Feb 27, 2021

A Scot in Africa – victim of Blackwater Fever

British East Africa

 

Background to Roderick James Munro’s story

In the days when the world map was daubed with British Empire pink signifying its dominions, colonies, protectorates and so on men and women from the home nations sought work and investments in each of them. One such territory was British East Africa; an area of about 639,209km2 /246,800sq ml in the vicinity of the African Great Lakes.

Towards the end of the 19th century Eton-educated Englishman, Lord Delamere, turned up in Kenya where he became the lucky recipient of a huge swathe of land, a gift from the British Crown. Delamere had recognised the potential of this area to create agricultural prospects for Britain – monocultures and exports became the modus operandi in British-controlled estates. Single crops – sugar and rubber for example – small local farms growing essential food were swept aside so that the land could be used to grow raw materials for UK industries leading to food shortages and starvation for people who then became dependent on wages to buy food.

Not only did colonies tend to have the sort of climates that made it ideal for the production of raw resources for the mother country they came with plentiful cheap or free labour to boot – all of which hiked up profit levels both for private and government businesses.

Apart from some basic manufacturing most complex industrial operations took place back in Britain, creating jobs for British workers on rock-bottom wages certainly but these were still far in excess of what was paid to native labour in the colonies. 

Vast fortunes were made by some individuals. Little wonder successive British governments resisted demands for independence from its colonies for so long. Sustained exploitation of overseas territory became an established asset to the British economy its knee-jerk response to parts of the Empire daring to demand independence usually took the form of denigration – they were too ignorant and immature to succeed. Where humiliation failed there was recourse to violence. Terrible violence. The British establishment was/is always up for a fight. Times have not changed.

Britain was not alone in being quick to exploit the treasures of Africa. The Scramble for Africa was a late 19th century movement in which European governments disgracefully competed to divvy up the African continent. Portugal was involved in Mozambique in what was called Portuguese East Africa. The Sena Sugar Estates became one of the largest sugar plantations in the world and home to the largest sugar factory in Africa. One man who found work there as an overseer on the agricultural estate was a farmer, a young Scot from the Black Isle, Rod (Roddie) James Munro, and it’s correspondence on his life and death that inspired this blog and will follow.

The Sena Sugar Estates were set up by another British migrant, Peter (Pitt) Hornung. Hornung was the son of Transylvanian migrants to England where they established businesses in coal, iron and timber. Young Pitt moved to Portugal and from there to Portuguese East Africa where he tried to establish an opium farm but when that failed he turned to sugar cane. The result was the Sena Sugar Factory established in 1906 which became the Sena Sugar Estates; operating over 14,000 square miles. The family grew fabulously rich on the back of their African sugar venture. The little township of Beira where it was situated became an important port of entry for deep up country and  was the focus of western commercial activities – a considerable change from 20 years earlier in the 1880s when it was a military post with one or two corrugated iron huts sitting on a sand spit at the mouth of the Pungwe river.  Roderick James Munro was born at the end of 1882.

Less rich, well to be honest, not rich at all were many of the Europeans who went to work abroad, exploited in their own way though not nearly as exploited and misused as native labour living and working under the cosh of the Empire. For some the prospect of adventure was the lure to going abroad, some to see the world and for others a basic need to go anywhere to earn a living. For the majority of people living in Scotland in the 18th, 19th and into the 20th century as well life was hard and poverty never far from the door. As Dr David Livingstone put it in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa – always at home “the anxious housewife striving to make both ends meet.” The 10-year-old David Livingstone was already working in a factory between six in the morning and eight at night to help his mother make both ends meet but like so many poor Scots he benefitted from the elementary parish schooling available to all – precisely the educational blocks that made so many Scots ideal candidates for jobs within the Empire. Levels of pauperism were high across Britain through the 19th and into the 20th century but in the Highlands where Rod Munro’s parents eked a living from the land poverty was extreme.

As a rule of thumb wages in Scotland were lower than in England and in Scotland the lowest incomes of all tended to be in rural Highland communities such as that Rod Munro came from. Most impoverished of all in any communities were its women and children. Widows, women who lost husbands to military service or death, struggled to cope with life for themselves and their children without a husband’s income. Essential to the success of the British Empire was its military – the stick of persuasion to yield to the British crown. From the end of the 18th century the British military predominantly comprised of Scots. Poverty, lack of employment and large families pushed lots of men into the military and both men and women but mainly men to seek work abroad as a means to escape destitution. One in five Scots aged 75 and above experienced extreme poverty. Let no-one tell you the union has been positive for Scotland and her population. That is a myth.

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A Scot in Africa 

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Roderick-James Munro was born at 9.30 in the evening of second December, 1882, at Burnside, Rosemarkie in the County of Ross.  His father was John Munro, a farmer and his mother, Margaret Munro nee Hossack whose occupation before her marriage I don’t know. They married on 10 December 1869 at Rosemarkie and Roderick was one of several children born to them.

Roderick James Munro’s birth certificate

Along with many of his Black Isle neighbours, Rod left Scotland for work abroad. He spent time in Demerara, a former Dutch colony in South America, now Guyana, that later became absorbed into the British Empire, as British Guiana. A century before tens of thousands of people enslaved and brought to the island rose up in revolt, led by plantation cooper, Jack Gladstone. The rebellion was put down and Jack sold and deported, like the disposable property he was. Others were executed. You might know the name Gladstone for this was future British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s family. These Whigs or Liberals raked in huge fortunes as estate owners and later in compensation when slavery was abolished in British colonies.

Men such as Rod Munro desperate for work turned to job adverts in the local press – jobs in cocoa, sugar, coffee and rubber plantations in exotic sounding locations. So a young Roderick James Munro set off into the world, leaving behind the poverty of farming in the Highlands, said goodbye to his parents, siblings and friends and looked one last time at the familiar communities around Rosemarkie, Fortrose and Avoch then headed off, first to South America and then to Africa. He worked some years in Demerara, on farms and there he suffered a serious attack of malaria.

By 1912 and at the age of twenty-nine Rod Munro was an employee of the Coia Estate at Villa Fontes at Chinde, Zambezia in Port East Africa, working for the Sena Sugar Factory. Chinde was developed as a port by the British for people and goods destined for and from the British Central Africa Protectorate.

Rod and his brother John, a farmer at Blairdhu, Killearnan in Ross-shire were in frequent correspondence. Spellings of places varied then and now.

John seated aged 16 with his brother Rod at his side. Rod is then 14yrs old

7 July 1912 letter to John from Rod c/o The Sena Sugar Factory Ltd, Coia Estate, Villa Fontes, Zambezia, Chinde, Port East Africa.

My dear John,

I am very glad that I have heard from you at last with your new address.

Of course I can quite understand your writing and not mentioning it, but it kept me from replying to you. Well I suppose you will be getting settled at Blairdhu by this time. I hope you have been lucky with your valuations at both places.

I am enclosing a bank draft for £150 which will help you a little. I want you to give me an I.O.U. for it, just to keep things square. I am also sending home four lion claw brooches, one for each of my sisters and sisters-in-law. I am sending them all to you so you might pass them along for me.

It is very cold here just now at nights and the mornings it makes one fairly shiver, and glad to sleep under blankets.

We are very busy here just now as this is our crop time, and we have a lot of other work on hand besides.

I am at present making a railway out to the new land we are taking in. We have to make it through about 3 ½ miles of forest before we come to where we want it and it will be going five or six miles after that. However that last part won’t be bad, it is the forest part that will take the work as we have some heavy cuttings and embankments besides the trees. We have only about half a mile of it done, and have struck stone in our second cutting, so there is going to be some sport before it is finished.

Now John, I don’t think I have any more news this time so I will close with love to all from

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro

John and Bella Munro on their wedding day in December 1911

John Munro had recently married Bella Millar of Whitebog near Cromarty and the couple became tenant farmers at Blairdhu near Muir of Ord. John had been a tenant farmer at Feddonhill (Feddiehill) above Fortrose.

15 November 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My dear John,

I must really apologize for being so long in writing this time, but I have been very tired when I come in at nights, and a bit worried besides.

He had previously worked for another sugar plantation, the Beira Rubber & Sugar Estates at Inhanguvo near Beira, East Africa before moving to the Sena Sugar Estates and when he was approached by Beira to return to them as a head-overseer he thought he was free to do so and so accepted the offer.

Unfortunately, Sena’s general managers refused to let him go and there was a disagreement over whether Rod was free to leave. Beira then came back with an enhanced offer of £5 more than he was earning with Sena plus offering him responsibility for 2,500 acres. Sena then offered him more money to stay and when Rod insisted he wanted to leave his boss at Sena, a Mr Durward, lost his temper and refused point blank to allow it. Rod accepted the Beira job, insisting he would leave at the end of the month (November.) Still the General Manager, Schmidt, refused to let him go. During an argument Rod told Schmidt he could do what he liked but he was leaving, as arranged. Schmidt referred the matter to company’s Commandant who suggested Rod leave half-way through the month, taking into account when he had first told them he was leaving, though not officially on paper, but Schmidt refused to accept the arrangement. Rod worried he would be prevented from leaving quickly and that Beira might not hold the position for him – and if it didn’t he would have no job because Sena would not want to keep him.

As it happened a compromise was reached and soon Rod had taken up a position as Chief Overseer at Inhanguvo.

19 December 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My Dear John,

I am afraid I have been rather neglectful in writing of late but things were a bit topsy-turvy and I was always putting it off till they had settled down.

He found the company had changed since he had last worked for them and “not for the better” and suffered regrets at leaving his last position for he found the Inhanguvo estate poorly run. The weather had been extremely dry which did not help with the crop but commented that the rains had begun so he hoped that soon there might lead to improvements in output. The company projected making about 8000 tons of sugar the following year which in Rod’s opinion was wide of the mark for he calculated about 5000 tons or even 4000 being produced. That current year production stood at 4300 tons.

Leaving aside his employment concerns, Rod congratulated John and Bella on the birth of their first child, Christina (Chrissy.) Rod regretted missing another New Year back at home in Scotland. He would never make it home for one again.

The letter ends on a light note with him welcoming the laying out of a nine-hole golf course due to be opened on Christmas Day by one of the directors, a man called Rennie. Rod kidded John that when he got home he would be regarded as “one of the ‘bhoys’” and signed his letter in his usual way,

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro.

1912 Christmas Card to John and family from Rod. His last one to his brother.

Inhanguvo Christmas Day 1912. Rod is 4th man from right marked by X.

Rod had just celebrated his 30th birthday.

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10 February 1913 letter to John from Rod.

Rod scolds his older brother for being a worse letter-writer than he was.

My Dear John,

You are even more careless than myself in writing I think.

Rod complains about the food provided by the Estate,

“nothing fresh here, not even meat or vegetables. Fowls are very scarce and as a result we have been living almost entirely on tinned stuff for the last 2 months and I am beginning to get fed up with it as it is hardly the best thing for the liver of the stomach.

He blames the poor quality of food in part for the amount of sickness among Estate employees.

The weather as “fearfully dry” as he begins the letter but he lays it down and when he next writes there has been a heavy fall of rain of about 7 inches. One extreme to the other.

He mentions an acquaintance of theirs, Sandy McDougall, an old man who died alone – presumably at home in Rosemarkie or Fortrose.

5 Mar 1913 letter from John to Rod.

The envelope has been re-addressed from Inhanguvo to c/o the British Consul.

Dear Rod,

We have no letter from you now since four weeks, I hope that there is nothing wrong with you.

I have been a little irregular in writing lately, but there is really very little to write about apart from the usual daily round.

I see in this week’s paper that McKenzie, Kildary has bought a house in Alness, and that he will live there after Whitsunday and also that he is sailing this week for Brazil to report on some land there. I expect that Fraser will have arrived in Africa again by this time. Alex Ferguson (a cousin) was up at Edinburgh lately getting an operation done on one of his eyes. They were all here for a weekend after coming back. I hope that he will now feel better, but we have had no word from them since a week.

