April 7, 2014

Move along now, nothing to see here – Aberdeen’s latest Civic Square debacle

marischal square plan 1

REVEALED! the latest vision aiming to regenerate Aberdeen city centre.

Yes plans for the hugely anticipated Marischal Square is moving on apace and it is worrying.

The publicity comes studded with those all-too familiar V words promising us a vibrant vision no less. Let me add a V or two of my own  - vacuous, vile, vulgar, very vulgar, vomitory.

Vibrant is usually a tag attached to something decidedly un-vibrant, hence the need for a tag to persuade people the emperor really is wearing clothes. For vibrant read bog-standard,  unexceptional and ordinary, very, very ordinary and here, dated designs.

marischal college old pic (2)

Marischal College is a magnificent building, world-class, a testament to the granite masons who sawed, carved and polished its fabulous frontage. It is the second largest granite building in the world and size matters in these things. It is the worthy public face of the city that has become Scotland’s economic powerhouse, a role reluctantly shouldered and modestly underplayed by the players who should be using the current economic climate to highlight its best features.



Consider Marischal College as the backdrop to a large expanse of nothingness but charm and wonder, let’s call it a square, in which people could congregate and marvel at the granite tour de force before them – this square would become a magnet for locals and visitors alike – on a par with squares in, and let’s be modest here, Brasov, Nuremberg and Sibiu.




Sibiu, Romania

Sibiu, Romania

The current version of the proposal from Muse Developments is to partially conceal Marischal College with dated looking boxy offices, shops and a hotel.

This is risk-averse bog-standard city centre development at its weakest and will convince no-one to come to Aberdeen, instead confirm to exasperated residents of the city and shire that Aberdeen’s decision makers really should not be allowed out on their own but be secured in a place of protection. They are recidivist dullards who never tire of displaying their woeful lack of civic self-confidence.

There have been the usual ‘consultations’ over the Broad Street proposals which has been development-led . What should have been done was to let the public come up with ideas for the gap left by the demolition of the St Nicholas House complex.  The people of the area, not developers, are better placed to inform the council that works for them (supposedly) how best to preserve and flaunt both Marischal and the 16th century Provost Skene’s House. After all the people who live and work in the city are the ones whose lives will be most affected by the changes to this environment. Once it became clear what the majority wanted the concept should have been put out to an international design competition.

Broadgate, later Broad Street, where Lord Byron lived as a child

Broadgate, later Broad Street, where Lord Byron lived as a child


What we got was a developer, Muse, ‘incorporating’ we are told the wishes of the public following their initial design.

It is no secret in Aberdeen that people want a square i.e. an open area where they can congregate and absorb the magnificance of Marischal.What they don’t appreciate is having the wool pulled over their eyes by a developer and council banging on about Marischal Square when that is precicelsly what is not being offered.


marischal plan 2

This ‘public space free from traffic’ is council and Musa otherwise known as a street.

It is a street with hotels, shops and offices – how unique and brilliant a concept is that?

Marischal College will again be mostly hidden and so will the 16th century Provost Skene’s House relegated to a corner at the back much as it was with the St Nicholas House development.

16th century Provost Skene's House

16th century Provost Skene’s House

Where the traffic will go is chaos waiting to happen.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor and the council’s deputy leader who tells us the plans have reached an ‘exciting stage.’ There are a lot of people who view the refined plans as depressing more than exciting. Nothing Councillor Boulton, nothing about this proposal is in the least exciting.

Don’t believe the propaganda accompanying this latest architectural outrage threatening the city. Pedestrianised shopping streets are ten a penny around the country, around the globe.

Aberdeen had an opportunity to make its mark with a real show stopper of a civic square. If retail and hotel space are essential why couldn’t they be designed to run around an open square instead of closing in the area?

Why can’t the many unused storeys above shops along the length of the decaying magnificence of Unions Street be turned into hotel rooms and offices or even shops?

Regenerate Union Street and create a civic square worthy of the city and Marischal College.

It is clear from statements coming from the council that the very people trusted with responsibility for taking vital decisions affecting the future of Aberdeen  are not up to the job. Is there anyone among them who knows anything about world quality architecture? Anyone of them with ambition? (aside from personal).

Remember the dreadful design chosen for Union Terrace Gardens? Well they haven’t raised the game since that.

The council administration has changed but no lessons have been learned in terms of design or aspiration. This administration for all its criticism of the last one who pushed the misguided Union Terrace Web fiasco are pursuing civic irresponsibility in their own right. Are these people stupid?

Muse Developments controversially became the Labour-led administrations preferred bidder for the Marischal site. There were questions raised at the time over the bid process but it was declared legal by the Court of Session.

marischal plan 3

Last year criticisim was made of Muse’s design to develop Chester’s city centre, their plans described as ‘a missed opportunity to create a high quality and attractive area within the city.’ Quite.


In both cities business backed Muse’s plans in the hope of realising promised economic returns. Should short-term economic interests rather than civic integrity really be the driver in sensitive civic sites? Depressingly Chester’s experience is being repeated in Aberdeen.

Move along now, nothing to see here – nothing bold, nothing striking only a bleak row of boxes cutting through the splendour of Marischal and Skene’s.

Really could there be any design more out of sympathy with these architecturally interesting buildings?

Where is the cultural sensitivity? Where is the architectural merit, a sense of aesthetics in all of this?

Demolition of St Nicholas House complex reveals interesting aspects of Aberdeen

Demolition of St Nicholas House complex reveals interesting aspects of Aberdeen

This is a plan designed for people of a nervous disposition – frightened of change.

If you’re looking for an architectural legacy for Aberdeen’s children and future generations don’t look to this development – there is none.

It would make you weep.


Some comments on this proposal.

‘No surprise the Aberdeen Mafia aka HFM have been let loose on yet another swathe of the city. Sorry guys but this is still a truly grim proposal. You are really just replacing like for like in terms of the city scape. Not just the design of the buildings themselves but the whole site strategy – the same windswept square in the centre, blocked from any daylight and surrounded by windfunnels. There have been dozens of student projects that have come up with vastly more enjoyable and viable spaces for this same site.’

‘Reintroducing Guestrow is a nice idea but given the scale, massing and footprint of the new buildings it seems pretty disingenuous. If this is really to be reintegrated into the townscape and street pattern surely the site needs to be broken down further – this is still essentially one large building, mixed-use or not.’

‘Aberdeen city continues to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Aberdeen was one of the most architecturally beautiful cities anywhere in Europe but gradually it is being replaced with poorly designed concrete and steel monstrosities that are not in scale with the surroundings and clash with the design of the historic buildings. It is deeply depressing! We are consulted and then ignored which makes it worse.’

‘Contemporary, stunning, sympathetic, sustainable, long term, visionary, well considered… Some of the things that seem to have been missed with this one.’

‘You say that this is a refined design? i am afraid that it is still failing….a very poor design response to the opportunities presented by this site. What you have produced to date, lacks creativity and shows a complete insensitivity to the adjacent listed buildings. This design proposal is repeating the mistakes of of the 60′s/70′s. We have come a long way since then in our understanding and management of scale, relationship, materials etc.  The architectural solution on this site should be an iconic building which reflects the dynamic nature of the city not some bland compromise which fails to excite. Stop “refining ” your original concept for the site. Scrap it and start again. Employ an outside creative architectural design agency if your in-house people cannot respond to the requirements of this brief . The people of Aberdeen want an exciting aesthetic solution.’




April 2, 2014

Better Together’s Snake Oil Salesman

Don't believe a word the snake oil salesman says.

Don’t believe a word the snake oil salesman says.

March 25, 2014

Reasons to Vote Yes: Privatisation and the NHS

Private businesses operating within the National Health Service must be pretty pleased with how policies pushed by successive governments at Westminster have allowed their interests to flourish. Why would they not be? Opportunities in this area of social provision are staggering and perfect to boost company profits. Shareholders must be drooling at the prospect.

There was a time when those responsible for safeguarding and running the NHS – politicians – were proud to declare it the best health service in the world  and one of the greatest achievements in history – and some still do though what they mean by this now is less clear. The NHS became something of a sacred cow – a marker for how civilised the UK was compared with other countries with their piecemeal services based on health insurance and unequal access to care.  

You don’t hear so much of that now – now that the NHS is steadily heading towards the American health care model – the steady incursion of private providers such as Serco and Circle increasingly managing aspects of public health care.  Serco’s expertise takes in everything from nuclear weapons to health. Circle, established by former banker Ali Parsa,  is run along mutual lines with doctors holding a stake in the business.  I should point out in passing that just last week Serco’s finance director of outsourcing was on the point of resigning over a financial scandal involving the government.

