November 30, 2014

Old Midmar church and graveyard

Old Midmar Church

The tiny graveyard and church ruin of Old Midmar or Migmar in Aberdeenshire lies below a narrow busy road west of Echt so if you go to take look be careful.

The roofless kirk is St Nidan’s, and you’ll battle with Google looking up that one as is the way with many things Scottish and Welsh, and its cemetery date from the 17th century. However this church is a replacement for an older one and it is likely several churches occupied this site over many many centuries. The remains that are there now are from a church built in 1677 but there have been changes to the original building over time. It was common for newer churches to replace older ones and use some of the same stone, as happened here  -with locally found granite, partly dressed.

Nidan was a 6th/7th century Welsh priest who is said to have helped spread Christianity to this part of Scotland.

The church is set among trees on a wee hillock across from Cunningar motte. Cunningar possibly took its name from the Latin for rabbit cuniculus or the Gaelic which is coinín. Think too of the American rabbit island or Coney Island. Anyway it looks like the place had so many rabbits they named the place after them. Cunningar mott dates from the 12 or 13th centuries when a Norman bloke rode north and claimed the land as his. To prevent the natives from trying to move him on he protected his house with a motte. All went well until a hundred or so years later when the black death struck and the house was abandoned and buried. There’s been quarrying on the site over time which put paid to most of the remaining motte.

Outside the graveyard is a beehive structure with a plaque to the Bel family buried in the cemetery. The Bels, it tells us were master masons and ‘practical architects’ who worked Midmar, Castle Fraser, Crathes, Craigievar and Fyvie for centuries.

A short way off to the west and higher up lies the magnificent Midmar church and graveyard which incorporates a fine recumbent stone circle. This newer kirk was built in 1787 at which point the old kirk shut its doors.

It is not really possible to get an impression of how the church looked in the 17th C because it was divided up into  burial enclosures accessed through separate doorways when it stopped functioning as a church.

In 1740 the parishes of Midmar and Kinairney were united.

These burial enclosures were for members of local landed families of Corsindae, Kebbity and Midmar and parish ministers.

Corsindae and Midmar are well-known today but Kebbity or Kebbaty was new to me. Various families are associated with the estate including the Davidsons and Forbes.

In 1698 George Forbes of Kebbity was one of many lairds mentioned in parliament (Scottish parliament as this predated the union of parliaments of Edinburgh and London) concerning licences to trade with Africa and the Indies. 1698 was the year of the launch of the Darien scheme at Panama that fell foul of attacks by England and its allies determined to wipe out Scotland’s trading company.

James Mansfield of the Castle of Midmar has a plaque on the east wall. Sir William Wallace is said to have ordered the biggen of Midmar Castle as a gift for a friend when he was Governor of Scotland – Wallace not the friend. Midmar was reputedly the area’s most valuable property in the early 18thC but I’ve no idea how prestigious it was in the 14thC.


James Mansfield possibly bought the Barony of Midmar from one of the Davidsons.Most of the landed families appear to have followed the usual practice of being absentee lairds but the Davidsons  of Kebbaty appear to have been residents. Some of the Mansfields were bankers in Edinburgh.

James Mansfield was an improving landlord who had his workers knock what had been wild, barren land into shape including the creation of a large and well-stocked garden and banking families would have had the means to pay for it.

Another James, was a captain in the army who was killed during the Highland regiment mutiny at Leith in 1779 – along with many largely unarmed Highlanders who were virtually slaughtered as a lesson to others not to question military orders.

Around 1730 alterations were made in the kirk to accommodate a pulpit to conform to post-Reformation church architecture.

Many inscriptions are illegible. The oldest marker I found I could decipher in part was from the 17th century.

‘Here lives Alexander Tytler farmer at the milltown of Corsendaye who dyed March 23(?) 1690 aged 84 years as also Margrat Martin his spouse who dyed june 16 1681 ???James Tytler ? son farmer at the forsaid place who dyed February 20 1736 aged 90 years and Jean Middleton his …’

James Rolleston Sterritt, a surgeon with a very grand name, made even grander when he married Patience Duff of Corsinae and added her family name to his – as her first husband had also done. He was Irish and a surgeon with the Royal Navy. His family is buried within the old kirk and features one of the largest memorials.

There are only a few dressed and polished granite stones, many are simple undressed stone, mainly granite.

Dressed and polished black granite, not a northeast granite but possibly from Scandinavia

The greyish pink granite stone below may have come from Hill o’ Fare near Echt.

The memorial to James McIntosh, a gardener, features plant motifs.

Some nice carving on a freestone memorial to Jessie Laing.

I’ve no idea who belongs to this memorial that stands proud on the south side of the graveyard. Sadly it has lost it inscriptions.

There are a number of very old stones – this one comes from a time before colour, when the world was in black and white – which some people really believe.


And suddenly colour magically appeared and all was right with the world.

This stone belongs to the McIntosh family, wonder if its the same as the gardener above, who lived in Kirkstile. Kirkstile I believe is the cottage close to the graveyard, see below.


As you can see the McIntosh’s knew personal tragedy. In 1871 Christina Forsyth, his wife, and James lost two of their children within days of each other, Jessie aged 7 on 22nd July and Robert aged 8 on the 30th. They had a baby around that time and that child, Charles, died at 7 years in 1878. Their surviving son, Theodore, died at 55 years and James and Christina were aged 92 and 84 respectively – dying in the same year, 1915.


Kirkstile at Midmar


If walls could speak -

The cottage had several turning hooks attached to its walls – does anyone know what they were for?

See too the recumbent stone circle at Midmar

November 21, 2014

David Thomas: the life and death of a ship’s captain

Life Onboard a 19th century Aberdeen Schooner

Captain David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury

Guest Post

 Captain Thomas

A New Ship

It was one of those lucky moments, browsing auction lots at Milne’s in Aberdeen, and what should be there but a large bundle of documents, letters and ephemera, with no clear indication of what they were.   A telegram mentioned the loss of the schooner Mercury.   This had been sent by the ship’s master Welshman David Thomas to an office in Aberdeen. The year was 1891.

Despite being unclear what the rest of the documents contained this was enough to tantalise my taste buds. Bids were made and the bundle was secured. The usual problems had to be dealt with: careful opening of folded and fragile papers, cursory reading to allow sorting and then looking for a chronological path. Fortunately many of the documents were dated and those that were not were identified by contextualising with other items.

And so, with this done, it was down to reading the material and it soon emerged that the paperwork concerned the running of a sailing ship owned by George Elsmie & Son of Aberdeen.   Most of the letters and telegrams were written by the captain David Thomas, informing the office in Aberdeen of the ship’s condition, cargoes carried and discharged, the work of crews and importantly the thoughts of David Thomas on the life and times of a later 19th century ship’s master.

It became apparent that the life onboard a deep-water sailing ship was not an easy one.   Mercury had been launched in 1871.   Built at Duthie’s yard it was three-masted vessel, 144′ x 27′ and was registered at 361 tons.   A well built wooden coppered ship, the schooner took to the water at a time when Aberdeen boasted a high reputation for its fast clipper ships.   Mercury was not like the glorious Thermopylae, launched 1868; it was more of a tramp sailing ship but like the famous clipper ship it had been made by skilled shipwrights and again like the Thermopylae it was literally designed to carry cargoes across the globe.   In the twenty years of its working life its voyages ranged from the Mediterranean to North and South America; to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong.

Captain David Thomas and his crews, like so many others, faced very real hazards.   A master might find his vessel becalmed, distant from land with supplies running low; at another moment the ship could be hit by storms, threatening to take all rigging away and the very survival of all onboard in the balance.

With all this to manage it is not surprising to find David Thomas stressed.   But his letters also tell another story, that the “natural” dangers of seagoing were compounded, indeed brought on, by the pressures of searching for and carrying profitable cargoes.   After all the only reason the ship was built was to make money and this need at times drove the increasingly elderly captain to distraction.

Thomas was forty years old when he stepped aboard the spanking new Mercury.   For the previous fifteen years he sailed for George Elsmie & Son. On his first voyage to South Shields he told Elsmie ship appears to work well: he loaded with coal and sailed for Palermo, carrying fuel for vessels which threatened the sailing trade and for vessels that would no doubt use the recently opened Suez Canal, a waterway designed for steam rather than sail.


Thomas made Palermo just before Christmas and to celebrate bought a turkey.   Thomas then succeeded in getting a charter to carry a dangerous cargo of sulphur, pumice and fruit from Licata, south of Palermo to New York where he arrived in April 1872 having taken just over six weeks from leaving Sicily.   We get a good idea of the perceived value of merchant sailors from their wages: ordinary seamen who’d been taken on for the outward voyage to Palermo and then onward to New York received £14-12/-, this for four months and 26 days of labour; compare this with Shore Porters in Aberdeen who were paid £1 per week in the 1870s or skilled joiners on 25/- a week.

