Jan 18, 2022

The Dud

Jan 16, 2022

Oncology – Scottish impact on cancer treatment and the perils of radium

Very many of us have had all too close experience of cancer either in our own lives or in those of family and friends. Cancer is not a new disease and historically surgeons cut out malignant growths to try to prevent their spread. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century that there were major scientific developments that would revolutionise the treatment of malignant tumours – with the discovery of radium and x-rays.

Nowadays we bundle cancer treatments under the label oncology, an umbrella term for medical, radiation and surgical methods of dealing with cancers; the intensity of treatments dependent on the severity and stage of illness – frequently surgery is followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

X-rays were discovered at the very end of the 19th century, in 1895, by the German engineer and physicist, Wilhelm Röntgen.  This must have seemed like magic. In 1896 the first patient with a cancer of the throat was irradiated in an attempt to stem the growth of his tumour. The following year Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays similar to x-rays. That same year Marie and Pierre Curie announced to the world an element they called radium, extracted from radioactive uranite or pitchblende and in 1902 they isolated radioactive radium salts from the mineral.

In 1910 John R. Levack at Foresterhill Hospital in Aberdeen in Scotland sought out a supply of the much talked-about, radium. His request was turned down by the hospital board and then the Great War was upon them so it was not until 1922 that Aberdeen Royal Infirmary obtained a small stock of radium salts, as did a few other hospitals in the UK, which led for instance to their use treating women with cancer of the uterus.

A quantity of radium was provided to the University of Aberdeen’s science hub at Marischal College’s Department of Natural Philosophy (Physics). There radium was turned into radioactive gas, radon, and needles were loaded with radium for medical interventions. Given the hazardous nature of these radioactive substances a radium officer was identified who was given responsibility for their safety. In 1922 this was John Cruickshank, a lecturer in malignant disease. As well as the radium officer, several other new roles were created at the hospital and university relating to the handling of radioactive substances and in order to develop appropriate methods for dispensing radium treatments to the sick.  

Loaded needles were inserted into malignant tumours

New academic and medical departments were created along with a raft of national and international organisations on the back of radioactivity. The British Association for the Advancement of Radiology and Physiotherapy was formed in 1917, later known as the British Institute of Radiology. A UK radium commission was set up in 1929 to regulate the use of radium in Britain, leading to a handful of radium centres and local radium officers. 1. 

Radium requires very careful handling for it is inherently dangerous and at the onset of WWII a new problem arose – where to store the hospital’s supplies safely in the event of Aberdeen being bombed. It was. Aberdeen was the most bombed Scottish city during WW II. On the 21st April 1943 127 bombs fell in just 44 minutes killing 125 people and destroying and damaging a huge amount of property. Any direct hit on the city’s store of radioactive material would have spelled death to many more, to thousands potentially, and for years to come with lethal radioactive dust finding its way into people’s and animal’s bodies the nightmare would be long-lasting. What to do? The answer had to come quickly.

In anticipation of this arrangements were made to protect radium supplies. Burying the material underground, to a depth of 50 feet or more was recommended but given Aberdeenshire sits on fairly impenetrable granite this was problematic so where could a place of real depth but still within the vicinity of the city be found? Anyone with any knowledge of Aberdeen will know what comes next – Rubislaw quarry. Rubislaw is 142 metres (465 feet) deep and one of the largest man-made holes in Europe. Local supplies of radium in solution were taken out of their glass containers, dried and restored. (Supplies from Inverness were included.) They were protected with lead and steel and placed in part of the quarry wall that had been specially prepared and the opening plugged with heavy timbers. Gaining access to the hospital’s supplies during the years of the war involved someone being lowered deep into the quarry on a Blondin  – an aerial ropeway. Not for the fainthearted. None of the handling of these toxic substances was for the fainthearted. As it happened the Germany Luftwaffe did manage to find Rubislaw quarry with a bomb but fortunately little damage was done to the borehole containing the hospital’s deadly supplies, and so the good folk of Aberdeen lived to fight another day.  An additional small quantity of radium was also preserved west of Aberdeen at Torphins hospital. Why I don’t know. Could it be that was closer to Balmoral and potential needs of royalty?

The ‘laboratory’ at Cove quarry

Although it was risky having radium right in the heart of the city there was little option if it was to be available for delivering medical treatments given the very limited life of radon gas. It had to be produced near Foresterhill. This couldn’t take place in Rubislaw quarry and the place chosen was at Cove on the southern edge of Aberdeen. Here both electricity and water were available and the railway ran close-by which was to prove valuable. Cove’s Blackhill’s quarry had a face excavated to store glass bulbs filled with dried radium for making into radon gas when needed. In the same way as it was protected at Rubislaw what became the little laboratory at Cove consisted of the mineral, steel, lead and in addition sandbags and a shed. One bad winter a south-bound train carrying the university’s H.D. Griffith (its first medical physicist) and his staff was stopped close to the site so they could more easily get through the snow drifts to make up essential medical supplies.  

Each time radon was needed liquid oxygen and gas cylinders had to be carried in to the ad hoc lab at Cove. But it worked and between March 1940 and September1945 Cove’s little workroom supplied not only Aberdeen but Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle hospitals with radon gas.

Every care was taken to protect and preserve this potentially lethal but medically beneficial substance but still radium did go missing: seven filled needles of it disappeared in 1932; years later a 50 mg tube was flushed down a toilet by a hospital patient and despite valiant attempts to trace the radium through the sewer system to its outlet at the Bay of Nigg nothing was found; a further 50 mg tube was inadvertently incinerated at Woodend Hospital which must have resulted in radioactive smoke getting out into the atmosphere in west Aberdeen but there were no reports of associated health impacts.

Aberdeen’s early foray into nuclear medicine led in 1950 to Britain’s first oncology unit being established at the city’s Royal Infirmary under Professor James F. Philip who had been the hospital’s radium officer from 1939 till then and was a founding member of the British Association of Surgical Oncology. The department initially known as the malignant diseases unit built on Aberdeen’s ground-breaking joined-up approach to nuclear medicine that would influence cancer therapies across Scotland. By the 1970s all Scottish hospitals were encouraged to setup their own units based on what had been operating at Foresterhill for 20 years.

The most stable radium isotope is radium-226 which has a half-life of 1600 years. Radon 222’s half-life by contrast lasts only 3.8 days. Needles of radium salts were able to be used indefinitely but radon within them built up and leakages were likely. Radon needles were designed for fast application and needed constant replacement but their radiation hazard declined quickly. Needles were inserted directly into tumours as opposed to irradiation from outside. Radium or radon are no longer used. In 1980 caesium-137 replaced radium in the treatment of cervical cancer and iridium wire replaced radium for solid tumours.

Establishing safe and effective doses of radium isotopes became the source of many conversations in the scientific world, as among everyone else. Their impact on patients must have been significant.

Finally, a number of years ago I found myself in Würzburg where Roëntgen carried out many of his x-ray experiments and having read there was a small museum dedicated to the great man I tracked down what I thought was the place. Everyone must have been hard at work in labs or offices for it took me quite a time to find anyone there and none of whom seemed to know about displays so I left as disappointed as they were confused. No idea where I was but it doesn’t seem it was the right place because there is a Roëntgen museum which is, thankfully, available online. Nothing to do with this whatsoever but the small private hotel I stayed in for a couple of nights offered the best breakfasts of any hotels I’ve been to. And I’ve been to lots.

https://wilhelmconradroentgen.de/en/

Finally, finally.  The perils of exposure to radium were not understood at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries and even when its hazards were beginning to be apparent its potential for industrial applications were too great for commercial enterprises to ignore. Staff and customer safety were of no concern and very young women employed in the USA to paint numbers and hands onto watches and military instruments so they could be seen in the dark involved the women licking the paintbrushes to form delicate points. The women were not told of the dangers of handling this curious paint that glowed in the dark and happily messed about painting it onto their fingernails and even their teeth as they kidded about while working. They became known as the Radium Girls and they developed cancers and many died as a consequence.

Radium ‘girls’

A craze for all things radium early in the 1900s led manufacturers to lace all sorts of products with the stuff, for no reason other than they could – chocolate, cosmetics, playing cards, clothing, health tonics. Bizarrely radium was added to hen feed with the idea irradiated eggs would self-cook and perhaps self-incubate.  Sounds nuts to us today but it was all new then. On the subject of nuts – Brazil nuts contain radium, naturally. Two to three nuts daily is not a health risk but go canny with those moreish chocolate Brazils.

*

1.One eminent doctor whose name is permanently linked with the early years of radiology is Professor James Mackenzie Davidson one-time president of the British Association of Radiology (BAR) and the British Institute of Radiology (BIR).

Mackenzie Davidson’s parents were among the earliest Scots to emigrate to Argentina, in 1830. At least that was when his father went out there, aged 21, from St Martin’s in Perthshire. Don’t know about his mother because details about women are usually regarded as unimportant – I do know she was from Argyll. The Davidsons bought up pieces of land around the River Platte to farm sheep and cattle and did that successfully. Davidson senior survived many an adventure, including an attack by three gauchos who thought they’d killed him but it was Davidson’s horse that died, on top of him. When he was eventually able to extract himself from under the poor beast he was able, eventually, to find help and lived to experience several more adventures, apparently. The family were related to Marshall Mackenzie, the eminent architect from Elgin and Scotland remained important to the Davidsons who frequently sailed back from South America for visits. Their son, James, was educated at the Scottish School at Buones Aires and studied medicine at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and London. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1882 and opened a medical clinic at West North Street in the city. From there, in 1886, he was appointed Professor of Surgery and lecturer in Ophthalmology at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kid’s hospital and Blind Asylum. James Mackenzie Davidson became fascinated by the newly discovered x-rays and visited him at his workshop in Würzburg in Germany to learn more about x-rays and radiation and was able to carry out his own x-ray of a foot that had been pierced with a broken needle.  He devised the cross-thread method of localization to trace foreign bodies in the eye which proved of immense value for treating horrific eye injuries in WWI. Mackenzie Davidson was by this time in London, working with x-rays at Charing Cross Hospital’s Roëntgen Ray department. Following his death in 1919 an annual lecture in his honour was established by the British Radiological Society and a medal is presented for outstanding work in the field of radiological medicine.

H D Griffith Physicist ARI Zodiac Journal of Aberdeen University Medical Society Vol 1 p 190, Jan 1950.

Aberdeen Royal Infirmary: The People’s Hospital of the North-East. Iain Levack and Hugh Dudley, 1992.

Jan 5, 2022

The Great Hair Cut Riots

While hard-nosed peace negotiations were taking place at Versailles in France at the end of the Great War. While 74 ships of the German fleet were scuttled at Scapa Flow in Scotland. While Greeks and Turks fought over territory, encouraged by Britain. While rioting by Canadian troops stationed in England and Wales resulted in brutal murder. While all this was happening in 1919, a year the world was plunged into crises – uprisings, mutinies, riots and revolution – the Spartacists in Germany, reds versus whites in Russia, rebellion against British imperialism just about everywhere – always viciously repressed – in Egypt, Malta, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, India – and closer to home tanks and military turning their firepower on civilians in Ireland and in Glasgow. 1919 while the world tottered on its axis Aberdeen was rocked by rioting over haircuts. It happened like this.

Frederick Street School with its rooftop playground

In 1919 young girls usually wore their hair long and loose, no less so in pockets of the city where desperate poverty meant large families lived cheek-by-jowl in tenement rooms with limited access to soap and water – cold water from a communal tap on a stair landing or outside. Never hot water on tap. These were the homes for heroes promised by Lloyd George during WWI. In 1919 seriously deprived families, their men-folk just returning (if they were lucky) from serving in one of the most horrific wars ever, were no doubt struggling to contend with adjusting to life, attempting to find work, trying to keep the wolf from the door and possibly one of the last things on their minds were nits (head lice.)

Nits are little insects that crawl from one head of hair to another. There they set up home and lay their eggs until another head of hair comes close, in which case they may decide to jump ship and infest a different head. Nits are blood-suckers. And they itch like mad. Getting from head A to head B is easier on long hair that effortlessly comes into contact with other long hair. In 1919 the Health Committee of Aberdeen Burgh Education Authority decided to tackle an outbreak of nits among school pupils with action taken in the case of schoolgirls whose parents persistently failed to take responsibility for the problem themselves. Dr George Rose, the schools medical officer took it upon himself to deal with verminous heads and if parents would not cut their child’s hair, he would arrange for it to be done.  

In fact incidence of head lice was not an enormous problem in Aberdeen and Dr Rose found only one girl with ‘filthy hair’ at the Middle School when he inspected children there in June 1919 and when an appeal to her parents was ignored the doctor took matters into his own hands. His insensitive handling of the case was misjudged. All hell broke loose.

Several pupils from the Middle School went on strike, their number boosted by youths already skiving (truanting) who when they heard of the hair-cutting incident readily joined the collective action. STRIKE was chalked over the school’s playgrounds to underline their protest. Word got out and pupils from schools across the east end joined the protesters or rioters as they were identified, mainly but not exclusively, teenage boys. They went from school to school drumming up support. More playgrounds were chalked to indicate strike in those schools and school buildings were pelted with stones. Windows were smashed; scarcely a pane of glass remained intact at the Middle School. Marywell Street and Ferryhill suffered similar attacks. Some rioters turned their attention on Union Terrace, gathering outside the education authority offices they booed their disapproval of the committee that sanctioned cutting girls’ hair. Loud protests carried on into the nights of the third week of July 1919 and there was consternation among the citizens of the town about where it would all end. The local authority fought back.

At the root of this Middle School fracas there seems to be the contempt for and insubordination to authority which are characteristics of the times among certain classes of the community.

I think the city fathers feared rebellion against authority affecting both Britain and the rest of the world that year had permeated through to the lower classes in Aberdeen. The haircut riots had become class riots. Working class parents complained of being given no or too little warning to have their girls’ hair cut and heads treated for lice while middle class critics sneered that –

The working-classes are all for State control of everything…glass was smashed because they dislike the medicine they themselves demand.

These were harsh times. A correspondent to Aberdeen Weekly Journal had little patience for treating children with kid gloves and on the subject of punishing school pupils for misbehaviour had this to say,

A few children may have died as the result of corporal punishment, but they were exceptional cases, and furnish not reason for its abolition. 

The school medical authorities justified their behaviour by pointing to powers under the Scottish Act of 1908 that enabled them to act if after 24 hours written notice to a parent to

…cleanse the child within 24 hours…[if] this notice is not complied with, the medical officer…may remove the children…and cause their persons and clothing to be cleansed.

The school strikes spread. Pupils from Skene Square school abandoned lessons and headed to the beach noisily shouting and cheering. At Frederick Street school the appearance of a nurse at a window led to a rumour that the vilified medical officer, Dr Rose, was about to wield his scissors there. In no time local mothers and children assembled by the school gates. The police were called and tried to assure them Dr Rose was not inside but the crowd were in no mood to be pacified. Missiles were thrown. A janitor was struck. At the end of the school day, at four o’clock, pupils were dismissed with no sign of Dr Rose. The crowd waited; certain the now notorious doctor would emerge. He did not.

Head lice

Some striking youths hanging about the nearby Links decided to seek out Dr Rose at his house in the city’s west end, at Rubislaw Terrace. They lined up outside it, shouting and waving union Jacks before pelting it with stones, breaking one window. When the police turned up a group of rioters disappeared round to the rear of the property where the police didn’t think to follow.  Stones rained down on a garage thought to belong to Dr Rose. It was his unfortunate neighbour who lost 19 panes of glass from his garage. From the west end they turned their attention again to Skene Square School which received volley after volley of rocks.   

One of the lads was dressed in soldier’s trousers and puttees and seemed to be in command. He was carrying a banner and shouting his orders to his ‘troops.’ He was considered a great hero that night, and imagined himself as such. His mother stated that he came home that night without his collar and tie; and thinking he had done a great thing.

Eventually the hair cut riots petered out. Then came the aftermath with punishments taking the form of the scud (the tawse or belt) or an appearance at the Children’s Court which resulted in 12 months probation for all the youths who appeared before it, for glass breaking.

Dr Rose was criticised for acting without tact over the few cases he had to deal with; one or two girls in a thousand had their hair cut by the school authorities. Just nine percent of the city’s girls had what was classified as dirty hair compared with forty percent found ten years earlier. So the problem was waning.

A proposed increase in Dr Rose’s salary was turned down by the Staffing, Salaries and Bursaries Committee and remained at £650. The doctor was backed by the BMA who said his salary should be £800, describing him as one of the best school medical officers not only in Scotland but ‘in the kingdom’ and called the local authority members who failed to support Dr Rose, ‘unfair and cowardly.’

It might be supposed Dr Rose would have decided to move on but in 1920 he was still in his position reporting on the usual childhood ailments: whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria – all on the increase. He also noted a resurgence in city children’s ‘fetish’ for sugar – which had been interrupted during the war years when supplies couldn’t get through. Schoolchildren’s teeth were in bad shape. Some schoolchildren were still verminous – from about 93 city families.

1919 the year of revolt and riot. Few protesters came out on top. Authority everywhere had come though four years of terrible bloody conflict and were in no mood to compromise although in a way Aberdeen’s school authorities did by rapping Dr Rose across the knuckles in denying him a promised salary increase and they did ensure that in future parents would be more courteously treated when asked to keep their children’s heads clean and clear of nits.

Dec 31, 2021

Here’s to a happy and safe 2022, folks. And in memory of the friends we’ve lost this year.

Dec 24, 2021

The Headless Ghost

Jack’s Brae

It was the winter of 1842 and two thin and poorly-clad girls pulled their shawls closer about their spare bodies in an effort to keep from shivering in the raw cold of a dark November morning. It was early, about five o’clock, a time when better-off children were still fast asleep under feather quilts, but for eleven-year-old Bell Moore and her thirteen-year-old sister the mill bell was ringing as they hurried to work in Spring Garden in Aberdeen.  As they descended Jack’s Brae, Bell uttered a cry and in her terror she stumbled into the icy waters of a burn running along the roadside – for there by the Gilcomston brewery the ghostly figure of a man towered over them – a man with no head. The terrified girl turned and ran back home, abandoning her sister who had also seen the apparition to carry on to work; for their parents were sore in need of their earnings. Young Bell was so distressed she daren’t leave her home for several days for her nerves were shredded and she sighed constantly from anxiety. Eventually Bell was persuaded to return to her work at the mill and she found the courage to set foot outside but that scary apparition was always on her mind and a day or two later, one Friday morning, she could stand it no longer and crept out of the mill to return home. All the time she imagined the apparition jumping out at her and as she approached Gilcomston from John Street her fear was such that she collapsed in a faint in the street. People dashed to her aid and carried the child home where she suffered several seizures.

By the Monday Bell’s extreme distress passed on to her sister who had no sooner finished her supper and gone to bed than she jumped back out of it complaining to their mother,

“Na, mither, I’m as ill as Bell.”

Neither child was capable of standing upright for their legs were weak with fright. Their teeth chattered and when they attempted to drink out of their wooden cogs they bit at them, gripping the rims with their teeth. They talked of the ghostly figure at the brewery and admitted to having seen it several times over the past two or three years but had never been unduly frightened by it for it appeared with a snowy white cap on its head, unlike that unlucky day they saw it, headless. The monster, they said, was known to sometime stand and sometimes sit down, next to the black drinking fountain on the brae.

The phenomenon was the talk of the town. Other people admitted to having seen the ghostly man such as a fellow called MacKenzie and the girls’ aunt. People grew fearful, suspicious of passing down Jack’s Brae by dark. Local doctors put their heads together to explain the appearance but were left mystified.

A week or two later one Tuesday in early December two men were ascending Jack’s Brae. It was between ten and eleven o’clock at night and the two were deep in conversation. Just as they approached the brewery their discussion became so animated they stood still to clear the air when mid-sentence one of them happened to glance to the side and to his astonishment he saw a shape, perhaps a man, slowly emerge from the ground and uncoil upwards. The man, if that is what it was, was dressed all in white but for a broad black stripe up each of his legs. On his head was a white nightcap.

The two friends were momentarily stupefied and stared at the apparition. The apparition stared back at them. Then the ghost took a few steps to the north. One of the companions croaked, “The Ghost!” His friend cried, “We’ll chairge him! We’ll chairge him!” On hearing that the ghost took off at full speed. It ran helter-skelter with the pair of intrepid ghost hunters at his heels.

Along the burn, the lead-side, they ran and into Short Loanings. The phantom turned right. The pair turned right. At the brae head they turned into Back Loanings and down to Skene Square. On and on they sprinted, the ghost never daring to falter and his pursuers gaining on him all the time – along Caroline Place and up into Berryden. The ghost turned back then scaled the high stone dyke into the Barkmill wood where he was swallowed up amidst the trees. The exhausted friends pulled up. They had chased the nimble spectre for about two miles and one had even got a hand onto the ghostly shoulder but couldn’t keep a grip of it.

And that is a true story of the headless ghost of Aberdeen. Some people said the mystery of the spectre had been solved – that the mischievous spirit was someone in high spirits who set out to terrify folk out of their wits because of his cantrips and was not a late-deceased owner of Gilcomston brewery come back to check on how it was getting on.