National Health Service

In 1948 the NHS was started as a comprehensive health and rehabilitation service for the prevention and cure of diseases  in response to the miserable health provision available to the majority of people in the UK. The NHS was established as free at the point of delivery and available to all, paid for by the people through public taxation.

We all know how successful the NHS proved to be, and rather than fewer people accessing its services the healthier the population became, the scale and variety of specialist care led to increasing numbers turning to the NHS with issues never envisaged at its initiation e.g. IVF treatment for fertility problems and gastric bypasses.

When a national health service was proposed opposition from some quarters, notably well-off doctors who feared a loss of income through restrictions on private practice, were well aired. For most ordinary people, however, the NHS was welcomed and proved a revelation. Lives were saved and improved enormously. It is not possible for any of us in the UK today who didn’t live through the years before 1948 to fully comprehend the awful misery inflicted on the poor having to make choices between paying out paltry earnings on keeping a roof over their heads, putting something in their bellies or paying for essential medical treatment.

Over the last half century the lives of people in the UK have been transformed by the opportunities for decent care provided by the National Health Service and life expectancy as a result has risen by around 10 years.

The cost of upkeep of the NHS has also risen year on year which is why Westminster governments have looked to ways of offsetting some of that financial burden  onto the private sector – outsourcing to private companies to manage aspects of care. The private sector is regarded by some as more efficient than the public. That efficiency does come at a price – private is more ruthless in regards to its employees but it is not per se any better at the job it does although it does bring in alternative means of funding such as raising cash through shareholders.

So where is the NHS heading?

I fear that in England there is little chance of what today we would recognise as the NHS still being around in another 10 to 15 years time with increasing numbers of health trusts outsourcing multi-million pound contracts on the open market for everything from mental health provision to tests and diagnosis. In Scotland things are a little different. Here there has been strong resistance to interfering with what is regarded as a vital system of health care.

But in England there is a different perspective, from government at least. A choice between direct infusion of funds into the NHS or outsourcing to the private sector has come down firmly in favour of private. Austerity measures drive this to an extent, it is argued, but that doesn’t wash in a country that supports Trident. Funding for the NHS is ideologically driven and pretty well shared by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats.

England’s move into privatisation will no doubt lead to patients becoming clients and will be accompanied by the well-rehearsed refrain of those clients being provided with greater choices over their care. That  great myth of choice and the right to choose - such choices are always conditional in such circumstances.  The concept of choice so loved by rightwing commentators from both Labour and Conservative sides is not absolute – in some areas there will never be real choices of provision and moreover choice is mainly exercised by the wealthy and the middle classes creating gulfs in what was once a fairly equitable health service.  

A health care system operated by the markets will have as its number one goal, irrespective of claims from business people and politicians (sometimes the same people), the company’s profits.  Why would they not? That after all is their raison d’être.

Why are privately operated companies more likely to employ temporary rather than permanent employees? How does having transitory staff in hospitals fit in with putting the patients’ interests first?

Any private health care business will think carefully about where it operates to try to ensure success. Their bottom line is never going to be the service to be provided irrespective of cost. So what happens to the universal provision of care – does it become ghettoised? Like schools? Replacing the notion of universal care for competition at the heart of health planning has meant private providers are able to get more snouts into more troughs of readily available public cash.

In these so-called times of austerity NHS budgets are squeezed. Deciding that aspects of NHS care should be opened up to private companies is a political decision. It is dressed up as opportunities to improve care through competition therefore enabling ‘best value’ for patients or taxpayers or whoever – ie us. The slick, market-oriented operators breathing down the necks of cash-strapped health trusts are having a field day.

A second rate service provided by the state as a kind of safety net for the socially excluded and those not willing or capable of exercising their choices  will probably jog along for a time but the best service, the one that will be held up at election times as epitomising the best of British, will be that which is used by the better-off and the determined or pushy.

Of the billions of pounds paid out by UK taxpayers to provide essential services much will be siphoned off to pay for outsourced services from enterprising agencies and this is a national disgrace.  

Such a trend has meant ‘putting multinational companies in the driving seat of the NHS,’ according to former health secretary Frank Dobson. He was talking about the Labour government’s push to contract out to private and third sector providers.

Health care in England is being transformed and unlike the public body that is the NHS private enterprise does not have a duty to provide a comprehensive range of services only ‘such services or facilities as it considers appropriate.’


Who then is making decisions about health priorities in the UK?

Circle’s profits have risen from £170.3million to £192.7million encouraging the company to build more private hospitals in England. It and Capita (the UK’s biggest outsourcing company which earns half its turnover from the public sector) expect to continue to pick up contracts from NHS trusts whose incomes are stretched to breaking point. Privatisation in England is there to stay – hospitals and clinics springing up in Cambridgeshire, Manchester, Birmingham, Bedfordshire, Nuneaton, Bath, Reading – anywhere and everywhere.

For those who judge the NHS by the state of its waiting rooms and chipped paint corridors such rampant privatisation will be just what the doctor ordered. For those who recognise that each time a contract is put out to tender and won by a company operating for profit another part of the NHS is being undermined. At some point the whole edifice will go in all but name with implications for staff as well as patients. Actually the terminology has already changed from National Health Service with all that suggests to healthcare market.

Health care is devolved thank goodness. In Scotland at present the SNP government is adamant that the structure of the NHS is safe and there are no moves into the kind of health privatisation happening in England.

I don’t think we should be complacent however. Scotland has seen examples of reckless behaviour from Holyrood. In 2005 when Scottish Labour was in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats Andy Kerr then Minister for Health and Community Care announced a Scottish Regional Treatment Centre pilot at Stracathro funded under PPI which was duly opened in a blaze of publicity in 2007 by Jack McConnell then First Minister. The white elephant of the Golden Jubilee National hospital in Clydebank also established under New Labour had to be bought by the NHS.

While both the Scottish National Party and the Green Party in Holyrood have stated opposition to any privatisation of clinical services in Scotland’s NHS  there must be a question mark over what will happen in the future if Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats and Tories (those two in coalition presumably) get back into power.


Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats  have been criticised for their underhand methods when it comes to privatising health care – omitting mention of it in their election manifestos.  The Labour Party, very keen on Public Private Initiates, did include references to mixing private and public health care in its Westminster manifesto of 2005 – all in the guise of providing better, ‘more quality healthcare’ to ‘expand provision’ and ‘reduce waiting times’ but there was nothing in its Scottish manifesto before setting up the pilot at Stracathro and the National Waiting Times Centre later renamed Golden Jubilee National hospital –  all £180million of it built in 1994 and having consequently failed, bought by the public purse as an NHS hospital in 2002.

John Reid one-time Health Secretary at Westminster under Tony Blair tried to persuade Scots the ‘the medical market place’ was the way to go. Reid would no doubt welcome chief executive of LaingBusiness (a so-called healthcare intelligence company) William Laing’s observation that Circle’s success is ‘significant for all private sector providers to the NHS.

There doesn’t seem any way back for the NHS in England but here in Scotland we have a chance to hold onto what has proved an excellent provision for the past 60 plus years. Voting no in the referendum will put Scotland’s NHS at risk of going the way of England’s. It’s time for people to wake up to the real danger of losing this brilliant health service.

A positive vote for independence is the only chance we have to retain our universal health service, free at the point of use. Use your vote well.

March 6, 2014

Lady Alba – Bad Romance (Gaga for Indy) Turn up the volume and enjoy

The lassie’s voting yes, by the way. If this escapes you – you shouldn’t be allowed out on your own never mind given a vote in a referendum.

March 2, 2014

Granny’s heilan’ hame and expat Scots: Ian Jack and his friendly union

The impending independence referendum is now clarifying the thoughts of quite a few expat Scots over their relationship with Scotland.   saltire

‘All the best folk have left’ was Ian Jack’s father’s conclusion on the drift into England from Scotland, of which he was part, as economic migrants seeking a more prosperous future for their families. In his column Ian Jack (Guardian 1 March 2014) reflects on where independence would leave people like him were Scotland to cast off its dependency reputation and take up its place in the world as a thriving independent nation.

Jack is in melancholic mood. He reminds us his father’s view was shared by the poet Edwin Muir who wrote in 1935 of the impact of mass migration out of Scotland then emptied of, ‘ its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character.’ This was of course in the hungry thirties when jobs were scarce throughout most of Britain.  But Muir concluded dolefully that this led to ‘the increasing centralisation of all vital energies in London’ which turned Scotland ‘into a country where ‘meaninglessness and despondency hangs round.’

This all begs the question that if people were compelled to leave to improve their lot what does this say about the success of such a Union?

