Hidden History: Station Road & the east of Corstorphine

In this piece, I write about the eastern part of Corstorphine – Olympic athletes, artists, some lost local buildings and the Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz.

Colin Jarvie (1962-2012)

Colin Jarvie was an acclaimed photographer, who grew up on Traquair Park West, and later went to Craigmount High School. I only got to meet Colin a couple of times, though I knew his parents a bit. Colin was extremely disillusioned, and had just returned to Edinburgh from London, so I think it is fair enough to say that I didn’t catch him at a good time.

Colin was mixed race and adopted by a white couple. He talked about his experience of interracial adoption on the radio and elsewhere. While at university, someone once referred to Colin as a “black bastard”. He replied, “You’re right, I am black and I am a bastard.”

Some of his earliest work was photographing some of the bands on the Fast Product label. These would have included some of the bands that he was at school with at Craigmount (and I discuss some of them in my review of the Big Gold Dream documentary: he was also a near contemporary of the novelist Louise Welsh)

He moved to London in 1982, where he became involved with the London College of Printing. He later taught at the LCP. In 1986, he “discovered” a very young Rachel Weisz and photographed her for Rimmel. Weisz has always acknowledged his role in launching her career, and would attend his funeral in 2012.*

Grant Jarvie (1955-)

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Just a couple of Grant Jarvie’s books

Professor Grant Jarvie is Colin’s older brother. He is notable for books on sport.

It is interesting to note that two of Grant Jarvie’s early books were about the role of race in sport. They were written in the apartheid era, but one wonders whether Colin’s own experiences of racism were any influence in this matter.

On a more personal note, Prof. Jarvie has written about the sporting careers of his parents David and Margaret, who were both top level swimmers at the Olympic level; David later became a member of the GB Olympic water polo team.

The Paddockholm

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Chris Hoy

The Paddockholm is the actual site of the old Corstorphine Station, which Station Road takes its name from. The station was built in 1902, nationalised in the 1940s, and shut in 1968. The Paddockholm estate itself was built in 1983 by MacTaggart & Mickel who seem to have built half this area. (South Gyle Mains, some of East Craigs, Broomhall & Wester Broom in a very differ.)

There is very little now to suggest that the Paddockholm was once a station. At the far end, there is a footpath leading down the old line, through the former Pinkhill Station* and down to Balgreen. Otherwise, the Paddockholm’s railway past is best reflected in the big wall along its north side, and its narrow shape. There are plenty of bossy signs in the Paddockholm – mainly about how evil cold callers are. And cold they may be, since the Paddockholm rarely ever seems to be gritted or cleared of snow during the depths of winter…

“Paddockholm” as a field name long predates the railway, and originally refers to the frogs or “puddocks” that used to live there. “Holm” merely referred to a piece of dry land in the marsh surrounding Corstorphine and its loch.

In his autobiography, Chris Hoy speaks about how he used to used to play on this abandoned line as a boy. Hoy grew up on the boundary between Corstorphine and Murrayfield – I gather his relatives used to run one of the local garages.

Traquair Park

This street is where the aforementioned Jarvies lived. It has some terraced housing at its west end, but mostly consists of bungalows. I have it on good authority that the terrace is built on a bitumen mat to protect its foundations from damp. It seems you can take the loch out of Corstorphine, but you can’t take Corstorphine out of the loch.

Traquair Park was built around 1890, and was originally a cul-de-sac. It takes its name from Maud Traquair, who was the mother of John & W. Traquair Dickson who were proprieters of Corstorphine House at the time. In 1925, the street was divided up into east and west sections.

We won’t keep the Red Flag flying here!

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The Auld Kirk seen through Corstorphine House Avenue

Station Road was built around the turn of the twentieth century. Like Castle Avenue, it takes its name from a long demolished feature, in this case Corstorphine Railway Station. But there are several others:

  • The former Chinese Consulate was near the corner of Station Road with Traquair Park West (number 43 I believe). When the People’s Republic of China decided to move their consulate out of Corstorphine, you might have thought that they would choose somewhere more proletarian instead… but far from it! The red flag now flies over Corstorphine Road in Murrayfield, next to the local tennis club. Arguably this reflects the somewhat confused politico-economic identity of the latter-day PRC. After the Chinese moved out of the consulate on Station Road, it was demolished, and a new block of flats built. Whether this was an economic decision, or something more cloak and dagger, I’ve no idea. The PRC has demolished vast swathes of historic buildings in the name of progress, particularly in cities such as Beijing, so this action is consistent with their more general policies.
  • Corstorphine House. This lends its name to several streets in the area including Corstorphine House Avenue and Corstorphine House Terrace.
  • The old archives, which were beside the Paddockholm. Truth be told, these were ugly warehouses, and won’t be missed by me. These have been replaced by flats in the last couple of years.

