July 25, 2016

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

 

DSC03121

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

Flat gravestone buried 2

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.

 

DSC03087

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.  

DSC03117

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.

 

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.

DSC02661
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?

DSC02701
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.

DSC02683
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.

DSC02700

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.

DSC02657
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.

Prisoners-from-Peterhead-Prison-at-work-in-Stirlinghill-Quarry-1959
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.

DSC02693

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.

DSC02660

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.

   DSC02652
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.

DSC02678
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.

DSC02664

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

DSC02671

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.

DSC02680

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.

DSC02655

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.

DSC02691
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.

DSC02688

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.

DSC02663
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.

peterhead
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.

.

June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

MV5BMTA0MTI4NTYyOTReQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDA4MjI4NTIx._V1_UY268_CR2,0,182,268_AL_

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.

Bithie cottage.jpg

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.

Movie_Poster_for_Hit_the_Deck
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.

polly walker June 1933
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.

MV5BMzk0ODgyNDczN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMDU5MTg5._V1_UY268_CR50,0,182,268_AL_
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.

Margaret Mann

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.

Margaret M
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. 

220px-Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_01
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.

Margt Mann in four sons

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.

Margaret Mann 1
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.

220px-Smith_goes
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.

25  jopp 1894

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.

68 Suffragettes my image save small

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.

 

 

 

June 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

This is a tale of two parrots, well three but one is only of passing interest.

The first account is of Polly, a male parrot, who shared a home with two women at 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen in the 1920s.

Polly was no bird-brain but an exceptionally bright bird who recognised and welcomed regular visitors to the house by calling out their names when they appeared. When he heard the postman coming he’d shout “Annie, that’s the postman, hurry up, hurry up!” It seems he didn’t just pick up words and phrases with ease but could produce conversation that related to his circumstances…I’ll give you an example.

One time when the women went off to Ballater for a short holiday Polly was taken along as well, in his cage.  When they arrived to catch the Deeside train at the Joint Station Polly shrieked out, “Hire a cab! Hire a cab!” All went well and the women settled in but somehow or other Polly escaped. This was on a Thursday and the following Sunday morning a local crofter opened his door to discover the poor wee bird cowering on his doorstep, cawing in distress. The man called out to his wife, as reported later, “There’s something at oor door. I ken na gin’t be beast, body, speerit, or deevil, but I wish ye wad come oot an’ see’t.”

The parrot sensing the woman was a body with a bit more sense spoke to the wife, “Take me in, I’m very cold, I’m very hungry, very thirsty. I’m Polly Walker, 32 Witehehall Road, Aberdeen. Take me home!”

And so they did take him in and fed him before heading out to the kirk service. There they heard of a missing bird and a reward of £5 for its return but thought little of it since the description didn’t seem to fit their visitor; the lost bird was said to have a crimson tail and the bird at the croft had no tail at all. Despite this a message was sent to the women in Ballater who quickly arrived at the croft in a phaeton and when they saw the bird they agreed it wasn’t theirs before Polly piped up, “I’m Polly Walker, 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen.” The poor thing had been so desperate and hungry when lost it had pulled out all its tail feathers, and now I’m reporting what was said, sucked the sugar from their roots.

Off it went with its owners who nursed it back to health but the trauma of its adventure was such that Polly complained, “Polly, far, far away; lost, tired, cold, hungry, such a disgrace.”

Oh, and during its sojourn in Ballater the bird had picked up the phrase “You’re a devil!” from some of the local rascals but that sentiment was excised from Polly’s vocabulary once back in Aberdeen.  

 ***

Three years later, in 1932, another Aberdeen parrot raised the alarm and saved lives when his owner’s house at 10 King Street went on fire and it called out, “Come here! I’m feart!”

***

My final parrot story is of a visitor to Aberdeen, this parrot was perched on the right shoulder of its elderly lady owner as she made her way  along Union Street. The year was 1924 and the parrot was called Monsieur Coco who bowed to a Press and Journal reporter, or so he imagined, who had been sent out to get an exclusive on the two strange birds gadding about the town. 

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

The reporter learnt the woman dressed in fur was a Mrs Pearse and her companion was “an intelligent Amazonian parrot.” Mrs Pearse was rather better known than her parrot. Formerly Mabel Cosgrove from London, her family were friends of Oscar Wilde’s and she was once married to a Mr Chan Toon, a Burmese barrister of the Middle Temple. She was something of a novelist, in her head at least, which may account for the following. On the other hand she was getting on in years and may have been suffering from senility but wherever the truth lay she claimed she was the widow of Pearse the Irish poet and nationalist executed for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and that the parrot had been with her husband in the moments before he was shot at Kilmainham jail but apparently sensing the approach of death it flew off into a hedge. 

In fact the Pearse she had married was an Armine Wodehouse Pearse who died in the Great War days before the Armistice.  She, herself, lived partly in Ireland but travelled extensively and appears to have maintained herself through robbery, blackmail and forgery, even claiming to have written or co-written plays with Oscar Wilde.

The parrot, she said, had been thrown from its nest by its mother when six hours old and quite featherless because its wings were paralysed. This was is Guadalajara and Mrs Pearse took care of him, feeding him on bread and milk and so he grew. From Mexico they travelled to New Orleans where she claimed the two witnessed the execution of two prisoners found guilty of murdering an Irish policeman.

She returned to Ireland and overcame reluctance to admit the parrot on grounds he was poultry and the Irish Free State was afraid of the spread of foot and mouth – though I don’t think birds get foot and mouth but then I’m no vet. The Irish customs officer let the bird in in exchange for a photograph of King George – which I find even more far-fetched than a bird with foot and mouth.

Once home in Ireland her parrot attracted suspicion, that it was “a new dodge on the part of the British Government for recruiting” and so Mrs Pearse and the parrot were given police protection. She countered these accusations by saying if anything the bird’s green and orange feathers were Sinn Fein’s colours and that, apparently, ended suspicion of it and her.

The parrot was a fluent French speaker, from their time in Paris and it was claimed had his portrait painted by the artist Dorin, as Monsieur Coco (the bird not the painter) and while in France he enjoyed a dejeuner of omelette and black coffee outside. In addition the parrot spoke excellent Spanish and English as well and was said to have had an extraordinary memory which is more than can be said for his mistress who appears to have confused memory with imagination.

 

 

 

June 1, 2016

Berry and Mackay : mechanical genius

DSC02555

 

I glanced up at the old brass ship’s clock in my kitchen and noticed the name on the face plate, Berry and Mackay and wondered who they were.

The clock came out of a long-defunct Aberdeen trawler and like many of the city’s fleet not only its clocks but many of its navigational instruments would have come from the business of Berry and Mackay.

Berry and Mackay were nautical instrument makers servicing the busy port of Aberdeen which was both a major shipbuilder as well as home to Scotland’s largest white fishing fleet for a chunk of its recent past. Up and down the land similar businesses to Berry and Mackay would have flourished where jobs were built around the sea and boats.

2044082_orig

Inuit wooden maps would have been carried on boats as navigation aids

It has been a very, very long time since people were content to use boats merely to fish along rivers or travel shortish distances through clinging to familiar coasts to exchange goods with nearby villages knowing where they were and how to get back home. Once they ventured farther away from their homelands life became a whole lot more precarious. You would have to have a pretty strong sense of adventure, or no choice in the matter, to venture forth to discover whatever lay beyond your ken.

When the first boat people sailed away from what we now call Africa some 1.8 million years ago those migrants landed in, well, what we know call Europe. Got a familiar ring about it? Around 7,000 BC the first people to populate Scotland paddled up at our coasts, gradually working their way inland along rivers.  How many died in the attempt we will never know but die they would have for navigating through the unknown was fraught with risks.

Away from familiar land features seafarers depended on plotting their routes by a combination of elementary maps and reading the sun and stars.

Last Receipt for Work Done, Aberdeen, February 1891

A chronometer, compass, barometer, telescope and clock supplied by Berry and Mackay in 1891

Over time sea charts and ships’ instruments became more precise with the development of instruments and one of the oldest, the compass, made it possible to follow a course based on the direction of wind when the sun wasn’t visible. The Chinese invented the first compasses and isn’t it strange that despite this they never set out to become maritime imperialists? As far as the west was concerned elementary compasses came into use many hundreds of years later, around the 1300s.

