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March 9, 2018

Bellowed for nearly an hour: fascists V communists in Aberdeen (and Dundee)

Black shirts in Aberdeen








It was the Reds doing the bellowing. The occasion was an attempt by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to speak at Aberdeen’s Music Hall in September 1935.

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Raven Thomson front low left

“They may be croaking like old hens, but their bellowing and braying last night completely drowned out the voice of Fascism in the Ball Room of the Music Hall” reported a local newspaper. Such was the vocal opposition to the extreme rightwing Black Shirts, the report went on, the meeting ended almost the moment it opened. The would-be guest speaker that evening was to be A. Raven Thomson, the BUF’s Director of Policy but before he could utter a sound he and his fellow fascists were given the bum’s rush.

“Aberdeen is the toughest town we have ever struck,” Thomson told the paper’s reporter.

The public address was due to begin at 8pm but an hour before the hall was already packed with a couple of thousand more outside, unable to get in.

Protected by ten black-shirted stewards from Peterhead, Edinburgh and Manchester the Fascists took their seats to a wall of sound of booing and shouting from within the hall. Plain clothes police officer sat amongst the audience and they, too, were loudly booed.

The moment the speaker Raven Thomson got onto the stage and appealed for quiet he was drowned out by a huge roar and a sea of shaking fists. Someone stood up and waved a red flag which set off a rendering of the socialist anthem, the International followed by more noise and chants of  

“One, two, three, four, five,

We want Mosley, dead or alive.”

Thomson tried to press on but his words were totally drowned out with no break in the racket from the public in the hall. At 8 o’ clock the Chief Constable, McConnach, had a word with the Fascists then announced the meeting was cancelled. Wasting no time the Fascists hurried away to the delight of excited demonstrators roaring

“Three cheers for the defeat of Fascism.”

Outside a large force of uniformed and plain clothes police were gathered in anticipation of trouble but the protestors; Communists and Socialists as they were described by the press, were in no mood for violence but “swarmed down Union Street, marched to the Market Stance, singing the ‘Internationale‘ and other Communist songs on the way” and held their own meeting at the Castlegate.

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Raven Thomson

Raven Thomson issued a statement in which he said the Fascists had had several successful meetings on their tour of the country but – “It is very difficult to deal with a town like this where the people do not know our case” adding the reaction they had in Aberdeen was unusual and the city was “the toughest town they had ever struck.”

Edinburgh born Raven – Alexander Raven Thomson – was a theoretician of the British Union of Fascists and grandson of the architect Alexander (Greek) Thomson. One-time a member of the Communist Party he came to admire Nazi Germany and spent time in Germany learning the trade of silver paper manufacturing which later provided his living back in Britain. By 1933 he was a fascist and became the BUF’s Director of Policy and close associate of leading fascists Oswald Mosley and Neil Francis Hawkins. He was interned in Brixton jail for most of the Second World War and remained a fascist all his life. He married Lisbeth, daughter of the x-ray pioneer, Wilhelm Röntgen, and they lived in the East End of London where he died in 1955.  

Chief Constable McConnach was criticised by the anti-Socialist and anti-Communist Union for his handling of the Music Hall meeting. He responded saying the Fascist speakers had been given police protection and suffered no violence in Aberdeen but that he would not put up with speakers being obstructed in future. And he had advice for organisers of meetings, such as the Fascists, that any complaints against the police should be pursued through the courts. In the event the Fascists chose not to pursue their complaint as they didn’t want to appear in court in case what came out damaged their reputation it was said. They did, however, complain in one of their publications of “Mob Rule in Scotland” – indicating only at Aberdeen and Dundee had the British Union of Fascists suffered such disorderliness but they also mentioned they dared not hold meetings in Glasgow after dark.


The following week the Fascists’ tour of Britain found them in that other most disorderly city, the “Red city” of Dundee, where around 1,000 mostly Communists had already gathered for their own meeting knowing the BUF were due. Fascists G. Easterbrook and J. A. F. Nolan from London planned to speak but they and their fellow Blackshirts were forced into a hasty retreat chased by 500 Socialists. Some Fascists jumped onto a tramcar where Nolan was punched on the jaw, twice, and Easterbrook received a bloody nose before securing safe passage in a police van and driven away from the West Port area with shouts of “Down with the Blackshirts” and “Run them out of town” ringing in their ears – their planned 11 meetings during a week-long stay in Dundee cancelled.

At the time Nolan, insistent they were not Blackshirts but included Liberals and Conservatives, said their campaigns in Edinburgh, Ayr and Saltcoats got excellent hearings while in Aberdeen they’d encountered opposition though not as violent as in Dundee. Easterbrook was more blunt he condemned the reception in Dundee as “contemptible” and “un-British.”

It would be misleading to portray fascism as universally unpopular in Britain. Its ideology took root across Europe in the 1930s including in the United Kingdom. Indeed much of the British press were keen advocates of fascism: The Mirror and Sunday Pictorial were so tickled with fascism they proposed a prettiest woman fascist competition and published photographs of blackshirts having a sing-song around the piano. The Daily Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere welcomed Oswald Mosley’s moves to shake up Britain. On 8 January 1934 the Daily Mail editorial proclaimed –

“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”



And Rothermere’s message to Britons was-

 “Britain’s survival as a Great Power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right, ready to take on responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed.”

And enthusiastic Daily Mail readers clamoured to join the fascist movement. At the Albert Hall in London that April 10,000 people crowded in to hear the movement’s leaders speak. Soon 100 branches of the fascist organisation had sprung up around the UK.

The British Fascist movement was led by the well-heeled Sir Oswald Mosley – an MP with wide interests – at times a Conservative, an Independent and member of the Labour Party he served in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour administration as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After he resigned from Labour he was expelled and formed the New Party, a forerunner of the Union of Fascists.

Mosley favoured greater powers for the state in order to tackle unemployment and argued it should have more control over public assets. Unemployment was a huge problem in the UK in the thirties with levels of poverty and suffering hardly credible to us today. He wanted the UK to adopt the Italian type of fascism and become a corporate state of 24 bodies that would harbour no criticism, be governed by an elite elected through plebiscite every five years and replace local government with appointed representatives provided by the national government. In Aberdeen that man was to be William Keith Abercrombie Jopp Chambers-Hunter.

Despite the British Union of Fascists chiefly being London-based, in the East End in particular, its supporters endeavoured to create a UK-wide organisation. The biggest support outside of London was found in Liverpool and Manchester while efforts to spread their ideology into Scotland, intensified from 1936, were centred in Aberdeen. The simple reason for that was the presence of Chambers-Hunter, a fanatical fascist and his sister-in-law Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha – known as Mrs Botha (the last name might be familiar to you as she was a daughter-in-law of South Africa’s first Prime Minister, Louis Botha.) Chambers-Hunter was a laird at Tillery near Udny in Aberdeenshire who had been educated at public school in England, later spending time as a tea planter in Ceylon before returning to Scotland to live on the estate he inherited. His family’s fortune was made as plantation owners in South Carolina, the heart of slavery for around 200 years, in the 18th century. Chambers-Hunter, himself, was said to have come from a scion of the family born into less affluent circumstances, as the son of a grocer in Footdee (Fittie) and was formerly known as the more humble William Jopp. The family appear to have had a penchant for changing their names for his slave-owning grandfather was once Chalmers before adopting Chambers.

Chalmers-Hunter and Botha were determined fascists who didn’t allow adversity to come between them and their recruitment drive for the movement – and they had to be. Whenever and wherever they turned up Aberdeen’s anti-fascists quickly on hand to provide some opposition. That equal determination of the anti-fascists forced the local BUF from 1935 to stop publicising their appearances in advance instead they would turn up unannounced – most often at the Green, Craigie Street off George Street and Woodside where Chambers-Hunter would stick his head out of the sun roof speak briefly and perhaps sell copies of their newspapers Action and Blackshirt in the hope of getting away before being tracked down by the opposition – not easy for in the city an interesting network of anti-fascists emerged with eyes and ears open to their activities: bus and tram drivers and conductors; unemployed men and women on the streets and more organised groups of Communists and Socialists with bikes who got into the habit of cycling around the town searching out  Blackshirts in their usual haunts. As for the residents of Craigie Street it was said the women there were quite capable of sending the itinerant fascists packing whenever they turned up on their doorsteps.

Harassing fascists became a popular activity in Aberdeen. Many of you will know that nineteen Aberdonians felt so strongly that fascism had to be resisted they went to Spain as part of the International Brigades to fight it in the Spanish Civil War. Five were killed in Spain.

Aberdeen being a major port meant Aberdonians came into contact with seamen from around the world, including Germany, and from them they learnt about the rise and progress of fascism across Europe and the imprisonment and murder of Socialists, Communists, Trades Unionists, Jews and so many others. 

Communists used the town’s pavements to spread word of their meetings; writing time and place with bits of clay pipe – the habit of chalking messages on pavements lingered on among the city’s Socialists through to the 1960s CND, anti-Vietnam war movement.

The local press proved a lively medium for the exchange of political view. In March 1936 C. W. Edward of Sanquhar, Forres wrote in defence of fascism-

“Mr Chambers-Hunter’s excellent letter of February 28 voices the feelings of a vast number of people in Britain today.”

He went on to condemn the government’s treacherous attitude towards the USSR; its damage of trade through sanctions and risk of war so that “people of all political opinions are turning to Fascism as the only way out of the political morass in which we are floundering.”

His opinions were countered in the same paper by someone with the initials ACH who criticised Chambers-Hunter for his over-simplification of political situations –

“Russians are vermin (168 million people disposed of), Germany and Japan can squeeze them out of existence (No trouble!) Friendship with Russia means the ruin of the British Empire. (Shouldn’t it be the British Commonwealth of Nations?) …Fascism means the Union Jack —Nothing to do with the birch rod evidently…If a thinking man or woman refuses to accept any or all of these postulates, the shape of his or her nose may be taken as decisive evidence that he or she is wrong. – Drivelation. -A.C. H.”

Another correspondent sardonically ‘sided’ with the local fascist leader Chambers-Hunter and his opinions on the activities of Italy in Abyssinia.

“I was very interested in Mr Chambers-Hunter’s views on Italy’s great campaign, but I feel that he errs a trifle on the side of moderation.

It makes my blood boil when I think of the hindrances which have been placed on this great work of extermination, and I was only restrained by silly sentimentality from sending on my signet-ring to that saintly ascetic Il Duce to help him in his great work for civilisation.

The incredible bravery of the Italian airmen cannot be overpraised, considering the immense odds, but it is Marshal Badoglio who will live in history. His great feat of bringing about a series of glorious victories at a loss of a hundred thousand of the enemy to only a paltry thousand of his brave dare-devils marks him as one of the world’s greatest generals and mathematicians.

I remember when the Germans carried out an extermination campaign in their African colonies there was some talk, and the usual busybodies instituted a commission which allowed itself to be fooled by the usual lying stories…is not surprising therefore that misguided people even nowadays, no doubt influenced by lying “Red” propaganda, are squealing because some ****** women and kids happened to be slightly bleached by a harmless form of gas sent out to incapacitate the enemy camels from taking up supplies.”

It was signed  Hero Worshipper.

Asserting its empirical claims to a piece of Africa, Italy had been engaged in converting natives of Adowa to their caring regime through machine gun diplomacy, bombing and spraying poisonous gas from aircraft to kill individuals, poison land and water.

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Fascists and anti-fascists at Aberdeen’s Market Stance 1935

 One evening in July 1937 Chambers-Hunter and Botha and others turned up in a van with four loudspeakers at the Market Stance at the Castlegate. The four speakers were intended to drown out expected shouts and barracking from those against them. The inevitable scuffles broke out and when someone tried to remove the loudspeaker cables he was arrested, along with others. Chambers-Hunter continued to speak for around half an hour under a barrage of missiles of stones, tomatoes and anything else to hand but was scarcely audible over calls for Mosley “dead or alive.”

Once the Fascists had left the Castlegate the crowd turned its attention to the police and their arrested comrades. At police HQ in Lodge Walk the police were ready for them lined up with batons drawn and there was a stand-off with pleas to release the arrested men on bail at the same time the Chief Constable insisted there would be no bail until people moved away from the police station. They did. Back at the Market Stance a large crowd remained  and a collection was taken for bail money but the Chief Constable still refused to bail any of those detained.

