February 8, 2016

Francis Godolphin Osborne Stuart of Braemar

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1870s F.G.O. Stuart photograph of the House of Commons

One of Britain’s most prolific postcard photographers was Francis Godolphin Osbourne (sometimes Osborne) Stuart, who for obvious reasons went by the name F.G. O. Stuart.

Unlikely as it might seem Francis Godolphin Osbourne was born in or around Braemar, in October 1843 into the family of a gamekeeper on the Mar estate which goes some way to explain the child’s name. The father did, however, or perhaps it was the mother, have the sense to omit D’Arcy (which might have created issues for a young laddie in the Highland village) for it appears the boy was named after the Duke of Leeds then currently renting the Mar estate from its owner the Duke of Fife.  Neither of their seats of close proximity to Braemar.

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Seaweed hut

Francis was born at the time men  such as his father’s employer were throwing local people out of their homes and off their farms to create deer forests so they and their friends could indulge in the gentlemanly sport of hunting … for what was the point of owning large tracts of land if not to use it as one’s plaything?

By 1872 100,000 acres of deer forest had been created in the district and the glen people surely disabused of any notion that the land they worked and which had sustained their folk for centuries might belong to them in any way.

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Photograph image of a painting of the flotilla at Southampton meeting General Booth of the Salvation Army

Local sheep and cattle farmers and their families were put out, cleared out of houses, communities scattered so deer and the laird’s sheep might graze the muirs instead. The numbers forced out were considerable though you would be hard-pressed to believe that now for little evidence of destroyed settlements, clachans that once rang to the voices of their inhabitants, remain even as rickles of stanes – places on maps and on the tongues of a few remind us where people lived. Braemar and Inverey were all that survived of any size as sporting activities ousted the rest in the interests of restricting hunting and fishing for rich men’s pastimes instead of providing food for hungry bellies.

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Adams photograph of the Duke of Gordon Statue in the Castlegate, Aberdeen

Young Francis left home to find work in Aberdeen, as a cabinet maker and photographer with Andrew Adams, photographer of Rettie’s Court.  Adams ran one of several photographic studios in Aberdeen, George Washington Wilson’s being  the most famous. However A. Adams also had a good reputation as a portrait photographer and many went to his photographic rooms to have their pictures taken. It is likely Francis’ carpentry involved making the bulky wooden cases which housed early cameras.

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The Temple Bar, London            F.G.O. Stuart

In 1872 Francis was living and working in London and a decade later he settled in Southampton where he established a thriving photography business mostly based on photographing townscapes and village scenes around the south of England. By the turn of the 20th century he was a prolific producer of postcards.   

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There’s no doubt Stuart had an excellent eye for composition and it’s little wonder his images proved so popular. He used an excellent German printer, Carl Gottlieb Röder of Leipzig, a music publisher and printer and the first to successfully use lithographic printing for his musical scores, to produce high quality images though you won’t always find the German printer’s mark on cards for many were removed, presumably for political reasons. 219-201310816240_original

Stuart, who was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, carried out all kinds of photographic work, including portraiture and his pictures were used in travel guides. During World War One  he became an official war office photographer recording damage to Southampton docks.  Of course by this time he had dropped his German printer for an English one of poorer quality.

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A colour tinted version of Stuart’s photograph of the Titanic

The world had changed by the time of Stuart’s death in 1923 – in some ways. Fewer people send postcards increasingly preferring to take their own on smart phones instead but the muirs around Braemar remain empty and the landed estates still reign supreme.

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January 17, 2016

Belhaven, a Toady and King Billy the Orange: a saunter through the agricultural revolution

Some Early Scottish Agricultural writers 

Lord Belhaven’s pamphlet, The Country Man’s Rudiments, or An Advice to the Farmers of East Lothian how to labour and manure their grounds (1699) must be in with a shout for longest title ever. This so embarrassed Belhaven he published it anonymously.

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But let us start with another famous name.

Sir Archibald Napier is mostly known for his associations: his father was the illustrious mathematician, physicist and astronomer, John Napier, who invented logarithms and an early calculator known as Napier’s bones; his wife, Margaret Graham, was a sister of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose – the Covenanter leader who turned. Archibald himself was a judge and politician at the time of the Union of Crowns and he was among the coterie who accompanied James VI to England to be crowned king of England and Ireland.  

The Napiers’ estate was Merchiston at Edinburgh and Archibald thought he understood enough about agriculture to offer advice to others in the shape of an early publication on husbandry. Essentially his message was to dose cultivated land with common salt. It is not clear why he came to this view and it is doubtful anyone who worked the land would be persuaded to try this out but it did impress King James VI. Now I know little about James other than he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and went on to become king in England and Ireland as well as Scotland at which point he was demoted from VI to I, oh, and that he was too lazy to get off his horse to take a pee. But so impressed was he with Archie he awarded him a 21-year patent to liberally sprinkle salt from one end of Scotland to the other.   

Scottish agriculture is not what it used to be, and if Napier’s practice is anything to go by then it’s just as well. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries life was mostly lived locally, apart from men called away to fight to defend someone’s else’s argument, and food was what you produced within your communities. Nowadays much less importance is placed upon agriculture within Britain – far less than elsewhere in Europe. That said there are parts of Scotland where agriculture still dominates the landscape and is vital to local and national economies: Aberdeenshire, Galloway and Orkney for example.

Back in Napier’s time there were the beginnings of agricultural ‘improvements’. Improvements is a loaded term I know which benefit some and are detrimental to others. Scotland adapted more slowly to new methods of farming than England and parts of the Continent but once she caught up Scottish improvers transformed how land was worked, how it looked and the relationship of rural dwellers with it; some of the best agricultural innovators in Britain coming from this part of the country.

Scotland, as we know, is hugely varied when it comes to how land is owned and worked with major differences between the Lowlands and the Highlands; partly as a consequence of the terrain and partly from the inheritance of the organisation of land where Highland estates were changed irrevocably following the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century when land confiscation was rife and and clan relationships destroyed.  

Times were transforming in other ways with the industrialisation of Britain establishing new ways of living; becoming dependent of earning a wage to buy food instead of growing it being one obvious change.

And for those who didn’t move to town to find work in one of the new manufactories how they engaged with the land altered, how they were housed, how they were paid as well as what was grown on the land.    

The number of printed works promoting new methods of farming increased from the 16th century, at first often written by owners of land, such as Napier, but in successive centuries others developed the confidence to air their opinions.   

An early writer was Thomas Tusser who gave us Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie in 1599. I would have thought one hundred ideas might have sufficed to get farming off to quite a good start and, well, five hundred seems a little excessive. Given there are only 365 days in the average year it would take a farmer one whole year to get through a mere 73%  of his suggestions, assuming he or she was adopting one per day, by which time it would be time to start back at number 1.  

Few Scottish farmers fell for his multiplicity of advice but Tusser proved a bit of a hit in England’s shires and his book went on to become a best-seller in South Britain. Tusser is also remembered (or Googleable) for coining the adage: A fool and his money are soon parted – whether that was a comment on those who bought his book or not we can only imagine.

