Greyfriars Kirkyard — minus the silly wee dug



Nearly a quarter-century ago in Edinburgh, I worked occasionally in a shop that sold art books.  I got the job through an old schoolmate of mine, Roger Small, who worked there regularly but needed someone to fill in for him on the odd afternoon.  The shop looked somewhat out-of-the-ordinary.  It stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, met Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket; and because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it was weirdly tapering and triangular in shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I spent working there in Roger’s place I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since vanished and the premises are occupied by a pizzeria now, so I guess I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.


On my first afternoon there, having briefed me about everything else in his shop, the owner reached over to the counter, where there was a pile of flimsy, softcover books – untypical of the shop’s stock of big, handsome, hardback tomes about the fine arts.  He lifted one with a sheepish, embarrassed air, as if he was about to show me a secret batch of pornography.  The cover of the book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was illustrated with a picture of a small, hairy and scruffy animal.  “If a coachload o’ tourists roll in,” he said, “ye can flog them some copies o’ this book aboot the silly wee dug.”


That silly wee dug was Greyfriars Bobby, whose statue stood a few yards beyond the end of the shop at the very corner between George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row.  Bobby was, and still is, famous for being the ultra-loyal Skye terrier who, in the 19th century, belonged to a police constable called John Gray and then, after Gray died, spent every night of the following 14 years sleeping on his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard – the entrance to which stands across Candlemaker Row from his statue.  The story of wee Bobby’s loyalty to his master has made him both a Scottish icon and a historical canine superhero, the subject of a couple of movies (including an inevitable Walt Disney one in 1961) and an enduring tourist attraction.  When I walked past my former, now-pizza-filled workplace a few weeks ago, a squad of people were crowded close to the diminutive statue, clicking pictures of it with cameras and phones.


(c) STV


But recent research has suggested that the legend of Greyfriars Bobby is, frankly, a load of guff.  In 2011 Jan Bondeson, a Swedish academic based in Cardiff, produced convincing evidence that the dog alleged to be Bobby was really a stray that’d become a ‘graveyard dog’ – back then it was common for dogs to inhabit cemeteries, surviving on morsels given them by groundskeepers, mourners and visitors.  When James Brown, the Greyfriars sexton at the time, began to embellish his yarns about where this particular little dog had come from, making out that it kept watch over its old owner’s grave, there was a surge in the number of visitors coming to the kirkyard – and stopping for a bite at a local restaurant run by one John Traill.  People, Brown and Traill realised, wanted to see this remarkably loyal wee beastie.


With the sexton getting extra tips and the restaurateur getting increased custom, it was in both their interests to keep the tale going.  It seems likely that after nine years the original Bobby died and, to maintain the flow of visitors and visitors’ cash, they found a new dog, substituted him for the old, deceased one and passed him off as Greyfriars Bobby for a further five years.  Bondeson said his suspicions were initially stirred by the claim that Bobby had guarded John Gray’s grave for 14 years – Skye terriers are a breed of dog that normally don’t live longer than twelve years.


So the Greyfriars Bobby story was a myth, one pitched at gullible tourists with the intention of parting them from their money.  Thank heavens such unsavoury practices don’t occur anywhere else in Scotland.  Not at Loch Ness, for example.


You can see Greyfriars Bobby’s own grave in the kirkyard today – presumably the grave of the second Bobby, as I imagine the original was buried somewhere less conspicuous.  You can also see the graves, beside one another, of his supposed master John Gray and of the crafty old sexton James Brown, whose headstone bears the epitaph, ‘Friend to Greyfriars Bobby’.  ‘Show-business agent and publicist to Greyfriars Bobby’ might have been more appropriate.


Greyfriars Kirkyard deserves to be better known for things other than Disneyesque dogs.  Imposing and atmospheric, it’s one of the few tourist sites in Scotland worth visiting when the weather is cold and dreich (as it often is on 364 days of the year) because then it acquires a memorable bleakness and gloom worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story.  With its crowds of headstones and obelisks, coloured in dark, lugubrious hues and sometimes leaning at tipsy angles, and with its memorial stonework, much of which is adorned with sculpted skulls and crossbones, prancing skeletons, sinister figurines and psychotic-looking angels, it’s no surprise that the kirkyard is a fixture on the itineraries of Edinburgh’s lucrative ghost tours.



The southern end of Greyfriars has a population of vaults and sepulchres, some positioned right up against the back walls of the houses standing along its perimeter – a feature that once prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to marvel that “only a few inches separate the living and the dead.”  I’ve often wondered myself if the living residents of those houses are troubled by their knowledge of the deceased residents of the structures just on the other sides of their walls.


