Object of the Month: A Love Song

Courtin ma love is a comedic music-hall folk song that tells the story of a man who tumbled from his beau’s window as he was wooing her. Between the dumbfounded stare of the parents and the brother’s alarm, it is hard not to smile to the songs lyrics and hum to it. The picture the song evokes is one of innocence and spectacle. It lifts the heart for us to imagine this man risking his skin for the person he loves. After all, who has not done silly things when in love.

She wheeled me in with a wheelbarrow,

My mother and father was at the door, and by God did they stare!

My brother Job came running out, he says, “Man, what have you done?”

I was courtin ma love, my bunny wee love, and fell and cut my bum.

Courtin ma love, Sandy Scott, 1960. Tobar an Dualchais

June is summer. It is a time for flowers to bloom, sun to shine and love to be celebrated. It is also the month dedicated to commemorating the actions and legacy of the LGBTQI+ community. The sixth month of the year thus invite us to ponder and reflect upon the cultural narratives we tell of love. Considered in this light, beyond its whimsical cuteness, this simple love song is a testament to the ways in which love move us to act despite scorn or shame.

The last verse of the song recounts how the entire village came to laugh at the man. Shouting at him as he was wheeled through the village to the doctor by his girlfriend. We can imagine the reaction of the villagers. Some might have been amused by the sight. Others might have been horrified. Nevertheless, it is obvious that though the details of the courtship might have been private, it is a ritual which involves not only the family but also the community as well.

Our concern with love and the behaviours surrounding it are governed by a set of social norms which is enforced by our communities. During the 1950s, in response to public outcry to the escalation of “urban vices,” the Wolfenden Committee determined that medical practices and psychological treatment should be introduced in the legal codes to curb the menace that was homosexual love. Like the villagers who were horrified by the actions of the couple, social stigma and shame were the tools by which communities readily maintained control over expressions of love.

Lark in the Park, Edinburgh, Prince Street, 1988. Equality Network

Yet this does not mean people were silent. Rather, in a thousand ways, individuals dissented from the norm and expressed their love regardless of shame and stigma. Cities became havens for expressions of love, as within the crowds, one could find relative safety in spaces like cafes and clubs for sexual exploration. Action groups could be form to pressure governments into action. On 28th May 1988, hosted by Scottish Homosexual Action Group, the first Lark in the Park event was held in Prince’s Street Gardens. The largest such event held at the time, the festival hosted comedy and musical acts. Here, like the man in the song, instead of hiding the events of his courtship, the man instead decided to eternalize his love by expressing it through music. In the process, what was supposed to be shameful is remembered and normalized as an act of love.

Today, this collective declaration for freedom to love as one see fit is still with us. Pride Edinburgh traces its roots directly to that first Lark in the Park and the organization continues to celebrate love each year. Like the couple in folk song, in the face of stigma and shame, we still bravely declared our love for one another. More than its catchy qualities, Courtin ma love should rather be heard as a proud anthem of love.

Written by Morris Chou

References

Aldrich, Robert. “Homosexuality and the City: An Historical Overview.” Urban Studies, Special Issue: SEX AND THE CITY: SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC EXPLORATIONS IN URBAN SEXUALITY, 41, no. 9 (August 2004): 1719–37.

Davidson, Roger. “‘Cure or Confinement’? Law, Medicine and the Treatment of Homosexual Offenders in Scotland, 1950–80.” In Illicit and Unnatural Practices The Law, Sex and Society in Scotland since 1900, 129–52. Edinburgh University Press, 2022. https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1515/9781474441216-010.

Equality Network. “Lark in the Park,” n.d. https://www.equality-network.org/pride-in-scotland-history/lark-in-the-park-3/

National Records of Scotland. “LGBT History Month,” n.d. https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/features/lgbt-history-month.

Pride Edinburgh. “Our History,” 2022. https://prideedinburgh.co.uk/our-history/.

