An accompaniment to the exhibition, Landscape & (Re)settlement / Cruth-tìre & (Ath)tuineachadh, at the Architecture Fringe 2018, by Baillie Baillie Architects.

Former settlement ‘Torseiller’ in Strath Brora © Baillie Baillie Architects

The round-back cottages clung to the earth like long animals whose folded heads were always to the mountain. Lying thus to the slopes they were part of the rhythm of the land itself…There were little herds of these cottages at long intervals, and every now and then a cottage by itself like a wandered beast… 

Neil M. Gunn (Butcher’s Broom)

As a society we often venerate historic settlements within bucolic landscape settings – tiny Tuscan hill towns, or remote alpine villages. But notions of building new housing within the natural landscape generally evoke a profoundly negative response. Indeed, this position is enshrined in planning policy. In Scotland, scatterings of small townships, perhaps best described by the Gaelic word clachan, once supported vibrant communities with a rich heritage and culture across much of the mountainous highlands. In the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sheep were moved onto the land and people were forced out. By the Victorian era the sparsely populated landscape of much of the Scottish Highlands became commonly regarded as a romanticised wilderness. The Straths of Sutherland for example, like that described in Neil Gunn’s novel Butcher’s Broom, today remain comparatively deserted.

As a settlement pattern, the clachan is characterised by a close and reciprocal relationship with the land. Individual houses are informally situated, tracking the topography and set low, even burrowed into the earth. Tenancy of the land permitted space enough for small scale agriculture, resulting in a seemingly free and rhythmic spacing of cottages. There is a perceived continuity of the ground plane in these spaces between; a natural canvas that allows a cluster of buildings to be co-located and embedded within the landscape.

Community Land Scotland’s recent response to the Scottish Government’s Planning Bill consultation supports a case for re-settlement and renewal of some of the areas worst affected by historic forced clearances and continuing economic neglect.  There are of course circumstances that call for strict control of development –  designated green-belt zones being one example which are legitimately intended to limit the creep of suburban sprawl. However it also seems perverse that the crumbled ruins of settlements which were continuously and sustainably inhabited for many thousands of years are deemed to be scheduled monuments within wild land.

Perhaps the sceptical reaction induced by any and all new housing developments in so-called unspoilt locations is due to a deeply negative association with new housing and mass developer housing, i.e suburbia. If resettlement of cleared highland glens is to occur, it is pertinent that this perception is challenged.  In the context of a discourse between preservation of the landscape and the resettlement of sustainable communities, it is imperative that not merely the fact of past depopulation is discussed, but that vernacular forms of dwelling and patterns of inhabitation, with their embedded cultural significance, and responsiveness to the landscape are considered and understood.

This is an old story. The realms of villages, townships, and in Scotland clachans, have seldom been the focus of recent architectural discourse. In response to rapid urbanisation through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, urban renewal defined the programme of the Modern Movement, and one must look back to the Picturesque town planning movement to find rural settlement as a central theme in pedagogy and practice. Several notable exceptions exist, such as Peter Aldington’s cluster of village houses in Haddenham, designed and built in the 1960s. Here both the languages of modernism and the vernacular are deftly intertwined, giving expression to a spatially rich grouping of houses which respond sensitively to their village setting and the surrounding landscape of mature trees: at once embedded in tradition and forward looking. Other examples of this synthesis might include Jorn Utzon’s Kingo houses, scattered loosely in contiguous clusters evoking the image of an organically formed hill top village, or more recently Sergison Bates’s housing in Aldershot which revisits the semi-detached typology associated with suburban housing in a manner that situates it more closely with the principles of townscape and the composed ensemble.

A common theme evident in these examples is a disassociation between buildings and formalised tarmac infrastructure and car parking – a feature which often dominates developer housing in Scotland (think suburban cul-de-sac). This seems to allude to a desire for continuity in surface treatment, similar to that which so compellingly anchors the clachan to the earth. Sergison Bates’ early imagery for Aldershot for example, set the houses as objects against a continuous ground plane forming both the street and open gardens, serving to unify the houses against their surroundings. Such imagery is strongly reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. There is a synergy between objects and their setting implied in these loosely structured compositions which also resonates with Gunn’s anthropomorphic evocation of highland cottages as “part of the rhythm of the land itself”.

A resonance between buildings, community, and place exists in successful and enduring settlements. But there is an alarming deficiency of the seemingly allusive qualities of cohesion and permanence in the majority of new-build developer housing in Scotland, and the need for coherent planning strategies and settlement models is of even greater importance when considering development in a sensitive landscape context. It is clear however that successful models exist. It could be concluded that remains of the most instructive vernacular precedent, the clachan, exist on the very sites which are subject to re-settlement debate.  Nineteenth century architects David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, practising out of Edinburgh, undertook a tremendously exhaustive survey of ‘The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland’, which they compiled into a multi-volume publication of that name. Their meticulous survey drawings and sketches (produced on frequent ventures around the country by bicycle and railway) alongside their accompanying scholarship, provided a significant regional source-book, which disseminated into their own work and influenced many contemporaries and successors. In the spirit of MacGibbon & Ross, might it be possible to document and study the clachan as a typology, and thus allude to a contemporary strategy for re-settlement?

Clachans in the Highlands have mostly crumbled beyond recognition as places of dwelling, yet their traces often remain on the land. Ruinous walls or even barely perceptible archaeological impressions are testament to their existence, and such artefacts are still capable of silently communicating the presence of human endeavour, inhibition and together, community.  Alexander Fenton visited Arnol clachan in West Side, Isle of Lewis, in May 1964, a place that at the time was comprised of both twentieth century dwellings as well as Blackhouses. In his later publication, The Island Blackhouse, he observed the profound sense that the very distant past seemed to coalesce with the present, noting that “traces are still clear enough to suggest a much more functionally integrated system of communal co-existence”. Today even in the far west of the Western Isles these traces may be on the verge of drifting out of focus. Returning for a moment to Morandi’s still life paintings, they seem to communicate a similar sense of timelessness and the ephemeral. John Berger (2001) writes that Morandi’s objects “seem to be on the point of disappearing”, but then questions whether they are indeed disappearing or in fact emerging – becoming visible – “Traces are not only what is left when something has gone, they can also be marks for a project, of something to come.”

Words by Baillie Baillie Architects, with special thanks to Community Land Scotland.