And what does it say about those who left for work and opportunity – who held such self-preening opinions? Were they the best? Do they consider themselves better than Scots who chose to stay and  invest their futures in with Scotland’s? Are we who have remained the dregs of a dead culture?

Jack writes of friendship between England and Scotland as if that would be broken by Scotland becoming a more confident and prosperous neighbour. This friendship we are told enabled Britain to become the economic powerhouse it undoubtedly was, through the fusion of the intellects of both Scotland and England and that this friendship gave us great institutions such as the British Museum, the British Linen Bank and the BBC. Jack marvels at the British Museum collections, rightly, which are available free to all and sundry. True except that such enthusiasm should be qualified for it is not free access to me or anyone in Scotland as it cost hundreds of pounds to get to it in the first place. So while I am pleased that Jack can visit often and it costs him nothing I feel no affinity for the collections, they might as well be housed in Beijing as London. Personally I would prefer if the British Museum had been built in Aberdeen.

Curiously when Jack refers to the heights of achievement of the Union’s pooled intellects during the 18th and 19th centuries he omits that other major institution, the British Empire. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with his gilded message. Instead we are steered towards London, to  gawp at this marvellous creation that is the ‘world’s greatest trading city’ but which from this side of the border looks like a giant drain into which eye-watering amount of wealth flow at the expense of almost everywhere else in these islands.

The golden age of the Enlightenment Jack hints might not have happened were it not for the Union which enabled intercourse between Jocks and, well what is the derogatory term for ‘the English’? This is of course that same period when Scottish intellectuals were ridiculed and mocked in England for their coarse way of speaking, their curious accents and quaint vocabulary. And irrespective of this the roots of the Enlightenment are pre-1707, growing as they did from the distinctive Scottish Presbyterian Kirk. So irrespective of a political union the Enlightenment, with all that conjures up, would have occurred here in Scotland.

There appears to be growing awkwardness, a sense of incomprehension among some expat Scots over how much Scotland has changed in recent years. They desperately cling onto their fond remembrances of the old country, taking subscriptions to the Sunday Post, attending classes in  Scottish country dancing and raising a nip glass to the Bard each year and perhaps like Jack fondly recalling rail journey’s north from their homes in England, on trains puffing clouds of white smoke (I only remember the soot that blew in open windows) as it chug chugs across Scotland’s barren heather muirs in search of granny’s heilan’ hame or a weekend but ‘n’ ben.  Those with such views have only misplaced sentimentality to offer and that is never going to enrich the minds and bodies of Scotland’s children or take care of our elderly population.

The reality is that Scotland has outgrown the Union. The drab arguments of BetterTogether hark back to the past viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. If the past was so great in the Union that formed the United Kingdom why did so many of ‘the best folk’ like Jack’s father, as he would have us believe, feel compelled to leave their homeland to evade poverty and lack of opportunities? Some golden age that.

I don’t doubt Jack feels confused and regards the prospect of an independent Scotland with ‘a personal sense of loss’ but then he lives in England whereas those who chose to stay and develop Scotland’s economy and society and retain what is distinctly Scottish, our strong sense of collective, will suffer no loss but will grasp out future with both hands.

We cannot live in the past. We owe it to our children and grandchildren and the generation of Scots yet unborn to provide them with a sustainable future so that they do not have to run away to make a living. For all the Jacks out there it is a pathetic outlook that expects the old country to remain set in aspic, just so they can venture north for an occasional holiday at home or that our rural areas should continue to be cleared of people to preserve them as playgrounds for the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’  brigade.

We who live in Scotland in the here and now don’t inhabit granny’s heilan’ hame or a wee but ‘n’ ben and we don’t exist in some Scotch misty- eyed Brigadoon – we live in an industrial age, sustained by the dynamics of fossil fuel extraction, agriculture and a future in renewable energies that will transform the lives of our children.

The Union was unpopular when it was formed back in 1707 but came to be accepted by most in Scotland, especially the ones who benefitted economically from it, but there has always been disquiet about the impact it had on the life and culture and yes, economy of Scotland.

Times change – England is changing and is becoming a less tolerant place. In England the NHS is under major threat and more and more we are finding that the differences between our two societies is growing ever greater.  Much has been written about the collective nature of attitudes in Scotland – because it is true. Scots are looking to the future to create a fairer and more equal society which must start with Scotland having its own voice in the world and not being a mere echo of the London-based political establishment that looks after itself first and foremost.

None of the main political parties run from England can offer us anything that is in any way good enough. The alignment of attitudes so long assumed by these parties are thankfully dissolving.  

As happy as Jack’s folks were to cross the border to improve their lives what they did should not be regarded as something positive – the notion of the ambitious Scot ready to get on his/her bike  but an indictment on the Union which sacrificed Scotland to the ultimate benefit of the southeast of England.

We don’t need this Union cobbled together in 1707. It’s time to dispense with the past, with the sentimentality that keeps Scotland as a dependency of its bigger neighbour. Scots will always come off second best in that contest. What we have to do is simple, to vote positively in September and if our friends and family in the south complain that we are not the place they fondly remember then I say that’s good because it means we have not in fact grown stagnant but are a dynamic and forward looking nation.

February 23, 2014

Roger Scruton English Nationalist and the vote for Scottish Indpendence

Roger Scruton is a right-wing English philosopher and English nationalist.

He was given air time recently on BBC Radio 4′s A Point of View to comment on Scottish Independence and whether or not the English should have ‘the right’ to decide on Scotland’s future. His view that they should has some support in England where there has been a fair amount of sneering and incredulity over Scotland’s ingratitude to the Union and desire by much of its population to get out of this political arrangement. Why should people in England have a vote on this? How much does your average English person know about Scotland? What they read in the Mail? What they see on their televisions? What they hear on the radio? 

scrutonVery little that comes across the airwaves or in the print media has much that is recognisable to your average Scot. Exasperation at lazy, sloppy journalism, tedious clichés and entrenched prejudices are the norm.

What does the average school child in England learn about Scotland? It’s safe to say practically nothing. Is Scotland ever mentioned in any subject they study? I doubt it. Not the last time I looked at the curriculum. Something called Britain is but that can be largely dismissed as entirely England making Scotland’s place and contribution to this Union all but invisible.  

As an English nationalist Roger Scruton’s position is clear from the outset and surely the reason the BBC gave him air time to let the world know what he thinks about the Scots and our desire for independence. His views were sandwiched between an episode of Any Questions which had as its sole representative of ‘Scottish’ politics a Unionist voice in the guise of the LibDem/Tory Minister for Scotland,  Alistair Carmichael, and a Radio 4 news reader who referred to Culloden (near Inverness where Bonnie Prince Charlie led his men to a brutal early death) as Culluden – the way a certain class of English personages pronounce it but which no-one living at Culloden does.

Do you ever question the impartiality and ‘national’ integrity of the BBC?  So back to Scruton.

Everyone can voice their opinion in the UK although only a very few have the privilege of having their views touted around by the big media outlets which are owned and/or run by the rich with their own agendas. We don’t all have equal access to sharing our thoughts on broadcast or printed media. People like Scruton do however so what is it he is saying?  In brief it is that if people in Scotland are entitled to a vote then so should English people.

I am reluctant to go back to the divorce analogy which created trouble for one MSP a long time ago but which now appears to be the shorthand of choice on the matter but if one partner decides he or she has had enough of a relationship which is causing them no end of grief then it cannot be right to have to consult whoever is causing their angst before phoning a taxi.

Scruton makes the interesting observation that the Czechs and Slovaks came to a political agreement over becoming independent nations. I agree with him that might have been the way forward – and may still be in the event of a no vote in September. After all the SNP’s majority in the Scottish government increased greatly over the past two elections so what was there to stop it going into negotiations with Westminster? The Labour, Liberal and Tory parties recite from the same hymn sheet that the SNP stands for nothing but independence so surely the SNP’s majority was its mandate to push ahead with independence.

Scruton is wrong about pre-Union Scotland and England being virtually identical just because we shared an island. Anyone who has lived in both countries for any length of time knows how different they are still, and were then, from each other in all manner of things from architecture to humour.

It is those who don’t open their eyes and ears who don’t notice the difference. To give Scruton credit he did later mention differences  such as architecture but put it down to something about the climate. Now I know there are people in England who imagine Scotland is somewhere attached to the north pole but really our weather is not too different from south of the border – only drier – in the east certainly. And so what has climate got to do with our architecture? Hang on while I adjust that ice block on the igloo.  Are our tenements the result of Scots gathering together to keep warm? Does he know about tenements? What can he be thinking of? Your guess is as good as mine.

He mentioned our shared religion. I don’t know what religion he was referring to – Protestantism? Probably but that’s where the similarity ends because the various Scottish protestant churches are very different from English ones.

