November 27, 2016

Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami

Guest post by Textor

Fidel is dead.
The Leader has gone. The tyrant has perished.
Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami.
And so the story goes on.

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To listen to the commentators and read the headlines it all comes across so easily. At best the consensus allows that Cuban health care was good, the spread of literacy and education in Fidel’s fifty years of power was good; but all done at a terrible cost. Physical violence by the secret police, suppression of dissent, lack of a free state, a cult of leadership and countless executions were all blights of such a magnitude that the gains pale into virtual insignificance. The revolt of the late 1950s might well have started from a high idealistic point, they say, the removal of Batista was needed but not at any cost. If decent moral men had only got together things could have been so different. This takes us to the nub of the problem, a liberal dilemma which centres on the sense that if only idealists and revolutionaries could be a bit more like “us” and allow a broad spectrum of opinion, a “free press”, political opposition etc. If only they would let people get on with their daily lives. Toleration they say is all that is required.

What the liberal spirit fails to answer is the question what is a state to do if in seeking to change fundamental political relations with both internal and external powers it comes up against deep-seated opposition which uses military and economic strength to stop change. Will openness to liberal values advance a cause? Will, as would have been the case in Cuba, having a “balanced” debate with greater financial powers of Batista and his backers be helpful? Or should the new proto-state not only arm itself against enemies but use extreme force to root out all who would destroy it? The same problem faced the French Revolution when reaction of the 1790s threatened to roll back gains. Was the “Terror” wrong, would it have been better if a re-born Ancien Regime had gained the upper hand, which we might speculate would have been equally bloody? And when the Bolsheviks instituted bloody force during the Civil War would it have been better for them to relinquish power or compromise with the Whites and the intervening powers, find a “middle way” with high moral values and respect for the individual? In situations of radical political change, where fundamental property and economic structures are being re-made is there really a half-way house, where we can all agree and no one is harmed or is this a lie which first obscures, then denies and finally reintroduces the injustices and inequalities of the regime under attack?

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What liberal opinion in the west fails to acknowledge is the extent to which its freedoms and material well-being have been and are dependent upon a bloody and brutal swathe cut across history. Yes there have been huge gains in material well-being in western societies but at what cost? Ignoring the impending global devastation of Climate Change the history of the modern material world (the surpluses necessary for capital accumulation) was generated via slavery, devastated urban and rural populations, famines, genocides and wars. But that, they say, was then, this is now. We know better. However, the comforts, now rapidly shrinking for millions, were born of this brutality and history marches on. High liberal values of the west have not stopped wars. Capital in its various forms ceaselessly searches the world for opportunity; labour is there to be exploited brutally or otherwise depending upon circumstances. Nation states arm themselves to the teeth to defend their interests. These, as well as the liberal values of the free press, right of political dissent are components which make up the worlds we inhabit.

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 Fairness will not carry the day. Can we expect economic power to be relinquished through a gentle Socratic dialogue? Was there no brutality marching on in 18th century France? Was the opposition of Louis XVI and his class simply based on a misunderstanding? And the Tsar if only he had sat round the table with moderate men in a convivial atmosphere then the Soviet regime, and even Hitler some say, would not have happened. Then Fidel, surely Batista with the backing of the USA could have shared a cigar, had a decent coffee and worked out a deal to make everybody happy.

What if?
What if history had not happened.
What if we could start before the Fall and have our Maker use a different Road Map.

November 14, 2016

Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)

 

Were the people willing to go?

Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

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Isle of Eigg

A recent discovery of an anchor believed to have belonged to a floating kirk that sailed around Ardnamurchan from the time of the Disruption  coincided with me reading about a floating manse from the same era.

When the Church of Scotland split in 1843 its breakaway congregations set themselves up as the Free Kirk.  When they tried to build their own churches they were often denied permission by lairds still attached to the Church of Scotland, men who governed the lives of those who lived on their land, and so worship was frequently carried out in the open air in all weathers in places they could not be chased off by landlords. However, Free Kirkers at Loch Sunart found money to have a ship built to sail the Western Isles so providing a watery kirk for the folk in the islands out of reach of controlling lairds. The anchor found is thought to have come from it.

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Towing the iron church into Loch Sunart

I don’t know how many such vessels were used in this way but loathe to let a coincidence pass by I was pressed to retell a little of what struck my ancestor, Hugh Miller, when he voyaged around the Inner Hebrides on a floating manse in 1858 – a journey recorded in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey.

Miller was a journalist, a newspaper editor, an evangelical Christian, a folklorist and an archaeologist. From Cromarty in the Black Isle he travelled around the Sound of Mull – to Rum and Eigg looking for fossils, the bloodstones of Rum included, and discovered more than a pile of old stones.

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Hugh Miller

The evangelical Christian was immensely moved by seeing the impact of the Clearances on these isles. He was, as a Highlander, familiar with the Clearances and, indeed, his own family had been cleared from their glens so he was sensitive to the evidence revealed by the land from some eighteen years earlier when nearly 400 men, women and children, virtually the entire population of Rum, were dragged out of their homes and shipped off to a foreign country leaving behind all they knew and loved.

Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs of Bosnian Croats and Muslims rightly aroused outrage at the end of the 20th century when people were thrown off their homeland because they were despised for having a different religion and culture from their oppressors. In Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries people were thrown out of their communities, off the land they worked, to make room for sheep and later deer in acts of economic cleansing that involved a wholesale disregard for them as human beings. Both these despicable acts involved the imposition of cruelty by one group upon another and enforced deportation.

As he stepped ashore on Rum (pron. room from the Gaelic now anglicised to sound like the spirit) from the floating manse, the Betsey, Miller noticed patches of green on the island’s hillsides – places once home to people for generations who had been summarily cleared out as if that was of no significance – “cleared off to the backwoods of America” as Miller phrased it. Several homes were razed to the ground in 1826  so the men, women and children dragged from them would not be able to live there anymore while others were left to fall down over time. Miller was struck,too, by the little patches of corn still growing where once farming had followed the seasons and provided food for islanders. He stared at abandoned cottages; homes that once rang out to the sounds of christenings, weddings and New Year celebrations – and the land about them where the peoples’ loved ones were buried.

“…it seems a bad policy,” Miller remarked, despite the chilling argument from economists at the time “that there are more than people enough in Scotland still.”

On population size being a determinant for clearances Miller commented –

“There are, I believe, more than enough in our workhouses, – more than enough on our pauper-rolls, – more than enough huddled up, disreputable , useless, and unhappy, in the miasmatic alleys and typhoid courts of our large towns, but I have yet to learn how arguments for local depopulation are to be drawn from facts such as these.”

Miller mentioned a solitary shepherd’s house standing at one end of the island where the shepherd and his wife lived-

“the sole representatives in the valley of a numerous population, long since expatriated to make way for a few flocks of sheep, but whose ranges of little fields may still be seen green”.

As the party that disembarked from The Betsey searched the hills for Rum’s renowned bloodstones they were spotted by island’s shepherd and soon he and his wife had clambered up, she carrying a “a vast bowl of milk, and he a basket of bread and cheese” out of kindness and hospitality.

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Isle of Rum

It struck Miller that the more remote places were the greater the hospitality – that is certainly true of friendliness among people in Scotland’s small villages where few would walk by another without a nod, smile or a hello.

Miller put it more eloquently –

“[that]…hospitality dwindles and disappears, like fruits in the thick of a wood; but where man is planted sparsely, it blossoms, and matures, like apples on a standard or espalier. It flourishes where the inn and the lodging-house cannot exist, and dies out where they thrive and multiply.”

The 400 souls of Rum were crammed on board ships, Highland Lad and, oh the irony, the Dove of Harmony  to Nova Scotia in Canada to begin their lives from scratch. They left behind their island, one sheep farmer and 8,000 sheep.

“All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep-farmer, and a few shepherds, his servants.”

Those who survived the shocking conditions and overcrowding on-board during often rough passages across the Atlantic had to find whatever way they could to house, feed and clothe themselves and families in unfamiliar territory while back in their homeland the sheep experiment to make money for the laird failed when the price of mutton plummeted. Rum was sold off – another piece of property, like the people who once lived there. At his time of writing Miller believed the new owner was an Englishman looking for an opportunity to make money by turning the island into a deer forest – a sporting estate to amuse wealthy gunmen from the mainland.

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Rum had been populated by human beings since the 8th millennium BC. It is surely understandable that succeeding generations of the island’s inhabitants regarded the island as theirs but others held a different perspective so the folk of Rum lost out to speculators investing in “wool and mutton” and then deer. Islanders were pawns in a bigger game that turned a once thriving island into a desert. Rum would be sold several times over in the search for  profit.

The island’s streams that once provided food for its people were found by Miller to be full of fish with no-one to take them. Rum’s former fishers not possessing fishing nets used to bunch heath roots together which they arranged in mounds across burns, securing them in place with boulders then one or two involved would walk downstream beating the water  and driving trout towards the dam where they would get caught up in the heather roots. The bigger fish were scooped out for food while the immature ones were returned to the burns.

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Isle of Eigg

The Betsey called in at the island of Eigg whose people were also evicted and shipped abroad and here Miller and his associates came upon the site of notorious mass murder that took place from an earlier time – remnants of civilisation: straw beds, human bones, household objects, the handle of a child’s wooden porringer (a bowl with a handle) with a hole through it to hang it to a wall, strands of grey hair.

One winter, possibly during the 16th century, members of the clan Macleod from Skye sailed to Eigg and having offended the native people, the Macdonalds,  the raiders were strapped to boats and pushed out into the sea. Following their rescue they plotted vengeance on the people of Eigg and returned to the island, well-armed, and so terrified the people they ran away and hid in a large narrow cave. The Macleods searched the island but not finding anyone they contented themselves with ransacking the islanders’ houses and were about to leave with their booty when one of them spotted a figure on the beach. They renewed their hunt and as this was in the winter-time a light fall of snow exposed the lookout’s footprints. The footsteps led to the mouth of the cave. Because the cave’s entrance was very narrow the Skye men were unable to enter it safely so they gathered heather and ferns and packed them into and around the entrance and set fire to them so that in time those hiding – the entire population of Eigg – elderly to babies were smothered to death by the smoke.

