William Stark – Dunfermline’s ‘Genius’ Architect

by Dr Jean Barclay

  • Abbotsford house
    Abbotsford House

William Stark, architect, was born on 25 May 1770 in Dunfermline, the fourth child and second son of Mark Stark, a merchant and manufacturer of linen thread in Brucefield, and his wife Margaret Paton. Mark Stark`s father was the Rev. Robert Stark of Torryburn.

Few records exist about young William`s early life but his choice of career may have been influenced by the marriage, in 1787, of his elder sister Sarah to John Craig of Glasgow, `architect to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales`.(1) We know that in 1798 William Stark was in Russia (probably on architectural business) as he wrote to John Craig from St. Petersburg at that time, describing the funeral of his younger brother John Mark who died there in July 1798, aged 18.(2) There were many Scottish architects and masons in Russia in the 1780s and 1790s. William Hastie had arrived in 1784 with 70 men from Scotland, and Charles Hamilton, whose `Temple of Friendship (1779-80) was considered ` the first monument of the Greek revival in Russia`, carried out more than 30 years work for Catherine the Great.(3)

In 1805 at St. Cuthbert`s Church, Edinburgh, William married Catharine, daughter of Robert Thomson of Edinburgh, who had been a schoolmaster in Limekilns and Banff. Catharine`s brother George Thomson was a well-known collector of Scottish music, a collaborator of Robert Burns, a correspondent of Beethoven, Byron, Scott and others and, through his daughter Georgina, grandfather of Catherine Hogarth, wife of Charles Dickens.(4) In 1806 William and Catharine had a daughter, Catharine, their only child.

Not long after his return from Russia, Stark set up in practice in Glasgow and began to design his great works for the city. These included alterations to the chancel of the Cathedral in 1802, the Hunterian Museum in 1804, St. George`s Church near St. George`s Square in 1807-8 and the Courthouse, Gaol and Offices in 1810-11.(5)

In 1808 Stark remodelled the state rooms at Broomhall for the Earl of Elgin and designed a large Doric portico with eight columns like the Parthenon which, although apparently cut from limestone from the Broomhall quarries, eventually formed the frontage of Perth Sheriff Court.(6) Stark also designed Saline Church in 1809-10 and another in Muirkirk, Ayrshire.(7)

In 1811 Stark was responsible for rebuilding the south-west tower of the Abbey Church in Dunfermline, which had collapsed in 1807. The crenellated parapet is seen as rather weak but this may be the fault of the heritors rather than Stark as a more decorative minaret termination was rejected. Asked to refit the crowded interior of the Abbey Church, Stark proposed new seating arrangements with box pews as in Glasgow Cathedral, seats surrounding the pulpit in the east, and, via circular staircases, new galleries between the pillars of the triforium, with extra seating in the concave end of the west gallery.(8) In the event, the problem of overcrowding would be tackled by building a new church on the site of the ruined eastern end of the ancient medieval abbey.

William Stark also designed lunatic asylums in Glasgow in 1809, Dundee in 1812 and Gloucester in 1813. Stark`s Glasgow asylum was based on a novel Greek cross design with central stairs and offices and radiating wards and exercise yards. These were segregated so that each social and clinical class `may be formed into a society inaccessible to all others`. In Dundee, reflecting a different ethos, Stark`s design took the form of a domestic-scale H-shaped block, with single-storey wings overlooking gardens which offered `great gentleness and great liberty and comfort combined with the fullest security`. The Gloucester asylum would not be finished for many years but was designed as a pleasant crescent-shaped building set in gardens. (9)

In 1811 William Stark moved to Edinburgh for the sake of his failing health and in 1812 he was engaged to design monumental interiors for the prestigious Signet and Advocates` Libraries in Parliament Square. The highlight was the Advocates` Library (later the Upper Signet Library) with its dome and Corinthian columns, which George IV later called `The most beautiful room I have ever seen`.(10)

Like Lord Elgin, other landowners commissioned Stark to improve their country houses. From 1811-13, although unwell, Stark worked for Walter Scott at his new home at Abbotsford, and in 1812 he designed a central block at the Duke of Buccleugh`s house, Bowhill in Selkirkshire. Stark was much liked for what Scott called his `exquisite taste` and `gentleman-like and amiable manners`.(11) Lord Elgin made a friend of Stark and took him on a tour of Scotland in 1812 and, when Stark died, paid his widow £50 as compensation for loss of earnings during their travels.(12)

In Edinburgh, Stark also made his mark as a town planner. His `Report to the Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council of Edinburgh on the Plans for Laying out the Grounds for Buildings between Edinburgh and Leith`, which was printed posthumously in 1814, is an enlightened appreciation of the potential of the Edinburgh townscape. Stark favoured a variety of landscape rather than a rigid grid of streets, that paid careful attention to natural contours and took into consideration the attraction of oblique views, the picturesque value of trees, etc. These principles were largely followed after his death by his pupil from 1804, the famous Edinburgh architect, William Playfair.(13) In a letter of 1813, Lord Elgin mentions Stark`s `beautiful designs for an Observatory on Calton Hill`, which may have influenced Playfair`s building of 1818.(14)

On the evening of 8 October 1813, Stark designed a memorial to Hugh Crawford of Greenock, a past patron. The next day he died at home in Drumsheugh near Edinburgh, aged 43, and a few days later was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard.(15)

William Stark had a short, but notable, career which displayed a great and varied architectural talent. Lord Cockburn called Stark `the best modern architect that Scotland has produced` and, on his death, Walter Scott lamented that, `more genius has died than is left behind among the collected universality of Scottish architects`.(16)

1. H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1844, Yale, 1995.
2. R. Gordon Stark, `A memoir of William Stark, architect, 1770-1814`, 1935. Document MS1758, National Library of Scotland (NLS)
3. I. A. M. Burleigh, `The Hunterian Museum – an architectural history 1783-1870 and the life and works of William Stark`, Typescript thesis, Glasgow School of Art, AD15 1994 Bur. p.13. D. Watkin, A History of Western Architecture, London, 1986, p. 366.
4. G. Thomson in Dictionary of National Biography.
5. Colvin, op. cit. A. Gomme and D. Walker, Architecture of Glasgow, London, 1987.pp. 69-71.
6. Burleigh, op. cit., p. 30. S. Checkland, The Elgins, 1766-1917, Aberdeen, 1988, p. 77.
7. G. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, 1560-1843, Oxford, 1957, p. 135.
8. Burleigh, op. cit., p. 25. `William Stark` in `Georgian Dunfermline 250th year`, Dunfermline Press, Jan. 22 1971. P. Chalmers, Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline, Edinburgh, 1844, Vol. 1, p. 118.
9. M. Glendinning, R. McInnes and A. Mackechnie, A History of Scottish Architecture from Renaissance to Present Day, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 192. Gomme and Walker, op.cit., p.p. 70-71.
10. Stark, op. cit., p. 4.
11. H. J. Grierson (ed), The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, (Vol. 3 1811-1814), 1932, pp. 10, 34, 65.
12. Burleigh, op. cit., p. 30.
13. A. J. Youngson, The making of Classical Edinburgh, 1750-1840, Edinburgh, 1968, pp. 149-154.
14. Colvin, op. cit. Lord Elgin quoted in Burleigh, op. cit.
15. Burleigh, op. cit., p. 41.
16. Grierson, op. cit., p. 368. Stark, op. cit., Introduction.