James Dunbar-Nasmith

Born: March 15, 1927;

Died: March 18, 2023.

Professor Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith, who has died aged 96, was a dedicated architect and restorer of historic buildings. As early as 1960 he was acclaimed for his innovative and imaginative work for Leuchie Walled Garden, a glasshouse near North Berwick.

His design for the historic house stylishly blended the contemporary and the traditional. This was followed some years later when Dunbar-Nasmith was chosen to revamp the old Empire Theatre in Edinburgh which had served as a bingo hall for some years. His inspired renovation ensured the Festival Theatre became a prime site for entertainment in the capital.

Other Scottish connections included serving as an estate architect at Balmoral for many years. As a result of that position Dunbar-Nasmith was commissioned to design Sunninghill Park in Berkshire, the wedding present from the late Queen to the Duke and Duchess of York. The two-storey redbrick building was more akin to a Dallas villa and was labelled Southyork which the media mocked as a Tesco-style supermarket.

James Duncan Dunbar-Nasmith was born in Totnes, Devon, the youngest of three children of Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith VC and his wife Beatrix Justina Dunbar-Dunbar-Rivers. His father was a distinguished submariner and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1915 for sinking enemy vessels at the Dardanelles in the First World War.

He attended Winchester College then did his National Service in the Scots Guards, read architecture at Trinity College Cambridge and Edinburgh College of Art. After three years working for Robert Matthew, one of Scotland’s most eminent modern architects, he and Graham Law founded Law & Dunbar-Nasmith.

Of his many architectural achievements in Scotland one is patricianly notable. Dunbar-Nasmith persuaded fellow architects to buy the historic gem Hill House, in Helensburgh, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in what became known as the Glasgow style. Dunbar-Nasmith took meticulous care to preserve the Macintosh original and to add some modern touches externally and internally. This is witnessed in the theatrical hallway which portrays sharp contrasts between light and dark.

Hill House is now part of the National Trust for Scotland.

The Festival Theatre project was a major challenge for Dunbar-Nasmith. Not helped by Mecca, who were still operating it as a bingo hall when he received his commission. They refused him access until a deal had been signed which restricted his early planning. Undeterred, the adventurous Dunbar-Naismith joined the bingo club and worked away on his designs in the stalls. “We got some pretty funny looks from the old ladies,” he said in an interview.

The imposing glass-fronted building is immediately recognisable and Dunbar-Nasmith married the original Matcham auditorium with new foyers and a staircase.

Dunbar-Nasmith was a great champion of architecture in Scotland and a committed conservationist. He worked on many projects to preserve the original and embrace the modern with his keen sense of style. Such restorations included Fort George, Newhailes Estate, Edinburgh’s New Club and the Eden Court and Pitlochry theatres.

He was a great battler to preserve Edinburgh and in an interview in The Herald in 2000 he was considered a “long-standing thorn in the side of city administrations intent on sweeping away any kind of useless architectural or historic relic standing in the way of commercial progress. Like the Tron Kirk in 1970 which almost became a super-market.” Dunbar-Nasmith fought to preserve the New Town and Princes Street Gardens.

He concluded that interview with a resounding warning, ''I am genuinely concerned: it is not just Edinburgh where this is happening. It is all over Scotland. There is no longer professional design advice within councils' staff.''

Dunbar-Nasmith was professor and head of the department of architecture at Heriot-Watt University and the Edinburgh College of Art. At the former he was renowned for his conservation course when he often drew on his own experiences in preserving the character of buildings. He was much respected by his students and always had time for aspiring architects. He encouraged and inspired his students with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

In 2015 Dunbar-Nasmith went to Rothes to celebrate his father’s bravery and achievements at the Dardanelles. The ceremony at the war memorial was well attended – with the (then) Prince of Wales and Prince Harry in attendance. Dunbar-Nasmith was particularly touched, “Pupils from Rothes Primary School had recently completed a project about my father, and they also took part in the ceremony, laying wreaths in his honour.”

Jude Barber of Collective Architecture knew Dunbar-Nasmith well. “I knew Sir James through our shared interests at the RIAS but initially through connections in Findhorn. He was a warm, generous, and inspiring person, with an infectious love for the arts and architecture. He spoke so animatedly about this, whilst showing a genuine interest for others’ passions and pursuits. He was immensely intelligent, incredibly kind and such great fun.”

Dunbar-Nasmith, a man of much charm, courtesy and wit, served on many committees connected with his profession, including Edinburgh New Town Conservation, and was deputy chairman of the Edinburgh Festival and the Scottish Civic Trust. He was a keen skier and sailor, sailing in several Fastnet races, and an accomplished pianist.

He was awarded the CBE in 1976, knighted in 1996 and given a lifetime achievement award by the RIAS in 2012. Dunbar-Nasmith, who never married, spent his last years in Moray.

Alasdair Steven