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Basic Biographical Details

Name: (Professor Sir) James Duncan Dunbar-Nasmith
Designation: Architect
Born: 15 March 1927
Bio Notes: James Duncan Dunbar-Nasmith was born on 15 March 1927 in the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where his father, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith, was Captain. His mother came from Morayshire, and the family retained a home there, while moving every two years according to his father’s postings which included London and Sri Lanka. His elder brother, David Arthur Dunbar-Nasmith, would follow their father into the Navy.

Educated entirely in England, James Dunbar-Nasmith attended Winchester College, where the decision of one of the masters to replace one term’s English classes with lessons on the history of the English house was to make a lasting impression on him. He also credits his mother’s interest in buildings as a trigger for his own later desire to pursue a career in architecture; while the well-equipped home workshop of an uncle, with whom he spent endless childhood hours building boats, caravans and other items, gave him access to tools – including paraffin-driven power tools – and helped his understanding of structure.

On leaving school he served in the army for three years before going up to Cambridge to study architecture. Among his lectures there, he particularly valued those given by Nikolaus Pevsner and Geoffrey Webb. Having graduated BA, he went on to study for two years at the School of Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, where he remembers Alan Reiach as an extremely good studio tutor.

After passing the qualifying exam, he sought to stay in Edinburgh in order to be near his aging parents, who had by then settled back in Morayshire. Not wishing to follow most of his contemporaries into the office of Basil Spence where ‘everybody went to work’, he decided to try to obtain a post in the burgeoning practice of Robert Hogg Matthew, who had been appointed first Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh University and Head of the ECA School of Architecture during Dunbar-Nasmith’s final year at the College. When the young architect knocked on Matthew’s door asking to work for him, he was met with the response: ‘I can’t afford you.’ Asked whether he might be able to afford him in six months’ time, Matthew agreed to look through his portfolio and consider the possibility. A few days later Dunbar-Nasmith returned and, finding that Matthew had been satisfied by the standard of his work, vowed to find employment in the city until such time as Matthew could take him on. This he did, in the office of Leslie Grahame Thomson, which he duly left after six months to enter Matthew’s firm in April 1954.

At that time Matthew had no administrative support staff, and Dunbar-Nasmith was the youngest in the office; Tom Spaven was senior assistant, and Margaret Little, the other assistant, was happy to find herself relieved of her tea-making duties by the new arrival. Dunbar-Nasmith recalls that the office budget was so tight that it had not stretched to chairs, and all three were obliged to stand at their drawing boards. After a week, Dunbar-Nasmith persuaded Matthew to provide ten pounds for the purpose of buying some seating, which the young architect spent on four stools at a government surplus sale at Newbattle Abbey.

At the time he joined, the project that had first attracted him to the practice – Turnhouse Airport – had come to the end of the design drawings stage. He carried out most of the detail drawings for it, and was appointed job architect to supervise its construction. Matthew accompanied him for the first few site visits, and demanded that the contractor re-execute parts of the job that had not been done to his satisfaction, teaching the young architect an important lesson in standards of construction. He recalls his surprise at the level of involvement Matthew had in aspects as detailed as designing the layout of glass mosaic tiles on a bar counter. Dunbar-Nasmith himself worked on a design for a brass lamp fitting for McEwan Hall at this early stage. In addition, his work on Suntrap House at Gogarbank in Edinburgh in 1956 proved a formative experience. The client, George Boyd Anderson, an early innovator in energy conservation, was demanding; the walls were double- or triple-insulated and Anderson took hourly temperature readings from each window.

Two further assistant architects joined the office in the months after Dunbar Nasmith: first Margaret Brown (later Richards) in October 1954, then Graham Couper Law in November. The young architects developed strong friendships and Dunbar-Nasmith recalls them thinking, in youthful fashion, that they were ‘going to create a new world through architecture and change people’s lives’ – notions which he would later dismiss as ‘rubbish’.