Flora’s bairns (Flora was their sister in Fortrose) were all laid up with measles. I saw Rory (Flora’s husband) in Dingwall today, and he told me that they are now on the recovery.

I am kept pretty busy just now with the cattle and sheep. The sheep are now getting cut turnips, which means a good bit extra work, but I am looking forward to a big price in a few weeks, which will make up for the extra trouble.

Both cattle and sheep are selling very well this season, but I expect the profits will be all required, as the expenses are very much more here than at Janefield. (the family worked here as tenants, at Rosemarkie.)  Labour especially as we have to keep two men, and a boy, besides a girl in the house.

Bella and I were at Munlochy at the Scouts Dance a week ago. It was very good, as usual. The only dance or entertainment of any kind we have been at since coming here.

The Mason’s Dance comes off in Avoch on Friday. I don’t think we will go. It is rather a long drive, and the weather is very rough at present.

I have had no word from the Junors (cousins) since six months but sometimes hear that they are still alive from Tom McDonald. Jamie and they are still near each other, and I suppose they have horses of their own on some Government work. I suppose they will be so busy making their pile that they will have no time to write.

The baby is growing fast, and is doing her best to keep us lively.

Now, as I have really no news I must close, hoping to hear from you next mail.

With Love from all,
I remain,
Your loving brother
John Munro

John’s concern at the start of the letter is prescient. His brother Rod was by then gravely ill at Inhanguvo.

18 March 1913 a typewritten letter to John from Rule H.B.M Vice Consul, Beira.

Sir,

I regret to have to inform you that your son (confusion here over which John as Rod’s and John’s father was also called John) Roderick James Munro died at Inhanguvo on the 16th inst. of heart failure following an attack of blackwater fever.

The sad news has just reached me from the General Manager of the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates, where your son was employed, and I trust that the address furnished me will find you.

(The letter arrived at John’s farm of Blairdhu near Munlochy since he was the one in correspondence with Rod and his address would have been found among his belongings.)

The effects of the deceased will be disposed of in the usual way by the Portuguese authorities, and any balance that may remain after administration of the estate will be handed over to this office in due course for transmission to the next-of-kin.

With sincere sympathy in your sad loss.

I am,
Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
F. Rule
B. M. Vice Consul.

18 March letter to John from Don Mackenzie at Inhanguvo.

Dear Mr Munro

It is with the deepest regret that I take up my pen to inform you of your poor brothers death which occurred on the 16th instant.

I am very sorry to say that he had Black Water fever and his illness only lasted 15 days, he had all the attendance that he possibly could get there was a nurse and myself looking after the poor fellow but it was God’s will to take him away from us. I was looking after him when he died at 9pm he went unconscious and at twenty past he was dead.

He was a great favourite by all how new him and every body is very much cut up indeed. He was a very great friend of mine and I can’t express how I feel the loss of such a valuable friend. These will be sent straight home his Album Bible  and Prayer book also a small toilet case which he got a present in 05 and his ring. All this will be sent direct home this mail.

Yours faithfully
Don MacKenzie
of MacKenzie
Late Blackstand

20th March 1913 letter to John (John senior, although the letter was sent to Blairdhu) from Beira’s General Manager, Mr. O. Walpole.

Dear Sir,

It is with very great regret that I have to advise you of the death of your son Roderick James Munro.

Rod had been taken ill on second of March and was said to have been successfully treated for the fever but complications affecting his liver and heart set in. He was attended by a doctor and a nurse who nursed him day and night along with help from Donald Mackenzie (who I think was his cousin and also employed by the Estate) and they were with him when he died.

Towards the end of his illness death came suddenly and unexpectedly, his heart failing at 9 o’clock in the evening of Sunday 2nd March.

He was buried in the cemetery at Luzitania the next evening.

Days later another letter arrived, this time from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London.

25 March 1913 letter to John from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London, England.

A typewritten letter acknowledging a telegram sent to them by John urgently inquiring about his brother’s death.

The letter contains a reference to a cablegram from a Mr Murdo Grant on the subject of Rod’s death. The letter writer explains the delay in responding to John’s telegram was because the London office was shut up for Easter.

The cablegram reads:

“Regret to inform you that Mr. R. Munro died March 16th heart failure after blackwater. Advise relations.”

To the point.

The letter from headquarters explains that Rod’s body had been buried and that his illness must have been short for there was no reference to him in the weekly medical reports. It also reports that the doctor attending Rod was a Dr Somershield. The secretary who signs the letter finishes by saying he had met Rod before he went out to Beira and “formed a very high opinion of him” and asks John to pass his deepest sympathy onto their parents.

East Africa under British Administration included the port of Beira in Portuguese territory where Rod worked. Beira was an important and bustling port and point of access deeper into the interior of the continent. Situated on the estuary of the Pungwe river, the harbour was capable of berthing very large ships while smaller lighters were used to load and discharge cargo from the great vessels. Harbour facilities were split between ones operated by a Mozambique Company and others under the authority of a British South African Company.

Even in this one small area within the Empire it is apparent the large scale of jobs available to British subjects. And they were attracted abroad in their tens of thousands. But while ordinary British people were employed in a host of positions on estates such as the Beira Sugar and Rubber Estates and Beira port the men who ran things and who whose bank balances benefitted as a result came mainly from the British establishment. Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor who was appointed to Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates was the 1st High Commissioner of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate amongst other positions. His death, suicide, was blamed in part for effects he had of Blackwater fever and malaria.

30th March 1913 letter to John from his brother Alec, a doctor in Kilmarnock.

Enclosed with the letter is another from the Beira Office in London and Alex requests its return once John has read it. He writes that he intends contacting Dr Somershield, the doctor attending Rod through his illness and asks John to forward any letters he receives from Beira.

Alec writes how depressed he is feeling and clearly concerned for their parents, enquires about their health, as well as that of John and his family.

2 April 1913 letter to John from Rule.

Typewritten letter from the British Vice Consul at Beira referring to the letter sent by him on 18th March to Rod’s father informing him of his son’s death but sent to his brother John instead. In contrast to the letter of the 18th this one is strictly business-like even arrogant, certainly insensitive. No apology for the confusion instead the Consul passes responsibility for the error onto someone else, anyone else except the man who sent the letter, the Consul himself. This is how the British government treated ‘their own’ people. We can only imagine the disdain they had for local people.

“Your letter of the 5th March which was opened by me is enclosed.”

15th April 1913 letter to John from Alex.

This letter in the form of a mourning note and envelope, black margined was sent along with two letters he had received from Beira in London (John returned those letters so they are not available.) Alec asks after their parents; their mother presently being looked after by their sister Flora, and their father.

“We had a letter from Flora today in which she says mother has been in bed but is up again. Is it a cold or what? I hope she is better. How is father?”

The rest of the letter continues in a similar vein, on family matters. The whole family must have been suffering the sudden loss of Rod with him so far away, knowing they can never attend a funeral for him or bury him at home.

Alec ends –

“There is nothing else to tell you or at least I can’t think of it just now. Everything is overshadowed by Roddie’s death.
We shall be glad to hear from some of you soon.
Hoping you are all well,

I am
Your loving brother
Alec.

On 14th May letter to John from Oliver Walpole, General Manager at Beira.

Typewritten letter from Walpole in response to one sent by John on 17 April enquiring about Roddie’s effects. The belongings of any worker who died in harness to the British Empire, though perhaps not at board level, were sold to pay for expenses incurred by them prior to their deaths, such as their board and lodgings. Walpole tells John that he went into Rod’s room and removed some little personal items before a local judge was placed in charge of Rod’s possessions ordered the effects be listed and removed to the judge’s office and Rod’s room sealed. Creditors were invited to send in their claims which would be met from the proceeds of an auction of his property and cash found in his possession. Any balance after debts had been met would be handed over to the British Consul who remitted any money remaining to the family – eventually.

“This in Munro’s case should be I think a fair sum, as he was a careful man, and had, I believe, a considerable balance at Beira.”

Walpole took one or two items away before Rod’s room was locked and other bits and pieces he bought at the auction – a very few items he thought the family would value having, watches which may have been family pieces, private letters, a bible and hymnal – those items presents from his mother, and the ring he was wearing at the time of his death. Walpole explains he did not see any need to purchase Rod’s clothing and travelling trunks. Those possessions retained would be sent on to John at Blairdhu.

The paltry number of Rod’s possessions at his death were split into three auction lots –

Clothing
4 watches
Letters and papers
1 cash box
1 Bible
1 Hymnal
2 pocket books
1 hydrometer in case
1 ring
1 album
1 toilet case

A handwritten addendum reads:

“If I find the parcel will be too large for post I shall send it by first steamer.”

14 May 1913 letter to W. Murray Bemister at Beira HQ in London from Oliver Walpole at Inhanguvo.

This letter is in response to one sent him by Bemister and in it Walpole refers to the death of “poor Munro” and tells Bemister he has already written giving Rod’s father a brief account of his son’s death but was busy at the time so had not gone into detail about his funeral. In the meantime, a letter was received by Dr Somershield at Inhanguvo from Alec Munro – who the writer notes “is a medical man” asking details of the illness. Walpole says the doctor (Somershield) will get in touch personally with the family. Walpole is careful to emphasise the care and attention provided to Rod, possibly in light of the fact that Rod’s brother Alec is a doctor and so covering their own backs in a way they might not have generally done over the deaths of employees. The letter is a fulsome account of Rod’s last days presumably so Bemister will be forearmed for any future enquiries from the family.

He was taken ill on night of Sunday 2 March. On that afternoon he had been playing golf and was apparently well. He sickened later in the afternoon and went back to his quarters and to bed. His room is in the double story building near the office known as the Towers (not according to Rod, for the Scots there referred to their lodgings as the Crofter’s Arms.)

When Walpole saw Rod the next morning it was clear that the blackwater fever had set in. The doctor was called and by the following Thursday when a

“Mr Rennie saw him the Blackwater had disappeared although Munro was naturally in a very weak condition at this time we had no doubt about his ultimate recovery, and as I believe I mentioned in one of my letters it was arranged that he should proceed to England as soon as he was fit to travel.”

By the following Monday, 10th, he was ‘not so well.’   On the Wednesday his condition had worsened and a nurse, Walker, was put in charge of his case and Rod’s friend and compatriot, Donald Mackenzie, was then relieved of his duties looking after him full-time but he did continue to stay with Rod overnight while the nurse did the daytime shift.

“Every convenience and comfort was supplied.”

However the ice machine was ‘temporarily out of commission’ and Walpole explains he arranged for ice to be taken up daily from Beira to treat Rod’s fever for Rod was constantly asking for ice or cold soda to slake his thirst.

Dr Somershield visited Rod morning and evening and Walpole claims to have looked in several times. He was chatting with Rod about 5.30 that last Sunday evening when Rod appeared quite cheerful and was joking about the good time he would have on board the boat home. But by 9pm Don Mackenzie sent a message to Walpole. Rod’s condition had deteriorated. Walpole and Nurse Walker attended and found him unconscious and close to the end. Don Mackenzie said he had taken a drink of barley water at 8.30pm and grumbled that it was not “sufficiently salt.” He then fell asleep and passed away. The time of death was given as 9.20pm.

The majority of the Estate’s staff were said to have attended Rod James Munro’s funeral. His coffin (made on the Estate) was draped with the union jack and carried by his fellow overseers from his room to the landing stage on the Pungwe River, then referred to as the Biera River by the white immigrants there, placed in a boat and towed by motor launch with its flag flying at half-mast and on to Luzitania.  There the coffin was taken ashore and carried the mile or so the cemetery. A trolley had been laid on but Rod’s fellow worker’s chose to carry him all the way on their shoulders. No church minister was available to read the service so Walpole did it. Fifty-four people of all nationalities were at the graveside as Rod’s body was lowered into the grave “as Munro having been here for some considerable time was well known to everybody in the District.”