One mausoleum you’ll find there is that of George Mackenzie, who became Scotland’s Lord Advocate in 1667.  He set about the persecution of the Scottish Covenanters, who’d incurred the establishment’s wrath by defying the Stuart kings’ attempts to meddle in and ‘Episcopal-ise’ the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, with such sadistic enthusiasm that he earned the nickname ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’.  The irony is that, in the kirkyard, Mackenzie’s tomb stands just yards away from an enclosure known as the Covenanters’ Prison, where over a thousand Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for four months in 1679.  Many perished and the little prison has since been dubbed ‘the world’s first concentration camp’.


The mausoleum of the bloodthirsty Mackenzie has a reputation for being haunted.  Supposedly, after it was broken into by a homeless man desperate for somewhere to spend the night in the late 1990s – the sort of activity that in horror movies is guaranteed to raise an evil and unforgiving spirit from its slumber – there have been incidents of poltergeist activity in the vicinity, with visitors being subjected to buffeting and battering from unseen but obviously malevolent forces.  Wikipedia claims that during the past two decades Greyfriars Kirkyard has seen 350 such supernatural occurrences.


For the sake of objectivity, I should mention that I have drunk a pint in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar with a guy, connected with the city’s walking tours, who claimed that the Mackenzie poltergeist story was an utter sham.  It was a sham, he insisted, because he invented the story in order to get more people signing up for the tour he ran at the time.  Then the story was ‘borrowed’ by another tour company, who hyped it up to the point where Greyfriars Kirkyard was being visited by crews from TV shows like Scariest Places on Earth and Extreme Ghost Stories.  So, when it comes to spinning a far-fetched yarn that’ll lighten the wallets of visiting tourists, those folk around Greyfriars Kirkyard clearly have form.



Running through the eastern part of Greyfriars Kirkyard is a remnant of the old Flodden Wall, which Edinburgh’s flustered population erected after the Battle of Flodden in 1513 – the English had inflicted such a disastrous defeat upon the Scots that it was feared an English army could appear on the city’s doorstep at any time.  Now the roofs, chimneys and turrets of nearby George Heriot’s School rise beyond this surviving section of the wall.  George Heriot, the 16th / 17th century goldsmith who established the school, isn’t buried in the cemetery – he lies in St Martin-in-the-Field in London – but the founders of two other prestigious Edinburgh schools, George Watson and Mary Erskine, are.



Among the other famous tenants of Greyfriars Kirkyard are architect James Craig, who was responsible for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Captain John Porteous, captain of the Edinburgh Town Guard, whose death at the hands of a mob in 1736 became a key incident in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Mid-Lothian 78 years later; and the notoriously dissolute Colonel Francis Charteris, who was the inspiration for characters in some of William Hogarth’s paintings.  Nicknamed the Rape-Master General for the sexual assaults he carried out against his female servants, and allegedly an early member of the Hell-fire Club, Charteris was so hated that, during his funeral, his coffin was attacked while it was being transported to the kirkyard.  His interment was probably no more dignified for it’s said that dead cats were flung into his grave.


Greyfriars is also the resting place for a brace of literary figures, including the legendary Gaelic bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who for the 88 years of his life was illiterate and had to commit all his works to memory; the 18th-century poet, and wig-maker, Allan Ramsay; Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling; and William McGonagall, who is probably Scotland’s second-most famous poet and certainly its first-most terrible one.


Affectionately remembered for such versification as ‘…the stronger we our houses do build / the less chance we have of being killed,’ McGonagall was born in Dundee but died a pauper in Edinburgh in 1902.  He was buried here in an unmarked grave, although a plaque now commemorates him with the lines ‘I am your gracious majesty ever faithful to thee / William McGonagall the poor poet that lives in Dundee.’  Before the plaque was put up, the kirkyard also contained a bench that was dedicated to the poet’s memory.  It bore the following inscription – the lines weren’t, I think, penned by McGonagall himself, although they look like they could’ve been: ‘Feeling tired and need a seat? Sit down here and rest your feet’.


Cinematic heroes 3: Terry-Thomas


From www.weedlandthegentlemansclub.blogs


It’s an understatement to say that comic actor Terry-Thomas specialised in playing cads, bounders and rotters – nouns referring to a particular type of devious upper-class Englishman that have virtually disappeared from the language’s modern usage.  Actually, for a quarter-century, for the many cinema-goers who delighted in his performances (even when the films themselves weren’t particularly good), he was the arch-cad, arch-bounder and arch-rotter.  He played schemers with pompous and slightly-unbelievable names like Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, Raymond Delauney and Major Albert Rayne, who spoke in posh, insidious tones, who wore bowties, monocles and fancy jackets with carnations in their buttonholes, and who smoked cigarettes through the tubes of precariously-long cigarette-holders.  All these characters were stamped with Thomas’s signature physical trait – a chasm-like gap between their top front teeth.


