He is best known to most people, if at all from William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500):
“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene, And gentill Roull of Corstorphine; Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”
Ravelston = Roull’s Town?
The Roull family’s links were not just to Corstorphine but to Cramond. But Ravelston named after the Roulls? I’ll put this one down to a mere phonetic similarity, but it is tempting, very tempting.
The surname Ralston, currently borne by a BBC weather presenter, appears to come from a place near Paisley not Ravelston.
We may have at least one piece by Roull of Corstorphine; this is known as The Cursing and it is attributed to one Sir John Roull. The Cursing is directed at some poultry thieves, and falls under the genre of flyting (no pun intended). According to Janet Hadley Williams in her paper Humorous Poetry in Late Medieval Scots and Latin (c. 1450-1550), published in the European Journal of Humour Research (1(1) 61- 66):
With all the power of the ecclesiastical authorities behind him, Roull denounces the sinners, revealing the terrible sin they have committed, the stealing of five fat geese, ‘With caponis, henis and othir fowlis’. The bathetic revelation provides a humorous aspect to the threats, reducing the speaker’s authority; nonetheless the poem is an uncomfortably dark attack, closely parodying the real-life prose excommunication in the structure of the curse, the specialized language (the many references, for instance, to horrific diseases), and in the terrors of its imagery of hell’s serpents, adders, and devils with whips and clubs
The image was taken from Wikipedia, and is the work of Jonathan Oldenbuck. Permission is granted under the GNU Free Documentation licence.
Wendy Wood (1892 – 1981) is a controversial figure within Scottish life. Wood is best known as a Scottish Nationalist, one who was perhaps a lot more “hands on” than many of the current careerist crop, but she was also a poet, a memoirist and an illustrator… and a reader on Jackanory of all things.
While she is not as well remembered as she should be, there are many, particularly the Andrew Marrs of the world, who would rather she was forgotten altogether. Many Scottish feminists seem completely unaware of her as well, at a time when the memory of figures such as Nan Shepherd and Ethel Moorhead is being revived. A shame really, since although her radical Scottish nationalism may not sit well with our Guardian-reading middle class, she was also a notable campaigner for Indian independence and was involved in campaigning against the British Union of Fascists when it tried to set up in Edinburgh.
Her autobiography Yours Sincerely for Scotland (1970) details many of her views. Most histories of the Scottish independence movement have tended to be written either by the SNP mainstream or by its opponents. Yours Sincerely is a rare example of a detailed work by someone who fits into neither category.
Astronauts and Tinkers (1985) is a collection of her poetry, along with a number of her own line illustrations. I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy, but it seems to be extremely hard to come by.
She also wrote extensively on the crofting life, and produced a number of retellings of folk tales.
Compton MacKenzie’s book Moral Courage is dedicated to her.
There is a bit of ambiguity in the wording here – was Wood lesbian or bisexual? Or is this just an artistic partnership? I have no idea. This is the first time I have seen her sexuality discussed, although I know she died unmarried.
The house is still there, although there is nothing to mention the cultural connections as far as I know.
Unfortunately very little of the content online specifically deals with Wood’s writing or art.
William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500) is a litany of the great and good Lowland Scottish poets of the 15th century who had passed on before him. Many of them were known to Dunbar personally. Roull has another claim to fame – he is arguably the earliest Edinburgh poet – although whether you wish to class Corstorphine of the time as Edinburgh, and whether you wish to discount the ancient Y Gododdin is another matter.
In the poem we find the following verse:
“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene, And gentill Roull of Corstorphine; Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”
(He [Death] has taken Roull of Aberdeen,/And gentle Roull of Corstorphine;/Two better fellows did no man see: the fear of death disturbs me)
It is interesting here that “Aberdeen” and “Corstorphine” rhyme here – is this a forced rhyme, or did people actually pronounce “phine” as “feen” back in the day? Who knows?
If you’re from Edinburgh and “Roull” sounds vaguely familiar, you’d be right. It is the name of a quiet street wedged between Carrick Knowe and Broomhall. The street itself is named after this “Gentill Roull”.
Sir David Lyndsay
Lyndsay’s early work The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (1530 – “The testament and complaint of our sovereign lord’s parrot”), pays direct homage to Lament for the Makars and mentions the poets “Quintyng, Mersar, Rowle, Henderson, Hay, Holland“. “Rowle” is one or other, or both, of the Roulls, and it is possible that their work were still widely known at the time.
