Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Voyage to Babylon - a story of The Killing Times

A few years ago, at Fotheringhay Church, I attended the first performance of ‘Sunlight on a Pale Green Ocean’, a work written by Christopher Brown who had set some of my Uist poems for four part choir. After the performance someone in the audience asked if I would write a piece on Mary, Queen of Scots who had been executed at Fotheringhay Castle. All that remains of the site is a mound. But as I had stood there that afternoon, I had been filled with great indignation – how dare they, I thought, how dare they execute a Scottish Queen. I was then moved to write a sequence on Mary – in The Goodman’s Daughter – and one thing leading to another, my next collection, The Hammer and the Fire, began with poems on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation. It was just a short step, then, to find myself caught up in stories of the Covenanters and the Killing Times.
A Voyage to Babylon
a story of the Killing Times
There are covenanters buried in our local churchyard – casualties of the action at Rullion Green - and a woman from our hamlet, Old Pentland, prepared the corpse of James Renwick, Minister of the Moors, for burial after his execution in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh in 1688 – the last of the Covenanter martyrs. The final nudge was a visit to the magnificent Dunnottar Castle where, in 1685, 160 Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for three months before those who remained alive were transported to North America.

In the Vault

A floor of undressed stones.
No tub for the relief of nature.
They stood, took turns to sit,
envied the bold freedom of the rats.
Some passed, in these summer days,
into their mind’s winter…
On the Sabbath they’d sing their Psalms,
take up the precentor’s  line,
build a wondrous tracery
intricate as the  gothic they’d destroy – 
till God’s light burst
into the chambers of their captive hearts.

At one stage, to alleviate conditions in what is now known as the Whig’s Vault, 30 men were moved to an even worse situation. Deprived of light and air...

Man after man
they lie on their bellies
by a slit in the wall,
suck in the summer.
And fears fly
into their heads
like bats into darkness.
A farmer sits
rocking in his excrement
weeping for his mother.
A boy is babbling
by a wall, his scrabbling
fingers worn
to flesh. John Fraser
of Pitcalzean has been seized
by the bloody flux....
I got a list of the prisoners at Dunnottar from The Covenanters Index, stuck a pin in three names and, following a few slender leads, traced John Fraser from Dunnottar to Connecticut and then, after the Glorious Revolution, back to Scotland where, to my astonishment, I discovered he had been Minister at Glencorse Church just two miles from where we live. After his church burned down he was called to Alness, ending his days by the Cromarty Firth where he had been born and raised.

My account of his experiences is almost entirely fictional but I have used some of the graphic details from Robert Wodrow’s  A History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland…’. Writing in the seventeenth century, Wodrow was still able to access eye-witness accounts of the hardships and atrocities of what he called, ‘The Killing Times’.

These events arose out of what is often casually designated, the English Civil War but that was only part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms which also engulfed Ireland and Scotland with horrendous loss of life. It has been said that perhaps 9% of the population of Scotland died directly or indirectly as a consequence of these wars, 3.7% of the population of England and a staggering 41% of the population of Ireland.

Arguably, the fault line runs from the Scottish Reformation of 1560 through civil wars and the Killing Times to the debacle at Culloden in 1746 and on into sectarianism in contemporary Scotland. You catch, at moments, how frighteningly close history is. We ignore it at our peril.
A Voyage to Babylon also contains more general poems as well as material written on themes from my beloved Uists. I try to achieve some balance by including poems on my native habitat, the east of Scotland. I keep working away at the differences between west and east coast seascapes. Something to do with wind and light, I think.

North Sea

This is the sea where night gathers –
where thin-lipped, winter dawns
mouth cold beginnings, where short,
thrawn waves are Sunday-suited,
grey even under the summer sun.
Its seascapes shaped minds that praised
a jealous God. Even its serenities
are deceptions, summon the haars that drew
the dragon ships, their bear-sarks
howling out of the chill. So why
does it lift the heart, disclose
in its turbulence a spirit’s haven?
I remember horizons wider than the edge
of rain, the sea  inscrolled in parables of light.

