Roman in Costafine Town

 

What connects George Harrison of the Beatles with Corstorphine? And what did the Romans do for us?

corstorphinekirk

In 1974, folk-rock duo Splinter had their biggest hit Costafine Town. It reached the Top Ten in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and the Top Twenty in the UK.

To people from Edinburgh, the name Costafine Town may sound strangely familiar.

Splinter

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The single – note the Dark Horse logo featuring the three Uchchaihshravas horses

Splinter were a folk-rock duo from South Shields in north east England, made up of Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis. They existed for roughly a decade, from the early seventies to the mid eighties. It appears they did not weather the punk explosion well, and they never did manage to repeat the success of Costafine Town, a fact not helped by the BBC taking umbrage at the word “bloody” appearing in their second single and refusing to play it as a result. The song Costafine Town appears on their first album, The Place I Love.

Splinter’s sound has often been likened to Badfinger – which is not a bad comparison. But while Badfinger was Paul McCartney’s baby, Splinter was very much that of George Harrison. The duo wrote the songs while Harrison was one of the session musicians on many of the tracks including Costafine Town. They were also signed to Harrison’s Dark Horse label.

Splinter are not well remembered. None of Splinter’s music appears to be on iTunes or Spotify, but some can be found on Youtube. (There is also another band called Splinter from Weymouth. They are nothing to do with this one.)

Corstorphine Town?

So where did Costafine Town get its name from?

There is only one other Corstorphine of any note in the world, and that is a suburb of Dunedin in New Zealand. That’s even further away from South Shields than we are. “Corstorphine” is also an uncommon Scottish surname.

A clue can be had in that many English people drop the letter “r”, i.e. a word like “farmer” ends up being pronounced as “fahmah” without a “r” in hearing range. That gives would give us “Cawsstawfin” which is not far off “Costafine.” And “phine”, well that looks like “fine” doesn’t it?

According to Bob Purvis, one half of the band, in a report on Look North East (the local BBC news programme) back in 2008 this is exactly what his mother did:

“I thought it’s time we wrote a song about South Shields. I sat down, I had the tune, me mother came in the conversation while I was playing. And we talked about this place called ‘Corstorphine Town’. My mother had a thing where she gets her words mixed up. Quite a lot. And it should have been ‘Costafeen’ [sic], but she pronounced it ‘Costafine’. By that time I had ‘Costafine Town, it’s a fine town, I’m comin’ home.

No “Corstorphine Town” currently appears on the map in South Shields, but that is not surprising. Not only was the north east of England a significant target for German bombs during WWII, it was also heavily redeveloped in the decades just after the war. All that appears to remain of Corstorphine Town is a single pub called the Commercial Hotel. It is to be found in the Riverside area of South Shields. According to “John Simpson Kirkpatrick” on Youtube:

Costa Fine Town (real name Corstorphine Town) was named after business man Robbie Corstorphine, who settled in South Shields, but hailed from Corstorphine, a village west of Edinburgh.

It seems there is a bit of confusion here. Was it named after Mr Corstorphine, or someone from Corstorphine, or both? This is a riddle some local historians might want to try and solve. By coincidence there were two Scottish presenters on Look North East at the time who point out that Corstorphine is in Edinburgh where the zoo is.

Corstopitum Town

A member of the “Corstorphine Memories” Facebook group suggested recently that Corstorphine is a Roman name. This was mainly because the name “Corstorphine” resembles “Corstopitum”, which is an old name for Corbridge, one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. According to a certain free encyclopaedia (and you might want to check other sources):

“The place-name appears in contemporary records as both Corstopitum and Corie Lopocarium. These forms are generally recognised as corrupt. Suggested reconstructions include CoriosopitumCorsopitum or Corsobetum.

The Roman presence on Tyneside is well known. Wallsend, across the river from South Shields, was the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. This effectively was the northern extreme of Romanitas for most of their time in Britain. However, various emperors did attempt to extend their power northwards, through various military expeditions, buying off local Celtic tribes, and building the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde. Cramond was one of their main ports north of Hadrian’s Wall, but it has to be said that the Roman presence in what-is-now southern Scotland was intermittent. Someone has estimated that of the four hundred years or so that the Romans spent in Britain, a mere forty were spent manning the Antonine Wall and even those were not a continuous forty.

