Obituary: Peter Whiston

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The Independent Culture
OVER A period of nearly 30 years, the Scots architect Peter Whiston carved out a small but satisfying niche designing new churches of all denominations around Scotland. From the strong triangular prism of St Margaret's, Davidson's Mains, in Edinburgh, to the soaring parallel roofs of St Paul's, Muirhouse, Edinburgh, his designs combined bold post-war optimism with a belief in Scottish restraint.

Thus his materials were local stone, harling, pitch pine, even cobbles recycled from the streets of Edinburgh on which he had played as a boy. What decoration he allowed in his simple white churches, he commissioned from his contemporaries at Edinburgh College of Art: for example Stations of the Cross for St Mark's, Oxgangs, in Edinburgh by the sculptor Vincent Butler, and a stone relief of Christ for the refectory at Nunraw Abbey by Anne Henderson.

Perhaps his most significant building is the Cistercian monastery at Nunraw in East Lothian, the first new monastery in Scotland since the Reformation. Sancta Maria Abbey was built by the monks themselves with voluntary help from all over Scotland. Irish builders and navvies would down tools on a Friday in Glasgow and climb on buses to Nunraw, where they would spend the weekend labouring for the sake of their souls and the good clean air. Sitting proud on the Lammermuir Hills, the monastery's Rattlebags stone walls can be seen from the Highlands.

Peter Whiston was a shy and rather private man: but to those few in whom he confided he had an interesting story to tell. He was born in 1912 in humble circumstances in a tenement in Leith. His formidable Irish mother encouraged him and the others in his large Catholic family to study and, to use an expression not often heard today, "to get on".

With an architect's eye he would describe the simple family home, up a stair, with a shared WC and no bathroom. The Edinburgh trams rattled their way down Leith Walk. He would talk of his mother taking the weekly washing to the steamie and on Saturdays the boys would watch the Hibernian Football Club. On Sundays Whiston served as an altar boy at the cathedral. Thus he would describe a typical Roman Catholic family in Scotland in the 1920s, and how apart they then were from the majority of Presbyterian Scots; and how that has changed today.

"Get on" is indeed what the family did: Whiston qualified as an architect paying his way, and that of one of his brothers, through college with scholarships and national prizes such as the RIBA Silver Medal. By study alone the family of seven produced two architects, one orthopaedic surgeon, one director of medical services, one GP, one lecturer in theology and one nursing sister.

He served in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War and was posted to India. He rose through the ranks to Staff Captain and spent three years blowing up bridges to hinder a threatened invasion from the East. As if to atone for this destruction, Whiston's first years of peace were spent, as Chief Architect of Scottish Special Housing, building homes for men returning to Scotland from the war. When it became apparent that council housing was taking a direction of which he disapproved - vertically into high-rise - Whiston resigned and went into private practice, turning his attention to ecclesiastical architecture.

For his design of the Nunraw monastery and for his considerable role and influence in the construction of many church buildings, Whiston was appointed a Knight of St Gregory the Great in 1969. He was an enthusiastic academician of the Royal Scottish Academy, serving on many "hanging" committees. He combined his private practice with the role of Senior Lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art and then Director of the first postgraduate course in Environmental Conservation. This he did until he retired in 1977.

Yet for all his success Whiston was unnecessarily self-critical. Had he made use of his talents? This did not however affect his close friendships, where his conversation was stimulating and wide ranging: but perhaps it was with his fine family that he found his greatest fulfilment and happiness. He and his wife Kaye, who predeceased him in 1983, had five children. As Peter and his family had made the greatest use of their Scots education, so too did Peter's children. Like him they "got on" and that, in his later years, gave Peter Whiston much satisfaction and great pride.

Peter Rice Whiston, architect: born Leith, Midlothian 19 October 1912; partner, Dick Peddie McKay & Jamieson 1937-38; Chief Architect, Scottish Special Housing 1946-49; private ecclesiological practice 1950-77; Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art 1950-69; Director, Architectural Conservation Studies, Heriot-Watt University 1969-77; married 1947 Kathleen Parker (died 1983; one son, four daughters); died Edinburgh 24 January 1999.