Tag Archives: Edinburgh

Two men, two schools

I’ve had a really interesting piece of work over the last few years which has culminated in this little pair of booklets, available from Stewart’s Melville College.

Stewart’s Melville is an independent school in Edinburgh and a prominent landmark as you drive into town from the north along the Queensferry Road. The original building opened in 1855 as Daniel Stewart’s Hospital School, and a few years ago the school approached me to see what I could find out about the life of Daniel Stewart (1744-1814).

It wasn’t a straightforward project, with Daniel’s story surrounded in myth and lacking documentation, but the picture emerged of a young man who pulled himself out of poverty to take his place in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment society.

In 1972 Daniel Stewart’s combined with Melville College, creating Stewart’s Melville College. The founder of the other half of the school was not, as you might expect, Mr Melville. Melville College was named after the street in which it was located, and its founder was Rev Robert Cunningham (1799-1883). The natural next step was to explore his life story also. Having researched Daniel Stewart, where sources were sparse and legends plenty, this was a very different project, with vast amounts of written material available.

It was also bittersweet as my father, who passed away earlier this year, was educated at Melville College and would have been very interested in the life of its founder, particularly as they spent their early years just a few miles (and more than 100 years!) apart.

Daniel Stewart and Robert Cunningham were very different men, one shrewd and determined, the other visionary and restless. And yet there are similarities too. Both men overcame challenges in their early years: Daniel Stewart was born with few prospects, and Robert Cunningham had to give up his studies to find work when his father was lost at sea. There’s much more that could be said about their contribution to education within the Scottish context, but ultimately both men looked beyond themselves and their own needs to provide education for others.

Stewart’s Melville College is open on 23 September for Doors Open Day – why not take a look?

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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Reflections on the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Edinburgh in August is bursting at the seams, as it welcomes every imaginable artistic expression. It’s a city alive with energy and activity, flourishing, but also frantic. So how satisfying that in the midst of all this there is a garden given over to words and to ideas. There is always time at the Book Festival – time to browse, time to sit. Time to read and to chat, to listen, to think, to disagree or to be inspired.

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My own @edbookfest experience goes back pretty much to the beginning. I don’t know which year it was – 1983 or 1985 I guess – that I met Joan Lingard and found her so warmly encouraging of my early ambition to be a writer. She won’t remember the conversation, but I do. There was also Mollie Hunter, whose books nurtured my passion for Scottish History. They didn’t call it YA at that time – ‘for older readers’, perhaps – but those were the footsteps in which my son and I walked to see Robert Muchamore and Patrick Ness last weekend. More than three decades of writers engaging with readers and being generous with their time in the heart of our city – what an impact that has.

 

Anticipation begins when I receive the programme. I start with a longlist of endless possibility and eventually narrow my selection down to something which sits more realistically with daily commitments and the bank balance. Inevitably there are writers I would like to hear but miss – Ever Dundas and Malachy Tallack were probably top of that list this year.

So what did I go to? In the past I’ve enjoyed some big sell-out events, like Ian Rankin and Tom Devine. This year I was drawn to events which chimed with all I’ve been thinking about and working on recently. There was a Publishing Scotland event which picked up on some of the themes aired at XpoNorth. There was Polly Clark’s interweaving of two narratives in Larchfield, and Dilys Rose’s Unspeakable which I wrote about here. Dilys Rose was sharing a platform with Francis Spufford, so I included his Golden Hill in my holiday reading – and was blown away by it. It’s an action-packed romp through 18th-century New York which is written with extraordinary skill and ambition, has lots to say about storytelling, and seems to me to succeed where many books just miss in navigating the complex relationship between  21st-century perspectives and historical authenticity.

The pleasure of the Book Festival lies in the unexpected gifts it brings you. Golden Hill was one. Another was the people I met, and the interesting conversations I had. But the greatest gift for me this year was the discovery of a new favourite book, Who Built Scotland. I booked the event because it sounded my sort of thing, and by the end of a fascinating hour was convinced enough to buy the book. I’m now rationing myself to a couple of chapters at a time, the better to savour them. It’s beautifully written – not surprising, with the impressive contributor list of Alistair Moffat, Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, James Crawford, and  the outstanding James Robertson. If you are interested in Scotland, in the landscape and the buildings and the people and the culture, and how all these have interacted throughout history and prehistory, you will want to read this book.

And that’s the magical, indefinable thing that happens sometimes, when the words on the page connect with something at the heart of you. For me that was Who Built Scotland, but with a truly global and diverse programme, it will be something very different for you. Thank you, Edinburgh International Book Festival. Until next year.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Exploring old Edinburgh

I like history – but I’m every bit as intrigued by the way the past connects with the present as I am by historical events themselves. That’s probably why Sackcloth on Skin isn’t the straightforward historical novel which might have more chance of finding a publisher! But they say write about what interests you, and this absolutely fascinates me. How does the past influence and intersect with the present – in ideas, in stories, in objects, in buildings? Does it matter? What if we’re completely oblivious to the history of a place or an idea – does our lack of awareness make the past irrelevant, or does it still have significance? How many layers are there anyway?

Tempting to apply that politically, but that’s not the point of this post.