31 May 1913 letter to John from Oliver Walpole .

Typewritten letter and receipt for the box containing Rod’s effects. Walpole lets John know how much he paid for those of Rod’s possession he bought for the family at the sale and the cost of postage for sending them to Scotland – 10/6 (ten shillings and six pence.)

June 3rd 1913 letter to Alex from Dr Somershield, Inhanguvo, Beira, Port East Africa.

John retained his own handwritten copy of the letter sent to his brother Alec in Kilmarnock. The letter goes into some detail of the care of Rod since Dr Somershield took over his case on 5th March.

He saw him on three occasions when Rod was suffering from malarial fever. On 8th March the Blackwater symptoms had disappeared and his temperature had returned to normal two days later. On 11th March Rod had a relapse of malarial fever but his temperature never got above 101 and only reached that on a few occasions. His relapse was complicated with congestion of the liver which had suffered from attacks of malaria and was enlarged, as was his spleen. In his final hours Rod was perfectly lucid and he spoke about looking forward to getting home to Scotland and the Black Isle when his heart suddenly gave out, explained Somershield, and he died from an accumulation of carbonic acid the blood in about twenty minutes; describing his death as peaceful under slowly increasing drowsiness.

Walpole mentions how well Rod was looked after by an excellent nurse and one of his friends,

“In this neighbourhood no patient had ever been so well looked after.”

“He was buried on the other side of the Biera River, at Nova Luzitania, and his funeral was the most imposing seen here.”

16 June letter to John from his brother Alec in Kilmarnock.

Alec writes to John enclosing a letter he has received from Bemister, of Beira HQ in London. He says he has not yet heard from Dr Somershield but will pass any letter he does get onto John. He tells John that what he does know as a doctor is that Blackwater fever is ‘very fatal’ and he thought a result of malaria – “probably Roddie got it in Demerara when he was so long ill there.”

Alec recognises Bemister’s kindness and asks John to let their sisters Flora and Mary read Bemister’s letter. He asks after their parents and tells John he sent a urinal to their father who was ill so that their mother would not have to rise so often in the night to help him to the lavatory. In closing he mentions his own wife, Annie, who he describes as very well and wondering if a bonnet she sent to their mother fitted and if not to send it back to be altered or exchanged.

Rod’s sister Mary (left) holding Bella’s (next to her) baby Chrissie. Rod’s mother extreme right and sister Flora behind her. The boys are Mary’s sons.

 Sept 19th 1913 letter to John from Walpole at Inhanguvo.

In this typewritten letter Walpole acknowledges John’s receipt for the safe delivery of Rod’s things. It is clear that John asked him about money in Rod’s possession and Walpole tells him the British Consul is handling that and it should have been forwarded to the family.

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31 Jan 1914 letter from John to F. Rule, British Vice Consul in Beira.

John replies to an earlier letter from Rule informing him the proceeds of his brother’s estate will be transmitted by Rule to H M Consul General at Lourenço Marques for distribution to the next of kin. Neither his father (staying at Blairdhu) nor John have heard anything about this.

“I understand that he had a balance at Beira, as you would no doubt have seen on going through his papers, as well as any money in his possession or due him by the estate where he was employed at the time of his death.

“Mr Walpole informs me that you have paid his expenses in connection with the things which he so kindly sent here, for which I sincerely thank you.

“My father and I would consider it a great favour if you would send us particulars regarding the administration of the estate, or communicate with H.M. Consul General at Lourenço Marques inquiring into the cause of the delay.”

He signs the letter –

“I am, Sir
Yours very respectfully
John Munro Jr.

3 Mar 1914 letter to John from H M Vice Consul, F. Rule.

Typewritten letter in reply to John’s letter of 31 January. Rule informs John that the balance of funds of his late brother’s estate have been forwarded to the Consul at Lourenço Marques for distribution.

He has copied the Consul General into this correspondence and expects he will contact John.

Date unknown letter from John to Walpole.

John is very apologetic about contacting Walpole once again but he says in an earlier correspondence Walpole had mentioned a movement among the overseers to erect a stone to Rod. He asks if this has been done. If it has not he says he would be pleased if it could be done and he would send the money required in connection with it.

“I would also consider it a great favour if I could get a photo of his grave, and the house where he died, or any other photos in connection with this work.

I was glad to see by your last letter that your expenses in connection with the things which you so kindly sent have been paid by the Consul.

I have not yet heard anything from the Consul regarding the administration of the estate but I am writing to him by this mail.

Again apologizing for troubling you, and thanking you for all the kindness and sympathy you have shown towards us in our bereavement.”

Finding the money to pay for a gravestone would not have been a simple affair for John. The Munro family were by no means wealthy and he was a recently married, small tenant farmer setting out on his own with a young family. The heartbreak he feels at Rod’s death is apparent in this letter. And the desperate need to place what has happened in some context that John can comprehend of a young brother dying in a place he cannot imagine and is so different from all that is familiar in the Scottish Highlands.

27 Mar 1914 letter to John from Walpole.

In it Walpole confirms receipt of John’s letter of Jan 31st 1914 in which he asked about plans to have a memorial stone erected on the grave. It’s clear he has heard no word on the subject from East Africa. Walpole admits nothing has been done to date, adding that many of Rod’s friends have left Inhanguvo – implying most who knew and cared for him enough to see the work through had moved on but he names an accountant, Mr Jess, as being most likely to ensure a stone is erected. Walpole, himself, has also left the company and Inhanguvo and will be returning to England shortly. He also mentions the firm has recently ‘disposed’ of property. So things have changed in several ways with Beira Sugar and Rubber. Ending, Walpole tells John he will forward his letter to Jess and ask him to take up the matter and provides John with his address in Derby if he can be of further assistance.

4 April 1914 letter to John from R. Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter confirming Walpole has forwarded John’s letter to the writer, R. Jess, an accountant at Beira.

Jess explains the Estate has been recently taken over by a new syndicate and Walpole has left but that he, Jess, would make enquiries about the cost of getting a memorial stone from Durban and hopes to be in a position to let John know how much that involves in a few weeks.

There are only six white men now on the Estate who knew your brother and most of them could only give a pittance towards the cost of erecting a stone, however, I shall let you know about this when next I write.”

Jess tells John he knew his brother, Rod, well – both living in the same quarters until Jess married. Both being Scottish they tended to spend a lot of time together. He describes Rod as a man who knew his own mind and that often the two argued politics over the dinner table in the evenings. Rod, he says, was always cheery “and appeared to me to be particularly solid and well.”

Referring to the days before his death, Jess describes visiting Rod almost daily throughout his illness and reiterates reports of the good care provided to him after his relapse.

“It was then the trained nurse was brought in – or perhaps a day or two after – when it was seen he was not making the usual recovery. I was in his room the day before the nurse took up the case and he was then for the first time depressed; complained of weakness, and having to lie in bed. Of course I tried to rally him, gave him the usual little attentions one does in a sick room and he appeared cheerier when I left him. That was the last time I saw him, as I went straight from his room to my bed with a serious attack of malaria. I only recovered in time to attend the funeral.”

Jess adds to what Walpole had to say about the funeral. Not only was Rod’s coffin carried by his companions to the cemetery but his friends and companions insisted on filling in the grave instead of leaving it to the gravediggers. Walpole who gave the readings and conducted the service according to the English Church broke down towards the end and it was Jess who took the book from him and finished the readings.

Jess informs John that he and his wife later visited Rod’s grave and tidied it up with his wife intending to plant flowers around it. Describing her as an amateurish photographer, Jess promises John he will try to send him photos that might interest the family and finishes by assuring John the quarters occupied by Rod were in the healthiest place on the Estate with the exception of the manager’s house.

3rd June 1914 letter to Jess from H. L. Davis, Manager at J. H. Wade & Son of West Street, Durban (funeral managers and monumental sculptors.)

This communication was to obtain suitable designs of memorial stones for Rod’s grave.

Wade provides a few examples varying in price from £15 to £45 for stone and base and kerbing. Stones were mainly offered in marble and there was a polished black granite cross. Inscription was extra at 7 shillings per dozen letters incised into marble and 9 shillings per dozen in the harder granite. Delivery to Beira was on top of this. All in all a great deal of money for the young tenant farmer. 

9th June 1914 letter from R. Jess to John.

Typewritten letter with the heading The Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates scored through and over stamped Beira Illovo Sugar Estates.

Jess encloses the information he received from Wade & Son.

The prices, from an African point of view are very reasonable” Jess notes and if John selects a stone, he, Jess, will see it gets moved from Durban to Beira. He has also “approached the white men here and they have promised to assist in this way.

“Mr Harper, our new Manager, has kindly promised to have the Stone brought here from Beira and will also provide the labour and material necessary to erect it substantially.”

Jess reassures John he will make any arrangements that are needed to the memorial stone erected on Rod’s grave and while he still has no photograph of the grave he is enclosing photos of Inhanguvo so that John might see for himself where Rod lived and worked. He asks that John return the photos which presumably he did.

Unknown date letter from John to Mr R. Jess.

John acknowledges letters from Jess of 4th April and 9th June on the subject of Rod’s memorial stone. He thanks Jess for his involvement and thanks, too, to Mrs Jess for both had been tidying up Rod’s grave and sent photos to John, “which I prize very much.”

John apologises to Jess for his delay in writing back but his father died about the time Jess’ first letter arrived and he was busy with family matters. John also notes that since this, the family’s second recent bereavement, he was “not now in a position to spend so much on my brother’s memorial, as I formerly would have done.”

The family’s limited resources had to stretch to two gravestones – one for their father and one for Rod. John does, however, select one of the stone’s offered by Wade & Son in Durban – a Houlton Cross priced at £12. 12s. He advises Jess to have it erected without surrounding kerbing (to reduce the cost) and encloses a money order for £17, to cover stone and inscription.


The inscription to read:

In Loving Memory of
Roderick James Munro
Born 2nd December, 1882
At Rosemarkie, Rossshire
Scotland
Died at Inhanguvo
16th March 1913
Peace, Perfect Peace

John asks to be informed if the £17 does not cover all the costs incurred.

“Please convey my warmest thanks to Mr Harper, and others out there who have assisted with the arrangements.”

He ends apologising for the trouble he’s putting Jess to and asks him about Donald MacKenzie and if he is still at Inhanguvo, commenting that he only knew him slightly but knows his father well. The MacKenzies lived about 20 miles from John, at Fortrose, and may have been related to the Munros.

7th September 1914 letter from Wade & Son.

Confirmation of order for memorial stone for Rod’s grave.

24th September 1914 letter to John from John T. Rennie Son & Co, Aberdeen Direct Line of Steamers London Natal and East African Ports.

Business letter requesting receipt for parcels “duly endorsed for the box ex s.s. “Inkosi””and enquiring if it should be locked for the key to be sent to them (to check contents) after which they will forward the item to John, according to his instruction.

29 September 1914 letter to Wade & Son from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter refers to their communication of 3rd June, and confirming Jess has now heard back from the late RJ Munro’s relatives who have commissioned him to order the Houlton cross and bases – and provides Wade with the inscription written by John.

1st October 1914 letter to John from Jess at Beira Illovo Sugar Estates, Inhanguvo, near Beira, East Africa.

Typewritten letter acknowledging the safe receipt of John’s money order for £17 and confirmation he has ordered the memorial requested and arranged with the Durban agents for the work to be carried out properly. He also promises to let John know when that work is completed.

