Author Archive

August 20, 2018

Tartan Slaves

Oh, thought I, how interesting when I learnt that some Caribbean slave owners dressed their slaves in tartan but looking into it further I discovered that tartan cloth was a fabric like any other so my initial wonder more or less fizzled out. This is what I discovered.

tartan (1)

Plantation owners were obliged to supply clothing or fabric annually to their slaves; primarily for reasons of modesty and also for health. Much of the cloth bought in came from factories in Europe which was shipped out to the colonies and could be striped, checked or plain, sometimes dyed and sometimes not. The colour or design might represent a plantation – a means of identifying human property with a particular plantation – or master’s house  – but as for surprise that slaves were ever attired in tartan, well, these were designs woven into fabrics and not so different from any others chosen by other slave owners.

Slaves were people kidnapped and forced to work for someone till death without pay, kept in the meanest of circumstances – not so different from domestic stock on a farm. Children of slaves were enslaved at birth – every opportunity that life offered other people removed from them with their first breath. They were owned. They were property. Property with a value.

Having property that was potentially mobile, might try to escape, meant clothing could have another function – to identify where an escapee should be returned to if caught; the uniform or livery specific to a plantation.

The livery of house slaves was of better quality than that supplied to field workers for the house slave was visible to family and guests so in a sense represented the household. Plantation slaves were provided with most basic cheap clothing but something that was expected to last until it was replaced the following year. If someone’s clothing wore out within the year and it did because the quality was so poor then the person was reduced to covering up as best they could with the rags remaining. Quality of the cloth also varied according to the skill of the recipient and men, women and children were allocated different amounts of cloth or clothing. Women were provided with less clothing than the men they worked alongside but could be given extra if they had children – providing the estate owner with extra hands. They might also get additional clothing for providing those in charge with ‘sexual favours’ i.e. allowed themselves to be raped or sexually exploited.

The uniform of a male house slaves might consist of a coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirts, cravats, hose and shoes, mostly made up into garments whereas female slaves were often expected to make their own clothes from lengths of cloth supplied to them. House slaves might be given cast-offs by members of the family to save on the expense of clothing.  Women field slaves were dressed in skirts or dresses and men in breeches and shirts while children were given only a short gown until nearly grown. These garments could be made from all kinds of materials, fine and coarse: wool, linen, cotton, calico – patterned such as plaid (tartan) or plain and unbleached such as Osnaburg, a rough linen, like sacking, naturally brownish and produced in Osnabrück in present-day Germany or something similar manufactured in Virginia in America. On the subject of America there were sumptuary laws in some areas which prohibited people from dressing above their station which meant slaves were always supplied with the roughest fabrics available. Another rough fabric, a coarse heavy woollen material called Pennystone was imported from England. 

Many Scots became plantation owners in the West Indies and parts of America and made huge fortunes from what was basically farming, something most of them were familiar with, only without the nuisance of paying for the help. Britain was industrialising and the demand for products to trade around the world and feed the growing population in the UK was huge. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea plantations – whatever the product worked by slave labour mainly supplied from West Africa but also closer to their own homes guaranteed easy and immense profits. A surprising number of Scots in the Caribbean did not choose the life but had it imposed on them – transported there  because of decisions of Scottish and English courts. Some were criminals (crimes were pretty wide-ranging then) or political and religious rebels whose death sentences had been commuted to transportation. Nearly 1,000 Jacobites who weren’t butchered were rounded up and shipped out as plantation slaves. Yet more Scots were kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The case of Peter Williamson, kidnapped along with a large number of children in Aberdeen is well-documented and this kind of human trafficking went on throughout Scotland, certainly the northern part. Some children and adults were sold to estate owners as indentured servants – forced into slavery for a specified time then freed sometimes with a small land holding – a better future than African slaves were given. Against this barbarity the dressing of a plantation owner’s property in his clan tartan is small beer.

tartan (2)Governments working hand-in-glove with plantation owners – they were often the same people or at least members of the same families who used whatever means at their disposal to pull in labour – all the better for them that they didn’t have to pay, other than the cost of shipping to the West Indies or America.

The West Indies became a home-from-home for Scots, enforced and otherwise, when native place names were replaced with ones more familiar to them e.g. in Jamaica and Montego Bay these included Aberdeen, Alva, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Dundee, Dunrobin, Elderslie, Elgin Town, Farquhar’s Beach, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnoch (sic), Perth Town, Roxborough (sic), Sterling Castle (sic), Stewart Town, Tweedside and Culloden – a stark reminder of how men and boys were separated from family and exported like meat carcasses.

‘The Highlander was an object of hatred to his Saxon neighbours…a filthy abject savage, a slave, a Papist, a cutthroat, and a thief.’ They were also vilified by Lowland Scots. A Highlander taken before a court stood little chance of judicial leniency. England post-Culloden, it was reported, hated Highlanders with a passion and were out for vengeance. Slaughter on the battlefield was followed by slaughter in homes across the Highlands and on the scaffold, proscription of a way of life and confiscation of land and the humble tartan on the streets of London led to outbursts of angry reaction for long after the ’45 and presumably tartan was not produced for long after then.  

Check or plaid material, tartan, if you like, was later manufactured in India for export to the West Indies. A red and white check or plaid also came to be made in Britain. It was called Bandana or Madras cloth and used in dresses, blouses and women’s head wraps – Bandanas. Checked material became commonly distributed for clothing so it is perhaps not surprising that Scottish plantation owners would decide to have checks that matched their own clans’ plaid not least to register their all-powerful state against the utterly powerless impoverished chattel. Likewise in other estates the uniform might not be of tartan or plaid, it might have no colour whatsoever yet be distinctly part of a plantation’s identity. Where clothing was not very different from other estates an owner’s initials sewn onto field clothes was used to mark his property or his men, women and children might be forced to wear a lead tag inscribed with the owner’s name around their necks. These were variations on a theme of marking human beings as marketable property.

There we have it then some slaves were dressed in tartan while others were dressed in plainer cloth which might be shipped out from Scottish mills (Wilson & Son of Bannockburn was one), Irish, Welsh, English, German or perhaps American. Huge quantities of cloth was imported annually to plantations, some was imported straight off the loom as broadcloth and some made up into clothing – breeches, jackets, skirts, hose, shirts etc but no shoes for field workers.

Meaner slave owners recycled old sheets and curtains to clothe their slaves or cut them up for patching and mending. Such was the experience of Robert Craig, an indentured weaver from Scotland bought by Londoner, Colonel Joseph Ball, a slaver who emigrated to Virginia in 1661 who thoughtfully left named slaves to members of his family on his death.  

The estates’ head driver who oversaw field work with liberal applications of his polished staff with its pronged end and his whip should raise far greater condemnation than the choice of decorative garb allocated to the poor souls worked into their graves by this monstrous system of exploitation.

Innovative engineering companies such as McKinnon’s in Aberdeen made fortunes exporting machinery to the colonies to better exploit the raw materials, crops and natural resources required for Britain and for export around the world. Interestingly that while machinery for processing mono-crop cultures imposed on colonies such as sugar, coffee, rice etc were essential tools in the profitability of slave plantations the enterprise and invention behind them offers a buffer to their association with human exploitation that went with the territory of slaves in tartan cloth.

August 8, 2018

Protest – as defined by the BBC.

More and more people claim to detect strong rightwing bias at the BBC. It isn’t clear how they get that idea.

Pretty sure it’s the first time these guys have been in a bookshop, they’ve no idea how to behave in one.

The ‘protest’ in the words of the BBC

July 30, 2018

Caithness Mermaids and Brexit

The Mermaid phenomenon has been with us since time immemorial. Greek and Roman mythologies included Mer people – think the sea God Triton and the Sirens in  Homer’s Odyssey. Sculptors and painters have portrayed Merpeople for millennia. These exotic aquatic beings continue to be worshipped in some religions and there’s no reason why this should be scoffed at any more than worshipping any  invisible god.

