MANY FINE, interesting and well- justified obituaries have appeared, chronicling the lives and achievements of architects, art historians, administrators, and a host of others who have made a significant contribution to the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage in the second half of the 20th century. Rather fewer have been devoted to master masons and master plasterers, displaying their supreme skills through their very own hand and muscle. James Begg's contribution was in immense personal dexterity with roofer's tools and plasterer's trowel.
Begg's grandparents were fisher- folk from Caithness who moved south to Edinburgh, when the herring fishing fell on hard times in the late 19th century. His father moved along the South Bank of the Forth as a young mason to the then thriving coal and pit-prop town of Bo'ness. Many of the buildings to which Begg was to devote 65 years of working life - the old houses in Bo'ness, the Grange Conservation Company houses, The Binns, and William Adam's architectural triumph at Hopetoun - were maintained by Begg as they had been by his father and other family lineages, who had, yes, a certain loyalty to the buildings. Begg himself received the prestigious Saltire Society award for quality in the restoration of medieval buildings for his work on Dogwell Wynd and Lionwell Wynd in Linlithgow.
William Cadell, the well-regarded conservation architect and member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, said: 'By his poise, confidence and care, as he went about a job, you could tell Jimmy Begg was a real expert. To watch him, well and truly organised at the top of a gable, you would sense that the chap doing the roughcasting knew exactly what he was about. I learnt a lot from him.'
In truth, Begg was one of a now dying breed - an ancestor-directed craftsman. Having left Bo'ness Academy at the age of 14, he played a crucial role in managing the family business at 16, and picked up all the skills of the apprentice. Faced with a problem in a medieval building, Begg would look at the construction, figure out how masonry and plaster had been put together in the first place, and how and why it had been altered, and then suggest what he and his immensely strong labourers, William Meikle and Sandy Robertson, expert masons, could do to restore or maintain the good health of the building. Begg's attitude to the old buildings of the north of West Lothian was like that of a caring doctor towards his
Begg's was the best conservation practice long before such an approach became fashionable. He was dourly reluctant to do anything unnecessary to an old building and his disapproving silences would unnerve even architects employed by the National Trust.
Were there a particular problem involving intricate plaster ceilings of the early-17th century, Begg would delay remedial treatment until he felt in the mood to come and do the work himself on a summer evening. In his mid-seventies he would say, 'You can watch me, but dinna talk to me.' Even in his late seventies, after 60 years experience, he knew that intense concentration on the work in hand was a secret of successful plasterwork restoration.
For 57 years, Begg enjoyed a deeply happy marriage with Helen Clydesdale. Until old age, they were well known as skilled exponents of sequence dancing. In a curious way this activity was akin to his work. Observing Begg laying on plaster was indeed not unlike watching a ballet-dancer. The sheer co-ordination was fantastic. It was entrancing as a performance. My wife and I would watch him fascinated - and in silence.
Tom Pollock, himself a successful conservation architect told me, 'Watching James Begg doing harling was seeing a human being involving his mind and whole body, legs, arms, fingers, trunk on the task in hand. His whole self and being, mental and physical, were working in unison to achieve a perfect harmony.'
James Begg was an artist in harling, plaster, and stone.