“Scottish Churches – A conservation crisis”  1981 Conference 

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith, Director, Scotland’s Churches Trust

21 April 2023

Our archival holdings relate to the activities of our two “parent” charities, the Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust (SCAHT) and Scotland’s Churches Scheme. The collection mainly consists of documents connected with their work, printed books and photographs and slides. But, tucked away in a cupboard, I also recently noticed two interesting-looking cassette tapes.

The handwritten notes on the sleeves told me that these were audio recordings of papers given at a conference called “Scottish Churches – A Conservation Crisis”, organised on the 7 Novemer 1981 by one of those two parent charities (SCAHT), the Scottish Georgian Society and the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Edinburgh. 

Conference Audio Recordings

From our archives

The list of speakers looked excellent, so I just had to hear what was on them both, but the first challenge was to locate a working machine to play them on! Luckily, I discovered we had at the back of our loft, at home, an old, but still functional, tape player.

In case the old magnetic tape wore out while playing, I made a digital recording of each speaker’s paper. Five excellent and very different talks, examining different aspects of an emerging crisis in Scotland’s ecclesiastical built heritage in the early 1980s. It was fascinating to listen to each one, possibly the first time in over forty years that they had been aired aloud.

I then created a rolling cassette graphic and added the audio tracks to each one, before uploading each recording onto our YouTube channel.

You can listen to each one below.

“It was fascinating to listen to each one, possibly the first time in over forty years that they had been aired aloud.”

Architect Dr James Simpson OBE (b.1944) is a founding partner of the Edinburgh-based conservation architectural practice Simpson and Brown. Over the last half a century, he has been involved in numerous major projects, lectured and written widely on conservation best practice and been involved in the foundation of several charitable trusts, including the Cockburn Conservation Trust and Scottish Redundant Churches Trust.

In his paper he described how he didn’t actually believe the situation in Scotland’s ecclesiastical built heritage in 1981 merited the label “crisis” quite yet. He suggested that Scotland was “grossly overchurched” and offered attendees practical suggestions and a way forward that he believed could avert a conservation crisis that was clearly looming in the near future.

Noted conservation architect Ian Begg (1925-2017) studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, before training with Williamson and Hubbard Architects in Fife. He joined Neil and Hurd architects in 1951, becoming sole partner in 1963.

An active conservationist throughout his career, he became extremely active in efforts to protect and conserve parts of Edinburgh threatened in with destruction in the third quarter of the 20th century, notably in Stockbridge and the New Town. He is particularly remembered for his very distinct vernacular building style, most notably seen in the Radisson Blu Hotel on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art near Glasgow Cathedral.

In his paper he offered practical advice for the repair and conservation of Scottish church buildings. He posited that sustainable futures would only be found for churches by supporting and empowering the congregations to look after the buildings properly.

Larry Rolland (b.1937) is a noted Scottish conservation architect, whose practice (LA Rolland & Partners) merged with Robert Hurd & Partners in 1965. The firms kept their original names until 1988 when they officially became the Hurd Rolland Partnership, winning several prestigious awards for their work during their active years. Mr Rolland was President of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1985-87, but in 1981, at the time of this conference, he was speaking in his capacity as the chairperson of the Church of Scotland Advisory Committee on Artistic Matters.

His talk comically compares the ongoing crisis to a thriller with five main “characters”  – an architect, someone from RIAS, a General Trustee, a country elder and the chairperson of Church advisory committee. He then asks the audience to determine which of these protagonists fits the standard thriller categories of the lover, the innocent, the nurse, the manipulator and the baddie!

Scottish Historian Dr Ian Borthwick Cowan (1932-1990), was awarded his PhD from Edinburgh in 1961 for research on the evolution of the Scottish parochial system. Initially lecturing at Newbattle Abbey College, he would soon move to the University of Glasgow Department of Scottish History, where he spent almost 30 years devoted to the study of Scotland’s ecclesiastical history.

Appointed professor in 1983, he concentrated his teaching interests mainly in the Reformation and later Covenanting eras. Author of many books and articles, among other research areas, he developed an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Scottish material in the Vatican Archives, creating a microfilm archive of this material in Glasgow in that proved invaluable to scholars in the pre-digital era. According to one obituary, by his long-term colleague and friend Prof Archie A.M. Duncan, he was working on a book on the medieval church in Scotland before his untimely death in 1990 at the age of 58.

In this conference paper, he entitled “The Church in post-Reformation Scotland”, Dr Cowan explains how contemporary Scotland came to have so many church buildings, offering a whistle-stop account of the development and schisms of Christian denominations and sects in in the country over the previous four centuries.

Sadly, Dr Cowan’s talk is cut-off prematurely on the cassette before its conclusion, but, at around 22 minutes, enough of it survives to give an excellent insight into hislecture.

The final surviving recording we have from that day is of a paper delivered at the conference by an unknown speaker who self-identifies on the recording as an “Episcopalian Minister”. His name is also unrecorded on the sleeve notes.

The speaker treats the audience to a whistle-stop tour around the Parliamentary Churches of the Highlands and the Isles, built under the overall supervision of Thomas Telford.

Sadly, the accompanying slides do not appear to have been gifted to our archive, but a quick Google while listening should easily locate most.

If anyone watching can tell us who the mystery speaker is please do get in touch.