After much ado, Literary Corstorphine is here. It’s taken too long, I know… but further details will follow, when I get a few more things ironed out. Many thanks for your patience.
After much ado, Literary Corstorphine is here. It’s taken too long, I know… but further details will follow, when I get a few more things ironed out. Many thanks for your patience.
Which Beatles song was written in Murrayfield, and what is John Lennon’s connection to the area?
Every so often in researching Literary Corstorphine, I have come across a biggie. John Lennon is one of them. His records still sell, his sentiments & behaviour still piss some people off, and he continues influence on so many aspects of life. He is instantly recognisable, unlike so many other musicians one forgets in the bat of an eyelid.
And he was not the only Beatle with Edinburgh connections.
Although best known as a singer-songwriter, Lennon published three books, namely “In his own Write” (1964), “A Spaniard in the Works” (1965), and the posthumous “Skywriting by Word of Mouth” (1986). Each of these is a collection of various different occasional pieces, short stories and nonsense writing. You can see Lennon’s Irish heritage in full force in these with their brilliant wordplay, and biting sense of humour, which more than make up for the lack of any sustained narrative.
Lennon was also a voracious reader from an early age, reading everything from Broons annuals to highbrow novels.
Jock Lennon & the Silver Beetles
You may not be aware of John Lennon’s connections to Edinburgh. In fact he was a huge Scottophile, and loved visiting here. In his final years in New York, he would write, “I miss Scotland more than England,” and even sign his letters “Jock Lennon”.
The Beatles may have been more Scouse than Scots, but they did have some pretty solid connection to this country. McCartney famously sang the praises of Mull of Kintyre, where he lived for many years. The band also made their very first tour around northern Scotland, around small towns such as Keith and Forres. Moreover, the “Fifth Beatle” and the one who gave the band their name, Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh.*
There is a whole book on the subject – The Beatles in Scotland by Ken McNab . It is worth a read, and I have used It to find some of the information here.
I discussed George Harrison’s more indirect link in another article.
Lennon, Parkes and Sutherland
A lot has been written on John Lennon’s unsettled and complex childhood. Although he was often getting into trouble, this was not entirely the fault of his own.
John’s father was always away at sea, and he had to be taken away from his neglectful mother Julia, to live with his Auntie Mimi and Uncle George who raised him as their own. While Mimi and George were a more positive influence on John, he still relished any time away from Liverpool, due to his family situation. He would often go and visit with his Aunt Mater, who originally stayed in Fleetwood, and became particularly close to her son, Stanley Parkes who was seven years older than John, and would take him to cinemas, to gigs and generally show him around town.
Auntie Mater later remarried a Scottish dentist called Bert Sutherland, and moved up to Edinburgh with her children, the Parkes. Every June, John would get on a bus to Edinburgh, and would be picked up at the station by his cousin Stan. Mr Sutherland also had an ancestral croft at Durness, and John would sometimes go up there with them after stopping off at Edinbugh.
Whether John Lennon matched up to the social standards of Murrayfield is not recorded, but Ormidale Terrace is certainly a step up from some of the homes John had lived in Liverpool.
According to Stanley Parkes:
“John, cousin Leila and I were very close. From Edinburgh we would drive up to the family croft at Durness, which was from about the time John was nine years old until he was about 16.”
It was while such a stay at 15, Ormidale Terrace that Lennon wrote the B-side to Paperback Writer, Rain. Looking out of my bus window just now, there are no prizes for guessing where the inspiration came from. On one such day, Stan says John and Leila sheltered from the rain in the grand doorway of the romanesque Murrayfield Parish Church.
According to the Edinburgh Evening News, Marlene Wood, the current owner of the property:
“John Lennon’s stay at the house was recorded on the particulars when we bought it, but we never really made anything of it. We thought it was a laugh.
