I have tried hard to steer clear of party politics on this blog, but it greatly saddens me to see our MSP Alex Cole Hamilton try and use Scottish Gaelic as a soft target for campaigning. He seems to think if you are interested in Gaelic, you can’t be interested in other languages, despite all the research saying otherwise. Children in Gaelic Medium Education consistently outperform the other schools when it comes to learning French, German, Spanish etc. Frankly, ACH’s tweet reeks of the “many of my best friends are […], but” mentality.
I am glad to say this attitude has not been shared by all of his party. Christine Jardine MP has said that she is supportive of Gaelic, and both Donald Gorrie and Margaret Smith have been positive about it too. The late Iain Farquhar Munro (Iain Fearchar Rothach) was a native speaker and a champion of Gaelic in the Lib Dems, and will probably be turning in his grave at these comments.
Well, I happen to be one of Alex Cole Hamilton’s constituents. I vote in pretty much every election. I think I have only missed one in twenty plus years. I have my own views, but I am not currently a member of any political party. I have voted for several different parties in the past, and yes, one of them happened to be the Lib Dems. Comments like this don’t endear me to them.
Literary Corstorphine will always back the Gaelic language. Many languages can be seen and heard in this constituency of course, and it is wrong to pitch them against each other, to say Polish is better than Cantonese or Urdu is superior to Broad Scots. Yet that is precisely what has happened here, and it seems to be becoming more and more common in British politics.
Our local Gaelic heritage
Does Corstorphine have a Gaelic heritage? Yes, more than you might think. Names like Drumbrae (Druim Bràighe), Cammo (Camach), Lennie (Lèanaidh), Carrick Knowe (Carraig) and Balgreen (Baile Grèine) all originate from it. Go up to Edinburgh Park and you can find busts of poets such as Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean, while more recently Gaelic writers such as William Neill and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir have lived locally.
I write about Corstorphine’s Gaelic links in my book.
Literary Corstorphine has talked a lot about writing, but not very much on how to write. In this post, I’ll talk about just that, with a bit of a hand from several published authors.
“If you get a bit stuck, kill someone.” – Wendy H. Jones
Who could say this but a crime writer and get away with it?
On Wednesday, 30th May, the Hub on St John’s Road, Edinburgh hosted Corstorphine Festival’s Writers’ Night. Hosted by Corstorphine’s own Cecilia Peartree, the line up included Wendy H. Jones down from Dundee, Jane Riddell, Ann Stenhouse, and Kate Blackadder. As well as crime, these ladies have published in genres as varied as science fiction, YA (Young Adult), children’s, family relationship, historical romance and literary fiction.
I include some potted biographies of the other writers below, but some of the discussion may be of interest. These are taken from my own, somewhat chaotic notes.
Yours truly opened the discussion, and pointed out that I was something of a “rank amateur” compared to the rest of the line-up. I was the only one discussing non-fiction (or is it fiction? Let’s not go all meta!) Anyway, I hope to gear this blog post more towards other people’s opinions!
Talking of murder…
My own question: There being a lot of murder writers around these days, I asked the obvious… how do they research certain subject matter without causing too much alarm to the authorities? Looking up firearms and body decomposition online will probably land you on a watch list!
Me: I jokingly suggested no Google as an answer to this quandary. They store everything.
Wendy H. Jones fielded this question. She had worked in medicine, including a stint in an eye hospital in east Jerusalem where she would frequently encounter members of the public who had severe injury or trauma to other parts of their bodies. This meant that she is already au fait with a number of medical details.
She cultivated a friend in the police in Dundee and discussed. They will be able to provide you with a lot of up-to-date information.
Crime has been changed. Bodies can be fingerprinted and processed through the database in five minutes for example.
MITs (mobile incident teams) are also deployed across Scotland, since the merger of the forces.
Wendy admits “you have to play a little fast and loose” when it comes to such matters.
Audience question: “How do you put yourself into the mindset of historical characters?”
Anne Stenhouse: She is adamant that she writes historical romance, and not historical fiction. Some research is necessary, but not so much as to bog the project down.
Anne points out that the position of women in the Regency Period was extremely different. Girls did not speak to adults in the same fashion that they do now. Women were effectively property until/unless they came to be widows – if that happened, then they gained a certain level of rights which were otherwise delegated to their fathers or husbands.
Wendy H. Jones: Two of her young adult novels are set in historic cultures: The Warriors in China and another is set in ancient Egypt. Wendy says that research is important as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the book.
Cecilia Peartree: Setting some of her work in 1950s Berlin provided a number of challenges, particularly as the city has been constantly changing over the past sixty years or so.
