Bonnie Dundee

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.

Bonnie Dundee BB1024Here’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.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882 – 1890

Forth Rail Bridge Construction

Never let it be said that Beautiful Railway Bridge is parochial in its appreciation. While the Tay Rail Bridge is indeed one of the wonders of the world, there are other bridges, and the Forth Railway Bridge (pictured above during construction) is a strong contender. Below is a period photograph demonstrating its structural principles.

Forth Bridge Suspension Demonstration

I stole the following poem from a post by Diane McWade on KILTR, a new social media platform with Scottish affiliations. Well worth checking out if you’re Scottish, live there, or feel a connection to the place. Colin Donati‘s poem rings with the sound of the Forth Bridge’s construction. I loved it.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882-1890

Knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
building the girders out
over the water;

gangers in rivet-teams
sweating at furnaces,
wielding the rivet-tongs,
hammering plates in place,
hanging the arms
of the great cantilever;

decking the space with them
over the water,
complex equations
for cross-beams in tension,
joints in suspension,
engaged with all weathers –

wind blow the bridge-bays
the bridge-bays distort with it,
sun swing from south to west
arms bend away from it
till they’re braced rigid
warping the measure;

the bite of the ice air
through jerkins of leather,
a shower of rain adding
weight to the structure
already supporting
chain, crane and timber

stage, winch and hawser,
furnace and hammer,
the winds of the firth
exerting their pressure
on three growing galleons
sailing the water;

the struts that the jacks lift,
the ties where no pin shears,
the skewbacks through which all loads
pass to the bridge-piers,
building the girders out,
building them further,

the light through the structure
that turns on each girder,
each tubular tower,
the ring of the worker,
macramé of metal,
tracery of shadows.

The man with the camera
slides other plates in place,
times each exposure
then snaps shut the wooden case,
captures the moment,
freezes the hammer.

Colin Donati

And finally, here’s a video of a steam train crossing the bridge.

The Christmas Goose

McGonagall Christmas Card

McGonagall would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! He wrote a poem especially for you. Click on the picture to hear the poem.

The Christmas Goose

Mr. SMIGGS was a gentleman,
And he lived in London town;
His wife she was a good kind soul,
And seldom known to frown.

‘Twas on Christmas eve,
And Smiggs and his wife lay cosy in bed,
When the thought of buying a goose
Came into his head.

So the next morning,
Just as the sun rose,
He jump’d out of bed,
And he donn’d his clothes,

Saying, “Peggy, my dear.
You need not frown,
For I’ll buy you the best goose
In all London town.”

So away to the poultry shop he goes,
And bought the goose, as he did propose,
And for it he paid one crown,
The finest, he thought, in London town.

When Smiggs bought the goose
He suspected no harm,
But a naughty boy stole it
From under his arm.

Then Smiggs he cried, “Stop, thief!
Come back with my goose!”
But the naughty boy laugh’d at him,
And gave him much abuse.

But a policeman captur’d the naughty boy,
And gave the goose to Smiggs,
And said he was greatly bother’d
By a set of juvenile prigs.

So the naughty boy was put in prison
For stealing the goose.,
And got ten days’ confinement
Before he got loose.

So Smiggs ran home to his dear Peggy,
Saying, “Hurry, and get this fat goose ready,
That I have bought for one crown;
So, my darling, you need not frown.”

“Dear Mr Smiggs, I will not frown:
I’m sure ’tis cheap for one crown,
Especially at Christmas time —
Oh! Mr Smiggs, it’s really fine.”

“Peggy. it is Christmas time,
So let us drive dull care away,
For we have got a Christmas goose,
So cook it well, I pray.

“No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We’ll drink our wine, and eat our goose,
Aye, and pick it to the bone.”

– William McGonagall

Daily Video: The Moon

Proof positive that William McGonagall could stick his tongue in his cheek and deliver satire. I love the sublime juxtaposition of the “beautiful moon” with all the nefarious activities  it enables. The sound on the video is not very good, so I included the full text.

