Blessed, Beastly Place

Douglas Dunn

  • Precipitous City by Trevor Royle
    Mainstream, 210 pp, £6.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 906391 09 1
  • RLS: A Life Study by Jenni Calder
    Hamish Hamilton, 362 pp, £9.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 241 10374 6
  • Gillespie by J. MacDougall Hay
    Canongate, 450 pp, £4.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 903937 79 4
  • Scottish Satirical Verse edited by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 236 pp, £6.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 85635 183 0
  • Collected Poems by Robert Garioch
    Carcanet, 208 pp, £3.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 85635 316 7

Literary travellers, getting off the train at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, must have wondered if there are other cities which can boast a main point of entry, an introductory landmark, named after a novel. Consider the possibilities: Bleak House would suit Liverpool Street; Illusions Perdues would serve for the Gare du Nord; Great Expectations would whet the appetites of Scottish tyros arriving at King’s Cross.

Edinburgh is a literary city. Its architecture and atmosphere are still rich in hints of the life savoured by its great authors, from Dunbar to Norman MacCaig and Robert Garioch. The heyday of its literary, cultural and philosophic life lasted for a hundred years to the death of Scott and left its mark on Europe and America. An ancient city, a capital, with authors of all kinds, from Gavin Douglas to James Boswell to Annie S. Swan, Sir Compton Mackenzie and a thousand others: the subject is God’s own gift to the sifter of anecdotes and the historian of large-scale cultural change. Trevor Royle tackles it with affection and enthusiasm. Admirable as these qualities are, the reader might expect something substantial in return for an exposure to Royle’s eagerness. What does he get? Well, he gets a lot of misinformation.

Precipitous City pretends to be a history of literary Scotland, if not of Scottish literature. Here, however, is how Royle skates over Gavin Douglas’s Eneados: ‘Like many other translators of his day Douglas did not feel the need to render an exact translation of the Latin, rather he wrote in a way that his contemporaries would understand. Thus the characters in the poem behave like 15th-century knights and often the background is more Edinburgh and the grey North Sea than the colourful panoply of the Mediterranean ... ’ Saint Gregory ‘forbiddis ws to translate word efter word,’ said Douglas. Who were these ‘many other translators of his day’? Douglas’s vernacular translation was pioneering, his language courtly and literary, and if he expanded and elucidated Virgil, his translation left nothing out.

Royle is right to mention Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh as ‘one of the few intellectual giants of his day’ – ‘that noble wit of Scotland’, as Dryden called him – but he might have told us that his Aretina (1660) was the first novel by a Scotsman (and he mght have mentioned Sir Thomas Urquhart). It is misleading to describe Viscount Dundee as a ‘romantic Jacobite’. He was as committed a Protestant as those he fought against, leading an army that was Protestant only in part. Convictions were everywhere and romanticism an unheard-of luxury. Nor was Killiecrankie fought in 1697 or the Darien Scheme an enterprise of 1689. Lord Kames did not edit the Bannatyne Manuscript. It was edited by his colleague in the Court of Session, Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, whose Annals led Sir Walter Scott to laud him as ‘the restorer of Scottish history’.

Does it matter that the notorious cry of ‘Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ greeted Home’s tragedy in London, not Edinburgh? It does. A book worked up out of anecdotage and cursory research ought to get its stories right. Worse than slip-ups of fact, however, are mistaken or misleading effects. Kames and other polymath judges of the 18th century are highlighted as quaffers of port and claret. It appears as if they never had an idea between them. Excrement in the streets excites Royle much more.

