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.
In some religions, it’s seen as a bad thing to compare oneself with others all the time. If this is a sin, it’s one that Edinburgh, and the lovers of Edinburgh, are extremely guilty of.
Edinburgh has been likened to Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, the great three cities of our classical consciousness. I don’t know Rome well, but Athens and Jerusalem both feature a rocky hill in the centre, with the Acropolis on one, and the former Temple on the other. (Now two mosques, but I’m not going near that subject.)
Now and then the comparison is to less famous cities. Tom Stoppard’s play “Jumpers”, for example, has a cynical character refer to Edinburgh as the “Reykjavik of the South”. I can’t help but think this is a bit unfair to both cities. On the other hand, Reykjavik has produced reams of extremely underrated literature, so the comparison is not entirely unflattering.
To keep up this classical pretence, Edinburgh has long made a dubious claim to be built on seven hills. Anyone who knows the city well can probably identify many more than that, and I know I certainly can.
As an old poem has it:
Abbey, Calton, Castle grand Southward see St Leonard’s stand St. John’s and Sciennes as two are given And Multrees makes seven
This really isn’t that much use as a mnenomic though, because it is a little hard to unpack.
Someone older, and wiser and/or more intelligent than me might be able to make better suggestions, but here is my interpretation of this riddle:
Abbey – Presumably Arthur’s Seat as it is by the old Holyrood Abbey. Or Blackford Hill?
Calton – An easy one.
Castle – Another easy one, but so buried in the city it is sometimes easy to forget.
Multrees – My guess is the slope on which the New Town is. It isn’t Calton Hill as it’s already been mentioned.
Sciennes – the old Burgh Muir (Boroughmuir)?
St Leonard’s – This one has me stumped. Somewhere around Rebus’ police station?! Or is it a reference to Arthur’s Seat/Salisbury Crags?
St John’s – Corstorphine Hill, due to St. John’s Road and the Auld Kirk. But obscure.
Corstorphine Hill was formerly known as Corstorphine Craigs, which suggests it was traditionally considered to be more than one hill. This name is retained in names such as “East Craigs” and “West Craigs”. But it is more of a unity than Holyrood Park, which depending on how you count them either has several hills, or just the one.
If Edinburgh is “Athens of the North”, and Dunedin in New Zealand is the “Edinburgh of the South”, what is Dunedin’s relationship to Athens?
Cammo is one of the most interesting parts of Edinburgh yet it is little known to many of the residents. The old estate is a designated Local Nature Reserveand apart from a wee bit of encroachment from Barnton, has a very rural feel to it, with ploughed fields and numerous trees.
There have been a number of proposed new developments in the area. These are controversial and have been a mainstay of party political leaflets over the past few years.
House of the Shaws?
In Simon J. Baillie’s excellent book, ThePrivate World of Cammo, he suggests that:
“It is rumoured that Robert Louis Stevenson visited Cammo, and was inspired to use Cammo as the basis for the ‘House of the Shaws’ in Kidnapped. Distances mentioned in the book correspond to the distance between South Queensferry and Cammo. It has, however, been difficult to find any concrete evidence to support this claim.”
The great house itself is mostly gone, and its stables ruined. With a little imagination, the whole area feels like the ruins of some lost city, with weeds growing out of the stonework. There is also a reflecting pool (incorrectly referred to as a “canal” in some sources), which has been cleared recently, and an interesing tower a little way from the main buildings. The lodge house has survived and is largely intact.
Blog round up
I spend a lot of my time looking at other blogs and websites about this area. Here are a few that have dealt with Cammo over the last few years.
The Radzikowska Blog(2016) describes Cammo as “a place that enchants in all seasons.” Ms Radzikowska proves this point with a selection of beautiful photographs.
Lothian Life (2007) takes a wordier approach, and gives a lot of detail about the history and architecture of the estate. It states:
“Meadow, marsh and woodland rub shoulders with one another, making Cammo an important habitat for a variety of wildlife as well as a pleasant recreational space.
“No longer just for the privileged, Cammo has become a haven where every member of the public can come to relax, explore, and of course to enjoy the beauty and diversity of nature – and all just minutes from the heart of Scotland’s capital city.”