A language he says we shared. Only at a superficial level. Even now when our dialects are losing the battle against some bastardised estuary English and Americanese we are separated by a fair amount of difference and more so in the 18th century that Scots spoke a language pretty far removed from that in the south.  Sadly Scruton shows he really doesn’t know too much about Scotland when he mentions Gaelic, sadly the Irish type, you know gaylic and not Scottish gaallic, and it’s clear he doesn’t realise the extent Galeic was spoken, not just in the Highlands.

The monarchy at the time of Union was shared but Scruton’s little list is more flannel than fact. One moment he’s telling us we were all identical and the next that we were quite distinct.

He concludes that any differences were too wee to matter compared with the overpowering connections of history and geography. I don’t think our ‘shared’ histories were of the happiest that they call for shared celebration and as for geography, so what? There are many places across the globe that share geography, it is how societies develop within geographic boundaries that matters.

He is correct to refer to the fortunes made by both Scots and English during the period of slavery (not actually mentioned) and the empire. Scots have always been innovative so their exploitation of circumstances during the years of gunboat diplomacy can be taken as an indication of how much Scotland gave to the Union and contributed to wealth creation in the UK.  Scruton failed to make reference to the years before the Union when Scottish trade was smothered by England who resented having competition on its doorstep.

In a curious passage he says that neither Scotland nor England could have survived the wars of the 20th century if we hadn’t been fighting on the same side.  There were more nations involved in these wars than us in the UK so where does that argument take anyone or does he imagine Scotland, or perhaps England, would have lined up with the Triple Alliance and later with the Nazis?  Which one would have gone to that side I wonder?

Scruton is quite cavalier with his throwaway comments such as the Union being ‘natural and unquestionable’ in the 19th century. It wasn’t.  Very soon after the Union was formed there were calls for its dissolution and throughout the centuries since then people have returned to the possibility of Scotland reasserting its independence.  When Scruton claims the Napoleonic wars ‘sealed the Union’ he is wrong. Scottish radicalism following the Napoleonic wars was both a continuum and progression of anti-Union actions which began in the immediate aftermath of 1707.

Untrammelled immigration is regarded as Scruton as the reason the English don’t have a sense of their own identity. I find this distasteful and at odds with the overwhelming view in Scotland that irrespective of where you come from, if you come here to stay you are one of us. We have our racists but there is not the clamour here to shun people from other cultures that there is, and growing, in England, with its support for right-wing Tories and Ukip.  It might be pointed out here that while English nationalism tends to be racist and right-wing Scottish nationalism is dominated by the left.

I don’t believe Scruton when he blames the uncertainty that the English have over who they are, on Blair and Brown. The confusion over what is English or British was there well before these two discredited politicians came to office.  And he’s wrong that it was the re-opening, or as he has it, the creation of the Scottish parliament, that gave Scots a  ‘new identity’.  Scots have always known who they were and that is why the parliament was reconvened in Edinburgh not the other way round.

The man really does not understand this subject at all.

His resentment is palpable when it comes to the issue of Westminster Scots having a say in what happens in English constituencies. Quite rightly. He may not be aware, and going by his the many errors in his piece I doubt he is, that SNP members do not vote on issues which are solely English. MPs from the other parties do.  His resentment extends to Scotland having its own parliament when England doesn’t have an equivalent. Of course Scotland is a separate country, in a Union remember? with England so providing the same limited power parliaments in Scotland as throughout England is not the same thing.  Devolution he describes as ‘gerrymandering’ by which Scotland still sends Labour MPs to Westminster, which according to Scruton, England would prefer not to have. And with a few exceptions I can well understand why.

Scruton and I part on his assertion of that mouldy old lie that Scotland is subsidised by England. This will be oil rich Scotland, or is the oil Britain? I’ll say this just once – Scotland generates 9.9% of the UK’s total tax and receives 9.3% UK total spending. You do the sums.

union 1707

Despite Scotland being a sad subsidy junkie Scruton surprisingly concludes that England might not be better served if Scotland goes her own way. Just because we are a dependant of England, yes you got that right, but before you get hot under the collar Scruton turns the abusive accusation on its head and tells us that England is dependent on  Scotland as well  because  while THEY subsidise us – THEY depend on us. Got it? No? I think it’s a game of keep them (us) onboard because you never know when we’ll be needed, as in oil revenue? He doesn’t say – perhaps Trident is closer to the truth.

And then we learn that is indeed what was in his mind when he talked about having to cling onto us in case we should prove useful in the future (we are reduced to being the proverbial bad penny but handy to be saved for a rainy day). Remember when Scotland’s shores and waters were taken up with military and naval bases not to mention generations of Scots men and boys who made up more than the country’s fair share of the thin red line? (In that case you were probably educated in Scotland.) It is the fear that one day England might be attacked by some johnny foreigner that puts doubt over Scottish independence into Scruton’s head. Nothing to do with liking us only that we have land and deep water which England might require for its defence. 

His point about England drawing away some of Scotland’s talent to where the jobs are in the south is well made as far as it goes but he doesn’t allow himself to see the impact of this on Scotland’s economy and Scottish society at large.

He concludes by saying, given a vote he would use it for English independence. Do you see what he’s done? He’s turned his resentment over Scots being able to vote themselves a better future to a positive vote for England which rather bizarrely he states would go some way to ‘strengthening the friendship between our countries.’ As he talks he draws out differences between Scotland and England and any undecided voters out there worried about rUK be reassured for according to Scruton a yes vote for independence can only enhance the relationship between the four countries of these islands.

I suspect Scruton cobbled his piece together without too much thought. He reached the same conclusion I did long ago that only a yes vote is one that will be positive for the UK, albeit from different positions. Despite years and years and years in educational establishments his contribution to the issue of Scottish independence reveals he has some sizeable gaps in his knowledge of this country and the ignorance gap he doesn’t mind plugging with silly petulance.  Scotland’s ban on fox hunting (not included in this talk) was seen by him as an attack on the English and their traditions.  It did not occur to him that might be another difference of outlook which divides our two nations – those differences he sometimes admits to and at other times denies.

Scruton is entitled to his view but given his lack of awareness and understanding of Scotland and her people and because he has chosen not to live here he has no entitlement to a vote. Pity – he would boost the yes side.  


Read the transcript of Scruton’s talk here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26173128




February 5, 2014


Scotland, how we are and what we are – or a 15 minute version of something of the kind.


Tens of thousands of years in the making

and here we are

January 7, 2014

St Clement’s cemetery: Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound


St Clement’s Church

It’s taken me a long time to visit Aberdeen’s St Clement’s Kirkyard – several decades to be precise. I have tried once or twice but when I’ve thought of visiting it is usually been when I’ve been driving in the vicinity and as this busy industrial area is choc-a-bloc during the week with parked vehicles I’ve driven on past.


Undoubtedly it has looked better. This graveyard once served the people of Footdee (Fittie), from the evidence of the detritus lying around, it is now home to rough sleepers and prostitutes.

There were churches on this site before the current one, established in 1855, and for centuries this has been a place of worship for the people of the surrounding area.


Note the occupation of ‘tide waiter’ – a customs officer who boarded ships which had entered the harbour

It is believed a church may have stood on this site since the 11th century. Given its location it is little wonder that many of its memorial stones reflect lives lost to the sea, those for whom the sea was their place of work and others involved in the various maritime trades. Nautical inscriptions and decorative features such as ropes and ships combine with traditional symbols of death.

DSC03743Alexander Drysdale, a foreman at the Poynernook Factory. Note the heartfelt message of respect from his former work mates

So who was St Clements and why choose him to represent this maritime neighbourhood? He was a Bishop of Rome in the first century AD and suffered the fate of being tied to an anchor and drowned in the Black Sea hence him being adopted as the patron saint of fishermen.


Aberdeen’s or possibly more accurately Fittie’s St Clements is only one of four dedicated to the saint in Scotland.  As might be expected the church was influential in the life of its congregation; fishermen were forbidden to go to sea or buy and sell fish on the Sabbath.  This did not go down well with everyone for it meant a loss of income one day a week. Should any man ignore the church’s ruling he could expect a fine – a boat master putting to sea would have his crew and their families fined as well as himself.

St Clement’s Church became embroiled in the Disruption, the events of the mid-19th century which split the Church of Scotland, the country’s established church.


On 18th May 1843 the minister of St Clement’s, Alexander Spence, was one of many ministers who walked out of their churches in protest against the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The Disruption was concerned with who had the right to appoint ministers of the kirk.  In Aberdeen it had been the privilege of the Town Council to nominate someone whereas the Free Kirkers believed no-one should be involved in the appointment of any minister other than a church’s  congregation.