Russian merpeople of the 19thC

Russian Mermaid and Merman

Reports from Cambletown to Caithness via the Hebrides, Bullers of Buchan and Portgordon of Merfolk have fed the public imagination of undersea cities and places populated by half-human, half-fish beings. Instances of sightings of  such fabulous creatures are many with little hard evidence to back them for they have proved shy when spotted with a tendency to slip back under the waves. However in 13thC Japan the body of what was described as a Mermaid was washed up on a beach – her remains taken away and put on display. Another version relates how a Mermaid was taken from the water, married, remained young and lived for 800 years doing a lot of travelling during that time, as you would.

By the nature of their occupations seamen were the most likely to spot a Mermaid or two – Scottish sailors certainly claimed many sightings of them across the centuries and Christopher Columbus reported the warm-water species in the Caribbean.

Down-to-earth types have attempted to explain away the phenomenon with incidents of Manatee – sea cows emerging from the salty depth but honestly they really don’t have that much resemblance to the human form.


A manatee

One of my favourite stories when a child was of the Selkie who inhabit Scotland’s seas who came ashore, began a family of web-handed children and one lonesome day returned to the sea; such tales from Scottish folklore have sustained us Scots on long winter evenings for as long as tales have been told.

It was as usual when working on something completely different, as they say, I stumbled on The Natural History of the Mermaid written in 1809, From a Dissertation on this phenomenon ‘Recently seen on the Caithness Coast by Miss Mackay, Miss McKenzie, Mr Munro and others’ and I began to read…

Dear readers give me a very few minutes of your valuable time and let me guide you through this strange and magical watery world.

The document argues that for every land creature there is a sea equivalent: horse, cow, there are dog fish, cat fish, parrot fish and more so why is there so much reluctance to accept a creature of the deep might resemble mankind?

Let’s face it people are gullible; we’ve watched the extent of barmyness in the UK among those who accepted the word of the mad, bad and dangerous types who foretold of wealth, health and happiness beyond our wildest dreams with Brexit. The same folk who are prepared to accept as true the most ridiculous nonsense are sceptical about the existence of mermaids.

One day in the year 1797 a schoolmaster from Thurso of the name Munro was walking on the beach when he noticed an unclothed human female sitting on a rock jutting out from the sea, calmly combing her long brown hair with her long fingers. Not an everyday sight even in Thurso. Taking a closer look Munro was able to make out she had a plump face, ruddy cheeks and blue eyes. Her lips and mouth, he said, were as natural as any woman’s as were her breasts and abdomen. He stared at her for around four minutes before she slipped down into the sea.

Twelve years later not too far away in another part of Caithness Miss Mackay a daughter of the Rev. David Mackay, minister of the kirk in Reay, was on the beach at Sandside Bay with three women, including her cousin Miss Mackenzie, and a boy when they spotted a face floating on the surface of the sea. The face disappeared beneath the swell but then reappeared and for around an hour the group had an opportunity to study her: a pink, plump and round face with small grey eyes, wee nose, large mouth and elongated fingers – human-like and not webbed which she used to push back her long thick oily greenish hair the tide kept washing over her face. The Mermaid tossed back her head and rubbed at her slender, smooth white throat with her long slender arms and delicate hands, occasionally waving away a bird that hovered about her. The beach party noticed farther out to sea a seal but agreed it looked nothing like the Mermaid as it was smooth and had no long hair.

Such credible witnesses to the fishy phenomenon forced society to consider whether or not the numerous accounts usually the reserve of untrustworthy observers from the lower class should be taken seriously. Details of the women’s sightings were passed on to fellow-Caithnessian Sir John Sinclair, the man responsible for compiling the Statistical Account of Scotland. I couldn’t say if he was convinced but it appears the Glasgow Philosophical Society was and publicised an account of the sighting of the Reay mermaid.

Outside of Scotland one of the most celebrated incidents of the Mermaid phenomenon was in the Netherlands. In 1403 a Merwoman was captured by some milk maids near Campvear after she was seen in the water one evening. The milk maids kept a watch on her the whole night before they took to boats and arranged them in a half-moon formation cutting off the Merwoman’s escape. The poor woman fish screeched as well she might, a deafening and terrible sound it was reported, dived in her attempts to escape and frantically thrashed her arms and tail swamping some of the little crafts with water that sunk them. The milk maids got their woman, cleaned her up removing sea moss and shells from her body and offered her water, fish, milk bread etc all of which she refused for several days until driven by necessity to eat and drink. It was said she didn’t settle but was always looking for an escape back to the sea but it was not to be. Word spread of the amazing catch and soon the magistrates of Haarlem demanded she be brought before them. 

The Merwoman was taught to spin and to pray. She did not speak but laughed and appeared to understand conversation and so sustained on a diet of bread, butter, milk, water and fish and with her hair made up partly in a Dutch style and partly left as nature intended she remained the centre of curiosity for fifteen or sixteen years. Apparently her portrait was painted and hung in the town house in Haarlem although I haven’t found a copy of it and when she died the Merwoman was buried in a graveyard at Haarlem.

If this were not enough to convince the most disbelieving among you what about the appearance of a Merboy? This poor thing was humiliated as an exhibit in the late 18th century at Leith – preserved in a Mr Weir’s museum to be gawped at by amazed visitors.

The boy’s nails were long, slender and transparent ‘like the teeth of a tortoise-shell comb.’ His head was large on a short thick neck, his broad nose ‘flat like an African negro.’  The child of the sea had hair a shade of marine blue; wiry and bushy. His face was covered in scales, his blue eyes protruded like a haddock’s and his lips were thick and white covering rows of sharp teeth. The Merboy’s ears were two valves set close to his head and the front of his body was partly covered with shell, like a lobster’s but of blue and white colouring similar to a sailor’s striped waistcoat. He had tiny genitals, the skin on his back was tough and thick but not scaled and tails he had two, pale red and of different sizes. The fishboy’s existence was attested to by hundreds of inhabitants of Leith and Edinburgh.

As previously stated once reports of Merfolk emerged from ‘respectable people’ others were more inclined to listen to these educated folk, ‘more erudite witnesses’ of the ‘higher class’ who through ‘their reading and scientific researches … cannot be suspected of being biased by vulgar prejudice’  unlike the ‘lower classes’ who might easily confuse a seal with a Mermaid.’

I suppose whether or not you are convinced of the existence of Mermaids, Merboys, Merwomen and Menmen will be in line with your position regarding Marsians hovering in space ships preparing to invade Earth, viewing climate change as a godsend for achieving a better tan, believing Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 and that Brexit is anything other than an economic, health and social disaster just around the corner. But just in case I’m wrong (never am) keep your eyes peeled when paddling at the seaside.

July 13, 2018

The Good Migrant: Scots who lived by their brains

Handsome, funny, cultured, considerate, sociable, well-read – his library contained over 1000 books mainly in Greek and Latin, a few volumes in French and Italian and lots in Dutch; only two were in the English language – a folio Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1610 and a King James Bible. Learned, definitely, and gifted with a superb memory. That was Gilbert Jack – once regarded as young iconoclast from Aberdeen. He died aged 50 of a stroke which paralysed him down one side and left him unable to speak during the remaining two months of his life. His death came as a great blow to the academic world for Gilbert Jack aka Jacchaeus, long-time professor at Leyden University, was an inspirational teacher of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Now I don’t begin to understand metaphysics. The more I’ve tried the greater my brain hurts but I think, but don’t take my word for it, it is a branch of philosophy that explores what lies beyond the here and now of the world- what’s out there but invisible to us; beyond the physical existence – such as God. The word metaphysics comes from the Greek metá meaning beyond or after and physiká, physics. In the 18th century the giant of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, argued against metaphysics, dismissing it as sophistry and illusion.

