Nan Shepherd has achieved some posthumous celebrity in Scotland in the last few years thanks to her appearance on a five pound note. Into the Mountain probably exists partly because of this new found fame and indeed bears the self-same striking image on the cover. Whatever the reason, Charlotte Peacock’s new biography is welcome, and gives a detailed account of her life and writings.
I am not very familiar with her fiction or poetry to be honest and am not even aware if it is currently in print. Like many people I mainly know her for the Living Mountain, a beautiful work which ranks alongside John Muir’s as a classic of Scottish nature writing.
Shepherd, like Helen Cruickshank was a product of the north east and indeed the two knew each other. Shepherd often visited Cruickshank at her home at Dinnieduff in Corstorphine. Into the Mountain contains copious references to Cruickshank, and thus has a lot of local interest as well.
If I may make one criticism of the book, it is that Peacock often conflates Shepherd’s fiction with autobiography. While it is true that Shepherd left little in the way of memoirs, and there appears to be a flavour of roman à clef about The Quarrie Wood (which I’ve not read) it is dangerous to rely on such works. As a would be fiction writer myself, I occasionally draw on my own life but often change many significant details – someone else would be hard pressed to guess which parts I had changed. I suspect Nan Shepherd did the same.
I have been writing a lot recently on the issue of plaques and commemoration of local figures in Edinburgh. I have added a substantial number of plaques to the Open Plaque database, some of which are more worthy than others.
I make a number of suggestions for potential new ones here. See what you think. If you’re not the literary type, then check out my sport-related suggestions later on. I’ve gone for a spread – not just the one.
The book of Literary Corstorphine maps a number of sites of local interest in Corstorphine and all the surrounding suburbs e.g. Clermiston, South Gyle, Saughton, Murrayfield & Roseburn etc. In many cases, I have been able to narrow down locations to an actual house, street, park etc. If you haven’t bought it already, then please do – it not only gives me some pocket money, but it helps to promote some of the more neglected heritage of this area. Pretty much everyone who has read it has told me that they’ve learnt something new from it.
The main problem with plaques etc is that one has to get permission off the owner of any property to have one installed. Some may be favourable to this, and some less so. With public or corporate buildings this can be a bit easier. But it is worth pointing out any such owner that it will increases the value of a property.
Who is commemorated already in this area? Helen Cruickshank, Wilfred Owen, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson that I can think of.
Murrayfield Road: Sculptor and poet James_Pittendrigh_Macgillivray who lived in Murrayfield. Many of his sculptures can still be seen round Edinburgh. His daughter Ina was also a writer, but little or none of her work appears to have been published. I intend to try and get a look at her papers some time.
Traquair Park West: Photographer Colin Jarvie who died a few years ago. I wrote about him in the previous post.
South Gyle Road: The very underrated poet William Neill who lived on South Gyle Road.
Roull Road?: The poet Roull of Corstorphine whom I wrote about here and here
Ormidale Terrace, Roseburn Park etc: John Lennon – I have written about this here
Saughton Mains area & Tyler’s Acre Avenue: Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell – I have written about her connections here and here.
Kaimes Road: The writers Rebecca West (and Madge Elder), who I have written about here.
Roseburn: Agnes Campbell – a notable printer of the 17th century – more on her in another article.
And there are others, I mention in the book. Maybe some of them too.
Spare a thought too for the lost buildings of our area – Corstorphine Castle, Corstorphine Railway Station, the old cinema on Manse Road, the mansion by Dunsmuir Court etc, maybe all of these could do with some markers too.
Local sporting heroes
There are several sporting heroes that have some kind of local connections too, although all but one of them are living, which means some organisations won’t memorialise them:
Cyclist Chris Hoy, with connections to Corstorphine and Murrayfield. His achievements are well known.
Footballer Graeme Souness, who grew up in Saughton Mains. There are many other players from round here, but Sounness is a stand-out example.
Rugby player Donna Kennedy who played for Corstorphine RFC: “the world’s most-capped women’s player from 2004 to 2016 and the first Scottish player — woman or man — to reach 100 international caps. As of November 2017, she remains the most-capped player in Scotland with 115 caps.” She is in the Scottish Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
Tennis player and coach Judy Murray who used to be an active Corstorphine Tennis Club, when she was known as Judy Erskine. Her sons, Andy and Jamie have become more successful than her, but this is largely down to her efforts. I believe Judy Murray has done more to encourage tennis in Scotland than anyone else… or indeed any organisation.
