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Scottish Parliament Speech: Historic Scotland and Local Authorities (April 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I thank John Farquhar Munro for reminding us that one of Scotland's iconic structures dates from only about 70 years ago, thus depriving us of any historical authenticity when Errol Flynn rode across the castle in the adaptation of Stevenson's "The Master of Ballantrae", which itself made a pile of rubble of Stevenson's novel.

How we regard our history has always changed over time. Let us recollect that even the great Lord Cockburn - an association with whose name governs the development of Edinburgh - loathed classical Edinburgh and regarded it as a terrible carbuncle, as someone once said, on the face of the city. Let us also recollect that the great actor Moultrie Kelsall used to characterise Scotland's attitude to its past as late as the 1960s as, "There's an auld hoose; ding it doon!" Let us recollect that the University of Glasgow, at the height of its scientific achievement in the 1860s, was prepared to knock down its renaissance building and replace it with a sensible goods station in the High Street. So much for romanticism.

Let us recollect also that the Bruce report on Glasgow in 1948 recommended devastating the entire central city area, including God knows how many buildings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and replacing it with something out of Le Corbusier. Let us recollect how Princes Street in Edinburgh was redeveloped by the Scottish elite, including the members of the New Club, in the 1960s, until practically every building of historic value had been knocked down. A development politician in Glasgow, who shall be nameless, was characterised by my Labour friend Robin Cook as a man who would not rest until he had knocked down every listed building in the town.

We have changed since those days, but if we are to reinforce the approach that the minister proposed, we require a much greater degree of public engagement in our civic architecture in Scotland. The man who said to a northern English town, "You want me to tell you what Bradford should produce; I want you to tell me what Bradford ought to be", was a Scotsman - John Ruskin. His attitude should remain central in our minds.

How do we handle a situation in which our historic environment is one of our picture cards for our international position and our tourism industry? Thinking about positive building, and not just the conservation of historic buildings, how do we ensure that the buildings that we get are better than the one that recently featured in an advert - which bugged me - in the building supplement of The Scotsman? It showed a supposedly baronial building built by one of our biggest contractors. It looked like it was the work of an architectural McGonagall. In fact, McGonagall would probably have done rather better than that shambles of bogus detailing parked on an orthodox suburban home.

Let me remind members of a couple of things that happened quite recently. First, in 1971, one of our greatest tourist attractions was falling to bits, and no one was concerned to conserve it. A young colleague of mine at a university in Scotland sent off a report to Anthony Greenwood - Lord Greenwood - who moved a motion in the House of Lords to commemorate Robert Owen. The report pointed out that New Lanark could be pulled down almost any day - it had been sold to a scrap merchant. Greenwood mentioned that in the debate on Owen, and the result was a £250,000 bridging grant, which enabled what is now a massive historical accretion to our tourism industry to be saved.

Two years later, what became, in the past year, the greatest terminal success story of London, the opening of St Pancras station as the international terminal, was saved from the rational decision of the British Government to pull it down by an elderly, eccentric poet. In contradistinction to terminal 5 at London airport, St Pancras has been one of the glorious successes of communication.

We should think not just in terms of legislation and intervention to conserve our environment. We should think in terms of stirring things up. Why are there so many well-produced brochures by historical organisations and bureaucracies? Why do we not have a commercial cultural periodical, existing through conventional sales and advertisements, into which such material could contribute as sources of cash, while helping to sustain a debate on the issues that we are discussing? It was through such debate that St Pancras station, for example, was conserved. It is through that sort of mechanism that I hope we can think positively about things that are probably unthinkable at the moment, such as putting a roof back on Linlithgow palace, which was burned down by drunks in the 1745 rising. Why not train up the essential people such as masons and carpenters whom we need to restore such buildings? If we do not do that, conservation will go by the board.

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