Posts Tagged ‘Scottish art’

George Bain, for his Book of Kells, Plate 14, and a mural: Highland games

Friends and readers,

One last briefer blog on my Road Scholar Tour in the Highlands area just around Aigas House. I’ve arranged my memories (from notes on a stenographer’s pad) thematically, and so we have left scenic drives and walks. Non-human animals, ruins, a small museum, lunch in an apparently well-known pub liked by tourists (and it was the one place I was at where the food was pompous and absurd, and I could find very little edible so the less said the better). On Thursday night there was the splendid treat of Celtic folk music by three musicians who appear also to live at Aigas House, which prompts me to end on the house itself.

Western Coast, Isle of Skye … much that we saw looked like this from the bus ….

Thursday was the long drive day – to the Western coast and back; part of Friday we drove around the Black Isle, a peninsula. We used observation equipment to see birds (all sorts), bottlenose dolphins (sunning themselves on stones in the sea), deer — and everywhere sheep (including black face, rams) and goats. We sat by a lovely beach in a quiet cove. Some brave souls were actually trying to get into the water. There was what was farmed, what was grazed, where there are attempts to bring back the original plants, trees, and landscape. Attempts have been made to have a railroad going through some of this but there is just not enough traffic.

On the West Coast tour, we got as far as across the way to the Isle of Skye whose “song” serves as one of the thematic tunes for the opening paratexts of Outlander. I discover that I can no longer transfer YouTube music and videos to another site so you will have to be satisfied with these (said to be) original lyrics;

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the wind howls
loud the waves roar

Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes
stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

One of the most interesting drives was around a bay which served as a military installation during World War 2 — one can still see the re-fueling installations, places for submarines and planes to land. We stopped off at an exquisite museum, very small, a perfect place: Groam House Museum or Taigh-Tasgaidh Taigh Ghroam). Downstairs was relics of Pictish art, complete with stories of savage rites around some of it; upstairs the work of a local artist, George Bain (1881-1968), who is said to be recognized as an artist of “national significance.” He worked during World War One and there were drawings and paintings of the local area in that time, of his time in Bulgaria, and later work in a children’s art center; he is important for having studied, understood and and re-created central Celtic patterns and designs. Here is a picture by him of an ordinary day for someone driving through the area:

Bain, George; Highland Picnic; Groam House Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/highland-picnic-166734

Two ruins of note: an 18th century Priory in Beauly, in much better shape (destroyed by wars rather than time) 12th century Fortrose Abbey, Erchelss Motte (a museum of archaeological sites). The guide had much to tell about one of the Beauly Priory early abbots who amassed a great fortune for himself (not easy in the 15th century), robbed his nephew of what was due him, and left the first endowment for the present University of Edinburgh. Frontose Abbey, a later 17th century building was in much better shape; it was one fought over in the Civil War, Cromwell had meant to destroy it and didn’t but I find I did not take any photos. I did not get to Ercheless Motte: it was one of those places where a choice of place was given and I chose a walk by a lake (loch).

Beauly inside — we were shown where the prior is said to have made very comfortable quarters for himself; I kept asking about some stones dedicated to mid-20th century people but the guide would not answer (not in his remit?)

Blair Castle is notable because of its continuous existence as working place and political linhpin where a family connected to the most powerful in the UK lived, or some which was used by some institution got-up for the moment (it was a hospital during the two world wars) from before the time of Robert Bruce until today. The family members appear to have had no interest in art (mostly sportsmen and women having babies and social lives), but the family included Lord George Murray (he was deeply against fighting that day at Culloden) and a couple of other highly controversial (and sometimes executed) people; the place was burnt down more than once; it contains relics of its Balmorality period, of the empire the younger sons traveled to. The place is nowadays painted white (which seemed to me ludicrous somehow, it made the building unreal, like a piece of cake). This entrance hall shows typical sets of guns, fireplaces, mahogany.