Meanwhile a group of women arrived at Lodge Walk with food and drink for the men who they insisted all required special treatment. There were no files concealed in cakes but the men were allowed coffee, sandwiches and rolls provided by the women. One man used his sandwich bag to scribble a note which he hid in the dry lavatory in his cell. Next morning the note went to court along with the accused. As they were leaving the dock he threw the screwed up paper to the public benches but it was picked up by a detective.

Following their court appearance the men were taken to Craiginches prison where the governor tried to intimidate them, according to one of the arrested, Duncan Robertson.

“Stand to attention when you talk to me!” the governor demanded.

“Will I buggery!” came Robertson’s reply.

And he didn’t and the governor didn’t try that again.

A few days later the men were released from Lodge Walk on bail to cheers from a welcoming group waiting outside. One of the detained, Bob Cooney, was carried on shoulders from Lodge Walk to Castle Street where he addressed their supporters. Cooney had been assigned leader of the men by the police who always insisted there must be a leader. In their subsequent court appearance, Cooney was fined £10, being leader, and the others around £3 by Sheriff Laing. The average weekly wage for a skilled man at the time was around £3. Of the nine on trial, two were found not proven and others guilty of obstruction or assaulting the police. In all their fines amounted to £100, a great deal of money for working class heroes.

Following the Battle of Cable Street in London in October 1936 the Westminster government passed a Public Order Act on Jan 1, 1937 which handed greater powers to the police to control demonstrators and enable easier prosecution of hecklers who could be charged with disturbing the peace – a charge frequently employed in Aberdeen by fascists confronted by opposition so providing them with free rein to promote their propaganda unhindered and unchallenged for any who dared shout out could be pointed at and duly arrested with the prospect of being fined a whole week’s pay.

On 23rd October 1937 eight Aberdonians were before the sheriff on charges of acting in a disorderly manner at a meeting of fascists at Woodside. The public benches were filled with their cheering supporters who received a warning from the sheriff. Outside the court the fascists were booed and jeered and given police protection. 

And so the cat-and-mouse game between Left and Right continued with the Left always the ones sent to jail or fined.

Northeast fascists declared they had considerable support in Scotland – for example 200 members by 1933 in Motherwell. In order to boost their numbers Chambers-Hunter and Botha worked tirelessly taking their message to Inverness, Banchory, Kemnay, Inverurie, Forres, Peterhead, Turriff, Oldmeldrum and Stonehaven as well as Aberdeen.

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Scenes at the Market Stance where the BUF tried to speak 1937

In February 1937 the BUF were again at the Music Hall where the main speaker was their National Organiser in Scotland, Richard Plathen. Admission was by ticket only, sold by younger members. Local communists managed to buy a few before their ruse was discovered and a block placed on them obtaining more but the young fascists, not being over-burdened with sense, left the ticket box for a short time but long enough for the Communists to get to it and help themselves. The result was plenty Communist and Socialist comrades were able to find their way into the meeting despite a general warning from the police to the Left to stay away.

The evening began as it ended – in uproar. Around 80% of the audience were hostile to the fascists and they didn’t hold back from expressing their disapproval of the BUF; singing and chanting that familiar refrain -“One, two, three, four…” to which the fascists reacted by singing God Save the King – provoking in turn a hearty rendering of the Internationale accompanied by the waving of a red flag by Communist George Esson.

And so throughout the thirties clashes between Left and Right continued with no real violence other than pushing and shoving, a great deal of noise and forceful expression of opinion. But one Sunday in July 1937 around 50 Communists interrupted a BUF rally at the beach Links. During the ensuing rammy missiles and punches were thrown and a vehicle damaged. This resulted in several weel kent faces among the Communist fraternity being picked up later at home and instructed to appear at an identity parade at Lodge Walk the following day. One who wasn’t obliged to go was prominent anti-fascist campaigner Bob Cooney who later in the year was to head off to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. However on the day of the Links rammy he was in Glasgow but that did not prevent him insisting he take part in the line-up – muddling up the order of men arranged by the police. Being such a familiar face he was immediately recognised by one of the fascists there to identify the man who allegedly assaulted his brother at the Links. He pointed at Cooney and insisted he was the assailant. As this was patently untrue the others in the line-up were allowed to leave after receiving a warning from the police to refrain from hindering fascists in the future, again. Cooney claimed he was approached and asked why he changed the position of men in the line-up which made some suspect an arrangement had been made to get a particular man or men.

On the fifth anniversary of the founding of the British Union of Fascists Aberdeen was chosen as the venue for their Scottish conference. As their van with delegates from Perthshire, Fifeshire and Edinburgh made its way along Union Street towards the Market Stance the waiting crowd surged forward and succeeded in pushing the vehicle backwards for a short distance. The police were ordered to draw their batons and the van, its windows protected by wire, was able to complete its journey. A local paper described the crowd being “in a very noisy mood.” At the Market Stance Chambers-Hunter attempts to address the gathering were once again silenced despite his use of loudspeakers. The newspapers reported that little could be heard of his speech as it was drowned out by the ‘red rabble.’ Once again the fascists appealed to the police for protection before abandoning their pitch. As for the anti-fascists they met later on, in the Music Hall, at a high spirited meeting at which the principal speaker was the Communist Willie Gallacher.

The role of the police handling demonstrators was raised in the council chamber in October of 1937 with claims that they assaulted people in Aberdeen.

“The police seemed to run amok”

“The police concentrated on free speech for the fascists and threw overboard a score of other…rights of the public. Nothing mattered but to preserve the right of free speech for the fascists.”

(P&J 7 Oct 1937)

A complaint went to the Secretary of State for Scotland but was taken no further. In defence of police action it has to be said without their presence it is likely there would have been more injuries, to fascists at least, for tensions and tempers ran hot and wherever the fascists turned up their vehicles were set-upon and rocked, usually fairly gently. On one notable occasion, however, a fascist meeting had been arranged in Torry and people were again out in force with lots of yelling, fireworks and missiles. The police were also on hand but interestingly refrained from intervening until the crowd had toppled the fascists’ car was onto its side.

The worm had turned. Without police protection the fascists had to face up to the anger they provoked among Aberdonians. Unable to get to a public spot to speak from in Torry because of the crush of a crowd of around 6,000 the fascists slipped along Sinclair Road and stopped at a coal yard, misguidedly. Pieces of coal became missiles to be hurled their way. The coal yard was also private property and the owner complained to the police who ordered them off. A furious Chambers-Hunter turned on the police inspector -“You bastard!” which might have proved unwise. But Chambers-Hunter was nothing if not thrawn.

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Mosley visits Aberdeen

Oswald Mosley visited Aberdeen only once, on 22nd November 1937 where a luncheon was given in his honour in the Caledonian Hotel. The police blocked off the whole street to prevent demonstrators getting close to him. However, Aberdeen’s Communists were aye on the ba’.  Painted in huge letters across the road, in full visibility of guests at the hotel read the message FASCISTS OUT


 ran the Press & Journal headline


“Fine” the only comment Mosley is recorded as saying of his visit to Aberdeen.

The report claimed over 100 Aberdeen Fascists attended the luncheon. It is doubtful they all came from Aberdeen given the paltry numbers involved in their other activities but presumably were members who travelled near and far to touch the cloth of their leader.

The newspaper also reported the luncheon was disturbed by “continuous derisive shouts and the singing of the “Internationale” coming from Union Terrace, where a large crowd of anti-Fascists had assembled. Mosley’s address to the faithful centred on the wickedness of international Jewery and the fascist ambition to create a self-contained empire. At their lunch the fascists were subjected to catcalls which most ignored although one young woman did return the fascist salute.

Later, greater numbers gathered, having finished their work, to vent their feelings against the visiting fascists. When Mosley emerged from the Party’s base on Union Street he was faced by a “yelling and gesticulating crowd” and as he waited to for a flunky to open his car door he smiled towards those booing and gesticulating.  

In July 1938

Anti-Fascist crowd demonstrate

Police Escort for Witnesses

Five Sentenced at Trial

 “The trial on charges of breach of the peace and assault of five Aberdeen anti-Fascists, two of whom were sent to prison and the others fined, ended with a remarkable demonstration of anti-Fascist feeling at the door of the Aberdeen Sheriff Courthouse last night.”

The five told the court they had no religious beliefs and affirmed instead of taking the oath. They denied the charges, maintaining provocation by the Fascists who had shouted “One day Hitler and Franco would conquer the world, Hail Hitler, Join the Blackshirts, Keep Out Moscow and gave the Nazi salute.”

Lots of noise in the courtroom resulted in Sheriff Dallas warning that he would clear them from the court if they didn’t keep quiet. Witnesses came and went and the accused were found guilty.

Convicted were George Shepherd a salesman of Roslin Street and John Winton a sawyer of King’s Crescent both sent to jail for 30 days; Alexander Shepherd, son of George, also a salesman of College Bounds was fined £15 or 30 days in prison; Sydney Shepherd, labourer, of Bloomfield Road, another son of George Shepherd along with George Esson, labourer, of Chronicle Lane were each fined £3 each or 10 days in prison.

When their accusers William Keith Abercromby Jopp Chambers-Hunter and Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha of Tillery, Udny Station and Jane Imlah whose address was given at the headquarters of the BUF in Aberdeen on Union Street left the courthouse they were confronted by a large crowd, fists raised in the Communist salute shouting “Down with Fascism.” As the demonstrators surged forward the three fascists retreated into the building before being given police protection back to their car.  

An appeal against these sentences was made to the Secretary of State for Scotland but went nowhere.

In October 1938 Chambers-Hunter addressed Aberdeen Round Table Club.

“The doctrine of Fascism simply was, “‘United we stand, divided we fall'” and went on to condemn international finance for skewing economies explaining Hitler was hated by international finance run by Jews for trying to break free of the “net of borrowing and lending” in order to make his country self-sufficient.

“Twenty-four years ago, if the Kaiser had walked up Union Street on a Saturday afternoon he would probably have been lynched. If the poor old gentleman were to do so now, probably no one would recognise him, or if they would not worry about him.”

He told his audience he had fought during the war in the Cameroons and German Togoland and the natives there were treated as well as in Ceylon where he’d also lived as a planter and in fact the natives of Cameroons and Togoland were “devoted to their German masters.”

Which I suppose is why the Germans required an army to protect their interests there. To explain further – the extent of German popularity in East Africa can be illustrated by the Maji Maji War fought over resentment of enforced labour, heavy taxes and violent repression responsible for destroying the lives of so many and devastating the area’s social fabric. German imperialists adopted a scorched-earth policy of punishment and control along with horrendous brutality and cruelty – much like, it should be said, practised by other western  powers to their shame.  

Germany, along with other European states, undertook what was known as the Scramble for Africa – carving up the continent to stake their claims to areas they regarded ripe for exploitation, to appropriate and control their colony’s natural wealth and resources from precious metals to bananas, cacao, coffee and cotton.

And so for years the clashes between Left and Right were unrelenting. Then something happened – as atrocities carried out in the name of fascism across the world came to be taken more seriously mainly for the threat fascism posed to the UK so support for fascism began to lose its vigour. In 1939 Aberdeen’s own fascist Chambers-Hunter retired from politics presumably exhausted from the uphill struggles he encountered on each occasion he went public and in addition he had spent huge sums of his own money supporting the BUF. In June that year Chambers-Hunter’s country house at Udny burnt down.

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Driven out of his home by fire Chambers-Hunter, his wife and Mrs Botha

As for the Left there ranks were split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet non-aggression Pact) signed between Germany and the USSR in August 1939. At the start of the Second World War Stalin argued it was not an anti-fascist struggle but an imperialist war but then came Operation Barbarossa when the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 and dragged it into the conflict. At that point the Left forgot their differences to defeat the fascist states of Germany and Italy. Of course the Left had already been destroyed in Spain where a form of fascism survived until 1975 … at least.  

Sources: Aberdeen newspapers; Fascism in Aberdeen – Street Politics in the 1930s (Aberdeen People’s Press.)


February 28, 2018

“I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above” :Flying Scotsmen




Bertram Dickson 1

Bertram Dickson

Britain’s first military pilot and the first British winner of an aviation competition was Scotsman Bertram Dickson. He was also involved in the first collision of an aircraft; an incident which led to his early death.

