I’ve spent a large part of my career driving the length and breadth of Scotland. That means I know an awful lot of Scotland’s towns and villages only by what I’ve glimpsed from the car while driving through them, on the way to my ultimate destination—which would have been Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Selkirk, Crieff, you name it. That’s particularly true of places on the many roads radiating out of Edinburgh. So, a few weeks ago, when we were looking for somewhere to stay the night before attending a friend’s birthday lunch in Balerno, I was rather pleased when Booking.com suggested the Allan Ramsay Hotel in Carlops. Carlops is a tiny village on the A702, which is the scenic route from Edinburgh to Dumfries, so I’d driven past the hotel many times, but never stopped there.
It was a risk of course: not all former 18thcentury coaching inns are havens of hospitality and good food; many are barely hanging on, or dependent chiefly on the patronage of a few hard-drinking locals. But the Allan Ramsay turned out to be a total delight. The present landlords only took the place on about three years ago (which makes it doubly unfair that Tripadvisor still carries negative reviews from the previous regime, back in 2014!). And in that time they’ve worked wonders. The bedroom was plain, but comfy: freshly decorated and scrupulously clean. The public areas were welcoming and unfussy, and the dinner really outstanding—good enough that it should encourage Edinburghers to drive out from the city just for the evening; in fact, good enough to persuade us that we should return soon for a long weekend.
So many hotels and hostelries across the country have acquired recent names that promote a spurious connection with the past. Our local used to have the good historical name of the ‘Bogroy’, but has for several years been known by the bogus moniker of ‘The Old North Inn’. Years ago, on a pilgrimage to Lerici, where Shelley was living when he drowned, I was depressed to be confronted with the Hotel Byron, the Restaurant di Poeti, and much, much more of the same. But the Allan Ramsay Hotel has borne that name since it was built in 1792, and so may be a very early example—perhaps the first in Scotland—of cashing in on cultural tourism.
Now, we have to get something straight first. This is not the Allan Ramsay we all know, the fabulous portraitist whose images of Hume and Rousseau have immortalised those literary giants. This is his dad. Who, in his own way, is just as important a figure in Scottish history and culture. Here are just some of his achievements:
- Champion of the Scots language
- Collector of ancient Scots verse and song
- Founder of the first circulating library in Britain
- Founder of the first theatre in Edinburgh
- Author of the first Scottish opera, The Gentle Shepherd
It’s probably no exaggeration to say, without Ramsay père, there would have been no Burns, no Scott, no Hogg, at least not as we know them. The new landlords of the eponymous hotel knew nothing of this when they took it on, but they decided to find out. The result was an ongoing connection with Glasgow University, and a grant from the ‘Pub is the Hub’ scheme to properly document Ramsay, father and son, in the hotel itself, and to launch an annual Allan Ramsay festival, the third manifestation of which takes place this October.
But why Carlops? Why this tiny village, with a history chiefly of weaving and mining, when Ramsay was actually born many miles away in Leadhills and spent most of his life in Edinburgh? The answer lies in Ramsay’s most famous work,The Gentle Shepherd. Among Ramsay’s aristocratic friends and supporters were two local lairds, Alexander Pennecuik of Newhall and that redoubtable Enlightenment figure, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. Because Ramsay spent much time at those two estates, the setting of his poem/play is very specifically the area round Carlops.
Fine, but Ramsay died in 1758—why name a new hotel after him more than 30 years later? Because his fame did not die with him. A new edition of The Gentle Shepherd was published in 1788 with the famous illustrations by David Allan. Another edition followed in 1808, which included a map of all the locations around Carlops mentioned in the poem. So close was the association between play and village that, in the early 1800s, the villagers of Carlops performed The Gentle Shepherd annually on Hansel Monday (the first Monday in January), and charabancs would bring folk out from the city to enjoy the performance. Weather permitting, they could then follow various trails to the sites named in the poem, marked out with stone panels bearing the relevant lines.
So why has Ramsay fallen into obscurity? Even in the middle of the 19thcentury he was still famous enough to merit a larger than life-size statue in Princes Street, looking across to his former home in what is now Ramsay Gardens (yes, that’s where it got its name). Judith and I knew about the painter son because we were both trained as art historians. I knew next to nothing about the father before our overnight stay in Carlops.
It confirms something I’ve long suspected: that Scotland (and perhaps this is true of all small countries) only has room in its collective memory for a very few iconic figures. So Burns, but not Fergusson, Scott but not Galt or (except for enthusiasts like me) Hogg. Mackintosh, but not Greek Thomson or Lorimer. This is not just a historic problem. Sir James MacMillan may deserve his international fame as a composer, but is he really that much better, or more significant, than his much less widely acclaimed near-contemporaries, Edward McGuire and Alasdair Nicolson, or indeed that marvellous composer who is celebrating her 90thbirthday this year, Thea Musgrave?
So three cheers for the Allan Ramsay Hotel, doing its bit to restore Ramsay the poet to his proper place in the Scottish pantheon. It probably helps that two fine contemporary poets, Gerda Stevenson and Aonghas MacNeacail, live in Carlops, and, of course, the village’s location, as one of the entry points to the Pentland Hills Regional Park, makes it doubly attractive as a place to spend a short break. We’ll certainly be back.
