John Herdman and the zoos of Edinburgh

In this piece, I discuss John Herdman who has featured Edinburgh Zoo in his work on a number of occasions… which leads me onto another Edinburgh zoo of a slightly different nature.

Introducing John Herdman

Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978) was my first exposure to John Herdsman’s work, back in the nineties. Back then I used to go on holiday in Pitlochry in Perthshire, and would often go on short trips to the surrounding towns and villages. John and his wife Mary used to run a second-hand bookshop in a converted petrol station in Blair Atholl, which was the next stop up the line.

Many years later, and John & Mary both moved to Edinburgh, where they became involved in the revival of The Heretics, which I discussed earlier on this blog. This is how I came to know him, and I am also immensely grateful to him for contributing a foreword to the book of Literary Corstorphine.

Herdman’s works are more firmly rooted in Scottish literary tradition than many contemporary writers, who seem to have forgotten about it entirely. Herdman’s works has a kind of magical realist, or even Gothic. quality about them – the settings are often mundane enough, but the plot elements and characters are not.

Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie (1974)

In Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie we meet Mr. Crum:

“Mr. Crum was older than Mr. Clinkscales and had not always been a waiter. For many years he had held the post of keeoer in the Reptile House at the Zoological Park, Edinburgh, and during this period seemed to have taken upon himself something of the reptilian nature, for he had the hooded lids of a snake and experienced no greater delight than spitting venom from a lipless mouth. He had the tensed, seeking nostrils of an animal and his blood heat was the subject of persistent though unconfirmed rumours. This was the depraved and malicious man with whom Aunt Minnie was now to fall in love.”

Ghostwriting (1995)

Ghostwriting is something of an eschatological horror. At one point the two main characters, Torquil Tod and Leonard Balmain, decide to meet each other in “the lounge bar of a hotel in Murrayfield… He specified a table in the corner beside the French windows.

Later in the novel, Torquil has a horrific nightmare vision of Edinburgh Zoo in which the animals are fighting each other and under the shadow of some kind of deadly plague.

The Sinister Cabaret (2001)

This book also mentions the zoo, albeit more fleetingly. Like Ghostwriting, there is a mention of bears, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a reference to Wojtek the fighting bear who ended up in the zoo in his “retirement”.

Another Edinburgh Zoo

And now to that other “zoo”…

During the 1908 Exhibition, Saughton Park hosted a “Senegalese village”, and actual Africans were included. I must admit I know little about this episode. Were they paid at all? Did they come over voluntarily? Either way, the Edinburgh climate must have been “Baltic” for them, considering they had to wear clothing better suited to the tropics, and presumably slept in the huts too.

Some “Irish cottages” were also included in the exhibition, although you would have to be an expert to notice much of a difference from certain Scottish ones of the time. Whether Irish people were included, I don’t know. Needless to say, there were plenty of Irish in Edinburgh at the time, and precious few people from Senegal, so they would have been far less of a novelty.

The term often used for these exhibits was “human zoos”. It seems to me though that there is a fine line between such things and some of the heritage villages that can be found around these islands. A modern commentator would probably claim the Irish cottages fell into the latter category, and the African village into the former.

External Links

Walking ways

You might not associate north west Edinburgh with long distance walking trails. Here are two which pass through it, and both are named after major writers.

John Muir Way

The great Scottish-American conservationist, John Muir (1838-1914) once wrote:

‘Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose we came from the woods originally. But in some of nature’s forests, the adventurous traveller seems a feeble, unwelcome creature; wild beasts and the weather trying to kill him, the rank, tangled vegetation, armed with spears and stinging needles, barring his way and making life a hard struggle.’

The John Muir Way only supplies a few of these challenges. It has its share of “rank, tangled vegetation”, “spears” (brambles) and “stinging” (nettles), but the badgers, foxes, deer and rabbits are unlikely to bother you. Other than the route named after him, I am unaware of any other connections between him and this area. (If you know of any I shall be pleased to hear from you.)

This trail starts in Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, and finishes at the East Lothian town of Dunbar, where Muir was born and raised. It traverses the Central Belt, taking in the likes of Strathblane, Cumbernauld, Falkirk and Linlithgow in the west, and Prestonpans, Aberlady, Gullane and North Berwick in the east.

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The Zoo’s Back Fence

In the middle, we find Edinburgh. The Edinburgh section of the John Muir Way is a “Curate’s Egg”. It is hard to see what what the great man himself would have thought of some of it. Muir was very much a man of the wilderness, and it takes in far too many busy roads and built up areas. Edinburgh has a lot of green spaces*, and you’d think it would be fairly easy to hop from one of these to another avoiding most of these.

