Two days in Edinburgh this week. Another country. Travelling up on the train on Tuesday morning I alternated between reading Eamonn Grennan’s poems and looking at the landscape. Grennan’s fine collection The Quick of It is made up entirely of short ten-line poems. They reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s Squarings – vivid word sketches, each one a miniature masterpiece of detail and craft. The low light, less than a month before the winter solstice, illuminated every fold in the land: a dusting of snow on the hills, pale bristly stubble fields, the long shadows of isolated farms and barns, tussocks of reeds alongside fast flowing streams. The scenery gradually changed from countryside to urban, first suburbs and allotments, soon flats, warehouses, an Odeon sign, offices, Haymarket station and finally Waverley.
My first destination was (as always in Edinburgh) the Scottish Poetry Library. I browsed the excellent selection of poetry magazines, dipped into the pamphlets upstairs and bought a book from the bright new shop. There are always interesting freebies at the library and I picked up John Burnside’s essay A Poet’s Polemic to read later.
I hadn’t intended to go to the National Library but the map exhibition was irresistible, especially having read Tom Pow’s beautifully illustrated Concerning the Atlas of Scotland and other poems written when Tom was Bartholomew writer in residence at the library in 2013. “Each of our lives traces its own map onto the shared terrain”, wrote Rebecca Solnit and Tom used this quotation as the epigraph to his collection.
At 4.15 there was just time to call in at the National Museum to check out things on my must-see list. The first was the church ship model, one of the items in Neal MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World (broadcast on BBC Radio 4). The ship was made to be displayed in a church as a votive offering to God for the safe return of James the Sixth (or First, depending on which side of the border you are) after his marriage to Anne of Denmark, sister of King Christian the Fourth of Denmark (he of the long plait and one of the main characters in Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel, Music and Silence). James feared for his life on the return voyage from Scandinavia – and he believed that the terrible storms which almost overwhelmed the ship were the work of Scottish witches (hence the link with Shakespeare’s Macbeth). The model ship is only about 65cms high, darkly painted in red and black, fully rigged in thick black threads, and decorated in gold and silver paint. Mermaids clutch their fleshy, fishy tails but the ranks of cannons poking from the hatches above them are a serious reminder that this sailing ship was no romantic vessel but a warship.
After being mistakenly directed to the St Finan exhibit I finally found St Fillan. I wanted to look him up after one of the North Cumbria Stanza Group poets read a poem about St Fillan at a recent workshop. The cult of St Fillan centred on Strathfillan Priory (Glendochart) and the museum has the three remaining relics associated with the saint. There is a cast bronze bell or “bernane” (c. 900 AD), a silver gilt crozier shrine or “coigrich” (15th century but with earlier elements) and a bronze crozier head (11th century) rediscovered within the crozier shrine in the 19th century. The coigrich incorporated a large lozenge-shaped crystal and had the most beautiful, intricate metal work, so fine it resembled embroidery. If I should need it any time it was good to know that the bernane was a cure for madness. Legend and history mingled together in a glass case.
Meeting up with old friends was another delight of my visit. We shared news and memories and good food. Then it was back over the border on Wednesday night.