OLD NORTH – WANDERINGS IN LOTHIAN
Ravens over North Berwick Law – could any phrase be more hyperborean? I turned the words over lazily as I watched the birds fifty feet above, circling and diving on each other, flicking expert wings, commenting incessantly on their sport as they alternately dropped or upheld the thin blue vault. Below the volcanic cone of its Law, the town lay snoozing along the Firth of Forth. Somewhere on its yellow beach my wife was watching our son delve sand with a four year old’s intensity – a ludic, pointless activity like that enjoyed by corvids, an in-the-moment celebration of physicality, space and sunlight.
Far to the west, Edinburgh bustled under haze. North in the Firth the guano-whitened Bass Rock glinted at ships heading to Leith. Eastwards, Tantallon Castle stood guard on its seas-smashing headland – while to the south the Lothian hinterland rolled away towards the Borders’ small hills and histories. North Berwick is a pilgrim port turned resort, emblematic of the many sides of Scotland, a country caught always between Catholic and Protestant, Gothic and classical, magic and science, chivalry and coolness, sentimentality and severity. These “Debatable Lands” have often been occupied, and cross-cutting legacies have been left, as at Athelstaneford, “the birthplace of Scotland’s flag” for a legendary ninth century Saxon-beating saltire-in-the-sky, which yet has a wholly Anglo-Saxon name.
Edinburgh is airy and crepuscular, a city simultaneously of clear views and deep shadows. The Royal Mile that runs from the basalt crag of the Castle to Holyrood below the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat is grandly processional, but its tall townhouses are simultaneously undergirded and undermined by innumerable secret spaces hacked into its sandstone. Over centuries, cellars, drains, dumps, foundations, graves, sewage sumps, shops, shrines, sleeping accommodation, stores and tunnels were jammed in democratically and unhygienically atop each other to maximise the cramped space behind the city walls – making of the Old Town “a quarry, rather than the habitation of men”, as Hazlitt marvelled in 1822.
The skull-and-bone motifs long favoured by local funerary monument sculptors might almost have burst out of unquiet earth, enriched as it has so often been with the remains of altercating denominations, or ambitious families, like the Black Douglases, whose sixteen year old 6th Earl and even younger brother were served a black bull’s head on a platter while dining with ten year old James II at the Castle in 1440, after which they were executed.
Something of ghostliness reaches even into regal Scotland, with the Palace of Holyroodhouse breathing of Mary, Queen of Scots – near-saint or near-Antichrist to some Scots, to others symbol of a small kingdom subjugated, child-queen, twice widow, browbeaten by impossible Knox, perpetual prisoner, toy of European events, tragic victim of cousinly spite, a lone woman adrift in a sea of troubles. Her chambers make a melancholic suite, with deep carved ceilings, a cassone resembling a Roman sarcophagus, a cabinet with bleeding heart inlays, devotional oils (Head of Christ, Head of the Virgin, Death of St. Jerome), and tapestries showing the downfall of Apollo’s son Phaeton, who lost control of his father’s sun-chariot and was killed by Zeus to stop him burning up the earth. Even the cornucopia reliefs are grisaille, as if to suck life out of what ought to be joyful motifs, while a plaque in the Outer Chamber shows where screaming David Rizzio died of fifty-six knife wounds.
Edinburgh also has less Gothic ghosts. In the Scottish Parliament is preserved a soporific 1706 debate about exports and imports – redeemed solely by ending mid-sentence, on 27 November, the day the predecessor Parliament became outmoded, the “auld sang” of free Scotland stopped in mid-note, the scribe having thrown down his quill in sorrow, or maybe simple relief that daily drudgery was over. Canongate Kirk is equally pedestrian-piquant, austerely Anglican with its Dutch-gabled exterior, and interior palette of duck-egg blue, clear glass and dark stone. The view of one Very Reverend Dr. Andrew McLellan is highlighted, “God is space and light and reason and ordered beauty”. Could any theology be more Protestant? Outside, Adam Smith slumbers among many other ex-Edinburghers, many small businessmen – plumbers, bakers, confectioners, painters – plus the odd minor aristocrat, poet, or friend of Walter Scott. Smith’s upper-case inscription reads – “The property which every man has in his own labour as it is the original foundation of all other property so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” Could any epitaph be more prosaic? Strange to remember Smith lived in the former house of the 4th Earl of Panmure, a Protestant, yet also champion and follower-into-exile of the Old Pretender, the old ways. As if to highlight Caledonian contradictions, a modern sculpture called The Last Chimaera writhes all to itself near the gate, monstrous hybrid and young boy contending for Christendom.
