Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Heart and Hand

Greenock Cemetery is full of grandiose monuments to the great and good of bygone days — merchants, shipbuilders, industrialists and politicians. They are celebrated in doric, ionic or corinthian style, immortalised in stone for all to see. Yet few of us stop to admire or reflect. Sadder still, we choose not to stop by the monument to an 18-year-old highland girl who died of typhoid in a Greenock tenement more than 200 years ago. But then, why should we care for someone whose only claim to fame was that she fell prey to the amorous advances of our national bard? 

Mary Campbell was born on Auchnamore farm near Dunoon in 1768. Like most families living in Argyll at that time, life was difficult for the Campbells. The legacy of oppression from the defeat in ’45 hung heavy in the air and, while the Clearances would not properly begin for another 15 years, the old way of life was already becoming untenable for many communities.

When Mary was five years old, her father, Archibald Campbell, moved the family to Campbeltown and bought a share in a coal sloop that made runs across the Clyde to Ardrossan. No one is really sure how this young highland girl came to meet Ayrshire’s most famous farmer, Robert Burns, although some sources suggest they first became acquainted through the church they both attended when Mary was a house nurse at the Castle of Montgomery. Their whirlwind romance itself has been the subject of much discussion and has become something of a fascination among many Burns enthusiasts. Perhaps it is the power of the “Mary” poems themselves that fuels this fascination, or perhaps it is the romantic allure of the tale of a young highland lass and the lowland farmer whose love ends in tragedy. 

One aspect of the story that has always attracted much attention is the notion that Mary and Burns married secretly.Certainly, we know that when she first met him he was already engaged to Jean Armour, who was herself pregnant and expecting Burns’ twins. We know also the two exchanged Bibles during their last meeting together. While there is no trace of the Bible Mary gave Burns, the two volumes of the one that he gave to her are to this day preserved at the Alloway Monument. 

This idea of a ‘secret Gaelic wedding’ is supported by Burn’s poetry when he writes: She has my heart, she has my hand, By secret troth and honour’s band. Whatever the truth, Mary and Robert were never to be together again after this.We know that Burns intended to go to the West Indies and is more than likely to have wanted Mary to go with him. In Scotland, a new life for the two of them would have been difficult to pursue given Burns’ responsibilities to Jean Armour. His poetry was not yet successful enough to support them both and farming was at this time becoming an increasingly difficult occupation. Thus, like many young couples of the day, highlanders and lowlanders alike, they were faced with the task of raising their fare to the New World. Mary could have turned to her family for help with the expense: but then it is unlikely they would be keen to support her emigrating to the other side of the world with a man they had never even met. 

Some months after her last meeting with Burns, Mary returned from Campeltown to Greenock, where she lodged with her relations, the MacPhersons, in Charles Street. Also present was her father, who had come to attend a celebration in honour of his son completing his apprenticeship at Scotts yard. But it is possible he may have come hoping to meet his daughter’s ‘husband’ or to bid her farewell on her journey to the New World. 

Yet it was not to be. Mary’s brother, Robert, developed typhus shortly after their arrival in Greenock. The disease was prevalent in heavily populated areas where sanitation was poor. There was little treatment for the disease and sufferers would have to rely on their family to care for them. It was Mary who took on the role of her brother’s nurse and in doing so, contracted the disease. In late October 1786, she died. With the family unable to afford a plot in the cemetery, she was buried in the MacPherson lair in the Old West Kirk yard. 

It was nearly 60 years later, in 1842, that the foundation stone of her monument was laid in the Old West Kirk yard. In 1926 the expansion of Harland & Wolff’s shipyard resulted in the Old West Kirk being moved to its present site on the Esplanade. While some of the gravestones were moved to the same site, Mary’s remains were moved to Greenock Cemetery, along with the monument. And there it remains to this day. There, too, lies the real significance of Burns’ ill-fated love. For it is not as a subject of his poems that we should remember her, or as some romantic idealised highlander who fell in love with the lowland farmer. Instead, we should remember her as Mary Campbell who, like countless others living in Scotland at that time, encountered hardship and tragedy in her search for happiness.Hers is not a unique tale, but an all too common one, immortalised by our national bard and an often forgotten monument.

written by Neil Bristow, originally printed in the Greenock Telegraph
See how Greenock has inspired other great writers on our Grand Literary Tour


Sunday, 16 January 2011

By The Burnside

Here's one from a couple of Old Romantics, recorded for our Downriver CD.