The one you see today was designed by architect John Smith, in the Gothic style. It stands bold and impressive with a fine square pinnacled tower surrounded on every side by industrial sheds of no architectural merit whatsoever.

When the church was being refurbished in 1888 a brass chandelier, or gaselier, was found with an inscription, ‘given to this church by Alexander Murray, elder – 1648′. Obviously not that church but an earlier one.

A model of a ship, Saint Clement it was named, was also discovered in the tower where it had been abandoned. It had been gifted to the kirk by John Milne, the hangman.

P1000900Note the granite carved rope strung around this horizontal stone testifying the various trades associated with the sea

 Seafarers of Fittie, once separate from Aberdeen, have long been required to defend their community from attack. In 1514 it was ordained that eight men from Aberdeen’s quarters, including Fittie, should keep watch to resist ‘the old enemies of England.’

The English were one thing but the plague was more costly to life. Throughout the 16th century penalties and banishments were placed on any who might ignore restrictions over the movement of people into the vicinity.


Rope and sail makers lived and worked around here. Several stones in the graveyard feature rope motifs


It was around here that ships were built. The first clipper ship built in Britain, the Scottish Maid, came from Aberdeen.  The world’s  fastest tea clipper, the Thermopylae, was built in Fittie.


Hall was one of the main shipbuilders in the city and in 1839 James Hall in an attempt to circumvent Board of Trade regulations over ships’ tonnage devised the Aberdeen hull constructed so that cargo spaces were forward of the first point from which a vessel’s carrying capacity, therefore revenue earning capacity,  would be calculated. The result was the Aberdeen bow; curved, sleek and fast.

Hall died suddenly in 1869. It happened like this – Aberdeen tycoon, Thomas Blake Glover who settled in Japan and established the company that was to become Mitsubishi, arranged for Hall’s to build a vessel for the Japanese navy. It was a plumb contract and the Jho-Sho-Maru was well into construction when in 1869 a fire broke out in Milne’s wood yard near to Hall’s shipyard where the Jho-Sho-Maru was being fitted. People came from all around to help extinguish the blaze including James Hall who suffered a fatal  heart attack.  P1010025

For years Hall’s Carpenters’ Ball took place on Hogmanay, 31st December, usually in the draughting loft at the shipyard.  Throughout the year apprentices from the yard had some of their pay, known as launch money, put by which together with money from the company went to fund the annual social. There were few, if any, other occasions in Aberdeen where it was said a craftsman from the yards could mingle with millionaires other than at the Carpenters’ Ball.


Mair a common name around Aberdeen

Centuries of shipbuilding meant carpentry or wood carving was a popular trade. In the middle of the 19th century, around 1848, these ship carpenters or carvers from Hall’s yard formed themselves into a co-operative society, adding to a number already operating in the city.

They called themselves the Footdee Savings Association and sold groceries and bakery products from premises at Waterloo Quay. Hall’s carpenters had their own ship, the Elizabeth, which they used to ship in grocery supplies and other sundries.


Another well-known ship-building families was  Duthie. This impressive granite casket memorial belongs to the Duthies – ship builders and merchants.

John Duthie lived in the same district as most of the workers from his yard, in Wellington Street. Known as Old John he was apparently very down to earth with a good sense of humour. One day a ship sailed into Aberdeen from Sicily with a supply of sulphur, as a speculative piece of business it appeared as there was no-one down to receive the load.


Someone advised the ship’s captain he might find a buyer for his cargo if he had a word with old Mr Duthie and so he did. Duthie thought the matter over for a moment then had a brainwave. He told the captain he knew of a man who dealt largely in brimstone (sulphur) who might be happy to relieve him of his cargo.

The captain went off as instructed to meet the gentleman, a strict Calvinist minister from one of the local kirks, who turned down the offer of a ship-load of sulphur but was thereafter known as Brimstone Johnnie.


This pink plaque can be found on a wall at the graveyard. It was put there by George Davidsone. ‘George Davidsone elder burgess of Aberdeen built this dyke on his own expenses 1650′

George Davidsone of Pettens died in 1663. He began his working life as a packman, one who delivered goods, possibly on his back, and could neither read nor write. But he died a wealthy man and left several benefactions to Newhills kirk, Fittie kirk and  St Nicholas kirk. His impressive headstone can be seen on the west wall of St Nicholas’ graveyard by the Backwynd gate.

George Davidson at St Nicholas graveyard

Davidsone who had become a burgess of Aberdeen bought the land at Pettens, Belhelvie, from George Gordon 1643 of Overblairton and Pettens.


Chief engineer John Simpson torpedoed at sea in 1917


1916 – Able Seaman Alexander Guyan, Hawke Battalion  was killed on the Western Front  on 9 December. Above is his family memorial, now sadly broken and below the official war stone.



This is a notice of Guyan’s death from a list of local casualties in an Aberdeen newspaper

George Crombie was drowned off  Tavira in Portugal in April 1882. A family of ship captains, their memorial is coming adrift.



This plaque commemorates the death in 1971 of Captain William James Erskine, a naval chief engineer who was killed during the civil war in Pakistan.  1971 was the period of Bangladeshi liberation from Pakistan after the Pakistani military junta refused to accept the results of the country’s first democratic elections in 1970 which favoured the Bengalis. It was a brutal confrontation in which intellectuals were targeted for execution. Hundreds of thousands died in this war and ten million escaped into India.

MV Mustali, built by Short Brothers of Sunderland, was a Pakistani cargo steamer owned by Gulf Shipping and was sunk in an air raid at Chalna in ’71 by the Pakistani air force.


The long inscription on Shipmaster William Bruce’s family stone has become all but illegible. Let me give you the full version.

Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound;
My ears, attend the cry;
“Ye living men, come view the ground
Where you must shortly lie.

“Princes, this clay must be your bed,
In spite of all your towers; The tall, the wise, the rev’rend head
Must lie as low as ours!”

These words were sung at the funeral of America’s President George Washington.

 DSC03726 - Copy


This unusual cast iron memorial records the deaths of several ‘beloved children of Alexander Mortimer and Margaret Spring. Scottish women did not lose their own identities and retained their single names when married, at least when recorded on memorial stones.


William Ingram, was one of several vintners in  Footdee where he traded out of the Trades Arms


A fish curer’s lovely red granite memorial


Coastguard Alexander Mennie


William Henderson, cabinet maker, in memory to his father-in-law, Alexander Naughton, a Shore Porter. Note the beautiful flower motif.

The Shore Porters Society was set up in 1498, as it says in its website ‘six years after Columbus discovered America.’ Porters or pynours, hawling goods from the harbour to the town, and vice versa. It is thought to be the oldest co-operative still in existence.


The all too familiar story of multiple deaths of young children



And again, including twins


Another ship captain. The different styles of writing including a kind of longhand create an attractive memorial


A fine possibly hand-cut image of a sailing ship in full sail onto hard granite


A custom officer’s family stone barely surviving



Another fine design of a ship on this 1820 gravestone


And again in this stone, a two-masted fishing boat of a type which commonly carried 6 crew




Finally, Soapy Ogston.


Ogston was as you might guess, a soap manufacturer in the city. Once a flax dresser he went on to produce soap and candles and you can scarcely imagine the fortune to be made in that trade. I believe James was Soapy and this stone is dedicated to Alexander, who started the chandlery business, his young daughter and grandson, also Alexander, who became an eminent surgeon.

The kirkyard ‘closed’ for burials in 1927.


The abandoned St Clement’s East Church (Church of Scotland), was proposed as home to Aberdeen city’s archives at one time and later there was a proposal to remove its roof and allow it to decay. It is decaying albeit with its roof intact. It was sold to a housing association by the council.

The state of the church is one thing but surely Aberdeen City Council could send out a couple of people to clean up this important and historic graveyard. Or perhaps it might be done through a community service order. It would not take that much effort to have it looking in a reasonable shape again. What’s needed is a sense of respect for the dead of Fittie.



December 12, 2013

The Scandal of Sir Hector Macdonald

Sir Hector Macdonald’s memorial in Dingwall

Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (2)


‘A mistake has been made in some quarters (says the “Daily Mail”) as to the attitude of the War Office authorities concerning the funeral. It was said they had directed the British military attache in Paris to make arrangements for the interment of the remains in France. The War Office we understand, has no “locus standi” for making such arrangements, and all they did was to request the British Embassy in Paris, out of consideration for the relatives, to hold itself prepared to make arrangements for local burial in the even of the friends desiring it, and further desiring that the arrangements should rest with the Government.’ (Edinburgh Evening News 31 March 1903)

How many of Britain’s war heroes have been dispatched in such a peremptory fashion?  Who was this man who had fallen so far from grace to be shuffled off with no pomp nor the usual dignities of  burial?

