McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Castle of Mains

Mains Castle, Caird Park, Dundee

ANCIENT Castle of the Mains,
With your romantic scenery And surrounding plains,
Which seem most beautiful to the eye,
And the little rivulet running by,
Which the weary traveller can drink of when he feels dry.
And the heaven’s breath smells sweetly there,
And scented perfumes fill the air,
Emanating from the green trees and beautiful wild flowers growing there.

There the people can enjoy themselves
And while away the time,
By admiring the romantic scenery In the beautiful sunshine;
And pull the little daisy,
As they carelessly recline
Upon the grassy green banks,
Which is most charming to see,
Near by the Castle of the Mains,
Not far from Dundee.

Then there’s the old burying-ground,
Most solemn to see,
And the silent dead reposing silently
Amid the shady trees,
In that beautiful fairy dell
Most lovely to see,
Which in the summer season
Fills the people’s hearts with glee,
To hear the birds singing and the humming of the bee.

May, 1878.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

Mains Castle was built in the 16th century. The castle and grounds became a public park (Caird Park) in 1923, although the castle, restored in the 1980s, is now leased to a Dundonian and his Siberian-born wife. They run it as a venue for romantic weddings.

Presumably there was some public access in the 19th century for McGonagall to talk of it as a place that “fills the people’s hearts with glee.” The “old burying ground” would be Mains cemetery and the mausoleum of the Graham family, on the other side of the “little rivulet” of the Gelly Burn. The Grahams owned the castle from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

I like to think of McGonagall escaping to this place from the industrial reeks of Dundee, and writing his poem. But is that how it happened? Probably not. His new career as a poet demanded product. So I would imagine he fixed on the obvious features that were public knowledge – castle, burn, cemetery – and constructed something that rhymed, rather than a real response to his subject.

McGonagall only wrote two poems with any real sense of feeling. Little Jamie (1878, about his son) and The Bonnie Broon Hair’d Lass o’ Dundee (1877, about his daughter). Interestingly, they are both written in Scots, refreshing as a drink from the Gelly Burn for a weary traveler. The rest of his work is written in English for public consumption.

We will return to these two poems later.

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