Sandy, Scott. Courtin Ma Love. Audio Recording. Dunfermline, 1960. Tobar an Dualchais. https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/53345?l=en.

Object of the Month: Pigs and Masters

The Roslin Glass Slides held by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections is part and parcel of this story of negotiation. This glass slide showcasing Long Chief, a Poland-China boar, is a testament to not only the highly globalized practice of livestock breeding, but it is also the story of our dependence on these animals.  

Roslin Glass Slides, No 1585. Caption reads: “Long Chief 90243, a big-type Poland-China boar said to have weighed 1000 pounds at three years of age. Owned by the Rockfield Breeding Association. Rockfield, Indiana. From photograph by J.C. Allen.”  

We tend to think that we are masters of this planet. In the book of Genesis, God gave Adam rulership over all the creatures that walk this Earth. In history, we tell the story of mankind’s triumph against the natural order through industrial and technological innovations. Nature becomes the passive and neutral canvas in which human actors freely impress their will. Through science, we order, study and then rearrange the environment into a form that best serve our needs.  

Yet, this story is incomplete. Rather, we depend to a large degree upon the environment to survive. Humanity’s story with nature is less one of dominance but is instead one of constant negotiations and compromises. Even today, for all our scientific knowledge and technology, we can do painfully little even in the face of changing weather patterns.  

The Roslin Glass Slides held by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections is part and parcel of this story of negotiation. This glass slide showcasing Long Chief, a Poland-China boar, is a testament to not only the highly globalized practice of livestock breeding, but it is also the story of our dependence on these animals.  

Though Long Chief most likely spent the entirety of his life in Rockfield Indiana, he is a product of exchange that spanned across time and space, from early modern China to the industrialized England and then finally unto the New World. European pigs were systematically cross bred with Chinese breeds in the 17th century, who matured faster and carried more offspring in a shorter amount of time after centuries of continuous breeding within China. (Lander, Schneider, Brunson, 2020, 873-4) The giant frame of the Long Chief thus represents one result of these efforts of cross breeding. Mixed with Chinese breeds, English Berkshires and Polish breeds, Poland-China boars like the Long Chief was very prominent in the 19th century, as the growing demand for pork created a need for bigger pigs.(Lutwyche, 2019, 176-188) Within the Long Chief we can also see the culminative result of the industrial revolution, which asked for pigs to be bred for their meat in factories.  

Yet although the Long Chief may be presented as another clog within the great transformative engine of the Industrial Revolution, it is important to recognize that he is a living being which also exert some form of agency. This agency can be seen from our dependence upon livestock to literally nourish and feed our societies. More evocatively, pigs like the Long Chief also make a significant imprint upon our cultures. As scholars have pointed out, the Chinese character for home (家) essentially means pig contained under a roof. In short, this linguistic turn not only reminds us of a time when livestock were kept at home, but it also highlights their prominence within society. (Lander, Schneider, Brunson, 2020, 870) When Europeans first arrived in America, pigs became not only an important source of protein for the early colonists in the alien environment, but they also spread out in great numbers across the continent so much so that they became the best “wild game” for colonists.(Crosby, 2004, 172-176) The Long Chief and his ancestors thus one of the essential ingredients which supported and enabled European colonists to live in hostile environments.  

The pig displayed within the Roslin Glass slide is meant to be a silent and submissive subject. Yet this is only one part of the story. Pigs like the Long Chief are in fact more than the prized hog that could be paraded and studied at will. They not only literally embody a globalized world, but they also remind us that like nature they have a will about them which they exercise. Recently, researchers have discovered that just feral wild pigs of Oceania emit alone nearly 3 million tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the emission of 643,000 cars. (Lu, 2021) Seen in this light, the Roslin Glass Slide held by the CRC tells not only the story of mankind’s progress, but it also attests to the fact that even today our stories are fundamentally wedded with animals and the environment.  

Written by Morris Chou.

