H is for Holyrood
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
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
‘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
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
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: ‘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.