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Narrow-entranced cave where the population of Eigg took shelter and died

Sir Walter Scott raised money to provide Christian burials for these sad remains when he found out about the massacre.

Miller did discover samples of the bloodstones he was after on Rum – the hard stone once used to shape into tools and weapons by the island’s early settlers. The populations of Rum and Eigg survived centuries of hardship, Viking invasion, occupation by Scots but coarse, selfish, inhuman lairds finally destroyed civilisation on the islands.

Evidence to a government select committee on enforced emigration in 1827 recorded this question:

Were the people willing to go?
Answer:
Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

A witness to the deportation of the people of Rum recalled hearing plaintive echoing cries from aboard Atlantic-bound ships as their human cargo watched their homeland disappear from view forever.

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Preaching to a breakaway Free Kirk congregation at the seaside

Rum was sold to Nature Conservancy in 1957 as a nature reserve, now under the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.

November 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

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Lying at the hole’s lip the stonecutter marvelled at the works of men: he had after all spent his working life with granite and knew well what hard graft could achieve.

  Aye, it must hae teen a damned lot o explosives and muscle ti howk this ane oot.

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

  There’s jist something a bit different fae aa the places faar I’ve tyauved. There’s the rauchle aa roon, nae doot, bit the soonds, surely nae fit yi’d expeck? That’s nae steam craan wheezing as it heists steen, nae dreels and haimmers, and far’s the scraich o the blondin rope lowering the skip tae the fleer? I hear men richt aneuch, and aye it myndes me o yoking time wi a puckle chiels nae sae croose in the craa at haen ti ging back t’it, and ithers, resigned ti gettin on wi the jobbie in han; still an on it’s an unca sicht..

  His thoughts wandered off, seeking a firm foundation; bedrock of where and why. Back, back he went to his first day at work in the granite yard.

  Up and oot afore sax o’clock, I wannered doon the Gallowgate, and timorous as a moosie wis into Chairlie MacDonald’s Froghall Works (a queer like name it seemed ti me). Timid but prood, prood that I’d been gien a chance ti be a mason. MacDonald’s wis nae jist ony yaird Na, the wirks wis braw, lang boasting fine conditions even gaan as far as biggin sheds wi fower waas ti keep weet and snell wins oot. But that day wis fine and me a bauch-hertit loon faa kent nae muckle mair than fit a haimmer looked like.

  The foreman took me roon the wirks faar I expeck ti see mannies stannin, cutting and carving. I wis dumfoonert, hid I wannered into a dairk deevilish mull an nae a place of craft and skeel? On ae side o the shed a saa wis swingin back-an-fore, pechin at every lurch wi clarty watter pouring aneth the beast’s teeth. Jist ayont wis a thing like an airon brander fleein roon, wi sic a souch and mair clart (gie’n me a blink the foreman said it sang like Jenny Lind). Nae seener had I teen this in than my lugs caught the soond o a machine makkin a stoor, aneuch ti smoor a body: a dunter, a bauld thing that clouted granite sae hard that the steen surrendered.

  For the life o me I couldnae oonerstaan, faar were the steencutters? Telling me nae ti fash the gaffer said saas, polishers and dunters were needed as much as wis the man wi the haimmer and puncheon. But I wisnae there ti become a mere machineman I wis ti be a mason. And there, in the next shed, were the steencutters, ilka man at his banker, wirkin on crosses and heidsteens . Some hid han haimmers ithers were cutting wi pneumatic chisels; the din wis constant and dist aawye. This wis fit I wanted: ti maister steel on steen. But siccan skeels were nae easily won.

  An so I thoaled the years o it wi split thooms, raxed back, stoor in the een, aye and wirse in ma thrapple. There were times fin I thocht ti caa it a day and mony anither apprentice wis o the same myn. But they were peelie-wally craturs faa up-tail and were aff ti look for greener girse. Me, I’d hae neen o this. If it wis girse I wis aifter then I’d hae feed ti een o the fairmers that gaithered by Hadden Street. I hungered ti ken aathin aboot cutting granite and hid the gweed fortune ti be pit wi a cutter faa’d bin on the tools ower fifty years. An auld man, though he micht hae lost some o his speed he’d lost neen o his skeel. He could cut and carve by han in a wye that wid mak an airtist heave his mell ti the fleer. This wis the man faa telt me hoo ti ging wi the steen: “granite can only be gaared sae far and nae mair. Hans and een is the wye” he said, “feel and see the grist in the glintin granite. There’s a reed and a hem, find this and the wye ti cut is clair”. And damn if he wisnae richt.

  Above the hole, amidst the confusion, the stonecutter’s reverie continued taking him further back to his childhood when his grandfather pulled ghosts from memory.

  The images came, flickered in ma heid, as if back in the Alhambra packed into the het guff o the picter hoose. There’s granfaither, a douce lang-heidit man, wabster by trade, faa’d been brocht up in the Denburn. I’d sit wi him for oors as he telt me o the lang, slow deeth o han weaving and hoo the eenjustice o it aa guidit him into Chartism. He’d seen nae jist his skeel as a wabster connached bit wirse, hail faimlies beggin for wirk ti cam their wye. Nae muckle mair than a loon granfaither wis doon at the Links, miscaain the Provost and his cronies and aa the sichts and soonds o priveelidge. Oh he kent fine that the bonnie Chartists didnae win through but so fit? aa’s important wis that fowk widnae bou doon ti the laithsome few faa’d want coorse wirkers keep their moos shut. In his wye granfaither wis nae doot dooncast but being a man faad seen mony a warsle he wis gey stoical and kent that looms and wabsters and aa that wis the Denburn were awa. “Aye”, he telt me, “there’s been mony cheenges but this only means wirkers hae ti find new wyes o deein things. But ae thing disnae cheenge, the need for fowk ti stick the gither. Britherheed is aathin”.

  There’s me, jist a laddikie, sittin wi granfaither, like some drouthie nyagg aye gaan back ti the troch for anither suppie. Mither lauched telling me that I’d drink the Don dry an then sook the banks for mair. But granfaither hid me. Skeels and smeddum wis his wye and dang if it widnae be myne. Aiblins the auld man saw his youngsel in the loon wi mizzlet shins sittin at the reenge hingin on his every wird; and the tales kept comin, tales o muckle gaitherins wi aabody kittelt-up by the braw speechifying. But he took me back ayont his days ti lang, langsyne fin his faither hid been wi Aiberdeen fowk, fechtin agin thieving dealers faad beamfill their girnals, huddin meal back, aa the better ti mak extra siller. Great granfaither an aa the rest, weel breid wis there richt as they saa it. They micht be poor bit they wernae feart so it wis aff ti the hairbour faar they caad doon the doors o the thieves and tyeuk fit wis theirs even fan the militia wis on the streets.

  And that wis me, draain fae the kist o memories and then it wis on ti granfaither’s beuks. A smaa library but wi choice wirks. He wisnae Christian an put my wye Tam Paine’s Age O Reason a grand tale that made me suspeck aa the fine words o meenisters. There wis anither Tam, Carlyle, a Scotchman, a sage some said, and I’ve nae doot he was verra clever bit there wis something aboot the gabby man that made him seem mair feel than pheelosopher. The man seemed ti think that in times fin knights were galloping aa ower the kintraside, well he seemed ti think this wis grand and we hid ti find a wye of re-kinlin a gowden age. Granfaither was fair teen by him but for me keeking backwart an girnin about the wye of the warl wis jist wind. As the auld man said aboot meenisters and their hivven, you micht jist as weel look for partans in mosspots and puddocks in the sea. But ae thing Carlyle got richt, this wis his gweed words for skeeled chiels wi hans, hert and brain aa wirkin the gither; wis this nae jist fit a steencutter did? Granfaither’s library hid the poems o Wullie Thom, a wabster ti trade and an Aiberdonian. He’d kent the poet and said he wisnae the easiest body ti get on wi but the man’s words, weel they brocht haim ti me the muckle cheenges needed.

  Beuks and granfaither’s tales, maist o this wis fin I wis gey young and still withoot a noshun o foo the hale jing bang micht hing the gither. But a bit later I cam upon the screeves o Wullie Morris and for him the wye wis forrit, wirkers fechtin for socialism and haen han skeels that wid turn fit they made inti airt: a soond veesion, biggit on granite foons, nae sand.

  At the crater’s lip, the mason could see figures moving, struggling, far below. They appeared to him like quarrymen, working their way through the debris of an explosion gone wrong.

  Wrang – there wis sae much wrang wi the warl but noo that I’d served my time and become a journeyman, as I saa it, I wis ready ti dee mair than shape steen; noo I’d fashion wirkin men into socialists. I’d been gaan ti peelitical meetings o the SDF, ance Morris’s pairty, faa were verra keen on haen the bawbees fae the pooches o the weel-aff. I wis affa fierce and fit I widnae dee if I got hud o them but I foond that maist o the men in the yaird wid raither thole me than jine me. Fooivver, as a journeyman I could jine the operatives’ union, the finest craft society in the toon and fae there I began fechtin for better conditions in Aiberdeen yairds and in kintra quarries. Wi my brither operatives we tyauved ti get an extra maik or twa and even a shorter wirkin wik. Stoor fae dunters, that wis anither lang sair fecht. These muckle skelpers o granite were gweed at makin a profit for the maisters. But they turned men deef and wirse the stoor wis teen into their lungs Yairds were full of wirkers faas lungs wis rived by fit we caad the kirkyaird-hoast and fit the quacks said wis the soond o phthisis brocht on by dist. We tried ti gaar the maisters tak tent but verra little cheenged.

