Category Archives: Alphabet

An Edinburgh Alphabet, T–Z

T is for Triduana

Triduana_Chapel Triduana_Statue Triduana_KClabel

In the 19th century, and into the 20th, the main industry in the Canongate was brewing. There were a lots of springs and streams, now channeled underground, providing a good supply of water. Walking into Holyrood Park you soon come across St Margaret’s Well, a spring which has long existed, but whose well-house, as the sign says, was installed here in 1860s, after being moved from Restalrig, about a mile to the east. It’s a miniature copy of St Triduana’s Aisle, a 15th century chapel badly damaged at the Scottish Reformation in 1560, but restored in the early 1900s. I was very struck by it when I first visited 20 years ago, and wrote a poem about it, ‘Intercession’. In the extract below, the first verse gives Triduana’s story; the second describes the well-house.

The unusual hexagonal chapel was built for James III
above a spring, and the floor-slabs, laid below ground level,
would have been underwater: became, much later,
linked with Triduana, an ‘obscure Pictish saint’,
who gifted a princely suitor enamoured of her eyes
those eyes on thorns; was granted her desired seclusion.

*

… Where a well-house stands,
the chapel’s miniature double,
exact down to the floral bosses,
but pumpless: mosses thrive,
and a pipe dribbles water
into a pool of water.

U is for University

University_MesosticInterleaved University_MesosticInterleaved_COCKBURN University_MesosticInterleaved_MORGAN

University_MesosticInterleaved_AFcircle_credit University_MesosticInterleaved_AFcircle

Mesostic Interleaved was a project by Alec Finlay for the The University of Edinburgh Library when it was renovated in 2009. It features 100 mesostics by Alec, myself and other poets on the names of authors held in the library, which were was realised as a book, as a set of bookmarks, and as coloured shelf-ends within the library itself. The two shelf end mesostics pictured are:

rustiC gOds reloCated, craigcrooK’s Bucolic satUrdays inspiRe frieNdship

Man, gO Roam amonG An aNagram

The first is for Henry Cockburn (1779–1850) (no relation), whose friend Francis Jeffrey moved out of Edinburgh to then country district of Craigcrook; the second is for the poet Edwin Morgan (1920–2010), and nods towards Bob Cobbing’s extensive list of anagrams on EDWIN MORGAN, which begins:

AM WONDERING
NOW DREAMING
WORD MEANING
WANDERING ‘OM’

Alec also wrote a circle poem incorporating a mesostic, here shown in its printed form, which was installed as steel text in stone outside the entrance to the library. You can read his account of the project here.

V is for Vailima

Vailima_RLS_SNPG Vailima_RLS_NewCaltonBuryingGround_1 Vailima_RLS_NewCaltonBuryingGround_2

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) bought the estate of Vailima in January 1890, having arrived in Samoa the previous month. He wrote the poem ‘The tropics vanish…’ about the same time. In it he imagines he is high on the Pentland Hills just south of Edinburgh, looking over on the city, before he zooms in on the family vault in the New Calton Burying Ground, where his grandfather and other relatives are buried. Many of them were engineers, and the family became known as ‘the Lighthouse Stevensons’, for all the lighthouses they built around the Scottish coasts. The poem was published posthumously in Songs of Travel (1895), a volume prepared by Stevenson before his death.

Far set in fields and woods, the town I see
Spring gallant from the shallows of her smoke,
Cragged, spired, and turreted, her virgin fort
Beflagged. About, on seaward-drooping hills,
New folds of city glitter…

There, on the sunny frontage of a hill,
Hard by the house of kings, repose the dead,
My dead, the ready and the strong of word.
Their works, the salt-encrusted, still survive;
The sea bombards their founded towers; the night
Thrills pierced with their strong lamps. The artificers,
One after one, here in this grated cell,
Where the rain erases, and the rust consumes,
Fell upon lasting silence…

There are photographs of RLS at Vailima at https://www.capitalcollections.org.uk (search for ‘Vailima’).