By the time Berry and Mackay came into being in 1879 when Alexander Spence Mackay became a partner in James Berry’s business (which he started in 1835) the pair were producing all manner of precise instruments – beautifully crafted in brass, bronze and ivory, including telescopes for part of the trade was optical. The company would have been the obvious choice to supply Aberdeen-built ships and vessels with clocks and navigation aids such as for the Orkney and Shetland Steam Coy steamer St Rognvald from Hall, Russell’s yard. Mackay was on board for its trials in May 1901.

180px-Im1951BNAl-Berry

More famous than the St Rognvald was the Thermopolae. Actually there were two Thermopolaes built in Aberdeen – the sail tea clipper and a steamer. In November 1891 the steamer’s three compasses were supplied by Brown and Mackay with Mackay again attending to ensure they “swung” as they should and remaining onboard during its trials to Belhelvie at full speed only leaving the vessel before it headed south to London and thereafter Australia.

Berry and Mackay were called as witnesses during inquiries into shipwrecks such as the foundering on rocks of SS Paradox of Aberdeen at Sunderland in the 1890s. Suspicion fell on a failure of her compasses but it was reported they had been in good working order and checked by Berry and Mackay just two years before the incident. Theirs was certainly an occupation that carried responsibility and nothing like as sedentary as it might sound with their fitting into vessels, testing, repairing and maintenance – not only at Aberdeen but anywhere around the country where their equipment was installed.

dials and parts

A collection of Berry and Mackay instrument parts at sale at an auction

The young Mackay attended Ramage’s School in Charlotte Street which focused on practical rather than academic learning and from there he became an apprentice with James Berry. The apprenticeship lasted five years and evidently he passed muster because at the end of it Berry made him a partner in the business, hence Berry and Mackay.

Both men were weel kent faces around Aberdeen. James Berry was a popular speaker on the subject of ship navigation and he participated at a demonstration of equipment at Marischal College when the idea of diverting the River Dee was being explored in 1846. At that same gathering there was a proposal for a time ball to be erected onto the Marischal tower as an aid to shipping.

Time ball at Greenwich

Time ball at Greenwich

A time ball was a large sphere placed on a high tower, so it was visible to ships in port, and raised and then dropped at a particular time, usually 1 pm so sailors could set their chronometers before setting sail. The Marischal time ball did not materialise as the university did not then have a qualified astronomer nor meteorologist needed to operate it.

WANTED, Stout Message Boy, – Apply Berry and Mackay 65 Marischal Street. (May 1893)

Berry, watchmaker cum nautical instrument maker who had various shops including one at 52 Castle Street died at the age of 83 years in 1890. He had been the son of a local shipmaster and married to the daughter of a ship’s captain and together they had five daughters and five sons (none of the daughters survived).  He had been first elected a councillor in 1849 and was re-elected later in his life following a long gap in his civic career and died still a magistrate, at his home at 1 Dee Place following a bout of gastritis. The son of a shipmaster James Berry had been apprenticed to watch and clockmaker William Spark of Craigiepark who had premises at Marischal Street and one of his fellow apprentices was the artist John Philip.

BERRY_MACKAY

 

On completing his apprenticeship Brown’s first business as a watchmaker and jeweller was in Stonehaven but he was back in Aberdeen by 1836 with a shop at the top of Marischal street before a move to 29 Union Street and back again into Marischal Street to the shop more familiar with his business making nautical instruments, later in partnership with Mackay.

James Berry was an accomplished technician or “mechanical genius” as his obituary stated who, along with a mathematics teacher, Mr Gray, helped create tide tables. His skill and knowledge were shared with enthusiastic audiences at the many illustrated talks and lectures he gave and he was active within the Seven Incorporated Trades as a member of the Hammermen Incorporation becoming a convener of the Trades – the oldest at that time, responsible for its Widow’s Fund.

Berry involved himself in all areas of town life and aside from being a councillor was also a Commissioner to the Convention of Royal Burghs, on the City Parochial Board, on the board of the Boys’ and Girls’ Hospitals, the Reformatories and Industrial Schools Board and Governor of Gordon’s College.

Berry’s partner Mackay died in 1914. Like Berry he was also much involved with Aberdeen’s Seven Incorporated Trades and like Berry he was a Free Kirker. Berry had abandoned the Established Church at the Disruption for the Free Kirk  (Mackay was too young to have been involved in that.) Mackay died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 57 years while on holiday in London and only six weeks after retiring and his funeral at St Clement’s United Free Church and Allenvale cemetery was attended by a large number of the great and the good of the city.

Berry and Mackay barograph

Berry and Mackay barograph

Their company, Berry and Mackay, had a lot of life left in it when the original two were gone and Walter Murray ran it until January 1940 when at the age of 65 he also died suddenly, while running for a bus in Aberdeen to take him to his Peterculter home. A  year earlier his life had been in danger when amidst a great storm he set out for the Orkney Islands from Aberdeen (just part of the job)  to adjust the compass on the badly damaged Swedish steamer Albania of Gothenburg,  tied up at Kirkwall.

In appalling conditions Murray boarded a train for Inverness and flew from there to Kirkwall. He made it in one piece and having adjusted the ship’s compass stayed on board to make sure everything was working as it should. There was a heavy swell as they rounded Shapinsay  and he had to make a difficult transfer off the ship to a motor pilot boat waiting to take him back to Kirkwall. Two miles from the port the pilot’s engine broke down and they drifted for some time in desperate conditions before power was restored and they got back to Kirkwall. Murray eventually made it home to Peterculter but the Albania was torpedoed off England later that year and two of its crew killed.

Berry and Mackay remained in business until 1975.

 

http://www.aberdeenquest.com/Play/LookandPlay/BerryMackay/Berry_Mackay_03.asp

 

 

 

Oak cased barograph pic.

trawler clocks that would have been found in fishing boats around the UK.

Octant is a navigational instrument for measuring angles in determining a ship’s position at sea.

May 11, 2016

Old Glenbucket’s land need reforming

DSC02353

Glenbuchat is stunning. More rolling countryside than majestic mountains it sweeps and dips and is a tonic to the eye. But behind the magnificence lurks a darker tale.

Raptor Persecution UK mentioned in a blog in 2014 that the Convenor of the Cairngorm National Park Authority (CPNA), Duncan Bryden, wrote to the Environment Minister about incidents of raptor persecution and “disappeared birds” – notably the first fledged sea-eagle for 200 years in Scotland had disappeared over the eastern area of the Park and such incidents he said, “threatens to undermine the reputation of the National Park as a high quality wildlife tourism destination.” Perhaps this is the point it should be pointed out North Glenbuchat Estate operates a grouse moor within the National Park.

The “disappeared” young sea eagle, hatched miles away on the northeast coast, is not the only victim to fall prey to Strathdon’s equivalent of the Bermuda triangle. Other satellite-tagged eagles have also perished here, in a National Park of all places, just vanished – well, not just vanished. The remains of one eagle was discovered, poisoned, in 2011.

http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/police-raid-estate-in-sea-eagle-enquiry/0010759/

Eagles are not its only victims. Various species have suffered a similar fate including the protected short-eared owl whose numbers are at risk – one was found shot dead here, its corpse hidden beneath a boulder. Another way of disappearing. Courts are still unwilling to curb the behaviour of rural criminals who wilfully destroy the nation’s wildlife.

DSC02347

Bellcote at Old Glenbuchat Church with unusual draped urn

Land reformer and now Green MSP, Andy Wightman, investigated the North Glenbuchat Estate, also in 2014, “one of a number of notorious hotspots of wildlife crime”. Andy has worked tirelessly to throw light on the shady world of land ownership in Scotland and delving into the murky world of who owns Scotland – precious few it seems – he found that in 2008 the Estate was purchased by the 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, George Ivar Louis Mountbatten. Take a few minutes to read Andy’s work on this area: From Glenbuchat to the Turks & Caico Islands.

It is odd to think, perhaps not odd in post-Panama Paper times, that Scottish glens can be owned by companies registered in far-away places with exotic names – such as the case with North Glen Estate Ltd. There is a deceptively similarly named company North Glen Estates Ltd which is registered in the UK.

flat gravestone Glenbuchat

Tracking down who owns what in Scotland would put a le Carré novel to shame.  It is high time land ownership in this country was simplified and out in the open. Andy’s  well-researched informative articles are illuminating which is more than can be said for our current land registration. Also please read the comments that follow his blog on Glenbuchat.

http://www.andywightman.com/?s=glenbuchat

http://www.glenbuchatheritage.com/picture/number404.asp

The North Glenbuchat Estate takes up part of the glen. In the 1960s death duties forced the break-up of Glenbuchat Estate and this is when the North Glenbuchat Estate was created and bought by a Major Michael Smiley of Castle Fraser who was connected by marriage to the Cowdrays of Dunecht, also into buying up properties in the area. Part of the original estate was retained by the Sole family, whose most prominent member is possibly David Sole, former Scottish rugby captain. In 2015 the Soles sold off their holding and so, too, did the Dunecht estate. 

