CYCC – Fire, Freemasonry and the Gaelic novel

CYCC from near Corstorphine Library
CYCC from near Corstorphine Library, Kirk Loan

Located on Kirk Loan, the CYCC/Corstorphine Hub is the former home of Corstorphine Library and probable basis for Gymnippers Diciadain by Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir. The building is currently a burnt out shell, but used to contain a fitness club, youth centre, Masonic lodge, and also hosted the Corstorphine Literary and Geographical Society for a number of years.

The first public library in Corstorphine was founded back in the 1830s, and was a subscription library. In 1892, it moved to the CYCC, and became a council-run library a few years later. In 1936, it moved to its current building, which is next door. It’s curious to think that all of this occurred when Corstorphine was still a proper village and not engulfed by Edinburgh.

View from by Bowling Club
View from by Bowling Club

At the top of the building, one can still see faded Masonic lettering on the walls, which has been damaged by rain and water ingress since the roof fell in. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed though – before the lettering faded away, it was clearly a noble statement about brotherly love, rather than something about worshipping Satan or trying to establish a global government. (Sorry to any beleaguered Freemasons reading – that was a joke.) Although at one point, as conspiracy theorists might be interested to know, the Mormon Church held branch meetings in the lodge there. The painted lettering looks to have been very fine, and it is a great shame to see it destroyed like this.

The other half of the building still has the sign “Elite Fitness” on it. This appears to be where the fire started, from a faulty heater. Given that children were in there at the time, it is extremely fortunate that none of them were seriously hurt. Since there used to be a children’s club in there, and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir lives/d in Broomhall/Wester Broom, I suspect it was the basis for his Gymnippers Diciadain*. Certainly I know for a fact his family used Corstorphine Library next door. It concerns a platonic romance between two Gaelic speakers, Caroline and DJ, whose children attend a weekly gym class together. Sorry to be a tease again, but yes there will be a further post on this – with quotes – at some point in the future. I’ll even attempt to translate extracts.

According to Gaelicbooks dot org – “Bha an leabhar seo air geàrr-liosta SALTIRE MAIN LITERARY PRIZE 2005 (comhla ri Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith agus feadhainn eile).” (This book was shortlisted for the Saltire Main Prize 2005 (along with Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith and some others))

For those who are interested in helping getting this building properly refurbished, there is a fundraising shop on St John’s Road inside Lucy’s Café. Personally, I don’t find it one of the more attractive older buildings in Corstorphine, but the fire was still a crying shame.

Across the road can be seen Corstorphine Kirk. In the graveyard can be found relatives of the local poet Robert Cuddie. Unfortunately, the graveyard is very badly maintained and the city council has vandalised many of the stones in the name of health and safety. The kirk and original village are on an old island in a marsh. On one side was the Gogar Loch, which extended from just beyond Featherhall/Ladywell, over Gyle Muir & Gyle Park to Gogar. On the other was Corstorphine Loch, which ran from round about the Paddockholm & Traquair Park, over Carrick Knowe Golf Course to the fringes of Murrayfield. Nearby Sycamore Gardens is named after the great sycamore which was haunted by the spirit of the White Lady (hence the pub name on St John’s Road). The sycamore itself is one of the most overegged symbols of Corstorphine and sycamore leaves appear in some of the railings in the area. Lord knows why, since as larger trees go, sycamores are as good as weeds. Like the castle of the Forrester Family, the sycamore is gone, and doesn’t even exist as a stump. I remember it coming down.

Mystery hole in the wall

The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)
The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)

I’ve put this photograph up so that readers can have a go at trying to work out what this is. Has it got any significance at all? It’s between the end of Kirk Loan and the gate into the bowling club.

We often overlook stuff like this, but since my tour of Kirkcudbrightshire (see the second post), I’ve come to realise that the apparently ordinary is not always so ordinary.

I’m guessing the wall is late 19th/early 20th century in origin, and the fact that the stone is near the bottom means it is likely to have been there since the wall got built. It’s not unlikely the stone came from elsewhere, so it could be stone that came from the castle, or even a prehistoric cup and ring stone (there are some of those up on Corstorphine Hill). If it’s part of a cup and ring stone, this would be pretty fantastic – these are about the nearest things that we have to writing from our own Stone Age.

Or is it just somewhere a bolt was put?

Notes

* “Gymnippers” pronounced as in English. “Diciadain” as “Jeekee-ahdun”, which means “Wednesday”.