Notes

  • It is worth mentioning that Rachel Weisz’s sister Minnie is also a professional photographer. I couldn’t go to Colin’s funeral, because ironically I was at someone else’s.
  • Pinkhill Station still retains its old platforms and the former ticket office can be seen on the bridge above – this used to serve the zoo.

Picture Credits

From Wikimedia Commons CC by SA:

  • Rachel Weisz – Credit: Neil Grabowsky/Montclair Film.
  • Chris Hoy – Credit: Mark Harkin

The pictures of the Auld Kirk and Grant Jarvie’s book covers were taken by me.

External links

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On Corstorphine Accents and not being native

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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.”

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.

I’ve written a bit on the the subject of language here.

On not being native

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?

External Link

Wilfred Owen & Tynecastle High

2017-06-22-14-08-36--1594932748.jpg[Apologies, due to some recent gremlins, I have had to republish this post.]

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?/
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”

Yesterday marked the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s arrival in Edinburgh. The great English war poet had been sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by his war service.

His time in Edinburgh was short but fruitful. He wrote a lot of poetry here, and befriended various people who greatly influenced him, notably Siegfried Sassoon. What is less well known is that he also taught here at Tynecastle High School in Gorgie.

After leaving Edinburgh, he spent some time in England, and was sent back to the front in 1918. He was invalided out again, for a short period, this time for a gun shot wound. After that he returned to the front line, and died a week before the war ended. He was only twenty five.

Origins

Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893, a town technically in Shropshire, but with a then partly Welsh-speaking native population. Even the house he was born in – Plas Wilmot – had a name which was half-Welsh and half-English. Owen himself was not a Welsh speaker, but some people have argued Welsh metre influenced his poetry.

Wilfred’s father worked for a railway company, so he moved regularly around the north west of England. Other places in which they lived included Birkenhead in the Wirral, and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. In Shrewsbury, he became a pupil-teacher. He tried to enter the University of London, but his family could not afford the fees. Compared to Siegfried Sassoon, he came from a relatively humble background.

Regeneration

“Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.”

Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1993) is a fictional account of Owen’s time in Edinburgh. In an interview eleven years later in Contemporary Literature she states that:

“I felt like I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a Northern [English], regional, working-class, feminist – label, label, label – novelist.”

This is something many Scottish authors can probably sympathise with (not to mention all the other groups on the list). Barker’s book certainly broke her out of that mould and it became the first part of a trilogy.

Regeneration deals mostly with Owen’s time in Craiglockhart Hospital, as well as his friendships with other figures such as Siegfried Sassoon. Tynecastle is out of the mix.

The film version came out in 1997, and to be honest, even though I have seen the film twice, it has not made a deep impression on me. Owen is played by the actor Stuart Bunce. The film ends with Owen’s body being retrieved from the battlefield, and Captain Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young in tears.

Tynecastle High School

Tynecastle_High_School.jpg“Children are not meant to be studied, but enjoyed. Only by studying to be pleased do we understand them.”

While Edinburgh’s private schools are very good at celebrating famous ex-pupils and staff, our state schools tend not to. Thankfully, this has started to change.

Tynecastle High or “Tynie” might not be the first place you’d associate with famous poets, but the school has a few other surprises. For example, the series House of Cards is a massive hit in the States, but it would probably never have been made if the British series hadn’t succeeded. The British series starred Ian Richardson – another Tynie ex-pupil. (If you want to read about Craigmount’s cultural connections click this link)

The school put up a plaque to Owen in 2014. This is actually in the new building. The school he would have taught in is across the road next to the football stadium. It was actually built in 1912, so it would have only been several years old when Owen taught there.

 

 

Owen’s legacy

“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Owen has been a huge influence on poets after him. Even song writers – Richard Jobson of Dunfermline punk band the Skids was a great fan, and even used the title of one of Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est for one of their songs.