Proving far more popular back in Bonnie Scotland was advice from John Reid, a gardener to Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, by Avoch (for all you non-Gaelic types Avoch is pronounced Och). Reid’s book admittedly was on gardening but he included observations and suggestions on growing crops so its inclusion it justified. Reid’s book became so popular it was reprinted in many editions following the initial 1683 print-run.

Just squeezing into my list is a guide by anonymous from Aberdeen who in 1684 published a directory of annual fairs and weekly markets (faires and weekly mercats) across Scotland – and I wish I had a copy of it.  

A trickle of advice grew into a veritable torrent of publications, each offering instructions on everything from the best way to feed the infield -as much manure as can be fitted onto a muckle graip seems to sum that up – to using the outfield to grow flax and hemp which was essential for homespun fabrics and later for commercial textile production  (I have an ancient mortcloth spun from home-grown Black Isle flax and home woven by my greeeeeaaaatttt-something Granny -obviously surplus to requirements).  Of developing importance in this world where eating flesh was a rarity for the majority was the rearing and raising of cattle and sheep, for food, leather and wool and much else besides.

Back to manure for a moment. James Donaldson, another laird’s son, published his Husbandry Anatomised, or, an Enquiry into the present manner of Toiling and Manuring the Ground in Scotland in 1697. It was possibly written as a money-spinner for, despite being a laird’s son (or perhaps because he was the scion of a laird) James was no horny-handed toiler of the soil and his instructions were of very little use to those who were. When that sunk in and the book failed to establish his reputation, one that would do him any good, Donaldson thought he would become a merchant only to discover that trade was not what he’d imagined either so he offered himself up to the army of a King always referred to as William III – although in Scotland he was William II, running a poor second to William the Lion of the 12th/13th centuries – and he never gets demoted, unlike James the pee-er. Anyway, William was king of just about everywhere as well as oranges and lemons and he was evidently tight because he didn’t pay Donaldson who eventually said sod this and made off, followed by his considerable debts and his creditors.

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Just think about this for a moment. King Billy II and III was forgetful about paying his soldiers, certainly Donaldson who ended up owing money to folk who provided him with food and other stuff and was therefore in debt. Donaldson’s debt came about, partly because he wrote a bad book on agriculture but also because King Billy didn’t pay him. Yet no-one hounded King Billy the Freeloader for not paying his debts, they were only interested in pursuing Donaldson (and other Donaldsons). Debts, you see, become less of a crime the greater your status.

Don’t feel too much pity for Donaldson just yet. When he returned from abroad he penned another book on farming based on what he observed on his travels across the Continent and nauseatingly dedicated this publication to the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, Patrick, Earl of Marchmont and ‘the whole Remnant Lords of His Majesties most Honourable Privy Council.’

His gross toadying made no difference. The book, as they say, bombed … as did his poetry… but that’s another story. However it would be wrong to dismiss his work entirely for Donaldson did strongly advise manuring the infield – the one-third of land nearest the house that was best cultivated – and rotating its crops of oats, barley or bere and peas. As for the farther off ground, the outfield, he recommended resting fifty percent of it for two consecutive years to recover from cultivating oats on its less enriched soil.  

Other helpful ideas Donaldson discovered abroad included providing shelter for beasts (now often lacking in Scotland with wire fences replacing stone dykes) during bad weather and enriching the land with marl, seaweed (sea-ware) and lime as well as promoting the planting of the new vegetable called potatoes and specialist grasses and clover for grazing and replenishing exhausted soil.

And good lad that he was, he criticised the Scottish habit of weaning lambs at around four week so farmers could get more milk from ewes for cheese-making, and which he claimed led to high numbers of deaths among lambs. Donaldson was spot-on too in criticising short leases for tenant farmers who then had no incentive to improve their fields as any improvements they made would be enjoyed by the next tenant in line.

I haven’t forgotten about Belhaven, it’s a name that lives on, if for different reasons.

Belhaven had, as a member of the Scottish Privy Council (this is before all that Union malarkey) had been one of a group of prominent men who asked King William the Orange to run Scotland and he joined the Orange King’s army but it appears any time was too long in the company of the old fruit and Belhaven became ‘a passionate opponent of the Union’ who could see where that small clique of prominent Scotsmen, the Squadrone Volante, who forced through the Union against popular opinion were leading their country – to obscurity and foreign taxation. Such was his passion, they (the new Great British state) arrested him for expressing his opposition to the Union and hauled him off to London where he was treated so abominably, it’s said under pressure from members of the Privy Council, that he died in July 1708 aged 51.

His legacy was a powerful, if futile stand, in defence of Scotland’s continuing independence and a successful book on husbandry which went into several editions. He reiterated the need for land to be fed to support annual crops and advocated cultivating turnips, as animal fodder, and the potato. Belhaven was also concerned over tenant farmer poverty and debt – suggesting rents should be paid partly in kind, with grain as they were traditionally, but partly with money for as he explained a laird might take all or nearly all the crop during a bad growing season leaving the tenant and his family to starve.  

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William Mackintosh was 10 years old in 1672 when he travelled from Borlum in Inverness-shire to study at King’s College, Aberdeen’s first university. He would go on to tour the Continent and England, eventually returning to Scotland, to Alvie near Aviemore, where he took over a farm and incensed his neighbours by experimenting with enclosures – closing off pieces of land into separate fields as opposed to the traditional open areas of infield and outfield through which animals could roam and graze on growing crops. The hedges he planted to divide up his fields were ripped out and the banks he built for the same purpose were broken down by angry locals who wanted to retain old and familiar ways of farming.

At the Jacobite rising of 1715 Mackintosh, as their Brigadier-General,  raised a company of  Mackintosh clansmen  which occupied Inverness for a time before heading south by foot and sail to take Leith. From there they continued into England, rendezvousing with English Jacobites at the Border and onward to Preston. Captured, Mackintosh was taken to London and imprisoned in Newgate goal from where six-months later he and some fellow-prisoners overpowered their jailers and escaped. A £1000 bounty, something around quarter of a million pounds today, was put on his head but Mackintosh made it to France, along with his son. Within a few years he was desperate to return to Scotland but still outlawed he was forced to keep on the move for government forces were ruthless in tracking down and silencing opposition. Mackintosh was captured in Caithness and locked up in Edinburgh Castle where he remained until his death, many years later, at the age of eighty in 1743.

But what about his book you are asking .  An Essay on the Ways and Means of Inclosing, Fallowing, Plant, &c, Scotland, and that in sixteen years at Farthest, by a Lover of His Country was published in 1729 while Mackintosh was a prisoner in Edinburgh. In it he encouraged farmers to leave some land fallow before re-sowing it and he favoured growing wheat instead of the bere which was commonly grown in Scotland for its quick growth that required only a short season to mature. He too supported cultivating flax and hemp.