This piece was written by Greenock born composer Hamish MacCunn, who is perhaps most famous for "The Land of the Mountain and The Flood", the quintessential Scottish orchestral overture, sweeping listeners across a Sir Walter Scott style view of the rugged Scottish landscape. "By The Burnside" is from his "Highland Memories" suite. You can buy his original sheet music for this at Sothebys just now.

And in keeping with our wee literary theme of the last few days, "By the Burnside" is here accompanied by a reading of William Wordsworth's "Greenock", composed when he stopped off here on his Highland Tour.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Words Fight Back!

Free books! 20,000 passionate book lovers will give away 1,000,000 books on the first World Book Night. And you can help....here's the script.

With the full support of the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild, the Reading Agency with libraries, World Book Day and the BBC, one million books will be given away by an army of passionate readers to members of the public across the UK and Ireland – and you could be one of them! We want twenty thousand people to volunteer to receive copies of their favourite title from the World Book Night list. 

You have until January 24th to apply to be a giverRead the launch announcement hereFollow on Facebook.

Loads of great books on there...still deciding which one I'd choose to give....

World Book Night is of course fighting back for words and reading after the Coalition Governments axing of the hugely successful infant reading programmes run through Booktrust.
As we all know, "libraries give us power", free knowledge and literature, available to all...and local government cuts will mean libraries across the country are already under threat. To draw attention to this further outrage, British Sea Power are inviting fans to suggest local libraries that they could perform at. Save yer library...enjoy a classic gig. Everyones a winner.
Here is BSPs current rallying cry against the unfairly balanced age of austerity. Enjoy.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Grand Literary Tour

“As from the hive where bees in summer dwell,
Sorrow seems here excluded; and that knell,
It neither damps the gay, nor checks the witty.”

So wrote the poet William Wordsworth on his visit to Greenock in 1833. During a very short stay, he certainly seems to have got the measure of the weather and the sense of humour so particular to Clydeside towns. It is not every town which can claim to have inspired one great poet let alone two.

It is worth taking the time for a quick stroll around Greenock’s forgotten literary heritage. As is so often the case with Inverclyde history, there are few physical remains, so just like our writers, you’ll be required to use your imagination, to see our streets through their eyes.

If we move away from the quayside, past where Wordsworth and his travelling companions would have disembarked, on past the Custom House and up towards William Street, here we would have found the disreputable – though very popular – Mince Collop Close, where tradition long maintained that Robert Burns “Highland Mary” died. In fact, she passed in a house on Upper Charles Street and was buried at the Old West Kirk. What would have been the final resting place of Highland Mary, a muse to Scotland’s national bard, is now commemorated by a wee sign in a Bingo hall car park. The original Old West Kirk and graveyard were uprooted and relocated. Interestingly, over the years, many of the business tenants in and around this area have reported ghosts and poltergeist activity. Perhaps we should have left the Kirk’s tenants to rest in peace.

Mary is of course more fittingly commemorated by a monument housed within the cemetery, sadly, the monument has seen better days and would seem an ideal candidate for restoration work.

If we walk back into town, the shop at the corner of West Burn Street and West Blackhall Street stands on another important literary site. It was here on 11th April 1839, that John Galt breathed his last. Galt was a pioneer in Scottish fiction, and is remembered fondly locally for his gentle satire “The Annals of the Parish”, but he was also a real internationalist. Following a period of employment in the Custom House he moved to London and from there he travelled to the Mediterranean to establish trade agreements. It was while journeying around the Mediterranean that Galt befriended that other giant of the Romantic movement – Byron. Galt accompanied Byron on one of his tours through Athens and Malta. Galt’s impressive literary output would have been enough to mark him out as someone special, but he also worked as part of the Canada Land Company, founding future cities and states, many of which would become home to emigrants from his adoptive home town. A city was actually named “Galt” in his honour.