When one hears about WWI poets, I think it is best to bear two things in mind:

  • That there were many other poets at that time. Owen is one of the best, but we should try and remember some of the others as well.
  • Many of those who quote the poetry of Owen and other war poets, or promote it, are sometimes doing it for their own ends. Owen would not have agreed with some of them at all.

Wilfred Owen’s poetry will probably be taught to schoolchildren for a good while to come. It was at school that I first encountered his poetry, and I think most people do. I have mixed feeling about poetry being taught in schools:- for some people it might be the only time in their life they experience much poetry, but for some it can also be an off-putting experience, and they will never want to look at poetry again. I was lucky. I mostly had good English teachers who made me love poetry, much like I expect Mr Owen did with his pupils. But not everyone does.

If you’re revisiting Owen, I recommend reading him out loud or listening to some of his poetry on Youtube.

Picture Credits

  • The picture of Wilfred Owen is out of copyright, and so now free to use.
  • Tynecastle High School. Original uploader was Warburton1368 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

External links

Completely Cammo

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The Big House

Cammo is one of the most interesting parts of Edinburgh yet it is little known to many of the residents. The old estate is a designated Local Nature Reserveand apart from a wee bit of encroachment from Barnton, has a very rural feel to it, with ploughed fields and numerous trees.

There have been a number of proposed new developments in the area. These are controversial and have been a mainstay of party political leaflets over the past few years.

House of the Shaws?

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The former stable block

In Simon J. Baillie’s excellent book, The Private World of Cammo, he suggests that:

“It is rumoured that Robert Louis Stevenson visited Cammo, and was inspired to use Cammo as the basis for the ‘House of the Shaws’ in Kidnapped. Distances mentioned in the book correspond to the distance between South Queensferry and Cammo. It has, however, been difficult to find any concrete evidence to support this claim.”

The great house itself is mostly gone, and its stables ruined. With a little imagination, the whole area feels like the ruins of some lost city, with weeds growing out of the stonework. There is also a reflecting pool (incorrectly referred to as a “canal” in some sources), which has been cleared recently, and an interesing tower a little way from the main buildings. The lodge house has survived and is largely intact.

Blog round up

I spend a lot of my time looking at other blogs and websites about this area. Here are a few that have dealt with Cammo over the last few years.

The Radzikowska Blog (2016) describes Cammo as “a place that enchants in all seasons.” Ms Radzikowska proves this point with a selection of beautiful photographs.

Lothian Life (2007) takes a wordier approach, and gives a lot of detail about the history and architecture of the estate. It states:

“Meadow, marsh and woodland rub shoulders with one another, making Cammo an important habitat for a variety of wildlife as well as a pleasant recreational space.

“No longer just for the privileged, Cammo has become a haven where every member of the public can come to relax, explore, and of course to enjoy the beauty and diversity of nature – and all just minutes from the heart of Scotland’s capital city.”

Real Edinburgh (2011) provides a few more insights, including the curious standing stone, which no one seems to know the exact age of. As it says, “A complete mystery as to why this is here at all. There’s no markings of any kind but it’s a fair sized stone!” This blog contains a number of black and white photographs of the area.

External Links

Western Gothic

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Sharpe dressed man.

Is Corstorphine’s White Lady the prototypical gothic tale?

In a piece on Hogg’s Justified Sinner and the Gothic tale, the Canadian academic Ina Ferris states:

[Charles Kirkpatrick] Sharpe recounts with relish the lurid (proto-gothic) tale: the woman’s murder of her aristocratic lover in Corstorphine on 16 August 1679; her hiding in a castle garret until discovered by a stray slipper; her abortive escape from prison dressed in male clothes; her execution at the Cross in Edinburgh’ and the local tradition of her ghostly haunting of the spot where she killed her love, ‘wandering and wailing’ with a bloody sword in her hand.

This is obviously a reference to the White Lady. I have posted on the White Lady previously (see this link) and indeed she remains the best known of local spooks.

It would be unrealistic to claim that her story is a major influence on the Gothic novel, and it is questionable whether Justified Sinner is a true Gothic novel, although it does bear some similarity to the genre.

Who was Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe?

Sharpe (c. 1781–1851) was an avid collector of Scottish folklore. He contributed several pieces to Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

Originally from Hoddam in Dumfriesshire, and educated at Oxford, he settled in Edinburgh at the age of thirty. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

“Sharpe’s grand-uncle, Charles Sharpe, a Jacobite who fought at Preston, also possessed literary tastes, and was a correspondent of David Hume. Further, the family claimed kinship with the noted Grierson of Lag. Thus, while Sharpe could claim an ancestry of some distinction, intellectual and other, he was also from his infancy nourished on Jacobite story and tradition; and this phase of Scottish sentiment occupied most of his interest, and mainly directed the bent of his artistic studies and his antiquarian research.”

