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Thanks Courteous Wall

Jim Alison
ScotLit 33, Winter 2005

On 15 October 2005 the late Enric Miralles’ controversial complex of buildings for the Scottish Parliament won the prestigious Stirling Prize of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

For the next two or three centuries pedestrians who tramp down to the Holyrood end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile will find themselves brushing past the Canongait Wall. Like the much older Flodden Wall off the Grassmarket this is a defensive work, designed as a blast-proof bulwark on the northern perimeter of the new Scottish Parliament complex. Originally the architect Miralles had conceived it also as a symbolic Constituency Wall to be assembled from stones gathered from every constituency in the country. As with many other design features of our award-winning parliament, first bright thoughts had to be modified and what was finally unveiled in 2004 was a collage of engraved concrete renderings of Miralles’ sketches, a puddingstone of geological specimens embedded like the legendary cannonball on the Castlehill, and a mosaic of inscribed stone slabs of varying shapes and textures.

The texts which have been beautifully cut into these panels are of great interest, but the casual passer-by is not likely to be able to pause long enough to read all the fine print, scan their totality or ponder what the purpose of this enduring lapidary anthology might be. Moreover in some conditions of Edinburgh light they are totally inscrutable.

At the time of writing there is no attractively produced explanatory pamphlet on sale to visitors – a missed opportunity, surely – but the Parliament’s Public Information Service will supply on line a bare list of the quotations which are published below.


From the lone sheiling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas –
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

Anonymous: “Canadian Boat Song” (first appeared 1829)


O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion.

Robert Burns (1759–1796): “To a Louse”


Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Robert Burns (1759–1796): “A Man’s A Man for A’ That”


Put all your eggs into one basket – and then watch that basket!

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919)


(I knew a very wise man who believed that) if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.

Andrew Fletcher (1655–1716)


Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

Alasdair Gray (1934–)


This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who toil here
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.

Sir Alexander Gray (1882–1968): “Scotland”


Is i Alba nan Gall’s nan Gaidheal is gàire is blàth is beatha dhomh.
It is Scotland, Highland and Lowland that is laughter and warmth and life for me.

George Campbell Hay (1915–1984): “The Four Winds of Scotland”


So, cam’ all ye at hame wi’ freedom
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam
Can find breid, barley bree an’ painted room.

Hamish Henderson (1919–2002): “The Freedom come all ye”


What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889): “Inversnaid”


“What a lovely, lovely moon.
And it’s in the constituency too.”

Alan Jackson (1938–): “The Young Politician Looks at the Moon”


The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978): “The Little White Rose”


Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978): “Scotland Small?”


But Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream
Fitful and dark,
Unseizable in Leith
And wildered by the Forth,
But irresistibly at last
Cleaving to sombre heights
Of passionate imagining
Till stonily,
From soaring battlements,
Earth eyes Eternity.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978): “Edinburgh”


Sweet ghosts in a loving band
Roam through the houses that stand –
For the builders are not gone

George Macdonald (1824–1905): “Song”


There is hope in honest error;
None in the icy perfections of the mere stylist

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928)


Chan e iadsan a bhàsaich
an àrdan Inbhir-chéitean
dhaindeoin gaisge is uabhair
ceann uachdrach ar sgeula;
ach esan bha ’n Glaschu,
ursann-chatha nam feumach,
Iain mór MacGill-Eain,
ceann is fèitheam ar sgeula.

Not they who died
in the hauteur of Inverkeithing
in spite of valour and pride
the high head of our story;
but he who was in Glasgow
the battlepost of the poor
great John MacLean
the top and hem of our story.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean) (1911–1996): “The Clan MacLean”


tell us about last night.
well, we had a wee ferintosh and we lay on the quiraing. it was pure strontian!

Edwin Morgan (1920–2010): “Canedolia”


The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.

John Muir (1858–1914)


Abair ach beagan is abair gu math e.
Say but little and say it well.

Seannfhacal (Proverb)


Am fear as fheàrr a chuireas
’S e as fheàrr a bhuineas.
He who sowest best reapest best.