References 

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism : the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 / Alfred W. Crosby. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Lander, Brian, Mindi Schneider, and Katherine Brunson. “A history of pigs in China: from curious omnivores to industrial pork.” The Journal of Asian Studies 79, no. 4 (2020): 865-889. 

Lu, Donna. “World’s feral pigs produce as much CO2 as 1.1m cars each year, study finds.” The Guardian, July 19, 2021.  

Lutwyche, Richard. The Pig: A Natural History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 

Object of the Month: Diane de Bournazel’s Adieu Vat (2016) 

This month we focus on Diane de Bournazel’s Adieu Vat. A long and thin book, containing just sixteen pages of beautifully hand-illuminated watercolour illustrations and collage, was bound by Armelle Guégant in hard coverboards with a matching slipcase, all in swirling grey paper. It is a testament to de Bournazel’s work, which consist mostly of fantastical, illuminated mediaeval marginalia style books, as well as paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

Diane de Bournazel (b. 1956) is a Parisian artist whose works consist mostly of fantastical, illuminated mediaeval marginalia style books, as well as paintings, drawings, and sculptures. The University of Edinburgh is extremely lucky to own some of de Bournazel’s work, including one of her most moving works: Adieu Vat (2016). The book itself is long and thin, containing just sixteen pages of beautifully hand-illuminated watercolour illustrations and collage. It was bound by Armelle Guégant in hard coverboards with a matching slipcase, all in swirling grey paper.

The very first page of the book is confronting—stark black and white and beige. The page is almost entirely taken up by an oblong eye shape composed of white droplets. Beneath it, a character, cut from another paper and pasted in, lies supine on the ground, seemingly shrouded as though in preparation for burial. They are pale white, surrounded by a small box of black. Their features seem slack, and eyes closed. At their feet, another pasted-in shape that appears to be a stone. It is not an afterthought as the artist has taken the time to cut it from another page and paste it in; a tombstone perhaps? Could this forest ritual be the celebration of life of the seemingly dead character?

Croft, Justin (2020), Men & Women, Justin Croft Antiquarian Books, p.67.

Through the rest of the pages, four square holes are cut, in the very centre of the page, stacked on one another vertically. Each is framed with stripes, black on the first page and red the rest of the way through, as though we are peering into the body of a creature. Indeed, on the first page the holes encompass the body of a tall deer-headed figure. Through the holes we see first a skull, then two hearts, below that two lovers embrace, and finally a crescent moon. Surrounding the deer-headed figure are Burton-esque characters, filling the page, stacked upon one another. They are shaded with black cross-hatch, though pops of red, gold, and blue save them from utter monochromality. Some appear recognisably human, albeit very stylised, while others are anthropomorphic animals, and some are plain animals: rodents and butterflies and entirely fictional creatures. The denseness with which these characters are packed on the page, as well as the flourishes of organic patterns and recognisable limbs of trees or plants lend the feeling of an almost pagan forest meeting. One can’t help being reminded of a pagan, Celtic past.

Croft, Justin (2020), Men & Women, Justin Croft Antiquarian Books, p.67.

As we turn the page we see more colour and more commotion. We can almost see these strange, fantastical characters dancing across the page, framing these four boxes cut through every page. Even death makes an appearance here, as a skeleton stands amongst all the life. Death appears again and again as we move through the forest revelry, past a river and to a giant tree. As if to underscore the fact that these box-shaped cuts in the paper are letting us peer into a body, a figure below the boxes on one page bears their own box, framed in red stripes with a heart inside.

By the next page, we return to the dark forest. the creatures seem mournful. In a sun-like shape enclosed with white, gold, and blue, two figures embrace like twins in a womb. The rest of the figures are stacked like a totem around the box shaped cuts. The turbulent motion of them all seems gone. Replaced by a sense of profound stillness.

