Scottish buildings

Castle Stalker

Geographically, Scotland is distinct from England. Its mountains, lochs and islands have long set apart Scotland from its neighbour, and rival. These geographical barriers kept the two politically separate; even after 1603, when ruled by the same monarch, Scotland maintained its own political and legal institutions. Similarly the Scottish Church is a distinct body. Like England, Scotland underwent the Reformation. However, the Scottish experience was more extreme. A more radical Protestantism was embraced, and an unparalleled wave of destruction was raged upon medieval Scottish churches. Perhaps, like its landscapes, Scotland’s people and history are more elemental, more dramatic.

This drama, of landscapes, peoples, and history, has melded Scottish architecture into a distinct form. Scottish buildings respond to their surroundings. Traditionally, they were often located on dramatic sites, fused to rocks and hills. Height has been striven for; and their profiles often match the surrounding jagged mountains. Whether tower houses, tenements, or tower blocks, all delight in effect from careful siting, sharp outlines and dizzying heights.  

Contrasting to this, Scottish churches are peculiarly plain, low and often quite humble buildings. Again, though, these are distinct to Scotland: such geometric purity never became popular in England. Similarly, Scotland has produced some of the most idiosyncratic of architects. The work of the Adam brothers, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh relates to general trends in architecture. However, all created their own stylistic interpretations, often deliberately injecting traditional Scotch forms into their work. The result is a remarkable collection of buildings, worthy of close analysis and comparison with contemporary British, and European developments.

Extracts from the exhibition

Castles and tower houses

Detail of Craigeivar castle

Explore Scotland's most distinct architectural form, the castle and tower house.

Kirks throughout the ages

Detail of St. Andrews

Travel through four centuries of Scottish churches (kirks).

Scottish castle reinvented

Detail of Abbotsford vault

Source the roots of the Scottish baronial style, and discover its most brilliant forms.


Housing 1600-2000

Detail of Gorbals

From tenemants to towerblocks, Scotland's housing has always been ground-breaking - loved and loathed.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Detail of lamps in library at Glasgow School of Ar

Get closer to Scotland's most renowned architect through his work and even his handwriting.


About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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