After returning to Scotland in 1834, Galt’s death was a quetly tragic one. West Blackhall Street was as busy in 1839 as it is in 2011 – though the parking was marginally better – and Galt spent his last days by his window, sick and paralysed, able only to watch the world go by.

Galt was not born in Greenock, in fact he moved here from Irvine when he was ten years old. It has been suggested by some genealogy researchers, that Galt’s Ayrshire family were directly related to another writer, master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. Certainly, Poe did visit the West of Scotland and this may shed light on an often repeated local legend about the gothic author visiting the town. And of course Greenock also shares a folkloric link with Captain Kidd...as featured in Poe's tale The Gold Bug. The dots are all there for the joining should you so choose...

The magnificent Galt is commemorated locally by the Inverkip Street Cemetery which takes his name and also by a plaque and memorial fountain upon the Esplanade. Here is how it is described in “Innerkip 1798 – 1858”.

“Greenock, slow to recognise his worth, has a memorial within her walls in the shape of a drinking trough to remind the equestrian when watering his steed, that straight before his eyes is that man’s likeness in bronze.”

Patrick MacGill, an irishman, was living at 8 Jamaica Street, working on the Glasgow to Greenock railway, when he published his first collection of poems “Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapbook”. He published it himself and sold it door to door. As luck would have it, one of the doors he knocked was that of Neil Munro, author of Para Handy. Munro positively reviewed MacGill's book in his newspaper column, helping the young poet on his way to the international acclaim he eventually achieved. Only then was he invited to address the Greenock Philosophical Society. If there’s one thing we’re good at in Inverclyde, it’s making sure people don’t get too big for their boots. Heavily inspired by Kipling, he is now recognised as one of the 20th Century's genuine working class voices. Read more about MacGill here and then enjoy "Songs of a Navvy".

Galt, Wordsworth, MacGill, Burns, all great writers, justly celebrated, but Greenock has produced her share of homegrown talent. Proceeding up past the Galt Cemetery to Orangefield we pass the site of John Davidson’s home. Davidson, perhaps more than any other, captured what could be described as the “essence” of Greenock in his poem “This Grey Town”.

“This old grey town, this firth, the further strand…is world enough for me.”

Davidson attended and eventually taught in the Highlanders Academy. He struggled throughout his life to make ends meet, but did eventually find modest fame in London, where he befriended Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes and J.M. Barrie – author of Peter Pan. However it all came a little too late for Davidson, who felt that his talent had not been recognised, he was found dead in September 1909. His works remain in print.

Greenock has a place in literary history, but more importantly, we have a literary heritage of our own. We have already lost the buildings which connect us to these individuals, let us at least make an effort to remember what they wrote.

Various texts from the above writers can be found in the Watt Library...go on...treat yourself.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

A Celebration Ode

Today we present the first in a series of selections from an album of local folksongs – Downriver : A Celebration Ode.

In Magic Torch’s ongoing researches into local folklore and tradition we found we were often coming across fragments of songs or ballads either about Inverclyde, or written by Inverclyders. And there seemed to be no way to properly compile them, to do them justice. In 2005 we were approached by Life Injection, a local recording studio who had just completed a CD of reinterpretations of Robert Burns poems. They also had a handful of old Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow songs which they wanted to “do something” with and so we decided to collaborate on a collection of local folk songs. 

Magic Torch researched and compiled a “songbook” of around thirty compositions, and from there worked with Life Injection to whittle the list down. We tried to steer clear of the more well known songs – though we made an obvious exception for The Green Oak Tree – and instead opted for pieces which reflected the lives and times of the people who have passed through Inverclyde across the ages; Irishmen building the “new” railway; Highlanders leaving for the colonies; the “celebration ode” which commemorated the inauguration of the James Watt Dock; a ballad detailing the exploits of a local warlock in the seventeenth century; the Romantic piano compositions of Hamish McCunn. What amazed us all was the incredible diversity of what was available.

The songs which were eventually chosen were then reinterpreted and recorded by a tremendous selection of local musicians. Very few of the ballads, broadsheets and poems detailed the appropriate musical accompaniment, and so it was left to the musicians to bring their own compositions, bringing something new to the tradition while at the same time preserving them for future audiences.