We reach the penultimate page and are greeted by the figure who has peered at us through these holes. A figure with a long, bell shaped body covered in almost tiles or scales like an armadillo. It’s head is a skill, and inside it, two hearts, a couple embracing, and a crescent moon. From its body, limbs like a tree reach out, strange and orderly, with rain-drop shaped hanging from them. It stands on two precarious legs, the end of which we cannot see. Two large red flowers bloom at either side of the figure.

A twisted tree-like shape climbs up the fold between the pages, it’s limbs branching wide across the tops of both pages, one side bearing hearts, and the other circular holes, letting us glimpse the pages we have already passed by.

On the final page, the red flowers are mirrored with white flowers, unbound by stems, floating freely across the beige paper. A figure rises above them, cut from an antique letter, bearing the scrawling penmanship of a time long past. Among the difficult scrawl, I can make out one word: gloire- glory. The figure arches like a ballerina, hands stretched high to graze the end of a thin, crescent moon. Perhaps a spirit freed, the waning moon approaching a new beginning.

This strange book certainly seems to be telling a moving story of life and loss, so what inspired it, and what does it all mean? One clue is in the title itself, Adieu Vat, which is an archaic French expression of goodbye. This, amongst the unquestionable depictions of death that hide amongst the lively characters, lovers, and animals in the pages of this book, seems to suggest that it is about a death. Indeed, de Bournazel lost her life partner, and this work is one of her wordless poems, commemorating the life and loss of her partner. De Bournazel is known for such fantastical, wordless poems, and this tragic, joyful, exuberant celebration of life, and acknowledgement of its inevitable end is what makes this particular work so deeply resonant and striking. The University of Edinburgh is certainly lucky to have Adieu Vat amongst its new collection of de Bournazel’s works, and interested students are able to access these works at the CRC, and experience these one-of-a-kind masterpieces first hand, for there is surely no better way than to spend an afternoon with it yourself.

Images courtesy of Justin Croft

Croft, Justin (2020), Men & Women, Justin Croft Antiquarian Books, p.67

[https://www.justincroft.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/JC-MenWomen.pdf]

Written by Andie Saint-Rouge.

Object of the Month: Plate XII

This month, our featured Object is from the Sea Change Exhibition. Read on to find out how the tiny organisms illustrated in Plate XII reveal the effect of climate change on our oceans.

To celebrate the groundbreaking Challenger Expedition, the University of Edinburgh recently launched the Sea Change as one of their Online Exhibitions. This month, our featured Object is Plate XII from the Report on Deep-Sea Deposits, which is one of 50 reports published collectively as the Report on the Scientific Results of HMS Challenger.  

Plate XII displays a variety of foraminifera species, as shown in the figure below. Foraminifera are single-celled organisms, mostly less than a millimetre in size. By placing thin sections of calcareous deep-sea deposits under the microscope, scientists saw the shells of a range of foraminifera species. The printed tissue overlay, which was bound into the volume, outlined and labelled different species, helping readers to identify the fossils. 

Plate XII: Foraminifera with a printed tissue overlay which outlines the different species observed microscopically. 

Here, we see a rather plain and straightforward illustration, but what we do not see is the amount of effort that went into creating this plate – it was anything but simple and straightforward. The plate was created through the joint effort of scientists and artists in Edinburgh, namely John Murray, Alfonse Renard and George West. Then, it was most likely sent to Brussels for printing.  

Plate XII was lithographed by Alfonse Renard and George West. Lithography is a printing method used to create all plates in the Report on Deep-Sea Deposits. Firstly, the image to be printed was drawn onto the surface of a limestone plate, using an oil-based substance, such as oil, fat or wax. Then, the stone was treated with acid and gum arabic to make the ungreased parts more ‘water-loving’. To print the image, the stone was first moistened to allow water to adhere to the gum-treated parts. Subsequently, an oil-based ink was applied, which stuck to the original drawing. Finally, the ink could be transferred to a blank paper sheet, producing a printed page. During the transfer process, the stone has to be exactly aligned to reference points on the paper, to avoid a blurred image.  