Real Edinburgh (2011) provides a few more insights, including the curious standing stone, which no one seems to know the exact age of. As it says, “A complete mystery as to why this is here at all. There’s no markings of any kind but it’s a fair sized stone!” This blog contains a number of black and white photographs of the area.
How much do you know about the Water of Leith? Edinburgh is unique among Scotland’s major cities in not having a major river running through its centre. But Edinburgh does have its own river. It wends its way quietly through the suburbs, an provides a corridor for wildlife and an inspiration for poets. It is also a river which shares its name with some surprising places.
“Oh, Water of Leith! Oh, Water of Leith,
Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.”
McGonagall? Possibly since some folk say this is apocryphal, but as we shall see later, William McGonagall (1825-1902) actually did write a poem about the Water of Leith. A pity since the image of women washing their dentures in the water is such a striking one.
“On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.”
Again, this is not quite what it might appear, but more on that later.
“Water” in the name is Scots for a medium sized river e.g. Afton Water or Douglas Water, somewhere in size between a “burn” (as in “Roseburn”) and a larger river such as the Esk, Almond or Forth. The “Water of X” form is a calque from the Celtic word order, and tends to be more common in northern Scotland.
At first sight, the Water appears to take its name from the port of Leith. Or does it? Numerous towns in Scotland are named after rivers, or more especially their mouths, which make for good harbours. Amongst these one might mention Aberdeen, Inverness, Ayr and smaller places like Inveresk. Leith itself is outwith the scope of Literary Corstorphine, but hopefully this article will be of interest to some of the folk down there.
The name “Leith” itself is a bit harder to interpret – it is almost certainly from Brythonic (old “Welsh”), and may mean either “grey” or “flowing”, or something else entirely. It is probably related to the name of the Leithen which flows down to Innerleithen.
Edinburgh has been nicknamed “the Athens of the North” from time to time, but the Leith certainly sounds a bit like the “Lethe” (Λήθη – roughly “Lee-thee” or “Leh-theh”), one of the famous five rivers of Hades, the ancient Greek world of the dead. These were:
Acheron – Joylessness
Cocytus – Lamentation
Lethe – Forgetfulness, drinking its waters would wipe your memory.
Phlegethon or Pyriphlegethon – Burning, similar to the western view of Hell.
Styx – The river which shades were famously ferried across by Charon.
So when people say we live out in the Styx, they are certainly not far wrong. If you drank the waters of the Lethe, you would end up forgetting everything. As Fenton Johnson (1888–1958) wrote:
“Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around. Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.”
Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) wrote in his poem, Spleen:
“II n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé“
(“He failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins
Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood.”).
If you think none of this is relevant to our own Water of Leith, you would be far wrong. At least one person of note has associated places in Edinburgh with classical and biblical locations – literally – but you’ll have to buy my book to find out about that.
Ah, McGonagall, what can I say about him? The worst poet in the world? I don’t think so, but he was pretty bad-in-a-good-way. Now, again, I stray a wee bit out of our area – but his River of Leith is damn good:
“The water of St. Bernard’s Well is very nice, But to get a drink of it one penny is the price. I think in justice the price is rather high, To give a penny for a drink when one feels dry.”
Apparently, said spring water tastes like the finings from a gun barrel, but since I have tasted neither, I can’t comment on this comparison. And if you are molested by the bother of “dull care”, be minded that:
The scenery is so enchanting to look upon That all tourists will say, “Dull care, be gone.” ’Tis certainly a most lovely spot, And once seen it can never be forgot.
“Then away! away! to the River of Leith, That springs from the land of heather and heath, And view the gorgeous scenery on a fine summer day. I’m sure it will drive dull care away.”
If Edinburgh is “Athens of the North” and Dunedin is “Edinburgh of the South”, what is the relationship of Dunedin to Athens? Or the Lethe?
As you may know, quite a few places named after our Fair City. The best known one is Dunedin in Otago, New Zealand on the South Island. They went to a lot of trouble trying to remember the Old Country and there is a Corstorphine there and a Water of Leith to boot. Edinburgh, in return, has named an industrial estate in Canonmills after the city.
New Zealand’s Water of Leith was originally called Ōwheo and is culverted along much of its length. (Edinburgh appears to be trying to do much the same with the section of the Leith in Murrayfield.)
