Ancestral Castles of Scotland; & Castles of Britain

  • Ancestral Castles of Scotland
    Hugh Cantlie - Collins & Brown, 1992 - 160 pp. - £14.99
  • Castles of Britain
    Christina Gascoigne and Bamber Gascoigne - Thames and Hudson, 1992 - 224 pp. - £10.95

Mr Cantlie's object in writing; the first of two books, both of which are devoted to castles, is revealed in its title. In nearly all cases the buildings he has chosen are in the possession of families who not only built them in the first place but have lived in them ever since. As an active committee member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the author is well placed to untangle the architectural confusion which makes it often hard to recognise, in some imposing Scots baronial edifice, the modest medieval keep which lies at its centre.

The photographs, for which Sampson Lloyd is responsible are outstanding. He has taken the trouble to show twenty-seven very different buildings in 'the bleak mid winter' as well as the glinting colours of high summer. Cassilis in a sea of snowdrops, Drumlanrig, a jewel in the crown of the Drumfriesshire hills, and Dunrobin shown here as a winter warrior shrouded in snow, are tributes to Mr Lloyd's perceptive eye. The problem about Ancestral Castles is that it is not clear which particular audience its author has in mind. If it is aimed at tourists, there is no precise information either where the castles are to be found, or whether they are open to the public. A map on page 11 gives directions so vague that anyone looking for a particular building would discover only to which region it belonged.

In Castles of Britain, on the other hand, the maps indicate county boundaries. As an architectural study, Ancestral Castles suffers from similar limitations. In tracing the evolution of castellated architecture in Scotland, Mr Cantlie makes a number of interesting points but his scope is limited by the theme he has chosen. Among the castles which form important links in any architectural chain, some are no longer privately owned and others belong to owners who shun publicity. Cawdor, but for a small picture on page 10, and Fyvie, are notable absentees. So is Culzean. Like other creations of Robert Adam, it shows the indirect route which led to the emergence of Scottish Baronial and the popularity of architects like David Bryce, whose works are well represented in this book. Ancestral Castles is a work in which family history plays a central role.

Through the activities of successive generations can be discerned a changing pattern of life which transformed smalI fortified keeps with walls up to 20 ft thick, into the large comfortable houses many of them have now become. With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, comfort as an attainable goal began to take precedence over defence. but warfare was still a possibility until the failure of the '45. In that year Blair Castle was besieged, and in 1746 Dunrobin captured, with bloodshed, by Government forces. Over the centuries the owners of castles fought both the English, and their own neighbours. They also took part in any number o' foreign wars. James Leslie of Pitcaple who became a Brigadier General in the Swedish army of the 1740s and Captain John Urquhart, a successful privateer, were typical of many other lairds who looked beyond Scotland for their advancement. Ancestral Castles is not a book for historians. Inaccuracies abound. The first is on page, where the actions of Lady Gray at Skibo in 1650 are attributed to a Macleod lady unknown to history, at Ardvreck. In spite of these lapses Mr Cantlie's book has an important message to deliver. Castles were built neither as monuments nor museums. They were intended for people, nearly all of whom expected to pass them on to their descendants. That is why they kept archives, commissioned portraits, built libraries or planted 14 million trees, like the 10th Laird of Braemar. Private ownership deserves a better press than it sometimes gets. It is only through continuity of ownership and the determination of successive generations to build on what their predecessors have bequeathed to them that so much has been preserved of our national heritage.

Castles of Britain is a paperback edition of a book originally published by Thames and Hudson in 1976. This firm deserves to be congratulated for its policy of keeping good books in print and Castles of Britain goes far to demonstrating the folly of premature remaindering. Of the castles featured, forty-seven are in England, twenty-nine in Scotland and eleven in Wales. Some are picturesque ruins, but one at least, Berkeley, has been lived in by a family of the same name since the twelfth century. What makes this book so pleasurable is the balance struck between Mrs Gascoigne's photographs, of which fourteen are in colour, backed by a descriptive text, and her husband's scholarly introduction. Both books are a salutary reminder that what we admire so much abroad can often be found at home.

CHRISTIAN HESKETH is the co-author of For King & Conscience: John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991).

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