Friday, 16 May 2008

Scotland's finest

I was delighted to see in the news today that a collection of poems by William Topaz McGonagall, self-proclaimed Poet and Tragedian is to be auctioned and is expected to fetch more than a Harry Potter book signed by J K Rowling herself. Don't get me wrong, I love Harry Potter as much as the next person (unless the next person is my husband, who is unnatural and has never read HP or seen any of the films) but William McGonagall is a Scottish national treasure.

We have at home a volume of his collected works which also includes his "Brief Autobiography" and some "Reminiscences". The latter includes "an account of my experiences among the publicans" which gives an indication of how much time old William spent trying to educate and entertain the public by reading his poems in the pubs of Dundee. Brave man. The second sentence of his "Reminiscences" is a masterpiece. It starts: "Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican....." Isn't that just brilliant? The first man - Mr McGonagall had clearly led a life full of airborne vegetables. How could you not want to read on from there?

A work colleague of mine used to attend an annual McGonagall Supper. As the Scots among you will know, and others may be aware, every year hundreds of Burns Suppers are held in January to celebrate the life of Robert Burns. Whisky is drunk, haggis is addressed and poetry read.

Braver souls celebrate the life of McGonagall. The dinner is held back to front. You say goodbye to everyone in the room as you arrive. Coffee and mints are served followed by dessert, main course and soup. Aperitifs are served at the end. The entertainment consists of recitations of McGonagall's finest works and the highlight, an emotional rendition of "The Tay Bridge Disaster", his best known work, complete with a reconstruction of the disaster using a model railway, several chairs and a large basin of water. At the end of the night, you are introduced to everyone present, say hello and then you leave. I really really want to go to one.

I did once have the pleasure of giving the "Reply to the toast to the lassies" at my former firm's Burns Supper. I based it on McGonagall and it was the most fun I have ever had speaking in public. I leave you with an excerpt of one of the poems I chose to read in that speech. It does not have the grandeur of "The Tay Bridge Disaster" but is an ode in praise of Penicuik, a nondescript little town a few miles from my home city of Edinburgh. (Don't worry if you are not from Penicuik, there is probably still a poem for you - McGonagall travelled around a fair bit and praised most places he went in verse. He had peas to avoid.)

The Beautiful Village of Penicuik

The village of Penicuik, with its neighbouring spinning mills,
Is most lovely to see and the Pentland Hills;
And though of a barren appearance and some parts steep,
They are covered with fine pasture and sustain flocks of sheep.

There, tourists (!) while there should take a good look,
By viewing the surrounding beauties of Penicuik;
About three miles south-west is the romantic locality
Of Newhall, which is most fascinating and charming to see.

Then about half a mile above Newhall the River Esk is seen,
Which sparkles like crystal in the sun's sheen;
And on the Esk there's a forking ridge forming a linn
Betwixt two birch trees, which makes a noisy din.

And on a rocky protuberance close by is Mary Stuart's bower
Where Scotland's ill-starred Queen spent many an hour,
Which is composed of turf and a nice round seat
Commanding a full view of the linn - the sight is quite a treat.

Then there's Habbie's Howe, where the beauties of summer grow,
Which cannot be excelled in Scotland for pastoral show;
'Tis one of the most beautiful landscapes in fair Scotland, (trust me, it's not!)
For the scenery there is most charming and grand.

Then ye tourists to the village of Penicuik haste away,
And there spend the lovely summer day
By climbing the heathy barren Pentland Hills,
And drink the pure water from their crystal rills.

What are you waiting for? Book your tickets now!


  1. First Hubby has never read any of the HP books. I know, sad.
    Second, Hubby does an awesome Robert Burns Brogue! He will recite his poetry with the brogue! Oooooo, I just love that!

  2. So everything is done backwards, that sounds very interesting. I don't blame you for wanting to go to one! Nice poem too.

    I noticed in your favorite books that you listed The Time Traveller's Wife. Funny story, I've had that book for several years but for some reason I've never been able to get past the first 20 or so pages. It seems a little comfusing right off the bat.

    So I let my 13 year old read it about a month ago and he did nothing but rave about it. He has begged me to give it another try and has asked me to look for other books by her.

    Guess now I'll have to do it!

  3. I'll take your recommendation, and read some of this fellows work. I can see why he's treasured by Scotland's people: he seemed to have loved your country and perhaps reflects that certain flavor of Scottish pride I've heard so much about.

    On another note, a close friend of mine is coming to your fine country in a few weeks for a 2 week stay on Iona. I am greeeeen with envy. Hopefully I'll get to book my own tickets someday soon too!

  4. My husband used to go to McGonagall Suppers in Glasgow.

    There was always stovies on the menu and the large dish was "combed-in" - like a haggis being piped in but with combs and hard bog paper, rather than a set of pipes.
    It was mandatory to wear a tartan scarf and a bunnet throughout the evening, along with the dinner suit or kilt.

    Every time McGonagall's name was mentioned, everyone had to stand up and throw their bunnet in the air whilst shouting "William Topaz McGonagall".

    AS well as the obligatory rendering of the Tay Bridge Disaster, all addresses were done in the style of WTMcG.

    All good, silly fun which raised a lot of money for local charities.

  5. I wonder why the Pentlands struck him as particularly barren??

    Poor chap. He would have been so pleased that people still read him, though possibly not in the tones of respect that he might have wished.

  6. Sounds confusing and delightful.

  7. As part of Highland Feast, the North of Scotland's largest food and drink festival, a McGonagall Supper is being hosted at the Clansman Hotel on the shores of Loch Ness on Friday 19th September 2008. For more information please visit and view the event programme. Or alternatively contact the hotel on 01456 450326.