Waverley at 200

“It is, then, sixty years since Edward Waverley, the hero of the following pages, took leave of his family, to join the regiment of dragoons in which he had lately obtained a commission.”

It is, now, two hundred years since Walter Scott opened his first novel with these words, to begin a career which would make him world-famous, transform the novel, and transform Scotland.

I live in Scott’s city of Edinburgh, and move in its literary circles, yet I have met very few people who have read Waverley — very few indeed who are not much older than myself. Yet it has a strong claim to be high on any list of ‘world’s most important novels’. All historical novels, adventure novels and fantasy novels owe a debt to Waverley.

Scott literally leads his hero Waverley out of the drawing room and into a world of politics, adventure, characters and landscapes more varied and romantic than he ever imagined. At first the hero barely copes, and then he is transformed. Whereas most eighteenth-century novels had been set in the reader’s familiar world, Scott transported them. This was what was new — and why the reading public went wild.

Now, I have a job for you.
1. Go to a second-hand bookshop (or your kindle), get Waverley, and read it.
2. If you’re on Twitter, talk about it at #waverley200.
3. Use the comments section under this blog to tell us what you thought of it – or if you have your own blog write an article and link to it here.

Who’s your favourite character? How would you dramatise it for the BBC? What surprised you?

What can the modern reader expect to find in Waverley? Here are three things which I think explain why the novel went out of fashion, and why I don’t think they should bother you:

1. A leisurely journey: Scott’s readers had longer attention spans than the modern paper-back buyer, so depending on your time and patience you can choose either to settle in to, or to skim past, the long explanations and chatty characters.

2. A bit of twee… Scott’s romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands has inspired  every tartan outfit, Landseer-style painting, and harp-music-accompanied-helicopter-filmed sequence since. To us, it can seem a bit hackneyed. But when the first readers followed Waverley to Flora’s hidden loch, they had never been there before.

3. Not a Victorian. This is 1814. Jane Austen is just publishing Mansfield Park. Waterloo hasn’t been fought yet. Queen Victoria hasn’t been born. Victorians were influenced enormously by Scott; but Scott was a man of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh was buzzing with science, history, politics, philosophy, and above all a sense that old mistakes could be amended and men and women throughout the world could work together to create a better, fairer and more beautiful world. Scott buzzed with it as much as anyone. Scott’s authorship was anonymous: many people guessed it had been written by the political reformer, Francis Jeffrey.

The treasures you’ll find are splendid nature writing, fun adventures, and above all brilliant characters. I’ll let you explore all those for yourselves.

On its 200th birthday, we have the opportunity to read Waverley with a fresh eye, and have fresh opinions, as it is almost impossible to do with established classics like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. That’s why I’m excited about hearing what you have to say about it. I’m sure there will be other, far grander, better planned, Waverley projects and celebrations at Abbotsford and in English Literature departments around the world, but I hope that a few of you will be inspired by this one.

Get reading, and then get writing below. I’m going to re-read it myself.

Waverley 200 Events

Do you know of an event, talk exhibition, broadcast etc celebrating Waverley this year? Let me know and I’ll add it:

22 March, Waverley @ 200, Conference at Dundee University: for details contact d.p.cook@dundee.ac.uk
9 June 6pm, Lecture by David Hewitt at the Royal Society of Edinburgh
8-12 July, Tenth International Scott Conference, University of Aberdeen

Latest on Twitter

Tweets about “#waverley200”
 

Read Walter Scott.

When you’re finishing a PhD, doctors start to tell you the two things that got them through: usually involving sugar or caffeine. If I make it to my doctorate it’s going to be thanks to 1. spinach (I was short on iron), and 2. Walter Scott.

Walter Scott was a member of my church and lived within two miles of me. In the nineteenth century, he was the best selling author on the planet, by several orders of magnitude. He pushed his successful contemporary Jane Austen completely off the radar. In my generation, he is almost totally unread.

I’d never thought of reading Scott. I love classics, but Scott was somehow buried under layers of horrid Victorian dust of the worst sort. I thought I’d better read a few because I was writing a history of the church.

I discovered a novelist more enlightened than Jane Austen, funnier than Trollope, more observant than Dickens, more emotive than Bronte – a novelist who starts gently but gets more unputdownable with every page, who makes me laugh out loud and cry, who when I get to the end of one makes me rush to a second-hand bookshop for one of the gazillion pocket editions mouldering there to start another.

