By Geoffrey Stell FSA FSAScot
Distinguished historian and analyst of Scottish architecture and medieval monumental sculpture, Ian Fisher died in Edinburgh, a place in which, except for his earliest childhood and his student years at Oxford, he had spent his entire life. But the material cultural world which Ian inhabited and explored with his own special brand of penetrating scholarship reached far beyond his home in Portobello and Scotland’s capital city, far beyond Scotland even. In the west it became firmly anchored in the Irish Gaeltacht, extending northwards across the fragmented Scottish seaboard to the Faroes and Iceland, returning eastwards to embrace Norway and most of continental Scandinavia. Within this vast North Atlantic zone Ian’s historical interests and knowledge – and his undimmed enthusiasm for absorbing and disseminating yet more – were boundless, exemplified by the fact that completing a survey of traditional buildings in central Donegal that he had started in the 1990s was a major preoccupation in what, sadly, turned out to be his final years.
Eldest son of a soldier who was then serving in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and whose family originated from Loch Tayside, Ian was born at Dursley near Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his father’s battalion was stationed, probably in training, while his mother was staying with her parents. On his father leaving the army after the war, the family returned to Scotland, staying first in Selkirk before settling in Edinburgh. Ian’s secondary education began with a brief spell at Boroughmuir High School before blossoming at the Royal High School of Edinburgh where his talent for architectural investigation shone precociously. There, below the false bottom of a showcase in the school library, he discovered a volume of water-colour drawings by the Scottish architect, Thomas Hamilton. Dated 1824, they illustrated proposals for a new high school in Elder Street, a domed building of square plan set above shops and forming a group with other distinguished buildings. The site proved unavailable and shortly afterwards Hamilton began work on his Greek Revival masterpiece on Calton Hill, the building which served as the Royal High between 1829 and 1968 and which Ian attended between 1954-5 and 1961. Publishing a note in the school magazine, Scola Regia, in 1961 about what he called ‘hidden treasure in the school library’, Ian’s lifelong interest in architectural history – and Thomas Hamilton – was well and truly kindled.
Ian’s entry into higher education in 1961 followed the same staggered pattern as the start of his secondary schooling, in this case a brief spell at the University of Edinburgh before going up to Christ Church at the University of Oxford. There he read History, his first-class degree in 1965 appropriately featuring a dissertation entitled ‘Thomas Hamilton of Edinburgh: architect and town-planner (1784-1858)’. It was also in his final year at Oxford that he met Judith, who was then at Somerville College and whom he was to marry in 1968. After graduating, Ian signed up for an Oxford DPhil under the direction of Martin Biddle, the subject of which was to be a detailed historical and architectural examination of an area of Winchester which would form part of a mosaic of studies then being assembled as a large and famously pioneering multi-disciplinary project which evolved into the still ongoing Winchester Research Unit.
In 1968, however, Ian’s further involvement in Winchester was to a large extent curtailed when he successfully landed a job as historic buildings investigator in the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) back in Edinburgh, an all absorbing task that has proved over the years to have been the cause of many unfinished doctorates! This appointment was clearly a watershed event in Ian’s life and career, as it was to some extent in the intellectual strength which Ian would bring to RCAHMS in its then current major survey of the monuments of Argyll. The results of that survey are embodied in seven large volumes which were published between 1971 and 1992. Ian had an involvement in all of them, not in itself unusual among the ranks of the academic and technical teams who created those anonymous corporate products. What was very unusual was the sheer extent of Ian’s personal contribution to two of the works in that series, volume 4 relating to Iona (1982) and volume 7 covering the medieval and later monuments of Mid Argyll and Cowal (1992).
Studies of Iona and its place in Early Christian history and archaeology have advanced greatly in the past 40 years and they continue to develop in many stimulating directions. However, the RCAHMS Iona volume, often referred to simply as ‘Argyll 4’, remains what many in the field, probably most, still openly acknowledge as the indispensable bible on the subject. This is now the time and the place to remove the veil of anonymity and to recognise the key role Ian had in its creation and content. Typical of his skilful investigative methods on Iona was the discovery of a ring-fragment which elucidated the early history of the much damaged St John’s Cross, the first known ringed cross in the Insular world. He brought the same infinite capacity for painstaking detail to bear on ‘Argyll 7’, the last and, at almost 600 pages, by far the largest in the series. It was notable, among many other things, for Ian’s detailed account of the architecture of the Inveraray estate, the historic Campbell heartland of Argyll. But what the small print credits do not make clear is that, in addition to being a major contributor to that volume, he was also its general editor.
Following on from the Argyll survey, Ian continued his leading author-editor role in the gestation of Tolbooths and Town-houses: civic architecture in Scotland to 1833 which was published by RCAHMS in 1996. But it was not until 2001 that this selfless team-player was openly attributed on the front cover and title-page of a major RCAHMS production. This was Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands, a masterly synthesis and geographical amplification of his specialist input to the Argyll programme, jointly published with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland as the first in their monograph series.
Beyond officialdom, Ian was and remained – as long as he was able – an active and energetic contributor to a wide range of learned societies and institutions which reflected his broad cultural horizons. Elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1968 and of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1983, a founder member and RCAHMS representative on the National Committee on Carved Stones in Scotland from 1993, after retirement from RCAHMS in 2004 he became for a time an Affiliate Researcher in the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow.
In Ireland, he is fondly remembered, among much else, for lectures and commentaries given to the Irish Conference of Medievalists and to the long-running series of conferences on medieval Ireland at Mount St Joseph’s Abbey, Roscrea. The sheer breadth and depth of his contribution to Irish studies is summed up in an obituary in Archaeology Ireland which concludes that ‘there seemed to be nowhere on the island that he had not visited, and no archaeologist that he did not know.’
First invited to the prestigious Viking Congress in 1985, he remained a regular contributor to its published proceedings. He worked closely and effectively with the Faroese on the origins of their early sculpture and what the pieces might mean in terms of pre-Viking or Viking settlement, while his published account of the circular church at Orphir, Orkney, in its wider Scandinavian context was a typically masterful overview. Equally memorable, but unpublished, were the series of Fischer-Lindsay lectures he gave in Norway in 2009, at Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim.
As much as he was the archetypal meticulous scholar, Ian was always socially gregarious, endowed with a friendly, positive and ever-helpful personality. Sharing an enthusiasm for Gaelic with his late wife, it was often through his love for traditional music and dance, coupled with a considerable skill on the Lowland pipes, that he engaged most warmly with his friends and lit up many a ceilidh. He wore his background knowledge of traditional musical sources very lightly but, once tapped, his scholarly insights were, as usual, astonishing and profound. With music as with architecture, sculpture and history, especially ecclesiastical history, the comparison with the village schoolmaster in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village is particularly apt: And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew / That one small head could carry all he knew.
Predeceased by his wife Judith (1946-2003; http://textualities.net/tag/judith-ann-fisher), Ian is survived by his two sons, Gavin and Malcolm, and two younger siblings, Roy and Anne. It is very fitting that in this distinguished Roll of Fellows he joins his old close friend and collaborator, Ian Scott.
This account has benefited greatly from the input of many persons who have kindly shared their recollections and knowledge of Ian. They are too numerous to mention individually, but exceptions should be made for the generous assistance given by his sons, Gavin and Malcolm Fisher, and by Dr Colleen Batey FSAScot, Con Manning, Dr Sophia Marriage and Dr Niamh Whitfield FSAScot.
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