 Sir Hector MacDonald


The late Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald was one of the best-known soldiers of his generation, and his marvellous career had made his name a household word throughout Scotland …No Scottish soldier of recent times had such a rapid rise to fame. He was a “ranker” at 20, and a brigadier-general in one of the most sanguinary battles of modern times at 46. The deceased soldier was the son of a Ross-shire crofter, and was born in 1852 at Dingwall. His education was interrupted by periods of cattle-herding, and later, in his early “teens,” he became a stableboy to a hotelkeeper in his native town.  At the age of 17 he went to Inverness, whee he was apprenticed in one of the warehouses.  Finding the occupation distasteful, and becoming enamoured of the colours, he took the Queen’s shilling in 1870, joining the Gordon Highlanders (then the 92nd). Private Macdonald son became corporal, and it was not long before he was sergeant-instructor and pay-sergeant.’  (Edinburgh Evening News)

Such was the life and military career of one of the most famous and successful Scottish (and British ) soldiers. However you might not have heard of him.

Archie Macdonald, known to the world as Fighting Mac, once revered throughout the United Kingdom for his bravery and success as a battleground strategist, shot himself in a hotel room in Paris on the 25 March 1903.

Newspaper readers at the time were scarcely protected from the gory details of incidents. The Edinburgh Evening News described how Macdonald’s corpse was found dressed in ‘civilian clothes’ including a ‘full white wide-fronted shirt’, lying beside his bed in his hotel room. He was found severely wounded in the head, the bullet still lodged in his skull, ‘almost projecting from the back of his head.’ Two documents were found in a pocket of his coat. A folded copy of the New York Tribune lay nearby.

That morning Sir Hector Macdonald rose, went out for a walk after breakfast then returned to his hotel where he picked up five letters which arrived from Britain; two stamped On His Majesty’s Service. He read them in the public area of the hotel then used one of the writing desks to write several letters, bought stamps from the porter and posted them in the hotel’s letter box.  Then he went into the reading room where he was observed reading several newspapers before going upstairs to his room, a small one, which he was told on arrival the previous evening was the only one available to him.

No trace of the letters he received that morning were later found.

Perhaps one or more of those letters had been written to his brothers. The brother at home in Rootfield received one in which Macdonald referred to the ‘lying slanders which embittered his last hours.’  canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (7)

As we have seen Hector Macdonald was from a humble background: born at the croft of Rootfield  near Muir of Ord, son of a crofter/stone mason.  His rapid rise through the ranks of the military soon brought him to the attention of millions.

Macdonald  was sent to many battlegrounds including Afghanistan, South Africa, India and Egypt-Sudan. His successes as a leader of men and his acts of bravery led to swift promotion. You might imagine he would fit in well into that world of derring-do, been welcomed into the military establishment but you would be wrong.

It was not that he was Scottish that marked him out, though some argue that was a factor. It was what he was – a boy out of a croft – a man who was not born into the social circles in which he was forced to move and one who had little time for the haughty snobberies which he encountered.  He was an outsider.

I think at this stage I should get to the point before we veer off in completely the wrong direction. Hector Macdonald (2)


Sir Hector Macdonald did not commit suicide because he was being ostracised by the aristocrats with whom he lived and now mixed, although he was, but because of what was being said and written about him. Remember the New York Tribune in his room?

In 1902 he was sent to Ceylon as Commander in Chief of British troops and soon after the rumour mill began turning. Whispers over indecent acts he allegedly carried out with ‘young English boys’ quickly spread. The accusations grew and talk of prosecution and possible court martial.  

His suicide was taken by his detractors as proof of his guilt.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall

The 17 year old travelled from Dingwall to Aberdeen to drill with the 92nd – the Gordon Highlanders. He was sent to India to join the 92nd. Educated and ambitious, Macdonald read and read – on military strategy and to learn languages so that he might communicate where he was stationed. In all he spoke Hindustani, perhaps Urdu and Pushtu, Arabic, French, English and his native Gaelic. By 20 years old he was a sergeant.  The young ranker was on his way.

‘In battle he was ever to the fore; that is where his gallantry shone out like a star,’ said his fellow officer Sir Ian Hamilton.

At 24 yrs he had made the grade of colour sergeant and was attracting attention for his bravery within military circles and among the public. In Macdonald was mentioned in several dispatches throughout his illustrious military career. Soon he had been promoted from non-commissioned ranks to sub-lieutenant, subaltern. He was among the men who made the 310 mile march from Kabul to Kandahar which ended the Afghan campaign.

In 1881 he was in South Africa during the first Boer War when he was made a full lieutenant.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (5)

The Battle of Majuba Hill – The First Boer War 1881

At the Battle of Majuba Hill the British troops were led by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley who left  them in a vulnerable position on the hill then retired to his tent where he could not see nor hear the growing panic among his men. With grim inevitability the British line collapsed resulting in many deaths. Men deserted their positions and tried to escape off the hill. Colley, hopelessly incompetent to the end was shot dead by a Boer rifleman.  Another casualty among the officers was a Captain Cornwallis Maude, the son of the 1st Earl de Montalt.

Titled men such as these epitomised the usual sort who gained commissions in the British Army. A good title could more or less guarantee you high rank irrespective of how incompetent you were.

At this battle Macdonald, a junior officer,  was given charge of 20 Highlanders. They perished along with 73 of their comrades. 113 others were wounded and nearly 60 taken prisoner. The Boers lost 1 man and 5 were injured.

Macdonald fought on; when his sword was taken he used his fists and feet. The Boers took him prisoner but did not shoot him and in fact a reward of £5 was offered for the return of Macdonald’s sword which it duly was but the Boer who had it refused the bounty for as he explained he was just happy to see it returned to the ‘brave officer’. Macdonald was later released by the Boers.

His sword was one presented to him – a sword of honour- in recognition of his service to the Britain at Sudan following his actions which prevented serious disaster to the British forces. Its hilt was made from 18ct gold, its scabbard embossed standard silver and paid for from the £500 raised in a single day from contributions by his fellow servicemen. Hector Macdonald's weapons and medals

Macdonald’s conduct during the Boer Wars added to his reputation. His service during the Nile Expedition to try to save General  Gordon at Khartoum 1884-5 earned him the General Service Medal.

In 1888 he was promoted to captain.

At Egypt Omdurman- Cecil Rhodes said of Macdonald, ‘the finest episode in the whole day’s fighting was the admirable way in which Macdonald handled his brigade throughout these attacks.’

And Churchill, ‘All depended upon Macdonald, and that officer, who by valour and conduct in war had won his way from the rank of private soldier to the common of a brigade, and will doubtless obtain still higher employment was equal to the emergency.’

 Hector Macdonald

He had gone to Egypt as a Captain, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and made a   Major. By the mid-nineties he was Lieutenant-Colonel at the time Kitchener – that is Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG,KP,GCB,OM,GCI,GCMG,GCIE,ADC,PC, was  about to embark on the Sudan campaign.

At the Battle of Omdurman he gained a CB and was appointed as an ADC (personal Aides-de-Camp) to Queen Victoria and promoted to Colonel. Within three years he was Brigadier-General and took over command of the Highland Brigade during the second Boer War. At this point he was a Major-General and soon to be knighted.

The Battle of Omdurman in 1898 was when Sudanese Dervishes were slaughtered by a British army using modern weaponry. The battle was in response to the killing of General Gordon in 1885 and allow Britain keep open the Suez Canal as access to India.

Kitchener was criticised for his callous treatment of the Dervishes whom he left to die where they lay wounded, forbidding them help, and for his men’s looting and murder in Khartoum. It was reported he ordered the Mahdi’s (Muslim forces leader) remains be dug up and thrown into the Nile and his skull made into a drinking cup.

11000 Dervishes were slaughtered to secure Britain and her and ally Egypt control of the Nile.

Macdonald was made a Colonel and received thanks in the Houses of Commons and Lords in 1898. Despite being recognised for his role in the campaign, it was noted that his rewards were ‘scant’ compared with some who got far more for far less.

In Scotland it was felt his nationality and his humble background were the reasons for the difference.

He did not, for example, receive the £50 000 awarded to Kitchener for his part.  Fighting Mac and Highland Brigade in action at Koodosesberg in Boer War


The Battle of Paardeberg – Second Boer War 1900

The arrival of Macdonald at the Modder to take over command was met with cheers from his men. They knew he understood them, he had after all come through the ranks and it was said in many respects he remained an ordinary Highland soldier.