I saw intelligent faces on the people, sportsmen and women alike, a interesting nursery recreated. A fascinating recreation of a ship during Nelson’s time — by one family member. In the shop, there was a slender biography on sale of a female member of the family who spent her life embrodering exquisitely; more interesting (but no biography) plaques and photos in the house showed a woman who was among the first women MPs and a fervent supporter of the labor party. Like Longleate, the place is today supported by the tourists (there are summer gardens with sculptures in them), by having on places for picnics, racing and shows of horses, working and tenant farms. There is a generosity of social spirit: local people come to walk with their dogs. The usual sheep and cows in the fields.

Not the band lodged at Aigas House, but instruments they are using are what was used, and they sat close together

Thursday night after dinner was great fun. We as a group were invited to get up and speak, sing a song, tell a story. I was the only one of the 16 to stand and read aloud some lines of poetry I thought in the spirit of place. I quoted some of it as the epitaph to my first blog. There are many beautiful pastoral passages in John Lister-Kaye’s books: “All deep thought leads to the spirit” is his; give the natural world a chance. Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.” “Reserves of strength” in the beauty of the earth and living things. A couple of the guides stood up and talked of how they felt about their work. The musicians then said they’d bring the “tone down a bit” and gave us some rollicking and melancholy songs. Bag-pipes much used. I remember tonight some of the most enjoyable passages from Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours are evenings of dance, song, and drink.

I haven’t got a text from that night to share so hope this poem by a 19th century Scottish woman poet will do: if it’s not jolly, it’s not as desperately sad as so many of the Gaelic songs’ lyrics originally were. It comes out of that tradition as a Scottish woman’s poem:

Who hath not treasured something of the past
The lost, the buried, or the far awav
Twined with those heart affections , which outlast
All save their memories? these outlive decay:
A broken relic of our childhood’s play,
A faded flower that long ago was fair
Mute token of a love that died untold.
Or silken curl, or lock of silv’ry hair,
The brows that bore them long since in the mould.
Though these may call up griefs that else had slept,
Their twilight sadness o’er the soul to bring.
Not every tear in bitterness is wept.
While they revive the drooping flowers that spring
Within the heart, and round its ruined altars cling.
— Isabella Craig-Knox (1831-1903)

I come back to the house. The next day I was told one of the musicians was blind (I hadn’t noticed) and he and the woman among them lived on the estate, she in the Lister-Kaye gatehouse lodge with her autistic son. The son was said to come to the great or central house frequently to talk to people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was this place, Aigas house and its surrounding lands. It upstairs and behind the scenes. Its show spots.

Dining room (aka Baronial Hall where most of us ate — also in the nearby small library)

It was like living in a version of Downton Abbey vastly updated and kept up for quite different reasons, but the connections were clear: one can see the Granthams becoming tour masters to keep their estate and income flowing in. All the people stay in cottages around the estate; the “staff” who come and go (including bus drivers and all sorts of people like tour-bus drivers) stay in the house in the turrets and other tucked-away places. I didn’t walk around the estate half-enough: it was cold and at night dark. I was told the remains of the iron-age fort were a few rocks.

It was easier to cuddle into bed, rest and relax in the bedroom in the cottage I was in with Winston Graham’s Poldark novel, The Angry Tide. My roommate had a copy of Outlander, which some evenings she read too, probably much more appropriate. I’ve listened to this fist of the novels read aloud very well by Davina Porter, and have now finished watching the second season of Outlander, the mini-series, and will probably listen to Dragonfly in Amber read aloud by Porter too.

What I mean to end on is the familiar comfortable intelligently done hospitality of Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye was crucial. When we left on another big bus, she and he (Sir John had both hands up and was waving away) and all the staff on hand at that moment came to the door, lined up and waved us goodbye. Just like in Downton Abbey.

Photograph in the house


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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not made a foremother poet blog here for a month unless you count my review of Linda Peterson’s Traditions of Women’s Autobiography. I’ve been busy watching Andrew Davies’s movies, working during the day on my Jane Austen Movies book, it’s been hot and at night I’ve been tired and writing friends (a pleasure for me), or reading friends’ blogs.