External Links

Gymnippers Diciadain (in Gaelic)

Corstorphine Youth and Community Centre/Corstorphine Hub

The Heretics

John Herdman reading at Saltire Society, August 2015
John Herdman reading at Saltire Society, August 2015

Apologies if I leave anyone out of the lists here. It is not due to any ill will, more my atrocious memory. Sorry folks! 

Aly Bain, Liz Lochhead, Billy Connolly, Sorley MacLean, Phil Cunningham, Norman MacCaig, Derick Thomson, Robert Garioch, Dolina MacLennan… many of these are pretty well known names from the Scottish folk and literary scenes. Billy Connolly has gone on to bigger and not-always-better things since. (I still maintain that Dolina is a much better actor than he is though! Check out how he upstages the others in just about every film he makes an appearance in. Back then, Connolly was still actually funny, and was a musician – with a heavy influence from Matt McGinn.)

All of the people mentioned (and many others) were involved with a group called the Heretics, back in the 1970s. Not heard of it? You’re not alone. Very few people seem to be even aware of it, despite the fame of many of its members – at least within Scotland.

John Herdman’s book, Another Country was the inspiration for Craig Gibson and Peter Burnett to revive the group. After many years running the bookshop in Blair Atholl, he is now based in the Clerwood/Clermiston area.

John Herdman is not the only stalwart of the group to have had local connections.

William “Willie” Neil (Uilleam Nèill) used to stay out on South Gyle Road in the 1970s. Neil, who was originally from Ayrshire, and latterly of Galloway, wrote in all three of Scotland’s indigenous languages. Like Herdman, he deserves much greater fame for his work. I first came across William Neil in Cothrom magazine, a bilingual Gaelic learners’ magazine. He was discussing the Gaelic heritage of the far south west of Scotland – a land perhaps associated more with Burns and Covenanters than Gaeldom. Later I found out that he was the editor of Catalyst during the seventies, the magazine of the 1320 Club, and that he had lived within a fifteen minute walk of where I currently live.

In August 2015, there were three Heretics events, all held in the Saltire Society, which lies on a little close round the back of the Waverley and World’s End bars in the old town.

After 35 years in cold storage, the baton was handed over, something which Dolina MacLennan referred to it as the slowest relay race in history. Herdman and MacLennan were both prime movers in the revival. And yes, there was a literal physical baton.

* The first featured members of the 1970s Heretics who are still with us.

* The second featured “Dead Poets”, or at least readings from members of the Heretics, who are “no longer on this plane. Appropriately enough, a ghost tour went past the venue during the smoking break.

* The third featured the new manifestation of the Heretics. Young(er) members, who are going to continue on the tradition.

William Neil got an outing in the “Dead Poets” event, and John Herdman, featured in all three.

The newer Heretics are led by Peter Burnett (Leamington Books, and author of Scotland or No) and Craig Gibson (creator of The One O’ Clock Gun, and author of the forthcoming novel Cider Camp). The founder members of the new manifestation include the following – Anita Govan, Kirsty Law, Lorna ?Waite (gabhaibh mo leisgeul), Mark Jardine, Colin Donati & Robin Mason (a.k.a. Various Moons), and The Range of the Awful Hand. Yours truly was supposed to feature, but due to events outwith my control this did not happen.

Poster from the original Heretics. Note the ticket price.
Poster from the original Heretics. Note the ticket price.

The name “Heretic” is a pun on “heritage”, and also suggests an outsider status. The 1970s Heretics aimed to keep a thread of traditional Scottish culture going at a time when a lot of Scottish literature and music was heading away from it (usually in the direction of Anglo-American culture).

Some of the original members who turned up for the revival include the aforementioned John Herdman and Dolina MacLennan, and also Adam MacNaughton, Alan Riach, David Campbell, Donald Campbell, Liz Lochhead (who put in a surprise appearance), Rory Watson, George Brown and a lady whose name escapes me now, but who was good with a guitar.

Heretics meetings come out of the whole ceilidh/scoriach/come-all-ye/hootenanny etc aspect of Scottish culture, i.e. having good fun indoors, when it’s probably dark, wet and cold outside. This means a mix of different items, whether music, literature, comedy etc. It’s a social, a sesh or session in a relaxed atmosphere. Hopefully, the Heretics will keep our positive Scottish traditions alive, and also won’t peddle to the po-faced folk music crowd which seem to be increasingly common in Scotland.