W is for Waverley

Waverley_Scott_04 Waverley_1814 Waverley_Scott_03

Waverley_Scott_05 Waverley_Scott_02 Waverley_Scott_01

Walter Scott (1771–1832) published his first novel, Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, in 1814. He was already famous for such poems as The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), but the novel was published anonymously, and Scott didn’t admit publicly to writing this and the many novels that followed until 1827. Waverley is set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and narrates the adventures of a young English nobleman who finds himself in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army. But he’s never quite sure which side he wants to be on, hence his name. The railway station at the east end of Princes St which opened in 1846 was named after Scott’s work. In 2014, to celebrate the 200th annversary of the novel’s appearance, and the re-opening of the line between Edinburgh and the Scottish borders, quotations from Scott’s works were installed around the station by Edinburgh City of Literature.

X is for Charles X

X_HolyroodAbbey X_AFrenchKingAtHolyrood

In the past the area around Holyrood Palace was a debtor’s sanctuary. One man who took advantage of that sanctuary was Charles Bourbon, Comte d’Artois (1757–1836), the youngest brother of Louis XVI, guillotined after the French revolution. Charles left France and raised an army to fight the revolutionaries, which lost the first battle it fought. The now heavily indebted Charles fled to Britain; to protect him from his creditors the government sent him north to Holyrood, where he lived from 1796 to 1803. He later returned to mainland Europe, and to France itself after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In 1824 he became king, but his unpopularity led to his overthrow in 1830 and, given those still outstanding earlier debts, his return to Holyrood.

A year before his fall, he had met the young poet and playwright Victor Hugo (1802–85). Hugo’s play Marion de Lorme had been banned by the censor; his appeal against the ban surprisingly led to a private audience with Charles. But the ban remained, and some years later Hugo wrote a poem about their meeting, contrasting the sumptuous surroundings of Saint Cloud, the palace to the west of Paris where they met, with Charles’ residence at Holyrood, which had suffered from decades of neglect. Hugo never visited Scotland, so he wrote from imagination. He titled the poem ‘Le Sept Août 1829’ (‘7th August 1829’), which was the date of their meeting.

Holyrood ! Holyrood ! la ronce est sur tes dalles.
Le chevreau broute au bas de tes tours féodales.
Ô fureur des rivaux ardents à se chercher !
Amours ! — Darnley ! Rizzio ! quel néant est le vôtre !
Tous deux sont là, — l’un près de l’autre ; —
L’un est une ombre, et l’autre une tâche au plancher !

Holyrood! Holyrood! The bramble is on your flagstones. / The goat grazes beneath your feudal towers. / O fury of the ardent rivals who seek each other! / Loves! — Darnley! Rizzio! what void is yours! / Both are there, — one next to the other; — / One is a shadow, the other a stain on the floor!

cf A.J. Mackenzie-Stewart’s book A French King at Holyrood (1997).

Y is for Chiang Yee

Yee_Silent_Traveller_in_Edinburgh

Chiang Yee (1903–1977) was a Chinese poet, author, painter and calligrapher who lived in Britain from 1933–1955, then spent 20 years in the USA (at Colombia University) before returning to China shortly before he died. He wrote a series of books as The Silent Traveller, including The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, written during the war years and published in 1948. In it he pairs his own translations of classic Chinese poems with places and people he encounters in the city. In the New Calton Burying Ground he sees the Burns monument, and writes:

When I looked up at it from the lower level of the New Calton Burying Ground it seemed to me singularly beautiful and serene… My thoughts on Burns went further… I began to wonder about his nationality… Recently I read ‘Shakespeare’s Legacy’ by the late Sir James Barrie in which the wife asserts to her husband that Shakespeare was a Scot from Glen Drumly, so why should I not claim Robert Burns as a Chinese by birth, particularly as I can quote the following poem from a collection of Chinese love-songs from twenty-five centuries ago?

Bonnie is my quiet lassie, supposed to be
Waiting for me at the corner of the city wall.
I love her but know not where she is.
Scratching my head I pace to and fro.

Fair is my quiet lassie,
Who gave me a crimson reed.
This crimson reed glows
And reflects her beauty that I love.

From the pasture she brought back for me a tender blade,
So beautiful and rare.
It is not that you, the blade, are beautiful,
But you are the gift of my love.

I do not wish to start an argument, nor to claim that I know anything about Christianity, yet it seems to me that Robert Burns’ life and thoughts are more Confucian than Christian.

