For a Multilingual Edinburgh

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A “shelfie” of part of my library including Gaelic novels, alongside Mencius, Cervantes, Goethe, Patrick Süskind (the painting is Das Parfum), Turgenev etc in the original languages… an interest in Gaelic does not somehow block other languages…

I have tried hard to steer clear of party politics on this blog, but it greatly saddens me to see our MSP Alex Cole Hamilton try and use Scottish Gaelic as a soft target for campaigning. He seems to think if you are interested in Gaelic, you can’t be interested in other languages, despite all the research saying otherwise. Children in Gaelic Medium Education consistently outperform the other schools when it comes to learning French, German, Spanish etc. Frankly, ACH’s tweet reeks of  the “many of my best friends are […], but” mentality.

I am glad to say this attitude has not been shared by all of his party. Christine Jardine MP has said that she is supportive of Gaelic, and both Donald Gorrie and Margaret Smith have been positive about it too. The late Iain Farquhar Munro (Iain Fearchar Rothach) was a native speaker and a champion of Gaelic in the Lib Dems, and will probably be turning in his grave at these comments.

Well, I happen to be one of Alex Cole Hamilton’s constituents. I vote in pretty much every election. I think I have only missed one in twenty plus years. I have my own views, but I am not currently a member of any political party. I have voted for several different parties in the past, and yes, one of them happened to be the Lib Dems. Comments like this don’t endear me to them.

Literary Corstorphine will always back the Gaelic language. Many languages can be seen and heard in this constituency of course, and it is wrong to pitch them against each other, to say Polish is better than Cantonese or Urdu is superior to Broad Scots. Yet that is precisely what has happened here, and it seems to be becoming more and more common in British politics.

Our local Gaelic heritage

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Lennie and Cammo on the western edge of the city. Both of these names derive from Gaelic – Lèanaidh means a meadow or land in a river bend, while Camach refers to the meanders themselves.

Does Corstorphine have a Gaelic heritage? Yes, more than you might think. Names like Drumbrae (Druim Bràighe), Cammo (Camach), Lennie (Lèanaidh), Carrick Knowe (Carraig) and Balgreen (Baile Grèine) all originate from it. Go up to Edinburgh Park and you can find busts of poets such as Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean, while more recently Gaelic writers such as William Neill and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir have lived locally.

I write about Corstorphine’s Gaelic links in my book.

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Roull of the Road

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William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500) is a litany of the great and good Lowland Scottish poets of the 15th century who had passed on before him. Many of them were known to Dunbar personally. Roull has another claim to fame – he is arguably the earliest Edinburgh poet – although whether you wish to class Corstorphine of the time as Edinburgh, and whether you wish to discount the ancient Y Gododdin is another matter.

In the poem we find the following verse:

“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphine;
Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”

(He [Death] has taken Roull of Aberdeen,/And gentle Roull of Corstorphine;/Two better fellows did no man see: the fear of death disturbs me)

It is interesting here that “Aberdeen” and “Corstorphine” rhyme here – is this a forced rhyme, or did people actually pronounce “phine” as “feen” back in the day? Who knows?

If you’re from Edinburgh and “Roull” sounds vaguely familiar, you’d be right. It is the name of a quiet street wedged between Carrick Knowe and Broomhall. The street itself is named after this “Gentill Roull”.

Sir David Lyndsay

Lyndsay’s early work The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (1530 – “The testament and complaint of our sovereign lord’s parrot”), pays direct homage to Lament for the Makars and mentions the poets “Quintyng, Mersar, Rowle, Henderson, Hay, Holland“. “Rowle” is one or other, or both, of the Roulls, and it is possible that their work were still widely known at the time.

Stewart Conn

Poet, playwright, and the first Edinburgh makar, Stewart Conn has written a whole work on Roull of Corstorphine, which is included in his collection Ghosts at Cockcrow. As Stuart Kelly wrote in Scotland on Sunday back in 2005:

“With his almost trademark filigree assonances and half rhymes, wry asides and sudden details, Conn conjures up the lost poet Roull of Corstorphin, and gives him the loveliest lines about marriage I’ve read for a while: “Loving you for what you are – / not just for what you were.” Anger, art, angst, guilt and guile, the humane and the human are all here. Conn is currently Edinburgh’s makar: they’ll have to search long and hard for a worthy successor.”