Sharpe wrote extensively on the religious conflicts of Scotland. He edited Kirkton’s The Secret and True History of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Year 1678. Sharpe’s account of  Christian Nimmo, the White Lady appears in one of his footnotes, which I quote in full below.

Sharpe also wrote on witchcraft in Memorialls; or the considerable Things that fell out within the Island of Great Britain from 1638 to 1684 (1820). In A Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland, Sharpe states:

“On the 31st of July, 1603, James Reid in Corstorphin, [sic] was convicted of sorcery, and afterwards burnt. He several times at Bannie Craigs, and on Corstorphine Muir, met the devil.”

Sharpe’s Account

Much of Sharpe’s account makes for painful reading. One might like to ponder how much things have changed and/or remained the same. The original spelling is retained.

About this time it is certain that one lady at least carried a similar weapon of
defence, though probably not to protect her chastity. ” August 26, 1679. This day did Christian Hamilton, wife to A. Nimmo, merchant, kill James Lord Forrester with his own sword, in his garden at Corstorphin. She confessed the fact, and pretended she was provoked thereto, because he in his drink had abused her and called her w___e. Being apprehended and imprisoned, the sheriffs of Edinburgh gave her an indictment to the 28th of August, when she made a long discourse of the circumstances and manner of it, seeking to palliate and extenuate it, yet subscribed her confession of the fact; and for putting it beyond all cavillation, they also adduced three witnesses, two men and her woman, who saw it: but she having pretended she was with child, the sheriff and his deputes directed a commission, recommending to Doctors Stevenson and Balfour, &c. to visit her, and report; who having done so, they declared that after trial they could perceive no signs of her being with child. However, if the pannel had been with child, she did not deny but it was to Lord Forrester, which was both adultery (she being married and not divorced) and incest, she being my lord’s first lady’s niece, and sister’s daughter; so that the visible judgement of God may be read both upon her and him. Her affirming herself to be with child was but a shift to procure a delay. On 19th September Christian Hamilton gave in a bill to the lords of privy council, representing that the sheriffs gave her no time to provide herself with advocates, so that she had omitted her defences, and begged the council would examine her witnesses, and take trial of the manner of the commission of the slaughter, viz. that he was then drunk, in which condition he commonly was very furious; that she was exceedingly provoked; that ho run at her with his sword; that she took it from him to preserve herself from hazard; and that he ran upon the sword’s point, and thereby gave himself the mortal wounds whereof he died, and so killed himself; and she stood only upon her lawful defence. This relation was known to be false, and therefore the lords of the privy council did now little regard it, tho’ it was relevant in itself. She was a woman of a godless life, and ordinarily carried a sword beneath her petticoats. On the 29th of September she made her escape out of the Tolbooth, in men’s apparel, in the glooming, about 5 o’clock at night, but was the next day found at Fala-Mill, where she had staid, and did not hasten to the English Borders, and was brought back to the Tolbooth on the 1st of October, and was beheaded at the Cross of Edinburgh the 12th Nov. She was all in mourning, with a large wail, and before the laying down of her head, she laid it off, and put on a whyte taffetie hood, and bared her shoulders with her own hands, with seeming courage eneugh.” Fountainhall’s Decisions, MS. His lordship adds, ” Mrs Bedford, who murdered her husband, and committed adultery with Geilles Tyre, was this Mistris Nimmo’s [cousin] germane, and of the family of Grange. And they say that the Ladie Warriston, who about 100 years ago strangled her husband Kincaid of Warriston, she was of the same family.”

