Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The sixpence and the stile (Stile 4)

There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile,
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

As you may have fathomed by now, I like stiles, so maybe it won't surprise you to discover that this is my favourite nursery rhyme. Part of the reason, I think, is the visual image of everything being crooked, because crooked suggests traditional, rural and (perversely) safe! And then there is the sixpence and the stile. As a child, the attractive silver sixpence was a huge amount of money, while a stile usually means an adventure; so to find the two together..!

In reality, the nursery rhyme is based in the time of King Charles I (probably around 1644), the crooked man is General Alexander Leslie of Scotland and the crooked stile refers to the Scottish-English border.

Born in 1582, Leslie was the illigitimate son of a Captain of Blair Castle and fostered out to the Campbells of Glenorchy at an early age. After a successful period of military service for the Dutch and then the Swedish, Leslie returned home and was instrumental in securing religious and political freedom in Scotland, leading the Covenanters Army in the Bishops Wars and taking Edinburgh Castle from the Royalists without the loss of a single man.

Throughout his life, he fought against English domination of Scotland. He led several campaigns in the north of England, culminating in Scottish participation in the Battle of Marston Moor; the battle near York which effectively forced the Royalists to abandon the north, weakening them considerably.

Although this new found Scottish freedom was not to last (Charles II defeating the Scottish Covenanters at the battle of Dunbar in 1650), Leslie had already retired before the tide swung against them. During the course of his successful career, he had walked many crooked miles and crossed the crooked stile on numerous occasions, to great effect! He is remembered as the most significant Scottish general of the Civil War.

I wonder - is it too much of a stretch to ask if the crooked cat and mouse might refer to the strategies and tactics of warfare?

(Incidentally, for some random reason, the crooked man in my imagination is always walking uphill! I'm sure that Freud would be able to dig some deep meaning out of that!)

1 comment:

  1. That's so funny--I just read this nursery rhyme to my daughter tonight before bed! I never really gave much thought to what they all mean. Some are not-so-nice and very different than I recall as child. Never even occurred to me some might be very serious themes (like the one you describe) complete with politics. Huh. Must be why I was never too good at reading between the lines in Shakespeare's plays either. ;)