Poets in Moominland


Starting off as ‘The Three Poets on Tour’ ­– Chrys Salt, Liz Niven and Donald Adamson undertook what Donald Adamson described as a 'whistle-stop tour of Finland. Later, joined by poets Mike Horwood and Aila Juvonen they became ‘Four Brits and a Finn’, and were designated locally as a ‘A Cavalcade of Prizewinning Poets’.  Donald Adamson describes their experiences on their seven day adventure in 'Moominland.
We started off as ‘The Three Poets on Tour’ ­– meaning Chrys Salt, Liz Niven and myself. By the end we had grown like a rolling snowball, with poets Mike Horwood and Aila Juvonen added to our number. Now we were ‘Four Brits and a Finn’, and were designated as ‘A Cavalcade of Prizewinning Poets’.
Amazingly, this mad whistle-stop tour of Finland, to the cities of Turku, Tampere and Helsinki passed off without mopes or mishaps. There was time to form relations with Finnish poets, journalists, literary figures, PEN members. There were many hugs, tears at the making of connections and the parting of new friends, and ­on many, many occasions, hoots of raucous laughter.
Finns tend to stereotype themselves as a silent and gloomy people – ideal characteristics for writing about love and death, the eternal grist to the poetic mill. It may be no coincidence that Finland is a land filled with poets. But – as a long-term resident of Finland – I would say that the natural stance of Finns is one of understated wry humour, a kind of lightly-worn irony, accepting of the vagaries of life and of the fact that plans inevitably gang agley. That indeed is the attitude of the national epic, the Kalevala (from which Liz Niven read Scots translations), and it is an attitude that chimes wonderfully with the Scots temperament. This common way of embracing life may have been one of the factors behind the warmth of our reception. Also, there is the fact that in Finland, English almost has the status of a second rather than a foreign language. Thus, in a literary tour the barriers to comprehension are not that great, so long as the reader makes a few allowances in pace and articulation, and chooses themes that cross national boundaries.
The appreciation of our audiences (many books sold!) and the generosity of our hosts was overwhelming. Particular thanks go to Kaarina Ojasti, Vice-Chair of the Federation of Finnish-British Societies and Secretary of the Tampere branch. With her practical good sense and the hospitality she offered at her home, small difficulties melted away like frost on a spring dyke; thanks also to Risto Ahti, multiply-awarded Tampere-based poet, critic and translator, and prime mover of Tampere Poetry Week (of which by pure chance we found ourselves part). And long Scots miles of thanks to Risto’s wife, Ritva Hokka-Ahti, who as well as being a warm and calming presence, was responsible for integrating many aspects of Poetry Week in her capacity as Information Coordinator.
The Helsinki reading was notable for its large and distinguished audience, and for the attendance of Eeva Kilpi, Nobel-prize candidate, one of whose poems we read, adapted as a two-voice piece. Eeva (born 1928 and still fully active as a writer) is one of Finland’s most distinguished poets and novelists, a Nobel Prize candidate, and a national treasure. She talked to the poets afterwards, dispensing hugs accompanied by warm words of encouragement.
I’d also mention a meeting with Marianne Bargum of Finnish PEN. Marianne is passionate and compassionate. She knows pretty much all there is to know about Finnish publishing and how poetry fits into it. But more importantly, she is a person committed to the ideals of PEN, and fully aware of the struggles of writers in an international context. Talking to Marianne reignites one’s sense of why writing is important, one’s anger at the difficulties and oppressions that many writers face, and one’s urge to do something to improve the situation.
Finally, I’d like to quote a poem sent to us afterwards by Pekka Kytömäki, who describes himself as a ‘translator and wannabe poet’. The poem (my translation from Finnish) is included with his permission.
An evening with Donald Adamson, Liz Niven and Chrys Salt; by Pekka Kytömäki
Three Scottish poets in the library
wiped away the smudges of the week from my mind.
Liz read in Scots,
Chrys and Donald performed together and separately,
they read Eeva Kilpi in Donald’s translation.
A lot went on in my head.
I closed my eyes, stared,
laughed, pursed my lips.
I was present, for once.
“If you buy our books, we will eat.”
I bought one from each,
I pattered into the café to get change,
I asked for signatures,
I spelt out my name to the women.
My stiff tongue bent
to talk to Liz
about Irvine Welsh
who apparently is a fine fellow.
Donald asked if I was a student,
he was keen to hear about my job.
He also asked if I was a poet,
I said I’d like to be,
he decided I was one.
I pedalled home with sweaty armpits
and my skin all goose pimples,
not from the warmth, not from the cold.
In the shower I washed my hair twice
since I didn’t notice I’d already washed it.
Now it’s midnight,
I lie on the sofa with my diary
and I know what I want to be when I grow up.
The clock is ticking,
I lie awake and grow older,
I’ve got time.

