Plaque-cating Edinburgh

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.

Western Edinburgh

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Monument to Gladstone on Shandwick Place by sculptor and writer Pittendreigh MacGillivray

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.

So who might be worthy of some more recognition?

  • Coltbridge Gardens: Writer and campaigner Wendy Wood and the painter Florence St John Cadell. Wood is a controversial figure. Cadell less so.
  • 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

Souness
Graeme Souness

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

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Home to two of Edinburgh’s celebrity animals

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.

Writers elsewhere

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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.

Women elsewhere

Eliza_wigham
Eliza Wigham

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):

  • Isobel_Hogg_Kerr_Beattie (1900–1970), possibly the first woman in Scotland to practice architecture on a regular basis.
  • Eliza Wigham (1820 – 1899), campaigner against slavery.

Chrystal Macmillan has a plaque, I think, but she is worthy of more consideration.

Other views

For another interesting take on the Edinburgh Plaque issue see here:

“Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?”

Roman in Costafine Town

 

What connects George Harrison of the Beatles with Corstorphine? And what did the Romans do for us?

corstorphinekirk

In 1974, folk-rock duo Splinter had their biggest hit Costafine Town. It reached the Top Ten in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and the Top Twenty in the UK.

To people from Edinburgh, the name Costafine Town may sound strangely familiar.

Splinter

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The single – note the Dark Horse logo featuring the three Uchchaihshravas horses

Splinter were a folk-rock duo from South Shields in north east England, made up of Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis. They existed for roughly a decade, from the early seventies to the mid eighties. It appears they did not weather the punk explosion well, and they never did manage to repeat the success of Costafine Town, a fact not helped by the BBC taking umbrage at the word “bloody” appearing in their second single and refusing to play it as a result. The song Costafine Town appears on their first album, The Place I Love.

Splinter’s sound has often been likened to Badfinger – which is not a bad comparison. But while Badfinger was Paul McCartney’s baby, Splinter was very much that of George Harrison. The duo wrote the songs while Harrison was one of the session musicians on many of the tracks including Costafine Town. They were also signed to Harrison’s Dark Horse label.

Splinter are not well remembered. None of Splinter’s music appears to be on iTunes or Spotify, but some can be found on Youtube. (There is also another band called Splinter from Weymouth. They are nothing to do with this one.)

Corstorphine Town?

So where did Costafine Town get its name from?

There is only one other Corstorphine of any note in the world, and that is a suburb of Dunedin in New Zealand. That’s even further away from South Shields than we are. “Corstorphine” is also an uncommon Scottish surname.

A clue can be had in that many English people drop the letter “r”, i.e. a word like “farmer” ends up being pronounced as “fahmah” without a “r” in hearing range. That gives would give us “Cawsstawfin” which is not far off “Costafine.” And “phine”, well that looks like “fine” doesn’t it?

According to Bob Purvis, one half of the band, in a report on Look North East (the local BBC news programme) back in 2008 this is exactly what his mother did:

“I thought it’s time we wrote a song about South Shields. I sat down, I had the tune, me mother came in the conversation while I was playing. And we talked about this place called ‘Corstorphine Town’. My mother had a thing where she gets her words mixed up. Quite a lot. And it should have been ‘Costafeen’ [sic], but she pronounced it ‘Costafine’. By that time I had ‘Costafine Town, it’s a fine town, I’m comin’ home.

No “Corstorphine Town” currently appears on the map in South Shields, but that is not surprising. Not only was the north east of England a significant target for German bombs during WWII, it was also heavily redeveloped in the decades just after the war. All that appears to remain of Corstorphine Town is a single pub called the Commercial Hotel. It is to be found in the Riverside area of South Shields. According to “John Simpson Kirkpatrick” on Youtube:

Costa Fine Town (real name Corstorphine Town) was named after business man Robbie Corstorphine, who settled in South Shields, but hailed from Corstorphine, a village west of Edinburgh.

