February 14, 2015

It was a dog of a day but Muse’s plans for Marischal Square were given the bird


Marischal Square


It was a dog of a day.

A guy carrying a placard reading

Existentialists Oppose Mindless Civic Vandalism

If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according

to the outcome, he would never begin.

(Dedicated to Jenny Laing and Willie Young 2014/15)

sauntered past.


‘Have you got a light mac?’ he asked.

‘No, but I have a dark brown raincoat,’ I replied.

‘That makes two of us,’ he said as he trudged away to gaze meaningfully up at the magnificent frontage of Marischal College.

He looked familiar. Like a man who was once Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council. I said to him one time,  Marischal College should become the council HQ. He turned to me and from the side of his mouth mumbled something along the lines of,

I dinnae really like it.

Happily he is no longer Chief Executive and Marischal College is the council HQ but that’s not where the story ends. Local government is like a cesspool. It is infested with the kind of low life attracted to cess pools. As Titania once said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shit rises to the top.

People, several hundreds, were gathered to voice their opposition to those miserable plans to destroy Aberdeen city centre from Muse Developments.

The people gathered around the tenacious old warrior Robert the Bruce were looking for a fight. Eyes turned to the Town House – was he there? Was Willie Young in there looking out at us looking in? sneering?


People expressed incredulity that anyone in their right mind would support the Muse proposals.

They say money doesn’t smell, said one, I sometimes wonder.

Willie Young

Willie Young Wanted

the banners read. Only in a manner of speaking. No-one there today wanted him in a good sense.

Party dogma has been driving this agenda.

A list of councillors in favour of snuffing out all vestiges of a civic square was read out.

In another time the gibbets would have been erected but Aberdeen is a peaceful city. The miscreants were let off lightly – instead of rotten tomatoes their names were received with boos.

Some were booed louder, much louder than others.

Several names were greeted with,  fa?  Those councillors you find everywhere -the ones no-one has ever heard of – they just turn up and pocket the cash, keep schtum, don’t rock any boats – play the role of their party’s bitches, vote when told when and how and trust no-one will notice next election time. They got off lightly in the booing stakes.

But not all.

It’s clear some councillors are in the dog-house as far as the voters gathered there today were concerned. They don’t reckon them at all and these guys will be hounded next time they present their credentials to the public.

Biggest boos of the day were given to Alan Donnelly, Yvonne Allan, Lesley Dunbar, Ramsay Milne (big time), Neil Cooney (big time), Len Ironside (big time), Marie Boulton (big time), Fraser Forsyth (big time), Barney Crockett (BIG BIG time), Jenny Laing (GIANT BIG time), Willie Young (SCREAMINGLY LOUD ENORMOUSLY BIG time).

There aint no sanity clause might have been written for Aberdeen City Council. This local authority has apparently drawn up a contract that not only sells off public space but agrees to pay the developer compensation in the event they cannot lease out all its retail outlets in what was council land.

I don’t believe it – do you? No-one in their right mind would sign that off?

Sacking is too good for these individuals.

In a dog-eat-dog world Aberdeen has been sold a pup.

A real dog’s breakfast of a deal for the city.

There are more dog-fights to come – in the council chamber, on the pages of the local newspaper and across the airwaves on local radio stations over this.

People are going nowhere.

As the great man once said,

Common sense always speaks too late. Common sense is the guy who tells you ought to have had your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week.

As he went on to say,

Such is the brutalization of commercial ethics in this country that no one can feel anything more delicate than the velvety touch of a soft buck.

willie young

I looked at the banner billowing in the breeze. Willie Young’s face gazed out over his accusers.

The moment a man talks about one commercial development being essential that’s proof he’s fresh out of ideas.

Provost Skene's House Enjoy it while you can

Provost Skene’s House
Enjoy it while you can

February 9, 2015

123 or 321 Talking by numbers? Is God communicating by numbers? What’s it add up other than 6?

Numbers in the sky over Aberdeenshire  9 February 2015 4.30pm

Numbers in the sky over Aberdeenshire
9 February 2015 4.30pm


Numbers in the sky 1 2 3 over Aberdeenshire at 4.30pm 9 February 2015

Anyone got an idea how these came about? Random trails from an aircraft presumably – or a message from god? There must be an answer out there? Or not.