Also I decided I would try to extend my knowledge of women’s poetry and include women whose work or era or type I didn’t know well at all, but were of real interest, power, beauty. This takes reading anthologies and thus time. On Reveries under the Sign of Austen, I did succeed in telling something of the lives and presenting the poetry of several American black women of the Harlem Renaissance, and I wanted to tell of a kind of poetry and poets I did know something about but not enough to make individual blogs: Scottish women poets. I’ve spoken of this before when I wrote about Kathleen Raine and Anne Grant. So I waited several weeks while I read through Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, and I have three to share tonight. I’ve chosen women who show the ballad tradition of communal poetry women wrote together (as an imaginative and literal community), individual autobiographical and protest poems, describing their lives, and poetry from the Gaelic tradition.

These traditions and community groups as well as the types of poetry and occasional individual who emerged can be found in essays in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan: “The Gaelic Tradition up to 1750” (Ann C. Frater), “Old Singing Women and the Canons of Scottish Balladry and Song (Mary Ellen Brown),” “Women and Song, 150-1820” (especially good by Kirsteen McCue), and for more recent women, “What a Voice! Women, Repertoire and Loss in the Singing Tradition” (Elaine Petrie), “Women’s Wrting in Scottish Gaelic Since 1750” (Meg Bateman). The book also contains good essays on individual writers and say two or three women poets grouped together.


Tents Muir, Scotland by George Whitton Johnstone (1849-1901)

I begin with Isabel Pagan since a friend sent me a UTube rendition of her one famous folksong, “Ca’ the yowes to the knowes.”


I was first attracted to Isabel Pagan’s poetry when I read Paula R. Feldman’s “life” in her British Women Poets of the Romantic Era that she was “A spirited woman who lived alone” and someone “unapologetically promiscuous, habitually drunk, and irrevent towards religion.” She was an alehouse keeper abandoned by her family in early life, and had to earn her own living. What happened to her was she was born with a disability that made it hard for her to walk and was impregnated by one Campbell, deserted, and then had a child. She lived in Muir, Scotland all the rest of her life after 14 in a property that had been a warehouse for a tar works, within walking distance of a village. Admiral Keith Steward gave it her rent free for life and so she opened an alehouse. She never had a license to sell liquor either – so she was not much good at negotiating institutions, had nothing to offer them anyway, and Steward’s help only went so far. Her place became a favorite for sportsmen (people coming to murder birds) in August; once when a clergyman visited her, she told of a satire she wrote at age 12 where she is told by a clergyman she will go to hell, and she replies “‘was not that great nonsense.” A woman after my own heart.

She apparently was wholly self-taught, could not write herself, only read. Her A Collection of Songs and Poems on Several Occasions printed by Niven, Napier and Khull of Trongate was published 1803, when she was in her early sixties. Her amanuensis is said to have been William Gemmell, a tailor. 76 pages of love songs, bawdy ones, in jokes, some tender and passionate it’s said, all from the ambiance of the “cheerful” Scots alehouse. A persona (people will understand I hope). In one “Hunting Song” she mentions some of her regular customers by name.She speaks out against injustice, government policy (no less), but there is a balancing act between insubordination and acceptance that enabled her to get them in print (and also survive).

The one I hope you listened to, gentle reader, would have been considered “indelicate” (“lewd” is another word from the era that might have been uttered) at the time:


Ca’ the yowes to the knowes –
Ca’ them whare the heather grows
­Ca’ them whare the burnie rows,
My bonnie dearie! [Chorus]

As I gaed doun the water side,
There I met my shepherd lad;
He rowed me sweetly in his plaid,
And ca’d me his dearie.

‘Will ye gang doun the water side,
And see the waves sae sweetly glide
Beneath the hazels spreading wide?
The mune it shines fu’ clearly.’

‘I was bred up at nae sic schule,
My shepherd lad, to play the fule,
And a’ the day to sit in dule,
And naebody to see me.’

‘Ye shall get gowns and ribbons meet,
Cauf-Ieather shoon to thy white feet,
And in my arms ye’se lie and sleep,
And ye shall be my dearie.’