“When we first moved in, surrounding neighbours told us of how Lennon would often visit his aunt who lived in the property, both as a teenager and with his wife Yoko Ono. One day I was out and Stan Parkes, John Lennon’s cousin, came around to the house and it was the woman who was looking after my children at the time that answered the door.
“My husband and I struck up an e-mail correspondence with Mr Parkes afterwards to find out more about the house’s history.
“But he couldn’t really remember much, only that John Lennon had written Rain there and that he used to hang out in the cupboard under the stairs a lot – because that’s where the phone was.”
The story does not end there. It is said that around 1980, not long before his murder that John was actually considering buying the house. Whether this would have happened is moot. He never did. Stan however, did move around a bit, going off to live in Currie, and eventually ending up on the shores of the Firth of Clyde.
Other Beatles sites in Edinburgh
Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh on June 23, 1940, but moved down to Liverpool as a child. He was a talented artist, and it was he who named the Beatles, and also instigated their stint in Hamburg. Sadly, he would die there in 1962 – it is hard to imagine what effect he would have had on their later direction. Lennon called Sutcliffe “my alter ego… a guiding force.” Various sources name Sutcliffe’s home in Edinburgh as having been on Claremont Crescent in the Broughton area and/or Chalmers Street.
“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?/
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
Yesterday marked the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s arrival in Edinburgh. The great English war poet had been sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by his war service.
His time in Edinburgh was short but fruitful. He wrote a lot of poetry here, and befriended various people who greatly influenced him, notably Siegfried Sassoon. What is less well known is that he also taught here at Tynecastle High School in Gorgie.
After leaving Edinburgh, he spent some time in England, and was sent back to the front in 1918. He was invalided out again, for a short period, this time for a gun shot wound. After that he returned to the front line, and died a week before the war ended. He was only twenty five.
Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893, a town technically in Shropshire, but with a then partly Welsh-speaking native population. Even the house he was born in – Plas Wilmot – had a name which was half-Welsh and half-English. Owen himself was not a Welsh speaker, but some people have argued Welsh metre influenced his poetry.
Wilfred’s father worked for a railway company, so he moved regularly around the north west of England. Other places in which they lived included Birkenhead in the Wirral, and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. In Shrewsbury, he became a pupil-teacher. He tried to enter the University of London, but his family could not afford the fees. Compared to Siegfried Sassoon, he came from a relatively humble background.
“Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.”
Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1993) is a fictional account of Owen’s time in Edinburgh. In an interview eleven years later in Contemporary Literature she states that:
“I felt like I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a Northern [English], regional, working-class, feminist – label, label, label – novelist.”
This is something many Scottish authors can probably sympathise with (not to mention all the other groups on the list). Barker’s book certainly broke her out of that mould and it became the first part of a trilogy.
Regeneration deals mostly with Owen’s time in Craiglockhart Hospital, as well as his friendships with other figures such as Siegfried Sassoon. Tynecastle is out of the mix.
The film version came out in 1997, and to be honest, even though I have seen the film twice, it has not made a deep impression on me. Owen is played by the actor Stuart Bunce. The film ends with Owen’s body being retrieved from the battlefield, and Captain Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young in tears.
Tynecastle High School
“Children are not meant to be studied, but enjoyed. Only by studying to be pleased do we understand them.”
While Edinburgh’s private schools are very good at celebrating famous ex-pupils and staff, our state schools tend not to. Thankfully, this has started to change.
Tynecastle High or “Tynie” might not be the first place you’d associate with famous poets, but the school has a few other surprises. For example, the series House of Cards is a massive hit in the States, but it would probably never have been made if the British series hadn’t succeeded. The British series starred Ian Richardson – another Tynie ex-pupil. (If you want to read about Craigmount’s cultural connections click this link)
The school put up a plaque to Owen in 2014. This is actually in the new building. The school he would have taught in is across the road next to the football stadium. It was actually built in 1912, so it would have only been several years old when Owen taught there.