The shells of foraminifera are mainly made of calcium carbonate. It has been found that foraminifera collected from today’s oceans have significantly thinner shells, compared to specimens collected during the Challenger Expedition. This indicates that there has been a change to the flow of carbon through the Earth. With increasing atmospheric carbon concentration, the ocean absorbs more carbon, leading to increased ocean acidity, which makes it difficult for calcareous shell building. Consequently, calcareous organisms (organisms with their shells mostly made of calcium carbonate) have thinner shells, and so less carbon is locked in the ocean floor when these organisms die and sink. Clearly, this adds to the piling evidence that climate change is real and poses a threat to life on land and in oceans.  

Between 1872 and 1876, the HMS Challenger circumnavigated the globe. In the Challenger Expedition, scientists on board collected data and specimens from the world’s oceans, which helped them (and us) understand the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of our deep sea. Over the following 20 years, the detailed records of our oceans were published as the Report on the Scientific Results of HMS Challenger. To find out more about the Sea Change exhibition, please visit this website.  

Written by Huey Ying Kok.

Object of the Month: Album Amicorum

This month, our featured Object is Michael van Meer’s Album Amicorum, which gives us a snippet of life in the 17th century. Popular among university students and noblemen in German- and Dutch-speaking regions of Europe, the album amicorum (book of friendship) is a catalogue of its owner’s numerous encounters – people, places or even events. In the album, you will find illustrations of coats of arms, sceneries, events and regional dresses, plus signatures by friends, acquaintances, noblemen, or even monarchs. All illustrations are drawn or commissioned by the signatory, as a complement to their autographs. 

This month, our featured Object is Michael van Meer’s Album Amicorum, which gives us a snippet of life in the 17th century. Popular among university students and noblemen in German- and Dutch-speaking regions of Europe, the album amicorum (book of friendship) is a catalogue of its owner’s numerous encounters – people, places or even events. In the album, you will find illustrations of coats of arms, sceneries, events and regional dresses, plus signatures by friends, acquaintances, noblemen, or even monarchs. All illustrations are drawn or commissioned by the signatory, as a complement to their autographs. 

What, then, is so special about van Meer? Well, between 1614 and 1615, van Meer, whilst in London, had managed to create an impressive collection of signatures by then-celebrities, including King James himself! In his album, there are also multiple illustrations depicting Jacobean London. Wonder how life looked like in the 17th century? Scroll down to find out! 

King James’ coat of arms and signature “Jacobus R”, dated 1614. The Latin inscription “Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos” translates into “To spare the humble and subdue the haughty”. 
A cock pit, labeled “Het Haene gefecht In Engelandt”, which translates into “A cock fight in England”. The platform is supported by brick foundation; the tiled roof is held by columns. Spectators sit or stand around the platform, betting gold coins. The seated figure on the left, wearing a feather hat, is almost certainly King James. Fun fact: Cockfights are still common in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. 
This is a painting of Windsor Castle, viewed from the north. A section of the Little Park can be seen. The three men and six dogs are on a deer hunt. 
London Bridge and River Thames. Seated in a skiff are two rowers and three elegantly-dressed passengers. 
Tower of London and River Thames in 1615. An anchored merchant vessel is on the right. 

Through van Meer’s documentation of his encounters, we learned a little more about him, the people he met, the places he visited, and the cultures he was exposed to. What an ordinary man with an unordinary life! 

All images are sourced from the University of Edinburgh Collections. If you would like to learn more about the contents of van Meer’s Album Amicorum, please visit this site.  

Written by Huey Ying Kok.

Object of the Month: The Heart of Midlothian

Our Object of the Month is currently featured in our exhibition about Walter Scott and Revolution, which is our way of celebrating 250 years since Scott’s birth. A French translation of ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian’, the object sheds light on the influence of Scott on subsequent revolutionaries around the world.