Edinburgh’s Water of Leith – 22 miles/35 km long, flows north east into the Firth of Forth (North Sea)
Dunedin’s Water of Leith – 9 miles/14 km long, flows south east into Otago Harbour inlet (Pacific Ocean).
This is not the only Leith in the southern hemisphere. The icy island of South Georgia, once famous for its whaling stations has its own Leith Harbour. Leith Harbour has a brook running down into it, but I haven’t been able to find out what it’s called.
Corstorphine Loch and a few other names
You may remember from a recent post that the ending of Stevenson’s Kidnapped mentions:
“We came by-way over the hill of Corstorphine; and when we got near to the place called Rest-and-be-Thankful, and looked down on Corstorphine bogs”
These bogs were the remains of the old Corstorphine Loch, which used to run from by near the Leith, over to the village of Corstorphine. Jamie and Ailean Breac walk over Corstorphine Hill to avoid these bogs, and also unwanted attention.
This loch would have fed into the Leith, and the Leith too would have returned the favour by feeding it with the occasional flood. The ancient Water of Leith seems to have been fairly sluggish, a situation which has been rectified by a series of weirs.
A few of the names along the water of Leith.
Balgreen – Baile is a common place name element, meaning a farm or village e.g. Balerno, Ballingry. 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.
Coltbridge – Originally refers to Cotts or Cottages that were built in this area. Cotts can also refer to parcels of land.
Riversdale – a modern ersatz name meaning merely “river valley”.
Roseburn – Apparently just “rose” (the flower) plus “burn” (as in small river) e.g. Blackburn.
Saughton – The “saugh” bit rhymes with “loch”, and is Broad Scots for a willow tree (seileach in Gaelic).
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.
Cors in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is còrrsa or càrrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.
Dean further down means a sunken valley. It is often “den” in Scotland and comes from the Anglo-Saxon denu.
You might not associate north west Edinburgh with long distance walking trails. Here are two which pass through it, and both are named after major writers.
John Muir Way
The great Scottish-American conservationist, John Muir (1838-1914) once wrote:
‘Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose we came from the woods originally. But in some of nature’s forests, the adventurous traveller seems a feeble, unwelcome creature; wild beasts and the weather trying to kill him, the rank, tangled vegetation, armed with spears and stinging needles, barring his way and making life a hard struggle.’
The John Muir Way only supplies a few of these challenges. It has its share of “rank, tangled vegetation”, “spears” (brambles) and “stinging” (nettles), but the badgers, foxes, deer and rabbits are unlikely to bother you. Other than the route named after him, I am unaware of any other connections between him and this area. (If you know of any I shall be pleased to hear from you.)
This trail starts in Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, and finishes at the East Lothian town of Dunbar, where Muir was born and raised. It traverses the Central Belt, taking in the likes of Strathblane, Cumbernauld, Falkirk and Linlithgow in the west, and Prestonpans, Aberlady, Gullane and North Berwick in the east.
In the middle, we find Edinburgh. The Edinburgh section of the John Muir Way is a “Curate’s Egg”. It is hard to see what what the great man himself would have thought of some of it. Muir was very much a man of the wilderness, and it takes in far too many busy roads and built up areas. Edinburgh has a lot of green spaces*, and you’d think it would be fairly easy to hop from one of these to another avoiding most of these.
There is a beautiful section leading from South Queensferry along the coast to Cramond. Then, it travels from Cramond along the back of Barnton, and ends up going along a bit of Queensferry Road on to Clermiston Road, up past the hotel. This route not only manages to bypass the northern woods of Corstorphine Hill, but leaves out Clermiston Tower, which is one of the most interesting local landmarks, and which is dedicated to Walter Scott. It then goes down by Rest-and-be-Thankful, cutting down Balgreen Road, and joining the old railway path near Pinkhill. From there it follows the tramline for a short distances, backs up on itself, going into Saughton Gardens, follows the Water of Leith up to Slateford, and eventually heads down the canal, completely bypassing Craiglockhart Hill, before crossing Bruntsfield.
It is fair to say that the Edinburgh route is bizarre in a way that only bureaucrats could have dreamt up. Signs for the route appear and disappear in various seemingly random locations all over Edinburgh and it is hard to work out how the route joins together from them alone. Somewhere around Portobello, the route begins to become fairly simple again, and follows the coast of the Firth of Forth until it reaches Dunbar.