Gilbert Jack metaphysicsI don’t remember when I came across Gilbert Jack of Aberdeen. His name came up when I was scraning for something else. And not only his name but countless names of fellow Scots who became major figures in universities across Europe in the study of philosophy and medicine. I’ve thrown in medicine because the development of medicine in Scotland grew out of the close interaction between universities and colleges across Scotland and abroad and in any case Gilbert Jack was also an MD, having taken his medical degree at Leyden at the same time he was teaching there; his dissertation was on epilepsy – De Epilepsia.

The importance attached to education in Scotland led to this small nation punching well above its weight in the supply of talent to the world. In the centuries before the Scottish Enlightenment there was no less exchange of intellectual ideas across Europe which included Scots. Born in Aberdeen c1578 Gilbert Jack attended Aberdeen Grammar School before going to Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College. He appears to have continued his studies at St Andrews before going on to Herborn in Hesse and Helmstädt in Lower Saxony and finally on 25 May 1603 to Leyden, the Netherland’s oldest university .

Within a year of arriving at Leyden, this brilliant intellect, a young iconoclast from Aberdeen, he’s been described as, was made professor of philosophy and logic and for the next 25 years he dominated Aristotelian metaphysics at the university (in his own time Aristotle’s ideas were not themselves described as metaphysics but first philosophy.) However, some of his ideas proved too challenging for Leyden and he was temporarily suspended from the university in 1619 for promoting the notion of predestination rather than free will – but I could be wrong.

Jack wrote up his ideas and proved as able an author as teacher. His first published works came out as 9 volumes in 1612: Institutiones Physicae, Juventutis Lugdunensis Studiis potissimum dicatae which sold well and republished followed by Primae Philosophiae Institutiones and Institutiones Medicae. These works provided textbooks for students elsewhere studying metaphysics and his fame spread. He was sought out and befriended by fellow academics and was invited to take up the chair in moral philosophy at Oxford University but he turned down the offer, preferring to stay at Leyden where he was content and where he had done the bulk of his work.

Today, Gilbert Jack would be regarded as a high flyer; celebrated by his contemporaries as a fine scholar, a grafter, popular lecturer and all-round good man. When he died on 17 April 1628 he left a widow and ten children to mourn him along with the world of academia. His fellow professor at Leyden, Adolf van Vorst, gave his funeral oration in Latin in which he praised his colleague for his contribution to philosophy, his attachment to Leyden and for being a thoroughly nice person.

Sadly forgotten in Aberdeen he was, nonetheless, celebrated as a philosopher and physician in the Netherlands; its most famous metaphysicians. Gilbert Jack was but one of so many Scots who went abroad and contributed to the banks of knowledge and learning enjoyed by succeeding generations but who are largely unknown at home here in Scotland: William Makdowell or MacDowell from Roxburgh, professor of philosophy at Groningen; Mark Duncan, also Roxburgh at Saumur in France; John Murdison at Leiden; Walter Donaldson a graduate of King’s in Aberdeen who went to Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Sedan; fellow Aberdonian Duncan Liddell, mathematician, astronomer and physician educated at the Grammar School followed by King’s College then built his life at Gdansk in Polish Prussia and Brandenburg University in Frankfurt with fellow Scot, John Craig, professor of logic and maths (and briefly physician to James VI); Andrew Melville from Baldovy by Montrose at Geneva; Adam Steuart professor of philosophy at Saumur, Sedan and Leiden; John Cameron, theologian at Saumur, Bergerac, Bordeaux and Montauban; Robert Baron, Professor of Theology Marischal – one of the six Aberdeen Doctors – influences in the dispute between supporters of the National Covenant and Episcopacy and who taught at Marischal and King’s universities whose Metaphysica generalis was posthumously published in 1654. A mere handful of examples from a vast haul of home-nurtured talent which grew here and abroad.

Punching above our weight is what Scotland has done consistently over hundreds of years. Of course much of that has been to do with people escaping poverty and using education as a means of improving their lives. Scots became migrants, many to the Continent, though not exclusively by any means, and benefitted from and contributed to the invaluable exchange of ideas once possible before passport barriers were erected. Just as well these bright people lived when they did and not in today’s febrile, hostile, anti-migrant world.

June 19, 2018

Death by wormy sausage or golf ball – your choice: the weird world of duels

In days of old when knights were bold and the equivalent of twitter squabbles were settled by duels it is amazing the lengths people went to, well – men, mostly but not exclusively men, were prepared to go for that thrill of dicing with death. Or were they?

Think duels and you’re thinking of a couple of guys in wigs trying to shoot or slash each other to death – and you’d be right – up to a point. In working class areas this sort of aggressive behaviour would be described as mindless violence – mindless violence and criminal but we all know there are laws for for them and others for the rest. Whatever the aristocracy indulges in is always held up as a tradition – and honourable; traditions such as flogging servants, keeping slaves, eliminating animal and bird species – all proud long-established rights of the not-so-common-man and woman.

Now I think of it perhaps these degenerates going at it hammer and tongs (not literally but not far off it) wasn’t such a bad idea given the damage they might otherwise have been doing to society.

Pistols and swords were the most popular weapons of choice but when the Americans got in on the act all that classy aristo stuff went all skew-whiff. Let me give you an example.

A couple of guys enjoying the rays in Florida playing a round of golf at Howey-in-the-Hills found they couldn’t play their strokes and keep count at the same time so an argument brewed up over the number of shots played. It’s a game of golf, guys! But umbrage is umbrage and plenty was taken and before you could call out FORE it was a case of golf clubs at dawn. Each man armed himself with a driver, an iron and two dozen balls. Tees were arranged 50 paces apart. A hat was dropped, presumably by someone of a calmer disposition and the duel got underway.

Wait for it…wait for it…your thinking they whacked like hell to see who hit the longest strike? Well, that would be golf. No, this is what they did…

The first man drove a ball into the second man’s shin. Ouch! The second man, let’s call him injured no. 1, presumably through gritted teeth, aimed and walloped his opponent square on the ribs with his ball. The guy with cracked ribs then blasted his ball at…and so they continued knocking seven bells out of one another until some nervous cops arrived chorusing Fore! very loudly. Honour satisfied the pair hobbled off to lick their wounds.


Another bizarre one was the case of Alessandro Cagliostro, an 18th century infamous Italian magician, infamous for his weirdness. Cagliostro wasn’t his real name – he went by a string of alternatives when the need arose and it did, often, for he led as they say an interesting life. There was the matter of a diamond necklace and Marie Antoinette which ended with his banishment from France but I digress. The incident I want to draw to your attention to involved a certain Scottish doctor, John Samuel Rogerson, a physician to Catherine the Great of Russia, whom Cagliostro insulted, calling him a quack, so in defence of his reputation the physician challenged the Italian to a duel. Cagliostro the showman suggested that given the involvement of a physician the duel should be appropriately medical and came up with the suggestion they get hold of two pills, one harmless and the other poisonous. An arsenic pill was found and placed in a box along with a harmless one. Cagliostro needled Rogerson that if he was indeed a real physician he would be able to treat the effects of the poison so there was nothing to worry about. Quack or not Rogerson was not stupid and refused to indulge the Italian and the duel by poison was stopped without a pill passing either’s lips.

As for Cagliostro his addiction to strange behaviour made him into a hunted man across Europe, he escaped from prison just before he died, how I’ve no idea. But that might not have been the last of the strange magician for according to another one, Aleister Crowley, the Italian was reborn in his body which only goes to prove you can’t keep a good occultist down. Or maybe you can.

dr Rogerson duel

Dr Rogerson

Incidentally the ‘quack’ Rogerson whose home was Dumfriesshire and who lived in Russia most of his life died peacefully back in Scotland at Dumcrieff in 1823 at the ripe old age of 82yrs.


