Act of Union, Blogging, Cannibalism, Edinburgh, Folklore, History, Horror, James Douglas the 2nd Duke of Queensberry, James Douglas the Earl of Drumlanrig, Lallands Peat Worrier, National Collective, Opinion, Politics, Queensberry House, Reverend Stuart Campbell, The Cannibal Earl of Drumlanrig, Treaty of Union, Wings Over Scotland
The date was 16 January 1707 and the ink was not yet dry on the Treaty of Union. James Douglas, the Earl of Drumlanrig, awoke in his private chamber at Queensberry House and realised that everything around him was strangely, almost unnervingly, still. He lay on his bed for a while listening to the silence. He eventually registered the faint, unearthly noises issuing from the streets outside, but nothing more. The attendant who was always there to keep him calm might have vanished up the chimney. Awed by this peculiar, church-like atmosphere, James slipped from his bed. With the clumsy, rather theatrical stealth of somebody his size, he crept to the door.
It was unlocked.
James was now at liberty in the corridors of Queensberry House. As he was swept along, he acquired a sudden sense of massive power. He was free and he was invincible. Every empty, abandoned room that he encountered only heightened this sense of power. And then he had materialised like an angel in the kitchen, in front of a tiny scullion who shot up to stand frozen before him, his face blank.
Too late did James Douglas the 2nd Duke of Queensberry spot the valet who cared for his son amongst the company which had left Queensberry House with him that morning. Too late did men flock back down upon the house.
Most of them were retching at the door. A dire smell, of bowels and butchery, filled the house, along with the fumes of burning flesh. Those who made it to the kitchen, their eyes streaming, found the Earl hunched in a corner blinking and gibbering. The remains of the kitchen boy had been jammed on to the spit, over the discarded beef dinner which now lay strewn across the floor. The boy hung above the fire, shrunken and blackened like an Egyptian mummy. One arm dangled in the flames. The boldest attendant stepped forward in disbelief and then jumped back again. He had trodden on a kidney.
A very merry story and most probably, as I’m sure you’ll have suspected, absolute bollocks! This is one of Edinburgh’s best urban legends – it is often repeated, by tour guides, by the Herald, by Wikipedia, and by Ian Rankin, as if it was fact. Yes, the 2nd Duke of Queensberry, the architect of the Union, really had a cannibal son who ate a kitchen boy. It has to rank alongside that myth about Catherine the Great dying in the middle of sexual congress with a horse. Yet you are supposed to be impressed by the geopolitical implications of this cannibal conspiracy, the first ever Unionist scandal. For the story continues that the cannibalism was “hushed up” and that the demented Earl was smuggled away into England. We know that he died somewhere in Yorkshire in 1715.
This story seems to have been first written down in Robert Chambers’ Traditions of Edinburgh in 1824: over a hundred years after the Earl had polished off his cannibal snack. The Earl is vividly described as “an idiot of the most unhappy sort, rabid and gluttonous, and early grew to an immense height.” But Chambers is careful to omit the fact that the Earl would have been only ten years old when he ate the kitchen boy. If the notion of a ten-year old killing another child with his bare hands and eating them begins to come under strain (the idea of any aristocrat making a meal for himself appears highly unlikely to me), then Chambers emphasises the Earl’s unnatural height and strength. In his rather droll telling, however, the story is only “preserved by tradition.” “The story runs,” Chambers tells us, “that the Duke, who had previously regarded his offspring with no eye of affection, immediately ordered him to be smothered.” Chambers goes on to dismiss this detail as “a mistake.” It is, you see, not an authoritative record of history.