The second route is the Stevenson Way, which is based around the journey taken by David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the novel Kidnapped. It does not appear to have official recognition (correct me if I’m wrong).
I feel that Robert Louis Stevenson would approve of this route a bit more than John Muir might do of his, even though the two routes share a considerable overlap in the Edinburgh area
The Stevenson Way is certainly dramatic: it starts in the Inner Hebrides, crosses Mull, Glencoe, the barren wastes of Rannoch Moor, before descending through the Trossachs, across Bridge of Allan and Stirling, and across the Forth Road Bridge to the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry, and thence to Edinburgh. It is much more well thought out than the John Muir Way.
The east end of the route crosses Corstorphine Hill, which is mentioned near the end of the novel:
“We came the by-way over the hill of Corstorphine; and when we got near to the place called Rest-and-be-Thankful, and looked down on Corstorphine bogs and over to the city and the castle on the hill, we both stopped, for we both knew without a word said that we had come to where our ways parted […] Then I gave what money I had (a guinea or two of Rankeillor’s) so that he should not starve in the meanwhile; and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence.
“‘Well, good-bye,’ said Alan, and held out his left hand.”
The route doesn’t really take in Drumbrae, but it is worth repeating that Hoseason Gardens and many of the streets behind the Drumbrae Library are named for people and places in the novel. An obvious finishing point for this route would be the statue at Western Corner. The final place mentioned in the novel is not Rest-and-be-Thankful itself, but the Linen Bank, which is where David goes to get his savings.
Walk and be Thankful
There are numerous other options within a short distance – the Pentland Way and the Fife Coastal Route. The Southern Upland Way is less than an hour’s drive away, and manages to take in some of the remotest scenery in the south of the country… We are spoilt for choice, so what are you waiting for? Get yer boots on!
* When the council doesn’t destroy it or block off access to such green spaces for months on end. Part of the Water of Leith pathway near the Dean Village has been shut off for three years, and another section through Roseburn & Murrayfield has been blocked off for months. Likewise the Union Canal towpath near Thorneil Village has been inaccessible for a while. As for the council’s idea of tree surgery – let’s not go there!
The John Muir Way sign is taken by me, but is free to use.
Is Corstorphine’s White Lady the prototypical gothic tale?
In a piece on Hogg’s Justified Sinner and the Gothic tale, the Canadian academic Ina Ferris states:
“[Charles Kirkpatrick] Sharpe recounts with relish the lurid (proto-gothic) tale: the woman’s murder of her aristocratic lover in Corstorphine on 16 August 1679; her hiding in a castle garret until discovered by a stray slipper; her abortive escape from prison dressed in male clothes; her execution at the Cross in Edinburgh’ and the local tradition of her ghostly haunting of the spot where she killed her love, ‘wandering and wailing’ with a bloody sword in her hand.“
This is obviously a reference to the White Lady. I have posted on the White Lady previously (see this link) and indeed she remains the best known of local spooks.
It would be unrealistic to claim that her story is a major influence on the Gothic novel, and it is questionable whether Justified Sinner is a true Gothic novel, although it does bear some similarity to the genre.
Who was Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe?
Sharpe (c. 1781–1851) was an avid collector of Scottish folklore. He contributed several pieces to Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
Originally from Hoddam in Dumfriesshire, and educated at Oxford, he settled in Edinburgh at the age of thirty. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:
“Sharpe’s grand-uncle, Charles Sharpe, a Jacobite who fought at Preston, also possessed literary tastes, and was a correspondent of David Hume. Further, the family claimed kinship with the noted Grierson of Lag. Thus, while Sharpe could claim an ancestry of some distinction, intellectual and other, he was also from his infancy nourished on Jacobite story and tradition; and this phase of Scottish sentiment occupied most of his interest, and mainly directed the bent of his artistic studies and his antiquarian research.”
Sharpe wrote extensively on the religious conflicts of Scotland. He edited Kirkton’s The Secret and True History of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Year 1678. Sharpe’s account of Christian Nimmo, the White Lady appears in one of his footnotes, which I quote in full below.