Poet, playwright, and the first Edinburgh makar, Stewart Conn has written a whole work on Roull of Corstorphine, which is included in his collection Ghosts at Cockcrow. As Stuart Kelly wrote in Scotland onSunday back in 2005:
“With his almost trademark filigree assonances and half rhymes, wry asides and sudden details, Conn conjures up the lost poet Roull of Corstorphin, and gives him the loveliest lines about marriage I’ve read for a while: “Loving you for what you are – / not just for what you were.” Anger, art, angst, guilt and guile, the humane and the human are all here. Conn is currently Edinburgh’s makar: they’ll have to search long and hard for a worthy successor.”
Roull is not the only Corstorphine link to this poem, as I pointed out in my post,4our Poets on Corstorphine. Contemporary poet, Diana Hendry has used Lament for the Makars in a slightly different way. In one verse we are asked:
“Will it come on the way to Corstorphine Or when sitting on the loo? Will I need a lot of morphine Will a bottle of brandy do?”
The poem also provides inspiration for a detective novel, Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker (1938), in the Inspector Appleby series, which was republished in 2010. The novel refers to the Roull verse at least twice:
Erchany is still the enchanted castle; only the enchantment has grown murky as one of great-uncle Horatio’s poems, and the enchanter, great-uncle Horatio’s sometime crony – is with Roull of Aberdene [sic] and gentill Roull of Corstorphine.
Playing by the Roulls
Not a great deal is known about Roull. There are one or two poems which have been attributed to him, but like many writers of his period, most of his oeuvre is long gone. We can piece together a few things about his possible origins.
The surname has at least three possible origins:
A version of the name “Raoul” or “Reuel”, related to the name Ralph and Rollo.
A corruption of the Gaelic name”Riaghail” (anglicised “Rule”, latinised “Regulus”). Kilrule (Cille Riaghail – the Church of Rule) is one of the old names of St Andrews, and Crossraguel near Maybole takes its name from the saint.
A corruption of the Norse name Rögnvald (Ronald or Raghnall). This might seem like a lot of consonants, but in some of the Nordic languages, they seem to have been swallowed.
The name is not very common these days, but when it does crop up, it is often in the form “Rowell” or “Rowle” (Rowling? Maybe not).
It seems that the earliest recorded Roulls in Scotland were in Aberdeen, and on this basis, it has been suggested the Roull of Aberdeen and Roull of Corstorphine were related, or perhaps even the same person.
We find a Thomas Roull recorded as a burgess of Aberdeen in 1416, and as provost in 1426. In 1465, William Roull was recorded as a notary public and burgess of Edinburgh.
In the 1470s, we find Roulls in Cramond. A 1471 charter records a “William Roule” as a fabro (craftsman?) in a charter relating to Cramond-regis, and in another charter of the same year, we find a William Roule (probably the same person) and an Alison Roull. Cramond seems to be the main link here. Over the next few decades, the Roulls can be found in places such as Dalkeith, Fife and Roxburgh – they seem to have been mostly an east coast family.
James Brown (see acknowledgements) sent me the following some years ago:
“In her 2-volume work The Poems of William Dunbar (Glasgow 1998) Priscilla Bawcutt mentions that the two Roulls are unidentified although one is presumed to be the author of The Cursing, a blackly comic poem dated before 1503 (see Maitland Folio Manuscript, no. xlvi). For scanty biographical notes (possibly on Roull, see J. W. Baxter, William Dunbar: a Biographical Study, Edinburgh 1952: 229-34)”
Mr Brown further suggests that “Gentill Roull” may have been an illegitimate son of John Roull, prior of Pittenweem, and that the stigma of his illegitimacy may have led him to become a satirical poet.
The Book of Lost Books
So what does this leave us with? At least two poems, by my reckoning, neither of which can be attributed to our Roull with certainty.
Stuart Kelly’s 2012 work The Book of Lost Books includes a short discussion of Roull of Corstorphine:
One poem in the Bannatyne Manuscript is called ‘The Cursing of Sir Johine Rowlis/Upoun the steilaris of his fowlis‘. Whether that Sir John lived in that Edinburgh suburb or the granite city has never been determined. He may even be a third Roull.
This, of course, is The Cursing poem mentioned above.
Like many matters in Corstorphine’s history, the Roull story probably merits a lot more investigation.
I am very grateful to James Brown of Baltersan in Ayrshire for most of the information on the Roull family he managed to find for me way back in 2009. Many thanks!