Diana Hendry

Roull is not the only Corstorphine link to this poem, as I pointed out in my post, 4our Poets on Corstorphine. Contemporary poet, Diana Hendry has used Lament for the Makars in a slightly different way. In one verse we are asked:

“Will it come on the way to Corstorphine
Or when sitting on the loo?
Will I need a lot of morphine
Will a bottle of brandy do?”

The full poem can be found by clicking on this blue link.

Lament for a Maker (sic)

The poem also provides inspiration for a detective novel, Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker (1938), in the Inspector Appleby series, which was republished in 2010. The novel refers to the Roull verse at least twice:

Erchany is still the enchanted castle; only the enchantment has grown murky as one of great-uncle Horatio’s poems, and the enchanter, great-uncle Horatio’s sometime crony – is with Roull of Aberdene [sic] and gentill Roull of Corstorphine.

Playing by the Roulls

Not a great deal is known about Roull. There are one or two poems which have been attributed to him, but like many writers of his period, most of his oeuvre is long gone. We can piece together a few things about his possible origins.

The surname has at least three possible origins:

  • A version of the name “Raoul” or “Reuel”, related to the name Ralph and Rollo.
  • A corruption of the Gaelic name”Riaghail” (anglicised “Rule”, latinised “Regulus”). Kilrule (Cille Riaghail – the Church of Rule) is one of the old names of St Andrews, and Crossraguel near Maybole takes its name from the saint.
  • A corruption of the Norse name Rögnvald (Ronald or Raghnall). This might seem like a lot of consonants, but in some of the Nordic languages, they seem to have been swallowed.

The name is not very common these days, but when it does crop up, it is often in the form “Rowell” or “Rowle” (Rowling? Maybe not).

It seems that the earliest recorded Roulls in Scotland were in Aberdeen, and on this basis, it has been suggested the Roull of Aberdeen and Roull of Corstorphine were related, or perhaps even the same person.

We find a Thomas Roull recorded as a burgess of Aberdeen in 1416, and as provost in 1426. In 1465, William Roull was recorded as a notary public and burgess of Edinburgh.

In the 1470s, we find Roulls in Cramond. A 1471 charter records a “William Roule” as a fabro (craftsman?) in a charter relating to Cramond-regis, and in another charter of the same year, we find a William Roule (probably the same person) and an Alison Roull. Cramond seems to be the main link here. Over the next few decades, the Roulls can be found in places such as Dalkeith, Fife and Roxburgh – they seem to have been mostly an east coast family.

James Brown (see acknowledgements) sent me the following some years ago:

“In her 2-volume work The Poems of William Dunbar (Glasgow 1998) Priscilla Bawcutt mentions that the two Roulls are unidentified although one is presumed to be the author of The Cursing, a blackly comic poem dated before 1503 (see Maitland Folio Manuscript, no. xlvi). For scanty biographical notes (possibly on Roull, see J. W. Baxter, William Dunbar: a Biographical Study, Edinburgh 1952: 229-34)”

Mr Brown further suggests that “Gentill Roull” may have been an illegitimate son of John Roull, prior of Pittenweem, and that the stigma of his illegitimacy may have led him to become a satirical poet.

The Book of Lost Books

So what does this leave us with? At least two poems, by my reckoning, neither of which can be attributed to our Roull with certainty.

Stuart Kelly’s 2012 work The Book of Lost Books includes a short discussion of Roull of Corstorphine:

One poem in the Bannatyne Manuscript is called ‘The Cursing of Sir Johine Rowlis/Upoun the steilaris of his fowlis‘. Whether that Sir John lived in that Edinburgh suburb or the granite city has never been determined. He may even be a third Roull.

This, of course, is The Cursing poem mentioned above.

Like many matters in Corstorphine’s history, the Roull story probably merits a lot more investigation.

Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to James Brown of Baltersan in Ayrshire for most of the information on the Roull family he managed to find for me way back in 2009. Many thanks!

External links

It’s here

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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.

