Stewart Kidd is recalling the visit he made to Glasgow School of Art's 'Mack' building in 1995, around 20 years before the first fire.

In the mid-1990s the fire expert was despatched with a Historic Scotland colleague for a reccy of some of the city's historical buildings including Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Burrell.

"We both agreed that the wood-lined shafts [at the Mack] were a potential furnace," says Mr Kidd, a former director of the Fire Protection Association who has advised on insurance compliance for major construction projects including The Shard in London.

He makes clear he was not at the art school to produce an official report, nor did he report his concerns to senior management.

The Herald: Stewart Kidd provided 'compelling' evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the two fires at Glasgow School of Art Stewart Kidd provided 'compelling' evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the two fires at Glasgow School of Art (Image: Stewart Kidd)

"Back then Historic Scotland didn't have its own fire advisor," he says. "I was doing stuff on contract for them."

"We told the person who was showing us around. "I was told the hazards generated by the ventilation shaft were well known." 

Twenty-three years later Mr Kidd would be called as an expert witness to the parliamentary inquiry that was instigated after the second, more catastrophic fire in 2018 as the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building was nearing the end of a 'flawless' £35million restoration.

Around £24million had been raised by the public for the project.

The Herald: The key that opened Glasgow School of Art in 1899 The key that opened Glasgow School of Art in 1899 (Image: Newsquest)

Mr Kidd says he was criticised for not turning up in person at the Holyrood inquiry but says he was due in the House of Commons the same day. His written evidence was nonetheless among the most compelling.

He said void in the walls and old ventilation ducts had allowed the fires to 'spread like a chimney', a phrase that would fill newspaper headlines around the world the next day.

"The trouble is that I could identify the defects in the building but correcting them takes several things apart from a tonne of money," he says.

"[It requires] a willingness to make changes and what some people would say would be destruction of a historic building.

"We would have had to remove all the timber lining from the ventilation shafts and put in a new system.

"The cost of that would have been millions," he says, although considerably less than the £100million or more needed to rebuild the Mac for the second time.

"If the will is there it can be done," he adds.

The Herald: Find every article in our Glasgow School of Art Fires series here

The first fire began when flammable gases from a cannister of expanding foam, used by a student, came into contact with the hot surface of project.

Around 80% of the structure and contents were saved although Mackintosh's prized library was destroyed.

The damage caused during the second fire was so great that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) could not identify the cause.

The Herald: The second fire at GSA gutted the building as well as the nearby O2 ABCThe second fire at GSA gutted the building as well as the nearby O2 ABC (Image: Newsquest)

If the first fire had left the Mack 'bruised' but not destroyed' according to Muriel Gray, the former chairwoman of GSA's board of governors, the second, four years later knocked it out stone cold and left for dead.

The investigation was the more complex and resource-intensive ever undertaken by the SFRS, involving more than 172 weeks of excavation and examination of hundreds of tonnes of debris along with careful analysis of witness testimonies. The report noted that wilful fire raising and electrical failure 'could not be discounted.'

A long figure captured on CCTV three hours after the start of the blaze has never been traced.

The report describes how on the evening of the fire the nightshift security guard went to investigate after hearing strange noises in the building and when he reached the level four landing, he observed fire and sparks in what he described as a 'crawl space' or 'duct'.

The Herald:

He called 999 at 11.19pm to report the fire. The first fire engines are said to have arrived on the scene within six minutes - however half of the building was well alight within 38 minutes of their arrival.

At the height of the incident more than 120 firefighters were at the scene tackling the blaze, which also affected neighbouring music venue the O2 ABC and the Jumpin Jaks nightclub and forced the evacuation of residents in the Garnethill area.

That evening Johnny Rodger was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA)  for the launch of an exhibition he had put together with a Dutch artist Jonas Staal. A second was planned at GSA with visitors from all over the world invited.

"The exhibition opened and shut that night", recalls the academic, who is a professor of urban literature at GSA. The fire closed the Sauchiehall Street building for several months.

The Herald: Professor Johnny Rodger: 'It feels like the Mack is slipping away' Professor Johnny Rodger: 'It feels like the Mack is slipping away' (Image: Newsquest)

"I was there with my daughter and it was a big celebration," he says. "We left to go home early and the rest of the people who were involved in the exhibition went for a meal."