Reflections on fate’s flukes are also provoked by Greyfriars, a former Franciscan monastery just inside the Flodden Wall, in whose kirk the National Covenant was signed in 1638 in an outburst of righteous/self-righteous anger. In 1679,1,200 Covenanters captured at Bothwell Brig were imprisoned ironically beside the church, part of their pen later incorporated into the graveyard. Vaulted tombs and columned slabs line the walls of the “Covenanters’ Prison”, gloomily adorned with stone crania, ribcages and teeth, the dead pinned down by pious hopes, and nineteenth century ironwork to deter “resurrection men” who stole corpses or even added to their number to further then-modern medicine. A few decades later this grisly locale would become known as backdrop for the perfectly Victorian tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who for thirteen years slept nightly on the grave of his owner, and sighed his brown-eyed way into susceptible hearts the breadth of Britain.
It is remarkable Rosslyn Chapel survived the Knoxian rigours. Begun in 1446, this confection is easily Scotland’s most over-the-top piece of ecclesiastical architecture, so showy it feels un-British, resembling most obviously Belém church in Lisbon. Nikolaus Pevsner dismisses possible Portuguese connections – “the individual decorative forms used at Roslin are drawn, almost without exception, from the stock of Late Gothic foliage types” – but even he acknowledges Rosslyn’s uniqueness as ensemble. There were iconoclast attacks, and after 1592 the chapel fell into disuse; there was further vandalism in 1688, collateral damage of the “Glorious Revolution”. When William and Dorothy Wordsworth came in 1803, the lush stone foliage was festooned in living counterparts, the ceilings sagging, the corners piled with dirt, the windows gone; “The wind is now thy organist”, Wordsworth romanced in “Composed in Roslin Chapel During A Storm”. It was only after Queen Victoria visited in 1842 that it was decided to save it, and restoration continues, boosted vastly by featuring as stage-set for The Da Vinci Code.
But the Chapel had long elicited wondering speculation, with its profusion of toothed beasts, petrified forests of turrets, endlessly varied vegetation, furred and upside-down angels, glorious ‘Prentice Pillar’, engrailed crosses (the St. Clair arms), and the unusual Latin inscription from apocryphal Esdras/Ezra,
Wine is strong. The king is stronger. Women are stronger still; but truth conquers all.
An entertaining pamphlet, Rosslyn and the Western Mystery Tradition, sets out some of many mystical speculations in prose as exotic as its subject, with subheadings like “Zerubbabel in Early Masonic Tradition”. Others posit that the acanthus-like carvings are representations of maize (‘proving’ that Scottish navigators visited America in 1398), or that the chapel is a numerological riddle based on multiples of seven, and the flat lintels are occult symbols of pre-Christianity (Pevsner snorts that the lintels were copied from fireplaces). Merovingians, Masons, Rosicrucians, the Sangréal, secret tunnels, Templars, and flying saucers also feature in this modern mythology. Flying saucers may seem out-of-place in this post-modern mystagoguery, but there is strange science-fact in this locale, as it was at Roslin Institute that Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997.
It feels like respite to come to Little Sparta near Dunsyre (“hill of the seer”) in the Pentland Hills, to stroll the half-mile, sheep-smelling track up into the five acre sculpture garden founded by “concrete poet” and “avant-gardener” Ian Hamilton Finlay. The name alludes to Edinburgh’s nickname, “Athens of the North”. Like the real Sparta, Little Sparta is an upstart statelet rejecting its near-neighbour as decadent and overblown.