The Moon

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou seemest most charming to my sight;
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high,
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the Esquimau in the night;
For thou lettest him see to harpoon the fish,
And with them he makes a dainty dish.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the fox in the night,
And lettest him see to steal the grey goose away
Out of the farm-yard from a stack of hay.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the farmer in the night,
and makes his heart beat high with delight
As he views his crops by the light in the night.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the eagle in the night,
And lettest him see to devour his prey
And carry it to his nest away.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the mariner in the night
As he paces the deck alone,
Thinking of his dear friends at home.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the weary traveller in the night;
For thou lightest up the wayside around
To him when he is homeward bound.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the lovers in the night
As they walk through the shady groves alone,
Making love to each other before they go home.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the poacher in the night;
For thou lettest him see to set his snares
To catch the rabbit and the hares.

– William McGonagall

McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Hero of Rorke’s Drift

Rorke’s Drift today – hospital on the left, stores on the right

Twas at the camp of Rorke’s Drift, and at tea-time,
And busily engaged in culinary operations was a private of the line;
But suddenly he paused, for he heard a clattering din,
When instantly two men on horseback drew rein beside him.

“News from the front!” said one, “Awful news!” said the other,
“Of which, we are afraid, will put us to great bother,
For the black Zulus are coming, and for our blood doth thirst,”
“And the force is cut up to pieces!” shouted the first.

“We’re dead beat,” said both, “but we’ve got to go on,”
And on they rode both, looking very woebegone;
Then Henry Hook put all thought of cooking out of his mind,
For he was surrounded with danger on every side he did find.

He was a private of the South Wales Borderers, Henry Hook,
Also a brave soldier, and an hospital cook;
A soldier of the Queen, who was always ready to obey,
And willing to serve God by night and day.

Then away to the Camp he ran, with his mind all in a shiver,
Shouting, “The force is cut up, sir, on the other side of the river!”
Which caused the officer in command with fear to quiver,
When Henry Hook the news to him did deliver.

Then Henry Hook saluted, and immediately retired,
And with courage undaunted his soul was fired,
And the cry rang out wildly, “The Zulus are coming!”
Then the alarm drums were instantly set a-drumming.

Then “Fall in! Fall in!” the commanders did cry,
And the men mustered out, ready to do and to die,
As British soldiers are always ready to do,
But, alas, on this occasion their numbers were but few.

They were only eighty in number, that brave British band,
And brave Lieutenant Broomhead did them command;
He gave orders to erect barricades without delay,
“It’s the only plan I can see, men, to drive four thousand savages away.”

Then the mealie bags and biscuit boxes were brought out,
And the breastwork was made quickly without fear or doubt,
And barely was it finished when some one cried in dismay,
“There’s the Zulus coming just about twelve hundred yards away.”

Methinks I see the noble hero, Henry Hook,
Because like a destroying angel he did look,
As he stood at the hospital entrance defending the patients there,
Bayoneting the Zulus, while their cries rent the air,
As they strove hard the hospital to enter in,
But he murdered them in scores, and thought it no sin.

In one of the hospital rooms was stationed Henry Hook,
And every inch a hero he did look,
Standing at his loophole he watched the Zulus come,
All shouting, and yelling, and at a quick run.

On they came, a countless host of savages with a rush,
But the gallant little band soon did their courage crush,
But the cool man Henry Hook at his post began to fire,
And in a short time those maddened brutes were forced to retire.

Still on came the savages into the barricade,
And still they were driven back, but undismayed.
Again they came into the barricade, yet they were driven back,
While darkness fell swift across the sun, dismal and black.

Then into the hospital the savages forced their way,
And in a moment they set fire to it without dismay,
Then Henry Hook flew to assist the patients in the ward,
And the fighting there was fearful and hard.

With yell and shriek the Zulus rushed to the attack,
But for the sixth time they were driven back
By the brave British band, and Henry Hook,
Who was a brave soldier, surgeon, and hospital cook.

