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Obituary: Dr James Macaulay, a most remarkable writer, architectural historian and lecturer

Dr James Macaulay; photograph by Andrew Forbes

Dr James Macaulay was an Hon. Vice President of the Society. He was a writer, architectural historian, schoolteacher, university lecturer, tour guide and raconteur. James, who died 2 August, aged 88, was extraordinarily scholarly, talented, inspiring, and passionate.

His voluntary input to many major public realm and historic building restoration projects in Glasgow was invaluable and transformative. Frequently waspish in his analysis, with a tongue which, by his own admission, regularly had a cutting edge, he was also a fiercely loyal and supportive friend, capable of great kindness, whose erudition and often barbed, wit entertained all those who had the privilege of knowing him.

James Harold Pringle Mole Macaulay, MA, PhD, FRHistS, FAHSS, FSAScot, HonFRIAS, was born in 1934. He was a proud native of Glasgow’s West End.

He and his siblings – Ann, Rosemary and Douglas – were largely brought up by his mother who James adored. He later would refer to her devoted single-parent care in difficult circumstances but generally avoided the subject of his father, other than alluding to his early death, through illness.

In 1941, as enemy bombs became an increasing threat, the Macaulay children were evacuated to lodge, according to James’s own account, with ‘a miner’ in Blantyre. It was an unpleasant and harsh experience and their post-war return to Glasgow came as a great relief.

After completing history studies at the University of Glasgow, James’s teaching diploma led to an assistant teacher role at Whitehill Secondary, Dennistoun, at the start of the 1960s. There he became Form Master to a class of boys with whom he continued in the same role each successive year as they progressed through the school. They became firm friends enjoying hilarious Friday afternoon ‘religious instruction’ with James where, according to one account, discipline was lax, the discussion raucous, and there was often a card school ‘up the back of the room’.

As their secondary schooling came to a close, the boys proposed an annual reunion.

Starting in 1966, what was constituted as the Six-One Dinner Club would, rather remarkably, go on to meet on the last Saturday of February every year for the next 56 years (in 2021 by Zoom) to dine, enjoy each other’s company and honour their mentor.

James was inordinately proud of ‘Six-One’. In 1967 the club appointed him Honorary President for Life. Over the years various venues, notably Gleneagles Hotel (the 25th dinner) One Devonshire Gardens and, in recent years, the Glasgow Art Club (of which James was a keen member and sometime President) welcomed members returning from throughout the UK, Europe, the USA and even Australia.

Without fail, at the end of each year from 1966 onwards, James wrote an open letter to the club’s members. Those letters are a rich chronicle of the ups, downs, employment, marriages, children and latterly illnesses of members and of the thoughts, observations and endeavours of the man they referred to as their ‘Guide, Philosopher and Friend’.

The description was inscribed on one of James’s most prized possessions. a tankard they gifted to him at their first dinner. On the occasion of their 50th anniversary his letter records their ‘fifty years of companionship and of love for one another.’

Perhaps on account of the departure of his recurring form class, and certainly with the encouragement of fellow teachers, some of whom who would also become lifelong friends, James also left Whitehill in 1966 to pursue other ambitions.

His departure was undoubtedly a loss to secondary education but a gain for academe. He enrolled to study for a PhD at the University of Newcastle where, to cover costs, he also did some part-time teaching. By 1968 a lack of academic opportunities led to a brief return to school teaching in Glasgow. In 1969 he took up a post at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture in Aberdeen.

During his time in the north-east James completed his PhD (in 1972) bought a ‘fixer-upper’ of a house (which he proceeded to fix up – with typically exacting care), produced the first of his major publications and assumed the Chair of both the Scottish Georgian Society and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.

The publication, in 1975, of ‘The Gothic Revival’, a large and important volume, effectively presented James’ PhD subject to a broad readership. The book, and a growing reputation as an superlative lecturer in architectural history, led to a phone call in September 1980 which signalled his departure from Aberdeen, his return to his beloved Glasgow and one of the most important friendships of his life.

The phone call came from Professor Andy MacMillan, the brilliantly inspiring head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture. It was quite typical for Andy to dispense with the usual niceties of recruitment and simply make an offer over the phone. James was immensely flattered and took up the proffered Senior Lectureship with alacrity. He was to occupy the position to the end of his teaching career. Numerous graduates of ‘The Mack’ would benefit from his brilliance and his care as a lecturer and tutor.

In style and approach MacMillan and Macaulay could not have been more different. They despaired of one another, and frequently clashed, and their rows became legendary. Yet their fondness and respect for each other was also palpable.

While the head of school was relaxed and no disciplinarian, James would not tolerate slovenly behaviour and latecomers to his, always inspiring, lectures soon learned just how sharp his tongue could be. It was fairly typical for late arriving students to stand at the entrance of the lecture theatre, the door open just a crack and listen to his brilliant consideration of the neo-classical in Georgian Britain from there.

James was fond of international travel. He was a frequent visitor to Italy and particularly loved Venice. His further major publications, ‘The Classical Country House in Scotland’ (in 1987) and ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh’ (in 2010) – both of them meticulously researched, very large tomes – opened up a world of lecture tours, particularly to the USA, where his insightful and inspiring lectures earned him a legion of admirers. He was similarly brilliant as a tour guide and his combination of erudition and anecdote, often very funny, enthralled groups of cultural tourists in Glasgow and throughout the UK.

The country-house book also generated many friendships among the aristocratic owners of these stately piles. James’s attitudes were never entirely woke or what used to be called ‘politically correct’. He overtly admired the patrilineal hegemony through which the ownership of land and titles comes down through the generations. It tickled him to have many such titled inheritors among his close friends. He also advised and encouraged them in the care and restoration of their historically important properties.

His book on Scotland’s greatest country-house architect, Robert Adam, a 40-year labour of love, is finished and with the publishers but awaits the approvals (and payments for) its photographic content.

At the start of the 1990s James received the first of many dire cancer prognoses. For the next three decades he underwent numerous gruelling surgeries and painfully debilitating therapies. His admiration for the NHS and for those who cared for him knew no bounds.

Pain and onerous treatments became a recurring fact of life but didn’t stop him from his many public duties, his writing, travel or socialising, much of it at the elegant dining table commissioned from his artist friend, Digby Vaughan, at his home in Glasgow’s Kirklee. There he was also surrounded by superb artworks, antique furniture and antiquities from a lifetime of avid, discerning collecting.

James became an elder in Glasgow Cathedral in 1983. His faith and the life of the church were important to him. Latterly, along with the Cathedral’s Director of Music, he would found The Glasgow Cathedral Festival, now a major annual event. His voluntary public roles led to the building of Glasgow’s Museum of Religious Art and he was an influential board member of both Mackintosh at The Willow and the Glasgow Mediaeval Trust.

There was personal tragedy, particularly the death of his mother in 1981 and the loss of his beloved nephew George, who he had helped to raise, in 2004. However James was to reflect, often over ‘a reviving gin and tonic’, that ‘In cheerier moments I accept that my life is very privileged’. His life was indeed full, creative and inspired generations of those he taught. He was truly a one-off who will be much missed.

The final words are James’s own, from his 1981 Six-One letter. Reflecting, poignantly, on his mother’s death he wrote: “Later we took our parents ashes and laid them in a grave in Sutherland above a silver beach with grassy headlands nosing across the sea to the Orkney islands. In time I shall find my own grave there.”

Neil Baxter, The Herald 19 August 2022