February 4, 2015

Mad, Bad and Dangerous: Lord Byron the Aberdeen laddie

Come and see the twa laddies with the twa club feet going up Broad Street

If Aberdeen had been any other city it would have laid claim to Lord Byron long ago. The ‘English’ poet who by reputation was mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Few Aiberdeen loons aren’t.

He is English by a technicality. He was fathered by an Englishmen, a drunken ne’er do well who abandoned his wife and baby son only seeking them out, in Aberdeen, to get the last of his wife’s fortune out of her.

Mrs Byron was Katherine Gordon from Gight near Banff, and heiress to the estate there and a direct descendant of James I to boot, a family of greater substance than  gold-digger  Johnnie Byron’s.

She changed the spelling of her name to the English Catherine but she lost more than the K from her name. Her husband immediately began divesting her of her money, then the estate was sold off. A child was born but within two years the Byrons or Gordons, for he had to adopt her family name in order to sell off the family wealth, were living in Aberdeen with the bairnie George.

The money was now all gone and so too was Johnny-waste-of-space-Byron.

The loon grew up around Broad Street and Virginia Street. His first school was in Longacre and then he went onto the Grammar where he carved his name on one of the benches.

He used to chum about with another boy with a hurple and together they’d chant,

Come and see the twa laddies with the twa club feet going up Broad Street

When he was ten Geordie Gordon inherited the title Baron Byron from his now dead father’s uncle and the loon moved to England for a few years before moving abroad where he died in 1824.

He returned once to the area, to Ballater, and from there he climbed Morven for the last time. It is said that he never lost his Scottish accent; meaning Aberdeen and the Doric.

He was, of course, half Scots, indeed he claimed so himself, and so at the very least is a British, not English poet. His roots were very much in northeast Scotland and the land and language is said to come out in his poetry, and just possibly his reputation for raising the roof.

In February 1876 a letter to a local newspaper described something of the poet’s boyhood in Aberdeen

The author refers to a Byron memorial which I’ll come back to and goes on to describe something of the poet’s boyhood in Aberdeen which you can read for yourselves.

Byron copy 1

Lord Byron, Aberdeenbyron 3 againByron 4

And as far as I know there never was a Byron memorial built but in Aberdeen there’s aye Byron Square – where it’s not unknown for mad, bad and dangerous happenings to occur of a weekend. I’m sure Geordie Gordon would have been happy with that.

The Gowk





January 24, 2015

Less is More: the muse of Marischal Square


Many hundreds of Aberdonians turned out to show their disapproval of the hugely misconceived Muse development which has the enthusiastic backing of the Labour led Aberdeen City Council.
Anti-Muse demo

Views ranged from outright anger to suspicion over how we were so misled by them. At one stage all talk was of a civic square being created to act as a focus for the city which would be used for cultural events as well as a sanctuary for the people of the city – who it should be remembered own this site.

The square idea contracted and contracted until all that remained after officials, councillors and developers completed their negotiations was a street, and one that will be overshadowed by a bloody great series of soulless boxes.

Where else have we seen them?

Ah, yes over at the Triple Kirks going up right now.
Who, in their right mind, would agree to this dismal development?

Several of those demonstrating their opposition were pretty certain they knew the reason (reasons) that swayed support. Suffice to say it was nothing connected with the architectural integrity of the site.

Marischal College is one of the finest buildings in the whole of Scotland. A backdrop of this magnificent granite edifice to a civic square would place Aberdeen on the map in terms of civic pride and ambition.
Marischal from schoolhill

What the Muse shopping centre will do is underline the bankruptcy of ambition and imagination of the current Labour led council.
Muse demo

I did not see Dame Anne Begg there – she was a prominent opponent, correctly, of the equally appalling Union Terrace Gardens design. So does this mean she, and her fellow Labour MP Frank Doran and the usually opinionated MSP, Lewis Macdonald have given their backing to this monstrosity? We can assume so until we hear otherwise.

On 9 October 2014 the local newspaper quoted Willie Young, Labour group secretary saying they did not operate a whip and that planning decisions were non-political.

I think we can all make up our own minds on that.

The 7000 signatories to the petition objecting to the Muse development are well aware of the shortcomings of those who have pushed and pushed this proposal.
We should be asking WHY this one?

WHY is this design that overwhelms the site?

The architecture is ugly. The scale is ridiculous. The loss of a world-class amenity ought to be a actionable.

It is time to hold the people who flex their power to impose such an abomination on the city to account for their cultural vandalism.