  Nae maitter, as my granfaither wid hae said, we hid ti keep trying. And I did. Fooivver, this gave me tribble. On ae han I wis trying ti win a hantle o cheenges ti mak things tholeable but on the ither I wis looking ti caa doon the maisters an aa their wirks. As you micht say nae seeking ti tak a puckle crums, gaan instead for the loaf and the gullie ti pairtit. Wis ther ony wye o yoking the twa sides the gither? At nicht fin I wis aff doon ti Belmont Street wi my SDF freens pittin the warl ti richts, kennin the maisters’ days wid seen be ower; well britherheed seemed affa easy. Then aifter the claik it was haim and up in the morning into the yaird wi the argie-bargie stairting again. This wis like haen twa heids, ain for socialism and anither for the tyauve o wirk and the union Aiblins I should hae seen the gate I wis on but ony anxeeity I hid wis seen through a damn mirkie gless.

  A puckle o my socialist freens said it wis aa for nithin, that I’d spend my time in the parlours o maisters, bunnet in han jist waiting for a han-oot. I widnae hae this. The union did mak things better, maisters supplied tools, wirkin oors were shorter and even wages had gin up. Wis this nae the wye forrit, and onwye britherheed amang wirkers surely this wis the union? Some o these socialist billies didnae unerstan. Maisters could be a hard-faced lot, a puckle o them widnae want ti gie onything ti the men, grippy disnae dee them justice, they would hae raiked hell for a saxpence. An fan this happened it wid be neives heisted, us threetnin strike and them lock-oot. But some of the employers were fair-hannit and we wid find wyes roon tribble: give-an-tak as you micht say. Och aye, we widnae win aathin but fit did my freens expeck: ging ti the maisters and demand socialism?

  What would his friends now think of the mason in a world where give and take had transmuted to something far beyond the tactful diplomacy of a negotiating table? His vision of internationalism and brotherhood dissolving and re-forming much as the dust around him settled and rose.

  Wirkers fae aa the airts gettin the gither, this wis my granfaither’s dream and it wis myne. The union, weel it wis a stairt. But the streetch o my veesion o britherheed wis sair tested faan steen fae Norway came inti Aiberdeen. Och aye some o the maisters were contentit, they wid mak some siller but nae aabody wis happy, especially merchants wi quarry interests. They said only oor granite should be wirked; or at warst Scotch, or at verra warst British steen. Aa foreign muck wis ti be stopped itherwise trade in yairds and quarries wid be lost. This vext me and like a thoom that’d been skelped by a haimmer ma conscience began ti stoon, winnerin far britherheed came inti this? I sair needed, something ti tak the pyne awa.

  I hid a freen Wullie, oot by Alford, secretary o the union at Cluny. A fine man, gweed at his trade and nae feart o stannin up for his preenciples and fyles he’d bin a soondin board for my thochts. So it wis awaa doon tae the station. On the rinnie oot in the train I hid a chance ti think aboot this britherheed. My workmates were unca happy tae fecht and tak fit could be won but a fair puckle o them were jist as contenit ti keep the men on saas and polishers doon (mere machinemen I’d aince caad them). Britherheed in a yaird seemed hard aneuch withoot takkin on the warl. Gaan oot in the train wis aye a trait and my speerits lifted as we steamed into quarry kintra faar fowk hid howkit at coorse and rochsome grun ti mak a living. Nature can hae a bonny face but only ance the faimly is hoosed and his mait on the table .

  Wullie had been brocht up in the Vale and he kent as weel as onybody the hardships o quarriers. Toon wirk, weel it seemed safter. For a stairt in Aiberdeen we didnae hae the fell winters that hit the quarries wi grun beeriet under deep snaa an men getting peyed by the piece for steen wirked and naething for staanin up ti their oxters in fite pouther. In Aiberdeen cutters were peyed by the day. I speired ti Wullie fit wye the Donside men didnae wint redd o piece work. This wis nae mystery, he telt me, twa gweed reasons for keeping it were, auld near-caad-deen quarriers were able ti tyauve on an mak a puckle bawbees and keep the maisters happy and anither thing, a chiel wi a craft could ging aff in a quait spell an wirk their lan and nae loss ti onybody. But I saw it as jist anither wye o the dirt o property skaillin the sharny-bree o oonjustice ower common fowk. Nae doot there were honest an gweed-hertit quarry maisters, but they were catcht in this guids-an-geer fankle. Wullie agreed that men like Fyfe o Kemnay were dacent aneuch bodies faa didnae draa bleed fae men, even if in winter wirkin in the slabber o snaa an dubs the bleed wid come. But there were ithers he said, lairds, men sleekit in their beesiness and faa gripped on tae lan and if they hid their road wid close the quarries and be rid o the dirt of quarrymen. “Fur and fedder o Bennachie and roon aboot”, said Wullie, “this is their interest nae men and wirk. Pheasants and rubbits dinna spik back. Lairds want the moos o quarrymen stapped and fowk ti beck an bou afore their betters.” Aa this wis hinnie ti my lugs, a sweetness o thocht but a clearance o the clart o lairds still left me raivelt aboot britherheed. Spikkin ti Wullie I felt a bit like a loon again, sittin in a neuk by the fire, a micht even had mizzlet shank. “Things in Donside”, he said, “arenae gweed. Dreelers, cutters, settmakkars are aa streevin for wirk, maist are fit wi caa loafin” and “men are gaan across the pond ti America in the howp o job. And for them that hinna shipped west it’s a maitter o inti an Aiberdeen factory or aff ti be third billies at twa-horse fairm toons.” Soondin like granfaither, Wullie raged at the eenjustice, “ if things ging on like this the quarries’ll be seelent, as if the warl had teemt the men fae the holes”. For a meenit I couldnae meet his een for I kent fine that like ithers I’d wrocht Norwegian granite and even if I’d makkit the grandest o heidsteens I jaloused that it could mark the deeth o the quarries. Faar wis britherheed here?

  Wullie calmed my anxeeity and for him the answer wis ae step at ae time. Socialism and britherheed wid hae tae start at oor ane front door. There wis nae eese in being vext aboot steencutters in Norway or ony wye else if the granite beesiness here wis feenished. We hid ti hud oot for oor ane fowk afore aathin else argued Wullie and ti mak his case he pynted ti the Navy buying foreign steen for biggin hairbours. Turning aa poetic he pit a verse ti me,

“If for our Fleet we feel it meet
With natives true to man it,
Why make a dock of foreign rock
Inferior to our granite?”

  It wis like licht gaan on in my heid: a wye forrit wis seen, ane that conneckit wi aathin I’d deen as pairt o the union. Fechtin that hid ti ging on, but fyles ca-canny and wirk wi the maisters for the steen industry itherwise we could wak-up wi, nae yairds and even fewer quarries.

  And as the dust around him settled and the noise ebbed and flowed he could see that the Cluny man’s arguments had been sufficient to propel him further along a path upon which he had already embarked. This was the path that led him to the hole.

  I teuk my thochts on aa men being brithers and union wirk and wupped them the gither ti mak a stepledder o richts and loyalties, wirken up fae the yairds ti aa the warls ayont. It wis at the Mairket Stance fan the fou meanin o the cheenge wis brocht haim ti me. Jist anither day, haen a dauner ower the plainsteens, keekin up at the braw sicht o the Toon Hoose, a work o airt in granite but wastit on Cooncillors. My scance at the fine Kemnay steen wis distractit by a stramash at the Cross. Gaithered there were kiltit sodgers surroondit by local billies an it wis plain as porritch this wis nae stoorie atween Aiberdonians an militia, scantlin an inklin o meal riots o langsyne. Aabody respectit the sodgers and winted ti jine them. Granfaither wid’ve been scunnered but I kent that ance a waar stairts fowk aften rin ti the flag. And a waar hid stairted. I got ti thinkin, and wis clair that I hid tae tak a puckle steps up the loyalty ledder and look ti britherheed wi fowk ootside the yairds. I widnae jouk the deecision aifter-anaa wis it nae the case it wis my ain kintra, and the great chiel Hyndman, ance o the SDF, hid screeved it wis a man’s duty ti fecht against the Hun faa wis ettlin ti pit Britons in thirl ti Germany. It wis only a step or twa ti the Barracks tae tak Geordie’s shillinn.

  Sic a few smaa steps but they took me a lang wye. On this new gate I wutnessed muckle things, men fechtin ower pooshened grun, aneuch ti mak a plooman greet. In the mirk o aa this I did find britherheed at least wi aa the Britons and French fowk but universal? weel that wid hae ti wait. Gey blaik noshuns swirled in ma heid as I watched britheheed gaither in heeps afore my een: some micht miscaa the waar, bit ae thing aboot this ledder o fraternities, at the hinner-en o the slauchter there’d be damn gweed beesness for masons an maisters, aa the heidsteens wid keep them at the bankers and the order beuks weel past the dainner oor. Ah weel I’d chosen my gate an I jist gid on wi it.

  The stonecutter was at Mametz when off to the west there was a sound of such force that even amidst the carnage he was awed. Distracted with his mind wandering to ghosts of far-off places and knowing not how, he found himself at the lip of the hole and the enormity of his journey all but overwhelmed him.

  I looked doon and I could see this wis nae quarry, nae a place far men tyauved ti win bonny steen fae the ooncarin airth – na this hole wis far caring men focht ti win ither treasures. And as I dwalled on this, like the grun aneath, I shuddered.

  I survived the waar and foond oot that the hole wis caad Lochnagar Crater, made by moudiewart men wi ower twenty tons o explosives. Neen o Byron’s frowning glories here, dairker than onythin the hirplin Laird could hae imagined; the braw days o spikkin tae granfaither, anither warl, sae far awaa.

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

August 29, 2016

From the Cock o’ the North to Commissioner Jim Gordon via Huntly Castle

Huntly Castle mid 15th - early 17th centuries

Huntly Castle from the mid-15th to early-17th century

Huntly Castle is a ruin but what a ruin. It is big and bold and sits in a green park surrounded by trees and the rivers Bogie and Deveron.