DSC02376

Z-plan Glenbuchat Castle rubble-built with beautiful stone

Glenbuchat lies between the River Don and the Ladder Hills, 6 miles west of Kildrummy and just over 30 miles west of Aberdeen and was once a Gaelic-speaking area. At the end of the 16th century the estate incorporated Glen Nochty in Strathdon and at the end of that century John Gordon of Cairnborrow had a Z-plan tower house or castle built on a magnificent site over the Don whose crumbling remains are now in the hands of Historic Scotland, Alba Aosmhor.

300px-BonnieEarlofMoray

The Bonny Earl o’ Moray died from horrific wounds

Gordon was implicated in the murder of the Bonny Earl o’ Moray (Murray as in Andy not as in the eel) that gave rise to the popular ballad.

Ye Hielands and ye Lawlands
Oh whar hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
An’ layd him on the green

He took part in the Battle o’ Glenlivet at which Catholic clans resisted attempts to curb Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Huntly Gordons, Hays, Comyns, Camerons and Cummings though greatly outnumbered by troops led by Protestant forces under the Campbells of Argyll along with Murrays, Stewarts, Forbes, Macgillivrays, Macleans, Grants and Chattans appear to have been the victors. 

The last Gordon to own the castle was the famous Jacobite general, “Old Glenbucket” the mispronunciation coming from the German prince who became King George II of Great Britain and the monarch Jacobites hoped to throw out in favour of the Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart. Apparently “Old Glenbucket” gave the Elector of Hanover nightmares from which he woke up screaming “De great Glenbucket be coming” although I have to say that sounds like German via a Holywood interpretation of a house maid from Alabama.

turret Glenbuchat

Glenbuchat Castle remains hint at its once grand turrets and towers

Glenbuchat then became Glenbucket. It has since recovered its softer pronunciation with a “ch” as in loch not as in lock. Take your time to pronounce it and keep the throat open, don’t close it and you too can say it as it without sounding like some cranky old monarch. 

William Duff aka Lord Braco aka Earl Fife bought the estate in 1737. Duff was on the opposite side from Old Glenbucket, and an enthusiastic supporter of George II’s son the notorious Butcher Cumberland  whose troops tirelessly hunted down and savagely killed men, women and bairns following the Battle of Culloden – for decades. The flowers known as Sweet Williams were named after him, a name hugely offensive to many Scots, but here in Scotland, they are still sometimes referred to as Stinking Willies.

Corner Glenbuchat castle

Glenbuchat Castle

Angle turrets contained turnpike stairs and turrets were supported by flying arches

The Duffs built up a fortune through acquiring land across Scotland; a quarter of a million acres in and around Aberdeen, Banff and Moray. They were not alone. By the end of the 18th century land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few families. Though the Duffs acquired Glenbuchat Castle their seat of power was Duff House at Banff, to the east, not in Glenbuchat.

The isolated glen was opened up when a military road was pushed through early in the 19th century. Previous to this there were only tracks and drove roads used to walk cattle over the hills to markets, across to Speyside and farther down country to the south. Agriculture was, of course, the main occupation of glen folk. Their isolation from markets forced them into self-sufficiency which restricted the population the glen could support and delayed its adoption of modern agricultural practices when most other areas were responding to innovations of the Agricultural Revolution. In the glen animals continued to roam freely and improved crops were slow to replace traditional bear and oats.

DSC02386

Glenbuchat Castle   remains of one of the two square towers

While cattle were raised in the glen they were rarely eaten by its tenant farmers whose diet was mainly restricted to cereals and vegetables. Animals were reared to sell to those who had the money to afford meat and went to markets in the south for their flesh as well as for their leather hides and the sheep’s wool. Limestone quarrying was also carried out in the glen and remains of old lime kilns still exist.  

It was possible to earn money while living in the glen but as incomes improved so their lairds realised an opportunity to squeeze more from their tenants and rents were increased. Of course during economic depressions rents did not go down but inflicted greater hardship on the poorest of communities scraping a living in Glenbuchat. 

DSC02366

Glenbuchat Castle

Glenbuchat Castle was protected by a heavy wooden door and a yett and set at an angle in the building to secure the house from enemies. Over the door was inscribed  Nocht on Earth Remain Bot Fame. Its ground floor housed the kitchen and cellars while the laird’s accommodation was on the upper floors.

The nature of their existence forced people to co-operate with one another and farming in the glen was organised as self-sustaining communities – sharing tasks, equipment and animals in their ferm touns or clachans.

Late in the 17th century the glen had one shoemaker, a miller, one walking mill (a process in cloth-making – here it was woollen cloth from their sheep and linen from locally grown flax or lint), and three weavers. There were four weavers working in the 1840s as well as three wrights, three masons, three blacksmiths, two shoemakers, tailors and two wood manufacturers (perhaps carpenters?). Three meal mills operated early in that century and two waulk mills. The last of the mills finally closed in 1927.

http://www.buildingsatrisk.org.uk/details/893497

It was into the 1960s before mains electricity made it into the glen. Up till then heating and cooking was by open fire – peat, timber and presumably later coal once roads permitted the transportation of imported supplies from Aberdeen harbour.

landscape at Glenbuchart castle

Lighting at one time when no wax candles were available was by burning roots, sliced into strips and dried. As with every impoverished and isolated community the people of the glen were dependent on their immediate environment for all their needs, certainly in the days before roads. Apart from the castle and homes of wealthier individuals, buildings were constructed from dug-up turf, divots,  piled on top of each other and so too were roofs covered with divots over a timber framework. Tiny homes of two rooms, the but and ben with earth floors and an open fire where smoke eventually found its own way out through the opening in the roof, the lum. No luxury and certainly no privacy and horribly smoky.

When wine became taxed beyond the pockets of all but the wealthy in towns and cities so a taste for whisky grew and here lay opportunities for glen-dwellers to enhance their paltry incomes. Or would have done but then the potential of taxing whisky meant the government went to great lengths to ensure no ordinary spirit producer in the glen made anything from it. In 1821 a raiding party searching for illicit stills charged and took away 39 Glenbuchat men – some to jail. Imagine the impact this would have had not just on individual families but on the work of the glen. Not everyone was prosecuted for producing whisky locally, only the poor and vulnerable folk – ’twas ever thus.

Of the 138 people who lived in the glen in the 1960s only 91 remained ten years later. Making a living was more difficult than ever in a world of changed consumer habits. 

But one person’s problem is another’s opportunity. What was big in the glen? -apart from its hills and they aren’t that big. Wildlife. Which brings us back to where we started.

Some people value our wildlife and others say they do but what they really mean is they value it for the buzz they get from destroying it. Hunting stirs the blood of some. They lust after the brutal pastime. Birds and animals in their gun sights are not, well birds and animals, but game. Game was not/is not for ordinary people to take and eat, no matter how destitute they may be, game is property – of the laird and for entertainment or sport.

By 1820 Glenbuchat had become a shooting and hunting paradise – and co-incidentally a good earner for the laird – better than impoverished tenant farmer rents.

gamekeeper

With property comes laws and regulations to limit who can get access to wildlife – and to preserve these laws and regulations gamekeepers were hired to look after the interests of the laird’s nice little earner.

Go into Glenbuchat and admire the scenery, the little old kirk and churchyard and the remains of Gordon’s castle but leave the wildlife alone, please.

Glenbuchat churchyard

Finally, let us push for major land reform that is in keeping with the 21st century and stop tugging the forelock as though we still exist in the 19thC.

The local Rev. Robert Scott was a collector of local ballads – see The Glenbuchat Ballads – https://folkloreforum.net/2008/11/05/david-buchan-and-james-moreira-eds-the-glenbuchat-ballads/

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 2, 2016

O Albin! O my country! John Stuart Blackie

J S Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

Guest blog from Textor

As with all nineteenth century national cultures Scotland’s was an area of contestation. Scotland had lost its identity as a sovereign political state having been subsumed within in the larger formation of Great Britain and the United Kingdom; but at the same time the country retained its distinctive spin on law, education and religion. Added to these characteristics was the legacy of destruction of clan systems, some of which had challenged the rule of the Hanoverian settlement. Into the nineteenth century the question of what it meant to be Scottish had become one with numerous possible answers.