Bertram Dickson was born in 1873 in Edinburgh and died and was buried at Achanalt* in the Highlands in 1913.

Bertram's gravestone


The plaque on his memorial stone states:



BORN EDINBURGH 21.12.1873.

No danger found him hesitant
No suffering found him feeble.

Edinburgh-born Bertram Dickson’s heroic feats were instrumental in the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner to the Royal Air Force.


Thomas Holdich

 Before that in 1892 the young Bertram accompanied the geographer Thomas Holdich, one-time president of the Royal Geographical Society and definer of national borders, to Chile and Argentina to establish the frontier between the two countries along the Andes.

Andes frontier

Creating a frontier in the Andes

He underwent training at the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in November 1894. By the turn of the century he was a captain and soon seconded to the Foreign Office undertaking duties in many parts of the world including British East Africa and Somaliland. His role as military attaché and vice consul found him in Turkey, in the troubled Ottoman Armenian city of Van but his enthusiasm for the embryonic pursuit of flight led to his enrolment at the Farman flying school in France in 1910 where he took the Aero-Club de France’s eighty-first pilot licence. Later that year he won £400 prize money for flying the greatest aggregate distance at the Lanark Aviation Club meeting and 18,000 French francs in prize money at the Aero Club de France at Tours.

Bertram was in his element as one of an elite body of early pilots who drew vast crowds as they took to the air carrying out daring manoeuvres in tiny open aircraft. He took up a post with  British & Colonial Aircraft Company which manufactured the Bristol Boxkite. This company went on to develop the Bristol Fighter plane for the Royal Flying Corps and later what became the Royal Air Force but by then Bertram Dickson was dead.

In September 1910 he took part in army manoeuvres over Salisbury Plain, on board one of two Bristol Boxkites and those trials convinced him of the potential of aircraft for reconnaissance in war and the importance that control of the skies would become in the future.


A month later Dickson was in Milan where he added that other, unfortunate, first – the first mid-air crash between two aeroplanes when his bi-plane collided with an Antoinette monoplane piloted by René Thomas** of France. Both men were injured but Dickson came off worst. As a consequence of his injuries that day he died, at Lochrosque House, near Achnasheen on 28 September 1913. He was buried nearby at Achanalt in Cnoc na Bhain graveyard.

Achanalt Strath Braan

Cnoc na Bhain

Achanalt near Achnasheen on the side of Strath Bran lies the Cnoc na Bhain graveyard.

It is said he died in Lochrosque Castle but appears to have an exaggerated claim for a lodge. At any rate he was there as guest of Sir Arthur Bignold, then a former Unionist MP for Wick – an Englishman who took a liking to the Highlands and decided to buy a bit of it- around 30,000 acres.

Bignold was doubtless an enthusiastic and staunch Tory which makes the following episode all the more incredible.

In September 1914 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, happened to be passing through Ross and Cromarty on his way to inspect the fleet anchored in Loch Ewe when he spotted a light shining on the roof of Lochrosque Lodge. Taking his professional role ultra-seriously, or perhaps drink was involved, he became highly suspicious and doubtless laying the foundations for John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps the twitchy Winston Churchill assumed Bignold was a German spy signalling to his kameraden from Berlin. At any rate Churchill aided and abetted by a loyal protection officer burst into the house, made their way onto the roof and disabled the light – to the annoyance and probably astonishment of Bignold and his household.

Rene Thomas

René Thomas

*Rene Thomas became a motor racing champion as well as pioneer aviator. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1914 but by then Bertram was dead and buried. Thomas died an old man in 1975.

The Royal Flying Corps was the air arm of the British Army before and during First World War. It merged with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918 to form the Royal Air Force.

As a footnote for no other reason other than I came across his name while researching Bertram another of many young pioneering Scots pilots Reginald Archibald Cammell from Inverness died a couple of years before Bertram, in 1911.  


Reginald Cammell

Cammell was killed at Hendon in England while trialling a Valkyrie monoplane. He had won his brevet (a military commission conferred for outstanding service) on a Bristol bi-plane at the Salisbury Plain school at the end of 1910 but his first flight in the Bleriot monoplane would be his last. Before taking off there had been trouble with the engine and it was suspected engineers passed it as okay despite continuing problems. At the inquest into the crash the coroner found death by misadventure.



His final flight began well with him completing a circuit of the airfield and rising to 100 feet but when he attempted a spiral turn something went wrong – some say he lost control and others that the engine seized; whatever the cause the plane crashed. Cammell was thrown clear and survived a short time but was dead before arriving at hospital. Only 25 years old he was described as one of the cleverest pilots of the British Air Battalion.

Cammell gravestone

Cammell’s memorial stone

Cammell was buried in England with full military honours.

The important role of aircraft in war developed apace since those first faltering days not only in reconnaissance but in devastating bombing of populations. In this light the exploitation of the skies by men and women in machines has been a mixed blessing but none of that detracts from the courage of the first airmen and airwomen. 

* Achanalt for many of us is a stop on the railway running between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh. It was once part of the Dingwall and Skye Railway operated by Highland Railway; one of many small British lines. During the First World War this line was a vital link between the south and Scapa Flow where the British Navy had a base, serviced from Scrabster near Thurso. Each day the Jellicoe Express ran between London and Thurso – a journey of around 22 hours.

Achanalt halt

Achanalt halt



I am obliged to Ruadh Watson for pointing me in the direction of another impressive early airman, from Dundee – here’s the link

February 9, 2018

Aberdeen City Council has shown itself not fit for purpose. Whatever that purpose may be. Art Gallery? What Art Gallery etc.

Art Gallery shut since 2015
Cowdray Hall shut since 2015
Remembrance Hall shut since 2015
Provost Skene’s House shut since 2015
Music Hall shut since 2016

24 June 2009
Aberdeen City Council agreed in principle to support the redevelopment of the Art Gallery.
No financial implications were forecast as the Marguerite McBey Trust attached to the Art Gallery would be used to fund the cost of c. £20 million along  with funds raised through Heritage Lottery grants and additional fundraising.
It was estimated the cost of storage for collections during the redevelopment would cost around £1.6 million.

11 Sept 2009
Aberdeen puts in a bid for UK City of Culture 2013.

Nov 2009
The £20 million Art Gallery project, part-funded by the McBey Trust is announced.
A team of experts is established to oversee the redevelopment.
Glasgow architects Gareth Hoskins chosen to design changes to make the Gallery ‘fit-for-purpose’ – as the jargon goes. Fit for purpose in the 21st century, presumably.

Plans will also improve the Cowdray Hall.

Aberdeen withdraws its bid to become the UK’s City of Culture for 2013 due to council finances.

Development Studies came up with different approaches.
Option A: minimal c £15.7 million.
Option B: backpack c £18.4 million.
Option C: outside the box c £23.8 million.
Option D: outside the box c £24.3 million.
Option E: extending into RGU Gray’s School of Art c £22.7 million + site purchase

29 Nov 2012
Estimated cost of the project £33 million over the next 4 financial years: £30 million for the Art Gallery + £3 million to create a facility to house the museum collections.
Aberdeen City Council to make imminent application for Heritage Lottery Funding of £10 million.
It confirmed £3 million from the council’s non housing capital programme 2013-14 and £10 million from the same programme 2013-17.
The Council guaranteed up to £10 million to meet any shortfall in fundraising.

The redevelopment is to be the cornerstone of the Council’s City of Culture bid 2017.

26 February 2013
Aberdeen bids to become UK City of Culture 2017.

city culture nae vision

City of Culture bid fails.

Aberdeen’s City of Culture bid – a lesson in mediocrity

18 December 2013
Redesign plans for Aberdeen Art Gallery approved by councillors.

19 June 2014
Design work completed . Planning and listed building permission approved.
Finance, Policy and Resources Committee approved estimated cost of £30 million for construction, demolitions, enabling, new build, building, exhibition fit outs, design team, surveys, furniture and fittings, contingencies and inflation.
Projected opening after redevelopment 2017.
Instructs proposal to go to out to tender with deadline of January 2015.

18 February 2015
Meeting of the Council’s Finance, Policy and Resources Committee report that the Marguerite McBey Trust supported the redevelopment, to the tune of £50,000 per annum for 3 years to fund a fundraising officer to oversee the refurbishment project.

‘5.2 By contracting an independent specialist fundraising consultancy, the Council obtained guidance on how best to seek external financial support. This includes how to undertake a fundraising campaign, the categories of prospective donors (for example, trusts, charities, corporate social responsibility, personal and general public donations), the sequencing of when and how to fundraise. As part of the consultancy, approaches were made to ascertain the level of interest in the redevelopment, as well as understand other issues which might influence whether interest could be capitalised into donations, or other contributions. ‘

27 February 2015
“A councillor is confident money will be raised for the refurbishment of Aberdeen Art Gallery – but has said some donors want to remain anonymous due to planning issues in the city.”
“Cllr Marie Boulton said the project would be held in ‘great esteem.'”

Aberdeen Art Gallery shuts its doors.


25 August 2015
Contractor appointed for the £30 million redevelopment.
Completion date: winter 2017.

31 Aug 2016
Designers Hoskins Architects, Glasgow website featured the interior of the newly refurbished Art Gallery, Cowdray Hall and Remembrance Hall.

As you can see by the illustrations this includes glazed panels on the roof of the extension to the Gallery. Perhaps they don’t know in Glasgow but Aberdeen has gulls, lots and lots of gulls who need to poop.

Cllr Marie Boulton didn’t offer her view on the impact of seagull poop on a glass roof in Aberdeen but she did describe the development as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve something really special for Aberdeen by forming a world-class cultural centre.

Completion of the works due 2017.

Feb 2017
Press reports of “vastly underestimated” cost of the museum collections centre – Aberdeen Treasure Hub.
Initially projected to cost £3.6 million late in 2014 costs were still being calculated in 2016 but by then they had nearly doubled to £6.5 million.

Apparently “the scope of the project was inaccurately defined and vastly underestimated the cost of the project.”
Not only that but those behind the scoping had not engaged with the insurance team at the start of the project and consequently the insurance provider refused the fire suppression system which was designed and installed.

Public money, huh?
Criminal negligence.

The Council’s response – it learnt a number of lessons for future projects.

I wouldn’t bank on it.

The Council thought the public would have money pouring in to make up the funding gap. It didn’t.
I heard that after performances of the panto over Christmas that buckets were produced for collections among the audience so that work on the Music Hall could continue.
Can this be right?
I haven’t mentioned the music Hall fiasco yet.

The severity of the shortfall in funding Aberdeen’s regeneration of the Art Gallery, Cowdray Hall, Remembrance Hall, Music Hall and Provost Skene’s House has led to council staff flogging raffle tickets at £2 a time. Fellow staff are being encouraged to buy them.
It is unseemly and bizarre and exceptionally unprofessional approach to public works.

art gallery raffle

SNP Cllr Nicoll:

“I wonder if the next public art installation in Aberdeen will just be a pile of burning cash.”

Culture is draining away in Aberdeen as it is on the rise in Dundee with the magnificent and truly innovative V & A on top of other attractions on that city’s water front.
Aberdeen has cancelled its very popular and long-standing International Youth Festival and it looks as it doesn’t have a future. Just wait, another city will take up this initiative and have it running before Aberdeen councillors can utter the words, we are applying to become the City of Culture in …

1 Feb 2018
Meeting of the Finance committee. Request to identify more funding “for the additional costs” of the redevelopment.
Just what these are is anyone’s guess because everything related to the Art Gallery redevelopment has just become top secret.

I asked Ross Thomson MP (backed by Independent Alliance Councillor Marie Boulton – see above) if he could answer 4 questions relating to the Art Gallery Provost Skene’s House developments.
1: the reason for the over-run of the refurbishment
2: the problems which have led to the over-run
3: the current state of finance for the projects
4: when councillors were made aware of the problems leading to this state of affairs.

