Tag Archives: Dorothy Wordsworth

Postcards from Edinburgh (1)

I’ve been tweeting some quotes from about Edinburgh, and here’s a wee collection of the first few.

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EPT RLS 10

 

EPT DBM 02

 

EPT Garioch 02

 

EPT Piozzi 01

Dorothy Wordsworth recorded in her diary arriving in Edinburgh with her brother William on 15 September 1803. – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878) still speaks to the city today.– Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, or in English Duncan Ban MacIntyre, was a Gaelic poet from Argyll who was a member of City Guard in the late 18th century; the lines, from his poem ‘Oran Dhun Eidann’ (‘Song of Edinburgh’), first published in 1804, translate as ‘Edinburgh is beautiful / in many diverse ways…’. – In ‘To Robert Fergusson’ Robert Garioch (1909–1981) imagines rattling the ‘rigg-bane’ or spine of the Old Town in the company of the energetic earlier poet. – Hester Piozzi, aka Dr Johnson’s confidante Mrs Thrale, visited the city in the summer of 1789, anxious she would encounter ‘a second hand London’, but found something quite different.

 

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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‘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

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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

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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.