The story goes, that my Auntie Rita broke down in tears during a visit to the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. She had discovered the name of her uncle James among the dead of the Great War. He belonged to the unlucky one-in-five of enlisted Scots who never returned from the trenches. Seeing his name and personal details brought him back from the dead.
Rita moved from the Calton to England early in life. Another outbound exile who never returned. As a wee boy I often wondered why tears were never far from the eyes of this outwardly happy wummin. You notice things like that. In later life, I understood. Her early years in Well Street had their own personal tragedies.
A kind cheery soul, she always used to squeeze half-a-crown into my hand when we left her home in Wythenshawe, before boarding the bus hame. Aye, there was a bright-eyed warmth about Rita I never recognised in any other family member.
“Och, she’s a great Burns lover,” ma maw used tae say of her big sister. That made Rita the first family member I’d known who was, well, literary.
In the early 1960s, a journey to this favourite auntie was international travel. Took best part of a day to get to Manchester by bus. For a few years, though, these trips were a feature of those long school holidays.
“Would you like a jam butty, Peter?” My internal translator knew she meant ‘a piece n’ jam’. Rita’s adopted Mancunian was like a foreign language, but her intonation always conveyed a warmth and concern. This English-accented auntie would ask you things, then listen to your answer. Not really something I was used to at a young age.
Decades later, and for auld lang syne, I made a voyage of discovery to the Pas de Calais. I found the grave of Auntie Rita’s uncle James (my own great uncle) at the end of a muddy lane, in between turnip fields. The small graveyard was immaculate. I snapped some photos with an early digital camera. When I showed these to Rita her eyes welled up. Her uncle James from Airdrie, was almost 80 years gone, but forever young, and never forgotten by his niece, now in her early 90s. Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
If the Pas de Calais burial ground was poignant and sad, Assistens Kirkegaard in Copenhagen is something altogether different. Many of Denmark’s great and good are buried here.
With just over an hour to spare before my daughter’s graduation, I crossed Nørrebrogade, and strolled around the graveyard. My main aim was to discover the resting place of Hans Christian Andersen. Not so easy, as it turns out. Three young mothers passing with their prams were kind enough to direct me. Apparently, no one finds it first time, despite numerous maps and signs. “Don’t expect too much, it’s not anything grand,” one of them shouted.
There’s something very Danish about Assistens. It’s kind of celebratory with lists of the well-known and where their plots lie. As graveyards go, it’s almost ‘hyggelige’ (cosy). It’s quiet, but you’ll see joggers mingle with young mothers pushing prams. The city’s omnipresent cyclists are also permitted on certain paths. Eyebrows are raised though, when people choose to sunbathe on gravestones in the bare buff. Even liberal Denmark has its limits on full-frontal. But there’s no danger of that on this winter day.
By the way, Nørrebro is another part of Copenhagen that could pass for a mini version of Berlin’s Friedrichshain. It was in this part of the Danish capital that police opened fire during an anti-EU protest back in 1993.
Leaving the graveyard, there’s some political graffiti in large letters visible on a tenement: ‘Dine penge mig i røven’. Loosely translated, ‘Your money, my arse’.
The people here are clearly not impressed by ostentatious displays of wealth. They’re probably not fans of the new SVM* government either. Instead of dealing with big issues, the right-leaning trio in power have decided to pick a fight with the country’s largest trade union organisation. Every news cycle reports the decision to do away with a bank holiday – which is a breach of existing collective bargaining agreements. Aye, breaching agreements actually means something here. Whit a stooshie.
Speaking of stooshies, Denmark’s national embarrassment, Rasmus Paludan, performed his symbolic, and deeply offensive, Koran burning ‘party piece’ in Stockholm a few weeks ago. Why Stockholm? Well, his father is Swedish and Paludan stradles both sides of the Sound, citizenship-wise. His high water mark was 2019 when his party won 60,000 votes nationwide – mostly due to his internet celebrity-clown status. But his darker side has turned folk against him.
Out of Danish politics, he managed only 156 votes in last year’s Swedish election. He’s now resorted to provocative stunts again. His latest, though, which took place outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, has possibly scuppered Sweden’s attempt to join NATO.
Anyway, after locating the great fairytale writer, and also paying my respects to Søren Kirkegaard, it was time tae toast ma wee lassie, who isnae that wee anymair.
There’s something intense about so many national heroes and personalities buried in one location. Poets, writers, painters, politicians from another time, they’re all represented here. It’s another place that oozes national consciousness.
“Who will be our poet now?” are words we see in the garden around the Burns Centre outside Ayr. Who indeed. Who will tell our national story?
In an independent Scotland we will have an opportunity to rediscover our nation’s history, currently buried under colonial Britishness. With our national resources no longer stolen, there will be a unique opportunity to promote our heritage as never before – whether it be creating new — or upgrading already existing — local museums to the great the good. And heritage centres to our fallen patriots, independence heroes, and our neglected cultural icons.
Wouldn’t the house of artic explorer John Rae be a fine cultural and tourist centre? Or the home of Thomas Muir. And this past week, Andy Doig reminded us about founder of the first Scottish National Congress, Roland E Muirhead. Then there’s our inventors. If Scotland invented the modern world perhaps we should make more of a fuss about it?
Artic explorer, Rae (1813-93), is a case in point. His home “The Hall of Clestrain’ spent its later years housing farm livestock and slowly deteriorating.” Only in 2016 did The John Rae Society manage to acquire the house with a view to restoration. Compare that to Danish artic explorer, Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933). His house on the west coast of Sjaelland has long been a museum. It’s also an educational centre where schools can book lectures. This is how a country learns about its own.
I’ve taken my family to the Burns cottage and exhibition centre a few times. It’s an area I know well since Troon and Ayr were childhood haunts of my own family. These modern visits to the Burns Centre are usually followed by a trip to Culzean Castle, Dunure, or a meal at the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Ayr.
Our sentimental journeys have left an impression on my daughter who, on request, just spent Burns Night with us with her bonnie laddie in tow. I wanted to recite, ‘To a Mouse’, but didn’t dare. You see, I once had an Auntie Rita moment when reciting this poem. Narrating those verses in exile, and in ma mither tongue, evoked a sense of poignancy that took me by surprise. My eyes welled up and I simply couldn’t continue. Still, I think Rita would have been proud.
“But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”
*SVM – Socialdemokratiet, Venstre. Moderaterne