Tag Archives: Scottish Poetry Library

Reading the Streets: Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018

Canongate SPL 4

Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh

I’m presenting poetry walks on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe again this year, after doing so in 2016 and 2017.

Burns Monument

Burns Monument, Regent Road

As in previous years the walks start and end at the Scottish Poetry Library, off the Canongate near the foot of the Royal Mile. This year’s itinerary includes some sites visited in previous years, including the two nearby graveyards (havens of peace amid the roar of the festival!), while adding new locations, including the Burns Monument on Regent Road. I’ll read some poems I’ve read in previous years, while adding new pieces, including Coleridge’s ecstatic letter to Southey describing his visit in 1803.

Canongate Panmure House from Dunbar's Close garden 2

Panmure House seen from Dunbar’s Close garden

I’m grateful to Valerie Gillies and James Robertson for their permission to include poems they have written about the city. (You can read Valerie’s ‘To Edinburgh’ here.) As well as the linking script, I’ve written a new poem about the philosopher and economist Adam Smith, who lived in the area for the last 12 years of his life, and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. (Panmure House, where he lived, has just been renovated by Heriot-Watt University.)

rls-two

Stevenson, from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

This year’s walk has the title Reading the Streets, and has as its focus some of the contrasts Edinburgh keeps throwing up. The Old Town / New Town divide is the most obvious and present one, and we’ll cross from one to the other. But there are many others, including at this time of year City / Festival, Residents / Visitors and Local / International. The poems are written in two languages, English / Scots, and since I  include some extracts from diaries and letters there’s a Poetry / Prose contrast too.

Palace Park Parliament

Palace and Paliament against Arthur’s Seat

The new cheek-by-jowl neighbours Palace / Parliament form a contemporary divide, though they’re on the same side in the Historic Time / Geological Time contrast as they look out onto Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

NCBG Stevenson vault 2

Stevenson family vault in the New Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh

I’m also grateful to the Scottish Poetry Library for including the walks in its Fringe programme. They run from Saturday 4 – Monday 27 August, daily (not Thursdays, Fridays) starting at 11.00, and lasting 90 minutes.

Tickets are available from the Fringe box office, and from the SPL via Eventbrite.

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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, 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.)