Dunbar-Nasmith was admitted ARIAS in 1955 (FRIAS in 1963) and ARIBA in 1957, and he and Law left the Matthew firm (by then Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall) to go into partnership on 1 April that year, with an office at 54 Frederick Street, Edinburgh. Law was four years older than Dunbar-Nasmith, and the two had known each other at Cambridge. Law & Dunbar-Nasmith’s first job in independent practice, begun in the evenings while they were working out their notice period with Matthew, was a pair of farm cottages at Cublington in Buckinghamshire for Dunbar-Nasmith’s schoolfriend Leopold David de Rothschild (‘Leo’), who would go on to commission a number of other buildings from the firm. Law’s previous experience working for the Weir Housing Corporation was instrumental in securing for the new partnership a second project – a contract for 45 houses on the Ochlochy estate in Dunblane. They were given a completely free hand in the design, for which Law was principally responsible. Dunbar-Nasmith recalls that the publicity for this speculative project of elegant single-storey, two-storey and terraced houses ‘made our name’. Further commissions followed, including various alterations to country houses; a new country house in Hampshire for Leo de Rothschild, on seeing which the Queen would later decide to commission the practice to build cottages on the Balmoral Estate; and a series of schools in a patent system of construction. The practice expanded over the years and a branch office was opened in Forres in 1975.

It is for its theatre projects that the practice is perhaps best known. It first altered the original Pitlochry Theatre (previously only a tent), and then went on to design the new Eden Court Theatre in Inverness in the mid-1970s, in preparation for which Nasmith toured German opera houses and Law toured those in America and Finland. This was followed by the new Pitlochry Festival Theatre at the end of the decade.

By that time, most of the architectural work was being carried out by Law, as Dunbar-Nasmith had become increasingly involved with professional bodies and in education. He taught at the Edinburgh College of Art from around 1960, and subsequently joined the RIAS Education Committee, the RIBA Board of Education (of which he was Chairman), the RIBA Visiting Boards, the Commonwealth Board of Architecture Education, the Commonwealth Visiting Boards and the Ancient Monuments Board (which he chaired for a year). He was appointed Chairman of the Joint Building Group in Scotland in 1966, was head of the Edinburgh Architectural Association in the 1960s, and was involved in the Edinburgh New Town survey, as well as serving for some time on the Royal Commission and as a trustee of the Theatres Trust. Later, in 1995, he would become Chairman of the Scottish Civic Trust.

In the late 1970s he was asked to sit on the selection committee for Matthew’s former post – that of Professor of Edinburgh University and Head of the Department of Architecture at Heriot-Watt College. Having never considered an academic appointment of this nature before, the invitation opened up the possibility in his mind that he may himself be suitably qualified for the job; and so he asked if, rather than accepting the position on the selection committee, he might apply for the post instead. The suggestion was welcomed; he secured the position, and served as Professor from 1979 to 1989. Realising the difficulty of teaching concepts of construction through the examination of buildings in which it is largely hidden, he introduced the practice of taking first-year students away to the south of England for the first fortnight of the first term, to camp or stay in a medieval barn where the structure was clearly visible, and to draw the edifice in order to reach an understanding of the forces involved. He encouraged Colin McWilliam in developing the conservation course, which had begun just before the start of his professorship; and he was instrumental in setting up a separate school of landscape architecture with its own professor – a source of great satisfaction to him, as it recognised the potential of a colleague who he felt should have been made a professor some time before. Another notable member of his staff was environmental psychologist Peter Aspinall, who taught students perception, a subject Dunbar-Nasmith considered particularly important.

Dunbar-Nasmith first became involved in conservation architecture through a commission to alter a castle near Lake Menteith, for which he secured a grant from the Historic Buildings Council (and was then invited to join that Council himself). His practice was to develop a strong reputation for work in this field. In his own words: 'I've always loved working on a good building and giving it another hundred years of life. I think that's an immensely satisfactory thing to do.'

Throughout his work, the choice of materials has proved a key focus for him, particularly from the perspective of the way people come into contact with the fabric of buildings. ‘I cannot see concrete as a suitable material to lean against,’ he confesses; and he pays particular attention to the creation of elements such as door handles and balustrades that are ‘nice to feel’, stating: ‘The first job of a building is to give pleasure; unless people love their buildings, they won’t look after them.’ On the subject of style, despite the heady atmosphere of modernism that infused his early years, he later came to the conclusion that ‘there’s just good architecture and bad architecture. Style is completely irrelevant.’

