Scotland’s architects online
No other country in Europe can boast such an ambitious historical online database of its architects as the 8,500 biographies in The Dictionary of Scottish Architects.
The Dictionary of Scottish Architects (www. scottisharchitects.org.uk) became available over the web in mid-2006. Since its launch it has been astonishingly successful. It has been searched over one and a half million times, providing information to users the world over.
The project began in 2002 when david Walker, emeritus professor in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, was awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the University of St Andrews. This enabled him to turn his life-long, spare-time interest of gathering information about victorian and Edwardian architects into a dictionary. The Arts and Humanities Research
Council grant lasted for three years but because of the scale of the project – it was much larger than Walker had anticipated – there was some information which could not be included within that period. Further research was also essential to ensure architects who worked in the further reaches of Scotland received due recognition.
With the generous support of the University of St Andrews, the Pilgrim Trust, Historic Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the Marc Fitch Fund, the Russell Trust and various other bodies, the project was able to continue for a further period of two years. In late 2007, conscious of the enormous importance
of the dictionary to a wide range of users, Historic Scotland stepped in to provide long-term support for the maintenance of the database. This was timely because of the need to process and respond to the steady flow of information that was and still is being sent to the dictionary team.
Early in 2008 a pilot study to assess the feasibility of a project to include post-1940 architects in the database was begun by Historic Scotland under the direction of deborah Mays. An initial period is being spent entering basic data – new architects, practices and post-1940 jobs – with the assistance of graduate students from Edinburgh College of Art. If the pilot scheme shows that the project is manageable, the next phase will begin. This includes a programme of work interviewing older architects to capture their memories of their earlier years, to be led by Miles Glendinning, director of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, Edinburgh College of Art. Further research at Historic Scotland will include work with a diverse range of sources from the Royal Institute of British Architects nomination papers (now held in the architecture study rooms at the victoria and Albert Museum) to collections at University Buildings’ departments and local authority archives.
The dictionary takes the form of a database with a user-friendly web interface. It records biographies and job lists of all architects in Scotland after 1840. It includes not only architects born, trained and working north of the border, but also those from elsewhere who contributed to the built environment of Scotland through winning commissions and competitions. It uses a sophisticated database which was developed around the data, allowing very flexible searching. This has revealed hitherto unrecognised links between architects, their pupils and assistants, their practices and their work.
The database is available free to anyone who has access to the internet. It can cater for many different users: planning officers and architectural historians; family historians and genealogists; home-owners wanting information about the buildings they live in; or casual visitors to the site who may wish to investigate an architect or his work in a quick and easy way. Unlike a book where new information must wait to be added until a new edition is published, the database is open-ended. New details can be added as they come to light. The dictionary team has been receiving large amounts of very useful information on a daily basis, particularly from the descendants of our architects.
Recent developments in information technology allow remote data entry. The next step will enable users to see the data in real time. New information, corrections and amendments which currently take some time to appear on the website will thus be immediately available to users.
The biographies (of which there are more than 8,500) contain not just a description of the facts and a serious analysis of the rise and fall of many practices set against the economic conditions of the time.
Because some of the information was handed down by word of mouth, they are spiced with humorous details and personal touches. They make good reading, with ambition, tax evasion, personality conflicts, dismissals, infidelities and sheer bad luck all playing their part in the stories. The database also contains informative introductory essays on themes which underpin its content.
Key figures covered in the dictionary include Robert Rowand Anderson, who dominated Edinburgh architectural practice in the late 19th century. We learn that despite his concern for the status of the profession and his role in the establishment of the Edinburgh School of Applied Art, he became increasingly difficult to work with as the years went by.
likewise Robert lorimer, one of the leaders of the Scottish arts and crafts movement, who is renowned for such buildings as the Scottish National War Memorial, was a notoriously hard taskmaster. We hear of how he told one of his apprentices, the aristocratic Reginald Fairlie, that he would ‘never make an architect because he was too lazy’. Fairlie proved him wrong, becoming an accomplished architect in his own right. Fairlie’s semi-monastic life-style included frequent spells sleeping outdoors accompanied by his pet falcon, so that he could watch the sun rising and setting against the site of his latest project.
This sort of eccentricity is far from unique. Intriguing personal details are to be found throughout the dictionary. There are tales of self-sacrifice too. during the recession of the late 1920s, George Fairweather gave up his job as an architectural assistant and made himself homeless so that others who, unlike him, had dependent families, could keep theirs. At the opposite end of the spectrum is John Gibb Morton who, when facing financial difficulty, emigrated at the drop of a hat to Canada, leaving his unwitting fiancée, father and assistant to pick up the pieces.
The new phase of this project promises to bring with it a whole range of new challenges. Private practices were often much larger, with many more partners involved. Attribution of specific jobs to individuals may be difficult to establish. Much work in the period was carried out by public bureaucracies and multi-disciplinary operations. Responsibilities again may prove problematic.
Unlike the first phase for which Walker’s manuscript and typescript notes formed a core, for this period no single source of information exists. However, by drawing the dispersed information together into an accurate, coherent whole, the enlarged database will constitute an unparalleled resource for a wide range of users. It will be an essential starting point for any research in architectural history, and could provide a prototype for similar studies in related fields such as engineering and decorative art. By extending the period covered, the dictionary will become relevant to a still wider range of users, and will increasingly extend its work beyond elite monuments into the everyday environments inhabited by the majority of Scots.