Sharpe also wrote on witchcraft in Memorialls; or the considerable Things that fell out within the Island of Great Britain from 1638 to 1684 (1820). In A Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland, Sharpe states:
“On the 31st of July, 1603, James Reid in Corstorphin, [sic] was convicted of sorcery, and afterwards burnt. He several times at Bannie Craigs, and on Corstorphine Muir, met the devil.”
Much of Sharpe’s account makes for painful reading. One might like to ponder how much things have changed and/or remained the same. The original spelling is retained.
About this time it is certain that one lady at least carried a similar weapon of defence, though probably not to protect her chastity. ” August 26, 1679. This day did Christian Hamilton, wife to A. Nimmo, merchant, kill James Lord Forrester with his own sword, in his garden at Corstorphin. She confessed the fact, and pretended she was provoked thereto, because he in his drink had abused her and called her w___e. Being apprehended and imprisoned, the sheriffs of Edinburgh gave her an indictment to the 28th of August, when she made a long discourse of the circumstances and manner of it, seeking to palliate and extenuate it, yet subscribed her confession of the fact; and for putting it beyond all cavillation, they also adduced three witnesses, two men and her woman, who saw it: but she having pretended she was with child, the sheriff and his deputes directed a commission, recommending to Doctors Stevenson and Balfour, &c. to visit her, and report; who having done so, they declared that after trial they could perceive no signs of her being with child. However, if the pannel had been with child, she did not deny but it was to Lord Forrester, which was both adultery (she being married and not divorced) and incest, she being my lord’s first lady’s niece, and sister’s daughter; so that the visible judgement of God may be read both upon her and him. Her affirming herself to be with child was but a shift to procure a delay. On 19th September Christian Hamilton gave in a bill to the lords of privy council, representing that the sheriffs gave her no time to provide herself with advocates, so that she had omitted her defences, and begged the council would examine her witnesses, and take trial of the manner of the commission of the slaughter, viz. that he was then drunk, in which condition he commonly was very furious; that she was exceedingly provoked; that ho run at her with his sword; that she took it from him to preserve herself from hazard; and that he ran upon the sword’s point, and thereby gave himself the mortal wounds whereof he died, and so killed himself; and she stood only upon her lawful defence. This relation was known to be false, and therefore the lords of the privy council did now little regard it, tho’ it was relevant in itself. She was a woman of a godless life, and ordinarily carried a sword beneath her petticoats. On the 29th of September she made her escape out of the Tolbooth, in men’s apparel, in the glooming, about 5 o’clock at night, but was the next day found at Fala-Mill, where she had staid, and did not hasten to the English Borders, and was brought back to the Tolbooth on the 1st of October, and was beheaded at the Cross of Edinburgh the 12th Nov. She was all in mourning, with a large wail, and before the laying down of her head, she laid it off, and put on a whyte taffetie hood, and bared her shoulders with her own hands, with seeming courage eneugh.” Fountainhall’s Decisions, MS. His lordship adds, ” Mrs Bedford, who murdered her husband, and committed adultery with Geilles Tyre, was this Mistris Nimmo’s [cousin] germane, and of the family of Grange. And they say that the Ladie Warriston, who about 100 years ago strangled her husband Kincaid of Warriston, she was of the same family.”
It is remarkable that Lord Forrester was one of the Presbyterian zealots of the times, and had erected a meeting-house near Edinburgh, after the indulgence granted in the year 1679. It was also reported, that a dispensation from the pope to marry the woman who murdered him, was found in his closet after his death, and that his delay in using this was the occasion of her fury. Popery and Schism equally dangerous in the Church of England, p. 39. – ” The inhabitants of the village of Corstorphine still relate some circumstances of the murder, not recorded by Fountainhall. Mrs Nimmo, attended by her maid, had gone from Edinburgh to the Castle of Corstorphine in search of Lord Forrester, but not finding him at home, she sent for him from the ale-house in the village, where he had been drinking all the morning. After a violent altercation, she stabbed him repeatedly with his own sword. He fell under a [sycamore] tree near the Pigeon-house, both of which still remain, and died immediately. The lady took refuge in the garret of the castle but was discovered by one of her slippers, which dropt through a crevice of the floor. It need scarcely be added, that till lately the inhabitants of the village were greatly annoyed, of a moonlight night, with the apparition of a woman, clothed all in white, with a bloody sword in her hand, wandering and wailing round the pigeon-house and the tree, which stand very inconveniently within sight of the cottage gardens.