If I was inclined to research this story, I would delve into the records of child burials in 1707, or else look for any large unspecified payments from the Duke’s household which would suggest compensation for the boy’s aggrieved family. There might indeed be a wild goose out there somewhere. But if this story’s realism is flimsy or highly distorted, it nonetheless functions perfectly as a metaphor. The cannibal Earl – huge, unnatural, greedy, and set free – represents the Union and the corruption that was popularly associated with the Duke. The cannibal and the Union are both the Duke’s children; they are symbolic siblings or symbolically interchangeable. And the wee turnspit is immediately recognisable as that epitome of medieval castle life: a turnbrochie. The act of cannibalism symbolises the fate of the small, pathetic, and somewhat medieval Scottish nation within the Union. It is eaten up!
In other words, “The Cannibal Earl of Drumlanrig” is a popular or folk interpretation of a political event. It was presumably retold in inglenooks and at children’s bedsides in all the decades up to 1824, when Chambers finally caught this flitting story in his butterfly net and nailed it down. And as a metaphor there is something very beautiful and accomplished about the tale. When we leap to 2014, therefore, and what could be the final days of the Union, does the “blogosphere,” or the mass recording of stories such as this, have anything comparable to add to history?
It is not my business to argue that the democratisation of culture has led to its devaluation or irrelevance. I also concede that the blogosphere, or the popular production of writing, is in historical terms still in its infancy. My challenge to the blogosphere might be like requiring a toddler to start spouting their own poetry. Within the forlorn, battered old circus of contemporary literature, authors such as James Robertson continue to produce the sort of writing that I like to see about independence. But why aren’t more storytellers attracted by the freedoms of distribution, the liberties with the means of production, which come with the blogosphere? Whilst researching these “#Indyref Anguish” missives, it has dawned on me that a lot of online writing about the independence referendum is gigantically boring. It is hard to believe that the truism is true: can this material really convey a resurgence of popular interest in politics?
“The Cannibal Earl of Drumlanrig” submits a far profounder emotional case against the Union than any “evidence-based” analysis of currency options. There were probably people making such analyses in 1707, but, however evidence-based, they have not lasted for hundreds of years. Most of the blogosphere has accepted the newspaper or magazine article as the natural model for critiquing political assertions about independence. There is virtually no fiction, hardly any satire, and a paucity of spoofs and parodies.
Of course, there are moments when the sun comes out. The Lallands Peat Worrier is miles ahead of the rest of the blogosphere. Not only does he, like Professor Adam Tomkins and sometimes EdinburghEye, embrace the liberties of the blogosphere to write about complex issues which cannot be tackled in the short space of a newspaper article. He also recognises that the blogosphere provides the freedom for writing which is livelier and more experimental than would be ever abided in a newspaper. Incidentally, the same type of prose can be found within physical periodicals, notably that of the Glasgow quarterly The Drouth.
The rest of the blogosphere is not so great. Inspect National Collective and Bella Caledonia and then, ten minutes later, try to remember anything which you had read on either website. You might recall a headline or a cartoon, but everything else remains a sort of mist. Although I am fond of criticising National Collective, I do continue to keep an eye on it, because the number of artists and poets at their beck and call holds the promise that this website might eventually develop into something interesting. So far, however, the recruits have not been effectively put into action.
Strangely, one of the most popular websites about Scottish independence, Wings Over Scotland, is also by far the worst written. Never in the field of human conflict was so much written about such trivia by so few. Wings is modelled upon Guido Fawkes’ Westminster gossip blog, with a similar rolling-news format and jokey tone, but somehow the Reverend Stuart Campbell, the lead writer at Wings, cannot equal Guido’s succinctness. Of course, Guido writes about genuine scandals, whereas Wings is often moaning about some biased nuance in a BBC broadcast. Yet the popularity of Wings carries all the danger of making poor prose acceptable across the Scottish blogosphere.
It would be good if the blogosphere could produce some writing which people might still like to read in 300 years’ time. So here is my plea: when you sit down to compose your next blog post about how some politician was egged in the street when giving a speech about interest rates, think about whether that politician will still be remembered in 300 years, whether the egging will still be remembered, and whether they’ll still care about 2016’s interest rates. Maybe they will, but they will be no doubt more horrified and delighted by the non-evidence-based cannibal antics of 1707.