 Mackintosh also supported extending tenancy leases, to 19 years in his view, to encourage better use of land and appealed for an end to tenant farmers being forced to work their laird’s fields which took them away from tending their own land. And, of course, Mackintosh promoted enclosing fields, separating stock from arable farming.

Adam Dickson, kirk minister at Whittingham, East Lothian thought he would add his penny’s worth to the farming debate and published a series of essays on the subject. His Treatise of Husbandry specified differences between farming in Scotland and elsewhere, with reference to the country’s climate and soil conditions. Dickson’s works took a more modern approach to land improvements,  more scientific than anecdotal.

Land-holding and social relationships on the land affected the development of agriculture in Scotland. The early 18th century was a period when the British state confiscated estates owned by Jacobite supporters of the ’15 and ’45. Following the 1715 Rising a commission of Scots and English was set-up to manage these properties and very quickly most of them were flogged off to a dodgy bunch of land speculators who went by the name of York Buildings Company for £411,000 and thereafter to the highest bidder. 

Mistakes were learned from that episode and following the ’45, land grabbed by the government and crown was managed entirely by Scots who were more sensitive to the complex relationships of tenants and their exiled lairds. As a result affordable rents were set, schools were built and local industries were introduced.

When, in 1784, estates were restored to some of their owners the terms were not ungenerous although the estates commissioners continued to take revenue out of these estates to fund expensive projects such as the Forth and Clyde Canal, the building of Register House in Edinburgh and a payment of £3000 to the Highland Society.

The agricultural revolution transformed food production in Scotland and as a consequence our relationship with land. Land-holding in Scotland is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century and what Scotland needs is another revolution – over the ownership of Scotland’s land.  As for professional advice to Scotland’s farmers it still comes in printed form and over the past three hundred years a myriad of farming societies, some local others national. Over the past century guidance has come through the Rowett and Macaulay Institutes in Aberdeen and the Scottish College of Agriculture, now called something else and regrettably not the institution it was once but indicative of the reduced importance of agriculture in Scotland.

January 12, 2016

Burning the Clavie to bring in the old Scots New Year

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Today the 12th of January is New Year’s Day for those still celebrating festivals according to the old Gregorian calendar, so Happy New Year.

In keeping with pre-Christian practices, determined by lunar cycles, celebrations for a new year began with the rising of the moon on the previous evening; hence Hogmanay the evening before New Year’s Day.

New Year was traditionally welcomed in with fire, revered over millennia for its mystical powers to drive out evil and bring good fortune for the forthcoming year. In Scotland this led to the custom of offering a piece of coal when first-footing friends and family (smouldering peat or timber would have been the origins of that).

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Hogmanays would once have seen bonfires light up skies all around Scotland – as communities came together in the hope their fire ritual might drive out evil at times when life was precarious with famines and epidemics a continuing threat.

One or two fire festivals remain across Scotland such as Stonehaven’s fireball procession which takes place on 31 December. The end of December became New Year’s Eve once the Julian calendar replaced the Gregorian calendar, officially in 1752 although in Scotland January 1st had been adopted as New Year as early as 1600 for some practices, presumably because of pressures from the Reformation. However it is clear that the Reformation failed to eliminate the popularity of many cultural rituals for in 1704 a law had to be passed outlawing fire festivals for being superstitious and idolatrous.

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The burning of the Clavie at Burghead in Moray was revived and celebrates the old Scots New Year in dramatic fashion. 

The Clavie consists of a split barrel (herring replaced by whisky possibly) nailed together by a large nail (clavum), habitually rescued from the ashes for use the next Hogmanay. (The term Clavie might derive, if not from the Latin clavum, from the Gaelic for fire-basket, cliabh.) The barrel which is secured to a pole is packed with wood and tar and set alight before being carried through the streets of Burghead by the Clavie King and his Crew who distribute smouldering pieces of the fire to householders for burning in their own grates to fend off evil spirits.

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The procession makes its way up Doories Hill to the spot Celtic Druids held their fire ceremonies and the fiery barrel is placed in a fire-holder to burn down with more flaming barrels adding to the spectacle.

The Monday following old New Year’s Day used to be known as Handsel or Hansel day when small gifts were given. Older folk in Aberdeen still hansel a new purse with a coin, to ensure no bad fortune befalls the recipient.

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Very many thanks to Richard Pelling for allowing me to use his very atmospheric photographs of last night’s Clavie burning.

December 30, 2015

From Silver City to the Golden Screen: Scotty Brown

 

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When Scotty Brown went to Hollywood in the 1920s he might have been seeking fame and fortune but he went out as a golfer and it was as a golf pro he was most active in those early years it would seem, teaching the game to Hollywood actors and actresses.

He was involved in an early talkie called Follow Thru from Paramount Pictures; a golfing musical with jazzy numbers and lots of pretty faces based on a stage production.

Brown’s own acting career came to a shuddering halt when he got tongue-tied in a scene with Claude Rains but in which film I haven’t been able to find out.

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It’s very hard to discover anything much about Scotty during those early years but when the golf and the acting dried up he turned to creating a film distribution business. On the wall of his office hung a banner which read There’ll always be an England, aye and Scotland too.

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His film business with its 2000 plus movies was popular with Hollywood’s motion picture stars who liked nothing more than an evening in watching movies. “That’s why you don’t see them so often at Ciro’s or Mocambo,” he said, “they’re home watching motion pictures.” (Ciro’s  and Mocambo’s were nightclubs on Sunset Strip favoured by movie stars.)

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Hollywood stars are known to be demanding and thought nothing of phoning Scotty Brown in the middle of the night looking for a film or part for their projectors. Frank Morgan (Francis Wuppermann), the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, was one of his demanding customers. John Wayne was another, once calling Scotty at three in the morning for help in repairing his film projector – “Scotty, the darn projector won’t turn over,” he shouted into the phone.

Many actors’ homes had screens in various rooms, including bathrooms, as well as, of course, outdoors by their swimming pools. Cary Grant was one star with a bathroom cum film theatre.

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Jackie Coogan and Bette Davis

Stars appetite for films was virtually insatiable: on occasions Dick Haymes (singer, actor – There’s No Business Like Show Business) watched four films overnight while Jackie Coogan (the kid in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) and Donald O’Connor (Singing in the Rain, Ragtime) watched a dozen over one weekend. Bing Crosby was another enthusiastic customer but Brown’s biggest film addict appeared to have been Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello) who had six projectors at home. Apparently when Mickey Rooney and his second wife split up all Rooney wanted to take away from the marriage was his projector and film collection.

Westerns were the most popular films in Hollywood with John Ford’s Stage Coach the most popular movie of all, and anything starring Cary Grant.  Grant, himself, preferred to watch Buster Crabbe (Tarzan and Flash Gordon) and Johnny Mack Brown (Gunsmoke) but he also loved westerns, watching several each week.

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Scotty took the Queen Mary home to Scotland in 1949 on a trip which mixed business with pleasure – visiting family in Aberdeen and Partick and purchasing a quantity of 16mm films for distribution back in America.