He was very different from the majority of officers who seldom, if ever, mixed with other ranks preferring their own company in the officers’ mess. Macdonald went out of his way to get to know the men who served under him. He took personal interest in how they were treated, possibly remembering his own experiences as an ordinary soldier. He checked their food was up to scratch, that they were well equipped and had recreational facilities.

Kitchener was not like that. He took over command of the British forces from Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts VC, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, KStJ, VD, PC Lord Roberts.

Kitchener ordered Macdonald to take his brigade and remove the Boers from an area which offered no cover for them. Macdonald knew this was a mad scheme but he followed orders.

The inevitable happened. The Scots soldiers were easy targets for the Boer riflemen and were quickly cut down. Those not killed or badly injured returned fire while exposed to enemy fire. Macdonald was wounded and his horse killed but he stayed with his men until nightfall when Roberts arrived and ordered the Highlanders withdrawal.

Kitchener’s incompetence cost the lives of over a thousand men in this one instance. He didn’t learn from his mistakes. Next day he was keen to send yet more men in to die uselessly.

Fighting in South Africa continued with the injured Macdonald leaving hospital to lead his men and his gallantry and bravery during the war was recognised by Roberts. It should be noted that Kitchener had asked for Macdonald’s removal at this time.

It was widely believed Kitchener was jealous of Macdonald and his record. canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (6)

At the time Hector Macdonald’s name and image could be found throughout the British Empire.  He was a great hero and companies used his face to sell products.

Camp Coffee

Camp Coffee

For those who remember the old bottles of Scotland’s own Camp Coffee will remember the moustachioed dark headed officer sitting as a Sikh holds out a tray of coffee.

Kitchener’s reputation had been tainted by his failures on the battlefield and his running of the infamous concentration camps established by the British in South Africa in which over 27 000 mainly Boer women and children died.

Here was a man familiar with grouse moors. He counted dead South Africans by the number of bag killed or captured or wounded. And he carried out a scorched earth policy in South Africa, burning crops, slaughtering livestock, poisoning wells and salting fields so that nothing would grow in them.

Arthur Conan Doyle called him stupid and arrogant.

This stupid and arrogant monster became the face of recruitment for the Great War, that war of lions led by donkeys. He was sent to Gallipoli where 1/4 million allied troops perished.

Kitchener’s ignorance of modern warfare led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

Kitchener never attracted the public acclamation that Macdonald had during his lifetime. He became an embarrassment. In a famous incident in June 1916 he was sailing through the Pentland Firth by the Orkney Islands on his way to Russia when the ship was apparently sunk by a German mine.

Years ago in Orkney I was told about how islanders would naturally do what they could to save shipwrecked sailors but on this occasion they were ordered not to launch boats to rescue anyone from the ship and indeed it was said that survivors of the wreck swimming into shore were pushed back into the sea while islanders were instructed to stay away from the area. It should be remembered that Orkney was full of military at this time being an important naval base.  Of the 662 on the ship only 12 survived. Kitchener did not.

After his drowning the Manchester Guardian remarked, ‘he could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately.’

With Kitchener gone let’s get back to Macdonald.

It is said he was despised by much of the establishment. They despised his common roots, his Highland accent and his down-to-earth manner and his habit of eschewing the company of commanders with double-barrelled names and the kind of pedigree that matters in the world of leg-ups and back-scratching.

At his death it was discovered Macdonald was married with a child. He had married Leith schoolteacher, Christina MacLouchan Duncan and carried a photograph of his son wherever he went. Why the secret? It was difficult in his time to get permission from commanding officers to marry without having a private income and so Macdonald never informed the army of the marriage.

The shock of his sudden death was such that people imagined all kinds of things; that he was not dead and that his coffin was filled with stones or that the body belonged to someone else. Sightings of him were reported from around the world.

At the same time the newspapers were filled with angry defenders of Macdonald condemning the treatment he received from the British establishment.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (2)

Colonel Stuart-Wortley wrote on the subject to the New York Tribune criticism that newspaper’s salacious treatment of Macdonald’s death, certified in Paris as suicide and mental troubles. He described the great loss to the British Army of one of its ‘most distinguished officers’.

If the British establishment hoped to bury Macdonald quietly in Paris they were to be disappointed.

Drawn into the maelstrom that followed Macdonald’s suicide was Scottish author Neil Munro, a native of Macdonald’s part of Scotland.

He eulogised the dead man and told the War Office that Scotland would not rest until Macdonald was brought home and buried.

The uproar in Scotland when it looked like Macdonald would be quietly shoved into the ground in France forced the authorities to reassess their actions.

Macdonald’s coffin, such as it was, was sealed and sent to London on the boat-train.

Rumours had circulated that Hector Macdonald’s remains had been mistreated while in Paris but this was denied.

In a letter to the family the French clergyman who supervised Macdonald’s remain transfer to Britain wrote, ‘ I venture to say, with all due respect to the nobility, that had he been the son of a duke, an easier way of escape would have been made for him.’

Major General Sir Hector Macdonald was sent home in a rough board coffin. No family member met the coffin off the boat and the undertaker carted away the body, not in the usual hearse, but a ‘common delivery wagon covered with pictorial advertisements’ to the railway station for the onward journey to Edinburgh.

Despite pleadings from his brothers, Macdonald was to be buried with little ceremony in Dean Cemetery. It appears the War Office had pressurised the family on the need for discretion. There were no military honours.

Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall

The train arrived at Waverly Station at 6am. Crowds waited in the Station. Thousands of others lined the streets of Edinburgh.

 A lone bagpiper played The Floors o’ the Forest.

A small brass plate on the coffin was inscribed – Major General Sir Hector Macdonald, KCB. Born March 4, 1853, Died March 25, 1903.

For months ordinary people from around Scotland and farther afield travelled to Edinburgh, to Dean Cemetery, to pay their respects. On the first Sunday after his burial 30 000 visited his grave. People queued for 3 hours to walk past. The cemetery superintendent turned away people with flowers eventually when the area couldn’t take any more. Years later his grave still attracted considerable numbers of visitors.

One wreath from a foreign person read, ‘From strangers, to one so ill-treated by his own.’

There was public resentment over the low-key disposal of him. Macdonald’s widow, Lady Macdonald sued a man called Thom from Glasgow who wrote a vituperative verse about her. The case was heard by one Lord Stormont Darling. She won. 


 The War Office had been determined to prevent Macdonald finding ‘another way out’ of his ‘crimes’ on the ‘grave charges.’ He was told he would have to return to Ceylon to face a general court martial.

The Governor of Ceylon, Sir Joseph Ridgeway, commented he hoped that when Macdonald left the country he would be replaced by someone with more acceptable ‘antecedents’.

One Ceylonese newspaper reported, ‘Scotsmen are prone, like all humanity, at times, to accept the unwelcome as untrue, and in this case they were slow to discover that the feet of their idol were of clay.’

There was of course a substantial Scottish community in Ceylon which defended the reputation of Macdonald. They were referred to by Ridgeway in a letter of 1903 to the Colonial Office in which he mentioned that the editors of ‘English newspapers, were ‘ex-convicts employed by Scottish Association and others’ who wanted Macdonald’s case reopened. He was going to prosecute these men for what they said about him, Ridgeway – and hoped for their lengthy imprisonment. He was advised not to proceed and so reopen the scandal. 

Macdonald had enraged and humiliated Governor Ridgeway on an occasion he had ordered him off the parade ground. As we know Macdonald had little time for the fraternising with the moneyed class which ran Ceylon preferring the company of local Ceylonese. It didn’t take long for rumours to spread that he was involved in sexual activities with boys.  There was gossip that he had been surprised in a railway carriage with some youths. Soon stories multiplied and witnesses were found to substantiate the allegations against Macdonald – 70 in number which seems an awful lot of witnesses but there you go.

Macdonald’s position in Ceylon was untenable and Ridgeway told him he should go back to Britain.  In Britain homosexual activity of any kind was illegal but his alleged offences were not illegal in Ceylon. He could of course be court martialled and Roberts advised him this was what he would face.

It is difficult to know the truth of what was going on especially when Macdonald’s case file disappeared, presumably destroyed following his suicide. Macdonald strenuously denied that allegations but then he would, wouldn’t he.

Observers who sympathised with Macdonald but accepted his guilt suggested his mental state of mind at the time as extenuating circumstances. A common enough reaction then to acts of homosexuality.

