Pioneer female archaeologist Christian MacLagan as building patron in Stirling

Our next guest post is by Morag Cross. Morag is an independent archive researcher and archaeologist, specialising in building histories and land ownership. The social history of any site uncovers previously unknown figures, especially women, whose records are often unrecognised. She worked previously on the Mackintosh Architecture and Glasgow’s official WW1 websites, researched the Cowgate fire site, India Buildings in Victoria St, Edinburgh and over 80 other sites.

Image taken from Wikicommons. 

I have been researching one of Scotland’s earliest female archaeologists, Christian MacLagan (1811-1901), for an upcoming article. Her legacy as an antiquarian and field-investigator, who recorded and published her own historical opinions, is becoming better known. She was acutely aware of contemporary educational and professional restrictions on women, although her own situation was greatly cushioned by her own considerable wealth. However, she was, like many socially-aware female contemporaries, a philanthropist and supported women’s political activists when she was in her eighties. Among her many activities and interests, she also commissioned and paid for two previously-unrecorded buildings by eminent Scottish architects. These were Messrs Hay of Liverpool, and the Edinburgh partnership of Pilkington and Bell. This church is unrecorded among F T Pilkington’s works, apart from its location as ‘Stirling’, in his obituary in ‘The Builder’, of October 1898.

Christian was a highly-intelligent woman of strong character, and deeply committed to her local Free North Church congregation in Stirling. Christian’s brother was a successful merchant in India, who died in 1859. He left her the equivalent of £2.4 million, allowing her the financial freedom to commission her own house. Her chosen architects were the Hays of Liverpool, favourites of the Free Church of Scotland, who had already built the Free North Church (1851, now the Baptist Church). Her choice was probably inevitable, as their work was all around her – Stirling Religious Tract Depository (1860) and Viewforth mansion (1855, both for fellow church-member, Peter Drummond), Stirling High School (1854), and the Ragged School.

William and James Hay were based in Liverpool, and their brother John in Edinburgh, but they found it impossible to exercise sufficient supervision on sites, over such extended distances. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects, (itself an invaluable resource), recounts their professional troubles – there were structural failures at Augustine Church, Edinburgh, contracts were cancelled and John became terminally ill.

Christian was probably unaware of their business difficulties, although she was one of their last Scottish clients. Her house, which she poetically christened ‘Ravenscroft’ was erected in Clarendon Place Stirling in 1860-1, and ‘Messrs Hay’ agreed to produce plans, select and superintend the workers, and check the accounts. When William visited Christian on a final ‘snagging’ check after completion, she apparently had no complaints about the total cost of £2416/16/11. However, by 1863, she was dissatisfied with the build quality, and blamed the Hays for ‘culpable neglect of duties’, to her ‘very considerable annoyance and expense’. She inspected the work herself, finding exterior walls and outbuildings ‘dangerous’ and requiring rebuilding. She reported that ‘A man’s foot applied with moderate force can be pushed through ‘ the walls, though it’s easier to imagine her testing this for herself.

 The matter went to court. Christian’s error was to ‘most improperly deviate’ from the officially-agreed plans, inserting her own alterations without telling the architects. This enabled James and William Hay to claim they were not responsible for designs they had not authorised. Both sides had a case, but it would have cost more to bring the case on a point of principle than to pay over the disputed £178, revised to £82. After two years of litigation, Christian lost and had to settle the bill. The house was a blonde sandstone double villa, each half at right angles to preserve the residents’ privacy. Christian lived in one part, with 7 bedrooms, three reception rooms, a wrought-iron balcony, servants’ quarters and basement. Her large, bay-windowed drawing room was the venue for many womens’ charitable meetings in future years. She rented next-door to her own minister, Rev Alexander Beith and family (many of his 14 children died young). With another 7 bedrooms, it was probably specifically-designed as his manse.

Having alienated the ‘go-to- Stirling church architects, Christian’s second plan to honour her deceased brother, Frederick MacLagan (1809-59), ran into problems. Despite advice to join forces with an existing Free Church school project, Christian determined to provide more church accommodation in a slum district of Stirling. In 1865, she purchased a vertiginous and impractical site in St Mary’s Wynd, characteristically making her own decisions rather than taking the easier choice of flat ground elsewhere.