What I eventually got in response from a member of Thomson’s staff was hardly illuminating and little short of a council PR statement –

“Aberdeen Art Gallery (AAG) is the jewel in the crown of Aberdeen’s cultural offer …
As is to be expected with such works on buildings of the sensitivity, age, history and complexity of AAG, some challenges have emerged during the construction process. The Council, the project manager, contract administrator and contractor have been working hard to address these challenges and reduce any impact in financial terms and to reduce in delay in the Gallery’s re-opening. Although, the project programme has slipped as a result this is being managed. and it is anticipated that the AAG will reopen in early 2019. The resulting budgetary impact is currently being discussed and is at a commercially sensitive stage.”

Now wouldn’t you have thought that a contractor would have done a analysis report before pricing a job in an old building?
What are the ‘challenges’ aside from the cash?
Who is responsible for not anticipating these ‘challenges’?

“Given the complexities of the project and to ensure that it is delivered to the highest standards, the Council, earlier in 2017, appointed Faithful and Gould to project manage the refurbishment of AAG.  This investment of resource and management shows the Council’s commitment to successful delivery.”

So to be clear a company called Faithful and Gould were appointed to project manage the redevelopment in 2017? Who was project managing before then and are they being held responsible for the utter shambles this exercise has been?
Is it incompetency that has led to the increased costs and delays?
And when will the Gallery, Cowdray Hall and Remembrance Hall re-open?

Meanwhile place yourself in the position of a visitor to Aberdeen – no Art Gallery, no Cowdray Hall, no Music Hall, no Provost Skene’s House. If it wasn’t so serious the mess this council has landed the city in would be laughable.


16th century building, Aberdeen’s oldest.  Let’s hide it behind tons and tons of concrete.

Ross Thompson’s staff email continues:

“The Council committed investment in PSH when it allocated £1.5m in September, 2016 to facilitate its refurbishment. A project was developed to secure a new attraction, focused around people from the North East who helped transform the wider world, and supporting enabling works for this. Such a project fits with the desire to promote PSH as relevant to Aberdeen and integrate it with the Marischal Square development.

In developing the project through the autumn of 2016 and into 2017, it became apparent that the condition challenges facing PSH had not been readily apparent at project commencement due to restricted access as PSH sat within the Marischal Square development site. In taking the project forward, it was important to understand these challenges in order to ensure that refurbishment would be to the standard required and that any works would ensure that PSH was fit for purpose over the next 30-40 years. Consequently, Adams Napier Partnership was commissioned to undertake a full and comprehensive condition survey which reported in June 2017. This established that there were a range of urgent, necessary and desirable works required to the building fabric.”

PSH is Provost Skene’s House. According to Thomson’s staff there were things which came to light only late in 2016-17
“due to restricted access as PSH sat within the Marischal Square development site.”
Except Skene’s House has been there for over 400 years. It isn’t as though it sneaked away so contractors couldn’t get into its gubbins.

Then he gets to the nub of Council speak “fit for purpose” that get-out clause.
So in June 2017 another company was contracted to survey PSH. I’m beginning to see how this mess has grown into one helluva expensive mess.

This recent scrutiny of the 400 year old building found it in need of “urgent, necessary and desirable works.”

Not surprised given the pile driving that had gone on month after month after month next to a fragile and historically valuable ancient building. 

March 2017
Work on Provost Skene’s House won’t be delayed said Aberdeen City Council.

skenes wont be delayed
Oops factor – as part of the development of PSH one contract was valued at under £50,000 which meant work could be approved quickly. However all quotes came back over £50,000 which meant the tendering process kicked in …blah blah blah… delays “with consequence for the anticipated opening in parallel with Marischal Square in July 2017” said a council spokesperson/robot.

Provost Skene’s House – the under £50K work shot up to £84,700.

On 11 December 2017 the Press & Journal published what was claimed to be shocking photos from within Skene’s House.

psh shocking
This 16th century building, with no foundations, has taken a helluva pounding over months as the concrete monstrosity of Marischal Square has risen up around it.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Yuill spoke of his shock at the lack of protection provided during the building works of the ancient painted ceilings and panels.

It is hardly appropriate to use the term responsible when seeking to discover who at Aberdeen City Council is behind years of chaos and cultural delinquency. Their actions are wholly irresponsible. And profoundly unprofessional.

skenes no danger work

In response to Cllr Yuill’s concerns a council spokesperson denied there was ever any risk. Who was this anonymous person and what is their expertise on preserving art?
I think we should be told but perhaps that information has also been locked up in the secret drawer.

skenes over budget

Nov 2017
Re work on Provost Skene House.
Cllr Lumsden (Conservative and Unionist) said, “It’s a case of the project almost has to start again.. The business case has been done now but there are new costs that need to go to committee for approval. The costs that were done a few years ago were unrealistic; it was costing up a Hall of Heroes.”

Hall of Heroes, huh? Precious few of them in the council chamber.
It transpires the council is looking for a – what’s the term? A yes, fit for propose attraction – not a councillor then?
Three years on and the hapless council is still waiting for the project to be properly scoped. “and know exactly what we are going to do.” !!!

skenes delayed

Oops – little bit damage to Provost Skene’s it appears.


It’s like groundhog day as work on Provost Skenes’ House has ‘almost to start again’ and the new provisional re-opening date is 2019. Well past the opening of Marischal Square – which I believe hasn’t yet opened although it is now February 2018. I don’t know because I don’t go near that horrible and misbegotten development. I am, however, planning a visit to Dundee’s wonderful and creative waterfront V & A which has emerged over the same time-frame as Aberdeen’s extension hasn’t. 


Dundee’s V & A

Aberdeen City Council has proved itself not fit for purpose. Whatever that purpose may be.

Art Gallery shut since 2015 may re-open 2019
Cowdray Hall shut since 2015 may re-open 2019
Remembrance Hall shut since 2015 may re-open 2019
Provost Skene’s House shut since 2015 – think of a date
Music Hall shut since 2016 —see below

Don’t laugh but …

music hall murder.jpg

The Music Hall upgrade scheduled to finish in December 2017 has been pushed back to later 2018. 


Oh, and there’s this –



February 3, 2018

Gordon’s of Alford – more than a local shop or Gordon’s of Alford versus the Luftwaffe

Gordon’s of Alford is no more.


James A Gordon started out by taking over William Coutt’s shop in Alford

From a washer to a high fashion, from flower seeds to carpets, from a teaspoon to a wardrobe the place to go was Gordon’s of Alford.

This was a business that was innovative and ambitious. The intrepid Gordons took the road – rural roads, unrecognisable as roads to most, their familiar maroon vans stuffed to the gunnels with goods destined for Durness at the top of the mainland and across the sea to Skye. Their fleet of transport was impressive. It was Gordon’s who started up the first self-service (pre-supermarket) shop in this area.


Watch a potted history of Gordon’s of Alford

James Gordon opened his first store in Alford in Aberdeenshire in 1923 and from modest beginnings the business expanded, proving highly successful and attracting not only locals but enticing people out from the city of Aberdeen and everywhere round and about – for it sold nearly everything at one time.


Many’s a time we’ve been in Aberdeen and come away having failed to get whatever in the likes of B&Q, got back home, nipped into Gordon’s and found it there. This is one store that is going to be missed.

It was back in the 1930s that Gordon’s first drapery van took the shop out to farms in outlying areas in this agricultural part of the world. Twice a year Gordon’s made the run over the west and north, in April and October – providing the west’s first fashion show with professional models from Aberdeen. Women, not only in the Vale but right across the west came to rely on Gordon’s for their annual replacement corsets.

During World War II a couple of members of the Gordon staff were in Aberdeen picking up goods when the air raid sirens sounded. The city emptied; people heading off to shelter and abandoning Union Street – except for a solitary Gordon’s of Alford van with two stalwarts on board determinedly driving along a deserted Union Street as fast as their wheels could turn. And make it home they did – in a clash between the Luftwaffe and Gordon’s of Alford – the men of Aberdeenshire triumphed.



The Old Howe of Alford 

January 24, 2018

Smear For Smear: a call for women to take the smear test

The statistics are impressive: 5,000 women’s lives saved annually; 94.8% tests are negative (EngNHS figs) 75% tests prevent cancer developing.


1 in 4 women don’t take up invitation to be screened, a depressing figure which rises to 1 in 3 for young women between 25 and 29 with fewer young women now choosing to be screened for cervical cancer.

There is something counter-intuitive about this trend given the growing openness towards all things sexual that young women are so coy over a procedure that takes moments and may prevent a tragically early death.


Dr Elizabeth Macgregor

Aberdeen pioneered programmed cervical screening back in the 1960s. This progressive practice was one of many aspects of celebrated care for women’s health undertaken in the city under the remarkable Dr Dugald Baird which included access to birth control, pre-natal and post-natal care, childbirth and sexual health. Baird asked a young medical researcher, Dr Elizabeth Macgregor who had joined him in 1958, to set up screening for women in the city and the surrounding shire and to collect research statistics on its efficacy. This was in 1960, nearly 60 years ago.

Then as now cervical cancer was a major killer of young women, one that creeps up with few distinctive symptoms.

Dr Macgregor’s inspiring work in Aberdeen was based on that of the American Dr Georges Papanicolaou whose screening test in the 1940s for human papillomavirus (HPV) was known as a Pap smear. Dr Macgregor’s approach was meticulous; testing and carefully recording the impact of screening on the women under her care. Under her a systematic public health programme was introduced to tackle cervical cancer, in Aberdeen this targeted poorer women who had fewer opportunities to access health care.  Patients were invited to her clinic and through a punchcard system recalled for follow-up smears. Dr Macgregor found there was a dramatic drop in the incidences of cervical cancer in the northeast as a result of her screening clinics despite some reluctance by a number of GPs to participate – Dr Macgregor went around the northeast carrying out and analysing these smear tests herself.

In the first five years of her work a huge decrease in cervical cancer rates in northeast Scotland were recorded. Her published outcomes proved so impressive others followed her lead made all the easier through Dr Macgregor’s bank of research evidence but it was not until the late 1980s her practices were widely adopted.

In 2016 the age range for cervical screening in Scotland was changed from women between 20-60 years to those between 25 and 64. Women up to 49 are re-screened every three years and older women from 50 to 64 are re-tested every 5 years (those above this age group being followed-up when medically advisable and similarly with women younger than 25.)  

Since Dr Macgregor’s time vaccines have been developed to protect against types 16 and 18 HPV which are the main causes of cervical cancers and in 2008 Scotland introduced a programme of school-based vaccination for cervical cancer for 12 and 13 year olds. As a result early signs of these potential cancers have almost halved.

The success of the school vaccine is clear with 90% uptake among Scotland’s girls making it among the highest in the world.

Women in this country are fortunate to be able to have this dangerous disease caught early – and for free. Women in other parts of the world must be envious wondering why anyone would not jump at the opportunity.

Women of all ages keep safe – take advantage of the smear test.




January 17, 2018

A mission near impossible: Bolivia the land of the Indian and the gente decente

When Britain ruled the world or thought it did envoys were sent out in every direction to explore, trade, subjugate, govern, educate and destroy. A great number also went out to convert anybody and everybody to the Protestant faith. Graveyards the world over are littered with the remains of thousands of missionaries from these islands.  

map of south america colour

Recently I stumbled across a copy of Missionary Pioneering in Bolivia with some Account of work in Argentina by Will Payne and Chas. T. W. Wilson. Will Payne was an Irishman who lived for a time at South Lodge, Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and married Aberdonian Elizabeth Milne in 1890. The young couple underwent training in missionary work and two years later they set sail for Bolivia via Argentina. Charles Wilson was an Australian from Richmond in Victoria and he accompanied Will and Elizabeth to Latin America and shared in their scrapes and adventures there.

the authors

Will and Elizabeth Payne and Charles Wilson

The book is fascinating for its descriptions of people and customs very different from anything the young missionaries had previously known. It is also packed with pictures, not of the best quality, but interesting nonetheless. And I thought I’d share some of them and the stories behind them with you.

Getting to Bolivia involved a gruelling series of journeys across all kinds of terrain not least traversing the longest mountain range on earth the Cordillera of the Andes and contending with climates ranging from freezing cold to tropical heat. There were volcanoes, tigers and alligators to fear but beautiful landscapes, bubbling hot springs and monkeys to enjoy.

Bolivia is massive – some 600,000 square miles – making it bigger than the UK, France, Germany Switzerland and Greece combined so you can imagine how exhausting covering such great distances must have been using the most rudimentary of means. Travel hardships were slight, however, compared with the enmity of ‘the opposition’, Catholic priests.

Aymara Indians The man was their cook and his wife brought water from public fountain.jpg

Latin America was most certainly hostile territory for evangelising Protestants, very hostile. The Roman Catholic Archbishop at Sucre was furious when he discovered the Paynes and Wilson in his town and he attempted to have Payne condemned and executed as a heretic, schismatic and rebel.

More of those troubles later. I don’t actually know when Wilson and the Paynes got together or if they separated as most of the book refers to the Paynes and I couldn’t come up with any information anywhere on Wilson except as a footnote. I’m assuming they went out together and all disembarked their ship at the cosmopolitan port of Buenos Aires in Argentina en route to Bolivia in 1892.

Llamas bringing fuel to benefitting establishment of Andrew Penny. The gentleman was a good friend of missionaries

Their journeys inland were made by train and mule; mules were considered docile animals but the Paynes managed to find some of the more taciturn of them and there were frequent occasions when they were either thrown off or found themselves desperately clinging on for dear life. This was no easy trek along well-made flat roads instead the intrepid pilgrims found themselves contending with narrow tracks carved out of the sides of mountains with immense drops to far-off valleys below. Mules were fairly sure-footed however and perfect for carrying the party’s heavy and bulky boxes of Spanish-language bibles as well as their personal possessions.

mode of conveyance to interior argenina

Bibles were prohibited by Argentine priests but the Paynes and Wilson found buyers among the people although their attempts to give them to priests were angrily resisted with bibles ripped up and thrown away while the priests gave vent to their resentment of these incomers and sometimes had them arrested and their remaining bibles and religious tracts confiscated.   

How we travel to Bolivia.jpg

Everywhere they went the native people were highly curious about the pale strangers and bombarded them with questions: who they were; where they came from; where they were going; if they were married; their ages; information about their families.

Obtaining overnight accommodation for themselves and pasture for their beasts did not create too many problems for the missionaries despite a reluctance on the part of Indians to offer any but where none could be had they slept under coverlets on rugs beneath trees using saddles as pillows. Cooking was done over wood fires and meat roasted on red hot embers. Often when a room could be found it was already occupied by an assortment of creepy crawlies.

Landscape around p 67

In some areas the government built accommodation for travellers, called postas. These postas were set about 15 to 20 miles apart so perfect for itinerant missionaries after an exhausting day on the back of a headstrong mule. Surrounded by a courtyard the posta was entered by an archway. The long, low building contained between six to eight rooms all with Alice in Wonderland doorways 2 feet wide by 4 feet high. Inside each room was a mud table, a candlestick and a bed made of dried mud on which visitors could spread their own rugs and blankets – oh, and the obligatory insects which dropped from ceilings and crawled out from under pillows to suck the blood of the sleeping traveller.

On arrival at a posta the tired mules were led away into a corral and fed on barley paid for by the missionaries who also bought the postas’ usual meal of eggs and soup although hot water for tea was given out free.

Postillions p 61.jpg


On leaving replacement mules were provided at 2 pence per mule for every 3 miles of the journey and the Indian postillion (mule team leader) who ran the whole way and brought back the mules to the posta was paid 1 penny for every 3 miles covered – so with the return earned 1 penny for every 6 miles run. The postillion was never allowed to ride on an animal not that they would have for the Indians were very protective of beasts and would themselves carry a load rather than overburden their llama, donkey or mule. Indians disliked killing their animals, often weeping when this took place. The only time they ate meat was when a llama died naturally.

Along the way the expedition passed countless mills for grinding maize which were dotted along riverbanks – for their water wheels to operate. At Toropalca the Paynes marvelled at the steaming and bubbling hot springs believed to have curative properties and which were used to cook eggs and puddings. The area’s ore miners used hot springs in this way.  

Old Argentine couple and Idolarry in Salta.jpg

On the subject of food Indians were grippy with theirs and reluctant to share any, even for a price, but either through coaxing or when the Paynes gave pieces of bread to Indian children they usually relented. Indians didn’t eat bread except when it was given to them by travellers for their staples were maize and beans.

Much like 100 ways to cook mince Argentine and Bolivian Indians practised lots of ways to cook maize. They also made beer from it called chicha. To start fermentation for the beer  women chewed on maize flour then spat it into a pot. The contents were then boiled and simmered for a couple of days before being poured into jars and stored until ready for use. This masticated beer was preferred to machine-made beer. Chicha was described as mildly intoxicating and at feasts a large glass of chicha was taken along with a cup of raw alcohol – a concoction which was very intoxicating.  

Payne and Wilson mentioned crosses marking the sites of graves as they moved about the country. Alongside some were horns and beside others tins with a slit in them so money could be collected as payment for Catholic priests to say mass for the deceased’s soul. At the foot of a cross was usually a box for burning candles to soothe the agony of a soul writhing in agony in the flames of purgatory.

Indians weaving.jpg

Mile upon mile the missionaries continued through this vast land passing through village after village. They recorded how native Indians lived in little houses perched on the sides of river banks amidst patchworks of tiny fields of maize, barley, potatoes, etc. often stretching up to the summits of mountains; every particle of soil being taken advantage of. Every house had its own weaving frame on which was produced the colourful cloth the people were so fond and made into rugs and ponchos. Many practical items were crafted out of wood such as ploughs, spades, spoons, plates and needles. Indians kept images of saints made from paper, glass or wood in their homes, items condemned by priests. Some representations of Christ and the Virgin showed them as dark skinned which bemused the missionaries – that the Indians could have believed they were black (and as every white missionary knew Christ and the Virgin had been Anglo-Saxon and white.)

Belen Image of Child Jesus and A Bolivian Priest , drunk

Left: Image of child Jesus Right: Drunken priest

Indian women dressed in a cloth wrapped around their bodies with loose sleeves. They were very industrious according to Payne and Wilson and habitually seen carrying a baby (guagua) tied into a rug which was slung over their backs and while driving their llamas and donkeys worked a small spindle to make thread from llama wool.

Indians who own Llamas and engage in the carrying trade

Indian llama owners and carriers

Indian men wore their hair in a plait down their backs. They dressed in light blouses and short trousers made from llama wool. On encountering the missionaries Indian men would remove their hats and salute them with Tatai, tatai (My father, my father.)

Quechua Indians at Festival in Caiza, The Wings are of Silver p62

Silver wings on this occasion – a festival in Caiza

At the town of Caiza the missionaries witnessed a feast to the Virgin – represented by a figure made out of gold and some 12 inches high surrounded by brightly coloured paper flowers. Participating Indians wore wings made from wood covered with vivid shades of cloths. Some participants hung silver plates over their backs with a few donning breast, knee and arm plates – the whole ensemble weighing in the region of 100lbs. Among those in armour were musicians, some playing cane flutes and others on drums made from stretched llama hides. Indians loved music perhaps a shell of an animal from the armadillo family with gut stretched along it or some other instrument strung with eight reeds. At festivals everyone wore bells on their legs and the result was a great cacophony as they moved around which irritated the missionaries. This particular feast lasted around 10 days and was accompanied by lots of drunkenness and debauchery.

Feast Day in Argentine camp.jpg

I’m not sure what dispirited the missionaries most, the raucous feast or having to contend with the thin air 13,000 feet above sea level and constant cold strong winds. 

At the town of Belen things didn’t get much easier. Indian homes there were said to comprise a ‘miserable group of huts’ dominated by a very large church which the native Indians explained came from heaven (an unlikely fact.) The valuable imagery that filled this miraculous church was supplied by villagers not the church authorities; items they had created from silver and gold saved over time. Locals also supplied the church with strong liquor, coca, fireworks etc. as and when required.

Sucre or Chuquisaca as it was known to the Indians was/is the capital of Bolivia. Bolivia was run by a Congress system of government meaning each district had a say in the Congress where it met in La Paz. Among the beautiful buildings in Chuquisaca was a palace and a theatre. Many homes were fronted with patios filled with flowers and some included a water tank or pileta. The impression of prettiness, however, was somewhat undermined by descriptions of an unspeakable stench that gripped the outskirts of the city where its rubbish was dumped.

Mataco Indian p 45.jpg

As well as Indians the missionaries discovered there were two other groups of inhabitants in Bolivia; pure blooded Spaniards decedents of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century who were known as gente decente (decent people) and cholos (a Spanish derogatory name for mixed-blood descendants of the earlier Spaniards and native Indians.

Spaniards avoided manual work and kept Indians and cholos for that. Aside from looking idle while others laboured gente decente men like to be seen in their tall hats and black clothing in striking contrast to the colourful dress of other Bolivians. Single Spanish women spent hours displaying themselves on balconies to attract a husband – a custom they took from Spain.


rest on way bible selling tour through north argentina

Rest from selling bibles in North Argentina

Hard-pressed cholo women wore short pleated petticoats or dresses which stuck out at both sides and had an opening down the front. Beneath and hanging down longer than the dress were underskirts made out of very fine lace. Women produced the lace while men made their dresses. It’s not surprising that in a land where so much gold and silver was mined women liked to wear earrings made out of these precious metals. They were dangly, up to four inches long and sometimes studded with pearls brought from the Pacific coast and popular with Bolivians.





Cholo men wore a tight fitting short coat that formed a V at the back. Their trousers were tight at the bottom and baggy above the knee. Both men and women wore similar round felt hats we associate with Bolivia – bowler hats brought to Latin America by British railway workers.

Toba Indians, Argentina Chaco and Toba Indian huts, Argentina Chaco.jpg

Most businesses were run by cholos who were able to read and write in Spanish as well as Quechua, the Indian language, or at least males were for few chola females had any education beyond a couple of years of being taught to recite prayers by rote.

Needless to say cholo women were very badly treated, exploited as beasts of burden and subjected to violence – often appearing with bruises and missing teeth. Most cholos lived in a single room, sparsely furnished and like market stallholders they squatted instead of using chairs. Cholo tradesmen carried out their work either outside on the streets or in the doorways to their rooms. Tailors perched on little stools on the sidewalk while working on their sewing machines or with an ironing board on their knees and carpenters sat before tiny fires lit at the edge of the street where they melted glue for fixing pieces of furniture.

One thing that struck the authors was how many cholos suffered from anger so intense it confined them to bed which sounds very like depression. Cholos had a certain amount of political rights – they could vote which led to them being humoured by the ruling Spaniards who would pay them for votes and were careful not to antagonise these vital workers too much by the laws they introduced.

As the missionaries were there to convert Bolivians to Protestantism they highlighted and mocked religion they found already practised in the country – dismissing it as superstition, persecution by Roman Catholic priests and Archbishop, processions, festivals and everywhere the tinkling of bells.

Bailarines Holding Festival in Quillacolla

Festivals. They couldn’t get away from festivals attended by people wearing masks. Colour which marked the lives of Bolivians was more intensified during carnival; dazzlingly decorated coaches, each wheel spoke and every embellishment was wrapped in colourful paper and flowers. More coloured paper in the form of confetti and long paper streamers along with sweets, flowers and scent – and the occasional eggshell filled with water – were thrown from carriages by their passengers. The carnival that preceded Lent lasted eight days and ended with The Burial – a mock funeral.

religious procession Quillacolla

In Sucre a special ceremony known as El Roseno took place in which the Catholic Archbishop and canons or canonigos dressed in hooded black robes some 10 yards in length were escorted by ‘lackeys’ attired in green and gold while student priests prostrated themselves on the ground while being beaten on the head. Crackers, rockets and revolvers were fired creating a huge racket in celebration of God coming alive again. As you will no doubt expect by now the ritual was followed by a week of serious and sustained drinking.

Relations between the local Archbishop and the foreign missionaries were always fraught. The missionaries ridiculed Catholic rites and rituals and the Archbishop ordered that no more Protestantes would be allowed to stay in Sucre and ordered the confiscation of bibles.  

The Paynes did succeed, however, in obtaining their own house in Sucre much to the fury of the Archbishop who told Will Payne that anyone teaching any religion other than Roman Catholicism should suffer the penalty of death, meaning he would see him lynched.

water carrier.jpg

The missionaries found men were more open to their teachings than women whose attachment to the Catholic church was greater. It wasn’t easy for anyone to be seen to be sympathetic to the missionaries’ religion for they risked verbal and physical attacks by priests and having their homes destroyed as they claimed the devil lived with Protestants.