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The calm side of the River Deveron

Motte where the first motte and bailey castle of Strathbogie was built in the late 1100s

Motte where the first motte and bailey Strathbogie castle was built in the late 1100s

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next to what remains of the castle is part of an extant motte site of the original 12th century Strathbogie castle – built for an earl of Fife. This first castle was wooden and was burnt down by the Black Douglas clan in 1496. Out of the ashes emerged first a tower house built soon after the fire and gradually more buildings were added until the great hulk of castle we see now – bigger and bolder than the earlier one emerged and to be on the safe side it was constructed of stone; mainly sandstone and freestone, altogether more resistant to fire than wood. Practically nothing remains of the tower house but the later castle, though tumbledown, hints at what it must have been like – something pretty amazing.

stables, brew house, bake house and other lost buildings including where an L-plan tower house once stood built in the early 15thC to replace the lost wooden castle

Stables for the short garron ponies, brew house, bake house and other remains including  the area where the L-plan tower house was erected in the 15th century to replace the lost wooden castle

King James IV used to make annual pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Duthac in Tain, north of Inverness, and he often stopped off at Huntly en route. During one visit, in 1501, he watched the stonemasons at work building or biggin the castle as they say in the northeast of Scotland and so impressed was he with their handiwork he gave them some tokens in the way of money and I’m not surprised because they made a grand job of it; the stone carving is superb.

A fragment of the original roughly paved road made up of pebbles and boulders which led to the eastern part of the castle constructed in the 17thC

The spectacular ruin that stands in Huntly belonged to the Gordon family. Many of you will know that the name Gordon is very much associated with Aberdeenshire although scratch around and you might disturb some French roots in the guise of Gourdon (there is a place of that name farther down the Aberdeenshire coast) and a nod to Berwickshire where a bloke by the name of Sir Adam de Gordon thought he would like a bit of a change – and having shifted allegiance during the Scottish Wars of Independence he eventually ended up on the right side and was promptly rewarded with parcels of land in Strathbogie by Robert the Bruce. Such is how land came to be distributed – ending up in the hands of powerful families – handed out like sweeties. Cronyism has a long pedigree. Doing someone a favour, raising troops to fight their cause once secured immense tracts of land for families who prided themselves on their ability to accumulate piles and piles of the countryside. Some of them are still determinedly clinging on to land they acquired in all manner of dodgy ways in the past and will fight anyone who suggests they don’t have fair claim to their estates – in the courts not on the battlefield anymore.

The Gordons - not shrinking violets

The Gordons were proud of their lands and the great muckle house built at Huntly. George Gordon the 1st Marquess of Huntly had pride a-plenty which probably explains why plastered his and hers names right across the front of their impressive pile – akin today of installing neon lighting on the front of your house. The bold inscription reads:

GEORGE GORDON FIRST MARQUESS OF HUNTLY 16
HENRIETTE STEWART MARQUESSE OF HUNTLY 02

Not forgetting the hand of God pointing out each name. Well if you have it, flaunt it, said God.

The hand of God points out George Gordon's name and points out his wife's name as well

 

The hand of God points to the names of the Gordons who owned the castle

All generations of Gordons included a George so the story of the George Gordons can get very muddled and as the Gordons were always in the thick of the action, more than your average family, I will avoid going into detail. However, I cannot entirely.

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Three storeys of the castle

Old door

Original studded oak door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the several George Gordons – the one who wrote his name across his house – was an influential political figure in Scotland, attached to the royal court, and a nephew of James V. He was no shrinking violet as you may have deduced and earned himself the nickname, the Cock o’ the North.

 

The oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland

Certainly one of the oldest wooden lavatory seats in Scotland

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This epithet transferred to the Gordon Highlander regiment who came to be known as the Cocky wee Gordons and not-so-long-ago a popular ditty was oft sung across Scotland – ask your granny or maybe your great granny and watch her face light up with the memory.

A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me,
If ye’re no a Gordon ye’re no use to me.
The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a’
But the cocky wee Gordon’s the pride o’ them a’.

Stairs in castles were usually built to give advantage to the castle family in the case of invading swordsmen (usually right-handed) and disadvantage to their enemies

Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, was involved in a plot to clip the wings of the Cock o’ the North. I should have said the Gordons were Catholics and so was Mary of Guise but then she turned on some other Catholics at the time of the Reformation because – well, because that was the politic thing to do – and heads were optional extras in those days.

Gordon the Catholic was ambushed by a party of royalist Stewarts and he was killed. His corpse was then embalmed and put on trial for treason. I can assure you stranger things have happened. His castle was looted and religious carvings relating to the old faith found there, including two medallions above his front door – most unusual in Scotland, were destroyed.

cropped carving at door featuring family and Scottish national heraldry

The main doorway beautifully carved

 

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views acrosss the countryside

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views across the countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you will have gathered people, let’s be clear men, were pretty bloodthirsty all those centuries ago – and that’s without video nasties – and there was a definite trend for Scotland’s landed families to go at it hammer and tongs against their neighbours. You would think history has been a constant power struggle for land and political influence and you’d be right.

Remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle was packed with ornate work

A remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle once was adorned with such intricate craftsmanship

Back to the castle. Medieval palaces tended to expand over the centuries ending up in a melange of architectural styles. Huntly Castle is no different. Building was still going on when the Scottish civil war broke out in the 17th century. All these centuries on and the Gordons were still fighting anyone and everyone; family, strangers, neighbours – everyone.

 

Graffiti is there in abundance in the castle with some beautifully written letters

At the Battle of Aberdeen in 1644 at the time of the Scottish Civil War the Gordon clan fought on both sides – Covenanters and Royalists so that at least some of them would be on the winning side.

Details of another fireplace with medallion portraits of George Gordon and his wife Henrietta Stewart

Another fireplace with medallions of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart

George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, (son of George Cock o’ the North and Henrietta Stewart) brought up a Protestant Episcopalian at the court of James VI, was on the winning, royalist, side at the Battle of Alford in 1645 at which he fought alongside his son, also George, who was killed. George the 2nd Marquess had, in 1639, been secretly appointed to oppose the Covenanters in the north of Scotland and at Turriff he led a force of 2,000 in a show of strength against a gathering of 800 men led by the Marquess of Montrose (then in support of the Covenanters.) The two sides sized each other up but a tense situation passed without the spilling of blood.

 

Stone stairs lead to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Some original joist ends have survived and the later castle from the north side

The peace was not to last and there followed a game of cat and mouse between Montrose and Gordon who was none too keen on getting dragged into the whole difficult affair with the Covenanters.

One day Montrose said to Gordon, “Do you fancy a trip to Edinburgh?”

Gordon smelling a rat replied, “No, not really.”

Montrose, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer and so Gordon was taken to the capital to intimidate him into behaving but he shrugged off the threat and travelled north again and fought in a battle at the Brig o’ Dee at Aberdeen. As a punishment Huntly Castle was plundered and the fate of both castle and the Gordons thereafter followed a downward trajectory. Gordon/Huntly was again a wanted man who embarked on the 1640s equivalent of trains, planes and automobiles to make his escape – by horse, foot and boat. He kept on the move – all around the north of Scotland but was captured at Strathdon in a violent incident that saw both his servants and friends killed. Gordon ended up back in Edinburgh, locked up in the tolbooth until in March 1649 he was beheaded.

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Prisoners abandoned in a deep, dark hole beneath the castle had no chance of escape

Life was one long power struggle for wealthy families in past centuries but there were occasional intermissions when peace broke out long enough for a game of football to take place or even a marriage. Football was a popular pastime with the rich and powerful in Scottish society in past centuries – less so today.

 


The Gordons enjoyed a game of fitba and like most landed gentry they also liked to keep their options open by shifting allegiances according to where their interests happened to lie on any particular day. They were split as a family during the Jacobite risings in 1715-16 and 1745-46 when once more royalist/government troops took over Huntly Castle and the gentle decay that had begun in the previous century continued apace following the unfriendly attentions of anti-Jacobite government troops.

It’s hard to get an impression of how opulent Huntly Castle must have been in its heyday – reputedly no expense spared and very grand indeed with all the main rooms highly decorated and beautifully painted ceilings. John Anderson was the painter responsible for some of the ceiling work, not sure if he was local, might have been and so impressive were his efforts he was commissioned to work on Falkland Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Of course Huntly Castle set the standard. The few remaining carvings tease us into regretting what has been lost but Historic Scotland have done a grand job both with the preservation of the place and a highly informative glossy booklet available in the shop.

landscape window frame

As for the Gordons they were scattered across the country and the Continent some settled in Poland. There are still an awful lot of Gordons around Aberdeenshire and some famous ones around the world – and the most famous of all surely Commissioner Jim Gordon of Gotham City unless you think Lord Byron better known – he was half-Scottish – a Gordon through his mother’s family and known as – well what else but George Gordon before England claimed him.

Swallow on nest Huntly Castle

The castle is now home to nesting swallows

Enjoy Huntly Castle.

August 22, 2016

Kincardine O’Neil home of the Sleepy Market

Kincardine o’ Neil

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Kincardine O’Neil is a tiny attractive ribbon of a village on the north Deeside road between Aberdeen and Aboyne. This ancient settlement was originally known in the Gaelic as Eaglais larach (lower church) and later recorded as Kyncardin or Kyncardin Onele which for such a wee village is a bit of a mouthful and surely the reason locally it is simply known as Kinker.  

Neat and well-cared-for Kincardine O’Neil retains several older buildings of architectural interest. The village is home to an impressive gem store, packed to the gunnels with crystals and gemstones of every type, colour and description and much else besides. There is also a post office in the village shop and apparently there is a micro brewery thereabouts but I’ve seen no sign of it.

Kincardine O’Neil is quiet kind; has been for a long time – or that’s the impression it presents. When the Deeside Railway was being pushed through from Aberdeen to Ballater the village was bypassed and so didn’t get the number of visitors other places such as Banchory and Torphins did but now, of course, the railway has gone and a road runs straight through its centre to Aboyne and points west or Aberdeen if travelling in the opposite direction.