As an old Tennents’ advertisement used to have it, Scotland is “where umbrellas go to die”. Edinburgh is no exception, but in this case, the umbrellas in question are a collection of poems and a few short prose pieces about Edinburgh from Blackness to Portobello. Some of these come over as sturdy golf umbrellas, but some of them are cheap & nasty and a bit blown in.
Umbrellas resembles This Collection, which came out in 2009, and which I reviewed on this blog earlier. There is also a degree of overlap in the authors, notably Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir and Rob A. MacKenzie. That said, Umbrellas seems to have a bit more money put into it, although its publishers Freight have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.
As this blog is unrepentantly local, I’m going to concentrate on material relevant to Corstorphine and the surrounding areas.
Her Last Laugh by Iyad Hayatleh
This is a very personal poem talking about loss, exile and family relations amongst the Palestinian Diaspora set in Edinburgh Airport.
Animals by Theresa Muñoz
This poem attempts to link the characteristics of zoo animals to the author’s own:
Like honeybees we danced — like hippos we gorged Like pigeons we homes — to our sea-facing house
Vanishing Points by Andrew J. Wilson
This poem is specifically about Corstorphine and attempts to set the area’s history in deep cosmic time. Some of the images work very well:
A run away wallaby Waits at the bus stop
Others not so well, e.g. “spawn of the tongue twisters” puts me in mind of some shapeless prehistoric monster that H.P. Lovecraft might have written about, probably not the intention.
Nothing is guaranteed to “trigger” Literary Corstorphine more than some of the etymologies of Corstorphine. In this case, “Coriestiorfionn” is not only a misspelling, but a misspelling of a misspelling, based on “Coire Stoir Fionn”, which is highly dubious. I discuss all this in the book!
Amphitheatre by Andy Jackson
This poem’s about a game at Murrayfield. This piece contains some of the most interesting poetry I’ve seen about rugby – or most sports. Players are “pudding-headed pachyderms” (an animal image more successful than any in Muñoz’s poem) competing in “the night mine of the scrum”.
(Fans of heidbaw will be delighted by the Zen and the Scottish Long-ball Game poem which immediately follows it about Tynecastle, which talks about “Sloop John B-tuned witticisms”. A reference to the Famine Song, sung by people who don’t realise large numbers of Protestants died in the Irish Famine.)
Ath-Thogail by Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir
The poet discusses the task picking up his children from school in Tollcross, something many parents will relate to. The school is, of course, the Gaelic-medium primary that used to be there.
As with a lot of Gaelic work these days, there is a mystery about why some words are translated from English, but some aren’t – Tollcross is translated, but Haymarket isn’t, “sweeties” are, but “crisps” aren’t. But this is no matter, as most of the readership will be judging the poem on the English version beside it.
Uisge Beatha by Anne Connolly
Last but not least Uisge Beatha is an English-language poem about the Water of Leith. It contains descriptions of the tennis club down by the river and lines such as:
“But there is a melting in the March-bound air that irrigates”
For me it’s one of the more interesting poems in the collection. And I’m biased towards anything which features herons.
Going through the Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland yesterday, I found a few interesting things. Most of these weren’t new to me of course, but some of them were relevant to Litcors.
Take for example, Kathleen Jamie’s poem Cramond Island. The following excerpt appears in the book:
Most who choose the causeway cross
for a handful of years
turning back before the tide
cuts them off.
Reading of Rebecca West (who I mentioned previously on this blog), we find she spoke of “the Scottish blight that ruined my early life.”
It also mentions Tom Stoppard’s play Albert’s Bridge (1967). which is based on the Forth Bridge, and in which we are told “Young Albert is charged with the task of painting the Forth Bridge” which would take him years to complete, if indeed he ever completed it at all.
External link and a footnote
By a nice bit of serendipity, I see Edindrift has beaten me to a post on Cramond Island today…. Here’s the link:
Anent fouer bardis, quha hauen on Corstorphyn wrutten. A short round up of four writers of local interest…
Diana Hendry’s poem Timor Mortis Conturbat Me takes its name from David Lindsay’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500), which uses the phrase as a refrain. It means “the fear of death disturbs me”, and the original poem refers to the numerous writers that Lindsay had once known, but had died. One of these is Roull of Corstorphine (whence Roull Road).
Hendry’s poem is somewhat different in tone, and muses on her own future death. In one verse we are asked:
“Will it come on the way to Corstorphine Or when sitting on the loo? Will I need a lot of morphine Will a bottle of brandy do?”
Juliet Wilson, aka Crafty Green Poet. here writes here about the White Lady.