Rugby internationalist and cricketer Henry Stevenson (1867 – 1945) who was from Corstorphine.
Analysing commemoration in Edinburgh
In my view, there are definite biases in who and what is commemorated. One can do this purely by breaking down the numbers, which I don’t intend to do here. Here are a few conclusions I draw:
The vast majority in Edinburgh city centre. There are several reasons for this. In the case of Historic Environment Scotland, their rules state that a subject must have been born at least a century ago, and been dead for at least twenty – this means that many of them lived in the city before the suburbs started to sprawl. It’s one of the reasons that Edinburgh’s substantial rock ‘n’ roll and folk revival movements are practically invisible.
Plaques to women and girls are far less common. There has been a movement to redress this balance, but there are still many more who deserve recognition, and not just in some form of tokenism.
Aristocrats and rich people are also well remembered. Notable working class people less so with some exceptions unless they were military. There is also a clear bias towards establishment figures, rather than rebels and reformers. I remarked in a previous post that Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair may be an example of a “safe feminist.”
Edinburgh has a thing about commemorating animals – Greyfriars Bobby, Bum the dog (what a name!), Wojtek the Bear, Dolly the Sheep, giraffes, Brigadier Nils Olav (a penguin) etc. In fact the city seems to prefer remembering them to women as as I wrote in this post..
There are surprisingly few sporting plaques in Edinburgh. Not even for football. I think I have seen some for golf and one for a swimmer. The first ever rugby international is completely ignored.
There are many plaques connected to buildings or places. Personally I have no issue with this at all, and we could probably do with a few more… outside the city centre!
The British military is well commemorated, with a memorial of some sort in every community. “Lest we forget” is a common motto on such memorials, and there is no danger of that in the near future. Certain individuals and wars are probably more celebrated than others – for example, there don’t seem to be any prominent memorials which specifically celebrate Scottish service personnel in the Falklands Conflict, Korea, Malaya etc. In my experience they tend to feature on other monuments, but I may be wrong. There is a Spanish Civil War Memorial in central Edinburgh, but to be perfectly honest, you’d never notice it unless you were right on top of it.
And before anyone tries to one-up me in the Internet’s current favourite blood sport – no, minorities don’t feature much in these commemorations either: ethnic, religious, LGBT+, linguistic etc, you name it. Edinburgh’s Gaels have secured one or two, but even they are under-exposed.
Here are a few suggestions for literary memorials outside western Edinburgh:
Numerous places: Muriel Spark – as Kevin Williamson once remarked to me, probably one of the women of this city most deserving of a statue. Thankfully she’s been getting some due attention this year. I’ve written on her here and here.
Leamington Terrace: poet Norman MacCaig.
Milnes Bar – probably requires some kind of permanent external feature, before the pub clears out even more of the literary paraphenalia. There are other worthy candidates such as Sandy Bells, and some of the other bars on Rose Street.
Duddingston – Lady Carolina Nairne. Her work can be sentimental, but given that her songs remain popular, I’m amazed there are no plaques to her.
There is an extremely strong argument to suggest that women are still woefully under-commemorated in Edinburgh. Some redress has been made in this direction, but not enough. You’ll notice that I have suggested quite a few above.
Scientific organisations are particularly bad in this area – look at this list of plaques erected by the Royal Society of Chemistry – it covers the entire UK, and the only woman on it is Dorothy Hodgkin! Now I know that the sciences are traditionally male-dominated, but they aren’t exclusively male. There are many notable female British chemists – probably the most famous is Margaret Thatcher, although perhaps not for her scientific work! Does Edinburgh have any notable female chemists? Well yes – Lesley Yellowlees, although again, she is still living so unlikely to get a plaque.
The same thing can be said about those put up by physicists. Women in medicine are at least getting a showing now, thanks to Edinburgh University,. but still!
A few other notable Edinburgh women (apologies if some are already commem’d – blame my memory):
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.
Cruickshank was born on 15th May 1886 in Montrose. The chart gives the time of day as 6:00 pm but I suspect that is a rounded figure. This makes Cruickshank, a Taurus.
