Am Bratach No. 285
July 2015
editor@bratach.co.uk

 

Book review
by Malcolm Bangor-Jones
Gordon Haynes, A New Way of Living: Georgian Town Planning in the Highlands and Islands. Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, 30 GBP. Paperback, 190 pages.

Planned towns and villages are an important element within the range of urban settlements in Scotland and make a strong contribution to the Scottish landscape as a whole. Most belong to the period 1750 to 1830, although they continued to be established well beyond the mid-nineteenth century. And indeed, the search for planned villages is not yet over: they are still being discovered.

They were mainly established by landlords with an eye out for the main chance. This was the Age of Improvement: not only could the agricultural landscape be re-ordered but the redundant population retained and given gainful employment in newly created villages. The focus varied from textiles to fishing to general trades and the settlements could also provide a reservoir of male and female labourers for farmers to draw on, or indeed of soldiers and sailors. Not all settlements, however, lived up to expectations.

In this book Gordon Haynes examines a large selection of planned towns and villages throughout the Highlands and Islands: his Highland line includes the North East of Scotland which is no bad thing. He concentrates on the history of these settlements and examines their design qualities.

The history is mainly based on the books and articles of others along with some extracts from newspapers: it is not derived from first-hand research into historical documents. Inevitably the story of some settlements is better known than that of others. And, as the author frequently points out, there are inconsistencies as to when settlements were founded (he draws attention to the difficulties posed by various "learned works" on planned villages). In part these inconsistencies are to be expected: do we go by when a village was proposed, when the surveyor drew a plan, when lots were advertised, or when the first lots were taken up? But it is also a reflection of, in many instances, the lack of detailed research, and also of the difficulties in answering such questions.

The author has industriously assembled a great deal of information, both of the general background to the Highlands and of the history of each settlement up to the present day. He includes not only the aspirations and initiatives of individual landlords but also the work of bodies such as the Commission of Annexed Estates and British Fisheries Society.

In the north, he concentrates on Thurso, Pulteneytown, Helmsdale and Brora. His account, for instance, of Helmsdale misses little: its formation as a clearance village; the rapid rise of the fishing industry; its position on Telford's Great North Road, and its short-lived distillery (and all this without apparent reference to JRD Campbell's book, Some Helmsdale Memories). Note is taken of the ice-house near the old bridge but the author cannot be faulted for failing to know that there were at one time two ice-houses in the village nor for the confusion over their dates which has been created in recent years.

There are, however, two things in particular which link the development of these settlements with their physical appearance which are not really given the attention they deserve. One is the amount of land given to settlers: something which was considered with great care and which varied from place to place and indeed from time to time in the same place. On the one hand it was thought that settlers might be distracted by having too much land; on the other they might be helped to survive by having some land to fall back on, particularly if dependent on the random visits of the herring shoals.

The other aspect is the tenure on which the lots were held. In many earlier settlements the lots were held on 99-year leases, many of which were never extended on paper. These tended to be replaced by the feu disposition. One very important motivation for landlords was bulking out the voters roll after the Reform Act of 1832 when the electorate was enlarged to include the holders of property in villages and towns. The feu disposition also enabled people to raise loans which enabled them to build the prosperous looking dwellings and shops of the Victorian period.

Most of the settlements in this book had planned layouts on Georgian or classical lines and the author makes many useful and valid points about their design and its legacy; points which are often made in combination with judgements on their present-day appearance.

For instance, there are favourable comments on the tightly controlled urban character and architectural uniqueness of Inveraray but then attention is drawn to the "somewhat jaded appearance" of some of the buildings and it is suggested that the "dishevelled effect" is exacerbated by the tourist orientated shops: the village "draws you in with a promise of delight and discovery, then slaps you in the face with unworthy and frankly quite seedy commerce".

Criticism is passed on Telford's design of Pulteneytown, the link between the upper and lower town, and the poor condition of many buildings, with "broken downpipes and vegetation freely growing in gutters". Given that there was a Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme here from 2007 to 2013 to preserve and enhance the historic buildings it would have been useful if the author had focussed on the aims and outcomes of what was a significant injection of public money. The author is a much greater fan of Sir John Sinclair's new town of Thurso which he finds to be an attractive place, characterised by order, regularity and tidiness.

Many of the historic cores of these settlements are conservation areas and the author is left wondering why many of the modern insertions can have been allowed. There are judgements here which many will find challenging. He is probably right to draw attention to the decline in the quality of much of Brora and the very ugly three-storey building in the centre of the village. But one wonders quite what the good folk of Tomintoul will make of being described as a "sleepy, currently somewhat down-at-heel community".

If such statements were made in a public enquiry we would expect to know more about the author's training and expertise. Although the internet will tell you that he is a "writer", the book clearly draws on knowledge and experience gained, as he himself might say, in an earlier life.

But Gordon Haynes is right to encourage us all to "Look Aboot Ye" and illustrates some of the details to be found. Through an appreciation of the legacy of the past we may come to understanding and through understanding we may gain a willingness to take action to secure a better future.

 

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