Poems

 

Books on Edinburgh

from Eneados (1512–13) by Gavin Douglas

The motto of the Canongate is SIC ITUR AD ASTRA, or this way to the stars, a phrase taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. The passage which includes it is given below in Douglas’s translation.

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 vailƷeand deidis,
Thou Ʒong 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.

from The Lamentation of the Commons of Scotland (1572) by Robert Sempill

Na vther lyfe we pure men bade of better
Nor with our Naiggis to gane to Edinburgh sone,
With Peittis, with Turvis, and mony turse of Hedder.
Ay gat gude saill syne lap quhen we had done,
For miriynes, and with the licht of Mone
We wald ga hame but outher fray or chace,
Quhair now in sorrow fra dure to dure we clune,
Blaming thy tressoun of all our cair allace.

from The Scots Gard’ner (1683) by John Reid
adapted by Ken Cockburn
(Not specifically about Edinburgh, but it fits the garden in Dunbar’s Close.)

Situate your house
in a healthy soyl,
near to a fresh spring,
defended from
the impetuous west winds,
northern colds,
and eastern blasts.

Mind regularity ;
whatever you have on the one hand,
make as much,
of the same forme and in the same place,
on the other.

Beginne orderly,
that is, find the central line,
by erecting a perpendicular
on the middle of the house-front,
to extend as farr,
both back and fore,
as requisite.

Hence you may draw parallels,
measure and stake out
your avenues, gardens, etc.,
as you please.

How to find this central line,
and to set off parallels,
is taught elsewhere.

from Marie Hamilton (mid 1700s?) by Anonymous

When she gaed up the Cannogate,
She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But whan she cam down the Cannogate
The tear blinded her ee.

When she gaed up the Parliament stair,
The heel cam aff her shee;
And lang or she cam down again
She was condemn’d to dee.

When she cam down the Cannogate,
The Cannogate sae free,
Many a ladie look’d o’er her window,
Weeping for this ladie.

“Last night I wash’d the queen’s feet,
And gently laid her down;
And a’ the thanks I’ve gotten the nicht
To be hang’d in Edinbro’ town!

“Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
The nicht she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seton, and Marie Beton,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.

from Auld Reikie (1773) by Robert Fergusson

Auld Reikie, wale o’ ilka town
That Scotland kens beneath the moon!
Whare couthy chiels at e’ening meet
Their bizzing craigs and mous to weet;
And blythly gar auld care gae by
Wi’ blinkit and wi’ bleering eye:
O’er lang frae thee the Muse has been
Sae frisky on the simmer’s green,
Whan flowers and gowans wont to glent
In bonny blinks upo’ the bent;
But now the leaves o’ yellow dye,
Peel’d frae the branches, quickly fly;
And now frae nouther bush nor brier
The spreckl’d mavis greets your ear;
Nor bonny blackbird skims and roves
To seek his love in yonder groves.
Then Reikie, welcome! Thou canst charm
Unfleggit by the year’s alarm;
Not Boreas, that sae snelly blows,
Dare here pap in his angry nose:
Thanks to our dads, whase biggin stands
A shelter to surrounding lands.

Epitaph for Robert Fergusson (1787) by Robert Burns

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.

from Recollections of a Tour in Scotland (1803) by Dorothy Wordsworth

Though the rain was very heavy we remained upon the hill [Arthur’s Seat] 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.

from The Queen’s Wake (1813) by James Hogg
The Queen’s Wake is the (fictional) account of a poetry festival set at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots at Christmas 1561. Here Hogg imagines the poets from all over Scotland arriving in Edinburgh.

But then was seen, from every vale,
Through drifting snows and rattling hail,
Each Caledonian minstrel true,
Dressed in his plaid and bonnet blue,
With harp across his shoulders slung,
And music murmuring round his tongue,
Forcing his way, in raptures high,
To Holyrood his skill to try.