Before the half-century had gone, for example it stretched from the view of Walter Scott who recognised that something of value had been lost in the integration of Scottish life to the larger world of Britain but believed that the benefits of a more peaceable, stable and wealthy society outweighed the losses. In this way he was able to paint pictures of aspects of Scotland’s past as distinct, noble and worthy of praise but now anachronism. Scots could mourn their loss but history had moved on. Get over it.

Grampian storm

However, with the rapid and radical changes in social and economic life strainsof political thought developed which challenged what we might call the Tory radicalism of Scott. By far the most contestationist were those Chartists who used Scottish history to promote their cause of political and economic rights, who called up the ghosts of the past, in particular William Wallace, to rally opposition to all the corruption and injustice of pre-1850 Britain. Chartists challenged basic political power across Britain and gave voice to ways forward which would have appalled the historical novelist.

On the other hand there were those who came from the enfranchised middle class, those who had gained from extension of political power in 1832. They had found a place in the sun and at the same time, through education and religious attachment, were well aware of Scotland’s unique cultural history. Whilst these elements did not challenge the basic political and economic fabric of Britain it would be a mistake to see them as wholly complacent in the post 1832 settlement. One of the challenges they faced was the inherited rights and privileges of landed interests, not that they wanted to overturn the right to private property just that sometimes land use was called into question often manifesting itself as urban and rural rights of way entanglements.

Lion's Face Drive near Invercauld scene of Rights of Way battle in 1891

Lion’s Face Drive near Invercauld – the scene of a rights of way battle in 1891

Which, at last, takes us to John Stuart Blackie. JSB was born in 1809 into a middle class family, his father was a banker. He was educated at Peter Merson’s school in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate where, so the story goes, he would daily gaze on the sculptured figure of a knight mounted high on the town house known variously as Benholm’s Lodge and the Wallace Tower. What matters here is that JSB claimed this became the basis of his fascination and enthusiasm for Scottish culture and history. He like so many others mistakenly believed the figure to represented William Wallace.

Leaving the Netherkirkgate school in 1821 he began attending classes at Marischal College. In the same year his mother died. The poor women in her fourteen years of married bliss had given birth to ten children, six outlived her.

Lochnagar

Wildly compressing his years as a young man: JSB dropped out of university in 1824, tried his luck in a lawyer’s office but gave this up following spiritual turmoil akin it seems to the protagonist in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or the angst of Kirkegaard. Death became a fixation and religion the answer. He had been raised in a relaxed Presbyterian home, religion was there but as a guide rather than a dictator. But now he had religion and entering the ministry was to be his salvation, or so he thought. Hence it was in 1825, with his father’s permission and money he travelled to Edinburgh to find certainty and salvation. Interestingly he not only prayed deeply and frequently with his cousin Archy Gibson but also believed that good works were important which led him to the poorest parts of Edinburgh.

Restlessness once again overtook him and he was back in Aberdeen in 1826, still studying theology. This lasted until 1829 when his intellectual curiosity, and his father’s money, took him to Germany the most important event in his life; and before the year was out had given up all thoughts of becoming a minister and worse, at least for those who had hopes of him becoming a leading Scottish Divine, he rejected the Westminster Confession of Faith and turned instead towards a more liberal, historical and humanist doctrine which he was finding in Germany; he also discovered beer and Greek. From being a young man configured with thoughts of death, atonement and redemption he travelled across the liberal divide to arrive at the opinion that Scottish Presbyterianism was silly and pernicious, threatening to stunt the spirit and intellectual lives of children. This was balanced, if balance is the correct term, by his Scottishness, by his continuing sense of pride in the distinct contribution that Scotland had made in religion and despite his criticisms would have none of the bigotry of English High Churchism.

For a moment he toyed with Roman Catholicism but soon gave this up preferring Scottish Sabbatarianism to racket and rattle, fiddling and frivolity . . . and tasteless mummery. His antipathy to aspects of English culture was heightened by his experiences in Germany where he found that John Bull . . .speaks no German . . . is not a great favourite . . . proud selfish and has a mercantile spirit.

Deer stalking 2

Illustrating his secular turn of mind, on a walking tour to Florence he took the opportunity of studying peasant farming and landholding using this to ask questions of Irish land law; and he expressed his support for parliamentary reform and read Shelley’s “Queen Mab” with enthusiasm. However, he was given little time to speculate on possible social injustices as his father had grown weary of the Continental Jaunt.

JSB was summoned home in 1831 where he was told to return to Edinburgh University to study law, which he did. A hateful experience which resulted in his admission in 1834 to the Society of Advocates. At the same time his father stopped JSB’s allowance. It was now sink or swim by his own abilities.

Resenting spending time on the minutiae of Scots Law Blackie resolved to earn a living from writing aiming at the burgeoning market for learned reviews but his central goal was find a university post in Scotland. Aberdeen at the time was a city being run by middle class, liberal Whig men. Blackie’s father Alexander was of this ilk and had the ear of these men. One of the ways of extending influence across the city and beyond was to have a university Chair filled by a sympathetic academic or even, as happened in Aberdeen, canvas for creation of a new Chair and connive to have a suitable candidate win the post. A Chair in Latin was created at Marischal College of which Blackie said a Whig job it unquestionably was, not that this made him unhappy, far from it. With strong political friends he had every chance of winning the Chair. There was one fly in the ointment: his rejection of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was horror-struck, for to accept the post meant signing up to Calvinism, a condition of teaching at universities.

JSB was no fool. He had the wit and the legal training to get round issue, a little deceit and fancy footwork was the answer. He signed the Confession which was accepted and ratified by the Presbytery. To the Church of Scotland’s horror the new Professor then admitted that signing of the document was not a statement of his own beliefs simply a statement that his teaching would be within the bounds imposed by the Confession. A storm blew-up but in the end the blast of a trumpet for secular education was heard and Blackie began his university career in 1841.

Deer stalking

JSB found teaching at Marischal too constrained and hidebound. He wanted a bigger and more stimulating environment for his pedagogic skills. With Greek being his first intellectual love he set up the Hellenic Society, took to lecturing to working men and women outside the university bounds where he found a more receptive audience; in contrast the university had a low standard of attainment and ambition. With this opinion it is hardly surprising that he was on the lookout for a post away from Aberdeen. But it took years for him to find a job which he eventually did in 1852 when he was appointed to the Chair of Greek at Edinburgh University, this after again undergoing questions as to his religious affiliation which he had said was the gospel of the heart as found in the New Testament. Unlike the youth of the 1830s he now had no interest in going into a corner to look at the point [of my nose] and solve the mystery of the Trinity. Nonetheless, he might not be interested in biblical nasal gazing but some men who influenced university appointments were concerned and it took hard canvassing by Blackie to win the post but win it he did. He remained at Edinburgh University until retirement in 1882 and died in 1895.

Within the sixty odd years of active intellectual life JSB displayed an amazing ability to at one and the same moment be the odd man at the table, the one who looked and sounded wrong to men and women of conventional wisdom yet always seemed to be welcome at the table. Perhaps it’s a bit like fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle (Blackie described him as a notable monster) who cried misery to Progress and so much of what Victorian Britain stood for yet was keenly read and listened to by both a middle class and working class audiences.

Blackie differed in many ways from Carlyle, he had a joy of good living of company and the pleasures life, including female company (he had married in 1841 with a most unconventional romance). Unlike the London based “Sage” he was not miserable. But he did, like Carlyle, betray that willingness to express affection for working men and women, for their capacity to deal with adversity, their willingness to labour and to grasp at learning. But again like Carlyle grasping could only go so far. Under the tutelage of enlightened men such as himself industrious classes could find a better world, unease only emerges when working men and women begin to formulate alternatives generated by themselves. As with so many of the middle class reformers of the 1830s JSB could not get his head around the notion that Chartists might be proposing alternatives which needed to be taken intellectually seriously. Attending a Chartist meeting in 1843 he heard a meagre scarecrow of a man extolling Carlyle’s critique of industrialisation, pouring out floods of real natural eloquence on the triumphs of democracy. Much impressed by the physical looks of the orator and the voice the Professor of Latin pulled back from full endorsement, perhaps not wishing to be deceived as he had deceived the Presbytery of Aberdeen. Appearance and sound was all very well but what of the Chartist substance? And this was found wanting.