Z is for riZZio

Murder of David Rizzio in the presence of Mary Stuart Z_Rizzio

David Rizzio (to use the more common spelling, though the plaque in the Canongate kirkyard opts for Riccio), came to Scotland from his native Turin in 1561. A good musician, and a Catholic, he found favour with Mary Queen of Scots, lately returned from France. In 1565 Mary married a Protestant noble, Lord Darnley, who soon became jealous of Rizzio. On 9 March 1566 Darnley and other Protestant lords burst into her chamber at Holyrood Palace and murdered Rizzio in front of her. Within a year Darnley too was dead, and the country descended into civil war; Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England. In Hogg’s The Queen’s Wake (1813), Rizzio is the first poet to recite his work to the court.

Short was the pause ; the stranger youth,
The gaudy minstrel of the south,
Whose glossy eye and lady form
Had never braved the northern storm
Stepped lightly forth, — kneeled three times low, —
And then, with many a smile and bow,
Mounted the form amid the ring,
And rung his harp’s responsive string.
Though true the chords, and mellow-toned,
Long, long he twisted, long he coned ;
Well pleased to hear his name they knew ;
‘Tis Rizzio!’ round in whispers flew.

And the beginning of that performance seems as good a place as any to end.

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An Edinburgh Alphabet, N–S

N is for Netherbow

Netherbow_Port Netherbow_1606 Netherbow_bell Netherbow_mottoes

The Netherbow Port was one of six entrances to Edinburgh until it was demolished along with the old city walls in 1764. It was here the Jacobite Army under Bonnie Prince Charlie forced their way into the city in 1745. Today near where it stood is the Scottish Storytelling Centre; it incorporates an inscription from 1606 for James VI, BEATI PACIFICI (blessed are the peacemakers), and a bell commissioned by ‘the senate and people of Edinburgh’ from Holland in 1621. Near the bell is a modern rendering of the motto of James and the other Stuart monarchs, NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT / wha daur meddle wi me.

In 1633, on the occasion of Charles I’s coronation at Holyrood, the whole city was turned into a vast theatre (why does that sound familiar?), with visuals by the painter George Jameson of Aberdeen, and texts by the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden. At the Netherbow Port, there was, according to Drummond’s biographer David Masson, an “arch, with stage, mottoes, canvasses and what not, representing Heaven itself, with stars of all magnitudes, the Earth beneath and the Titans prostrate on it, the Fates, and the Seven Planets, each sitting on a throne, and Endymion among them.”

O is for Ossian

Ossian_BlackfriarsSt Ossian_Fingal Ossian_Gérard_Hamburg Ossian_HughBlair

Blackfriars Street runs unassumingly between the Cowgate and the High Street. It was created in 1867 after the demolition of Blackfriars Wynd, where in 1507 the first printing press in Scotland had been set up by Chepman and Myllar. Here in 1762 James Macpherson translated – or wrote – Fingal, one of the most popular and influential works of early Romanticism.

The poems of Ossian were hugely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, widely read in Britain and across Europe, influencing landscape design (especially Scottish follies), the early work of Goethe, and Napoleon, who carried a copy with him on campaign. Presented as prose translations of ancient Gaelic poetry made by James Macpherson, they contained more of the latter than the former.

Macpherson (1736–1796) was a Gaelic speaker from Ruthven in Inverness-shire. He began collecting oral poetry in Gaelic from his home area, popularly considered to be by the legendary bard Ossian, and continued collecting while employed as a tutor by Graham of Balgowan in Perthshire. Here he met the philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson (also a Gaelic speaker), and the minister and playwright John Home, who asked him to translate some Gaelic poems. Macpherson was at first reluctant, but his Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) was hugely successful, and he was then funded by the Edinburgh literati to look for what they hoped would be a Scottish epic to rival the Iliad.

Macpherson’s greatest champion was Hugh Blair (1718–1800), a Church of Scotland minister who in 1760 was appointed Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh University (and who spoke no Gaelic). In 1762 he invited Macpherson to Edinburgh, and there he composed much of his next book, Fingal, in Blackfriars Wynd, in an apartment directly below Blair’s lodgings. The following year Blair wrote ‘A Critical Dissertation on the Poems Of Ossian, the Son of Fingal’, included in every edition of Ossian after 1765: ‘We may,” he wrote, boldly assign Ossian a place among those whose works are to last for ages.’