Dunbar-Nasmith was made a CBE in 1976. In 1983, the firm made moves to expand into Germany by acquiring a practice in Wiesbaden; this was to be closed after five or six years. Law retired in 1984 and Dunbar-Nasmith, who had shared a partners' desk with him since the beginning, continued the practice until his own retirement c.2001. He was knighted in 1996.

The offices of Law & Dunbar-Nasmith remained at 16 Dublin Street, having moved there c.1967, and did not move again until early 2009.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 6Glen Rothes, Rothes, Morayshire, ScotlandPrivate1954 *  
Item 2 of 68, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness19541957 
Item 3 of 654, Frederick Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness1957c. 1967 
Item 4 of 616, Dublin Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusinessc. 1967c. 2001 
Item 5 of 6130, High Street, Forres, Morayshire, ScotlandBusiness1975After 1981Branch office
Item 6 of 6St Leonard's Road, Forres, Morayshire, ScotlandBusiness1991 * Branch office

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 4Leslie Grahame Thomson (or Leslie Grahame-Thomson; later Leslie Grahame MacDougall)19531954ArchitectEmployed for six months
Item 2 of 4Robert Hogg MatthewApril 19541956Architect 
Item 3 of 4Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall (RMJM)1956Early 1957Architect 
Item 4 of 4Law & Dunbar-Nasmith1 April 1957c. 2001Partner 


RIBA Proposals

This architect proposed the following individuals for RIBA membership (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate proposedNotes
Item 1 of 3Alexander ('Sandy') MacCallum (or McCallum) Brown17 July 1968For Fellowship
Item 2 of 3John Buchan Hall5 June 1968for Fellowship
Item 3 of 3John Herdman Reid17 July 1968For Fellowship

