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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For a Multilingual Edinburgh

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A “shelfie” of part of my library including Gaelic novels, alongside Mencius, Cervantes, Goethe, Patrick Süskind (the painting is Das Parfum), Turgenev etc in the original languages… an interest in Gaelic does not somehow block other languages…

I have tried hard to steer clear of party politics on this blog, but it greatly saddens me to see our MSP Alex Cole Hamilton try and use Scottish Gaelic as a soft target for campaigning. He seems to think if you are interested in Gaelic, you can’t be interested in other languages, despite all the research saying otherwise. Children in Gaelic Medium Education consistently outperform the other schools when it comes to learning French, German, Spanish etc. Frankly, ACH’s tweet reeks of  the “many of my best friends are […], but” mentality.

I am glad to say this attitude has not been shared by all of his party. Christine Jardine MP has said that she is supportive of Gaelic, and both Donald Gorrie and Margaret Smith have been positive about it too. The late Iain Farquhar Munro (Iain Fearchar Rothach) was a native speaker and a champion of Gaelic in the Lib Dems, and will probably be turning in his grave at these comments.

Well, I happen to be one of Alex Cole Hamilton’s constituents. I vote in pretty much every election. I think I have only missed one in twenty plus years. I have my own views, but I am not currently a member of any political party. I have voted for several different parties in the past, and yes, one of them happened to be the Lib Dems. Comments like this don’t endear me to them.

Literary Corstorphine will always back the Gaelic language. Many languages can be seen and heard in this constituency of course, and it is wrong to pitch them against each other, to say Polish is better than Cantonese or Urdu is superior to Broad Scots. Yet that is precisely what has happened here, and it seems to be becoming more and more common in British politics.

Our local Gaelic heritage

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Lennie and Cammo on the western edge of the city. Both of these names derive from Gaelic – Lèanaidh means a meadow or land in a river bend, while Camach refers to the meanders themselves.

Does Corstorphine have a Gaelic heritage? Yes, more than you might think. Names like Drumbrae (Druim Bràighe), Cammo (Camach), Lennie (Lèanaidh), Carrick Knowe (Carraig) and Balgreen (Baile Grèine) all originate from it. Go up to Edinburgh Park and you can find busts of poets such as Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean, while more recently Gaelic writers such as William Neill and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir have lived locally.

I write about Corstorphine’s Gaelic links in my book.

A Cuddie and an Ass

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Robert Cuddie (1821-1876) was a minor poet – more unkind folk might say poetaster – from Corstorphine. His work is mainly of local interest and published posthumously in 1878. I have been unable to track down any of his collections, and the only reason I know of him in the first place is that he gets a mention in several of the local history books.

His poems include The Corstorphine Games, and The Rival Bellman. Cuddie worked locally as a postman taking letters from Corstorphine up to Gogar. He also worked in the local library. I believe he still has relatives in the area.

When someone once made fun of his name, his retort was:
Though baith the twa o them are in
A rather stupid class:
A line micht still be drawn atween
A Cuddie and an Ass.

“Cuddie” is a nickname for a donkey, due to their pre-Reformation connection with St Cuthbert. “Cuddie” is also used to refer to racehorses, either in irony or in ignorance. The name “Cuddie Lane” (and variants) is often used for narrow roads and can be found in suburbs such as Colinton and Morningside.

As a point of interest, it shows that Broad Scots was still in strong use in the 19th century in Corstorphine, not something that can be said today.And just because we’re all Americanised now, don’tassume “ass” here means someone’s backside.

The Rival Bellman is about a spat between the ringers of Corstorphine Church and what is now the United Reformed Church.

Sadly, Cuddie seems to be one of the few Corstorphine poets to be noticed in the local history books. More’s the pity, since he’s not the best. Helen Cruickshank is much better, and underrated. She gets some attention in some of these books at least. William Neill – perhaps more South Gyle – is also much better and doesn’t get mentioned at all AFAIK. Both Cruickshank and Neill wrote in Scots – Cruickshank in the dialect of Montrose, and Neill in that of South Ayrshire and Galloway. Unlike them, perhaps, Cuddie was local born and bred.

Place name stuff

A few of the old street names in western Edinburgh are preserved intact, such as Kirk Loan (church lane), but most are semi-Anglicized, such as

* the Paddockholm (i.e. Puddock Holm, frog marsh/island), the location of the old Corstorphine railway station.

* Redheughs (Reid Heughs), in South Gyle, former HQ of the Royal Bank, before they went to Gogarburn.

Others have been completely anglicised, such as Dovecot (Doocot) Road and Coltbridge (originally Coltbrig). Bucking the trend, some modern developments have made an effort to use Scots elements e.g. East Craigs(rocks/cliffs), South Gyle Mains(home farm), Gogarloch Syke and Hill Park Brae(slope/hill). However, it is questionable how many younger locals would know what any of these terms mean. Many Edinburgh folk have started to pronounce “loch” as “lock” in the last decade or two, so would probably say Cuddie’s “micht” as “mict” or “might”. A number seem perplexed by the likes of “haugh” or “heugh”. These are words that appear in local place names, and were used by ordinary people in the Lothians for centuries. That is, until the BBC came along, and so called “education” – both of which have worked hard to destroy Scottish culture deliberately, and largely succeeded.

Picture credits

Church of St John the Baptist (M J Richardson) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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)