In dear old Austen, you know you’ll get ‘three or four families in a country village’, centered on a hero who is richer than the heroine, and a heroine who has no particular plans other than matrimony. You’ll always know everyone’s exact rank and financial worth; men and women have their places, and the common people are invisible and silent. It’s very funny, it’s sweet, yes I want to be Elizabeth Bennet — but it’s not actually very enlightened, is it? It’s a patriarchal hierarchy: effective anti-French revolution propaganda. I can enjoy it, but it’s a foreign worldview to me.

In Scott, you might get anything. You might get an inspirational cottage girl (Jeanie Deans, Heart of Midlothian), or a villainous lawyer (Glossin, Guy Mannering), or an adorable farmer (Dandie Dinmont, Guy Mannering). You often get wrongheaded but loveable characters who are enlightened as the book progresses (Oldbuck, The Antiquary; Darsie Latimer, Redgauntlet). You get brainy, sporty, fabulous women whose aims in life are anything but matrimony: they are spies or politicians (Di Vernon, Rob Roy) or doctors (Rebecca, Ivanhoe). You get half-mad, autistic, or beggarly-poor characters who are just as three-dimensional and heroic as the rich and clever ones (Edie Ochiltree, The Antiquary; Dominie Sampson, Guy Mannering; Norna, The Pirate) It’s a rich celebration of all the shades and variations of human life from queens to beggars, geniuses to idiots, rebels to reconcilers, villains to role models: and Scott loves them all indiscriminately. He’s an egalitarian writer. I could live by his values.

The love-stories are sometimes good, but they are far from the only or the best relationships: the most interesting are often father-daughter ones.

You also get the most fabulous, cinematic descriptions of place and action. These things are just yearning to be turned into huge, spectacular, hilarious screenplays.

If you enjoy classic literature at all you’ll love Scott. He does have a few quirks which make him a bit of a challenge to the uninitiated but if you know what they are they are minor concerns:

1. He has a reputation for being anti-feminist, nationalist and  other unenlightened bad things. This is nonsense. He was shaped by Edinburgh when it was the most enlightened city in the world,* and it shows. He was Edinburgh’s contribution to the early romantic movement, which was also the height of the Enlightenment. Look carefully at the values which are ultimately commended or criticised in the novels and decide for yourselves. They’re more or less the values I try to live my life by.

2. There is often a strange character who belongs to the first chapter to explain how the story came to be discovered: Scott plays with the novel genre, wrapping his narrative in several layers of fictional author and editor. It’s part of the fun: just go with the flow. A plot will start eventually. Once you’ve read a few you’ll realise these early chapters are some of the most delightful bits, where he toys with your sense of reality.

3. The best novels, which are set in Scotland, have quite a lot of Scots dialogue. Keep going: you’ll get used to it. He was writing for a British audience, so he made sure it was comprehensible. And he explains all difficult words in footnotes.

4. They are quite long. And they sometimes start slowly. But you know classic novels do that — and once you’re hooked, reading them is the easiest thing in the world. Someone said to me when they had M.E. the only thing they could do was read Scott’s novels, which I can well imagine. As I say, they’re getting me though my PhD.

Scott was a variable novelist (he wrote 27, for money, increasingly frantically at the end of his life). So start with some good ones. Here are a few. Take your pick:

Guy Mannering: Set in Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh in the 1770s. Lawyers (Scott was a lawyer so they come up a lot!) and gypsies, smuggling, two rather second-rate heroines, but the best characters are the farmer Dandie Dinmont, and the extraordinary Dominie Sampson. Sheer delight: I would prescribe it to anyone who is depressed.

Rob Roy: Gallivanting Highland adventure set in the er.. 1770s?, with by far the best romance starring a tremendous heroine who can translate ancient Greek and ride with hounds, and a superb anti-heroine (Helen Roy) which shows you what happens when all that female strength and talent goes bad. A visit to Glasgow for all fans of the Weege. Don’t hold your breath for Rob Roy, though: he doesn’t appear till waaaay through the book. Just enjoy the mystery!

The Antiquary: Set on the east coast of Scotland in the 1790s, a gentle comedy involving a lot of eccentric male historians, and a girl and a beggar who are far better historians than any of them. Hurrah! Will the French invade?? Or will the ladies in the post office open something scandalous?!