Bismarck the German Minister President was once challenged to a duel by sausage by Rudolf Virchow. Virchow, was a doctor who paved the way for pathology but more relevant to this story was a co-founder of Germany’s Progressive Party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) and political opponent of Bismarck. The pair had a spat over military spending to the fury of Bismarck who challenged him to a duel to resolve the dispute – possibly in the hope of eliminating the mouthy nuisance. A bit like Jeremy Thorpe in this country except Thorpe didn’t let his adversary know he was about to have him shot.

In the boring version of this tale Virchow turned down the opportunity to die prematurely but let’s not linger on this account and instead hear about the sausage. As he was the one challenged to duel Virchow got to choose the weapon so he suggested two sausages; he would be armed with a cooked pork sausage and Bismarck with a raw one infected with trichinella .

For the uninitiated among you, trichinella is a genus of parasitic roundworms, nematodes, which were a big problem in the German population in the 19th century and numerous in Virchow’s laboratory where he was looking for a means of eradicating them. Virchow picked up a couple of identical looking bangers – one healthy and the other infected with the deadly trichinella which cause a range of symptoms from intense muscular pain, to difficulties in breathing, kidney failure and death.

Virchow waggled his sausages and said, “ I have a choice of weapons. Here they are! One of these sausages is filled with trichinae – it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome, externally they cannot be told apart. Let His Excellency do me the honour to choose whichever of these he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” The bold war-monger Minister President, however, turned down the wormy sausage challenge.

Did this happen? Well, maybe.


In a duel not dissimilar to the golfing combat was the battle of the billiard balls. In 1843 in France an argument broke out over a game of billiards. Standing 12 paces apart the two involved agreed to pelt each other with balls. The man who won the draw got to throw first but before he did he warned his opponent, “I’m going to kill you on the first throw.” He took aim, threw his billiard ball and hit his opponent smack on the forehead – killing him stone dead. He was later arrested and tried for murder. Did he survive the trial? I haven’t been able to find out.

I’m tempted to leave you with the impression that men, alone, indulged in this sort of pique with consequences but that would be misleading.


The petticoat duel

 On one much highlighted occasion Princess Pauline Metternich, Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, and the Countess Kielmannsegg, the Exhibition’s President, came to proverbial blows over flower arrangements for the Exhibition of 1892. There was a time when women would have elected a man to fight for them but these women were prepared to stand up for themselves – and rightly so. Being aristos they plumped for traditional swords. To avoid possible prosecution in Austria they hopped it to Liechtenstein and duly duelled topless. Topless? Not quite although that is how many like to tell the story but they stripped down to their underwear. The duel was adjudicated by a Polish woman doctor who had seen dreadful infections caused by clothes poked into fresh wounds hence the women removing their outer garments. Neither woman died in what’s referred to as the petticoat duel although both were injured – Pauline Metternich was cut on the nose and the Countess on the arm, however, they parted good friends, embracing and making up.

Maybe twitter isn’t too bad after all. At least blocking is less bloody than resorting to deadly blades or wormy sausages.

June 4, 2018

Hokum History: Alfred the Great Myth


winchester alfred great

Alfred the Great in Winchester

During the summer of 1901 a letter was sent by representatives of the City of Winchester in England to the Lord Provost of Aberdeen appealing for cash. Winchester planned to erect a statue to Alfred the Great and thought the good folk of Aberdeen might be willing to dig into their pockets to help fund it.

Who was Alfred the Great?

He was a king of Wessex. Never heard of it? Not surprising since it was a place in England which ceased to exist 1,200 years ago and in any case was 550 miles to the south of Aberdeen. Travel that distance from Winchester in another direction and their letter might have landed in Nuremberg in Germany. Good luck with Nurembergers contributing to old Alfred’s statue – and probably that was the reason Winchester looked for a handout from Scots not Bavarians. 

Getting down to the nitty gritty – why would/should Aberdonians put cash towards commemorating Alfredo il Grande? The appeal from the chancers of Winchester went something like this –

• He restored London (545 miles away from Aberdeen.)
• He started up our navy (hang on he lived in the 9th century, there is no OUR.)
• He was the ‘saviour and preserver of the most prized of our ancient institutions” (ditto.)
• He “more than any other may be said to be the true founder of England’s greatness” (and your point is?)


wessex for alfredmap

The point is at Winchester, so far from Aberdeen there wasn’t a map big enough to include them both

It’s enough to make your head go POP!

“I shall be glad if you, as Lord Provost of Aberdeen, will afford me the advantage of your lordship’s friendly co-operation (read mug) and interest in support of the committee’s wish to raise the balance (some £1500) needed to complete the statue of our great national (sic) hero.”

They aimed to have Alfred erected in time to commemorate his reign over “this country.” Our country? As the union between Scotland and England would not take place for another 900 years there was no ‘our’ country involved. The Great Alfredo was another foreigner from down south. Westeros would be far more appropriate to Aberdeen than Wessex. Not that Winchester stopped at Aberdeen. It held out its begging bowl to America and Britain’s colonies so why would Scots, living  in a place most people from Winchester couldn’t point to on a map, be willing to cough up so that a town over 500 miles away could tart up one of their streets?

Queen Victoria was keen, before she died, and her son Edward, the disputed VII that should have been Edward I of Gt Britain (but then regnal numbers never work in favour of Scotland in this equal union.) How far the ol’ Queen Vic and Ed dug into their bottomless pit of wealth one can only guess. Hint – they weren’t rich because they gave away their cash.


alfred great panel

Panel on Alfred the Great’s statue

The we know our place, three bags full brigade crept out cap in hand to support Winchester. Aberdeen kirk minister Reverend George Walker preached a sermon on King Alfred the Great. As if to go out of his way to prove rubbish in = rubbish out George repeated the myth that Alfred, the Christian king, started a wee army in Wessex that grew into the Great British army, or some such nonsense. Not only that, George impressed upon his congregation, surely hanging onto his every utterance, that the Christian king turned a few wooden ships into the British navy so that Britannia could rule the waves.

Amazing! Just amazing on so many levels. Was there no end to the greatness of the Great Alfredo?

Well, no, not according to George. Sunday worshippers were on the edge of their pews as he informed them that Alfred was “our first British educationist.” What can you say? Was George out on special licence? And he wasn’t finished. “His (Alfred’s) conquests with the sword were but means to a higher end.” Oh, George, George, that’s what all the brutal murdering despots say. And still he gilded the reputation of Alfred, “his name was, to this day, written on the living tablets of men’s hearts.”

Folks, don’t listen to the Georges of this world, those who prostrate themselves before others while tugging their forelocks. It’s not a good look. If you must have heroes turn to those who have got up off their knees and exercise the brains they were born with.

So, who really was this veritable god that George worshipped and the man Winchester expected Scots to pay to commemorate in a bloody great statue? He was a killer par excellence that’s who and he was crap at cooking.

Fact 1: he was a slayer of Vikings. Couldn’t get enough of it. Week in week out, month in month out, year in year out you would find Alfred splitting heads like some folk split logs and slicing off arms and legs and slitting throats. The man was a killing machine. Do we erect statues to killing machines? Well, yes – clearly Winchester does.

Fact 2: he ruthlessly expanded his kingdom – not through peaceably buying up spare pieces of land but by, you’ve guessed it, savagery – killing and laying claim to someone else’s place.

Fact 3: not satisfied by killing on dry land his bloodlust led him to put together a small navy so he could kill at sea and overseas. It was not the start of the English navy but even if it had been it was 900 years before the Union so nothing to do with Scotland. George! Sit up laddie and pay attention.