Royle’s enthusiasm serves him well when he writes of Robert Fergusson: he is the quintessential Edinburgh poet, the one to whom his successors look back with pride and relish. A few pages later on, we find Royle omitting an account of Dr Johnson in Edinburgh on the grounds that the story is too familiar to bear repetition: but this is a tactic, a turn of the head, to prepare us for a dismissal of James Boswell. Truly, of all the nationalisms, the literary kind is the most petty and the least charitable. Royle says that Boswell produced ‘one of the best literary biographies of all time’, acquiring a ‘lasting reputation’ in the process. ‘Yet,’ says Royle, ‘during his lifetime he spent more years outside Scotland than in it.’ Why that ‘yet’? It isn’t true in any case. As a wise old writer observed, Boswell ‘was a man whom no one could respect, and whom few could help liking’. Mr Royle succeeds where most have failed, and I find that strange, for Boswell was, manifestly, an Edinburgh figure: born there, schooled there, a city advocate, Kames’s protégé. Francis Jeffrey, a boy in 1790, once helped carry the intoxicated Boswell to bed. Next morning, on waking the hungover genius, Jeffrey’s head was patted. ‘If you go on as you’ve begun,’ said the bloated biographer, ‘you may live to be a Bozzy yet.’ Preposterous, and risible: but the anecdote is as memorable as that of the young Walter Scott meeting Robert Burns in the house of Adam Ferguson. Edinburgh from the 1770s to the 1790s was Boswell’s to a far greater extent than Royle admits.

Kames and Hume were already dead by 1787 when Burns appeared in Edinburgh under the sponsorship of the gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt. A poet found himself in a city of prose. He came from ‘the ploughtail’, said R. L. Stevenson, ‘to an academy of gilt unbelief and artificial letters’. Mr Royle does not neglect Burns’s social embarrassment in Edinburgh, but he goes no further than to indicate frustrated opportunity and ambition. By now Edinburgh was consolidating itself as ‘the Anglo-Scottish double city’. Royle is incapable of such a perception: the phrase is Douglas Young’s.

There could be no future for Burns in his capital – of the kind there was to be for Scott. It was Burns who gave his guinea to the cause of Thomas Muir at the same time as the young Scott was rehearsing solo cavalry charges on the sands of the Firth of Forth, with more conscientiousness than his companions thought decent. Muir, a revolutionary, added a detested novelty to Scottish politics – republicanism. Respectable Scotland reached for its Yeomanry sabres. They looked to Lord Braxfield, who is introduced by Royle as another in his gallery of homespun, black-a-vised, bad-mouthed worthies. Before transporting Muir, he stated: ‘A Government in every country should be just like a Corporation: and, in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation on them?’ In opposition to this, Burns wrote his anthem, ‘Scots, wha hae ... ’

Scott’s capture of international acclaim popularised a nation, and preserved it in his own image. ‘Nothing can prevent the gradual disappearance of local manners under the absorption and assimilation of a far larger, richer and more powerful kindred adjoining kingdom. Burns and Scott have done more for the preservation of proper Scotland than could ever be accomplished by laws, statesmen or associations,’ wrote Henry Cockburn.

After Scott’s death, the most significant literary figure in Edinburgh was not a Scotsman, but the reclusive Thomas de Quincey. Mr Royle treats him to a passing tip of the hat while he evokes the great magazines – as a friend of ‘Christopher North’ and the man who hid from his creditors under Blackwood’s table. ‘North’ (John Wilson) had invited De Quincey to Edinburgh, in the hope that he would provide him with lectures for his Edinburgh Professorship of Moral Philosophy – a subject of which Wilson knew little and practised less. De Quincey lived in or near Edinburgh for over thirty years, writing for its periodicals, including Tait’s, which Royle ignores. When he died he left six rented boltholes brimming with books and papers: he went through more Edinburgh addresses than the Bank of Scotland. Mr Royle might have made use of Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s Life of Shelley (Shelley eloped to Edinburgh), with its entertaining stagecoach journey, a harangue from an Edinburgh bore, and a vivid picture of the city in the 1810s.

‘Singular that I should fulfil the Scots destiny throughout,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, ‘and live a voluntary exile, and have my head filled with the blessed, beastly place all the time!’ A few months later, he was writing to J.M. Barrie, mocking those who had traced his style to ‘all sorts of people, including Addison, of whom I never read a word.’ ‘Well, laigh i’ your lug, sir – the clue was found,’ he went on. ‘My style is from the Covenanting writers.’ He meant Wodrow, Walker and Shields, and you are excused from the sin of never having heard of them. It is good to be reminded by Jenni Calder’s interesting study that Stevenson was, among others, ‘the Shorter Catechist of Vailima’ in the South Seas.

‘Scott’s hopeless merit’ – the phrase is Stevenson’s – may have been more helpful to him than he chose to acknowledge, and he did not let his ambiguous opinion of Scott prevent him from looking to Scottish history for material. In a series of searching remarks, Mrs Calder argues that his use of the past caused the inadequacy of his Scottish novels. His great mistake, she says, was to think that moral answers could be sought in the past without the aid of a historical imagination. It is difficult to believe that, without such a thing, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae could be as good as they are, and Stevenson surely experienced that peculiar attachment to a time and place which seems to underlie historical fiction. The Covenanters were part of the old ‘proper Scotland’ he loved, while presenting one of its fiercest faces. Consider this epitaph in Hamilton:

Stay, passenger, take notice what thou reads,
At Edinburgh lie our bodies, here our heads;
Our right hands stood at Lanark, these we want,
Because with them we signed the Covenant.

Stevenson read it, and noted it. He knew he was implicated.

Within a few years of his death, George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901) and J. MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie (1914) – now reissued – offered robust, grimly convincing alternatives to Stevenson’s historical tales. What do Hay, Brown and Lewis Grassic Gibbon owe to Stevenson? Very little, perhaps, unless ‘Thrawn Janet’ or the melodramatic boldness of Jekyll and Hyde left their mark.

Edwin Morgan has chosen well from the earlier satirical poetry of Scotland, the strengths of which show up his contemporary selection to its distinct disadvantage. Henryson, Dunbar, Lyndsay and Montgomerie blaze off the page. Drummond’s ironic ‘A Character of the Anti-Covenanter, or Malignant’ is a splendid retrieval on Morgan’s part. Fergusson’s ‘Braid Claith’ and Burns’s ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ continue the technical virtuosity which is obligatory in satire, the most showy of poetic genres. Free verse, without wit, or a good joke, is a poor satirical medium.

Religion and the distortions it inflicts are not the only butts of Scottish satire, but they loom large. Compared to Alan Jackson’s ‘Knox’, Tom Buchan’s ‘Scotland the Wee’ or Maurice Lindsay’s ‘One Day at Shieldaig’, Burns’s ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ is a mountain. It does not set out to insult the Presbyterian average, but to caricature an example of its worst extremes. Stevenson’s ‘The Counterblast Ironical’ is in the same mode. So, too, is Lord Neaves’s ‘Let us all be unhappy on Sunday’, although it is marred by the flimsiness of vers de société. Neaves suggests something of the lightweight literary climate that was Stevenson’s immediate inheritance. Sir Archibald Geikie, in his Scottish Reminiscences, tells how Neaves, a popular judge, used to sing in his ‘cracked, unmusical voice’ at ‘convivial gatherings, such as the Royal Society Club in Edinburgh’. At the more virile end of the spectrum were the little-known poets Alexander Rodger and William Thom. In ‘Whisperings for the Unwashed’, Thom is vigorously political, while the radical Rodger opens his satire on savings banks with this:

Ho! ye worthless, thriftless trash;
Worthless, because ye haenae cash –
Thriftless, because ye try to dash
            Like your superiors;
Come hither, till I lay the lash
            To your posteriors.

Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith appear in Morgan’s anthology, but they are not at their best. Perhaps the only real satirist among contemporary Scottish poets is Robert Garioch. Influenced by Robert Fergusson, by way of the influence of MacDiarmid, he is as much a poet of Edinburgh as his young master. He has wit, directness; a sly skill in the pointing up of his narratives; the technique of a born survivor. What Garioch seems to do in his best poems is apply the values of Fergusson (and Old Edinburgh generally, from the 16th century onwards) to the innovations in his city as he observes them unfolding before him. ‘Embro to the Play’, ‘To Robert Fergusson’, his versions of Belli’s Roman Sonnets, and his own sonnets, stand as essential Scots poems of this century. Cockburn’s regretful forecast – of a ‘proper Scotland’ preserved only in literature – turns out to have been confounded: Grassic Gibbon, MacDiarmid, Garioch, and others, bear witness to the persistence of this blessed, beastly place.