And sadly,

“You mention Donald McKenzie in your letter, but you will probably have since learned that the poor fellow died on the 29th of July last of Blackwater. We laid him side by side of your brother.”

11th November 1914 letter to John from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter in which Jess lets John know the cross and base have arrived at the Estate but not been unpacked. He assures him the stone will be erected as soon as a man is made available for the task. Jess paid the stonemasons at Durban £16-6-8; £12-12/- for the stone plus £3-14-8 for the inscription. He also had to pay £1-6-3 for transporting the lot from Durban bringing the total up to more than the £17 provided by John but says he is not asking him for the 12 shillings and 11 pence difference, as this cost will be carried locally (by company or men it is not specified.) Jess adds that he (and his wife it appears) visited the cemetery the previous Sunday and tidied the graves of Rod and his friend Donald MacKenzie and photographed them. He ends by informing John they were leaving Inhanguvo at the end of the year, with him going on active service in German S. W Africa but he would try to get a photo of the raised cross taken before leaving.

18th December 1914 letter to John from Jess.

Typewritten letter from Jess informing John that the stone has now been erected and inscribed, as requested, and promises photos of it. He mentions that they have been suffering “very trying weather” there and yet another employee was buried last week – “Blackwater as usual. I shall be glad to get away from the place.” Jess ends by providing John with his new address in Johannesburg.

27th December 1914 letter from John at Buckden, Huntingdon, England to Jess.

John has a different address, in England, a reminder the year is 1914 and John is undergoing military training hundreds of miles from home, as a member of the Lovat Scouts.

John as a Lovat Scout in 1915

He refers to Jess’ letters of 1st October and 11th November, welcoming the delivery at Inhanguvo of the memorial stone from Durban and reacts to the tragic news of Rod’s friend and colleague Donald MacKenzie.

I was very grieved indeed to hear of Donald McKenzie’s death of which I heard some time before receiving your letters.

I am afraid I am putting you to a great deal of trouble, but I know that you are doing it willingly, and I feel that I can never repay either yourself or Mrs Jess for all you have done and I daresay you will note that I have changed my address but it is only temporary, as I have been on Service with the Lovat Scouts since the 5th of Aug, and we are shifted about a good deal. I am pleased to note that you are also going to don the Khaki. We expected to have been sent abroad before now, but I understand that mounted troops are not so urgently required as this seems to be a war of artillery and trenches but we expect to be sent out early in the spring. 

I shall be pleased to hear again from you at any time, and any letters addressed as formerly to Blairdhu, Killearnan, Rossshire will be forwarded to me if I am away from home.”

He thanks Jess for all his kindnesses and wishes he and his wife “all happiness in the New Year.

“I remain

Yours very sincerely

John Munro

 1 9 1 5 

30th August 1915 letter to John from Commercial Bank of Scotland in Muir of Ord.

This typewritten letter came in response to one John sent to the bank on 25 August in which a cheque was enclosed drawing on his account the sum of £150 in favour of Dr Alexander Munro, as Executor of Roderick James Munro, for a loan of that amount paid to the Farm. This must have been money lent to John by Rod when John took up tenancy at Blairdhu farm, to help him with initial expenses and was now being paid back into Rod’s estate. Bank charges on the cheque came to 1/11d which the bank requested John pay in the form of postage stamps.

 

John’s and Bella’s wedding in Inverness. John and Bella seated centre, front row. Alec is seated to the left of John. Their father, with beard, is seated on front row 4th from right. Rod does not appear to be in the group.

Blackwater  Fever

Blackwater fever continues to be a dangerous disease in tropical areas of the world with a death. Haemoglobinuric fever caused more deaths and chronic illness than all other diseases among Europeans and Chinese labourers in West Africa and East Africa in the 19th century.

The eminent German microbiologist, Dr Robert Koch, described it as a disease creating the greatest havoc amongst Europeans in German East Africa which he attributed to quinine poisoning following treatment for malaria. The ‘father of tropical medicine’, the parasitologist from Old Meldrum in Aberdeenshire, Dr Patrick Manson, was first to bring Blackwater fever to the attention of western medicinal authorities and it was his work which led to its inclusion in English language medical textbooks late in the 19th century. But it was Dr John Farrell Easmon, an illustrious Creole doctor and Chief Medical Officer at Cape Coast in Ghana who was from Sierra Leon who, in the latter 19th century, wrote a treatise on The Nature and Treatment of Blackwater Fever in 1884 which first linked Blackwater with malaria and who gave this horrible disease its name, Blackwater fever.

Dr John Easmon, seated

Blackwater fever was characterised by haemoglobinuria, jaundice and vomiting. Its name comes from the darkness of urine passed by those affected; coloured by the presence of haemoglobin or methaemoglobin.

Blackwater fever was not confined to Africa but reported in a host of places including China, Italy, Sicily, New Guinea and Java. It was promulgated that its suspected increasing prevalence in Africa was in part due to disturbing soil and opening up waterways that accompanied the drive of colonists to increase farming areas and build ports, factories, houses, stores etc.. Bad outbreaks coincided with long very hot dry spells which included lagoons and ponds drying up then being heavily disturbed by eventual heavy rains.

Given Rod Munro’s complaints about lack of fresh food it is interesting that doctors suspected Blackwater was a greater threat during shortages of fresh meat and vegetables.

The Blackwater victim experiences fever often to over 103F with the patient fitting on the second or third day of the fever but it was noticed in many fatal cases the temperature had often returned to normal. As mentioned above the urine turns dark – but varies in colour between light red to very dark. In addition to fever and darkened urine patients often experience nausea or vomiting and diarrhoea which tend to cause most distress because of their persistence and mean that victims find it difficult to retain medicines and nourishment.  Vomit is often bright or olive-green colour. Headaches tend to be severe and there is pain felt in loins and limbs with numbness in hands and feet. Both liver and spleen are enlarged, causing further discomfort. Of those affected by this horrible illness it proves fatal to about twenty percent. 

When chloroquine replaced quinine as the medicine administered to tackle the disease its incidence declined, from the 1950s but more recently resistance to chloroquine has seen a rise in cases.

Nova Luzitania, now Búzi, where Rod James Munro was laid to rest was devastated by cyclone Idai in 2019 killing 534 people so even if his granite cross survived a century of upheaval in Mozambique it is unlikely anything of it remains today.

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.              

Jan 6, 2021

Unions and Alliances: Divorce and the Bidie-in

D I V O R C E sang Tammy Wynette, an expert on the subject.

Divorce, yes divorce. Divorce is in the air. Have you noticed? When the UK filed for divorce from the EU it was complicated because there were four partners in that relationship – five if you count the EU. Two of the partners got their way and three did not. Now it should have been possible in those circumstances for those three unhappy with the breakup to stay in the relationship; being consenting partners. Actually one of the partners has, albeit by quirk rather than design. The remaining one of the original four, hope you’re keeping up, has been told she must cut off all connections with the former fifth partner even though she really wants the relationship to continue because one of the four is less of a partner and more of a tyrant. Isn’t that so like many unhappy marriages – in which one partner is overbearing?

Let’s put some names to the partners. The four are, of course, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales and the EU that has already been identified as partner number five. It’s a poor sort of marriage in which one partner is controlling but that’s always been the way with the constitutional setup of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland did not want this divorce but they’re stuck with it – only NI is being treated with more care and consideration than Scotland and now embarking on a ménage à trois with the EU and UK.

It is not that Scotland is averse to divorce. The majority of Scots would love to divorce the UK and reinstate relations with her Continental suitors. She would not be against rekindling some kind of relationship with the UK but on a more equitable footing – not the current one under the domineering and manipulative partner, let us call him England. England holds all the cards and for three hundred years has been playing with a marked deck.

England and divorce has a troubled history. I’m talking personal relationships now for I think it reasonable to compare how a nation handles its personal relationships with the way it handles constitutional ones. In the case of England marriages have always been unequally skewed with men of power and wealth able to obtain an annulment whereas wives, on the other hand, have struggled to extricate themselves from an obviously failed marriage, even where the husband is controlling and abusive. English laws have been written by men for men. Even from the grave a vindictive rogue of a husband and father could continue to harm his wife and children by omitting them from his will so leaving them penniless and homeless.

Vindictive and controlling are the traits that mark out England’s attitude towards Scotland’s desire for divorce. Okay, so to begin with the attitude was more derisory – to belittle and discredit but the tone has got more shrill and tinged with threat. Only days ago in a debate in the Commons, former Tory minister Liam Fox suggested in the event of divorce between Scotland and the rest of the UK Scotland would be punished by blocks on trade (that is so close to the events in 1707 which led to the Union it’s uncanny.)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman [Ian Blackford MP]for giving way. Perhaps he could tell us what estimate he has made of the cost to the Scottish economy of losing access to the UK single market through independence. (Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset)

Dissolving the Union –

What? Nonsense! You can’t pull out of it now! Why? Surely not? What have I done? I haven’t done anything wrong! No, I won’t agree to any divorce! I’ll make your life miserable! I’ll punish you in every way I can! You’ll be made to suffer! Divorce me! How dare you even try!

These ridiculing and hostile attitudes have not gone down well with the majority of Scots who are expected to believe the Union is one of equals while experience shows it is nothing of the kind. This Union was always a marriage of convenience that quickly turned into a loveless trial. The dominant partner has never concealed his lack of respect for the other, denigrating and belittling her and keeping a tight hold on the purse strings to prevent her from leaving him. Confiscating the house keys will no doubt come next. Like almost every failing marriage there’s bad contemptuous behaviour, constant criticisms, secrecy, avoiding each other, arguments and the sex is lousy.

Scots attitudes to divorce have always been fairly liberal with both sexes tending to be treated equally and the assumption is this progressive perspective is shared. Far back in the mists of time Scottish marriages could be simply annulled or couples choose to go their own ways and lead separate lives while technically still married. Women as well as men could obtain formal divorces on grounds of adultery or desertion from the 1500s. When a relationship was shown to have irretrievably broken down the Scots were more pragmatic over the hopelessness of the situation and the union terminated. Threats of punishment and coercion were not considered suitable alternative actions.

Women’s standing has always been more robust in Scotland than in England. A Scots woman’s individualism did not get extinguished on her marriage, as was the case in England and you can see the majority of older Scottish gravestones display women’s own last name along with reference to her status as wife or relict of a man. Until relatively recent times that is. Now the English habit of a woman relinquishing her identity to her husband has become common here in Scotland. For a time it was the norm for a married woman to be addressed by her husband’s name – as in Mrs David Macdonald. That piece of nonsense is now hopefully relegated to the misogynist dustbin of the past.

You know why divorces are so expensive? Because they’re worth it. 

Scots women and children have always been better protected by the law than their English counterparts. For example a Scottish widow  could not be deprived of her jus relictae and the children of a marriage of their legitima – meaning they could not be written out of a husband’s/father’s will. A wife was entitled to one half of the movable assets of a marriage and her children to the other half and in the case of there being no children, the wife’s share comprised one-third. That should tell us about the type of society that operates in this way and the type of society that does not. As we’ve seen above this has never been the case in England.

A marriage in which one partner enjoys more rights than the other so able to restrict the rights and freedoms of the other partner is no worthwhile relationship. A union in which one member nation assumes greater privileges than another nation and gets to impose rules unilaterally is no worthwhile union. Under Scots law this union would have been dissolved long ago. Under English law Scotland remains a chattel of England’s.

The English state does not respect Scotland because Scotland’s status within the Union is so weak. Scratch a unionist and they’ll argue that Scotland’s position within the Union is comparable to an English county. Labour leader, Tony Blair, in 1997 epitomised this view when he described the Scottish parliament as having no more powers than an English parish council because sovereignty would remain “with me” i.e. the prime minister at Westminster.  So much for Scotland having an equal voice within the UK. This Union is nothing more than an abusive relationship but mentions pulling out of it and unionists are aghast then angry then more abusive.