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Roy Rogers gave Scotty Brown three solid gold figurines of his horse Trigger, with detachable saddles, and Scotty took models of these with him to Scotland in 1949 which he presented to the children of Aberdeen and Glasgow. I have no idea which organisations accepted Scotty Brown’s gifts but does anyone know where these Triggers are now?

December 24, 2015

Tonley House, the Jacobite Major and the Roman Antiquarian

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Tonley House is little more now than a rickle o stanes. What’s left standing, not much, hints at the once grand Scottish baronial residence and estate of around 5000 acres belonging to the Moir-Byres family.

When Robert Byres was accidently drowned in Dublin Bay his widow,  Jean Sandilands from Cotton, at Aberdeen, bought the Tonley estate c.1716 and moved in with her young family.

There were two pretty illustrious Byres: Patrick and James.

Patrick Byres was an ardent Jacobite and Major in the Tonley company of Stoneywood’s Aberdeen Regiment, raised by his brother-in-law Moir of Stoneywood in support of the ’45 Rising which ended at the Battle of Culloden. More of the Moirs later.

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Patrick survived the slaughter on the muirs of Culloden (pronounced Cullawden not CullUden), evading death and capture he escaped back to Aberdeenshire where he hid in Cluny Castle until able to escape to France where he joined the Royal Scotch regiment led by Cameron of Locheil.

The Byres family lived on the Continent for as long as Patrick was a wanted man in the period the British Crown and government were taking their bloodthirsty revenge on the people of the Highlands, laying down Draconian laws to further subjugate Scots, destroying property and confiscating land. Tonley escaped that fate through subterfuge, well lies, over Patrick’s identity. Friends of his persuaded the government’s agents that the Byres on their list of wanted men was Peter Byres whilst the owner of Tonley was Patrick and in time Patrick judged it safe to return to the Vale of Alford. His family motto was Marte suo tutus – Safe in his own prowess – and so it proved.

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Patrick’s son James had attended drawing classes as a child in Aberdeen and when the family fled to the Continent he continued his education there, becoming a member of the academy of artists, Accademia di San Luca, in Rome – as an architect; architectural drawings exist of his for rebuilding King’s College in Aberdeen. He also designed a mausoleum for Castle Fraser. As a painter he was largely a landscapist and portraitist and a copy he made of Jameson’s Dr Dun which hangs in Aberdeen Town House.

James became an antiquarian and art dealer during his forty years in Rome and it was to him the wealthy young of Britain and America went to for instruction when taking in the Grand Tour as part of their education.

For all the times I came across mentions of these Grand Tours I never did come on the name James Byres which is surprising since I was studying at Aberdeen University and he was a local loon fa did weel.

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Among those he instructed and conducted around Italy’s classical and Renaissance masterpieces was the historian Edward Gibbon. In fact Byres knew everyone who mattered in the world of academia and the arts. It was Byres who secured the early Roman Portland vase for his friend Sir William Hamilton which became so influential in the development of Wedgwood china.  

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Byres was hugely respected for his erudition and encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts and built up am extensive collection of paintings and sculptures several of which he took back with him to Tonley in 1790 to live out his remaining thirty years of his life post-retirement, dying at home on 3 Sept 1817.

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This very good portrait of his sister Isabella Byres, Mrs Robert Sandilands, by Pompeo Batoni was owned by James Byres and hung at his house in Rome and afterwards Tonley.

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James himself is second from the left next to his sister in this group portrait by Franciszek Smuglevicz. Byres’ parents are the couple in the centre and a colleague on the right.

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This oval round portrait of James Byres in Rome was painted by Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

How do the Moirs fit in? you’re asking.

Robert Byres who drowned in Dublin Bay and Jean Sandilands, his widow who bought Tonley in 1718, were the parents of the aforesaid Patrick Byres, also known as Peter, who was born on 13 May 1713.  Twenty-year old Patrick married the daughter of James Moir of Stoneywood.

James Moir’s older brother Charles, a shipmaster in Aberdeen, fought alongside Patrick for Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and like Patrick went into hiding afterwards.

Moir is a good old Aberdeen name though its provenance is lost in time. For any not familiar with the name it is pronounced Moyr. In the many disputed versions of the name’s derivation one suggestion is it is an adaption of the Gaelic mhor meaning big and it’s as good as any since Moir is said to mean mighty one.

The Byres are thought to have come here from Hungary – by way of France in the company or thereabouts of Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Interestingly there is a place called Guise at Tough which features in a bothy ballad – The Guise o’ Tough (Tough pronounced Tooch or Tyooch as in loch not Tuff and definitely not Took).

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Back to the Moirs. A Kenneth Moir accompanied Lord James Douglas (the Good Sir James) c. 1330 to Spain when he carried with him the heart of Robert the Bruce inside the Monymusk Reliquary.

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Monymusk is a stone’s throw from the estate of Tonley and the Reliquary or Brechbennoch, is an ancient yew, silver and bronze casket decorated with Pictish-worked animals and red enamel. It was given to the monks of Arbroath by King William the Lion as a good luck charm on the battlefield and was carried on a leather halter around the neck of its keeper, the deoradh (giving us the name Dewar) …and so it was at Bannockburn when Bruce’s army secured victory in 1314.

Kenneth Moir, while in Spain, killed and beheaded three Moors on the battlefield hence the Moir family coat-of-arms featuring three Moor heads dripping blood.

At some point the intermarrying of Moirs and Byres led to the two names being adopted as Moir-Byres.

There were lots of Moirs and Byres and some Byres lost fortunes investing in Darien, when the English state sought to and succeeded in closing down international trade with Scotland so ensuring the failure of the enterprise but enough of that, back to Tonley.

Tonley  or Kincraigie, was built in the 18thC and added to over time as a two-storey, grey granite mansion house with towers, turrets, corbels and corbiesteps.  Aberdeen architect John Smith had a hand in it, as had A. Marshall Mackenzie. The lost interiors included a panelled ceiling by Hay & Lyall of Aberdeen with pendent centres and the family motto of the Moir-Byres’ crests were depicted in high relief on the surrounding frieze.

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During the Second World War the house was used as a hostel for young women in the land army working on local farms. During a storm in January 1953 Tonley was destroyed by fire but by that time it was out of the hands of the Moir-Byres and has been left derelict. 

Tonley or Kincraigie – a farm of that name still remains, as does Tillymair and Tonley Mains, in the parish of Tough a few miles east of Alford but not, I think, the wonderfully named Acheynachie. (Although I have discovered a district of New York called Auchinachie)

Also survived is the estate’s former gardener’s cottage and walled garden, a little distance away to the south. The cottage, thought to have been designed by John Smith, is now a very fine house and the garden with its impressive course rubble wall is still home to some old varieties of apples and pears.

 

December 5, 2015

Sunset Song less Blawearie than Bladrearie

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The novel Sunset Song is a powerful, sensitive book, intelligent, evocative of rural life in north east Scotland before the First World War. It ends shockingly and brutally with a hint of the breakdown of a way of life and passage into a different one as the trilogy continues in the succeeding two volumes of A Scots’ Quair.

