St Michael’s Longstanton: a Gothic Revival role model

I read about St Michael’s Longstanton on Friday, and found myself in the next Cambridgeshire village on Sunday. And the sun was out. And there was moss! I wouldn’t like to discourage Serendipity by ignoring such opportunities presented by her to test my ability to explain the principles of gothic revival. There’s a great deal I don’t say in this very short summary, but I hope it sparks your interest.

West end of St Michael’s Longstanton, with its ancient well and churchyard wall.

St Michael’s is important in the gothic revival because in about 1842 the Cambridge Camden Society’s journal The Ecclesiologist identified it as perfectly embodying the principles of gothic architecture as set out by Pugin in the ideal form for small village churches — such as were required in countless colonial settlements. As a result, St Michaelses popped up all around the world.

What gives a gothic building away is the windows: the revivalists called it the Pointed style. They divided the gothic into three phases, easily identifiable by the window tracery: 
  • early, with simple tracery, regarded as full of energy but underdeveloped
  • middle, decorated or flamboyant, regarded as the high-point of the style
  • late or perpendicular, in which the vertical bars go all the way to the top, regarded as degenerate and enervated

The early thirteenth-century St Michael’s was built in the decorated style which the Ecclesiologists liked best.

Decorated tracery in St Michael’s nave. The pulpit and lectern are on either side of the nave, at its junction with the chancel.

Whereas the earliest gothic revivalists, such as the writers of gothic novels in the late eighteenth century, were interested in the romantic and sublime possibilities of the appearance of gothic decoration, Pugin and the Ecclesiologists were interested in structure. St Michael’s fits Pugin’s principles of architectural authenticity. Firstly, he appearance of the building should show:

  1. how it is engineered
  2. what materials it is made of. 

There may be plenty of decorative carving and painting, but no veneers or, for example, a plaster ceiling imitating a stone vault, or sandstone pillars veneered with wood painted to look like marble.

Secondly, carved decoration is not gratuitous but ornaments structural features, such as the window tracery, or the alternating rounded and squared pillar heads below: it is decorated construction, not constructed decoration. Pugin observed that this was the case for all gothic decoration. A larger building than St Michael’s, such as a cathedral, had a more complex structure and therefore more opportunity for ornament: foliated pinnacles, for example, add important weight to a flying buttress, while grotesque gargoyles are decorated drainpipes.

St Michael’s is an honest building: you can see its pillars and arches holding up the roof, decorated pillar and window heads, wooden ceiling, tiled floor, stone walls, and thatched roof.

What made St Michael’s really ideal for the Ecclesiologists, however, was that it incorporated, in pocket-sized form, all the features they considered essential for the proper liturgical ordering of a church. For Christians of the Enlightenment it was the intellectual content of worship which was important, if the sermon argued the truth persuasively and the prayers expressed the right petitions, worship could take place in any convenient hall. But for Christians influenced by the Romantic movement, this was too dry. As physical, emotional beings, people needed to worship in sensory spaces which appealed directly to their feelings and physically embodied their spiritual principles. The shape of the space was therefore very important. They made a list which included such items as:

  1. a clearly separated nave and the chancel, with more ornament in the chancel
  2. a porch to the south
  3. a bell tower suitable to the scale of the church
  4. three steps up to the altar
  5. an east window with three lights, to represent the Trinity

St Michael’s had all these and many other essential liturgical details which made it the perfect model of a small church. It was copied all around the world. 

St Michael’s has a south-facing porch, bell tower, clear separation of (larger) nave and chancel (in the foreground), and buttresses supporting the walls.

The modern visitor’s eye might be more likely to be caught by the imposing key you borrow to get in, which goes in and turns the opposite way to modern keys, and the ancient, perhaps pagan, well, with its stone cross cut into the rear wall: the local tradition is babies can only be baptised when the morning sun shines from the east through the cross and into the well:

But if you visit St Michael’s — or any church built in the Medieval thirteenth century, or the Victorian 1840s, have a look for Pugin and the Ecclesiologists’ principles of gothic: visible engineering and materials, ornamented structure rather than constructed ornament, and liturgical ordering in the architecture. For them, this wasn’t just a pretty, interesting, or convenient building, it was, like the faith it was built to house, intended to be a true one.