Divorce after 300 years!

300 and a bit years. Call that a union?

Here’s a union. France, you know that country that a section of English xenophobes love to describe as their ‘traditional enemy’ (to which the obvious retort is – who isn’t?) has never been on the receiving end of such animosity from Scotland. Quite the reverse for links between Scotland and France are greater than those between Scotland and England.

This is a Union

The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, established in 1295, has never been formally ended so the Union with England is bigamous. England is the bidie-in. It has been argued the Auld Alliance was wound up in 1560. If this is so it means Scotland’s union with France lasted over 260 years, just 38 years shy of that other union with England.

When Scotland was badgered and blackmailed into the Union in 1707, against the wishes of the people who signed petitions, demonstrated and rioted their disapproval, Scotland lost her legislative powers, many of her public offices to London, with a knock-on impact on Scottish trade and commerce. Resentment within Scotland has simmered ever since with fluctuating degrees of support for independence or Home Rule.

Divorce is a piece of paper

Back in 1890 a piece in the Westminster Review described how the demand for Home Rule for Scotland was gaining popularity on the back of the movement for Irish Home Rule. The article went on to observe –

“But the grievance that impelled her [Scotland] to do it [go for Home Rule] have been long and severely felt.  And they have a deeper root than the English people seems yet to understand. It is not only that Scotland has been shabbily and unfairly treated in the matter of Imperial grants; it is not only that the Scottish people have been put to enormous and needless expense, vexation, and trouble in connection with so-called private Bills; it is not only that Scottish affairs have been grossly mismanaged in London; Scottish legislation trifled with by the leaders of both parties, and the verdict of the Scottish constituencies on Scottish questions reversed in Parliament by the overwhelming votes of English members knowing little, caring less, about Scottish affairs, and merely voting as their party leaders bid.”

Those observations could have come from yesterday in parliament at Westminster. In 1890 the two parties in question were the Liberals and Tories. Labour would later traipse along in their wake and with some notable exceptions follow the line of England knows best, back in your box Scotland – that has been the attitude of all the UK parties.

A feature throughout the life of the Union has been the English tendency to deride Scots and Scotland – as the Westminster Review put it – “wrong done thus and otherwise to Scotland’s life and honour and progress as a nation.” And nothing has changed.

“England seems scarcely to know that Scotland remains a nation.” (Westminster Review)

And nothing has changed. That is the position of Johnson, Starmer and their party acolytes. What the English know or think they know about Scotland comes from Anglicized Scots, the Westminster Review tells us. These people rarely represent their own country and so misrepresent the Union.

Divorces are made in heaven

Scottish Secretaries of State at Westminster represent Westminster in Scotland not Scotland at Westminster. Their role is to squeeze the life out of Scotland and ‘denationalise’ her. Scotland’s junior position within the Union has meant from the very start she was being milked for whatever she was worth by London, from the malt taxes to oil and gas.

Against the grain: Scotland pays the English Exchequer | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

As an illustration take an example from 1851 when Ireland’s revenue was just over £4 million Westminster took £153,547. About the same time Scotland’s revenue was just over £6 million and of that England took £5,614,847. Astounding. If astounding is another term for theft.

Heavy burdens in the form of taxes and customs duties and making Scotland pay for England’s national debt – if only England wasn’t such a xenophobic country it wouldn’t always be spending money on costly wars against other nations – kept Scotland indebted to England and diminished her freedom as a nation within the Union. Scotland had no national debt when the Union knot was tied and England made sure that she could never have England’s freedom to borrow money. That still applies today with Scotland having to balance her books while England can accrue as much debt as it likes and demand Scotland pays a share. What kind of Scot would have agreed to a contract like that? Not any kind of good one.

Article 15 of the Treaty provided a lump sum – the so-called Equivalent – was paid to Scotland as compensation for having to agree to take on a share of England’s national debt. That and to compensate Scotland for various disadvantages imposed on her by the Union such as a reduction in the value of Scotland’s currency to match that of England’s, winding up the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies so it was not in competition with England’s East India Company.  To quell the protests from Scottish businessmen London agreed to provide subsidies as compensation for Scotland’s lost markets for its successful exports such as woollen goods. In keeping with so many promises made to woo the handful of Scots nobles who played fast and loose with Scotland’s independence those subsidies were never paid out. You can see the direction of travel this Union was taking. The Equivalent was paid to 25 commissioners who first and foremost took care of themselves with the cash – and it was mainly cash. So you can imagine how widely this was (not) spread. The Union that England holds so dear was created on a catalogue of lies and deceptions.

In place of promised financial help came an increased tax burden for Scots. Prominent Scots, such as the eminent economist, Adam Smith, tried to prevent Scotland being penalised so heavily by England but to no avail. Why would England’s government aka Westminster relinquish the grip it had on Scotland? It didn’t want to risk having a rival and potential threat to its security on its border. Which reminds us this Union was a marriage of convenience. Time for the bidie-in to sling his hook.

 I don’t see divorce as a failure. I see it as the end to a story. In a story, everything has an end and a beginning.

References:

(Julian Hoppit, University College London, Scotland and the British Fiscal State, 1707-1800. )The Westminster Review (19th and 20th centuries)

The Westminster Review (19th and early 20th century editions)


 

Dec 18, 2020

The birdcatcher – Fowlsheugh’s heughman and the queets, the nories and kittyweaks (and brawny women)

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

Those defiant rocks form the cliffs at Fowlsheugh, a stones throw from Stonehaven in northeast Scotland.

Now an RSPB Scotland nature reserve and site of Special Scientific Interest, Fowlsheugh is home to countless thousands of seabirds arriving annually to breed on its 200 foot cliffs.

Queets, nories and kittyweaks, their names now more familiarly anglicised to guillemots, puffins and kittywakes are an attraction in their own right with people looking for that perfect photograph or just to gaze at the fabulous sight of them all in the breeding season. Changed times. Their popularity used to be as food or ‘sport’ and were regularly ‘catched’ and traded until seabird fowling was banned in 1954.

Seabirds (all wildbirds) had monetary value until protection was brought in. This monetary value either benefitted local communities (mainly on Scotland’s remote islands) or the proprietor of the land where the birds were caught and killed. Popular for their eggs more than their flesh, birds also supplied feathers for pillows and quills but mainly in the Victorian era, hat decorations, as well as oil for lamps and tanning leather.

Fowlsheugh

Fowlsheugh’s laird rented out ‘his’ bird colonies to a local tenant, the heughman for about £2 a season and the heughman (known as craigsman in other areas and in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality – see below) was also obliged to present the laird with a prize specimen of a young hawk. To gather birds the heughman or bird catcher had to descend the cliff face from the top since the heaving waters of the German Ocean beneath the cliffs prevented any sort of ladder being used to climb up. Rather like a modern-day mountaineer abseiling he was lowered by rope – in his case by five or six of his fellow villagers. These weren’t usually brawny blokes but brawny women. A wooden pulley was also used at times to hold the rope clear so prevent it rubbing and wearing through against the sharp rock. With the rope secured about his person, the heughman was slowly lowered – steadying himself by bouncing his feet against the side of the cliff, signalling to those up top to tighten the rope from time to time so he could empty nests of their eggs.

“Are ye mad?” said the mendicant: “Francie o’ Fowlsheugh, and he was the best craigsman that ever speel’d heugh, (mair by token, he brake his neck upon the Dunbuy of Slaines,) wodna hae ventured upon the Halket-head…” *2

The heughsman’s equipment included a large sack or bag, its mouth kept open by an iron ring, attached to a pole of some twenty feet in length. Using the pole to gather eggs into the sack meant he didn’t have to get too close to nests protected by distressed birds and reach into nests deeper into hollows in the cliff. With his sack filled he would be pulled back onto the cliff top to empty his load before descending again. And so his harvesting of the eggs would continue until huge quantities were taken.  

Eggs were often hard boiled straight away, to preserve them. There was a brisk local trade in them so it was rare that they had to be taken any great distance to sell. Sundays, peoples’ only day off, would find many folk from Stonehaven cover the short distance to Fowlsheugh to buy the heughman’s eggs.

Queets (guillemots) tend to lay a single egg but often will lay a replacement if the first is lost. The kitteweak (kittywake) lays two eggs per season. The eggs of the queets and marats (razorbills) were most sought after because their hard shells meant there was less chance of them being damaged while being collected and selling on. The queets sparse nests sit exposed on open rock while nories (puffins) along with marats nest in niches which offer more protection to the egg and young, though not from a 20-foot pole.

A few weeks after that season’s eggs had been collected the heughman would descend once more, this time to gather young chicks hatched from those eggs left on the rocks. Kittyweaks being the most popular for eating. Demand for these little chicks usually outstripped supply and they were often eaten fresh, sold in local markets, with few being preserved by salting and drying in the open air.  

With the coming of autumn came still more harvesting of the cliff’s bird population. This time Fowlsheugh’s heughman was armed with a net to trap birds before they flew off for winter. These older birds were wanted mainly for their feathers, as explained above to decorate women’s hats or stuff cushions.  

This was, still is, the time known as the shooting season. Crowds came by boat, foot and horseback from Aberdeen, Stonehaven and all around to take pot shots at those birds that had escaped the raid on eggs, chicks and adults. Here was another source of income for the heughman who charged a shilling for each gun. All in all he was provided with a fairly decent living by the wild birds of Fowlsheugh. The birds were easy targets, seldom straying far from the rocks and it was reported as many as six birds could be killed by a single shot. Needless to say the raucous cries of the birds during these attacks was tremendous.

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

Fishing rights to the sea below Fowlsheugh belonged to the crown and there was a huge row in 1897 when leasing rights were leased to private interests for salmon fishing by stake netting because this resulted in wholesale slaughter of seabirds, drowned in the nets. An outcry among the public at the carnage led to an end of the practice.

Many of the seabirds took their food from the sea by diving into it and these birds were scooped up in nets; some were hanged in the mesh and some trapped so they slowly drowned. Thousands of queets were destroyed in this manner, to the horror of those who witnessed it, for it proved impossible for the birds to be freed from the mesh without breaking their wings and legs. There were descriptions of the birds’ eyes – wild and staring from fear as they thrashed about in a desperate struggle to escape the mesh which cut deep into their flesh. This horror was repeated daily during the egg hatching season, meaning the young were left without an adult to protect them and provide them with food and it was feared that within a couple of years Fowlsheugh’s bird population might be wiped out. And all this horror so the crown could profit along this four-mile stretch of water to the tune of £70 per annum. On the back of popular local opinion the crown ceased netting under Fowlsheugh’s cliffs early in the season but the slaughter was just delayed for the start of August brought the shooting season and the coastal birds were again targeted.

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

Life was tough for the coastal folk of Fowlsheugh but so was it a sair fecht for the birds breeding on the cliffs there – and wildlife everywhere in Scotland. In 1850 is was reported that ‘Scotland’s largest and most prized hawks (prized in terms of trophies) were virtually exterminated. The kite, the gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons often used in falconry) and goshawk had vanished, persecuted to extinction. The only sighting for ten years of a goshawk in Scotland, was in April 1850, and that bird was trapped two weeks later by a gamekeeper at Doune of Rothiemurchus. The protection of birds is more tokenistic than real, even today.

On the coast the heughman’s trade was not only driven by his local country people’s need for food but Victorian museums’ near insatiable demand for egg specimens to display and stuffed birds to exhibit, such was public curiosity and fascination with nature – mainly of the dead kind (not so long ago natural scientists insisted on killing living species as means of properly identifying them, even in the case of the rarest of specimens.)