Travels with a Pen: In Search of Skerryvore


Sian Mackay founded Moubray House Publishing in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (1980-90) and wrote several non-fiction books (as ‘Sheila Mackay’). She contributed regularly to The Herald ‘Weekend’ and lived in Spain for thirteen years where she wrote fiction and was shortlisted for an Ian St. James award. These days she lives in Edinburgh and Morayshire and acts as a mentor for other writers. She describes her own writing practice as ‘a continual wrestle with fact and fiction - the one a mirror for the other’ that has influenced her recently published fictive biography The House on the Chine: Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore as well as The Blue File her work in progress due to be published next year.
Travels with a Pen: In Search of Skerryvore
This week Edinburgh ‘City of Literature’ celebrates the birth of one of its most treasured sons. Robert Louis Stevenson was born on the 13th of November 1850 at 8 Howard Place in ‘a comfortable ground floor bedroom overlooking the back garden’ in the Canonmills district of Edinburgh where I was born a century later. The address of Stevenson’s last home in the British Isles (before his odyssey to Samoa) was 61 Alum Chine Road, Bournemouth, England, to which Louis appended the name ‘Skerryvore’ after the mighty lighthouse the Stevenson family firm constructed in the Irish Sea. In 1885 he moved into the villa with his wife, Fanny, their French maid, Valentine, and Bogue their Skye terrier.
What led the Scottish author to settle in Bournemouth of all places, I wondered, and why did he set aside his work in progress that year (the ‘boys’ adventure story’ Kidnapped) to write Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? At Skerryvore Stevenson’s network included several Americans: his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, her son, Sam Lloyd Osbourne, the novelist, Henry James, the artist, John Singer Sargent, the illustrator, Edwin Austin Abbey and the entrepreneurial millionaire, Charles Fairchild. To what extent did they influence the author's decision to close up Skerryvore and emigrate to North America in 1887? And what did the house that fostered one of the most extraordinary transitions in literary history look like? The fact that Jekyll and Hyde had been written in the seaside town of Bournemouth amused and intrigued me to such an extent, I found myself travelling south one blustery November to see Skerryvore for myself.
As it turned out, the villa had been blown to smithereens in the second world war. In Bournemouth Library I found a photograph captioned 'Skerryvore After German Air Raid, November, 1940'. The lower half of the photo shows a monumental pile of bricks, lumber and debris. Above it, peeling wallpaper droops forlornly on gable walls rooflessly exposed to the elements: None who saw it can have forgotten the aspect of the gable: here it was plastered, there papered, according to the rooms; here the kettle still stood on the hob, high overhead; and there a cheap picture of the Queen was pasted over the chimney. Stevenson's description of a demolished tenement he saw in the High Street of Edinburgh serves for the extinction of Skerryvore. Like the Edinburgh tenement, Skerryvore was suddenly cut off from the revolving years and would have been forgotten altogether had Robert Louis Stevenson not written prodigiously there.
Skerryvore was the only building in Bournemouth to be hit by a Luftwaffe bomber before it swerved high and away over the English Channel. After the ruin had been cleared, the gap site was recreated as a memorial garden in the 1950s by Bournemouth Corporation. To find it, I took a bus from the city centre to the suburb of Westbourne, walked down Robert Louis Stevenson Avenue (Middle Road in Stevenson's day) and found myself on Alum Chine Road beside a signpost marked 'Skerryvore'. ‘Chine’, by the way, rhymes with ‘dine’. Nowadays, the original low wall fronting the street and the sturdy stone gateposts are all that remain of the built landscape Stevenson knew. Beyond the gateposts, bricks set into the ground delineate part of the original villa. The only other features on site are a wooden bench beside a bin for visitors' rubbish and a touching three-feet high stone replica of the Skerryvore lighthouse. In truth, there isn't much of a garden, and I blessed the fact that leaf-littered November day when I first set foot in Stevenson's domain and explored the space outlined by the bricks.
Soon I found myself re-inventing the villa: the dining room here, the living room next to it, the bedrooms upstairs, the kitchen with a door to the stable yard, the rubbish bins and the coal hole. And was there a bathroom? Where the line of bricks deviated from its oblong course, I guessed there must have been bay windows giving wide views of the garden and, not far from the gateposts, an entrance porch.
A thick carpet of copper beech leaves obliterated every distraction lurking underfoot the day I first stood at the edge of the long garden above the chalky ravine of Alum Chine where Stevenson liked to sunbathe while Fanny created 'labyrinthine paths' on the slopes below. I explored the deep, dank Alum Chine from its source below Skerrvore’s garden to the sea. On a bronze plaque set into a bridge spanning the rivulet of the chine, Stevenson's haunting likeness stared back at me above these evocative lines:
Robert Louis Stevenson
Lived at Skerryvore
Overlooking This Chine
