The Smoke and Utter Ruin of the Bloody City of Edinburgh

the town as viewed from outside

For most of its history Edinburgh has not been much loved by the rest of Scotland:

Edinburgh Castle, towne and tower,
God grant thou sinke for sinne;
An' that even for the black dinner
Earle Douglas gat theirin.

This rhyme from the Douglas-controlled regions of the Borders, to the south and west of Edinburgh, demands vengeance for a killing of 1440, when the 16-year-old Earl William Douglas and his brother were invited to a luxurious dinner in the Castle by the keepers of Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, unofficial regents of the kingdom, and, for dessert, abruptly beheaded in the presence of the child King James II after a trial in the same style as that of the Ceausescus. The accusation in this sweet little family motto quietly ignores the likelihood that the next Douglas in line for the earldom, James the Gross, put the murderers up to it. The Douglases spent about a century trying to seize both Edinburgh and the kingship of Scotland; their power was finally broken by the armies of James II, but they lived on in Edinburgh's folklore as bugbears:

Hush ye, hush ye,
Little pet ye,
Hush ye, hush ye,
Dinna fret ye,
The Black Douglas
Shanna get ye.

Scotland rarely produced the sort of millenarian religious enthusiasm that recurred many times in central Europe and in England between the late Middle Ages and the 18th century. Both the Reformation and the struggles of the Covenanters were, for all their passion, carefully thought-out campaigns with clear political aims. One of the exceptions exploded in Borrowstouness (known as Boness today), on the Forth a few miles west of Edinburgh, in 1680, a few months after four Boness Covenanters had been martyred in the Grassmarket. Led by the shipmaster John Gibb, a mainly female group of Covenanting extremists walked the streets of Boness singing denunciatory psalms (the 74th, 79th, 80th, 83rd, and 137th). They called themselves the Sweet Singers, others often called them Gibbites. Twenty-four of them went to live in the open in the swamps of the Pentland Hills in the cold misty winter of early 1681, "with a resolution to sit there and see the smoke and utter ruin of the bloody city of Edinburgh". Donald Cargill, himself soon to become a martyr of the Covenanting cause, tried and failed to dissuade them; they were arrested and taken to prison in Edinburgh. They published their manifesto from jail:

We renounce and decline all authority throughout the world, and all that are in authority, and all their acts and edicts, from the tyrant Charles Stuart, to the lowest tyrant, and burn them the same day, being the sixth day of the week, the 27th day of the fifth month, at Canongate tolbooth iron-house.

Writing from this "iron-house" - the death cell, an infernal stinking cesspit in the heart of the prison, designed to hold only a handful of prisoners - they also renounced:

the names of months, &c, Sunday, Monday, &c, Martinmas, holydays, for there is none holy but the Sabbath-day, Lammas-day, Whitsunday, Candlemas, Beltan, cross stones, and images, fairs named by saints, and all the remains of popery; Yule, or Christmas, old wives fables and bye-words, as Palm-Sunday, Carlin-Sunday, the 29th of May, being dedicated by this generation to profanity; Pasch-Sunday, Hallow-even, Hogmynae-night, Valentine's-even; no marrying in the month they call May; the innumerable relicks of Popery, atheism, and sorcery, and New-Year's-day, and Handsel-Monday, dirges and lyke-wakes, Valentine's fair, chapels and chaplains, likewise Sabbath-days feastings, blythe-meets, banquetings, revelling, piping, sportings, dancings, laughings, singing profane and lustful songs and ballads, table-lawings, monk lands, friar lands, black friar lands, kirks and kirk-yards, and market crosses, font stones, images, registers of lands and houses, register-bonds, discharges, and all their law works, inhibitions, hornings, letters of adjudications, ship passes, profanity, and all unchaste thoughts, words and actions, formality and indifference, story-books and ballads, romances and pamphlets, comedy-books, cards and dice, and all such like, we disown all of them, and burn them....

a programme much like that of the Taleban of Afghanistan. The closes of Edinburgh were packed with all of those things; this would be a short book if the Sweet Singers had had their way. The manifesto even called for revolutionary sleep:

We renounce all the customs and fashions of this generation, their way and custom of eating and drinking, sleeping and wearing, and all our own former ways, as well religious as moral, in so far as they have been squared and casten in this generation's mould, and all our iniquitous courses, lightness and unconcernedness with the glory of God, the only end wherefore we were sent into the world...

At first they were as intransigent in jail as they had been on the hills. Prison records say:

Some of their weemen Singers ware so rude, as to throw out broken chandlers, and other trash, at the Duke of York's coach, as it passed by the Canogate prison; for which they were severly lashed.

Eventually the women recanted and went back to Boness; Gibb and the other men were banished to America. The metrical setting of Psalm 79 given here is from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1558; it was reprinted in every subsequent Scottish psalm tune book, most influentially in the last edition of a collection printed in Edinburgh by Andro Hart (c.1550-1621), The Psalmes of David in Prose and Meeter, republished in 1635 after his death. No other book of Scottish metrical psalm tunes was published between Hart's and the time of the Sweet Singers; what they sang in Boness and on the Pentlands must have been these words and this rhythmically irregular melody. I've included Hart's four-part harmonization, but the Sweet Singers would have sung the bare tune. Singing in parts was identified with the elite at the time, and even moderate Covenanters would have regarded it as an insidious attempt to reinstate the pageantry of the pre-Reformation church.