Thereafter until mid 1874 Mercury sailed the world: New Zealand, Australia, Japan, New York, Malta, Smyrna and then on to Hull with a cargo of cottonseed (used in paint manufacture).   For over 30 months the ship, her master and her crews had sailed the world, seeking charters and hoping for safe passage.   To mark the end of its maiden voyage the ship was prepared for the home port of Aberdeen, painting round the vessel from rail to copper painting gilding and relettering port register bows & stern as agreed for the sum £6.   Thus ship-shape and safely berthed the schooner was at the quayside and David Thomas returned to his family at St Nicholas Street.

Receipt for Tow New York 1884


The first mention of real troubles comes with a letter to James Elsmie in July 1877 with the vessel set to sail from New York.   Thomas wrote, This has been the worst day that ever I had with this crew . . . They all want to leave.   The catalyst but not the cause was drink.  The captain had earlier taken men ashore to see about getting them new sea-going clothing – he spent $188 of ship’s money.   However, far from being overly grateful his men set about re-selling the garments for drink to bring some joy and compensation to an otherwise hard life.   Eventually the money was spent, the hangovers no doubt receded and all but two returned to the ship.


A much worse situation arose in 1883 when Mercury was loading at Zarate, upriver from Buenos Aires, and again drink was probably central.   This time it involved violence onshore resulting in the Bos’n (described by Thomas as bad a character as I have seen) and others being arrested and held in jail for a month. That was bad enough but the incident was compounded by an apprentice, a boy named Chrystal, getting involved.   The boy was released and Thomas left Zarate for Rouen with five men still locked up which meant signing on other men for the passage east.   Thomas naturally made sure the absent men were taken off wages.   The following year he again found himself with a difficult crew.   The ship was loaded at London, carrying 600 tons of cement for Rio de Janeiro where it was discharged. While there the crew gave trouble, such that the Welshman felt life was threatened and called on assistance of a Captain Pearson inviting him to come onboard for protection.   There was no murder and the ship sailed for nearby Bahia with a cargo of sugar.   Thomas reported back to Aberdeen: this fortnight at sea has straitened the [crew] up a little but they are a bad treacherous lot.  In other words the physical demands of sailing and the cooperation needed to keep a vessel safe acted as a discipline whilst at sea; in port it was a very different matter.

Captain Thomas to James Elsmie, Buenos Aires, July 1885

One final example of a crewman who sorely tried the patience of the captain was Aberdonian John Wood, taken on as mate in 1886 he remained with the ship until 1889.   This pairing of master and mate was never a happy one.   Thomas had a low opinion of the technical skills and moral backbone of Wood, apparent in the letter he wrote to Elsmie, He is a poor useless piece of humanity it is a wonder I have not knocked his brains out before this through fair aggravation . . . during the whole voyage he has no sense and about every change of the moon he is a little bit cranky besides being so home sick and jealous.

When not faced with recalcitrant crewmen Thomas could be dealing with the threats from bad weather which were actually more threatening to his life than the grumblings of men full of drink. A cursory glance at any shipping intelligence of the 19th century brings home just how dangerous life at sea was: ships posted long overdue, news of groundings, vessels lost and men drowned.   Mercury had its own share of near misses.   For example in 1876 making passage Alexandria to New Haven the ship was battered by westerly gales.   The captain had originally calculated fifty five days for the crossing, in the event it took eighty seven days to reach USA.   His letter back to Aberdeen read, We have had a, most fearful passage.   All westerly gales and sometimes very heavy.   I have never seen such a continuance of heavy weather and now it is bitter cold with a deal of ice and snow.   In 1882 sailing from the Britain to South America: 15 days of very heavy weather before entering the plate lost some Bulwark and again 2 chain plates of main rigin(sic) broken.   Still nothing serious.   We had a heavy breeze the night we left Alloa after light winds and fogs and were 5 days to anchors.   In the same year sailing between St Johns Newfoundland and New York he wrote : we got in last night all safe after a severe battle with the ice.   I have never suffered so much as I have done these last six days with cold and fatige (sic) . . . a lot of vessels missing some way others damaged with the ice.

Then in 1885 came a collision at sea.   It was on the short hop from Plymouth to Dunkirk. A telegram to the Aberdeen office told the owner Run into by French steamer coming in this tide.   Know name of steamer.   Lost bowsprit jib booms head gear cutwater stem broken.   Wire instructions.   The steamer was Dragut.   No lives were lost but damage was fairly extensive, Bowsprit & all head gear carried away & we find facing piece of stem broking & the main stem starting from wooden ends & split down to 14 feet & we do not consider the ship in her present state fit to proceed to her destination & we cannot recommend anything to be done to make ship safe to proceed in tow until stem is taking off down to the 14 feet for further survey.   In the end the French owners accepted responsibility and their insurance covered the costs of repair.


These are just a few of the troubles faced by the captain.   They were, irrespective of their seriousness, in a sense incidental to his main duty which was to find charters for the vessel.   The captain was willing to carry almost anything if it could turn a profit for the ship. The capacity of the hold (600 tons) was a limiting factor as was the ship’s ability to handle particular materials which meant heavy bulky machinery was not possible, otherwise Thomas like other sailing masters was open to any offer of charter.   So it was that we find the vessel carrying everything from camphor to coal, glass to guano.   Much of the hustling to get a suitable cargo was down to the hard work of the master.   On top of this he had to keep accounts for all the ships outgoings, oversee the safety of the vessel and ensure the ship was crewed.

Unsurprisingly Thomas began to feel the stress, made worse by encroaching competition from steam vessels.   Following the collision with Dragut he despairingly wrote We are now getting into the unlucky side of the business which has caused me a deal of trouble in mind, and three years earlier in 1883, I fear it is to be a bad look out for sailing ships in the future.

Through the 1880s difficulties grew and as his letters show so did Thomas’s pessimism.   He was ageing, mental stress was taken its toll and when he was hit by illness in 1890, mid winter at Antwerp, he wrote of   feverish cramping feeling and a heavy cold . . . I am scarcely able to get along.   But he was a working ship’s master and he just had to get along.

Last Receipt for Work Done, Aberdeen, February 1891 (1)

A Sinking

And he did get along until 1891 when his ship’s receipts for January show Berry and Mackay of Aberdeen checking navigation instruments, new tide tables purchased also a sea anchor, 2 life buoys and 11 eleven life belts as well as 366 pounds of beef.   In the light of what subsequently occurred those items, other than the beef, are perhaps significant.

Mercury sailed from Aberdeen to Grangemouth; loaded with coal she was bound for Rio.   Bad weather delayed the ship in the Firth until the 23 February when she finally got away.   Then on the 4 March James Elsmie received a telegram, Mercury totally lost Longsand   Captain Thomas crew landed here this morning by steam lifeboat. Crew now returned wreck to salve stores if possible.   Vessel full water when crew left her.   Little prospect of doing much.   And that was that for the vessel.   Twenty years service then grounded and lost but with no loss of life.

Auction poster

There was of course an enquiry the outcome of which was six months suspension of Thomas’s master’s certificate.   At the time of the grounding the weather was fair and there was no obvious reason why the ship should have been lost.   It was not unknown for ships to be deliberately grounded when trading conditions were such that an insurance claim could bring in more than continuing in business.   That the ship was provisioned with new life belts etc on what became its last voyage might make us suspicious.   But regardless of any intent on David Thomas’s part we have to acknowledge that the man had lived a hard, dangerous life and it was perhaps a somewhat inglorious end to his career with the schooner, although he possibly had the sympathy of his fellow merchantmen for the predicament he found himself in and the solution he might have found.

However Thomas’s connection with the sea continued until sadly in January 1894 The Aberdeen Journal reported -



The schooner Catherine had been sailing out of Montrose, working the busy Baltic trade. According to one newspaper report Catherine had sailed from Elsinore on the 9th November 1893, in other words the ship had been missing for two months in deep winter.   David Thomas would have been about 63 when lost with the rest of his crew.


For a more detailed account see:  “David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury, 1871-1891” in The Mariner’s Mirror 96, No.4 2010, pp.468-482.

November 16, 2014

The BBC and the 2015 General Election – it’s ‘at it’ again.

The UK’s publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC, was under fire for its distortion of news and blatant promotion of views in favour of preserving the union during the Scottish independent campaign.

It issued the usual denials it was ‘at it’ but then it would say that wouldn’t it. The referendum controversy was happening at the same time the BBC found its reputation taking a hammering over revelations of mismanagement and its institutional cover-up of serious sex crimes involving its personnel.

With the 2015 general election in the offing it is again doing what it does best declaring impartiality and fairness while in fact it is twisting and manipulating arguments in a way that undermine democracy.