There is a beautiful section leading from South Queensferry along the coast to Cramond. Then, it travels from Cramond along the back of Barnton, and ends up going along a bit of Queensferry Road on to Clermiston Road, up past the hotel. This route not only manages to bypass the northern woods of Corstorphine Hill, but leaves out Clermiston Tower, which is one of the most interesting local landmarks, and which is dedicated to Walter Scott. It then goes down by Rest-and-be-Thankful, cutting down Balgreen Road, and joining the old railway path near Pinkhill. From there it follows the tramline for a short distances, backs up on itself, going into Saughton Gardens, follows the Water of Leith up to Slateford, and eventually heads down the canal, completely bypassing Craiglockhart Hill, before crossing Bruntsfield.

It is fair to say that the Edinburgh route is bizarre in a way that only bureaucrats could have dreamt up. Signs for the route appear and disappear in various seemingly random locations all over Edinburgh and it is hard to work out how the route joins together from them alone. Somewhere around Portobello, the route begins to become fairly simple again, and follows the coast of the Firth of Forth until it reaches Dunbar.

Stevenson Way

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An inaccurate drawing of “Rest and be Thankful” showing the sea lapping over Blackhall and Arthur’s Seat in Stockbridge.

The second route is the Stevenson Way, which is based around the journey taken by David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the novel Kidnapped. It does not appear to have official recognition (correct me if I’m wrong).

I feel that Robert Louis Stevenson would approve of this route a bit more than John Muir might do of his, even though the two routes share a considerable overlap in the Edinburgh area

The Stevenson Way is certainly dramatic: it starts in the Inner Hebrides, crosses Mull, Glencoe, the barren wastes of Rannoch Moor, before descending through the Trossachs, across Bridge of Allan and Stirling, and across the Forth Road Bridge to the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry, and thence to Edinburgh. It is much more well thought out than the John Muir Way.

The east end of the route crosses Corstorphine Hill, which is mentioned near the end of the novel:

“We came the 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 and over to the city and the castle on the hill, we both stopped, for we both knew without a word said that we had come to where our ways parted […] Then I gave what money I had (a guinea or two of Rankeillor’s) so that he should not starve in the meanwhile; and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence.

“‘Well, good-bye,’ said Alan, and held out his left hand.”

The route doesn’t really take in Drumbrae, but it is worth repeating that Hoseason Gardens and many of the streets behind the Drumbrae Library are named for people and places in the novel. An obvious finishing point for this route would be the statue at Western Corner. The final place mentioned in the novel is not Rest-and-be-Thankful itself, but the Linen Bank, which is where David goes to get his savings.

Walk and be Thankful

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There are numerous other options within a short distance – the Pentland Way and the Fife Coastal Route. The Southern Upland Way is less than an hour’s drive away, and manages to take in some of the remotest scenery in the south of the country… We are spoilt for choice, so what are you waiting for? Get yer boots on!

Footnotes

*  When the council doesn’t destroy it or block off access to such green spaces for months on end. Part of the Water of Leith pathway near the Dean Village has been shut off for three years, and another section through Roseburn & Murrayfield has been blocked off for months. Likewise the Union Canal towpath near Thorneil Village has been inaccessible for a while. As for the council’s idea of tree surgery – let’s not go there!

Picture Credits

  • The John Muir Way sign is taken by me, but is free to use.
  • The image from Kidnapped is out of copyright.
  • Rest and Be Thankful (Ronnie Leask) / CC BY-SA 2.0

External links

Jardine’s Round

Thursday Legends

Many years ago, probably the best part of twenty, I walked past a very tired-looking Quintin Jardine sitting on his own at a table in the Gyle Centre, outside what was then James Thin’s Bookshop*. Mr. Jardine had a soaring pile of brand new books beside him – possibly Skinner’s Round (1995), the Inspector apparently likes golf – and he was busily signing them all. How well that particular scheme went, I’ve no idea, but suffice to say, James Thin’s bookshops are now long gone, and Quintin Jardine’s novels still very much with us.

In Jardine’s 2000 novel, Thursday Legends, we find the following.

The fund manager… headed downhill, and across Belford Bridge, the temporary resting place of Howard Shearer… until he turned into Ravelston Dykes.

“Where’s he going, d’you think?” Wilding mused.

“Maybe he’s off to the casino to lose another couple of grand, we’ll see.”

