Come Down the Mile




Outside Scottish Poetry Library

Venue 167


5-29 Aug, not Tuesdays



Poet Ken Cockburn invites us to join him in a poetical exploration of the lower Canongate, visiting both well-known sites and lesser-known hidden gems on and off the Royal Mile and in Holyrood Park, regaling us with poems as we go.


On the door of the poetry library is an extract from Edwin Morgan’s poem celebrating the opening of the new Parliament building at the bottom of the Royal Mile: “Open the doors!  Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!  We have a building which is more than a building”.   It’s equally apposite for the Poetry Library itself, celebrating poetry itself, which shines its light on the world and into our minds, giving us words to describe our experience and challenging us to expand our horizons.


The Canongate gets its name from the monks whose Abbey was at Holyrood long before there was a Royal palace there: the canons [monks] walked on the gait [road] ascending to the Castle.  It was a borough in itself, separate from walled Edinburgh, and an area to which debtors could flee to escape the duns, or debt-collectors.  In the days before there were shops selling foodstuffs and other necessities, itinerant traders would come bringing their wares, and farmers would come to sell their wares at the Mercat Cross, which was originally at the bottom of the Mile, but was more recently moved to Canongate Kirkyard.  People didn’t have ovens in their homes, so they would take their bread to the bakers’ ovens in Bakehouse Close; brewers’ ale was much in demand, for the water was generally undrinkable.  In Edinburgh space was at a premium, and people lived squashed together in the multi-story tenement buildings, with the grand people living on the best floors, and everyone else squashing together above and below them: in the Canongate there was more space, and the rich had large houses with gardens extending behind them.


We heard an extract from the first translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, made just over 500 years ago, into Middle Scots; part of Robert Sempill’s 1572 Lamentation of the Commons of Scotland, lamenting the plight of traders unable to enter the city to sell their wares due to the civil war in the city between supporters of the deposed Mary Queen of Scots and the supporters of her son, the young James VI; and some of the street cries of the itinerant sellers of caller (fresh) fish, fruit and vegetables of all kinds, including peeryories (potatoes to you and me).  We met the Roberts Ferguson and Burns, and the lovely Clarinda’s farewell gift Ae Fond Kiss once more brought tears to my eyes.


Dorothy and William Wordsworth visited Edinburgh on their Scottish tour: Dorothy rhapsodised over the ruins of the Abbey, but was totally unimpressed by the Palace – so regular a building, with sash Windows, which might as well have been a military or a naval hospital!  The lovely oasis that is Dunbar’s Close was not new to me, but though I’d often passed St Margaret’s Well in Holyrood Park, I’d never before peered through the grille that fronts it and discovered that there’s the most amazing wee building behind it, a miniature version of the now ruined chapel of St Triduana in Restalrig.


While sitting on the ‘demonstration’ area outside the Parliament we heard more of Edwin Morgan’s magnificent poem for the Opening of the extraordinary building beside us, a fitting riposte to Dorothy’s criticism of the place – We have a building which is more than a building.  / There is a commerce between inner and outer, between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world. / … Do you want classic columns and predictable pediments?  A growl of Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box? / Not here, no thanks! / No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens, syncopations and surprises.  Leave symmetry to the cemetery. …


And so we came full circle back to the doors of the Poetry Library


It’s an excellent tour for both the historian and the poetry lover: Ken is a brilliant guide and his love for the poems shines out and illuminates them for us.  If you are new to poetry, I can’t think of a better introduction, and if, like me, you have been addicted for years, you will derive equal pleasure from greeting old friends and discovering new ones.


Mary Woodward