BBC management and government are inextricably linked so it can be blatant about taking certain actions such as its refusal to host the Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza Appeal when Israel was pulverising that strip of land and its people.

The BBC takes its role as the voice of the state seriously. The links between the BBC and government are strong and effective.

When the criminal Andy Coulson was forced out of David Cameron’s office, BBC Global News controller Craig Oliver stepped right in. The Director General of the BBC Lord Hall insisted that when former cabinet minister James Purnell, who served in Gordon Brown’s government, took up his £300 000 job as Director of Strategy and Digital with the BBC he ‘hung his boots up at the door and left politics behind.’ And yes he is that same Purnell, yet another Labour MP up to his neck in scandal having screwed money out of the tax payer, claiming £100 a month for cleaning expenses and £586 for repair etc etc – not forgetting £247 for 3,000 fridge magnets. More damning in my eyes was he was the one who proposed charging interest on crisis loans taken out by people on very low incomes. However he impressed the BBC management and got a plum job.

There was Gordon Brown’s other little helper, Ed Richards, also an adviser to Blair on media, telecoms, internet and e-govt, who helped draft the Act setting up Ofcom. He found his niche at the BBC and as chief executive of Ofcom. Nice piece of symmetry there.

There was Bill Bush, Head of Political Research and Analysis at the BBC, who then worked for Blair and Tessa Jowell whose brief covered the BBC licence fee. His assistant at the BBC, Catherine Rimmer, went with him to Downing Street.

There are so many of them – former Director General John Birt had been member of Labour Party. Former DG Greg Dyke was a Labour donor and activist and once stood as a Labour candidate for the GLC. Oh, and Birt’s former diary secretary, Katie Kay, also worked for Blair.

There was Gavin Davies a former BBC Chairman and Labourite and financial backer, and adviser to two Labour governments, whose wife was Gordon Brown’s private secretary.

There was Sir Michael Lyons , one-time Labour councillor, also a BBC Chairman who headed the BBC Trust, and appointed by the then Labour government.

Ben Bradshaw BBC Labour – is that a Party? I’m beginning to wonder.

There was Chris Bryant BBC Head of European Affair /Labour MP for Rhondda.

Celia Barlow, one-time Labour MP and PPS and BBC reporter and Home News Editor when she was also Secretary of Chelsea Constituency Labour Party. And not to be left out her husband Sam Jaffa and one-time BBC’s man in North America and a Labour wannabe politician coming 3rd in an election in 2001. Better than 4th. Let’s draw a curtain over Celia’s involvement in the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal. What’s that – she claimed over £28, 000 for her second home and then flipped it. I just hope it was worth it – and the whirlpool bath and the high lustre silver shower screen, nice.

Phil Woolas Labour MP and Minister and BBC producer on Newsnight.

Denis MacShane Labour MP and Minister and BBC reporter.

Tom Kelly former BBC Head of News in Northern Ireland worked for Blair and became Director of Communications at the Northern Ireland Office. His role came under scrutiny in 1998 when ‘plans for an unprecedented PR offensive to secure a Yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement’ came to light. Denials were put out it was an attempt to manipulate public opinion but the Rev Ian Paisley said at the time it, ‘makes Machiavelli look like a rank amateur.’

Anyone remember Geoff Mulgan BBC reporter and adviser to Brown? No. Well what about Lance Price, BBC journalist who was Alistair Campbell’s assistant? You know Labour’s Director of Communications.

Tim Luckhurst goes back a way, once PPO for Donald Dewar, Labour former First Minister of Scotland, and stood as a Labour candidate in the 1987 election. He went on to work on the BBC’s political and current affairs flagship programme Today. He was Editor of News Programmes at BBC Scotland (that fine democratic and professional body). Luckhurst wrote a critical piece for the New Statesman on Scottish devolution entitled, ‘Scotland returns to the Dark Ages.’

With Donald Dewar in mind there was Peter Hyman who worked as a researcher for Labour’s Scottish leader who was also a producer at the BBC.

Charlie Whelan once seldom out of the news was another Brown spinner and BBC presenter.

Martin Sixsmith was a BBC foreign correspondent who switched to become Director of Communications with the Labour government. When I say switched it wasn’t much of a switch as most of you will agree. He was Labour’s Director of Communications and Press Secretary to Harriet Harman and Darling Darling. Where is he now? Still works with the BBC – had a 25-part radio series on this year, ‘In Search of Ourselves.’

Don’t have to search too far to discover the hand of a Labour apparatchik on the rudder of news and current affairs at the BBC. Where were we – ah, yes – someone called Joy Johnson worked as a Political Editor with the BBC – curious how these people are all interested in politics isn’t it, not many hanging up their proverbial boots at the proverbial door as far as I can make out. Joy was a Campaigns Director for Brown – Brown again – he’s a guy with lots of links or is that strings? Joy went on to work for Ken Livingstone – I believe he was in charge of some parochial wee town in the far south of the UK.

And staying with Brown, did you know that at his wedding his bridesmaids were the offspring of Gavyn Davies the former BBC Chairman? No reason why you should – except there is every reason you should be aware that the UK political establishment is riddled with former BBC employees and visa versa.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying when the BBC insists it is an honest broker in the world of British politics it is anything but.

What is the point of a state-run broadcaster if the state cannot use it for its own ends?

In 1940 Sir John Reith, Mr BBC, was appointed Minister of Information with the Chamberlain government. During the 1950s the DG of the BBC, Sir Ian Jacob, was seconded to the Ministry of Defence where he was criticised by Churchill for failing to be his propaganda bitch. To his credit Jacob believed that the BBC should not be used in such a way by government.

It is a pity his opinion has not been shared by all who take up influential posts within the BBC.

Sir Hugh Greene was DG in the sixties. He had been involved with the Political Warfare Executive during WW2, a covert propaganda organisation that had been set up in 1921. This shadowy body included others from the BBC – Robert Bruce Lockhart, a later DG, Ivone Kirkpatrick, an adviser to the BBC. The information spinning machine run by this group was partly housed at BBC HQ.

Many of you will recall the bizarre period when the government wanted to stifle the voice of the IRA and so we were subject to the likes of now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, being voiced-over by actors although curiously the BBC did not subject the UDA to the silence treatment. Not that there was anything political in this decision.


All this is a long way of saying when the BBC maintains it is pursuing a ‘fair and realistic formula’ in its coverage of the 2015 general election we can take that with a pinch of salt.

When it presents us with what it swears is an objective presentation of the current state of UK politics we can be sure it is anything but.

When the BBC says it uses levels of past and current electoral support to determine how much it promotes political parties we can be sure it is ignoring that bloody great elephant in the room.

When the BBC hold up its hands in horror at the suggestion that UKIP’s success is partly down to the amount of coverage this party gets on the BBC we know it is being deceitful.

When the BBC attempts to justify its unjustifiable intention to include UKIP in the 2015 leader debates it is dissembling -

BBC – ‘Although UKIP did not win a seat in the 2010 general election, they polled more than three times as many votes as the Green Party, which did win a seat. In the 2014 European elections, UKIP topped the poll, beating all the Westminster parties in terms of seats (24) and share of the vote (more than 27% – up more than 10% on 2009). The Greens won three seats in the European election, with just under 8% of the vote (a small drop since 2009).’ 
When the BBC attempts to justify the unjustifiable decision to exclude the SNP from these debates through a cobbled together argument that the SNP is not a UK-wide party we are witnessing direct political interference in democracy in the UK by the BBC.

The last time the BBC were actively campaigning it was to keep Scotland in the UK so either Scotland is in it or it isn’t and as it clearly is still a member of the UK its interests should be aired during these debates, across the UK, not those confined to Scotland.

If the BBC can argue a case for UKIP to appear on grounds that it, ‘…performed strongly in local government elections in England for the past two years’

then the strong performance of the SNP in Scotland should be also germane. If England is highlighted as relevant in a UK-wide context then so too should Scotland.

Where the BBC argues it takes ‘account of opinion polls, when there is a robust and consistent trend’ then it should open its eyes farther than the shires of England to the political hinterland of Scotland and see what the polls are saying here about the biggest party in this country (still part of the UK) and the third largest party in the UK.

When the BBC shrugs its collective shoulders and insists it is acceptable that the whole of the UK see political leaders arguing their case for issues which affect Scotland as part of the UK without the leader of the third biggest party in the UK it is returning to the days of gagging certain political voices and promoting others.

The BBC website carries a page called Manifesto watch: Where parties stand on key issues the pictures on this page are taken from it.

Couching it as views from ‘The main UK-wide political parties’ is a ruse to prevent exploration of matters relevant to the whole populations of Scotland and Wales.