Glen Callater

Glen Callater

Democracy, there was truth there too, but more than half-a lie. I believe the majority are good-but are they wise can a multitude of passion-moved men be wise? His answer was no. Critical thought and wisdom of any value could not come from mass movements rather it was to be found with a solitary sage in a chamber. Having said this when in 1843 the Scottish Church split Blackie sided with the dissenters, which in Aberdeen was all the ministers in the city, describing the men who walked out of the Church as noble but these men were of course from a respectable class.

But to return to his Scottishness, apart from wearing a plaid as everyday dress he asserted his national if not his class identity by questioning land usage in the Highlands. Addressing the problem first broached in the 1830s he turned to the medium of poetry to show his distaste for families being cleared from land. Like his one-time colleague at Marischal College, William MacGillivray, Blackie walked Scotland. This gave him ample opportunity to see the cleared land and with him learning Gaelic in the 1860s was able to speak directly to men and women forcibly driven from crofts.

Braes of MAR

The poems he published in 1857 under the title “Braemar Ballads” gives vent to his anger and sadness at viewing deserted and ruined clachans across the landscape: Where the stump of a stricken ash tree/ Shows the spot, where the home of the cottar should be. Villain of the piece is the destruction of social unity which, he said, had underpinned Highland clan society being replaced first by sheep farming then deer forest. It’s not great poetry but the message is clear, the chieftains are gone, the kind lords of the glen have left the heather muirs, they bartered the rights of the brave Highlandman putting what should be a Scottish heritage into the hands of stalkers of deer . . . lordlings that live for the pleasure to kill. Make no mistake the man hostile to organised Chartism makes a searing indictment of clearances: O heartless lords, O loveless law, with calculation cold / Ye sold the mighty force, that glows in faithful hearts, for gold . . . Woe unto you, the grasping crew . . . By Heaven, it is a lawless land! We boast that we are free. And he asks how and why this has happened. Having pretty well jettisoned the ideology of Providential acts with his turn to the morality of love he squarely puts the blame on the drive for wealth and money and the absolute right of an owner to dispose of property as he or she saw fit.

Clearances, he said were a man-made phenomena, one that his beloved Scotland needs hang its head in shame: O Albin! O my country! O my dear Highland home/ The lust of gold hath ruined thee, the lust that ruined Rome. Absentee proprietors he wrote These be the masters, Scotland! Commerce was the problem. A society which centred its activity in manufacturing for profit rather than expanding the moral worth of individuals was bound to slip towards treating men and woman as numbers in an accounting ledger. This was a theme he had touched on in the 1840s when he encouraged Aberdeen male shop assistants to treat with both customers and employers for the restriction on what we would now call unsocial working hours. Long working days Blackie said gave little time for education and appreciation of the better things of life. Interestingly the shop men found a great deal of support for their request amongst Aberdeen’s great and good but there was little similar enthusiasm for improving the working conditions of men and women employed in more industrial enterprises. With this moral stance it should come as no surprise that JSB was hostile to utilitarian philosophy.

Deer stalking 3

Land use and tenure had to change, one remedy was to find men in Parliament to represent the needs of small farmers and find some way of restricting the spread of large farms; to bring back the form of close relationship which had at one time, he believed, typified clan society. Absentee landlords could have no feeling for the men and women of the land and being a Gaelic speaker he excoriated those who lived in the Highlands but would not learn the native tongue. We should remember that the university professor had got his first step up the academic ladder with the assistance of Aberdeen’s Whigs, men who favoured (without being absolutists) the free play of the market and the right of capital to make capital. Clearly any whiggism retained by Blackie was held within his moral critique. His liberal view of religion and pedagogic humanism melded with the large ethical stance to make him a man well-able to sit with academics across Britain and beyond, to flirt (literally) with women of the highest social standing, be invited to the houses of great landowners and give talks on politics, literature to working men. Looking at JSB it is easy to conclude that for all that he made the call to action a central issue of his philosophy he was sufficiently distant from it to actually upset the social circles he inhabited. But this would be unfair. For all his deviousness in rising to his first professorship he did raise publicly the issue of the right to teach without affirming membership of or agreement with the Church of Scotland; this was a conscience issue which he resolved by being cleverer than his opponents. Similarly his outspoken attack on clearances could have threatened to close many doors in his face. Indeed following the publication of the poems he was encouraged to write a letter The Times setting out his views; this was no shrinking sentimentalist, my whole breakfast table was deluged with papers about the desolation in the Highlands. In 1883 Blackie demonstrated his continued commitment to reforming Scotland’s land laws; he gave evidence to the Napier Commission where he called for fair rents with fixity of tenure for small tenants; called on restrictions on both large sheep farms and deer forests and for a Royal Commission to look into some way of redistributing land to the benefit crofters. These and other points made by him showed that the example of Ireland with soul-destroying poverty and rapacious landlords and Gladstonian liberalism’s attempt to relieve the conditions of the poor farmer was not lost on JSB. Unlike some of his contemporaries he did not blame Popery for the sad state of Ireland it was, he said, down to the English . . . [who] sucked the blood systematically out of the people; the English were filled with measureless greed. Scots it seems had nothing to do with the state of Ireland which sounds a bit like his plea that it was English landlords who brought the Highlands down, move along no Scots here. Paradoxically for all the denunciation of clearances he had a very good relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, one of the most kind-hearted easy-going . . . creatures that I have ever met . . . a sweet blooded race these Sutherlands. There is surely a question mark over this view of the family notorious for its clearances. Probably the solution to the tensions and dissonances in Blackie’s social policies is that on the one hand he wanted to avoid materialism (philosophical and otherwise) of liberalism and the closed reactionary bulwarks of the Tories. Thus he would swing between them, looking for spiritual values, liberal education and decent treatment of the poor. Liberals gave so much as did Tory paternalism, at one point he wrote that Tories are the best landlords and true friends of the crofters; and the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland would have fallen into being the best of the lot as they were drawn from the old heads of houses and clans. Flying between the two poles of liberalism and Toryism of course left him adrift from the one philosophy of action emerging from outside his class, namely socialism. For all the progressive things he stood for he was constrained within the limits of his class vision forced to search for solutions and salvation in the world of commerce.

April 23, 2016

Scottish alchemists in search of the philosopher’s stone

 

teniers alch
If only the alchemists of centuries past had the key to creating great wealth out of nothing that our directors of banks and industries have discovered life might have been a lot less dangerous for them.

Alchemy: the ancient art of transforming one thing into another and achieving wisdom and, hopefully, gold along the way.

Let’s face it few are interested in wisdom but the art of transforming base metals into gold, well that was something else entirely. Every avaricious, greedy prince and tyrant wanted two things out of life – greater power and greater wealth – which made life precarious for the alchemist.

Imagine if you claimed to have a recipe for turning a lump of base metal into gold – do you think you’d be allowed to get on with life or might you find yourself hunted down, locked up and tortured until you revealed your secret formula (which let’s face it were worthless)?

The philosopher’s stone* was the name given to the substance that was believed to transmute base metals into noble ones (such as gold) and its secret was sought for centuries by men and women through experiments with metals and minerals. They were known as alchemists and they popped up just about everywhere in the known world but I’m going to concentrate on one or two Scots associated with the craft.

Alexander Seton’s launch into the cunning art of alchemy began when a Dutch ship foundered off Scotland’s coast at Seton near Edinburgh in 1601 and Alexander Seton was one of those who rescued its crew. The ship’s pilot and Seton became friendly and the following year the Scot visited the Dutchman in Holland and as they parted Seton produced a piece of gold in front of the astonished Dutchman as a gift.

News of the amazing creation quickly spread and Seton, it seems, was happy to display his remarkable ability, repeating the performance all around the Continent accompanied by his servant William Hamilton. While Seton wasn’t particularly Scottish-looking with his French-cut beard and florid face Hamilton was – red-headed and bearded (Scottish not French).

cosmopolite

At Strasbourg Seton demonstrated to a local goldsmith how to make gold and gave him a portion of the powder he used in his transmutations. The goldsmith successfully replicated the process until he ran out of the powder given him by Seton and soon gained a reputation for the feat. His name was on everyone’s lips and soon it came to the notice of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague who ordered the goldsmith to his court.

Realising he was in trouble, the goldsmith explained that a Scotsman, now gone away, had supplied him with the powder  and it had run out but this cut no ice with Rudolph who insisted the goldsmith supply him with gold. Of course he could not and tried to run away but was captured and died in the Emperor’s tower prison.