Wilson also has a blog and a Twitter account, which often includes material and photographs of Corstorphine and the surrounding area, especially of nature, flowers etc
Corinne V. Davis
Davis lives in Corstorphine and is author of the children’s series “Ralph is not…”- e.g. Ralph is not a Superhero (2010), Ralph is not a Vampire (2010) and Ralph is not a Spy (2011). She has written for pleasure since her childhood, and worked in education which is partly where she has found the inspiration for some of these books.
Which Beatles song was written in Murrayfield, and what is John Lennon’s connection to the area?
Every so often in researching Literary Corstorphine, I have come across a biggie. John Lennon is one of them. His records still sell, his sentiments & behaviour still piss some people off, and he continues influence on so many aspects of life. He is instantly recognisable, unlike so many other musicians one forgets in the bat of an eyelid.
And he was not the only Beatle with Edinburgh connections.
Although best known as a singer-songwriter, Lennon published three books, namely “In his own Write” (1964), “A Spaniard in the Works” (1965), and the posthumous “Skywriting by Word of Mouth” (1986). Each of these is a collection of various different occasional pieces, short stories and nonsense writing. You can see Lennon’s Irish heritage in full force in these with their brilliant wordplay, and biting sense of humour, which more than make up for the lack of any sustained narrative.
Lennon was also a voracious reader from an early age, reading everything from Broons annuals to highbrow novels.
Jock Lennon & the Silver Beetles
You may not be aware of John Lennon’s connections to Edinburgh. In fact he was a huge Scottophile, and loved visiting here. In his final years in New York, he would write, “I miss Scotland more than England,” and even sign his letters “Jock Lennon”.
The Beatles may have been more Scouse than Scots, but they did have some pretty solid connection to this country. McCartney famously sang the praises of Mull of Kintyre, where he lived for many years. The band also made their very first tour around northern Scotland, around small towns such as Keith and Forres. Moreover, the “Fifth Beatle” and the one who gave the band their name, Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh.*
There is a whole book on the subject – The Beatles in Scotland by Ken McNab . It is worth a read, and I have used It to find some of the information here.
A lot has been written on John Lennon’s unsettled and complex childhood. Although he was often getting into trouble, this was not entirely the fault of his own.
John’s father was always away at sea, and he had to be taken away from his neglectful mother Julia, to live with his Auntie Mimi and Uncle George who raised him as their own. While Mimi and George were a more positive influence on John, he still relished any time away from Liverpool, due to his family situation. He would often go and visit with his Aunt Mater, who originally stayed in Fleetwood, and became particularly close to her son, Stanley Parkes who was seven years older than John, and would take him to cinemas, to gigs and generally show him around town.
Auntie Mater later remarried a Scottish dentist called Bert Sutherland, and moved up to Edinburgh with her children, the Parkes. Every June, John would get on a bus to Edinburgh, and would be picked up at the station by his cousin Stan. Mr Sutherland also had an ancestral croft at Durness, and John would sometimes go up there with them after stopping off at Edinbugh.
Whether John Lennon matched up to the social standards of Murrayfield is not recorded, but Ormidale Terrace is certainly a step up from some of the homes John had lived in Liverpool.
According to Stanley Parkes:
“John, cousin Leila and I were very close. From Edinburgh we would drive up to the family croft at Durness, which was from about the time John was nine years old until he was about 16.”
It was while such a stay at 15, Ormidale Terrace that Lennon wrote the B-side to Paperback Writer, Rain. Looking out of my bus window just now, there are no prizes for guessing where the inspiration came from. On one such day, Stan says John and Leila sheltered from the rain in the grand doorway of the romanesque Murrayfield Parish Church.
According to the Edinburgh Evening News, Marlene Wood, the current owner of the property:
“John Lennon’s stay at the house was recorded on the particulars when we bought it, but we never really made anything of it. We thought it was a laugh.
“When we first moved in, surrounding neighbours told us of how Lennon would often visit his aunt who lived in the property, both as a teenager and with his wife Yoko Ono. One day I was out and Stan Parkes, John Lennon’s cousin, came around to the house and it was the woman who was looking after my children at the time that answered the door.
“My husband and I struck up an e-mail correspondence with Mr Parkes afterwards to find out more about the house’s history.
“But he couldn’t really remember much, only that John Lennon had written Rain there and that he used to hang out in the cupboard under the stairs a lot – because that’s where the phone was.”
