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British Heritage: August/September 1998 Letters

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 23, 1998 
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'HUMANUM EST ERRARE'

In your position as editors you must be more aware than most of the truth of the old adage 'to err is human'. It is most unfortunate that this tag more than once has been demonstrated in the article 'The Bard of the Borders: Sir Walter Scott' (April/May, page 51).

You most thoughtfully suggested to the Borders Tourist Board that they 'vet' this article, and they in turn asked me, as honorary secretary of The Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, to verify the accuracy of the article. It is so much easier for one born and bred in Edinburgh and educated at a time when we were educated to spot inaccuracies in an article on a subject near to one's heart and one's knowledge. Unfortunately, many of my suggestions in regard to the manuscript were misdirected and therefore did not reach you, and as a result several errors remained.

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Purely to ensure that your readers are not misinformed about Sir Walter and the history of the Borders, I list below the salient errors.

The article describes Scott as a Victorian and Abbotsford as a Victorian building. Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, by which time Scott had been dead for five years. Abbotsford was built in the early 1800s.

The Heart of Midlothian is not a good example of a novel with Border background. Edinburgh is the Heart of Midlothian and that is where most of the action occurs. Better examples are The Black Dwarf and St. Ronan's Well.

College Wynd, where Scott was born, was many hundreds of yards from the High Street, and I do not think he ever lived in the Royal Mile.

The caption under the photograph of the house in Castle Street describes it as his 'childhood home'. The plaque on the outside of the building states that he lived there beginning in 1802, at which time he was already more than 30 years old.

Finally, the article stated that all Scott's early work was published anonymously. This is quite mistaken. The only writings whose authorship was kept secret were the Waverly Novels, although it was generally accepted in literary circles that Scott was the author long before the name was revealed in 1826.

I would very much appreciate it if you found it possible to bring these points to the notice of your readers.

Fraser Elgin,
Peebles, Scotland

Editor's Note: Of course, we are happy to oblige. Mr. Elgin's letter illustrates two additional important points that readers should note. First, we go out of our way to strive for accuracy. Each article published in BRITISH HERITAGE is routinely fact-checked, usually by an acknowledged expert, but occasionally by one of the editorial staff. Second, despite these efforts errors still do escape our attention from time to time. When they do, we invite readers to let us know. When appropriate, and as space permits, we'll share your insights in a subsequent issue.

BRILLIANT BRANAGH

I have been hoping you would feature an article on Kenneth Branagh, and your lively profile of his fellow actor Sir Derek Jacobi (April/May, page 36) came close. Now I have just received the June/July issue in the mail and see that you have published two photographs of Mr. Branagh in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet. I travelled to England in 1993 to see this performance and was amply rewarded. Mr. Branagh was brilliant as the Prince–it was a terrific warm-up for his 1996 film of the play. Both the RSC stage version and the film gave us the entire text of Shakespeare's greatest play, and having seen these uncut presentations, I am convinced this is the only way to truly experience the complexities of this immortal drama.

Thank you for Matt Wolfe's article on the RSC–I'm seeing them at the Brooklyn Academy this month.

Virginia Wilhelm,
New York, New York

Editor's note: We're sure that many of our readers share Virginia's desire for a profile of Kenneth Branagh. We have, in fact, been attempting to arrange an interview. So far, Mr. Branagh's travel schedule has prevented us from linking up, but we hope to catch up with him in the future and have a chat.

HISTORICAL SPARK

I am writing to compliment you on the recent contents of BRITISH HERITAGE. I am delighted with the return of more historical and informational substance. I have been a subscriber since 1983 and had recently contemplated discontinuing my subscription because of the 'travel brochure' style articles that have prevailed in recent years. I think it is a move in the right direction to return to such items as 'History in Focus'. While a travel style is somewhat enjoyable, it pales when nothing else about England seems to be included. History and information about English culture and historical figures is sure to spark as much interest in travelling as descriptions of places.

I am especially enjoying the March issue on Arthur. I hope you continue this trend and focus on other special interests of British heritage and culture.

Gwen Podeschi,
Taylorville, Illinois

Editor's note: We are constantly striving to achieve the ideal balance between history and travel, and are gratified to hear that our recent efforts have been received favourably by at least one reader. In addition to the 'History in Focus' department mentioned above, we have recently launched a second regular department with a strong historical flavour. 'Notable Britons' examines the lives of interesting but lesser-known personalities from throughout British history .

We'd love to know what other readers think about our coverage of British history. Obviously, interests and tastes vary among our large following of loyal readers, and we can't please everyone with every issue, but we'll do our best to respond to likes and dislikes in general.

The feedback we received in regard to the 'Age of Arthur' issue (March) was overwhelmingly positive, and we plan to continue these special annual 'Britain's Historic Landscape' issues in years to come. Future themes will include Britain during the Second World War, Roman Britain, and Tudor England.

HOW MANY YEARS IN A MILLENNIUM?