It seems there is a bit of confusion here. Was it named after Mr Corstorphine, or someone from Corstorphine, or both? This is a riddle some local historians might want to try and solve. By coincidence there were two Scottish presenters on Look North East at the time who point out that Corstorphine is in Edinburgh where the zoo is.

Corstopitum Town

A member of the “Corstorphine Memories” Facebook group suggested recently that Corstorphine is a Roman name. This was mainly because the name “Corstorphine” resembles “Corstopitum”, which is an old name for Corbridge, one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. According to a certain free encyclopaedia (and you might want to check other sources):

“The place-name appears in contemporary records as both Corstopitum and Corie Lopocarium. These forms are generally recognised as corrupt. Suggested reconstructions include CoriosopitumCorsopitum or Corsobetum.

The Roman presence on Tyneside is well known. Wallsend, across the river from South Shields, was the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. This effectively was the northern extreme of Romanitas for most of their time in Britain. However, various emperors did attempt to extend their power northwards, through various military expeditions, buying off local Celtic tribes, and building the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde. Cramond was one of their main ports north of Hadrian’s Wall, but it has to be said that the Roman presence in what-is-now southern Scotland was intermittent. Someone has estimated that of the four hundred years or so that the Romans spent in Britain, a mere forty were spent manning the Antonine Wall and even those were not a continuous forty.

The question is not whether the Romans visited this area, but for how long and how often. EA Elders, in an article in the Scotsman in 1969, suggests a Roman road ran from Cramond, over Drumbrae and between the Gogarloch and Corstorphine Loch heading towards Kingsknowe. I find this route a bit questionable – personally I would have thought it would have headed further west, alongside the Almond through Cammo, Lennie and Gogar, and along the west flank of the Pentland Hills to Carnwath. This would bypass some of the hills and some of the open water. However, in support of this theory, a Roman coin was once found in a garden at the east end of South Gyle Road, near where it joins Meadow Place Road. Does this mean a Roman dropped it there? Possibly. But bear in mind that Roman coins were also traded outside areas of Roman control, used to pay off troublesome tribes and some were even in circulation long after the empire had collapsed. Roman coins have turned up in places such as Ireland, Scandinavia and even Iceland which is supposed to have been uninhabited in Roman times.

Roman names are fairly uncommon in Scotland for this very reason – there are one or two. Bonchester in the borders springs to mind, for example, but they are very rare. Most of the apparently “Roman” names in England and Wales are actually Celtic in origin. Names such as Londinium (London), Eboracum (York), Isca (Exeter), Venta Silurum (Caerwent) all come from Celtic origins. Some of the names of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall including Corstopitum/Coria (Corbridge) and Segedunum also appear to be Celtic. (Some names in these islands appear to pre-date Celtic languages too – mostly those of natural features such as rivers and islands.)

Since the name of Corstorphine is first recorded in the 12th century, it is very hard to work out its ancient origins. The most likely answer is that it is Celtic and/or Norse of some kind. “Cors” in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is corrsa or carrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.

External links

Big Gold Dream & a few other thoughts

Big Gold Dream broadcast on BBC 2 last night discussed the Edinburgh & Glasgow post-punk scene. It featured interviews with Clermiston’s own Tam Dean Burn, Russell Burn, and Davey Henderson.

Craigmount High, cultural hothouse

You might laugh when I say this, but Craigmount High in the seventies produced some pretty amazing people. Big Gold Dream featured three of them: actor Tam Dean Burn, his brother Russell, and Davy Henderson who were responsible for groups such as the Dirty Reds, the Fire Engines and the Sexual Objects. Tam later became better known as an actor, but he was a rock musician back then too. There were some amusing anecdotes on the documentary – including how one of them had to trap and sell rabbits from Corstorphine Hill in order to pay for his first guitar. And how he still owes them money.

Although they were not featured on the documentary, it is worth mentioning that they were not the only significant people to attend Craigmount around this time. Others included:

As you can see, a lot of these folk were contemporaries or near contemporaries. Craigmount had a particularly well respected drama department back then headed up by Ken Morley.