George Gilbert Scott and the Scottish Episcopal Church

I’m four days in to a new project looking at the neo-gothic architect George Gilbert Scott and the Scottish Episcopal Church. This 16-month project is part of a larger Leverhume-funed one led by Professor Sam McKinstry at University of West of Scotland, investigating Gilbert Scott’s highly-successful business networks.

George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was the leading neo-gothic architect of his day in terms of the scale of his practice, successfully employing a large number of people who worked in a ‘house style’. You can find out easily about Gilbert Scott, but history has often judged him harshly. It was an unfortunate feature of the architects, musicians and theologians of the nineteenth-century church (as in wider culture) that their high sense of drive and progress necessitated looking down upon their immediate predecessors, and even on their own earlier work. Their biographies and autobiographies bequeathed this patronising attitude to historians, who only recently have begun to learn that deficiencies based on what they couldn’t have known yet might be less important than their insights and wisdom which were subsequently forgotten. I don’t know a great deal about gothic revival architecture so ask me again what I think of Gilbert Scott’s architecture in a few weeks.

George Gilbert Scott designed six Scottish Episcopal Churches:
1855 St Paul’s Dundee
1858 St Cuthbert’s Hawick and St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
1861 St James the Less, Leith
1871 St Mary’s Glasgow
1876 St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh.
He also designed or revised elements of the Episcopal Churches in St Andrew’s and Kilmarnock and the clergy training college at Glenalmond, and designed memorials for two of the most famous Victorian Episcopalians, Dean Ramsay and Bishop Forbes.

This was a motley mixture. The churches in Dundee, Leith and Glasgow were the original Episcopal congregations of those places, thrown out of their parish churches when Presbyterianism was established in 1689. Hawick and Broughty Ferry were both new missions in towns that had no Episcopal congregation. The Dundee and Glasgow churches were later raised to Cathedral status, but only St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh was actually designed as a Cathedral, a new foundation in a small city already well-stocked with large Episcopal Churches.

The Duke of Buccleuch appears to have been an important link between the Episcopal Church and Gilbert Scott, with whom he shared a surname. Buccleuch commissioned Gilbert Scott to provide plans for a chapel at Drumlanrig Castle: these were not executed although a chapel was opened in 1850. Buccleuch appears to have funded the mission at Hawick, and laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Edinburgh.

The bishops of the dioceses, Forbes of Brechin, Terrot of Edinburgh and Trower of Glasgow, were largely responsible for instigating the projects and in three cases were commissioning churches for their own use. They were a mixture of Scottish and English, High and Broad church influences.

Gilbert Scott, whose early Evangelicalism mellowed into Broad Anglicanism, appears to have followed a similar spiritual path to Bishop Terrot, as several clergy did who, like Terrot, began their career under Bishop Sandford of Edinburgh. It is no surprise that, when spending a summer at Wrotham in Kent, the Gilbert Scotts formed a warm friendship with the local rector and his wife — Charles Lane, Sandford’s former curate, who had married the bishop’s clever daughter Frances. Gilbert Scott, like Sandford and his followers, were well-disposed towards the High Church although they were not part of it, admiring its combination of missionary zeal, social concern, and passion for historical tradition, and he gained his first Scottish commission from the Episcopal Churches first, and for a long time only, Tractarian bishop Forbes.

My hope is that investigating the contacts and networks which led to the construction of these churches will provide an insight into the importance of Gilbert Scott’s own spirituality in his highly successful business — which will involve unearthing a great deal of Episcopalian history along the way.

Please do get in touch with me if you have a particular interest in Gilbert Scott or in these churches, which I’m certainly hoping to contact and visit in the course of the year, and follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris for future updates.

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”
 

Writing a PhD Thesis in LaTeX

So, you’re starting your history thesis and you’re having a look at some other recent ones to get a sense of how they’re done. And one thing that strikes you is how awful they look, with that dreary Word Document functionality. But when you look at your big sister’s physics thesis, and your boyfriend’s computing thesis, they’re all beautifully typeset with real ligatures and perfect spacing as if it’s just yearning to be hard-bound, gold-embossed and shelved in a mahogany library with busts of Roman Emperors and models of molecules on the cases. And you think, why can’t mine look like that? I’m the artist around here: MY thesis should look like a work of art.

