A Saintly Twin Sister: Protectress against convulsions and storms

Scholastica was Benedict’s twin sister, and both were born in Norcia, probably around the year 480. They came from a wealthy family that is said to have lived more or less on the site of the cathedral of Norcia, named after her more famous brother.  That cathedral was damaged in the earthquake that shook Umbria in the summer and it finally collapsed, completely, on the morning of 30 October 2016.


Scholastica is the saintly protector of convulsive children and those threatened by storms, so perhaps it is fitting that her memory should now be evoked in the name of all those who’ve been affected by this latest natural disaster.

St Gregory the Great gives an account of Scholastica’s last meeting with her brother shortly before her death in c. 542/3. That meeting probably took place in Piumarola (often recorded as Piombarola) where a building, known as the Church of the Colloquy, was erected in the eighth century (possibly already on the site of an earlier church?). This church appears to have been destroyed by the Saracens in 893, and the site was later bombed in 1939 (Herbert Bloch, Monte Cassino in the Middle AgesHarvard University Press, 1988, pp. 647-649).

Her twin brother’s Rule spread across Europe in the monastic reforms of the tenth century. In England, St Aethelwold (bishop 963-984) introduced it to Winchester in 964, after translating the Latin Rule into Old English (Donald Scragg, Edgar King of the English, 959-975: New Interpretations, Boydell & Brewer, 2014, p.219). By 966 Aethelwold had expelled the canons from the “New Minster” and replaced them with a community of monks living in accordance with the Rule. Later, Aethelwold formally presented the Rule to King Edgar at a meeting of England’s monastic leaders summoned in 970. It confirms that the king was the protector of monks and the queen of nuns, linking monasteries to the crown.


Rule of St Benedict and the Regularis Concordia f.117v, courtesy of British Library http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/cottmanucoll/r/zoomify75436.html

Elfrida (Aelfthryth), became the first queen of England to be officially crowned when Edgar was inaugurated as king for the second time in Bath in 973, a decade after their marriage (probably in 964/5).




Further north still, in Edinburgh, there is a tenuous link to St Scholastica through St Margaret, the sister of Edgar Aetheling (who was proclaimed but never crowned king in 1066 because of other momentous events).




On returning from exile, Margaret married Malcolm III and founded a Benedictine abbey in Dunfermline, where they are both buried. Scholastica’s influence is not recorded but Benedictine nunneries were later founded in North Berwick and Kilconquhar, among other places in Scotland.


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On Samuel Johnson, Sorley McLean and Talisker Bay

Talisker House on Skye lies at the end of a long descent through Glen Oraid, probably about 5 miles beyond the turning to Carbost.  The weather on the day we visited was miraculous: sunny with brilliant colours, and not that much wind. Unlike two hundred and forty-three years ago, when Dr Samuel Johnson complained that “The weather was now almost one continuous storm”.

You have to leave the car well before the house and walk down a track that leads to the bay past the house and its garden, The house is very striking and, most unusually for these parts, it’s surrounded by mature trees. The building seems to have changed very little and the garden was beautiful looked after. Johnson was clearly very taken by the house and its setting too, as well as the occupants. As he wrote on 28 September 1773: “We passed two days at Talisker very happily, both by the perfectness of the place, and elegance of our reception.”

Talisker House dates back to the early eighteenth century, but in 1780, a few years after Boswell and Johnson visited, a new front wing was added with a ground floor dining room and a drawing room above. The ornate plaster ceiling in the drawing was said to be original in the Listed Buildings description of 1971.


We came by car, and then on foot, whereas on 23 September 1773, Dr Johnson and his travelling companion, James Boswell, left Dunvegan Castle to ride to Ullinish, and from there by boat to Talisker.

Even then the area had a reputation for making the best whisky on the island. A little aside here, Talisker Distillery would be built in Carbost in 1830, and fifty years after that another great writer, this time Robert Louis Stevenson (A Scotsman Returning from Abroad, 1880), listed this particular whisky among his favourite three: “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”


Commenting in general on his impressions of Skye, Johnson remarked that “The hospitality of this remote region is like that of the golden age. We have found ourselves treated at every house as if we came to confer a benefit.”

Johnson and Boswell landed at Ferinlea, on Loch Harport, and then rode about five miles to Talisker where they stayed with Colonel John Macleod of Talisker and his wife Mary Maclean of Coll.

Sept. 23. We removed to Talisker a house occupied by Mr. Macleod, a Lieutenant colonel in the Dutch service. Talisker has been long in the hands of Gentlemen, and therefore has a garden well cultivated, and what is here very rare, is shaded by trees. A place where the imagination is more amused cannot easily be found. The Mountains about it are of great height, with waterfalls succeeding one another so fast, that as one ceases to be hearrd another begins; between the mountains there is a small valley extended to the sea, which is not afar off beating upon a coast of very difficult access.

