Monthly Archives: November 2011

Let us now praise famous men…


There are many qualities that tend to make people famous; one such is creating some notable work of art, as a statue (David), piece of music (Choral Symphony), writing (Ulysses) – these are the tangible things that one has produced, and which can survive for future ages to enjoy (or snipe at). Others however don’t leave any tangible artefact behind –they are the non-creative artists, or perhaps better described as performance artists. The great divas and actors and sportsmen and women of the past (before recording I mean, like film or gramophone) can be so described. We know they were esteemed by their contemporaries, but can only imagine what they were like or how “good” they actually were. Their performance was more fragile than paper, and it’s only on paper that their name has been preserved. In a way it can be said of them as Lord Henry said to Dorian Gray, “Life has been your art.”
Some are more famous than others, obviously; but there’s not that many who have given their name to the language as a model or proverbial example, or at least in a positive way. Captain Charles Boycott’s fame, or that of Vidkun Quisling, are not to be boasted of, let alone admired and emulated. One sixteenth-century Scot is the other kind. I refer of course to James Crichton, of Cluny (1560-1583), who died in a street brawl at the age of 23 or so, having taken Europe by storm with his beauty, his skill at the manly arts, his command of languages, and his debating power on many of the branches of knowledge of the time. The story is that he was set upon by a gang at the Carnival time in Mantua – all wore masks. He defended himself well, being (of course) a first-rate swordsman; but when his last assailant took his mask off to plead mercy, Crichton recognised the young prince he had been hired to teach. He knelt and offered his sword, hilt first, surrendering to his prince; but young Gonzago seized it and in drunken rage ran Crichton through the heart.
He sobered up, and tried to kill himself, but his men prevented that. The whole court at Mantua went into mourning for six months; and the story went the rounds, going viral, as we’d say, in Europe. Many poems and memorials were written about the young genius at the time, and a quarter of a century after (1609) Adam Abernethy was writing laudatory verse in Latin, the international language of the time:

                               Ergo, flos juvenum, Scotice spes, Palladis ingens,
                               Ereptumque decus Musarum e dulcibus ulnis,
                               Te, quamvis sileant alii, Critone, poetae,
                               Teque, tuamque necem nunquam mea Musa silebit.

                               Therefore, flower of young men, Scottish hope, great one of                                Pallas,
                               Glory of the Muses, reft from their sweet arms,
                               Although other poets are silent about you, Crichton,
                               On you and your death my Muse will never be silent.
Musa Campestris. 1609

In ensuing ages quite a few retellings were made – Harrison Ainsworth has a rather good historical novel of 1837 on the tale (though his version doesn’t end tragically) – and most famously there is a treatment by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1605-1660). He was a cavalier who fought for his king against Cromwell, and lived in exile on the continent until a servant brought news of the Restoration of Charles II, when he expired in a fit of laughter.

Urquhart left several works, all rather mannered and idiosyncratic, including at least one that is just impossible to make head or tail of. That one is his Trissotetras, designed to help one with all kinds of triangles, which a mathematically challenged humanist like myself leaves well alone. It’s available on the Internet in the reprint of Sir Thomas’s works for the Maitland Club (1834). That volume though also includes his Jewel*, which Sydney Goodsir Smith recommended to me as an inimitable account of an inimitable man. Urquhart’s prose style is nearly indescribable, and is maybe best compared to that of Rabelais, for whom Sir T was the ideal translator; he captures the exuberance, the fantastic imagination, the delight in putting words together in great concatenations of flowery verbiage that threaten to drown us or at least leave us gasping. The German critic Kurt Wittig refers to his “fantastic wealth of vocabulary and an eldritch humour that rather recall the grotesque side of the Makars and have no parallel in English prose before the verbal artistry of James Joyce”, noting “In one place, Urquhart gives 71 characteristic animal noises where Rabelais has only 9.”** (More on this perhaps next time.)

His account of Crichton is no doubt (none at all!) tinged with his own visionary proclivities and well-meaning embroidery, though the historian Patrick Fraser Tytler, another biographer, thinks it’s mainly not too far from the truth. Still, it should be read for its romantic enthusiasm; if this isn’t the way it was, it jolly well should have been. He gives the lament of Crichton’s mistress (who seems to have been also involved with the prince, which explains a lot):

… she, rending her garments and tearing her haire, like one of the Graces possest with a Fury, spoke thus: “O villains! what have you done? you vipers of men, that have thus basely slaine the valiant Crichtoun, the sword of his own sexe and the buckler of ours, the glory of this age, and restorer of the lost honour of the Court of Mantua: O Crichtoun, Crichtoun!”.

While Crichton left little behind him but a name, that name has become proverbial for a real Renaissance man, and was accordingly chosen as the title of James Barrie’s 1902 piece of social (and human) comedy, The Admirable Crichton. Whence of course he’s the perfect android butler Kryten in the British sci-fi comedy “Red Dwarf”.
In his honour a “James Crichton “Society” “to promote academic enquiry and discussion” was established a few years ago at St Andrews, his alma mater where he got his M.A. at the age of fourteen. Their motto is Transit umbra, lux permanet, “The shadow passes, light remains”, a good and optimistic sort of saying often found on sundials, and here deliberately applied to the Admirable Crichton.