Fact 4: his influence in the construction of laws led to English law. George, George how many times? English law is not Scots law ergo Scots law is not English law. Repeat after me…

Fact 5: he was useless at baking. A woman trusted him to look after the girdle for one minute, one minute and he had everything burnt to a cinder. Great? You see how the world celebrates everything that is wrong in a man? Feeding people is good – Alfred was rubbish at it. He was good at killing but killing is bad and as George, an expert on Christianity would know, it is pretty high up in the commandments, thou shalt not kill.

Fact 6: no one in his time called him ‘the Great.’ Some dreamer, a George down in England, decided he would and like lemmings everyone else thought oh, see that Alfred he really was grrreat. Then Winchester put up a blooming great statue to him which is about the only thing about Alfred that could be said to be great.

May 31, 2018

The Faroe Islands – a lesson in small nation success through ambition not subservience

May 29, 2018

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks

Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella Bird on Birdie

“There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.”

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermilion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado  so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

The supposedly ailing Isabella set out on horseback to explore the awesome beauty of the American West. Frankly it sounds terrifying but Isabella was up for the challenge. She did depend on others although she wasn’t always appreciative of them. What preserved her mainly was this was a different time, when a woman travelling on her own had little to fear from men, irrespective how wild and violent they were with one another. The only things she was scared of were wild animals and sometimes landing herself in precarious situations; near stranded in deep snow and freezing fog. Her prejudices she took with her from England and are well-entrenched and she was far more comfortable with fellow-English people, often described as civilised and lady-like (the women) than others.

From San Francisco she takes in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Fort Laramie – “a God-forsaken, God-forgotten place” (There’s a Scottish bank note in a bar in Laramie left by yours truly.) She enters a land of displaced Native Americans – “savage Indians” as she describes them, of shanty towns, basic frame houses, disease, early death, widows, widowers, orphans and mountain air as exquisitely healthy as anywhere. Here the people are hard-drinking or temperance. Horses are fine or broncos and mules. Cattle grazed and are driven by the tens of thousands for months at a time, protected by heavily armed vacheros, to their ultimate fate the meat yards of Chicago.

In this wild country where settlers are scattered there is an understanding homesteaders would put up those travelling through and make a little money in the process. The first family Isabella comes across are Scottish. The Chalmers and Isabella are like chalk and cheese. Dirt-poor, not very capable, scratching a living in the foothills of the Rockies as small ranchers and with a sawmill they don’t impress Isabella, until the time they parted. There’s little love lost between them for Isabella is a snob and Chalmers appears to be a bit simple and feckless, the family mostly sleep in the open air as their home is so poor a structure without much of a roof to shelter them. The Chalmers share the little food they have with their ‘house-guest’ but Mr Chalmers doesn’t go out of his way to charm his boarder as he constantly rants against the English – which not unnaturally she bridle at, especially when he vents his spleen against Queen Victoria as he hates the monarchy and the British Empire. Chalmers is clearly from Highland stock, a strict Presbyterian, and the family sing metrical psalms in the traditional unaccompanied way which in church would be led by a Precentor; familiar to many older Highland Scots but doesn’t go down well with Church of England Isabella. It wasn’t only Chalmers who fumed against the English as Isabella discovers. They are unpopular with the majority she encounters, not targeting her – indeed she is assumed to be Danish or Swedish – but as she writes, “I so often hear a good deal of outspoken criticism (of the English)…on the greediness of English people.” She’s is saved from becoming too down about this state of affairs when she comes upon “a refined, courteous, graceful English” emigrant but poor Chalmers – she even despises their children and while they might be scruffy and not much good at farming and cooking at least the family didn’t turn Isabella away from their door (not that they had a door.)



Estes Park 1873

Estes Park 1873



The problem with travelling about on her own (one of them) was she never knew where she would find passable lodgings or who she would come across. Isabella  Bird was quite at home on the back of her horse, Birdie, which she rode like a man not side-saddle (except on occasions it was expected of her and put out her back.) Birdie her sure-footed companion during trying times. She did, however, choose to try somewhere else when late one day she discovered the cabin she hoped to board at already had 17 men settling down to sleep on the floor.

She did seek out the desperado Jim Nugent and the day she rode up to his blackened wood cabin its roof adorned with pelts from all kinds of animals began one of the most unlikely of relationships. 

Mountain Jim about 45 years old with grey-blue eyes, a large moustache and “strikingly handsome” raised his cap to Isabella when she turned up at his log cabin. Sounds like love at first sight for both of them; Jim her “child of nature” must have been a real beauty for he’d lost an eye and one side of his face was badly scarred from a fight with bear. His arm and ribs had also been broken and he was generally “chawed” by the bear who had been protecting her cub. Still, he survived to charm Isabella with his refined accent, easy and elegant way of talking and chivalry towards her. One-time scout he mostly earned his living trapping animals and keeping some cattle. A heavy drinker he was given to extreme violence.

Jim rode a horse, a mare, with a bare wooden saddle from which hung mink, beaver and marten tails. Despite his fiercesome reputation children like him and would clamber all over him playing with his long curly hair. From an Irish family Jim’s father had been a British officer at Montreal but at 17 years Jim turned to hard liquor when his girlfriend died. He moved around, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for some years then became an Indian scout for the US government. This was how he gained his notoriety. He also escorted emigrant groups across the West. Whether he regretted some of his horrible crimes who knows but Isabella did say he was full of self-loathing.

Intent on getting to the summit of Longs Peak Isabella had been persuaded to be accompanied by a couple of youths as guides. The four, along with Jim’s hound, Ring, “said to be the best hunting-dog in Colorado, “with a wistful expression, and the most truthful eye I ever saw in an animal” set off into the high Rockies passing lakes and streams, forests completely silent but for the crack of a branch, gazing up at spectacular views of “dark pines against a lemon sky”, “floods of golden glory pouring through canyons of enormous depth” marvelling over a lily-covered lake “magical its beauty” of “amethyst-coloured water.” Isabella’s sumptuous descriptive palette is a privilege to read.

They made up beds of pine shoots and warmed themselves at a huge log fire over which they cooked a supper of beef strips, “reeking with pine smoke” and drank tea out of “battered meat-tins in which it was boiled.” She wouldn’t have forgiven the Chalmers for such coarse living. Jim’s dog Ring lay down to protect Isabella on nights they were out but with eyes only for his master. They sang and Jim recited poetry while around them in the freezing dark wild animals howled. On wakening to a most stunning sunrise Jim announced, “I believe there is a God!”

Jim and Isabella (and presumably the youths who were still in tow) were roped together with him pulling Isabella up the toughest parts of the route on Longs Peak but initially to no avail for the climb proved too difficult and they were forced to descend to avoid impenetrable ice fields. Battered, bruised and exhausted they moved to another pitch and on hands and knees eventually succeeded to stand on the 15,000 foot summit with one of the youths spitting blood through effort and the thin air. The odd party then scratched their names and date on a tin and stuffed it into a crevice between rocks. They made it in the nick of time for next day Longs Peak was cut off by deep snow for 8 months.

Sunshine by day, freezing night temperatures tested Isabella. Penetrating cold and ice was severe enough to freeze treacle and milk, even eggs, inside cabins and certainly the clothes and hair of wet riders but the young woman in apparently delicate health took it all in her stride.

Isabella despised the wolves, another of her prejudices, describing them as cowardly. She was no fonder of “high-minded” Americans. As we’ve seen she wasn’t keen on  Highlander Scots and fiercely bigoted on Native Americans but she should be admired for her healthy dislike of the sportsman hunters and trappers who slaughtered for pleasure. There were plenty of them who ventured into the “closed” society of the mountains – tourists such as Isabella, hunters and prospectors for silver, gold and land. This wild, majestic landscape was no Utopia for it harboured jealousies, hatred, greed as well as their opposites with the gun being the final arbiter in any argument.