Big Gold Dream

Every music documentary raises more questions than answers. What is the actual difference between post-punk and New Wave anyway? Is there one? Are they just punks in denial? Big Gold Dream never answered this. There were quite a few of the usual tropes you find in such documentaries – the messanic messages (music was crap until whoever it was came along), middle aged rock stars wearing sunglasses indoors (two of them in this case) and of course the messages about how drab Edinburgh was in the 1970s… just to hit the last point home, there was some grainy footage of Edinburgh shown, most of it apparently shot fairly recently. I was amazed though that no one moaned about prog rock on the programme – I thought that was practically obligatory on punk docs.

The drabness of the Scottish seventies seemed to carry over into most of the groups’ dress sense. Even today, many of those being interviewed appear to wear sombre clothes – greys and blacks, like mourning clothes. The clip of the Rezillos offered some brief respite from this drabness. It is a drabness which still exists today, particularly in a lot of Edinburgh’s grey social housing. Edinburgh’s quasi-mods Josef K featured, still playing the rock star game (Franz Ferdinand would have been nothing without them and Gang of Four.)

There were some dubious claims too, e.g. that Scotland had invented indy music, or that punk rock had come and gone in the mid to late 1970s. Both of these can be easily debunked. Punk’s still here. Punk was around in the early seventies. There even used to be an old man who wandered around Edinburgh with a leather jacket saying “punk’s not dead” until a few years ago. As for indy, that was already in existence by the time this crowd came along. That honour probably goes to various American and English groups – the Damned’s indy single New Rose charted back in ’77.

Class was only mentioned once: Tam Dean Burn was keen to mention the working class credentials of the Edinburgh scene versus the more “middle class” Glasgow one. Coincidentally, the heavy role that the College of Art played in the whole thing was played down, although we did keep seeing shots of Keir Street (which i just behind it)

And one of my pet peeves – the annoying Central Belt habit of saying “West Coast” and “East Coast” reared its head. Whenever I hear that I tend to think of Oban and Aberdeen, but no, in this part of the world, people just mean the small bits of Scotland around Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Strangely, none of the Fife and Dundee bands of this period were featured although they included such giants as the Skids. Edwyn Collins was absent, no doubt due to his stroke issues, although he was featured heavily in the promo materials and Orange Juice was mentioned a number of times.

Don’t go back

There is always something faintly ridiculous about older people trying to relive their teens. Given that I’m knocking on the door of middle age myself, and some of the people featured in this documentary are technically old enough to be my parents – and the grandparents of young adult children – you might see why none of this was really my scene.

It is always a pet peeve of mine that whenever I go to look up bands from the sixties, seventies and eighties on Wikipedia or Youtube, you see them in their more recent incarnations. I’m not really interested in seeing reunion tours. Blues, folk and jazz musicians can get away with it, but not punk rockers. Big Gold Dream spared us some of that. I made a rare exception for the Scars a few years ago in the Picture House. They were pretty impressive, their support bands not so much. Irvine Welsh was hanging around at the bar, bemused at the attention some of his younger fans were giving him. I said hello to Joe Callis out in the corridor…

My main memory of that Scars gig was a woman with a John Lewis bag slung over her shoulder.

Grunge

There is a good parallel between post-punk of this period, and the scenes of America’s Pacific North West a few years later. Seattle, Portland and Aberdeen were drab, industrial, rainy port towns.

I think Big Gold Dream missed a trick here. A direct line can be drawn connecting the two, through bands such as the Vaselines, which Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loved. Nirvana always had an interest in Scottish music, which in a round about way is how Shirley Manson migrated from Goodbye Mr Mackenzie into the internationally successful Garbage.

A major difference though is that Washington and Oregon had their own TV stations and proper media, something which has more or less evaded Scotland for the last few decades.

But grunge? Going into all that would prove that punk was still alive and kicking well after the seventies, something Big Gold Dream didn’t want to admit.

External links

Documentary explores birth of Edinburgh indie scene

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)