a cause for lamentation – I do not. It is precisely this melancholy – this uncomfortable but exhilarating lurch back and forth between temporalities – which makes historical buildings so fascinating. They hint at the absolute, concrete, tangible reality of history: they are there, they can be touched, inhabited, utilised. Yet at the same time they bring crashing down on you the undeniable reality of the ‘truth’ of history, which is always unreachable, discernable only through signs and hints, never to be recovered in its totality. Historical buildings, explicitly situated as they always are within the immediate, physical environment of the present moment (as opposed to, say, a historical text, which has its existence partly within the less straightforwardly concrete sphere of the imagination), achieve this vertiginous effect like no other object. An absolutely ‘authentic’, totally tangible history is held out before you in all its material solidity and in the same instant is cast away forever. Such is the particular power of built history.

What, then, is the contemporary observer left with? Just as with any historical object, what remains is a series of signs, endlessly mutable by context. What might have appeared to Victorian eyes as civic might and commercial prowess appears to modern eyes as buffoonish pomp and megalomaniacal self-confidence. This is not to disavow the importance of such a building – although its significance for us is not the same significance which it had for its creators, it may still be an interesting, beguiling, informative, unique or unnerving structure. What is important is how these buildings are treated: to freeze them in time, to insist on historical places being left entirely alone, is to indulge the fantasy that the material reality of history exists as something which we might just claw back to our present moment, if only we can arrest the passage of time. Instead, it is necessary to be open to the necessity of change and the never-ending persistence of history: to retool, to tinker – perhaps even to demolish where necessary. At the same time, it is vital to remain attentive to the particular potency of historical buildings, beyond the simply utilitarian or the profitable. Each demolition must be seen as the loss of a particular arrangement of signs. Perhaps a certain building constitutes a frequently replicated set of signs, or perhaps it might sign in newer, exciting ways with the intervention of a modern builder (though this is not a particularly frequent occurrence at  our present moment) – very well, hammer away. But perhaps a certain building does not appear frequently, perhaps its elaborate gable or its imposing façade speaks to us in a way not often seen. It is with buildings such as this with which it is of the utmost importance to be attentive and careful, even if their utility is not apparent. We must refuse to surrender to the fantasy of fallacious nostalgia, all the while remaining humbly attentive to the unique potentiality of historical objects.


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Edinburgh at Eye-Level & the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’

To begin straightforwardly – writing about architecture in Edinburgh is proving more difficult than I had imagined. Before I moved up, I had thought that I would hardly need to try, that my hitherto uninspiring blog would reach new heights, spurred on by the sheer drama of Edinburgh’s built environment. I would, I had hoped, pen kaleidoscopic visions of the vertiginous tenements; I would ruminate on Arthur’s Seat, how it shadows the city like the shattered visage of a vanquished golem; I would rail against the violent orthodoxies of the Enlightenment embodied in the strict proportions of the neoclassical style.

The thing about neoclassical architecture is, it gets repetitive very quickly, and so too did all of the clichés which I and countless others have heaped upon Edinburgh’s back over its long and storied history. Enough breathless panegyrics and enraptured blog posts have been written about Edinburgh’s ‘landmarks’ to trammel up the channels of the internet for good, and trying to write about any one recognisable structure felt like a task already doomed to failure. Besides, I never really wanted to write about this city – or indeed any other city – in such a way. For me, it’s always been the labyrinthine, the barely visible, the lurking presence of innumerable histories barely subsisting someway beneath the asphalt – the city as palimpsest. Mercifully, Edinburgh abounds in semi-legible signs, things rarely glimpsed, passages not taken, buried histories, choked but still breathing. An inexplicable gable, an ostensibly pointless alleyway, an indecipherable inscription, a strangely weathered piece of masonry. It is this side of Edinburgh – or rather, this strata of Edinburgh – which I’m hoping to begin to document here.

On the Royal Mile, halfway between the Tron Kirk and the Canongate, is a humble example of the sort of thing I mean. The actual building in question is relatively unassuming – pleasant but unremarkable Scottish Baronial in the mid-19th century style: a crow-step gable, decorative crenellation, non-specific pseudo-heraldry. Amid the innumerable Walter Scott-isms of the Old Town it would be easy to miss. But if the passerby were to pause outside it – to gawp at the window of the whisky shop which inhabits the ground floor, say – they might notice a small sculpture accompanied by an inscription, forming the base of an oriel window above the entrance to Paisley Close. The sculpture is the face of a young man, and the inscription above reads “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!”

heave awa

Although many older Edinburgh buildings have a tradition of ‘speaking’ – of carrying sometimes cryptic (and often biblical) inscriptions – the decorations on the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ (as I later discovered it was known) are uniquely beguiling. They speak of explicitly localised history, of some latent fable embedded within the walls of the place. When I first noticed them I allowed my fantastical speculations to run wild for more than a moment – I imagined some dramatic, morbid scene; the burial of a live boy under the very floorboards, perhaps to hide forever the knowledge a horrific family secret harboured by a withering dynasty of grotesque aristocrats – shades of Poe (shades also, perhaps, of Burke & Hare).

