THROUGHOUT the Highlands, huge, often laughably pretentious architectural behemoths are dotted across the landscape. Lauded by some, loathed by others, these remarkable houses serve as monuments to that era when “the whole world travelled to Scotland”, as one woman who made the tartan tour put it, to slay the creatures that defined the wilderness.

This beautiful new work by the architectural historian Mary Miers, is an exquisitely well-researched exploration of those buildings, the circumstances in which they were built, and the legacy they’ve left behind. Split into eight chapters, the book begins provocatively with the “discovery of the Highlands” in the 17th century and ends 300 years later on the shores of Loch Ossian, detailing the “daringly alien”, Corrour Lodge, a bold, granite-pillared example of a Highland retreat, appropriately owned by a Scandinavian academic. Each chapter is illustrated by superb pictures by the Perthshire-based architectural photographer, Simon Jauncey, and the late Paul Barker.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a book on this theme, written by the fine arts editor of Country Life, that bible of aspirational Englishness, might have a rather blinkered view of the significance of such buildings. But one need not have feared. Those in search of a pretty coffee table read will no doubt enjoy the book, as will all those looking for a grand architectural fix, but social history is where it is most interesting.

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While Miers notes that “tourists turned a blind eye to the realities of the contemporary Highlands and instead looked back nostalgically to an imagined golden age”, the same cannot be said of this work, whose pages are full of regrettable details, such as the Duke of Sutherland sanctioning the Highland clearances from his Sutherland chateau, Dunrobin Castle.

Satirical wit abounds in vignettes of sassenachs in their newly discovered playground. One cannot but laugh upon reading stories such as the tale of Miss Joyce Gwyer, who had the romantic notion of taking her bees north with her for a holiday. Unfortunately, after their long journey “they were so angry they stung everyone”. Months later, after calming down and gorging on the sweet Scottish heather, they decided they would like to stick around in highlands and Miss Gwyer was obliged to travel home with her hives empty.

Similarly, in the chapter on Kinloch Castle, that dilapidated red sandstone construction, perhaps unrivalled in Edwardian vulgarity, the recording of alligators housed in heated outdoor pools sounds like the sort of thing Wodehouse might have decided was a little too farcical for his novels.

While the book’s concerns are primarily historical, the zeitgeist theme of cultural appropriation is present in many of the chapters. It is hard not to warm, in some senses, to the Duchess of Bedford, who is depicted wandering barefoot up into the hills to lead “a communal life of rustic simplicity”, cooking on peat fires with her male companions “in kilts”. Quaint, but of course it was less than a hundred years previously that the notorious Dress Act made wearing tartan illegal. What’s more, Miers notes that this bohemian crowd “had regular supplies of provisions carried over the hills by servants from Doune”. This was not the only moment when I found myself thinking of Mary Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine, that charming feature at Versaille where, of an evening, she liked to play at being a peasant for a while.

For shooting types and naturalists, Highland Retreats makes for fascinating reading. In its early pages, Miers’ paints a romantic bloodthirsty picture of gaelic nobles waiting with “dogs, guns, arrows, dirks and daggers” for deer which were corralled towards them, often resulting in men being trampled to death beneath the hooves of the stampeding herd.

We learn that some 400 years later, on the Isle of Arran, once owned in its vast entirety by the 6th Duchess of Montrose, “a rough average of 1000 to 14,000 brace of grouse were shot over pointers each year and there were black game in abundance”. Such myopic Edwardian sporting greed is responsible to a large degree for the meagre stock of both species of grouse that can be encountered on the island today.

This is not the book I expected. It looks like a coffee table flick and feels like a coffee table flick but each page is imbued with a profound scholarly interest in the people who appropriated the Highlands and those who were already there. This is a social history of great richness. It leaves one wondering the extent to which Scotland benefited from being the most popular holiday destination for some 300 years, and what the Highlands might look like if that had not been the case.