Griffith Evans and his family (and dog, Plunk), Welsh obviously, were Park settlers, living in a wooden cabin roofed with young spruce branches topped off with hay and mud. Despite being well-built the near-incessant driving snow squeezed in through gaps in its walls. It was not unusual for early settlers in their make-do cabins, not great solid building we often see in westerns, waking up in their beds blanketed in snow and were constantly having to dig accumulated snow out of their cabins in the worst winter weather. Isabella tells us that in Estes Park life was spent: tidying, sweeping, hunting, loafing, cleaning rifles, cooking, casting bullets, making fishing flies, baking, reading, mending, waterproofing boots and singing – Yankee Doodle, “Negro songs” and Rule Britannia (which aroused laughter as “it sounded so foolish and mean.”



Evans place with Longs Peak in the background

Evans place with Longs Peak in the background


Evans was another hard drinker and always in debt. As Isabella phrases it he keeps his money in “a bag with holes.” She trusts him with a $100 note to purchase a horse for her when he goes off to Denver but there are problems with the banks and with one thing and another Evans spends her money (he did later repay it and he provided her with a horse.) Mrs Evans works like a slave, as many women did for work was constant – domestic farming – hens, milking cows, washing, ironing, cleaning, shovelling snow, looking after children, cooking, bread and biscuit making. While there Isabella is provided with hearty breakfasts of beef, potatoes, tea, coffee, new bread and butter, cream and milk. Dinner was the same but with a “gigantic pudding” and no coffee. Tea, like breakfast.


Isabella finds herself in this “earthly paradise… a temple not made with hands” in contrast to the “bonnets of endless form, and curiously intricate back hair” she associated with church-going in England. In other words nature versus mannered. Her days are often spent in the saddle – not even dismounting to eat, content to gallop and leap rocks and fallen trees, “down-hill, up-hill” till dizzy and out of breath. Her riding ability and bravery astound the men she meets. She notes how Americans attitude to animals differ from in England where whips and spurs are widely used to terrorise and bully animals, as she puts it, while in America there is no such cruelty that she witnesses and even dogs are not permitted to worry animals, “quietness and gentleness were the rule.” Despite the desperados it’s fair to say Isabella is bowled over by the West; stunning scenery, its light, colours, perpetual sunshine – although the snowstorms are dramatic and she finds herself one time in 40 foot drifts. She compares “the fiery hills of Moab and the Desert” with “the gray castellated towers of feudal Europe” coming down on the side of nature. She often rides through the night, in all weathers sometimes literally frozen stiff so that she has to be lifted off her saddle.

When major snows are due women and children move farther downhill to the plains while their men-folk usual stay in their mountain homes, doing for themselves, “baching” as they call it. Isabella sometimes shares accommodation with men, strangers, and they all pull together except for one pretentious, lazy youth who nearly eats them out of house and home and does nothing but boast about his published writings which appeared to be little more than passages plagiarised from books.

The wildest experience Isabella encounters is in Denver, inhabited mainly by men – in search of notoriety as she puts it – “hunters and trappers in buckskin clothing; men of the Plains with belts and revolvers, in great blue cloaks, relics of the war; teamsters in leathern suites; horsemen in fur coats and caps and buffalo-hide boots with the hair outside…; Broadway dandies in light kid gloves; rich English sporting tourists, clean, comely, and supercilious-looking…Indians on their small ponies, the men wearing buckskin, with faces painted vermilion…”

At Deer Valley lynch law rules where “men were shot like skunks.” Here she witnesses senseless violence where shooting to kill to prove one’s manhood prevails. Isabella Bird has descended from Arcadia into hell and as she rides away from this awful place yet another man is strung up within an hour of his “hearing.”

Then again it is here she finds the cleanest, most cared-for establishment in which to spend the night but the impression she leaves with are the often repeated expressions, “There is no God west of the Missouri” and “the dollar is divinity.” What matters in these parts is a person’s ability to succeed, by any means – cheating or smartness, their success attracts admiration and however criminal is of little consequence.  

log cabin

Isabella only once carried a small weapon, a little Sharp’s revolver which kept dropping out of her pocket, but mainly she relied on the goodwill of strangers for her safety. And she was right. As she and Birdie make their way to the Continental Divide where one side drops into Colorado and west to the Pacific and the other to Platte and lands stretching back to the Atlantic she is approached by another lone rider. Male, bearded, blue-eyed with long fair curls dropping from below his “big slouch hat” almost to his waist he introduces himself as Comanche Bill. He is weighed down with arms – a “rifle, pair of pistols in holsters, two revolvers, knife in his belt… a carbine slung behind him.” The two ascend the Divide and wonder at the beauty of the place and she enjoys his company for she describes him as “a real gentleman” despite his reputation as one of the most notorious desperados of the Rocky Mountains and “the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier.” He tells how his family were massacred at Spirit Lake and his young sister kidnapped by the Sioux and that he dedicated his life to finding her and satisfying his hatred of all Native Americans through an orgy of murder.

Isabella’s own deeply held prejudice against Native Americans is set out in this passage: “The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct.” She reports how tribes’ reservations were “rushed” by Europeans; by miners if there was a chance of finding gold on their lands, and tribes men, women and children chased away or shot. It was the actions of miners responsible for the only devastation she personally witnessed – ugly scarring, holes and charred tree stumps ruining the land. In a passage lacking in self-awareness she writes, “Surely one advantage of travelling is that, while it removes much prejudice against foreigners and their customs, it intensifies tenfold one’s appreciation of the good at home and above all, of the quietness and purity of English domestic life.” Perhaps not so quiet and pure for 16 English women jailed for challenging agricultural strike breakers that very year.

Another unpleasant character she encountered was Lord Dunraven, Irish as it happens, a Conservative politician, an Under Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1880s and  Daily Telegraph correspondent. A thoroughly bad lot, violent, ruthless – a “High Toner” she calls him, we might say toff, he was in the West to slaughter as many animals as he could mainly buffalo and elk. He’d done his best to wipe out animals everywhere else he’d travelled so why not in America? He despised all things American, according to Isabella – except the ‘game’ and the land for he conspired to claim 15000 acres of it.



The greedy degenerate Lord Dunraven

Mountain Jim accompanied Isabella back down country to the flat lands but months later he was fatally shot by Evans when he stopped to water his horse at a stream outside the Welshman’s cabin, after Isabella returned to Britain. He died slowly of a bullet in his “magnificent head” filled with poetry and love of nature. Evans appears to have been involved with the scheming Lord Dunraven who fraudulently claimed thousands of acres of Estes Park to create a hunting park – later called “one of the most gigantic land steals in the history of Colorado.” Settlers were opposed to this and Dunraven responded with threats. Mountain Jim Nugent was a prominent opponent of the greedy opportunist Lord and on the side of the settlers and it appears Evans was hired to kill him  – to shut him up, “English gold killed Jim for opposing the land scheme” was informed opinion. A witness told how Lord Dunraven put a double-barrelled shotgun into Evans hands and instructed him to “protect” him. A witness to this was apparently paid by Dunraven to keep his mouth shut and disappear. Dunraven succeeded in his criminal activities and built a hotel on the land he designated a game park.

On opposition to his 33 year land-grab, the despicable Lord complained,


“People came in disputing claims, kicking up rows: exorbitant land taxes got into arrears; and we were in constant litigation. The show could not be managed from home, and we were in constant danger of being frozen out. So we sold for what we could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since.”


Neck he had. A lot of neck. He sold the land, which wasn’t his which goes to prove life is not fair.

I urge you to read Isabella’s account of her time in the Rockies. It’s an easy canter through pages of fascinating beautifully descriptive text – you won’t like it all but it’s a superb read for all that.