And the BBC gets even this completely wrong because while it maintains it is presenting only UK-wide concerns it includes law and order, education, jobs, housing which are devolved issues to Scotland. So even under its own strangulated logic it fails to present its licence fee payers in Scotland (and Wales) with a breakdown of policies by party on these vital issues.

One of the problems with the BBC it is up to its neck in politics and is furiously promoting a reactionary agenda that fails to reflect the changed political landscape here in Scotland (still part of the UK).

The BBC is being dishonest . It should remove this page immediately and replace it with one which includes references to devolved matters in Scotland on which the UK citizens in Scotland will be voting in 2015.

It should immediately discard its plans to have any TV debates that include the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour and/or UKIP, (and the Greens) without representation of the SNP. Having secondary debates in Scotland allows multiple opportunities for the first four parties to present their opinions while wilfully restricting the voice of the SNP.

We do not expect the BBC to reform itself. It is clearly so mired in party politics it does not even recognise the absurdity and anti-democratic nature of its output. All we can do it expose the corruption of this nasty and deceitful organsiation.

Oh what a tangled web we weave…

November 14, 2014

Bust Up: Women’s Liberation in ’60s/’70s Aberdeen

The 1960s and 1970s – those eras of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were also eras of wars, racism, starvation, massacres, atomic bombs, nuclear threats, assassinations, the Cold War and rampant sexism.

You only have to watch some hideous films of the ’60s and ’70s or listen to song lyrics from the time to realise that while there was much talk about women’s liberation the reality was it was just that – talk.

Bust Up. Aberdeen

So women’s lib movements mushroomed in much the same way they had a century before with the rise of the Suffragists and Suffragettes. That the struggle was continuing 100 years on reveals how resistant British society was to embrace radical change in its power relationship with women.

What women had discovered was if you want an injustice rectified you have to go out and fight for that cause and not to expect rights to be handed out by political bodies. Rights are grabbed screaming and kicking from those who limit access to them.

The 1960s when the taxman sent tax statements and demands and tax rebates relating to a woman’s earnings to her husband! Women were considered incapable of understanding such complex arrangements.

Women in work were horribly exploited by employers and male-dominated trade unions run by dinosaurs content to collaborate with employers to keep women’s earnings lower than men’s for equivalent work.

Along with employment rights, women sought to control their own bodies – to be able to terminate a pregnancy in particular circumstances. The alternative was horrific and sometimes lethal and in 1967 an abortion act was passed which allowed a woman to apply for an abortion if the pregnancy was a risk to her life, her physical or mental health, to her existing children, likely seriously handicap the unborn child or an arguable detrimental social impact going through with the pregnancy.

That same year the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed allowing homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

During the 1960s and 1970s Aberdeen was buzzing with the politicisation of the young. Groups they were involved with included Aberdeen Women’s Liberation made up of young housewives, working women and students.

Much of their discussions centred on questioning the family structure, its strict gender divisions, availability of contraception and developing awareness among girls and women of their status within society.

The group’s very limited resources produced a wee publication called Bust Up. Published here is the second edition and as well it the group printed as a pamphlet on contraception which was distributed outside factories where women worked and secondary schools in the city (which attracted an interview on BBC radio).

I shouldn’t imagine there are many copies of Bust Up or the contraception booklet left some half a century on but a copy of each have recently surfaced and you lucky people have a near unique opportunity to travel back in time catch a glimpse of Bust Up and hopefully soon, the contraception one.

I’ve separated pages from Bust Up with snippets about relevant legislation from around this time for your further enlightenment. Bust Up Aberdeen

 In 1969 the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act guaranteed a wife a share of family assets on dissolution of her marriage, based on her contribution to the household as a housewife or wage earner.


The Divorce Reform Act allowed for divorce on the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and a divorce was granted after five years of separation.

In 1970 the Conservative government of Edward Heath introduced the Equal Pay Act. Equal pay for equal work but what was equal work? That discussion still continues. It was to be another five years before it had to be implemented. 

1973 the British Sociological Association conference on sexual divisions took place in Aberdeen. 

In 1975 Equal Pay Act implemented, in theory although we know there are still women fighting for recognition of equal pay for equivalent work with male colleagues, by Labour under Harold Wilson.



The Sex Discrimination Act was passed which demonstrates that there was no gender equality in Britain. As might be expected the Act failed to cover everything – excluding pensions and social security rights.

Maternity rights were strengthened through the Employment Protection Act.

The same year the Scottish National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Aberdeen and so too did the Northeast Scotland Regional Women and Socialism Conference. 

 In 1976 the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act was passed which made it possible to get a court order to remove a man from the matrimonial home, whether or not he owned or rented it. The Act did not apply to cohabiting couples.

A year on from the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and women at a factory in Middlesex were out on strike for 21 weeks before management agreed to follow the law. Clearly their employers were not the only ones to ignore legislation but the only one where women were prepared to stay out this length of time to force the hand of their management.

The fishing industry was still a major employer in Aberdeen then and many women worked processing and packing fish (where incidentally they were left to man(sic)-handle very heavy wooden boxes packed with wet fish while their higher paid male counterparts drove around in forklifts never lifting anything heavier than their weightier pay packets.


In 1977 the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act recognised battered women as homeless.

In 1978 the ‘Normal Household Duties Test’ a wheeze brought in by the Labour government under James Callaghan, to deprive disabled married women of benefits as they had to prove they could not work but also then they were incapable of doing normal housework for a whole year in order to receive those benefits.


The Scottish National Women’s Liberation Conference met in Aberdeen in 1977 and discussed lesbiansism and heterosexuality, language, the fifth demand.

The Fifth Demand was legal and financial independence for all women.

The women’s movement agreed a series of demands at their conferences in the seventies:

Demands 1 – 4 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Skegness 1971

  1. Equal Pay
  2. Equal Educational and Job Opportunities
  3. Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand
  4. Free 24-hour Nurseries

5 and 6 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Edinburgh 1974

  1. Legal and Financial Independence for All Women
  2. The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians. In 1978 at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham, the first part of this demand was split off and put as a preface to all seven demands

Demand 7 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham 1978

  1. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.



 One young woman, a keen member of the Labour Party, attended a couple of meetings. She said she was quite interested in women’s lib and she’d only entered one beauty competition. The group was arranging to disrupt a beauty contest being held in Union Terrace Gardens, which it did beautifully, with fancy dress, saucepans and lids. The young woman from the Labour Party did not come back.


November 11, 2014

A Highland soldier’s letters to his cousin from the trenches in 1916 & 1917

A young man from the Black Isle  serving with the Seaforth Highlanders wrote to his young cousin Bella back home in Ross and Cromarty. The letters are fragile and very faded now as they were written in pencil on flimsy paper almost 100 years ago. At the bottom of the first letter is a signature of Gemmell whose job it was to censor outgoing mail to make sure no information that might have been regarded as useful to the enemy leaked out. Roddie Bisset’s letters are all about friends and family. We can just imagine how much he longed to be back home with them, farming on the beautiful Black Isle instead of being stuck in the nightmare existence of the trenches. Trenches letter 1916 Highland soldier    December 13th 1916 Dear Cousin I received your most welcome letter and Parcel. I don’t know how to thank you for the parcel. We have fair good weather out here as yet. I believe you had a bad time of it at home. Tell John I will look after the turnip seed bag alright. He will get it if I will be ever able to see him. I had a letter from Whitebog they tell me that Frank is called up. If so, they will miss him very much. This is my address now 40422 Pte Bisset.R A Company 3 Platoon 7th Seaforth Highlanders B.E.F. France We all heard out here that Dan was to get married at the term. Have nothing to tell you as the news are scarce. Hoping this finds you all well, As I could not be in better health. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I Remain Your Loving Cousin Roddie   John Gemmell trenches letter 2 1916 Highland soldier  


trenches letter 3 1917 - Highland soldier

18th March 1917 My Dear Cousin Just a note in answer to your letter and Parcel. Well I thank you very much as I was in the trenches at the time, we have very good weather just now, hoping you have the same and getting on with your work as the winter was so bad. I had a letter from Jhonnie, he says the same. How is Dan getting on. tell him that I told you, if he is wise to stop where he is. you will be all thinking long for the wedding and if it will be a big turnout, for he will not get Annie McIntyre Lambton, for they are a fellow here writing her steady. How is Dan -?-? Donald. I never seen his goodself since a while but I see Plenty of Rosemarkie & Fortrose boys. Willie Cameron Rosemarkie is home for his commision. He was seeing them at home. I believe they have a great - trenches letter 4 1917 Highland soldier This is where the letter ends. I don’t have the next page. I don’t know if Roddie made it back home to Scotland.