Seannfhacal (Proverb)


To promise is ae thing, to keep it is anither. Proverb


Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Psalm 19:14


When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns – But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832): Mrs Howden in Heart of Midlothian


What tongue does your auld bookie speak?
He’ll spier; an’ I, his mou to steik:
‘No bein’ fit to write in Greek,
I write in Lallan,
Dear to my heart as the peat reek,
Auld as Tantallon.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894): “Maker to Posterity”


Bright is the ring of words.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894): “Songs of Travel”

The origins of this selection probably lie in a media consultation, The Voices of Scotland, which in 2002 generated the 90 quotations temporarily posted on the barricades concealing work in progress on the site. A small group of MSPs and literati oversaw that first exhibition but there is no information on the processes by which the final permanent items for the wall were identified. Who drew up the leet and who had the final say? Was is it a committee or a single person; an architect, a civil servant or a politician? One wonders what criteria operated. Given the physical limitations of the available space, omissions were inevitable, and there is little point in expecting balanced inclusiveness, but did anyone pause to think of the possible underlying agenda of these select graffiti? What if anything are they implying about Scotland? How will future generations read the runes?

Musing on the official list reveals some intriguing features:

  • There is no female author or direct reference to women.
  • The only two politicians mentioned are a communist and the leader of the anti-union party in 1707, and the prevailing attitude to politicians is at best sceptical.
  • As befits the medium of carved inscriptions, and perhaps a political audience, there is a tendency to terse aphorisms, canny, admonitory and aspirational.
  • There is only one light-hearted item, and that is from Scotland’s first official Makar.
  • Among the solemn themes foregrounded are international brotherhood, patriotism, sense of place, and conservation.
  • The quotations are mainly literary, with some weighting to poetry and to the 19th and 20th centuries. MacDiarmid is the most frequently cited author and there is no Adam Smith, Hume, or Hutton; no Barbour, Dunbar, Buchanan, ballads, Donnchadh Ban or Boswell. Space is found for one English contributor.
  • The three historic languages are represented, with English prevailing and the four Gaelic texts also translated in to English. No other language, classical or community, appears.
  • One complication is that although 26 texts are listed above, scrutiny on site reveals mysteriously that the wall carries only 24 of these. The missing items turn out to be Sorley MacLean on his admiration for his namesake, Great John; and Stevenson on his love of Lallans. One wonders why these particular two have been dropped. Were they jettisoned at the last moment by the politicians as insufficiently progressive? Were the texts too long or complicated for the carvers? It may be, of course, that they were just forgotten and will resurface as later additions.
  • Viewing it as a whole (and that is not easy), you may also sense that the wall looks sadly incomplete. It still carries some 70 empty lozenge-shaped cavities that are clearly intended for quotations or rock samples. Could it be that the compilers ran out of money or ideas – or indeed both?

These brief comments are meant to prompt speculation rather than criticism of the origins of the quirky, fragmentary, oddly moving little display which now embellishes the Canongait Wall, or Memory Wall as it is sometimes designated. Each of us could doubtless produce our own preferred alternatives and additions to this cultural jigsaw, but at least we should be grateful for a thought-provoking landmark to join Makars Court, the Book Trust, the Storytelling Centre, the Fergusson statue and the Poetry Library on the fringes of the Parliament’s campus in Unesco’s first City of Literature. After all, Miralles’ aspiration was that the buildings should be a demonstration of “architecture that’s never totally finished or totally explained”.

At the same time and for the sake of Festival visitors, WRI outings, school parties, overseas students and other puzzled wayfarers, someone ought also to consider publishing a well-designed booklet and CD celebrating whatever the wall may be trying to say about us Scots.

Since this article was written, the Parliament’s website has ventured further information about the Wall. This reveals that the two quotations from Sorley MacLean and Robert Louis Stevenson have now been dropped from the list so that it tallies with the 24 texts actually installed on the Wall. The overall designer and two carvers are given credits, and we learn that three MSPs were responsible for the final selection. There is no present intention to add any further texts. Welcome though these details are, they do not address the broader issues raised above, and there is still no booklet on sale for visitors.


Copyright © Jim Alison 2005


Last updated 23 August 2010.