Thank you for the April/May number of BRITISH HERITAGE, which I began to read yesterday evening. A statement in the article on the Greenwich Observatory (page 23) disturbs me: 'When the clock strikes midnight on 31st December, 1999, the Millennium will be ushered in . . . .'

Aren't you jumping the gun? A millennium is a period of a thousand years. The year AD 1 was the first year of the first millennium. The year 1001 was the first year of the second millennium. The year 2000 will be the last year of the second millennium, not the first year of the third millennium. ('Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.')

Edmund K. Trent,
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 

Editor's note: Mr. Trent is entirely correct. The 'article' he refers to was in fact a paid advertisement, and therefore the editors did not feel at liberty to alter the date. In practice, however, it would have been an exercise in futility. The misunderstanding over the timing of the millennium's end is so widespread that those relatively few folks who at first tried to remain faithful to their calendars have been swept under by the popular tide and will, in most cases, be celebrating along with everyone else on New Year's Eve, 1999. We too, have bowed to peer pressure. Our special millennium coverage will be published in–you guessed it–1999.

SAVOURY SEMANTICS

Elizabeth Riely's piece about savouries (April/May, page 59) is excellent. I'm pleased that she described one particular savoury as 'Welsh rabbit' and not 'Welsh rarebit'. When she mentions the many stories about the name 'Welsh rabbit', I assume she means about the origins of this phrase. If I once knew any such stories, I've forgotten them. As a Ph.D. in English and a student of English philology, I have, however, an explanation for its origin.

'Welsh rarebit' is a classic example of a folk or popular (actually false) etymology. These are corruptions of original forms or spellings of words or phrases by people who don't know the reason for the original, and therefore change it to make it seem more logical. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1725 as the first printed occurrence of 'Welsh rabbit', yet in 60 years, 'Welsh rarebit' had appeared, for Gross' Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defines 'Welsh rabbit' as 'melted cheese on toast, i.e. a Welch rare bit' (a dig at the Welsh).

Let's imagine that 300 years or so ago an English host served a guest melted cheese on toast and was asked 'What's that?' Thinking a dumb question deserved a facetious answer, the host said, 'That's a Welsh rabbit.' The term caught on and was used in that form until know-it-alls began to say, 'this word "rabbit" doesn't make sense because the dish has no rabbit meat', so people accustomed to delicacies (melted cheese on toast?) must have changed 'rabbit' to 'rare bit'.

Ms. Riely deserves praise for writing simply that 'Welsh rabbit' is also spelled 'rarebit'. Some writers haven't been so sanguine about this fact. H.W. Fowler's dictum in his monumental Modern English Usage is that 'Welsh rabbit is amusing & right, & Welsh rarebit stupid & wrong.'

William B. McColly,
Hershey, Pennsylvania

 

5,500 SARMATIANS

Your interesting article, 'The Quest for the Historical Arthur' (March 1998, page 12), and beautiful illustrations on this subject have convinced me that the British have become a gullible nation of romantics. Before I left England in 1950, I used to think that we were common-sense, pragmatic people. Recent historical events and the reverence accorded the Arthurian legend convince me I was wrong.

The magazine Archeology, in its January 1997 issue, has a most interesting article by Professor Scott-Littleton, titled 'Were Sarmatians the Source of the Arthurian Legend?' Briefly, in AD 175, Marcus Aurelius ordered a troop of 5,500 Sarmatian cavalry, under a commander named Artorius Castus, to the Lancashire area to keep order. He was not a king, but certainly a strong man; perhaps a viceroy for Rome. The Sarmatians seem to have come from the area of the Don, and like the later Cossacks were great riders. So the first similarity is the name, Artorius, and the second the cavalry (knights?) under him. Third, a tribe known as the Ossetians (from much the same area) had a legend about a lost magical cup, long before the Christians invented the Holy Grail.

Finally, the sword. The Ossetians had a great leader who on his deathbed asked that his sword be thrown into the sea. When this was done the sea frothed up red around it. The origin of this story may well be a thousand years older, going back to King Shalmaneser III, the tyrant of Nineveh.

Eirene S. Druce,
Richmond, British Columbia

CROSS WORDS

As a nurse and one who has worked with the severely retarded for many years, I am compelled to write my utter dismay at something in the June/ July issue.

In these days of more awareness of the disabled I find your clue in the crossword puzzle (page 71) for number 11 across most offensive. The idea of the labels 'half-wit' and 'feeble-minded' is in this day and age quite unacceptable to myself and many friends, and you should print an apology.

I should hope that in future more thought would go into your crossword puzzles.

Stephanie Russell-Heller,
Bellevue, Nebraska

Editor's note: We certainly regret any offence that our crossword clue may have given, and readily apologize for any discomfort it may have caused. At the same time, however, we hasten to point out that we did not use these words to 'label' anyone; we simply recognized them, for better or worse, as parts of the English language.

 



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