Discovered after blogging that Roddie was killed 3 weeks after writing to Bella. He was 26 years old and was never again to walk the beach at Rosemarkie, gaze out at the Souters at the Cromarty Firth or return the turnip seed bag to Bella’s husband John. Young Roddie lies buried in POINT du JOUR Military Cemetery (Athies) Pas de Calais, France. Whitebog was where some of the family rented a farm.

November 10, 2014

The Scots, the English and Mutiny on the Bounty – Buchan’s Domestic Medicine


William Buchan's Domestic Medicine

William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine

Life in Scotland in the 18th century was filled with dangers not least from physicians’ treatments of sick patients. Some ‘cures’ might provide clues to the prevalence of early deaths.

A single example will illustrate what I mean.

Severe constipation might be tackled by immersing the patient’s lower extremities in cold water, or making them walk along a wet pavement (flagstones/setts) and dashing the legs and thighs with cold water. If this didn’t result in producing a stool, and I’d be surprised if it did, then a quantity of quicksilver (mercury) was called for, as much as one pound, to be swallowed by the unfortunate sufferer. If the quicksilver proved too much for the patient he or she was suspended by the heels to encourage the quicksilver back out through the mouth.

Healing was often the result of long-term observation by physicians and trial and error attempts to deal with illnesses which might prove successful or might not. When the Scottish physician William Buchan decided to put his observations and recommendations into print so others might benefit from his knowledge he made himself unpopular with colleagues who wanted to preserve an aura of mystery around the art of medicine.

The first edition of Buchan’s book appeared in Edinburgh in 1769 and proved a great success from the start. His Domestic Medicine or A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines was to become a standard work not only in this country but across the world. It was reprinted in over 140 English language editions selling some 80 000 copies and it was translated into several languages. Domestic Medicine proved particularly popular in America with several cities reprinting their own editions so it would be found in homesteads and plantations and carried on journeys west by pioneers – a medical bible that advised on just about any physical or mental danger that might afflict a person. Catherine the Great of Russia showed her appreciation of the great man by awarding Buchan a gold medal for his comprehensive guide to medicine.


Ships captains, responsible for the health of their sailors away from home for months at a time, would carry Buchan’s Domestic Medicine with them on voyages. When mutiny broke out on HMS Bounty Captain Bligh’s copy was one of the pieces of property purloined by the mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, when they abandoned ship and went into hiding on Pitcairn Island.

Today Buchan’s work is a curiosity, a glimpse into a world very different from ours, where death was never far away from a stricken patient. But not all treatments sound outrageous for the good doctor’s keen observational skills can strike a chord with us on several ailments, such as gastric difficulties, when he warns of over-indulgence in fatty and rich foods.

Buchan was an enthusiast for exercise and fresh air which he recognised was essential to generally good health. He was also a keen advocate of the Scottish diet – simple and nutritious and gentle on the stomach and gut.

At a time when personal hygiene was not easy to achieve because of poor supplies of clean water he, nevertheless, advocated frequent washing. It is easy to see how such sensible advice would in time provide the groundwork for recongising that adequate and clean water supplies in our expanding and overcrowded towns and cities were essential to improving human health during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In his section on diet, Buchan examines the differences between the average Scottish and English habits of eating during the eighteenth century. He despairs at the quantity of animal meat consumed in England (when it could be afforded) because he warned too much animal meat led to circulatory and gastric problems, to nausea and excessive thirst (leading to the over-consumption of beer which he regarded as expensive and wasteful of money that might otherwise have been spent on nutritious food).

The more sedentary the occupation the less animal meat that should be eaten he cautioned. What meat was consumed should be mixed with vegetables was his advice. He came across too many people in England, where he also practised medicine, who ate too few vegetables with the result scurvy was extremely common in England. He also blamed an excess of meat for blunting the imagination and inducing ferociousness in individuals. His conclusion was too much meat made people angry, produced lethargy and rotten teeth through scurvy while at the same time was an expensive way to eat. Mixing meat and vegetables in soups or stews, he reasoned, would feed more people for the same cost as one person’s serving of meat but in England when meat was boiled it would be taken out of the water and the stock was thrown away, so discarding the nutritious juice that could have provided a tasty soup.

Cooking meat, he observed, was largely limited to the most expensive methods of roasting and broiling so that little money remained for clothes so the common people he came across in England appeared scruffy and poorly dressed.

He wrote that the English diet was the most restricted in all of Europe consisting of little more than meat, bread, butter, cheese, ale and porter. Even children in England were encouraged to drink alcohol from an early age

Buchan noted that the consumption of bread was as great in France as it was in England but the French made ‘copious use of soups and fruits’ whereas the English largely confined themselves to bread (and meat when affordable) eaten mainly with butter – which he condemned as excessively oily and detrimental impact on the stomach. Despite this children of the poorest of the population in England virtually lived on bread and butter.

Bread, he argued, was a wasteful way of utilising grain – better to eat the grain directly – and bread and flour were open to all manner of adulteration such as chalk, alum and lime. He recommended eating a variety of breads made from different types of flour – rye, potato, rice, oat, maize, buckwheat, Indian corn and barley rather than be confined to costly wheat.

Oat bread, he points out, was universally eaten in Scotland. Bread then referred to any solid made out of flour such as bannocks and oatcakes not just loaf. Buchan held up the Scottish mixed diet as preferable to the English while admitting it tended to be quite restricted and unvaried, certainly among the poorest people, it was nevertheless wholesome and affordable.

Buchan's Domestic Medicine

Oatmeal, milk, broth, vegetables, occasional meat formed the bulk of the Scottish diet. Instead of the large quantities of beer drunk in England, Scots tended to drink more water. (Of course there was whisky but I haven’t come across references to that.) The result, according to the doctor, was a population that was cheerful, active, healthy and strong. In an aside aimed at Samuel Johnson who derided the Scots habit of eating oats which he regarded only fit for horses, Buchan suggests if English horses ate less of it and English men more- it would be to their advantage and, ‘lessen the expense of living.’

If you remember Buchan thought grain best eaten directly. He advocates hasty pudding as an ideal means of serving them. Hasty Pudding could be made from any grain boiled up with water or milk and a little butter or molasses- such as porridge, rice, Indian corn or wheat puddings that might be varied with the addition of spices such as cinnamon or ginger.

He regrets the very few types of grains cultivated in Britain and dependence on foreign imports and he deplored the number of horses that ate large quantities of what grain was grown. Buchan estimated some 2 million horses were kept in Britain which required the equivalent of 3 acres of grain each, totalling some 6 billion acres of grain consumed by horses, enough grain he wrote to feed half the population of Britain. Many of those horses were used to draw carriages ferrying men and women around who he concluded would be far healthier if they got out and walked instead.

The growing popularity of the herb tea also came to his attention which he criticised for its lack of nourishment and how it was drunk with milk and sugar which he noted could be better utilised in the preparation of a nutritious meal.

He accused women taking tea of being too partial to eating too many muffins, crumpets and other spongy bread soaked in liquid butter and consuming fatty pastries  who would then complain to doctors about indigestion. Despite his side-swipes at ignorance and over-indulgence Buchan was not against perfectly good food such as butter, only its excessive use on bread and buns foods of low nutritional value. He did recommend those undertaking hard physical labour should add butter to vegetables and non-oily fish but not people who sat around all day or people in sedentary occupations because too much butter would make them sluggish and the addition of cheese could produce ‘fires in the blood’ and constipation as well as drink cravings, presumably due to its salt content. Instead he urged greater consumption of roots and fruits.

Potatoes he regretted were too little eaten except in Scotland and Ireland despite being easily grown and he recommends them boiled or roasted or as a meal served with milk, butter or gravy. Where potatoes were to be stewed or made into broth he recommends boiling them first to get rid of poisons – because the tattie, as he points out, is related to nightshade.

A variety of vegetables in the diet such as Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, carrots, salsify, beets, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, onions, leeks and broccoli perhaps made into cheap and nourishing stews and soups were recommended by Buchan to easily improve health in individuals but cautioned against too many at one time for fear of wind and flatulence. However, he concluded this was not as serious as consuming too much meat for animal food led to the accumulation of bile and subsequent inflammation affecting parts of the body which is more or less where we began.

William Buchan died in 1805 and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.




November 9, 2014

Remembrance Day 1960s Aberdeen

Mac 11nov protest

Ian MacDonald has sent in a cutting of his anti-war protest in the 1960s at Aberdeen’s war memorial lion.

‘Archive photo of myself and a friend attending a Remembrance service at Aberdeen in the 1960s.

My message today is the same – blessed are the peacemakers, bring all our troops home, scrap Trident.’

November 4, 2014

Workers’ Lives and Helicopter Safety in the North Sea

The busiest commercial heliport in the world can be found in the oil and gas capital of Europe, Aberdeen, so the sight of helicopters passing overhead is a common sight there.