In celebration of our new exhibition, Scott and Revolution, our object of the month is a French translation of Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian.

Corson A.1.b.GAR/5, from the Scott and Revolution online exhibition.

From 1882, this French translation of The Heart of Midlothian is a stunning example of how Scott’s work was not only influenced by revolution, but influenced them as well. The work was translated by Auguste-Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret, who was considered the most significant agent in the discovery of Scott in Europe. His translation was subsequently used as a source text for a variety of translations such as Polish, Italian, Russian and Spanish. Additionally, French was a common language spoken amongst the educated across Europe, therefore it was very likely that many read Defauconpret’s own translation before the text appeared in their own native languages.

The influence of Scott on revolutionary thinking can be perceived as surprising to some, seeing as Scott’s political views were relatively conservative. However, as countries began to seek independence from European imperialism, much of what he wrote was interpreted as a defence of the oppressed cultures and languages that celebrated a rich history of their own. Inspired by Scott’s historical novels, writers elsewhere utilised the innovative genre to look to their countries’ past in order to comment and criticise issues of the present.

The image presented here is the frontispiece illustration, depicting the heroine of The Heart of Midlothian, Jeanie Deans, visiting her imprisoned sister Effie at Tolbooth prison. The text itself, as many of Defauconpret’s translations, amplifies the more reactionary and conservative elements of Scott’s writing. Nevertheless, the revolutionary tone of writing is still present. While he downplays the conflicts in the narrative and the religious elements, he presents the issues as clashes between classes and ethnicities.

Despite the changes made by Defauconpret, the Object of the Month serves to highlight the overlooked impact of Scott on revolution. Scott, often seen as an author who turns to the romanticised past rather than focusing on the revolutionary now, is much more involved with his contemporary Age of Revolution than previously perceived. The extensive Corson collection at the University, now on exhibition online here, only further proves that Scott and revolution go hand in hand.

Make sure you also check out the CRC’s Facebook and Twitter pages for more on Scott and Revolution, as well as a behind the scenes video regarding the process of selecting pieces for the exhibition here.

Written by Tessa Rodrigues

Object of the Month: Meteorites from Astronomy Victorious

Astronomy Victorious: Understanding our Universe is an online exhibition that can be viewed as part of the University’s Google Arts and Culture initiative. Taking the University’s long history of teaching astronomy as a starting point, the exhibition looks at ‘humanity’s changing understandings of the Universe,’ through a variety of items held in the University’s collections.

(Above image of Imilac stony iron pallasite meteorite photographed by Malcolm Brown)


Of particular interest is the selection of meteorites exhibited. Described as a small sample of ‘debris from planets or asteroids,’ meteorites make up some of the oldest material in the University’s collections and are the ‘principal source of extra-terrestrial material’ for research. From left to right, the samples used in Astronomy Victorious are named Allende, Gibeon and Stannern. The name of a meteorite refers to the larger meteor or meteor shower that the sample belonged to, and so each of these small sections are representative of a more substantial event.

(screenshot taken from Astronomy Victorious online exhibition)


Allende is often described as the ‘best-studied meteorite in history’ due to its significance as the largest carbonaceous chondrite ever found on Earth. It has scientifically notable calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions, which are among the oldest objects formed in the Solar System. The original meteor hit Earth in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1969, and meteorites belonging to it can be found widely distributed around the world today.


The Gibeon meteorite fell over the Gibeon region of Namibia in prehistoric times and is composed of an iron-nickel alloy. It was discovered by the Nama people and used for making weapons and tools, before Englishman J. E. Alexander collected samples for study in London. Following in depth analysis, pieces still in Namibia were collected and constructed into a fountain in the capital, Windhoek.


Lastly, Stannern fell in 1808 as part of an observed shower in an area now covered by the Czech Republic. Small samples of the stony meteorite were located by Austrian naturalist Karl Schreibers, and can now be seen all over the world.


