August 29, 2016

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

Huntly Castle mid 15th - early 17th centuries

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

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

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The calm side of the River Deveron

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gordons - not shrinking violets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Three storeys of the castle

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Original studded oak door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland

Certainly one of the oldest wooden lavatory seats in Scotland

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

cropped carving at door featuring family and Scottish national heraldry

The main doorway beautifully carved

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Another fireplace with medallions of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

Swallow on nest Huntly Castle

The castle is now home to nesting swallows

Enjoy Huntly Castle.

August 22, 2016

Kincardine O’Neil home of the Sleepy Market

Kincardine o’ Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old water pump

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

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

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

wildlife of Aberdeenshire early 1800s

Wildlife once abundant at Kincardine O’Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The breachan worn by men

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

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

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

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Some people with connections to Kincardine O’Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Erchard’s belcote dates from c.1640

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

And that, folks, is Kincardine O’Neil.

 

 

 

 

August 13, 2016

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

reindeer sled

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

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds

… 

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

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

reindeer and dogs

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

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

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Mikel Utsi and his reindeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slaughter of mountain hares

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

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

 

July 25, 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ancient flat gravestone with symbolic skull bones peeping through the grass

Several flat memorial stones are lost to us under turf

Another largely lost flat memorial stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

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

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

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

 

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

Pretty decoration on sandstone memorial stone Tullynessle

Pretty decoration on a sandstone memorial stone at Tullynessle

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

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

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

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

 

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Scots migrated to other countries in huge numbers

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

  

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

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

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

Tullynessle war memorial

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

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

15 weeks, 15 days children of Mary and Alex Rennie

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

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

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Tullynessle war memorial

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

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

Sister Isobel Spence was drowned  in 1944 on active service

Sister Isobel Spence

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

 

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

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

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

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

marble tablet to rev Marshall

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

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

Bellcote fixing

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

Tullynessle in a nutshell.

tullynessle

July 2, 2016

Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners

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

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

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

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

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Wagon from one of Peterhead prison’s railway stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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D-Hall

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

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

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

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

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A gang feud ends in violence

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All kinds of drugs find their way into prison

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

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

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

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June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

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

Polly Walker in Hit the Decks 1930

Polly Walker

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

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Bithnie

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

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

Polly

Polly Walker

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

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

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

polly walker wedding christmas day 1935 chicago

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

***

Margaret Mann (2)

Margaret Mann

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

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

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

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Margaret Mann in costume

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

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

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

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Margaret Mann in John Ford’s Four Sons

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

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

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

June 10, 2016

Secret Aberdeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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/