I give you two great houses. Both were designed and built in the 1880s and 90s. Both are the expression of one man’s extraordinary vision. Both embody a rich and complex symbolic plan, displayed through a combination of the richest materials and the highest quality of craftsmanship. Both combine an acute historicist awareness of past architectural styles with the most modern technologies. Both houses are overwhelming works of art of a remarkable consistency and unity, and both enchant the visitor as if they had stepped into a fairytale fantasy.
But that’s where the resemblances end. One house, the Palau Guell is located in the centre of the tourist magnet that is Barcelona, and is world famous as the first mature work of one of the most acclaimed architects of all time, Antoni Gaudi. The other, Mount Stuart is at the heart of a large country estate on the island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. I doubt if even most of Mount Stuart’s visitors could tell you the name of its architect, the atrociously under-celebrated Robert Rowand Anderson .
I first visited the Palau Guell as long ago as 1998, and I have vivid memories of the literally dazzling journey involved in moving from the subterranean entrance to the astonishing forest of tiled chimneys on the roof. Shamefully, I only made it to Mount Stuart for the first time last week, though my excuse is that all my previous visits to Bute had been out of season!
I knew, of course, all about Mount Stuart, and the passionate personal vision of the 3rd Marquis of Bute which found expression not only here but also in the restoration of Falkland Palace, and in Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales. And I also happened to know something of the work of Rowand Anderson, because many years ago I helped to mount an exhibition on the Victorian architecture of St Andrews, where one of his earlier works is the confusingly named St Andrew’s Church .
But none of that prior knowledge prepared me for the immersive sensual and intellectual experience that is Mount Stuart. I suppose, naively, I had expected something that would be entertaining in a rather kitsch way, like a less excessive version of Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein. Well, if you were a passionate advocate of Modernism’s rejection of ornament, that might be your reaction, as it would be hard to imagine an interior with more decoration. But, as the late Kenny Everett would say, it is all done ‘in the best possible taste’ . The nearest comparison I’ve seen in Scotland is Patrick Allan Fraser’s eccentric masterpiece, Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, but that wonderful building had not yet escaped from a mid-Victorian aesthetic, and so, to contemporary eyes, it does lean to the kitsch end of the spectrum.
Just as Gaudi’s Palau Guell is an early expression of what would become the international style of Art Nouveau, so Mount Stuart, for all the dazzling richness of its materials, is infused with the new aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its nearest comparator would be Norman Shaw’s Cragside in Northumberland, built about the same time and, like Mount Stuart, blending a melange of historical styles with innovative technology. That means that both Cragside and Mount Stuart, despite the immense grandeur of their public spaces, still feel like comfortable homes. All the guest bedrooms at Mount Stuart, for example, have en suite bathrooms.
I described both Palau Guell and Mount Stuart as being the results of one man’s vision, but it would be truer to say that they were the outcomes of a fruitful relationship between architect and patron, save that in Mount Stuart the direction of the relationship was reversed, with Rowand Anderson striving to realise the intensely spiritual concepts of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute, who was so passionate a convert to Catholicism that he chose to be painted and photographed dressed as a monk .
Nonetheless, you couldn’t mistake Mount Stuart for the work of any other architect. Which leads me to wonder why we don’t celebrate Rowand Anderson more enthusiastically. First of all, he was responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh—Central Station Hotel and Govan’s Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the McEwan Hall, and the Mansefield Traquair Centre. He was also responsible for a huge amount of sensitive historical restoration, at Jedburgh and Paisley Abbeys, Dunblane Cathedral, and Balmoral Castle (the last earning him a knighthood).
Perhaps the problem is that we have little or no opportunity to see his work as a totality. Once you consider all the above buildings, a strong, even idiosyncratic personal style emerges that, for me, makes him possibly Scotland’s most interesting and individual architect between Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And there, of course, in mentioning the ‘Mackintosh’ word I’ve found the explanation for his neglect. It’s as if we only have room in our concept of national identity for ‘one of each’. So Burns is our national bard, and overshadows not only his own exceptional contemporary, Robert Fergusson, but also a host of predecessors and successors. Sir Walter Scott eclipses James Hogg, whose psychologically insightful writings are much more relevant to our modern interests. Even today the understandable fame of John Bellany in painting, Ian Rankin in crimewriting, or James MacMillan in music, leaves too many of their equally gifted contemporaries in the shade.
Perhaps this is inevitable in ‘small’ countries. I imagine Norwegians are equally tired of having their culture identified only through Ibsen and Grieg, as the Finns are probably sick of Sibelius and the Kalevala. But it’s an aspect of the ‘cultural cringe’ that I don’t think gets discussed enough. And it has real impacts. Mount Stuart is, to use a crude term, a world class visitor attraction, and it should be as well known as Gaudi’s masterpieces, and if Rowand Anderson is hardly, in the totality of his work, Gaudi’s equal, he still deserves to be far better known than he is. That sort of fame translates directly into visitor numbers and visitor spend. Yet time after time, from our national tourism agency, to the popular vote for the images on new bank notes (Burns and Nessie), we choose the easy option, and fail to present the true richness and variety of Scottish culture, which of course makes it too easy for sceptics and hostile commentators to deny that such richness exists.
So, do yourself a favour, if you’ve not yet been to Mount Stuart, go soon, go this summer, you won’t regret it. And I haven’t even mentioned the superb gardens, the stunning new Visitor Centre, or the ambitious programme of annual artists’ residencies. Let alone all the other delights of Bute. And all just a short trip from Glasgow.