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 571953Turnhouse Airport  EdinburghScotland 
Item 2 of 571956Millbuies HouseGogarbank EdinburghScotlandProject Architect
Item 3 of 571956Pair of farm cottagesCublington BuckinghamshireEngland 
Item 4 of 57c. 1956Multi-storey flats, Spey Street  EdinburghScotlandUnsuccessful competition design - as assistant to Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners
Item 5 of 571957Ochlochy Village HousingDunblane PerthshireScotland 
Item 6 of 571959Private houseRhu DunbartonshireScotland 
Item 7 of 571959Scottish Churches HouseDunblane PerthshireScotlandConversion
Item 8 of 571960s(?)BEA sales office  GlasgowScotland 
Item 9 of 571960s(?)Ferry terminalArdrossan AyrshireScotland 
Item 10 of 571960sHouseExbury HampshireEngland 
Item 11 of 571960sHouse for Leopold David de RothschildExbury HampshireEngland 
Item 12 of 571960sSt Mary's SchoolHaddington East LothianScotland 
Item 13 of 571960sSt Ninian's High SchoolKirkintilloch DunbartonshireScotlandExtension on CLASP system
Item 14 of 571960sVilla, Rhu Road LowerHelensburgh Dunbartonshire/ArgyllScotland 
Item 15 of 571960s(?)Wullie Muir Inn  EdinburghScotland 
Item 16 of 571960Aswanley House  AberdeenshireScotlandOgee roof
Item 17 of 571960Dumbarton Central Area DevelopmentDumbarton DunbartonshireScotland2nd prize in competition
Item 18 of 571960Dunbartonshire County Council OfficesDumbarton DunbartonshireScotlandPlaced second in the competition for redevelopment of central Dumbarton which included new County Offices.
Item 19 of 571960Kingsway Technical College  DundeeScotlandTwo blocks added - in conjunction with the SED
Item 20 of 571960Leuchie House  East LothianScotland 
Item 21 of 571961Edinburgh Festival Society Exhibitions  EdinburghScotland 
Item 22 of 571962BEA ticket office  EdinburghScotland 
Item 23 of 571962Clermiston Inn  EdinburghScotland 
Item 24 of 571962Leuchie House, walled gardenNorth Berwick East LothianScotlandHouse in corner of walled garden. Extension 1964
Item 25 of 571963Cramond Brig Cottages  EdinburghScotland 
Item 26 of 571963St Crispin's Special SchoolWest Mains Edinburgh, MidlothianScotland 
Item 27 of 571964Kinross House and Home Farm  Kinross-shireScotlandAlterations to Home Farm
Item 28 of 571966St Columba's Ecumenical Church, CraigshillLivingston West LothianScotland 
Item 29 of 571968Kingsinch SchoolInch EdinburghScotland 
Item 30 of 57c. 196Pitlochry Festival TheatrePitlochry PerthshireScotlandAlterations to temporary tent structure
Item 31 of 571970sCLASP school buildings for SED and NBA   Scotland 
Item 32 of 571970sConservation projects  EdinburghScotlandConservation
Item 33 of 571970sDervaig Arts TheatreDervaigMullArgyllScotland 
Item 34 of 571970sLoretto School, theatreMusselburgh MidlothianScotland 
Item 35 of 571970sOffices for Clydesdale Bank  EdinburghScotlandReconstruction
Item 36 of 571970s(?)Television studios for STV  EdinburghScotland 
Item 37 of 571970s(?)TV transmitter stations for ITA   Scotland 
Item 38 of 571970Glen Tanar House (new)Glen Tanar AberdeenshireScotland 
Item 39 of 571970Milnwood Housing EstateBellshill LanarkshireScotlandPhase I
Item 40 of 571971St Margaret's School  EdinburghScotland2-storey addition
Item 41 of 571973Bishop's PalaceInverness Inverness-shireScotlandTheatre
Item 42 of 571973Eden Court TheatreInverness Inverness-shireScotland 
Item 43 of 57Before 1975Willie Muir Inn  EdinburghScotland 
Item 44 of 571976St Machar's CathedralOld Aberdeen AberdeenScotlandRestoration with fabric fully conserved
Item 45 of 571979Pitlochry Festival TheatrePitlochry PerthshireScotlandNew permanent building
Item 46 of 571983Fort George PrisonFort George Inverness-shireScotlandRestoration
Item 47 of 57198620 SSHA housesFindhorn MorayshireScotlandCompletion of scheme
Item 48 of 571987Milton Brodie House  MorayshireScotlandAlterations
Item 49 of 571990sStanley Mills, Mid MillStanley PerthshireScotlandConversion of mill to housing
Item 50 of 571990sStation for narrow gauge railwayExbury HampshireEngland 
Item 51 of 571990Dynamic Earth  EdinburghScotlandPreparation of design briefs with David Mann
Item 52 of 571991Dollar Academy, Gibson BuildingDollar ClackmannanshireScotland 
Item 53 of 571991Empire Palace Theatre  EdinburghScotlandRebuilding
Item 54 of 571995Dollar Academy, Iona BuildingDollar ClackmannanshireScotland 
Item 55 of 571995Dollar Academy, Younger BuildingDollar ClackmannanshireScotland 
Item 56 of 571998Corrour Station House RestaurantCorrour Inverness-shireScotland 
Item 57 of 572000Birmingham Hippodrome  BirminghamEnglandComplete refurbishment, including creation of second theatre space and construction of new facade


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 6Bailey, Rebecca M1996Scottish architects' papers: a source book Edinburgh: The Rutland Pressp129
Item 2 of 6Glendinning, Miles1997Rebuilding Scotland: The Postwar Vision, 1945-75  Tuckwell Press Ltdp18-19, p165 Turnhouse Airport
Item 3 of 6Glendinning, Miles2008Modern architect: the life and times of Robert Matthew RIBA Publishingp156,160-3,171,174-5,470,472
Item 4 of 6RIBA1954RIBA Kalendar 1953-54   
Item 5 of 6RIBA1970RIBA Directory 1970   
Item 6 of 6Willis, Peter1977New architecture in Scotland  p7-8, p15-16 Turnhouse Airport
p80-3 Eden Court Theatre

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 2Builder28 April 1961  'Edinburgh Architectural Assocation: A Lively 1961 Year Book' p803 - Dunbar-Nasmith listed as assistant editor of year book
Item 2 of 2Building21 October 1966  p108

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2Courtesy of James Dunbar-NasmithInterview of James Dunbar-Nasmith by Jessica Taylor, 15 April 2009  
Item 2 of 2RIAS, Rutland SquareRecords of membership  


© All rights reserved. ©and courtesy of RIAS 

© All rights reserved. ©and courtesy of RIAS