There is something rather extraordinary
hidden in the Merchiston Tower. The
building itself is worthy of an entry: a
medieval red stone tower house hidden in
the middle of a modern university campus. It was the seat of Clan Napier and
the birthplace of John Napier, the eighth Laird of Merchiston, mathematician,
philosopher, inventor of logarithms, and after whom the university was named.
Climb the winding stone steps and you will find a large boardroom with an
impressive long asymmetric table sitting on a split-pea green carpet; below is a
minstrels’ gallery. You are getting warmer. But it’s not until you lean your head
back that you really hit the hot stuff.
Look closely at the ceiling above you. Running along the rough pine boards
are some rather unusual hand-painted tempera illustrations. They appear, at
first sight, to be ornamental vases, flowers, angels. The explanatory notes on
the wall tell you that this is the finest and earliest dated Scottish Renaissance
ceiling from 1581, which was transferred here after being discovered at
Prestongrange in 1962.
But then you start to notice the details: a winged lizard with a human head,
a weird-looking angel emerging from a contorted shell, a bare-breasted Viking
lass with a lion’s-head door knocker hanging from her nether regions. It’s all
starting to get a bit Hieronymus Bosch.
And that’s when you spot the pornographic elves. Truth be told, you
shouldn’t have climbed up to the minstrels’ gallery and stood on a chair to see
them. You got too close. And now it’s too late. You’ll never be able to think of
Santa’s little helpers in the same way again.
The bawdy images are copies of a 1565 French collection of woodcuts
called “The Droll Dreams of Pantagruel”, the work of François Desprez.
He himself was inspired by a series of five books collectively entitled The
Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by
the satirist François Rabelais, which
charts the epic and somewhat scatological
adventures of two giants, father and son.
The text is full of lively escapades. An
entire civilisation is discovered living
behind Pantagruel’s teeth. He drowns an
army in urine. He meets the Chitterlings:
a race of half-men, half-sausages. Salvador
Dalí published his depictions of the same
characters in 1974. How they ended up
on an East Lothian nobleman’s ceiling is
certainly worthy of more study