The fowls of Fowlsheugh and elsewhere or rather the occupation of bird catcher, craigsman and heughman gave rise to the name Fowler or more commonly in these parts, Fowlie. Scotland had a makar (official poet) called Fowler. William Fowler who was a fixer for James VI and in the pay of the English court of Elizabeth for whom he spied, hired by her spymaster, Walsingham, the man who plotted against James VI’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots and the one responsible for her execution. Fowler was rewarded for his services to the crown with a 2,000 acre estate in Ulster. Talk of feathering nests. When he had a minute to himself he wrote poetry.

Covenanter’s stone at Dunnottar cemetery

And to finish on the subject of writers, Walter Scott met the man who would become Old Mortality in the book of that name, Peter Paterson, when he was cleaning the gravestones of Covenanters who died in Dunnottar castle, at the local graveyard so preserving their names and contributions to this religious struggle in Scotland’s past. The two got into conversation and Peter became Robert Paterson in Scott’s tale of political and religious turmoil during that period.

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar

Dec 12, 2020

It’s a Fishy Business – Scotland’s Plaice in Brexit

Brexit – England’s Declaration of Independence as penned by Homer (Simpson) – a fish oddity.

Jaculator fishmonger, Pufferfish Johnson, blowing out his well-exercised blowhole that Brexit is destined to lead to a national revival. The great Clownfish spouts blanks whether –

  • an additional £350m a week to the NHS
  • 40 new hospitals (that’ll be 6 plus some refurbishments)
  • 50,000 new nurses or in the real world 30,000
  • his ‘do or die’ pledge that Great Brian would be out of the EU by October 2019,
  • he’d rather be dead in a ditch than extend Article 50
  • he’d never suspend parliament to force through Brexit – before illegally proroguing it for the longest period in the modern era
  • squirming u-turns on proxy voting in the Commons
  • free school meals in England,
  • the NHS visa surcharge
  • dodgy NHS appp
  • face masks in shops
  • face masks in schools
  • England’s exam fiasco
  • England’s national lockdown
  • extension of the furlough scheme
  • world beating track and trace
  • millions of tests every single day
  • operation moonshot to combat Covid

Those not Zipfish-ed up the back Smelt a Ratfish at being led by the Elephant Nose fish to Flounder as flotsam and jetsam on the seabed of international prosperity.  Given Clownfish’s reputation to not give a Dogger Bank about anything, his only Porpoise in life being himself, they Otter have known Betta over his promises of Sea Pie in the sky.

Now we’re in for a Cat and Dog fish fight because a Bighead Carp of a Prime Minister, the Blowfish PM, doesn’t give a Bombay Duck about a Dealfish.

The Chubsucker PM’s Loosejaw Minnows; Moray Eel, Douglas Ross; Parrot fish, Andrew Bowie; chief Toadfish and Hogsucker, Alister Jackfish, are in the Halibut of Swordfish propagandising straight off the John Dory party’s handbook, as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.

Barracuda done Betta cry the people of Scotland, ye Bass! And when the Britfish and Mudsucker Flounders on the iceberg of destiny the Sturgeon (or Salmond) of Scotland will lead us Herring back to tell the EU we’ve Haddock enough of Batfish Englandshire and leave them Abalone to all their racist, supremacist Pollocks.

So Dab your eyes and open the Dory to a Brill Goldfish Plaice in the sea of opportunity that’s lapping at our shores.  

Dec 7, 2020

The Land Beastie Record set in Scotland – but wait…

The pretty coastal town of Stonehaven on Scotland’s northeast coast is home to the oldest known creature to live on land. Or is it?

At only a centimetre in length the beastie, a millipede, created a real rumpus in the world of palaeontology when she or he came to light in 2003. Cocooned within layers of sandstone for about 428 million years the millipede earned fame at long last when amateur palaeologist Mike Newman from Kemnay, not a million miles away from Stonehaven, cracked open a piece of crumbling cliff rock at Stonehaven’s Cowie beach.  

A series of spiracles or air holes along the creature’s body showed that this tiny beast had breathed air and so could live entirely on land and was not partly dependent for survival on water. Up until 2003 land creatures were thought 20 million years younger than the millipede.

We can give the millipede a name – pneumodesmus newman; pneumo meaning breath or air in Greek, desmus meaning millipede and newman meaning the bus driver from Kemnay.

The creature not only had breathing holes for the exchange of gases but long slender legs to run along the land and so was documented as the earliest arthropod with a tracheal (breathing) system.

Skatie shore at Stonehaven

Now rocks are old in Scotland. At Stonehaven, or rather the place that would be appropriately known as Stonehaven, can be found an impressive mixture of rock types because the town lies on the edge of the Highland Fault Line that separates Highland from Lowland Scotland and the conjunction of igneous rocks such as granites produced by molten rock during the earlier years of a volatile earth and eras from where we get sedimentary stone, such as Old Red Sandstone and the mudstone at Skatie shore, which are built up layer by layer. The result is an area enriched by diversity of rock types with stone from one age emerging through breaches in another.  

In young newman the millipede’s day tropical Scotland lay much farther south of where it is now, close to the Equator, part of an area known as Laurentia. Laurentia went on to tear apart  -a fragment incorporated into North America, another travelled north to form Greenland’s land mass and another south east of this to create Scotland. Scotland on the equator was prone to flooding, an attribute Stonehaven carried into the new independent Scottish land mass, and the moist conditions were perfect for the development of life forms – bacteria and possibly viruses, which we are all too familiar with today.

Whatever age newman the millipede is she/he is a youngster in comparison with the age of earth, thought to be in the region of 4.5 billion years old. Much more recently, a mere 2.4 billion years ago,  a series of chemical processes resulted in increased quantities of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere which eventually led to life emerging from the swamps and onto terra firma.  Modern day versions of some of earth’s early wet life such as jellyfish and sea anemones are very visible on Stonehaven’s beaches. Wind the geological clock forward to 540 million years ago when the first animals with backbones emerged – eel-like creatures – and in time critters slipped out of the water and onto the land. Newman’s millipede pretty much had the beach at Stonehaven to her/himself for hundreds of millions of years before humans sauntered onto these shores.

And there the story ends. But wait –

In 2017 a palaeontologist in Texas had the audacity to dispute newman the millipede’s age claiming it to be younger by a whopping 10 million years. The American insisted the oldest found oxygen breathing animal dates from 437 million years ago and is a scorpion from – take a guess — the USA. This rubbishing of newman the millipede’s position in the world has been disputed by other palaeontologists who have poured scorn on the Texan’s claims and say there is no evidence her scorpion ever lived on land. It also emerges that the rock professor from Texas previously raised professionals’ eyebrows with her assertion that earlier generations of palaeontologists all got it wrong over how the Himalayas were formed 55 million years ago.

So, is newman the millipede’s position as the oldest found land living beastie still tenable? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions folks.

Nov 29, 2020

Rona, Scotland’s lost island

‘Far on old Ocean’s utmost region cast,

One lonely isle o’erlooks the boundless waste;

Dropt like a rock amid’ the Herrid’ train;

Around it swells the wind, and roars the main.’

John Ogilvie, Rona a Poem   (1777)

The natural world permeated every aspect of the lives of the island people who took their names from the sky, rainbows and clouds.

Rona – an island so remote it has been largely absent from maps of the British Isles. There are more than 900 islands in Scotland so one more or less doesn’t make much difference to the total but that’s no reason to pretend it doesn’t exist – especially as it was the farthest off part of the British Isles ever inhabited.  

A speck in the Atlantic Ocean, the island of Rona (Rònaigh in Gaelic, hraun-øy in Old Norse) all of a mile long and half-mile broad at its widest point lies 71 kilometres (44 miles) northwest of Cape Wrath and similar distance north northeast of the Butt of Lewis is best known for its vast seal population and varied bird life inhabiting the island’s cliffs that soar up to 500 feet.

I don’t know why people chose to live on Rona. Probably most didn’t. We do know that in recent centuries Rona, a lump of grassy rock surrounded by thunderous seas and treacherous to land on from boat, formed part of the glebe belonging to church ministers of Barvas on the Isle of Lewis; bet that cheered him knowing part of the land that was to provide his food was the distant and mysterious island accessible only by good fortune during brief favourable conditions for a human foot beneath the lofty and slippery  cliffs.

When game minister Daniel Morison risked all to visit his distant holding he encountered a warm welcome from the natives:

‘God save you, pilgrim, you are heartily welcome here; for we have had repeated apparitions of your person among us (as in Highlanders’ second sight) and we heartily congratulate your arrival in this out remote country’

– all spoken in Gaelic, this being the language of the west of Scotland. The minister was persuaded to turn to the sun so he might receive the peoples’ blessing for devout as they were they venerated the powerful influences of nature – as those at the mercy of the elements tend to do. Demonstrating their reputation for hospitality each of the five island families killed and flayed a sheep; the skins so expertly removed they formed sacks into which was poured generous amounts of the unique white barley meal grown on Rona for the minister to take home with him.

The Reverend Morison was shown the chapel dedicated to St Ronan, an eighth century Irish missionary turned hermit who had settled on the island. His little Christian oratory disintegrated over time but a chapel next to it was built by later islanders and this well cared-for chapel was used for the natives’ own religious services. A ten-foot plank of wood which formed a rustic altar was punched with holes every foot or so and into each hole was placed a stone which symbolised matters of importance to the community such as the safety of women during childbirth. According to legend whenever a man of the island died his spade and shovel were placed in the chapel and overnight a location for his grave would be marked out on the lush grass on top of the island.

There is not a great deal known about the isolated people of Rona and the little that has emerged is mostly vague over the timing of events but some details have been recorded. For instance we know there were times when life was strictly organised – down to determining the maximum size of the population. In such a precarious environments it is hardly surprising to find controls of this kind to preserve the collective. We know that in the 1600s the community comprised five families each consisting of six members so that once the maximum number of 30 islanders was reached any additional children born that could not make up losses among the other families were removed by boat in summertime and taken to Lewis to live. Each family was allotted a piece of land to farm by lazy-beds (ridge and furrow method of crop production), a barn, cattle-house and storehouse as well as a dwelling-house.

Buildings were built of gathered stone and dug into the ground to resist prevailing storm-force winds so that roofs protruded only about two feet above ground level. On these went a layer of turf and over this thatch, possibly tied down and secured with boulders to prevent the lot being blown away by the frequent gale force winds. Exposed walls were protected with more turf, packed tightly about them. Being mainly underground buildings were entered by crawling or stooping along low, dark and narrow passages which led into low and smoky chambers where turf fires burned (smoke finding its way out through holes in the turf roof.) The subterranean houses would have resembled fish smoke houses with even fish present – being strung between walls to dry and preserve them with birds possibly dried this way too although being surrounded by salty sea water brine was used to preserve the likes of puffin flesh for periods when fresh food supplies were scant.

Clothing was scarce in the hand-to-mouth existence on Rona and visitors to the island noted a lack of blankets for bedding although they were seen used as body coverings for women and children – virtually all they had for this purpose. Beds were equally spartan. No heather or straw beds here only a layer of ashes from the turf fires spread on the floor of dwellings. You might imagine feathers were used for comfort and insulation but I haven’t found any mention they were. Feathers might have been too important as goods to barter with mariners or pay rent to the chief on Lewis. Under the clan system, the chief’s tacksman from Barvas collected feathers as well as wool from the folk of Rona – 8 stone of feathers was provided annually to him by each of the island’s families; mainly plucked from the island’s gannet population. While wool was a valuable asset to the chief, the flesh of the sheep, its mutton, was left for the natives to eat. There is no doubt the folk of Rona lived at the extreme end of impoverishment with money playing no part in their existence.