Here between 1966 and his death in 2006, Finlay gave free rein to French Revolutionary, neo-traditional, piscatorial, Romantic, Virgilian and wartime fascinations, in almost 300 artworks placed precisely around the cottage where he lived, in idea-areas across undulating fields, under parkland trees, along burns, around pools and in a walled garden. It is strikingly effective, the erstwhile soldier turned cultivator, the one-time Orcadian shepherd turned Arcadian in a pocket landscape planted painstakingly by his wife.
The artworks vary greatly, and even beehives are coopted, with names – Sweet Promise, Golden Gain – conveying wry pastorality. “Flute, begin with me” is one of the first inscriptions seen, the quote from the Eclogue incised below an image of a machine-gun. The 1993 visit of a girl with an eye-patch is memorialised as “Enya came here in the guise of a Cyclops IX 1993”. Classical urns bearing sentimental messages about “purling streams” are beside signposts reading Zur Siegfried Linie (pointing to the cottage washing-line, a reference to the 1940 British Expeditionary Force song “We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line”). Neo-classical pineapple finials are ‘really’ hand-grenades. An ionic column reflects itself in a reeded loch. Slabs carved with “wave” in five languages lead across a billowing lawn thick with herbs. A little bridge reads “Arch, n. an architectural term – a material curve sustained by gravity as rapture by grief”. An iron wheelbarrow is labelled “W. Shenstone 1714-63”, in honour of the disappointed poet and gardener. An outsize golden head of Apollo stares out of the ground under birches, overlooking a dark pool. Saint-Just’s plaintive-progressive words “The world has been empty since the Romans” adorn an empty plinth – and the garden’s best-known feature bears his aphorism “The present order is the disorder of the future”, each word on its own slab in rough vegetation at the highest point of the statelet. Every artwork has multiple meanings, and every plant seems significant, each bloom a welcome guest.
At Lothian’s 724 foot high heart, Traprain Law, is the Loth Stone, supposed grave-marker of legendary King Lot, purported progenitor of King Arthur’s Sir Gawain, and St. Thenaw, throwing the latter off a cliff upon discovering she was pregnant (wafted to safety, she gave birth to St. Mungo, founder of Glasgow). Sadly for these stories, when a philistine farmer moved the monolith no remains were found. Scrambling up the Law’s sides with a boy on my shoulders, I appreciated its old usefulness as hill fort for the Votadini, from whence warriors set out to attack Angles at Catraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire), as remembered in Y Gododdin, an elegy in Old Welsh that is one of the oldest pieces of Brittanic literature –
A single sword / has hasten’d forth upon three hundred horses / Of these, none would return, O world of woe!
Men of the Old North were going forth, and the outcome of their expedition was apparently unforeseen –
Come rise as one, Gododdin’s golden sons / And flow to Catraeth, go with eager speed…
“Splendid slaughter” was expected as the force departed, banners flying “with colours of good wine”, led by Cadfannon, “steersman of steeds / Careering crimson fillies with the dawn.” Similarly surging emotions must have been experienced by those seeing “the flower of Scotland” setting off full-confident for Flodden.
The Exmoor ponies grazing the Law were crimsoned by evening rather than morning sun, but they were otherwise likely lookalikes for the Galloways steered by Cadfannon – not tall but strong, long-maned, inquisitive and resourceful, surrounding us where we sat on the ground, snuffling pockets for food, sniffing hair, salivating on hands, looking liquid into eyes, filling everything with snickers, snorts, stamps and whinnies, and that heady atavistic reek of horse. I daydreamed of Epona, horse-goddess to Celts, and as I watched their long shadows against the brilliance felt I heard faintly the sounds of ancient, endless ridings-out, to Gododdin’s foremost borders and beyond, cloppings, canterings, gallops and harness-jingles echoing back from unnumbered years.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission. Photographs by Derek Turner