The question is not whether the Romans visited this area, but for how long and how often. EA Elders, in an article in the Scotsman in 1969, suggests a Roman road ran from Cramond, over Drumbrae and between the Gogarloch and Corstorphine Loch heading towards Kingsknowe. I find this route a bit questionable – personally I would have thought it would have headed further west, alongside the Almond through Cammo, Lennie and Gogar, and along the west flank of the Pentland Hills to Carnwath. This would bypass some of the hills and some of the open water. However, in support of this theory, a Roman coin was once found in a garden at the east end of South Gyle Road, near where it joins Meadow Place Road. Does this mean a Roman dropped it there? Possibly. But bear in mind that Roman coins were also traded outside areas of Roman control, used to pay off troublesome tribes and some were even in circulation long after the empire had collapsed. Roman coins have turned up in places such as Ireland, Scandinavia and even Iceland which is supposed to have been uninhabited in Roman times.

Roman names are fairly uncommon in Scotland for this very reason – there are one or two. Bonchester in the borders springs to mind, for example, but they are very rare. Most of the apparently “Roman” names in England and Wales are actually Celtic in origin. Names such as Londinium (London), Eboracum (York), Isca (Exeter), Venta Silurum (Caerwent) all come from Celtic origins. Some of the names of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall including Corstopitum/Coria (Corbridge) and Segedunum also appear to be Celtic. (Some names in these islands appear to pre-date Celtic languages too – mostly those of natural features such as rivers and islands.)

Since the name of Corstorphine is first recorded in the 12th century, it is very hard to work out its ancient origins. The most likely answer is that it is Celtic and/or Norse of some kind. “Cors” in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is corrsa or carrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.

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Big Gold Dream & a few other thoughts

Big Gold Dream broadcast on BBC 2 last night discussed the Edinburgh & Glasgow post-punk scene. It featured interviews with Clermiston’s own Tam Dean Burn, Russell Burn, and Davey Henderson.

Craigmount High, cultural hothouse

You might laugh when I say this, but Craigmount High in the seventies produced some pretty amazing people. Big Gold Dream featured three of them: actor Tam Dean Burn, his brother Russell, and Davy Henderson who were responsible for groups such as the Dirty Reds, the Fire Engines and the Sexual Objects. Tam later became better known as an actor, but he was a rock musician back then too. There were some amusing anecdotes on the documentary – including how one of them had to trap and sell rabbits from Corstorphine Hill in order to pay for his first guitar. And how he still owes them money.

Although they were not featured on the documentary, it is worth mentioning that they were not the only significant people to attend Craigmount around this time. Others included:

As you can see, a lot of these folk were contemporaries or near contemporaries. Craigmount had a particularly well respected drama department back then headed up by Ken Morley.

Big Gold Dream

Every music documentary raises more questions than answers. What is the actual difference between post-punk and New Wave anyway? Is there one? Are they just punks in denial? Big Gold Dream never answered this. There were quite a few of the usual tropes you find in such documentaries – the messanic messages (music was crap until whoever it was came along), middle aged rock stars wearing sunglasses indoors (two of them in this case) and of course the messages about how drab Edinburgh was in the 1970s… just to hit the last point home, there was some grainy footage of Edinburgh shown, most of it apparently shot fairly recently. I was amazed though that no one moaned about prog rock on the programme – I thought that was practically obligatory on punk docs.

The drabness of the Scottish seventies seemed to carry over into most of the groups’ dress sense. Even today, many of those being interviewed appear to wear sombre clothes – greys and blacks, like mourning clothes. The clip of the Rezillos offered some brief respite from this drabness. It is a drabness which still exists today, particularly in a lot of Edinburgh’s grey social housing. Edinburgh’s quasi-mods Josef K featured, still playing the rock star game (Franz Ferdinand would have been nothing without them and Gang of Four.)

There were some dubious claims too, e.g. that Scotland had invented indy music, or that punk rock had come and gone in the mid to late 1970s. Both of these can be easily debunked. Punk’s still here. Punk was around in the early seventies. There even used to be an old man who wandered around Edinburgh with a leather jacket saying “punk’s not dead” until a few years ago. As for indy, that was already in existence by the time this crowd came along. That honour probably goes to various American and English groups – the Damned’s indy single New Rose charted back in ’77.

