By Astrid Jaekel
Rose Street is a charming and narrow old street in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Once a place with a seedy reputation, Rose Street had since developed into a pedestrian walkway with many small cafés, pubs, and unique shops that stands in strong contrast to its neighboring Princes Street, which is Edinburgh’s busy, main commercial stretch.
In 2012, I was asked to design something to regenerate parts of Rose Street and to celebrate its rich cultural history. My artwork was to be installed in the windows of the BT Telephone exchange, a dormant building occupied by automated machinery. Its facade looked a little shabby and was in desperate need of a revamp. My brief was very open, with the one condition that I was to create something that featured work of the so-called Rose Street poets—a new wave of Scottish poets who used to gather in Rose Street pubs in the 1950s and 60s for lively debates.
So I began my research into pieces by the various poets and when I came across the poem “Beachcomber” by George Mackay Brown, I knew I had to look no further. This piece stood out immediately for a number of reasons. The poem had the right tone. Like the poem, Rose Street is full of life, with music, yells, and laughs pouring out of pub doors. Plus, the location—not far from a view of the Firth of Forth (Edinburgh’s stretch of sea)—was perfect for a poem about beachcombing. Lastly, the building had seven big, arched windows and the poem had seven verses. It made perfect sense. I liked the idea of how people walking to work on a daily basis might just read a verse a day. The poem wouldn’t need to be read in one continuous stream but could literally be dived in and out of.
The design was initially created as a handmade paper cut before being transformed into large, laser-cut steel panels. It was great to see something that I had drawn up and cut into paper come to life on a larger scale and permanently installed in such a prominent place. When I was commissioned, I was still a student and nervous about getting it right and pleasing my audience, which in this case could be absolutely anybody moving through Rose Street. This project was a fun challenge, and I enjoy the memories that come back to me when I walk along Rose Street and think of how I would climb around the windows in order to take measurements of each segment. (Edinburgh windows are wonky and never all the same size!)
Today I am very proud that “Beachcomber” was chosen as one of 101 of Edinburgh’s most treasured objects that allow you to step into the city’s history, and that it continues to entertain people who walk along one of Edinburgh’s most atmospheric and occasionally wild streets.
Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.
Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.
Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.
Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,Wet feet and a loud cough.
Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.
Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.
Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.What’s heaven? A sea chest
with a thousand gold coins.
By George Mackay Brown from Fishermen with Ploughs (Hogarth Press, 1971), and included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005).
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.