The quoted text comes from Ina Ferris’s Scholarly Revivals: Gothic Fiction, Secret History and Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can be found in ed.s Heydt-Stevenson & Sussman (2008) Recognizing the Romantic Novel: New Histories of British Fiction, 1780-1830 Liverpool University Press
Jardine’s Book of Martyrs is a blog mainly devoted to events in Covenanter History both great and small – many of them little known.
The ‘Meeting of General Dalziel and Captain Paton of Meadowhead’ appears in Lays of the Covenanters (1880), by Reverend James Dodds of Dunbar. It details the 1684 capture of Captain John Paton by General Tam Dalyell of the Binns (the aristocratic ancestor of the Tam Dalyell who died back in January.) In this section, we can see a local reference:
Calm as a dove he sleepeth. And he surrenders patiently To those who come to snare him: When, fast as horses feet can tramp, To Edinburgh town they bear him.
And now they skirt Corstorphine Hill, With August blossoms merry: When by the way Dalziel rides forth, To see what spoils they carry.
The full version can be seen on Dr Mark Jardine’s blog – link below. The rest of the blog comes highly recommended by me, and covers a great deal of the Central Belt.
“Andrew Combe was born in 1797… like most of his siblings he was at first reared in Corstorphine by a jolly, energetic tailor’s wife, who habitually took in so-called middle-class infants until they were weaned.” (Cosh, p226)
Some of my posts may have left you scratching your head. But have you had the actual shape of your head investigated? Strange as it may seem, this was once the “in thing”.
If the past is a foreign country, then its science is even more foreign to us. A lot of the “science” of the nineteenth century is either obsolete, or has become the pseudoscience of today. Phrenology is a classic example of this. It is perhaps less mystical than palmistry, and a good deal less smelly than reflexology, but it works on similar principles. It involves fondling the bumps on someone’s head, and determining someone’s personality from them.
Two of the most prominent phrenologists of their day were the brothers Andrew and George Combe.* George is the main player in this story, more so than Andrew, but had a similar upbringing. Their success was mixed to say the least.
Edinburgh: The Golden Age
Having passed a significant birthday recently, I was very grateful to be given a number of good books as presents. One of these was Edinburgh: The Golden Age by Mary Cosh. It is one of those books which is so big you could probably crack walnuts with it. But I don’t intend to. I suspect it must have taken Cosh a decade or more to research it.
It is a real mine of information. The vast majority of it is accurate – although there does appear to be one or two mistakes, for example, Lady Nairne does not appear to have lived on Corstorphine Hill. But this is perhaps inevitable in a book of over a thousand pages. But if you can get hold of it, do. It is not a book one reads end to end
ETGA discusses the Combe family at length. Andrew and George were just two out of seventeen children, several of whom died, as was often the way at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their father, also called George, was a brewer. The family had relatives at Redheughs (South Gyle), and they were occasionally sent out of the city to live there during their holidays. (I don’t know where the “jolly, energetic tailor’s wife” of Corstorphine who raised Andrew lived precisely- or if she was connected to Redheughs herself.)
George appears to have been ill at ease as a child, and he was sent off to Frederick Street to be taught by George Hogarth – who was Charles Dickens’ father-in-law. Andrew seems to have had similar issues, being listless and when he was asked what he would do as an adult said “I’ll do naething“. These days a psychologist might attribute their problems to their harsh upbringing and education – but these were not unusual for middle class children of the period. Then in 1812, Andrew was sent to work with Henry Johnston, a surgeon on Princes Street.
George published Essay on Phrenology in 1819. His phrenology had attracted scorn from Francis, Lord Jeffrey of Craigcrook Castle, but also quite a lot of popular support. Amongst these was William Hazlitt. George describes Hazlitt as being “short and of a moderate thickness“, and the bumps on his head indicated:
“Acquistiveness: large… Individuality, lower, large… the mouth speaks Combativeness and Destructiveness very strongly.”