Heart of Midlothian:  Rightly famous. Set in Edinburgh in the err… 1730s? The heroic Jeanie Deans will melt your heart — but there’s a lot of action in the wynds and closes before she comes on scene.

Redgauntlet: This is all about Jacobites in Lancashire in the 1750s. Ideal for fans of Morecambe Bay, mist, spies, and mysterious women in green. It has some very funny bits. They all have some very funny bits.

Old Mortality: I’m not sure you should read this first: I got stuck and put it down the first time. The second time I loved it so much I think it might be my favourite. It’s set in 17thC Scotland with two gorgeous heroes, Morton and Evendale (both in love with the same girl: it has tragic bits…), and two tremendous anti-heroes (Burley the Covenanter and Claverhouse the Jacobite), and these four dance a psychological dance across muir and bog, in and out of castles and battles.

I haven’t read all the others, but I’ve read some supposedly ‘second-rate’ ones and enjoyed every one. The three I wouldn’t  start with — although do read them later — are:

Waverley and Ivanhoe: These two books totally transformed Scottish and English culture. Waverley created the romantic Highlands, and Ivanhoe created Merry England. But they were SO influential that they now read as parodies of themselves: they’re like Horrible Histories. When you do come to read them, as an experienced Scott addict, bear in mind he was the first person to write this stuff. And notice the man of the enlightenment is still there (Rebecca in Ivanhoe is one of his most enlightened characters). Also in Ivanhoe he makes a bold and not wholly successful attempt to write in a Mediaeval idiom. No-one had ever done that before either, and he keeps it up admirably, but there’s something about ‘prithee gentle swain’ that the modern reader just can’t take seriously.

Bride of Lammermoor: For some reason this is the one all English Literature people read, maybe because, being a tragedy, Eng Lit people think it’s his only proper, serious novel. And it’s difficult. The female characters happen to be the particularly flawed ones in this book, so people assume he’s anti-women. Also, there are more really hilarious laugh-out-loud passages in Bride than any other Scott I’ve read, and it makes the denoument heart-rending — but if you’re expecting it to be all deeply serious, like Donizetti’s opera version, it’s a bit peculiar.

You have spent far long reading this blog. Go and read Scott (my friend Fraser has a very smart complete set for sale if you are really confident!) And if you can bear to put it down for a moment, please come back and thank me — because you will!

* I am not just bigging up my own city. It enjoyed this status for about 10 years and then got smug and went off badly!

Love and Slavery: the story of James Grahame

The thing about writing the collective biography of 420 people, is that sometimes the people come back at you out of history and re-write you.

The advocate James Grahame (1790-1842) is one of those who inspires me more than most. An idealistic young scholar with literary aspirations, while at Cambridge University he fell in love. Matilda Robley was the daughter of a Cumbrian slave owner from St John’s-in-the-vale, owner of hundreds of acres of plantation in Jamaica, and thousands of slaves. He abandoned his literary aspirations, trained as an advocate, argued himself out of his abolitionist principles, and in 1813 married her. Her old teacher wrote,

She is by far one of the most charming women I have ever known. Young, beautiful, amiable and accomplished; with a fine fortune. She is going to be married to a Mr Grahame, a young Scotch barrister. I have the greatest reluctance to part with this precious treasure, and can only hope that Mr Grahame is worthy of so much happiness.

Grahame was so moved by the privilege of gaining her that it brought on a religious conversion, which lasted the rest of his life. His faith was described as that of ‘the early Puritans and the Scotch Covenanters; but… sober, elevated, expansive, and free from narrowness and bigotry’. Tragically, Matilda died in 1818, and Grahame was left with his religion, his children, and the wealth. In 1827 he wrote,

My children are proprietors of a ninth share of a West India estate and I have a life-rent in it. Were my children of age, I coud not make one of the negroes free, and could do nothing but appropriate or forego the share of produe the estate yielded. Often I have wished it were in my power to make the slaves free, and thought this barren wish a sufficient tribute to duty. My conscience was quite laid asleep. Like many others, I did not do what I could, because I could not do what I wished. For years past, something more than a fifth part of my income has been derived from the labour of slaves. God forgive me for having so long tainted my store! … Never more shall the price of blood enter my pocket, or help to sustain the lives or augment the enjoyment of those dear children. They sympathize with me cordially. Till we can legally divest ourselves of every share, every shilling of the produce of it is to be devoted to the use of some part of the unhappy race from whose suffering it is derived.