Blair described Ossian as “the only poet who never relaxes”. While Macpherson’s language and imagery may have been revelatory and innovative at the time, his work is hard to read at any length now. Even at the time Macpherson had his detractors: Boswell records Samuel Johnson saying, ‘I look upon M’Pherson’s Fingal to be as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with. Had it been really an ancient work, a true specimen how men thought at that time, it would have been a curiosity of the first rate. As a modern production, it is nothing.’ (Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 22 September 1773)

Below is a brief extract from Fingal.

‘As the troubled noise of the ocean when roll the waves on high: as the last peal of the thunder of heaven, such is the noise of battle. Though Cormac’s hundred bards were there to give the war to song; feeble were the voices of a hundred bards to send the deaths to future times. For many were the falls of the heroes; and wide poured the blood of the valiant.’

Blair’s memorial is in Greyfriars Kirkyard. François Gérard’s painting ‘Ossian Evoking the Spirits on the Banks of the Lora to the Sound of His Harp’ (c.1811) hangs in the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

P is for Parliament

Parliament_label_EM Parliament_exterior_MSPblock Parliament_exterior_2

Scotland’s parliament – abolished with the Act of Union in 1707– was restablished in 1999. It met at the Assembly Hall on the Mound, while a new building was being constructed. Designed by the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, who died in 2000, it opened on 9 October 2004. On that day a poem was read, written by Edwin Morgan, the Scottish Makar, or national poet. He lived in Glasgow, was in his 80s, and not in good health, so he wasn’t able to visit the building. He wrote from photos, and plans, and people’s descriptions, but he gives a very accurate description of the building and its variety. The poem is in three parts: the first describes the building, the second describes its place in Edinburgh, and in Scottish history, and the third looks to what we might expect in the future from the new parliamentarians. This is from the first part.

‘Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box?

‘Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to the cemetery. But bring together slate and stainless steel, black granite and grey granite, seasoned oak and sycamore, concrete blond and smooth as silk – the mix is almost alive – it breathes and beckons – imperial marble it is not!’

Features on the building’s exterior include the so-called ‘bamboos’, which in fact are staves of oak. Miralles grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Spain under facism; the facist emblem is a bundle of sticks bound tightly together, and my sense is that these are those sticks unbound. That’s the difference between facism and democracy – here each stick has its own individual space. The ‘trigger panels’ can be seen as the wrist and lower part of the palm – so the image of a clenched fist. again it’s a reminder to those inside the building of why they are there – as representatives of the people, and the land, outside the building.

Q is for Queen

QueensWake_Hogg QueensWake_HoggMemorial_Ettrick

The Queen’s Wake (1813) is a book-length poem by James Hogg (1770–1835). In it Hogg imagines Holyrood Palace at Christmas 1561. Mary Stuart has returned to Scotland from France, after the death of her husband, King François II, the previous year. She misses the entertainments of the French court, and so calls a ‘wake’ at Christmas – essentially a poetry competition, a 16th century equivalent of a spoken word slam. Just as performers have arrived from all over the world for this year’s Festival, Hogg imagines poets from all over Scotland coming to Edinburgh and performing at the palace over three nights. In this passage, they are newly arrived, and confidence in their abilities quickly turns to nerves.

‘Ah! when at home the songs they raised,
When gaping rustics stood and gazed,
Each bard believed, with ready will,
Unmatched his song, unmatched his skill!
But when the royal halls appeared,
Each aspect changed, each bosom feared;
And when in court of Holyrood
Filed harps and bards around him stood,
His eye emitted cheerless ray,
His hope, his spirit sunk away:
There stood the minstrel, but his mind
Seemed left in native glen behind.’

The second photo above was taken at the Hogg monument in the Ettrick Valley, with the edition of The Queen’s Wake published by Edinburgh University Press in 2005.

R is for Ransford

Ransford_portrait Ransford_MadeInEdinburgh

Tessa Ransford (1938–2015) was the founding Director of the Scottish Poetry Library from 1984 until 1999, when the library moved from what had become cramped premises in Tweeddale Court to new purpose-built premises at Crichton’s Close off the Canongate. She published many volumes of poems, including Shadows from the Greater Hill (1987), a year-long meditation on Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, which her flat overlooked; and Made in Edinburgh (2014), a selection of her poems about the city.

The poem below is from Shadows from the Greater Hill.

August 20th

The Duke’s Fell ponies are out for exercise,
six in tandem pairs, with free-flowing tails:
Martin, Roy, Edward, Robin, Mark, Ebony.

