Penicuik enlightens

Last week I was part of a gathering of minds to consider a project to bring together the “villas of the Esk’ for [what seems like] a forgotten landscape of special cultural significance.

The meeting had been set up by James Simpson, architect, and was held around the dining table of Sir Robert Clerk of Penicuik.


To my embarrassment I was kindly introduced to Sir Robert Clerk as a “Renaissance man”. I am not this.

I recently met with Alexander McCall Smith who is an admirer of my short films and who came up with an idea of a possible shared creative venture. I replied to McCall Smith:

“I can only offer, for my part, boundless enthusiasm, magpieness and my sense of wonder in all that is around me in the country of my birth.”

Alexander McCall Smith wrote this in my grandfather’s old invoice book:


I use my grandfather’s empty invoice books as my notebooks. Sadly he left many empty books. He was one of Scotland’s last traditional orchardmen. Nothing mattered to him more than blossom.

I have digressed. Back to Penicuik: in the first few decades of the 18th century the Antiquarian, Alexander Gordon or “Singing Sandy”, was the closest friend of Sir John Clerk. They shared a curiosity: a curiosity enlightened by the past. Together they abandoned any notional (or simplistic) divide between the cultures of arts and sciences.

The Antiquary, Alexander Gordon, loved history, music, architecture, painting, poetry and philosophy. Yet he was a flawed man.

The painting below was by Henry Raeburn and painted at Penicuik in 1791. It portrays Sir John and Lady Clerk. It has been considered as one of Raeburn’s finest paintings.


Peter Davidson, in his book ‘Distance and memory’ described this double portrait:




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