But while in prison the Sweet Singers disowned metrical psalms as well:

it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to take out of our Bibles the Psalms in metre [...] for the book of the Revelation says, "if any man should add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book"; and we did burn them in our prison-house, and sweep away the ashes.

No song from Celtic Scotland that I am aware of goes as far as the Douglases and the Sweet Singers in calling for Edinburgh's annihilation, but it almost never features in a positive light. Rather it represents the source of an arbitrary power that conscripts men into meaningless wars, jails people for unintelligible violations, or seduces them into economic migration from which they never return or else return as strangers. A typical one is a waulking song 'Ille dhuinn bhòidich, probably from Mull, and most likely about a campaign of 1799, which was reprinted several times in the 19th century and collected from oral tradition in the 1950s. I've given the version from Campbell and Collinson's Hebridean Folksongs.

And the song goes on to describe the Highlanders suffering tragic loss of life in a battle in Holland with no discernible purpose.

One early group of immigrants was the sedan-chair carriers, who were recruited from the Gaelic-speaking people of Northern Perthshire to ferry the wealthy around the steep and rough streets of old Edinburgh in the years before improved roads made horsedrawn carriages feasible. Alexander Gow collected this disillusioned song in which a sedan-chair carrier asks his sweetheart to join him in the city. This comes from an account in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club; I have not found anything more about it.

"Will you leave the poor Highlands, and gaily with me
Will you come o'er the ferry, my maiden?
For the windows are glazed and the candlesticks golden
Away in the town of Dunedin".

"Ah, dull are your closes compared to my home,
Where the air with the pine-smoke is laden,
And it's pleasanter far in the Black Wood of Rannoch
Than on causeways so steep in Dunedin".

It was said to be a translation from Gaelic, but it has strong echoes of Lowland songs in Scots and English, particularly Leezie Lindsay. If there was any real Gaelic song behind this, it's very well hidden by the translation.

Black Mary comes from a printed song sheet of the early 19th century; the tune was first published as The Sea Mew in Campbell's Albyn's Anthology of 1816. Campbell says the words were written by a "female maniac" to an ancient tune. An English text for it by John Wilson ("Christopher North") is a good song in its own right but has no relationship to the Gaelic original and removes any hint of social criticism. There are two tunes of this name; I have given Campbell's, in two versions, from the song sheet and from Keith Norman Macdonald's Gesto Collection of the late 19th century.

Or Edinburgh could be seen as an opportunity to escape from the restrictive sexual codes of the countryside. The Birks of Abergeldy was one of the most popular songs of the early 18th century, and might perhaps be seen as Black Mary's answer. Its tune came to be specific to the song, but it's derived from I would have my Gown made, also known as Let me in this ae night, a mildly bawdy song of the late 17th century. I have given four versions of the tune: I would have my goune made from Margaret Sinkler's viola da gamba manuscript of 1709, The Birks of abbergaldie from James Thomson's 1702 manuscript of Scots tunes for the treble recorder, Birkes of Ebergeldie again from Margaret Sinkler, and a dance-tune version, Birks of Abergeldie, from Aird's collection of the 1780s, mainly meant for the flute. The chorus has been elaborated in all of these to suit instrumentalists. I've written Thomson's version an octave lower than he did; for a recorder player this makes almost no difference.

Abergeldie is a hamlet around a castle near Balmoral in Aberdeenshire. Burns moved the setting to Aberfeldy in Perthshire for his song written there in 1787 and bowdlerized the song losing its entire point, but his version is the one best-known today. But it has an even better-known descendant: passed on from Scottish masters to their African slaves, the tune was adopted for the spiritual Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho.

Another song on the same theme is The rowin't in her apron, printed in the Scots Musical Museum and probably from Nithsdale in south-west Scotland, in which a laird who moves in the high social circles of Edinburgh is again seen as the most desirable catch.

There is one great exception in Gaeldom to these negative impressions: the Gaelic poetry and song of Duncan Ban Macintyre (1724-1812), who spent much of his life as a policeman in the Edinburgh Town Guard. While his best work is about the natural world of his native Highlands, he wrote about Edinburgh on several occasions; his long Song to Edinburgh (for which I have not located a tune) is so fulsome in praise of the city it would embarrass a travel agent. He even chose The Flowers of Edinburgh, in James Oswald's original slow version, as the tune for one of his finest poems about his native Highlands, the Lament for the Misty Corrie. There is not a hint anywhere in his writing that Edinburgh was anything short of paradise on earth. No subsequent literary emigrant managed to combine such poetic genius with utter obliviousness to the evils under his nose until Ezra Pound settled in Fascist Italy.

Rivalry between Edinburgh its smaller neighbouring towns goes back to its emergence as Scotland's major city, and continued long after it swallowed them whole; Leith was the last and biggest to go, amalgamated with Edinburgh in 1920, and many Leithers born since then continue to speak of Edinburgh as a different city with a different culture. The small fishing village of Musselburgh has a rhyme which reflects the Douglases' wishful thinking:

Musselburgh was a brogh
When Edinbrogh was nane
And Musselburgh'll be a brogh
When Edinbrogh's gane.

The first two lines are on the mark; the fishing villages of the Forth were settled in the Mesolithic, long before the militarism of the invading Celts forced settlement up to the defensive heights of the Castle Rock. But in fact this was a pun: "brogh" meant a mussel bed. And the prophecy has a good chance of coming true when the whole of Musselburgh has returned to the sea from global warming.

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Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin