Donald Paton with Provost of Perth Elizabeth Grant
Until recently I had spent as much time in Perth, Ontario as in Perth, Scotland and my vague notion of ‘oor’ Perth was based on two things. The first was the testimony of a young man I coached in Canada who became a professional footballer in Scotland. He played for five different teams, the first of which was St. Johnstone. He told me that walking around Perth after dark produced a heightened sense of physical threat in him that no other Scottish town could match. In 2013 I finally visited Perth myself to speak at the Burns Club annual dinner. From the convivial confines of the Salutation Hotel (commonly referred to as ‘the oldest hotel in Scotland’) it was hard to imagine the danger supposedly lurking in the streets and vennels outside.
Donald Paton’s anthology of writing about Perth contains evidence of both Perths – the douce and the dangerous – and many more Perths besides. In fact, there seem to have been almost as many Perths as there were people to observe them. Paton has collected over 120 pieces of writing about Perth and arranged them in chronological order. The first is by ‘traveller-poet’ John Taylor who arrived in1618 when the town was still called St Johstone and found it ‘much decayed by reason of the want of his Majesty’s (James V1) yearly coming to lodge there’. The last is a speech by Queen Elizabeth delivered in 2012 ‘on the occasion of the granting of city status [to Perth]’.
In between times Paton has done a fine job of gathering an eclectic selection of writers most of whom, as the title suggests, are visitors to Perth rather than residents. Burns is here, so too Scott, Buchan, Defoe, Ruskin, Beatrix Potter and General Wolfe. More recently, Connolly, Cox, Webster, Weir, House and Tranter have all had something to say about Perth. There are also plenty of unknown punters who have felt moved to put their thoughts on paper when passing through the town.
Paton was born and raised in Perth but now lives part of the time in Vancouver, Canada which may be the reason that he includes the observations of several Canadians. The first of these was a ‘pretty Canadian girl’ who visited in Perth in 1846. She was taken ‘to view the Tay in all its grandeur’ by John Dickson, a lawyer and a member of the Society of Writers to the Signet. Dickson records that ‘she looked over the parapet of the bridge through her gold eyeglass and disposed of the Tay with the remark “Ah! A pretty little creek”…’
There is no shortage of iconoclasts here and they often provide the most engaging testimonies especially compared to politicians and monarchs who usually say what they are expected to say. Queen Victoria has two entries without saying much of anything and there are contributions from politicians of various stripes who sing the town’s praises. One entertaining exception is Michael Russell, now Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning but then writing during his ‘Travels in the Shadow of Edwin Muir’. He provides a nicely crafted description of Perth as he found it in 1998. He gives to the Salutation Hotel with one hand (‘my favourite’) and takes away with the other (‘though its claim to be the oldest in Scotland is probably bogus’). Russell also slips in what might now be regarded as a wee piece of modern Scottish history: ‘Perhaps I like Perth because I associate it with success: it was here that Alex Salmond became SNP leader in 1990, and, at the same time, as his campaign manager, I avoided being defeated for the party office I held.’
Anthologising is a notoriously tricky business considered in some academic studies as subject to politicizing, sacralising, anathematizing and so on. But Paton is refreshingly honest about his motivations. ‘As in any anthology’, he writes in the introduction, ‘the selection reflects the compiler’s tastes and prejudices. I have included what interested, engaged or amused me and this brought together some improbable bedfellows!’ He has clearly taken care to juxtapose the propagandist and the cynic where appropriate. As mentioned the Queen has the last entry in the anthology and praises Perth for its importance ‘at the very heart of Scotland’. Scottish Review editor Kenneth Roy, however, has the penultimate entry and tells a different story. By coincidence, he was in Perth to speak at the annual Burns dinner the year before I did. But his real concern is the town’s homeless problem and ‘the poverty and disadvantage lurking not far from Debenham’s front door’. According to Roy, some of the good people of Perth are pretending not to see any of this. His mood is not helped by a woman who approaches him after his speech to say ‘I do hope Scotland isn’t as depressing as you made it out to be tonight’. If a new city has to be created, Roy ‘would have given the honour in Scotland to a town less pleased with itself’.
Roy is one of a handful of people who get two entries in the anthology. His first one was twenty-five years before his Burns speech and penned during his ‘Travels in a Small Country’. Roy’s mood is much lighter in the earlier piece and Perth emerges as quirky and funny rather than the rather grim place he detected later. John Ruskin also has two entries. His moods are even more extreme than Roy’s but also more easily explained. In the first he is full of the joys of the two childhood years he spent in Perth while the second is taken from his diaries when ‘all looked hopeless and cheerless; the town smoky and ugly in outer suburbs’. Ruskin concludes that it is not Perth that has changed but him ‘partly from my own pain at not seeing E(uphemia) G(ray)’.
There is poetry-a-plenty in Paton’s anthology, some of the excruciating variety (though even here it is interesting to note how quickly people will burst into verse when confronted with the natural wonders of the Inches or Kinnoull Hill). The best of the worst poetry is, as always, by William McGonagall who left Dundee for Perth ‘resolving to return no more [to Dundee] owing to the harsh treatment I had received in the city as is well known as a truth without recording it.’ The inhabitants of Perth, by contrast, were very kind to him and his wife and he rewarded them with a series of poems: ‘Beautiful Ancient City of Perth / One of the grandest on the earth’ etc.
There is repetition in the anthology as there must be when so many people consider so many of the same things though things also change over time. The oft-repeated legend that the Romans hailed the Tay with ‘Ecce Tiberim’, for instance, eventually becomes fact, especially after its inclusion in Scott’s verse.
The 20th and 21st Century sections are a Who’s Who of Scottish personalities. Occasionally one wonders why they are included. Magnus Magnussson, for instance, says absolutely nothing of note. But Stuart Cosgrove is fascinating on his Irish heritage and the more of less forgotten fact that jute workers came to Perth as well as Dundee. Later journalist Peter Ross quotes Cosgrove on his upbringing in Letham, one of the schemes on the fringes of the city: ‘They are as socially deprived as any in the west of Scotland. But there is this curious thing where, in order to portray Perth as the Range Rover capital of Scotland, half of the citizens have been airbrushed out of the story.’ It is to Paton’s great credit that many of those who were airbrushed out are put back in as a result of his anthologising.
That said, there are very few women in the anthology though Maggie Lennon, founder of the Bridges Programmes charity, has an engaging and funny piece which includes a priceless sketch of Santa’s grotto in the shopping mall.
It might also be worth noting that some contributions read differently with the benefit of hindsight. Sir Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn wrote about a day he spent at Perth races. His interest lay ‘in watching the fillies off the course compete with one another, rather than those on it.’ ‘Hippolatry’ he adds, ‘is not in my blood, gyniolatry is.’ One can only recoil in horror.
[Perth As Others Saw Us is available direct from the publisher firstname.lastname@example.org]