And when Lord Chelmsford heard of the victory that day,
He sent for Henry Hook without delay,
And they took the private before the commander,
And with his braces down, and without his coat, in battle array grandeur.

Then Lord Chelmsford said, “Henry Hook, give me your hand,
For your conduct to day has been hereoic and grand,
And without your assistance to-day we’d been at a loss,
And for your heroic behaviour you shall receive the Victoria Cross.”

February, 1899.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

McGonagall was a bit slow off the mark with this poem, writing it 20 years after the event, in February, 1899. You have to wonder why he didn’t jump right onto the subject when it was still hot news. The poem conspicuously lacks the usual “‘Twas on the 22nd day of January, in the year 1879” sort of line we’ve come to expect in his work. “At tea-time” just doesn’t cut the mustard. Notice the “1879” and “line” rhyme. Dates ending in “9” must have been natural poem-fodder for McGonagall.

Aged anywhere from 69 to 74, depending on which autobiography you read, he seems to have forgotten the date. The poem sets a tiny alarm ringing, as when a loved relative can’t remember for the moment who the prime minister is. So I am glad help him out.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift took place on 22 January, 1879, part of the Anglo-Zulu War, which began with an invasion of the Zulu Kingdom by British forces on 11 January, 1879. It was instigated by their Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, without first receiving authorization from the British government, although they were probably in favour of the move.

Cetshwayo c. 1875

The Zulus, led by King Cetshwayo, achieved a significant early victory at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January, when a Zulu army of 20,000 warriors, armed mainly with assegais and iron spears, killed some 1,300 British troops equipped with state of the art rifles, 2 artillery pieces and a rocket battery.

This led to the defeat of the first British invasion. Deeply embarrassed by this trouncing at the hands of “savages,” the British mounted a second invasion later that year, which destroyed the Zulu Kingdom.

Original film poster

In this context, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has a Dunkirk quality – a small, beleaguered force holding out against impossible odds, and somehow surviving to fight another day. That’s certainly how it resounds in history, and I’m sure the British at the time didn’t miss a trick in spinning it that way. The film, Zulu (1964), shows that this interpretation has lost none of its power.

But what about Rorke’s Drift? This supply depot and hospital, defended by 139 soldiers of the 24th Regiment of Foot – not technically the South Wales Borderers until 1881 – was situated across the KwaZulu river from Isandlwana.  Under the temporary command of Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker in the film), they became aware of the disaster on the morning of the 22nd. Two survivors of the battle at Isandlwana brought news that a detachment of 3,000 – 4,000 Zulu warriors were on their way to attack the garrison.

24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot

And what of Private Henry Hook? McGonagall makes him out to be the principal “noble hero,” being awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest possible military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. In fact, 10 other VCs were awarded, 5 of them to privates.

There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that McGonagall found it easier to write about the actions of an individual – he needed a single focus for his poem.

But why Henry Hook among all the heroes present on that day? I think it’s because Hook was a teetotaler. For McGonagall, a passionate supporter of the Temperance movement, he would have been the natural choice. In the film, Zulu, Henry Hook is portrayed as a drunken reprobate who is redeemed by his heroism on that day.  McGonagall would have been outraged.

The British survivors of Rorke’s Drift

Of the 139 soldiers who fought at Rorke’s Drift, only 80 were fit for active duty. British casualties amounted to 17 killed and 14 wounded, while the Zulus had 351 killed and 500 wounded. These 500 wounded Zulus may have been massacred by Lord Chelmsford’s relief column.

The bravery of the troops, celebrated by McGonagall and the entire British press, was not well rewarded in the aftermath of battle. Three more of them died, two from their wounds and one from disease, due to lack of shelter and medical care.

And not everyone was happy about the Victoria Crosses. When Sir Garnet Wolseley took over as Commander-in-Chief, he said of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift,  “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save.”

I’m inclined to think the bastard was upset because 6 of the 11 VCs went to the lower classes. Add one more to my “Graves To Piss On” list.

McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: Beautiful North Berwick and Its Surrounds

North Berwick, Golfers and Law Hill

North Berwick is a watering-place with golfing links green,
With a fine bathing beach most lovely to be seen;
And there’s a large number of handsome villas also,
And often it’s called the Scarborough of Scotland, as Portobello.

The greatest attraction is Tantallon Castle, worthy of regard,
About three miles distant to the eastward;
Which in time of war reoeived many a shock,
And it’s deemed impregnable and built on a perpendicular rock

The castle was built in times unknown to history,
But ’tis said it belonged to the Douglas family;
And the inside is a labyrinth of broken staircases,
Also ruined chambers and many dismal places.

Then there’s the Berwick Law Hill, 612 feet high,
Which no doubt is very attractive to the eye,
And skirted with a wood and a public walk,
Where visitors can enjoy themselves and have a social talk.

The wood is really lovely and enchanting to be seen,
In the spring or summer season when the trees are green;
And as ye listen to the innocent birds singing merrily there,
‘Twill help to elevate your spirits and drive away dull care.

Then near by Tantallon is the fishing village of Canty Bay,
Where boats can be hired to the Bass Rock, about two miles away;
And the surrounding scenery is magnificent to see,
And as the tourists view the scene it fills their hearts with glee.

Then away! then away! pleasure-seekers in bands,
And view Gullane with its beautiful sands,
Which stretch along the sandy shores of Fife,
Where the tourist can enjoy himself and be free from strife

June, 1899.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

North Berwick is a seaside town in East Lothian, 25 miles east of  Edingburgh. The town is famous for its golf courses as McGonagall is quick to point out. Scarborough is a famous North Yorkshire seaside resort that was popular in Victorian times (and is still a gem). Portobello, now a suburb of Edingburgh, was then in its heyday as a resort.

Some of the sights McGonagall points out:

Bass Rock
Tantallon Castle
Canty Bay

Gullane is a golfing village surrounded by three courses. In McGonagall’s time it was connected to North Berwick by the Aberlady, Gullane and North Berwick Railway.

Gullane Station in 1914 – notice the golfer
Gullane Station in 1976

On the evidence of this poem, McGonagall could have made a living today writing tourist brochures.

McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Wreck of the Steamer "Mohegan"

Manacles Rocks, the Lizard, Cornwall

Good people of high and low degree,
I pray ye all to list to me,
And I’ll relate a terrible tale of the sea
Concerning the unfortunate steamer, Mohegan,
That against the Manacles Rocks, ran.

‘Twas on Friday, the 14th of October, in the year of ninety-eight,
Which alas! must have been a dreadful sight;
She sailed out of the river Thames on Thursday,
While the hearts of the passengers felt light and gay.

And on board there were 133 passengers and crew,
And each one happier than another seemingly to view;
When suddenly the ship received some terrible shocks,
Until at last she ran against the Manacles Rocks.

Dinner was just over when the shock took place,
Which caused fear to be depicted in every face;
Because the ship was ripped open, and the water rushed in,
It was most dreadful to hear, it much such a terrific din.

Then the cries of children and women did rend the air,
And in despair many of them tore their hair
As they clung to their babies in wild despair,
While some of them cried- ‘Oh, God, do Thou my babies spare!’

The disaster occurred between seven and eight o’clock at night,
Which caused some of the passengers to faint with fright;
As she struck on the Manacles Rocks between Falmouth and Lizard Head,
Which filled many of the passengers’ hearts with dread.

Then the scene that followed was awful to behold,
As the captain hurried to the bridge like a hero bold;
And the seamen rushed manfully to their posts,
While many of the passengers with fear looked as pale as ghosts.

And the poor women and children were chilled to the heart,
And crying aloud for their husbands to come and take their part;
While the officers and crew did their duty manfully,
By launching the boats immediately into the sea.

