As well as being a leading architectural historian Mary Miers is an editor at Country Life. For her latest book she has mined the magazine’s unmatchable picture library and the photographs are by Country Life regulars Simon Jauncey, who lives in Highland Perthshire, and the late Paul Barker, who sadly died before publication. His memory is duly saluted.
Crucially the author is a Highlander by birth and domicile. Every week she commutes between London and her Black Isle home and she summers on South Uist. She knows the Highlands and Islands, or the Gàidhealtachd, from top to bottom: from Balmoral and the Highland balls of the Northern Meeting to crofters’ kitchens and island ceilidhs. It was on the sleeper from London to the far north that she mused on the continuing mystique of the Highlands in the romantic imagination and decided to write this book: a social and architectural history, the two indivisible, because the ‘shooting lodge’ in its various forms (many now hotels) served and promoted the arcadian Highland dream. It is typical that, when she alighted that particular morning at Kingussie to visit friends, she took ‘the rest of the day to walk’ to their remote lodge. Once arrived, she was soon ‘soaking in a bath of peat brown burn water, then tucking into a salmon that was swimming in the Tilt an hour earlier’ — the dream in a nutshell.
To emphasise that field sports turned the Highlands into a mystical destination, the front cover shows a Robert Lorimer 1906–7 masterpiece, ‘Ardkinglas in Argyll’, and the back an array of sporting gear and salmon trophies. Social history predominates and the book is more broadly entertaining as a result. The eight chapters devoted to it form the bulk of the text. They are interspersed with 12 pictorial interludes featuring houses from the 18th century to the present, the idyll still very much alive. In addition to Barker and Jauncey’s impeccable architectural photographs, there are numerous, often charming or humorous, documentary illustrations, in many cases derived from unpublished sources, such as family albums and game books.
Without taking political sides Miers writes a history, clearances and all, which lays waste idle stereotypes. Paradoxically, it was Whitehall’s formation of tartan-clad Scottish regiments to channel post-Jacobite ire to imperial military benefit which, with the international success of Walter Scott’s historical poems and novels, established a national identity based on the innately musical, kilt-clad warrior Gael. To partake of this heady brew was what prompted the annual sporting pilgrimage to the home of the wild red deer, the legendary poet Ossian and fierce, bagpipe-playing Highlanders. Queen Victoria’s love of the outdoor life at Balmoral popularised the Highland holiday; but there were formidable feminine influences before and after the queen, not least Coco Chanel, who adapted tweed to high fashion and was an ace salmon fisher.
The invariably antler-bristling shooting lodge is shown to come in many, often sophisticated guises, from the rustic pre-Victorian picturesque cottage orné, via Scotch Baronial fantasy and the homely harmonies and comforts of Arts and Crafts (sumptuous bathrooms essential compensation for soaking days on the hill) to today’s stark, eco-friendly minimalism. Supposed shootin’-fishin’ conservatism is further denied by two outstanding houses by English socialist architects, Philip Webb (1831–1915), a father of Arts & Crafts architecture, and his disciple William Lethaby (1857–1931). Furthermore, Webb’s Arisaig in Inverness-shire, his first country house, is an exceptional early example of the style (albeit a fire has destroyed the interior), and Lethaby’s Melsetter in Orkney a no less notable late flowering.
Technology changed the personnel. The railway meant nobility had to vie with industrial magnates. Globalisation has brought the foreign super-rich. Scotland’s second largest landowner today is the Danish fashion executive Anders Holch Povlsen. Deer stalking, likewise, gave way in popularity to less arduous grouse driving, and salmon fishing to canoeing. Now the buzz concerns are conservation and bio-diversity; while worthless mountain ridges, through subsidised wind farms, have become priceless assets.
Mary Miers has made two vital additions to Highland literature, The Western Seaboard and Highlands and Islands. This is a third.