They slow down beside me passing with my briefcase
in the prancing morning.

Each of them is power for ten times the buggy.
Six of them feel it not more than conscience
harnessed behind them,
but they know bit and blinkers, collar and straps.

Each of them is part of an all-black team,
moving with precision as one organism.

Their trainer speaks.
They hear his voice separately, but respond together.
The reins are in his fingers.

 

S is for St Anthony’s Chapel

StAnthonysChapel_DW_1 StAnthonysChapel_DW_3 StAnthonysChapel_DW_2

In her diary, Dorothy Wordsworth, visiting the city with her brother William, mentions St Anthony’s Chapel in Holyrood Park. The Wordsworths had made a journey from their home in the Lake District to Scotland, initially accompanied by Coleridge too, but he went his own way in the Highlands. Returning south, they reached Edinburgh on Thursday 15 September, 1803, and stayed at the White Hart Inn in the Grassmarket, which Dorothy described as “not noisy, and tolerably cheap”. The following morning they set out from the Grassmarket in the direction of Holyrood. She writes:

‘We set out upon our walk, and went through many streets to Holyrood House, and thence to the hill called Arthur’s Seat, a high hill, very rocky at the top, and below covered with smooth turf, on which sheep were feeding. We climbed up till we came to St. Anthony’s Well and Chapel, as it is called, but it is more like a hermitage than a chapel, – a small ruin, which from its situation is exceedingly interesting, though in itself not remarkable. We sat down on a stone not far from the chapel, overlooking a pastoral hollow as wild and solitary as any in the heart of the Highland mountains: there, instead of the roaring of torrents, we listened to the noises of the city, which were blended in one loud indistinct buzz, – a regular sound in the air, which in certain moods of feeling, and at certain times, might have a more tranquillizing effect upon the mind than those which we are accustomed to hear in such places.’

An Edinburgh Alphabet, H–M

H is for Holyrood

Holyrood Abbey and Palace Holyrood Palace RLS 1 Holyrood Palace
The Palace of Holyroodhouse sits at the foot of the Canongate, below Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. The abbey, built long before the palace, has long been a ruin. Here are three (prose) views of Holyrood: Boswell’s private ceremony as he leaves the city for London; Dorothy Wordsworth’s disappointment at the state both of the ruined abbey and the unruined palace; and Robert Louis Stevenson’s portrait of this corner of the city.

Boswell: I made the chaise stop at the foot of the Canongate… walked to the Abbey of Holyroodhouse, went round the Piazzas, bowed thrice: once to the Palace itself, once to the crown of Scotland above the gate in front, and once to the venerable old Chapel. I next stood in the court before the Palace, and bowed thrice to Arthur Seat, that lofty romantic mountain on which I have so often strayed in my days of youth, indulged meditation and felt the raptures of a soul filled with ideas of the magnificence of GOD and his creation. Having thus gratified my agreeable whim and superstitious humour, I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. (Journal, 15 November 1762)

Wordsworth: Though the rain was very heavy we remained upon the hill for some time, then returned by the same road by which we had come, through green flat fields, formerly the pleasure-grounds of Holyrood House, on the edge of which stands the old roofless chapel, of venerable architecture. It is a pity that it should be suffered to fall down, for the walls appear to be yet entire. Very near to the chapel is Holyrood House, which we could not but lament has nothing ancient in its appearance, being sash-windowed and not an irregular pile. It is very like a building for some national establishment, – a hospital for soldiers or sailors. (Journal, 16 September 1803)

Stevenson: The Palace of Holyrood has been left aside in the growth of Edinburgh, and stands grey and silent in a workman’s quarter and among breweries and gas works. It is a house of many memories. Great people of yore, kings and queens, buffoons and grave ambassadors, played their stately farce for centuries in Holyrood. Wars have been plotted, dancing has lasted deep into the night, – murder has been done in its chambers. There Prince Charlie held his phantom levees, and in a very gallant manner represented a fallen dynasty for some hours. Now, all these things of clay are mingled with the dust, the king’s crown itself is shown for sixpence to the vulgar; but the stone palace has outlived these charges. (from Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, 1878)

I is for Inscriptions

Inscription_MakarsCourt_GMBrown Inscription_MakarsCourt_Hay Inscription_MakarsCourt_Spark

Inscription_Parliament_Brooksbank Inscription_Parliament_Hopkins Inscription_Parliament_Jackson Inscription_Parliament_MacCaig

Poems are written into the fabric of Edinburgh. Here are a few examples from Makars Court, between the Lawnmarket and the Mound, outside the Writers Museum (Brown, Hay and Spark); and from the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament (Brooksbank, Hopkins, Jackson and MacCaig).