And now onto the bane of writers (and film producers)… consistency. The way to deal with this problem is to go over your work thoroughly, and making charts & notes to keep track of it. And before publication, it is wise to have a number of people go over it, to try and find what you have missed. The ladies were extremely open about some of the issues that they had encountered in their own work.
Jane Riddell: Jane found out that one of her character was pregnant for 18 months.
Cecilia Peartree: Among her writing issues were a dog which had three different names in a single novel, and a baby which changed gender.
Wendy H. Jones: She recommends keeping tight control of what your characters look like – be consistent with things like eye/hair colour etc. All of this can be achieved through keeping notes separate to the story itself.
The writers also pointed out some miscellaneous problems encountered by today’s writers:
Kate Blackadder: Kate points out that there has been a sharp decline in magazine outlets, partly due to the internet.
Jane Riddell: Jane discussed the difficulty of finding a readership within cyberspace. She also says people often have to see something seven times for it to stick in their mind. Advertisers know this, which is why they are so persistent in repeating images.
Cecilia Peartree: There is a danger of real life intruding too much into novels. Cecilia does a lot of work in committees and there is the concern that if this features in her work too much that people will assume it is based on her real life and Corstorphine in general.
Chewing Gum on the Mantelpiece
Wendy H. Jones: Chewing gum on the mantelpiece is a metaphor for something mentioned early in a novel. It has to be relevant later in the plot, because a crime reader will assume it is a clue in the plot, and will be disappointed if it is left unresolved.
She has to do a lot of plotting “to keep track of the bodies and to control the police” within the story.
Characters that bully you
Wendy H. Jones: Sometimes she says “characters start to bully you”, i.e. they start to take on their own identity and dictate to you their likes & dislikes. This can sometimes be little planned. One character, for example, she felt would be a whisky drinker as she was writing the story.
My own trumpet
I talked about Corstorphine’s links to Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens etc, the sculptures of writers in South Gyle and read out the Rival Bellmen by the local writer Robert Cuddie.
On a very different note, the audience learnt about Daphne du Maurier’s uncle. He was a one-time editor of the Daily Mail, who held some unusual notions about Edinburgh. Were Corstorphine Hill and Gogar featured in the Bible? Probably not, but he thought so.
Jane writes novels and short stories about exotic locales and often uses photographs for inspiration. She works within contemporary fiction, and the family relationship genre. She has also written a series of books featuring a cat… the Bakhtin Chronicles, based on the Russian philosopher of the same name.
Her non-fiction work – Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing – speaks for itself.
Anne writes historical romance, which is often set in Regency London. She sometimes uses Edinburgh’s New Town for inspiration. Her other works include a novel about Travellers set in Midlothian & a new novel set in the world of community theatre.
Kate writes novels, short stories & serials, many of which are set in Scotland e.g. Melrose, Edinburgh and the Highlands. She says it is easier to set short stories in various locations than novels, as they require less grounding.
Her stories have been published in a number of places, but she has put them into three collections, which are available on Kindle.
Her breakthrough came after winning a competition in The People’s Friend.
Wendy H. Jones
Wendy writes about crime in Dundee, which is apparently the murder capital of Scotland. It is also, as she told us, the last resting place of one of the prime suspects in the Jack the Ripper case – William Henry Bury, who was executed at the Bell Street Police Station.
She has had two series of crime novels published and a third on the way. Many of these start with the word “Killer” e.g. Killer’s Crypt, Killer’s Craft etc. Her protagonist is D.I. Shona McKenzie, a native of Dundee, who was raised in Oxford and thus brings something of an outsider’s eye to the city.
Wendy has also written YA novels – the Fergus & Flora series, and a children’s book, called Bertie the Buffalo.
Thousands drive past Gogar Kirk every week, but few ever notice it, hidden as it is behind the Royal Bank of Scotland’s ostentatious bridge, and a belt of trees.
But the kirkyard contains a number of interesting graves, including those of the sculptor and writer Pittendreigh MacGillivray, and his playwright daughter Ina.
But today, I want to look at another character – Sir Robert Liston (1742-1846). Liston was quite the diplomat – he was an ambassador to the Ottoman court at Constantinople twice, and he was also de facto ambassador to the USA for some years. I say “de facto“, because the UK wouldn’t have a so called ambassador to the USA until decades later – however, his position, and his role were pretty much the same as one.
Liston was the son of a farmer from Torbanehill near Kirkliston, the very area his family appear to derive their surname from. Among his school friends was Andrew Dalzell (1742-1806), the noted classicist, and like many of Liston’s other contacts, they kept up a long term correspondence.