Before setting off home he decided to go back up to his office in another part of the building to collect his bag.

"The school was probably burning at that time," he says.

"I got a text about 10.30pm or 11pm saying 'do you know the schools burning down?'.

"At first I thought it was a mistake. How does Glasgow School of Art burn down twice in four years? It doesn't, don't be ridiculous.

"We lived near Bell Street and I got up to the living room window and I could see the flames in the air. I was just stunned and astonished.


'I don't regret being the whistleblower - I'd do it all again'

Read every article in the Glasgow School of Art series 

"It devastated me," he adds. "I personally consider it the greatest artwork ever made in Scotland."

Prof Rodger poured his emotions into a book about the fires entitled, Glasgow Cool of Art.

"It's a very positive thing and it's had a very positive reaction [but] as far as the school is concerned, it doesn't exist," he says.

"There was no criticism. What the book was trying to show was why the building was so wonderful and why people were so upset.

The Herald:

"The first time [the building went on fire] was shock out of nowhere. Then when you discovered it was a small percentage that was destroyed, in a sense there was a kind of devastation and grief but there was the relief and not joy but hope.

"The library happened to be the most beautiful part of the building but nonetheless you didn't feel as if the whole thing was destroyed.

"The first time was a punch - you reeled and then got back up. The second one - you are out for the count."

He says the second fire eroded the public's support.

"Everybody was rallying behind us the first time," he says. "The second time it was 'who left them in charge? and you understand why they are saying that.

"Whether they are right, is another question."

Hours before the 2018 fire artist Sam Ainsley had enjoyed a celebratory lunch at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow's west end.

The 74-year-old, who co-founded GSA's influential Master of Fine Arts course, was awarded an honorary doctorate on the morning of June 15, 2018 alongside her former colleagues Sandy Moffat and David Harding.

The Herald:

Within hours celebration had turned to devastation.

She received a call to say the Mack building was on fire, for the second time. 

"I was so shocked I didn't even process who I was speaking to," she says. "I just heard the news - the Mackintosh is burning to the ground.

"I don't think I even processed the information until the next day. Speculation was running riot the next day about what had caused the fire.

"I don't think we will ever know and that's when conspiracy theories surface. I hate conspiracy theories with a vengeance but there are so many unanswered questions."

In the west of Glasgow, the only church to be built by Mackintosh was hosting a concert.  "I must have left here, the back of 11pm," says Stuart Robertson, director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, which is headquartered there. 

"It seemed misty at Garnethill," he recalls.

"I was in two minds do I go and have a look - but I was tired. I got home and my daughter texted me to say the school of art is on fire.

The Herald:

"I couldn't believe it. I was looking at social media through the night and then I got calls to do interviews in the morning and I was wrecked."

He did three hours of interviews for all the major TV channels the next day and over the coming week. The art school had decided not to do any press this time around he says.

"It was a murky, drizzly morning and having to look up at the mess of the art school.

"It was therapeutic having to deal with it," he says.

The second fire at GSA and other high-profile incidents at Notre Dame, Windsor Castle have one thing in common.

They all happened when the historic buildings were undergoing restoration work, a time when buildings are at massive risk, says Mr Kidd.

He helped draft fire regulations in the 1990s for insurers on the prevention of fires on construction sites.

"If those are followed you won't have fires on construction sites," he says.

He was the advisor on the £435million project to build London's Shard, which began in March 2009 and opened to the public on February 1 2013.

The Herald:

"We delivered that project with no fires. Heathrow Terminal Two likewise.

"It is possible to achieve a fire-safe site and where you don't deliver a fire-safe site it has to be in the control of the contractor because the owner hands the keys over to him or her. That makes a difference legally and financially," he says.

"If you breach these insurance terms it can leave you uncovered and I've suspended cover on sites when I've done site inspections" he adds.

"My impression from the fire service report and the parliamentary report was that the contractor was not following the joint code fire requirements."

The fire service has said any new evidence will be considered on a case-by-case basis but Mr Kidd says it is very unlikely that more light will be shed on the cause of the second fire.

"The biggest single arson fire in the UK resulted in a very important legal case in the early 1980s where Securicor was sued by the owner of the building and the security guard was throwing paper balls in the bucket because he was bored. He then decided it would be better if he lit the paper balls.