The real Terry-Thomas didn’t begin life in quite the aristocratic surroundings that his celluloid characters enjoyed.  Christened Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, he was son of the boss of a butcher’s company at London’s Smithfield Market.  As he grew up, he became aware that both his parents had drink problems, which put increasing strain on their marriage, and the future actor’s first comic performances were given in his family home as he tried – with jokes, songs and slapstick – to keep his parents in good humour and keep them from quarrelling.  It didn’t work, however, and eventually the couple divorced.  Meanwhile, aware that in Britain at the time sounding posh did nothing to harm your prospects, the young Thomas started to refine his way of speaking.


Although he took on a clerical job at his father’s old stomping ground, Smithfield Market, after he left school in the late 1920s, Thomas was never far away from the world of entertainment.  He served as a performer in various amateur dramatic and operatic productions, as a ballroom dancer, as a ukulele player in a jazz band called the Rhythm Maniacs and, from 1933, as a film extra.  By 1938 he’d formed a cabaret act with the South African dancer Ida Florence Patlanski, whom he married in February of that year, and he’d also adopted the stage name of Terry Thomas.  The hyphen linking the two names didn’t appear until after World War II.


Thomas began the war as a member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), performing for British troops.  In 1942 he was drafted into the Royal Corps of Signals although, addicted to the world of spotlights and greasepaint, he continued to appear in cabaret shows and he graduated to an entertainment troupe called Stars in Battledress, whose members, as its name suggests, were well-known performers currently serving in the military.  When Thomas left the Signals Corps, in 1946, his profile was high enough for him to be offered the role of compere in a show called Piccadilly Hayride, running in London’s West End.  Thomas considered his two-year stint with the popular show to be the thing that gave his career its biggest boost.  In 1948, he was given his own show on British radio and a year later he was writing and appearing in How do you View? – the first-ever comedy series broadcast on British television.


Meanwhile, on the larger screen – the cinema one – Thomas’s days as a lowly film extra were well behind him.  In 1956, he got fourth billing after Ian Carmichael, Richard Attenborough and Dennis Price in the World War II comedy Private’s Progress, directed by John and Roy Boulting.  Thomas wasn’t happy about the gulf between how he’d wanted to play his character in the film, Major Hitchcock, and how the Boulting brothers actually made him play him, but the directing duo were sufficiently impressed with Thomas to sign him for another five movies: Lucky Jim, Brothers in Law, Happy is the Bride, Carlton-Browne of the FO and I’m All Right Jack.  In the last of those films, the Boultings’ celebrated piss-take of British labour relations, Thomas reprised his Major Hitchcock role.


(c) Charter Film Productions


In Lucky Jim, the Boulting’s 1957 adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s famous campus novel, Thomas plays the arrogant, devious and up-his-own-arse painter Bertrand Welch, who is both the son of hero Jim Dixon’s faculty boss and Jim’s rival in love.  In Lucky Jim-the-novel, Welch comes across as a sort of proto-Beatnik, speaking his own trendy patois – though at the same time he’s happy to use the privilege of his parentage to bully people.  Thomas, however, portrays Welsh as a conventionally posh and effete git, albeit one with an unfortunate set of whiskers.  The ever-curmudgeonly Kingsley Amis regarded him as being completely miscast in the role, although just by playing his usual screen self Thomas steals many of the scenes he’s in.


1958’s Carlton-Browne of the FO was the only film Thomas made for the Boulting brothers where he got top billing.  He plays the titular character, an upper-class incompetent who got his senior diplomatic position – head of the British Foreign Office’s Department of Miscellaneous Territories – simply because of who his father was.  A satire on Britain’s status as an imperial power, then fast-unravelling, it has Thomas trying to deal with a remote British territory called Gaillardia, whose existence nobody in the Foreign Office is aware of until a ship crashes into it.  The film was intended to be Britain’s entry for the Moscow International Film Festival in 1959, until pressure from the British Foreign Office, who feared the Russians might take it too literally, forced it to be withdrawn.


The Boultings’ satirical take on Britain – as a land where the sort of upper-class scoundrels and idiots essayed by Thomas flourished solely because of their pedigree – might have seemed pertinent to British audiences in the 1950s.  By the 1960s, however, things were supposedly changing.  A string of gentrified Prime Ministers – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home – had given way to Harold Wilson, the son of a Yorkshire chemist; and the most famous Britons on the planet were suddenly four non-RP-speaking lads from the working-class city of Liverpool.  Although his persona was thus a bit out-of-date in his home country, Thomas spent the 1960s enjoying fame and fortune in the USA, whose citizens still saw Britain as a country populated by tradition-bound aristocrats.  In addition to making guest appearances in American TV shows like The Bing Crosby Show, Burke’s Law, What’s my Line, The Man from UNCLE and The Red Skelton Hour, he starred in a few American films – most notably, in 1963, Stanley J. Kramer’s epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a fascinating film.  It’s long, loud, expensive, frequently explosive and destructive, and is populated by famous American funny-men from top to bottom: from headlining turns by Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters down to cameos by Carl Reiner, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges.  It isn’t, however, particularly funny.  What laughs there are come mainly from Thomas’s character, the harassed and uptight J. Algernon Hawthorne, an Englishman travelling through America.  He considers the country he’s visiting to be “the most unspeakable matriarchy in the history of civilisation”, one with a “positively infantile preoccupation with bosoms.”


