McKean was formerly Secretary and Treasurer of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS). Educated at Fettes College, the University of Poitiers (Tours), and the University of Bristol, from 1977 to 1983 he was the architecture critic of the Times. McKean has published a number of articles reconstructing the career of the 16th century courtier and master of work James Hamilton of Finnart. Charles McKean was chairman of the board of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust from 2006 to 2012. He played a critical role in establishing History at Dundee as a leading UK centre in the discipline.
McKean was a leading authority on architecture and history, with a distinguished career that also included being architecture correspondent for The Times newspaper and Chair of UNESCO Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. He was appointed Head of the School of Architecture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 1995, before taking up his position as Professor of Scottish Architectural History in the History department in 1997.
Before coming to Dundee, Professor McKean was Chief Executive of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. He edited the journal London Architect from 1970–75, before becoming architecture correspondent for The Times newspaper from 1977-83. He then held a similar position for Scotland On Sunday from 1988-90.
He held fellowships of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Historical Society, and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
From 2003-09 he was a member of the Scottish committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, one of many prominent committee positions he occupied. In 2005 he was appointed Honorary President of the St Andrews Preservation Trust. He was also a prolific author of architecture and history books. He was awarded an Honorary Stephen Fry Award by the University of Dundee in 2012 for his lifetime achievements in engaging the public with his research in Scottish architectural history.
McKean died in Edinburgh on 29 September 2013.