When his children were of age, they gave their shares up.

James Grahame loved deep and loved well, and that love shaped his life and the world around him. That’s the kind of man who comes out of history and rewrites me.

Further reading:
Joseph Quincey, ‘Memoir of James Grahame’ in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, series 3 vol.9 (Boston: Little and Brown 1846)

Over the Hills and Far Away

Never mind the Lake Poets: Beatrix Potter is one of the most evocative and romantic of authors. I mean, look at this!

Over the hills and far away! Your dinner wrapped in a red pocket handkerchief, your clothes (in a style evoking a freer era before railway travel and crinolines) all fresh and neat, the ways parting, the hills blue…

It makes my heart beat faster: it always happens when I go up the Pentlands at the Edinburgh end: from the top of Allermuir you look south, and see the blue hills stretch away, away, ready to be skipped over, to … where?

I looked on a map and found it was Carnwath, so I booked a B&B in Carnwath and on Friday caught the bus to Penicuik and, humming ‘Tom, Tom the Piper’s son’ – or for a change ‘Lilibullero’ (I’ve got the eighteenth century on the brain) danced over the hills and far away.

It began through the woods around Penicuik House (the eighteenth century is pursuing me, I tell you), which dripped with that other current obsession of mine: moss.

 It also dripped with rain. All the way up into the hills I kept thinking it might clear up, but it set in heavier. And heavier. Every time I got my map out it turned slightly more to papier mache, and soon the wind just blew bits of it away each time I got it out and I got well and truly lost.

My navigation descended to, Look! A feature! A kind of low point on the skyline! Let’s head for it and see what we can see… I discovered later this was called Cauldstane Slap, which seemed appropriate.

The thing was, even in the pouring rain, what appeared from far off like the bleakest and most featureless of landscapes, is, under your feet, the most intricate, gorgeous tapestry of bright colours, rich textures and dazzling forms.

It’s like an illuminated manuscript so fine and detailed that from any distance it looks mushy brown: only close up you see the radient emerald, wild red, bright gold, delicate grey-green.

I had swithered as to whether to find someone else to walk with this weekend. I find myself pretty irritating company, but I really wanted to test myself, have a sense of achievement, and not be held back by having to plan a sensible walk, and then hang around while they put their waterproof trousers, or stop for lunch (I’m a snacker-on-the-march), or argue about navigation. As it turned out though, I didn’t have to put up with my own company, because the hills were my company, demanding my endless interest and attention with finding the route, battling the wind and rain, watching my step and finding my way over the pathless ground, and unrolling this stunning, endlessly variegated tapestry of moss, lichen, sedge, grass and heather under my feet. By the end of the walk I felt more chilled out and distracted from all the stuff than I have done for months.

However, I still didn’t know where I was. My map had turned to mush (memo: get plastic map case). I was getting wetter and wetter in a pathless wilderness. But this was the reason I was doing this in the Pentlands and not (say) on Rannoch Moor: I knew reaching civilization would always be within my capabilities. I could see woods and a reservoir, and although I was sure it wasn’t where I wanted to be, I decided I’d just better go for it.

It turned out to be ten miles up the A70, not a good road to walk along, but at least I knew where I was. I headed south about through fields, buggering about delicately in my perpetual fear of a. scaring lambs, b. trampling crops, c. damaging fences, d. committing some other blundering city-dweller transgression, until I reached a minor road which I could identify on my soggy shreds of map. It looped around half West Lothian. I went around three sides of a wind farm which I came to hate with a cordial hatred. I had the Binns and the railway line to Carstairs ahead of me — places definitely in the ‘over the hills and far away’ category. But it did at last bring me to Carnwath.

I’ve never been so glad to arrive at a B&B. They said I was the wettest guest they’d ever had. I’d walked about 25 miles.

SO the next day dawned completely different.

The map although somewhat shredded was dry and solid again. My new boots were a triumph. I was restored with steak pie, sticky toffee pudding, nine hours sleep and full Scottish breakfast, so I set off to do it properly.