Umbrellas of Edinburgh (2016)

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As an old Tennents’ advertisement used to have it, Scotland is “where umbrellas go to die”. Edinburgh is no exception, but in this case, the umbrellas in question are a collection of poems and a few short prose pieces about Edinburgh from Blackness to Portobello. Some of these come over as sturdy golf umbrellas, but some of them are cheap & nasty and a bit blown in.

Umbrellas resembles This Collection, which came out in 2009, and which I reviewed on this blog earlier. There is also a degree of overlap in the authors, notably Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir and Rob A. MacKenzie. That said, Umbrellas seems to have a bit more money put into it, although its publishers Freight have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.

As this blog is unrepentantly local, I’m going to concentrate on material relevant to Corstorphine and the surrounding areas.

Her Last Laugh by Iyad Hayatleh

This is a very personal poem talking about loss, exile and family relations amongst the Palestinian Diaspora set in Edinburgh Airport.

Animals by Theresa Muñoz

This poem attempts to link the characteristics of zoo animals to the author’s own:

Like honeybees we danced — like hippos we gorged
Like pigeons we homes — to our sea-facing house

Vanishing Points by Andrew J. Wilson

This poem is specifically about Corstorphine and attempts to set the area’s history in deep cosmic time. Some of the images work very well:

A run away wallaby
Waits at the bus stop

Others not so well, e.g. “spawn of the tongue twisters” puts me in mind of some shapeless prehistoric monster that H.P. Lovecraft might have written about, probably not the intention.

Nothing is guaranteed to “trigger” Literary Corstorphine more than some of the etymologies of Corstorphine. In this case, “Coriestiorfionn” is not only a misspelling, but a misspelling of a misspelling, based on “Coire Stoir Fionn”, which is highly dubious. I discuss all this in the book!

Amphitheatre by Andy Jackson

This poem’s about a game at Murrayfield. This piece contains some of the most interesting poetry I’ve seen about rugby – or most sports. Players are “pudding-headed pachyderms” (an animal image more successful than any in Muñoz’s poem) competing in “the night mine of the scrum”.

(Fans of heidbaw will be delighted by the Zen and the Scottish Long-ball Game poem which immediately follows it about Tynecastle, which talks about “Sloop John B-tuned witticisms”. A reference to the Famine Song, sung by people who don’t realise large numbers of Protestants died in the Irish Famine.)

Ath-Thogail by Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir

The poet discusses the task picking up his children from school in Tollcross, something many parents will relate to. The school is, of course, the Gaelic-medium primary that used to be there.

As with a lot of Gaelic work these days, there is a mystery about why some words are translated from English, but some aren’t – Tollcross is translated, but Haymarket isn’t, “sweeties” are, but “crisps” aren’t. But this is no matter, as most of the readership will be judging the poem on the English version beside it.

Uisge Beatha by Anne Connolly

Last but not least Uisge Beatha is an English-language poem about the Water of Leith. It contains descriptions of the tennis club down by the river and lines such as:

“But there is a melting in the March-bound air that irrigates

For me it’s one of the more interesting poems in the collection. And I’m biased towards anything which features herons.

External Links

 

The Scots Tongue in Corstorphine

Today is the European Day of Leastcraigswyndgreyanguages ( #edl2017 ), and so I thought it appropriate to write a little about the influence of Lowland Scots on the west of Edinburgh. There are a few folk locally who have used it in writing such as Helen Cruickshank, but the spoken language is fading away a bit. You can hear bits and pieces of it here and there, but it is no way as broad as some places out in the countryside.

I’ve written a bit about Gaelic already, and I include some info on that in the links below.