I was full of guarded anticipation before seeing the film, and trepidation. A native of north east Scotland, though not Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, I’ve seen my fair share of botched productions ostensibly set here but which make no effort to replicate the tongue nor sense of place.

From audiences in Aberdeen there were the inevitable complaints of they didn’t capture the accent. I agree but surely a small point? But they’re actors, it was said. Yes, indeed they are.

Sunset Song the film fairly missed a Billy Riddoch to instil depth and authenticity into it. The Doric, as lightly as Gibbon had included it, was absent. (I struggle to understand many American accents in films so I won’t take any lessons on Scots’ accents being any more difficult for international audiences.)

For many women in this part of the world we are Chris Guthrie. She is one of literature’s great heroines. Her family are small tenant farmers – not crofters as a reviewer in the Financial Times claimed. She was bright and ready to go on to train as a teacher before tragedy struck her family and as the daughter of the household was expected to give up her independence for domesticity. She is, therefore, trapped and the film director conveyed this through a series of interior scenes dark and shadowy with shafts of sunlight through a window or glint of fire or candlelight. But Chris was never wholly trapped for she lived through her imagination that was given free rein outdoors in the majestic and dramatic landscape of the Mearns – among the mysterious stone circles. Sadly there was no sense of this in the film which turned her world into a series of Dutch interiors with the delicate heroine flitting between rooms.

When Chris took over the farm the Director had her look back into the house as if stone walls signified her freedom. The real Chris Guthrie escaped onto the hills and into the fields to lie on land her father worked as had generations of men and women before him. People who hauled great boulders from the red, rich soil, who uprooted whin and broom and chopped down trees and wrocht the grun till oats and barley flourished. She knew when she lay down on heather or corn stubble scratching at her back with the peesies flying overhead that this was not a desert but land shaped by generations of farmers who were not only farmers for some were Jacobins who’d gather in Aberdeen to riot for liberty, equality and fraternity; Covenanters; Jacobites who fought with Charlie; men who attacked the English garrison at Dunnottar with Wallace; Picts that mapped the land and skies, who quarried and worked and arranged their circles of stones in ways magical and mysterious. This was Chris Guthrie’s inheritance and the very essence of the Chris was no pre-Raphaelite flimsy cut-out but a woman rooted in tradition whose back was strong from hard-work, not the pretty young thing who had daintily stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair onto alien soil.

Peter Mullan was a good brutish John Guthrie but he might have been John Guthrie a granite mason in Aberdeen (apart from the accent) for there wasn’t any sense he was part of that community of fellow tenant farmers, bothy billies, ploughmen and orra men – the majority of whom had lives constrained and ambitions dashed by poverty and exigency. We did see past the mere coarse brute to the former man and lover of the dead wife as he took her hand and kissed her and it was not a stretch to see the same strains that were later placed upon Ewan Tavendale when forced by social pressures to uproot himself from the life he knew and loved to fight in a war that meant nothing to him. In this episode he is transformed from the thoughtful young husband into a defeated victim who turns his anger and frustration onto his wife and child, and as with John Guthrie we see beyond the defensive shell both men built around themselves.

There was no sense of the northeast in the film; the land so beautiful, the skies so vast, the sea so shimmering, the cries and flutterings of the peesies. The folk of the northeast are couthy and friendly and acerbically humorous as they cut each and everyone down to size. Those powerful characters of Chae Strachan, a socialist and good friend of Chris’s, and Long Rob of the Mill who worshipped no particular religious or political god but had a good sense of himself – they were mere walk-on parts in the film. The ideals and radicalism woven into the book got scarce mention and without that so much of the novel’s impact is lost.

The setting for Sunset Song was quite particular. Life is not the same for people throughout Scotland never mind the United Kingdom. Sure we all have things in common but there are nuances of differences which are interesting and do matter. The Director is surely oblivious to this.

One scene set in a wee Presbyterian kirk looks good but the music, bad throughout the film (not just bad but really, really awful) was more high English church with its soaring choirs singing of ‘lembs’ and has absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish kirk and turned the scene into a farce. (The old kirks had no organs and the congregation followed a precentor  in unaccompanied psalm singing – the result was a wonderful ebb and flow of sound.) And why were the good farming folk of the Mearns walking through the barley to get to the kirk? Did they not have roads or tracks? Think they did. Just silly.

Films rarely live up to a good book and this one certainly doesn’t. Some will enjoy it for what it is – a pithy drama – but it isn’t Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, more Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm.

 

PS If only groundsman Willie had been the voice coach …

PPS I have read that Terence Davies regards this minor classic as ‘very badly written’. The arrogance of the man to take a fine piece of literature which as I say above he does not understand and destroy it in the eyes of many by making an inferior film and then criticise the book for being poor beggars belief. 

He said in the same interview he never watched the original film version – it shows Terence Davies. You should have  and then you might have learnt a thing or two – but for a man with an ego as huge as his he would probably have rejected this much superior version as much as Gibbon’s original work. 

Please Terence Davies do not attempt to film the remaining books in the trilogy – leave that for someone who knows what they are about.

 

October 28, 2015

The Ballad of the House of Lords – a parcel of rogues went down in their brogues

The Ballad of the House of Lords

lords

There are ladies and lords and people with swords

and one or two in riding boots

there are barons and earls and viscounts in pearls

concealed under Savile Row suits.

 

There are marquesses and dukes and other such sooks

who’ve dropped in by from the races

for there’s lunch to be had of pressed gammon and crab

to satisfy several gluttonous graces.

 

There’s Bordelaise sauce and tarragon concasse,

and slow cooked ox cheek for lunch

while somebody croaks another snorts coke

with more in the bar quaffing punch.

 

A parcel of rogues went down in their brogues

from Scotland to sponge off our taxes

Lord MacFlannel this and Lady MacPish

downing drams until both collapse(s).

 

There’s boozers and cruisers and downright losers

who’ll turn up to vote on all fours

and Lord Whip-me Quickly and Lady Most Thickly

high class whores and out and out bores

 

Lords Nanny-oh-Nanny let me lie on your fanny

and some that are down on their luck

bankers and wankers and judges who’re spankers

and some who’re just there for the… company.

 

Both jailbirds and crooks and those who’ve cooked the books

In their velvet silk they preen

they’re sad and they’re mad and invariably bad

as they sit on their arses serene.

 

On the woolsack they repose, stuffed with bodies of those

from the commonwealth exploited and oppressed

died creating the wealth accrued by British stealth

from people and lands repressed.

 

They’re gruesome and cant and hysterically camp

and they pay lip service to duty

but they snivel and flout as they mumble and pout

frightfully snooty while pocketing their booty.

 

With tax-free pay, £300 every day

if they choose to turn up for the fee

with expenses besides for air travel and rides

from France or the banks of the Dee.

