2 aberdeen - fort george

21-4 VIII 1773
8 IX 2013

24-5 VIII 1773
25 XI 2013

26 VIII 1773
8 IX 2013

27-8 VIII 1773
8 IX 2013


26 VIII 1773
4 IX 2013

27–8 VIII 1773
4 IX 2013


28 VIII 1773
3 IX 2013


Cum populo quisquis Romanam suspicis urbem,
   Et mundi dominam delicinsque vocas;
Confer Aberdoniam.

Arthur Johnston's On the City of Aberdeen', as translated by Robert Crawford, begins, If you think Rome's the world's Number One / Consider Aberdeen.... Johnston, who came from near Inverurie, served as Rector of the city's King's College in the 1640s. While in Aberdeen Johnson is pleased to see his portrait hanging in Marischal College, but disappointed not to find a copy of Delitiae Poetarum Scoturum (Delights of the Scottish Poets), a vast two-volume anthology of Scottish Latin poets, edited by Johnston in 1637.

Future essays will include new poems inspired by Latin poets, Roman and Scottish; this single dart and opening salvo is Alec's version of one of Johnston's Nobiles Scoti, Episcopi Scoti couplets; it is dedicated to Alicia Bruce, who took the photograph at Trump International Golf Links Scotland.

To Donald Trump, of Trump Tower

A card cried TRUMP combs
Over Menie's rolling dunes.

Only proving: bunkers are for dunces,
Pitched with more riches than sense.

We were intrigued by Bowell's aside, which recalled our tanzaku poem-labels: We sauntered after dinner in Sir Alexander Gordon's garden, and saw his little grotto, which is hung with pieces of poetry written in a fair hand. (23 August) Gordon, Professor of Medecine at Kings College, had been a friend of Johnson's in London twenty years before; now they wandered in his Shenstonian grotto.

Our authority on landscape gardens is currently attempting to find out more about the fluttering poems they saw there, as well as the large lobster claw housed in the ingenious petrified rock grotto of Colonel Nairne, at which they had marvelled in Saint Andrews.


Campbell, Gordon The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (2013)
Crawford, Robert (ed.) Apollos of the North: Selected Poems of George Buchanan and Arthur Johnston (2006)
Stevenson, Jane and Davidson, Peter The Lost City: Old Aberdeen (2008)
Shenstone, William The Poetical Works of William Shenstone (1784)
Trump, Donald How to Get Rich (2008)


From perhaps a weakness, or, as I rather hope, more fancy and warmth of feeling than is quite reasonable, my mind is ever impressed with admiration for persons of high birth, writes Boswell (24 August); so he can’t decline a polite invitation from Lord Erroll, though it takes them out of their way to the coast north of Aberdeen.

Despite their lack of interest in ‘romantic’ scenery, the clifftop situation of Slains Castle does impress them. Johnson is moved to recite Horace’s ode of storms, iam satis terris, while Boswell, gazing at the long unbroken horizon, thinks, as ever, less of scenery and more of society, waving towards the neighbours – but just the regal ones, mind – over the horizon in Denmark.

In 1895 Bram Stoker wrote parts of Dracula nearby, and is said to have visited. Fisherman William Tait told Betty Stucley in the ‘50s, there’s been many famous people living there. Mr Asquith, he took it for two years, and the singer Melba, she had it too; but the Errolls lost their money, and had to go away. They sold it to shipping magnate Sir John Ellerman, who, in 1925 had the roof removed to avoid taxes – his bolts, at his own temple cast, in the words of  Conington’s Horace. The building has been deteriorating picturesquely ever since, though it continues to be well visited, going by the number of people who’ve gone to the trouble of recording their presence.

While staying at Slains, Boswell and Johnson visit the Bullers of Buchan, a sea cave whose roof has collapsed, which Johnson likens to a vast well bordered with a wall, and Boswell to a “monstrous cauldron”. In a flight of Gothic fancy which anticipates Stoker, Johnson writes, if I had any malice against a walking spirit, instead of laying him in the Red-sea, I would condemn him to reside in the Buller of Buchan.