Areas and (former) physical features

  • Broomhall, Broomhouse – “Hall” and “house” are common elements in the Lothians, and would have presumably have been “ha” and “hoose” originally. “Hall” may be a corruption of “haugh” in some cases.
  • Carrick Knowe – The first part is a Celtic word for a rock, and the second related to the English word “knoll”. Presumably these were the same feature.
  • East Craigs, West Craigs etc – “Craig” is a loan from the Celtic word for rock.
  • Gogarloch“Loch” is a loanword from the Gaelic word for “lake”.
  • GogarmountMount has two meanings 1) similar to “muir” below, from the Gaelic “monadh”, and 2) is confused with the English for mountain, leading to names such as “Beechmount”.
  • Gylemuir – A muir is a moor, or a grazing area near a place. Barnton used to be known as “Cramond Muir” for similar reasons.
  • Roddinglaw“law” is a type of hill.
  • Roseburn“Burn” meaning a small river, although Gogarburn probably deserved the name better.
  • Saughton“Saugh” means a willow tree.
  • Stank – Common word for a drainage ditch (Gaelic: staing)
  • Wester Broom – The words “Wester” and “Easter” are more traditional than “Western” and “Eastern”.
  • Wester Coates“Coates” means “cotts”, small houses sometimes used for animals.

Streets

  • Broomlea Crescent – A lea is a low lying field.
  • Burne Cruik – A very recent name (2010s), which means the bend of a stream or river. There hasn’t been anything like this round there for a while.
  • Gogarloch Haugh – A modern name. Haugh means a meadow or the land in the bend of a river. The “gh” should be guttural. There are a few other “haughs” around Edinburgh including “Deanhaugh” in Stockbridge.
  • Gogarloch Syke – a syke is a type of ditch or spring.
  • Hill Park Brae – The “brae” is a bit redundant here because of the first bit, but means a hill or slope. This is a recent name. “Drumbrae” is a Gaelic name.
  • Kaimes RoadKaime(s) means a steep hill. Certainly applies.
  • Kirk Loan – Church Lane
  • Manse Road – A “manse” is a church minister’s home.
  • PaddockholmPuddock + holm, i.e. a dry piece of land in a marsh, which frogs live on.
  • Ravelston DykesDykes means walls.
  • Redheughs Avenues
  • Roull Road – named for Roull of Corstorphine, a mediaeval poet who wrote in this tongue.
  • South Gyle MainsMains is the main farm of an estate. Davidsons Mains nearby used to be called “Mutton Hole”.

A few previous articles on Scottish languages

Corstorphine, Midnight, Cowboy?

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This collection” [sic] came out in 2009, and featured a hundred poems by Edinburgh writers, each a hundred words in length.  The full set can be accessed by clicking on this blue link. There are three poems of local interest here: their brevity makes it difficult for me to quote much from them. You can thank copyright law for that!

Rob A. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine, Midnight can be found here. It paints a slightly grim picture of the area, through which a burning “Underwood” wanders seeking his ex-lover. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine is the land of “charity shop” (accurate), “supermarket aisles” (accurate) and “the vigil of neon alphabets” (a bit exaggerated). Even a short piece like this has several different interpretations – is the name “Underwood” actually a reference to the dark wild element which underlies human civilisation, and which is always waiting to come forth, or is it some backhanded reference to the 1990s sport? He shares his name with a couple of England rugby players of the period, but the poem also refers to the “Mexican Wave”, which was fashionable in football back then. This just goes to show all of the strange, and possibly unintended, meanings one can derive from poetry.

For those of a bus spotting bent, The Number 31 bus taken from Lasswade Road on a late summer’s evening may be of interest. Sure, Nick Goodrick’s poem focusses on the wrong end of the 31 route, but he appears to be heading into the city, and the bus route ends up in East Craigs…

Last but not least, Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir has a poem called Dùn ÈideannanI have discussed Mac an t-Saoir on this blog previously – he has lived in Broomhall, and seems to have written a novel Gymnippers Diciadain which appears to be inspired by the CYCC.

Crafty Green Poet

I can’t remember whether I have mentioned her on here before, but “Crafty Green Poet” (true identity unknown to me) writes regularly on her walks around Edinburgh – these include places such as Corstorphine Hill, Cammo etc. Her blog can be found through this link.

Update

The book of Literary Corstorphine is long overdue. Why? In short, two things – this is the first time I’ve been involved in such a project and secondly, a bit of a financial blip I don’t want to go into. I have found the writing and editing easy enough – it is the design and formatting which have been an issue. I’m sorry if folk think I’ve gone down the mañana route – but it will be here sooner rather than later!