“Councillor Marie Boulton, Aberdeen City Council deputy leader, added: “We are seeing the start of what will be a vibrant and exciting development on the old St. Nicholas House site.”

“Planning committee convener Ramsay Milne insisted, however, that the council acted “entirely properly” in its handling of the case.

Mr Milne moved to approve the plans, praising officers and insisting elected members had a “civic duty” to back the redevelopment.”

“Council leader Jenny Laing said Marischal Square could provide a “beating heart” for the centre of Aberdeen.”

Muse demo 3

“Labour’s Willie Young faced a backlash after his comments in the Press and Journal that it was “already determined” that the £107million Marischal Square project would go ahead. 18 July 2014.”

It was great that so many gathered to demonstrate their disapproval but having turned out in their high hundreds the organisers should have had something to focus the event to increase its impact: speakers on mic, holding hands around the condemned site, demanding an appearance from the man the crowd held most responsible for this debacle, Willie Young, who it was reported was in the Town House at the time.

Muse demo

There was a time city officials were prepared to face their critics and respond to their objections to their decisions but no more, our present-day incumbents hide in their Town House ivory tower.

Such is 21st century democracy in Aberdeen.

January 10, 2015

Good Morning Scotland (sic) BBC Scotland (sic) a station like no other



Good    Morning    Scotland (sic)

Raucous computer-generated muzak

A station like no other

Good mor …uhm…eh…so…

So…eh …uhm…eh…eh…eh…

Raucous computer-generated muzak

News headlines … uhm…

Travel … M8…trains to Glasgow…Glas…Queen Str…

Weather …looking out the window…G…ow…


Raucous computer-generated muzak

A station like no other

So…er…er…er…uhm…Afghanistan…spokesman in Afghani community in Glasg…eh…eh…

So…eee…uhm…festival in Glas…eee…eh…uhm…

Raucous computer-generated muzak

A station like no other

Sport …Rangers…Celtic…eh…eh…

Travel…usual suspects…trains to Glasgow…Glasgow…


Er…er…Syria …er…eh…eh…symposium in Glasgow…eh…

Uhm…ee…eee…Moon landings…Univers…f…Glasg…uh…so…

Thought for the da…a…a…a…y inthestudiofromaroundthecorner…uh…

Raucous computer-generated muzak

A station like no other

Travel …usual suspects…trains to Gla…traffic lights in Glas…


Raucous computer-generated muzak

Uhm…professor fro…Glasgow University …so…eh…eh…


Travel….slow…Glasgow…Edinbur…sorr…Glasg…eh…usual delays…120 mile detour…

Sport…Celgers…uhm…Glasgow Rocks…eh…

Your national broadcaster

And now…University of Glasgo…and Strathclyde…uhm…eee…so…

Arts correspondent…Glasgow…Glas…Edinbur…Edinburgh…burgh…Gl…ow…Glasg

Raucous computer-generated muzak

A station like no other

Eee…uh…uh…expert…University of Glas…

Ah…eh…ah…ee…asked these Glaswegians…uh…em…

Travel…set of traffic lights out in Glasgo…Gla…Gl…trains… 120 mile diversion…in…

Weather…looking out the window…rain…Glasg…eh…

Sport…Glasgow Warriors…Rangtic…unpronounceable tennis player name…uhm…

Raucous computer-generated muzak

Eh…conference on how Glasgow influenced M…M…M…Mozart…eh…uh…em…ah…

I…i…i…i…so…i…i…eh…Glas universi…eh…eh…Strathcly…eh…

Archaeological remains in Shetland…uh…uh…we asked experts from Strathcly…and…Glasg…uni…

Travel…delays…usual susp…train…Gla…t…E…burgh…set…traf…ights…in…Glasgow…


Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive 


January 9, 2015

The Great Marischal Square Cornswaggle – 3D

The people of Aberdeen have been cornswaggled by their council AGAIN.

The big lie that was Marischal Square is exposed.


pinnacle visualisation


There is no square. There probably never was any intention of creating a square, by any definition.

We were duped. We were wary of their promises but were duped by that old trick of the public consultation. Look where that’s taken us.

Cast your eyes on this projection for how the Muse Development will look once the concrete is poured and the common land, that belongs to everyone in the city, is turned over to a private development for the erection of tawdry towers.

Willie Young

Which means this development was given the full-hearted support of Labour members of the council willingly.

