Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Annette Carruthers, ed., The Scottish Home

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Annette Carruthers, ed., The Scottish Home

Annmarie Adams
McGill University
Carruthers, Annette, ed., The Scottish Home. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1996. 232 pp., 211 illus., paper, ISBN 0-948636-85-8; cloth $59.95, ISBN 0-948636-72-6.

1 From here in the "distinct society," I applauded Scotland's hearty endorsement of a separate parliament a few months ago. Having visited Scotland as a child (and later as a student of architecture), it seemed evident to me that Scots are quite different than their neighbors to the south. Even by the age of thirteen, when I was fortunate enough to travel to Edinburgh with my parents, I had worn kilts and taken Scottish dancing lessons. A few years later I read Sir Walter Scott novels in high school and learned about (ugh!) haggis. More than two decades later, as an architectural historian, I have little doubt that the work of the great Scottish architects, such as Robert Lorimer and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, is particularly interesting because of its Scottishness.

2 It was from this position of the predisposed convert that I approached The Scottish Home. Why write a book on the Scottish home? How did its evolution differ from houses in England? And perhaps most selfishly, I wondered what such a book might teach us about interpreting Canadian houses, whose history, after all, is similarly overshadowed by our neighbors to the south.

3 The Scottish Home is an extremely ambitious undertaking. Seven authors (academics and museum professionals) have uncovered the history of the Scottish home from 1600 to 1950 in nine chapters. It may, however, have been more accurately entitled "Stuff in the Scottish Home," since its emphasis is on objects and artifacts (particularly furniture), rather than buildings. An introduction to the book is followed by two chapters on small rural and urban houses. The subsequent six sections are organized like the house itself, in rooms: kitchen, hall/lobby, dining room, drawing room, bedroom, and bathroom.

4 This "tour" of the Scottish house is lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred images in a large-format volume of fewer than 250 pages, which means it can be read in a single sitting. This has as much to do with the accessible style of its writing as with the density of its delightful illustrations.

5 Indeed, The Scottish Home is another tome about the minutiae of domestic life aimed at general readers, connoisseurs, and scholars. A virtual industry has developed in this genre since the 1970s, particularly in Britain, since the publication of Mark Girouard's popular Life in the English Country House of 1978. That book, Girouard's subsequent house books, and a host of volumes inspired by his work may be classified as a "social history of domestic architecture." These authors mostly use inventories, etiquette books, fiction, paintings, and photographs to interpret private spaces of the past. Because of the subject matter, the material is extremely accessible to general readers. Witold Rybczynski's Home of 1986, for example, has sold more than 100 000 copies in North America alone.

6 For readers familiar with this literature, The Scottish Home may be disappointing. The evolution of domestic spaces in Scotland, according to its authors, is very similar to the story in England and the United States, although this is seldom stated explicitly. In fact, several of the contributors go to great lengths to uncover artifacts or spaces unique to Scotland. Miles Oglethorpe, in his chapter on the bathroom and water closet, for example, goes so far as to apologize that Scottish bathrooms are so similar to English ones, but points to municipal water and sewerage infrastructure and the design of bathroom fixtures to tell "a distinctly Scottish story. " Most architectural historians will be shocked to learn, as well, that Robert Lorimer designed a toilet in 1930 that he called "The Remirol" (his name backwards). On the whole, however, the development of the Scottish home roughly parallels its counterparts in the English-speaking world, according to these authors.

7 Unlike most of the books on English houses, however, especially those by Girouard, The Scottish Home includes considerable material on the domestic surroundings of the poor. Working-class houses are the subjects of two chapters, and material on room use in humbler houses is included in most of the sections on individual rooms, with the exception of the chapter on the dining room, for obvious reasons.

8 Like all collections, The Scottish Home suffers from a certain unevenness. The chapters I found most interesting were those with a purposeful argumentative edge. From this perspective, Helen Clark's essay "Living in One or Two Rooms in the City" is superb; rather than simply laying out a this-happened-then-that-happened chronology of Scotland's small city houses, she focusses on actual living conditions and the various solutions poor Scots found to problems caused by lack of space. This emphasis on "use" allows Clark to grant the working-class inhabitants of tenements, for example, a considerable degree of agency, rather than portraying them as mute victims of environments designed by others.

9 Another particularly rich chapter in The Scottish Home is Juliet Kinchin's piece on "The Drawing Room." Here she unfolds the story of this room for show-and-tell by exploring how it was perceived as the antithesis of working space. In addition to presenting the now familiar material on the drawing room and parlour as women's space, Kinchin suggests that similar rooms in public and commercial buildings shaped the domestic interior. This chapter is excellent and will be extremely useful as reading material in any general history of housing course, as well as courses in material culture and women's studies.

10 In the end, I think the book's room-by-room organization (and the decision to use multiple authors) lead to several missed opportunities, as well as some annoying repetitions. These may have been avoided by a more aggressive edit in the final hour. Given the geographic limitations of Scotland and the fact that some houses are always better documented than others, the authors understandably employ the same examples, reintroducing them each time. Two authors note the Scottish tradition of washing at the kitchen sink and two others remark on the working-class culture of families sharing toilets located on the stairs, seemingly unaware of the other.

11 This is also true of domestic advice books, like those written by Scotsmen Robert Kerr and John Claudius Loudon, whom we re-meet in nearly every chapter with general introductory information included. These repetitions are particularly troublesome since the book is clearly intended to be read cover to cover, rather than used as a reference volume.

12 Along these same lines, several methodological issues and interesting sub-themes that run throughout the chapters remain unexplored. The first of these is the assumption adopted by all the authors, without exception, that "form follows fashion." This is implied throughout the chapters: change in form (artifacts, furniture, architecture) follows a change in customs or behaviour. In his essay on "The Hall and Lobby," for example, furniture historian David Jones attributes the twentieth-century disappearance of the umbrella and hall stands from the entrances of Scottish houses to the decline in the use of umbrellas and hats. Is it possible that modern entrance lobbies are too small to house such things? That twentieth-century people find rain less offensive? Or even that we may use fewer umbrellas and hats because such stands have disappeared?

13 I also have some problems with the fact that English prescriptive sources are used as evidence by many of the authors, without any proof that these books were widely read in Scotland (Canadian scholars often are tempted by American sources in this same way). But then again, Kerr and Loudon appear in nearly all the books on English houses! And perhaps not surprisingly, many of the contributors to The Scottish Home seem completely unaware of scholarship on North American domestic space.

14 Despite these criticisms, however, the multiple viewpoints of the authors, the beautiful illustrations, and the sheer "distinctness" of the subject matter make this book an interesting addition to the vast literature on the material culture of home.