 

Freeloaders and grovellers and democracy spoilers

who backscratch their way to the House

with brown envelopes or bribe they join a huge tribe

of 800 peers, each a louse.

 

There are city boy slickers some fur coat and nae knickers

there’s Lord Rent-a-Gob down from the north

and Ladies who’ll do benders in stockings and suspenders

whose value is all in their girth.

 

We’ve a bootlicking bunch that scheme during lunch

of lavender shortbread and cream

they’re all pals and they’re cronies and out and out phonies

all cogs in this corrupt regime.

 

The crawlers and creeps and Uriah Heeps

that dominate this Other Place

the sycophants and leeches, Church of England preachers

attendees of this House with the mace.

 

Those winkers and nudgers and out and out fudgers

who’ve no business making laws by rights

putting on airs and graces they mix in high places

with Dames and doddering old Knights.

 

They snigger and incite as they straighten their tights

the cross-benchers that is in their hose

and they squat in their jackets that were tailored by Hacketts

crowing that’s no skin off my nose.

 

For they’re pampered and rich and often quite kitsch

these Peers in their rabbit skin cloaks

more suitably goat rather than stoat

that’s wrapped around these pompous old soaks.

 

Scarlet, white and gold they gather so bold

a mob more hideous than most

and they smirk and they wink and they horribly stink

of sewers and all things gross.

 

Lady Oily, Lord Glib, Lord Bluster, Lady Fib

all revelling in their conceit

to shore up a regime of autocratic extreme

to screw every man in the street. (and woman)

 

Lord Toff to Lord Swell said it’s all very well

for other to criticise us at our game

but we’re magnates and lairds not politically impaired

tho’ we haven’t a vote to our name.

 

There are nawabs and sheikhs and all sorts of cliques

that run countries without any fuss

what’s the problem with Britain so many are smitten

with real democracy in place of this bluff.

 

They check in Burke’s Peerage and generally forage

to find their names get a mention

for it’s gratifying to see Lords and Ladies Swan-ky

are doing their bit for the nation.

 

Lady Ladida and Lord Heehaw took the mace for a see-saw

connected not brainy you see

pedigree and good breeding can be so misleading

when deciding who gets in and succeeds.

 

So the time has come for us to generate a fuss

to demand that we drop this sham now

that the Lords needs amending instead it needs rendering

obsolete this old sacred cow.

lords 2

October 21, 2015

Aberdeen City Council is forging ahead with hugely unpopular development

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

new block

This nasty block development is being built on land the people of Aberdeen wanted as their civic square.

disappearing marischal

Some opposed to this audacious attack on the wishes of the people of Aberdeen have formed a Facebook page as the cranes work away at concealing this masterpiece of civic architecture. The following is from their pages.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor for Lower Deeside and Depute Leader of the Council and spokesperson for this development.

From Facebook

Marie Boulton – Where are the leases you promised would be signed before you built Marischal Square? We were told that there were 9 interested parties for the restaurants and bars. All Bar One and Lobster Roll have signed, but which others? How many offices are leased? They’re building now, so will you call a halt?

Everything, it seems, is up for sale by this nasty administration, including the 16th century Provost Skene’s House and city museum the public were told would not be touched. skenes
pand j
Jenny Laing is the Labour Party leader of the council perhaps some of you might ask her why she and her party insist on forging ahead with this appalling development.
October 18, 2015

Scotland’s First Oil Boom – the Greenland Whale

Greenland whaling

Scots seamen have been hunting down whales for goodness knows how long and commercially since the middle ages. Aberdeen’s association with whaling is chronicled from the 1750s but its activities are dwarfed by Scotland’s main whaling ports of Dundee and Peterhead. (Curiously and sadly our most significant whaling centres are not featured in the Great Tapestry of Scotland) .

In 1788 the brig Robert, under Captain Geary, sailed out of its home port of Peterhead heading north towards the inhospitable waters that flowed down from the Arctic and home to the great Greenland whales. The lure was precious whale oil and the great fortunes that might be made from it but Geary and his crew did not make their fortunes, not then, but when the good times did come, they came with interest. Their most lucrative year was 1799 when they returned to harbour laden down with 96 tons from 8 whales.

Peterhead Whaling Crew

Peterhead whaling crew

Notable northeast whalers were the Grays from Peterhead , Captain William Parker of the whaler Bon-Accord and Captain William Penny who skippered the first steam whaler out from Dundee (which did not endear him to his fellow traditional whalers who threatened to have him tarred and feathered). Penny was also ‘the first man to winter purposely in Davis Straits’. Greenlanders would normally sail early in spring and return late summer . Traditionally men leaving port would take a cut ribbon from their wives or sweethearts, both holding a half, and the men would knot them together and tie them to the mast where they would stay until the end of the trip.

Penny established a whaling station at Cumberland Sound, part of the Labrador Sea, an area rich in whales and seals. A native of Peterhead he was the son of a whale skipper and his life at sea began when he was 12 years old but despite his adventurous life Penny died in his own bed, at Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen. Many Greelanders were not so fortunate but Penny knew to quit while ahead, retiring as a relatively young man, to Aberdeen.

The Active leaving Dundee

In 1850 Penny led an expedition to find traces of the doomed Franklin expedition that had searched for the North West Passage. He found evidence of their winter quarters and three graves at Beechy Island but little else.

Captain Geary’s eventual successes encouraged other northeast seamen try their luck in the frozen seas off Greenland among them the crews of the Eliza Swan of Montrose and the Hercules and Layton from Aberdeen and the Jane.

On 11th August 1810 the Jane, under its Captain Jameson, scooped the largest cargo of whale oil ever landed in Aberdeen: 17 whales and 383 casks brim-full with oil. It emerged the Captain had captured so many whales he gave part of his catch away to another vessel.

The Jane’s success was commemorated in song:

We’ll gae into Jean MacKenzie’s,

And buy a pint o’ gin,

And drink it on the jetty

When the Jane comes in.

And in 1814, Peterhead whalers killed 163 whales which translated into a huge quantity of oil.

 Cutting up whale

Cutting up a whale onboard

The government paid bounties to the largest of the whaling vessels for it required the oil to lubricate the machinery in the manufactories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Whale oil was used also to light street lamps in an increasingly urbanised country, and later for soap and margarine. In addition to the valuable oil, whale baleen and the flesh were marketable too but for the government having relatively large numbers of men skilled in the toughest of conditions who could then be used to man the navy when required was an additional attraction of the industry. What better school than the treacherous seas around the Davis Straits?

Peterhead ship Hope was in receipt of bounties – a mighty £480 for every voyage she made on top of whatever else was taken for the oil and baleen sold. Baleen, the comb-like filter plates whales use for feeding on krill were eagerly sought-after for use in clothing, including corset ‘bones’ , for umbrella spokes and carriage springs and could fetch £2000 per ton.