Conington, John, The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (1882)
Stoker, Bram, Dracula (1897)
Stucley, Elizabeth, A Hebridean Journey with Johnson and Boswell (1956)


IN THE             SHAPE


The lantern of the north burns dimly. Destroyed by the Wolf of Badenoch, it was restored and then, according to Johnson, for whom the Scottish reformation could do no right, suffered to dilapidate by deliberate robbery and frigid indifference’. Johnson bewailed the mores which maintained sacred monuments, such as the tumbledown cathedral, so poorly.





It was hard for us to see a preferable outcome in renewal, where it takes the form of Elgin’s Bible garden, where fine planting is ruined by ludicrous, flaking biblical worthies which seem moulded from dough. Cover them up, we say, cover them up, quickly!

photo by Karen V Bryan


Cramond, William, The Records of Elgin (1903)
Donaldson, Gordon, The Scottish Reformation (1960)


Sueno's stone

The stone, now set within a glass case, stands 6 metres tall, much larger than most Pictish stones. We concurred with the sign: The absence of an inscription on the stone forbids a firm conclusion’. Peter Davidson agreed too, in Distance and Memory, describing its meaning as forgotten, gone. It remains pure because it is unknowable.’ He compares it to Eliseg’s Pillar in Wales, which Ken once visited and wrote of, in the poem ‘Homelands’:

   Eliseg’s Pillar stands as Glyn-y-Croes
   (or, as the monks would know it, Valle Crucis)
   where Cyngen traced his lineage;

   time has smoothed entirely his inscription,
   are disappearing too the letters which
   remember Lloyd, the pillar’s

   transcriber and its partial renovator
   after Puritan demolishing.
   The cross is gone, while the name lingers…

All those layers of history accumulating round this stone, and overlaying – obscuring – whatever its original meaning might have been.

Sueno’s Stone depicts scenes  of battle, and Ken speculated, wildly, that the masons on the losing side were forced to carve it as a tribute to the victors, then beheaded – and so it became the last of its kind.


Cockburn, Ken Souvenirs and Homelands (1998)
Davidson, Peter Distance and Memory (2013)
Fraser, Iain (ed.) The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland (2008)
Robinson, David (ed.) Valle Crucis Abbey: The Pillar of Eliseg (1987)


When the rain beat down on them, at wild Monboddo, Johnson quoted the witches scene. In his Dictionary, he colours the definition for ‘journey’ with more Macbeth, as if foretelling the journey he and Boswell would make one day, over the heath.

“When Duncan is asleep,

Whereto the rather shall this day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him.”

Hereabouts place names and maps are not to be trusted. The Rodney Stone predated the eponymic Admiral, and the upside-down initials on its cross-side, by centuries. Renamed, reused, recategorized, it belongs to an alignment far from Brodie Castle. Macbeth was Thane of Caithness, not Cawdor. Those weird sisters we know as ‘the witches’ are never so titled in the play. Boswell writes that, east of Forres, we drove over the very heath where Macbeth met the witches’; but the hillock lies to the west of the town. And yet…

To an Englishman –

“classic ground”

Johnson accepted the attribution of the wilds of Moray to Macbeth, though common sense recognizes the castles of Cawdor and Inverness were of a later era. For Ossian he has only scorn.