The Moore girls admission of having seen a ghostly figure for at least two years including on early mornings meant it was not likely it was an impish youth intent on scaring honest folk but that, too, was explained when it was told that during cold weather the outside iron waterpipes attached to the brewery were wrapped with straw ropes which when frosted could appear to be a tall unearthly goblin wearing a snowy white cap.  

If you ever have cause to find yourself on Jack’s Brae on a cold and dark winter night, or even very early in the morning, don’t stop. Walk on, as fast as you can because you just never know.  

Dec 21, 2021

True Grit: motorcycling women

People run all kinds of risks during their lives. One activity that might not spring to mind when assessing risk is having a child. Happily, for the vast majority of women childbirth brings only happiness but historically, and even for some women today, significant dangers lurk behind an event as common as giving birth. Maternal deaths were notoriously under-reported until the 20th century and the availability of sulfonamides and antibiotics and women must have experienced significant anxiety as their baby’s delivery approached.

One young woman who faced up to risk during her life was pioneering motorcyclist Louie Ball. Louie was hailed as one of Britain’s most daring riders of either sex. This champion biker began young, enthused by the machines she saw at her father’s motorcycle dealership and workshop in Birmingham, she was soon riding herself to school on one of them.  He sold Scott bikes and fifteen-year-old Louie Ball took to the roads on a Scott motorcycle-sidecar combination, accompanied by her siblings in the sidecar. As well as being an adept motorcyclist she also knew her way around their engines.

The Auto-Cycle Union (ACU) was set up in 1903 to encourage motorcycling and Louie was one of the first competitors at its Stock Machine Trials, on her Scott. I have my own ACU badge somewhere from the time I helped teach motorcycling in Aberdeen. But that’s another, less interesting, story. By then the ACU had overcome its anxieties over women. In 1925 it had banned women from road racing events on grounds of safety – or rather to avoid public criticism it feared would come its way if women motorcycle riders were involved in accidents on the road.  Competitive trial riding was not affected so women frequently participated in the sport. Yet while they were permitted to undertake the perils of trial competition they were prevented from being race officials until 1954 and that only changed when M. Redpath and R. Wylie from Edinburgh applied and were accepted on the assumption they were men. Margaret and Ruth duly turned up and the ban was broken. Neat. The pair were also trialists and knew their way around a course.

Louie’s skill as a biker soon led to her riding for another Birmingham motorcycle firm, James Motorcycles of Greet; she favoured a James 500cc V twin. In 1925 at the International Six Day Trial only nine riders completed the course with clean sheets, Louie being one of them. The following year she signed up for BSA’s works team and it was there she met the man who would become her husband, Dundonian George McLean, also a BSA rider. The two fell in love, married and honeymooned at the 1926 International Six Day Trial.

Louis Ball, now McLean, was not the only prominent British woman competitive motorcyclist. Not by a long chalk. Women took to the sport and to the roads. In 1925 she, along with Marjorie Cottle and Edyth Foley, won individual gold medals at the International Six Day Trial – success that persuaded organiser of British motorcycling to have them participate in the coveted International Silver Vase category in 1926 when they came third or rather first equal but then winners were separated out. There was no distinction between men and women – they covered the same courses in their teams. McLean, Cottle and Foley (dubbed the Three Graces by the press) won the Vase in 1927 against stiff competition from men across Europe, including Britain. This was the one and only time a women’s team took the trophy in a competition that began in 1913 and continues to this day. Louie was then riding for the Bristol motorcycle manufacturer, Douglas – on a 350cc EW Sport model.

Women motorcyclists on the trials circuit proved a great draw for spectators and for the women there were opportunities to experience a lot of personal freedom and extensive travel. The British women’s team competing on the continent found life there different from back home. Coming from the United Kingdom with its reputation for having some of the worst cooked food in the world they struggled with ‘foreign’ cuisine and tried to carry on as though they were back in Britain. Cultural confusion resulted, such as the time they were served boiled eggs in wine glasses.

International competitions involved thousands of miles of riding on some spectacular and dangerous routes but British trials were also gruelling. Louie put in the best performance by a lady (as it was described then) in the 1927 Scottish Six-day Reliability Trial. In the 1928 International Six Days Trial in Yorkshire she was said to have performed brilliantly, overcoming “Dead Man’s Hill” on which several male motorcyclists came a cropper.

1928 found Louie again manoeuvering hairpin alpine bends along with 167 other riders competing in the International Six Day Trials. The first leg from Munich to Austria was over difficult mountain terrain with riders arriving at the Austrian border about 7 a.m. next day. The women were back competing in ’29 and ’30. The main international prize was open to riders on bikes manufactured in their own countries and for the Vase competitors could ride a cycle from any country.

Louie and I’m presuming George McLean

In 1930 when Louie was thirty she and George went to live in his home town of Dundee, to join George senior at his motor dealership and repair shop on Riverside Drive. For this valiant trailblazer who took so many risks in her short life to die in childbirth at the age of 32 is heart-breaking. 

A mother dies in childbirth and is taken by angels
(taken from a grave in Dresden)

Dec 12, 2021

What’s in a name: royalty a very English affair

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

British Air Force man Derek Neilson, who was fined £5 for throwing a tyre lever through a shop window stocked with British Coronation emblems. Following his court appearance he was locked up overnight at army barracks in Edinburgh for refusing to stand up during the playing of “God Save the Queen.” And his tie emblazoned with Elizabeth I, was confiscated.

Neilson was the extreme end of protest across Scotland from Benbecula to Auchtermuchty in the early 1950s over the naming of the queen. Reminiscent of the women’s suffrage movement protests, poster campaigns, petitions signed, windows were smashed and a pillar box in Edinburgh bearing the insignia, E.R. II, was blown up.

Back in 1901 similar protests had taken place in Scotland when Edward VII was named since there had been no Scottish kings called Edward, only English, how could he be Edward VI of the United Kingdom? Didn’t do any good then. Scots were told to just swallow it.

Then in 1953 a petition lodged with the Court of Session by the Scottish Covenant Association to veto the imposition of Elizabeth II as the queen’s title on grounds the United Kingdom of Great Britain that came into being in 1707 had no queen called Elizabeth since that time and as she was said to be queen of the Union she could not possibly be called Elizabeth II.

Dr. John MacCormick

The petition was rejected on grounds it was up to her what she called herself. This was challenged by Dr John M. MacCormick, chairman of the Scottish Covenant Association on grounds that the numeral was not a description of her Crown but of her, a person. He referred to an Act of Parliament on the subject –

Nowhere in the Act of 1953 has any authority been given to Her Majesty or her Ministers to adopt in her personal name a numeral which is contrary to the provisions of the Act of Union.

That it is well understood in England the numeral is to convey her as Elizabeth of England . . .

It cut no ice. Scotland was then fairly solidly unionist. At least those in senior roles in Scotland were solidly unionist and pleased themselves about constitutional matters irrespective of popular opinion.

Names do matter. And names do change. Place names tend to be changed to underline domination. The British Empire was famous for doing that but it’s a common practice among powers replacing traditional native names with ones honouring political, military or royal figures. Think of Volgograd becoming Stalingrad in honour of the Soviet leader or Maryburgh that became Gordonsburgh then Duncansburgh and finally, Fort William, in Scotland. The William being the bloody butcher Duke of Cumberland, himself. I hope in a future independent Scotland someone with a morsel of decency will arrange a competition to rename the place. There are 26 towns called Independence in the US alone and that has a certain ring about it.

Names matter or else place names wouldn’t be altered. Names mattered a great deal in 1953 when Princess Elizabeth came to the throne. Which ordinal number should be added to the new queen’s name, I or II, was debated in Westminster. It used to be that a description was good enough to differentiate monarchs of the same name – descriptive term like Alfred the Wimp, Margaret the Cow or such. Then they began to number them, like farm stock.

It is not compulsory for a monarch to be known by his or her given first name. Usually with royal types they have several to choose from. Queen Elizabeth’s own father chose to be George VI even though George was the last of his many names and he was Albert or Bertie before his coronation. Elizabeth might have chosen to be Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary (both her names.) Mary would was been an interesting choice, and legitimate since she was becoming the monarch of a union formed only since 1707. If it is, as was stated then, the UK was a successor state to England then equally the UK is a successor state to Scotland. But that was/is assuming the UK is an equal union and nobody but a dissembler would say it has ever been that. It was most definitely not regarded this way in London, where it mattered.

In the event Elizabeth Windsor – now there’s another example of changing identities for the House of Windsor and other similar wings of the family took their name from royal castles when their own names became too embarrassingly German during war with Germany.  So Saxe Coburg Gotha was dispensed with in favour of Windsor. It could so easily have been the House of Balmoral. But wasn’t. It’s an English/Scottish thing. Again.

As I was saying, in the event Princess Elizabeth and parliament decided she should present herself as a successor to Elizabeth Tudor of England – which she isn’t. Okay, let’s stop there for a minute. Elizabeth of England had no children. The English line of Tudors therefore died out with her. However, in that way that royals are inter-bred she is kind of related, wait for it, through the Scottish House of Stuart. So, no direct link with Elizabeth of the rotten teeth. Cut to the chase, Lena. The Tudors line ran dry. The Stuarts in the form of Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James VI, took up the English as well as the Scottish throne – Scotland and England were separate nations in 1603. A bit of cut and pasting heads and the Stuarts were replaced by the German cousins, the Hanovers – and hey presto we have the Saxe Coburg and Gotha dynasty that was renamed, Windsor. Hope that’s clear.

It won’t have escaped the notice of those of you paying attention that James VI is never referred to by the big 6 in England but the wee I since England had never had a King James previously. Sounding familiar? Rules are there to be broken, as they say in Westminster. Talking of Westminster the debates over the royal name chuntered on.

3 March 1953 –

After the passage of all this various legislation through the Parliaments of the Commonwealth the Queen will be as much the Queen of India and of Ceylon as she is of England or of the United Kingdom,” said Gordon Walker, Labour MP.

His conflation of England with the UK did not go unnoticed. Walker, continued

I think one is still entitled to talk about the “Queen’s English” and the “Queen of England.”

Labour MP, John Rankin, representing Glasgow, wanted to know who advised the choice of title pointing out it was incorrect in reference to Ireland and equally wrong in its reference to Scotland,

We in Scotland have always recognised the English as a very kindly and generous people” to which M. McGovern of Glasgow Shettleston piped up, “Who circulated that?”

Rankin ignored the comment. Referring to the man who was the accepted authority on all things coronation, Lawrence Tanner, Keeper of Muniments and Library, Westminster Abbey, who described the new queen as Queen Elizabeth II the sixth Queen Regnant of England. Rankin said this was

phrase that gives offence to many people in Scotland … where does Scotland come in? Does it mean that she is not Queen Elizabeth II of Scotland? If so then what is the position of Scotland in regard the proposed style and title?

The right honourable Gentleman the Prime Minister, dealing with the Coronation Oath, in a statement to the House on 25th February, said that the change to which he was referring was introduced “as a result of the act of Union with Scotland. Then he went on to point out that in the Oath Scottish religion was preserved as a right guaranteed under the Act of Union. But the right hon. Gentleman did not tell the whole story. There were more than Scottish religious rights defended as the result of the Act of Union. As a result of that Act, Scotland and England ceased to be independent countries. The Act of Union was not a merging of Scot-land into England. We are not a satellite of England. I am no Nationalist – I want to make that perfectly clear – but the Act of Union did away with England and Scotland as independent units. It substituted a new name, a new flag and a new Great Seal.

These are the things which have been consistently ignored, not merely in the attitude of England – and I forgive them for that – but time and again in this House. People look on us as taking a rather narrow attitude, but our attitude is defended by a treaty which established that Act of Union between two equals, not between one who was dependent and another who was a great Power.

Welsh member, Cledwyn Hughes, for Anglesey, reminded him there were three great nations in the Union.

It became clear that little consultation had taken place with any of the three other members of the Union and all consideration of the event was based solely on what suited England and conformed to English history and heritage or a cobbled-up version of that.  

A.C. Manuel, MP for Central Ayrshire –

At election time, the Prime Minister always likes to go to Scotland …to parade at huge meetings in big football stadiums…give pledges…he doesn’t appear to have consulted on this.

The second reading of the Bill took place on 11 March. Viscount Swinton prattled on about how inclusive the monarchy was and how it was based on what was contained in Bagehot’s English Constitution. The tunnel vision was and still is, stark.

There was ridicule over Scots getting hot under the collar about the royal title from people who openly admitted they knew little about Scottish history.

“Lawlessness and violence” that greeted the appearance of pillar boxes bearing ER II in Scotland was condemned. Representing the Scottish National Party’s view was Lord Saltoun though he was not a member. He explained that people in Scotland were angry at the country continued in being sidelined and not taken as an equal partner in the Union. He suggested that when Prince Charles (then a baby) came to reign he could choose a Scottish title such as David III or Robert IV, to demonstrate the UK was an equal union.   

On the 15th April Commons debate on Royal Style and Title, Lieut.-Colonel Elliot asked the Prime Minister whether,

. . . in advising the Sovereign to assume the title of Elizabeth II, he took into consideration the desirability of adopting the principle of using whichever numeral in the English or Scottish lines of Kings and Queens happens to be the higher.”

Notice what he did there? The principle he referred to had never taken Scottish monarchs into account – didn’t happen with James VI then I (by which he is universally known) and with Edward VII it was never contemplated he would be known as Edward I of the UK. Westminster’s love of tradition was/is its love of English tradition. It can’t handle unions because of something it calls the importance of its sovereignty. England doesn’t do compromise. Don’t mention the EU and Brexit.

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was quick to share out responsibility for this obvious stitch up, with the Accession Council. The Accession Council is a group comprising privy counsellors, members of the Lords, the Lord Mayor of London, aldermen of the City of London, high commissioners of Commonwealth realms and assorted civil servants – top heavy with south east England interests. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – less so. This was their speel back in the day –

WE, therefore, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of this Realm, being here assisted with these His late Majesty’s Privy Council, with representatives of other Members of the Commonwealth, with other Principal Gentlemen of Quality, with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Citizens of London, do now hereby with one voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart publish and proclaim that the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is now, by the death of our late Sovereign of happy memory, become Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom Her lieges do acknowledge all Faith and constant Obedience with hearty and humble Affection, beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign, to bless the Royal Princess Elizabeth the Second with long and happy Years to reign over us.

There was unease among many Scots at having a right royal rug pulled out from under them. Churchill (despised by much of Scotland for very good reasons and the feeling probably mutual) toyed with Scots when he suggested that a future monarch might choose a regnal number that represented past Scottish monarchs, such as a Robert.  

. . . thereby emphasising that our Royal Family traces its descent through the English royal line from William the Conqueror and beyond, and through the Scottish Royal line from Robert the Bruce and Malcolm Canmore and still further back.

Still further back! All those references to tracing monarchs back to 1066 England and all that is just an arbitrary stab into the past. It is meaningless gibberish in terms of tradition. Why not go back to the 10th  or the 9th century? Why the reference to the Norman Conquest? Why not a reference to the great Kenneth MacAlpin? We know why – a) it was likely Churchill, schooled in ancient and European histories knew next to nothing about Scotland and b) MacAlpin wasn’t English. Of course neither was William the Conqueror but back then people arriving in boats from France were able to settle in England, especially when equipped with a mighty bow and plenty of arrows. It’s pretty hilarious that accepted English constitutional rigmarolling stems from a French takeover of the land previously run by Denmark, Norway and rump England? Plenty shared sovereignty back then.

Churchill was pressed to to formalise his remark about considering Scottish monarchs in the future but he declined to have any such policy written down because it was all just so much hot air. He was at it. What about the difficulties in issuing Scottish currency given this was the first Elizabeth of Scotland? he was asked. Nothing.

As usual Wales was omitted from the conversation. A Welsh MP, Gower, piped up,

. . . what course will be followed if a future British monarch should bear the name Llewellyn?”

The PM prevaricated. As he did on many concerns of the union of equals.

Sir William Darling, MP for South Edinburgh, handed into the Commons police what looked like a bomb but was a machine gun cartridge sent to him by someone from Glasgow in response to a speech he made in support of the title Queen Elizabeth II. A Darling doesn’t change its spots.

Nobody listened to Scottish or Welsh objections over the monarch’s title but irritation over the high-handed behaviour of the Westminster clique has never faded which might help explain the greater support for republicanism in Scotland and Wales than in England. Will Charlie do a Robert? We’ll soon know. Oh, and the Queen got to keep her choice of title but the ER II post boxes got the heave-ho out of Scotland to be replaced by ones bearing the Scottish Crown. They tried it on again with an ER II post box in Dunoon in 2018. Still at it.

Let us end with a song, once very popular in Scottish folksong circles.

The Scottish Breakaway (Coronation Coronach)

Chorus:
Nae Liz the Twa, nae Lilibet the One
Nae Liz will ever dae
We’ll mak’ oor land Republican
In a Scottish breakaway

Noo Scotland hasnae got a King
And she hasnae got a Queen
How can ye hae the Second Liz
When the First yin’s never been

Her man he’s cried the Duke o’ Edinburgh
He’s wan o’ the kiltie Greeks
Och dinnae blaw ma kilt awa’
For it’s Lizzie wears the breeks

He’s a handsome man and he looks like Don Juan
He’s beloved by the weaker sex
But it disnae really matter at a’
‘Cause it’s Lizzie that signs the cheques

Noo her sister Meg’s got a bonny pair o’ legs
But she didnae want a German or a Greek
Poor aul’ Peter was her choice but he didnae suit the boys
So they sellt him up the creek

But Meg was fly an’ she beat them by an’ by
Wi’ Tony hyphenated Armstrong
Behind the pomp and play the question o’ the day
Wis, Who did Suzie Wong

Sae here’s tae the lion, the bonnie rampant lion,
An’ a lang streitch tae his paw

Gie a Hampden roar an’ it’s oot the door
Ta-ta tae Chairlie’s maw

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_Box_War

Dec 8, 2021

The Book of Deer . . . my response to Zbigniew Tycienski’s response to it

Firstly, many thanks for commenting on the blog. I did enjoy your own blog response – an excellent rejoinder to my rather glib piece on the Book of Deer.

Allow me to address some of the points made by you.

The question of where the Book of Deer should be housed – at Cambridge University Library in whose collection it has lain for so long or closer to the area whose name it takes and where it is likely it was compiled.

I’m not sure your phrase, “… to consign the Book of Deer to Aberdeen would have been unreasonable” is fair. Aberdeen has for over 500 years been the centre of learning for northeastern and northern Scotland with an excellent reputation across the areas of learning for being innovative and outward-looking. The implication in your response to me that scholars interested in the book would be forced to travel to a remote Scottish city – Aberdeen – to carry out their researches is a bit insulting. For a start Aberdeen is not a remote backwater and if you insist it is remote, then remote from what and where? Many assumptions are carried in the term remote. It may surprise you to learn that even in a remote city there can be found academics who are more than capable of appreciating, understanding and researching the manuscript. That they should be content with a high-quality copy is a strange argument that can be turned on its head. If a facsimile is good enough for Scottish researchers at Aberdeen then it must be equally good enough for researchers south of the Border. As Walter Benjamin might have said – as wonderful as a reproduction of the Book of Deer might be there is something wonderfully evocative being up and close to the original and the sensory experience of working with a manuscript dating from the 10th century enhances the researcher’s experience, albeit separated by touch by a cotton glove.  

Of course the initial importance of the Book of Deer was as a Christian book. But the perception of any item can change with time. Think of a pair of ploughman’s boots. When worn by an early 20th century ploughman they are just work boots but when acquired by a museum they are instantly reinvented as objects of cultural historical significance and so treated with respect, tended and protected and they attain a life story surrounding their initial existence; the boots that during their natural lifetime would have been casually pushed aside take on an artificial life in a museum where they become treasured artefacts displayed behind glass with a card alongside explaining their relevance. And so, too, the Christian Book of Deer that evolved during its own lifetime into more than a gospel book when two centuries later it was used as a notebook in which formal Latin gave way to the vernacular language of the time, Gaelic. While appreciating that for Christians the Book of Deer is as a religious script for me the fascination lies in the insights it provides into the cultural life of Scotland of around the 12th century. The world is filled with religious texts but the Book of Deer is unique in its marginalia and accounts of land deeds. And that, to my mind, is absolutely breathtakingly wonderful. Now I don’t expect anyone in Cambridge to get quite as excited about this aspect of the book as some Scots will. And there is the nub of the matter. Where does the book rightfully belong?

Your flippant dismissal of Scots caring where the Book of Deer is kept as ‘paranoid’ is unworthy. Why must Scots have to travel to England, or elsewhere, to appreciate artefacts that relate to Scotland and/or derive from Scotland – and this one is unique as the earliest surviving document created in Scotland. Surely, surely there is a strong case for it to be given back to Scotland?

Tychy’s argument that Scottish relics displayed outside Scotland can help non-Scots appreciate Scotland is neither here nor there and not a strong argument for having Scotland’s treasures kept in places outside the country. If having Scotland’s artefacts kept in places outside the country where they can be better appreciated and through them greater appreciation of Scotland as a nation then why not apply this to all and everything in Scotland’s museums and galleries? What other country in the world would the argument be – it is better that we spread our cultural treasures here there and everywhere than house them close to the people whose ancestors created them and who are the people they are because of them? Scotland is no different from any other nation in recognising that objects that add to our understanding and appreciation of our own past should be readily available to the people they best represent. Artefacts have greater relevance in or close to their own place of origin. London Bridge dismantled and shipped to Arizona lost its English historical resonance and became just another bridge in its new setting.  

As for the argument that artefacts should be housed where they can be accessed by the greatest numbers then let’s see how popular that is when the British crown jewels are removed from the Tower of London and sent to a museum in Tokyo which has the largest population in the world. And if that is convincing then send every artefact from everywhere to Tokyo for the very same reason.

I don’t advocate Aberdeen refuse to return the book but given the current propensity for returning national cultural assets there is surely a case for Cambridge returning this one.

Tychy’s blog response to mine:

Nov 26, 2021

The Book of Deer: so important to Scotland it should be repatriated

Leabhar Dhèir, the Book of Deer, is returning to Scotland, until next summer. In these times when questions are being asked about the ethics of artefacts held in museums and libraries outside of where they originated, often acquired through nefarious means, it is right that we question why one of Scotland’s most significant documents is not being retained in Scotland instead of being returned to England.

So what’s special about the Book of Deer? It is ancient, the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland and unusual in the variety of its contents. What began life as an illuminated gospel book in the 10th century (between 800 and 900 AD) written in Latin and containing some fairly basic illustrations was a couple of centuries later used to record all sorts of information on pre-feudal life in Scotland. Those Latin texts of the liturgical manuscript gave way to vernacular Gaelic, early Celtic Gaelic, that was different from later forms of the language. In short, the Book of Deer provides us with a window into the world of Alba under the Picts and Celts and is a unique contemporary record of those times.   

Those times have long been written off by historians as – the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages when it was said nothing much happened between Roman domination and the Norman Conquests in England. Haverings, of course. One transformational event that occurred then was the Christianisation of the people of Alba with monasteries established across the north which were centres for spreading the Christian gospel – a monastery for each of the Pictish tribes sometimes covering extensive areas and very different from later local churches serving small parishes. One such monastery was at Deer in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire, founded by the missionary evangelist, St Columba and his disciples.  

The first monastery of Deer was probably set up in the seventh century and it is likely the Book of Deer was compiled by a scribe from the monastery. Perhaps the scribe also drew the manuscript’s illustrations. We shall probably never know. A later monastery run by Cistercians was built in the same area.

The Book of Deer

The Book of Deer is small, consisting of 86 parchment leaves,6 inches long and 4 ½ inches broad. In it the Gospel of St John is written out in full along with abridged fragments from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – all in Latin. Each initial letter of the gospels is enlarged and decorated with muted colour and the ends of the principal strokes of the letters terminate in dogs’ heads. As is usual with illuminated manuscripts page borders are also adorned – here mainly with interlaced ribbons and patterns.

The really interesting thing about the Book of Deer are its later additions; the vernacular Gaelic which makes this book hugely significant in historical terms for Scotland with its references to land grants and copy of a formal royal charter from King David I. This was a time in Scotland when agreements were verbal, verified by witnesses, a custom that was abolished by the incoming Queen Margaret from England.

Early Scotland or Alba was largely matriarchal and divided up into seven provinces. Leadership succession ran along lines of brothers not down through the generations of sons i.e. they followed through the female line and not through sons of a marriage. A woman’s husband could hold land through his relationship with his wife but was dependent on her and not through his superior male status. Each tribe or clan was ruled by a mormaer, chiefs or toisechs, brehons or judges and town lands had fixed boundaries and throughout all were rights and burdens.

The Book of Deer

How and when the Book of Deer was removed from Aberdeenshire is not known, as far as I can find out, but from the fourteenth century there was great demand from book collectors for illuminated manuscripts so it’s likely it found a buyer somewhere and by 1697 it was in England, in the collection of John Moore, Bishop of Norwich and Ely. Moore was an enthusiastic book and manuscript collector with an enviable library of very early works. When he died in 1714 his vast library was bought for 6,000 guineas by George I so it could be given to the University of Cambridge, which it was, in 1715. There in the university library it lay unnoticed for nearly 150 years until librarian Henry Bradshaw discovered this wee gem, in 1860.

The double life of the Book of Dee from traditional religious text to a record of 12th century Scotland makes it one of vital importance and surely there is a strong case for it to stay in Scotland where it belongs and from where it should never have left.

The Book of Deer

Nov 7, 2021

Conservation or slaughter? Shot, gutted and stuffed

I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

In 2015 a conservationist, I feel I should put that term in apostrophes, finally discovered a very rare bird he had been searching for for two decades. And killed it.

The moustached kingfisher

Conservationist Chrisopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History was quoted as saying, “there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species.” He referred to rarely seen wildlife that he yearned to find as“ghosts before revealing themselves” – an interesting description for that is the exact same word used about a hundred years before by the English conservationist and hunter, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, on witnessing a succession of beasts making their way to a watering hole in a Congo forest one night before he shot one or two of them. Then they really were ghosts.

When, in 2015, Filardi spied the beautiful and elusive moustached kingfisher in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he and his team of accomplices spread mist nets across that area of the forest and succeeded in trapping a ‘magnificent all-blue back’ male moustached kingfisher with its bright orange face. He gushed –

 “Oh my god, the kingfisher . . . a creature of myth come to life

Then he killed it. Another triumph for western avian conservation.

In 2015, Filardi’s conservation efforts caused a great deal of anger around the globe from people who could not understand the reasoning behind hunting down a near-extinct species and possibly ensuring it becomes extinct. There was no such outcry over the behaviour of Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. Back at the beginning of the 20th century westerners thirsted for information about exotic beasts in lands far from home. Powell-Cotton was the man to hunt them down with his rifle so that science might be informed and people entertained.

An idea they were preserving wildlife, albeit dead, curiosity and entertainment were surely behind the opening of a museum on Powell-Cotton’s family grounds, Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent in England; a museum that exists to this day. It is stuffed, literally, with an enormous number of beasts shot by the man himself or members of his entourage, caravan as it was known in the day comprising of up to 70 hunters and porters. Powell-Cotton was a man-exterminating-machine whose claim to fame (notoriety) is he shot the largest number of wild animals ever destroyed by a single man.  Once upon a time this was thought to be heroic and admirable.

A member of Powell-Cotton’s caravan with animal carcasses. The white rhino Powell-Cotton had permission to shoot from the Congo Free State government. He had its permission to hunt a number of rare animals on its reserves. He was there, primarily, to search for white rhinoceros which at that time was “well-nigh exterminated” and “he was fortunate enough to secure a splendid specimen.” Above right is a honey badger “discovered” and killed by Powell-Cotton and named after him – mellivora cottoni.

Today, Powell-Cotton’s voracious appetite for hunting and ‘collecting’ would make him persona non grata, although to be fair there are many in the UK who, like him, describe themselves as animal lovers and conservationists who get their kicks from blasting wildlife to smithereens, or out of the sky and off their hooves. You know the sort of people – the royal family and lesser mortals who pay to destroy our Scottish wildlife on what’s erroneously described as sporting estates. Nothing sporting about a human armed with a large rifle targeting an unarmed animal.

