He is best known to most people, if at all from William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500):
“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene, And gentill Roull of Corstorphine; Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”
Ravelston = Roull’s Town?
The Roull family’s links were not just to Corstorphine but to Cramond. But Ravelston named after the Roulls? I’ll put this one down to a mere phonetic similarity, but it is tempting, very tempting.
The surname Ralston, currently borne by a BBC weather presenter, appears to come from a place near Paisley not Ravelston.
We may have at least one piece by Roull of Corstorphine; this is known as The Cursing and it is attributed to one Sir John Roull. The Cursing is directed at some poultry thieves, and falls under the genre of flyting (no pun intended). According to Janet Hadley Williams in her paper Humorous Poetry in Late Medieval Scots and Latin (c. 1450-1550), published in the European Journal of Humour Research (1(1) 61- 66):
With all the power of the ecclesiastical authorities behind him, Roull denounces the sinners, revealing the terrible sin they have committed, the stealing of five fat geese, ‘With caponis, henis and othir fowlis’. The bathetic revelation provides a humorous aspect to the threats, reducing the speaker’s authority; nonetheless the poem is an uncomfortably dark attack, closely parodying the real-life prose excommunication in the structure of the curse, the specialized language (the many references, for instance, to horrific diseases), and in the terrors of its imagery of hell’s serpents, adders, and devils with whips and clubs
The image was taken from Wikipedia, and is the work of Jonathan Oldenbuck. Permission is granted under the GNU Free Documentation licence.
In Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging (1992) we read about a sleazy character called McKenzie, who was caught loitering around:
“Murrayfield Comprehensive. He wasn’t charged, but it’s on record that he was taken to Murrayfield Police Station and questioned.”
The eagle-eyed will spot three things amiss here:
Scotland doesn’t have comprehensive schools (as far as I know).
There is no secondary school in Murrayfield.
There isn’t a police station either.
Now, I’m presuming that Rankin didn’t want the character or the setting to be associated with any real location, which is something he does in many of his novels. But let’s assume for a moment there actually was a Murrayfield Comprehensive… where would it be?
Tynecastle High School (pictured) is not far from Roseburn, and is the best candidate. It would have been in the old building back in 1992, across the road.
Two girls’ schools – Mary Erskine’s and St George’s. Probably not, since they’re private.
Royal High School – too far away. More like Davidson’s Mains.
As for the local cop shop – there doesn’t seem to be one for miles!
I’ve never been a great fan of Maeve Binchy, to be honest, but I suspect her books were never directed at someone like me. She does seem to have a big fan base though, so who am I to judge?
Her book, A Few of the Girls also mentions Murrayfield, this time as a byname for rugby:
“Murrayfield was a great outing, Michael said. They always loved the year when Ireland played in Cardiff Arms Park and Murrayfield. Two great weekends – win, lose or draw.”
Binchy died back in 2012, and the book is dated 2015, so I’ve no idea whether this is a posthumous book, or a newer edition.
When it comes to Murrayfield Stadium – and indeed Tynecastle nearby – there are so many non-fiction books that mention them, that I have lost count. So, I have tended to concentrate on creative writing instead.
Wendy Wood (1892 – 1981) is a controversial figure within Scottish life. Wood is best known as a Scottish Nationalist, one who was perhaps a lot more “hands on” than many of the current careerist crop, but she was also a poet, a memoirist and an illustrator… and a reader on Jackanory of all things.
While she is not as well remembered as she should be, there are many, particularly the Andrew Marrs of the world, who would rather she was forgotten altogether. Many Scottish feminists seem completely unaware of her as well, at a time when the memory of figures such as Nan Shepherd and Ethel Moorhead is being revived. A shame really, since although her radical Scottish nationalism may not sit well with our Guardian-reading middle class, she was also a notable campaigner for Indian independence and was involved in campaigning against the British Union of Fascists when it tried to set up in Edinburgh.
Her autobiography Yours Sincerely for Scotland (1970) details many of her views. Most histories of the Scottish independence movement have tended to be written either by the SNP mainstream or by its opponents. Yours Sincerely is a rare example of a detailed work by someone who fits into neither category.
Astronauts and Tinkers (1985) is a collection of her poetry, along with a number of her own line illustrations. I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy, but it seems to be extremely hard to come by.
She also wrote extensively on the crofting life, and produced a number of retellings of folk tales.
Compton MacKenzie’s book Moral Courage is dedicated to her.
There is a bit of ambiguity in the wording here – was Wood lesbian or bisexual? Or is this just an artistic partnership? I have no idea. This is the first time I have seen her sexuality discussed, although I know she died unmarried.
The house is still there, although there is nothing to mention the cultural connections as far as I know.
Unfortunately very little of the content online specifically deals with Wood’s writing or art.
In Ken Johnson’s story, All our Heroes are Busy at the Moment we read:
“Tawny was the tangled blonde, glamorous grandmother type and spoke with a Corstorphine accent.”
What does Ken Johnson mean by this? My hunch is a posh Edinburgh accent, along the lines of Jean Brodie, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what a distinctively Corstorphine accent would sound like. The Jean Brodie/Morningside accent has practically died out.
No doubt, back in the day when there were distinct villages in these parts, Corstorphine speech probably had some notable differences from that of Musselburgh or South Queensferry. These days it’s actually really hard to tell.
There are several accents within Edinburgh & Leith – most of these are based on class, not area. The poshest accent in Edinburgh is barely distinguishable from RP and its speakers frequently mistaken as being English. The least prestigious is very nasal. And again there are a few words that are used in Leith not usually found in Niddrie & vice versa, but just that… a few. You’ll find a greater difference between the alumni of Craigmount & Watsons… most of Edinburgh’s accents are sociolects – class-based.
Maybe certain schools use certain words, but surely that means there will be as much difference between Forrester, Craigmount & St Augustines as anything else.
It’s safe to say that I don’t have a Corstorphine accent, whatever that is. I didn’t grow up here and my parents didn’t come from the west of Edinburgh. My accent is more to do with northern Scotland and bad American telly. But I have spent over half my life here.
I remember reading an article in a local free sheet talking about how certain people who used to run a shop in Corstorphine decades ago were not local. They were from Stockbridge! Well, if you’re not from Edinburgh originally, that’s hardly a long distance. It seems a bit odd in this day and age to be thinking that way. You only have to walk up and down St John’s Road to see people from other countries – eastern Europe & Asia, sometimes Africa, or Wales (when the Six Nations is on). Compared to them, I’m much less exotic.
Given that this whole area has mushroomed since the war, is any of this meaningful anymore?
A probable answer
Fortunately, I do have a bit of an inside track here. I have met Ken a few times. He is originally from southern England, but has lived in the city for years. Ken wrote this piece back in 2009 – I’ll put it down to a lack of local knowledge.
Still it did get me thinking. Is there such a thing?
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.
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
Roxy Cinema (now the Bed Shed), Gorgie Road – John’s favourite cinema in Edinburgh, which shut in 1963.
McDonald Road, where Stan Parkes had his garage. John would sometimes gets his cars serviced here.
Lizars, formerly on Shandwick Place – John and Yoko were photographed near here after buying a pair of binoculars.
Claremont Crescent – Stuart Sutcliffe was born here June 23, 1940. It was he who suggested the name of the Beatles but is not part of the Fab Four line up.
Chalmers Street – Stuart Sutcliffe was also said to have lived here.
Currie – Stan Parkes also lived around here, and on one occasion, John visited the local RS McColls to pick up a packet of cigarettes. The shop assistant fainted.
Bus station – The young John used to arrive here every June on a bus from Liverpool to meet his Edinburgh relatives. Stan Parkes would pick him up, and take him over to Ormidale Terrace. While Ormidale Terrace probably looks much like it did then, the bus station has changed completely.
Edinburgh Airport – then known Turnhouse. The Beatles flew into here on more than several occasions.
ABC, formerly on 120 Lothian Road – the Beatles played gigs here, and met up with the Lord Provost. When he asked them for a donation to a charitable fund, John suggested pawning his gold chain.
Scotch House, on Princes Street – John and Yoko went here to buy tartan outfits for their children.
Roseburn Park and the Water of Leith – given their proximity to Ormidale Terrace, it seems likely John would have played around in these places or got up to other things. Did he use the chippy down the road? Nip in for an underage pint somewhere else? Who knows!
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.
The US single cover is taken from Wikipedia and is covered under fair use, as this blog post is non-profit and it promotes sales of the Beatles music. It will be removed under request.
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.
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.
Photograph by Herbert Rose Barraud, in 1893. Out of copyright.
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.
J Clark – scanned 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.