Being under house arrest is no fun for anyone (at least with a small home)… However, I have been reading on Twitter that independent bookshops have received a massive boost in online sales during the lockdown. So perhaps there are one or two silver linings, in among the horror.
The other bonus is that I have been rediscovering the local area. I have to walk a couple of miles every day, and “staying in” for a few days, as recommended, has given me one or two non-CV19 health issues. The weather has been generally beautiful, and I have tended to go for quieter places. That means no Water of Leith, no Union Canal (at least from Wester Hailes down), and even staying off St John’s Road most of the time. Instead, I have been to Cammo (which is a bit too busy, but has quiet spots), Gogarbank (which is very quiet), Lennie (which is also quiet), Ratho and so on. All of these have their little secrets. It has also been delightful to explore some of the places near the airport without the constant thunder of planes…
However, I regret to say my personal reading has gone to pot. I am getting back into it, but I have been finding it hard to read, and to write too, because I have to spend a lot of my time walking to compensate for my health trouble. Nothing has gone to plan. (In case you’re wondering, the next book on my reading list is Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.)
I certainly won’t be reading anything related to the Covid lockdown. This is despite being recommended the likes of the Andromeda Strain and Contagion by Amazon. No Love in the Time of Cholera or Death in Venice either.
Joking aside, CV19 has brought out the best and worst in people. Some folk act as if nothing is happening, and don’t seem to be aware one can transmit it without having little or no symptoms yourself. I have been particularly disturbed by the notion that the disease doesn’t exist. I can assure you it does. A friend of mine in the US has just spent two weeks in hospital with this supposedly imaginary virus, and is spending another week in quarantine at a hotel. He is physically tough for his age, thank God, and is recovering, but CV19 was all too real for him and his family. I don’t doubt that authoritarians would love to use the lockdown as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties after this is over – more phone tracking, making it easier for folk to be locked up without trial etc… and all the latent Fascists and Stalinists have been creeping out of the woodwork, but notion that this horrible disease doesn’t exist is just plain wrong.
Anyway, I hope all of you are staying safe and well. Remember this is a good time to catch up on those doorstoppers you’ve put aside for a rainy day, or even to take up a new hobby. Lockdown is horrible, but we can at least make it bearable.
Thousands drive past Gogar Kirk every week, but few ever notice it, hidden as it is behind the Royal Bank of Scotland’s ostentatious bridge, and a belt of trees.
But the kirkyard contains a number of interesting graves, including those of the sculptor and writer Pittendreigh MacGillivray, and his playwright daughter Ina.
But today, I want to look at another character – Sir Robert Liston (1742-1846). Liston was quite the diplomat – he was an ambassador to the Ottoman court at Constantinople twice, and he was also de facto ambassador to the USA for some years. I say “de facto“, because the UK wouldn’t have a so called ambassador to the USA until decades later – however, his position, and his role were pretty much the same as one.
Liston was the son of a farmer from Torbanehill near Kirkliston, the very area his family appear to derive their surname from. Among his school friends was Andrew Dalzell (1742-1806), the noted classicist, and like many of Liston’s other contacts, they kept up a long term correspondence.
Robert proved to be a very able scholar, and had the gift of languages, becoming fluent in at least ten of them. He went to Edinburgh University, and was there exposed to the nascent Scottish Enlightenment.
In 1796 he married Henrietta Marchant. Henrietta was an avid keeper of journals, and it is from her that we learn much about Sir Robert’s career. She appears to have been much more wealthy than him. Like many rich people of the time, there is an unpleasant aspect to her wealth – her family came from the West Indies, and were slave owners there.
Friend of the Founding Fathers
As British emissary to the USA, Liston was popular with many of the American founding fathers. He often visited George Washington, and John Adams, and was friendly enough with Thomas Jefferson for the two to lend books to each other.
Liston’s success in the States was probably partly down to the fact that unlike many other British diplomats of the time, he was not an aristocrat. As a scion of the middle class, and a self-made man, he had far more in common with the American revolutionaries than any of them would have done.
Mon cher Bob
When visiting France, Liston was introduced to the French novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (née de la Boras). Marie Jeanne was 29 years Liston’s elder and died in Paris in 1792. She wrote over 70 letters to Robert Liston, which still survived and she referred to him as “mon cher Bob”.
Riccoboni herself was the ex-wife of Italian playwright Antoine François Riccoboni, author of more than fifty comedies. She would later die in poverty; she had been awarded a state pension by the French government, but the revolution ended that.
It is suspected that Marie Jeanne was introduced to Sir Robert by the noted philosopher David Hume, a mutual friend.
Among the Turks
Turkey’s westernisation is commonly attributed to Atatürk in the twentieth century, however, the Sultans Mahmud II and his successor Selim III had begun the process long before. Sir Robert dealt with Selim III’s government. Selim was a keen patron of the arts, and encouraged a more liberal atmosphere in the empire. Sir Robert’s time in Constantinople (Istanbul) seems to have been more to do with maintaining British influence against that of France.
Visiting Gogar Kirkyard
Gogar Kirk is a delightful little former church. In recent times, it has become a cabinet works, and the church itself is frequently a part of Doors Open Day – check the brochure for details.