Picture Credits

Corstorphine Milestone (kim traynor) / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

One that got Away

One that got Away

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Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke.” – Gavin Douglas*

You know when you think you’re (almost) finished, and something else comes up? Well, recently I was delighted to find out about Belle Robertson’s quirky Book of Beasties, which should appeal to cryptozoologists and local historians alike.

This one fell into my lap, due to my involvement in a Leith soundscape/walking tour, which Citadel Arts Group have been running. Liz Hare (or was it Stewart Emm?) of Citadel had made a few photocopies of articles which s/he thought were of interest. An Evening News article on Book of Beasties appeared amongst them, since it discusses the inappropriately named “Fairy Boy of Leith”. It turned out from this article that Belle Robertson is based in Murrayfield, and grew up in Corstorphine which falls within the remit of this blog and my forthcoming book Literary Corstorphine. As stated earlier, I don’t just aim to deal with Corstorphine proper, but also the surrounding areas. (The illustrations are by Canadian artist Larry MacDougal.)

Anyway, it looks as if I’m going to have to update the Literary Corstorphine book, again, before it comes out. Belle Robertson will get an entry, as will Book of Beasties, and she’ll have to be mentioned in the entries on Murrayfield and Women’s Literature.

This one also came in slightly late for my Halloween post, but it looks as if it shall entertain folklorists, cryptozoologists, local historians, monster hunters, ghost watchers, older children, fantasy fans, and Scottophiles alike. The review in the Press and Journal states:

“Fusing fantasy and Scottish history, this enchanted book of sketches and stories will appeal to children and adults alike with a universal story-telling appeal. Legendary creatures making an appearance include the Giant of Bennachie, the Unicorn of Stirling Castle and Morag, monster of Loch Morar.”

The Evening News mentions “The White Stag of Holyrood”, “the Pentland Imp”, and that the book “examines the otherworldly creatures said to haunt the hills, glens and cities of Scotland – from naughty imps to bone-crushing giants.” It further states that Ms Robertson got the idea “after living in Brittany and seeing how the French** celebrated their local myths.”

Belle Robertson says “Visualising Scottish myths and legends is a part of our history – but we’ve sort of lost it. We really do have such a strong Celtic culture and we don’t really do that much with it.” This is perfectly true, and I totally agree with this sentiment. In the recent referendum debate, philistinism and ignorance of our history were visible on both sides. The mainstream media is dismal on this score, and sadly, as are some of the books documenting the local history of this area. As for our Celtic identity – this seems to be sadly conflated with Glasgow football, and New Age misrepresentation!

Placename origins and Murrayfield info

Murrayfield was originally called “Murray’s Field”, and was originally a polo ground. The whole area has various different sporting connections, most notably rugby union. Apart from rugby, there is an ice rink, which hosts the Edinburgh Capitals ice hockey team, bowling clubs, a tennis club, and on the grounds surrounding the stadium, you can often see cricket and football being played.

The stadium has been mentioned in numerous books about rugby – too many for me to track down or even mention – and has also hosted association football (Hearts are based nearby at Tynecastle, and “borrowed” the stadium for a while), the lacrosse world cup, American football (when the doomed Claymores were still in existence), and even the rival code of rugby league.

Picture Credits

The cover image provided is under “fair use”. I do not own the copyright on it, and trust that the author, illustrator and publisher shall understand is used in good faith.

Footnotes

* As quoted at the beginning of Robert Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter.

** The Bretons are a Celtic nation who pre-date the French state by a number of centuries. Although France has made a very good job of assimilating Brittany/Breizh, I strongly would dispute whether they are “French”, even if some self-identify as such!

External Links

CYCC – Fire, Freemasonry and the Gaelic novel

CYCC from near Corstorphine Library
CYCC from near Corstorphine Library, Kirk Loan

Located on Kirk Loan, the CYCC/Corstorphine Hub is the former home of Corstorphine Library and probable basis for Gymnippers Diciadain by Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir. The building is currently a burnt out shell, but used to contain a fitness club, youth centre, Masonic lodge, and also hosted the Corstorphine Literary and Geographical Society for a number of years.

The first public library in Corstorphine was founded back in the 1830s, and was a subscription library. In 1892, it moved to the CYCC, and became a council-run library a few years later. In 1936, it moved to its current building, which is next door. It’s curious to think that all of this occurred when Corstorphine was still a proper village and not engulfed by Edinburgh.