Not one of them recognised the architectural outrage they were about to impose on the city.

willie young


Who voted for this abomination?


Labour: Ramsay Milne, George Adam (Lord Provost), Jenny Laing, Angela Taylor, Willie Young, Barney Crockett, Neil Cooney, Len Ironside, Ross Grant, Graham Lawrence, Tauqueer Malik, Yvonne Allan, Scott Carle, Lesley Dunbar, Jean Morrison, Nathan Morrison, Gordon Graham. SNP: Graham Dickson. Independents: Marie Boulton, Andy Finlayson, John Reynolds, Fraser Forsyth. Conservatives: Alan Donnelly (23)


SNP: Bill Cormie, Muriel Jaffrey, Callum McCaig, Gordon Townson, Gil Samarai, Sandy Stuart, Andrew May, Jim Kiddie, Jim Noble, Jackie Dunbar, David Cameron, Kirsty Blackman. Liberal Democrat: Jennifer Stewart, Martin Greig, Aileen Malone, Ian Yuill, Steve Delaney. Conservatives: Ross Thomson. (18)


Bring on the next election


January 4, 2015

The Eagle Stone, the Brahan Seer, Nutwood and the Earl of Cromartie


This Pictish stone currently sits on a brae at Strathpeffer in Ross and Cromarty. Allegedly this brae is called Nutwood Lane which sounds horribly twee straight out the pages of Enid Blyton so we’ll draw a suitably lacy curtain over that dubious name.

eagle stone again

 The area’s rich Pictish heritage includes many symbol stones  including this one with carvings of an eagle and a horse shoe arc. It is also known as Clach an Tiopain, Gaelic for the stone of the echo, from its hollow ring when struck – a bit like listening to the wit and wisdom of Gordon Brown.

The stone is a greyish blue gneiss and stands 32ins tall by around 24ins broad and 10ins thick. The shape of the stone was presumably selected by the carver but it has not been dressed into a particular shape. It is an example of a carved fallen stone, a feature of early Pictish art, dating from the 5th or 6th centuries, or perhaps it was a rush job. Why it was carved with a horse shoe and eagle is anyone’s guess. Some say it commemorated a battle and others that it signified a marriage – a lucky horseshoe is still associated with weddings and the eagle is the symbol of the Munros – but this is all conjecture.


The stone was carved at least 1500 years ago and originally stood where Fodderty cemetery is, between Dingwall and Strathpeffer, and was used to mark the burial place of the local Munro clan killed in a battle with the MacDonalds in 1411. The Munros won and the Eagle stone was an appropriate monument to mark where their clansmen fell in battle.

As the information notice by the Eagle stone explains a century later the Brahan Seer (Coinneach Odhar), Scotland’s equivalent of Nostradamus, fortetold of a great flood across the strath if the Eagle Stone fell three times – when it had fallen twice it was thought advisable to move it higher up the strath from Fodderty to its present position and set it in concrete, just in case.

The predictions of the Brahan Seer are, of course, cobblers and instances of old Brahany hitting the nail on the head are only the ravings of delusional simple folk. The Brahan Seer was dispatched in a horrible manner that involved a barrel of boiling tar at Chanory Point at Rosemarkie. Didn’t see that coming did poor old Coinneach.

And I don’t know if the Brahan Seer predicted the coming of a development of houses close to where the stone now stands that will necessitate the felling of mature trees as well as part of the distinctive beech hedging that lines the entrance to Strathpeffer.

Strathpeffer looking West

As far as I know he didn’t mention the Earl of Cromartie and his housing ambitions but maybe he did. Seems like a lot of upheaval for 15 houses but then we know what happens when a few houses get permission – before anyone knows it there’s another 15, then no reason why another 15 shouldn’t be built too. I hope that cement around the Eagle Stone is solid because if one of those diggers gets too close there’s no knowing what might happen.



As for the beech hedge it may yet be saved, well not saved exactly because it will be dead when howked out, but local planners, we love them all don’t we folks?, have sought to reassure people that a ‘robust replanting plan’ for a replacement hedge is, well – planned. Robust? Can’t argue with robust.

Good luck to the future of the Eagle stone in its present location. I have a feeling it’s going to need it. Hey, the Brahan Seer thing is catching.

December 24, 2014

Franz, Three Beers and a Kümmel scene from Berlin Alexanderplatz

This is one of the most impressive acting performances I’ve seen. Franz is struggling with his life and visits a beer cellar where he addresses his drinks in an astonishing scene.

It only lasts 5 mins so make sure you watch till he’s onto his third beer.

November 30, 2014

Old Midmar church and graveyard

Old Midmar Church

The tiny graveyard and church ruin of Old Midmar or Migmar in Aberdeenshire lies below a narrow busy road west of Echt so if you go to take look be careful.

The roofless kirk is St Nidan’s, and you’ll battle with Google looking up that one as is the way with many things Scottish and Welsh, and its cemetery date from the 17th century. However this church is a replacement for an older one and it is likely several churches occupied this site over many many centuries. The remains that are there now are from a church built in 1677 but there have been changes to the original building over time. It was common for newer churches to replace older ones and use some of the same stone, as happened here  -with locally found granite, partly dressed.

Nidan was a 6th/7th century Welsh priest who is said to have helped spread Christianity to this part of Scotland.

The church is set among trees on a wee hillock across from Cunningar motte. Cunningar possibly took its name from the Latin for rabbit cuniculus or the Gaelic which is coinín. Think too of the American rabbit island or Coney Island. Anyway it looks like the place had so many rabbits they named the place after them. Cunningar mott dates from the 12 or 13th centuries when a Norman bloke rode north and claimed the land as his. To prevent the natives from trying to move him on he protected his house with a motte. All went well until a hundred or so years later when the black death struck and the house was abandoned and buried. There’s been quarrying on the site over time which put paid to most of the remaining motte.

Outside the graveyard is a beehive structure with a plaque to the Bel family buried in the cemetery. The Bels, it tells us were master masons and ‘practical architects’ who worked Midmar, Castle Fraser, Crathes, Craigievar and Fyvie for centuries.

A short way off to the west and higher up lies the magnificent Midmar church and graveyard which incorporates a fine recumbent stone circle. This newer kirk was built in 1787 at which point the old kirk shut its doors.

It is not really possible to get an impression of how the church looked in the 17th C because it was divided up into  burial enclosures accessed through separate doorways when it stopped functioning as a church.

In 1740 the parishes of Midmar and Kinairney were united.

These burial enclosures were for members of local landed families of Corsindae, Kebbity and Midmar and parish ministers.

Corsindae and Midmar are well-known today but Kebbity or Kebbaty was new to me. Various families are associated with the estate including the Davidsons and Forbes.

In 1698 George Forbes of Kebbity was one of many lairds mentioned in parliament (Scottish parliament as this predated the union of parliaments of Edinburgh and London) concerning licences to trade with Africa and the Indies. 1698 was the year of the launch of the Darien scheme at Panama that fell foul of attacks by England and its allies determined to wipe out Scotland’s trading company.

James Mansfield of the Castle of Midmar has a plaque on the east wall. Sir William Wallace is said to have ordered the biggen of Midmar Castle as a gift for a friend when he was Governor of Scotland – Wallace not the friend. Midmar was reputedly the area’s most valuable property in the early 18thC but I’ve no idea how prestigious it was in the 14thC.


James Mansfield possibly bought the Barony of Midmar from one of the Davidsons.Most of the landed families appear to have followed the usual practice of being absentee lairds but the Davidsons  of Kebbaty appear to have been residents. Some of the Mansfields were bankers in Edinburgh.

James Mansfield was an improving landlord who had his workers knock what had been wild, barren land into shape including the creation of a large and well-stocked garden and banking families would have had the means to pay for it.

Another James, was a captain in the army who was killed during the Highland regiment mutiny at Leith in 1779 – along with many largely unarmed Highlanders who were virtually slaughtered as a lesson to others not to question military orders.


Around 1730 alterations were made in the kirk to accommodate a pulpit to conform to post-Reformation church architecture.

Many inscriptions are illegible. The oldest marker I found I could decipher in part was from the 17th century.

‘Here lives Alexander Tytler farmer at the milltown of Corsendaye who dyed March 23(?) 1690 aged 84 years as also Margrat Martin his spouse who dyed june 16 1681 ???James Tytler ? son farmer at the forsaid place who dyed February 20 1736 aged 90 years and Jean Middleton his …’

James Rolleston Sterritt, a surgeon with a very grand name, made even grander when he married Patience Duff of Corsinae and added her family name to his – as her first husband had also done. He was Irish and a surgeon with the Royal Navy. His family is buried within the old kirk and features one of the largest memorials.

There are only a few dressed and polished granite stones, many are simple undressed stone, mainly granite.

Dressed and polished black granite, not a northeast granite but possibly from Scandinavia

The greyish pink granite stone below may have come from Hill o’ Fare near Echt.

The memorial to James McIntosh, a gardener, features plant motifs.

Some nice carving on a freestone memorial to Jessie Laing.

I’ve no idea who belongs to this memorial that stands proud on the south side of the graveyard. Sadly it has lost it inscriptions.

There are a number of very old stones – this one comes from a time before colour, when the world was in black and white – which some people really believe.


And suddenly colour magically appeared and all was right with the world.

This stone belongs to the McIntosh family, wonder if its the same as the gardener above, who lived in Kirkstile. Kirkstile I believe is the cottage close to the graveyard, see below.


As you can see the McIntosh’s knew personal tragedy. In 1871 Christina Forsyth, his wife, and James lost two of their children within days of each other, Jessie aged 7 on 22nd July and Robert aged 8 on the 30th. They had a baby around that time and that child, Charles, died at 7 years in 1878. Their surviving son, Theodore, died at 55 years and James and Christina were aged 92 and 84 respectively – dying in the same year, 1915.


Kirkstile at Midmar


If walls could speak -

The cottage had several turning hooks attached to its walls – does anyone know what they were for?

See too the recumbent stone circle at Midmar http://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/the-great-recumbent-stones-in-scotlands-stone-circles

November 21, 2014

David Thomas: the life and death of a ship’s captain

Life Onboard a 19th century Aberdeen Schooner

Captain David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury

Guest Post

 Captain Thomas

A New Ship

It was one of those lucky moments, browsing auction lots at Milne’s in Aberdeen, and what should be there but a large bundle of documents, letters and ephemera, with no clear indication of what they were.   A telegram mentioned the loss of the schooner Mercury.   This had been sent by the ship’s master Welshman David Thomas to an office in Aberdeen. The year was 1891.

Despite being unclear what the rest of the documents contained this was enough to tantalise my taste buds. Bids were made and the bundle was secured. The usual problems had to be dealt with: careful opening of folded and fragile papers, cursory reading to allow sorting and then looking for a chronological path. Fortunately many of the documents were dated and those that were not were identified by contextualising with other items.

And so, with this done, it was down to reading the material and it soon emerged that the paperwork concerned the running of a sailing ship owned by George Elsmie & Son of Aberdeen.   Most of the letters and telegrams were written by the captain David Thomas, informing the office in Aberdeen of the ship’s condition, cargoes carried and discharged, the work of crews and importantly the thoughts of David Thomas on the life and times of a later 19th century ship’s master.

It became apparent that the life onboard a deep-water sailing ship was not an easy one.   Mercury had been launched in 1871.   Built at Duthie’s yard it was three-masted vessel, 144′ x 27′ and was registered at 361 tons.   A well built wooden coppered ship, the schooner took to the water at a time when Aberdeen boasted a high reputation for its fast clipper ships.   Mercury was not like the glorious Thermopylae, launched 1868; it was more of a tramp sailing ship but like the famous clipper ship it had been made by skilled shipwrights and again like the Thermopylae it was literally designed to carry cargoes across the globe.   In the twenty years of its working life its voyages ranged from the Mediterranean to North and South America; to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong.

Captain David Thomas and his crews, like so many others, faced very real hazards.   A master might find his vessel becalmed, distant from land with supplies running low; at another moment the ship could be hit by storms, threatening to take all rigging away and the very survival of all onboard in the balance.

With all this to manage it is not surprising to find David Thomas stressed.   But his letters also tell another story, that the “natural” dangers of seagoing were compounded, indeed brought on, by the pressures of searching for and carrying profitable cargoes.   After all the only reason the ship was built was to make money and this need at times drove the increasingly elderly captain to distraction.

Thomas was forty years old when he stepped aboard the spanking new Mercury.   For the previous fifteen years he sailed for George Elsmie & Son. On his first voyage to South Shields he told Elsmie ship appears to work well: he loaded with coal and sailed for Palermo, carrying fuel for vessels which threatened the sailing trade and for vessels that would no doubt use the recently opened Suez Canal, a waterway designed for steam rather than sail.

Thomas made Palermo just before Christmas and to celebrate bought a turkey.   Thomas then succeeded in getting a charter to carry a dangerous cargo of sulphur, pumice and fruit from Licata, south of Palermo to New York where he arrived in April 1872 having taken just over six weeks from leaving Sicily.   We get a good idea of the perceived value of merchant sailors from their wages: ordinary seamen who’d been taken on for the outward voyage to Palermo and then onward to New York received £14-12/-, this for four months and 26 days of labour; compare this with Shore Porters in Aberdeen who were paid £1 per week in the 1870s or skilled joiners on 25/- a week.

Thereafter until mid 1874 Mercury sailed the world: New Zealand, Australia, Japan, New York, Malta, Smyrna and then on to Hull with a cargo of cottonseed (used in paint manufacture).   For over 30 months the ship, her master and her crews had sailed the world, seeking charters and hoping for safe passage.   To mark the end of its maiden voyage the ship was prepared for the home port of Aberdeen, painting round the vessel from rail to copper painting gilding and relettering port register bows & stern as agreed for the sum £6.   Thus ship-shape and safely berthed the schooner was at the quayside and David Thomas returned to his family at St Nicholas Street.

Receipt for Tow New York 1884


The first mention of real troubles comes with a letter to James Elsmie in July 1877 with the vessel set to sail from New York.   Thomas wrote, This has been the worst day that ever I had with this crew . . . They all want to leave.   The catalyst but not the cause was drink.  The captain had earlier taken men ashore to see about getting them new sea-going clothing – he spent $188 of ship’s money.   However, far from being overly grateful his men set about re-selling the garments for drink to bring some joy and compensation to an otherwise hard life.   Eventually the money was spent, the hangovers no doubt receded and all but two returned to the ship.

A much worse situation arose in 1883 when Mercury was loading at Zarate, upriver from Buenos Aires, and again drink was probably central.   This time it involved violence onshore resulting in the Bos’n (described by Thomas as bad a character as I have seen) and others being arrested and held in jail for a month. That was bad enough but the incident was compounded by an apprentice, a boy named Chrystal, getting involved.   The boy was released and Thomas left Zarate for Rouen with five men still locked up which meant signing on other men for the passage east.   Thomas naturally made sure the absent men were taken off wages.   The following year he again found himself with a difficult crew.   The ship was loaded at London, carrying 600 tons of cement for Rio de Janeiro where it was discharged. While there the crew gave trouble, such that the Welshman felt life was threatened and called on assistance of a Captain Pearson inviting him to come onboard for protection.   There was no murder and the ship sailed for nearby Bahia with a cargo of sugar.   Thomas reported back to Aberdeen: this fortnight at sea has straitened the [crew] up a little but they are a bad treacherous lot.  In other words the physical demands of sailing and the cooperation needed to keep a vessel safe acted as a discipline whilst at sea; in port it was a very different matter.

Captain Thomas to James Elsmie, Buenos Aires, July 1885

One final example of a crewman who sorely tried the patience of the captain was Aberdonian John Wood, taken on as mate in 1886 he remained with the ship until 1889.   This pairing of master and mate was never a happy one.   Thomas had a low opinion of the technical skills and moral backbone of Wood, apparent in the letter he wrote to Elsmie, He is a poor useless piece of humanity it is a wonder I have not knocked his brains out before this through fair aggravation . . . during the whole voyage he has no sense and about every change of the moon he is a little bit cranky besides being so home sick and jealous.

When not faced with recalcitrant crewmen Thomas could be dealing with the threats from bad weather which were actually more threatening to his life than the grumblings of men full of drink. A cursory glance at any shipping intelligence of the 19th century brings home just how dangerous life at sea was: ships posted long overdue, news of groundings, vessels lost and men drowned.   Mercury had its own share of near misses.   For example in 1876 making passage Alexandria to New Haven the ship was battered by westerly gales.   The captain had originally calculated fifty five days for the crossing, in the event it took eighty seven days to reach USA.   His letter back to Aberdeen read, We have had a, most fearful passage.   All westerly gales and sometimes very heavy.   I have never seen such a continuance of heavy weather and now it is bitter cold with a deal of ice and snow.   In 1882 sailing from the Britain to South America: 15 days of very heavy weather before entering the plate lost some Bulwark and again 2 chain plates of main rigin(sic) broken.   Still nothing serious.   We had a heavy breeze the night we left Alloa after light winds and fogs and were 5 days to anchors.   In the same year sailing between St Johns Newfoundland and New York he wrote : we got in last night all safe after a severe battle with the ice.   I have never suffered so much as I have done these last six days with cold and fatige (sic) . . . a lot of vessels missing some way others damaged with the ice.