J is for Johnson

Johnson_BoydsEntry Johnson_withBoswell_HighStreet

‘Boyd’s Inn, at which Dr Samuel Johnson arrived in Edinburgh, 14th August, 1773 on his memorable tour of the Hebrides.’

Johnson had come to Scotland to meet his friend (and future biographer) James Boswell. After a few days in Edinburgh they set out north; when they returned to Edinburgh in November they had seen the islands of Skye, Raasay, Coll, Mull, Ulva, Inchkenneth and Iona. Both men wrote accounts of their journey; Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides begins with Johnson’s arrival in Edinburgh. (On the last leg of his journey north, Johnson’s travelling companion has been a Mr Scott.)

‘Late in the evening, I received a note from him, that he was arrived at Boyd’s inn, at the head of the Canongate. I went to him directly. He embraced me cordially; and I exulted in the thought, that I now had him actually in Caledonia. Mr Scott’s amiable manners, and attachment to our Socrates, at once united me to him. He told me that, before I came in, the Doctor had unluckily had a bad specimen of Scottish cleanliness. He then drank no fermented liquor. He asked to have his lemonade made sweeter; upon which the waiter, with his greasy fingers, lifted a lump of sugar, and put it into it. The Doctor, in indignation, threw it out of the window. Scott said, he was afraid he would have knocked the waiter down. (…) Mr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street, to my house in James’s court: it was a dusky night: I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh… A zealous Scotsman would have wished Mr Johnson to be without one of his five senses upon this occasion. As we marched slowly along, he grumbled in my ear, ‘I smell you in the dark!’ But he acknowledged that the breadth of the street, and the loftiness of the buildings on each side, made a noble appearance.’

K is for Knox

Knox_gravestone Knox_gravestone2 Knox_gravestone3 Knox_LincolnStatue

Not John but William, though his gravestone in the New Calton Burying Ground it’s written that he was ‘a branch of the stock of the great reformer John Knox’. The poet William Knox died in 1825 aged only 36; of him it was written that his early death was caused by ‘the undue gratification of his social propensities’. Throwing off his ancestor’s disapproval of fun, by the sound of it. His poetry is largely forgotten, but it was popular in his lifetime, and for some time afterwards. His poem ‘Mortality’ is, again according to his gravestone, ‘engraved in letters of gold on the walls of the Imperial Palace, St Peterburg’; not only that, ‘it was the favourite poem of Abraham Lincoln’. Its first and last verses are inscribed on his stone; the fact the stone’s surface has become so worn fits well Knox’s theme of the transience of earthly matters. (There is, incidentally, a statue of Lincoln not far from Knox’s grave, in the Old Calton Burial Ground, on a memorial to Scots who fought on the Union side in the American Civil War.)

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

‘Tis the wink of an eye – ’tis the draught of a breath –
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud –
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

L is for Lorimer

Lorimer_Parliament_1_ Corinthians_13

Outside Queensberry House, the 17th-century building integrated into the Scottish Parliament building, a text is inscribed on the ground: ‘Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a rínging cymbal’. It’s taken from the translation into Scots of the New Testament made by William Lorimer (1885-1967). Lorimer taught Ancient Greek at various universities, and when he retired was Professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews. He was also a long-term contributor to the Scottish National Dictionary, and he spent his retirement translating the New Testament from Greek into Scots. The work was unfinished when he died, but it was completed by his son Robin and published to acclaim in 1983. (Canongate Books published a new edition recently.) The text outside the Parliament is from 1 Corinthians 13; here is a longer extract, and the equivalent passage in the King James Version.

Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a rínging cymbal. Gin I hae the gift o prophecíe an am acquent wi the saicret mind o God, an ken aathing ither at man may ken, an gin I hae siccan faith as can flit the hills frae their larachs – gin I hae aa that, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am nocht. Gin I skail aa my guids an graith in awmous, an gin I gíe up my bodie tae be brunt in aiss – gin I een dae that, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am nane the better o it.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

M is for Makar

Makar_ChristineDeLuca

Makar: ‘the author of a literary work; a poet’ (Scottish National Dictionary). Since 2002 Edinburgh has had its own makar, appointed by representatives of the city council and several literary organisations. The current makar is Christine De Luca; she followed Ron Butlin, Valerie Gillies and Stewart Conn. Over the summer Christine has organised a series of poetry readings at the City Art Centre, and the Museum of Edinburgh; she’s pictured in the courtyard of the latter. With Ingrid Murray she wrote ‘A Month Down the Mile’, a poem in 31 verses describing people and places past and present of the Royal Mile, from the castle to palace.
 Her blog can be read here.

An Edinburgh Alphabet, A–G

An Edinburgh AlphabetThis Edinburgh Alphabet features poems (and some prose) about the city; I’m posting it on Facebook in July and August. I’ve taken the idea partly from J.F. Birrell’s book  from 1980, which I came across by chance recently in an Oxfam bookshop; and partly from the exhibition currently running at the City Art Centre.

 

A is for Auld Reikie

Auld_Reikie_RF  Burns Fergusson epitaph

Edinburgh’s cramped and densely populated Old Town was known as Auld Reikie (‘Old Smoky’). The poet of its bustle and vapours was Robert Fergusson, who wrote in both Scots and English, but it’s for the Scots work that he is best remembered; his longest poem ‘Auld Reikie’, captures the sights, sounds and smells of the city he lived in.

He died in 1774, tragically young, and was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. beneath a stone commissioned by Robert Burns. Today on the Canongate, David Annand’s bronze statue of the poet, book in hand, walks beneath the cherry trees. At his feet are inscribed the opening lines of ‘Auld Reikie’.

Auld Reikie, wale o’ ilka toun
That Scotland kens beneath the moon;
Whare couthy chiels at e’ening meet
Their bizzing craigs and mous to weet;
And blythely gar auld Care gae by
wi blinkit and wi bleering eye…

(wale: best; ilka: each; mouthy: friendly; chiels: fellows; craigs: throats)

B is for Burns

Burns Moument 1 Burns Moument 2 Burns Moument 3

Robert Burns (1759–1796) was born, grew up and farmed in Ayrshire. His Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect were published to acclaim in 1786, and he travelled to Edinburgh at the end of that year hoping to find a patron. He was welcomed and celebrated, but disappointed in his hopes; eventually he had to take a job as an exciseman to achieve a measure of financial security.

While in Edinburgh he arranged for a stone to be erected in the Canongate Kirkyard for the poet Robert Fergusson (1750–1774), who had been buried there in a pauper’s grave. Burns knew and admired his work, and wrote this epitaph for his stone:

No sculptur’d Marble here, nor pompous lay,
No storied Urn nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er the Poet’s dust.

Ironically, Burns himself was memorialised in ‘sculptur’d marble’ by the citizens of Edinburgh. In 1824 John Flaxman was commissioned to produce a life-size statue of Burns in white marble, and a monument was built to house it, designed by Thomas Hamilton. If Fergusson lived in Auld Reikie, after his death the city become known as the ‘Athens of the North’, thanks to such buildings as Hamilton’s neo-classical Royal High School. As his template for the nearby Burns’ monument, Hamilton chose the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. Completed in 1831, in 1839 it was handed over to the care of the city council, when the statue was moved due to smoke from the gasworks below discolouring the marble; Auld Reikie was determined not to be forgotten. The statue is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.

 

C is for Clarinda

Clarinda

‘Clarinda’ was Agnes (Nancy) M’Lehose (1758–1841). She met Robert Burns in December 1787 when he was visiting Edinburgh for the second time, and they began a ‘passionate friendship’. Married with four children, she was estranged from her husband (who lived in Jamaica where he owned a plantation). She had moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh where she was supported by relatives including her cousin William Craig, a lawyer and judge.

It’s thought her and Burns’ relationship wasn’t sexual – as a married woman she had too much to lose. Burns managed to get one of her serving girls pregnant – perhaps a sign of his frustration at this state of affairs. When he left Edinburgh they wrote to each other, and it was her idea to use the ‘Arcadian’ names of Clarinda and Sylvander. He wrote several poems to her, which don’t rank amoing his finest.

