Back in the Noughties (love that word), when I still lived in Seattle, I made the pilgrimage to Dundee. It’s the city where the genius loci of Beautiful Railway Bridge, William McGonagall, lived and wrote his poetry.
Dundee Central Library has a superb collection of original McGonagall manuscripts in the great man’s strong, confident handwriting. I spent a blissful afternoon actually handling these documents, getting a sense of him from the materials he used.
Below is the manuscript of Bonnie Dundee, the poem I used as the background to Beautiful Railway Bridge.There’s nothing so personal as handwriting, and nothing tentative or self-doubting in these lines. While this manuscript might be his fair copy, the words could also be exactly as they poured from his busy mind that day in 1878. He evidently didn’t do much revision. You can see how he altered the size of of his letters to squeeze in the words he thought were absolutely essential. And paper was expensive for a poor man with a large family, so he couldn’t afford to waste any.
Here’s a recreation of McGonagall reciting his most famous poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, by the wonderfully named Eugene Cheese. It is historically correct. It was practically de rigueur to heckle McGonagall at his public performances and throw things at him.