Possibly in part because of the dangers life held for them in Bolivia, the Paynes decided to send one the their daughters home to Britain to be educated, which was made possible through the proceeds of sales of wine from the Cinti Valley (still a flourishing wine production area.) 

Girls purchased for about £2 each and remain property of the buyer till they reach 21 years p 86

Desperate people are driven to desperate measures. In Bolivia it was the practice to buy and sell children. The three girls in pictured here were bought for about £2 each. Girls were usually held until they reached the age of 21 years during which time they were put to work for their owners in exchange for food and clothing. Some were well looked after and taught to read and write but others were badly treated and beaten. When a child was sold very young she grew up not knowing her parents. Girls married young, around the ages of 12 or 13 years. All children, girls and boys, were often neglected during feast days when drinking took precedence and the death rate from dirt, neglect and ill treatment for under-twos was high.

Some Indians farmed and worked on land owned by people who lived in towns. The Indians were advanced money so they could buy animals – hens, dogs, hens, pigs, donkeys and mules as well as seed for crops and they stayed on a farm until they could pay off their debts and were free to move on. They were also under obligation to the owner. Indian farmers were allowed to plough and sow as much as they could handle and needed for their own use which usually amounted to around 6 acres. Spades around three feet long were carved from wood and burnt into an oval shape for digging. The land was difficult to cultivate for it was mostly very rough and their ploughs simply a branch to which an iron point was attached but scarcely  able to penetrate the soil’s surface. Ploughing followed the rainy season for every drop of water was needed for irrigation and ingenious little aqueducts were constructed to allow the flow of valuable water from rivers around farmed land through tunnels cut into cliffs. Both sowing and harvesting were done communally, much as they were in this country.

Indian shepherds mixed their sheep with the farm owner’s flock and they were obliged to provide owners with one sheep annually. Herding was mainly done by women and children with women multi-tasking, as they do, spinning wool for cloth and blankets on their little spindles as they tended the flock.  

Come Corazone heart eaters - indians living east of Sucre p112.jpg

Heart-eaters from east of Sucre

Alcohol played its part in farming. It was believed a bullock was incapable of ploughing until its tail was sprinkled with liquor with more poured over the wooden yoke and still more tipped onto the four corners of the field. What remained was finished by the Indian farmer.

Farming Indians lived communally in small farm villages, their houses small and dark were decorated with colourful hangings, brightly dyed blankets, fruit and pots of fermenting chicha. They obviously didn’t trust their neighbours for doors were locked with wooden locks and opened with wee wooden keys about 3 to 6 inches long precisely cut into niches corresponding to the lock and the locks were said to be so sturdy that without the key it was almost impossible to open a door.

stonework of Quechua Indians of the past.jpg

Ancient and massive stone wall built by Quechua Indians

As villages grew they attracted churches and priests. Priests were paid by the government and well looked after by the Indians especially at feasts when they given gifts of wine, maize, sheep, barley, potatoes, etc. because, as we’ve found above, priests refused to say mass until they were brought an offering.

As we’ve seen Indians saved up precious metal, mined locally, to make into offerings for the Catholic church. They rarely spent their earnings and when not turning their pay into offerings they hid it, burying hoards of silver until required which was fine until they died without having shared its whereabouts leaving bereaved relatives to guess where the hidden treasure might be, not always successfully.  

woman Andine Indian

Silver mining was an important industry in Bolivia employing very many. The silver mine at the foot of the Potosi mountain included over 4000 entrances. This mine alone produced enormous silver wealth.

The discovery of silver in Bolivia is said to have been made by a woman, Diega Hualca, while searching for stray goats when she slipped and grabbed at a bush which came away in her hand and with it a mass of metal, pure silver.

Boivia’s Mint was established at Potosi in 1572, giving rise to the expression – to be worth a potosi – meaning worth a fortune. Initially constructed of timber the Mint was built at enormous cost to life for the heavy timbers that went into its construction were man-handled over 400 miles across deep rivers and along narrow mountain paths which overhung ravines that dropped away down sheer drops.  

inca road sheer.jpg

A section of the Inca road the missionaries travelled

The missionaries passed along the famous Inca road paved with large stones in the steepest sections and long rope bridges spanning immense gorges; two of the hills were known as El Infernillo (the little hell) and El Purgatorio. One day they came on a group of Indians carrying a corpse some long distance for interment. The body was tightly bound and balanced on the heads of two or three men with others running alongside till it was their turn to carry the corpse.

Not everything was moved great distances. Potatoes, vegetables, firewood and clothing were mostly produced locally but other items were taken from Santa Cruz such as boots, sugar, coca leaf, coffee and meat and sold at local markets by women who squatted in front of their stalls, often for long hours.

The inventiveness of native medicines interested the authors: burns were treated with a poultice of mashed biscacha (viscacha) a little rabbit-like creature. When that failed, as it invariably did, a poultice made from pig’s dung was tried. Witnessing this our missionaries stepped in and cleaned the burn before treating it with boracic acid which did the trick. They don’t say if they offered alternative treatment for earache to the Indian’s therapy of applying a curl taken from the head of a black person and fried in fat.

Quechua Fruit Seller

Higher and higher they went – to the town of Oruro some 12,500 feet above sea level and terminus of the railway where only two trees grew: a willow and a peach (both were carefully covered at night.) The town’s population was 16,000 when the missionaries were there although it had reputedly been as high as 160,000. This high up the wind was constant.

It is noted in the book that Oruro’s population was liberal-minded, a claim tested when Will Payne was attacked there by cholos. In the same incident another man was surrounded, taken prisoner and threatened to be run through with red-hot irons but thankfully was saved from certain death.  

straw canoes

Straw canoes on Lake Titicaca

I marvel at people who were clearly brave or perhaps misguided enough to venture into areas which were potentially highly dangerous. Isabella Bird’s adventures in Australia and America in the 19th century truly deserve the description awesome. I’m not sure about missionaries; some did good and some didn’t. She, at least, took people as she found them without attempting to alter their beliefs. Payne and Wilson established mission stations throughout northern Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia. Wherever they went they appeared to attract attention as might be imagined as they were undermining long-established behaviour. Many a time they were forced into a hasty retreat to avoid beatings, imprisonment and death. In 1900 in Cochabamba Will Payne’s house was burnt down by an angry crowd and he and his family narrowly escaped with their lives. Having lost all of their belongings they headed for Argentina, returning briefly to the UK where in 1904 Payne toured spreading his beliefs and entertaining audiences with lectures on his adventures in Latin America. At Peterhead it was a case of Payne in Bolivia one week and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show the next. Payne’s wife Elizabeth Milne died in Argentina in 1916 and Will Payne died there of a heart attack in 1924.

Buffalo Bill Peterhead


January 4, 2018

A True-blue Passport

Passports were once used to enable travellers safe and smooth passage and were only available to a select few. When they became obligatory they became impediments to free passage.  

The United Kingdom is in the throes of all sorts of crises: crumbling health system; rise in poverty; rise in insecure jobs; low pay; staggering inequality but the two issues most exercising the irate green ink brigade devotees of the Daily Mail, Express and other outlets of cultish reaction has been the silencing of Big Ben’s bells and the introduction of a true blue British passport. The bells are in good hands. Passports on the other hand…

No madam, a passport is not necessary for Scotland

No Madam, a passport is not necessary for Scotland

Back in 1858 in that bastion of democracy the House of Lords, Earl Grey (once a Secretary at War – with some Johnny Foreigner ) told his fellow Lords

…there could be no greater proof of the absurdity of the passport system than the regulations proposed by the English Government, and sanctioned by the French Government (other parts of the United Kingdom are available for readers in the North and West.)

On the introduction of the true-blue British passport in 1921 one newspaper correspondent wondered

…whether things will ever be again as they used to be in pre-war days, when one could wander over a good deal of Europe without bothering about a passport at all. We may have to wait a long time before that comes about but, if in the meantime passports are a necessity – and we doubt whether there is any real necessity about them, at any rate for friendly neighbouring countries – there is no reason why they should be a costly nuisance. We ourselves, our friends abroad tell us, are the worst offenders in this respect…your bureaucrat dearly loves a passport… and we make the foreigner pay pretty stiffly for the privilege of landing on these shores. This is sound enough in the case of ex-enemies and undesirables – although no real undesirable that we have ever heard of was stopped from coming here in peace time by passport difficulties. But the French and the Belgians resented the payment of a heavy fee for a visa on their passports and took to retaliation.

Passport war between the UK and Belgium was soon resolved however – for then at least but the French weren’t so easily placated and clapped on a charge for visitor visas.

The issuing of passports was described as a bureaucratic stunt intended to provide work for officials. Passports, it was argued, did not prevent unwelcome guests but merely inconvenienced welcome guests.

One has heard of English business men travelling all over the Baltic States and merely waving their birth certificates on the frontiers. We could make travel easier for our friends and our friends could make travel easier for us. Why not do it, in spite of the officials?

(Sheffield Daily Telegraph Tues 5 April 1921)

And the appearance of these early passports drew comment –  

… in the new passports there is nothing to be puffed up about, not in their appearance [they] could be mistaken for a milk or laundry book in its makeshift sort of look. It has Royal Arms in gilt in the middle and a bit cut out in the cover to slip in a white card with a name on it. It is the same size and colour as diaries.

Passports changed their spots. From being a means of free movement they became obstacles as those fleeing fascism in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s discovered to their cost: the German Jewish philosopher and cultural writer Walter Benjamin, seven years on the run, swallowed poison in Franco’s fascist Spain when denied passage to the US. Anne Frank’s family were also denied visas to the US which would have saved their lives – a mere two examples from a wretched catalogue of restrictions over travel and refusal of documents that spelled death to hundreds of thousands.

In 1974 it was proposed that member states of the European Community should issue passports in a common format but with no sense of urgency over the matter Tory David Maclean became frustrated at the delay over their implementation which he regarded as essential to promote a clear sense of identity within the Community notwithstanding positive and practical benefits – and possible without at any point diminishing our status as Britons.

He explained that the British passport issued in 1921 emerged out of a proposal from the League of Nations to address international travel by rail and it was an international format on its recommendation which was accepted and gave birth to the true-blue British version.

How very British that a reaction against one international style of passport now demands a return to another whose origins are equally international.

Passports preoccupied the House of Lords on many occasions.  

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy longed to return to blue passports while Earl Ferrers (no idea who these people were) asked if it might be possible to include Welsh on the UK passport as Wales is in the United Kingdom. The response was no.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, ever a card, got to his feet to enquire

My Lords, can my noble friend guarantee that there will not have to be a referendum upon this important subject?

Earl Ferrers was on hand to reassure him

My Lords, heaven preserve us from such a thought!

Lord Tordoff, a Liberal I believe, asked about the possibility of introducing special diplomatic passports for Member of the Lords.

On another occasion the House of Lords were at it again when one Baroness Blatch insisted the European passport was a British passport.

We have adopted a common format but it remains a British passport and it remains available only to bona fide British citizens.

She understood, she said, the nostalgia for the blue passport;

…in fact, my own blue passport still has one more year to run. I understand the points being made, but we are party to an international agreement and we signed up to the common format.

Lord King of Wartnaby (Thatcherite Tory) was not convinced.

Can we get back to having a decent passport such as the blue one that I still have? That is very important. We trade in every country in the world. When the immigration officer sees it, he recognises it as being of some value and having some identity. This little red notebook is depressing.

Depressing? Trying to survive in famine is depressing. Trying to avoid being shelled to smithereens in Syria or Palestine is depressing. A ‘little red notebook’ is of no consequence m’Lord.

December 19, 2017

The Whip Hand


Prison warder with a cat-o-nine-tails from Peterhead Prison Museum

On January 2, 1891 it was reported in an Aberdeen newspaper that the town’s whipper had resigned after his home was besieged by angry protesters.  

It was New Year and it may have been the occasion with all that involves that emboldened Aberdeen’s citizens to vent their disapproval not-so-much of the man but his chosen occupation. Whatever the stimulus that attracted a crowd to his door that particular night their actions unnerved him sufficiently that the town’s whipper got to thinking about his job and when he had done thinking he decided to quit it.