The southern end of the Pentlands really are romantic. I didn’t meet a soul in the whole two days, until I got all the way back to West Kip. The featureless wasteland of yesterday formed itself into evocative places: the high-point Craigengar; the Raven’s Cleugh (I’m sure I’ve encountered that in literature? Walter Scott? John Buchan?). Most romantic of all, when I came down Bleak Law (!), the Covenanter’s Grave:

all wreathed in lichen, ‘…covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest…’

Several miles on, a lonely rock formed the next significant feature in the landscape, all harlequinned in white, black and bright green:

 Everything was drenched and soaked and dancing with yesterday’s downpour

Merry with a million fountains

Despite going by a reasonably sensible route, it was still at least 23 miles, or more given that even in the better conditions I faffed amongst low hills that all looked the same. I came over, I think, Cock Law — the placenames just got better and better — and got a sudden view of the Kips and Scald Law and all the familiar Pentland range with the Forth laid out lazily behind, all sunlit and homely-looking. But it was still about six miles to Penicuik, and although for the first time on the walk I was on paths, they seemed a very, very, very long six miles. I became obsessed by the thought that ‘don’t people sometimes do extreme sport things and then SUDDENLY DIE?’ Going back through the woods south of Penicuik I had to keep having little sit-downs on fallen trees, where I pondered whom I should text to tell them my netbook password and to ask them to publish my novels posthumously. After about 50 miles of walking, I was pushing myself. I’d found my limitations.

I hadn’t conquered the Pentlands, and they hadn’t conquered me, but I’d got completely immersed in them, and come out clean and refreshed. It feels amazing. And I’ve been there: I’ve been over the hills and far away.

Remembering Bishop Sandford

Last night I gave a lecture to the Old Edinburgh Club on Daniel Sandford (1766-1830), Bishop of Edinburgh 1805-30. This article is my personal response to that history, which is that the name of Daniel Sandford deserves to be remembered, both by his Church of St John, and by the people of Edinburgh.

Daniel Sandford founded the only congregation in Britain, as far as I can tell, where it was possible to be passionate about the enlightenment, passionate about the gospel, and passionate about Scottish Episcopalianism, all at once. It was hugely popular: his congregation outgrew two buildings in twenty years.

Thanks to this unique theology, Sandford drew the tremendous wealth, talents influence of hundreds of Episcopalians in the New Town into participation in ‘Improvement’ – getting the Enlightenment out of theory and into practice, in the structure of Edinburgh society. Without him, the history of Edinburgh might have been very different. When he died, he was affectionately remembered:

‘By all who venerate wisdom, sanctity and virtue, let this stone be held for ever sacred. In memory of the Right Reverend Daniel Sandford D.D.  In the Scottish Episcopal Communion Bishop of Edinburgh, to record the gratitude of a church, which, to his piety, prudence and meekness, was mainly indebted for its union and prosperity, and of a congregation, which for thirty eight years, he led, by teaching and example, in the way of truth, peace and Godliness, this monumental tablet was erected by the vestry of the Chapel of St. John. Born July 1st 1766 Died January 14th 1830.’

Yet Sandford was forgotten.

He was a peacemaker, seeing good in apparently opposing traditions. He encouraged Evangelicals for their warm, lively faith; but he would not countenance their challenges to official doctrine. He championed distinctively Scottish Episcopal ideas, but he objected to Episcopalian introversion and mysticism: his religion was for everyone. As a result, he was condemned by both sides in the partisan world of eccesiastical history. He has never had a champion – until me!

Sandford was serious-minded and shy in company. So he missed out on the other route to fame taken by his assistants Sydney Smith and E.B. Ramsay, whose witty and frivolous anecdotes kept their books in print and their bon-mots repeated to this day.

Meanwhile, forgetting why he was important, his own church of St John’s carelessly lost him. His memorial in the sanctuary was removed to the baptistry in the 1880s when the sanctuary was enlarged. However, in the 1980s, the baptistry was converted into the church office, and Sandford’s memorial, with its touching epitaph, is now completely invisible.

From inside the church, the top of Sandford’s memorial is just visible in the alcove at the back, below the coat of arms

Sandford is buried just outside St John’s, alongside some of his family. Yet his own modest, white gravestone has weathered into illegiblity.

Sandford’s grave, hidden in a shady corner behind the showy Dean Ramsay Cross

Sandford also founded the Choir of St John’s which is reason enough for me to champion him. I sit in the choir each week staring at the memorial of his successor as Bishop, James Walker, far better known but (in my opinion) far less distinguished.