Marykirk Site today
Marykirk site as it stands today. 

She commissioned architect Frederick Thomas Pilkington (1832-98), and his partner J M Bell, another ‘in house’ favourite firm of the Free Church. The location of the new ‘Marykirk’ in St Mary’s Wynd immediately adjoins John Cowane’s House, a 17th century historic monument which still survives. This makes the lack of Marykirk Church pictures very unusual, as Cowane’s House next-door is well-documented, but it explains why this Pilkington project has been overlooked and unrecorded until now. Christian worked by proxy, through various trustees, including surgeon (and archaeologist) Sir James Young Simpson, which further obscures her association with Pilkington.

Pilkington has always enjoyed a quiet ‘cult’ appeal with his idiosyncratic, over-scaled and exuberant style. He loved massive, rusticated masonry, almost American in style, sharp spires and high-pitched gables, as exemplified in Barclay Church (1862-4), Bruntsfield, Edinburgh. Its Ruritanian, spiky polygonal outline was famously likened to ‘a collection of rhinoceroses and giraffes at a watering hole.’ Pilkington had had previous female patrons like Miss Mary Barclay at Bruntsfield (albeit she was safely-deceased), which undoubtedly appealed to Christian’s feminist leanings. Her tenants, the Beiths, were fundraising for Rev Horatius Bonar’s new Pilkington church at Kelso in 1865, so she had several possible links to him. Descriptions of the Marykirk suggest that it fell within the more restrained end of Pilkington’s work, but the budget was a relatively modest £1,000. The advert for contractors appeared in April 1867, and the plans were publically displayed in her trustee John Christie’s ironmonger’s. The local press emphasised the technical challenges of the steep site, which eventually proved so unsuitable that it has lain empty since Marykirk was demolished in 1934.

The church was visible from a great distance, perched on an artificial terrace quarried out of the rock. The style was a hall-church, with no steeple but three gables, which towered over the street. There were six single windows, divided by carved columns, and a rose window employing coloured stonework in horizontal bands. Such ‘striped’ walls were employed by Pilkington and Bell elsewhere. By focussing the ornament on the frontage, Pilkington achieved more for his small-ish budget. Internally, ‘Swiss’ balusters around the minister’s platform (there was no pulpit) probably resembled the flat, fretwork silhouettes lining the stairs at Kelso North Church (1866). The décor will be considered at more length in an upcoming paper. The church opened on Thursday, 2 April 1868, and the first Sunday services were celebrated by Rev J H Wilson, of Barclay Church, and Rev H Bonar, of Kelso. The crowd was also addressed by one of Christian’s trustees, physician, Free churchman and fellow archaeologist, Sir James Young Simpson.

Christian had wisely laid out a deed of conditions for staffing and managing the new church. However, Rev Beith and she had fallen out when he failed to persuade her to co-operate with his educational project, and so he had also quit as her tenant at Ravenscroft. She in turn, felt that he had copied her ideas for ‘home missions’ in Stirling (evangelising the poor). The original Marykirk administration fell victim to (rather un-Christian) local rivalries, The promised outside funding never materialised, and as the church authorities had broken their legal commitments Christian took them to court in 1874. This became a cause celebre, although it seems to have been over points of principal and money, and unrelated to Christian’s sex, because money is famously gender-neutral.

In the end, she rather harshly expelled the resident Free Church congregation, took back ‘her’ building. She donated it to the (rather reluctant) Church of Scotland, who would only accept it if they had complete control, to prevent further infighting. This did not stop Christian’s motives for re-gifting the Marykirk being mocked ‘in an exhibition of spite’, towards her and her supporters. The mid-1870s were long before modern social media, but the insults sound familiar. Her opponents, showing ‘narrow minded bigotry and intolerance’, maligned her advisors. A minister even attacked her, thereby ‘indicating he has read the Sermon on the Mount to little profit’.

 Sadly, the initial critics were proved correct – the Marykirk’s extra capacity was not required, and its congregation remained limited. The numerous entrance steps, and poor heating also made access difficult to elderly members. The full story of Marykirk’s building, and the second court case involving Christian’s architectural patronage, will appear in a forthcoming article about her background and archaeological career.