External Links (including video)

‘The Heretics’ celebrate historic Edinburgh comeback

The Heretics

The Heretics Revival

Cultural collective rolls back the years after absence of 40 years (The Herald)

Auld Reekie oot west

Submission (1997), a novella by Paul Reekie, in the Children of Albion Rovers compilation.

Kelly got her degree. Replying to an advert in the paper she was a salesperson in a car showroom in Corstorphine. She got the punters interested… aye you know… Old Rab comes around later and gets them to sign. Teamwork. How was the parlance? ‘Close the dead’.

While there is no car showroom in Corstorphine proper these days, there is one up on the Glasgow Road, between St Thomas Episcopal Church and the Marriot Hotel. This is a Jaguar showroom. This is not necessarily the showroom in the novella, but it could be the inspiration for it. I gather from certain sources that Submission was the problem piece in Children of Albion Rovers and had to be altered for legal reasons. However, I doubt the contemporary Jaguar car showroom was the legal reason. Some of the more delicate readers of this blog will doubtless be horrified by some of the language in the volume, but you can’t say you weren’t warned. This blog aims to discuss all the writing from this part of the world, not just the stuff from the “easy reading” section.

Glasgow Road, Maybury - looking towards Corstorphine. The Jaguar showroom is behind the nearest bus stop.
Glasgow Road, Maybury – looking towards Corstorphine. The Jaguar showroom is behind the nearest bus stop.

There used to be another briefly, on St John’s Road where the sign salesroom is now. But as I understand it, that was a place where one could rent classic cars, rather than buying them. This probably post-dates Submission anyway.

Paul Reekie was really a Leith writer, well Fife originally, and the obligatory Hibs fan. He was also what you could call a “difficult person”. Not in a bad way, but stubborn, and holding fast to his beliefs.

Difficult people often remain difficult after death. They can remain thorns in the sides of the people who disowned them. Or those who try to co-opt them after death. Memory is a tricky thing, but a written output helps keep that going a little longer.

Paul Reekie’s name has appeared in print a number of times more recently. And why? Austerity kills. Not just the body, but the soul too. Reekie appears regularly in lists of people who have been killed by vicious austerity policies. The fact that he was known by Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson and Alan Bisset etc. means that he has had a higher profile than some of the other victims. Photographs of him a few years apart show a shocking physical decline, aging much quicker than he should, partly the result of government inflicted stress.

“Paul Reekie is definitely seen as the ‘one that got away’, probably the biggest talent in a gifted group of Edinburgh writers that emerged in the 90s, but the least known, and one whose influence on the others has only become more apparent through his absence.” – Irvine Welsh

Reekie’s output was tiny, but he just won’t go away. The name “Reekie” puts you in mind of the whole city, both Auld and “Neu”. In a tribute to Paul Reekie, Welsh wrote that it was not surprising how little Williamson got out of him, but how much. The fact that he had champions like these, and appeared in Children of Albion Rovers anthology alongside better known writers means he won’t just scarper off and fade away like certain forces wish he would. In fact, I’ve talked about him several times recently with various groups of people. I never got to meet Reekie, but I know of him through friends and acquaintances we had in common. And that is how the collective memory works.

A memorial event to him at the Book Festival turned into pleasant anarchy. In one corner you could see generic festival goers, who had obviously seen it “on the programme” and wondered what they’d stumbled on. In another football fans who may have never attended any other events there before or since. In another friends and relatives. And then on stage, writers who came all the way from Japan next to Leith characters. One minute it was poignant, with folk practically in tears. Then drunken football songs, which somehow managed to avoid sounding as tribal as they normally do. The staff themselves looked even more confused.

Paul Reekie may well have the last laugh. And I hope he does.

Update

Given that we had quite a few common acquaintances, and even friends, it’s amazing I don’t remember meeting Paul Reekie. Yet I’m coming to think that I probably did, at a Burns Supper at the former Postal Worker’s Union near London Road. Given that he was apparently sitting at a table with friends of mine, I must have spoken to him. Given that I remember relatively little of the proceedings, I must either blame the alcohol, early onset dementia, or some kind of extra-terrestrial encounter. (All of these are apparently common causes of memory loss.)

I find this kind of thing frustrating. I’ve met a good few writers through one thing and another. Still I would prefer to remember Paul Reekie, than my brief encounter with Robin Jenkins at a Waterstone’s book signing many years ago. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read any of Jenkins’ work since. A shame since Ionce enjoyed it!