 They tailed Heard to Western Corner and then along Corstorphine Road out of the city. “Aye,” McGurk muttered, as they swept past Murrayfield Hospital…

Heard doesn’t end up going to the Maybury Casino. He ends up in the Zoo, looking at the penguins. However, any good Edinburgh driver from these parts might wonder why he didn’t take a more direct route through Haymarket. The Zoo is something of a mainstay for tartan noir based in Edinburgh, but that’s another matter.

For my money, I have to admit, I prefer Tony Black to Quintin Jardine. Then there’s my friend Alan Wilde, who’s busy working on a tartan noir novel, which is hopefully a bit outside the usual formula.

Footnotes

  • James Thin was roundabout where the escalators are now. I think there is a branch of the Early Learning Centre there now. Not really sure.

Picture Credits

The cover picture falls under copyright, but hopefully is considered fair use, as it promotes said item. No infringement is intended, and it will be removed on request.

External Links

Quintin Jardine Official Webpage

QJ’s Wikipedia entry

Skinner’s Round (official)

Thursday Legends (official)

Alette Willis

howtomakeagolem

I’m constantly finding new material for my Literary Corstorphine book. It always seems to pop up just when I think I’ve exhausted most of the possibilities. Still, such info is not unwelcome, and shows that I’ve at least chosen a fertile field!

One such new find is Alette Willis a children’s writer, currently storyteller in residence at Edinburgh Zoo. I’ve been a member of Friends of Corstorphine Hill on and off for a while now, and I was aware that she’d given talks/guided walks for them.

I approached Edinburgh Zoo last year as to whether they had any writers in residence, and got told that, no, they didn’t.* However, storyteller in residence is pretty close, and Ms Willis is a bona fide writer. I’ve not read How to Make a Golem and Terrify People, but it looks great fun, and moreover, there’s a whole chapter set in the zoo!

Footnotes

* Some of the local secondary schools have writers in residence – Craigmount and Forrester, to name but two.

Picture Credits

The cover picture falls under copyright, but hopefully is considered fair use, as it promotes said item. No infringement is intended, and it will be removed on request.

External Links

Bears, Fascists and the War

Giraffes outside the Omni Centre. Few people seem to know much about the poet quoted at the bottom
Giraffes outside the Omni Centre. Few people seem to know much about Roy Campbell, the South African/Scottish poet quoted at the bottom

Did you know we have more statues of animals than women in Edinburgh?

Queen Victoria aside, it’s difficult to find statues of specific women. Even the one sandwiched between the Usher Hall and the Sheraton seems to be of a generic Soweto woman. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) What about the proposed statue of the bear in Princes Street Gardens? Does central Edinburgh need another war memorial?

Wojtek the Bear, a one time resident of Edinburgh Zoo, seems to have a lot of fans. Mainly for being a bear, and being the mascot of the Free Polish Forces during WWII. Whether military mascots are actually tasteful, is not a question that seems to have been raised much. Especially if they’re large carnivores.

Wojtek was gained by the Free Poles after being traded for a few cans of meat. Bizarrely, he’s been claimed as a war hero, and even a “Nazi-fighting bear”. Did he do paw to hand combat with the Wehrmacht? I don’t know. I do know that he was given beer and cigarettes, and was raised in squalid conditions in the Middle East. Sentimentality has overrun animal rights here, along with the constant British obsession with WWII.

Raymond Ross wrote a play about Wojtek. I’ve never seen it. Ross is part Polish, and this plus the fact said bear lived in Scotland for a while, has been seen as a way to cement Scottish-Polish links.

Down the road, and with no links (that I know of) to this part of Edinburgh, there is a statue of two giraffes outside the Omni Centre. These commemorate the poet Roy Campbell. Campbell was a South African, with some Scottish roots. Until the outbreak of war, Campbell was openly pro-Fascist. While not a Nazi, he was a big fan of Franco and Mussolini. After the war, he contributed articles to Oswald Mosley publications, and moved to Portugal so that he could live under the dictator Salazar.

So in Princes Street, we’re going to have a “Nazi-fighting bear”. and by the Omni Centre, we have a couple of giraffes commemorating a far right poet, which no one seems to have noticed. On George Street, there is a statue telling us the supposed king of Scots “visited here”. Bizarre… when are we getting statues of say, Muriel Spark or even Helen Cruickshank?

External Links

The Wojtek Memorial Trust

Prince Street Gardens statue of Polish army bear

Theatre Objektiv’s page about said bear

Roy Campbell on metapedia (far right clone of Wikipedia)

Roy Campbell on real Wikipedia

Picture Credits

Giraffes sculpture, outside the Omni Centre (David Martin) / CC BY-SA 2.0