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.
“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.
Free libraries are all the rage – why don’t we have one here?
As council libraries close across the country, and Amazon, Google and Project Gutenberg* collectively conspire to remove the hard copy book from our lives, it is always a delight to find something which bucks the trend.
There are a few exceptions to this trend. The ersatz books, the arty books, the coming of the print-on-demand local literary history book… and of course the various book swops and free libraries… Corstorphine has its own book swop group on Facebook – see the links below. There are others, but they come and go.
Council libraries are free (as is the National Library), but they are paid for out of taxes and liable to closure by the whims of (local) government.
In an earlier post, I discussed the matter of introducing a small theatre into Scotland, here perhaps is another idea we could use to improve our area.
Free libraries in Edinburgh
Most of the free libraries I know of in Edinburgh, are in a small section just to the north of the New Town. One is on Scotland Street, another is near the Stockbridge Colonies, and another is in the Botanic Gardens. All three of these appear to be from the Little Free Library, a charity run in the States. However, the price range seems to be steep, running into hundreds of dollars. But as someone wryly pointed out to me when I mentioned this to them, “Any decent jyner cud knock one o thaim up.”
According to Edinburgh Spolight, there is a fourth, in Starbank Park in Trinity. It’s not a part of town that I visit very often, so I haven’t had a look at it.
Today, I found yet another, on Cobden Terrace colonies, one of the side streets off Haymarket. This one was “upcycled” from an old piece of furniture. This is perhaps the cheaper option. I am not sure if it’s an appropriate bit of furniture for the job but it is nicely painted up and it’s the thought that counts, right?
There are probably others out there, and certainly a few shelves of books for swopping in various shops, cafes etc. In many parts of Scotland, such as Athelstaneford in East Lothian, you can see old red phone boxes getting used.
The upside is that a lot of free reading material becomes available, and if you’re having a clear-out, they are a place you can put some of your unwanted/used books. They are a place where hopefully they shan’t be destroyed – I know from experience that charity shops dump a lot of their donations if they can’t sell them. If people knew just how much I think they might think twice about donating.
The writer may not get money but you can enjoy books you might not buy.
The downsides are as follows:
Potential for vandalism. You have to place such libraries away from would-be neds and trouble. A residential side street works better than a thoroughfare.
Some people take books out and do not give back. This is especially the case with the free library at the Botanics, where many of the people taking books out are tourists, who remove books and never give one back.
Monoculture – you can end up with books of one variety, often “chick-lit” and Aga Saga, but also thrillers and murder mystery.
There is also the issue of neds. In other words, you have to put the library into a spot where some eejits are not going to come and destroy them.
* Project Gutenberg is a force for good, unless you are a second hand bookseller or publisher of old books. The website is worth checking out. See links below for details.
“This collection” [sic] came out in 2009, and featured a hundred poems by Edinburgh writers, each a hundred words in length. The full set can be accessed by clicking on this blue link. There are three poems of local interest here: their brevity makes it difficult for me to quote much from them. You can thank copyright law for that!
Rob A. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine, Midnight can be found here. It paints a slightly grim picture of the area, through which a burning “Underwood” wanders seeking his ex-lover. MacKenzie’s Corstorphine is the land of “charity shop” (accurate), “supermarket aisles” (accurate) and “the vigil of neon alphabets” (a bit exaggerated). Even a short piece like this has several different interpretations – is the name “Underwood” actually a reference to the dark wild element which underlies human civilisation, and which is always waiting to come forth, or is it some backhanded reference to the 1990s sport? He shares his name with a couple of England rugby players of the period, but the poem also refers to the “Mexican Wave”, which was fashionable in football back then. This just goes to show all of the strange, and possibly unintended, meanings one can derive from poetry.
Last but not least, Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir has a poem called Dùn Èideannan. I have discussed Mac an t-Saoir on this blog previously – he has lived in Broomhall, and seems to have written a novel Gymnippers Diciadain which appears to be inspired by the CYCC.
Crafty Green Poet
I can’t remember whether I have mentioned her on here before, but “Crafty Green Poet” (true identity unknown to me) writes regularly on her walks around Edinburgh – these include places such as Corstorphine Hill, Cammo etc. Her blog can be found through this link.
The book of Literary Corstorphine is long overdue. Why? In short, two things – this is the first time I’ve been involved in such a project and secondly, a bit of a financial blip I don’t want to go into. I have found the writing and editing easy enough – it is the design and formatting which have been an issue. I’m sorry if folk think I’ve gone down the mañana route – but it will be here sooner rather than later!
Jardine’s Book of Martyrs is a blog mainly devoted to events in Covenanter History both great and small – many of them little known.
The ‘Meeting of General Dalziel and Captain Paton of Meadowhead’ appears in Lays of the Covenanters (1880), by Reverend James Dodds of Dunbar. It details the 1684 capture of Captain John Paton by General Tam Dalyell of the Binns (the aristocratic ancestor of the Tam Dalyell who died back in January.) In this section, we can see a local reference:
Calm as a dove he sleepeth. And he surrenders patiently To those who come to snare him: When, fast as horses feet can tramp, To Edinburgh town they bear him.
And now they skirt Corstorphine Hill, With August blossoms merry: When by the way Dalziel rides forth, To see what spoils they carry.