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.

from Farewell to Edinburgh by Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne) (1830)

Fareweel, Edinburgh, where happy we hae been,
Fareweel, Edinburgh, Caledonia’s Queen!
Auld Reekie, fare-ye-weel, and Reekie New beside,
Ye’re like a chieftain, grim and gray, wi’ a young bonny bride.
Fareweel, Edinburgh, and your trusty Volunteers,
Your Council a’ sae circumspect, your Provost without peers,
Your stately College stuff’d wi’ lear, your rantin’ High-Schule yard;
The jib, the lick, the roguish trick, the ghaists o’ th’ auld toun-guard.

from Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1878)

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 changes.

from ‘The tropics vanish, and me seems that I…’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (1890)
Writing in Samoa, Stevenson imagines looking at Edinburgh from the Pentland Hills to the south of the city.

The tropics vanish, and meseems that I,
From Halkerside, from topmost Allermuir,
Or steep Caerketton, dreaming gaze again.
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. Last, the Forth
Wheels ample waters set with sacred isles,
And populous Fife smokes with a score of towns.

from The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh (1948) by Chiang Yee

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. In a letter to ‘Clarinda’ Burns wrote: ‘I firmly believe that every honest upright man, of whatever sect, will be accepted by the Deity.’ This phrase, ‘every honest upright man’ was constantly used by Confucius; his main principle ‘the measure of man is man’ could not have been better expressed than by Burns’ ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’… Those of his songs in which he expresses his thoughts on nature, good fellowship, friendship and humanity might have been taken almost word for word from the Analects of Confucius.

from Embro to the Ploy (1949) by Robert Garioch

In simmer, whan aa sorts foregether
in Embro to the ploy,
folk seek out friens to hae a blether,
or faes they’d fain annoy;
smorit wi British Railways’ reek
frae Glesca or Glen Roy
or Wick, they come to hae a week
of cultivated joy
or three
In Embro to the Ploy.

The Auld High Schule, whaur mony a skelp
of triple-tonguit tawse
has gien a heist-up and a help
towards Doctorates of Laws,
nou hears, for Ramsay’s cantie rhyme,
loud pawmies of applause
frae folk that pey a pund a time
to sit on wudden raws
gey hard
in Embro to the ploy.

Close (1996) by Ken Cockburn

The bus is due all right, but keeps us waiting.
The utter narrowness of Fleshmarket Close
slopes away behind us, the ghosts of butchers
faint amid newspapermen, fanatics of now.

My daughter races down it; at the foot,
a silhouette against the buzz and flicker
of the street, she lingers for a moment.
A single step could snap this contact-line –

She shouts I’m not to move and runs towards me,
then soon the bus arrives. We move across
the junction of the Old and New Towns, where
the airy Bridges touch the High Street rock.

from Intercession (1996) by Ken Cockburn

To find the poem via the link above, scroll down to the foot of the page. – The poem describes St Triduana’s Chapel at Restalrig, to the east of the city centre, and a small well-house in Holyrood Park.

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.

The waters, like her intercession, the blind’s remeid;
all mere idolatrie, in the Reformers’ eyes,
who tumbled down the upper part: the lower, since
restored, re-roofed, kept dry with pumps, is bare except for
a wooden figure rising above the streams of sunlight,
plotting a king’s descent into humility.

from Sacred City (1998) by Tessa Ransford

We live our days in shadow and sidelong sun;
what we attempt is battered by wind and cold.
The Old town Geddes touched will slowly
yield with reserve her warmer closes

from For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004 by Edwin Morgan

Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!
We have a building which is more than a building.
There is a commerce between inner and outer, between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world.
Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.
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!

from A Month on the Mile (2016) by Christine De Luca & Ingrid Murray

Day 23, I know of an oasis. Come close and I’ll whisper
of a secret garden in this neck of the woods. Look north.
Ask in a shop, a local will guide you. Don’t say I sent you.

Day 24 look south. Eponymous closes grant common signatory
to the bakers, the coopers, their wives and their children.
Find them in the Museum: name them Robert, Agnes or Mary.

On day 25, south by Crichton’s Close to the Poetry Library,
lose yourself in its books; come out questioning where this
Dynamic Earth is heading. Here walk dinosaurs. Be wary!

from The Scottish Parliament (2016) by Ken Cockburn

We have facilities management.

We have hard services and soft services,
soft landscaping and hard landscaping.

We have a palette of materials,
steel, concrete, Kemnay granite, oak.

We have the skin of the building
and we have the guts of the building.

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