Isabella Lucy Bird was the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Well-travelled she visited Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Morocco, Malaya, India, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey and the Western Isles. She married Edinburgh surgeon Dr John Bishop and died in Melville Street Edinburgh in October 1904 and is buried in Dean Cemetery.


self portrait sketch by Isabella

Isabella Bird and Birdie



For more on the Scots Chalmers click here

May 18, 2018

Press Freedom, Fake News, the Herald and me

Press Freedom and propaganda

ipso herald breach
Press freedom is an interesting concept. Does it mean freedom for newspapers to write what they choose knowing there will be few or no repercussions even when downright lies are told? We are encouraged to think of press freedom as the ability to investigate and shine a light on corruption at the heart of the establishment – isn’t that worth defending? Of course it is.

In the week a dramatised account of the seamy episode in the ‘illustrious’ career of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe is to be televised nothing could be a better reminder than the cosy alliance that too often exists between the press and powerful individuals who make bargains to keep their murkier activities between friends.

Once again press freedom is high up on the political agenda – some demanding more regulation while others demand less. Whatever the outcome surely nothing will stop the steady drift away from people buying a daily newspaper when there are alternative sources of news available. But! but! scream the journos we are the guardians of the truth in a social media world drowning in fake news.

“I fabricated stories about drug dealers, neo-Nazis, people who were selling guns, people who were selling fake documents.” Graham Johnson (New of the World journalist) May 2012

The Mail, the Telegraph, the Express in 2016 were reported to IPSO for publishing fake stories over Brexit – well, there were plenty of those around. Most of these were scare stories about immigrants, threat of Isil, invasion by terrorists if UK stays in the EU, crime soaring because of foreigners. You get the picture. We got the picture. The slim vote for Brexit proved it.

This was not fake news. The traditional press doesn’t do fake news. It makes mistakes and corrects them in small print, never headlines, always a corner of an inside page that is forever where corrections are buried. And smirks.

Defamation scream journos called out for their absurd prejudices packaged as the sword of truth. The print medium is never nasty, never petty, never offensive – “Up Yours Delors” and a two-fingered gesture to the “French fool” (1990, the Sun) was made in the best possible taste.

There’s nothing like the whiff of xenophobia to accompany your toast and coffee in the morning and there’s always been plenty of that in Britain’s dailies. Germany turning the Europe into a “Fourth Reich” snarled the Daily Mail, measured as always in 2011. Back in 1914 the same newspaper (propaganda weapon) produced hysterical references to the despised Germans to drum up support for war. None of it fake. Oh, no. Means to an end.

The notorious Zinoviev letter – way too far back for today’s journos to know about – was a fiction – a letter said to have been written by Grigory Zinoviev, part of the Soviet Union government, to Britain’s communist party, implicating the Labour Party in dangerous revolutionary politics fair alarmed voters and led to a huge Conservative victory in the impending general election. 

Scare tactics work. Newspapers and TV and radio know that. We saw how scare tactics were used with great success during the Scottish independence referendum and again in the Brexit referendum. Tell a lie, make sure it’s a big ‘un and keep on telling it. People will swallow it hook, line and sinker. Big lies, fake news – same difference – one of the successful methods used by the Nazis. It works.

Hysteria over fake news in social media is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black and déjà vu all over again, and again.

Despite the dramatic fall in readership the printed press is everywhere on our high streets and in our village shops – headlines provide a narrative of events and issues we are expected to care about. Headlines define the scandal/problem/celebration/disaster. Headlines and the sub-heading that lots of readers won’t get past explain the story in a nutshell. The reader who cares to read further into an article will often discover, however, that the headline and sub-heading have been misleading at best and downright lies at worst.

In times of yore (years of reader exploitation) newspapers could print any nonsense then field a few letters to the editor from irate of Gairloch or whoever, pick and choose whose letters would get published and close down the correspondence when it got too boring/ too close to home. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook changed that. What’s the point of writing to a newspaper editor in the slim hope she/he will print it so the world can gain from your unique insights when you can editorialise in your own head and instantly post your opinions to an eager/indifferent readership right around the world, not just in Gairloch, on your favourite social media site?

You can also report dodgy newspaper articles to the press standards bodies: IMPRESS and IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation.) That involves dedication, time and persistence because any complaint against an editor of a newspaper is likely to be met with a quick denial of the wot me gov’? variety followed by a steady shake of the head that they made any mistake/told lies/hacked phones/covered up establishment scandals/covered up thalidomide/ manipulated information – you know – the kind of stuff they say goes on in other parts of the world – always Russia – but never, ever in the UK.

And Leveson ? Leveson peveson. Who cares? Another day. Another little tweek here a snip there – aahh, we wouldn’t have our news stories any other way  – trimmed to fit our own agenda.

Mischief in the art of headline creation is weaponisation of the press to push an ideology close to the editor’s heart. Think of the power of an unscrupulous editor/journo able to churn out articles aimed to discredit/ promote a government/council/issue. I’m sure many of you will have lots of examples springing to mind. And beware of under-educated narcissists who see news in terms of themselves.

With so much trash presented as news in Britain’s newspapers it’s little wonder the press is in the state it is. A dearth of talent, an explosion of one-sided comment from people distinguished only by their mediocrity. Who is the press there for –journalist or readers?

“Power without responsibility” was Stanley Baldwin’s description of the press in 1931. This week the UK government batted away the promised continuation of the Leveson inquiry – a decision immediately challenged in the Lords. Something is rotten in the state of British journalism.

herald - Copy

Earlier this year The Herald gave huge prominence to a story ostensibly about a report from Oxfam, Reward Wealth Not Work on the same day it was published, 22 January. Its headline:

and beneath

Oxfam report finds nation’s richest 1% has more wealth than the bottom 50%.

The Oxfam report published the day of the Herald article drew on its survey of 70,000 people in ten countries. One of the countries listed was the United Kingdom – nowhere in the Oxfam report was Scotland mentioned. When I challenged the Herald on its coverage of this report the paper claimed the piece and its figures were not a reference to that day’s report Reward Work, Not Wealth which I considered disingenuous to say the least.

The headline was bold – ‘out of control.’ A major claim in itself and a subjective point of view. Readers were led to believe this was a conclusion of that day’s report not least because the piece went on to make reference to that day’s Oxfam report – its international report – but note the subdeck included the term ‘nation’s’ i.e. singular which is odd since this report covered ten nations. The reader was led to assume Oxfam’s findings in the report referred to research done in Scotland since Scotland was mentioned in the Herald piece, however, there was not one mention of Scotland in the Oxfam report itself. I know I’ve read it.

The Herald insisted this headline did not breach the Editor’s Code for accuracy and the quote was from an Oxfam spokesperson in Glasgow; we are not told if this person was involved in the report (her name is not included in it.) In any case this was irrelevant. Whether or not she worked for Oxfam had no bearing on the findings of the Reward Work, Not Wealth report – the one alluded to in the piece.

Lest we should doubt which Oxfam report the Herald article had in mind it continued:

“A new report from Oxfam reveals that in Scotland…”

which was a downright misrepresentation of the report and significantly misleading.

I complained to IPSO of the misleading nature of the Herald’s high-profile article. In response the Herald responded, “I accept that the figures in the second paragraph of the story do not come from the Reward Work, Not Wealth report, as the general reader might infer.”

I suppose I am general reader, as will be the majority of Herald readers. Who is the paper written for if not the general reader?

The Herald accepted figures quoted in the second paragraph did not come from that day’s international report – meaning others did, just not those, conceding that the article conflated two reports – that day’s and the reason for running the story on 22 January 2018, not the 21st or the 23rd with an old report. 

Sandra Dick’s article continued : “It is now urging governments around the world, including Holyrood, to rethink economic and tax policies to help tighten the gap Oxfam’s report, Reward Not, Not Wealth, is published today …” The ‘It’ in question is Oxfam – the reference is its report. And, readers, remember there was no mention to Holyrood in the Oxfam report. It was as if desperate to make a political point the Herald included a direct reference to the Scottish parliament and not only that but emphasised Holyrood to make sure we all got the message.

