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The Tsar who came to Scotland

WHAT could possibly connect the Russian despot Tsar Nicholas I, Holyrood’s very own Fiona Hyslop, Rabbie Burns, Napoleon, stolen kisses in a Borders wood and the mediaeval Scottish wordsmith Thomas The Rhymer?Tsar Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I: Devotee of Burns... and Moffat

The answer is the Borders town of Moffat and its fascinating history of words, books and legends.

The Words Agency was recently asked to help with PR for an upcoming international books event being held in Moffat and when we started digging we found the town has a remarkable series of Russian connections.

Moffat Book Events is a locally-based charity which promotes the arts, heritage, culture and science of and for Moffat and surrounding areas by staging creative events. It has organised an international literary conference being held in the town from September 20-22 in partnership with the All Russian State Library for Foreign Literature which was attracted to the town because of its historical ties. See www.moffatbookevents.co.uk for details.

It turns out that Tsar Nicholas visited Moffat as a young man of 20 in 1816 when he was still a mere Grand Duke, accompanied by the general who defeated Napoleon at Borodino outside Moscow, Field Marshal Kutusov. The Tsar-to-be stayed at the local King’s Arms Hotel, now the Annandale Arms, and liked it so much he declared it the best hotel he had visited in Britain.
Boney at Borodino
The pair were visiting Britain to join the celebrations over the final defeat of Boney, but Nicholas also relished his stay in Moffat because of its Burns connection. The Tsar loved Burns’s poetry and the Bard was a regular visitor in the area in his role as an Exciseman.

Beginning of the end: Boney at Borodino

His visits were probably even more regular than strictly necessary because, inevitably, he took a shine to a local beauty and met her for assignations. He even wrote a famous poem, Craigieburn Woods, about his love, and the Tsar became so enamoured of it that he is reputed to have departed the town with a pane of glass from the local Black Bull Inn which had a saucy couplet engraved on it. The locals later got their own back when at the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 they burned an effigy of Nick in the streets.

And if the Burnsian poetical connection were not enough, it turns out that there is also a link to another of Tsar Nick’s most loved poets, that giant of Russian words, Mikhail Lermontov.

LermontovBorders ancestry: Mikhail Lermontov
The Romantic poet – so romantic that he died in a duel at the age of 25 which arose because of his joke about a fellow officer – was in fact descended from good Borders stock.

His ancestor George Leirmont was an officer in the Polish army in the 17th century and his descendants ended up in Russia. Leirmont was himself a member of the ancient Learmonth family from the Borders village of that name, east of Moffat, and one of the clan was the self-same 13th century poet Thomas The Rhymer.

Moffat Book Events are already preparing to celebrate the Lermontov connection on the 200th anniversary of his birth next year with a link-up to Edinburgh Woollen Mill who are preparing a special range of goods in Learmonth tartan for sale in Russia, and in the commissioning of six Scots poets to take inspiration in their work from six of Mikhail’s works.

With all these threads running back to Russia, it is not surprising that the Kremlin’s Deputy Culture Minister Grigory Ivliev is going to be dropping in on the Moffat event, and will be joined by the Scottish Culture Minister herself... Fiona Hyslop.

What a rich tapestry of historical and literary chance.

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