His appointment a year earlier attracted the attention of the London Echo which described his role as more akin to barbarous practices of earlier and ruder times. In response a Glasgow newspaper ridiculed the London Echo‘s reporter for getting, well – the wrong end of the stick – and imagining Aberdeen loons (boys) were being strapped to grills to be lashed to within “an inch of their lives by some brawny and brutal giant wielding the cat-o-nine-tails.”

The Echo was quoted in the piece –

“If the hardened burglar sinks into deeper degradation through the lash, what effect,” this tearful Echo exclaims, “will it not have upon the delicate and impressionable mind of a lad?”

The Glasgow reporter reassured the London Echo its imagination went far beyond the truth. It was pointed out that schools used corporal punishment through caning and there was no intention to treat Scottish youth to immeasurable agony and disgrace but only to extend the type of punishment commonly applied in schools to municipal whipping rooms. The alternative of a fine, the reporter argued, only punished parents not the lad.

Many will remember more recent controversies over the birching of youths, notably on the Isle of Man, for misdemeanours too inconsequential for custodial sentence. Edinburgh’s whipper was busy as late as 1927 birching around six boys aged between ten to fourteen accused of stealing money from gas meters and other articles. One lad was given twelve strokes while the rest got up to six.

At the Borders town of Hawick a public whipper was sought in 1889 when 17 boys were brought before the police court on charges which included the theft of turnips, handkerchiefs, a hammer, a tea-cup and maliciously breaking a ladder. Casting an eye towards parents and teachers Hawick’s magistrates insisted that if they could not restrain the laddies then the police and magistrates would have to take them in hand.

Whipping is the act of using an instrument to strike a person or animal to cause pain as punishment or instil fear to teach a lesson or encourage compliance. If I might divert a little – who would be a whipper? A bully or inadequate type of person surely and there’s a fine line between legally sanctioned whipping and violent assault against a person.

In 1868 in Milwaukee Wisconsin a man called Downer charged his neighbours with assault and intent to kill after he was attacked by them. He claimed he had been sitting peaceably at home when a group of women broke in and without a word set about him; striking him with clubs, sticks and guns. He was left soaked to the skin, his clothes torn, his face and neck badly scratched and missing clumps of head hair and whiskers and he angrily demanded the women be arrested and punished. In the subsequent court hearing a witness told how that evening Downer was indulging in his ‘usual amusement’ of whipping his wife when neighbours were alerted by her desperate cries and responded armed with a mop, a broom, fire shovel and pair of tongs. They struck out at Downer mopping his face with dirty water and beating him. He fought back punching at least one woman which only enraged the rest to thrash him more soundly till he was the one crying out and begging not to be killed.

Back in the UK there were references to the distinctive coats or robes worn by town whippers but I haven’t come across actual descriptions of any which is a pity as I would like to have an accurate picture of the men whose task it was to lash 18th century scallywags who cared so little for their passengers they carelessly let go when carrying sedan chairs propelling the unfortunate traveller inside tumbling out and meriting, according to the custom of the time, a sound thrashing.


Tripod to hold prisoner receiving a flogging from Peterhead Prison Museum

The 1880s appears to have been pivotal to changing attitudes towards whipping. At Peterhead’s fine prison museum there is a contraption that was used in the 19th century to flog prisoners with the cat-o-nine-tails. A designated prison warder took on this role until public pressure ended the practice and in Aberdeen the last whipper was engaged in September 1885. The following year magistrates tried to have all whipping or birching carried out in prisons because of the reluctance of the public to take on the role but the prison authorities resisted and the law was changed to allow the police birch youths in police cells or court rooms.


In August of 1886 Exeter was the last cathedral in England to take on a dog whipper and so mercifully vanished another ancient occupation used to keep dogs from wandering into open churches and devouring communion wafers, or whatever. It was in the 1880s that the British Navy notorious for its floggings largely gave up the punishment although it wasn’t formally removed from the statute books until 1949. I suppose schools were the last stronghold of the whipper in a physical sense with the term whipping giving way to birching or belting and punishment confined to particular institutions.


The Lochgelly, belt, strap, skud, tawse

In Scottish schools the 2-foot long piece of coiled leather known as the tawse, strap, belt, skud or Lochgelly (the town where they were made) continued whipping by another name and on another part of the body, except perhaps in public schools. The strap was banned in state schools in 1987 while public schools hung onto it, or a cane, for a further ten years. The ban came after years of campaigning against corporal punishment in schools. In 1961 Aberdeen’s redoubtable Trades Council secretary James Milne, in response to a council plan to permit only headmasters administer the strap, said corporal punishment in schools was no business of the Trades Council but that of teachers alone. Headteachers complained they were to be made into public whippers – turned into ogres who would be feared instead of regarded with affection and trust by their pupils. The Trades Council called on the education committee to impose a headmaster only rule as first step towards abolition of the strap in city schools and suggested parents should be forewarned when their child was due to be strapped – a view rejected as daft by at least one headteacher for drawing out the punishment.

For those of us who don’t saddle up to terrorise our native fauna whipping now conjures up its symbolic form – in the Westminster parliament. There MPs are frequently ‘whipped’ to vote along party lines although there is no physical assault involved, as far as I’m aware, more the application of something akin to strong persuasion and even blackmail. The parliamentary whipper-in was initially appointed to make sure enough recalcitrant members of parliament would abandon their appointments with horse racing, women and bottles of claret to ensure sufficient were available to carry on the duties of government. Without the whipper-in it was doubted parliament would meet one day in seven during the earlier 19th century. Whippers-in made it their business to know what was happening in London’s social scene – gatherings and parties; and who was invited where. London clubs around Westminster were often the first port of call when bodies were required to back a vote.

“The whipper had to get to know new members and flatter and cajole them if they were gastronomic he dines him, operatic then attends opera with him, the sport lover, foxhunter, literati, Soyer with the epicure, John and Jesus men of Exeter Hall with the devout member, admirer of women with others, informed on cotton twist with the manufacturer, of guano with top boots and breeches… he lures radicals with a ticket for the Speaker’s dinner, introduces him to Court in a bobwig, sword and ruffles and makes him a member of some safe committee, like that upon petitions – after a session or two he is no longer a flaming radical but a mere whig, a ministerial driveller and a safer voter than even Lord Tom Noddy.”

The parliamentary whipper had learnt the art of subtle people-handling at the smooth and oily school. And for their great service to the state the whipper-in might expect fine reward – a plum job in a position quiet, well paid and respectable or a sturdy pension. 

Whipper-in was first applied in parliament when in May 1769 that giant of 18th century politics Edmund Burke referred to Treasury officials ‘whipping in’ members for the final parliament of the session. The term caught on and was soon abbreviated to whips.

ed ramsden hunt whipper

Captain Edward Ramsden convicted of animal cruelty

The whipper-in title came from fox hunting as I hinted above – but you probably knew that and to Westminster’s shame it still hasn’t loosened its attachment to that particular appalling pursuit. One whipper-in who caught my attention when researching this piece was one Captain Edward Ramsden, master of the South Durham hunt, who in 1935 was found guilty of cruelty to animals after he entered a house in pursuit of a terrified fox that had sought shelter there. The conquering hero emerged dragging the fox by a leash wrapped around its neck and tally-ho’d to the hounds who set upon the distraught animal tearing it to pieces. He was fined £10. Personally I would have had him publicly whipped.



December 15, 2017

The Scots who stopped Pinochet’s engines. NEW FEATURE DOCUMENTARY, NAE PASARAN



The Scots who stopped Pinochet’s engines.

Award-winning director Felipe Bustos Sierra launches the final crowdfunding campaign to compete his feature-length documentary, Nae Pasaran. The project, which launched in 2014, set out to investigate the real impact of a four-year solidarity boycott by factory workers at Rolls-Royce East Kilbride. The research led to the discovery of the Chilean Air Force military engines which disappeared from the factory in 1978. One of the engines, the first engine caught in the boycott, has been returned to Scotland and will be unveiled in East Kilbride early next year.

1974, Scotland. Bob Fulton, a Rolls-Royce engine inspector, returns to his section, upset and anxious. He’s just told his colleagues that a Chilean Air Force jet engine has arrived in the factory for maintenance and he’s refusing to let it go through, in protest against the recent military coup of General Pinochet. He’s seen the images of people packed into football stadiums and the Chilean Air Force jets bombing Santiago, and now one of the engines from those very same planes is right there, waiting for inspection. He can see his supervisors approaching, he knows he’s about to be fired yet he feels a responsibility.

The Chilean coup, on the 11 September 1973, was a landmark of the Cold War. The first democratically-elected left-wing president in Latin America, Salvador Allende, was brutally overthrown by the Chilean Armed Forces, which surrounded and attacked the presidential palace where Allende and his staff refused to surrender. Allende died in the palace and the dictatorship that followed claimed thousands of lives, with many still disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans were sent into exile.

The images of the Hawker Hunter air raid, caught by documentary filmmakers, traveled the world. When the Scottish workers saw the images of tv, they recognised the planes and knew immediately they’d worked on the same engines. The Hawker Hunter was one of Britain’s most exported military aircrafts, with over 20 Air Forces flying them. All of them were powered by the same engine, the Rolls-Royce Avon.

By the 1970s, all Avon engines were repaired in the same factory… Rolls-Royce East Kilbride. With nowhere else to go for maintenance, the workers’ action could potentially be devastating for the Chilean Air Force.

The boycott of Chilean engines at the Rolls-Royce factory was a minor cause célèbre. The workers kept the boycott going for four years, leaving the engines to rust at the back of the factory, until one night… the engines mysteriously disappeared. The workers were told their actions had been meaningless.

The filmmaker, Felipe Bustos Sierra, son of a Chilean exile, grew up hearing rumours of the now-mythic tale of international solidarity. These accounts bring him to Bob’s door 40 years later. Was any of it true?

NAE PASARAN is the painstakingly documented and emotional account of the impact of their action, and for the very first time, the feature film tells the story of the many Chileans who crossed paths with the engines.

In 2015, following revelations of our research, the Chilean ambassador bestowed the highest honour given to foreigners by the Government of Chile upon the Scottish workers. In an unlikely twist of fate, the film chronicles how the pensioners from East Kilbride became Commanders of the Republic of Chile.

Earlier this year, after having discovered the lost engines in Chile, we were able to bring one back to Scotland with the support of Unite Scotland and assistance of Glasgow Museums. Next year, the engine will be returned to East Kilbride to resume its struggle against the Scottish weather and stand as a monument to the Scottish action for international solidarity.

The film is close to completion and Debasers is now seeking its final £50,000 in funding via Kickstarter. After a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015 to begin filming, this final round of funding will push the film to completion ahead of its 2018 film festival deadlines.

Crowdfunding perks include Rolls-Royce Avon engine blades, invites to the premiere after-party in East Kilbride, personalised poems written by “The Glasgow Poet” Stuart Barrie (one of the Rolls-Royce workers), and postcards signed by the workers.

For any further information, photographs or interviews, please contact Nicola Balkind:

Link to campaign:

Screening times: To Be Announced.

The short film is available to watch at:

Felipe Bustos Sierra said:

It’s been a long project to research and our characters and their story have been an incredible buoy throughout: a true barometer to keep us going in the right direction. We’re asking that if international solidarity means anything to you, if you believe – like we do – that we are all connected trying to make a life for ourselves while treating each other like human beings before politics, class, language or borders muddle it up, this is a story for you and it has a painstakingly-documented happy ending. Please pledge to help us reach our funding goal ahead of our film festival deadlines in early 2018. If you can’t help financially, tell others about the “Scots who stopped Pinochet’s engines”. Tell them what we’re doing and please get them to our funding page at


NAE PASARAN is directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra and produced by Debasers Filums.

Felipe Bustos Sierra is a Belgian-Chilean filmmaker based in Scotland. His second short film “Three-Legged Horses” was the first successful Kickstarter project in Scotland and has played since at over 40 international festivals over 5 continents. He’s the creative director at Debasers Filums and working on his first feature film, “Nae Pasaran”. He’s an alumni of the Berlinale Talent Campus and the Edinburgh International Film Festival Talent Lab.

Kickstarter helps artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creators find the resources and support they need to make their ideas a reality.