I’m not sure Sandford would have wanted a big statue or giant cross. But hope that, sometime, the vestry might bring their predecessors’ affecionate memorial tablet back down into the church, and remember the name of their gentle, influential founder.

Robert Downie and the big heart of Regency Edinburgh

200 years ago today, on 8 August 1812, the Caledonian Mercury newspaper noted the arrival of a new face in Edinburgh. They didn’t even know his name, but he must have made an impressive entrance:

He was Robert Downie: he was 41 years old, vastly rich, and he had come home. 

Robert Downie’s father was a farmer and distiller in Spittaldon, half way between Stirling and the Trossachs: perhaps he was one of the moss lairds  who migrated from the Highlands to drain the bog and improve the lands of the Forth Valley. Downie himself undertook a far longer journey to seek his fortune, to India.

Spittaldon, Menteith, Stirlingshire

Most of the Edinburgh New Town residents I have studied who made fortunes in India enjoyed an official appointment in the East India Company, courtesy of the patronage of Henry Dundas. Robert Downie had no such privilege. He went to Calcutta, where private ‘Houses of Agency’ were springing up from the 1780s. They financed ships and plantations, ran banks and insurance, and arranged cargoes and remittances. By 1800 they were so successful that their trade in Bengal eclipsed that of the Company. Downie rose to become a partner in one of these houses, Downie and Maitland, which later metamorphosed into the more well-known Cruttenden, MacKillop and Co.

In 1804, aged 33, He married Mary, 18-year-old daughter of one of the Establishment: Joseph Barnard-Smith, a rising merchant in the East India Company. By the time he returned to Scotland the couple had four daughters, Mary, Georgina, Roberta and Harriet, although Mary died soon after their arrival. 

The Downies settled at no.20 Charlotte Square, where in 1814 Mary had a son, also Robert. The residents of Charlotte Square were amongst the wealthiest in Edinburgh, but were notable for their mixed social backgrounds: William Arbuthnot at no.16 was the son of a failed businessman in Aberdeen. Henry Cockburn at no.14, opposite his friend John Tod at 46, came from solid local landed families, and had risen in the legal profession. Next door to the Downies at no.19, Thomas Allan came from a dynasty of Edinburgh bankers. At no.7, with a longer pedigree but a shorter pocket, the clan chief John Lamont of Lamont was on the point of having to sell up, his ancestral wealth unable to keep pace with these beneficiaries of Scotland’s economic miracle.

Yet this was before the days when Edinburgh turned in on itself and peeked at its neighbours from behind lace curtains. These first inhabitants of Charlotte Square, many of whom had young children, formed a flourishing community characterised by long and happy marriages, an idealistic belief in their ability to  improve their society, and an abundance of good food in informal settings. Picnics in the Pentlands, jaunts to country houses, and suppers at in one another’s parlours form (along with politics and civic engagement) the material of their letters. Downie, the mysterious traveller from another world, had arrived in what appears to be history’s happiest communities.  

Downie threw himself into the Scottish craze for Improvement. Three years after his return, he was chair of the Company which promoted the Telford’s Union Line of the canal from Edinburgh to Glasgow, in opposition to the Town Council who were championing an impractical and circuitous ‘Upper Line’. The Union Line was ultimately successful, and Downie, the major shareholder, gave his name to the street (Downie Place, now a part of Lothian Road) which looked onto the final port in the canal, Port Hopetoun, which came in under a bridge over Semple Street and filled the area between Semple Street and Lothian Road.

The original Union Canal basin facing the Canal Company’s own street, Downie Place, now a section of Lothian Road containing some very useful shops. From John Wood’s ‘Plan of the City of Edinburgh’ (1831)

Robert Downie was a religious man, and his philanthropy suggests a certain greatness of heart. He was a major investor in the Episcopal Chapel of St John’s which was built in 1818 conveniently between his house in Charlotte Square and his Canal site on Lothian Road, and a member of its first Vestry. On his return from India he had bought the Highland estate of Appin from the Marquis of Tweeddale. Thirty years later, the Presbyterian minister of Appin said of him, ‘I do not think that there is a parish in Scotland in which the Episcopalian heritors deserve at the hands of the Establishment more honourable mention’.

