Dragons, Nuns, and the ATC

February 19, 2008

History can vanish in an instant. Does it matter ?

Walking to the Royal Observatory from my house I start along Lover’s Loan. Where it ends, there is a strange pillar topped by a winged dragon. At the weekend I read that this is not a dragon, or a gryphon, but a wyvern. The pillar is a tiny saved piece of the grand house that stood here for centuries before the ground was washed over by a sea of Victorian villas. I also read that its matching twin is further along Grange Loan, so on the walk home I diverted and found it. The house was scrubbed from the surface of the earth in 1936, apart from the wyvern pillars. The once powerful families that owned the house – the Dicks and the Lauders – still have a ghostly presence in the names of streets. Nothing beside remains.

So thats the Grange. Further north, where I live, is Sciennes, pronounced “Sheens”. I had long heard that this is a corruption of “St Catherine of Siena”, the name of a convent founded after the Battle of Flodden. Like Grange House, it is now utterly vanished apart from the muffled resonance of place names. My weekend reading however told me that the convent was commemorated at 16 St Catherine’s Place, so I took another arc to look for this. There was nothing on the street, nothing on the side of the house. Then, as I peered along the driveway, I saw it – an eighteen inch plaque on a rock in the middle of the garden. I didn’t feel bold enough to walk into somebody else’s garden, so I don’t know what it says.

After a brief stay at home, I walked in to Old College, where the Principal was hosting a reception for all the boys and girls who worked so hard on our submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. From there I kinda drifted to the Royal Oak, and finally, late at night and somewhat stoatered, found myself buying a bag of chips at Luciano’s, opposite the Dick Vet School. Until a few years ago, Luciano’s, in an astonishing five hundred year chain of unbroken memory from the Battle of Flodden to Blair’s Britain, was called the Siena Fish Bar. Then some random guy buys it up, thinks huh, dumb name, and crunch – history snapped.

Some days, working at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill I can feel the history oozing out of the stones. The nightmare scenario is that if the ATC reduces in half, it becomes unviable and closes anyway; then the University can’t afford to keep a medium sized astronomy research group on a large ancient site, and finally we all get shifted down to Kings Buildings. History snapped again.

By the way, it ain’t happening.

Spitting on Authority

December 22, 2010

One should be careful when making assumptions about religious divisions. In the High Street, just uphill from St Giles Cathedral, is the shape of a heart, laid out in cobblestones, known as the Heart of Midlothian. Every time I walk past it has several gobbets of spit in it. If I am accompanied by a puzzled visitor, I will mutter that I think Catholics spit on it because it is a symbol of Protestantism. Or possibly the other way round. Not sure. But I think thats what I heard somewhere. English visitors like hearing this because it reconfirms their prejudice that Scotland is still crippled with sectarian division, whereas in England all that nonsense has withered away.

Now, reading Edinburgh, A History of the City by Michael Fry, I find that the real truth is that the Heart is a symbol of class war, not religious struggle. In olden times, this was the site of the Tollbooth, a bizarre building that combined an actual tollbooth, sittings of the mediaeval parliament, and down below street level, the city prison. The prison floor was a large open plan affair, with prisoners chained to a long bar running the length of the room. In the middle however, was a square box of plate iron, in which was incarcerated whoever was currently condemned to die. It was this grim cage that was known as the Heart of Midlothian. This building, ugly in spirit and fact, was finally torn down in 1817, and the cobbled heart left to mark the spot. Since then, the lower citizens of Edinburgh have been spitting on the heart as a symbol of authority and repression. Walk from there down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and you will find a pub called The Last Drop. Yup, thats where the scaffold was. Grim sense of humour, the Scots.

When the Tollbooth was torn down, Walter Scott took away the door and kept it in his house at Abbbotsford. A year later, he published his famous novel, The Heart of Midlothian. The story is about a family of Covenanters. The father, Davie Deans, gets hot under the collar about religious affairs, and fights his corner. Daughter number 1, Effie, turns away to a life of secular sin. Daughter number 2, Jeanie Deans, also turns away from theological dispute, but in calm serenity.

The most famous part of the book however relates a true story of Edinburgh history – the Porteous riot. in 1736, Captain Porteous was condemned to death for ordering his soldiers to fire on a crowd attending a hanging. Then news came from London that Captain Porteous was to be reprieved. At this time, the Act of Union was shall we say not uniformly popular with ordinary Scots, and this was seen as an insult and injustice by a remote power. An angry mob stormed the Tollbooth, dragged Porteous out, carried him down to the Grassmarket, and hanged him. This famous story, and Scott’s re-telling, must have cemented the feelings of bitterness and injustice connected with the Tollbooth.

Wind forward a hundred and ninety years, and time has almost erased the memory in the stone tape. I am not the only inhabitant of Edinburgh who is vague about that be-spittled symbol. If you stop most people passing the Heart and ask why people spit in it, they will simply say “Err .. dunno, its a tradition”. Check out this wee YouTube documenetary-ette .  Or they are Hibs supporters, who have now taken the Heart of Midlothian as a symbol of the rival football team of that same name. Of course that team division reflects a traditional sectarian split, but thats almost gone too – somebody will probably tell me what fraction of the Hibs team are not Catholics.

It can be sad when the traces of history fade. I wrote here about my favourite chip shop unknowingly commemorating the widows of Flodden, until it changed its name, and a six hundred year link was snapped. But maybe, where a sense of history is still re-inforcing bitterness and division, it is better to forget.

Beat Pilgrimage

March 3, 2009

I love the way history soaks into the streets of a town. Most of the time it leaves nothing more than a slightly coloured stain and you walk past, unknowing. Sometimes there is a hidden plaque.  Sometimes you know there were shattering events, but the traces are lost. I used to walk round the streets of East London trying to imagine the Cable Street riots.

We came back from a Sunday stroll to find two men on the kerb, clutching a battered red paperback, staring at our anonymous rented house. Oh, they said, do you live here ? Do you know who lived here in the sixties ? Lew Welch.

It turns out they were on a kind of Beat Poet pilgrimage. Lew Welch was part of the 1960s “San Francisco Renaissance”, was friends with Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and was apparently “Dave Swain” in Kerouac’s “On the Road”. He finished high school in Palo Alto and lived for many years in our house. He had success for a few years, and then one day he walked out of Gary Snyders’ house and never came back.

So we showed them round the house and we all tried to catch the vibrations for ten or fifteen minutes. Then they left to find the next station of the cross.

You can read about Welch here, here and here, and about the San Francisco Renaissance here. A collection of Welch’s poems, Ring of Bone, is on Amazon. Here is the title poem.

I Saw Myself

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bell does