The hillock – a small mound beside a new house, its grasses and thistles recently cut, cattle over the fence, a pine-wood not far off – remained magical, by association. We picnicked, tied some poem-labels, and chatted about how ordinary places became nadokoro by their associations, reminiscing school days, Polanski’s Macbeth projected in the new state-of-the-art lecture theatre, Fleance and Cheggers.

for Shakespeare’s
melted breath

read Marx’s
solid air


Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

Johnson, Samuel Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Johnson, Samuel Miscellanous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth (1745)
Loose, Gerry Tongues of Stone: Poems from Ogham (1998)
Shakespeare, William Macbeth (1606)
Watson, Fiona Macbeth: A True History (2010)


At Nairn the travellers heard ‘Erse, or Gaelic, for the first time, sensing another demesne open to them, as Basho, at Shirakawa, opened to Minichoku.

   natural grace’s

   beginning found in Oku's
   rice-planting singing

Johnson’s antipathy to Gaelic – ‘the rude speech of a barbarous people’ – arose from his notion that it ‘never was a written language’. The oral tradition must then, he alleged, stand a state of childish arrest. The lacuna in his discourse with Gaelic-speakers is the flaw that discolours his account and, great talker that is, he cannot jettison the writer’s prejudice against speech. What are the epic songs he hears in the Hebrides if not memory systems, propelled on the air?

a language that floats in the breath

tends to song

a language that renders letters

tends to polished accounts

a language that is keyed

tends to tweets & status updates

The Gaelic they overhear is the song of a young woman, spinning the giddy wheel upstairs. In jest, Johnson teased the lyric into ‘one of the songs of Ossian’.

Soon the travellers would hear a Gaelic rowing song as they made the crossing to the little court of MacLeod of Raasay. Their host at Cawdor, Rev. Kenneth MacAulay, had written of such songs in his History of St Kilda

‘They delight much in singing, and their voices are abundantly tuneful. The women, while cutting down their barley in a field, or grinding their grain on the handmills in the house, are almost constantly employed in that way; and the men if pulling at the oar, exert all the strength of their skill in animating the party, by chanting away some spirited songs adapted to the business in hand. The seamen of Athens practised the same custom.’

More at home with Latin than Gaelic, Johnson gifts a book to MacAuley’s eleven year-old son, ‘a Sallust [which he had brought] with him in his pocket from Edinburgh’, records Boswell.

At the manse they ‘laid the map of Scotland before [them]’. MacAulay planned a route, west, using know-how gained during his service in parishes in Lochaber, Ardnamurchan, and the Hebrides; after a voyage through Skye, Mull and Iona, they should land in Oban around 20 September. In fact, they arrive on 22 October.

On the East Beach of Nairn our fallback camera was cursed by sand. We attributed the bad luck on this trip to the sorcery of our farmhouse B&B landlady, whose CONTRO MIST scooshed each breakfast sitting with its synthetic potion to stop anything smelling of itself.





(after Delaney)


map above: ‘A New Map of the Western Isles of Scotland’, attributed to Martin Martin, engraved by Herman Moll (1703)

Macaulay, Kenneth The History of St. Kilda (1764)
Delaney, Frank A Walk to the Western Isles (1993)
Johnson, Samuel Translation of Sallust: A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hyde Manuscript (1993)
Basho, Back Roads to Far Towns, trans. Corman and Susumu, (1968)


A star-shaped fort, still garrisoned, Fort George abutts the coast. Designed by the Adam brothers as part of the enforced pacification of the Highlands, it cost c. £1 billion in today’s money. The travellers were offered a good table of wine. The Fort’s commander, Sir Eyre Coote, praised the virtues of the Arabs he had encountered in the desert.


GE                           RT

OR               GE

straight lines
of canon-fire

& mown-lawn
as in England

These now decorative cannon were the shock and awe of their day (for Rumsfield read Cumberland). We walked the lines at evening and wondered if a cannonball could reach as far as Cromarty, over Rosemarkie Bay.





It’s only when we’re here that we’re struck that, for all the conversations on Skye with those who fought for and aided Prince Charles Edward, they bypass – don’t even mention – Culloden, although they pass within a few miles of it. As guests of the British Army, here and shortly afterwards at Fort Augustus, it’s understandable that they reveal no Jacobite sympathies – but Culloden was as much the site of a victory as of a defeat.


Prebble, John Culloden (1961)

Willis, Clint The I Hate Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice... Reader: Behind the Bush Cabal's War on America (2004)