Would a memory of Reekie have the same effect? Nah, I suspect something of himself came over in his work…

External links

The Paul Reekie Blog

This lost genius: The legacy of the late Scottish poet Paul Reekie

Claim welfare reforms drove writer Paul Reekie to suicide

Picture Credits

Glasgow Road (Thomas Nugent) / CC BY-SA 2.0
(Apologies, this is the best picture I could find. Some time I’ll try and replace it with one of the actual showroom – if people are interested!)

Elizabeth Gaskell (and the Screws)

Saughton Winter Gardens, rose garden.
Saughton Winter Gardens, rose garden.

The name “Saughton” is associated in many Edinburgh people’s minds with a prison. Seeing as the local winter gardens (pictured) are getting a revamp/refurb, you’d think this might be a good chance to commemorate the area’s connection with a famous English writer. I put out this idea in the consultation, but seemingly the council has little interest in doing so. (I’m always suspicious about a lot of these so called consultations, and suspect that they mainly serve to reinforce what was intended beforehand by the supposed consultants.)

Elizabeth Gaskell, née Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson (1810-1865), was a popular English novelist in the 19th century and is still read today. She’s best known for works such as Mary Barton ((1848) which I own as an audiobook!) and North and South (1854). The Reader’s Encyclopedia (1965) by Benét says:

“She is known for her depictions of English country life and for her pioneering studies of conflict between capital and labor in Victorian industrialism… friend of many literary figures in England, including Charlotte Brontë… and George Eliot whose work she influenced.”

Thus her social conscience puts her in the same bracket as Dickens, i.e. someone who fought to improve the disgusting conditions that the poor had to put up with at the time.

So what are Gaskell’s connections to Saughton?
Elizabeth_Gaskell
• Her father, William Stevenson farmed at Saughton Mains (mains being the Scots for a home farm). He too was a writer, and edited the Scots Magazine for a while.
• Her middle name, “Cleghorn”, probably relates to someone of that name in the area.
• Street names in the area such as Stevenson Road. (I am yet to verify the connection, but it’s likely.)
By the time Elizabeth was born, the family was living in England, but these are still three quite interesting links. Saughton also turns up in the work of Irvine Welsh. I shall post more on these subjects on due course.

So, like I say, it’s about time that Saughton was remembered for a bit more than “porridge”.

Place name stuff
• Saughton – The “saugh” bit rhymes with “loch”, and is Broad Scots for a willow tree (seileach in Gaelic).

• Balgreen – Nothing to do with “ball green”, although that’s probably appropriate with the playing fields being there now. It’s actually a Gaelic name, meaning sunny (Baile na Grèine) or gravelly farm (Baile Griain). The element Bal- (baile) can be found down the road in Balerno, and turns up as Bally- in Ireland, and Balla- in the Isle of Man. The exact same name crops up near Ecclesmachan and Murieston in West Lothian.

• Stenhouse – The last bit “house” doesn’t appear to refer to a “house” at all. Older records call the place “Stanhope Mills”. Stanhope was the surname of the folk who held land there in the 16th and 17th centuries.

All three names are possibly connected to water – saughs (willows) like growing by water, gravel turns up near rivers, and “mills” speaks for itself.

Picture Credits

Rose gardens, Saughton Park Edinburgh (Jim Barton) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The picture of Elizabeth Gaskell originates on the German version of Wikipedia, and is public domain. The portrait was painted by George Richmond in 1851.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary – Getting a sense of place out in the ‘burbs

Central Edinburgh from Corstorphine Hill, 1824.
Central Edinburgh from Corstorphine Hill in the early 19th Century.

The first real post! This one is going to be longer than a lot of them (except perhaps the Bleeding Ink post coming up soon), but hopefully it will provide an intro to the subject. I’m still getting a handle on WordPress, so excuse any amateurish mistakes. At some point, I’ll be publishing a P.O.D. guide on this very subject.