They last met in December 1791. She was about to sail for the West Indies to attempt – vainly, as it turned out – a reconcilation with her husband. By then he was married, and living in Dumfries where he worked for the Excise department. On the occasion of their last meeting he wrote for her ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.

 

D is for Dùn Eideann

DùnEideann_DBMgrave

Dùn Eideann is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh. A Gaelic speaker who lived in the city was the poet Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, whose name is anglicised as Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724–1812). From Glen Orchy in Argyll, he worked there and in Perthshire before settling in Edinburgh in 1767 where he served with the City Guard. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Among his poems is ‘Oran Dhùn Eideann’ (Song to Edinburgh), which praises many aspects of the city: soldiers, ladies, and judges; lamps, bells and coaches; the castle, palace and infirmary. Below is the opening verse in Gaelic and English (translated by Angus Macleod, in The songs of Duncan Ban Macintyre, 1978), and I’ll add a link to a now digitised earlier edition of his work published in France.

‘S e baile mór Dhùn Eideann
A b’ éibhinn leam bhith ann,
Aite fialaidh farsaing
A bha tlachdmhor anns gach ball;
Gearasdain is batraidh
Is rampairean gu teann,
Taighean móra ‘s caisteal
Anns an tric an d’ stad an camp.

‘Tis in Edinburgh city
I would rejoice to be—
a bountiful and spacious place
that pleased in all respects:
garrison and battery
and ramparts all compact;
great buildings and a castle

where oft the camp has stayed.

E is for Eneados

Eneados_GavinDouglas Eneados_GavinDouglas_MakarsCourt Eneados_SicIturAdAstra

When Gavin Douglas (1474–1522) translated Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots – ‘our awyn langage’, as he put it – in 1512–13, he was Provost of St Giles in Edinburgh. Soon after it was completed came the disastrous Scottish defeat at the Battle of Flodden, and Douglas spent the rest of his life involved in political intrigues. He died in London, where his Eneados was published thirty years after his death. It was the first complete translation of Virgil’s work into a northern European language, and was extended by Douglas’s own prologues; Ezra Pound reckoned it “better than the original, as Douglas had heard the sea”.

From its founding in 1128 until its amalgamation with Edinburgh in 1856, the Canongate was an independent burgh. Its Latin motto, SIC ITUR AD ASTRA – ‘thus one travels to the stars’ – was taken from the Aeneid. Virgil’s epic tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who is destined to found the imperial city of Rome. The phrase comes in a section which describes the God Apollo descending to praise Aeneas’ son Iulus, who has distinguished himself in battle. Douglas’s version runs

Down from the regioun of the hevin tho
The brycht curland haryt Appollo,
Apon a clowd syttand quhayr he wald,
The ostis of Italianis can behald,
And eyk new Troyis cite, with cheyr glayd
Till lulus the victor thus he sayd :
Eik and continew thy new vailyeand deidis,
Thou yong child ; for that is the way the ledis
Up to the sternis and the hevynnis hie,
Thou verray Goddis ofspring, quod he,
That sal engendir Goddis of thy seyd.

F is for Finlay

Finlay Coble SP 1 Finlay Green Waters SPL Finlay Hunter Square 1 Finlay RLS A Man of Letters 2

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) is a poet best known for his garden, Little Sparta, south of Edinburgh in the Pentland Hills, made with his wife Sue. It is a small piece of the world dense with resonances and echoes, especially of the absent worlds of the sea and classical antiquity. Finlay made several works for sites in Edinburgh. A tapestry of the poem ‘Green Waters’, made of fishing boat names, hangs in the Scottish Poetry Library, while ‘Coble’ can be found in the The Scottish Parliament; bronze baskets of northern and southern fruits with accompanying quotations can be found in Hunter Square, by the Tron Kirk on the High Street; and his memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Man of Letters’, is in Princes Street Gardens.

G is for Golden

Golden City 1 Golden City 2 Golden City 3

In 1965 James T.R. Ritchie published Golden City, a follow-up to his earlier collection (and film) of Edinburgh children’s rhymes, songs and sayings, The Singing Street. He writes in the Prologue to Golden City that “I made it a rule never to take any rhymes out of any book, only to note down what I heard by word of mouth, and from the pupils of this one school.” (The school was Norton Park School, just off Easter Road.)