Seton was not so naive and as he moved across Europe he frequently changed his name to avoid detection though still practising his art – each time amazing those who witnessed his experiments. In Frankfurt-am-Main eyewitness watched him add his secret powder to an ounce of mercury and potash heated in a crucible and when the mixture was really hot a pellet of yellow wax was dropped in. The result was gold which was then weighed and assayed as twenty-three carats.

Subscribing to the scheme of thought, best to leave them wanting more, Seton soon made himself scarce only to pop up somewhere else, replicate the procedure and move on leaving an air of mystery behind. People called him Cosmopolite (citizen of the world), for want of his own name.

pinakas alchemy

He and Hamilton continued to roam around the Continent demonstrating and promoting the art of alchemy always one step ahead of discovery until Seton was overheard asking for lapis lazuli in an apothecary shop in Cologne. The city was full of self-proclaimed alchemists and alchemy detractors – well where else would they congregate? – and so it was suspected this stranger wanted the lapis for such practices and laughed at another puffer in their midst. Seton felt he had to defend the art and so set up a demonstration. Once again gold was produced, this time from antimony oxide heated with the magic powder. One man there insisted Seton repeat the experiment with lead and unseen by Seton slipped a fragment of zinc into the crucible with the intention of sabotaging the affair. Imagine his fury when Seton again produced gold.

Before he left the city Seton amazed a group of men by heating broken iron pliers in a crucible along with some of the powder and succeeding again in making gold which was duly tested by a goldsmith’s wife, herself proficient in metals, and declared true. By now Seton’s profile in Cologne was dangerously high and he and Hamilton fled once more.

A strange and frenetic existence was about to get a little bit more hazardous. Seton fell in love.

He ran away from Munich with a beautiful Fraulein to Krossen and was summoned to his court by the Elector of Saxony. Seton, being too busy on honeymoon business sent Hamilton to put on a show in his place. It all went well, perhaps too well, and Hamilton suspected anyone capable of producing gold from nothing would not be a free man for long. Sensibly he headed back home to Scotland.

Seton was taken by the Elector’s men and when he refused to reveal his recipe for the secret powder he was bound to a rack and his body stretched until his joints dislocated, he was whipped, stabbed and burnt with molten lead but refused to talk.

A Moravian called Michael Sendivogius planned to save Seton, to find out his secrets of course. He sold his house and with the money bought a great deal of drink for the dungeon guards. Once they were well and truly drunk he sneaked in and carried Seton off, for by now the Scot was so tortured he was incapable of walking. They stopped by Seton’s lodgings to pick up his stock of powder, and his wife, and made for Poland.

At Cracow Sendivogius asked that Seton reveal to him his secret potion. Seton refused but said he would provide him with sufficient powder to produce gold, and so he did, giving the Moravian all his remaining powder.

Seton died soon after and possibly in the hope of finally obtaining the secret formula Sendivogius married Seton’s young widow. She did not have the formula but still the Moravian had a substantial quantity of the powder Seton had given him and so he became an alchemist demonstrating in much the way Seton had done until he was kidnapped by a fellow countryman of his, a dignitary in search of the secret of gold.

Unable to provide him with the information Sendivogius was locked up in prison from which he managed to escape and set out again as not any old alchemist but adopted Seton’s title of Cosmopolite. He was not as smart as Seton and was tricked and all the remaining Seton powder was stolen from him. He lived long after that but without Seton’s powder his powers of alchemy were at an end.

***

The most famous of Scotland’s alchemists was Balwearie man Michael Scot or Scotus whose life straddled the 12th and 13th centuries. Educated at Durham, Oxford and Paris universities Scot was a philosopher, mathematician, theologian and astrologer. A polyglot, he was very well-educated and influential.

scott_casteldelmonte

At one time he was employed by Emperor Frederick II of Sicily as his court astrologer and fount of knowledge on just about everything under the sun: geography, astronomy, locations of hell, purgatory and heaven; volcanoes, rivers, seas, human souls. Scot was today’s equivalent of Google.

Men such as Scot were in great demand by rulers with some education who desired a whole lot more and Scot was hardly bashful about his abilities-
“Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour since by such a doctrine such as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.”

He was the author of books on alchemy including Magistery of the Art of Alchemy and Lesser Magistery which describe his experiments with alums, salts, vitriols, spirits in conjunction with herbs and minerals as exotic as you like from as far away as Alexandria and India. Nothing escaped his trials – dust of moles, owl blood, opium, toads he fed on herbs and vinegars.

He translated Liber astronomiae (Book of Astronomy) by Alpetragius (Abu Ishaq, Nured-din al-Bitruji al-Ishbilt), which examined Aristotle’s astronomical system and other Aristotelian works and wrote commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on natural philosophy and studied physiognomy (reading character from faces) and his De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione proved so popular it went to 18 editions between 1477 and 1660. He was also into chiromancy (reading palms).

Scot’s powers as a magician were marvelled at – he rode astride a demon horse and sailed the seas on a demon ship that terrified pirates. On his arrival one time in Paris it was said when his jet-black steed set its first hoof down on Parisian soil the bells of Notre-Dame rang out, the second hoof tore down the walls of the palace and before the third foot touched the ground the king of France promised Scot all he desired. As well as having a reputation so great that his name was woven into mythology, Scot dressed for the part in long flowing robes and pointed cap that have come to epitomise wizards.

Such was the faith in Michael Scot’s ability to see into the future the Emperor Frederick avoided Florence for that was where the Scot predicted he would die. Unfortunately the Emperor did go to Firenzuola and died. Firenzuola, which the Emperor should have known, means Little Florence.

Scot foresaw his own death from a blow on the head by a stone and so he took to wearing an iron helmet. On the one day he removed it during a church service a small stone dropped from the church roof and killed him (soon after which might demonstrate the power of thought for he feared just such a happening yet this was a small pebble.)

Sandro_Botticelli_-_Inferno,_Canto_XVIII_-_WGA02854

Michael Scot achieved celebrity or is that notoriety in Dante’s Divine Comedy where he suffers abominably for his arts and Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Quell’ altro, che ne’ fianchi è così poco
Michele Scotto fu, che veramente
delle magiche frode seppe il gioco
That other there, whose ribs fill scanty space,
Was Michael Scot, who truly full well knew
Of magical deceits the illusive grace.

(Dante’s Inferno, canto xx.115-117)

You must know then, sweet Master, that not long ago there dwelt in this city (Florence) a great master of black magic named Michael Scott (because he came from Scotland), who was greatly honoured by many gentlemen, of whom few are now alive.

(Boccaccio’s Demcameron)

The philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola disapproved of Scot while the French scholar Naudé supported him.

The Scottish 18thC Border’s Orientalist makes mention of Scot the magician in his Lord Soulis –

The black spae-book from his breast he took,
Impress’d with many a warlock spell:
And the book it was wrote by Michael Scott,
Who held in awe the fiends of hell.

Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) dedicated his mathematical work, Liber Abaci, to Scot. Liber Abaci was one of West’s earliest references to Hindu-Arabic numbers and examined currency, measurements, perfect numbers, Euclidean geometry, formulas for square pyramidal numbers etc and most notably a section on the growth of rabbit populations.

The most prominent Scottish author with references to Michael Scot is his namesake Sir Walter Scott who in The Lay of the Last Minstrel has him as the magician who divided the Eildon Hill into three.

300px-EildonScottsView

Scot was also worked into that marvellous writer James Hogg’s story The Three Perils of Man.

Following his death, Scot’s body was returned to Scotland from the Continent and along with his magic books he was interred in Melrose Abbey – or so it is said. The reason for his books being buried along with him might relate to the legend that within his books were such secrets, even fiends lurked within, and anyone who opened them up did so at their peril.

***

King James IV’s interest in alchemy was such he had a laboratory made at Stirling Castle around about 1500. He was the man who left two babies with a dumb woman on Inschkeith Island in the Firth of Forth as he was curious as to which language they would speak – apparently “good Hebrew” .

Hugely interested in the world and its mysteries James IV studied medicine among other subjects and would pay people to have him do things to them, medically speaking. At least he asked – and paid for the privilege.

But to return to the alchemist lab at Stirling. There the alchemist-in-residence, an Italian called Damian, dressed appropriately in a damask gown and velvet hose when carrying out his experiments on metals and minerals: gold, silver, lead, tin, sulphur, white lead, cinnabar (a bright red form of mercury), alum, aqua vitae (distillations of substances from ethanol to whisky [a lot of it]). The lab contained the usual paraphernalia you see in illustrations of similar alchemist workshops – bellows to fire up charcoal, peat, wood and coal furnaces for heating substances, glass flasks for holding solids and liquids, mortars to crush minerals and gems, vinegar to produce metal salts, sugar (no idea) and so on.