‘In reference to the grave charges made against the late Sir Hector MacDonald, we, the appointed and undersigned Commissioners, individually and collectively declare on oath that, after the most careful, minute, and exhaustive inquiry and investigation of the whole circumstances and facts connected with the sudden and unexpected death of the late Sir Hector MacDonald, unanimously and unmistakably find absolutely no reason or crime whatsoever which would create feelings such as would determine suicide, in preference to conviction of any crime affecting the moral and irreproachable character of so brave, so fearless, so glorious and unparalleled a hero: and we firmly believe the cause which gave rise to the inhuman and cruel suggestions of crime were prompted through vulgar feelings of spite and jealousy in his rising to such a high rank of distinction in the British Army: and, while we have taken the most reliable and trustworthy evidence from every accessible and conceivable source, have without hesitation come to the conclusion that there is not visible the slightest particle of truth in foundation of any crime, and we find the late Sir Hector MacDonald has been cruelly assassinated by vile and slandering tongues. While honourably acquitting the late Sir Hector MacDonald of any charge whatsoever, we cannot but deplore the sad circumstances of the case that have fallen so disastrously on one whom we have found innocent of any crime attributed to him.’

It was widely accepted after his death that Macdonald had never been comfortable in that world, elitist and conceited, that he found himself.  He was perpetually short of money and in debt but remember he had a family in Scotland and did not receive married allowances as he had never disclosed his marriage. And throughout the years of his meteoric rise through the ranks he had made enemies among the most powerful, not least of them Kitchener, upstaged by Macdonald so publicly at Omdurman – Kitchener who demanded Macdonald’s removal from the South African campaign which resulted in Macdonald being sent to India.

Driven to suicide, the honourable way out, personally by the king it has been alleged, Macdonald had then demonstrably broken the law – English law. I don’t know where that would place him. Is the British military covered by English law? Expect it is. Suicide has never been a criminal act in Scotland.

Macdonald’s alleged offences came eight years after Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to 2 years hard labour for practising homosexuality. If what Macdonald was accused of was interfering with young teenagers, by exposing himself, then he had committed a heinous act.

So, why would his records have been destroyed? To spare his family?  To preserve his reputation? Surely not for his suicide was interpreted as confirmation of his guilt. Could it have been the file on his case was fiction from start to finish and implicated Ceylon’s high ranking families, many British, in a plot to blacken the man’s character and destroy the stellar career of an individual who spurned their narrow-minded pompous grandiosity of the trappings of Empire?

The New York Tribune had mentioned in its report of the Macdonald affair on its front page on 25 March 1903 that Lord Roberts, Commander in Chief of the British Army, had at a regimental dinner on the 21st paid tribute to Highland officers but did not mention Macdonald.  At the same dinner, a speaker who had not heard of the brewing scandal did single Macdonald out as a great hero and his words were received in ‘cold silence.’

The morning after Macdonald’s suicide the New York Tribune’s headline read:

‘Scotsmen Unite in Movement to Prove False the Charges Against Late British General Who Shot Himself.’

(c) The Gordon Highlanders Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Was Macdonald the victim of a class-ridden conspiracy?

Were the charges against him true or trumped up?

What exactly was the role played by Britain’s Governor of Ceylon, Ridgeway?

What was being said about Macdonald within military circles by the likes of Kitchener?

We do not know if Macdonald was guilty of the alleged offences or if they were a pack of lies designed to destroy him and his reputation.

He may have indeed been guilty and so not entirely deserving of our sympathy.

If he was homosexual then that was a crime then though not in Ceylon where the alleged offences took place.

In the aftermath of the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde what would the British peoples’ reaction be to another high profile case involving homosexuality?

If Kitchener’s alleged homosexuality was conveniently covered up why not do the same for Macdonald?

How significant was Macdonald’s background instrumental in his being ostracised by the circle he was expected to socialise with?

There is spite, jealousy, vindictiveness and secrecy at every turn of this case. I began looking into it following a visit to Dingwall museum which features Macdonald’s story. I started with a bland acceptance of his ‘guilt’ but now I am certain what happened to him had nothing at all to do with any alleged sexual activity.

The hero and survivor of so many battles to preserve the British Empire finally came up against an enemy he could not defeat – the British Establishment which closed ranks against this upstart Scot from the croft and dispatched him for good.

The huge memorial to Macdonald which towers over Dingwall stands 100 feet high. Not too far away stands a cottage called Ceylon.








November 9, 2013

A Square Deal for Developers: Marischal goes phut


Marischal Square

I went along to see the model of the proposed Marischal Square when it was in Aberdeen Art Gallery recently. I haven’t written about it until now because, well because – what can you say?

Surprised I was.  Surprised at the insignificance of it – the display boards and – er, model – wanting as it was.  

Rather than being revealing, the model was oddly lacking. For a start it lacked anything at all in the area under review. Okay there was a dodgy piece of card filling the void. Is this what the council proposes? Aberdeen city centre from Marischal College down to the back of M& S, and including Provost Skene’s House covered by a bit of cardboard? Original certainly. Not great when it rains but we can’t have everything.  Hard as I looked I couldn’t see Provost Skene’s House at all on the model. That was scary.

Aberdeen City Council Copyright

Can I ask, actually I didn’t at the time – what was the point of the ill-fitting card about? It might have been representative of a blank canvas and that would be good because it would mean the city was  ready to listen to the public’s view about how their hard-earned cash should be spent on in this public space.  I suspect this is not the case. My suspicion is that the 2-D nature of the card gave an illusion of greater space than 3-D building models. Put them in and the small amount of space available once built up would have become apparent.

I was under the impression that the public were to be given an opportunity to give their views on what should be built in the space created by the demolition of St Nicholas House.  Not so.

Eagerly I looked to the display boards to get a sense of the Great Plan. There were the usual buzzwords:  ‘network of spaces’, ‘opportunities’, ‘livelier’ ‘more comfortable’, ‘international quality’ – ambition is good but from what I’ve seen the reality of this is hardly worthy of a column in the local rag far less being fanfared as of international significance,  the dreaded ‘indoor space’,   ‘greener’, ‘cycling’ – no proposal would be complete without them.

There was mention of improving the Broad Street corridor. Now that, at least, had a ring of truth about it – corridor that is – not improvement. The space remaining post new-build will be nothing more than a corridor towered over by hotels and offices and shops:  the people of Aberdeen will get what’s left over.

The public was not invited along to the Gallery to share their views about the best way to create a real heart for Aberdeen but to suggest how the Broad Street corridor might be used as a thoroughfare in the future.  No change – i.e. an open street with access for cars, buses and cycles; limited access to buses, taxis (why taxis?),  cyclists, pedestrians; pedestrianised?

I am not that keen on full pedestrianisation as that tends to close off areas during evenings and nights and make them into no-go areas for any but druggies and dodgy characters most of us want to stay clear of. Look what happened to the Castlegate when buses were removed from there – it’s a dead area for most Aberdonians now. The council are responsible for that.

Disappointed that it was only really the transport/pedestrian aspect of Broad Street/Square – what happened to the square? despite boards with references to Public Space I nevertheless filled in a card with my views about what could become a wonderful civic space.  Well you wouldn’t expect me not to.


I didn’t question what was meant by ‘focussed civic space’.  Focussed – unfocussed – suspect as with so many of these terms it will mean anything you want it to.

There were oblique references to historic routes/the Guestrow /Flourmill Lane– tossed in like a handful of heritage crumbs to placate those of us critical of city developments which root out the past to create their own ground zeros that the developers are aware such places exist – for now.

And there were mentions of sculpture and art – as if sculpture wasn’t art. We have experience of public sculpture in Aberdeen – it’s all small-scale and frankly rubbish – apart from the dominating figure of Wallace outside HMT. The commissioning of something big, bold and very very distinctive would be worth blowing all the available cash on – dream on Lena.

I will take this opportunity to promote my long held dream of a tall viewing tower in the centre of Aberdeen, perhaps a salute to the granite industry- where we can climb up to look across the city, to the mountains, to the sea and take our pictures.  I’d pay for that.

What really depressed me was the board ‘What Next’ – don’t remember if it had a question mark or not – possibly not as this has all been decided, hasn’t it?

What Next – in the order these guys who spend our money see it –

  1. Investment
  2. Office space
  3. Hotel
  4. Shops, cafes, restaurants
  5. Skene’s House and Marishcal College
  6. Outdoor space
  7. Safer walking and cycling

You don’t need me to point out the subtleties of their thinking. What comes in the top 4? Nothing to do with public amenities or the creation of any ‘international quality’ development only the same old offices, shops and hotels you can find anywhere and everywhere.  Nil points for courage or imagination.  I reckon outdoor space coming in 6th is a positive disgrace.

Here we have a major opportunity to create something in the centre of Aberdeen which really could attract in tourists as well as fulfil a strong desire by Aberdonians for a heart in their city and it is not even being considered.  There will be office and shops and they will occupy most of this space so what will become a public space will be no more than there is now – ie a street. Do you want your street with or without traffic?  Frankly I hardly care.


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