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The Gordon Arms Hotel appeared in the 1830s as a coaching inn and staging post where coachmen stopped to rest their horses and passengers on the long  journey between Aberdeen and Braemar – the 26 mile trip took anything between 8 and 11 hours depending on weather and the state of the roads – untarred, dirt roads remember. Upkeep of roads was an historic statute of labour meaning local men were obliged to repair and keep them passable, unless they could pay someone else to do it, which was a piecemeal way of maintaining them and not very successful.

For centuries getting about was by foot, horse, wagon or coach and movement was not always free which is why hill tracks were used when possible to avoid toll bars on ‘improved’ roads. There were several miles of improved turnpike roads in the parish of Echt with three toll bars collecting money from travellers passing along their stretch of road.  

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The nearby river Dee was a means of transporting goods by raft or small craft but it was also a hazard that had to be forded when moving people and animals across country and once there were 36 fords over the Dee.

 King David I’s army forded the Dee here in 1150 and in 1296 Edward I of England crossed at Kincardine O’Neil with his invading army of 35,000 troops. They camped locally and scavenged the farms and homes in the district for food and drink – stealing and consuming an entire year’s supply in one single day and leaving the local people to their fate.

Derided and despised as they were by people in the south Highlanders were largely allowed to continue their uncivilised existence but when they challenged the crown by supporting the Jacobite cause the government, determined to quell their rebellion, embarked on a major road-building scheme to enable troops with their equipment to speedily move in through the north to deal with insurrection. One such military roads ran from Brechin by Fettercairn over the Cairn o’Mount to Huntly. Such roads symbolised the power of government to enforce its will and were a signal that the old ways -loyalty to a clan – had been superseded by loyalty to the crown and the government of the Union in a different country hundreds of miles away.

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Old water pump

A road is a road and where troops march so goods and stock can be transported as well. Indeed it was hoped that easier access to life’s little luxuries, an influx of commodities, would open North Britons’ eyes to a more refined way of living. Not exactly shop till they dropped but certainly shop till they dropped their rebellious attitudes. The Cairn o’Mount  road crossed the Dee near Kincardine O’Neil and the Don at the Boat of Forbes.

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Cattle from here and farther north forded the river at Kincardine O’Neil when driven overland by their drovers to markets in the south, at Crieff and Falkirk.

Both cattle and sheep raising were important income sources for the local population and the village ran at least two annual fairs in May and in early September (Bartle or Bartholomew’s Fair) where stock in their thousands was bought and sold – and much else besides (in the 19th century there were four annual stock markets.) Markets were important events, lasting up to three days, and attracting people from quite far afield as a welcome break from the routine of work and opportunity to meet up with friends and buy something unusual from travelling peddlers – merchants who set up their stalls around the village and in the kirkyard. Fairs were not for the fainthearted for a lot of drink was consumed over the duration of markets resulting very often in violence and some unfortunates found themselves taken off to Gallows Hill where they were executed in the best tradition of summary justice. One of Kincardine O’Neil’s ancient fairs was held at night, not sure when this was but maybe in the fourteenth century, and fittingly it was called the Sleepy Market.

wildlife of Aberdeenshire early 1800s

Wildlife once abundant at Kincardine O’Neil

Cattle were used to pull ploughs – 10 to 12 at a time for the heavy iron ploughs needed strength for turning tussocky, often unworked soil. Farming was mainly a part-time activity that earned little so that men learned to work with metal or wood – making tubs, harrows, plough-beams and so on which they would sell at markets and fairs including Old Rayne and Aberdeen’s annual timmer or timber market.

 A few bridges were built over the Dee at various periods. During the 14th century a small wooden bridge for foot passengers was provided by Durward of Coull (see below). Another bridge was built upstream from Kincardine O’Neil at Portarch  – the situation chosen because there was a solid rock base at the riverbank making an ideal platform for a bridge. Much later a ferry-boat was introduced which remained in use until 1937 when it was washed away and wrecked by a flood.

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Until fairly recent times goods were mainly transported by loading them onto human backs in creels or they were carried in currocks or currachs which were basket panniers tied onto ponies. I’ve found a reference to litter or littar trees which may have been sledges or similar to the devices used by Native Americans – long branches bound together for carrying good – rather than on wagons, again reflecting the appalling state of roads (tracks) around and about. Until the later 19th century local people did not have hemp rope to secure loads but made tethers from willow or birch withes (a flexible branch or twig.)

In keeping with nearly every parish in Scotland education was encouraged, to some extent, in the village. Usually schools were provided for boys and separate ones for girls, if they were lucky. This was well before compulsory education was brought in in the early 1870s. Kincardine O’Neil did have a female school, one set up by a kirk minister the Reverend William Morrice following the death of his son George in 1850. George and his brother John had made fortunes as timber merchants in London where they were contracted to supply oak to the government dockyards.

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Timber was a major industry on Deeside with its forests providing wood for ship building and every other purpose. Felled trees were dragged to the river and floated downstream during spates, to Aberdeen for export. (There’s a great anecdote in Secret Aberdeen about a rafter on the Dee.)

Timber was readily available and easily grown so the people made a living from it. The land around was what folk had to live off, only occasionally would goods be brought in from outside by peddlers. If you wanted something you did it or made it yourself. Homes were built from what was available. Collected stone, turf, heather, timber all went into the construction of buildings, unless you were well-off then you had someone else build your house of stone and slated its roof. Ordinary people built their own simpler, draftier and less waterproof homes with or turf on roofs.

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The breachan worn by men

Until surprisingly late heating and cooking in houses was provided by a single fire fuelled by wood and peat – until the peat mosses in the vicinity were dug out. During the 19thC coal, imported into Aberdeen, would have been sold up Deeside for those who could afford to buy it but transporting it was another issue. Many homes, even at the beginning of the 1800s, still had open lums where smoke from fires had to find its own way out the hole in the roof making the inside of a house very black and sooty. Windows were small and in many rural areas contained no glass but had wooden boards, shutters, to close when weather was bad.

Flax was widely grown. Locally grow flax was made into linen for clothing and bedding and sheep’s wool was spun and woven into woollen cloth. Spinning was carried out during summer and in the Kincardine O’Neil area there were several manufactories for spinning lint (linen and wool) and for knitting worsted stockings.

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Women wore sleeved dresses, often a combination of linen and wool with a tartan broad scarf around their shoulders and secured with a brooch. These scarves sometimes had enough material in them to form a hood in cold or wet weather. A plaid shawl would sometimes be worn for extra warmth.  The young men of the district often dressed in kilts, hose and brogues – and all men wore this to church and on market days, many wore a breacan (plaid wrapped around the body and belted at the waist) and a bonnet. Traditionally men were armed and certainly would have had their sgian dubhs on them for short knives were carried by everyone to cut and prepare food before cutlery was readily affordable. In the Highlands the sgian dugh (skeean doo) was carried tucked into a belt or hose. 

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Some people with connections to Kincardine O’Neil

On 12 Feb 1685 the Earl of Perth, Lord Chancellor, issued warrant for apprehending John Farquharson of Inverey, the Black Colonel (so-named because of his swarthy looks), and others who had been outlawed for murder of the Baron of Braikley (a Gordon) in Glenmuick in 1666.  Sergeant James Innes and Corporal Radnoch were put in command of a party of troops at Kincardine O’Neil to arrest him. I don’t know what happened to Inverey then, nothing much I imagine for he was still around to fight the Jacobite cause a few years later. An excellent ballad was written about Farquharson’s murder of Braikley.

 Forget Willie Shakespeare if you want to know about history; he was no historian but a dramatist who made things up. Macbeth is a prime example – fictional from start to finish. The real Macbeth was as good a king as kings ever are, not the conniving murderer Shakespeare would have us believe. Macbeth met his end near Kincardine O’Neil and the Macbeth peel is not far away at Lumphanan. (picture to follow, possibly)

This Macbeth slewe thati there
into the wode of Lunfanan
And his hewd thati strak off thate
And that wyth tham fra thair thai bare
Til Kynkardyn, quhare the King
Till thare gayne come made hyding
 

One of Scotland’s greatest thinkers was born in Kincardine O’Neil. Thomas Reid ( 1710-1796) was a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and for his common sense philosophy in particular. Reid’s major works are – An inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense ; Essays on Intellectual Powers of Man; Essays on the Active Powers of Man.

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Young Thomas Reid’s education began at the parish school in the village but he was soon sent to Aberdeen to advance his studies. At twelve or thirteen, as was usual then for a boy taking up higher education, he went to university; Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College, where he studied philosophy with the aim of becoming a church minister. Scottish education has long been valued for its breadth and Reid was also an accomplished mathematics student – a man talented at whatever he undertook.

Reid’s ideas influenced revolution in America and in France – though not, it seems, in Kincardine O’Neil. The man known across the world for his mind did, as he planned, become a minister in his home village. He was also a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Aberdeen and later Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University.

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Around a century later, in 1824, Peter Milne was born in the village. By reputation very talented as a composer and violinist Milne was said to have been one of the most able of fiddlers and he became famous for his traditional reels and strathspeys. He was given the name the Tarland minstrel and a memorial stone to him stands at the Tarland graveyard.

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Kincardine O’Neil’s own old graveyard surrounds the ruined church of St Erchard’s (the patron saint of the village from the 5th century when he converted many local heathens to Christianity) and what had been a hospital – in the medieval sense of the word – a house of refuge for those incapable of looking after themselves and lodging for travellers.  

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The low wall fragments of this 13th century refuge are extant with flowers growing along them and on the church gable some features of where the hospital was connected to it are visible. Hospitals were abutted to churches so their unfortunate inmates could be comforted by hearing mass through internal windows between it and the church.

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In 1233 Ailean Dorsair, an English translation of his name is Alan Durward, provided a davach or davoch – a piece of land called Slutheluthy for the building of the hospital.  Ailean was an important figure in Scotland for he played a prominent role in running the country during the minority of Alexander III (Alasdair III mac Alasdair.) His father, Thomas, was an official at the court of King Alexander II, as protector of the king’s property. For a couple of years Dorsair disappeared to England where he toadied up to the English monarch, Henry III, and was rewarded with a manor, Bolsover in Derbyshire. Whether or not he was ever known as the Beast of Bolsover is not recorded.

