The Weird Tale has roots that reach all the way to Scotland. The very word “weird,” a form of the Old English wyrd (“fate; chance; fortune; destiny”) which died out in the 16th century but survived in the Scots language, was resurrected by none other than William Shakespeare for his famous Scottish play. Since the Weird Sisters first haunted doomed Macbeth on Elizabethan stages, “weird” has been a byword for the strange, the supernatural, and the uncanny. Many of the earliest practitioners of what we would call the modern Weird Tale were Scots themselves: James Hogg, Walter Scott, George MacDonald, Margaret Oliphant, Robert Louis Stephenson, among many others. Some of the greatest Weird Tales of all were inspired, at least in part, by the land & people on the edge of the Old World, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Edgar Allan Poe, who was born on the 19th of January 1809, has a great literary – and personal – connection to Scotland.
Poe himself was not born in Scotland, but in Boston, Massachusetts, to actor duo David and Eliza Poe. The father’s abandonment and mother’s death at an early age orphaned the young Edgar, and he was taken in by John Allan and his wife Frances. John Allan was a native of Dundonald in Ayrshire, who emigrated to Richmond, Virginia to seek his fortune as a merchant. Not long after their adoption, the Allan family returned to the British Isles, where they and the young Poe would occasionally return to the Allan homeland of Scotland. The little time Poe spent in Scotland may have been comparatively short, but could have been influential on the future Gothic author.
Poe first came to Scotland in 1815, when he was just six years old. After the family made landfall, they spent five weeks visiting friends & relatives, before making their way to their new home in London. Poe enjoyed his time in the cosmopolitan capital of the British Empire, and excelled at school. Sadly, this didn’t last: after several months, Allan decided to send Edgar to Irvine for his schooling. The young Edgar, already feeling distanced from his adopted family, did not take it well. John Galt, a relative of the Allans, said that the seven-year-old Poe was “recalcitrant and obstreperous” throughout the long journey to Scotland. This behaviour continued at school, where he disobeyed the teachers and refused to study, with Galt concerned that the boy would attempt to run away to London if he didn’t keep a close eye on him. Poe went back and forth from Irvine to London, but by at least August in 1820, the Allans returned to Richmond in the wake of a financial crisis, where Poe entered the school of Joseph H. Clarke.
As tends to be the case with authors, separating legend from evidence can be difficult, with no two historians agreeing on every “fact.” While preeminent Poe biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn dismissed most of the Poe-Scottish connection as “overemphasized” and “very tenuous” in Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography – in particular, he believes that Allan’s schooling in Irvine is a “myth,” albeit one that relies on “negative proof” – he does, for instance, suppose that his poem “To the Lake” may have been inspired by the “Lady’s walk” haunted by the spirit of Lord Kilmarnock. On the other hand, the likes of Kenneth Silverman (Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance) endorse the Irvine Schooling story. In any case, even if the history does not offer sufficient definitive proof of most Poe-Scottish stories, the heritage which arose in the decades since Poe’s day form a traditional connection in themselves.
Ayrshire is a land of great literary pedigree: it is weel kent as the heart of Burns country; the birthplace of pioneering biographer James Boswell, influential realist George Douglas Brown, Kailyard icon John Galt, and Tartan Noir legend William McIlvanney; it was also the inspiration & setting for many novels, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. It’s also a place enthused with historic and cultural significance: from the ancient Damnonii tribe to the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde; the site of battles against invading Norse and English armies, as well as clan feuds between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries; the location of Turnberry Castle, the home of Robert the Bruce. Ayrshire, with its hooded hills, rainswept vistas, ancient ruins, and placement on a stormy coast, must have seemed at once familiar yet strangely alien to the young Bostonian raised in Virginia. It’s only natural that a land which sired such imagination and haunted by such phantoms would leave an impression on the young Poe, even if his time was ultimately an unhappy one.
One illustrative anecdote gives a taste of 19th Century Scotland’s antagonistic relationship with the spirit world. The story says that the young Poe was wandering around the graveyard at night, pencil and paper clutched in trembling hands, the candlelight of the Old Grammar School making dancing shadows on the grim stones. As he crept through a night like Tam O’Shanter’s fevered nightmares, he came across a strange figure wielding a gun, guarding a freshly-dug grave. Puzzled, the young Edgar inquired as to why the man was guarding the dead. The sinister reply: “Why, laddie! We dinna want the wee besom tae rise frae the grave!” The boy fled in terror as the guard (who was in actuality posted to deter a spate of “Resurrection Men” grave-robbing which culminated in the Anatomy Bill 1832) cackled with demoniac glee. Even if the story is apocryphal, the rich folklore of the living dead in Scotland makes an appropriate spiritual ancestor to the unliving horrors of “Ligeia,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and even The Fall of the House of Usher.
Another oral history tells that the teachers at the Grammar School would send the students to the cemetery to copy down epitaphs from the tombstones. (This is particularly macabre when one notes that Poe’s adopted aunt, Mary Allen, is one of the graveyard’s residents.) Local historian Billy Kerr notes that one grave in particular may have been particularly affecting on Poe:
Combined with the long, perilous sea journey Poe and the family undertook across the Atlantic, it’s easy to see elements of Poe’s nautical yarns – “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and of course The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, all of which detail maritime catastrophes which must have preyed on the young Edgar’s mind.
Irvine was not the only place Edgar is known to have visited: some of the stops the Allans made on the way to London include “Kilmarnock by way of Greenock, Glasgow, (and) Edinburg (sic).” The Flowerbank Guest House bed and Breakfast in Newton Stewart claims to have paid host to the author on a visit, while Saltcoats’ North Ayrshire Heritage Centre has a display of gravestones purported to be relatives of the Allans. The Isle of Arran also has local oral histories of the author’s visit. Poe’s Scottish influence was not limited to personal experience. Authors who influenced him – Shelley, Byron, Keats, Verne, de Quincy – also visited Scotland, and were similarly inspired by the land and its people, as reflected in their writings.
Poe wrote fondly of Scotland in several poems and tales. In “Silence – A Fable,” Poe’s Demon compares the forbidden shores of the River Zaire to the Western Isles:
In “The Valley of Unrest,” he again evokes the visage of the Hebrides:
Readers of “The Cask of Amontadillo” may also recall this passage:
The Latin motto of the Montresors translates to “No-one attacks me with impunity,” and is coincidentally – or not – shared by the Stuart Dynasty of Scotland from the reign of James VI, the Order of the Thistle, and a dozen Scottish military regiments.
A final Scottish connection to Poe can be found half a world away, in Philadelphia. A new cemetery was constructed in the town in 1827, around the time Poe was living there. The founder of this new graveyard was James Ronaldson, a philanthropist and horticulturalist – who happened to be a Scotsman. Central to the new location was an obelisk, upon which was inscribed “Sacred to the memory of Scottish Strangers.” Years later and thousands of miles away, Edgar Allan Poe’s sojourn in Scotland still found reminders in the New World.