Managing Change in Scotland’s Landscapes conference was held towards the end of 2012 to look forward at the next 50 years for Scotland’s landscapes. It marked 50 years since the first (and, up to that point, only) National Landscape Policy Conference.
When I was reading the conference presentation abstracts, which are available from here, it struck me that it was deeply ironic the last national conference was held 50 years ago at Cambusnethan Priory in the Clyde Valley, South Lanarkshire: a wonderful building, built in 1819 in the Gothic style, which recently appeared on the excellent Ruination Scotland blog. Indeed, in the abstract for one of the presentations Reflections on the Past 50 Years, architect Peter Daniels refers to working at the house when he first arrived in Scotland and of its sad demise when it was burnt down for its insurance value….!
Now seen by most as a picturesque ruin, fifty years ago Cambusnethan Priory was a functioning building, and it is, as an A-listed building, Nationally Important in architectural, historical and cultural terms. Does this ghostly shell, perched on a terrace over looking the River Clyde, still have the potential to breath again? What will its future be in fifty years time? Perhaps to answer this question positively we may have to think of it less as a building, and more as part of a series of contiguous spaces occupied by people, integrated as part of a wider cultural landscape.
Well, it should be no surprise that Cambusnethan Priory is listed on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland (see Cambusnethan Priory) as CRITICAL: which suggests there is some hope and (unlikely ?) possibility of an intervention which stops the ongoing process of decay and collapse but that the window of opportunity to prevent one inevitable future is rapidly passing.
Looking at the accounts of Cambusnethan Priory in the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland of what has happened in this fifty year period (a woeful tale of neglect and deterioration of this property), it is worth reflecting on what occurred since it was saved from demolition in 1967 to its current state. There are various entries which refer to the deterioration of the building (stripping of interiors, stripping of lead and piping, damage by fire, destruction of roof, bricking up of windows…) and proposed plans for redevelopment (which were objected to and / or refused on grounds of…, or fell through due to funding issues…). The last recorded proposal for redevelopment received outline planning permission in 1998 but in 2001 was still receiving objections at least in part due to the need for enabling development within proximity required to make the project economically viable / profitable:
‘Scottish Natural Heritage objects due to concerns at adverse effects on the local environment. SCT objects on the grounds that the scale of the new build would compromise the setting of the Priory and have traffic implications.’ (From Buildings At Risk Register)
Its not clear ultimately why the redevelopment did not take place, whether due to such objections or whether for example the financial package fell apart. It is, however, interesting that in both cases the objections referred to adverse effects from enabling development on the wider landscape (local environment and setting being referred to). So ironically the concerns, about getting the balance right between saving the building and ensuring the character and quality of relationships to a wider landscape were protected, recognised that Cambusnethan Priory does not sit as an isolated building but was part a wider cultural landscape.
The now ruined building replaced a 17th century country house after it had burnt down in 1809. Both structures were (or are in archaeological terms) immediately situated in gardens and designed landscapes, which in some respects were intended to relate the house to the wider landscape, for example with the principle view to the River Clyde.
The Earlier House at Cambusnethan – from RCAHMS, Canmore
In its broader context, much of the wider landscape within which Cambusnethan Priory is set is particularly cultural. Comprising in the 18th and 19th centuries, a remarkable density and quality of country houses in estates, running for well over 20 km in the Clyde Valley. The gardens and designed landscapes at the core of most of these estates would have been complemented by home farms and a wider suite of cultivated field and orchards. Many of these estates functioned but based on social inequalities and economic models which were unsustainable: yet created a remarkable character of landscape. This legacy is still evident through the designations as Gardens and Designed Landscapes (GDL) from the west at Hamilton Palace, through Chatelherault, Dalzell House and to the east of the Falls of Clyde.
Now hindsight is a wonderful thing, and perspectives have clearly changed in Scotland about the importance of the historic environment in terms of it wider contributions to economy and society (see for example Scottish Historic Environment Policy). However, as seen in the case Cambusnethan Priory, the reliance on the market to provide a solution to the plight of such buildings over a twenty year period did not manage to find a viable solution (agreeable to all parties) to save a Nationally significant building and balance the other landscape sensitivities. Indeed, in the case of other buildings on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland, such market driven solutions are arguably even less likely to occur in many cases (particularly in rural contexts), not least due to the current economic conditions making finance even more difficult to secure.
However, in other parts of Europe there have been very different perspectives to the relationships between conservation, restoration and regeneration for some time. For example in Holland, The Belvedere Memorandum dating to 1999 linked cultural history to spatial planning with a policy vision which could be summarised as: ‘Conservation through development’ is the motto.’
So I insert a extract from The Belvedere Memorandum, which gives further sense of its spirit:
‘Belvedere is the Italian word for a ‘beautiful view’ but it also appears in the English dictionary as a ‘pavilion or raised turret intended to afford a general view of the surrounding area’. The Netherlands boasts countless such towers, often graced with Belvédère (the French spelling) as part of their names. One can also draw an association with the Belvédère quarry near Maastricht, site of the oldest archaeological discoveries ever made in the Netherlands, some 250,000 year old.
With a little good will (and poetic licence), archaeology, building conservation and historic cultural landscapes can be now summed up in one and the same word: ‘Belvedere’. Above all, it must be remembered that a Belvedere is a point from which to expand one’s viewpoint and to look ahead.’
I wonder if such perspectives were held in Scotland in 1999 (or earlier), whether we would be faced with the ghostly ruin which Cambusnethan Priory is, and whether its future in 50 years times would be very different from how its appears now, most likely a mound of collapsed stone, barely recognisable as once having been a building, slowly absorbed back into the last vestiges of a cultural landscape.
If we are happy to leave a legacy of picturesque ruins for future generations which will ultimately collapse and disappear we should continue to do nothing.
If as a society we truly value such Nationally important buildings (and the character of the wider cultural landscapes they historically relate to) perhaps we need to take a longer term view about what their regeneration could deliver. We need to explore how such buildings can become vibrant social and cultural hubs, find innovative new uses for them, and re-imagine how they can potentially relate to activities extending into a wider integrated multifunctional landscape but this would require ambitious proactive strategic funding programmes with input from local and national government. Perhaps new funding models such as a form of Social Impact Bond could be explored.
Perhaps it is too late to change the future of Cambusnethan Priory but we must learn lessons to ensure such built historic environment assets are sustainably connected to their broader cultural landscapes.
If not, as such buildings collapse and disappear, we can look forward to more work for the archaeologists of the future….