View from by Bowling Club
View from by Bowling Club

At the top of the building, one can still see faded Masonic lettering on the walls, which has been damaged by rain and water ingress since the roof fell in. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed though – before the lettering faded away, it was clearly a noble statement about brotherly love, rather than something about worshipping Satan or trying to establish a global government. (Sorry to any beleaguered Freemasons reading – that was a joke.) Although at one point, as conspiracy theorists might be interested to know, the Mormon Church held branch meetings in the lodge there. The painted lettering looks to have been very fine, and it is a great shame to see it destroyed like this.

The other half of the building still has the sign “Elite Fitness” on it. This appears to be where the fire started, from a faulty heater. Given that children were in there at the time, it is extremely fortunate that none of them were seriously hurt. Since there used to be a children’s club in there, and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir lives/d in Broomhall/Wester Broom, I suspect it was the basis for his Gymnippers Diciadain*. Certainly I know for a fact his family used Corstorphine Library next door. It concerns a platonic romance between two Gaelic speakers, Caroline and DJ, whose children attend a weekly gym class together. Sorry to be a tease again, but yes there will be a further post on this – with quotes – at some point in the future. I’ll even attempt to translate extracts.

According to Gaelicbooks dot org – “Bha an leabhar seo air geàrr-liosta SALTIRE MAIN LITERARY PRIZE 2005 (comhla ri Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith agus feadhainn eile).” (This book was shortlisted for the Saltire Main Prize 2005 (along with Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith and some others))

For those who are interested in helping getting this building properly refurbished, there is a fundraising shop on St John’s Road inside Lucy’s Café. Personally, I don’t find it one of the more attractive older buildings in Corstorphine, but the fire was still a crying shame.

Across the road can be seen Corstorphine Kirk. In the graveyard can be found relatives of the local poet Robert Cuddie. Unfortunately, the graveyard is very badly maintained and the city council has vandalised many of the stones in the name of health and safety. The kirk and original village are on an old island in a marsh. On one side was the Gogar Loch, which extended from just beyond Featherhall/Ladywell, over Gyle Muir & Gyle Park to Gogar. On the other was Corstorphine Loch, which ran from round about the Paddockholm & Traquair Park, over Carrick Knowe Golf Course to the fringes of Murrayfield. Nearby Sycamore Gardens is named after the great sycamore which was haunted by the spirit of the White Lady (hence the pub name on St John’s Road). The sycamore itself is one of the most overegged symbols of Corstorphine and sycamore leaves appear in some of the railings in the area. Lord knows why, since as larger trees go, sycamores are as good as weeds. Like the castle of the Forrester Family, the sycamore is gone, and doesn’t even exist as a stump. I remember it coming down.

Mystery hole in the wall

The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)
The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)

I’ve put this photograph up so that readers can have a go at trying to work out what this is. Has it got any significance at all? It’s between the end of Kirk Loan and the gate into the bowling club.

We often overlook stuff like this, but since my tour of Kirkcudbrightshire (see the second post), I’ve come to realise that the apparently ordinary is not always so ordinary.

I’m guessing the wall is late 19th/early 20th century in origin, and the fact that the stone is near the bottom means it is likely to have been there since the wall got built. It’s not unlikely the stone came from elsewhere, so it could be stone that came from the castle, or even a prehistoric cup and ring stone (there are some of those up on Corstorphine Hill). If it’s part of a cup and ring stone, this would be pretty fantastic – these are about the nearest things that we have to writing from our own Stone Age.

Or is it just somewhere a bolt was put?

Notes

* “Gymnippers” pronounced as in English. “Diciadain” as “Jeekee-ahdun”, which means “Wednesday”.

External Links

Gymnippers Diciadain (in Gaelic)

Corstorphine Youth and Community Centre/Corstorphine Hub

The Heretics

John Herdman reading at Saltire Society, August 2015
John Herdman reading at Saltire Society, August 2015

Apologies if I leave anyone out of the lists here. It is not due to any ill will, more my atrocious memory. Sorry folks! 