The west of Edinburgh is a land of semi-detached houses, terraces, blocks of flats and shopping centres. As someone in a Stockbridge pub told me, “whenever I hear the word Corstorphine, I switch off.” This is actually a bit unfair. There are a lot of extremely boring buildings out here to be honest, but there is also a rich cultural heritage which is barely remarked on in many books about the city. In general, this blog is going to be about a slice of town running from Haymarket out to the airport, mostly centred on Corstorphine, but taking in surrounding areas – South Gyle, Drumbrae, Clermiston, Broomhall, Murrayfield etc etc. I’ve used the Glasgow railway line and Corstorphine Hill as boundaries to this area, but occasionally I plan to stray into Sighthill, Davidson’s Mains etc when it suits me. When I say “art”, “culture”, “literature”, I’m not always talking in a high-brow, elitist sense. I’m going to talk about them in their broadest senses, i.e. everything from writing groups up to supposedly canonical literature.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Liverpool. It isn’t the most beautiful city in the world, but it makes up for that in other ways, and takes a lot of flak from other parts of England. On a trip to the Isle of Man, I stopped over there once. Amongst other things, I took the obligatory Beatles tour. Now I’m not an obsessive fan of the band – I like some of their later albums – but I found the tour fascinating. Instead of visiting the usual ancient ruins, stately homes, and beauty spots, we found ourselves in working class and lower middle class districts, on suburban streets which could have been in any part of England (or nearly any other part of these islands). Strawberry Fields was a children’s home. Penny Lane is a typical and not unpleasant road with small shops. Yet the Beatles transformed these places into cultural icons. Likewise the childhood homes of the band members could easily have been in a hundred other places. In some way I don’t quite understand, I really liked that.

That’s much the same as what I hope to do here. This part of the world has links to famous writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, controversial writers like Irvine Welsh, up-and-coming writers such as Louise Welsh, cult writers such as Charles Stross, war heroes like Douglas Bader, feminists such as Rebecca West etc. George Eliot, Hans Christian Anderson and Byron all have their links to this area as well. But, somewhat like Liverpool Beatles tour, you’ll find many of the photographs on the blog are of very, very ordinary looking places.

Galloway* is a much more beautiful place. Yet it too has its secrets. When the Scottish Place Names Society had its conference there, local Michael Ansell gave us a fascinating tour of the area. His knowledge of local history and geography was excellent. A pretty, but unimpressive hill turned out to have a link to witchcraft. A small stone seat in St John’s Town of Dalry may have a link to a local sub-kingdom. A clearing in a forestry plantation turned out to be the location of a lost town. We also discussed Òran Bagraidh, which might be the only extant piece of Galloway Gaelic literature, and which appears to refer to places which don’t appear on maps or signposts. Much had been lost, but we could at least pick up some of the remaining fragments, thanks to Mr Ansell and other people in the SPNS.

I’ll probably mention a bit about place names in the west of Edinburgh in many of the posts. The main aim is to talk about writers and writing, but I think these are of interest, and help root the blog in local history. One or two of the street names are relevant too.

Unless they were actually told, not many people would identify a few scrawny trees as the last remnants of Birnam Wood, which was mentioned in MacBeth, or that sprawling suburbs in the English Midlands were once the home of the legendary Robin Hood. Like the Liverpool tour, or Michael Ansell’s, the ordinary suddenly becomes much more interesting. Since Corstorphine lost its oral tradition centuries ago, this is the one way we can try and regain some of that sense of place.

In our remote tribal past, and down even into the Middle Ages, every minor landmark had a name, a bit like each of our small streets do in the present day. Every field had a name e.g. Paddockholm, Tyler’s Acre. Even large rocks were named e.g. Carrick Knowe, East Craigs… and so on. In tribal cultures, this was a way of reading the landscape. Remembering the past of these places was a way of renewing one’s connection with them, knowing how the people who came before you related to them, and so on. Sadly a lot of the books and articles on Corstorphine history seem to be more about old photographs and who ran which shop. Of interest to some people, but not me particularly. Time to talk about something else.

* Note I say “Galloway”, not “Dumfries and Galloway”, which always annoys my friend Michael Conway who comes from Wigtown (Scotland’s National Booktown). The area in question that Michael Ansell took us around was the Glenkens in the traditional county of Kirkcudbrightshire.

Picture Credits

J Clarkscanned from S Sittwell and F Bamford, Edinburgh, 1937. The New Town of Edinburgh sprawls northwards from the Castle with Arthur’s Seat behind; from an aquatint by J. Clark, 1824. Uploaded by Kim Traynor onto Wikipedia.

Hello world!

Test post.

This blog has been set up to promote western Edinburgh’s literary history. It’s not just a mass of boring houses, retail parks and charity shops, we’ve actually got history here too! We hear a lot about the writers of central Edinburgh, but not much about their connection to the suburbs.

If I can work out how to use it.

In the meantime, you can have a look at the blog of my friend, Alan Wilde –

https://alanwilde.wordpress.com/