The unfolding spiral begins with the star, the sea and the fishes.
A story of place formed at the threshold of land and tidal flows. Named after the earliest human dwellings, the caves. Inhabited and used for thousands of years by the Picts, early Christians, Norsemen and smugglers, all leaving behind, evidence of that human need to make a mark. Their drawings of fish, serpents, sacred goats, deer and swans incised into stone as silent witness of their stories.
Walking down the aptly named School Wynd in East Wemyss, (the place-name of Wemyss derives from the Gaelic uamh, ‘cave’), you encounter a colourful piece of public art commemorating the history of the village. From the earliest beginnings of that liminal space between land and sea, there are later references to the nearby ruined castle of MacDuff, linked with the Thane of Fife, slayer of Macbeth. The distinctive red wheels of the Michael Colliery’s pithead winding gear represents the more recent industrial, mining heritage.
Like the whorls on a snail’s shell, an unfolding of time layered on place.
A place which holds and retains memory.
Why here, on this small, rough-cast covered, structure?
A small plaque sits to the left on exposed brick work:
We can’t learn too much from this. A memorial to a young boy, Michael Swinton Brown who died, aged 15, over 100 years ago.
Knowing what we now know, the cross-hatching on the brick work takes on an eerie significance:
Is this place speaking
of that violent energy
– criss-cross, criss-cross
The need to make a mark?
On 19th February, 1909, young Michael Brown did what he had to do every Friday. An apprentice clerk for the East Wemyss linen manufacturing firm, G & J Johnston, it was his task to take the tram to nearby Buckhaven to collect the weekly factory wages from the Royal Bank of Scotland. He would return to East Wemyss by tram and walk down School Wynd and back to the factory along the seashore. On this particular day another East Wemyss resident alighted from the tram just behind Michael.
Alexander Edmonstone, aged 23, was an unemployed miner who had moved, with his family, to the village from Edinburgh seven years previously. At exactly 11.54 am, Edmonstone watched Michael Brown set off down School Wynd carrying his brown leather bag containing £85. A few minutes later, Michael Brown entered the brick-built public lavatory and was shortly followed in by Alexander Edmonstone.
It is not exactly clear what happened in the next few minutes as no weapon was ever found but Michael Brown was murdered in a brutal and bloody assault. Edmonstone left with the bag of money and Michael’s watch and chain. He followed the course of the Black Burn before ditching the bag and bank pass-book on the seashore near to MacDuff’s Castle. Edmonstone knowing that he would be under suspicion, walked 12 miles to Strathmiglo, before catching a train to Perth and then on to Glasgow the following morning. Travelling on to Paisley, Edmonstone faked a suicide note which he left on the parapet of the bridge over the River Cart:
I murdered Mickey Brown – AE. You will find my body at the foot of the water nearby. I filled my pockets with stones. I bid goodbye to mother. Goodbye – Alexander Edmonstone.
Police dragged the river, obviously without success, and ‘Wanted’ posters were issued throughout the country offering a reward of £100 leading to an arrest. A month later, Edmonstone had managed to travel to Manchester to take up lodgings under the assumed identity of Alexander Edwards. A fellow lodger had been visiting Whitworth police station to apply for a hawkers licence when he noticed the ‘Wanted’ poster for Edmonstone and particularly noticed a reference to the watch stolen from Brown. He was sure he had seen this watch and convinced that his fellow lodger was Edmonstone.
Edmonstone was duly arrested and entered a defence of insanity at his trial. However, the jury only took ten minutes to deliver a unanimous verdict of guilty of murder. Edmonstone was hanged at Perth prison on 6th July 1910.
The public lavatory in School Wynd has long since been bricked up. Now it’s a site on which the unfolding stories of place have been written.
A place that holds and retains memory.
A silent witness to the stories of place.
Now playing: The Durutti Column – ‘Requiem Again’ from Vini Reilly
Alexander Edmonstone, ‘Court Case 1909, July 8th and 9th’, The Fife Post
Molly Whittington-Egan, The Stockbridge Baby Farmer, (Castle-Douglas: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2013).
2 replies on “A silent witness to the stories of place”
Extraordinary! How places retain memories is always stranger (and richer) than we could ever really know.
Thanks Paul.Completely agree!