(c) United Artists


Thomas made It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the same year that he married Belinda Cunningham, a young woman whom he’d met on holiday in 1961.  He and Ida Patlanski had divorced in 1962, although they’d been separated since the mid-1950s.  Belinda would still be with Thomas at the end of his life, when things had become grim indeed.


Thomas also made the 1965 American movie How to Murder your Wife, in which he plays the valet of Jack Lemmon’s committed bachelor Stanley Ford, who in a drunken moment of stupidity gets married to a bikini-clad non-English-speaking woman who appears out of a birthday cake at a party.  Thomas and Lemmon became good friends in real life and it’s interesting that the same year Lemmon played the villain, Professor Fate, in Blake Edwards’ opulent comedy The Great Race.  Despite having a twirly moustache that marks him out as a Grade-A bounder, Lemmon’s Professor Fate is too manic a character to bear much resemblance to the smooth, aristocratic shits that Thomas specialised in.  Ironically, when the American TV animation studio Hannah-Barbera cashed in on The Great Race’s success by making their famous cartoon show Whacky Races, the main inspiration for the show’s villain Dick Dastardly (voiced by Paul Winchell) probably was Terry-Thomas.


And 1965 saw Terry-Thomas play the villain in another opulent comedy about a race, an aerial one, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.  Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Those Magnificent Men… isn’t particularly funny and again what amusement there is comes from Thomas, who this time plays an upper-crust rogue called Sir Percy Ware-Armitage – although Eric Sykes, who plays Ware-Armitage’s downtrodden henchman, is good value too.  Unlike Stanley J. Kramer’s epic, however, Those Magnificent Men… is as boring as it is unfunny.  Thomas and Sykes get frustratingly little to do and the plot bogs down with a turgid love-triangle between the movie’s three stars, Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles and James Fox.  At least it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, 1969’s Monte Carlo or Bust, a film that, while pretty juvenile, is more enjoyable – mainly because Thomas and Sykes are given bigger roles.  (Monte Carlo… also benefits from having the great Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in its cast.)


At the start of the 1970s, Thomas was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease – something that would become more obvious in his speech, movements and posture as time progressed.  It meant that, gradually, he became less able to take on major roles and his name slipped down the cast-lists of the films he appeared in.


In the 1970s, when the careers of once-powerful British actors began to slide, the makers of low-budget British horror movies inevitably came knocking.  Terry-Thomas was no exception.  He appeared in 1971’s baroque comedy-horror movie The Abominable Dr Phibes, wherein the insane and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, played by Vincent Price, murderously avenges himself on the team of surgeons he believes are responsible for his wife’s death.  For inspiration for his murders, he turns to the Ten Plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians in the Old Testament.  Thomas’s character suffers a death based on the Plague of Blood, whereby Price siphons all the red stuff out of his veins, into several bottles that he leaves on Thomas’s mantelpiece.  It’s just unfortunate that Thomas gets bumped off early on in the film, as his performance is so good.  At least the director, Robert Fuest, persuaded him to make a cameo appearance in the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, in which he plays a shipping agent incensed at being dragged to Scotland Yard on his weekend off to help Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout with his inquiries.  “We’re looking for a madman,” says Trout.  Thomas retorts, “Well, you’ve bloody well found one!”


(c) American International Pictures


Thomas was also recruited by Amicus, a studio that specialised in making horror anthology movies.  Sticking four or five short, scary stories into a single film’s running time meant Amicus could stuff its films, and film posters, with big-name actors whilst only employing them for a day or two’s filming (and paying them cash in hand).  Thomas turned up in 1973’s The Vault of Horror, which is probably the worst of the Amicus anthologies.  It’s noticeably cheap and tatty-looking and directed by somebody, the usually reliable Roy Ward Baker, who on this occasion just wasn’t interested.  At least Thomas appeared in its best story, playing an irritating pedant whose obsession with tidiness drives his messy wife over the edge – she chops him into pieces and then, in honour of his neatness, stores the body-parts in carefully-labelled jars that are themselves meticulously arranged on the basement shelves.  (One jar is seen to contain Thomas’s famously gapped teeth.)  It was evidently an influence on modern-day actors / writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who copied the story wholesale for a 2010 episode of their macabre BBC comedy series Psychoville.