In keeping with many churches around the northeast this one at Kincardine O’Neil was attached to St Machar in Old Aberdeen: incorporated into the cathedral in 1330.

Over time several churches would have occupied the site of the present ruin, wooden I suppose. What stood there in 1725 was described as “a good edifice, higher and wilder than any other upon Dee, thatch’d with heather…”.   

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Yes, even kirk roofs were heather and turf, slate wasn’t easily found and had to be quarried rather than gathered. Heather roofs were a fire hazard and usually if one burnt it was replaced with fresh heather but when the church roof burnt out around 1730 money was found to slate the roof.

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St Erchard’s belcote dates from c.1640

When it was decided to build a new church in the village it was constructed of stone. This was 1861-62 and St Erchard’s was left to gently decay and its interior made available for burials although by the look of the memorials there perhaps only for those with a bit of clout.

And that, folks, is Kincardine O’Neil.

 

 

 

 

August 13, 2016

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

reindeer sled

Reindeer are not just for Christmas although they are intrinsically associated with Christmas celebrations. This relatively recent tradition appears to have come from a poem written in 1822 by an American, Clement Moore, called A Visit from St Nicholas in which he appears to draw on Scandinavian and German legends to create the now iconic image of Santa Claus riding across the sky on a sledge drawn by reindeer.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds

… 

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

 Most deer sightings in Scotland are of roe, red or sika deer. The reindeer that once roamed our mountain sides disappeared a long time ago – estimates run between 800 and 8000 years. We do have small numbers of them now; semi-domesticated and the results of reintroduction programmes.

reindeer and dogs

According to some sources it was in the tenth century when the threat to our reindeer population materialised and within a couple of hundred years they had disappeared entirely from our forests and mountains. The reasons for this are uncertain but there were attacks on their habitats – pine, birch and oak forests which once grew up to levels of 2,500 feet – were being burned or cut down to create land for crops and grazing animals as well as harvesting of timber for building and boats. Deer were also predated by bears and wolves in addition to the most ruthless killer of all, man driven to kill every one of them until none remained – wiping out the last of Scotland’s native reindeer population.  

In intervening centuries some attempts were made to reintroduce them – in the late 18th century by the Duke of Atholl and in early 19th century a handful of animals were released into Orkney and Aberdeenshire but none of these survived. In 1916 Robert Traill collected three reindeer from the Russian area around Archangel and released them in Orkney but he was no more successful.

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Mikel Utsi and his reindeer

A more scientific approach was taken when in the 1950s reindeer were reintroduced into Scotland following a suggestion by a Saami herdsman from Sweden, Mikel Utsi, and his wife Ethel John Lindgren Utsi, who also supervised the project. They thought conditions in Scotland were similar to parts of Scandinavia, Russia and Canada in that they could provide reindeer with the foods they grazed – lichens and reindeer-moss, a kind of boggy carpet.

An area of forest in the Cairngorms at Rothiemurchus estate was fenced-off for a small number of beasts, no more than 25 plus a herder, for it was understood that rather than releasing the animals to roam wild they would benefit from being semi-domesticated.

Eight deer were shipped in from Sweden and quarantined for six weeks at Edinburgh Zoo then shipped out by train and lorry to their Highland home. One of the eight, a calf died immediately but the rest were then transferred to Rothiemurchus. Soon there were two more deaths, then another. A bull deer then disappeared and it was assumed had been shot by a poacher. By the end of the first winter only three animals remained alive. A major problem was their vulnerability to insect infestation in a climate that was warmer and damper than they were used to.

group reindeer

The small herd of Scandinavian reindeer was given freer rein over tracts of the Cairngorms to try to prevent the problem with insect pests but the weather the following summer was wet and warm, not at all suitable for reindeer and led to an increase in the numbers of black flies, midgies, cleggs and mosquitoes attacking the herd and leading to yet more deaths.

The Forestry Commission offered higher land that was drier and freer of insect pests and when more reindeer arrived in Scotland and were put to this new habitat and sure enough it was more suitable with fewer beasts dying.

last reindeer

Post-mortem examinations of stomach contents of deceased animals indicated that Scottish reindeer had been living on less varied diets than their counterparts in sub-Arctic Russia which had access to birds eggs, voles and bones of carrion (providing them with phosphorus) while Scottish reindeer fed mainly on grasses, sedges, pine needles, dead heather tops and very little lichen and moss. Despite setbacks and early failures the Utsi reindeer did survive in the Cairngorms, albeit in small numbers. Reindeer are built for extreme cold; their coats are very dense and well-insulated and their hooves act like snowshoes so one wonders what the future holds for this Arctic species of deer with global warming heating up the environment.

Whenever plans emerge to reintroduce lost species into Scotland there are voices raised in opposition. In the 1950s opponents to the reintroduction of reindeer described them as ‘vicious beasts’ which had no place in modern Scotland and I suppose if you are a clump of lichen they are but humans have nothing to fear from them. There are also those who deny reindeer were ever native to Scotland or if they were it was too long ago to matter and claim what was thought to be evidence of reindeer was, in fact, red deer – for example bones discovered in Pictish middens. It’s a fair debate for a thesis.

coloured reindeer

Our landscapes, rural and urban, are products of actions taken in the past – the Highlands emptied of people and communities for sheep, then red deer with the rise of the myth of good land management by sporting estates whose gamekeepers act like demi-gods deciding what can live on the land and what must be controlled destroyed. It is all about economics not biodiversity. Scotland would not have the landscape it does today were it not for them they claim. No, it would not. We would lose much of the barren muirs that have wrecked the Highland economy and limited its prospects. We would have a greater variety of wild species living naturally and not persecuted for being rubbish or vermin because they are seen as a threat to artificially introduced species, or product in the lingo of the estates, that can be offered up for slaughter on a Saturday afternoon.

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Slaughter of mountain hares

The Scottish wildcat and several of our owls have suffered from this attitude and recently we’ve seen thousands of discarded carcasses of mountain – heaps of rubbish in the view of gamekeepers. Almost daily we learn of protected species, our golden eagles and other raptors that have mysteriously disappeared – poisoned, shot or trapped on the sly in hunting estates. Of all the many species of birds and animals hunted to extinction in this country a few have been reintroduced and others are in the pipeline: beavers, lynx, wolves, wild boar, red squirrel, polecats, goshawks, sea eagles, ospreys, red kites and pine martins.

Keep your eyes open when you are out and about and report illegal activity you come across that threatens our wildlife. You are unlikely to see a reindeer – or indeed any in the above list – and you may well wonder why though I suspect we all know the answer.

 

July 25, 2016

At the foot of the Suie in the land where Druids worshipped a 23 year old nurse is remembered : Tullynessle graveyard

 

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Tullynessle Church or St Neachtan’s Kirk on the hill leading to the Suie

This austere looking church sits on a spot that has been occupied by churches for centuries on the lower slopes of the Suie close to the Suie and Esset burns.  Constructed from local grey granite from Sylavethy quarry in 1876 the church’s dour solidity is broken by elegant lancet windows. The North end was once taller when it featured a 1604 birdcage bellcote that was rescued from an earlier, presumably sandstone kirk, for the bellcote is made from sandstone which is much softer and more pliable than igneous granite. The bellcote now occupies a spot just inside the kirkyard gate.

A sandstone bellcote from an older church was added to the 19th century granite kirk and removed in 1968. It now stands in the graveyard by the gate.

Sandstone bellcote from an earlier church was added to the 19thC building and removed in 1968

http://www.scottishchurches.org.uk/sites/site/id/851/name/Tullynessle+Parish+Church+Tullynessle+and+Forbes+Grampian

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Ancient flat gravestone with symbolic skull bones peeping through the grass

Several flat memorial stones are lost to us under turf

Another largely lost flat memorial stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graveyard doesn’t have very many gravestones though a number of early flat stones lie hidden beneath the turf which is a shame because the few visible points hint at the iconographical treasures of mortality and immortality symbols that lie there forgotten.  What stands upright reads like a history, if short, of the area featuring several families long associated with the Howe o’ Alford such as  Coutts, Comfort, Mathers, McCombie, Spence.

 

McCombie was the name of the family who bred Aberdeen Angus cattle. Presumably this is a relative of one of them.

McCombie was the name of the family who bred Aberdeen Angus cattle. Presumably this is a relative

Tullynessle is an area that lies west of Alford in Aberdeenshire and takes in a large expanse of some great farming country. The old church is situated on the lower slopes of the Suie by the Suie burn and near the burn of Esset which might just have given rise to its name, or not. Tully or sometimes Tilly is well-known around Scotland from the Gaelic tullich for wee hill or knoll. However it got its name it has one.  

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

This was Forbes country – Forbes with the ‘e’ pronounced as you would German words, sounding all the letters. ForbES is still much heard in the Howe o’ Alford to this day along with the Anglicised Forbs.

Anchors on gravestones signified an association with the sea. Rope motifs strung around stones  often accompanied an anchor as here though not shown.

Anchors on gravestones signified an association with the sea. Rope motifs strung around stones often accompanied an anchor as here though not shown

 

Where the land wasn’t claimed by a Forbes it was said to belong to the Gordons. There are lots of Gordons around this area. The estate of Terpersie at Tullynessle was one of theirs and briefly lost when taken off the Gordons for supporting the Jacobite cause during the rebellion.  Gordon of Terpersie was one of many hunted down by the British state soon after the Union to demonstrate it would deal severely with anyone who defied it. Terpersie was sold to the York Company, as were other Scottish estates but Terpersie was later bought from the English company by a different Gordon – the original having been executed in London.  

Pretty decoration on sandstone memorial stone Tullynessle

Pretty decoration on a sandstone memorial stone at Tullynessle

The history of the area is much more ancient than the 18th century. There’s a mention on one of the gravestones to the deceased having lived at Druidsfield. This is a reference to the very many ancient stone circles, most containing impressive recumbent stones, scattered throughout Aberdeenshire.