“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Owen has been a huge influence on poets after him. Even song writers – Richard Jobson of Dunfermline punk band the Skids was a great fan, and even used the title of one of Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est for one of their songs.
When one hears about WWI poets, I think it is best to bear two things in mind:
Wilfred Owen’s poetry will probably be taught to schoolchildren for a good while to come. It was at school that I first encountered his poetry, and I think most people do. I have mixed feeling about poetry being taught in schools:- for some people it might be the only time in their life they experience much poetry, but for some it can also be an off-putting experience, and they will never want to look at poetry again. I was lucky. I mostly had good English teachers who made me love poetry, much like I expect Mr Owen did with his pupils. But not everyone does.
If you’re revisiting Owen, I recommend reading him out loud or listening to some of his poetry on Youtube.
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.
How about this excerpt from Walter Savage Landor?
“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:
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.)
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.
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.
Dame Sarah Mair (1846–1941) is perhaps best known as the founder of St George’s School for girls, which is located to the back of Coltbridge. The Spurtle – the Broughton & Canonmills freesheet – reports that 29, Abercromby Place is soon to receive a blue plaque commemorating her. The Spurtle describes her as a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and an educational campaigner.
Mair came from a well-off background, based in the New Town, and was a descendant of the much lauded Welsh actress Sarah Siddons. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia (!), “Mair started the Edinburgh Essay Society, soon renamed the Ladies’ Edinburgh Debating Society when she was nineteen” in the year 1865. She was a keen member of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association, which campaigned for female access into universities. She later ran the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women, for which she received an honorary LLD in 1920 from the University of Edinburgh. These are just a few of her achievements – and more detailed information can be read at the links provided.
She was also responsible for the Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine, aka The Attempt, which she edited into the 1870s.
A Safe Feminist?
This is not the first time this blog has mentioned pioneering feminists – Helen Cruickshank and Rebecca West are both featured in earlier entries. It is probably fair to say that Mair has more in common with the West than Cruickshank, but she appears to be to the right of both of them and eventually accepted a DBE.
There have been a number of lists or booklets about Scottish feminists or women pioneers recently. It is notable that many of the entries are people in higher education (something which most *men* could not afford until a few decades ago), Dames (in the proper sense of the word), pioneers of “the Rural”, daughters of the aristocracy etc. Sarah Mair certainly fits the bill with her pukka roots and polite manners.
Rightly or wrongly (depending on your POV), Mair appears to have rejected violent methods of protest, or at least ones that would create too much of a stir. As an historical figure, Mair’s legacy is a great deal “safer” and less subversive than say, rabble rousers like Ethel Moorhead who had promoted civil disobedience and ended up being the first suffragette to be forcefed. Mair’s safe legacy is probably partly the reason that the City of Literature and Historic Environment are promoting this plaque… and a very conservative place such as the Royal Scots Club is willing to allow them to put one on their wall.
From Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Terror of Blue John Gap:
I remember that when there was a ghost-hunt at Coltbridge it was I who sat up in the haunted house. Is it advancing years (after all, I am only thirty-five), or is it this physical malady which has caused degeneration? Certainly my heart quails …
The Terror of Blue John Gap was first published in The Strand magazine in 1910. Unfortunately, this Coltbridge appears to be in Derbyshire, not Edinburgh. However, did Conan Doyle (1859-1930) take the name from the area around Murrayfield/Roseburn? It’s tempting to think so. As you may, or may not know, Doyle was very interested in Spiritualism – and the main Spiritualist church in Edinburgh has a centre named after him. (Coincidentally having an open day at the time of writing). So is this passage inspired by an experience he had himself in the real Coltbridge? That’s more of a stretch.
Any further information would be gratefully received.
As far as anyone can tell, the name “Coltbridge” originally refers to Cotts or Cottages that were built in this area. The “l” has crept in. It may well be related to the name Coatbridge as well in Lanarkshire.
Wester Coates (West Coates in its anglified form) appears to take its name from the same root.