Damian was not the most successful of alchemists, nor great at flying – a feat he attempted from high up on a tower at the castle. He broke his leg on landing and blamed his failure on having used the wrong kind of feathers for his wings and, as the author John Holmyard commented – “Had eagle feathers been used exclusively he would no doubt have touched down at Le Bourget.”

Napier-Portrait

John Napier

The illustrious Scottish mathematician and magician John Napier of Merchiston of the 16th and 17th centuries and inventor of logarithms was captivated by the sciences of alchemy and necromancy so that it seems only appropriate his constant travelling companions were a black spider and a black rooster.

My final shout to Scottish alchemists is one who really wasn’t one but more a conventional chemist who had a particular interest in crystallography, a 17th century Aberdonian called William Davidson who became physician to both the Kings of France and Poland. Davidson was the first to occupy a chair of chemistry in France, in 1648 and apparently the first person from the British Isles to become a professor of Chemistry. He wrote an influential work called Philosophia Pyrotechnia seu Cursus Chymiatricus which integrated Neoplatonic, Paracelsian and corpuscular theories. Davidson was a popular lecturer and his talks on chemistry at the Jardin du Roi attracted all sorts of people, including England’s philosopher Thomas Hobbes and diarist John Evelyn.

220px-Williamdavisson

William  Davidson sometimes spelled Davisson

Alchemists were chemists, men or women who mixed substances together to create something else more significant – or tried to. Their claims to be able to make gold made them into targets for rapacious individuals who would stop at nothing to learn their ‘secrets’. Their laboratories were often little more than a corner filled with the accoutrements of their art. The substances they used were often dangerous and the life they led and the claims they made certainly made their existence fraught with menace too. By comparison today’s fat cats and company directors who award themselves and each other obscene bonuses on top of obscene salaries have no need of the art of alchemy, the art of kidology does them nicely.

*Philosophers’ stone created from a complex set of operations involving grinding, combining, distilling, condensing and much more to produce a very volatile substance known as water of the Sun and from this liquid all sorts could occur, or not.

April 10, 2016

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down…PFI

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down

Falling down, falling down.

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down

PFI.

Private Finance Initiative aka Public Private Partnerships aka Milking the Public Purse

Surely someone is responsible – who could it possibly be?

Oxgangs Primary

Let me take you back – if you have a moment – to 2001 when the then Scottish Executive signed a contract worth around £360 million with a private consortium to build and maintain schools in the capital. What could possibly go wrong?

Labour was in power back then – I know – it’s hard to believe. The Scottish Executive proudly announced plans to build or refurbish some 110 schools across Scotland at a cost of £2.3 billion. Many of the schools had stood since Victorian times and it was thought a good idea to modernise the sector but the projected figure of £2.3 billion was queried with fears that, one way or another, we the public would end up paying through the nose for the deal.

McConnell makes investment pledge

Jack McConnell with Helen Liddell

Jack McConnell takes delegates’ applause

By BBC News Online’s Brian PonsonbyJack McConnell has committed the Scottish Labour Party to a programme of investment in public services which uses private finance as well as government cash.

The first minister told delegates at the party’s conference in Perth that he intended to “invest to build public services for the 21st century” with “public capital and sometimes with private capital”.

He also promised to build or modernise 100 schools under Public Private Partnerships (PPP) over the next four years.

We’ll work together to sort out how we give people the maximum return for every one of their pounds we are spending

Jack McConnell
First Minister

His commitment sends out a clear message to the trade unions that he will not be deterred from using PPPs to boost public services.

Mr McConnell’s message was delivered just hours after Scottish Labour narrowly escaped a union-led defeat of a policy document which advocates use of private finance. (Sat 23 Feb 2002)

 

PPP/PFI arrangements tie in both parties for decades and it’s not just a case of paying off the initial investment but interest on the investment was added for all the years of the contract, naturally. PPP also meant oversight of public developments were transferred into private hands including scrutiny of standards of construction and bearing in mind profits and rewards for shareholders are always central to private capital institutions that should have raised concerns.

Of course many criticised the policy at the time, fearing for the quality of these PPP schools, but a spokesman for the Scottish Executive insisted:

“PPP is delivering real results for teachers and pupils and they do represent value for money.”

Who was that spokesman? Please get in touch and explain your definition of value for money.

The savings promised by PPP  schemes were illusionary. Edinburgh’s schools are merely the latest evidence that in the end PPPs cost the public purse dear. As well as hidden expenses buried within contracts companies involved in PPPs have not infrequently  been linked to offshore tax havens – for tax efficiency I think is the appropriate technical term.

Why don’t public bodies just borrow to build? You may well ask. I believe there is a limit on local authority borrowing but PPP has shown it was not a suitable alternative although similar schemes are still being undertaken. 

Introduced into the UK by the Tories in 1992 as Private Finance Initiative the scheme was meant to reduce public borrowing and was enthusiastically seized upon by incoming Labour governments starting under the reign of Tony Blair. Despite outrageous claims promoting their benefits PFI/PPP were soon costing tax payers eye-watering amounts to maintain as budgets took on lives of their own and contracts were shown to be not so much written up as stitched up.

mcconnell - Copy

With many PPP project costs spiralling out of control authorities found it a whole lot harder to get out of them than make them in the first place; they had not noticed they had signed away their souls (our souls) to the devil. Anyone guilty of such misuse of public monies should be instantly sacked or jailed. They were not and will not be, of course.

PPP has been adopted world-wide and produced a legacy of unfulfilled contracts which have drained community resources. This is especially despicable in developing countries where promises of improvements to infrastructure fail to materialise at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable.

As the PPP revolution became tarnished as tawdry profiteering other schemes have been set up in a cash and grab culture affecting public services and cash flows. Look no further than what’s happening with the NHS (in England and Wales at least) whereby this valuable asset is seen as ripe for plucking by businesses with an eye on a quick- and long-lasting buck. Contracting out is a massive con and it only requires a cursory glance at former government ministers who have taken up positions on boards of health-related companies to see how much self-serving and unscrupulous greed is at the heart of the UK government.

sky bridge

Twenty years ago was when many of us in Scotland had our eyes opened to this muddying of the roles separating private and public where public services and assets were concerned. In 1995 the Skye bridge was built through a funding arrangement with a North American company. Under the name Skye Bridge Ltd it financed and controlled the bridge which meant it charged people to cross – huge crippling tolls that hammered locals and local businesses who had little choice once the ferry was removed; the most expensive bridge crossing in Europe it was claimed with charges equivalent to £5.70 a mile. Well organised protests led to frequent attendances before the Dingwall sheriff who imposed fines and a few prison sentences in an attempt to damp down resistance. In 2007 under huge pressure from public opinion the Labour-Liberal administration at Holyrood was forced to end this unfair tax on bridge users and the bridge was purchased from Sky Bridge Ltd for £27 million. Given that the initial cost of its construction was a modest £15 million this amount looks steep but then the private financiers were enjoying a cash bonanza from crossing charges to the tune of £33.3 million – that is £33.3 million plus £27 million – and that’s what we know. Not a bad return given their operating costs were estimated at £3.5 million.

new craigs

New Craigs Hospital .

Former Labour health minister Susan Deacon (partner of BBC’s John Boothman) proudly opened a new psychiatric hospital in Inverness in 2000. It cost £14 million. That is £14 million for starters. In fact you and me and just about everyone in the UK, except the mega rich who salt away their cash, ended up paying an eye-watering £106 million for this modest building and the contract agreed by the Scottish Executive had handed over the land it stood on to the financiers until the 22nd century unless NHS Highland coughed up to buy them out. Who could possibly have agreed a contract like that?

I would love to hear Susan Deacon’s opinion on how this was value-for-money for taxpayers.

In 2008 alarm bells rang out when 3i Infrastructure Ltd, registered in Jersey, became a major shareholder in planned refurbishment of schools in the Highlands. As the Herald explained at the time, before we all became experts on the practice, off-shore registered companies pay no UK tax on profits – so – whatever they earned from this school project they would not be contributing to- er, schools and education in this country in quite the way the rest of us do through being taxed at source. As long as we are all clear on that I’ll carry on.