IMG_1256The photo above was taken on the day we visited when the sea couldn’t have been calmer. But in September 1773 matters were different. Johnson wrote:

Two nights before our arrival two boats were driven upon this coast by the tempest, one of them had a pilot that knew the passage, the second followed, but a third missed the true course, and was driven forward with great danger of being forced into the great Ocean, but however gained at last some other Island. The crews crept to Talisker almost lifeless with wet, cold, fatigue and terrour, but the Lady took care of them. She is a woman of more than common qualifications; having travelled with her husband, she speaks four languages.”

What’s fascinating about this diary entry is that Johnson refers to Macleod’s wife, Mary Maclean of Coll, as being a notable linguist. This unexpected talent is surprising, but Johnson puts it down to travelling with her husband.

What four languages might these have been? They might well have included English and Gaelic (or Earse, as Johnson called it), and probably Dutch and French.  After fighting for the government during the Jacobite Rebellion, Macleod joined the Scots Brigade in Holland, where he rose to the rank of colonel. In his Life, James Boswell also agreed that John Macleod and his wife, “in consequence of having lived abroad, had introduced the ease and politeness of the continent into this rude region”.


This is a really special corner of Skye and it was lovely to find that Sorley Maclean also wrote about Talisker Bay. Below is the English translation of Tràighean, thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library website (what a fantastic resource!). The basalt rocks of Preshal Mhor are visible in the photo above.

If we were in Talisker on the shore
where the great white mouth
opens between two hard jaws,
Rubha nan Clach and the Bioda Ruadh,
I would stand beside the sea
renewing love in my spirit
while the ocean was filling
Talisker bay forever:
I would stand there on the bareness of the shore
until Prishal bowed his stallion head.

There was no sign of white horses (whether on the hills or in the sea) when we were there – that must be a dramatic sight!  Below is the stack of Bioda Ruadh, at the south end of the bay, in fabulous sunlight.


Writing to Macleod of Macleod as he waited for a boat to leave Skye, Johnson also expressed his gratitude to all those he had met on the island, and particularly to his steed:

“Boswell grows impatient, but the kind treatment which I find wherever I go makes me leave with some heaviness of heart an Island which I am not very like to see again. Having now gone as far as horses can carry us, we thankfully return them. My Steed will, I hope, be received with kindness; he has born me, heavy as I am, over ground both rough and steep with great fidelity…”

We didn’t have trusted horses, but we can share the sentiment of the heaviness of heart when we left and the kindness of the lovely people we met on the Winged Isle. I hope we will be very likely to see it again!

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Bestselling Authors Abroad: The Society of Authors event at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s good to be able to claim that an event is the first of its kind – not the fact that I was asked to chair it (although incidentally that was a first), but rather that this was the first talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about translation out of English: in other words about translation as a major cultural export. The authors who took part, Julia Donaldson and Peter May, are both bestsellers abroad (Donaldson is translated into a staggering 64 languages), but they are not alone. Translation of English-language books into foreign languages is a major business that dwarfs the tiny percentage of books translated into English.

It was a sell-out event which was encouraging. Translation, albeit usually featuring foreign authors and/or their English translators, has become a regular strand of the EIBF programme – in no small part thanks to translators themselves, including Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz, and many other members of the Translators Association, which is part of the Society of Authors. So it was excellent on this occasion to turn the tables and hear about the experience of being translated into foreign languages and the advantages and occasional pitfalls it brings.

To warm up the house, Julia Donaldson and her husband were joined by a few others, including myself, in a multilingual performance of the opening scenes of the Gruffalo. That was followed a little later on by a reading of a passage from the latest Italian translation (by Chiara Ujka) of the final book in Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, read with great flair by Giorgio Granozio. In between the conversation ranged widely over various aspects of translation. Translators do not always get in touch, I learnt, and sometimes the book just appears. However, other translators go to great lengths to understand the finer points of, in May’s case, Gaelic traditions on the isle of Lewis, and even the Scottish education system.

Both authors found the translation of book titles arcane at times. Obviously it involves more people than just the translator: after all, the marketing department need a title that will sell. Peter May, whose first novel in his Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, was originally published in French, said that he actually preferred the title it was given: L’île des chasseurs des oiseaux. Another of his books, Freezeframe, will be published with the French title L’île au rebus – even if that might remind readers of a rather well-known Scottish detective. Sometimes it’s not even a question of foreign languages: American publishers unhappy with the word “tiddler” wanted to call Donaldson’s book of that ilk, Small Fry.

Many of Donaldson’s book are in rhyme, making them that much more tricky to translate. However, her translators are often authors themselves, and even poets – she mentioned the Irish translator Tormod Caimbeul, and James Robertson her Scots translator.