‘If ye’ll but stand to what ye’ve said,
I’se gang wi’ you, my shepherd lad;
And ye may row me in your plaid,
And 1 shall be your dearie.’

‘While waters wimple to the sea ­
While day blinks i’ the lift sae hie ­
Till clay-cauld death shall blin my e’ e
Ye aye shall be my dearie!’

And here is one of her autobiographical pieces:

Account of the Author’s lifetime

I was born near four miles from Nith-head,
Where fourteen years I got my bread;
My learning it can soon be told,
Ten weeks when I was seven years old
With a good old religious wife,
Who liv’d a quiet and sober life;
Indeed she took of me more pains
Than some does now of forty bairns.
With my attention, and her skill,
I read the Bible no that ill;
And when I grew a wee thought mair,
I read when I had time to spare.
But a’ the whole tract of my time,
I found myself inclin’d to rhyme;
When I see merry company,
I sing a song with mirth and glee,
And sometimes I the whisky pree,
But ‘deed its best to let it be.
I, my faults I will not tell,
I scarcely ken them a’ mysel;
I’ve come thro’ various scenes of life,
Yet never was a married wife.

Isabel Pagan lived to be 80 years old. As she was regarded as “well-known eccentric,” her funeral is said to have been well-attended. I note the singer of the song above is also called Isobel (Baillie).


A spinning wheel

Janet Hamilton is very much one of Donna Landry’s Muses of Resistance: working class, out-spoken, deprived in so many ways. She lived in Shotts, Lanarkshire. A spinster and weaver, she married in 1809 and had 10 children. When young she taught herself to read by propping books against her spinning wheel. She learned to write only at age 54. She must’ve seen much drunkenness, misery among the men of her class making life much worse for the women.

Kerrigan reprints three poems, but I include only the two in English, because the third (and apparently much of her poetry) is written in Scots and very hard to reprint and not easy to decipher.


Bending with straining eyes
Over the tambour frame,
Never a change in her weary routine ­
Slave in all but the name.
Tambour, ever tambour,
Tambour the wreathing lines
Of ‘broidered silk, till beauty’s robe
In rainbow lustre shines.

There, with colour less cheek;
There, with her tangling hair;
Still bending low o’ er the rickety frame,
Seek, ye will find her there.
Tambour, ever tambour,
With fingers cramped and chill; –
The panes are shattered, and cold the wind
Blows over the eastern hill.

Why quail, my sisters, why,
As ye were abjects vile,
When begging some haughty brother of earth
‘to give you leave to toil’?
It is tambour you must,
Naught else you have to do;
Though paupers’ dole be of higher amount
Than pay oft earned by you.

No union strikes for you; ­
Unshielded and alone
In the battle of life – a battle it is,
Where virtue is oft o’erthrown.
O working men! Oh, why
Pass ye thus careless by,
or give to the working woman’s complaint
One word of kind reply?

Selfish, unfeeling men!
Have ye not had your will?
High pay, short hours; yet your cry, like the leech, Is,
Give us, give us still.
She who tambours – tambours
For fifteen hours a day –
Would have shoes on her feet, and dress for church,
Had she a third of your pay.

Sisters, cousins, and aunts
Are they; yet, if not so,
Say,I are they not sisters by human ties,
And sympathy’s kindly flow?
To them how dear the boon
From brother’s hand that came!
It would warm the heart and brighten the eyes,
While bending 0′ er the frame.

Raise ye a fund to aid
In times of deep distress;
While man helps man, to their sisters in need
Brothers can do no less.
Still the tambourer bends
Wearily o’er the frame.
Pattern oft vary, for fashions will change ­
She is ever the same.

A tambour frame

The Plague of our Isle

It is said, it is sung, it is written, and read,
It sounds in the ear, and it swims in the head,
It booms in the air, it is borne 0′ er the sea –
There’s a good time coming’, but when shall it be?

Shall it be when Intemperance, enthroned on the waves
Of a dark sea of ruin, is scooping the graves
Of thousands, while redly the dark current rolls
With the blood of her, victims – the slaughter of souls?