One of the great things about walking about Edinburgh is that those layers of the past are everywhere around you. A new project by St Andrews University is stripping back the layers and has created a reconstruction of Edinburgh in 1544. If you like this kind of thing it’s fantastic. You can walk up the Royal Mile and through closes which are still there today, or down the steep slope of the now-disappeared West Bow to the Grassmarket.  This trailer is just a taster for the app to be released in May.

Fast forward 150 years, and Dilys Rose’s newly published novel Unspeakable conjurs up just as vivid an experience of Edinburgh’s closes, taverns and lands, this time not eerily empty but full of clamour and stink, humour, struggle and tragedy. It’s the story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. I read it with some trepidation, because when you’ve just finished your first novel you really don’t want to discover that such a superb writer is about to publish something of similar period and theme! But I really enjoyed the book, and with a deep breath can say that Sackcloth on Skin occupies its own territory. Whether that territory ever finds its way into the wider world remains to be seen…

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© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

Remembering

Remembering

 The names of sixteen men from Davidson’s Mains in Edinburgh who were killed in the First World War are carved on the church war memorial which, unusually, is also the communion table.

Communion table inscription (2)

 A few years ago I tried to find out something about the lives behind these names, and this is part of an article I wrote for the church magazine about them.

 To the glory of God and in loving memory of all who served and of those who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1919.

 John Wilson Bell was 23 when he died in February 1917. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and is the only one of the 16 men to be buried in Edinburgh, in Comely Bank cemetery. His parents lived at Hillview Terrace.

 George Dawson Bertram grew up at Dowie’s Mill. He was a Private in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Scots. He was killed in France in 1917 aged 31 and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.

 Adam Edgar was a local family man, living in Davidson’s Mains with his wife and small daughters. He was a motor driver, and so served as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. He died in Germany in March 1919 aged 33, and is buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery.

 James Hogg had left Edinburgh by the time war broke out. His parents died when he was young, and he lived with his older brother Charles. At some point James emigrated to Australia, and he was working as a leather worker in South Yarra, Victoria when he enlisted. His brother Charles still lived in Mary Cottage in Main Street, and became an elder in the church. In February 1919 James was on leave in the UK. He returned to France, and just weeks later was killed accidentally, aged 31. Although part of the Australian Forces, he is remembered here in the church of his childhood. He is buried in Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun. Some years later Charles also emigrated to Australia.

 Alexander, Duncan and John MacDonald
There are three sets of brothers commemorated on the communion table. Alexander and Christina MacDonald tragically lost three of their sons. They had come from Skye to Edinburgh, where Alexander worked as a railway plate fitter, and they brought up their family in Corbiehill Road. John, who was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, died in April 1917 aged 25,  and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. Alexander, of the Black Watch, died on 19 July 1918 aged 23. Like his brother he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium. And then, just 36 days later, a third son Duncan was killed, aged just 21. He had been in the Highland Light Infantry, and is buried at Bac-de-Sud British Cemetery, Bailleuval, France.

 William MacDonald, Royal Scots. I am not sure of his identity.  

 John Marshall, a baker who lived with his wife and children in Ivylea, Davidson’s Mains, is one of two men commemorated on the table who were part of the famous ‘Hearts Company’, or ‘McCrae’s Battalion’. This 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots included thirteen Hearts footballers and many other local young men, often Hearts supporters. They were at the front of the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, and suffered huge losses. John Marshall died that day, aged 34. His name is remembered along with thousands of others on the Thiepval Memorial, the memorial to the missing of the Somme. John’s father William was an elder who played a significant part in the life of the church over many decades.

 George Robertson, whose parents lived in Main Street, served with the Gordon Highlanders. He was killed at Ypres in April 1916, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

 Jack and William Sloan’s parents were John and Elizabeth Sloan of Craigcrook Terrace. Their father was an elder in the church. The Kirk Session records of June 1915 reveal that Pte William Sloan, son of members of this congregation and serving in the Royal Scots, has been admitted to the Full Communion of the Presbyterian Church by one of the Presbyterian Chaplains to His Majesty’s Forces. William was another who had joined up with the ‘Hearts Company’. Like John Marshall, he was killed in the carnage of the Somme on 1 July 1916, aged 22, and he is commemorated on the same memorial. His younger brother Jack was 2nd Lieutenant with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and died in France on 23 July 1918, aged 21. He is buried in Buzancy Military Cemetery.

 James and Peter Wallace are the third set of brothers to be remembered on our communion table. They both served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. James had married and was living in West Kilbride when he enlisted. He died in August 1916, aged 25, and is buried at Bois Guillame Communal Cemetery, France. His younger brother Peter was just 20 when he was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 – the youngest of the sixteen men. He is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. Their family home was in Main Street, Davidson’s Mains.

 James Wells of the Royal Flying Corps may be James Ritchie Wells, who died on 17 November 1917 aged 27, and whose parents lived in Glasgow. He is buried Glasgow. I have not found a link with Davidson’s Mains.

 Peter Whiteford, the final name on the communion table, had the closest association with the church as his father was the beadle, and his family lived in the Cottage. He was a sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders, and was killed in action in January 1915, aged 27. He is commemorated on Le Touret Memorial in France.

Remembrance is about much more than one conflict 100 years ago, but whether in the distant past or more modern times it’s surely more meaningful when we honour not just a list of names but real people, with homes and lives and families who grieve. We will remember them.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.