In 1977, by which time I’d seen dozens of Terry-Thomas films on TV and the actor had become one of my favourites, my family moved to a new house near a new town and my mother was keen to visit our new local cinema.  So one evening I accompanied her to the cinema to see one of those double-bills that were common in British picture-houses at the time.  Occupying the bottom half of the bill, we discovered, was a British musical-comedy movie about feuding nightclub owners called Side by Side and one of the owners was played by Terry-Thomas.  Even at the age of eleven I realised immediately how cheap and terrible the film was.  Its tunes were provided by several bands from the scrapheap of British 1970s pop-musical naffness, such as Mud, Kenny and The Rubettes, and it was distressing to see how ill, and ill-at-ease, Thomas looked.  (The film occupying the other half of the bill was an Italian weepie about a boy dying from leukaemia, The Last Snows of Spring, so, fittingly, in my memory Side by Side is connected in two ways with terminal diseases.)  You’d have needed to be in possession of the second sight to predict that the director of Side by Side would one day make a movie that’d win the Oscar for best film, but he did – the director was Australian Bruce Beresford and in 1989 he helmed Driving Miss Daisy.


That was almost the end of Terry-Thomas’s movie career.  He appeared in a couple more comedies like 1977’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste and 1978’s The Hound of the Baskervilles – neither was particularly good, but at least he was surrounded by distinguished performers (Marty Feldman, Michael York, Peter Ustinov, Ann-Margaret, James Earl Jones, Trevor Howard, Roy Kinnear and Spike Milligan in the former, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Denholm Elliot, Kenneth Williams, Max Wall, Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales, Kinnear and Milligan again in the latter).  Thereafter he gave up acting and it became an increasing struggle for him and his wife Belinda to deal with the physical and financial effects of his illness.


In 1989, a decade after Terry-Thomas seemed to have disappeared off the public’s radar, the writer and broadcaster Richard Hope-Hawkins and his godfather, the TV and film actor Thorley Walters, went to visit Thomas at his home in London.  They were shocked to find him being cared for by Belinda in a tiny and impoverished charity flat.  He was mute and immobile, and “wracked in pain, with two weeks of facial hair covering his drawn face.”  Hope-Hawkins got together with the comic actor Jack Douglas, who’d been a regular in the later Carry On movies, and organised a celebrity-studded benefit concert that raised enough money to allow Thomas to be moved to a nursing home in Surrey.  He died there in January 1990, although by then the treatment he’d received had at least enabled him to talk again.  When he was laid to rest, his funeral procession was headed by one of his nephews, carrying a silk cushion that bore several of the famous tools of his trade: a monocle, red carnation and cigarette-holder.


On youtube you can find footage of a 1989 TV news report about Terry-Thomas, showing the actor when he was confined to that charity flat and at his lowest ebb.  The images of him then are deeply upsetting to anybody who remembers him from his glory days, strutting across British TV and cinema screens with delightful roguishness and relish.  They are also a sobering reminder of how sickness and bad luck can reduce the mightiest of people to hopeless destitution.


But forget those sad, final days.  Remember Terry-Thomas this way.



John Bellany’s obsession


Late August saw the death of Scottish artist John Bellany.  He was born in 1942 in the East Lothian town of Port Seton, on the Firth of Forth, at a time when it was still a working fishing village and hadn’t become a dormitory town for Edinburgh, as it is now.  Accordingly, Bellany’s work was much informed by the sea and the adjectives one can apply to his paintings – bleak, brooding, dark, ominous – are ones that can be easily applied to the waters off Scotland’s coast.


For me, the most haunting of Bellany’s works is 1966’s The Obsession, which I saw once in the City Art Centre on Market Street in Edinburgh.  It was part of an exhibition giving an overview of the history of Scottish painting.  Among the many things on show in that exhibition, from across the centuries, it was The Obsession with its cast of fish-gutting grotesques, looking like twisted lumps of driftwood spewed up from the sea behind them, which rooted itself deepest in my memory.  As Scottish seascapes go, Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler it is not.



A few weeks ago, just before Bellany’s death, I visited the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition currently on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh’s Dean Village.  Hanging at the very end of the exhibition was Bellany’s painting The Witch.  It isn’t a seascape, but the sky has a troubled sea-like quality and it does feature a fish – one about to disappear into the maw of the painting’s main figure.  In an exhibition where the witches were either withered and debauched old crones or haughty and regal-looking enchantresses, Bellany’s witch, looking like a nightmarish cross between Gollum and Batman’s Joker, was predictably something else.