The story does not end there. It is said that around 1980, not long before his murder that John was actually considering buying the house. Whether this would have happened is moot. He never did. Stan however, did move around a bit, going off to live in Currie, and eventually ending up on the shores of the Firth of Clyde.
Other Beatles sites in Edinburgh
Roxy Cinema (now the Bed Shed), Gorgie Road – John’s favourite cinema in Edinburgh, which shut in 1963.
McDonald Road, where Stan Parkes had his garage. John would sometimes gets his cars serviced here.
Lizars, formerly on Shandwick Place – John and Yoko were photographed near here after buying a pair of binoculars.
Claremont Crescent – Stuart Sutcliffe was born here June 23, 1940. It was he who suggested the name of the Beatles but is not part of the Fab Four line up.
Chalmers Street – Stuart Sutcliffe was also said to have lived here.
Currie – Stan Parkes also lived around here, and on one occasion, John visited the local RS McColls to pick up a packet of cigarettes. The shop assistant fainted.
Bus station – The young John used to arrive here every June on a bus from Liverpool to meet his Edinburgh relatives. Stan Parkes would pick him up, and take him over to Ormidale Terrace. While Ormidale Terrace probably looks much like it did then, the bus station has changed completely.
Edinburgh Airport – then known Turnhouse. The Beatles flew into here on more than several occasions.
ABC, formerly on 120 Lothian Road – the Beatles played gigs here, and met up with the Lord Provost. When he asked them for a donation to a charitable fund, John suggested pawning his gold chain.
Scotch House, on Princes Street – John and Yoko went here to buy tartan outfits for their children.
Roseburn Park and the Water of Leith – given their proximity to Ormidale Terrace, it seems likely John would have played around in these places or got up to other things. Did he use the chippy down the road? Nip in for an underage pint somewhere else? Who knows!
Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh on June 23, 1940, but moved down to Liverpool as a child. He was a talented artist, and it was he who named the Beatles, and also instigated their stint in Hamburg. Sadly, he would die there in 1962 – it is hard to imagine what effect he would have had on their later direction. Lennon called Sutcliffe “my alter ego… a guiding force.” Various sources name Sutcliffe’s home in Edinburgh as having been on Claremont Crescent in the Broughton area and/or Chalmers Street.
The US single cover is taken from Wikipedia and is covered under fair use, as this blog post is non-profit and it promotes sales of the Beatles music. It will be removed under request.
[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.
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.
“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
“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.
“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.
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.
How much do you know about the Water of Leith? Edinburgh is unique among Scotland’s major cities in not having a major river running through its centre. But Edinburgh does have its own river. It wends its way quietly through the suburbs, an provides a corridor for wildlife and an inspiration for poets. It is also a river which shares its name with some surprising places.
“Oh, Water of Leith! Oh, Water of Leith,
Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.”
McGonagall? Possibly since some folk say this is apocryphal, but as we shall see later, William McGonagall (1825-1902) actually did write a poem about the Water of Leith. A pity since the image of women washing their dentures in the water is such a striking one.
“On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.”
Again, this is not quite what it might appear, but more on that later.
“Water” in the name is Scots for a medium sized river e.g. Afton Water or Douglas Water, somewhere in size between a “burn” (as in “Roseburn”) and a larger river such as the Esk, Almond or Forth. The “Water of X” form is a calque from the Celtic word order, and tends to be more common in northern Scotland.
At first sight, the Water appears to take its name from the port of Leith. Or does it? Numerous towns in Scotland are named after rivers, or more especially their mouths, which make for good harbours. Amongst these one might mention Aberdeen, Inverness, Ayr and smaller places like Inveresk. Leith itself is outwith the scope of Literary Corstorphine, but hopefully this article will be of interest to some of the folk down there.
The name “Leith” itself is a bit harder to interpret – it is almost certainly from Brythonic (old “Welsh”), and may mean either “grey” or “flowing”, or something else entirely. It is probably related to the name of the Leithen which flows down to Innerleithen.
Edinburgh has been nicknamed “the Athens of the North” from time to time, but the Leith certainly sounds a bit like the “Lethe” (Λήθη – roughly “Lee-thee” or “Leh-theh”), one of the famous five rivers of Hades, the ancient Greek world of the dead. These were:
Acheron – Joylessness
Cocytus – Lamentation
Lethe – Forgetfulness, drinking its waters would wipe your memory.
Phlegethon or Pyriphlegethon – Burning, similar to the western view of Hell.
Styx – The river which shades were famously ferried across by Charon.
