Architectural Notes: Ham-fisted Gothic in Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
SERIOUS COMMENTATORS on Glasgow's past architecture have been uniformly dismissive of James Adam's Barony Church. In the Glasgow volume of Buildings of Scotland it is described as "the ham-fisted Gothick Barony church built in 1703-1800 by John Robertson to designs by R. and J. Adam". However, the church was probably designed by Adam's nephew, John Robertson, who acted for him in certain Glasgow jobs. A poor press, early demolition and a paucity of published documentation have hitherto obscured rational observation.

The Barony parish was formed in 1595 and the parish stretched over eight miles from west to east and over four miles from north to south. According to one account, the Barony parish "surrounds the City of Glasgow so closely on three sides that in some places the houses are joined together, and in others one side of a street is within the Royalty, and the other within the Barony Parish".

When the parish was disjoined in 1595 from the High Church, occupying the pre-Reformation choir in the cathedral, the lower church was allocated as the place of worship and there it was to be for the next two centuries. The first minister of the Barony was Donald McKilvonie and the last was the celebrated Dr Norman Macleod, who was called in 1851.

In 1799 the foundation stone was laid and "The day being fine there was a numerous crowd attending". A manuscript in a sealed glass bottle deposited beneath the site of the west door, recorded: "James Adam of London, Architect; John Reid, Contractor; James Baird, Mason". No mention of Scott or indeed of John Robertson, the nephew of James Adam, who had died in 1794, although he has been cited as the builder.

The church was ready for occupation in 1801 when the kirk session met for the first time. The cost of the building had been set at pounds 12,385 and to recoup some of that it was agreed by the heritors to sell to Mrs Rea Crawford of Milton "a Room fitted up in the north Turret of the Church above the Session-house" and another to the south of the staircase leading to the galleries to Hopkirk "for keeping the Books and Papers relative to the affairs of the Parish" while setting aside "the small room to the north of the session for the use of the Person who takes charge of and sweeps the Church".

But what of the significance of the Barony Church? Before it no more than half a dozen Gothic Revival churches had been erected in Scotland and of these the Barony was not only the largest but also the most developed stylistically. In Britain there were few if any architects who commanded at the close of the 18th century such a repertoire of knowledge of Gothic architecture.

As a young man James Adam had shown a precocious interest in what would be termed rococo Gothic and had admired Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh for its "regular Gothic". In practice the Adam brothers had renovated Alnwick Castle and had worked on numerous commissions for castles, especially in Scotland.

Although James Adam's role in the Adam enterprises has been obscured by the shining talents of Robert nevertheless he was a sophisticated designer. One need only turn to his known works in Glasgow, the coll- ege buildings on the High Street and the Tron Church, as evidence.

Perhaps, therefore, the general condemnation of his Barony Church arises in large part because of the many treatises on Gothic architecture which, appearing in the early 19th century, gave new standards of scholarship combined with a seriousness of intent against which earlier products failed irremediably. Such was the fate of James Adam's church.

Dr James Macaulay is the author of `Glasgow School of Art: Charles Rennie Mackintosh' (Phaidon, `Architecture in Detail', pounds 19.95)