A canker is found in the bud, flower, and fruit
Of human progression – a worm at the root
Of social improvement – a fiery simoom
That sweeps o’er the masses to burn and consume.

‘Tis found on the heaven-hallow’d day of repose­
Blest haven of rest from our toils and our woes!
That voice of the drunkard, the oath, curse, and brawl,
Are sounds of such frequence, they cease to appal.

We see the grey father, the youth in his prime,
Throw soul, sense, and feeling, health, substance, and time.
In the cup of the drunkard – the mother and wife
Hugs the snake in her bosom that ‘venoms her life.

We see the gaunt infant, so feeble and pale,
Crave nature’s sweet fluid from fountains that fail;
Or run with hot poison, distill’d from the breast
Of the mother – 0 monstrous! – a drunkard, a pest!

We’ve seen, with her bright hair all clotted with blood,
Lie cold on the hearth – where at morning she stood
The wife of a summer – a babe on her breast –
The husband a drunkard -let death tell the rest.

And darker and deeper the horrors that shroud
The brain of the drunkard; what dark phantoms crowd
‘The cells of his fancy’, his couch of despair
Is empty – the suicide slumbers not there.

O why do we seek, do we hope to bestow
‘The colours of heaven on the dwellings of woe’?
‘Tis temperance must level the strongholds of crime ­
‘Tis temperance must herald the ‘coming good time’.

Then turn ye! oh, turn ye! for why will ye die?
Ye shrink from the plague when its advent is nigh­
The Indian pestilence, the plague of old Nile –
Less deadly by far than the Plague of our Isle.

Janet Hamilton was was published in Cassell’s Working Man’s Friend. Poems and Prose Works of Janet Hamilton (1885).


This modern translation by Meg Bateman from the Gaelic of Mary MacKellar of Lochaber is very much in the mood of these sorts of poems: melancholy, quietude desired. So too the women wrote formal, regular poetry, stanzaic, wth lots of rhyme. These are techiques which make them easier to remember and pass on. There is very little known about any individual woman.

The Vain Search

Where is there peace and where is there quiet,
where is there peace and where is there quiet,
There is a cure for the heart that’s oppressed,
and where is there ease from horror and dread?

Like the waves of the ocean that break on the shore,
and murmur and moan at the foot of the rocks,
is the tossing and turning all over the world,
with everything as restless as the breast of the surge.

I planted a flower in a bower where it grew,
and when it smelled sweet with the sun and the dew
death came and destroyed it with a frost-laden wind,
and its tender young leaves turned yellow to the tips.

I brought a bird from the wood to sing sweetly to me,
I would listen to the small bird’s glee
It was dull and dejected, sitting on the mould,
its eyes without lustre, its reed without note.

I searched the glen for peace and for quiet
one bright summer’s day with the sun in the sky,
and before it moved west, the heavens turned black, .
and lightening and thunder shattered the crags.

I wanted to find rest and I wanted to find quiet,
I wanted to flee from war and from strife,
and when I’d thought I’d reached the port of the brave,
I found I’d gone wrong travelling the waves.

I wanted rest though none exists on this earth,
and I lay my head down on my love’s white breast,
and that pillow was full of the petals of the rose,
but, alas, in their midst there was also the thorn.

Oh, how could there be peace on the battlefield,
when the clashes must be hard before we’re set free,
there’ll be felling and wounding, iniquity and feuds,
and though sad, it’s vain to be looking for a truce.

But when we win victory as everyone should
on the silvery sand that lies over the flood,
we’ll find a tranquillity that cures every breach,
and be crowned with love in the joyous heart of peace.

Mary MacKellar of Lochbar and born in Fort William and is referred to as “Bardess of Clan Cameron” and was published in 1880, in Poems and Songs in Gaelic and English. I love the above poem until the last two stanzas, when the reference to victory on a battlefield, resigned acceptance of war, and looking to an afterlife for consolation undermines its meaning for me.

Next week I’ll have a group of 20th century poets and the last conclude with our first women poet to have the terrorizing ominous distinction to be the first of my women poets to have been beheaded, Mary Stuart (known as Queen of Scots, 1542-87).


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