Talking about book promotion was also interesting: Peter May lives in France and he notes a big difference in the type of promotion and the venues. France does not have the large chains that are so dominant in the UK and the States, and instead has retained a wealth of independent bookshops. Moreover, literary festivals are widespread, and come in all sizes. The downside, if there is one, is that he is expected to speak French. Donaldson added that independent bookshops survive on the back of the the Net Book Agreement: a hardback novel may cost 22 euros when first published, compared to the discounted prices we find on this side of the channel.

Both Donaldson and May were supportive of a recent Twitter campaign, #namethetranslator, still actively promoted by the Translators Association. This focuses on ensuring that the translator is named – in the book itself, but also in publicity materials and, particularly, in book reviews. May stated that his first French translator took a share of the royalties. He went on to add that translation is about so much more than a word for word equivalence: the art of the translator is the same as that of a writer, involving enormous creative input to convey the spirit of the text. And for that the translator should be duly credited.

The event ended with a number of questions confirming that the topic of bestselling authors abroad had struck a chord with the public by focusing on a different facet of translation and selling books.

The SOA event at EIBF happens yearly and we are currently discussing our session for 2016 – watch this space!

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The Modest Biographer: John Aubrey

Ruth Scurr’s new biography takes an innovative form – although being a lecturer, at Cambridge, she is hesitant to admit to doing anything so dangerous as innovation.  Nonetheless, it is innovative and she may well have just launched a new vogue in biography or more precisely literary studies.  What she has done is to give John Aubrey, the writer famous for his brief lives of others, his own voice, his own life, in the form of a diary.


Aubrey lived from 1626 to 1697, through the unrest and chaos of religious upheaval and two political revolutions. Ruth Scurr maintains it was this that made him dedicate his own life to preserving the past, not only buildings, artefacts, books and letters, but above all the detailed description of individual lives. Yet Aubrey, she said, has been unfairly portrayed as a gossip. Instead, quite the reverse seems more likely: he sought to preserve trust at all costs, by not publishing the Brief Lives until those he described, and he too, were “rotten in the ground, as medlars”.

The event was chaired by Stuart Kelly, undoubtedly one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable critics attending the Festival. He started by asking Ruth about friendship and the biographer: to what extent, as a biographer, do you have to befriend the person you are writing about? Ruth Scurr’s first book, a biography of Robespierre, created a neat comparison: how do you approach the blood-stained monster of the Revolution vs the quietly assuming man of letters? However, Ruth answered evenly that the biographer is like a painter, and you have to find the resonance between you and the subject. Much easier to do, she admitted, in Aubrey’s case, but she clearly also succeeded with Robespierre. This is confirmed by Hilary Mantel, writing in the TLS:

Just as Scurr understands the powerful religious impulse behind Robespierre’s thought, she also understands revolution. […]

Many years later, when he was an old man, Merlin de Thionville was asked how he could have brought himself to turn against Robespierre. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘if you had seen his green eyes . . .’

It seems doubtful whether Merlin or many others ever got close enough to see his green eyes. Scurr seems to have got closer than most.

But back to Aubrey: the astonishing nature of Scurr’s book has been endorsed by many reviewers, but none possibly in more forthright terms than Stuart Kelly this morning: “I’ll cartwheel down Princes Street,” he said, if this book doesn’t win an avalanche of prizes next year. Stuart, we’d love to hold you to that, but (sadly) I think you’re right and so your acrobatic skills will have to be put to the test another time!

One of the brilliant solutions offered by this “diary form” is that it enables the biographer to cope with gaps, or silences, in the archival material. In any historical life there are bounds to be moments, months sometimes stretching to years, when the biographer doesn’t know what the subject was doing.  Hence, the usual formula:  “In the meantime, he/she must have continued to …” (and you fill in the dots for what might be the most informed guess). Instead, the diary allows you to leave the gaps: not every day requires an entry.

John_AubreyScurr said that it had been easy to find Aubrey’s “very distinctive” voice, and to include his sometimes flamboyant turns of phrase. Her own gift for the telling detail echoes the ability of Aubrey “to find the small, defining details that make a person who they are”. The example she gave was his description of Thomas Hobbes who was nicknamed “Crow” at school because of his jet black hair.  It is for this ability and for the desire to preserve such details that Aubrey is sometimes referred to as the “father of biography” – a phrase Ruth Scurr found a little too catchy.  “What about Plutarch?” was her reply.

Scurr admitted that her overall concern in using this form was to include as much material as possible. She compared it to restoring a tapestry: some areas have remained more frayed and worn, but nothing has been consciously left out.  However, to say that by using this invented diary form the biographer writes herself out of the picture is, according to Scurr, incorrect: the writing is still subjective, and the historian remains in control, selecting and rewording, notwithstanding the overall intention to make objective use of the materials.  And those materials, his books and papers in the Bodleian, the Royal Society archives and elsewhere, are certainly richly rewarding, despite Aubrey’s fears that they would not survive.

Thank you, Ruth, for a wonderful event and for giving John Aubrey, this most modest man, his Own Life.

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