Unfortunately the safety record of these offshore workhorses is worrying. Between 1976 and 2014 there have been many incidents involving helicopters most without loss of life but more recent fatalities point to something not right with the industry.

July 2002 a Sirkorsky S-76A crashed into the North Sea killing 11 people.

February 2009 a Super Puma EC225 carried out a controlled landing in the North Sea with no casualties.

April 2009 a Super Puma L2 crashed into the sea following a catastrophic gearbox failure killing 16 people.

May 2012 a Super Puma EC22 made a ditched landing when instruments indicated gearbox problems and the emergency backup failed, all 14 on board were rescued.

October 2012 a Super Puma EC225 came down in the North Sea after another gearbox problem with similar failure by the emergency backup. All 19 on board were rescued.

August 2013 a Super Puma L2 crashed into sea at Shetland killing 4 people.

Following this incident the model was temporarily grounded and not cleared to fly over water until new safety features were introduced.  Were any of the incidents, including the several that never made the headlines, caused by a fault in the Super Puma gearboxes, human error or the result of cutting corners because of commercial pressures?

Men and women working offshore are rightly nervous when about to board a Puma and the chances are they will be transported by Puma.  Super Pumas make up 60% of the British offshore fleet of helicopters. Reflecting opinions offshore the RMT union has called for a full public inquiry into helicopter flights in the UK.

In light of events the House of Commons Transport Select Committee recommended a full and independent inquiry into practices, concerned that commercial pressures imposed turn around restraints on mechanics’ ability to properly maintain helicopters in constant use but the UK government refused to grant one claiming it has ‘not seen any evidence of safety being compromised through commercial pressures’ a view much criticised. The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) has claimed there is undue pressure placed on them by companies using their services.

Why, people want to know are men and women employed in the British sector of the North Sea in greater danger of being involved in a helicopter accident than their Norwegian counterparts?

Since 1997 there have been no deaths due to helicopter crashes in the Norwegian sector, a statistic attributed to a tight system of regulation which begs the question what is going wrong in the British sector?

In the oil and gas workers’ own bulletin Enough is Enough in the autumn of 2013 offshore workers shared their concerns about flying safety claiming oil companies did not care about the welfare of workers, that they regarded them as expendable. One man wrote how he had been on the craft prior to the 2009 fatal crash when rumours of a fault were circulating.

Ian Wood, who recently became the media’s favourite voice for the oil and gas industries,  told a local newspaper that helicopter incidents did not merit a large-scale inquiry, ‘It’s not a big enough, complex problem – it’s nothing like Piper Alpha …We’re down to a type of helicopter that for some reason performs much worse in the UK sector of the North Sea than elsewhere.’

Well, yes isn’t that part of the problem?

‘Elsewhere’ and directly comparable with the UK is surely Norway. Same sea, similar circumstances but in contrast with the UK the safety record of commercial helicopters in its offshore sector is excellent. There has been one accident with no fatalities on the Norwegian continental shelf between 1999 and 2009. Before that there had been 12 fatalities at which point the industry decided to examine what had to be done to improve its safety.

As a result a report was drawn in 2010 which demonstrated the need for strict regulation and adoption of the latest proven helicopter technology and other measures such as reducing the number of night flights and improved training for pilots and technical personnel to reduce risk.

This Norwegian report cited workers’ fears – perceived risks – as vital sources of information on which to construct an effective and safe service. Norway operates a tripartite safety forum of companies, unions and a regulator.

A British researcher into North Sea safety suggested one vital reason for the improvement in safety in Norway was its adoption of the strict Norwegian Work Environment Act that gave power to Unions to halt work they regarded as dangerous.

Back on this side of the North Sea there is suspicion among some in offshore industries that the dangers involved in being ferried to and from installations by air have been played down by the authorities. There does not appear to be any urgency in tackling issues that would restore workers’ trust in the system.

The families of the 16 men killed in the 2009 Super Puma crash had to wait 5 years for a judgement on that accident. Then the fatal accident inquiry ruled the crash could have been prevented – pointing a finger at Bond Offshore Helicopters for failing to act on metal particles found in the Puma’s engine during routine checks which may have had an impact on the subsequent crash.

April 2009 victims

April 2009 victims

Despite this opinion Bond escaped criminal investigations into breaches of health and safety rules with the Crown Office insisting there was too little evidence to warrant one and despite complaints that the Crown Office failed to take vital evidence from witnesses of multiple breaches of health and safety.

Bond owned up to ‘honest’ mistakes –  “We have always accepted that we made mistakes through honest confusion over telephone calls and emails.”

Our offshore workers should expect to be shuttled back and fore to and from work in as safe conditions as their counterparts in the Norwegian sector. The implication of the UK government’s decision to shut down the need for a full inquiry, the industry lukewarm response, Ian Wood’s assertion that because these accidents involved fewer fatalities than Piper Alpha so do not merit a ‘big Cullen-style inquiry’ reinforces the view of many offshore that they are expendable in the pursuit of profit.

Ian Wood justified his opinion that a  large-scale inquiry was not needed when he said, ‘…we are down to a type of helicopter that for some reason performs safety-wise much worse in the UK sector of the North Sea than it does elsewhere ‘ and that it was not ‘a big enough complex problem’ to merit a bigger inquiry.

George Allison,  Sarah Darnley, Gary McCrossan, Duncan Munro

George Allison, Sarah Darnley, Gary McCrossan, Duncan Munro

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have introduced measures to improve offshore helicopter safety including:

  • Prohibiting helicopter flights in the most severe sea conditions, so that the chance of a ditched helicopter capsizing is reduced and a rescue can be safely undertaken.
  • Pending further safety improvements to helicopters, passengers will only be able to fly if they are seated next to an emergency window exit to make it easier to get out of a helicopter in an emergency (unless helicopters are fitted with extra flotation devices or passengers are provided with better emergency breathing systems)
  • Requiring all passengers to have better emergency breathing equipment to increase underwater survival time unless the helicopter is equipped with side floats
  • In gathering evidence for the review the CAA engaged with trade unions representing industry workers and pilots, the oil and gas industry, helicopter operators, manufacturers, government, regulatory bodies and other experts in the field, as well as analyzing available data and reports.Is it too much to ask that one of the most profitable industries on earth provides high levels of safety for their essential workers? It should be a given that offshore employees have confidence that every time they step into a helicopter that they will survive the journey, that their lives are placed ahead of commercial profit, that no corners are cut in maintenance and that when conditions are rough flights are postponed.Until we know what is behind the high number of deaths from helicopter accidents in the North Sea it is likely more men and women will die simply getting to and from work.

    All this begs the question – why has it taken so long to recognize the dangers of flying in hostile environments such as over the North Sea, where in the event of a helicopter going down severe sea conditions can hamper rescues? Why has it taken 40 years to realise there is value in listening to the industry’s workers’ experiences?

    I’ll leave the last word to those who spoke to the Guardian on the matter of helicopter safety:

    ‘Ask survivors what the problem is and the answer is immediate; they seem surprised I even ask. “Money.” Sharp rubs thumb and forefinger together. “Money,” says Nugent. Balpa has said it is particularly concerned by “cut-throat” competition between helicopter operators bidding for oil firm contracts. Buckley notes that in the 1990s the oil companies brought in an initiative called Crine. “It stood for Cost Reduction In the New Era and was the basis for oil companies cutting back on routine maintenance, and other cost-saving measures. It doesn’t formally exist now, but the ethos is still very prevalent.”

October 22, 2014

They’re Not Making Land Anymore – so what can the SRUC sell off now?

SAC jamie lindsay

Scotland’s countryside is an important contributor to the nation’s economy: cereals, potatoes, soft fruit, beef and dairy, sheep and forestry. These industries are vulnerable however – to fluctuating markets and weather certainly but what else?

Where do young people go to train for careers in rural occupations? The time was when there were facilities fairly close to home for our rural youngsters to get the basics while still working on family farms, certainly at weekends. Unfortunately these facilities are contracting and the danger is some may disappear altogether. Whole experimental farms have been sold off for house building or golf courses at the same time our rural college offers its majority of courses not in any of Scotland’s mainstays of farming but in Scotland’s second biggest city, Edinburgh.


The food produced in Scotland is renowned for its high quality and you might think it essential to reinforce this state-of-affairs through the provision of educational courses provided in just those areas where demand is greatest to learn rural skills and where back-up services are most needed. Edinburgh does not spring to mind for either of those.

The body providing training for a life in farming and forestry is the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) which a couple of years ago morphed out of the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) – an umbrella organisation for agri colleges across the country that had been established in the early years of the 20th century and were instrumental in the expansion of Scotland’s agricultural sector, based largely on pasture-reared stock.

“Sheep and beef production from extensive systems is broadly speaking, environmentally friendly. Animal welfare is perceived to be of a high order and, coupled with images of fresh air, open hills and clean water, Scottish meat is seen as a high quality product”.
House of Commons, Scottish Affairs Committee (1996).