Reference to the local place known as Druidsfield - called that because early stone circles and standing stones were  said to form part of Druid worship.

Reference to the local place known as Druidsfield – so called because early stone circles and standing stones were said to be outdoor temples used for worship by Druids

We tend not to speak of them as Druid stones any longer but that’s what they used to be called – and believed to be outdoor temples used by Druids for their ceremonies. Most of them were destroyed over centuries when stones were cleared to make land fit for growing crops. Lots were blown up to help their removal because they were so massive which always makes those of us who visit our stone circles wonder at the ability of Neolithic people to drag them to their hilltop sites and place them so accurately they’ve stood in place for millennia.  If you’ve never seen them some are mind-blowingly large.

 

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Scots migrated to other countries in huge numbers

Scots, like the migrants of today, were inveterate travellers and seekers of a better life such as the sons of David Grant and his wife Margaret Barron who  farmed at Millcroft. Robert and David settled in Australia and New Zealand.

  

This naturalistic flower motif was obviously carved by a very capable hand

This naturalistic slower motif was clearly carved by a very capable hand

One of the grander memorials belongs to the Spence family. Alexander Spence died in 1913 aged 84 years. His wife’s sudden death preceded his about a month, Annie Tawse Morrison was her name. Their two daughters Eliza and Jessie died as young children and were interred in Glenbuchat churchyard while another daughter, Jeannie, died in the same year as her parents, in 1913, aged 48 years.

Tullynessle war memorial

Grand polished granite memorial belonging to the Spence family from the Brig

Spence was born in 1829 in Towie at Glenkindie and began work as a farm labourer. He rose to ploughman then he went to take over from his father-in-law who ran the Pooldhullie Toll Car, carriers in Strathdon. It was not until he was an elderly man that Alexander Spence took out a lease on the Forbes Arms Hotel at the Brig.

15 weeks, 15 days children of Mary and Alex Rennie

Their short lives of only 15 days and another 15 weeks – the Rennie children

According to his obituary Alexander Spence had a reputation as being highly talented working with animals, almost equal to a qualified veterinary surgeon it was claimed and he retained an interest in horses throughout his life.  He made the Forbes Arms hotel into a popular venue for anglers and tourists, not so difficult perhaps given its prize location above the River Don and Spence ensuring he had fishing rights on various parts of the river to offer to his guests.  

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Tullynessle war memorial

A fine, well-cared for war memorial stands in a corner of the graveyard: a light grey-white granite  rectangular block topped with a simple cross it commemorates service men and women from the area killed during the Great War and the Second World War.  Their occupations remind us how it was that ordinary young men and women were torn away from everything familiar and transported away never to return home to the familiar quiet beauty of Tullynessle, presumably often in their thoughts: Alex Comfort; Hardware clerk; James Craig: van man; James McGregor: carpenter; William Campbell: mason; John Reid: North of Scotland Bank; I. Spence: nursing sister.

I assume I. Spence belonged to the same Spences who moved here from Glenkindie for the address is close to the Forbes Arms.

Sister Isobel Spence was drowned  in 1944 on active service

Sister Isobel Spence

Nursing Sister Isobel Spence QAIMNS, only daughter of Mr and Mrs John Spence, Waterside of Forbes, Alford, was reported missing at sea shortly before her presumed death was announced. Isobel did her nurse training at Foresterhill in Aberdeen only completing it in March 1942.  Two years later, at the age of 23 years she was killed in action, in March 1944. A great number of nurses were lost at sea, some sailing to other parts of the world as part of their war service and others in the hospital ships they lived and worked on. I don’t know where Isobel was drowned as newspaper accounts gave away little information during the war.

 

Tullynessle Kirk’s alternative name is St Neachtan which is a name I’ve never come across before so had to look it up. It appears this was Neachtan, Nechtan, Nathalan or variations of them who arrived as a missionary from Ireland in the early 9th century as many others were also doing, and his name was adopted in different parts of Scotland.  

Sandstone and worn the decoration at the base of this stone might have been integral to it or else remains of a re-used stone

Obviously an older stone that was well decorated with an angel at the top and various symbols of mortality but they’ve succumbed to time and weather

James Smith was employed as minister at Tullynessle for thirty-six years and was also a schoolmaster in the parish. He died in 1861 aged 63 years and the stone mentions his young daughters who died as children: Elizabeth aged 14 months; Mary Paull aged 10 years as well as Jane Elizabeth aged 19 years. His son died at 17 years old and James was outlived by his wife Jane Robertson (Scottish women retain their single names) who lived into her 70th year.

marble tablet to rev Marshall

Tucked away in a corner is this fine marble tablet in remembrance of an 18thC minister

A fine marble tablet commemorates the life and work of the Reverend Andrew Marshall who served the 18th century church for 25 years and who died in 1812. He was buried with his ten dead children who never survived into adulthood. His widow, Mary Grant, is also mentioned. She died at Aberdeen but was buried alongside her husband and their children.

Bellcote fixing

Iron fixing once used to hold the Tullynessle kirk bell in the bellcote

Tullynessle in a nutshell.

tullynessle

July 2, 2016

Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners

Scotland’s toughest jail – Peterhead or Peterheid as it is rightly known with emphasis on the heid more than Peter has its roots in the Blue Toon’s huge whaling and fishing industries which made the town into the largest fish market in Europe.

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When, in the 1880s, the Admiralty proposed a need for a harbour of refuge in the north of Scotland Peterhead bay, stuck out into the North Sea (German Ocean), and a thriving port to boot with stone quarries nearby came top of the list as the obvious choice. One potential setback was that the industrious and wealthy folk of Peterhead had no desire to do any backbreaking quarrying themselves so the question was posed where might they find a reservoir of labour in no position to turn down what amounted to very hard labour?

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We’ll build a prison, some bright spark suggested. And build a prison they did. Scotland’s hardest jail which housed the country’s biggest criminals, thugs and heidbangers was also conveniently distant from the foci of political agitation and so came to house Sinn Feiners, socialists, communists and anarchists in the earlier twentieth century. Peterhead, Scotland’s Gulag claimed those who regarded anywhere north of Perth as close to the Arctic Circle.

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In 1889 Peterhead Prison opened in the Blue Toon and construction of the new harbour began, along with roads and a railway running between the prison, the local quarries and harbour. Seven days a week convicts were wakened around 5am, given breakfast then transported, still shackled, on their own dedicated trains. They sat in windowless compartments, around 100 at a time, for the short journey to the main quarry at Stirling Hill, along with equipment, sledgehammers and such used to smash stone. Granite, sand and gravel were transported in the opposite direction – to the harbour where other men were employed in building the new safe harbour. The Peterhead Prison railway became Britain’s first state owned passenger railway.

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Wagon from one of Peterhead prison’s railway stock

This project was unique and an immense undertaking which accounts for the seventy years it took to complete the north breakwater. By that time Peterhead jail was a fixture in the town. That original prison, or part of it, exists today as a museum – and what a fascinating place it is. There is still an active prison in the town, housing women as well as men; a modern facility with single en-suite accommodation, video-links home and gym featuring a glass wall facing the sea.   DSC02668

The old jail is well worth a visit. The buildings that have been turned into a museum retain something of the atmosphere of a prison without the stench not least because of a very good narrative provided via headphones.
Immediately striking is the size of old cells: 7 feet X 5 feet and 9 feet high – tiny spaces with a small window of reinforced opaque glass. A curious exception was made after the Great War when some English convicts were sent north for another construction venture, this time an aerodrome, and their cells were two knocked into one. Perhaps their conditions had to match English prison regulations but that’s just my speculation.

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As places within Scotland’s prisons grew scarce prisoners had to budge up and Peterhead suffered from overcrowding which must have made it difficult for inmates and warders trying to supervise out-of-cell activities such as washing and slopping out; the earliest prisoners would have been kept in manacles most of the time.
There was never a shortage of men to fill Peterhead’s cells; its initial intake arrived from Glasgow by special train called the Black Maria in 1889. The men, often violent and dangerous, soon found they were in for years of hard labour and regulars on the quarry trains, under the constant eyes of armed guards – for the men had to be unshackled to work and there was a great chance many would attempt to escape.

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The jail’s warders were at first armed with cutlasses and swords and later redundant rifles after the Great War. Prisoners were forbidden from getting any closer than an arm and cutlass distance from a warder or risk being slashed.

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Special cell to house vulnerable prisoners painted in soft colours with safety a priority

Cell doors all had ventilation flaps which must have done little to help the circulation of air in the stifling atmosphere crowded men who rarely washed.

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D-Hall

Cells were simply furnished and what was there had to be screwed down so not to become potential weapons. The first cells were lit by wee gas lights which were protected from inmates interfering with them and in early years beds were narrow hammocks.

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Doing porridge at Peterhead obviously included porridge for breakfast as well as traditional Scotch broth, a lot of bread, tatties and herring in season. We all know that when we are hungry, bored or stressed our thoughts often focus hugely on food and with so it was at Peterhead where protests often centred on what was on the menu.

Red Clydesider John MacLean described his time at Peterhead – prisoners were awakened each morning when the 5am bell was rung. They made their beds and washed then took their breakfast which consisted of a substantial bowl of porridge made from half a pound of meal and three quarters pint of skimmed milk. They were then let out of their cells and searched before boarding the quarry train or to the harbour for its construction. Back to the prison then at 11.30am for dinner of broth, beef and tatties, maybe cheese, bread and marg. After more hard labour they returned to jail at 5.30 for supper of nearly a pound hunk of loaf and pint of coffee. Lights out was at 8.30pm.

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Being incarcerated in Peterhead must have been horrific and there are always vulnerable people who slip into situations that lead to imprisonment – people who shouldn’t be jailed but treated but there are others who are just plain bad (I’m not a psychoanalyst you’ll have noticed.) For the early prisoners carrying out hard labour in the granite quarry life must have been truly horrendous. Because they could move around in the open air they were tightly guarded by armed warders. At least one prisoner was shot attempting to escape from the quarry. The work itself was backbreaking and carried on seven days a week. For some that was enough to destroy their health.