These three meteorites are part of the University’s Meteorite Collection, which consists of approximately 70 meteorites in total and sits within the larger Geology Collection. More information about these items, the collections and Astronomy Victorious can be found below.

Further information and resources:

Astronomy Victorious via Google Arts and Culture: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/MQWxeknrHcathQ
Meteorite Collection: https://collections.ed.ac.uk/record/673
Geology Collection: https://collections.ed.ac.uk/record/300
Some close up images of items from the Meteorite collection: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/diu/type/image/

Written by Catherine

Object(s) of the Month: The Modern-Day Entomologist

This Object of the Month showcases some of recent the work to come out of the Edinburgh College of Art. The featured pieces (of which there are a print, two cast brass bees and three flocked moths) were later acquired by the Art Collection at the University. 

Moths and Bees was created in 2018 by Jessica Gasson as part of their Fine Art MA at the University of Edinburgh.  

This Object of the Month showcases some of recent the work to come out of the Edinburgh College of Art. The featured pieces (of which there are a print, two cast brass bees and three flocked moths) were later acquired by the Art Collection at the University. 

Gasson’s moths and bees are inspired by her exploration of medieval manuscripts, tapestries and Netherlandish paintings but also her broader interest in collecting, phenomenology, textures and perception. 

A great deal of their creativity and ingenuity was born out of their interest in research collections, museums and the studio/college experience. In her degree show, Gasson demonstrated a lot of the research that she had undertaken into the flight patterns of bats and took interest in textiles, objects in the CRC Collections and the ideas of tactility and trace. The intersectionality between Gasson’s interest in art and collecting can be seen here, especially when the viewer questions, even if just for a second, whether Gasson’s delicate insects are real. 

One of the joys of group visits to art galleries (in pre-pandemic times) was the fact that each visitor had the opportunity to engage with a variety of different installations, themes and identify details that interested them particularly. Indeed, each artistic work speaks to any individual in different ways. Moths and Bees can be viewed alongside a number of other ECA artworks within an ongoing Digital exhibit here. Therefore, a reader can still access a little of that gallery experience virtually.  

Moths and Bees is a small reminder to question the stereotype that Collections and Archives hold only dusty and ancient artifacts for safe keeping. The piece was created and acquired within the last decade. Not only do the Collections at the University continue to grow and develop, but they also continue to inspire and influence future works. 

If you are interested in studying at the ECA you can find more information here.  The ECA offers programs in architecture and landscape architecture; art; history of art; design and music.   

Object of the Month: Brown’s Close Photograph

What am I looking at?

This photograph taken around the year 1900 depicts a young boy standing in Brown’s Close, then a slum-dwelling situated on the northern side of the historic Canongate. Used by the Photographic Society of Edinburgh and the urbanist Patrick Geddes as part of their respective surveys of the city, both groups displayed this picture along with hundreds of others in exhibitions that sought to visually document Edinburgh’s urban life. Projects such as these form part of a trend of Scottish photographic documentation of the lives of the working poor, with photographers Thomas Annan, John Thomson and William Donaldson Clark working across Scotland and England in the late 19th Century. Over 250 glass-plate negatives such as this photograph survive in the University of Edinburgh’s Patrick Geddes Collection.

What is the history of the location of this photo?

Situated at the Eastern end of the Royal Mile, the Canongate takes its name from the Augustinian monks who settled at Holyrood abbey in the 12th Century. The street and district was traditionally its own distinct burgh until its incorporation into the city in 1856. In the 17th Century the rich resided in grand town houses such as Moray House, enjoying the spaciousness and greenery of the area. Yet the wealth and status that geographical proximity to the abbey and palace of Holyrood once brought the district began to incrementally decline after successive political ruptures. The ascension of James VI to the English throne and the dissolution of the court in the union of 1707 decreased Holyrood’s status and drew the political class elsewhere, initiating the area’s neglect. It’s decline was compounded by the rise of the New Town as the choice suburb for the wealthy, with the construction of the North Bridge in 1772 leaving the Canongate a geographical outlier. Into the 19th century the area became industrialised with the entry of the gasworks and breweries, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the district was home to the slum-dwellings of the working poor.