Rosslyn Chapel naked



What did Queen Victoria ever do for us?  Well, in 1842, whilst in Scotland, the prim and diminutive monarch visited Rosslyn Chapel.  By then the venerable chapel was a mouldering and vegetation-festooned shell that’d been degraded by 16th century Reformists and by Cromwell’s troops, hadn’t functioned as a place of worship for two centuries, and was mainly of note for providing inspiration to visiting artists and writers such as Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth.  After seeing its interior, with its multitude of weird and wonderful carvings, the queen stamped her tiny foot and demanded that rather than have the building crumble into complete ruins, it should be preserved for the nation.


Although by the 1860s Rosslyn Chapel had been sufficiently repaired for church services to be held in it again, the restoration work has continued to the present.  Sometimes that work has had to deal with the unintentionally-damaging effects of things done by earlier restorers – a layer of asphalt added to the roof in 1915 and protective coatings put on the stone carvings in the 1950s ultimately did more harm than good.  In a bid to stop green algae forming on the stonework, which had become saturated with water, a giant umbrella-like canopy, supported by scaffolding, was erected over the chapel in 1997.  The canopy was intended to shield it from rain, thus giving it a chance to completely dry out, and remained in place until 2010.


A few weeks ago I made my fifth visit to Rosslyn Chapel, which stands at the edge of Roslin village in Midlothian, about 15 miles up the road from my Dad’s farm.  My previous four visits had all taken place while the building was still encased in scaffolding and still huddling under the wings of that huge canopy, so this was my first chance to properly see its exterior as well as its interior, around which I’ve traipsed so many times that the carvings inside have now taken on the air of old friends.


Here are a few photos I took of the chapel’s exterior – naked at last.  A lot of the gargoyles, the external tracery on the windows and the outside carvings, statues and grotesques I hadn’t been able to see clearly before.  It was also a new experience to view those ornate pinnacles atop the buttresses silhouetted against a (typically cloudy) Scottish sky.



In recent years the number of visitors to Rosslyn Chapel has skyrocketed thanks, I’m told, to it being used as a setting in a novel that was a huge bestseller around the world.  That novel, of course, is Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, published in 2000 and the eleventh of Rankin’s books about Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Lothians and Borders Police Force, who gets a tour of the chapel during the story.  (Apparently, Rosslyn Chapel also featured in an obscure novel called The Da Vinci Code, written by some bloke the name of Dan Brown.  You probably won’t have heard of it.)  Indeed, it shocked me the other week when I entered the building and found it packed with people, mostly Italian tourists.  There were four or five times as many sightseers present as there’d been during my previous visits, and it was a relief when one of the guides got most of them to sit down on the pews – which they entirely filled – and started giving them a lecture on the place’s history.  That left the sides and aisle of the chapel a little freer for the other visitors, myself included, to move around and look at stuff.

Because of the surge in visitors, and the greater congestion, you’re no longer allowed to take photographs inside the chapel.  However, here are a few pictures I took in previous years of the old favourites – the green man, the devil and lovers, the Apprentice Pillar and the creepy tied-up, upside-down angel who seems to be enacting part of a Masonic ritual.



In response to its increased popularity, the chapel has had a new visitor’s centre built in front of its perimeter wall.  This contains exhibitions, a cafeteria and a gift shop, which among other things sells Rosslyn Chapel caps, Rosslyn Chapel jam, Rosslyn Chapel yoyos and Rosslyn Chapel books.  Look – there at the end of the second-from-top bookshelf is that Da Vinci novel by Dan what’s-his-name.  I wonder if it ever sells any copies?



Sir Walter stripped



Saying that Sir Walter Scott left a few marks on modern-day Scotland is as much an understatement as saying that the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig left a few dirt-stains on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.


Through his historical romances like Waverley – novels that were massively popular in their day – Scott conjured up images of Scotland that included rugged mountains, heathery moors and misty lochs, and tribes of plaid-wrapped clansmen who rallied with their claymores to the skirl of bagpipes.  Those images endured and they’re still what many tourists arriving in Scotland expect to find.  And that the real Scotland was long ago supplanted by Scott-land, the fabrication created by Sir Walter’s pen, is something that pisses a lot of Scottish people off.


Today it seems fitting that on Edinburgh’s Princes Street the author’s statue broods at the bottom of the Scott Monument – the tapering, four-legged sandstone structure built in his memory in the 1840s, which cynics have likened to a gothic re-imagining of Thunderbird 3 – while yards away at the corner of Waverley, yes Waverley Bridge, Japanese tourists pose for photos with busking bagpipers.  Meanwhile, up on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, other tourists throng the countless tacky souvenir shops and hand over, in exchange for pieces of tartan kitsch, Scottish banknotes with Scott’s face on them.