Class was only mentioned once: Tam Dean Burn was keen to mention the working class credentials of the Edinburgh scene versus the more “middle class” Glasgow one. Coincidentally, the heavy role that the College of Art played in the whole thing was played down, although we did keep seeing shots of Keir Street (which i just behind it)

And one of my pet peeves – the annoying Central Belt habit of saying “West Coast” and “East Coast” reared its head. Whenever I hear that I tend to think of Oban and Aberdeen, but no, in this part of the world, people just mean the small bits of Scotland around Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Strangely, none of the Fife and Dundee bands of this period were featured although they included such giants as the Skids. Edwyn Collins was absent, no doubt due to his stroke issues, although he was featured heavily in the promo materials and Orange Juice was mentioned a number of times.

Don’t go back

There is always something faintly ridiculous about older people trying to relive their teens. Given that I’m knocking on the door of middle age myself, and some of the people featured in this documentary are technically old enough to be my parents – and the grandparents of young adult children – you might see why none of this was really my scene.

It is always a pet peeve of mine that whenever I go to look up bands from the sixties, seventies and eighties on Wikipedia or Youtube, you see them in their more recent incarnations. I’m not really interested in seeing reunion tours. Blues, folk and jazz musicians can get away with it, but not punk rockers. Big Gold Dream spared us some of that. I made a rare exception for the Scars a few years ago in the Picture House. They were pretty impressive, their support bands not so much. Irvine Welsh was hanging around at the bar, bemused at the attention some of his younger fans were giving him. I said hello to Joe Callis out in the corridor…

My main memory of that Scars gig was a woman with a John Lewis bag slung over her shoulder.

Grunge

There is a good parallel between post-punk of this period, and the scenes of America’s Pacific North West a few years later. Seattle, Portland and Aberdeen were drab, industrial, rainy port towns.

I think Big Gold Dream missed a trick here. A direct line can be drawn connecting the two, through bands such as the Vaselines, which Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loved. Nirvana always had an interest in Scottish music, which in a round about way is how Shirley Manson migrated from Goodbye Mr Mackenzie into the internationally successful Garbage.

A major difference though is that Washington and Oregon had their own TV stations and proper media, something which has more or less evaded Scotland for the last few decades.

But grunge? Going into all that would prove that punk was still alive and kicking well after the seventies, something Big Gold Dream didn’t want to admit.

External links

Documentary explores birth of Edinburgh indie scene

Corstorphine, Midnight, Cowboy?

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This collection” [sic] came out in 2009, and featured a hundred poems by Edinburgh writers, each a hundred words in length.  The full set can be accessed by clicking on this blue link. There are three poems of local interest here: their brevity makes it difficult for me to quote much from them. You can thank copyright law for that!

Rob A. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine, Midnight can be found here. It paints a slightly grim picture of the area, through which a burning “Underwood” wanders seeking his ex-lover. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine is the land of “charity shop” (accurate), “supermarket aisles” (accurate) and “the vigil of neon alphabets” (a bit exaggerated). Even a short piece like this has several different interpretations – is the name “Underwood” actually a reference to the dark wild element which underlies human civilisation, and which is always waiting to come forth, or is it some backhanded reference to the 1990s sport? He shares his name with a couple of England rugby players of the period, but the poem also refers to the “Mexican Wave”, which was fashionable in football back then. This just goes to show all of the strange, and possibly unintended, meanings one can derive from poetry.

For those of a bus spotting bent, The Number 31 bus taken from Lasswade Road on a late summer’s evening may be of interest. Sure, Nick Goodrick’s poem focusses on the wrong end of the 31 route, but he appears to be heading into the city, and the bus route ends up in East Craigs…

Last but not least, Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir has a poem called Dùn ÈideannanI have discussed Mac an t-Saoir on this blog previously – he has lived in Broomhall, and seems to have written a novel Gymnippers Diciadain which appears to be inspired by the CYCC.

Crafty Green Poet

I can’t remember whether I have mentioned her on here before, but “Crafty Green Poet” (true identity unknown to me) writes regularly on her walks around Edinburgh – these include places such as Corstorphine Hill, Cammo etc. Her blog can be found through this link.

Update

The book of Literary Corstorphine is long overdue. Why? In short, two things – this is the first time I’ve been involved in such a project and secondly, a bit of a financial blip I don’t want to go into. I have found the writing and editing easy enough – it is the design and formatting which have been an issue. I’m sorry if folk think I’ve gone down the mañana route – but it will be here sooner rather than later!

Picture Credits

Corstorphine Milestone (kim traynor) / CC BY-SA 2.0