Thursday, 29 September 2016

Consumed with history.

I've been busy and engrossed in a very interesting project that I believe needs to be blown open to all to see. We all know of the importance of history, to hopefully recognise the need not to repeat the same stupid mistakes, as well as to cherish our unique and interesting past in the present. The project has a historical background, but one that seemingly has been buried or suppressed.  The suppression is remarkable, considering what has been uncovered. I'll start from the beginning...

Panoramic View of Carlops, Scottish Borders

A few months ago, I ate at a local restaurant and the owner, Rosemary, recognised my name and already knew what I did. After paying for a wonderful meal, I offered to return and discuss her ideas for photos, not really realising how this was going to play out as the work was relatively undefined. But the subject matter was quite surprising, the life of a poet and his son a painter, born in the area, and largely forgotten about.

The meeting took place at the Allan Ramsay Hotel, Restaurant and Bar in Carlops. So it makes logical sense that the person in question was Allan Ramsay, and his son Allan Ramsay (Jr). The hotel has been a fixture in the village for centuries, and has been called the Allan Ramsay Hotel for much of that time. The work I was asked to do was to photograph things that related to the poet's work from "The Gentle Shepherd" which was based in the local Carlops/Penicuik/Linton area. However the issue was that I'd have to find out about the connections in order to photograph them.

In the 1808 edition of the Gentle Shepherd, there are a number of plate images that reflect the location of the scenes. I was told there was once a trail that the locals took to follow in the footsteps of the book, and we found old photographs of people in locations referenced in the book. So I took the initiative of finding known trails in the area and noted where these places were in order to try to reproduce the images. After numerous treks through the area, and consulting various historical maps (including the one in the book) and noted listed building locations, I built up a map that identified where the landmarks were. For simplicity I've created a shortcut link to help:

Unfortunately many of those images are now known to possess some artistic license. Some show waterfalls and hills whose size would be difficult to believe - even though the river has since been dammed at a reservoir, the quantity of water doesn't make much sense. But a few of them are indeed relatively easy to identify, once you have found the exact location they portray and the appropriate angle.

In the process of doing this, we've uncovered various other pieces of information about him, and in turn that lead to more and more photographs. One very interesting thing is a unique monument that was built near Penicuik House. However it isn't on the same grounds, but instead in the middle of farmland. The interesting thing is that the house is largely surrounded by trees, but there is an intentional void cut into these trees that permits a view of the monument from the back of the house itself. The vast majority of the local residents have no recollection of the monument, nor know of its location.

There are a number of other interesting points that really make you stop and wonder. The song Auld Lang Syne, typically associated with Burns, was first written and published by Allan Ramsay in 1720 (Burns was born in 1759). Both start with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot", then differ. Burns never met Ramsay as Allan passed away before that was possible, but Burns work was very much built on Ramsay's literary work. That Burns is still famous today, is puzzling when Burns owes much to Ramsay.

There are a number of references to the location of the Gentle Shepherd, all of which are located in the Pentland hills area. Carlops/Penicuik, Woodhouselee/Glencorse and Currie (1.5miles south of) are mentioned in various historical references. All the locations have similar features, but only Carlops matches all of the features described in the book. A side note is the distances mentioned - at the time there was a difference between a Scottish mile and an English mile, so the distances don't match. In the region between Woodhouselee and Carlops are Eight Mile Burn and Nile Mile Burn, both of which refer to the Scottish miles away from Edinburgh.

In order to finance his poetry, Ramsay was first a wigmaker and then started a bookshop, selling his work. This turned into a lending library where people could rent his books. Is this the first lending library? His library was in the Luckenbooths building that was located alongside St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile - but was demolished in the mid 1800's as it obstructed the road (which today is ironically a pedestrian zone again). Today the Luckenbooth brooch is still sold - named after the building it was likely first sold.

Today, one of the most expensive properties in Edinburgh is in the building (and connecting dwellings) that Ramsay built, alongside Edinburgh Castle. From Princes Street, these can be seen as the white/red buildings on the hill. Princes Street is also where a statue of Ramsay resides, and his face is also on the Scott Monument. How surprising it was to walk into a bookstore on Princes Street to enquire about his book, only to be left with a blank expression and nothing. It does bring to the fore that most of us walk by historical objects on a daily basis and have no idea what they are meant to represent.

It is unfortunately depressing to find that a number of professors at St. Andrews University appear to have allowed teaching about Burns to persist, while the history about Ramsay has been ignored. The timing coincides with when Scotland lost its independence to the English to form the union. At the time, the Scottish language and dialect was taboo. So in these modern times where many Scots are unhappy with the political state of affairs, it is rather interesting to rediscover Ramsay.

I presumed from the beginning that photographing an art project like this was a good networking opportunity. Projects like this aren't done for the money, but for the return to the larger community who want to listen. In order to do this, I've hiked many miles (which is probably why hiking up Ben Nevis in the middle of it wasn't a big deal) with my 50 megapixel camera, tilt-shift lens and tripod (which is what was used for all my images), and met a number of very interesting people along the way.

Rosemary asked why I was doing this, and I said I thought the history needs to be told, that the local historians need a chance to pass this information down. This is something a community should embrace, because this is part of their history, and that should never be lost. The trails of yesterday have been forgotten, some locations are unidentifiable, but we have restored a reference to Ramsay's work. In hindsight, work like this is both timeless and priceless - Ramsay needs to be brought back from history and permitted a venue to speak. For everything he did, Ramsay deserves as much, if not more credit than Burns - perhaps Ramsay should have his night celebrated each year?

On October 14-16, 2016, the Allan Ramsay Hotel is hosting a Allan Ramsay Festival. A number of my photographs will be on display, and contained within a guide book that tells the story of Ramsay, father and son.