Cutting up walruss tusks

Cutting up walruss tusks onboard

The rush for whale oil gave rise to a free-for-all with ships stalking whales and others stalking whaling vessels, to steal their catches. Many a Scottish whaler crew had to fend off privateers from France and Denmark in particular. The Elbe from Aberdeen was attacked on more than one occasion by pirates. The Latona, too, again from Aberdeen, found itself battling Danish pirates. On one occasion it took the intervention of a London whaler to drive off the determined privateer. Later the same year the ill-fated Latona was crushed on ice in the Davis Straits and sank within minutes.

Hope at Aberdeen 1873

Privateers, weather, ice, storms, icebergs, the perilous Arctic waters and the long months away from home made whaling a trying as well as a highly hazardous activity. Many lost their lives, their toes and fingers and their sanity while crewing these great wooden ships.

An average whaler had around 50 of a crew although some carried far more. Usually they were local men from whaling ports but northeast boats often dropped in by Orkney and Shetland on their northward journeys in hope of picking up some of these islands’ hardy and experienced boatmen, greatly valued for dealing with the hardships that lay ahead.

Eclipse of Peterhead

Whaling ships were notorious for their stench of oil and blood that could be smelled long before they returned to harbour and of course made them extremely slippery and dangerous for the crew. They were often painted black and white and had six or seven whaleboats suspended from the sides of the ship. When a whale was sighted the whaling boats were lowered and the lead harpoon man threw his harpoon with a rope attached at the whale. The barbs on the harpoon would attach to the whale’s body and grip tighter as the animal thrashed to free itself. Each boat would have men shoot harpoons at the whale until it was secured to several smaller boats. The danger for the men was if the whale dived below the surface and dragged them with it. Whales can swim at around 20 miles an hour so it was imperative not to be dragged away, too far away from the ship, especially in poor weather such as fog. Whales fought to free themselves but eventually, exhausted, the parties in the small boats would advance to pierce the mammal through its heart or lungs. This was a long process – maybe as long as 40 hours but a successful kill would end with the whale swimming around and around, like a dying fly spinning uncontrollably. This flurry was followed by the whale thrashing the water with its tail then with a final shudder it died and floated over onto its side. The captured dead whale was then towed back to the ship.(If the ship could be found again.)

By this time the small boats may have travelled a considerable distance and had to return to the ship towing the whale behind them. The whale was secured to the side of the ship while the crew flensed it – stripped off its blubber with knives and sharp spades. An average whale provided around 30tons of blubber. The blubber was cut into smaller chunks and stored in containers.

Harpoon gun

Harpoon Gun

In 1830, 19 out of the 91 British ships working the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay were sunk and 21 others returned home with nothing to show for risking their lives for half a year. Many that did make it back had suffered damage to their ships. Peterhead lost the Resolution and Hope that enjoyed so much success in previous years and all in all 1830 was a dismal year for Peterhead whalers.

In atrocious weather the Mazinthien was wrecked at South Bay, Peterhead on her way to the Davis Straits from Dundee in 1878. Its crew were only rescued by breeches buoy after many hours. The ship was eventually salvaged and returned to Dundee as a wreck.

 

Aberdeen’s whalers fared even worse, losing four from ten whalers: Alexander, Laetitia, Middleton and Princess of Wales while one came back with an empty hold the remainder took only 5 whales.

By the mid-1830s it was clear that whalers had largely destroyed their own industry through greed. In response Peterhead captains looked to sealing around Newfoundland and in that they created a lucrative industry out of one that was taken up to cover whaling losses. Sealskin was hugely popular especially the soft skins from very young cubs which were clubbed to death.

Dundee crews were said to be ‘fitba mad’ and made footballs from seal skins. Teams from different ships competed on the ice. On one occasion in 1875 a bunch of men from the Victor had gone well away from the ship so as not to disturb those who remained on board. In the middle of the game a polar bear emerged through the fog and was seen dribbling the ball. His human team-mates ran as fast as they were able across the ice and fought to climb the only ladder hanging down from the ship’s deck.

Such were the times the poor bear was shot dead.

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray

Into the 19th century there was a shift away from wooden to iron vessels and by the late 1850s steam was beginning to supplant sail. This did not please Peterhead Captain Gray who blamed the noise of steam engines for driving whales north out of reach rather than accepting the whale hunters were themselves to blame for the wholesale slaughter of too many whales. Later he did change his mind but placed blame on earlier generations of whalers for massacring immature whales before they could reproduce.

Mangled harpoons taken from a whale

Mangled harpoon arrows taken from a whale

Meanwhile Dundee shipbuilders Stephen eschewed iron for timber, designing a wooden barque-rigged screw steamer that proved highly effective navigating ice-strewn waters. Others copied the design, including the world’s leading clipper shipbuilder Alexander Hall & Co. of Aberdeen who, in 1867, built the Eclipse for Peterhead’s whaling dynasty the Grays.

The whale jaw bones arch was a the Footdee (Fittie) home of Alexander Hall the Aberdeen shipbuilder. There were many such arches in Aberdeen and across Scotland.

A second whaler ship named Hope followed, again for a Gray, Captain John Gray, brother of the Eclipse’s captain. These two ships dominated Peterhead whaling and sealing during the 1870s and ’80s but were still no match for the whaling fleets of Dundee.

Doyle diary 2 (1)

From Conan Doyle’s diary

It was on the whaler Hope that the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle sailed as a 20 year old medical student for the ship’s 6-month voyage to Greenland waters, under Captain Gray in 1880. As the ship’s surgeon Doyle was paid £2 – 10shillings per month and 3shillings a ton oil bonus.

Doyle diary 2 (2)

Pages from Conan Doyle’s diary

The Eclipse, too, had a famous passenger. Walter Livingstone-Learmonth was an Australian born to Scottish parents with a reputation as a ‘keen hunter’. Others might describe him as a butcher. His lust for shooting birds and animals took him aboard the Eclipse, to get to species he had so far not been able to kill. He and Captain Gray did not get on. He also sailed on the Dundee ship Maud from which he shot 26 walruses and seals and 4 polar bears.

polar bear

A proud Livingstone-Learmonth

The Eclipse was sold to the Norwegians and then on to the Russian navy who changed her name to Lomonessoi. She was sunk in 1927, raised and went on to become a research vessel in Siberian waters after that before being finally sunk in 1941 by the German Luftwaffe.

 flencing

Flensing a whale tied to the side of the ship

In 1901 the Hope was lost at Byron Island but the 194 on board were rescued. By this time the northeast whaling industry was all but finished although British whaling did not officially end until 1963.

The industry that had been battling decline found the Norwegians were predominant by the beginning of the 20th century. For the men from Aberdeen, Peterhead and Dundee the tide had turned on an occupation in which they risked their lives on a daily basis, sustained by the potential riches to be made from pursuit of the poor whale.

Where these men’s fathers and grandfathers had taken to treacherous waters in the frozen north to engage in a somewhat equal battle with the magnificent leviathan the whale hunters of the 20th century armed with explosive charges turned whale hunting into nothing short of slaughter.

