On 'Pilate at Fortingall'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

Legend has it that Pontius Pilate, procurator in Rome from 26 to 36 AD, was actually born in Fortingall, Perthshire. There is no documentary evidence to prove this, but a possible explanation could be that there were Roman incursions before the invasion of 55 AD, which could conceivably have brought a Roman man and a Scottish woman together. The tale was sparked off by an entry in Holinshed's Chronicles. However, the story is most likely based on pure myth. Morgan imagines Pilate not only born in Fortingall, but brings him back as an old man, clearly mad. The 'yew' in line six still stands in Fortingall, and the tree is said to be at least 3000 years old. Douglas Dunn reinforces the mystical powers of the tree, commenting that "classical writers on horticulture warned against the yew as a mortiferous plant. So the touch of lore here adds to the poem's historical pathos…".(1) The 'crows' of course signify death, and the 'prehistoric stones' refer to several stone circles in the direct vicinity of Fortingall. Morgan beautifully presents Pilate as a repenting man, perhaps mad with guilt. His involvement in the death of Christ is implicit throughout the poem. The first line, 'A Latin harsh with Aramacisms' is already a hint, for Jesus spoke Aramaic (note also Morgan's play with words: Aramaicisms as a word does not exist, and is modelled after Scotticisms). When Pilate finally succumbed to the pressure of the crowd and ordered Christ to be taken away to be crucified, he called for a bowl of water, and symbolically washed his hands clean of the matter. Now, in old age Pilate still tries to wash the guilt away at a cattle-trough - alluding to Jesus' crib - and clearly it has turned into an obsession. Somewhere behind Pilate's incessant washing and watching is also Lady Macbeth's famous speech: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."(2)


(1) Douglas Dunn, 'Morgan's Sonnets', in: Robert Crawford and Hamish Whyte, eds., About Edwin Morgan, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990, p. 81.

(2) William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 2.2:59-62, ed. Kenneth Muir, Walton-on-Thames: Arden, 1997, pp. 57-8.


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