And you know why it is: it’s because they did it in LaTeX. They just typed it into a text editor, so even when they have an 80,000-word thesis the file is less than a megabite and loads instantly. All their references are handled automatically without fancy commercial software. They can put in references to figures, cross-references, indexes, tables of contents that simply update as they move things around (maybe Word can do these things, I don’t know, but it involves advanced training, and at the end of the day will still look like a document typed in Word).

But their thesis is in that Century Schoolbook font, and uses those Harvard references, and your history thesis needs footnotes and primary and secondary sources and to look, well, like a history book. How do you write a history thesis in LaTeX? Well, I thought, there’s only one way to find out.

Now, I’m not going to tell you how to install LaTeX. There are lots of sites out there that do that. And unless you are braver and cleverer than me, you won’t embark on this unless you have a physics/ computing/ engineering pal getting you started and giving you some tech support. You may also need to install an extra module or two, which I found a bit traumatic, but again, there are instructions out there on how to do this.

So I’m going to assume you’ve got LaTeX successfully installed and are not frightened by a bit of code. So, let’s make a folder on our computer called thesis, put all the following files into it, and write our thesis!

But first, we need to sort those references out. A style called ‘verbose’ gets us pretty close to what Stirling university requires but it needs to be tweaked. My kind friend Rob Hague did this for me. You need to create a file in your new folder called biblatex.cfg, and put the following mystery code into it:

% To fix sort ordering, add a “sorttitle” (or “sortname”) field to the offending entries.

ProvidesFile{biblatex.cfg}

% Separate units with , rather than .
renewcommand{newunitpunct}{addcommaspace}

% Format publisher as (City: Name, year)
renewbibmacro*{publisher+location+date}{%
  printtext[parens]{% ADDED
  printlist{location}%
  setunit*{addcolonspace}%
  printlist{publisher}%
  setunit*{addcommaspace}%
  usebibmacro{date}%
  }nopunct%
  newunit}

% Remove “In:”
renewbibmacro{in:}{%
  ifentrytype{article}{}{%
  printtext{bibstring{in}space}}}

% Title in single quotes
DeclareFieldFormat[article,incollection]{title}{`#1’isdot}

% Omit pp in articles
DeclareFieldFormat[article]{pages}{#1}

DefineBibliographyStrings{english}{%
  byeditor = {ed.},
  urlseen = {accessed}
}

endinput

Don’t ask me how this works, but it does. Say thanks to Rob @robhague.

Now, you need to do some reading and build a bibliography. Create a file called book.bib and put in each thing you read as an entry, like this:

@unpublished{ ForbesWletters,
    keywords = “manuscript”,
    author = “William Forbes”,
    title = “Letters of Forbes of Pitsligo”,
    note = “NLS Acc.4796, Acc.12092”}

@book{ AlisonA1820ii,
    keywords = “primary”,
    author = “Archibald Alison”,
    title = “Sermons, Chiefly on Particular Occasions”,
    shorttitle = “Sermons”,
    publisher = “Archibald Constable”,
    address = “Edinburgh”,
    volume = “2”,
    year = “1814”}

@article{ BlackJ88,
    keywords = “secondary”,
    author = “Jeremy Black”,
    title = “The Tory View of British Foreign Policy”,
    sorttitle = “Tory View of British Foreign Policy”,
    shorttitle = “Tory View”,
    journal = “Historical Journal”,
    number = “31”,
    year = “1988”,
    pages = “469-477”}

@incollection{ BurnsR93,
    keywords = “secondary”,
    author = “R.A. Burns”,
    title = “A Hanoverian Legacy? Diocesan Reform in the Church of England c.1800-1833”,
    sorttitle = “Hanoverian Legacy? Diocesan Reform in the Church of England c.1800-1833”,
    shorttitle = “Diocesan Reform”,
    booktitle = “The Church of England c.1689-c.1833: from Toleration to Tractarianism”,
    editor = “J. Walsh, C. Haydon and S. Taylor”,
    pages = “265-282”,
    publisher = “Cambridge University Press”,
    address = “Cambridge”,
    year = “1993”}

@phdthesis {GordonG79,
    keywords = “secondary”,
      author = “George Gordon”,
      title = “The Status Areas of Edinburgh: a historical analysis”,
      sorttitle = “Status Areas of Edinburgh: a historical analysis”,
      shorttitle = “Status Areas”,
      school = “Edinburgh University”,
      year = “1979”}