But not all is perfect with the SRUC which returned a loss for the last financial year – blamed on a number of one-off and merger costs, but contrived a 43% increase in pay for the principal and chief executive to £309,000, from £216,000 previously. The SRUC Chairman is Lord Jamie Lindsay.

Hard times have not dampened the ambitions of the SRUC Board to achieve university status for its courses and it is undergoing discussions with Edinburgh University with that in mind because the SRUC is seeking,

“a new alignment with the potential to create an influential force in the agricultural world”.

And you and I thought good farming practice came down to a farmer being able to tell one end of a cow from another.

The SRUC operates six campuses across Scotland – at Aberdeen, Ayr, Barony, Edinburgh, Elmwood and Oatridge plus a network of veterinary, advisory, consultancy offices and research farms, essential to the farming community. The provision is similar to what has long existed if somewhat curtailed in extent after years of pruning staff, courses, property and land – in a bid to balance the books.

The model sought was smaller and sleeker and not so messily rural which is why the SRUC ended up as an urban institution, in one of the most expensive parts of Scotland.

Scotland’s richest farming areas are found in Orkney, the northeast and southwest and rural communities in these parts were desperate to retain a close working relationship with the then SAC. What emerged was an extended internecine war over which campus would be the best headquarters and which would suffer greatest losses of land, buildings and staff in the drive for economic viability.

Back in 2003 the Scottish Parliament’s Environment and Rural Development Committee issued this statement:
‘The current review of SAC did not itself consider the wider economic impact of SAC’s decisions. That was not an oversight. SAC’s Directors are responsible for the viability of the organisation. Though SAC wishes to be as helpful to local economies as it can be, that must not compromise its own survival.’

This is curious. The SAC’s survival was surely inextricably linked to the success of its decisions and the attractiveness of a rural college is surely its usefulness to the people most likely to use it. Given the particular and differing strengths of agricultural industries across Scotland their needs will vary by area. The notion that the SAC had to survive at all costs is a peculiar one. If the SAC was not effective in responding to the needs of its industry then preserving it as an entity was never going to create a facility relevant to the future of rural life and industry.

Deloitte and Touche (D&T) were employed to draw up a report to establish the situation within the SAC and its future options.

D &T’s report threw up a list of justifications for situating Scotland’s rural college in its capital city as the best way forward rather than at one of its two main purpose-built campuses – Auchincruive, Ayrshire and Craibstone, Aberdeen.

At the time student numbers were:
Edinburgh – 146 students
Craibstone – 200 students
Auchincruive – 360 students

craibstone map

Brian Pack, former CE of the giant Aberdeen and Northern Marts (ANM) group argued for the retention of the Scottish system of integrating practice at the SAC – preserving a link between research and development and consultancy with teaching while the SAC sought to separate them out. He was a strong advocate for making Craibstone the lead campus for the SAC Scotland operation, not least because of its proximity to the rich farming lands of Aberdeenshire.

Edinburgh, it was pointed out had no student accommodation on site and it would be difficult and expensive for students to find their own in the city. Craibstone was well-served with student accommodation, and its many students were able to combine studies with practical work at home, not possible for the majority from Edinburgh. Craibstone was also popular with students from the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney because of the good transport links with these areas. Craibstone included several experimental farms distributed over a wide area as well as woodland in a prime location at the edge of Aberdeen.

Another view in support of Craibstone is quoted -

‘It is recognised that there are other further education establishments closer to
home e.g. Edinburgh SAC is closer to the Borders than Craibstone is,
however the students still chose to come to Aberdeen. This shows a better
quality experience gained at a rural campus, especially for rural-based
courses. You only need to look at the successful recruitment of students at
other land-based colleges in rural locations to see this is true e.g. Harper
Adams, Writtle, Royal Agricultural College.’

But the D&T report worked hard at persuading the case for establishing the rural college’s base in Edinburgh where it said there was -

‘better access to physical resources in libraries, bookshops and other support services were seen as great advantages’

…which annoyed supporters of Craibstone -

‘This has obviously been produced by people with little knowledge of how the campus at Craibstone Operates: all students are matriculated to Aberdeen University, so have a free access to the University library, sports and other student facilities which are only 5 miles away from Craibstone and on a main bus route. It is therefore obvious that the weightings are unrealistic and inaccurate.’

Was the D&T report projecting the outcome desired by the SAC Board? That was certainly the suspicion among many in the industry whereas it appeared the then Scottish Executive supported retaining the College as a cross-country facility. Given that the SAC was receiving 41% of its funding from Holyrood you might think that view should have carried weight.
However Labour’s Rhona Brankin MSP appears to have supported the move to Edinburgh


It is not obvious how setting up in an urban environment was going to stop the loss of students and cash. Quite the reverse.

At Ayr it was felt that decisions were being taken without consultation with ‘local stakeholders’ and that the detrimental impact on the Ayrshire economy was not given consideration. Auchincruive offered consultancy services, vet labs along with an experimental farm and brought in nearly 29% the SAC’s education income.

Both Craibstone and Auchincruive provide courses from SVQs to BSc Hons level although more limited in university degree options than at Edinburgh.

Arguing in favour of Edinburgh was Dr Mark Hocart from the SAC there -

‘Education is about personal growth and development as well as academic success. SAC has a responsibility to provide the most appropriate environment for students to develop as fully rounded personalities. For many students the contacts and network of friends made at college or university will be important to them throughout their subsequent careers so it is important that that experience is as rich and diverse as possible. A National Centre of Excellence The proposed ‘Hub and Spoke’ model is the right way to move.’

So there you have it – learning skills is so old fashioned – it’s all about personal growth blah, blah, blah.

As for ‘Hub and Spoke’ – this is Edinburgh the hub and Auchincruive and Craibstone etc are the spokes. Which is fine except shouldn’t it have been the other way around with the concentration on rural rather than urban?

He went on

‘Bringing the full-time education provision together for the first time will allow SAC
to build an integrated range of course programmes, maximising opportunities for
sharing of teaching modules across programmes. The hub focus will improve the
diversity of course programmes students can pursue while still delivering
education in a financially viable manner. The ‘Spokes’ are effectively satellite
teaching centres, and outreach centres based principally on SAC’s advisory
offices that will allow a greater participation in education for students in rural
Scotland. Developments in e-learning, distance learning and ‘electronic
classrooms’, will enable SAC to deliver education and training over a wider
geographical range than is currently the case. The hub and spoke model will
give SAC a truly national reach for education provision.’

You might be forgiven for wondering how this matches up with effective training for our young farmers … e-learning? really?

Here’s a novel approach – do away with the need for e-learning and get students out into the field (literally). Or is that too radical?

He continued

‘King’s Buildings (Edinburgh) have strong and productive research links with the Moredun Research Institute, the Roslin Institute, the SABRIs, SASA and BioSS. This
amalgamation of research activities adds significantly to the critical mass for
effective world class research. ‘

Forgive me but isn’t this exactly the setup for e-communication rather than practical skills? And while Edinburgh campus was close to those research bodies Craibstone was equally close to the Macaulay Institute(John Hutton), the Rowett and the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon’s University.

And continued

‘SAC Edinburgh has a local tradition of agriculture and land-based education and
has been supporting land-based industries for as long as any other centre. At
present we provide 25% of the courses at SAC, less than our Auchincruive
campus, however this is to change in the future.’

And we know why.

Dr Graham E Dalton FIAgrM commenting on the D&T report -

‘This report is a classic consultancy report where the wrong question has been asked. The financial accounts show that SAC is not working. Why? High overheads for facilities are only one possible reason for this situation.’

He questioned whether staffing levels were right rather than D&T’s concentration on WHERE to put staff. And he questioned D&T’s favouring centralising the SAC in Edinburgh – arguing this WOULD have a negative impact on revenue so that the report’s assumption of their best option was unlikely to succeed.

He suggested the report was coming on the problem from the wrong end. Instead of concentrating on the organisation of the institution it should have looked to the needs of ‘its customers’.

Brian Pack pointed out the danger of being fixated by costs rather than value. A yes to that.

Think about it if you were setting up an agricultural – let’s widen it – rural college would you opt to put it in the middle of a city?

If there’s one thing people need it is food. There is surely great scope for further development of Scotland’s rural industries so how is it the institution on which so much of this future depends is in dire straits? Could it be the fault lies with the Board and decisions taken by it?

Isobel Gibson thought so. Back at the same Holyrood enquiry in 2003 she was critical of the management of the SAC and D&T report for failing to understand the needs of students and their ‘potential as generators of income.’