Inverness Airport was another Highland PPP financed project. Agreed in 1998 as a £9.6 million deal it promised a new terminal at no cost to the public purse initially. In this arrangement the private financiers, Inverness Air Terminal, were paid £3.50 for every passenger travelling through the airport. Within six years the cost of the project had been met BUT the contract was not due to end until 2024 – I’ll leave you to calculate how much the remaining contract could have earned them?

Amidst huge criticism Scottish Executive ministers decided to buy back the lease from IAT for what is thought to have been £36 million – and all for a project that was to cost £9.6 million. It was good news for IAT, however, who recouped their initial investment plus £36 million.

You would have thought someone at Labour HQ might have twigged. Ach well, there’s public money to get them out of a jam so what did it matter?

PPP mcconnell

Which brings me back to Edinburgh’s great schools initiative involving Equion, Miller, Bank of Scotland and Quayle Munro. Step up then Edinburgh Labour Council leader Rev Ewan Aitken:

“We have been on a tremendous journey over the past few years and today marks an important milestone for our Smart Schools initiative…

Over the past three years as I’ve visited our new schools, the one thing that strikes you as soon as you walk through the doors is how the pupils, parents and staff have great pride in their new surroundings.”

Sometimes pride is short-lived, Rev.

“This is not just an investment in bricks and mortar but an investment in the future of Edinburgh’s pupils, both current and in generations to come.” he continued.

I suppose future is a moveable feast.

broon

Gordon Brown backed PPP

In old London town in 2002 there was an internal Labour Party spat going on between Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone ,who objected to proposed PPP funding of improvements to London transport. It did not take long before the London Underground venture was being described as “one of the great scandals of the decade” – join the queue.

“Dismissing advice from experts and ignoring mounting problems over the contracts Chancellor Gordon Brown insisted they were pushed through because he did not want London Underground to be responsible for the much needed upgrade of the system.” 

darling

“Earlier this month Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, effectively blocked a fresh legal challenge from Mr Livingstone by indemnifying the consortia against any effect of any court action.

Under the PPP deal, Mr Darling is due to hand over London Underground to Mr Livingstone’s Transport for London (Tfl) body. But Mr Darling has said he will not do this if any court action was going ahead.

Just before Christmas, Mr Darling told MPs that the start-up costs for PPP, including such items as legal fees, had been around £500 million – a figure that was widely condemned by PPP opponents.

imgres

Mr Darling said today: “I welcome the news that London Underground has completed the deal with Tube Lines.

“This is good news for Londoners, at long last marking the start of the biggest improvement programme the Tube has ever seen.”

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: “PPP is a monument to the stubbornness of Gordon Brown who is the only supporter of the part-privatisation of the Tube.”

(Telegraph 31 Dec 2002)

Labour MP Margaret Hodge talked to the Independent about her party’s dalliance with PPP.

The Labour MP acknowledged that many of the worst PFI and PPP cases were negotiated by the Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, saying:

“I’m afraid we got it wrong. I was a supporter at the time but I have completely gone off the whole concept. We got seduced by PFI.” (Margaret Hodge MP 2014)

And of particular interest post-Panama Papers:

She added that it was especially “scandalous” that many of the funds that are buying up the contracts are based in tax havens. One of the early arguments in favour of PFIs was that taxpayers would benefit from contractors’ profits due to the corporation taxes they would pay. “But now the profits are going offshore and to shareholders,” she said.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-how-private-firms-make-quick-killing-from-pfi-9488351.html

PFI/PPP was another Tory policy Labour couldn’t adopt quickly enough. Building projects made them look like they were doing something – they were – and soon we were all paying for the madness that allowed private investment companies to name a number and get contractors to agree to add on several 000s to boost guaranteed colossal profits before sailing off into the sunset to we know where – some of them at least.

young

Have lessons been learned? Aberdeen Labour-led administration recently signed up to a misbegotten and hugely unpopular Marischal Square (not a square lest you imagine it is) project. It’s complicated so I have copied this description of the scheme from Aberdeen City Council’s website:

The preferred bid as approved at Council was with Muse Developments Limited and AVIVA Investors Realm Commercial Assets LP (Aviva). The overall agreement is made up of a number of parts and separate contracts between the parties. This is a commercial agreement between the Council and other parties and the full details of the scheme are commercially sensitive. However, the general basis of the agreement can be described as follows:-

ACC sold the site (excluding Provost Skene’s House) to Aviva (December 2014).The council has received £1million up front with the balance of £9million payable at completion in two years time

ACC entered into a lease with Aviva for the site, and will pay a rental from the completion of the development for a 35 year period

The Council’s annual rental payment realises a capital sum to undertake the development

Muse is obliged to build the scheme for Aviva to create a range of development space and in turn an income stream to the council

Muse are contracted to identify and tie in a Hotel operator. This is in place with the Hotel element trading as a Marriot Residence Inn

Muse are contracted to let the office, restaurant and additional space within the development on behalf of the Council

The capital sum above pays for the construction costs to build the development, the purchase price paid for the land, a profit account to be shared between the three parties, and a contingency fund to cover vacant periods and other costs. Further monies are set-aside for upgrading works to Provost Skene’s House and public realm works within and outwith the scheme

After the 35 year lease period the Council can choose to buy the development in its entirety (including the land) for £1

The council is liable for the annual rental and will carry the risk should the hotel and development not realise the income projected. The projected income on a fully let scheme is however significantly above the rental payment £100m Cancellation Fee for the ACC/Muse contract.

7.1 How is the £100m penalty/termination cost of cancellation of the contract, as mentioned by Willie Young, calculated?

7.2 Why have we not seen the contract yet Willie Young is able to tweet and disclose details of the contract. Has ACC/Muse authorised him to disclose?

7.3 Is the £100m penalty contingent upon the ownership of the land resting with ACC (i.e. prior to being transferred to Muse)?

There is no penalty or cancellation clause in the contract however as the council has previously stated there would be a loss in income of approximately £100million if the project were not to proceed. In addition, the Council would almost certainly have to pay damages arising from breach of contract. As is standard practice in the public sector such contracts are commercially sensitive and are not published.

7.4 Under planning legislation, ACC can cancel the contract. What is the cost of contract cancellation and how is it calculated? [Loss of profit should not be included.]
The transaction is a commercial transaction. The Council is not aware of any such planning legislation that could allow the cancellation of the contract.

Calculation of the £100m Profit

8.1 How does ACC calculate the claimed £100m profit? Is this £100m profit contingent on a minimum level of occupancy?

The Council will receive £10 million for the site – £1million now and a further £9 million on completion in two years, an equal share of the development profit, the difference between the lease cost to Aviva and the income generated by the development for 35 years and the value of the development in 35 years’ time. Money is also available for works to upgrade Provost Skene’s House, Broad Street and create the gardens and other public areas within the scheme. In all this benefit could be worth more than £100 million.

8.2 Why has the public not been alerted to the potential liability, rather, only the upside (which is not described as potential)?

The project was fully presented to the committee when a decision was made to appoint Muse as preferred bidder. This is a commercial contract. The council or any other organisation would not normally alert any other parties to the liabilities on any transaction. The council has always stated, since the decision was made to appoint Muse that the commercial agreement would include a head lease over the development site.

8.3 Has ACC assumed any value of the Marischal Square buildings as at 2050 when calculating Jenny Laing’s claim of a £100m profit over 35 years? [1]

In assessing bids of this nature it is normal to account for some degree of value in the site at the end of the lease. This would normally be site value or by comparison the value of other similarly aged buildings.

1 “Not only is it right in terms of bringing a much needed hotel and leisure facilities to our city centre it is right in terms of looking after the public purse by raising £100m over 35 years.” Jenny Laing, Evening Express, 5 February 2015

It’s all been done in the best possible taste and it’s all so out-in-the-open. Maybe.

I hope Edinburgh can patch up its schools quickly. Someone will have to bear that financial burden and I wonder who that someone might be? And those old Victorian schools? well most of them are still standing.

_89153569_councilleader

Councillor Andrew Burns (Labour) Edinburgh City Council

Oh, and here’s a handy wee list of who was behind public spending in the relevant years between 1999 and 2007.

Scottish Executive as it was then:
1999 -2003 Labour under Donald Dewar; Henry McLeish; Jack McConnell.
2003 – 2007 Labour under McConnell.

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12766277.School_PPP_scheme_a__apos_catastrophe_apos__for_pupils/
http://www.european-services-strategy.org.uk/ppp-database/ppp-equity-database/appendix-4-terminated-uk-ppp-projects.pdf
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12767627.Offshore_firm_to_make_tax_free_millions_from_Scottish_schools/

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,542 other followers