St John’s Chapel in 2012: the canal has been superseded as a form of transport by the buses, and the Town Council’s latest transport lark, the trams, are under construction.

Downie had learned Episcopalianism in India, where the Anglican Church predominated. On the mosses of Spittalton he had been brought up a Presbyterian, and one might imagine that he would be eager to erase this lowly past, and remain the mysterious traveller whose history began in India. Yet soon after his return to Scotland he ‘presented to the congregation of Norriestown, an elegant service of four silver communion cups, as a tribute of the regard for that religious establishment, which he attended in his youth.’

Downie went on to enter parliament for the Stirling Burghs, and died in 1841. A shrewd businessman yet generous, open-minded yet committed to his beliefs, travelling the world yet attached to places, Robert Downie was one of the people who made Regency Edinburgh such an exciting place to be.

More information and sources are available on Robert Downie’s page at The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel project website.

Goodbye Bovril Factory

It used to be on my route to school, and then to work. We called it the Bovril Factory, because of the marmite smell of hops which hung over our whole area.

Brewing has been one of the chief industries of the south-west of Edinburgh since at least the sixteenth century. The name ‘Bristo’ (where Edinburgh University now is) comes from ‘Brewster’. The reason the area has also become a centre for the arts is thanks to the profits of brewing: both the McEwan and Usher concert halls were named after the brewers who built them.

Bristo Square and the McEwan Hall, from Layers of Edinburgh

It was McEwan’s company who built the Fountain Brewery, moving out from the now-gentrified Bristo area into a cheaper industrial suburb to the west, with the convenient transport link of the canal. The twentieth-century brewery building was the latest addition to a well-established industrial area, many of whose quirky and beautiful earlier buildings have been preserved. Sharing the Fountain Brewery site was an old Rubber Factory, whose curving profile makes it appear to be built from its own product, instead of brick — an unusual material for Edinburgh, but characteristic of Fountainbridge. It has survived the demolition so far, at last un-dwarfed by its surroundings, and I hope will be preserved.

The rubber factory (left) behind the nibbling dinosaurs which revealed it, and the last and highest part of the Fountain Brewery (right) still mainly intact in July. The foreground is the canal towpath.

Our ‘Bovril Factory’ closed in 2004. Watching its demolition this summer has been endlessly fascinating. This morning, in an Edinburgh Festival downpour, I came past to find a dinosaur pulling the gigantic bovril jar from its shelf:

It’s strangely reminiscent of the McEwans Lager ad where people are pushing giant spheres up endless flights of stairs in the rain. I hope the dinosaur gets a nice refreshing pint at the end of his day.

The photographer Dave Henniker has been recording the demolition, the strange buildings, the fantastically beautiful graffiti, elder and buddleia which has embroidered it all.

I can’t say I’m too bothered about McEwans lager, being a devotee of the rather posher Deuchars IPA (which is still brewed in Edinburgh, just about a mile out further west). But I do miss the smell of the hops: the smell, for me, of home. And I’ll miss this last sublime landmark of Fountainbridge’s industrial history, and so will the jackdaws, starlings, swallows and doves for whom, these last few years this strange derelict iron cliff was also home.

It’s supposed to be becoming hotels, shops, flats, well-kempt trees growing from paved boulevards, flash-flooding in a downpour. I hope it doesn’t. I have a dream of another brewery billionaire coming along: a modern McEwan, creating the Fountain Gardens, green, with great spreading oaks and flowerbeds, lawns where ball-games are allowed, winding paths, fantastic fountains, beehives and birdboxes, little rowing-boats to hire on the canal, a museum of Fountainbridge history in the middle … Well, one can dream. But if there are any billionaires out there, I know the perfect curator for the museum…

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Layers of Edinburgh (the illustrated map)

Perfection and Freedom: high enlightenment in the Edinburgh New Town

I will give a half-hour talk this Sunday, 26 June, at 5pm in St John’s Church, Princes Street. Admittance is free and wine will be served in return for donations.

In August 1792, as revolutionary crowds stormed the Tuileries and
France became a republic, the Reverend Daniel Sandford arrived in the
New Town from Oxford University, and advertised for pupils ‘whose
education in the Classics he will superintend, paying particular
attention to the Grammar and Pronunciation of the English Language.’
In 1818, now Bishop of Edinburgh, Sandford built St John’s Church,
where he ministered until his death in 1830. His ideology seems
strange to us now, and was old-fashioned even to early Victorians. Yet
his unique message, which married gospel truth with enlightenment
optimism, made him an important role model and inspiration to build a
better world to his influential New Town congregation.