 Tay Whale at John Woods yard 1884

Whale at John Woods yard, Dundee

 

 

October 4, 2015

Glenlivet – Battle for the Land

The Crown Estate is a diverse portfolio of UK buildings, shoreline, seabed, forestry, agriculture and common land that generates valuable revenue for the government every year

The Crown Estate is run from New Burlington Place, London, along the lines of a money-making enterprise from what is essentially nationalised land. The income from the Crown Estate feeds into the UK treasury. Efforts to have income from the Crown Estate in Scotland be used within Scotland have been rejected by governments in London. The largest of the Crown Estate holdings in Scotland is the Glenlivet Estate. Formerly the Crown Estate was known as Crown land.

The following is an article written by the journalist Peter Chambers in the early 1950s when the Crown land commissioners decided the crofting lands of Glenlivet would be turned into an area for forestry. There was no prior consultation with the people whose families had settled on, broken the back of the land and farmed it for generations. This is their story.

glenlivet farmland

Glenlivet – Battle for the land

One day last summer two strangers appeared in the remote Banffshire valley of Glenlivet. They came down over the hillside carrying a theodolite and a red and white ranging rod. They were quiet and unassuming men. They wore tweed suits.

In a quiet and unassuming manner they began pegging out the land.

Glenlivet folk are used to surveys – they live on a Crown estate. But the little white pegs made them nervous.

“What are they up to?” they murmured among themselves. “That is our grazing land.”

Then the secret came out – the secret that the Crown Commissioners had carefully kept from their Glenlivet tenants. The hill-sides were scheduled for afforestation. All the land beyond the surveyors’ peg was to be put under trees. Not five hundred thousand trees. Not five million trees. But forty million of them – a vast plantation of pine and fir and spruce, blanketing 20,000 acres of hill-grazing from Tomintoul to Ben Rinnes and from Glen Avon to the Ladder Hills.

The farmers in this area get the three-quarters of their income from sheep. For them, afforestation means the end.

In the centre of the area lies Glenlivet, a valley shaped like a Chianti bottle with the cork, the 1500 feet Bochel jammed at the base of the neck. A single narrow road skirts the Bochel and leads into the Braes of Glenlivet. The rolling, gentle country is like a little Shangri-La cradled among the mountains of Upper Banffshire. The valley floor is dotted with grey stone, single-storey farm houses.

Fat black cattle browse languidly in the sun. The oats are only just beginning to turn biscuit coloured (it is 800 feet above sea level). By using fertilisers and Swedish type seed the Braes farmers have advanced the harvesting time by nearly a month. They have not lost a crop to the frost in eight years. Before the war came, and Government subsidies, made fertilisers possible, they lost one crop in every two.

Sitting by the fireside in Charlie Grant’s farmhouse, Upper Clashmore (oil lamps, rural gas-cooker hot and cold running water in the bath) was eighty-one year old Elizabeth Macpherson. She tucked a strand of wispy white hair under her black bonnet and told me the history of the Macphersons of Glenlivet.

Her great-great-grandfather came to the Braes after the Forty-five, when many Catholic Highlanders took refuge in the glen from Cumberland’s vengeful armies. Macpherson cut his farm out of the virgin land at the head of the glen, damming up the burns to make the water spread and rot out the heather.

Wester Scalan the farm was called, and for over one hundred and fifty years Macphersons of four generations worked the land. To-day, the sheep are grazing where the Macphersons raised their corn, and the croft stands roofless a derelict in the foothills of Breac Leathad, like a monument to depopulation.

“I was one of eleven brothers and sisters,” said Elizabeth Macpherson. “Now I am the only Macpherson left on the Braes.”

glenlivet old woman

You pass a parish hall, a shop, a school, a church – and suddenly the road ends. You are in Chapeltown. Father Philips, whose manse is built on the east end of the church, has the cure of 120 souls. That is the entire population of the Braes.

Around the inside walls of the church, decorated green and blue and purple, hang the Stations of the Cross. They are exquisitely painted in the Italian manner. On the altar screen the image of Our Lady has the narrow, pointed face, gracia plena,of an early Sienese Madonna. In the window of the school (sixteen Braes children, fourteen orphans from the towns) there is a statue of Christ. At the west end of the church, where the crofters file in to attend Mass, there is another; and this statue is inscribed, “Come to me all ye who labour…”

The bus calls at Chapeltown once a week to take the young people to the Picture House in Dufftown. The Glen itself offers more social pleasures however. A pink poster advertises a Grand Dance in Glenlivet Public Hall, Friday 28th September. At the Tomintoul cattle-mart everybody was talking about the afforestation scheme.

“I heard this – ‘We’re leaving you some grazin’.’ And I said to him, The grazin’ you’re leavin’ me isna enough to keep six sheep alive. And he went red in the face because he kent it was true.

“I’ll tell you one reason why the estate isna payin’. Twenty years ago there was only the factor and a clerk to manage it. To-day there’s a factor, an under-factor, a clerk o’ works, a clerk and a typist – five o’ them for the same bit o’ ground.”

One hundred and seventy head of cattle were sold a Tomintoul that day. One hundred and fifty of them came from Glenlivet.

Mr Sandy Yule, thirty years a cattle auctioneer in the Northeast, said: “They’re the finest cattle in Scotland – bar none.”

We drove down the neck of the glen to Glenlivet Distillery – the oldest licensed distillery in the North of Scotland. The distillery employs thirty-five men, and at peak working periods produces 8,000 gallons a week of as a fine malt whisky as was poured down a Highlander’s throat.

At Drummin I met Captain J. Gordon Smith, Area Executive Chairman of the N.F.U., who was born at Lettoch on the Braes. Looming above the hen-coops in the backyard of Drummin farm is the thirteenth-century ruin of the Wolf of Badenoch’s castle.

“200,000 sheep, 2000 cattle – that’s what we sold out of the Glenlivet area last year.” Captain Smith told me.

But how many will they sell next year? At Drummin 90 acres of grazing have been pegged off for the forest.

map glenlivet

The Forestry Commission remain a poker-faced reserve on the Glenlivet question.

“The dispute is between the Crown Commissioners and their tenants – our part in the affair is purely technical. An acre of hill-grazing grows 7lbs of mutton a year.

“The same acre under trees will yield a yearly minimum average of forty cubic feet of timber. The choice is between 15/- worth of mutton and £6 worth of soft-wood, which Britain is having to buy abroad at inflated prices. From the economic point of view there is only one answer…”

The Glenlivet farmers will not accept that answer. They do not believe the Forestry Commission’s claim that the forest will employ ten men where one was employed before. They do not want to be foresters. They want to be farmers, because they have been farmers for generations for generations.

And they will fight for that right.

*********

I think we know how that story ended for the crofters.Forestry does very well at Glenlivet. Woodland planting to compensate for the carbon emissions from London’s Regent Street’s Christmas lights was undertaken a few years ago. The Crown Estate’s website explains that the old township of Altnaglander, close to the woodland of the same name, consists of ‘ruins and field systems.’ As well it might.

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