The full version can be seen on Dr Mark Jardine’s blog – link below. The rest of the blog comes highly recommended by me, and covers a great deal of the Central Belt.
Corstorphine, a major force in Scottish culture? Well yes at one time it was, long before Tesco, shopping centres, and Wimpey/Barratt style housing developments that many of us live in. That was one of the premises of BBC Scotland’s Scotland The Promised Land (PL) which painted Montrose and Corstorphine as the twin poles of the Scottish Renaissance. Helen Cruickshank (see link for details) was of course connected with both of them.
PL was far above BBC Scotland’s usual dire standard. It was a good, but slightly misleading, basic introduction to an important aspect of Scotland’s cultural history. But of course, PL had numerous omissions – the Gaelic element of the renaissance (except arguably Fionn MacColla/Tom MacDonald) was missing – while certain neglected aspects such as the non-literary aspects of the Scottish Renaissance got a look in. If you didn’t know much about the Scottish Renaissance, you’d probably learn a lot. If you already knew a bit about it, you’d learn only a little.
PL featured a lot of talking heads. There were plenty of academics amongst them, but not enough writers. The actual Scottish Renaissance was centred outwith the universities. Notable figures of the renaissance such as Helen Cruickshank and Hugh MacDiarmid never went to university, and many of the protagonists’ working or lower middle class backgrounds would have meant that they were unlikely to do so either. Granted, some of the talking heads were “two-sers”, i.e. writers and academics such as Alan Riach and Raymond Vettese, but even their position was slightly different.
On the flipside, we got hear a lot from Hugh MacDiarmid’s grandson, and also the owners of Dinnieduff (Helen Cruickshank’s former home in Corstorphine) who seem good people and genuinely interested in their house’s history.
Helen Cruickshank’s Octobiography is fascinating. It is out of print unfortunately, but various libraries in Edinburgh have copies.
An old area always has ghosts. The White Lady is the most famous local one – giving her name to a local pub. She is said to roam the area around Saughton Road North and Dovecot Road. Despite having walked, run, cycled and driven these roads, at all hours of the day, for a number of years I have never seen her. You’re more likely to see the Legless Drunkman of a night. I suspect she’s a bit shy, and appreciates neither the bright orange street lighting nor the twenty four hour traffic of the modern age.
Her tale is a run-of-the-mill ghost story. According to the sign on the pub, it is “named after Lady Christian Nimmo, known as ‘the White Lady’, who killed her lover, James, Lord Forrester, in August 1679, with his own sword. On the day of her execution, she wore a white hooded gown [as one does]. It is said that the ghost of the White Lady could be seen under the sycamore tree where the murder took place.”
The sycamore is no more. But its leaf has become a kind of a logo for Corstorphine.
According to some people it was supposed to be a cross-class relationship, so I doubt whether it would have worked out. (Which would mean Christian Nimmo was not a “Lady” but a “lady”, if you get my meaning). Other people say she was married, and others that she was his niece! Like a lot of ghost stories, one gets a sense of “haven’t I heard this somewhere before?” and you’ll hear the same kind of thing up and down the country.
The Forresters were actually a very dull family, and this ghost story is one of the few stories of interest about them. Despite this, they gave their name to Forrester Road, and a couple of miles away, an area called locally “Forresters” (home to Diane in Trainspotting no less), which in turn is next to Forrester High School.
Old Corstorphine does indeed seem to be doomed to destruction. The old castle got knocked down, leaving behind the doocot, and the Dower House. The sycamore whose leaf can be seen on railings around the area was blown down some years ago. Many of the old graves in the old kirkyard have been smashed up and flattened by the council. And of course the CYCC is now a burnt out shell. (I could list various other commercial and architectural mistakes in the area, particularly on St John’s Road!)
In some cultures, the desecration of graves (whether for “safety” or not) would be considered enough to bring down a curse on an area, and would explain such events.On one of the few occasions I’ve actually been inside Corstorphine Kirk, it rained tiny bits of plaster dust every time the organ was played. I had to brush my shoulders and scalp every few minutes as if I had a severe case of dandruff. No idea whether this problem has been fixed or not, but it was not endearing. I can’t imagine this makes the local spirits happy either.
Ladywell House, and the streets nearby, take their name from an old holy well (pictured). It’s hidden behind a small council estate, but to be honest, there isn’t much to see anymore. Featherhall may also take its name from this water source. The lady in question here is the Virgin Mary, and presumably before that some local pagan deity.
But if you want genuinely eerie – try Corstorphine Hill in the dark. The street lighting peters out there, and the trees close in…There are many rumours of sinister nocturnal ceremonies up there. The hill also features in a book on Scottish UFOs – and eldritch lights and objects continue to be seen up that way by various people. But it is worth mentioning the flight path to Edinburgh Airport does pass near there. Just as creepy – and in this case indisputable – is the former nuclear bunker to be found on its northern slope, now masquerading as a roads depot. It has, however, gained a bit more notoriety in recent years – and I include a link about it below. It features in one of Charles Stross’ novel, Rule 34.
Ron Halliday – UFO Scotland (discusses Corstorphine Hill etc)
Charles Stross – Rule 34 (novel featuring nuclear base and Clermiston)
Sue Walker – The Burning (novel set around the area of Dovecot Road)
“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.
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.
* 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)