@online{ HarrisE13,
    keywords = “secondary”,
    author = “Eleanor M Harris”,
    title = “Writing a History PhD in LaTeX”,
    url = “http://eleanormharris.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/writing-phd-thesis-in-latex.html”,
    urldate = “2013-10-12”}

I hope that’s fairly self-explanatory. Each entry begins with its type, and a unique identifier you’ll use to cite it (this can be anything but I find surname, initial, year is handy). The ‘shorttitle’ field is for when you cite something multiple times: the first footnote you want the full detail, but for subsequent ones you just want ‘Black, Tory View, p.473’. The ‘sorttitle’ is so that, in your bibliography, when you cite five works all by R.A. Burns, it alphabetises them correctly ignoring ‘The’ and ‘A’. Clever eh?

There are all kinds of different entry types and possible fields: there’s a complete list at http://www.math.upenn.edu/tex_docs/latex/biblatex/biblatex.pdf.

So, you’ve read a pile of books and manuscripts and it’s time to get writing. You go back to your directory, and create a second file called thesis.tex, and you put this template into it:

documentclass[a4paper]{book}

% This sets the margins to sensible dimensions

setlength{oddsidemargin}{0.25in}
setlength{evensidemargin}{0.25in}
setlength{topmargin}{0in}
setlength{headheight}{0in}
setlength{headsep}{0in}
setlength{marginparsep}{0pt}
setlength{marginparwidth}{0pt}
setlength{textwidth}{5.75in}
setlength{textheight}{9.75in}
setlength{footskip}{0.75in}

pagestyle{plain}

% This lets you put in pictures.

usepackage{graphicx}

% this allows you to have table cells with little paragraphs in.

usepackage{array}
newcolumntype{L}[1]{>{raggedrightletnewline\arraybackslashhspace{0pt}}m{#1}}

% This enables the bibliography, tells it to use the ‘verbose’ style of footnoting, sets the title of the bibliography, and tells it where to find the file (we called it ‘book’).

usepackage[style=verbose,natbib=true]{biblatex}
defbibheading{bibliography}{chapter*{Bibliography}}
bibliography{book}

% This one-and-a-half spaces it, which looks much nicer than double-spaced.

renewcommand{baselinestretch}{1.5}

% OK I’ve forgotten what this does. I think it was a failed attempt to get the page numbering of the pdf file to line up with the pages in the document so my clickable contents page wasn’t de-synched by the ‘front matter’. If you understand that and know how to make it work, I’d love to know!

usepackage[plainpages=false,pdfpagelabels]{hyperref}

% This means the font looks like a history book not an old science textbook. And it’s so much nicer than Times New Roman.

usepackage{palatino}

% All that preceding stuff is the header. You can ignore it. Now, five, four, three, two, one…

begin{document}

title{Put Your Thesis Title Here}
author{Put Your Name Here}

begin{titlepage}

begin{center}

~

vspace{5cm}

Huge{Put Your Thesis Title Here}

vspace{2cm}

LARGE{Put Your Name Here}

vfill

large Department of History and Politics\
large School of Arts and Humanities \
large University of Stirling

vspace{1cm}

large A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

vspace{1cm}

Supervised by Name Your Supervisor

end{center}

end{titlepage}

~

vspace{10cm}

begin{center}

large Put Date of Submission Here

vspace{3cm}

large I, Your Name declare that this thesis has been composed by me and that the work which it embodies is my work and has not been included in another thesis.

end{center}

clearpage

section*{Acknowledgements}

Put your acknowledgements here

clearpage

section*{Abstract}

Put your abstract here

pagenumbering{alph}

maketitle

pagenumbering{roman}

tableofcontents

clearpage

listoffigures

clearpage

listoftables

clearpage

pagenumbering{arabic}

Put your thesis here!!

clearpage

addcontentsline{toc}{chapter}{Bibliography}

nocite{*}

printbibheading

noindent textbf{Abbreviations:}\
NRS National Records of Scotland\
NLS National Library of Scotland

printbibliography[keyword=manuscript, heading=subbibliography, title={Manuscripts}]

printbibliography[keyword=primary, heading=subbibliography, title={Primary Sources}]

printbibliography[keyword=secondary, heading=subbibliography, title={Secondary Sources}]

end{document}

Good heavens!