Then lifebelts were tied round the women and children
By the brave officers and gallant seamen;
While the storm fiend did laugh and angry did roar,
When he saw the boats filled with passengers going towards the shore.

One of the boats, alas! unfortunately was swamped,
Which caused the officers and seamens’ courage to be a little damped;
But they were thankful the other boats got safely away,
And tried hard to save the passengers without dismay.

Then a shriek of despair arose as the ship is sinking beneath the wave,
While some of the passengers cried to God their lives to save;
But the angry waves buffetted the breath out of them,
Alas, poor sickly children, also women and men.

Oh, heaven, it was most heartrending to see
A little girl crying and imploring most piteously,
For some one to save her as she didn’t want to die,
But, alas, no one seemed to hear her agonizing cry.

For God’s sake, boys, get clear, if ye can,
Were the captain’s last words spoken like a brave man;
Then he and the officers sank with the ship in the briny deep,
Oh what a pitiful sight, ’tis enough to make one weep.

Oh think of the passengers that have been tempest tossed,
Besides, 100 souls and more, that have been lost;
Also, think of the mariner while on the briny deep,
And pray to God to protect him at night before ye sleep.

November, 1898.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

SS Cleopatra or Mohegan

The SS Mohegan had two names in her short and unlucky life. Launched as SS Cleopatra in April, 1898, she sailed on her maiden voyage from London to New York on 31 July. It quickly became apparent that her construction had been botched, when boiler problems and serious leaks developed on the voyage. She returned to London for major repairs, emerging as the SS Mohegan.

Captain Richard Griffith

Her second maiden voyage was even more of a disaster. She left London, bound for New York, on 13 October, 1898, with 57 passengers, 97 crew and 7 cattlemen for the livestock on board. The newspapers must have misreported the total, for McGonagall would surely have got his information from the Edinburgh press.

The following day, she reached her full speed of 13 knots while steaming along the English Channel, with the coast of Cornwall on her starboard (right) beam.

There is no explanation for what happened that night, beyond the fact that the Mohegan took the wrong bearing and headed towards the Cornish coast at full speed, hitting the Manacles, submerged rocks lying off the Lizard Peninsula, just before 7:00pm.

The passengers were at dinner, and amazingly did not feel the impact, but the Mohegan’s hull was ripped open and she sank in 12 minutes. Only two lifeboats could be launched due to the ship’s heavy listing, and one of those capsized. There were 106 casualties, including Captain Richard Griffith and all his officers. McGonagall was probably right about the selflessness and courage of the Mohegan’s crew.

Her masts and funnel remained above the waterline, and most of the cargo of spirits, beer and antimony was salvaged at the cost of one more life – a salvage diver. But there was more to her cargo than than the valuable goods you could risk a diver’s life to recover. Her cargo manifest tells us much about the daily life of ordinary Victorians:

1,280 tons general, including 3000 slabs of tin, spirits, beer, linoleum, prunes, matches, cheese, nutmeg, preserves, jute, rice, books, coffee, toys, lard, pepper, tobacco, bacon, horse hair, furniture, lace, church ornaments.

Makes you think, doesn’t it, about the passengers and crew – about how much like us they were.

The more I research McGonagall’s disasters, the more I become aware of the human tragedies behind the bad poetry. Did McGonagall  empathize with the people he so glibly wrote about? It’s hard to tell because the poetry is so bad, but I think in this one he felt something. This verse, for example:

Oh, heaven, it was most heartrending to see
A little girl crying and imploring most piteously,
For some one to save her as she didn’t want to die,
But, alas, no one seemed to hear her agonizing cry.

Perhaps, as an old man of 73 in poor health (he died in 1902), and with intimations of mortality, he was learning to regard his subjects as more than broadsheet-fodder.

The SS Mohegan disintegrated over the years. It is now a prime dive site. The Havering Scuba Divers website gives a detailed account of what’s left on the seabed. And the Atlantic Transport Line 1881-1934 website has an excellent in-depth page on the SS Mohegan, complete with dive pictures.