Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Finding Inspiration in Disaster—A Tale of Two Scottish Poets by Molly MacRae

On January 25th, people all around the world will celebrate Burns Night in honor of the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796). Burns, despite living only 37 years, is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. If you have a chance to attend a Burns Night Supper, take it. The festivities start with the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanket.

Cullen skink follows the grace. Then comes the piping in of the haggis, a recitation of Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” whisky, neeps and tatties, whisky, clootie dumpling or cranachan and, if you like, whisky. A Burns Supper is a splendid feast that shouldn’t be missed. (menu glossary below)

But have you heard of William Topaz McGonagall? McGonagall (1825-1902) was another Scottish poet, one “so giftedly bad,” according to Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures, “he backed unwittingly into genius.”

Plaque near McGonagall's burial site in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland (photo by author)

McGonagall, born in Edinburgh, was the son of Irish handloom weavers. His parents moved to Dundee when he was three, and he lived most of his life there. He joined the family trade but was also an amateur Shakespearean actor. The story goes (there are a number of stories about McGonagall) that when he played the lead in Macbeth, he took umbrage at being upstaged by Macduff and refused to die at the end of the play.

At 52, he apparently had an epiphany and dedicated the rest of his life to writing poetry—poetry so bad he’s widely regarded as not just the worst-ever Scottish poet, but the worst-ever British poet. Some would go so far as to say he’s the worst poet in the English language. And yet, he delighted audiences with his recitations. True, some audience members pelted him with fruit and eggs, but that didn’t stop him. It also didn’t make him rich. He and his wife depended on the charity and kindness of friends.

The characters in my Highland Bookshop Mysteries of course love Robert Burns. But some of them are also besotted with McGonagall. Below is a passage from Argyles and Arsenic, coming out March 1st. 

During his lifetime, nineteenth-century Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall delighted and appalled audiences with his labored rhymes, awkward scansion, melodramatic subject matter, and general butchery of the art form. Christine adored him. Tallie found him fascinating in the way videos of avoidable disasters fascinated others.

Janet agreed with both of them. Shortly after she and Curtis the rat had bought the house in Inversgail, she’d embroidered the last two lines of McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster” onto an antique linen tea towel. The words, “For the stronger we our houses do build; The less chance we have of being killed,” suited the sturdy, granite house, and she’d hung the framed needlework above their front door. She still loved the embroidery, but was sad her marriage hadn’t been stronger.

McGonagall found inspiration in disasters for many of his poems, “The Tay Bridge Disaster” being his most famous. Though ridiculed during his life and after, McGonagall would be delighted to know that collections of his poetry are still available today.

Crime writers take inspiration from disasters, too. Most often their inspiration comes from the disastrous choices people make. We do try, though, for a better reaction to our work than poor McGonagall received.

In the new year, may your writing go well. May your writing be notable and avoid the notoriety of William Topaz McGonagall.

Menu glossary:

  • Cullen skink: thick soup made of smoked haddock, onions, and potatoes.
  • Haggis: dish made from the minced heart, livers, and lungs of sheep, mixed with oatmeal, suet, seasonings, salt, and broth and boiled in a bag made from the sheep's stomach.
  • Neeps and tatties: mashed turnips and mashed potatoes.
  • Clootie dumpling: Scottish pudding, made with dried fruit, spices, oatmeal or breadcrumbs, flour, and beef suet, steamed in a cloot (a cloth), and served with a dram of whisky.
  • Whisky: Uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic, which translates as water of life.
  • Cranachan: Scottish dessert made of whipped cream, raspberries, heather honey, whisky, and oatmeal.


Cranachan in author's kitchen (photo by author)

Molly MacRae writes the award-winning, national bestselling Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries and the Highland Bookshop Mysteries. Visit Molly on Facebook and Pinterest and connect with her on Twitter  or Instagram.








Kait said...

Never heard of McGonagall – I’ll have to look him up. Sounds like a fun kind of poet! Think I'll pass on the haggis. Sounds like Scottish head cheese and my mother made us eat organ meat growing up. She and my dad loved it. Ugh. Now Cranachan - that sounds divine.

Susan said...

Hilarious, Molly, as always. Imagine being known as the worst in anything and still being popular.

Molly MacRae said...

Do look up McGonagall, Kait. Lots of fun in a painful way. Haggis is good stuff! There's no strong organ meat flavor and the mix of meat and starch together reminds me of corned beef hash (though it tastes nothing like corned beef). Reading the full recipe can definitely be off-putting though.

Thanks, Susan! McGonagall is a model of perseverance (and possibly boneheadedness).

Debra H. Goldstein said...

What scares me is how many of us might be McGonagall reincarnated.....but then again, the longevity of his writing says something

Molly MacRae said...

It's a scary thought, Debra, but you're right to point out the silver lining.

Shari Randall said...

Thank you for the laugh and the mouthwatering photo of Cranachan! I've seen recipes that use whisky flavoring the whipped cream, and now I'm fascinated by lavender whipped cream. How do you make it?

Molly MacRae said...

Here's the recipe I used, Shari.
4 tbsp. pinhead oatmeal (steel cut oats)
1 ¼ cup whipping cream
2 tbsp. whisky (optional) (so they say)
3 tbsp. liquid honey (preferably heather honey)
2 cups fresh raspberries
4 parfait or other tall glasses
Toast the oatmeal in a frying pan over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Shake the pan from time to time until the oatmeal is lightly browned. Meanwhile, whip the cream until it is thick but not stiff. Fold in the whisky and honey. Reserve the best raspberries to decorate the top. Fold the rest into the cream gently. Spoon the mixture into the parfait glasses, sprinkle with the toasted oatmeal, decorate with the reserved raspberries, and chill until ready to serve. A variant is called Ale-Crowdie and calls for ale, treacle, and whisky with the oatmeal.

KM Rockwood said...

I'll probably skip most of those dishes, although the cranachan does sound good. So does the whiskey.

Marilyn Levinson said...

What a fun blog, Molly. I've eaten haggis and while I didn't love it I didn't hate it, either. I must say that cranachan sounds tastier.
I wouldn't mind having some right now.

Karen said...

I have read and taught Burns but have never heard of McGonagall. I adore the phrase "he backed unwittingly into genius." It's brilliant! Haggis on the other hand ... my family and I went to Scotland and my kids and husband tried it; I couldn't stomach it. :) Thanks for the interesting blogpost! Best, Karen Odden