James M MacLaren: His life and works

James M MacLaren: His life and works

James Marjoribanks MacLaren was a pioneering Scottish Arts & Crafts architect who combined these principles with Scottish vernacular traditions. James MacLaren was born in 1853 of a farming family in what was then south west Perthshire. He is best known for the work he did for Sir Donald Currie, who was MP for West Perthshire, in Fortingall, Aberfeldy, and London.

He died at the age of 37 in 1890, but his work was carried on by his colleagues Dunn and Watson, and he was a major influence on later architects such as Robert Lorimer and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. His younger brother Thomas MacLaren went on to have a very successful career as an architect in America.

James attended the village school at Thornhill, going on to study at the High School of Stirling. He served his apprenticeship with Salmon Son and Ritchie in Glasgow, later joining Campbell Douglas and Sellars, but in 1875 at the age of 22 he set out to further his career in London, joining the office of J J Stevenson along with other expatriate Scots architects such as George Washington Browne. MacLaren studied at the Royal Academy, but his first completed buildings were in Scotland. In 1877 he built two imposing houses on adjoining sites on Bo’ness Road, Grangemouth; one for his cousin, Daniel MacLaren, and one for John Fairley, a wealthy timber merchant.

After some time studying in Paris, James returned to London, where he was joined by his brother Thomas, and in 1883 he married Margaret Mathieson MacColl the daughter of a prominent Free Church minister in London. Her brother, Dugald Sutherland MacColl, later a leading art critic and curator of the Tate Gallery, was a close friend of James and is one of our main sources of knowledge about him. James and Margaret’s twin sons were born in 1884, by which time James was busy working with the Cornish architect Richard Coad on the restoration of Lanhydrock House near Bodmin (now a leading National Trust attraction).

While down in the south west of England, James also worked at Bowringsleigh in Devon, and Ledbury Park in Herefordshire, and it was near Ledbury that he came across an old chairmaker named Philip Clissett. MacLaren persuaded Clissett to make some alterations to one of his traditional designs, and this gave rise to a famous arts and crafts style of ladderback chair that was adopted by the Art Workers’ Guild in London.

It may have been his father’s connection with the Liberal party that brought James MacLaren to the attention of the Liberal MP for West Perthshire, Sir Donald Currie. Born in Greenock, Currie, a self made shipping magnate, founder of the Union-Castle Line, had bought the estate of Garth in Fortingall as his constituency base. He subsequently bought the adjoining estate of Glenlyon House, and set out to modernise the rather run down village of Fortingall. He first employed MacLaren to remodel an old threshing mill at Balnald Farm into a sawmill; Currie must have been pleased with this work, as MacLaren went on to rebuild Balnald Farmhouse and steading, combining sensitively a traditional Scottish style with features he had admired down south. MacLaren then designed new workers cottages for Fortingall, but in 1886 he won the competition to build a new wing for Stirling High School, his old school. What resulted was a very striking building (now the Highland Hotel near the castle) which was to have a great influence on, among others, the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Sketches by CRM survive of MacLaren’s magnificent tower entrance and the octagonal corner tower.

In 1888 MacLaren was commissioned to build a ‘studio house’ for H R Pinker in Avonmore Road, and then was engaged by Currie to build two adjoining town houses for Currie’s daughters in London. Palace Court off Bayswater Road, is an arts and crafts urban tour de force.

Back in Fortingall, MacLaren built for Currie, again in the arts and crafts style, but here with a strong Scottish vernacular base, a new farmsteading and farmhouse for Glenlyon House, and the workers cottages he had started to design earlier. To roof the cottages he decided to revive the Scottish thatching tradition. The roofs of Tay reed thatch have made Fortingall ever since a popular tourist stop, while his bold treatment of the corner cottage with its crow-stepped gable alongside the thatch and the dramatic red sandstone chimney are an iconic statement of the arts and crafts movement in Scotland.

Tragically, before the cottages were completed, James MacLaren became ill with tuberculosis. It may have been to help fight the illness that he went to the Canary Islands to build the Santa Catalina Hotel at Las Palmas. Back in Scotland in 1889 he designed a new Town Hall for Aberfeldy and began designs for renovating Glenlyon House and Fortingall Hotel; but before they could be carried out he died in London in October 1890.

Two of his Scottish colleagues in London, William Dunn and Robert Watson continued his work for Currie, completing Fortingall Hotel and Glenlyon House, and in 1902 rebuilding the church. They continued working for Currie on Aberfeldy Cottage Hospital, and restoring Dunkeld Cathedral. Robert Lorimer joined Dunn and Watson in 1890, while William Curtis Green continued their work with the Molteno Memorial Hall in 1936. Thomas MacLaren in 1894 built a picturesque row of houses in George Street, Doune before escaping the British climate that caused the death of his brother, to have a very successful career in Colorado up to his death at the age of 65. There in Colorado Springs and elsewhere he designed many  important buildings, and left the archive of his fine drawings to the University of Colorado.

» See a timeline of James M MacLaren's life.