Ian McHarg died this day in 2001 (NY Times obituary). He was a Scottish landscape architect who made his name in the University of Pennsylvania where he founded the world famous Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning in1955.

He was born in Clydebank in 1920 and (for those with an interest in the history of mountaineering in Scotland), was one of the Craigallian Fire men.

Arguably his most famous legacy is his 1969 book, Design with Nature. One of his pupils and collaborators in the project was the Scottish landscape architect, Mark Turnbull, who is still practising in Scotland today [EDIT – Mark sadly passed away in May 2016 – obituary here]. His book sat on the shelves of my Dad’s study when I was growing up. He was an architect and, as a student, I thought it would make an interesting contribution to the forestry course I was doing at Aberdeen University. However, so dismal was the outlook of the staff there (there were a few honourable exceptions), that the notion of even reading such a book was regarded as too radical. I read it though and recommend it to anyone with an interest in environmental and spatial planning (McHarg invented the sieve mapping technique now standard in GIS – the European Geosciences Union awards a medal in his honour).

His vision of how to understand ecosystems and undertake regional planning was so advanced that, as this blog notes, he predicted the areas unsuitable for urbanisation on Staten Island (dark shading on right). He was ignored and those areas match almost exactly the evacuation zones (in yellow left) at the time of Hurricane Sandy (see below).

But my favourite story about Ian McHarg relates to his involvement in the scoping work for Scotland’s third new town. McHarg worked in the Scottish Home and Health Department between 1950 and 1954 and in his 1996 autobiography, A Quest for Life, he writes,

One day I was summoned by the chief of the new towns section, an architect named Alex Wylie. East Kilbride and Glenrothes new towns were underway. There was considerable interest in yet another; both the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh thought that a site near Cumbernauld, between these cities, should be investigated. However, it was likely that this new town would be a satellite of Glasgow and administered by her. Would I undertake the study?

I immediately visited Cumbernauld. It had the virtue of proximity to the major highway connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow. As at East Kilbride several years before, the wind howled, the rain drove horizontally, the whole site was awash. Morevoer, the farms were few and scattered. Anthropologists long ago had learned that sparse human settlement bespeaks adverse environments and impoverished resources. I spoke to several farmers whose opinions were united. It was a miserable place, wetter than most, with intractable mud, poor soil, a high water table, few trees, and those wind-pruned.

…….

The ideal site, in classical and Renaissance times, was a southeast-facing slope. That could not be found on the Glasgow-Edinburgh road nor on the south of the Clyde, but north of it were admirable classical sites, south and southeast-facing, at elevations above fog with beautiful views to the Firth of Clyde and, south, across the Clyde, to the Renfrewshire Hills. On the day I went there, the sun was shining; protected from the wind I lay in heather and exulted in the views. There was Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic cone with a ruined castle atop, ancient capital of Scotland, the gleaming Clyde, and , far out beyond the estuary, the Paps of Jura.

There was one problem; the site was steep. Now this had halted neither Rome, Siena, Frascati; nor San Francisco. This constraint must be transformed into an opportunity; we are not building for popes or cardinals. I recalled a project in Zurich, the Neubuhl, by Haeflie and Moser, where housing stepped down a steep slope and the flat roof of the lower house became terrace, balcony, and garden of the upper house. This would be the answer. Hanging gardens, stepped housing, each one having the merits of an attached single-family house, each with as much outdoor and indoor space, and the gardens entirely private. If the block was to be composed of four houses in depth, then the occupants at worst would walk down three flights or up one. In city where the commonest house form was a four-storey walk-up tenement, this was not a serious objection. So house plans developed, simple rectangles, L-shapes and T-shapes with different dimensions. They were all modular and could be fitted in various permutations, but all had uninterrupted views to south and east and all had private entrances and gardens. Open space equalled the building area. On the skyline, out of every view but overlooking the whole, were towers and slabs for older people, single households, and couples without children. The towers provided views of a landscape of gardens.

McHarg goes on to describe the detailed design, “extraordinary economies in construction costs” and the energy efficiency.

I submitted the plans to Alex Wylie, chief architect for new towns, who then arranged for me to present the material to the permanent undersecretary, Mr McGuiness, an Irishman with a Scottish accent. Wylie introduced the idea and gave his endorsment. I was asked to add my remarks. I spoke glowingly of the hanging gardens, the morning-golden windows, the beautiful views, access to workplaces on the Clyde, proximity to Glasgow, the beautiful landscape setting and, above all, of the greater economy of this scheme as compared with conventional bulding. There was a long silence.

“Well.” McGuiness said, “It is certainly revolutionary. There’s no doubt about that, and I am impressed by the arguments about its economy, but we can’t build this in Scotland. Why, they haven’t even built it in England yet.”

“Sir,” I said. “If the Scots have to wait for the bloody English to build something before we can, this is not the country for me. Good day, sir.”

That night, McHarg wrote to Dean Perkins of the University of Pennsylvania, and asked “Do you know of any opportunities which I might pursue in the United States? I find the professional life here is far from gratifying.”

He was immediately offered a position as an assistant professor to set up the Department of Landscape Architecture and the rest is history.

McHarg writes,

A small ceremony was held before my departure, at which time I was presented with a handsome briefcase. Kind words were said. I decided that this was not the occasion for criticism, thanked my colleagues, wished them well, and left.

