by Stewart Conn

Roull of Corstorphin

October 28, 2009 | by Stewart Conn

Roull Posited

Whilst out hunting King David, separated
from his attendants, was heavily thrown
and about to be gored by a hart with auful
and braid tyndis – whereupon, a cross
placed miraculously in his hands, the beast fled. He endowed an Abbey on the spot
with the holy rood: later, on a narrow
Isthmus, founded the chapel of CORSTORPHIN.

A sair sanct for the crown maybe, and more Norman than Scot, but for all that “father of the fatherless – best of all his kind”. From then on the monks fed the poor; where three centuries later Adam Forrester, twice provost of Edinburgh, would lie
in effigy, arms crossed, his armorial bearings three buffaloes’ horns stringed.

Could Roull have taken holy orders here, catching carp or brewing ale for the brothers; penning verse from matins to compline,
at the last, to drown in the brimming lea?

Or did ‘gentill’ denote a patient dominie instilling through Wyntoun’s Chronicles pride of nationhood, a concept of chivalry
in many later to be slain in battle?

No way of telling if he was a plague victim or survived to old-age; extolled his mistress in royal-rhyme stanzas or caught nature in cantering couplets. Yet that one naming by Dunbar enough to make him – allowing for the trudge from the Castle, the cleansing Water of Leith between – the capital’s earliest recorded poet.

Ghost of Roull

You say you can’t sleep? By the doocot is the place: under the eaves, the constant burbling of ring-doves; and this the season for bees in the overhanging limes, their lulling register between oboe and viola d’amore.

If that doesn’t do the trick, trying listing alphabetically your favourite Saints: Adelaide and Aidan for starters. The rocking of a moored boat soon induces slumber – but not for sleep-walkers or the nightmare-prone.

With luck, a guttering candle will do the trick. Failing which I wish you a clear conscience, the slumber
of the innocent. If that’s too dull, the balmy haven arrived at through impassioned hours of love-making.

No poem of mine extant: would this were due simply to time’s vagaries, Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention supplanting the makar’s flowery hand – if earlier,
I might have survived in manuscript form; later through Chepman and Myller, preservation in print.

Even then such a debt to Bannatyne, not least
for Henryson’s Fables – else unattributable,
those jewels in Scotland’s crown; in their midst, my cousin cursing whoever brak his yard and took his hens: blak be their hour, blak be their pairt.

I still have his letters, stanza after stanza
on the reverse, blurred by candle-wax;
a fall putting paid to his seagoing and his scavenging. As for myself (ample scope to ponder since)
more likely lack of merit than fate denied me

A drooling posterity, even as ‘Anon’. At least
our presence in Dunbar’s drum-roll of a Lament (he outlived me little more than a year) confirms our transient existence and that of our verse,
the whilk (for a spell at least) made readers rejoice.

Pursuing the lilt of dule and wae, hard how James, having set himself up as a Renaissance
Prince, should have taken so many with him
at Flodden: one of Scotland’s worst own-goals, from a refusal to listen to the voice of reason.

Recorded that the Scots and English first tilted at fute-ball at Bewcastle, Cumberland, in 1599: one man disembowelled, but seemingly
sewn up again. Four years later, the Union
of the Crowns, a golden age bewilderingly

undone. Since then, rule by sword or pen; pendulum swing of peace and war, amidst
the world’s fears and turbulence. At home
the test, to this day, whether Scotland retains the will to grasp the thistle, not the thistledown.

The above is extracted from ‘Roull of Corstorphin’, which is included in GHOSTS AT COCKCROW, published by Bloodaxe at £8.95.

ISBN 1 85224 686 3

Insomnia

Plaint

Under construction at Newhaven, to inspire terror in any would-be invader, the Great St Michael
a triumph of the shipbuilder’s art, two hundred and forty feet long, bulwarks proof against shot – and superintended by his Highness in person.

For this, every wood in Fife but Falkland
laid waste. And two hundred oak trees felled for the hammer-beam ceiling in Stirling’s great hall. Lost for lifetimes to come. A marvel, if one day we will have any forest at all.

Roull on Musik Fyne

Nothing to the foul play of the choristers at the Abbey of Scone. The worst, sprightly loons who till we tackled them, headed down each wing like a battalion of demented gulls, cutting in on goal.

By the end, we were thrashed twelve-nil: agile tenors in midfield, their last line
a bass-baritone built like a Scots pine. All in all, despite our supporters’ curses. we had to admit they’d tanned our arses.

Later though, the radiance of their singing
in the Chapel Royal touched the heartstrings; at the Augustinian canon Carver, sturdy enough to pass as L’Homme Armé
(and usurp the tune) transfiguring them with his interweaving harmonies…

Lure them to Aberdeen, if they’ll consent
to fight their way over the Cairn o’ Mount with its snow-swirls and snell nor-easters, carrying their harps, lutes and tambours.

Is not our progress through life
a search for harmony, amidst darkness;
a blank parchment, awaiting the hand
to make of us an illuminated manuscript, disponing both beauty and durability? The King? He offers Carver commissions, confident each motet will bring such balm to his spirit as may help him forget
the burden of the iron chain he wears
as penance for his father’s murder.

Time of Plague

If I die first of us two, I’d rather quietness than any ritual rend the air.

Nor any casting of ashes: on some high hill we climbed, simply say goodbye.

And if beloved you be first taken I’ll do, however weakly, what I can

To treasure the living you. I’ll try
in other words, to mourn with dignity.

But should either of these boys, through mischance, predecease us

I’ll hack out the God of Stone

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