This half-hour talk, first given at the Modern British History Network Conference, takes you back 200 years into the mindset which shaped the architecture and liturgy of our church. It will be followed by a short time for discussion, and at 6pm by a chance to experience that architecture and liturgy, at choral evensong.

Oddly Gothick

A history post rather than an art one for a change. St Paul’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh (pandgchurch.org.uk) used to be two churches — you can probably guess what they were called. After the small congregation of St George’s moved across the road into the big building of St Paul’s, their little chapel was later demolished. I’ve finally worked out where on York Place it used to be: its here, where the casino is! But the Rectory at no.7, which adjoined it on the left and was built at the same time, survived. It looks like a classical georgian house until you look closely. There are ‘Gothick’ crenellations on the roof, ‘Gothick’ clustered columns round the door, and ‘Gothic’ cruciform arrowslits (!) on either side of the second floor windows. As an attempt at making a building look Mediaeval it is not, to our eyes, a great success, with its round arches and its regular rectangular windows. But in 1794 there wasn’t anything better around.

A demolished architectural mishmash of a chapel might seem a bit of a footnote in cultural history, except that the Rector for whom it was built, Alexander Cleeve, was the tutor of Walter Scott, who had just begun to practice as an advocate when St George’s was built. Whereas Edinburgh Gothic went off in a scholarly direction, Scott ran away with the fantasy to weave wonderful works of fiction, and a house, Abbotsford:

(I hope Travel Destination Pictures will forgive my borrowing their picture if I tell you that they have this and lots of other lovely photos here.)

In Abbotsford, Scott invented the style known as ‘Scottish Baronial’ which was used to design pretty much every tenement in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the whole of the nineteenth century. Alexander Cleeve, sticking crenellations, clusterings and cruciforms onto his Georgian House, might have a lot to answer for!

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The Christmas Falcon

 
It’s Christmas Eve, 1814, and the big house of Falcon Hall in Edinburgh is wrapped in snow and night. In the kitchen, the grumbling cook is preparing Christmas dinner when a mysterious child with a falcon on her shoulder comes to help him…

The Falcon Christmas is based on the true stories of Falcon Hall in Morningside, Edinburgh, and of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It is a 6000-word story hidden inside a Christmas card which I wrote, illustrated and individually produced about half a mile from the place where the story is set.

The ideas for The Christmas Falcon came from various sources. There was research for my PhD on the Falconars of Falcon Hall and on dinner parties in the New Town of Edinburgh. There was the accidental discovery that Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge was based on a real person. And there was watching The Muppet Christmas Carol once too often. I did re-read Charles Dickens’ original version when writing my story, and discovered that Kermit and company stuck pretty closely to it.

I love that sort of story, the sort where the ingredients of snow, food, carols, historical costumes, children, animals, and a huge dose of good will to all, are mixed together into a delicious warming Christmas pudding of escapism, ideal for reading curled up by a fire with a glass of mulled wine. It’s just the right length for one of those Christmas gaps, while you’re waiting for the pudding to be done, or for the cousins to arrive, or for the long Christmas Eve evening before Midnight Mass.

But I also like stories that teach you stuff, and the Christmas Falcon, while entirely fictitious in itself, has a lot of history behind it. At the end of the ribbon-bound storybook inside the card, there’s a link to a page on my website with the historical background to the story, which I hope both Edinburgh and Dickens fans will find interesting. There’s also a snatch of poetry from one of my favourite poets, the Scottish Renaissance writer William Dunbar, of whom I hope you will hear more from me.


To be honest, the most arduous part of producing The Christmas Falcon turned out to be sticking on the glitter. But it’s worth it, because it will bring my William-Blake-y illustration to life so delightfully when it’s on your mantlepiece with fairy lights or candles around it. And as I stick it on, I think of you opening the door to the cousins, or arriving at Midnight Mass, or serving the pudding, with a warm heart, and slightly glittery.

You can buy The Christmas Falcon on Etsy or Folksy. If you have read The Christmas Falcon I would be delighted if you would take the time to review it using the comments box below. And please follow me on facebook or sign up for email updates on my website to hear about my future projects.