My morning research continued in Bournemouth library and the bench in the memorial garden became my afternoon sanctuary. One day the archivist found a photograph of Skerryvore taken (by 'S. J. White') three years before the bombing. It was a sweet moment, staring at an image of the very house where Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had been written.
The villa was one of many put up in Westbourne in the 1860s by entrepreneurial builders with an eye to giving value for money: homes of English bricks, their tall chimney stacks proclaiming abundant fireplaces within. On the sunny day in 1937 when the villa was photographed the windows and their louvred shutters had been flung wide open and a game of croquet set out on the lawn. A second photograph showed the white-painted entrance porch, unusually situated at the side of the house, with light and dense shadows playing on the ivy-covered walls. Swerving wheel marks in the gravel hinted at comings and goings by bicycle or with wheelbarrow, a scene unaltered since the Stevenson family and their visitors had entered Skerryvore fifty years before S. J. White.
Wandering down Alum Chine Road and its neighbouring streets, I took a close look at extant villas built around the same time as Skerryvore. White's 1937 photographs helped me to identify identical bay windows, louvred shutters, gateposts and porches. I needed all the clues I could muster in my search for Skerryvore, but it was a drawing in the library that captured an atmosphere more telling than any photograph. In 1912, The Bookman sent a well-known caricaturist for magazines including Vanity Fair to Westbourne to make a drawing of Skerryvore: 'A good memory, an eye for detail, and a mind to appreciate and grasp the whole atmosphere and peculiarity of the 'subject' are of course essentials,' Leslie Ward wrote of his caricaturist's art. When Ward visited Skerryvore, eighteen years after Stevenson’s death, 'everyone' had read his ‘tale of terror’ and it must have influenced the artist’s perception of the place where the story was incubated.
Ward's Skerryvore is a house of secrets, its brooding 'atmosphere and peculiarity' palpable in his Arthur Rackham-like rendering of the elevation facing the garden and the chine. He depicted his imaginary Louis and Fanny Stevenson standing tête-à-tête under a cypress. Fanny wears a crinoline, Louis leans on his walking stick, and the Skye terrier lurks nearby. Three long shadows edge across the grass. Perhaps Ward went to Bournemouth in cold November as I did. The louvred shutters of the Skerryvore he captured with his pencil are firmly closed over an upstairs window. A belching chimney sends curlicues of smoke into threatening clouds. A flight of birds caws above the sharply delineated cypress. The cypress casts its shadow over the façade. The façade wavers, half in sunshine, half in shadow:
All the wicked shadows
Coming tramp, tramp, tramp,
With the black night overhead
In April 1885 the Stevensons were settling down and the atmosphere was cheerful, as their neighbour and friend, Adelaide Boodle, recorded in Flashlights from Skerryvore. The black autumn night has yet to come when the author will waken, startled by his nightmarish inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde. That summer, another eyewitness, John Singer Sargent, painted Fanny and Louis at home with the drawing room door open to reveal the dark hall and the staircase rising to the second floor in his enigmatic portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife.
The lineaments of the house were taking shape in my mind. Now my challenge was to bring to life its inhabitants and listen-in to conversations between Stevenson and Henry James, John Singer Sargent and all the other visitors to Skerryvore that year. When I felt ready to take the artist's cue, cautiously, I slipped behind my invented façade and stood in the silent hall. On my tremulous way through its rooms, I evoked Louis working at his desk and felt the soft sleeve of his velvet jacket, I smelled his delicious lunch roasting in the oven and heard the tick of the grandfather clock he named Old Faithful. Upstairs a door slammed: Fanny in one of her moods. Through careful reading of the many letters they wrote that year, I hoped to comprehend, at least a little, Stevenson's complex relationship with his magnificently eccentric wife (who rescued him from death’s door that summer) and with Fanny's son, Sam, whose over-identification with his stepfather verged on the pathological.
Eventually, the Robert Louis Stevenson of my imagination blurred the edges of fact and fiction and came to sit beside me on the bench in the memorial garden. It was the thirteenth of November 1885, his thirty-fifth birthday, and he had just signed the publishing contract for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Well-wrapped against a chilly breeze and threatening rain, he hummed the tune he intended to play on the piano during his birthday celebration: Träumerei - 'Dreaming' from Scenes from Childhood.
Stevenson was fond of Schumann. His otherworldly song transported me back to our childhood roots at Canonmills and a dream took shape that became a book about the momentous year when the 'doomed and dazzling' Scottish author took possession of the house on the chine.
The House on the Chine: Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore is published by Sancho Press and can be purchased at Blackwell’s, Edinburgh or ordered via The link to Sian Mackay’s Author Page on Amazon is

