Interview with Daniel MacCannell

You have to love a writer who democratizes and demystifies subjects previously owned by experts. Bristol-based writer Daniel MacCannell has done just that for Scottish Architecture. A broad range of experience and personal interest helped him to distill the vast topic into easily consumable, hugely enlightening morsels of information. With How to read Scottish Buildings proving to be a Wigtown festival sell-out and one of the most checked out books in the Edinburgh Central library, it would seem McCannell is on to a winning formula. Below he discusses his influences and a couple of curve balls… such as his counter-sabotage, polo player of a grandfather, and his intriguingly named business The Historical Detective Agency ltd.

What led you to write How to read Scottish Buildings? Why Scotland?

Daniel MacCannell: My male-line ancestors emigrated from the Hebrides to Prince Edward Island in the late eighteenth century, so I always had a certain interest in the ‘old country’.  But part of the reason I chose Scotland for my Ph.D. studies was that I fell in love with the architecture of Aberdeen.  Well, partly in love.  The rest was bafflement.  My earliest memories involving buildings were of the Philadelphia Main Line, Boston, and Montreal, so you might think, ‘Not so very different’; and in my teens and twenties I’d lived in England, too.  But Aberdeen was about totally weird buildings disrupting the standard-issue Georgian-into-Victorian background.  The New Aberdeen Mercat Cross; St Machar’s; the ‘Moorish’ gates of Powis House; the crown spire of King’s College itself.  So, while Aberdeen University was academically very strong in early modern history in 2005, when I gave up my television job to study the prehistory of the news media, it was the setting that led me to choose it over Edinburgh, St Andrews, Brown, and Toronto.

And then – maybe or maybe not by accident – architecture and urban space kept invading my research, since the news in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was often proclaimed from market crosses, church doors, and other specially designated places within towns.  As the project evolved into ‘How did news spread, how fast, and exactly where?’, the architectural element became more and more important.  It probably didn’t hurt that I co-discovered the Bishop Elphinstone armorial misericord in my second month of enrolment, so suddenly I was on everyone’s radar screen as knowing about buildings – ha!  When really, what had led me to it were my hitherto separate interests in antique furniture and heraldry.  I learned fast, though, when I realised there was effectively zero interest in what I was studying, but serious pent-up demand for accessible writing about old buildings.  The first townscape book with my name on the cover was out in the shops for more than a year and half before I graduated.  Then, I was writing the histories of estates for their owners, books for Birlinn’s Lost series, entries for Pevsner’s – it became self-propelling.  And How To Read Scottish Buildings became a kind of catch-all for everything I was learning through all the other buildings-related projects I was doing, many of which were not for public consumption.

It’s so user friendly, what kind of person were you writing it for? What do you hope people absorb from it?

Daniel MacCannell: I wrote the book for everyone who loves Scotland’s buildings but is put off by architectural jargon.  I searched and searched for a book on the subject that didn’t seem to be aimed at postgrad-level architects and never did find one, except maybe Naismith’s Buildings of the Scottish Countryside, but of course, that only covers rural buildings.  So, I suppose that’s its niche.  Some of my ‘fan mail’ has been from professional archaeologists, but by and large it’s self-taught enthusiasts.  It sold out the tent at Wigtown last year, and apparently has been one of the most-checked-out books in Edinburgh Central Library.  As far as what people absorb, I hope it’s diverse enough that they can ‘take what they need and leave the rest’, as Virgil Caine put it.

How on earth did you decide how to break down the enormous topic of Scottish architecture?

Daniel MacCannell: I guess like most big undertakings it spread out from a single point, which was my fascination with the first generation of Northeast Scottish unfortified manor houses like Nether Ardgrain and Balnacraig.  Researching that type of house made me aware that they were expressions of a single phase of Scottish architecture that lasted for nearly a century, from 1660 to 1750.  I asked Birlinn if they wanted a book on that period, and they said no, but that they’d be open to doing a book on Scottish architecture in general.  So I started looking at it from the point of view of, if 1660-1750 is a real thing – even though it doesn’t tally with reigns, dynasties, unions, anything like that – then maybe the whole of Scottish architectural history was moving on its own timescale that was basically divorced from political history.

And sure enough, A.J. Youngson had written a really good book called The Making of Classical Edinburgh that took it for granted that 1750-1840 was a thing, too.  And from these two ninety-year periods it was pretty easy to extrapolate four others that arise organically from the buildings’ features themselves.  Between them, the six periods cover the whole of the built environment that survives in any reasonable quantity.  I have some regrets about How To Read Scottish Buildings, but most are about things we had to leave out due to space considerations; the six periods are still solid.  As far as specific features, I was personally most interested in roof-angles and in the sizes, shapes and positions of windows.  From roof-angles it spread out to roofing materials and chimneys, and from window shapes to window fittings and door shapes and door types, and so on until there wasn’t much left.  Always in the back of my mind was, given time and funds, you could use the ‘rules’ set forth in this book to create a phone app that you just point at a Scottish building and it gives you a pretty accurate assessment of when it was built and why.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background with architecture? Do you work in the sector or is it a self taught passion?

Daniel MacCannell: I wanted to study architecture as an undergraduate but found that I needed to apply based on a portfolio of my own architectural drawings.  Rightly or wrongly, I presumed that a successful application would have required months or years of private drawing lessons, and I wanted to leave home instantly!  So I stuck with history and art history, but kept the door open.

Not always consciously, I’ve also been following in the footsteps of my great grandfather, who as well as being an undercover army counter-sabotage officer and professional polo player worked for many years as a government architectural planner and cartographer.  But fortunately, my architecture and cartography books have not thus far required any horseback riding or gunplay.

Can you tell me about The Historical Detective Agency ltd? I’m very intrigued.

Daniel MacCannell: That’s a company I founded in April 2012 as a kind of umbrella for the house-histories I mentioned earlier.  Later, it was involved in a big architecture-heavy programme of work for Aberdeenshire Council, promoting Northeast Scotland as a filming location and film-tourism destination.  It may also have been as HDA Ltd that I did a family tree going back to 1508 for Charlie Gordon, late lamented chairman of William Grant & Sons, which was probably the inception of my latest book, Scotland’s Secret History: The Illicit Distilling and Smuggling of Whisky (with Charles MacLean).

 

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