The truth is a little less dramatic, though delightfully (and in a rare case) hardly less so. The actual course of events goes roughly as follows: Prior to the 19th century, Edinburgh’s Old Town contained a very large number of 16th and 17th century buildings which were, to put it bluntly, disintegrating. One such house stood where the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ is now, until in 1861 it collapsed utterly, killing all 35 of its inhabitants. Amidst the clamour of the rescue effort, during which all seemed lost and not one life remained to be salvaged, a cry was heard from beneath the rubble – ‘Heave awa lads, I’m no deid yet!’*. It was the voice of young Joseph McIvor, sole survivor of the catastrophe.

heave 2

This dramatic episode ultimately gave impetus to the programme of demolition and rebuilding – beginning in 1867 with the passing of the Improvement Act – which still characterises much of the Old Town today. For good or ill, vast swathes of Edinburgh’s historic buildings were demolished, to be replaced by the deadly serious whimsy of the 19th century Scots Baronial style. In the process, young Joseph McIvor’s words were given a second significance – in the light of such sweeping architectural metamorphosis, the words ‘Heave Awa’ take on another meaning altogether.

*The spelling of the Scots word ‘deid’ and the use of the word ‘lads’ were both changed upon the making of the inscription for the benefit of English tourists.


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Edinburgh: First Thoughts

I’ve been in Edinburgh for almost two months, which I think warrants some sort of hurried treatise on the place, and as I’ve got the evening off I might as well see what I can muster.

On this blog, I usually deal with, at the very least, an individual building or set of buildings. Edinburgh has no shortage of such buildings – buildings abound here; they seem to spill out of corners and sprout from cracks. They tower over you like golems and burrow up underneath you like expanding subterranean fungi; they clamour to fill the entirety of the space made available to them, they crowd towards you and shrink away from you in equal measure. They are not friendly, and nor should they be. It is this characteristic which makes it difficult to concentrate on one particular building: Edinburgh appears first as an assemblage, as a seething mass of architecture, rather than a union of individual buildings.

Edinburgh, 1649

Edinburgh, 1649

I’ve been trying to tease out exactly why this image is stuck so resolutely in my head, so that when I try to think of one particular building ten others spring up immediately beside it in my mind’s eye. It could, in part, be the many-layered nature of the city. Edinburgh does not take place (if cities can be said to take place) on a flat surface, or even on a slightly uneven one, but on the raised spine of a ridge connecting two vast, looming deposits of basalt. On either side of its Old Town – its nucleus – Edinburgh falls away into the depths of the Cowgate on one side and the rush of the railway tracks on the other (the railway tracks around Waverley station, as an incontrovertible flow through which walking is impossible, take the place of a large river – indeed the glassy roof of the station itself even allows it to appear like a vast body of water). Beyond both these canyons the city rises again, collecting itself into Georgian formality in the North and sprawling vein-like into Victorian suburbs to the South. 18th and 19th century bridges and walkways range over or through the subterranean netherworlds in-between, forming layers, stratifying the city, making you feel constantly either above something or below something, creating a sense of endless proliferation and of sublime dislocation. Such a sense might be found elsewhere in Piranesi’s sketches of vast, labyrinthine prisons:

The Pier With Chains, from 'The Imaginary Prisons' (1761)

The Pier With Chains, from ‘The Imaginary Prisons’ (1761)

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the reason for this unshakeable sense of agglomeration is Edinburgh’s sense of compaction, of expanding into the scanty space available to it until nothing remains but stone piled upon stone. There is a historical root to this: in the late Middle Ages Edinburgh was, due to numerous military threats to its livelihood, compelled to construct fortified walls around its environs. In this way it protected itself from attack, but it also walled itself in. As the city expanded in the seventeenth century, the lack of space meant that building had to be done upwards rather than outwards, and so the lofty tenements of the Old Town were born. These weren’t merely slightly higher than usual – for the time in which they were built they were unconscionably high, almost grotesquely high. In his 1771 novel ‘Humphry Clinker’, Tobias Smollett has one of his characters suggest that “the surprising height of [Edinburgh’s] houses” might make it difficult for a person dwelling on their highest storey to breathe, due to the altitude. These buildings were proto-skyscrapers, a few with storeys reaching into the double figures in which nobility and pauper alike could be found to reside (the more moneyed residents tended to live on the upper floors, removed as they were from the notorious stink of the streets).  In this way, the architecture of Edinburgh imparts an almost frenzied desire to make use of any scrap of land which it can, and seems to threaten to devour you along with it.

Or, perhaps the reason that Edinburgh appears in this way to me could be the simple fact of its being dwarfed by the silent bulk of a dormant volcano – the elephantine rock of Arthur’s Seat. Nothing inspires images of solidity like a gigantic mass of basalt. Conversely, it could be the unnerving 18th century uniformity of the New Town, in which one building seems to flow endlessly into another until the whole city is knit together in one unbroken mass. It could simply be a miasma in the air. Whatever the cause, I wait eagerly for the point at which I might be able to think with more clarity about the individual buildings of Edinburgh as distinct subjects to be written on, rather than as a solidified, monolithic entity. They are, after all, by turns beguiling, monstrous, imposing, monumental, brutal, fanciful, whimsical, exaggerated, stoic, humble and utterly, endlessly fascinating.

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