"That burnt down the biggest print shop in the UK."

He has his own theory about the cause but is not willing to go on the record about it.

"People will say fires are an exceptional occurrence but sadly it's not true," he says.

"Fires happen and they happen regularly and virtually every country house has had at least one fire in its life and many have had more than one.

"Windsor Castle had five fires before the big one," says Mr Kidd who is Cambridge-based but was brought up in Peterhead.

He headed up the Fire Protection Association and has chaired a UK government working group on the safeguarding of heritage buildings.

"The Mackintosh building is one of the greatest examples of Art Nouveau style, to staff, students but in the context of fire risk the school of art is just a building," he says.

The Herald: The prized Mackintosh library which was destroyed in the first fire The prized Mackintosh library which was destroyed in the first fire (Image: Newsquest)

"It's the activities that are dangerous.

"If you were to look at the Scottish Fire database, 2003, the single largest cause of fires in historic buildings is cooking as they are in any building.

"Historic and cultural buildings aren't different from other buildings.

"The risks are the same and the causes of fire are the same."

He says it was "very sad" that the sprinkler system was 75-80% installed before the first fire when work was paused after they found asbestos in the location for the pump house.

"If that hadn't happened, it might have been commissioned and working. That would almost certainly have prevented the fire spreading."

He says lessons are still not being learned after major fires and says government has not done enough to tighten regulation around the care of historic buildings.

"There will be a change coming up which will affect historic buildings post Cameron House," he says on the fire that claimed two lives in December 2017.

The sheriff recommended that where historic buildings are converted into hotels, they should be fitted with sprinklers.

Glasgow School of Art leaders say they are committed to another rebuild, but many do not believe it can be completed by 2030, the deadline pledged last year by director Penny Macbeth.

 "In the case of Notre Dame in Paris they knew what the cause was, they started work on the rebuild the next day," says Sam Ainsley.

The Herald: Artist and co-founder of Glasgow School of Art's prestigious MFA says she fears she won't see the Mack again in her lifetime Artist and co-founder of Glasgow School of Art's prestigious MFA says she fears she won't see the Mack again in her lifetime (Image: Newsquest)

"The whole might of the French goverment went behind it because they knew it was an icon.

"Why doesn't that happen in Scotland - I don't know."

The 74-year-old fears the rebuild will not happen "in her lifetime" and says the worst aspect has been the "lack of transparency from the powers that be".

"Why have they been so silent for so long? she says. "There are billboards up now saying we are on our way but how many years later?" 

Professor Rodger recalls giving an Australian academic a tour around the almost completed Mack restoration and being "astonished" at the final result.

The drawing that Professor George Cairns completed of the Mackintosh building as part of his PHD at Glasgow School of Art helped inform the rebuild.

The Herald:

"He gifted the plans to the school in 2015 and returned for a guided tour of the restoration," says Prof Rodger.

"I was astonished. The restoration looked fantastic, the studio spaces...all that effort."

He says he is "absolutely" in favour of another rebuild but adds:  "As time goes on, fewer and fewer people know what it was like and you do get that feeling that the chance of a real Mack is slipping away.

"You hope not. You start feeling, 'Am I ever going to see it?'.

He says "a lot of nonsense" is talked about the financial aspect of the rebuild.

"When people say why would they spend that money on an art school rebuild - well because if you don't spend the money on rebuilding the art school you simply don't get given the money - it not that you can use the money to do something else."

Stuart Robertson is on the steering committee for the rebuild and says he has urged GSA's leader to "improve communication" about its progress.

"If you don't there is always that negativity," he says.

Turner prize-nominated artist Nathan Coley says he's "done talking about the fires" at the world-renowned school where he studied from 1985 to 1989.

The Herald:

"I’m disgusted by the ineptitude of our cultural leaders and politicians," says the artist who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007.

After the second fire the artist made his feeling known on on social media, writing."I’ve gone from despair to absolute RAGE.

"How the f** was this allowed to happen? The most important conservation project in the last 100 years, the beating heart of our city, the most symbolic romantic building in Scotland, allowed to die. A terrible reflection the poverty of our time."

At the time he suggested the Mack should be left as a ruin "to shame us" but now thinks it should be rebuilt anew.

"We have an architect, we have a site, and we have a client. Get it done".