William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500) is a litany of the great and good Lowland Scottish poets of the 15th century who had passed on before him. Many of them were known to Dunbar personally. Roull has another claim to fame – he is arguably the earliest Edinburgh poet – although whether you wish to class Corstorphine of the time as Edinburgh, and whether you wish to discount the ancient Y Gododdin is another matter.
In the poem we find the following verse:
“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphine;
Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”
(He [Death] has taken Roull of Aberdeen,/And gentle Roull of Corstorphine;/Two better fellows did no man see: the fear of death disturbs me)
It is interesting here that “Aberdeen” and “Corstorphine” rhyme here – is this a forced rhyme, or did people actually pronounce “phine” as “feen” back in the day? Who knows?
If you’re from Edinburgh and “Roull” sounds vaguely familiar, you’d be right. It is the name of a quiet street wedged between Carrick Knowe and Broomhall. The street itself is named after this “Gentill Roull”.
Sir David Lyndsay
Lyndsay’s early work The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (1530 – “The testament and complaint of our sovereign lord’s parrot”), pays direct homage to Lament for the Makars and mentions the poets “Quintyng, Mersar, Rowle, Henderson, Hay, Holland“. “Rowle” is one or other, or both, of the Roulls, and it is possible that their work were still widely known at the time.
Poet, playwright, and the first Edinburgh makar, Stewart Conn has written a whole work on Roull of Corstorphine, which is included in his collection Ghosts at Cockcrow. As Stuart Kelly wrote in Scotland on Sunday back in 2005:
“With his almost trademark filigree assonances and half rhymes, wry asides and sudden details, Conn conjures up the lost poet Roull of Corstorphin, and gives him the loveliest lines about marriage I’ve read for a while: “Loving you for what you are – / not just for what you were.” Anger, art, angst, guilt and guile, the humane and the human are all here. Conn is currently Edinburgh’s makar: they’ll have to search long and hard for a worthy successor.”
Roull is not the only Corstorphine link to this poem, as I pointed out in my post, 4our Poets on Corstorphine. Contemporary poet, Diana Hendry has used Lament for the Makars in a slightly different way. In one verse we are asked:
“Will it come on the way to Corstorphine
Or when sitting on the loo?
Will I need a lot of morphine
Will a bottle of brandy do?”
Lament for a Maker (sic)
The poem also provides inspiration for a detective novel, Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker (1938), in the Inspector Appleby series, which was republished in 2010. The novel refers to the Roull verse at least twice:
Erchany is still the enchanted castle; only the enchantment has grown murky as one of great-uncle Horatio’s poems, and the enchanter, great-uncle Horatio’s sometime crony – is with Roull of Aberdene [sic] and gentill Roull of Corstorphine.
Playing by the Roulls
Not a great deal is known about Roull. There are one or two poems which have been attributed to him, but like many writers of his period, most of his oeuvre is long gone. We can piece together a few things about his possible origins.
The surname has at least three possible origins:
- A version of the name “Raoul” or “Reuel”, related to the name Ralph and Rollo.
- A corruption of the Gaelic name”Riaghail” (anglicised “Rule”, latinised “Regulus”). Kilrule (Cille Riaghail – the Church of Rule) is one of the old names of St Andrews, and Crossraguel near Maybole takes its name from the saint.
- A corruption of the Norse name Rögnvald (Ronald or Raghnall). This might seem like a lot of consonants, but in some of the Nordic languages, they seem to have been swallowed.
The name is not very common these days, but when it does crop up, it is often in the form “Rowell” or “Rowle” (Rowling? Maybe not).
It seems that the earliest recorded Roulls in Scotland were in Aberdeen, and on this basis, it has been suggested the Roull of Aberdeen and Roull of Corstorphine were related, or perhaps even the same person.
We find a Thomas Roull recorded as a burgess of Aberdeen in 1416, and as provost in 1426. In 1465, William Roull was recorded as a notary public and burgess of Edinburgh.
In the 1470s, we find Roulls in Cramond. A 1471 charter records a “William Roule” as a fabro (craftsman?) in a charter relating to Cramond-regis, and in another charter of the same year, we find a William Roule (probably the same person) and an Alison Roull. Cramond seems to be the main link here. Over the next few decades, the Roulls can be found in places such as Dalkeith, Fife and Roxburgh – they seem to have been mostly an east coast family.
James Brown (see acknowledgements) sent me the following some years ago:
“In her 2-volume work The Poems of William Dunbar (Glasgow 1998) Priscilla Bawcutt mentions that the two Roulls are unidentified although one is presumed to be the author of The Cursing, a blackly comic poem dated before 1503 (see Maitland Folio Manuscript, no. xlvi). For scanty biographical notes (possibly on Roull, see J. W. Baxter, William Dunbar: a Biographical Study, Edinburgh 1952: 229-34)”
Mr Brown further suggests that “Gentill Roull” may have been an illegitimate son of John Roull, prior of Pittenweem, and that the stigma of his illegitimacy may have led him to become a satirical poet.
The Book of Lost Books
So what does this leave us with? At least two poems, by my reckoning, neither of which can be attributed to our Roull with certainty.
Stuart Kelly’s 2012 work The Book of Lost Books includes a short discussion of Roull of Corstorphine:
One poem in the Bannatyne Manuscript is called ‘The Cursing of Sir Johine Rowlis/Upoun the steilaris of his fowlis‘. Whether that Sir John lived in that Edinburgh suburb or the granite city has never been determined. He may even be a third Roull.
This, of course, is The Cursing poem mentioned above.
Like many matters in Corstorphine’s history, the Roull story probably merits a lot more investigation.
I am very grateful to James Brown of Baltersan in Ayrshire for most of the information on the Roull family he managed to find for me way back in 2009. Many thanks!
- “Lament for the Makaris” on Wikipedia
- “Lament for a Maker” on “Pining for the West” blog
- The Rule family