Following a tragedy, more of this later, the island became temporarily depopulated before a shepherd and his family were put there to live and work – he as an indentured servant to spend 8 years on Rona. Similar to the lot of earlier inhabitants the family were fairly well fed, surrounded as they were by fish and fowl and sheep, of course, but again they had virtually no clothing to speak of (certainly not his wife and young child.) The shepherd received no money payment during his indentured years only cloth and this not sufficient for all the family. Neither was the shepherd allowed a boat to fish off the island, possibly in case he tried to escape or as the Scottish doctor, geologist and commentator John MacCulloch (the man who introduced the word malaria into the English language) suggested, tongue in cheek, ‘it could only offer the poor man a temptation to drown himself.’ Our shepherd was permitted to fish for coal fish from the rocks for its oil was used to fuel simple lamps.  As there was no peat on Rona turf was burned in fires for heating houses and cooking. Without matches the house fire had to be kept going or else Rona’s populations were in big trouble.

Poor as they were, and few places in the world could demonstrate people poorer, the natives of Rona did in the main appear to have reasonable amounts of food to eat – oats, barley, mutton, milk, cheese and occasional meat as well as fish, birds and eggs. Water came out of pools dug to collect rain water.

All that said Rona’s population were vulnerable – to the weather certainly but at least it was usually possible to develop ways of coping with extreme weather. Invasion was a whole other problem. About the year 1686 black rats scuttled ashore from a ship wrecked on Rona’s rocks. The native islanders had no means of defending themselves against a voracious fast-breeding rat population and soon their stores of food were consumed by them. One by one the islanders died of starvation and eventually so, too, did the rats.

It was not only four-legged rats that invaded and helped themselves to the peoples’ food supplies. Mariners on vessels sailing the Atlantic were prone to take advantage of the peaceful folk and steal their provisions. On one recorded occasion the island’s only bull was removed by a group of sailors to provide them with meat on their voyage causing the island’s cows to stop giving milk and once again the people stranded on their island became vulnerable to hunger and starvation, especially when no supplies were forthcoming from Lewis.

Before the days of indentured slavery when Rona’s population was largely determined by its own rules men from the five families would take to the sea to fish. But the waters around Rona are seldom benign and about ten years after the rat invasion most or all the men from a new community on the island were lost when their fishing boat capsized. This led to their families eventually abandoning Rona because of the difficulties of sustaining life there without their menfolk and the island was later used for sheep grazing and inhabitants restricted to shepherds and their families.

The last of these shepherds to live on Rona was Donald Macleod in the mid-19th century but two other men, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, turned up there from Lewis – whether as a punishment or to escape censure in their own community I don’t know but they both died there before the next Lewis boat sailed to the island a few months later. During the Great War German sailors were sent ashore to shoot Rona’s sheep and carry the carcasses back to their U-boat for food.

On the eve of the next world war English ecologist F. Fraser Darling and his wife, Bobbie, spent time on this speck in the North Atlantic and his book Island Years is how I learnt about Rona. In it is a reminder to those not familiar with the west of Scotland that the weather here is not always malevolent but summers can be hot and dry, as he and Bobbie experienced on Rona in 1938. His book is mainly concerned with the seal and bird populations but he does refer to Rona’s earlier settlers  who lived in harmony with the natural world and who experienced life at its harshest, marooned as they were in the middle of an ocean on an island expunged by the compilers of maps and largely unheard-of by the rest of the world.

John MacCulloch, The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, 1824.

John Ogilvie, Rona a Poem, 1777.

F. Fraser Darling, Island Years, 1940. 

Sep 4, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Final self-isolation diary, week 24

 I’ve decided to close my self-isolation diary after this one because I feel so much has changed, and not changed, over past months and the diary is getting stale. We are also moving on in our lives and so I’ll be preoccupied for some time.

Way back on the 24th March we had just embarked on what was anticipated would be a few short weeks of self-isolation. Six months later we’re not exactly isolating in the same way or with the same intensity but our lives have been turned upside down and normal back then is abnormal today. I wrote then of my final visit to my hairdresser the previous day. I miss our chats as well as having turned into Rapunzel in the meantime but I’m still  disinclined to get my hair cut. It can wait.

 We did our ‘final’ shop in the village in March. I remember it as an anxious experience with the threat of Covid hanging in the air like some 19th century miasma.  We haven’t been back! Shopping for us now is confined to online deliveries. Following a sticky start due to pressure of numbers companies have learnt to cope with vastly increased demand and not driving to the shops has saved us a fortune in petrol. With so little reason to leave the house other than for exercise which we do locally there’s been very little reason to run the car so yet more savings.

 Back at the start of all of this we were both displaying symptoms of something – sore throats and coughs – but nothing developed and we both got better. Was this Covid? We have wondered ever since.

Harvesting the barley, buzzard flying, swallows on power lines, our Aberdeenshire, roe deer in the barley

We’re still reading the Saturday edition of the Financial Times online and I print out their crosswords every Friday or Saturday. It’s not so easy reading online and I read less of the paper but my husband reads massive amounts of it as the sub means we have access to the daily editions, too. Drawback is we no longer have any newspapers in the house for all those jobs old newspapers were used for such as putting down a piece of biscuit or chocolate for the cat if he catches us eating our evening square – well we are from Presbyterian backgrounds so one square is sufficient per day.

 The garden has been a godsend for us. We’ve grown our vegetables and eaten most of them. Tatties are just about ready now. Most of the gherkins, courgettes, broad beans, runner beans have been eaten. Still got lots of salad stuff in the greenhouse and dependable chard provides our daily green helping. Blackcurrants, rasps, strawberries have come and gone. The cherries are never available to us as the birds take them. Blueberries ripening now and with fewer plums on the tree they are a good size this year. Apples coming in abundance and a few pears but that’s a sign of autumn and every day we are out with shears and secateurs trying to control the jungle.

Politically things have changed. March saw the four nations of the UK working together, after a fashion, to deal with Covid. Since then there have been different policies emerging because the pandemic has highlighted that what works for London doesn’t necessarily work for Belfast or Edinburgh or Cardiff.

 Boris Johnson in March was seen as a dilettante fool. Now in September he’s proved himself to be a bone-idle fool.  Nicola Sturgeon has grown as a stateswoman demonstrating her hands-on approach to government and ability to stay on top of her health brief during Coronavirus. Ask Johnson a question about it and he’ll divert attention from the fact he knows nothing but squawk  Trump-like about how FANTASTIC his government is in coping with the pandemic when the evidence shows otherwise.

 September and Covid is still very much with as we hurtle towards winter with the depressing prospect of flu epidemics on top of Coronavirus. It’s hard to see how this won’t mean a return to much tighter restrictions on our behaviour once more. Not that everyone has been modifying their behaviour given the spikes in the spread of the virus in some parts.

 Here in the back of beyond we’re still not venturing too far from the old homestead but we can observe activities are far greater than they were a few short weeks ago. Plenty companies are still complaining the economy isn’t opening up fast enough but I’d rather be guided by Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leach on modes of behaviour than travel firms and airport chiefs driven by what’s in the best interests of their industries – especially a certain vociferous Scottish travel company that drove someone we know up the wall trying to get them to reimburse almost £1000 for a holiday the company cancelled at the start of the pandemic. They weren’t too proactive then. We haven’t seen her since then so don’t know if they ever paid her back. I can’t get myself to sympathise with travel companies and airport managers pushing for more air travel in light of Covid and global warming. It’s as though they live in a bubble where health and well-being are counted only in terms of cash not the nation’s health.

 On the topic of health what’s been a pleasure of late is walking our local highways and byways to the accompaniment of the rustling of broom pods, like water trickling over rocks, as the seed pods burst open distributing their seeds. And that wee roe deer has been back bounding through the barley field again, like Theresa May only cute and not at all dangerous. I should have my camera ready when going along that way to get a half-decent photo but I never do and so the results are dismal. Talking of dismal photographs, the heron flew up from one of the burns right over my head as I struggled to take my camera out of my pocket. I did eventually get a picture but it was of a flying M disappearing into the distance so deleted it. Herons and horses always remind me of dinosaurs which makes them magical in a deep-rooted kind of way, having that link with the earth’s distant (near) beginnings.

 Our house martins are still with us. Frantically feeding so can’t be long before they say their goodbyes. So many of them proving what a fine summer we’ve had here in northeast Scotland. Had some feedback on whether or not martins, swifts and swallows perch on power lines because I’d mentioned seeing one or other of them last time. I checked up and swallows do, so there are plenty of them round here, not swifts and I don’t know about martins. Swallow they were then strung out along the wires.

Graceful clematis and bold-as-brass marigolds

We haven’t settled into a new series on Netflix/Amazon Prime yet. Did have the unfortunate experience of sitting through a truly dreadful film, A Fall from Grace about a woman accused of murdering her husband. What was murdered was the film production. Surely the director has watched films but that wasn’t apparent in his messy and laughable handling of what could have been an interesting subject. The characters were transparent it was easy to work out the end right at the start. The acting was dodgy and the scene at the end where women walk out of a house is straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller while attempting to be empathetic. 

 Haven’t quite finished Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow yet, the psychology book that explains so much about how we think from automatic responses to more considered and logical ones, and the biases we’re largely unaware of when imagining we’re thinking rationally. Every time I try the experiments in it I fall into a trap. Which I still find funny.

 For those of you who’ve been reading this blog over the past six months thank you very much. I might return to self-isolation at some time but then again I might not. Latest book, much delayed publication because of Covid, is eventually coming out on 15 September, you might want to consider buying Aberdeen At Work

 Stay safe and for this sort of blog, that’s  all  folks. 

 

Aug 28, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 23

Boris Johnson was on holiday this week. Don’t know why he thought that was appropriate. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since he comes across as a guy who does virtually no work anyway – getting others to do it for him. He was in Scotland – allegedly, although some people thought he might have posed beside a tent in Scotland then flew off to Greece or vice versa. Who cares. He shouldn’t have been on holiday in the first place during this terrible pandemic. The British prime minister is a man whose moral compass, if he ever possessed one, broke a very long time ago.

See that badger! Domestic crisis last week meant we forgot to take in the bird feeders one night and, of course, by morning the stand inside its very heavy plant pot lay on their sides. The peanut feeder was later found empty and abandoned elsewhere in the garden – a virtually full container of nuts having gone down the badger’s or badgers’ gullet(s.) Both stand and pot were tumbled again the following night by Brutus the Badger but as no feeders had been left on it there would have been disappointment at Tubby Badger Set that night. Angry words have been targeted at the badger.

Last time I was wondering if the house martins, swallows and swifts flew south as early as August because ours seemed to have scarpered. Someone got in touch to confirm they did.  Days later we spotted about 30 – 40 swallows, swifts, martins strung out along power lines near us. A fine sight. As for our own martins they do seem to have abandoned their Scottish homes until next year but we still see a number take to the skies in the evenings.

We’ve missed out pheasants. Not so long ago lots were coming across to the garden to feed but then they all disappeared apart from an odd sighting. One day this week a scruffy young male with a bad leg turned up. He fairly hirples, poor thing. At least there’s plenty for him to eat once he makes it here from wherever he’s from.   

The woodpeckers have also returned. They are such handsome birds we get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing them. And there’s been a magpie. At one time magpies were breeding close-by and were frequently stopping off in the garden. We’ve even had on occasions a brown and white one but all vanished until I noticed a single one under the bark-peeling acer earlier this week.

Weather has taken a turn for the worse. We in northeast Scotland have enjoyed a lovely summer with lots of bright sunny and warm days and the recent cloudy skies and cool temperatures are disappointing but at least we haven’t experienced the torrential rain that is constant in many parts of the west of Scotland. Don’t go off with the impression it hasn’t rained for we’ve had some downpours but not joined together like western areas get them. With the onset of cooler conditions comes the impression of autumn’s approach – aided and abetted by summer flowers fading and dropping off. Gardening has altered with the weather and back-end of summer so that lots and lots of industrial levels of pruning are happening – in most cases not carried out by me but my trusty husband.