It is remarkable that Lord Forrester was one of the Presbyterian zealots of the times, and had erected a meeting-house near Edinburgh, after the indulgence granted in the year 1679. It was also reported, that a dispensation from the pope to marry the woman who murdered him, was found in his closet after his death, and that his delay in using this was the occasion of her fury. Popery and Schism equally dangerous in the Church of England, p. 39. – ” The inhabitants of the village of Corstorphine still relate some circumstances of the murder, not recorded by Fountainhall. Mrs Nimmo, attended by her maid, had gone from Edinburgh to the Castle of Corstorphine in search of Lord Forrester, but not finding him at home, she sent for him from the ale-house in the village, where he had been drinking all the morning. After a violent altercation, she stabbed him repeatedly with his own sword. He fell under a [sycamore] tree near the Pigeon-house, both of which still remain, and died immediately. The lady
took refuge in the garret of the castle but was discovered by one of her slippers, which dropt through a crevice of the floor. It need scarcely be added, that till lately the inhabitants of the village were greatly annoyed, of a moonlight night, with the apparition of a woman, clothed all in white, with a bloody sword in her hand, wandering and wailing round the pigeon-house and the tree, which stand very inconveniently within sight of the cottage gardens.

Footnotes

The quoted text comes from Ina Ferris’s Scholarly Revivals: Gothic Fiction, Secret History and Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can be found in ed.s Heydt-Stevenson & Sussman  (2008) Recognizing the Romantic Novel: New Histories of British Fiction, 1780-1830 Liverpool University Press

External links

The Last Days of Don Revie

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Murrayfield… home of rugby, ice hockey… tennis… cricket… Also the former home of Chris Hoy, and an area with an unexpected connection to another major sportsman – Don Revie. As readers may, or may not know, I am not much of a “heidbaw” fan. However, Revie is actually one of the more interesting characters in the history of the game, and the subject of a surprisingly good novel and film.

The Damned United

David Peace’s The Damned United (2006) is a fictionalised account of Brian Clough’s time at Leeds FC. It’s a brilliant work of fiction, much better than most of the trash which lines the football shelves in most bookshops. It is written from Clough’s POV, and tends to exonerate him. Revie, on the other hand, comes off as the villain of the piece (Peace?) and Clough’s rival.

This in turn was turned into the 2009 film. Colm Meaney played Revie, and Clough was portrayed by Michael Sheen, an actor who turns in a decent performance in just about everything he’s in. Meaney is a seasoned actor himself, having appeared in two incarnations of Star Trek, the Commitments etc.

Legacy

While Clough is remembered as the Cheeky Chappie of English football, with soundbites to rival Muhammad Ali, Revie’s memory is more tarnished.

Revie, an ex-England player, managed various English premier league teams in the sixties and seventies. He was Clough’s predecessor at Leeds, and during his time the side was nicknamed “Dirty Leeds”. He also had a penchant for selecting Scottish players (it was a lot harder to bring in overseas players back then) Later he went on to manage England, but his later life was marred by allegations of corruption and a bizarre stint in the Emirates. His wife, Elsie was originally from Fife, and in the mid-eighties they both moved to Kinross to retire. Sadly, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1987. He was admitted to Murrayfield Hospital in 1989*, and according to Wikipedia (who else?):

“He died [there] … on 26 May 1989, aged 61, and was cremated four days later at Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh.[120] Though his funeral was well attended by representatives of Leeds United, The Football Association did not send any officials to the funeral.”

Alan Patullo in the Scotsman writes:

 ‘Just as Brian Clough steals the show in The Damned United, Revie was overshadowed even in death, at the age of just 61, by a collision of big football occasions; he passed away in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield private hospital just hours before Liverpool took on Arsenal in a last-game shoot-out to decide the destiny of the English title in May 1989, weeks after the tragedy of Hillsborough. The following day saw Scotland host England in the Rous Cup for the final time.

‘”I was with Don in the Murrayfield the night before he died,” recalled Dave Duncan, Revie’s brother-in-law, earlier this week. “To cheer him up I said: ‘Tomorrow you will be able to watch the big game between Liverpool and Arsenal on TV’. He shook his head, as if to say ‘no I won’t’.”

‘Two decades on and many have been re-awakened to the former Leeds United manager’s memory, while a new generation has been introduced to Revie. Whether it is the real Revie is debatable. Clough is granted a reprieve in the film version of The Damned United, having been cast as a psychotic drunkard in David Peace’s original book; Revie, depicted as stern and humourless in both, is not.’

Footnotes

* On Corstorphine Road. Murrayfield Hospital is now Spire. It was, I think, a BUPA hospital back then. Private anyway.

Picture Credits

The cover picture falls under copyright, but hopefully is considered fair use, as it promotes said item. No infringement is intended, and it will be removed on request.

External Links

Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair

sarahmairDame 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.

Biography

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.

External Links

Rebecca West

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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.

Who she?

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.

Novelist

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).

Influence

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.

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