One of the joys of working at a University is that (on the whole!) colleagues are interesting and interested and you can have conversations that take very different turns. One recently with my frequent co-author Anne Findlay ended with “oh by the way have you seen …” and then she proceeded to tell me about a book she had recently read which she thought I might find interesting. So it is I am catching up with “Painting the Town: Scottish Urban History in Art”, published late last year.
Published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the book is a “visual record of contemporary images of Scotland’s towns and townspeople before photography. Over 200 paintings, engravings, sketches, view maps and maps of eighty towns, many never seen before, together with expert commentary, offer a unique insight into the changing lifestyle and townscapes of Scotland”.
But I thought it might be good to let Anne provide a review of the book and so over to Anne:
“Painting the Town: Scottish Urban History in Art is a book published recently by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This accreditation may make you feel that the book is obscure and academic, or a bit dull and dusty. Painting the town sounds rather more exciting than urban history. And indeed, it is written in short chapters and in an accessible fashion and beautifully and lavishly illustrated.
So, why mention an urban history in the blog? We have become used, recently, to hearing about the demise of town centres; vacancy rates trip off the tongues of those concerned about towns. The book is a welcome reminder that history did not start yesterday or even just since vacancy rates were first published by the Local Data Company!
Our focus on towns in Scotland often notes the importance of historic buildings, particularly in relation to their use. Reading ‘Painting the Town’ I was struck by two other aspects of the history of our towns. The first is the importance of their layout. There are many town maps in the book and the layout of the towns is often longstanding. We should pay more attention to this as a fundamental aspect of what makes a town and its town centre. The many towns planned after the 1745 reflected not a Scottish concept of a town but were towns imposed as part of measures to settle rebellious crofters. The challenge today is to find and use town layouts to bring the best of the past in line with the needs of the present to make workable accessible town centres.
The second aspect is the sheer extent to which towns have been shaped and reshaped over the years, the crises they have dealt with, the disruption they have faced and yet their continued resilience. We are all familiar with the big events in Scottish history but most of us know much less about the many events which impacted on individual towns. The striking thing about the book is the extent town which Scottish towns have weathered many previous storms and in the perspective of their wider history the current recession becomes a minor perturbation.
Fort William was burned to the ground in the 18th century. Other towns such as Coupar Angus were badly impacted by the Beeching railway cuts. Industries failed and towns were left with no employment. Trading routes changed and the size of ships changed, leaving harbours unused and taking away the role of some towns. Others had been dominated by the influence of local landowners and when they ceased to wield their power the town suffered financially.
Social enterprise and patronage are not new, raising money for improvements and projects is not new. We have done it all before. Towns have always been changing. It is what happens to towns. Most of our towns have a long history. The towns we see today are made up of developments over a long period of time. They have proven both adaptable and resilient. Their roles have changed from places imposing power and law and order on surrounding communities to places of industry and business. The Inverary jail has had to reinvent itself over the years since the Appin murder trial. The individual fortunes of towns have reflected both local and wider economic circumstances.
Their historic nature is not static as we often interpret it as we look at historic buildings. Rather their history is one of continuity and change, of making and remaking. That is what we should expect. The challenge is to make the most of emergent trends recognising that all towns are a combination of the past, the present and the future at any one point in time.
At around £20 this book is a snip but it has a limited print run. Happy reading.”