So when people say we live out in the Styx, they are certainly not far wrong. If you drank the waters of the Lethe, you would end up forgetting everything. As Fenton Johnson (1888–1958) wrote:
“Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around. Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.”
Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) wrote in his poem, Spleen:
“II n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé“
(“He failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins
Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood.”).
If you think none of this is relevant to our own Water of Leith, you would be far wrong. At least one person of note has associated places in Edinburgh with classical and biblical locations – literally – but you’ll have to buy my book to find out about that.
Ah, McGonagall, what can I say about him? The worst poet in the world? I don’t think so, but he was pretty bad-in-a-good-way. Now, again, I stray a wee bit out of our area – but his River of Leith is damn good:
“The water of St. Bernard’s Well is very nice, But to get a drink of it one penny is the price. I think in justice the price is rather high, To give a penny for a drink when one feels dry.”
Apparently, said spring water tastes like the finings from a gun barrel, but since I have tasted neither, I can’t comment on this comparison. And if you are molested by the bother of “dull care”, be minded that:
The scenery is so enchanting to look upon That all tourists will say, “Dull care, be gone.” ’Tis certainly a most lovely spot, And once seen it can never be forgot.
“Then away! away! to the River of Leith, That springs from the land of heather and heath, And view the gorgeous scenery on a fine summer day. I’m sure it will drive dull care away.”
If Edinburgh is “Athens of the North” and Dunedin is “Edinburgh of the South”, what is the relationship of Dunedin to Athens? Or the Lethe?
As you may know, quite a few places named after our Fair City. The best known one is Dunedin in Otago, New Zealand on the South Island. They went to a lot of trouble trying to remember the Old Country and there is a Corstorphine there and a Water of Leith to boot. Edinburgh, in return, has named an industrial estate in Canonmills after the city.
New Zealand’s Water of Leith was originally called Ōwheo and is culverted along much of its length. (Edinburgh appears to be trying to do much the same with the section of the Leith in Murrayfield.)
Edinburgh’s Water of Leith – 22 miles/35 km long, flows north east into the Firth of Forth (North Sea)
Dunedin’s Water of Leith – 9 miles/14 km long, flows south east into Otago Harbour inlet (Pacific Ocean).
This is not the only Leith in the southern hemisphere. The icy island of South Georgia, once famous for its whaling stations has its own Leith Harbour. Leith Harbour has a brook running down into it, but I haven’t been able to find out what it’s called.
Corstorphine Loch and a few other names
You may remember from a recent post that the ending of Stevenson’s Kidnapped mentions:
“We came by-way over the hill of Corstorphine; and when we got near to the place called Rest-and-be-Thankful, and looked down on Corstorphine bogs”
These bogs were the remains of the old Corstorphine Loch, which used to run from by near the Leith, over to the village of Corstorphine. Jamie and Ailean Breac walk over Corstorphine Hill to avoid these bogs, and also unwanted attention.
This loch would have fed into the Leith, and the Leith too would have returned the favour by feeding it with the occasional flood. The ancient Water of Leith seems to have been fairly sluggish, a situation which has been rectified by a series of weirs.
A few of the names along the water of Leith.
Balgreen – Baile is a common place name element, meaning a farm or village e.g. Balerno, Ballingry. Nothing to do with “ball green”, although that’s probably appropriate with the playing fields being there now. It’s actually a Gaelic name, meaning sunny (Baile na Grèine) or gravelly farm (Baile Griain). The element Bal- (baile) can be found down the road in Balerno, and turns up as Bally- in Ireland, and Balla- in the Isle of Man. The exact same name crops up near Ecclesmachan and Murieston in West Lothian.
Coltbridge – Originally refers to Cotts or Cottages that were built in this area. Cotts can also refer to parcels of land.
Riversdale – a modern ersatz name meaning merely “river valley”.
Roseburn – Apparently just “rose” (the flower) plus “burn” (as in small river) e.g. Blackburn.
Saughton – The “saugh” bit rhymes with “loch”, and is Broad Scots for a willow tree (seileach in Gaelic).
Stenhouse – The last bit “house” doesn’t appear to refer to a “house” at all. Older records call the place “Stanhope Mills”. Stanhope was the surname of the folk who held land there in the 16th and 17th centuries.
All three names are possibly connected to water – saughs (willows) like growing by water, gravel turns up near rivers, and “mills” speaks for itself.
Cors in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is còrrsa or càrrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.
Dean further down means a sunken valley. It is often “den” in Scotland and comes from the Anglo-Saxon denu.