——————-
PS McHarg’s Wikipedea entry is very good account of his life.

 

The latest news from Ledgowan Estate is that the owner has distributed an access policy to residents of Achnasheen. According to this report (online here and pdf here)in the West Highland Free Press from 27 December 2013,

“The access policy states that all walkers met on Ledgowan will be asked for contact details, adding: ‘If this is not forthcoming or staff consider there is any reason for doubt they will take a photograph of the individuals and or their vehicle.’

The following points are also listed.

No-one is denied access – we abide by the law.

No-one is allowed to walk in the curtilage of our property.

gates will remain locked due to security reasons (citing thefts and keeping poachers out).”

UPDATE 24 JANUARY 2014
A copy of the letter written by Richard Simpson is now available here (507kb pdf). In one comment on this blog, John (24 January) writes that he is unaware, nobody has actually received this letter. I can confirm that at least one person has. The letter contains an alternative account of the incident which began this story (see original blog here). Dr Brown rebuts this account in this report in the West Highland Free Press. Further developments can be read by clickign on the “Ledgowan” category on right.

Image: Courtesy of To Hatch a Crow

I have not had time to publish many blogs in the past 2 months or so and hope to get back to a regular weekly or twice-weekly schedule as soon as possible. I would also like to stress that this blog reflects my own personal views on the matters under discussion. A statement to that effect is now in the page header.

In light of the widespread interest, I am publishing this quick update on the Ledgowan story (previous blogs can be seen by selecting “Ledgowan” in the Category menu on the right). This is also an opportunity to wish all the readers and contributors to the blog a very happy christmas and best wishes for the new year.

Mass Walk

On 30 November, around 30-40 walkers visited Ledgowan. Here is one account of the day from David “Heavy” Whalley.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)

SNH replied to my enquiry about the hill-track crossing the SSSI. Here is the response from Steve North.

Hi Andy – you may already be aware that my colleague Nicola Tallach has recently responded to a query on this track fromCalum Brown who is writing a report on tracks built under ‘permitted development rights’ for Scottish Environment LINK. She advised him:

“As you have identified, the first section of the track from Ledgowan Lodge, crosses Achnasheen Terraces SSSI therefore on the 18 March 2011 I had a site visit with the owner, Steve North (South Highland’s Operations Manager) and John Gordon (one of SNH’s geological advisors). During this visit it was established that the line of the track crossing the SSSI had not caused serious damage to the landforms. Continuation of the track route along the foot of the lower slope above the main terrace was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. At this time the only track being discussed was the one which led to the loch edge and the route to this, across the SSSI had already been constructed.

 The track which you are no doubt referring to, going up the hill, branches off the original track which was discussed on site however access to this branching off point is across the track which SNH saw on site and agreed was acceptable/ did not cause serious damage to the land form. 

Any track work out with the designated site would be a matter for the planners and as such I was in touch with the Highland Council planners on several occasions to inform them of track progress. The track is not within the Wester Ross NSA therefore permitted development rights are in place and the owner claimed the track was for agricultural purposes therefore he did not need planning permission. The Highland Council were not therefore able to do anything to prevent the construction of the track within existing planning regs”.

So, to answer your specific question, because the track was considered to fall within permitted development rights, SNH were not consulted on any planning application for the tracks and made no response to Highland Council (objection or otherwise).

However, the SSSI status of part of the estate did result in us meeting Andrew Simpson on site with our expert geomorphologist to assess the implications of the tracks for the nationally important features. As Nicola says, our conclusion and advice to Mr Simpson was that the track that was being developed within the SSSI had not caused any serious damage to the landforms and continuation along the foot of the steeper slopes (above the main terrace) was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. We identified how the kettle holes could be safeguarded and highlighted the benefits of following SNH’s published best practice guidance on track construction in upland areas. We also reminded Mr Simpson of the requirement of the legislation behind the SSSI that land managers contact SNH before they carry out works which may affect the special features of a site.

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Following the reported breach of EU regulations in relation to the lochside track (see this previous blog), I asked SEPA to confirm whether the main hilltrack had been built in accordance with the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011. Here is the reply received from Alastair Duff.

SEPA have visited the Ledgowan Estate and driven the length of the hill track in the company of estate staff.

There are several crossings that are of a size that should have required a Registration from SEPA in order to permit their construction, but these were not applied for. However, upon inspecting these crossings, the works undertaken would almost certainly have been licenced by SEPA.

SEPA has made a few minor recommendations in relation to some of the crossings, but is not taking any further action in relation to the works undertaken in the construction of the hill access track.

Highland Council

Highland Council was asked to release material released under the FoI request made by the estate employee (see previous blog). Here are the various communications (10Mb pdf download)

Ledgowan Estate

Finally, Ledgowan estate owner Mr Simpson, has compiled an “incident report” which has been given to a resident of Achnasheen. An account of this is given in the West Highland Free Press today. (see copy of story here).

I and others have, on a number of occasions attempted to contact Mr Simpson during the course of this story. He has never returned any calls to me or to media outlets. It turns out, however, that Andrew Simpson is a subscriber to my www.whoownsscotland.org.uk website. His subscription was due to expire this month and so an automated email was sent to him thanking him for his subscription and inviting him to renew it. As a consequence, he made the only contact he has ever made with me and replied to the email simply,

What an arsehole you are goodby” (sic)

Merry Christmas.