Figure 1 One of Robert Kirk’s notebooks. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the Edinburgh University Library Special Collections).
Rabbit Holes & Chinese Whispers
In researching my novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (the main iteration of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester), I undertook extensive primary source research of the novel’s historical focus: Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle best known for his 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. As a novelist I needed ‘telling details’ to bring him alive on the page as a fully-rounded character; as a researcher I was aware of the unreliable accuracy of the various printed versions of the monograph. Dictated from his sick-bed to his cousin, Robert Campbell (already establishing a possible gulf between ‘texts’ – the one Kirk orally related, and the one written down by Campbell); the Secret Commonwealth (as it became known, although its actual title varies from MS to MS) was not published until 1815 by Sir Walter Scott. This version, printed in an edition of 100, is riddled with transcription errors (or deliberate editorial interventions) but is one that has been most reproduced ever since – starting a century-spanning chain of Chinese whispers (Lang, 1893; Cunningham, 1933; and numerous cheap reprints). It was only through the scholarly efforts of Stewart Sanderson (1976) and Michael Hunter (2001), that this process was identified and to some extent arrested (although poor transcriptions still circulate, e.g. the ‘Lost Library’, Glastonbury edition). I decided that the best way to avoid the risk of using an inaccurate version was to go back to the ‘original’ (easier said than done) and transcribe it myself. It is only when I looked into the providence of the existing MSS that I realized that finding the ‘master text’ was going to be problematic. This particular challenge led me down the beguiling rabbit holes of the archives and resulted in some incredible results – but that is something I wish to discuss elsewhere. Here I shall focus on an unexpected byproduct of this quest – coming upon Robert Kirk’s notebooks. The focus of this blog will be on what I found.
But first, a summary of what we know about Kirk…
Robert Kirk – the Facts
Figure 2 Kirk’s signature. Notebook. K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the National Library of Scotland).
- Robert Kirk (born December 9, 1644; died 14 May 1692, aged 47 yrs and 5 months)
- 7th son. Education: Edinburgh (BA); St. Andrews (MA).
- Episcopal Minister, Balquidder (9 Nov 1664-); Aberfoyle.
- Clerk of the Presbytery (appointed 23 Oct. 1667).
- 1678: married Isobel Campbell, daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster.
- One son, Colin; 1st wife died Christmas Day 1680 (carved her gravestone himself).
- Married Margaret, cousin of Isobel. One son – Robert Kirk (Minister of Dornoch 1713-1758).
- Moved to Aberfoyle. Minister until death.
- 1690/91: Oversaw printing of Bedel’s Bible (into Gaelic) in London.
- 1691: Dictated The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies.
- 1692: Collapsed on Doon Knowe of unknown causes, died. Buried in Aberfoyle
Robert Kirk – The Legend
- Stepped into a fairy ring & ‘taken’ (as punishment for speaking about the Good Folk).
- Exchanged with a changeling.
- Rocks buried instead of body.
- Appear to cousin at wedding; dirk over the shoulder.
- Pregnant woman – dirk in his chair in study.
- Offerings left at Doon Hill.
- Still a prisoner in Fairyland.
(Sources: Rev. Patrick Graham, 1812; Sir Walter Scott, 1815; Andrew Lang, 1893; Katherine Briggs, 1940).
So far, so folklore. Already I had enough material to fire my author’s imagination. But ever one for ‘going the extra inch’, I decided to delve deeper – beyond the numerous articles – to see what further primary source material I could unearth.
Notebooks – The Discoveries
Within the 8 surviving notebooks (7 in Edinburgh University Library; 1 in the National Library of Scotland) there was a wealth of material to discover. They are tiny – the size of matchboxes and very delicate. It is impossible to open the pages fully without risking damage of the spine. The handwriting is infinitesimal, faint in places, and full of Kirk’s eccentric spelling and handwriting. Some sections are more legible than others. No full transcription of them has been undertaken. In my examination of them to date I have discovered:
- Marginalia – signature; inscriptions, dates.
- Drawings – several ink-drawings depicting occult symbolism.
