Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland by W. Douglas Simpson, 3/5
Little more than a glorified pamphlet, this small book still manages to address the major eras of Scottish castle-building between the 12th and 17th centuries, briefly addressing the historical contexts that affected changes in architectural styles. Starting with the simple motte and bailey structures of the 1100s, the reader encounters the stone towers and walled courtyards of the 1200s and the evolution of tower-houses between the 1300s and 1600s from simple rectangles to L-shapes and Z-shapes. There are a good number of black-and-white photos and floor plans, but pairing them with the relevant text requires a lot of flipping back and forth. Also, as might be expected in such a small book, many references go sadly un-illustrated and there is no glossary. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for the ideal book about castles!
Why I read it: a used-book-store find that caught my eye.
Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy, 2/5
Never has a book more sadly lacked a glossary! In retrospect, I should have created one of my own as I encountered endless, undefined technical terms like “barbican,” “corbel,” and “machicolation.” Because the author is very good at describing castles in painstaking detail and creating architectural drawings, this book has historical value as a record of the condition of various castles at the time of the author’s visits (pre-1939). Unfortunately, however, Sidney Toy is more focused on presenting data than interpreting it, so there is very little narrative flow or sense of the bigger picture as far as castles’ construction and history in general is concerned.
Why I read it: With several castles on the itinerary for a recent trip to Ireland, I was hoping to gain some knowledge on the subject, but this book was disappointingly unhelpful.
The commentary was generally tolerable and I appreciated the fact that all the photos were taken especially for this book (though it needed more photos). However, the first chapter was filled with some of the most unmitigated bullshit I have ever read. In the absence of reliable historical records about ancient Durham Cathedral, Cruickshank resorts to absolutely ridiculous architectural guesswork, making all sorts of strangely specific assertions about different aspects of the building. For example, he describes a certain point in the cathedral as “the physical centre of the building and, in the analogy of the cathedral as Christ’s body, it marks the heart, the omphalos or navel that draws sustenance and sacred power from above.” So what is it, the heart or the navel? Could it perhaps be just the center of the building, which is an inevitable and not always wildly symbolic part of every single building ever made in the history of ever? Here is another paragraph whose utter bullshittiness has to be read to be believed. Keep in mind, this commentary is on a plain pillar with a simple chevron pattern carved into it.
“A simple analysis of the columns offers another answer. The pattern is formed by 12 bands on each column, and each band has eight points, four pointing up and four pointing down. The key or prime number here is four because eight and 12 evolve from four, and four is the number of the square. In fact, the chevrons on this pattern can easily be explained in relation to the square. Take a square and then place a second square on top of it but rotated 45 degrees and you have an octagram or eight-pointed star. Turn alternate points up and down and you have one of the chevron bands on the column. This pattern seems, then, also to be proclaiming the importance of the square in the design of Durham – this time in the form of an eight-pointed star. The column, based on the circle, and the chevron, based on the square, are in combination perhaps another exercise in squaring the circle.”
Now if only Cruickshank would do an exercise in taking his head out of his own ass.