Robert proved to be a very able scholar, and had the gift of languages, becoming fluent in at least ten of them. He went to Edinburgh University, and was there exposed to the nascent Scottish Enlightenment.
In 1796 he married Henrietta Marchant. Henrietta was an avid keeper of journals, and it is from her that we learn much about Sir Robert’s career. She appears to have been much more wealthy than him. Like many rich people of the time, there is an unpleasant aspect to her wealth – her family came from the West Indies, and were slave owners there.
Friend of the Founding Fathers
As British emissary to the USA, Liston was popular with many of the American founding fathers. He often visited George Washington, and John Adams, and was friendly enough with Thomas Jefferson for the two to lend books to each other.
Liston’s success in the States was probably partly down to the fact that unlike many other British diplomats of the time, he was not an aristocrat. As a scion of the middle class, and a self-made man, he had far more in common with the American revolutionaries than any of them would have done.
Mon cher Bob
When visiting France, Liston was introduced to the French novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (née de la Boras). Marie Jeanne was 29 years Liston’s elder and died in Paris in 1792. She wrote over 70 letters to Robert Liston, which still survived and she referred to him as “mon cher Bob”.
Riccoboni herself was the ex-wife of Italian playwright Antoine François Riccoboni, author of more than fifty comedies. She would later die in poverty; she had been awarded a state pension by the French government, but the revolution ended that.
It is suspected that Marie Jeanne was introduced to Sir Robert by the noted philosopher David Hume, a mutual friend.
Among the Turks
Turkey’s westernisation is commonly attributed to Atatürk in the twentieth century, however, the Sultans Mahmud II and his successor Selim III had begun the process long before. Sir Robert dealt with Selim III’s government. Selim was a keen patron of the arts, and encouraged a more liberal atmosphere in the empire. Sir Robert’s time in Constantinople (Istanbul) seems to have been more to do with maintaining British influence against that of France.
Visiting Gogar Kirkyard
Gogar Kirk is a delightful little former church. In recent times, it has become a cabinet works, and the church itself is frequently a part of Doors Open Day – check the brochure for details.
The site is an interesting one. The area seems to have been very marshy in historic times, and that probably explains why it is raised above the surrounding ground a little. This could also suggest that it is a very old holy site, and probably pre-Christian. (If you want to hear some of the wilder ideas some people have come up with about Gogar, please read my book!) The placename itself appears to be Welsh and there is some debate about its origins – is it the red (goch) place like nearby Redheughs or the place of the cuckoo (gog/cog)?
Gogar Kirk, funnily enough, is one of the few places in Edinburgh which it is easier to get to by tram. Get off at the Gogarburn stop (just after the Gyle Centre and Edinburgh Gateway), and you’re practically on top of it. There is very little parking.
The bus service is not very good either. However, it may be possible to get a bus to the RBS HQ nearby and walk over. Again, check with Lothian buses for details.
In a previous article I discussed the local links of Elizabeth Gaskell, née Stevenson (1810-1865). Gaskell is best known as the author of such works as North and South, and Mary Barton.
Since I wrote the article, it has struck me how few people are aware of her link to Saughton & Corstorphine, or indeed Edinburgh in general.
The origins of place names have always fascinated me, and I have discussed quite a few on this blog already.
One that I haven’t looked at before is “Tyler’s Acre”. It gives its name to several streets between old Corstorphine and Carrick Knowe. It is to be found between Saughton Road North and Lampacre Road, and lies to the north of Union Park.
It turns out that the “tyler” (tailor) in question was a member of the Stevenson family, who farmed at Saughton Mains. He was a close relative of William Stevenson, Elizabeth Gaskell’s father.
Chapman magazine has produced a commemorative issue celebrating the life of Angus Calder (1942-2008) – number 110, if you wish to seek it out. I have discussed Angus a wee bit previously in my piece on Byron and Scotch Reviewers, and I give him a substantial entry in the book. It is quite amazing to think that it is nearly ten years since he passed away. I have many thoughts about how he was treated by certain people later in life, especially certain academics, which are not fit to repeat… however, Joy Hendry, who edits Chapman certainly never fell into that category, and I witnessed her myself visiting him right up until the end.
It is very difficult to pigeonhole Angus Calder. He was a poet to some people, a literary critic to others, a historian to yet other people, and an Edinburgh character to others. You find him in many places – he wrote an episode of The World at War; he was instrumental in helping modern East African literature emerge; he wrote on Byron, and he was also an erstwhile political campaigner. He could sometimes be mercurial and controversial, other times friendly, sometimes highbrow, and sometimes his common touch belied his background and career. His knowledge of sport was also frighteningly detailed.
As I say, there isn’t really enough space here to discuss him fully.
Ms Blackhall is probably the most notable living poet from the north east, and often writes in a very natural form of Doric. I was interested to see her poem Woodland Burial: Angus Calder 1942-2008 was included in Chapman, as I happened to be at the funeral at Corstorphine Hill Cemetery myself. It captures much of the atmosphere of Angus’ burial, his family members, his ex’s, and the songs and poetry. She says, “You lie near a row of Polish generals” – these are very much visible as you enter the woodland burial section of the graveyard. One or two details have been excluded from the poem – the man who asked Angus’ son Gideon to “speak up” is mercifully missing.
In this piece, I discuss John Herdman who has featured Edinburgh Zoo in his work on a number of occasions… which leads me onto another Edinburgh zoo of a slightly different nature.
Introducing John Herdman
Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978) was my first exposure to John Herdsman’s work, back in the nineties. Back then I used to go on holiday in Pitlochry in Perthshire, and would often go on short trips to the surrounding towns and villages. John and his wife Mary used to run a second-hand bookshop in a converted petrol station in Blair Atholl, which was the next stop up the line.
Many years later, and John & Mary both moved to Edinburgh, where they became involved in the revival of The Heretics, which I discussed earlier on this blog. This is how I came to know him, and I am also immensely grateful to him for contributing a foreword to the book of Literary Corstorphine.
Herdman’s works are more firmly rooted in Scottish literary tradition than many contemporary writers, who seem to have forgotten about it entirely. Herdman’s works has a kind of magical realist, or even Gothic. quality about them – the settings are often mundane enough, but the plot elements and characters are not.
Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie (1974)
In Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie wemeet Mr. Crum:
“Mr. Crum was older than Mr. Clinkscales and had not always been a waiter. For many years he had held the post of keeoer in the Reptile House at the Zoological Park, Edinburgh, and during this period seemed to have taken upon himself something of the reptilian nature, for he had the hooded lids of a snake and experienced no greater delight than spitting venom from a lipless mouth. He had the tensed, seeking nostrils of an animal and his blood heat was the subject of persistent though unconfirmed rumours. This was the depraved and malicious man with whom Aunt Minnie was now to fall in love.”
Ghostwriting is something of an eschatological horror. At one point the two main characters, Torquil Tod and Leonard Balmain, decide to meet each other in “the lounge bar of a hotel in Murrayfield… He specified a table in the corner beside the French windows.”
Later in the novel, Torquil has a horrific nightmare vision of Edinburgh Zoo in which the animals are fighting each other and under the shadow of some kind of deadly plague.
The Sinister Cabaret (2001)
This book also mentions the zoo, albeit more fleetingly. Like Ghostwriting, there is a mention of bears, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a reference to Wojtek the fighting bear who ended up in the zoo in his “retirement”.
Another Edinburgh Zoo
And now to that other “zoo”…
During the 1908 Exhibition, Saughton Park hosted a “Senegalese village”, and actual Africans were included. I must admit I know little about this episode. Were they paid at all? Did they come over voluntarily? Either way, the Edinburgh climate must have been “Baltic” for them, considering they had to wear clothing better suited to the tropics, and presumably slept in the huts too.
Some “Irish cottages” were also included in the exhibition, although you would have to be an expert to notice much of a difference from certain Scottish ones of the time. Whether Irish people were included, I don’t know. Needless to say, there were plenty of Irish in Edinburgh at the time, and precious few people from Senegal, so they would have been far less of a novelty.
The term often used for these exhibits was “human zoos”. It seems to me though that there is a fine line between such things and some of the heritage villages that can be found around these islands. A modern commentator would probably claim the Irish cottages fell into the latter category, and the African village into the former.
He is best known to most people, if at all from William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500):
“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene, And gentill Roull of Corstorphine; Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”
Ravelston = Roull’s Town?
The Roull family’s links were not just to Corstorphine but to Cramond. But Ravelston named after the Roulls? I’ll put this one down to a mere phonetic similarity, but it is tempting, very tempting.
The surname Ralston, currently borne by a BBC weather presenter, appears to come from a place near Paisley not Ravelston.