Downriver was engineered and recorded by Jim Lang, Graeme McLeod, Barry McPhail and Steven Stewart. The record was produced by li media.

Thanks here to everyone involved in the making of this album;  shelagh mckay, jon milloy, paul mclaughlin, willie irvine, kevin murphy, gordon campbell, kylie campbell, mark anderson (and kirsty, his lass frae the port), graeme mcleod, jim lang, malky mckenzie, steven stewart, chris black, barry  mcphail, jennifer lang.

Everyone gave their time and talent free gratis for this Heritage Lottery Funded project and no income was generated from the recordings.

There are still a few songs left unrecorded, so if anyone fancies doing a ska version of "The Katy of Lochgoil" or baggying up "The Fisherman and the Monkey"...get in touch.

This first recording is “A Celebration Ode”, a poem which was written to celebrate the completion of the James Watt Dock, a site still very important to Inverclyde, and the setting for this years Tall Ships Event. They're looking for volunteers if you're feeling helpful.

A Celebration Ode
6th August 1881

Calm ye, ye winds and cease to pour
Ye clouds your burdens from your height
Let the bright sun shine on the hour
That marks an epoch in time’s flight

Truce to all feuds and petty frays
Ye scribblers with a ranc’rous pen
Drown ye your plaints in words of praise
For Greenock grit and Greenock men

Thus have we come by leaps and bounds
To hold the vantage nature gives
‘Spite the veiled darts of feigned friends
Let in be known that Greenock lives

Come rain or sun come foul or fair
Nothing shall daunt her enterprise
Still shall her sons in commerce dare
To greater heights of triumph rise

This one vast stride in progress’ way
Hath taught us well the lesson that
Here must  we raise this August day
A monument to glorious Watt

Tuesday, 4 January 2011


Like books? They're good aren't they?

You may be aware that after a certain period of time, copyright lapses on books and they become public domain...making them free books. Fantastic. Project Gutenberg has over thirty thousand of em...you can download them to your phone, kindle, PC, Ipad..whatever device you choose and read them for absolutely nothing. That's frankly a resolution in itself...then you can take the BBC Book Challenge and hold your well read head high.

But that's very passive...and you want to get involved...to do something useful...to volunteer...so how about helping LibriVox record all of the current public domain books as free downloadable audio files. Help other people enjoy these wonderful books in a different format. There are loads of books to choose from, you can record as little as one chapter, or commit to recording a whole book over a fair chunk of time. You don't need a studio, you don't need fancy recording equipment...just the basics...a USB mic would be helpful, but not essential if you have a half decent built in mic.

Here's the FAQ

What book would you read?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Your History 2

Here's a big phrase "intangible cultural heritage".
Big in the sense of "wordy", big also in the sense of "really quite important". So what is it?

ICH is tradition, superstition, stories, songs, rituals, festivals...the parts of history and heritage that a community preserves by passing it along to itself. The stuff you cant touch, but that you can hear and experience...in short..all the really cool stuff. So, in our neck of the woods in Inverclyde, ICH would be things like the New Years Day Dip, Comet Festival, Going Galoshans, stories about The Catman and so on - living traditions.

However...tradition needs more of a helping hand than it used to, as communities shift and change and people communicate differently, we pass less and less along in the way we used to...but no one would want us to lose decades and centuries of traditions forever.

Edinburgh Napier University are compiling ICH on a wiki. That sentence may sound a bit weird to you, but have a look at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Project in Scotland to see how you can help keep your communities traditions alive.

Follow them on Facebook here.

And enjoy some classic New Year Intangible Cultural Heritage with this clip of Up Helly Aa...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Your History

Lets assume that you've done the traditional drinking, you've first footed and maybe (like me) you have wassailed your apple tree. Presumably you'll have moved on to making promises to yourself that you can't or won't keep.

Over the next coupe of days, Tales of the Oak will share a few suggestions for resolutions which preserve heritage and storytelling, help the community and also provide a constructive way to footer away a few spare moments of an evening once you've logged off Facebook.

Here's a good one for starters...put the history of your hometown on the map with Historypin...

Easy peasy. Okay...so it's still beta testing...but that just means you're ahead of the curve.

Pop along to Historypin and get involved.