Collingwood Society – Prisoner of the Sea

Last week included the second Collingwood Society meeting of the year – and the first that I’ve actually made, because I missed the January talk.

This talk went back specifically to Collingwood for the first time in a while – we’ve been having a lovely time exploring the naval history of the North-East, and the Age of Sail in general – with Max Adams, who wrote the best of the Collingwood biographies, coming to talk about new insights from – or into – Collingwood’s correspondence.

He began by talking about Collingwood’s letters as literature, rather than as historical evidence – as great letters from a great age of letter writing – and his frustrations I’m trying to get other people to recognise this, and read us out a full letter to demonstrate the way that his letters were carefully structured.

He also read out a letter from Collingwood to the Corporation of Newcastle, thanking them for a letter which he had been told they had sent after Trafalgar – except that apparently they had never written him a letter at all, and this reply was only to point out to them how they should have behaved!

More specifically, he had been looking at letters between Collingwood and the Duke of Northumberland (nominally over problems with access to the coal mine at Chirton), both as evidence of the social relationship and discussions between two men from very different backgrounds, and as evidence of how letters were travelling to and from the Med – the letters themselves are dated, of course, but then you get comments in the replies about ‘your letter which I received last week’, or can tell that from the content that a second letter hadn’t yet arrived although it had been sent.

The last part of the talk was not about the letters, but about a source that Max wished he had read before he wrote his book, and which one of his students had pointed out to him later – a book called ‘Servitude et grandeur militaires’ (most recently translated as ‘The Warrior’s Life’) by a man called Alfred de Vigny, looking at military life in peace time, after the great events of the Napoleonic wars, which is interesting as containing a description of Collingwood by an enemy.

The book contains a story told to the narrator by a man called Renaud, who shows him a letter from his father written from captivity in England, where he had been taken on board Collingwood’s ship, and who was later himself held as a prisoner on another ship of Collingwood’s (presumably Culloden, although the book says Victory – there are various muddles of names and times).

This was where the title of the talk came from – that Renaud was depressed by being kept as a prisoner, cut off from his own land and his own people, and that Collingwood pointed out to him one night that he was just as much a prisoner of the sea, cut off from his home and family.

It was presented to us as a factual account, and well, it might be – but it does all sound a bit too good to be true, and when you look up the book it turns out to have been written a few years after Collingwood’s letters – which quite often talk about his family in that way – and that it is generally seen as short stories containing autobiographical (and presumably biographical) elements.

So I have mixed feelings about this – it was an interesting talk, and included some good stories, but I do wish that I was a bit more sure that they were more than that – I would be interested to know, for example, whether there is evidence that no letter was sent by the Newcastle Corporation, or only no evidence that one was sent, and whether there is any other evidence for the existence of this French boy (who would presumably have been borne for victuals!)

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Throwback: Culross and Cochrane

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Cochrane and the Culross town house

(This isn’t exactly a throwback, because although I went to Culross years ago and took photos then, I’ve lost them, so all the photos are new. But never mind.)

Culross on the south coast of Fife is a wonderfully preserved place, with a jumble of old houses and little cobbled streets and an old market cross tucked into a tiny square, and a bright yellow palace which they swear is how it would have looked originally!

It’s not Thomas Cochrane’s birthplace – he was born over in the west somewhere – but it is where he grew up.

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Culross houses

The main street now leads along the sea front, and it’s there that the main open square is, with the statue of Cochrane. The statue is fairly new – apparently it was put up because visitors from South America kept asking where his memorial was.

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Cochrane statue and inscription

The inscription in front of it is impossible to get a good picture of – there’s no high point where you can stand – but it’s a slightly cut down version of the inscription on his gravestone in Westminster Abbey.

THOMAS COCHRANE G.C.B. ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET
Marquis of Maranham Brazil TENTH EARL OF DUNDONALD
BY THE CONFIDENCE WHICH HIS GENIUS HIS SCIENCE
AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY DARING INSPIRED
BY HIS HEROIC EXERTIONS IN THE CAUSE OF FREEDOM
HIS GREAT SERVICE ALIKE TO HIS OWN COUNTRY
TO GREECE TO BRAZIL AND PERU HE ACHIEVED
A NAME ILLUSTRIOUS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
FOR COURAGE PATRIOTISM AND CHIVALRY

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Cochrane statue

Behind the sea front the old streets run steeeply up to the church on the hill, built in – and out of – the ruins of the original abbey.

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Abbey remains

The plaques in the porch recording gifts to the poor include one from Lady Mary Cochrane, who brought Culross into the Cochrane family (and who also has a dance – probably originally named for a tune, but if so the tune doesn’t seem to have survived.)

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Church plaques

Cochrane’s childhood home was Culross Abbey House, on the hill in behind the church.

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The church and Abbey House

If I had realised this earlier I would have gone up to see if there was a view from the gate, but by the time I’d got down the hill I wasn’t going back up again.

You get a pretty good view from the shore, anyway – the house has been remodelled over the years, but has now been restored to something like the original state.

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Culross Abbey House

Down on the shore a little clump of houses is called Cochrane Haven – according to the plaque on them named specifically for the admiral, and not for the family as local landowners.

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Cochrane Haven
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Cochrane Haven sign

The Scott Monument

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Scott in his monument

Surprisingly, although I tend to climb to the highest point of any city I visit – I’ve been up many towers and spires – I’ve lived in Edinburgh for about 30 years without ever climbing the Scott Monument. So since I’m on a monument kick at the moment it had to be time to do it.

The momument itself is Victorian, of course, but Scott himself was one of the most influential authors of late Georgian times. It’s definitely an impressive monument, although too elaboate Victorian for my tastes.

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Towering spires

The monument is covered in little statues representing Scottish poets and characters from Scott’s novels.

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Statues and carving

In among the pillars at the bottom there is a statue of Scott and his dog Maida.

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Scott

Climbing the monument was quite an adventure – there are several gallery levels where you come out, with a small museum on the first of them, and the stairs get narrower and narrower as you head to the top.

The views are worth it, though, in all directions – looking towards North Bridge and Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and the monuments on Calton Hill, up towards the Old Town and the castle with the Pentlands showing beyond, or looking out over the New Town (and Lord Melville’s monument) towards the sea.

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North Bridge and Salisbury Crags
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Calton Hill and the Balmoral Hotel
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The old town and the Pentlands
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To the sea