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

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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

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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?”

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Ottoman Connections: Robert Liston of Gogar

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Sir Robert Liston in 1811.

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.

Early life

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

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Novelist and actress Marie Jeanne Riccoboni

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

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Sir Robert’s grave

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.

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Scrollwork and carving on another gravestone in the churchyard.

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.

Byron and Scotch Reviewers

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“I have dined with a handsome and charming young man – a face of eighteen, though his age is twenty-eight, the profile of an angel, the gentlest of manners […] When this young man enters an English drawing room, all the women immediately depart. He is the greatest poet living, Lord Byron. The Edinburgh Review against which he has written an atrocious satire, says that not since Shakespeare has anyone been so great at depicting the passions…” Stendhal

Ah yes, so to Byron, who is often said to be an Englishman, and sometimes considered to be a Scotsman. Expressing extremely Scottish sentiments in Lachin y Gair (Dark Lochnagar, 1807), confirms the latter idea, but the poem On English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) is frequently used to support the former.*

The “Scotch reviewers” in question were the writer(s) of the Edinburgh Review, who had slated Byron’s poetry collection Hours of Idleness shortly beforehand. One of the targets in EBSR was Francis Jeffrey, who lived at Craigcrook Castle. Craigcrook Castle is on the north east side of Corstorphine Hill, near the modern golf course. It is questionable whether Jeffrey actually wrote the article attacking Byron’s work, but certainly he was a great opponent of Romanticism. I’ll return to Jeffrey in later posts.

There are a couple of other local Byronic connections.

Firstly, Angus Calder, who is buried on Corstorphine Hill. He wrote several works on Byron, including a text book for the Open University and edited the collection pictured. Calder was an advocate for Byron as a Scottish, or at least a partly Scottish, poet. Byron’s Scottish background is something which barely merits a few sentences in many of the books about him.

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Secondly, James Pittendrigh Macgillivray who was responsible for the statue of Byron outside Aberdeen Grammar School (pictured). MacGillivray lived in Ravelston Elms, coincidentally not far from Craigcrook Castle. He was also a minor poet in his own right, and is buried at Gogar.

Notes

* The word “Scotch” did not have the same negative tinge in those days. It was used frequently by people on both sides of the Border. Burns himself used it, and not in a bad way)

Picture Credits

Aberdeen Grammar School, with Byron Statue. (Colin Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0