From Wikipedia


This wasn’t merely a consequence of Scott’s books.  He also masterminded the royal visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, for which he turned the Scottish capital into a veritable pageant of tartanry.  This was much to the bemusement of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, and of the Scottish Lowlands generally, for whom plaid, claymores, bagpipes and the rest were associated only with the despised and impoverished Highlanders in the north, who in the 18th century had traitorously joined the Jacobite rebellions against the British throne.


However, George IV, who was the first British monarch to visit Scotland in two centuries, embraced Sir Walter’s tartan razzmatazz and showed his approval by donning a kilt and sporran himself when he received dignitaries at Holyrood Palace.  By this time, a lifetime of drunkenness and gluttony had taken its toll on George’s physique, and according to my copy of The A-Z of Hellraisers (an entertaining encyclopaedia of debauchery written by Robert Sellers), “his waistline had expanded to 50 inches and his stomach hung down like a sack of melons.”  So the obese monarch in his kilt, with flesh-coloured tights worn underneath to hide his swollen thighs, must’ve been a sight for sore eyes indeed.  Nonetheless, the huge success of George’s visit, stage-managed by Scott, sealed the fate of Scotland’s identity.  Thereafter, that identity was tartan.


With this debate about how Scott’s portrayal of Scotland became confused with the real thing, which almost makes him out to be an early-19th-century marketing guru who packaged the country, gave it brand recognition and sold it to the world, it’s often forgotten that he was first and foremost a writer.  However, Scott-the-writer (as opposed to Scott-the-marketing-man) is something that’s gradually receded from public consciousness over the years, with fewer and fewer people reading his books.  This is a pity but hardly a surprise.  Very recently I read his novel The Black Dwarf and I could understand how many people would struggle with it – I enjoyed some of it, mostly in its first half, but casual readers nowadays would be defeated by the multitude of arcane references made to Scottish history, geography and folklore, as well as by the Scottish dialect that Scott robustly and unapologetically employs for many of the characters.  It may well be that we’ve all dumbed down and Scott’s prose is just too much for our modern brains to handle, but there you have it.  I can’t see the old boy enjoying a literary revival any time soon.



Meanwhile, in the country that he turned into a giant tourist attraction, Scott has become a tourist attraction himself.  Abbotsford House, the imposing if architecturally unruly mansion house and estate that he gradually built up from 1812 onwards, in the process cramming it with historical memorabilia, has long been a magnet for visitors in the Scottish Borders and recently the place was reopened following a five-year refurbishment.  Present at the reopening, on July 3rd, was the Queen.  Being there was the least she could have done for Scott’s memory, considering the effort he put into popularising her fat Germanic forefather in Scotland nearly 200 years ago.


I hadn’t been to Scott’s old home for 20 years, so a couple of weeks ago I made my way to the new-look Abbotsford (which is always described as being next to postcard-pretty Melrose, although in reality it’s closer to the more rough-and-tumble town of Galashiels).  The estate now has at its entrance a visitor’s centre containing a shop and exhibition area – the centre is flat-roofed and, mercifully, doesn’t protrude into the views from the estate’s majestic gardens – while the interior of the mansion itself seems to have undergone a major clear-out and re-organisation.


From the memories of my visit in 1992, Abbotsford then was a rather dark and cluttered place, but now it feels much more spacious, brighter and generally more attractive, whilst still having plenty of artefacts, fittings and adornments to admire.  On entry you get a headset with a cord and a microphone-like attachment that you point at little terminals located at strategic points through the rooms.  Each terminal triggers a commentary in the headset, given by actor impersonating the hospitable and personable Scott himself, telling you the history of the part of the house you’re standing in.  The last time I was there all the information was written down on copious panels attached to the exhibits – I read the texts and quickly forgot them.  Since my recent visit, much of the information I got from the headset commentaries has actually stayed with me.  Generally, then, I think this Feng shui-style decluttering of the house – Abbotsford stripped – has been a success.


Outside, the gardens are as lovely as ever and I’m glad to report that the stature of Sir Walter’s beloved hound, Maida, still reposes near the entrance door.  (Another statue of Maida snuggles beside him underneath Thunderbird 3, sorry, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.)



For the record, I like Sir Walter Scott.  I rate some of his books quite highly, although I think Redgauntlet and The Bride of Lammermuir are better than his more famous and acclaimed works Waverley and The Heart of Midlothian.  And I don’t hold the tartan-isation of Scotland against him too much.  It brings visitors and generates money and, anyway, I’ve travelled enough to know that there are plenty of countries that are grateful to have a colourful and well-known national caricature they can peddle to the rest of the world, bolster their tourist industries and fill their pockets with.  To be honest, too, there are a lot worse caricatures to be lumbered with than the mountain-dwelling, tartan-swathed noble-savage one that Scotland has.  Kilts are way cooler than lederhosen.