Actually, from this point it gets a lot easier, because now you’ve got all that code set you can completely forget all about it and watch your thesis grow. Here is a little sample:

chapter{Name of Chapter}

label{firstparagraph} The chapter headings are formatted as above, while the normal text of the thesis is just like this: normal text. To begin a new paragraph we simply press enter twice.

Look, a new paragraph. We can add a footnote.footnote{This text will appear as a footnote} However, more often we want to cite our wonderful bibliography.autocite[83]{GordonG79} Sometimes we want to cite several bibliography items in one footnote.footnote{cite{HarrisE13}; cite[268]{BurnsR93}.} I always miss at least one curly bracket from these footnotes, causing the LaTeX to break when I compile it.

section{Futher Excitements}

We may want to divide our chapter into sections which we can do like this. You can divide your section into subsections if you like. We can easily make text emph{italic} or textbf{bold}. We may also want to add a figure (Fig.~ref{fig:tree}). I always miss the final bracket off that figure-citing command. The filename (tree, on the line beginning `includegraphics’) should correspond to a file (tree.jpg) in your thesis directory, with its file extension omitted.

begin{figure}[!htbp]
begin{center}
includegraphics[width=15cm]{tree}
end{center}
caption[A Tree (this is the text that appears in the list of tables)]{A tree. This is the caption that goes under the picture. It’s a good place to sneak in a lot of additional information without adding to the wordcount.footnote{A caption can also have a footnote.}}
label{fig:tree}
end{figure}

The `label’ command is very handy as it lets you do cross-references. So the label ‘tree’ in the figure lets us refer to the figure in the text. If we added a new figure before it, it would update itself from Fig.1 to Fig.2. Also did you notice that at the beginning of our chapter there was a label (p.~pageref{firstparagraph})? Oh, look, we’ve just cross-referenced to it! We can put labels anywhere we want to cross-reference to.

begin{table}[!htbp]
begin{center}
begin{tabular}{| l r r r |}
hline
textbf{Region} & textbf{Women} & textbf{Men} & textbf{Total}\
Highland & 6  & 5 & 11\
North-east & 6 & 8 & 14\
Central Belt & 11 & 11 & 22\
Borders & 7 & 4 & 11\
Rest of UK & 11 & 5 & 16\
textbf{Total} & 41 & 33 & 74\
hline
end{tabular}
end{center}
caption[Location of landowning families in Charlotte Chapel]{Location of landowning families in Charlotte Chapel.}
label{tab:landowners}
end{table}

We may also want a table. Table~ref{tab:landowners} shows a dull one from my thesis. The syntax is a bit dazzling but quite simple: separate each cell of the table with an ampersand, and end each line with two backslashes.  The code in the line:

verb1begin{tabular}{| l r r r |}1

noindent means draw a vertical line, then make four columns, one aligned left and three aligned right, then draw another vertical line. (noindent means we aren’t really beginning a new paragraph, just carrying on the same one)

begin{quote}
Sometimes we want to quote a snatch of verse\
Or an overly long quote which of course is worse,
end{quote}

noindent and in this case, too, noindent is handy afterwards.

So let’s try making a document. Copy the above section of code, and replace the words ‘put your thesis here’ in your thesis.tex template. Then run the following commands:

pdflatex thesis.tex
bibtex thesis.aux
pdflatex thesis.tex
pdflatex thesis.tex

You should now have a file called thesis.pdf. Have a look.

Running all those commands is a bit tiresome, especially as sometimes an error generates a corrupt .aux file which you have to delete. The thing to do is create a little file called make.txt containing this:

#!/bin/sh
rm thesis.aux
pdflatex thesis.tex
bibtex thesis.aux
pdflatex thesis.tex
pdflatex thesis.tex

Change the mode of this file to executable (ask your geek friend…), and then instead of typing all those commands you can just type ./make.txt and away it goes. Once you have a good, long thesis with lots of images and footnotes, you can go away and have a coffee at this point while it compiles, and pretend you are a proper computer programmer, except that you are programming beautifully typeset art. 

Once my thesis is online I shall link to it here, as a proper sample. But meanwhile, go and have a go!

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)

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.