- Juvenilia – schoolboy daydreams, doodles.
- Evidence of romance – poems to ‘sweethearts’, whimsical word-play.
- The Stillingfleet episode.
- An early version of The Secret Commonwealth.
Figure 3 An early version of The Secret Commonwealth, as it appears in the London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring, 2015 (with permission of EUL).
I was particularly thrilled by this quote of Kirk’s found in his London notebook (below). It leaped out at me as epigraph material. It is especially significant for being the earliest usage of the term ‘Fayrie Tale’ in the English language. For Kirk to have coined this seems very resonant, considering the nature of my project – one that explores the construction and transmission of folkloric narratives, and the juxtaposition of the historical with the fantastical. Kirk’s rhetorical comparison between his account of the ‘secret commonwealth’ and the ‘discovery’ of the New World illustrates this superbly. Kirk suggests that in the same way the first accounts of the New World were received sceptically – their reports, the ‘inventors of ridiculous Utopias’ – critical readers may question the veracity of his account. Kirk, the man of God, was at pains to adopt a ‘scientific’ approach to his survey (mirroring the way Kirk’s near contemporary, John Aubrey, the man of Science, seemed possessed with, at times, a kind of religious fervour in his search for and preservation of ‘antiquities). And in this cross-fertilisation of methodologies and the fault-lines between a materialist and spiritual reading of the universe, we have the primary discourse of Kirk and Aubrey’s age. Indeed, Kirk’s whole endeavour seemed motivated by a desire to defend a spiritual interpretation of the universe against the burgeoning tide of the Age of Reason – a rearguard action doomed to failure in its day, as the wondrous became simply the curious; the sublime, ridiculous. Perhaps Kirk saw in the plight of the Good Folk – relegated to the hollow hills and the simple folk beliefs of the Highlanders – a foreshadowing of the fate of his own belief system and culture in the devastating aftermath of Culloden?
‘And if this be thought only a fancy and forgery because obscure and unknown to the most of mankind for so long a time, I answer the antipodes and inhabitants of America, the bone of our bone, yet their first discovery was lookt on as a Fayrie Tale, and the reporters hooted at as inventors of ridiculous Utopias.’ Robert Kirk
Figure 4 The first mention in the English language of the phrase ‘Fayrie Tale’. I have quoted this for the epigraph of my novel, The Knowing. London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission EUL).
The Stillingfleet Influence
Most revealing is the account of the Stillinfleet episode, as related in Kirk’s ‘London notebook’, MS. La.III.545. (EUL). Here are the key details:
- Late 1689: Kirk in London to oversee the printing & distribution of 3000 copies of Bishop Bedel’s Bible.
- Records various sermons he attended.
- Meets Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), recently appointed Bishop of Worcester, giving his valedictory sermon at St. Andrews…
- Invited back for dinner where they discuss theological and spiritual matters. Stillingfleet scornful of the Fairy Faith, but his wife more sympathetic…
- Meets Stillingfleet’s wife (just given birth to seventh child; wished to know if it could touch against the ‘King’s Evil’). Kirk himself a 7th son. Agreed to write to her on such matters…
- An embryonic version of The Secret Commonwealth appears shortly afterwards in his London Diary (La.III.545)
- Dedicates The Secret Commonwealth to ‘A Lady’.
Thus, it is tempting to conclude (as I choose to do so for the purpose of the novel) that the encounter with Lady Stillingfleet provided Kirk with the MO to set about researching and writing The Secret Commonwealth – that Lady Stillingfleet provided a ‘Muse’ figure to Kirk (the 7th child connection between all three of them – the Minister, the Bishop and his wife – may have provided sufficient motivation by itself; along with the Bishop’s professional disparagement of Kirk’s ideas). If it may seem fanciful to assume a Minister would be prey to such ‘weaknesses’ then we have the evidence of the notebooks to support the theory – for within them there are several poems to ‘sweet-hearts’ (at one point he invents an anagram of his latest object of desire, Mary Napier: Army Rapier). Kirk was made of flesh and blood and prone to flattery as much as the next man. When a beautiful, elegant, influential woman took an interest in your work, it would be hard for most not to want to rise to the challenge. The intense entries about Fairy folklore – an embryonic text of the Secret Commonwealth – that follow the Stillingfleet encounter – prove how Kirk became obsessed with the project as a result.