Aly Bain, Liz Lochhead, Billy Connolly, Sorley MacLean, Phil Cunningham, Norman MacCaig, Derick Thomson, Robert Garioch, Dolina MacLennan… many of these are pretty well known names from the Scottish folk and literary scenes. Billy Connolly has gone on to bigger and not-always-better things since. (I still maintain that Dolina is a much better actor than he is though! Check out how he upstages the others in just about every film he makes an appearance in. Back then, Connolly was still actually funny, and was a musician – with a heavy influence from Matt McGinn.)

All of the people mentioned (and many others) were involved with a group called the Heretics, back in the 1970s. Not heard of it? You’re not alone. Very few people seem to be even aware of it, despite the fame of many of its members – at least within Scotland.

John Herdman’s book, Another Country was the inspiration for Craig Gibson and Peter Burnett to revive the group. After many years running the bookshop in Blair Atholl, he is now based in the Clerwood/Clermiston area.

John Herdman is not the only stalwart of the group to have had local connections.

William “Willie” Neil (Uilleam Nèill) used to stay out on South Gyle Road in the 1970s. Neil, who was originally from Ayrshire, and latterly of Galloway, wrote in all three of Scotland’s indigenous languages. Like Herdman, he deserves much greater fame for his work. I first came across William Neil in Cothrom magazine, a bilingual Gaelic learners’ magazine. He was discussing the Gaelic heritage of the far south west of Scotland – a land perhaps associated more with Burns and Covenanters than Gaeldom. Later I found out that he was the editor of Catalyst during the seventies, the magazine of the 1320 Club, and that he had lived within a fifteen minute walk of where I currently live.

In August 2015, there were three Heretics events, all held in the Saltire Society, which lies on a little close round the back of the Waverley and World’s End bars in the old town.

After 35 years in cold storage, the baton was handed over, something which Dolina MacLennan referred to it as the slowest relay race in history. Herdman and MacLennan were both prime movers in the revival. And yes, there was a literal physical baton.

* The first featured members of the 1970s Heretics who are still with us.

* The second featured “Dead Poets”, or at least readings from members of the Heretics, who are “no longer on this plane. Appropriately enough, a ghost tour went past the venue during the smoking break.

* The third featured the new manifestation of the Heretics. Young(er) members, who are going to continue on the tradition.

William Neil got an outing in the “Dead Poets” event, and John Herdman, featured in all three.

The newer Heretics are led by Peter Burnett (Leamington Books, and author of Scotland or No) and Craig Gibson (creator of The One O’ Clock Gun, and author of the forthcoming novel Cider Camp). The founder members of the new manifestation include the following – Anita Govan, Kirsty Law, Lorna ?Waite (gabhaibh mo leisgeul), Mark Jardine, Colin Donati & Robin Mason (a.k.a. Various Moons), and The Range of the Awful Hand. Yours truly was supposed to feature, but due to events outwith my control this did not happen.

Poster from the original Heretics. Note the ticket price.
Poster from the original Heretics. Note the ticket price.

The name “Heretic” is a pun on “heritage”, and also suggests an outsider status. The 1970s Heretics aimed to keep a thread of traditional Scottish culture going at a time when a lot of Scottish literature and music was heading away from it (usually in the direction of Anglo-American culture).

Some of the original members who turned up for the revival include the aforementioned John Herdman and Dolina MacLennan, and also Adam MacNaughton, Alan Riach, David Campbell, Donald Campbell, Liz Lochhead (who put in a surprise appearance), Rory Watson, George Brown and a lady whose name escapes me now, but who was good with a guitar.

Heretics meetings come out of the whole ceilidh/scoriach/come-all-ye/hootenanny etc aspect of Scottish culture, i.e. having good fun indoors, when it’s probably dark, wet and cold outside. This means a mix of different items, whether music, literature, comedy etc. It’s a social, a sesh or session in a relaxed atmosphere. Hopefully, the Heretics will keep our positive Scottish traditions alive, and also won’t peddle to the po-faced folk music crowd which seem to be increasingly common in Scotland.

External Links (including video)

‘The Heretics’ celebrate historic Edinburgh comeback

The Heretics

The Heretics Revival

Cultural collective rolls back the years after absence of 40 years (The Herald)