Who used this photo?

At the turn of the century when this photo was taken, Brown’s Close was impoverished, with poor sanitation and overcrowding. Patrick Geddes, the influential biologist, sociologist and urbanist, recorded its dilapidated housing as part of a city-wide civic survey. This included plans, maps and architectural drawings exhibited in his six-storey Outlook Tower on the Royal Mile. Among this exhibition was a collection of 213 photographs to which this photo of Brown’s Close belongs.

What was the purpose of the photo?

It was through this visual documentation that Geddes built up a rich contextual history of Edinburgh, influenced by his belief that a healthy regeneration of the city must rely upon a solid understanding of its cultural and sociological past. Many of the photographs in this collection depict Edinburgh’s built environment and those who inhabited it, in line with the philosophy that underpinned the foci of his survey: ‘place, work and folk’. Through his photographic surveying, Geddes unveiled the failure of the planners and leaders to protect and support those members of society that lived in appalling conditions. In this manner, these photographs constituted a kind of reflection, where urban planners were galvanised to envision a better way of living for the inhabitants depicted in them.

What happened to Brown’s Close?

Geddes himself was responsible for the redesigning of a number of slum-dwellings in the Old Town, utilising community participation and architectural reuse as an alternative approach to the customary slum clearances. Yet the Canongate was subject to such clearances in the 1920s, seriously decreasing and displacing its once overcrowded population. Later redevelopment by Robert Hurd in the early 1950s was more “sympathetic”, aiming to build tenements in keeping with the character of the surrounding historic buildings. Today, a modern housing block built in 1969 by the notable modernist architect Basil Spence is the only dwelling that stands on the Close. Just across the road, nearly a millennium of the Canongate’s long history is culminated with the construction of the new Scottish Parliament, restoring the area’s political character once more.

This photograph is part of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research Collections Patrick Geddes Collection, and is shown in their Google Arts and Culture online exhibition: ‘Surveying Scotland’. To see more of the exhibition, visit:https://artsandculture.google.com/story/MwWRRDmUdTWQLA

Written by Martha Brownill

Object of the Month: Scotland’s Oldest Book

This month’s featured object is what could possibly be the oldest book made in Scotland! It contains a beautiful medieval manuscript of the Celtic Psalter, a rumored gift for King Malcom III’s pious Catholic wife, Margaret from the 11th Century. We don’t actually know when the book came into the possession of the University of Edinburgh, but it was in the University collection by 1636, when the university’s first surviving shelf was created! 

The small handheld book, which contains the Book of Psalms, has a plethora of paratextual decorations that hint at the rich material culture of the Scottish court at the time. In fact, instead of using the usual blue pigment from the woad plant like other books of the medieval Insular Style, it uses semi-precious lapis lazuli! This was an extremely precious import in the medieval period and demonstrates the lavish nature of the book itself. The illuminated initials at the beginning of different sections in the book were often decorated in a style that was similar to Iron Age Celtic designs. This demonstrates how Celtic culture was easily integrated into the new Christian norm of medieval Scotland. 

Not all surviving sections of the book are from the original piece. This is due to the changing tastes of the following owners of the book. For example, Psalm 51 was repainted to mimic impressionistic decoration, which was a later popular English style. The artist still maintained the original decorations at the corners of the page though, which would indicate that there was still some use of the medieval Insular Style in later periods. Later owners, such as Aberdeen University’s Chancellor John Reid in the 1530s, added new pages to replace missing text.  

You can now find a FULL digital copy of the book online here, courtesy of the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh.  

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

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