From Archive to Novel
Figure 5 A drawing by Robert Kirk (detail). Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of EUL).
As a result of my direct contact with these precious notebooks my novel project benefitted in several ways: I was ‘gifted a new subplot, one critical to the creation of The Secret Commonwealth; I was able to identify Kirk’s voice from the many examples I read (including the subtle clues of character revealed by his handwriting); the marginalia and juvenalia I discovered conveyed a sense of his fully-rounded character (his student daydreams; his romantic musings about women; the whimsical doodles; his recurrent pre-occupations); it afforded me a real insight into Kirk’s milieu, the period detail and debates of the Age; and it revealed to me Kirk’s hitherto unknown illustrations – as someone originally trained in Fine Art, a writer-artist who likes to illustrate his own work occasionally, this thrilled me – and demonstrated a whole other, imaginative side to Kirk.
Finally, in examining these obscure notebooks, filled with occult speculation, I felt I was experiencing a Gothic trope: the classic discovery of a lost journal, ‘the found document’, one which bestows upon the ensuing text an aroma of antiquity and authenticity. In this case, the notebooks were, of course, genuine – and my experience with them helped me in the creation of my own invented journal, one that ‘ventriloquizes’ Kirk’s voice (in a similar way to Ruth Scurr’s bold biography, John Aubrey: My Own Life):
‘Aubrey’s approach to his own and other lives was imaginative and empirical in equal measure. In imagining his diary by collating the evidence, I have echoed the idea of antiquities – the searching after remnants – that has meant so much to him. I have collected the fragmentary remains of his life – from manuscripts, letters and books, his own and other people’s – and arranged them carefully in chronological order. I have done so playingly (a word he used of his own writing) but with purpose. Ultimately, my aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive’.
Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life, (London: Chatto and Windus, 2015)
In my novel I imagine the discovery of Kirk’s ‘lost journal’ – one written while as prisoner in Elfhame. My primary source research enabled me to simulate Kirk’s predilections and distinctive voice. Although I modulated his idiom to make it more intelligible and enjoyable to the modern reader (‘accuracy’, if that were possible, would lead to alienation to all but a specialist audience) knowing Kirk’s work gave me a ‘base-line’ to work from. I had not only read and, at times, copied, his actual handwriting, I had transcribed a complete copy of The Secret Commonwealth (frustrated with the questionable providence and accuracy of the many print versions I decided to go back to the source text. It turns out there are several…).
There were plans to transcribe the Kirk Notebooks (Hunter 2001), but nothing yet has come to fruition and the secrets of Kirk’s formative years remain hidden away … for now. Who knows what treasures will be found in there when they are fully transcribed? To end with Kirk’s own admission: ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie…’
- Dc.8.114: 1660/1-1672 (school notes on philosophy)
- Dc.9.5: 1663-1664 (notes on lesson by Cant)
- Dc.8.115: 1666 (mostly excerpts)
- La.III.549: 1669 (‘occasional thoughts’)
- Dc.8.116: 1674-1675/6 (excerpts and thoughts)
- MS. 3932: 1679-1680 (mostly ‘thoughts’)
- La.III.529: 1681-1683 (‘thoughts’)
- La.III.545: 1689-1690 (London Diary)
All in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections except MS.3932 (National Library of Scotland). Source: Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, Mario M. Rossi, 1949.
For an excellent overview of Kirk’s milieu and an annotated version of The Secret Commonwealth, I highly recommend The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland, Michael Hunter, Boydell Press, 2001
Extract from ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie: Research undertaken for the Writing of The Knowing’ Powerpoint Presentation, Kevan Manwaring, University of Leicester, September 2016
Kevan Manwaring University of Leicester 2016 orcid.org/0000-0002-1756-5222
Text & Photographs Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017
Discover more on my research website, http://thesecretcommonwealth.com/