Poets of Protest

A number of films for Al Jazeera are made by the (now Edinburgh-based) young Iranian filmmaker, Roxana Vilk. On Wednesday 20 November, she will be presenting and discussing her work at a meeting of the Scottish Poetry Association, that will take place at the Scottish Poetry Library, Canongate, Edinburgh. Dr Mario Relich introduces her work and that of other filmmakers making films for Al Jazeera.

Poets of Protest
It may be of interest to Scottish PEN members, especially the ones who are poets themselves, that by merely clicking on 'An Jazeera: Poets of Protest', you gain access to some of the most remarkable films about contemporary poetry and poets. I'll mention two of the films.
One is about Hala Mohammed, Syrian poet exiled in Paris, and the Palestinian Mazen Maarouf, exiled in Norway. Under half an hour long, 'Hala Mohanned: Waiting for Spring', directed by Yasmin Fedda, and 'Mazen Maarouf: Hand Made', directed by Roxana Vilk, are exemplary documentary cameos of the two poets. It emerges that they are not just representatives of any political positions, though both express criticism of the Syrian regime, but primarily poets practicing their craft. They do so not only as a way of dealing with their own personally distressing situations, nor even as 'unacknowledged legislators', but because writing poetry is, in my view, the most significant part of their identities.
Unlike in most documentaries, there is no voice-over narrator in either film. The poets speak for themselves, and read their poetry on camera, and sub-titles are presented in various ingenious ways which avoid strain on the eyes. Conversations with their hosts in Paris and Norway are also highlighted. But best of all, both filmmakers, zero in on images which counterpoint the poems most lucidly. Both are British filmmakers, with Yasmin Fedda based in Newcastle, and Roxana Vilk, a young British Iranian who lives in Edinburgh. Both are filmmakers to watch.