Then in 1885 came a collision at sea.   It was on the short hop from Plymouth to Dunkirk. A telegram to the Aberdeen office told the owner Run into by French steamer coming in this tide.   Know name of steamer.   Lost bowsprit jib booms head gear cutwater stem broken.   Wire instructions.   The steamer was Dragut.   No lives were lost but damage was fairly extensive, Bowsprit & all head gear carried away & we find facing piece of stem broking & the main stem starting from wooden ends & split down to 14 feet & we do not consider the ship in her present state fit to proceed to her destination & we cannot recommend anything to be done to make ship safe to proceed in tow until stem is taking off down to the 14 feet for further survey.   In the end the French owners accepted responsibility and their insurance covered the costs of repair.

These are just a few of the troubles faced by the captain.   They were, irrespective of their seriousness, in a sense incidental to his main duty which was to find charters for the vessel.   The captain was willing to carry almost anything if it could turn a profit for the ship. The capacity of the hold (600 tons) was a limiting factor as was the ship’s ability to handle particular materials which meant heavy bulky machinery was not possible, otherwise Thomas like other sailing masters was open to any offer of charter.   So it was that we find the vessel carrying everything from camphor to coal, glass to guano.   Much of the hustling to get a suitable cargo was down to the hard work of the master.   On top of this he had to keep accounts for all the ships outgoings, oversee the safety of the vessel and ensure the ship was crewed.

Unsurprisingly Thomas began to feel the stress, made worse by encroaching competition from steam vessels.   Following the collision with Dragut he despairingly wrote We are now getting into the unlucky side of the business which has caused me a deal of trouble in mind, and three years earlier in 1883, I fear it is to be a bad look out for sailing ships in the future.

Through the 1880s difficulties grew and as his letters show so did Thomas’s pessimism.   He was ageing, mental stress was taken its toll and when he was hit by illness in 1890, mid winter at Antwerp, he wrote of   feverish cramping feeling and a heavy cold . . . I am scarcely able to get along.   But he was a working ship’s master and he just had to get along.

Last Receipt for Work Done, Aberdeen, February 1891

A Sinking

And he did get along until 1891 when his ship’s receipts for January show Berry and Mackay of Aberdeen checking navigation instruments, new tide tables purchased also a sea anchor, 2 life buoys and 11 eleven life belts as well as 366 pounds of beef.   In the light of what subsequently occurred those items, other than the beef, are perhaps significant.

Mercury sailed from Aberdeen to Grangemouth; loaded with coal she was bound for Rio.   Bad weather delayed the ship in the Firth until the 23 February when she finally got away.   Then on the 4 March James Elsmie received a telegram, Mercury totally lost Longsand   Captain Thomas crew landed here this morning by steam lifeboat. Crew now returned wreck to salve stores if possible.   Vessel full water when crew left her.   Little prospect of doing much.   And that was that for the vessel.   Twenty years service then grounded and lost but with no loss of life.

Auction poster

There was of course an enquiry the outcome of which was six months suspension of Thomas’s master’s certificate.   At the time of the grounding the weather was fair and there was no obvious reason why the ship should have been lost.   It was not unknown for ships to be deliberately grounded when trading conditions were such that an insurance claim could bring in more than continuing in business.   That the ship was provisioned with new life belts etc on what became its last voyage might make us suspicious.   But regardless of any intent on David Thomas’s part we have to acknowledge that the man had lived a hard, dangerous life and it was perhaps a somewhat inglorious end to his career with the schooner, although he possibly had the sympathy of his fellow merchantmen for the predicament he found himself in and the solution he might have found.

However Thomas’s connection with the sea continued until sadly in January 1894 The Aberdeen Journal reported –


The schooner Catherine had been sailing out of Montrose, working the busy Baltic trade. According to one newspaper report Catherine had sailed from Elsinore on the 9th November 1893, in other words the ship had been missing for two months in deep winter.   David Thomas would have been about 63 when lost with the rest of his crew.

For a more detailed account see:  “David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury, 1871-1891” in The Mariner’s Mirror 96, No.4 2010, pp.468-482.


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