The site is an interesting one. The area seems to have been very marshy in historic times, and that probably explains why it is raised above the surrounding ground a little. This could also suggest that it is a very old holy site, and probably pre-Christian. (If you want to hear some of the wilder ideas some people have come up with about Gogar, please read my book!) The placename itself appears to be Welsh and there is some debate about its origins – is it the red (goch) place like nearby Redheughs or the place of the cuckoo (gog/cog)?
Gogar Kirk, funnily enough, is one of the few places in Edinburgh which it is easier to get to by tram. Get off at the Gogarburn stop (just after the Gyle Centre and Edinburgh Gateway), and you’re practically on top of it. There is very little parking.
The bus service is not very good either. However, it may be possible to get a bus to the RBS HQ nearby and walk over. Again, check with Lothian buses for details.
Secret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide by Hannah Robinson is a welcome addition to a crowded market place. It is one of a major series of guide books by the French publisher JonGlez. Others in the series include Rio de Janeiro, Tuscany, Prague and Granada – proud company perhaps.
Secret Edinburgh will delight natives and residents of Edinburgh as much as any visitor. While there is a dreary sense of deja vu about most Edinburgh guides, Secret Edinburgh feels fresh. The author has clearly done a lot of research and visited all the locations – as has her photographer. While most of its competitors neglect the suburbs, SE does not. From the shale bings of West Lothian to Cockenzie and Port Seton, this is a book which truly spans this city.
Now, at the risk of sounding smug – and I probably do – I would say that I probably know about 80% of the places listed. But in that sense, I am highly unusual. Most people in Edinburgh will know far fewer, since I’m one of those types who’s gone out of his way to discover such places… through my own researchs and wanderings, and various Doors Open days.
Inevitably there is some overlap between Literary Corstorphine and Secret Edinburgh. Here are a few of the places you can find in both:
The Dower House
Gogar Cabinet Works
Saughton Park and Winter Gardens
The White Lady of Corstorphine
And while I don’t deal specifically with the Airport Prayer and Quiet Room, and Corstorphine Hill Walled Garden, I do have entries on Edinburgh Airport and Corstorphine Hill.
Robert Cuddie (1821-1876) was a minor poet – more unkind folk might say poetaster – from Corstorphine. His work is mainly of local interest and published posthumously in 1878. I have been unable to track down any of his collections, and the only reason I know of him in the first place is that he gets a mention in several of the local history books.
His poems include The Corstorphine Games, and The Rival Bellman. Cuddie worked locally as a postman taking letters from Corstorphine up to Gogar. He also worked in the local library. I believe he still has relatives in the area.
When someone once made fun of his name, his retort was: Though baith the twa o them are in A rather stupid class: A line micht still be drawn atween A Cuddie and an Ass.
“Cuddie” is a nickname for a donkey, due to their pre-Reformation connection with St Cuthbert. “Cuddie” is also used to refer to racehorses, either in irony or in ignorance. The name “Cuddie Lane” (and variants) is often used for narrow roads and can be found in suburbs such as Colinton and Morningside.
As a point of interest, it shows that Broad Scots was still in strong use in the 19th century in Corstorphine, not something that can be said today.And just because we’re all Americanised now, don’tassume “ass” here means someone’s backside.
The Rival Bellman is about a spat between the ringers of Corstorphine Church and what is now the United Reformed Church.
Sadly, Cuddie seems to be one of the few Corstorphine poets to be noticed in the local history books. More’s the pity, since he’s not the best. Helen Cruickshank is much better, and underrated. She gets some attention in some of these books at least. William Neill – perhaps more South Gyle – is also much better and doesn’t get mentioned at all AFAIK. Both Cruickshank and Neill wrote in Scots – Cruickshank in the dialect of Montrose, and Neill in that of South Ayrshire and Galloway. Unlike them, perhaps, Cuddie was local born and bred.
Place name stuff
A few of the old street names in western Edinburgh are preserved intact, such as Kirk Loan (church lane), but most are semi-Anglicized, such as
* the Paddockholm (i.e. Puddock Holm, frog marsh/island), the location of the old Corstorphine railway station.
* Redheughs (Reid Heughs), in South Gyle, former HQ of the Royal Bank, before they went to Gogarburn.
Others have been completely anglicised, such as Dovecot (Doocot) Road and Coltbridge (originally Coltbrig). Bucking the trend, some modern developments have made an effort to use Scots elements e.g. East Craigs(rocks/cliffs), South Gyle Mains(home farm), Gogarloch Syke and Hill Park Brae(slope/hill). However, it is questionable how many younger locals would know what any of these terms mean. Many Edinburgh folk have started to pronounce “loch” as “lock” in the last decade or two, so would probably say Cuddie’s “micht” as “mict” or “might”. A number seem perplexed by the likes of “haugh” or “heugh”. These are words that appear in local place names, and were used by ordinary people in the Lothians for centuries. That is, until the BBC came along, and so called “education” – both of which have worked hard to destroy Scottish culture deliberately, and largely succeeded.
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.