According to another website (link here) , Taureans are
“known for being reliable, practical, ambitious and sensual, the people born under the Zodiac Sign Taurus have an eye for beauty. They tend to be good with finances, and hence, make efficient financial managers.”
It then goes on to say
However, like everyone else, a Taurus also has both positive and negative
I don’t profess to know much about Cruickshank’s financial situation. She never married and spent a number of years looking after an elderly mother. However, she did buy Dinnieduff, a very pleasant house
in Corstorphine. That perhaps was a decent investment. Houses round there are worth a bit these days.
As for “beauty”, she was a poet, and supported other poets and artists. So that much is true.
Anyway, I think this is probably more than some people will be able to stomach already. For those who are enamoured of astrology, her birth information appears above, and you can research it to your hearts’ content.
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.
A lot of things come through Facebook – good, bad, and often ugly – but it was interesting to see this quote from Rebecca West (1892-1983), which many will agree with, and some even recoil from. Rebecca West was a highly interesting woman, and a sometimes contradictory one.
She is also part of the story of literary Corstorphine.
Rebecca West was born Cicely Fairfield in County Kerry. She was a noted journalist, author, literary critic, and also the “other half” of the science fiction writer H.G. Wells. Their son, Anthony West was a noted writer in his own right.
Her output was huge, and she contributed articles to major newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. It is difficult to summarise it all here.
Cicely (Rebecca) had a difficult childhood. Her father, Charles Fairfield was an Irish journalist who went bankrupt. He abandoned his family when Cicely was only eight, leaving Isabella, his Scottish wife, to raise them by herself. Isabella took the family to Edinburgh, where Cicely went to George Watson’s Ladies College on a scholarship. Cicely left school when she was sixteen with little or no formal qualifications.
Despite her father’s abandonment, she and her sisters all went on to lead successful middle class lives. One became an early female doctor and barrister.
Cicely herself would attend the Women’s School of Gardening at Kaimes Road in Corstorphine (on the west side of the zoo). This was a pioneering feminist institution – and other graduates included the Borders poet Madge Elder. Both of them would end up being involved in political activism, and the women’s suffrage movement.
She took her pen-name, Rebecca West from a character in one of Ibsen’s plays, a reminder of her career as an actress.
West wrote fourteen novels, several of which were published after her death. Return of the Soldier (1918) is about the effects of WWI, while The Judge (1922) deals with the women’s suffrage movement. Many of her other works are romans à clef – i.e. disguised semi-autobiography such as Harriet Hume which is about an accomplished piano player held back by her husband (much as her mother Isabella had been).
No single form or genre was sufficient to contain her energy, and she lived as hard as she wrote. Rebecca West went everywhere, read everything, knew everyone. As Bonnie Kime Scott says in her editor’s introduction, “To read her letters in an informed way is to receive an education in the culture of the twentieth century.”
Hilary Mantel, in “Conservative Rebel”, a review of Selected Letters of Rebecca West, in The New York Review of Books (29 June 2000)
West accepted a DBE in 1959. By this stage, she had swung well away from the left-wing politics of her earlier life, so this was hardly a surprising decision.
She was responsible for covering many of the major events of the twentieth century – the beginnings of formal apartheid in South Africa in 1960, the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, the trial of “Lord Haw Haw” and many others.
Literary Corstorphine will contain a specific entry on women’s writing. Details of female writers are often much harder to come by than their male counterparts, and require a lot more research.
My initial delight on finding the Scottish Women Poets blog today proved to be short-lived. What could have been a potentially rich source of material turned out to be slim pickings. There are several long entries, e.g. the one on Lady Nairne (Carolina Oliphant) but umpteen omissions for example where’s Corstorphine’s very own Helen Cruickshank. Going elsewhere in Edinburgh, the late Sandie Craigie doesn’t merit a mention either. The website doesn’t seem to have been updated for three years.
Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2006) contains several relevant entries on various literary and non-literary local figures such as Cruickshank (of course!), Chrystal Jessie MacMillan and Annie Katharine Wells. It mentions that Wells was a frequent visitor to Cruickshank’s home on Hillview Terrace, Dinnieduff, and used to engage in lively arguments with Hugh MacDiarmid there. Cruickshank’s mother was unimpressed and said, “Ye baith speak far owre muckle”.