That said, I think those tartan-tat shops on Edinburgh Royal Mile are a disgrace and truly demean the neighbourhood, which is after all a United Nations World Heritage Site.  Mind you, if Scott was alive today, he’d probably be so incensed that he’d be on the Royal Mile lobbing Molotov cocktails at them.


Finally, I like how Scott, following the ruination he suffered with the collapse of the Ballantyne Press in the mid-1820s, refused to declare himself bankrupt and turned down offers of financial aid.  Instead, he just sat down at his desk, took his pen and started writing his way out of insolvency.


Elmore Leonard: 1925 – 2013


2013 has not been a good year for writers whom I admire – they seem to have been dropping like flies in recent months.  The latest name to add to the list of the departed is that of the venerable crime and Western writer Elmore Leonard, who died a fortnight ago at the age of 87.  Clearly, being well into pension-age had not dulled Leonard, who was pumping out novels packed with his famously taut prose and quick-fire dialogue until the end.  He’d had eight new novels published in the last decade and Leonard’s son is now talking about finishing another tome that he’d half-written at the time of his death.


Leonard famously said of his writing style that “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”  In fact, if you opened his books at many places you might wonder if you were reading fiction at all and not the text of a play, such was the writer’s reliance on dialogue to move his plots along.  Page after page had characters engaged in conversation, though the talk was so witty, spiky and vigorous that it never felt, well, talky.  Where he did indulge in descriptive prose, he kept it economical and conveyed more information in a few lines than many other writers managed in several pages.  I’ll always remember this fifty-word account of Harry Arno, the ageing anti-hero of his 1993 novel Pronto, which tells you all you need to know about Harry’s rather pathetic attempts to keep himself vital:


‘Harry Arno believed he was a hip guy; he kept up, didn’t feel anywhere near sixty-six, knew Vanilla Ice was a white guy; he still had his hair, parted it on the right side and had it touched up every other week where he got his hair cut, up on Arthur Godfrey Road.’


(c) Delacorte


Leonard’s style won him praise from a most unlikely source, Martin Amis.  It’s just a pity that Amis, the high priest of literary wankery, whose writing definitely does sound like writing, never got beyond his admiration of Leonard and actually tried copying him.


So synonymous had Elmore Leonard become with American crime fiction that it was often forgotten that he’d started out writing novels and short stories in that most overlooked of literary genres, the Western.  Indeed, several of Leonard’s Westerns ended up making the jump from the page to the cinema screen, including Hombre, Joe Kidd, Valdez is Coming and 3:10 to Yuma, which was filmed twice, most recently in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.


With their wise-guy heroes, razor-wire dialogue and driving plots, it was inevitable that Leonard’s crime novels would bring Hollywood calling too.  However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that his work enjoyed a run of really good film adaptations – to do it justice, apparently, it took time for a generation of filmmakers to evolve who were as hip as he was.  1995 saw Barry Sonenfeld direct a version of his 1990 novel Get Shorty, about the movie-loving extortionist Chili Palmer, who was played to a T by John Travolta.  Travolta’s career was finally on a roll again thanks to his performance in the previous year’s Pulp Fiction and he invested Palmer’s character with a swagger that he probably hadn’t felt himself for many years.


(c) HarperTorch


Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino did his own Elmore Leonard adaptation in 1997, filming the 1992 novel Rum Punch as Jackie BrownJackie Brown disappointed some of Tarantino’s followers, who’d expected it to be Pulp Fiction II or even Reservoir Dogs III.  What they got, however, was an unhurried, slightly melancholic meditation on middle age and the shrinking range of options available to people at that time of life.  The film was helped immeasurably by performances from Robert Forster and the great Pam Grier.


And 1999 saw Steven Soderbergh’s film Out of Sight, based on Leonard’s novel of the same name that’d been published three years earlier.  Out of Sight-the-movie benefits greatly from the performances of its leads too – a never-better George Clooney and the super-sultry Jennifer Lopez.  Indeed, so good is Lopez in Out of Sight that you realise what a blow it was for the cinema when she changed her name to J-Lo and devoted herself to recording music.  (Mind you, it was a blow for the music industry too.)


Much of Leonard’s work (including his 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room, which I finished reading only the other day) was set around Detroit, where his family had settled when he was nine years old and from whose university he graduated in 1950 with a degree in English and Philosophy – though not before he served for three years in the US Navy.  Such was Leonard’s knowledge of Detroit and his affinity with its people that it’s easy to see an uncanniness in how his death has coincided with the recent news of the city’s financial collapse and ruin.  The former car-making capital of the world has lost its hard-boiled poet laureate – the ‘Dickens of Detroit’ as Leonard was dubbed – when it could least afford to do so.