The title Nae Pasaran is the Scottish-accented ‘NO PASARAN’, the anti-fascist battlecry of the Spanish Civil War which saw thousands of men and women throughout the world travel to Spain to fight Franco’s troops. The stories of the Scottish International Brigades are legendary and have been a strong source of inspiration ever since, particularly for the Rolls-Royce workers who led the Chilean engine boycott. ‘No Pasaran’ is still often used today at anti-right-wing demonstrations across Scotland.

The crowdfunding page can be found at or

Follow Nae Pasaran online on Twitter: @naepasaran and on Facebook at




The actions of the East Kilbride Rolls Royce workers were highlighted in the press in 1978 when it was reported that four aero-engines belonging to the Chilean government were removed in a secret operation from the Rolls Royce workshop with a call going out to all British workers to black all work for Chile.

A shop steward from Rolls Royce, Peter Lowe, was quoted saying, “There is nothing we can do now that the engines have left the factory. We can only hope that our fellow trade unionists everywhere else will take up the cudgels on behalf of the people of Chile.”

The engines which the men had refused to work on for four years were worth £3 million. They were taken from the factory by sheriff offers in an operation described as of military style precision and it was thought transported to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and from there flown to Chile.

The TUC condemned the actions of the government for supporting the rightwing junta in Chile responsible for the disappearance of 2000 political prisoners.  


And the Scottish national football team got caught up in the Chilean controversy when in 1977  the SFA insisted a pre-World Cup friendly be played against Chile in the very stadium the Pinochet junta used as a detention camp for those who opposed their illegal takeover of government – where workers, students, intellectuals, parents and even their children were horribly tortured, raped, humiliated and killed.

Mr Willie Allan of the SFA insisted the match go ahead. Opposition came from among others the committee of the Ross and Cromarty Constituency Labour Party who said, “We are disgusted that the SFA should want Scottish footballers to play in a country whose dictatorial regime used their main football stadium to rape, torture and murder opponents during the military coup.

But such opinions failed to influence the Scottish Football Association and the match went ahead in that blood-soaked pitch proving that to some footballers their game is more important than lives.

One of the best known people who died in the Santiago stadium was Chilean singer and guitarist Victor Jara who had his hands crushed and destroyed before a military officer played a game of Russian roulette with him. Victor Jara died at the third shot. And his popularity with the Chilean people was so infuriating to the rightwing military the singer his corpse was then machine gunned.

December 7, 2017

Short-changed: Scotland’s currency a Unit or Unite?

Or minting it in Aberdeen 

rob iii gold lion

Robert III gold lion

Banks have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, again. Can’t remember when it was otherwise. In certain parts of the country such as where I live it’s virtually impossible to find a working bank that doesn’t involve a round trip in a car that takes a good hour and a half or by bus the greater part of a day. It really is like going back more than a century.

Now it appears banks will also remove many cash machines making it all but impossible for folk in rural areas to access their own cash, never mind the difficulties all of this involves for local businesses in depositing takings at the end of each day or for community groups trying to get their hands on change for admission charges to facilities or indeed bank these safely and locally.  

Not so long ago Scotland’s influence over its money supply was greater than now with local banks and even stock exchanges dotted around the country and like now banks issued bank notes but not coins – this ended in Scotland 300 years ago.

Since the Union of 1707 Scotland’s mints along with so much else were consigned to the scrap heap thereby diminishing this nation’s ability to influence her own economy despite Article 16 of the Treaty of Union stipulating that Scotland retain its own mint –

“…a Mint shall be continued in Scotland under the same rules as the Mint in England…”

What happened to that? The Mint at Edinburgh stopped striking coins a mere two years after the Union with an issue of half crowns and shillings in 1709. In 1870 the Coinage Act transferred the nominal role of Governor of the Mint of Scotland to the English Chancellor of the Exchequer in London. Another Coinage Act, this time in 1971 finally extinguished all sign of Scotland’s distinctive currencies when the Chancellor of the Exchequer became the Master of the Mint under Edward Heath (apologies for any unwanted imagery associated with that statement.)

The mint at Aberdeen was one of the earliest Scottish mints. It began during the reign of William the Lion (1165 – 1214) and continued intermittently until the Act of Union. Despite its long existence few Aberdeen coins are extant for coins used to be melted down and the precious metal re-used for new strikes at the behest of the monarch who pocketed the difference between the higher value of old redundant coins and lesser worth replacements. Essentially this was a means of underhand taxation that benefited the monarch while anyone else caught snipping off pieces of coin for its silver value faced gruesome execution. 

We are all too familiar with being short-changed nowadays when using Scottish currency in England but you may be surprised to learn that the foundation of this has legitimate basis for people with long memories. Way back in the 12th and 13th centuries the amount of silver that went into making silver coins or sterlings was reduced from 240 pennies created from one pound of silver to 252 squeezed out by Robert the Bruce’s moneyers compared with 243 around the same time in England.

When David II was held for ransom by the English the Scots paid £40,000 to get him back using silver from which 294 pennies were extracted (and later still a pound was used to produce 352 coins) giving rise to complaints that the exchange was being carried out on the cheap. It has to be said that England did the same whenever cash was required – for example to finance military campaigns or to pay off debts – the medieval equivalent of quantitative easing. Coins were also cut in half or quartered to provide coins of lesser value used along with small value currency such as round half-pennies and farthings (which date from Alexander III.)

hammered silver penny alex iii aberdeen 1250-80

Alexander III silver penny minted in Aberdeen 1250-1280

It’s not known where Aberdeen’s mint was situated. According to one of the city’s 19th C historians, Kennedy, it was in Exchequer Row, but others disagree – in the way a bunch of historians do (worse than ferrets in a sack.) It might be mints from different periods operated in different parts of the town for there was no need for a specific building as little space was required to produce coins – they were made by hand, stamped or hammered from a die imprinted with the design of the coin. Perhaps a furnace was employed to soften pieces of metal to be cut to an appropriate size of disc and weight which were then placed between a two dies – the top one hammered to make the distinctive markings on the new coin. Mechanisation was brought in during 1637 in Scotland with the appointment of French coiner Nicholas Briot as Master of the Scottish Mint.

Naturally, control over the creation of money was tightly regulated. In 1526 the Scottish parliament decreed that –

“feigners and counterfeiters” of the king’s money should be severely punished by which was supposedly hanging, drawing and quartering.

Such a dire threat might have dissuaded some from forgery but not all and a cursory glance back in time shows just how tempting it was to try. In 1566 arrests were made in Aberdeen of individuals accused of bringing in counterfeit or black money called hardheids from Flanders and the town’s commissioners, Robert Crichton and James Millar, were ordered to carry out an investigation which resulted the following year in Andrew Murray, a burgess from Perth, and Patrick Ramsay, a burgess from Dundee, being found guilty and gruesomely executed. In 1594 Scotland’s Privy Council reiterated a ban on foreign currency to reduce the amount of foreign coins circulating, sometimes from legitimate reasons e.g. the old rose noble of England had been temporarily allowed into Aberdeen to pay for English soldiers then barracked in the town.

As I mentioned above control over currency rested with the monarch who appointed moneyers to mint coins and he or she determined the timing of new issues. Sometimes a moneyer’s name was pressed onto coins, adding to confusion over their source for coiners and moneyers were peripatetic and moved about the country following the monarch’s movements and supplied coins where necessary.

Scotland’s own currency, silver pennies, first appeared in the 12th century during the reign of David I. Before then all sorts of currencies were used for trading including Roman, Northumbrian, Viking and Anglo-Saxon which explain why exposed money hoards have often included money from different parts, for example two hoards of Roman silver denari found in 1966 at Birnie, near Elgin in Moray (pronounced Murray as in Andy not moray as in the eel) inside wee leather purses which had been placed in a pot lined with bracken. A couple of centuries ago several purses and bags of money were discovered in Aberdeen which dated from the time of Mary Queen of Scots and these coins carried both her name and that of her husband Francis, Dauphin of France.

mary and francis testoon

Mary and Francis testoon

It was in 1136 then that Scotland’s first coins were minted – in England, or rather that disputed territory of Carlisle. The town had been taken by the Scottish King David and as there were silver mines there along with a mint he put both to good use and had a number of silver coins struck. These first issues looked remarkably like English money but over time Scotland’s currencies grew distinctive. By the reign of James III (1460 – 1488) instead of showing a nominal portrait to represent the monarch Scottish coins featured realistic regal portraits and were by now more comparable with French coinage than English – a hint at the close relationship between Scotland and France. Those from the reign of James III also featured Scotland’s heraldic emblems of the thistle and the wonderful unicorn. The golds were called riders and the silvers were placks.


Find the unicorn

Edinburgh has long been Scotland’s financial centre and unsurprisingly an important supplier of Scottish currency although it wasn’t until 1527 that a specific building was designated for the mint. Edinburgh was also the last place in Scotland to mint coins after the Union of Parliaments. The Union of Scotland and England was marked by striking a new coin which interestingly acquired similar but different names north and south of the border – known as a unit in Scotland and as a unite in England (make what you will of the subtext of these names.) The unit was silver and worth £12 Scots or £1 sterling (English) and from the time of the Union Scottish currency had to fit in with England’s; both silver and copper.

Aberdeen minted coins were of a slightly more recent vintage than Edinburgh’s but as parliament followed the king around Scotland with the mint in his wake Aberdeen became a centre of production for several years from 1342 when plague ravaged the country encouraging the nobility to head north in hope of escaping it.  

Whenever mention is made of Scotland’s former currencies it’s usually the groat or bawbee which are recalled but there were many other coins circulating here across the centuries including the plack, bodle, pistole, crown, demi-lion, ducat or bonnet, merk or mark, unicorn, half-unicorn, dollar, farthing and ryal as well as half-groats, half-pennies, and half almost anything – produced by cutting a coin in two. Of course not every coin was minted at each new strike and not every mint from the Borders to Inverness produced a range of coinage.

As trade increased so did constraints on currency. Parliament imposed limitations on the movement of money leaving the country. Such a tax in 1331 was set at one shilling in the pound and provided Aberdeen with over £8 duty taken from £160 of its currency which had moved away that year.    

While there are not many extant Aberdeen minted coins some remain. Several turned up in a silver hoard of 12,000 coins unearthed in a 3-legged bronze pot in 1886 in the city’s Upperkirkgate, at Ross’s Court. Most of these 13th and 14th century coins were English pennies along with a number of French Mary Queen of Scots testoons and 113 pennies from the reign of Alexander III but as to where they were minted there is no record and no hint on the coins.

On the subject of things missing several coins from that cache, sixty-two of them, were bought by Queen Victoria including twelve early ones produced under Alexander III, a couple from the time of Robert the Bruce and two from John Balliol’s pretendy reign – they have since disappeared along with several handed over to both the National Collection of Antiquities in Edinburgh and the British Museum. The bulk of the hoard, around 10,000 coins, was returned to Aberdeen city and the University of Aberdeen but again a portion of these have also disappeared.

Aberdeen coins showed the king’s crowned head on the front except for those dating from Alexander III’s time which show an encircled head containing the king’s name and title. The reverse features a long double and single cross with stars, pellets and so on in the angles – and the mint name in a circle. In the case of the groats and half-groats an outer circle included the motto Dominvs Protector Mevs et Liberator Mevs (the protector and liberator) or contractions of it. On the Alexander III penny the coin includes the name of the moneyer, John of Aberdeen (no, not THAT one!)

David II was the first monarch to have groats and half groats minted, the latter marked Vila Aberdon indicating they were struck in Aberdeen. A Robert III groat reads Villa de Aberdein. A rare James II half groat from the Aberdeen hoard has Villa Aberden. Another variation denoting Aberdeen in James III and IV groats is the legend Villa de Abrde. Coins carrying HA were also Aberdeen mints signifying an occasional spelling of Aberdeen as Habirden.

As British banking staggers from crisis to crisis and the ordinary people of this country are the ones to shoulder the burden of bankers’ incompetency and criminality and at a time financial experts warn that the state of the UK banking system is worse than useless for its ability to ride out another storm the likelihood of which is extremely high it is surely time to return to more localised fiscal controls – not dependent on the whims of a monarch but a national bank of Scotland issuing 21st century currency, perhaps the unit.