Reproduced with the kind permission of Lang Syne Publishing.
By John McInnes
Any tale about Edgar Allan Poe should begin in a
graveyard, in this case the old St. Mungo's Kirkyard surrounding Glasgow
Cathedral. Visitors may notice that a section of the old north wall of this
ancient graveyard has been knocked down to make way for a cobbled road,
allowing access to the cars of Royal Infirmary executives. If these same
visitors are inquisitive, they will tread the cobbles into another section
of the cemetery and see the weathered table-stones and wall plaques
proclaiming the burial places of many of Glasgow's merchants and business
people. Being an inquisitive visitor myself, I slowly moved along the
western wall, reading the inscriptions when my eyes fell upon a stone
commemorating John and Jane Poe.
Recognising the surname of one of the greatest writers of
'mystery and imagination', my curiosity was further fuelled by the name
'Galt' as the middle name of John and Jane's son James. John Galt wrote 'The
Annals of the Parish' and was a relative of Edgar Allan Poe and although
Galt is commonly considered to belong to Greenock he was actually born in
Irvine to which town Edgar Poe as a child was brought by his foster parent
John Allan after the latter and his wife had taken the boy in on fee death
of his parents.
Since my hobby is genealogy, I knew that the
International Genealogical Index would hold more information and, sure
enough, I found John Poe's marriage entry - the year was 1808 and the town
was Irvine. While I had the file out I decided to look up the name 'Poe' in
the Ayrshire I.G.I. and found to my surprise several folk of that name, all
living in close proximity in the Saltcoats-Ardrossan area.
There must, I reasoned, be some connection between these
Saltcoats Poes and the Galts and Allans. Yet none of the biographies I had
read about Poe even mentioned any Scottish Poes, never mind Saltcoats ones.
All of them give Edgar's father as David Poe, an actor and his grandfather
as another David -'General David Poe of Baltimore, originally of Ireland'.
But this genealogy was constructed well before official registration and
relies heavily on oral-anecdotal accounts. My new hypothesis suggests that
Edgar Allan Poe had relatives in the Saltcoats area who were connected by
marriage to the Allans of Saltcoats and Irvine. This would go a long way to
explaining why a canny Scots businessman should adopt the child of
strangers. But what kind of proof was there of such a link? Once again the
answer lay in a graveyard. Old Saltcoats graveyard lies in the middle of the
bustling little seaside town, once beloved of holidaying Glaswegians. Billy
Connolly used to sing of "going to Saltcoats fur the Ferr" and
generations of Glaswegians could vouch for the truth of the song with
stories of "rerr terrs' in the gallus wee town.
What most tourists don't know is that Saltcoats was a
thriving harbour in the 18th and 19th centuries. Boats plied up and down the
Firth of Clyde and a vibrant trade in coal, herring and timber existed with
carriers regularly visiting Arran, Ireland and ports up and down the West of
Scotland coastline. Such a 'carrier' was David Poe who now lies in Saltcoats
kirkyard with his children and wife - Ann Allan.
Here we have that elusive clue which provides the link
between the Poes and the Allans. The latter had their humble beginnings in
North Ayrshire and went on to build up the world-famous Allan Steamship
Company which did its most lucrative trading with Montreal in Canada.
One merchant who used their ships was John Galt, the
father of the 'Annals' author, who moved from Irvine to Greenock, the better
to conduct his shipping enterprises. His son John had a position in the
firm's Montreal office and, with ties of kinship with Allans and Galts, soon
amassed his own fortune although he was not really cut out for business The
graves of early members of the Allan and Galt families are in the old Irvine
cemetery as is the grave of James Speirs, father of the man who married
Frances Ann Poe, daughter of John and Jane Poe.
he interwoven relationships between close-knit business
families in the West of Scotland are endless and the modem investigator can
never hope to discover them all. When the older members of these families,
who knew all the complex relationships of marriage and business, finally
passed away, there was nothing to show what those connections had been,
apart from musty old marriage contracts and other legal documents and the
brief accounts on weather beaten and vandalised gravestones, However, the
clues are still there to be found by any diligent searcher who has a 'nose'
for a mystery and the perseverance needed to follow unlikely and
uncomfortable leads. I say 'uncomfortable' as I often had to hack my way
through weeds and undergrowth to get at tombstones which had the clues I
The accepted Poe genealogy takes us back to Ireland in
the late 17th, early 18th centuries but the records show Poes living and
carrying on their business a mere ferryboat ride away. Ties of kinship and
commerce had linked Scotland and Ireland for decades. Poe's
great-grandfather had married a girl called McBride and the McBrides can be
found in large numbers in North Ayrshire from the early 18th century
Apart from the usual difficulties experienced when
exploring the life of a famous person, investigation into Poe's life is even
more fraught. He was not merely renowned - he was notorious! His death,
preceeded by several missing days, is shrouded in mystery but what we know
of his life tells of excesses. He was an alcoholic and was also reputed to
have taken large doses of opiates. He married a child-bridc who died long
and bloodilv of tuberculosis and he then had a strangely close relationship
with his mother-in-law. The sensitive nervous system and fragile
intelligence which produced the fantastically beautiful and rhythmically
energetic poems, as well as the morbid, gothic tales, stemmed from violent
alterations of mood and mental states that hovered on the fringes of
madness. Such a character was not only a blot on the escutcheon of Victorian
families like the Allans and Galts it was necessary that his connection be
erased altogether. It is not too fanciful to imagine old Uncle William Galt
putting out the word, reinforced by the opinions of his kinsman John Allan,
that Edgar Allan Poe was persona non grata. John Galt, whose fame rested on
the words he wrote, penned not a syllable about his infamous cousin. That is
why we are forced to go to graveyards for our story. High up on Glasgow's
Necropolis fit the Allan's housed in an impressive mausoleum. Down to the
left lies William Galt, native of Kilmarnock and merchant in Montreal.
Further down lie John and Jane Poe who started off my search. Nearer the
sea, in the old graveyards of Saltcoats and Irvine, lie more of the dramatis
personae, now unable to speak their lines. Just a little imagination can
elicit whispers from these graves: whispers of recrimination, regret and
accusation, whispers that tell of how some men build transient empires and
steamships while others weave fantastic and lasting edifices of words.
I know Edgar Allan Poe would be delighted that a
sympathetic reader of his tales was lured by the mystery of the writer's
life and found some hidden truths inscribed on old, moss-covered graves.
Edgar Allan Poe certainly visited Irvine around 1815 and went to Arran and
Kilmarnock. We are told he had been brought by his foster parents, the
Allans, to visit their relatives, It seems inconceivable that young Edgar
did not make the five mile journey up the coast to Saltcoats and Ardrossan
where lived his own blood relations, the Poes of North Ayrshire.