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.

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