Still going strong is the chard crop. One of the most reliable, tasty and easy vegetables to grow it’s used just about every day by us, one way or another. Until recently ours escaped the unwanted attentions of snails and slugs but our mollusc fellow-gardeners are now chomping their way through our crop. They’ve been warned so they know the consequences of their actions. Broad beans are a welcome addition to home-grown produce as well. We don’t have many plants this year so the freezer won’t be packed with them but we do appreciate those that we have.  Broad beans are one of the most undervalued of vegetables.

The last of the gooseberries have been picked but there are still blackcurrants unbelievably. They are bigger than ever now, presumably having had longer to mature. We must have collected around 3 tons so far.

Last year was a poor one for apples with us – the previous year having produced big crops. This year is another bumper one but several branches on our trees are collapsing under the weight of fruit. What we need are clothes line stretchers to hoist them back up and keep them from breaking entirely. Husband heavily pruned a cooker, Lane’s Prince Albert, which produces muckle-sized delicious apples. The tree grows at a fearful rate and so he topped it but several young apples came off during the operation. Made an apple tart with one or two which has lasted us four days. A slice with a side helping of coconut yogurt or Swedish glace vanilla ice cream is just what the doctor ordered (my husband being a doctor – of the philosophy kind.)

It was my turn for chairing the family virtual quiz so I selected questions for their quirkiness and stuff Scottish. Most were difficult, I admit. Far too difficult for me were it not for having benefit of the answers. All that said our grandson won by a huge margin so he is officially hailed as a genius in addition to being extremely handsome and charming.

Dark – what can I say?  It is extraordinary how it demands total concentration so that it is virtually impossible to divert eyes from the screen while watching it. Characters come and go, the same characters over different periods of time, with most managing to pick up scratches and smudges on their faces as they travel between the 2050s and the 1880s. If you have access to Netflix watch it.

Bedtime reading is currently Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a fascinating look at how our brains respond to events, questions etc through initial responses to slower more in-depth consideration. It’s written with humour and is crammed with examples for readers to try for themselves – raising a smile and some head scratching. Here’s an example of some of the exercises:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Scroll to the end for the answer. Oh, this is the end. Most people immediately answer 10c.  Before thinking about it more closely. The answer is 5c. Another nice one consists of two words –

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 27, 2020

Break the Chains of Empire: nationalism and independence

The British Empire lasted some 300 years; about the same length of time that the United Kingdom has existed. The British Empire has gone. It is time the remnants of colonialism within the UK were also relegated to the past.

Good morning, Scotland. What is it you want?

Please, sir, I want some more.

What! More!

Yes, sir. I want more.

There is disbelief all round.

You already have devolution. What more could you want?

Independence, sir. I want my independence.

Independence? What nonsense is this? Not everyone can be independent. If everyone was independent nobody would appreciate it.

That’s not fair, sir. I want to be independent.  

Want! Want! It’s not your place to want! You’ll take what you’re given. Who ever heard of such a thing! There are people who make the rules and people whose duty it is to follow our rules. You are the latter. People who want, don’t deserve independence. And that’s the end of it.

The meaning of empire

The British Empire began as the English Empire although it adopted the name British before the Act of Union. England’s imperial expansion began in the 1500s, enabled by its aggressive navy expanded to break into the slave trade. Union in 1707 was sought by England primarily to remove potential support by Scotland for England’s enemy, France – henceforth Edinburgh was denied decision-making powers over foreign affairs and so has that remained. That the Union gave England control over Scottish trade was an additional, if secondary benefit. The Union of 1707 was not set up to benefit Scotland but to protect England politically and economically. And there was no whiff of democracy anywhere about the agreement struck between a few monied interests in Scotland and England’s parliament.

The Union of 1707 colonised Scotland in much the same way England then the United Kingdom colonised other parts of the world over three hundred years. As with its other colonies the Union parliament never envisaged equality between its heart, in London, and authorities in the peripheral parts of its empire. Power lay with London and there it would remain. That was the intention and nothing changed over three hundred years. Devolution of powers has not altered the conception of hierarchy and subordination within the United Kingdom. Within the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are subordinates which are not provided with the same levers of power provided to England.  

The idea the United Kingdom represents equality between the four nations is a chimera. Power lies with Westminster and in Westminster Scotland’s representatives are outnumbered 10:1. There has never been a time Scotland has been able to influence decisions in Westminster. And there never will be a time Scotland will be able to influence decisions made in Westminster, nor will Northern Ireland and Wales ever be placed on an equal footing with England.  

United does not mean equal

Like empires throughout history which have risen and declined so has the British Empire. Empires establish themselves when in a position to wield power against weaker nations and can crumble when their dictum of might is right is questioned by the powerless within their dominions.  

When under threat empires tighten their grip on the reins of power through brutality, corruption and threat. Opposition is condemned as treachery – anti-patriotic. In the case of the United Kingdom, loyalty means Britishness and Britishness has always been largely based on Englishness.

Not only does Scotland have no power whatsoever at the heart of England’s rump empire, the United Kingdom, for most of the past 300 years of its existence Scotland has scarcely been considered. Similarly with Wales and Northern Ireland – their representation at Westminster is as tokenistic as Scotland’s. Influence they have none. The populations in the three peripheral areas of the England’s rump empire are demeaned, patronised and the butt of humour as demonstrated in national ‘pet-names’- the equivalent of the racist term ‘boy’ in farther-flung parts of the empire – Scots are Jocks; Irish are Paddies; Welsh are Taffies. Jocks, Paddies and Taffies are invariably depicted as lacking sophistication, feckless, mean, chippy, grievance monkeys – ungrateful for the protection the ‘broad shoulders’ of the empire/UK affords them.  Empires evolve cultural myths. Given the hierarchical nature of empires it is the interests and culture of the dominant state that come to embody them.  Cultural values of the peripheries are defined as archaic curiosities and sources of derision and humour which tend to be abandoned in favour of those of the dominant power.  

Faced with ingratitude/challenge from within the peripheral nations the dominant power tends to act more aggressively. Troops might be sent in/ stationed in the troublesome periphery. We see this across the world and within the Union the population of Scotland was threatened and subdued by General Wade’s army in the 18th century. Empires might impose control through more sophisticated means such as installing bureaucracies into peripheral areas for greater control in parts far away from the centre of power. A recent example of this type of imperious incursion is Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, embedding Westminster-rule into the heart of Scotland in defiance of devolution and meant as a visible reminder to Scotland of who really is in charge; and it is not the Scottish people or their own parliament. 

It is an observation often made that the farther away populations are from the centre of power the less the centre represents their interests. Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth House may be a recognition of this but given that Scotland has never figured in its consideration of what is best for the Union as opposed to what suits south-east England it is more likely this hub is the equivalent of General Wade’s force – intimidation and reminder that authority rests with London.

Where threats to empire exist but are less threatening to the dominant power degrees of autonomy are sometimes used to diminish calls for independence. This gives an impression of a benevolent centre of power willingly sharing responsibilities but powers transferred are an illusion for the centre of empire retains the ability to withdraw those same powers whenever it decides. Remember the Union like any empire is a hierarchy in which ultimate authority is retained by the dominant nation; democracy is limited to partial self-government in peripheral areas. Democracy under the Union favours England’s needs and ambitions above those of other parts of the UK through the makeup of the Houses of Parliament and chain of command of government based in London.    

India was the British Empire’s greatest source of wealth. Britain’s ransacking of it began when England set up the East India Company in 1599 and by the 1700s Britain was imposing taxes on India. By stealth greater and greater controls were imposed until eventually Britain ruled India directly, governing it with a rod of iron and keeping the ‘peace’ through a policy of divide-and-rule in which divisions between Hindus and Muslims were encouraged.  A period known as the British Raj, notorious for luxury and moral decay lasted from 1858 to 1947. This was rule from London to benefit London, the heart of empire. Rarely were native authorities and peoples consulted on any matter. When the British prime minister declared war against Germany in 1939, the announcement was made without consultation with Indian ministers although India was expected to provide millions of troops and provisions for the war effort. High-handed, disrespectful, racist and xenophobic – qualities demonstrated by the British Empire.

Sick of centuries of exploitation by the racist empire, Indians demanded self-determination instead of being administered by London. In London this was regarded as outrageous ingratitude. Lord Linlithgow, the Empire’s man-in-charge in India at the time, a staunch British unionist, threatened India by further inflaming the very internal divisions that London had so adeptly used in the past to keep India in its place. He and London were implicated in the deaths of millions from famine in Bengal in 1943 because of Britain’s policy of destroying food supplies and requisitioning of boats and other means of transport that prevented the movement of goods and food within India. Ruthless and heartless government by Westminster encouraged support for the Quit India movement that demanded an end to British rule. It’s spokesman Mahatma Gandhi said,   

“I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.”

The Empire struck back. Gandhi and fellow Indian Congress members were arrested and imprisoned. Press censorship intended to silence the independence movement and the Empire’s human rights abuses could not happen now with social media but then lies spread about India’s independence movement were fed to a lackey press.  

There are different forms of nationalism just as there are different forms of democracy in the world. Empires exist to benefit a tiny portion of their populations. When people grow sick of being oppressed for the benefit of the few at the heart of empire they try to change the political structure to better reflect their interests and needs. Empires by their nature are parasitic, sucking the life-blood out of the peripheral areas they govern. So nationalist movements emerge offering hope in the shape of government that will take more cognisance of the desires of the affected people. John Maclean the great socialist advocated Scottish nationalism as the path to socialism and a better world for Scots.  

As more Indians saw through the desperate dirty tricks employed by the British Empire so the clamour for independence grew – for India to govern itself in its own interests, not those of the Empire/UK. The Empire/UK struck out – 1,000 Indians were killed during protests and movement leaders imprisoned (Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, died in jail.)  The Empire/UK lost the people’s respect. Once that has gone it is a matter of time before any empire falls. For 300 years India had been subjugated by the British Empire/UK. Soon, Pakistan, too became independent.

The British Empire was once the alpha power and London the alpha capital. This is no longer the case. The Empire created through violence and threat declined because of its arrogance, corruption, xenophobia and disrespect for its peripheral areas. Yes, it was Scots who largely ran the British Empire. It has been said this was because Scots were better educated than in other parts of the UK. Perhaps there is truth in that. It may also have been because educated ambitious Scots had few career opportunities available to them within Scotland because of how Scotland’s infrastructure was run down so that the majority of high-powered jobs were created/preserved for the centre of UK power, London, and Etonian Oxbridge friends of friends in the capital. That Scots participated to a high degree in the British Empire is neither here nor there. Scotland as a nation was as much a victim of the imperial motivations of London as other peripheral parts of the Empire. And while other colonies have won their independence, Scotland remains trapped in a Union founded on inequality.

The British Empire’s decline left behind a debtor United Kingdom, pressurised by the USA because of world war debt to open up access to its international markets. The rump of Empire/UK that remains – the union of the UK – still exhibits the predatory characteristics shared by all empires. They are ingrained in it. The alpha power lashes out whenever its authority is challenged. Whereas India and other former Empire nations were subjected to brutal repression in response to their demands for independence Scotland it is supposed will be subjected to a thrashing by propagandists for the UK. Threats of disaster and failure; of ingratitude have been and will increasingly be made.

Empires resist their loss of power. The mythical hand of friendship extended from the centre of empire to the peripheries is always in the end a fist. Threats escalate as an empire defends its authority. The UK built on violence and threats will die issuing still more threats meant to undermine confidence in the subordinate nation’s future success.

But as India proved, lying and threats, corruption and moral decay, far from saving a venal order leads to its demise. Once people stop believing the indoctrination; once they see it for what it is propaganda concocted to preserve inequalities of the Union/empire they have won – by realising they are the means of changing the world.