Tag Archives: Edinburgh City of Literature

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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Words on the Street

Canongate Stars & Stories is an illuminated walking trail for Edinburgh’s Old Town, organised by Edinburgh City of Literature Trust. There are 20 lightboxes featuring quotations on the lower High Street, Canongate and surrounding streets and closes. Best seen after dark, they’ll be in situ till, I believe, the end of March. Below are photos of some of the light boxes, and notes about the quotations.

Fountain Close: Blessed be the sempill lyfe, Robert Henryson (c.1420–c.1490), from the fable ‘The Twa’ Mice’ (c.1480s), printed by Thomas Bassandyne (d.1577) who lived in Fountain Close.

Blissed be sempill lyfe withoutin dreid;
Blissed be sober feist in quietie;
Quha hes aneuch, of na mair hes he neid,
Thocht it be littill into quantatie.
Grit aboundance and blind prosperitie
Oftymes makis ane evill conclusioun:
The sweitest lyfe thairfoir, in this cuntrie,
Is sickernes with small possessioun.

The White Horse Inn, Canongate: Every writer has his use, by Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), from Rambler, no.145 (6 August, 1751). Established in 1742, The White Horse is the oldest pub on the Royal Mile and on 14 August 1773 received Johnson, who had arrived in Edinburgh to meet his friend and biographer James Boswell (1740 –1795) before their tour of the Hebrides. Around the corner off St Mary’s Street, a plaque at Boyd’s Entry (named for the proprietor of the White Horse, James Boyd) commemorates the event.
As every writer has his use, every writer ought to have his patrons; and since no man, however high he may now stand, can be certain that he shall not be soon thrown down from his elevation by criticism or caprice, the common interest of learning requires that her sons should cease from intestine hostilities, and, instead of sacrificing each other to malice and contempt, endeavour to avert persecution from the meanest of their fraternity.

Our Dynamic Earth: Nothing but time, by James Hutton (1726 –1797), from Theory of the Earth (1788 / 1795). Edinburgh born and educated, James Hutton is often referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Geology.’ His research into local rock formations, particularly Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, led him to formulate a new theory of the origins of the earth – an earth much older than previously thought, made of layers or rock with a molten core. He first presented his Theory of the Earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, but his ideas only gained wide circulation and influence after his death.
From the top of those decaying pyramids to the sea, we have a chain of facts which clearly demonstrate this proposition, That the materials of the wasted mountains have travelled through the rivers; for, in every step of this progress, we may see the effect, and thus acknowledge the proper cause. We may often even be witness to the action; but it is only a small part of the whole progress that we may thus perceive, nevertheless it is equally satisfactory as if we saw the whole; for, throughout the whole of this long course, we may see some part of the mountain moving some part of the way. What more can we require? Nothing but time. It is not any part of the process that will be disputed; but, after allowing all the parts, the whole will be denied; and, For what?—only because we are not disposed to allow that quantity of time which the ablution of so much wasted mountain might require.

St John’s Pend: Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius, by Tobias Smollett (1721 – 1771), from The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). Smollett occasionally lodged with his sister at St John’s Pend, just off the Canongate. Along with his famous 1755 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Smollett was a popular author of ‘picaresque’ novels. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, a epistolary novel, follows Mathew Bramble, his family, and his servants as they travel through England and Scotland.
Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius. — I have had the good fortune to be made acquainted with many authors of the first distinction; such as the two Humes, Robertson, Smith, Wallace, Blair, Ferguson, Wilkie, &c. and I have found them all as agreeable in conversation as they are instructive and entertaining in their writings. These acquaintances I owe to the friendship of Dr Carlyle, who wants nothing but inclination to figure with the rest upon paper.

Canongate Kirkyard: Ill-fated genius! by Robert Burns (1759–1796), from ‘Lines On Fergusson, The Poet’ (1787). Robert Fergusson (1750 –1774) was a brilliant Edinburgh-born poet who died tragically young, and in such poverty that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the Canongate Kirkyard. Dismayed by this injustice, Robert Burns arranged for him to have a proper gravestone.

Ill-fated genius! Heaven-taught Fergusson!
What heart that feels and will not yield a tear,
To think Life’s sun did set e’er well begun
To shed its influence on thy bright career.

O why should truest Worth and Genius pine
Beneath the iron grasp of Want and Woe,
While titled knaves and idiot-Greatness shine
In all the splendour Fortune can bestow?

Jeffrey Street: the happier productions of female genius, by Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850), from a review of a book of poetry by Felicia Hemans (1793–1835) in Edinburgh Review (1828). Francis Jeffrey, after whom Jeffrey Street is named, began his Edinburgh Review in 1802 in order to guide contemporary readers toward works of high acclaim; the magazine was published quarterly until 1929.
No Man, we will venture to say, could have written the Letters of Madame de Sevigné, or the Novels of Miss Austin, or the Hymns and Early Lessons of Mrs. Barbauld, or the Conversations of Mrs. Marcet. These performances, too, are not only essentially and intensely feminine, but they are, in our judgement, decidedly more perfect than any masculine productions with which they can be brought into comparison. (…) We think the poetry of Mrs Hemans a fine exemplification of Female Poetry – and we think it has much of the perfection which we have ventured to ascribe to the happier productions of female genius.

Chessel’s Court: Man is not truly one, but truly two, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Chessel’s Court was scene of an infamous crime that inspired Stevenson. Deacon Brodie (1741 – 1788), city councillor and master cabinet-maker, used his position to steal from the wealthy who sought his services. A botched robbery of the Customs Office in Chessel’s Court led eventually to his arrest and execution, and revealed to the public his double life. As a child Stevenson slept with one of Brodie’s cabinets in his bedroom (it is now displayed in the Writers’ Museum in the Lawnmarket).
With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. (…) It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.

Dunbar’s Close: A city is a drama in time, by Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) from Civics: as Applied Sociology (1904). Geddes renovated buildings and developed green spaces, including the garden at Dunbar’s Close, in Edinburgh’s delapidated Old Town at the end of the 19th century. Geddes is renowned for his innovative ideas on social reform, environmentalism, and town planning, and his phrase ‘by leaves we live’ lives on in the Scottish Poetry Library’s Twitter handle.
But a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time. Though the claim of geography be fundamental out interest in the history of the city is supremely greater; it is obviously no mere geographic circumstances which developed one hill-fort in Judea, and another in Attica, into world centres, to this day more deeply influential than are the vastest modern capitals. […] Again the answer comes through geography, though no longer in mere map or relief, but now in vertical section – in order of strata ascending form past to present, whether we study rock-formations with the geologist, excavate more recent accumulations with the archaeologist, or interpret ruins or monuments with the historian. Though the primitive conditions we have above noted with the physiographer remain apparent, indeed usually permanent, cities have none the less their characteristic phases of historic development decipherable superposed. […] In a word, not only does the main series of active cities display traces of all the past phases of evolution, but beside this lie fossils, or linger survivals, of almost every preceding phase.

The World’s End: For ever and aye till the World’s End, by Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915 – 1975), from Kynd Kittock’s Land (1965). The World’s End pub stands at the top of World’s End Close, on what was once the edge of Edinburgh by the former city walls. Smith’s words conclude his poem based on a character in a medieval poem, an innkeeper who, admitted to heaven after her death, leaves again ‘for to get hir ane fresche drink, the aill of hevin wes sour’.

Here I be and here I drink,
This is myne, Kynd Kittock’s Land,
For ever and aye while stane shall stand—
For ever and aye till the World’s End.