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Issue 59 - Makars' Tales

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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Makars' Tales

Roddy Martine reflects on the immortality of the written word

It was a summons from my American friend Robert Currie that took me to the Writer’s Museum in Lady Stair’s Close, off the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. Gifted to the City of Edinburgh in 1907, the interiors of this building previously known as Lady Stair’s House now honour three of Scotland’s literary greats: Robert Burns, who lodged nearby; Sir Walter Scott, whose dining room from North Castle Street in Edinburgh’s New Town has been lovingly reconstructed in replica, and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose riding boots and some personal memorabilia have been acquired for posterity.

However, Robert Currie, president of the Clan Currie Society in New York, was over for a ceremony taking place in the Makar’s Court located outside, the unveiling of a commemorative paving stone dedicated to one of his clan’s most celebrated medieval bards, Lachlan Mòr MacMhuirich. The following day, a symposium on the bard’s work was held at the Royal Scots Club.

It was on the eve of the Battle of Red Harlaw on 24 July 1411 that Lachlan Mòr delivered his Harlaw Brosnachadh, or ‘Incitement to Battle’.

This epic poem was composed to inspire the followers of the Lord of the Isles to victory in one of the most savage bloodbaths in Scottish history, and the first two lines are etched onto the stone. As it turned out, the battle was indecisive, but it nevertheless made a profound impact on who would exercise future control over the Highlands: the clans of the west or the Regent of Scotland.

Sponsored by Clan Currie and presided over by George Grubb, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, the procedures, watched over by an eclectic selection of passers-by, took place on the eve of the 600th anniversary of the battle.

Lachlan Mòr is in good company. Among the more contemporary inscriptions to be seen in Makar’s Court are those in memory of George Mackay Brown, David Daiches, Dorothy Dunnett, Sorley MacLean, Naomi Mitchison, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Nigel Tranter and Douglas Young, and in an unexpected flash of mortality it occurred to me how many of these individuals I had known personally in my lifetime.

The redoubtable George Mackay Brown, for example, I met at Stromness, on Orkney, during the 1970s, and since it now appears that I am name dropping, I used to watch Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman McCaig, Sorley MacLean and Douglas Young hold court in the Abbotsford Pub in Rose Street when I was 18 years old. Douglas once came to speak about Scottish independence at my school debating society, and in the 1980s I vividly recall sitting beside Sorley at the piping championships at Blair Castle. In 1996, I wrote his obituary for the Daily Mail.

Professor David Daiches I knew through his brother, the kenspeckle Lionel QC, a shrewd and witty legal man-about-town. David’s bible on Scotch Whisky has never been bettered, and he and the sparkling Lionel were without question the most articulate public speakers I have ever had the privilege of listening to.

Naomi Mitchison I visited at Carradale, her mansion in Kintyre, and she gave me kippers for lunch. She was in her 90s then (she lived to be 101) and I remember asking her if she still harboured unfulfilled ambitions. Yes, she replied, to travel down the Oronoque, a river in South America.

And the following year, she did.

Indeed, all of these inimitable figures, all of whom have sadly succumbed to the passing of time, I have found inspirational in my life. It therefore warms my heart to find them commemorated here on the flagstones of Makar’s Court, their immortality guaranteed through the written word.

Moreover, I welcome the news that the MacMhuirrich Symposium which was held on the day after the unveiling, is being potentially proposed as an annual event to celebrate the icons of Scotland’s literary heritage.

All things must pass, but the end is not yet. At least there is a secluded corner of the Old Town of Edinburgh where such names as Burns, Scott and Stevenson, Buchan, Fergusson, Spark, Galt and the others who through the centuries will share this space, will never be forgotten.