Back in my post “Phrens like these“, I discussed the phrenologist George Combe who had Corstorphine and South Gyle connections.
“George Combe was no stranger to [controversy]. In fact, on one occasion he examined the head of one David Haggart, a nineteen year old pickpocket and murderer from Dumfries. Combe claimed Haggart had developed “secretiveness” written on his skull. Haggart was later to be executed, but would write a moving autobiographical account, explaining how the murder had not been premeditated and that he was deeply sorry for it. News of Haggart’s account reached Blackwood’s Magazine and others, who used it to attack Combe.”
A friend of mine specialises in digging up obscure films, and recently, he found one from 1969 called Sinful Davey, also known as the The Sinful Adventures of Davy Haggart. Having more than one title is never a good thing for a film, and I doubt it did much good for Sinful Davey before it sank into oblivion…
It took me a while to make the connection between Sinful Davey and the David Haggart I mentioned above. There is a very Barry Lyndon-esque flavour to the story-line. This film doesn’t really deliver on the “sinful adventures” that it promises, apart from a few robberies, there is less smuttiness than a Carry On film, and it looks quite tame in this day and age.
The penny only really dropped when a phrenologist came in to measure the character’s head in Stirling Gaol. Unlike much of the film’s narrative, this appears to have happened.
Sinful Davey boasts a well known cast, and some awful attempts at Scottish accents. The main character Davey Haggart is portrayed by a baby-faced John Hurt. His love interest is played by the under-rated Pamela Franklin (who you may remember as Sandy in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Supporting roles are played by Ronald Fraser (who does the most convincing of the Scottish accents), Robert Morley (hamming it up as he always did), Nigel Davenport, and Fionnuala Flanagan. It seems to have been entirely filmed in Ireland, and while Ireland looks reasonably like Scotland, the Irish extras seem to make little attempt to put on Scottish accents.
The film was also Anjelica Huston’s first role, although I was unable to spot her. Her father John Huston directed the film. (Huston’s films recently featured on the Pointless recently, and Sinful Davey wasn’t even mentioned among the “pointless” answers!)
According to his Wikipedia article (!), the real Davey Haggart seems to have originated in Goldenacre in Edinburgh, of all places…
“Twelve days before the trial he was visited in prison by George Combe, the phrenologist, and between the trial and his execution he partly wrote, partly dictated, an autobiography, which was published by his agent, with Combe’s phrenological notes as an appendix, and Haggart’s own comments. It is a curious picture of criminal life, the best, and seemingly the most faithful, of its kind, and possesses also some linguistic value, as being mainly written in the Scottish thieves’ cant, which contains a good many genuine Romany words. Lord Cockburn, writing from recollection in 1848, declares the whole book to be “a tissue of absolute lies, not of mistakes, or of exaggerations, or of fancies, but of sheer and intended lies. And they all had one object, to make him appear a greater villain than he really was”. On the other hand, the contemporaneous account of the trial, so far as it goes, bears out Haggart’s narrative ; Cockburn is certainly wrong in describing Haggart as “about twenty-five”, and in stating that the portrait prefixed professed to be “by his own hand”. This autobiography later served as the inspiration for the 1969 movie Sinful Davey. It is available in several reprint formats, but no new edition has ever been issued.
Nan Shepherd has achieved some posthumous celebrity in Scotland in the last few years thanks to her appearance on a five pound note. Into the Mountain probably exists partly because of this new found fame and indeed bears the self-same striking image on the cover. Whatever the reason, Charlotte Peacock’s new biography is welcome, and gives a detailed account of her life and writings.
I am not very familiar with her fiction or poetry to be honest and am not even aware if it is currently in print. Like many people I mainly know her for the Living Mountain, a beautiful work which ranks alongside John Muir’s as a classic of Scottish nature writing.
Shepherd, like Helen Cruickshank was a product of the north east and indeed the two knew each other. Shepherd often visited Cruickshank at her home at Dinnieduff in Corstorphine. Into the Mountain contains copious references to Cruickshank, and thus has a lot of local interest as well.
If I may make one criticism of the book, it is that Peacock often conflates Shepherd’s fiction with autobiography. While it is true that Shepherd left little in the way of memoirs, and there appears to be a flavour of roman à clef about The Quarrie Wood (which I’ve not read) it is dangerous to rely on such works. As a would be fiction writer myself, I occasionally draw on my own life but often change many significant details – someone else would be hard pressed to guess which parts I had changed. I suspect Nan Shepherd did the same.
If you have enjoyed this blog, why not consider buying the book? It’s a unique & ideal Christmas gift for anyone with links to this area. I include a lot in the book that doesn’t appear on this blog at all, such as maps and even more detailed discussion of some of the subject matter. Many people have told me that they were amazed about the content, and that they were completely unaware of it beforehand.
You can buy Literary Corstorphine for £9.99 from Gee’s/Corstorphine Post Office, which is on the corner of Station Road and St John’s Road. If you can’t see it on display, please ask to see a copy.
If you live nearer Leith than Corstorphine, it is also available in the Scottish Design Exchange shop, which is on the first floor of Ocean Terminal. Directions and details can be found by clicking this blue link.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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):
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
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.
Literary Corstorphine has talked a lot about writing, but not very much on how to write. In this post, I’ll talk about just that, with a bit of a hand from several published authors.
“If you get a bit stuck, kill someone.” – Wendy H. Jones
Who could say this but a crime writer and get away with it?
On Wednesday, 30th May, the Hub on St John’s Road, Edinburgh hosted Corstorphine Festival’s Writers’ Night. Hosted by Corstorphine’s own Cecilia Peartree, the line up included Wendy H. Jones down from Dundee, Jane Riddell, Ann Stenhouse, and Kate Blackadder. As well as crime, these ladies have published in genres as varied as science fiction, YA (Young Adult), children’s, family relationship, historical romance and literary fiction.
I include some potted biographies of the other writers below, but some of the discussion may be of interest. These are taken from my own, somewhat chaotic notes.
Yours truly opened the discussion, and pointed out that I was something of a “rank amateur” compared to the rest of the line-up. I was the only one discussing non-fiction (or is it fiction? Let’s not go all meta!) Anyway, I hope to gear this blog post more towards other people’s opinions!
Talking of murder…
My own question: There being a lot of murder writers around these days, I asked the obvious… how do they research certain subject matter without causing too much alarm to the authorities? Looking up firearms and body decomposition online will probably land you on a watch list!
Me: I jokingly suggested no Google as an answer to this quandary. They store everything.
Wendy H. Jones fielded this question. She had worked in medicine, including a stint in an eye hospital in east Jerusalem where she would frequently encounter members of the public who had severe injury or trauma to other parts of their bodies. This meant that she is already au fait with a number of medical details.
She cultivated a friend in the police in Dundee and discussed. They will be able to provide you with a lot of up-to-date information.
Crime has been changed. Bodies can be fingerprinted and processed through the database in five minutes for example.
MITs (mobile incident teams) are also deployed across Scotland, since the merger of the forces.
Wendy admits “you have to play a little fast and loose” when it comes to such matters.
Audience question: “How do you put yourself into the mindset of historical characters?”
Anne Stenhouse: She is adamant that she writes historical romance, and not historical fiction. Some research is necessary, but not so much as to bog the project down.
Anne points out that the position of women in the Regency Period was extremely different. Girls did not speak to adults in the same fashion that they do now. Women were effectively property until/unless they came to be widows – if that happened, then they gained a certain level of rights which were otherwise delegated to their fathers or husbands.
Wendy H. Jones: Two of her young adult novels are set in historic cultures: The Warriors in China and another is set in ancient Egypt. Wendy says that research is important as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the book.
Cecilia Peartree: Setting some of her work in 1950s Berlin provided a number of challenges, particularly as the city has been constantly changing over the past sixty years or so.
And now onto the bane of writers (and film producers)… consistency. The way to deal with this problem is to go over your work thoroughly, and making charts & notes to keep track of it. And before publication, it is wise to have a number of people go over it, to try and find what you have missed. The ladies were extremely open about some of the issues that they had encountered in their own work.
Jane Riddell: Jane found out that one of her character was pregnant for 18 months.
Cecilia Peartree: Among her writing issues were a dog which had three different names in a single novel, and a baby which changed gender.
Wendy H. Jones: She recommends keeping tight control of what your characters look like – be consistent with things like eye/hair colour etc. All of this can be achieved through keeping notes separate to the story itself.
The writers also pointed out some miscellaneous problems encountered by today’s writers:
Kate Blackadder: Kate points out that there has been a sharp decline in magazine outlets, partly due to the internet.
Jane Riddell: Jane discussed the difficulty of finding a readership within cyberspace. She also says people often have to see something seven times for it to stick in their mind. Advertisers know this, which is why they are so persistent in repeating images.
Cecilia Peartree: There is a danger of real life intruding too much into novels. Cecilia does a lot of work in committees and there is the concern that if this features in her work too much that people will assume it is based on her real life and Corstorphine in general.
Chewing Gum on the Mantelpiece
Wendy H. Jones: Chewing gum on the mantelpiece is a metaphor for something mentioned early in a novel. It has to be relevant later in the plot, because a crime reader will assume it is a clue in the plot, and will be disappointed if it is left unresolved.
She has to do a lot of plotting “to keep track of the bodies and to control the police” within the story.
Characters that bully you
Wendy H. Jones: Sometimes she says “characters start to bully you”, i.e. they start to take on their own identity and dictate to you their likes & dislikes. This can sometimes be little planned. One character, for example, she felt would be a whisky drinker as she was writing the story.
My own trumpet
I talked about Corstorphine’s links to Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens etc, the sculptures of writers in South Gyle and read out the Rival Bellmen by the local writer Robert Cuddie.
On a very different note, the audience learnt about Daphne du Maurier’s uncle. He was a one-time editor of the Daily Mail, who held some unusual notions about Edinburgh. Were Corstorphine Hill and Gogar featured in the Bible? Probably not, but he thought so.
Jane writes novels and short stories about exotic locales and often uses photographs for inspiration. She works within contemporary fiction, and the family relationship genre. She has also written a series of books featuring a cat… the Bakhtin Chronicles, based on the Russian philosopher of the same name.
Her non-fiction work – Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing – speaks for itself.
Anne writes historical romance, which is often set in Regency London. She sometimes uses Edinburgh’s New Town for inspiration. Her other works include a novel about Travellers set in Midlothian & a new novel set in the world of community theatre.
Kate writes novels, short stories & serials, many of which are set in Scotland e.g. Melrose, Edinburgh and the Highlands. She says it is easier to set short stories in various locations than novels, as they require less grounding.
Her stories have been published in a number of places, but she has put them into three collections, which are available on Kindle.
Her breakthrough came after winning a competition in The People’s Friend.
Wendy H. Jones
Wendy writes about crime in Dundee, which is apparently the murder capital of Scotland. It is also, as she told us, the last resting place of one of the prime suspects in the Jack the Ripper case – William Henry Bury, who was executed at the Bell Street Police Station.
She has had two series of crime novels published and a third on the way. Many of these start with the word “Killer” e.g. Killer’s Crypt, Killer’s Craft etc. Her protagonist is D.I. Shona McKenzie, a native of Dundee, who was raised in Oxford and thus brings something of an outsider’s eye to the city.
Wendy has also written YA novels – the Fergus & Flora series, and a children’s book, called Bertie the Buffalo.
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 wemeet 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 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.
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.
In Ken Johnson’s story, All our Heroes are Busy at the Moment we read:
“Tawny was the tangled blonde, glamorous grandmother type and spoke with a Corstorphine accent.”
What does Ken Johnson mean by this? My hunch is a posh Edinburgh accent, along the lines of Jean Brodie, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what a distinctively Corstorphine accent would sound like. The Jean Brodie/Morningside accent has practically died out.
No doubt, back in the day when there were distinct villages in these parts, Corstorphine speech probably had some notable differences from that of Musselburgh or South Queensferry. These days it’s actually really hard to tell.
There are several accents within Edinburgh & Leith – most of these are based on class, not area. The poshest accent in Edinburgh is barely distinguishable from RP and its speakers frequently mistaken as being English. The least prestigious is very nasal. And again there are a few words that are used in Leith not usually found in Niddrie & vice versa, but just that… a few. You’ll find a greater difference between the alumni of Craigmount & Watsons… most of Edinburgh’s accents are sociolects – class-based.
Maybe certain schools use certain words, but surely that means there will be as much difference between Forrester, Craigmount & St Augustines as anything else.
It’s safe to say that I don’t have a Corstorphine accent, whatever that is. I didn’t grow up here and my parents didn’t come from the west of Edinburgh. My accent is more to do with northern Scotland and bad American telly. But I have spent over half my life here.
I remember reading an article in a local free sheet talking about how certain people who used to run a shop in Corstorphine decades ago were not local. They were from Stockbridge! Well, if you’re not from Edinburgh originally, that’s hardly a long distance. It seems a bit odd in this day and age to be thinking that way. You only have to walk up and down St John’s Road to see people from other countries – eastern Europe & Asia, sometimes Africa, or Wales (when the Six Nations is on). Compared to them, I’m much less exotic.
Given that this whole area has mushroomed since the war, is any of this meaningful anymore?
A probable answer
Fortunately, I do have a bit of an inside track here. I have met Ken a few times. He is originally from southern England, but has lived in the city for years. Ken wrote this piece back in 2009 – I’ll put it down to a lack of local knowledge.
Still it did get me thinking. Is there such a thing?
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!