During Hazlitt’s visit to Edinburgh, his wife was out wandering Corstorphine Hill, and other by-ways. Mr and Mrs Hazlitt were divorced shortly afterwards, an extremely serious matter at the time.
Space does not permit me to describe the adventures of Andrew and George much further. Suffice to say, theirs was a colourful story, full of controversy, schisms and criticism. Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review would not touch phrenology – but it would seem many others did, and well known people too.
The Rise and Fall of Phrenology
Like a lot of these things, it starts off from a reasonable enough premise. Certain medical conditions do causes changes in the skull shape. If you have ever known someone with Downs, for example, you will have noticed their facial features are quite distinctive. However, phrenology has taken this idea several steps further, into much more dubious and dangeous territories. One of its earliest applications was to try and determine who criminals were before they had committed any acts. We can see where that might lead. Straight down the road into eugenics.
George Combe was no stranger to this. In fact, on one occasion he examined the head of one David Haggart, a nineteen year old pickpocket and murderer from Dumfries. Combe claimed Haggart had developed “secretiveness” written on his skull. Haggart was later to be executed, but would write a moving autobiographical account, explaining how the murder had not been premeditated and that he was deeply sorry for it. News of Haggart’s account reached Blackwood’s Magazine and others, who used it to attack Combe.
Graphology is interesting by way of comparison. You may have noticed that when you are frantic, or even suffering from illnesses, that your handwriting changes. This basic principle has been extended into a complete system, which goes far beyond the original idea – whole personalities are supposedly deduced from the strokes of t’s and dots of i’s. However, graphology still enjoys some popularity – and is even used by certain employers – while phrenology has well and truly bitten the dust.
The demise of phrenology is almost total. It didn’t help that it was beloved of the Third Reich. in fact, Germany would send out phrenologists all over the world just to measure people’s heads. There is even old footage of Nazi scientists in Tibet, trying to determine how Aryan its ancient inhabitants were, using a pair of calipers. There are also Nazi propaganda posters of particular people with different shapes of head. Needless to say, anything closely related to Nazism is out of season.
Phrenology is not even particularly widespread in the New Age/Alternative Health communities. There are vague notions of something similar in traditional forms of Buddhism. But the average New Ager these days seems more interested in the colour of your aura than the shape of your head.
My head is an odd shape. I wonder what Messrs. Combe would have made of it.
* The Combe Brothers were, incidentally, related to Sarah Mair, whom I discussed earlier in this blog. The connection is through marriage, and the actress Sarah Siddons, who was an ancestor of Sarah Mair. Edinburgh’s High Society has frequently been a small society.
The ‘tache season is soon upon us. I speak not of our bearded friend from Lapland (or is it the North Pole?) or even our explosive friend Mr Fawkes – there are plenty of people dressing up as both of these characters just now – no, no, I’m talking about Edinburgh’s very own Robert Louis Stevenson Day!!!* Yay!!!
Being a bit traditional and emotionally repressed, I’m not involved in all of this gowkery and jollity. I won’t be wearing a fake moustache. Literature is a dish best served served cold. Is RLS Day a good way of spending literary funds in the city? Well, I’ll let you decide that one.
I have a story about “Finding RLS”, but for now, I’ll tell you how I tried to find George Eliot.
George Eliot (1819-1890) was the pen name of Mary Ann – or Marian – Evans. She was originally from Warwickshire. She wrote many well-known novels including “Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876).” Eliot was one of many notable friends of Francis, Lord Jeffrey, of Craigcrook Castle, which is to be found on the east side of Corstorphine Hill.
Back in October, I made one of my rare visits to London. To Highgate and Hampstead, to be precise, pretty well-heeled areas I hadn’t been round before. I made a beeline for Highgate Cemetery (pictured). It is the only cemetery I’ve ever had to PAY to get into! Four pounds. And you can see from the photograph what most of it looks like.
There are many famous people buried in there – Karl Marx famously, but also Bert Jansch, Douglas Adams, Alan Sillitoe… Jeremy Beadle… even its own vampire but I couldn’t find George Eliot’s grave! Bummer! If I had, you’d be seeing the picture of it right now.
* Is it a coincidence this occurs during “Movember”? If you don’t know what Movember is, click on the blue link – it’s to raise funds to cure “male” cancers.