*EKΣKΥBAΛAΥΡΟN: OR,The Diſcovery of A moſt exquiſite JEWEL more precious then Diamonds inchased in Gold, the like whereof was never ſeen in any age; found in the kennel of Worcesterſtreets, the day after the Fight, and ſix before the Autumnal Equinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place, To frontal a VINDICATION of the honour of SCOTLAND,from that Infamy, whereinto the Rigid Presbyterian party of that Nation, out of their Covetouſneſs and ambition, most diſſembledly hath involved it. London, 1652.
**Kurt Wittig. The Scottish Tradition in Literature. Edinburgh-London: Oliver & Boyd, 1958; p. 159. ===================================================================================


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Supping with the Devil – or a Fifer

The proverb It taks a lang spuin to sup wi the Deil is at least as old as Chaucer (Squier’s Tale), but very often, in Scotland at least, the warning about the Devil is changed to reflect the half-envious banter of non-Fifers for the canny folk of the Kingdom. They are reputedly fly, i.e. cunning, crafty, not easily deceived, knowing, clever, alert. Why this should be the judgement of others is obscure, but it is partnered in a way by the Fife saying Ye’re queer folk no to be Fife folk. This stand-offish attitude probably is connected with the proud history of the shire. It’s called “the Kingdom” because it was there that kings had their palaces and courts –
                               The king sits in Dumfermline toun,
                               Drinking the blude-reid wine
And Falkland, just over the hill from my home town of Leslie, has its palace still; in the old days it was the favourite hunting lodge of James V, “The Guidman o Ballangeich”, and where he died. He had just been told of the birth of his daughter Mary, and he is reputed to have said “Adieu, fareweel! It cam wi a lass, it’ll gang wi a lass.” Which came true, for the Stewart dynasty, that got the throne though the marriage of the sixth High Steward of Scotland, Walter Stewart (1293–1326), to Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce, began its downfall with Mary Queen of Scots, and ended with the death of Queen Anne.
But long before that, , long before Dunfermline was a royal residence or the Stewarts moved into Falkland, the kings of the Picts ruled there. The name is found as Fib c.1150, and Fif (1165), i.e. “the Territory of Fib”, who was (we’re told) one of the seven sons of Cruithe, legendary father of the Picts. But the personal name seems to date later than the territory associated with it, so some earlier name must be involved.
However that may be, Fife has always, it seems, tried to be different, and act contrair to the expected. In the 1973 local government reorganisation of Scotland, Fife fought a successful campaign to be left as a unitary council area instead of being lumped together with Perth and Kinross, and as of 1996 it is still as proudly on its own. Others see it as a place not unique perhaps but definitely not usual. There’s the tale of the Edinburgh woman going over in the ferry and calling back to the shore “Fare-ye-weel, Scotland! I’m away to Fife!”

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Aye, right.

In 2002 The Scotsman carried a news item about a sheriff banning the use of the word “aye” by those appearing from custody in his court, insisting on “yes”. The sheriff, Lindsay Wood, an Arbroath solicitor (well-known as a popular after dinner speaker) serving as a visiting sheriff, asked 18-year-old Ryan Seath of St Ninians whether he accepted a bail condition, and he responded ”Aye”. Wood barked: “Next time you appear in court you don’t say aye, you say yes. Do you understand that?” The poor boy quickly replied “Yes” before being bailed and told to return for trial in December.
The incident even led to questions in the House of Commons, with six Liberal Democrat MPs, including Menzies Campbell, a leading Scots advocate, tabling an early-day motion noting that “aye” was recognised throughout Scotland as a clear alternative to the word yes. The motion pointed out that “aye” was the only word acceptable in the Commons as an alternative in a vote and asserted “its use should be universally accepted in courts in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom”.

The story also ran in the Daily Mail and the Daily Record, and the sheriff was ridiculed of course, a pundit from Aberdeen University (Derrick McClure, a Scots language expert), commenting : “Aye is a perfectly acceptable word for ‘yes’. I thought these sheriffs would have learned some sense by this time. It happens to have disappeared from use in England, but not in Scotland, which is why it’s now thought of as a Scots word.” He added: “Everybody in Scotland knows what it means, and it is ridiculous that there should be any stigma towards using it.”

This was not the first time “Aye” was objected to. In 1993 in the Stirling court again, former sheriff James Nolan held Kevin Mathieson, 18, in contempt . He was told to answer “yes” or “no” but, when asked if he understood, he replied: “Aye” – and was sent to the cells for an hour and a half. We also learned that another retired Stirling sheriff, J Irvine Smith, “banned it because it could easily cause confusion, since the Scots word ‘aye’ also means ‘always’.”
Actually they are two separate and different words, and usually spelled differently too. I pronounce the affirmative like the first personal pronoun, and the one meaning “always” with a different opening vowel. The Scottish National Dictionary gives the pronunciations differently: “yes” is closer to ah-ee, while “always” is close to eh-ee. Actually the latter is often (in English) pronounced like the first letter of the alphabet, to rhyme with “day”. The Stirling bannings are a bit of a mystery, in that I wonder why such fastidious avoidance of the vernacular seems to happen most often there; but I do understand the sheriffs, who are probably much anglified establishment pillars, poor things.
Such niceness in the use of English (however mistaken) is on a par with the former insistence on English in school, as opposed to anything else, be it the guid Scots tongue or the Gaelic, under the threat of the tawse, a length of leather, split at one end into two (sometimes more) straps or thongs, applied to the outstretched palms of the hands. The belt, as we called it, was only outlawed in the eighties, and in my time was used on pupils who didn’t perform well or acted up, though it was a bit earlier that it was applied to those who, knowing no better, spoke their mother tongue in school (and even in the playground). A similar sort of thing happened in Canada, where the First Nations (as we call them now) were ruthlessly forced out of their traditions, and on the prairies those of Ukrainian stock were despised for trying to keep theirs. That belt by the way was (mostly) manufactured in Lochgelly, a town quite close to my home town in Fife. I knew it had some claim to fame.

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