Auchincruive and Craibstone were once major centres for learning for young men and women, many of them from farming backgrounds, in search of rural skills. Both colleges provided their localities with professional advice from experts in crop management, pest control, veterinary advice and so on as well as undertaking research programmes. But their farmland, woodland and many buildings were sold and with them so vital provision and links with the land.

auchincruive mansion house

There’s an echo of the consequence of slicing away at our agricultural base in an academic paper on ‘Agriculture’s contribution to Scottish society, economy and environment’ (2001) from the University of Aberdeen which found that when Scots were asked to visualise ‘rural’ they conjured up images of a highland idyll – of mountainscapes – whereas in other parts of Europe the same question brought descriptions of things agricultural.

While I might not be able to lay the blame for this diminution in awareness of our agricultural sector at the door of the SAC or SRUC or whatever they are likely to call themselves next week there were signals back in 2003 that not all was right.

“The Scottish Agricultural College is a practical example of what happens when Colleges merge without a well thought out strategy. The Committee should regard it as a template of all that can go wrong. There has been a preponderance of “bankers and business types” on the SAC Board. Practical farmers were ignored.”

Both Craibstone and Auchincruive suffered draconian cuts in the SAC/SRUC drive to stop leaking cash. Slash and sell – the SAC saw a future in selling off farms and land and anything that stood still. Indeed could that be the reason Edinburgh won out as the SAC HQ – that campus had nothing to flog off whereas Craibstone was resource-rich and by selling its assets and those at Auchincruive the SAC was able to use the capital raised to reduce its losses. Had the decision been taken to abandon Edinburgh in favour of, say, Craibstone, there would be no such financial gain as the SAC there had virtually nothing to sell.

However it was come to the decision was taken in favour of Edinburgh and the SAC now existed as a private company with charitable status. Its Principal and Chief Executives were appointees – by fellow Board members. There was also a tie in with the Anglian Water Group (AWG) hired to carry out some of the campus pruning operations. The SAC sat back and waited for the cash to drop into their laps. In 2007 merchant baker Lord Lindsay was appointed its chairman. Integration was the way forward.

Then in 2013 this emerged:

“If ever a monument to “joined up” academic planning stupidity was to be erected, the Craigie Campus, Ayr should be its home. No one but an academic would train nurses and farmers at the same facility. Squeaky clean meets E Coli heaven. This week (7 Janueary 2013) the annual health warning to pregnant women was issued by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns. This warns women not to come into contact with lambing ewes or even the clothes of anyone doing the work for fear of risks to their own unborn child.”


While the SAC was selling off property with one hand it was swallowing up various rural colleges, to mix metaphors, to mixed fortunes. Integration at any cost. Doesn’t responsibility for this absurdity rest with the Board?

Critics of the way the SAC was run and now presumably the SRUC have made no impact on it.

‘What lessons can be learned from the conduct of the SAC. The SAC Board has long been considered a self perpetuating oligarchy.’

“On 19 January 2011, the then SAC chief executive told all 30 South Ayrshire Council Planning Committee members at a public planning meeting they were to disregard the testimony of the person nominated by the Ayrshire National Farmers Union to speak in opposition to SAC plans to ruin Auchicruive.
On the day, the Ayrshire NFU farmer representative was not allowed to rebut the unwarranted attack on his integrity. The SAC Chairman later did admit the SAC Chief Executive was in error and apologised to the Ayrshire farmer in the press.”

Extraordinary behaviour.

There is no disguising discontent among the farming community over the role played by the organisation.

‘Finally the Committee should invite the NFU Scotland President Nigel Miller to tell why it was necessary for him to write to the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead in August 2011. “It is a sad fact that our Scottish system, which was once world leading, is probably no longer the best.” He also calls for a need to examine how we make the most of our existing sites.’

The SRUC annual report 2013 shows the SRUC still selling off land at Aberdeen and Ayr to improve its net balance. The jargon seems to indicate we haven’t seen the end of mergers – or ‘merger synergies’ as stated in the report.

The move to Edinburgh doesn’t appear to have been the answer to the SRUC’s problems. It appears caught in a cycle of cost cutting – to what end?

Who and what are losing out to this crazy setup and how damaging is it for the future of Scotland’s rural industries?

In its drive to attain university status has the SRUC lost sight of its basic function?

Why was it able to become a private company answerable to none over its selling off once publicly owned resources?

It bothers me that its Board members, apart from staff and student representatives are appointed.

That it is private but is still supported by public funds – currently the SRUC gets
financial assistance from the Scottish Funding Council.

That it is a registered charity therefore does not pay corporation tax.

The SAC, and now the SRUC, was set up as a limited liability company under guarantee (without share capital). Many such conversions from public colleges to private have gone down a similar route but with Boards of Governors plus a CEO and Principal. The SAC chose to form a standard limited company with a Board of Directors.


A board of governors allows greater opportunity for scrutiny of senior management. And it is cheaper than the SAC/SRUC setup as governors are paid a small stipend and expenses. An executive Board gets salary plus benefits – what they are is anyone’s guess. Board executive liability in the event of the SRUC becoming insolvent stands at £1 each.

As there are no shareholders the Board can remunerate themselves to any amount they wish. There are stakeholders of course, who can attend the annual AGM and grand dinner, but they don’t get any vote on the issue of executive remuneration.

There we have it. A rural skills college run from a city as a private business dependent on public money, paying no corporation tax and flogging off what were publicly owned assets.

Nothing illegal about it but for the life of me I can’t see this model as being in the best interests of Scotland’s rural industries.

2ND Meeting, 2003 (Session 2)
Wednesday 25 June 2003
[PDF]SRUC Board and Committe Structure and Remits – working ……/sruc_boards_and_committees_remits_and_structures

[PDF]Agriculture’s contribution to Scottish society, economy and …

Herald Scotland : Few signs of peace as SAC’s battle for survival reaches the Executive Thursday 26 June 2003

October 21, 2014

Hydro-electric charges more where it generates its energy and that’s not right

fuelWith energy costs so high in this country we are being advised by the best minds that Westminster can muster to ‘heat just one room.’

Now call me picky but I think we should expect to be able to afford basic heating throughout our jerry-built hovels while being grateful we don’t have the upkeep of say a mansion as sprawling, grand and presumably a nightmare to heat as that belonging to the Tory government’s welfare advisor (unelected) Lord Freud (of the slip).

For years, since discovering it, I have been quite put out by our hydro-electricity being sold off cheaper to Russian oligarchs in London than your average crofter with one sheep and a cow in Achnasheen – where it rains a lot, contributing to hydro power. It rains a lot in London too but their rain disappears down drains, much like everything else down there.

Electricity we couldn’t live without it – as comfortably as we do. And so people realised when Britain’s first companies were formed to generate/ distribute / sell the stuff – stuff being a generic term for something I don’t understand – I mean have you seen it?

Building dams by flooding Scottish glens was a great way to generate electricity.  Not so great for the people who were moved away or the animals drowned or even a relative of mine blown up in an explosion in the making of the dam at Torr Achilty but there are always downsides to everything.

In 1943 the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board was established to run production of hydro-electricity in the Highlands and soon it absorbed the Grampian Electricity Supply Company to become even bigger.


At the time electricity was supplied through a mixture of bodies both private and public and more or less knocked into shape with the establishment of the National Grid in 1938. Ten years later, supplies were nationalised. Fourteen regional electricity boards oversaw distribution as part of the British Electricity Authority.

The next biggest change came with Thatcher and her government; let’s call them daylight robbery specialists who sold off any public asset they could get away with, as cheaply as they could get away with – hang on that’s ringing bells.

Scotland was still generating huge amounts of power.

Scottish Hydro-Electric joined up with Southern Electric which operated in the south of England in the late nineties and became Scottish and Southern Energy plc whose Chairman is Lord Smith of Kelvin (yes that one).

Which brings me back to my question to SSE – why is it that the people in the very areas of Scotland which generates so much energy have to pay so much more for it than people in the south of England?

The Hydro line appears to be that folk in the north are so much farther away from the main distribution point, in the south, so must expect to pay more.

But why doesn’t that argument work the other way round? Why do people in the south not have to pay more for the power that has to be transferred along the National Grid to where they live hundreds of miles away?

It’s like that question people from Aberdeen get when in the central belt trying to arrange a reciprocal meeting here and are asked, ‘how far is it to Aberdeen from here?’ to which the response is, ‘exactly the same distance from Aberdeen to here.’

If I lived in London SSE would charge me a

Unit Rate of 13.82 or SSE Direct Unit rate 10.91  

Here in Aberdeenshire their rate is –          

Unit Rate of 15.60 or SSE Direct Unit Rate 12.32  

This unfair disparity has been operating for years – imagine how much more that will have added to bills up here for people suffering the coldest winters and many who can ill-afford high electricity charges.

It’s time this anomaly was rectified in our favour.


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