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Celebrating Professor Charles McKean: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies | posted November 10, 2013

CGDThe ambitiously entitled “A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies” conference was recently held in Perth on October 26th and 27th 2013. The conference, organised by the University of Dundee and sponsored by a number of renowned cultural institutions, including Historic Scotland, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, presented some of the most recent academic research in the field of Scottish Renaissance Studies from senior academics, independent researchers and junior scholars. Instigated by the late Charles McKean, a distinguished Professor in Architectural History at the University of Dundee, the focus reflected his research interests, concentrating on the early modern built environment. Following his recent death, his students decided to recast the conference as a celebration of his contribution to the field and, indeed, it was a great tribute to the man who had inspired their own individual research interests. Professor McKean had insisted on reading and selecting every research paper so his academic concerns and influence continued to pervade the proceedings.

The papers presented adopted a variety of approaches, relying on documentary and visual evidence, such as inventories or architectural source books and paintings or drawn reconstructions of historic buildings. Architecture was not solely considered from a stylistic perspective and exploration of the history of interiors (furnishings and plasterwork, in particular) further enhanced understanding of the diversity of influences at work during this transitional period. Indeed, the notion of a “Scottish Renaissance Architecture” was also subject to discussion and question. With buildings taking the form of both tower houses and classical country piles, it was acknowledged that an overall style was somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Several contributions to the conference assessed the importance of patrons (including the Stuart monarchs and wealthy aristocrats, like the Strathmores or the Lauderdales) to the way buildings were conceived, designed, executed and used. The baronial style or the revival of the Château form, for which Charles McKean had a special interest, as testified by his book, The Scottish Chateau, published in 2001, as well as his watercolour reconstructions, should not be considered as solely exemplifying the architecture of the Scottish Renaissance. Similarly, the term of “architect” proved misleading, since frequently the designers of buildings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, according to the definition of an architect supplied by Vitruvius in the first century BC, were actually wrights or master masons.

CGD2This re-evaluation of concepts and notions continued with an appraisal of the very nature of the Scottish Renaissance. Viewed from the perspective of emergent ideas and models derived from Antiquity, these characteristics were difficult to reconcile with the Scottish context. Instead, the notion of a continuum with the medieval period was proposed as more pertinent to Scotland’s architecture. The influence of the Continent and, in particular, of Italy, France and the Low Countries was discussed – the Scots had well-established trade links and access to the most up-to-date printed sources. Although Italy and France provided the obvious background for the Scottish Renaissance, the Low Countries were within easy reach by sea and also offered contact with new building materials and source-books. Scotland’s tower houses, it was reasoned, were not a specifically Scottish invention but definitely set the nation within the context of the Northern European Renaissance since their dominant features of verticality and solidity were also present in continental castles like Vincennes.

The quest for authenticity, evoked in the various conservation and restoration projects carried out by Historic Scotland, showed how eager institutions were to render Scottish history accessible to the wider public and, as part of the conference programme, two field trips were organised, to Megginch Castle and to Huntingtower Castle. Although the conference attendees were easily guided through the history of Megginch, which has remained in the hands of the Drummond family since the 1660s, it was somewhat more difficult to account for the development of Huntingtower, an ancient building composed of two juxtaposed towers subsequently joined by an additional range.

The conference made an important contribution to our developing understanding of Scottish renaissance buildings, interiors and architects, drawing together scholars from a range of backgrounds – academia, architectural practice and conservation – and providing a platform for some stimulating debate. It is to be hoped that Professor McKean’s legacy will continue beyond this event, inspiring further interdisciplinary enquiry into the nature of the Scottish Renaissance.

Clarisse Godard Desmarest, Université de Picardie Jules Verne