Edinburgh Architecture

Yesterday I went to hear the wonderful Paul O’Keaffe deliver the first of John Ruskin’s Edinburgh Lectures as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, a wonderful and often hilarious tour de force of insight and irreverence as he slates the famous Edinburgh New Town to the men and women who built it, and teaches them instead an appreciation of his favourite Gothic architecture:

“Gather a branch from any of the trees or flowers to which the earth owes its principal beauty. You will find that every one of its leaves is terminated, more or less, in the form of the pointed arch; and to that form owes its grace and character. I will take, for instance, a spray of the tree which so gracefully adorns your Scottish glens and crags—there is no lovelier in the world—the common ash. Here (fig.4) is a sketch of the clusters of leaves which form the extremity of one of its young shoots. Observe, they spring from the stalk precisely as a Gothic vaulted roof springs, each stalk representing a rib of the roof, and the leaves its crossing stones; and the beauty of each of those leaves is altogether owing to its terminating in the Gothic form, the pointed arch. Now do you think you would have liked your ash trees as well, if Nature had taught them Greek, and shown them how to grow according to the received Attic architectural rules of right? I will try you. Here is a cluster of ash leaves, which I have grown expressly for you on Greek principles (fig. 6). How do you like it?”

I have now got Ruskin Spectacles on as I walk around Festival Edinburgh. Today the new entrance to Waverley Station was opened. Ruskin described it precisely:


Well, but, you will answer, you cannot feel interested in architecture: you do not care about it, and cannot care about it. I know you cannot. About such architecture as is built nowadays, no mortal ever did or could care. You all know the kind of window which you usually build in Edinburgh: here is an example of the head of one: a massy lintel of a single stone, laid across from side to side, with bold square-cut jambs—in fact, the simplest form it is possible to build. It is by no means a bad form; on the contrary, it is very manly and vigorous, and has a certain dignity in its utter refusal of ornament. But I cannot say it is entertaining. How many windows precisely of this form do you suppose there are in the New Town of Edinburgh? And your decorations are just as monotonous as your simplicities. How many Corinthian and Doric columns do you think there are in your banks, and post-offices, institutions, and I know not what else, one exactly like another?—and yet you expect to be interested!

And then there is this description of how we put up a new building which reminded me irresistibly of my church’s proposed ‘development’, which will remove my favourite suntrap terrace in Edinburgh and replace it with an oversized porch at a cost out of all proportion to any other church activity:

In your public capacities, as bank directors, and charity overseers, and administrators of this and that other undertaking or institution, you cannot express your feelings at all. You form committees to decide upon the style of the new building, and as you have never been in the habit of trusting to your own taste in such matters, you inquire who is the most celebrated, that is to say, the most employed, architect of the day. And you send for the great Mr. Blank, and the Great Blank sends you a plan of a great long marble box with half-a-dozen pillars at one end of it, and the same at the other; and you look at the Great Blank’s great plan in a grave manner, and you dare say it will be very handsome; and you ask the Great Blank what sort of a blank check must be filled up before the great plan can be realized; and you subscribe in a generous “burst of confidence” whatever is wanted; and when it is all done, and the great white marble box is set up in your streets, you contemplate it, not knowing what to make of it exactly, but hoping it is all right; and then there is a dinner given to the Great Blank, and the morning papers say that the new and handsome building, erected by the great Mr. Blank, is one of Mr. Blank’s happiest efforts, and reflects the greatest credit upon the intelligent inhabitants of the city of so-and-so; and the building keeps the rain out as well as another, and you remain in a placid state of impoverished satisfaction therewith; but as for having any real pleasure out of it, you never hoped for such a thing. If you really make up a party of pleasure, and get rid of the forms and fashion of public propriety for an hour or two, where do you go for it? Where do you go to eat strawberries and cream? To Roslin Chapel, I believe; not to the portico of the last-built institution.

There are several buildings in Edinburgh, built between perhaps 1870 and 1940 – the National Portrait Gallery, the war memorial chapel in Edinburgh Castle and Fairmilehead Parish Church for example — which I’m sure were fairly directly inspired by the Ruskin mindset. Ruskin has his cons as well as his pros — he talks some right rubbish sometimes. But I wouldn’t mind if the current architects of Edinburgh were a little more inspired by his nature-inspired, anti-pretentious, thinking.

I once thought his ‘seven lamps’ of architecture a mantra worth committing to memory: Truth, beauty, power, memory, sacrifice, obedience, life. There’s a test for soundness in a building — or a person!

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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