We may have at least one piece by Roull of Corstorphine; this is known as The Cursing and it is attributed to one Sir John Roull. The Cursing is directed at some poultry thieves, and falls under the genre of flyting (no pun intended). According to Janet Hadley Williams in her paper Humorous Poetry in Late Medieval Scots and Latin (c. 1450-1550), published in the European Journal of Humour Research (1(1) 61- 66):
With all the power of the ecclesiastical authorities behind him, Roull denounces the sinners, revealing the terrible sin they have committed, the stealing of five fat geese, ‘With caponis, henis and othir fowlis’. The bathetic revelation provides a humorous aspect to the threats, reducing the speaker’s authority; nonetheless the poem is an uncomfortably dark attack, closely parodying the real-life prose excommunication in the structure of the curse, the specialized language (the many references, for instance, to horrific diseases), and in the terrors of its imagery of hell’s serpents, adders, and devils with whips and clubs
The image was taken from Wikipedia, and is the work of Jonathan Oldenbuck. Permission is granted under the GNU Free Documentation licence.
My apologies to anyone who is an email subscriber, and has received multiple notifications. I have been trying to improve the “plumbing” (for want of a better word) of this blog i.e. the tags, categories etc. I know unfortunately that WordPress sometimes sends out a new notification when a post is altered, so if this has happened… well it wasn’t meant to!
One casualty of this work has been the post on Wilfred Owen which got mysteriously replaced by the post on Cammo. I hope to restore the Wilfred Owen post and fix some other errors in the next few days.
To borrow a phrase from our local workmen – sorry for the inconvenience. Business as usual.
In Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging (1992) we read about a sleazy character called McKenzie, who was caught loitering around:
“Murrayfield Comprehensive. He wasn’t charged, but it’s on record that he was taken to Murrayfield Police Station and questioned.”
The eagle-eyed will spot three things amiss here:
Scotland doesn’t have comprehensive schools (as far as I know).
There is no secondary school in Murrayfield.
There isn’t a police station either.
Now, I’m presuming that Rankin didn’t want the character or the setting to be associated with any real location, which is something he does in many of his novels. But let’s assume for a moment there actually was a Murrayfield Comprehensive… where would it be?
Tynecastle High School (pictured) is not far from Roseburn, and is the best candidate. It would have been in the old building back in 1992, across the road.
Two girls’ schools – Mary Erskine’s and St George’s. Probably not, since they’re private.
Royal High School – too far away. More like Davidson’s Mains.
As for the local cop shop – there doesn’t seem to be one for miles!
I’ve never been a great fan of Maeve Binchy, to be honest, but I suspect her books were never directed at someone like me. She does seem to have a big fan base though, so who am I to judge?
Her book, A Few of the Girls also mentions Murrayfield, this time as a byname for rugby:
“Murrayfield was a great outing, Michael said. They always loved the year when Ireland played in Cardiff Arms Park and Murrayfield. Two great weekends – win, lose or draw.”
Binchy died back in 2012, and the book is dated 2015, so I’ve no idea whether this is a posthumous book, or a newer edition.
When it comes to Murrayfield Stadium – and indeed Tynecastle nearby – there are so many non-fiction books that mention them, that I have lost count. So, I have tended to concentrate on creative writing instead.
Wendy Wood (1892 – 1981) is a controversial figure within Scottish life. Wood is best known as a Scottish Nationalist, one who was perhaps a lot more “hands on” than many of the current careerist crop, but she was also a poet, a memoirist and an illustrator… and a reader on Jackanory of all things.
While she is not as well remembered as she should be, there are many, particularly the Andrew Marrs of the world, who would rather she was forgotten altogether. Many Scottish feminists seem completely unaware of her as well, at a time when the memory of figures such as Nan Shepherd and Ethel Moorhead is being revived. A shame really, since although her radical Scottish nationalism may not sit well with our Guardian-reading middle class, she was also a notable campaigner for Indian independence and was involved in campaigning against the British Union of Fascists when it tried to set up in Edinburgh.
Her autobiography Yours Sincerely for Scotland (1970) details many of her views. Most histories of the Scottish independence movement have tended to be written either by the SNP mainstream or by its opponents. Yours Sincerely is a rare example of a detailed work by someone who fits into neither category.
Astronauts and Tinkers (1985) is a collection of her poetry, along with a number of her own line illustrations. I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy, but it seems to be extremely hard to come by.
She also wrote extensively on the crofting life, and produced a number of retellings of folk tales.
Compton MacKenzie’s book Moral Courage is dedicated to her.
There is a bit of ambiguity in the wording here – was Wood lesbian or bisexual? Or is this just an artistic partnership? I have no idea. This is the first time I have seen her sexuality discussed, although I know she died unmarried.
The house is still there, although there is nothing to mention the cultural connections as far as I know.
Unfortunately very little of the content online specifically deals with Wood’s writing or art.