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A gang feud ends in violence

I mentioned prisoners working in the quarry were unshackled from necessity but normally prisoners were kept in chain in their cells until the 1930s. You’d have thought there was little opportunity for prisoners to cause problems for the warders but certainly they did with punishments meted out including the car o’ nine tails. Prisoners were secured to a frame and the lash applied to their backs. DSC02672

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Prisoners were secured to this frame to receive whipping from the cat o’ nine tails

 

Peterhead prison had became Scotland’s main convict jail because of its remoteness from its main catchment, Glasgow. The notorious gangster T. C. Campbell complained it was responsible for ruining his family life as it took such a long time to drive from Glasgow to Peterhead in the days before there was a motorway even to Aberdeen. I should point out there is still no motorway to Aberdeen from the south OR the north. Motorways in Scotland stop at Perth but that doesn’t stop criminals continuing to come north to deal drugs or commit robberies.

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Isolation cell, soundproofed and dark to deprive a prisoner on punishment of all sensory stimulus. The bed is a concrete slab.

The well-equipped laundry which existed towards the latter years of the prison provided a service very different from those early years when underwear was changed once a fortnight. Prisoners’ uniforms differed over the years but heavy moleskin featured a fair amount throughout.

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Dirty protests in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Peterhead had a number of small exercise yards all with locked doors – obviously and one of those yards was made into an aviary by Peterhead’s equivalent of the Birdman of Alcatraz. Patiently day after day he surreptitiously snipped through its chain link fence until he was able to squeeze through, climb out and up and make his way across roofs, over the perimeter wall and away under cover of darkness but he injured himself in the process and was soon recaptured.

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Another story told at the museum is of a prisoner who missed the train back from the quarry and was found making his way back to the prison along its railway line but anyone thinking of escapes from Peterheid will immediately recall Johnny Ramensky.
Ramensky was a Scottish career criminal specialised in safe-blowing and became a long-term resident of prisons. Gentle Ramensky, as he was known, spent most of his life in prison – forty out of sixty-seven years. He made five escape attempts from Peterheid, none too successful but full marks for invention and determination. A book about him is on sale at the prison.

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All kinds of drugs find their way into prison

Ramensky’s skills were put to use for the war effort during WWII when he became a Royal Fusilier -in January 1943 (straight out of Peterhead.) He was transferred to the Commandos to teach them how to handle explosives.
He was also dropped by parachute behind enemy lines to carry out sabotage operations including blowing up German command safes holding military documents. Having a Lithuanian background he was also employed as a translator during the repatriation of Lithuathians from Germany.

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Another famous episode in the life of Peterhead jail was the D-Hall riot and siege in September 1987 when prison officer Jackie Stuart was beaten up and taken prisoner by inmates, tied him with ropes and forced onto the prison roof. This was a tense time for all concerned and after 5 days Thatcher sent in the SAS to end it.

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I urge you to get yourself along to Peterhead Prison aka Admiralty Gateway and experience life behind bars, if you haven’t already, for it is a different world in there.

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June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

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Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have produced a fair list of well-known singers and actors from Annie Lennox, Evelyn Glennie, Mary Garden, Lisa Milne, Sandi Thom, Emeli Sande, Andrew Cruickshank and David Rintoul (both Dr Finlay’s Casebook) to Laura Main from Call the Midwife  – lots and lots and recently I came across a couple of women I’d never heard of so thought I’d find out a bit more about them.

Polly Walker in Hit the Decks 1930

Polly Walker

I should say that I spent a huge amount of time on this and turned up very little so if anyone has information about the incident relating to Polly Walker’s father in particular I would love to hear from you. Okay, this is what I’ve managed to dredge up. Polly Heather Walker wasn’t born in Aberdeen but her father, John, came from Alford, from Bithnie where her grandfather William Walker was a prominent farmer.

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Bithnie

Polly’s aunt, John’s sister Margaret, lived at Kemnay and others in the family lived at the Smiddy at Whitehouse. John, Polly’s dad, moved to Aberdeen where he was an apprentice draper with Esslemont and Mackintosh before migrating to the United States. This was back at the turn of the 20th century.

Polly Walker2
John played the bagpipes and was something of an all-round entertainer. He married into a travelling circus family, his wife was the niece of a famous clown and somersault leaper Al Armer. Polly was born in 1904 in Chicago but tragedy struck the family when John Walker was shot dead by a drunk in the audience at the circus where he was performing when Polly was aged three. Apparently the killer took exception to John appearing in a kilt, dressed as a Highlander with an act called the Scotch Pipers.

Polly

Polly Walker

Al Armer helped support the child and her mother and trained Polly for life in the circus paying for lessons in singing and dancing but Polly had different ideas. She certainly followed the family tradition and went on stage as a young child, in Vaudeville, travelling around the States but she rejected life in the big tent for the world of films and stage, finding success on Broadway and with the Ziegfeld Follies.

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Polly grew into a beautiful, talented young woman who was selected to star in the RKO Picture Hit the Deck in 1930, one of the earliest films to be shot in Technicolor and in which she played Looloo, a winsome and charming darling of the US navy – so the publicity reads, and she was in Sleepless Nights with Stanley Lupino.

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As a stage actress Polly appeared often in New York and while in London for a part in Lovely Lady at the Phoenix Theatre she met her future husband a Harley Street doctor. She also used the opportunity while in Britain to meet her family in Scotland. 

polly walker wedding christmas day 1935 chicago

Polly’s life was far more glamorous than her parents experience in the entertainment business blessed as she was with ‘beautiful titian-blonde’ looks which helped her celebrity status. 

***

Margaret Mann (2)

Margaret Mann

Margaret Mann was most definitely an Aberdonian but unlike Polly she wasn’t a blond bombshell and only found film success when a much older woman, in character roles.

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Margaret was born on April 4th 1868 in Aberdeen and died in Los Angeles in 1941. Her remaining sister, she had seven, she visited one final time in 1928 at her home in Forest Avenue when they were both aged and the sister was about to lose her sight.220px-Film_Daily_1919_Dorothy_Phillips_The_Heart_of_Humanity.png

When Margaret entered the film business films were still silent. Her first picture was The Heart of Humanity in 1918. In 1921 she was in Black Beauty and in ’28, the year she returned to Aberdeen, she played the mother who lost three sons in the Great War in John Ford’s drama Four Sons which incidentally was one of John Wayne’s first movies.

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Margaret Mann in costume

Margaret’s kindly appearance led her to be somewhat typecast in motherly roles but she picked away with parts until sound came in which more or less did for her career that included over 80 movies. Her appearances were numerous but often she appeared in bit-parts and wasn’t always credited.

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She played a grandmother, Mrs Mack, in two Our Gang comedies in 1931; had a small role in Frankenstein, in You Can’t Take it With You, she was in Gone with the Wind and appeared as a nun with cheering orphans in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and took a part in Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland. Her final film was The Remarkable Andrew in 1942 which was released a year after her death. 

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Margaret died of cancer at the age of 72 on Feb 4th 1941. Described in American newspapers as Hollywood’s unofficial ambassador of sweetness and light, it was said Margaret’s life was a sad one despite the career she forged for herself in the film industry.

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Margaret Mann in John Ford’s Four Sons

Her final visit to her home city of Aberdeen came about when her sister wrote telling her how much she was looking forward to seeing Margaret in the John Ford picture Four Sons but regretted her cataracts were so bad she might not see it. Margaret immediately cabled home to say she was coming back home, after thirty-eight years, and so she did.

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Margaret got into films when she moved to San Diego where she was approached by the governor of Washington State who was struck by her likeness to the former American president George Washington’s wife Martha. Margaret was hired to appear as Martha Washington in a tableau which formed part of the opening of the state fair. Following this she was persuaded to move north to Los Angeles where she approached various movie casting directors and three days later she was called by Universal Studios. Her career was born. There never were really major starring roles, although the Ford film was I suppose, and she became well-known as a film actress but work was always piecemeal; often her pay amounted to just a few dollars. When she was signed up for the role of the mother in Hearts of Humanity for Universal in 1917 she got her first proper contracted salary of $60 a week.

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When film-goers became more interested in glamorous Polly Walker actress types rather than white-haired older women Margaret’s roles dried up. The film extra who ambled to fame retreated to obscurity once again.

June 10, 2016

Secret Aberdeen

A new book which takes the reader into some unfamiliar and some forgotten territory and packed with an impressive array of images.

Aberdeen has suffered and benefited from its geography. Suffered because it is seen as isolated on the shoulder of northeast Scotland. Look at how this area’s road and rail infrastructure has hardly advanced in fifty years; never a priority for governments whatever their wing or colour.

Benefits, in a sense, have come because Aberdeen has been the centre not only of the UK’s oil and gas industries but Europe’s but to see Aberdeen today, shabby and badly managed you would never know this. This city is no burgeoning Houston but a rather prim and neat corner of oft-forgotten Scotland, unrepresented in the country’s culture, media and awareness.

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What has oil done for Aberdeen and its people? is the question that has been asked repeatedly over the last forty years. Precious little good with energy giants salting away their huge profits, cutting and running, having contributed nothing to the city beyond jobs, yes mostly well-paid, exorbitant house prices and rents and restaurant and taxi charges which still apply the oil premium.

The book doesn’t look at the impact of recent energy developments on the city instead it presents us with an impression of a place used to its successes being under-played and under-valued.

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It jogs along at a good pace exploring aspects of the city and its people over a couple of centuries: the inn Robert Burns, Boswell and Dr Johnson stayed in; Aberdeen’s original gas boom; how you have Aberdeen to thank for chocolate bars and for free school milk and why Aberdeen was labelled Sin City for its courageous work on family planning and women’s health.

 

This book, despite its ridiculous cover which illustrates the triumph of marketing over good sense, is a reminder of Aberdeen’s importance not only in Scottish and UK terms but globally as well.