Sandy’s Garden ... Sweet William

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I attended a Burns’ Supper - lunch, in truth - in Callendar House on Monday, January 26 the day after the actual birthdate of the man called Scotland’s National Poet.

The speaker was Len Murray, a now-retired Glasgow lawyer who was the nemesis of any Procurator-Fiscal whose case against a client Mr. Murray was defending was other than watertight. In his retirement, he has devoted more of his waking hours to his long-time study of Burns the man, Burns the poet and Burns the philosopher and to the times in which he lived.

The speaker told his audience that one of the great influences on Burns’ generation … and those of us who have succeeded them … was Prince William Augustus, the third and youngest son of George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Ansbach, who had been made Duke of Cumberland in 1726 at the tender age of five. And that may be the only way in which the word ‘tender’ could appear in the same sentence as the words ‘Duke of Cumberland’, for he became infamous in Scotland when a Royalist army under his personal command took terrible revenge on the Jacobites and their sympathisers after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, slaughtering as many of Prince Charlie’s defeated army as they could find wounded on the battlefield or hunt down in the hours and days after the battle. The well-merited name ‘Butcher’ Cumberland was bestowed on him by many north of the border and, be it said, by quite a number south of the border too, despite his being generally acclaimed a hero; and it is by this name that he is usually remembered today.

Burns grew up in a country whose history, language and cultural heritage was under constant attack by the many people who regarded the Union with England as being all-important in Scottish life. This goes some way to explaining the popularity of some of his views … then and now … as he gave persuasive voice to a threatened culture, reminding his readers of time-honoured values of far greater merit than mere temporal power. And it would be interesting to know if Burns, who almost certainly knew the plant Dianthus barbatus, referred to it as ‘Sweet William’ or ‘Stinking Billy.’

It is often supposed that Sweet William was named in honour of the Duke of Cumberland. Not so. Dianthus barbatus … the botanical name means ‘the flower of Zeus’ … Dianthus … ‘with bearded petals’ … barbatus … had first been brought to the British Isles from southern and eastern Europe in 1573. Its sweet scents and brightly-coloured flowers had attracted bees for millennia before these same characteristics appealed to an English traveller seeking something different for his garden, where it thrived; and its liking for cooler climates allowed it to do well in Scotland. A member of a genus of plants commonly called ‘pinks’, the name ‘Sweet William’ may first have been used for the then-recently introduced relative of the widespread ‘gillyflowers’ by Thomas Tusser, a 16th-century English poet, who appears to have combined two other early names for the plants … ‘sweet johns’ or ‘velvet williams’. The epithet ‘sweet’ is certainly merited by its scent, and ‘velvet’ from the texture of its flowers. And ‘william’? Perhaps this refers to Saint William of Acquitaine, a ninth-century French knight who helped chase Saracen invaders out of France, and whose fame had spread throughout continental Europe. Guillaume is the French version of William; and an erroneous supposition that gillyflowers were, properly, guillaume-fleurs may just account for the name.

Whatever, no cottage garden is complete without Sweet William or, if you prefer to think it was named after Butcher Cumberland, Stinking Billy. And you’ll please the bees!