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Dr. Gilbert Farm Cunningham was a most remarkable twentieth century Scot. A printer by livelihood, he was actually a polymath of a particular, now defunct, type. The contents of his library, now deposited in the University Library of Stirling, reveal the breadth of the man`s reading. His enthusiasm for literature had been whetted by the great Glaswegian medievalist, W.R. Ker under whom he had studied at London University. But as his library contents show, he ranged far and wide in different fields from two other major Scottish twentieth polymaths, Douglas Young and D`Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Probably as a result of his eventual profession as a pioneer printer, he was closer to popular taste than either of those two. He was an intellectual who always had part of his mind on that mythical and elusive beast `the common reader.` At the same time, as his bibliographical work on Dante shows, he was an autodidact, a lay scholar of a committed thoroughness that puts many academics to shame.
He was born in 1900 at Alva. His father, Robert, had come to Alva from Glasgow in 1889 during the Autumn Holiday when considering setting up a printing works, which he did the same year. For those of you who know Alva, this was established on the main Stirling Road there, first at No. 176 and then at 124, before moving to the Longbank Works at the entrance to Alva Glen, which had originally been a weaving shop. Always in the forefront of printing developments, the latest letterpress and automatic feeder were installed immediately after the First World War, and I have a notice here, which one of Gilbert Cunningham`s co-directors, Charles Coull, kindly lent me recalling that in 1916 Robert Cunningham & Co. had published the first book in Scotland to use the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian characters. Beside the old weaving shed, the first house to have been built in Alva with more than a single storey, `The Castle`, became in 1931 the company`s offices. Indeed Charles Coull was telling me the other day of a phone call he had to take from one of their London clients - for the company developed to have London offices in Southampton Row when they merged with Marshall Advertising of Holborn in 1972 - anyway, taking a call at the very moment when a shepherd was bringing down his sheep through the glen. Utterly amazed the London businessman was reduced to asking what all the bleating was at the other end of the line! Dr. Gilbert Cunningham was a remarkable monotype operator, able to undertake a number of troubleshooting tasks at once, and I was interested to hear, the company had a number of contracts with Robert MacLehose, printers to the University of Glasgow, with whom I had dealings when they were the printers for Borderline Press which I ran in the 70s and 80s and published Tom Scott`s splendid epic poem of Darwinian evolution, The Tree. At its height in Alva in the 1960s, the company employed 130-140 people.
But for all his remarkable practical abilities, it is not so much this aspect of Gilbert Cunningham`s work that has brought him to the notice of the international intellectual community.
It is his translations. For this is someone who taught himself Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, French as well as the Latin from schooldays. It led him to translate from Dante`s Commedia, from Góngora`s Soledades and Polifemo, poetry of the Germans Goethe and Mörike, French from Jean de Sponde. His interest in literature had first been stimulated by his degree in English at London University where he studied under the great Glaswegian medievalist, W.P. Ker, who was later to found the literature department at University College, Wales. And yet, it was by hybridising his intellectual development with languages that he found his forte. A.A. Parker, late professor of Hispanic studies at Edinburgh wrote of him -
“Despite his activity as a translator Dr. Cunningham was not a linguist in the ordinary sense of the word. He could not really speak or write well, much less pronounce, any of the 6 languages which he translated. Yet he had an instinct for languages, seen in his extraordinary flair for grasping, seemingly intuitively, the meaning of any passage of verse in these 6. Góngora is very far from being an easy poet to construe.”
This Baroque style poetry is extremely difficult to translate, rather too full-blown and showy for those brought up on the poetry of England and Scotland. And it can feel very Victorian. Nonetheless, Góngora was the poet who inspired that great generation of 20th century Spanish writers including Lorca, Guillén, Aleixandre and others. I think that part of the attraction of Góngora, Jean de Sponde and Dante to Gilbert Cunningham is that medieval structures are still in place with all their stability, while in his translation of Goethe, he finds a writer pursuing his craft in Weimar with much of that in place, yet with post-Reformation ideas also present. These translations of Dr. Cunningham were published by Edinburgh University Press and the Johns Hopkins Press at the University, Baltimore. Here is Cunningham`s translation of stanza 27 of Góngora`s Polyphemus and Galatea:

Heated, he gave the stream his hands,
and these raised to his face and brow
the cooling tide,
Between two hoary-footed myrtle trees,
like green-clad heron at the current`s side.
Uncertain folds of empty draperies,
Spread by Favonius` gentle breath, supplied
A bed, if not a wing-swung hammock, made
From slender couch-grass and refreshing shade.

His greatest love was for Italian, and he had published in 2 volumes a complete catalogue of versions of the Dante Commedia in English. Another writer he interpreted was Eduard Mörike, with a version of the poem better known as a song by Brahms, Die Schwesteren, The Sisters. Here is his translation of Free Merchandise which doubtless struck a chord with a printer by profession;

`Ink for sale! Who lacks ink? It`s fine black ink I`m selling,`
came the clear call of a boy ringing the length of the street.
Laughing he raised his bright eyes to where I sat by the window,
then he was up in my room before I knew was a foot.
`Nobody sent for you, boy!` - `Oh please won`t you sample my wares, sir?`
and as he spoke from his back he promptly swung round his keg.
But at the movement his coat, half tattered, fell back for a moment
Baring his shoulder which gleamed bright with the glint of a wing.
`Come lad let`s have a look; are you also a dealer in feathers?
Cupid, you counterfeit rogue, must I unmask you forthwith?`
He smiled but though discovered he smiled, and touching his lips
Hush they`re duty-free, mum, or you`ll ruin my trade!
Give me your ink-pot, I`ll fill it at once, for it pays to keep friendly!
No sooner said than done, then he was gone.
`Well since he`s taken me in, I must use his gift to advantage
and write to my sweetheart, or pen her a passionate song.`

Apatura iris (Purple Emperor)

awarded American Medal of Honor for Natural History;
founder of Butterfly Conservation East Scotland


Dear Prince Charles,
Re. proposed windfarm at Fermyn Woods, Rockingham Forest

I am writing to canvass your support for the campaign to halt the installation of Wind Turbines in Fermyn Woods, Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire.

Leaving to one side this as a manifestation of the increasing industrialization of Britain`s countryside, this wood is the main stronghold of the extremely rare Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris). Indeed there are no comparable sites north of Northants, and of course it does not appear in Scotland east or west. The turbines will disturb its flight paths and, like all lepidoptera, it is of an exceptionally finicky character flying as it does at tree-top level.

With the news this week from Oxford University that one species of plant, insect or animal becomes extinct every 2 weeks in Britain, the time has surely arrived to call a halt to this depredation. Hopefully you may feel able to lend your voice to another cause against the current of change and activity for its own sake.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. David Spooner

On the EPAW home page