This is the paradox – can you be a conservationist and animal lover if you slaughter beasts and birds?  For the tweedy/camouflage types who call animals ‘game’, a bit like Blade Runner it is the excitement of the chase and anticipation of the kill they relish. For scientific types it is to enhance human knowledge and understanding of the natural world and place beasts into a context of changing environments and time – the study of avian taxonomy, systemics, zoogeography, geographic variation, anatomy and morphology, sexual dimorphism, age/gender characters, moult, plumage sequences, ecomorphology, ontogeny … STOP! The science argument runs along the lines that taking animals for experiment and research has little impact on their survival compared with major pressures on habitats such as those from deforestation, agriculture, roads and building.

Powell-Cotton doesn’t really come into that camp. His expeditions found him cutting swathes through animal populations, driven by sheer greed. He came up with a cunning plan to assemble a collection of Kashmir and Tibetan ‘game’ all shot by one man – with a nod to science in that each specimen was measured and notes made on where, when, and how the animal was shot.

Perhaps if Powell-Cotton had a proper job wildlife would have faced fewer threats – unless you regard animal massacre as regular work. It sort of was in his case. An itinerant slaughterer of beasts – work that took him to Abyssinia, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, French Equitorial Africa, Cameroon, Switzerland, Chad, Algeria, Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, India, Kashmir, Morocco, Nigeria, Ogaden, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tibet, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more, lots more places.  

It didn’t all go Powell-Cotton’s way. One time an animal retaliated. In 1907 he shot a lion, as one does, and as he approached the poor thing it leapt up and mauled the brute. Powell-Cotton wasn’t badly hurt, saved by a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that protruded from the breast pocked of his jacket. Oh, the lion was put down. This was his thirteenth lion. One can just imagine the mirth that story created, repeated over many a dinner table. His museum has a display of the suit he was wearing, the copy of Punch and the slaughtered lion, stuffed. You can’t beat the English upper classes for taste. I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

To add insult to injury some of the Major’s species trophies were named after him, such as monkey colbus (Piliocolobus) powelli and the white rhino, ceratotherium simum cottoni, the very last male of that species was shot dead in 2018. He was 45 years old

Powell-Cotton’s museum boasts over 6,400 specimens and 230 species including

“Families: Anomaluridae, Bathyergidae, Bovidae, Canidae, Cercopithecidae, Cervidae, Cricetidae, Cryeteropodidae, Ctenodactylidae, Elephantidae, Equidae, Felidae, Galagonidae, Giraffidae, Gliridae, Hippopotamidae, Hipposideridae, Hyaenidae, Hystricidae, Leporidae, Lorisidae, Macroscelididae, Manidae, Muridae, Mustelidae, Nycteridae, Ochotonidae, Pedetidae,  Pongidae, Potamogalidae, Procaviidae, Pteropodiae, Rhinocerotidae, Sciuridae, Soricidae, Suidae, Thryonomyidae, Tragulidae, Trichechidae, Ursidae, Vespertilionidae and Viverridae.

Genera: Acinonyx, Addax, Aepyceros, Alcelaphus, Allenopithecus, Ammodorcas, Ammotragus, Anomalurus, Antidorcas, Antilope, Aonyx, Atherurus, Atilax, Bdeogale, Bos, Boselaphas, Bubalus, Canis, Capra, Capricornis, Cephalophus, Ceratotherium, Cercocebus, Cercopithecus, Cervus, Colobus, Connochaetes, Cricetomys, Crocidura, Crocuta, Crossarchus, Cryptomys, Ctenodactylus, Cynictis, Damaliscus, Dendrohyrax, Dicerus, Dorcatragus, Equus, Erythrocebus, Euoticus, Felis, Fennecus, Funisciurus, Galago, Galagoides, Gazella, Genetta, Gerbillus, Giraffa, Gorilla, Graphiurus, Heliosciurus, Helogale, Hemitragus, Herpestes, Heterohyrax, Hippopotamus, Hipposideros, Hippotragus, Hyaena, Hybomys, Hyemoschus, Hylochoerus, Hypsignathus, Hystrix, Ichneumia, Ictonyx, Kobus, Lemniscomys, Lepus, Litocranius, Loxodonta, Lutra, Lycaon, Macaca, Macroscelides, Madoqua, Malacomys, Mandrillus, Manis, Marmota, Mellivora, Melursus, Miopithecus, Moschus, Mungos, Mustela, Myonycteris, Myosciurus, Nandinia, Nemorhaedus, Neotragus, Nycteris, Ochotona, Octocyon, Oenomys, Okapia, Oreotragus, Orycteropus, Oryx, Otolemur, Ourebia, Ovis, Paguma, Pan, Panthera, Pantholops, Papio, Paraxerus, Pedetes, Pelea, Perodiciticus, Petaurista, Phacochoerus, Phacohoerus, Poecilogale, Poiana, Potamogale, Potomocherus, Praomys, Presbytis, Procapra, Procavia, Proteles, Protoxeros, Psammomys, Pseudois, Raphiceros, Redunca, Rupicapra, Scotoecus, Scotophilus, Selenarctos, Sus, Sylvicapra, Syncerus, Tatera, Tetracerus, Thamnomys, Theropithecus, Thryonomys, Tragelaphus, Trichechus, Ursus, Viverrra, Vulpes, Xerus and Zenkerella.

The museum displays some of its animal specimens as dioramas – you know an imaginary landscape populated with stuffed animals shot in their own environments then shipped to England, stuffed and arranged as pretty pictures for people to gawp at.  

If this is your bag you can link to the museum’s FB page here

https://fb.watch/94_Wb-8a1-/

It was written of Powell-Cotton that

“It has remained for Mr. Powell-Cotton to clear up the history of Capra walie by the fine series he has collected of this fast-vanishing form.”

(A Sporting Trip Through Abyssinia, R. Ward, 1902, p 478.)

The Capra walie is an ibex, an endangered ibex. It’s only known wild predator is the hyena (not guilty as charged, m’lud) and humans.

A year or two later Powell-Cotton recalled seeing his ‘ghost’ animals at the watering hole in a  Congo forest – forest elephants, buffalo, antelope, pigs and antelopes and his elation at succeeding in shooting dead two bull elephants and “a fine male buffalo.” On the same expedition, he collected, killed and collected, a large collection of snakes and his wife ‘collected’ about ten thousand butterflies.  

A large elephant prior to being killed by Powell-Cotton – a record elephant taken by a white man – a 198lb tusker

The man revered during his lifetime, whose activities were welcomed by the Natural History Museum in London, boasted of being the first European to kill the Abyssinian ibex, one of which was accepted into the collection of the Natural History Museum.  

At his death tributes were paid to Powell-Cotton: The keeper of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum praised his contribution to zoological science and for being one of the most generous benefactors of the museum’s ethnographical department,

‘Whenever possible he collected duplicate specimens. These, as well as many unique objects, were freely offered to the national collections.”

One of those notable specimens was the heaviest pair of elephant tusks (372lbs) shot by a white man and the tallest elephant to be taken out of Africa. Conservationist or prolific wildlife vandal? You decide.

‘Conserving’ the white rhino

Ref: Bird Conservation International (1995) 5:145-180 The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation J. V. REMSEN, JR.+