And in the same careless or deliberately misleading fashion the next paragraph also began with ‘It’ – again quoting from the new report. The effect was at the very least sloppy but given the pointed headline surely there was more intention than accident in its construction.

The Herald fought my complaint throughout the IPSO process – threw up all kinds of distractions both bemusing and irrelevant and left me questioning the quality of those at its helm.

The Herald tried to argue the story was presented through a Scottish prism which would be fair enough had this been made clear but the Herald’s handling of the Oxfam report on the 22nd was more like the usual ploy of taking any issue and hanging a kilt on it.

• The report that led to the story being published on the 22 January this year was an Oxfam Report, Reward Work, Not Wealth released that day.
• The story run by the Herald was not run on the 21st nor the 23rd but the 22nd; the day the report came out. To dismiss the charge that it was that day’s report and not another from an earlier period, previously covered by the Herald, stretches credibility.
• The Herald chose to run this story because of the new report and placed it on its front page with a headline suggesting its findings in Scotland revealed Scotland’s inequality gap was ‘out of control.’
• Beneath the headline the paper published “Oxfam report” figures but some of these were from a report that was produced for Scotland in 2015.
• Conflating one report with another in this way the Herald led readers to conclude that day’s report had investigated Scotland and made specific references to Scotland which was not true and to pass this off, as the editor did, of a failure in editing was disingenuous.
• The whole inference in the article, because of the Herald’s construction of the story and its use of quotes and highlighting of certain words, led the reader to believe that day’s published report included data from Scotland (separate from findings across the UK.)
• The Oxfam report, Reward Work, Not Wealth, drew on international data including the UK but did not specifically refer to Scotland. Yet this is not what we are led to believe in the Herald coverage of it.
• That the Herald referred to “A new report from Oxfam reveals that in Scotland…” meaning Reward Work, Not Wealth, is patently untrue and significantly misleading.
• That the Herald made direct reference to Holyrood (the Scottish parliament) in the sentence beginning “It” – a reference to that day’s released report, Reward Work, Not Wealth is again grossly misleading and deceitful – “It is now urging governments around the world, including Holyrood, to rethink economic and tax policies to help tighten the gap Oxfam’s report, Reward Work Not, Not Wealth, is published today …” I reiterate nowhere in that report is there any mention of Holyrood
• The editor’s insistence that its references to Oxfam were to a researcher in Glasgow were not relevant to my complaint. The Herald already covered the information supplied by this researcher in previous editions of the paper.
• That Oxfam in Glasgow was happy with the coverage is again a red herring and this had no bearing on the complaint.
• The editor was happy to run a misleading story on his paper’s front page but coy about putting a link to an apology on this same page to the full correction on page 2.
• The wording for the correction on page 2 can never obviate the misleading impression left by this front page article.

ipso 1

ipso 2 and 3

Fake news comes in many forms – complete fabrications, omission of information, manipulation of facts, figures and context. It has always been a feature of our press. Fake news wasn’t the invention of social media. It has always been a feature of our press. It always will be. That’s why I don’t buy newspapers anymore. I can get my fake news free on social media I don’t have to pay to read it. That must be progress of some kind.

Thanks for reading my blog and take care y’all.

April 28, 2018

Abram the Hebrew and sons of bitches: the Close Brethren in Peterhead




Big Jim Taylor in the centre

“Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?”

A rant from evangelist and cult leader John Taylor Jr recorded at a meeting of the Exclusive or Close Brethren in Aberdeen in 1970.

Taylor, Big Jim as he was known, wasn’t keen on being interviewed by the press but on one occasion he invited in a journalist with the words:

“I suppose I had better put my pants on. But, quite honestly, I find it more comfortable just sitting in my underpants.”

None of the above is what you expect from a leader of a strict religious sect but then this was a man who attracted adoration and derision in equal measures – well, perhaps not equal. His religious sect lent itself to salacious headlines and it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous nature of his ardent following but there was also tragedy as a result of the fanaticism of this cult.

This was a religious following that championed whisky as “a creature of God and the Saints” which should be taken liberally as was demonstrated by the main evangelist himself, James Taylor.

James Taylor, Big Jim, the Elect Vessel with status above Jesus Christ,  a Detroit businessman living in Brooklyn, New York whose words were taken as the Truth once he became the boss of the Exclusive or Close Brethren.

The Brethren hit the headlines over bizarre and scandalous behaviour in the 1960s but it was around thirty years later I came across people still talking about them in their stronghold of Peterhead in northeast Scotland where children of sect members had to be removed from classrooms when other pupils were watching educational videos or television because these were the work of Satan. I admit some weren’t too good but that was going a bit far and all hell was let loose at the mention of Halloween. Brethren members were not permitted to read fiction, listen to the radio, eat in restaurants where the ‘unclean’ also ate and of, course, cinema was a definite no-go area.

I had heard of ill-feeling among trawler crews with Brethren skippers from northeast fishing villages and towns refusing to allow non-Brethren, the unclean, crew share a table with Brethren which caused all kinds of practical difficulties  in small boats. Such rigid rules applied not only to eating and drinking with outsiders but within families with husbands and wives and their children forced to dine separately. Where women were members they were still designated as inferior to men and subject to distinct rules. If a non-Brethren woman married into the sect, she would be accepted, albeit with constraints, but her family were outcasts – unable to attend the wedding and prevented from giving their children wedding presents. In fact weddings were more like wham, bang, thank you ma’am as they were confined to the bare bones formal procedure with no reception and no honeymoon. And on the other side of life if a cult member died no unbeliever relative, no matter how close, could attend the funeral and vice versa no cult member could go to a wife’s, parents’ or sibling’s funeral if they were not part of the Brethren. The hurt and ill-feeling caused by this zealous following was intense.

For years I forgot about them until a blog I did on another strange religious cult, the Buchanites, attracted a comment on Facebook from someone who once lived in Peterhead and mentioned the Close Brethren in relation to the Buchanites. For the geographically-challenged Peterhead is in an area of northeast Scotland known as Buchan.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. This is what my Facebook contact wrote:

“I find the whole cult thing both horrible and hilarious but when I was a kid in Peterhead in the early 60s we were all rocked by the great schism in the Brethren when their boss arrived from the States and started laying down strict new rules. The chosen couldn’t have anything to do with anyone who did not follow these rules so families were split, workplaces became uncomfortable and there were nasty side effects like people taking their cats, dogs, budgies etc to the vet to be put down because Big Jim Taylor had forbidden them to have pets, along with tv and alcohol. It was a cult but there was a funny side because they were allowed a regular bottle of whisky or whatever for “medicinal” purposes and local joiners got extra business building cabinets to hide tv sets in. Big Jim was eventually hounded out when he was found to be living in sin with his housekeeper (headline news in the nationals) but a lot of damage had been done by then.”

In 1964 Jim Taylor, Big Jim or JT – his names are numerous – was in Aberdeen fronting a rally in the Music Hall. It attracted much interest from the press because of the cult’s notoriety and socially destructive behaviour. As my Facebook friend mentioned the edict which drew attention to this odd and fanatical cult and created headlines in the local press was the instruction that members get rid of their pets as love for them would interfere with their absolute devotion to God, “Save all your love for your religion” was how Big Jim expressed it, according to reports.

Then in 1965 denials were issued that any such edict existed. However, a vet in Peterhead was quoted in the press saying he refused to ‘put down’ any more cats, dogs and every other sort of animal owned by members of the Close Brethren in the town – what he described as “Commandment killings.” All kinds of excuses were offered, he said, and when questioned a few admitted being members of the Close Brethren with others denying they were. Clearly telling the truth wasn’t high up in the priorities of their religious bigotry. Interestingly nearby in Fraserburgh the demanded cull of wee fluffy creatures was ignored by Brethren members.

This was a world-wide sect but within several of the fishing villages of Buchan and Banffshire there were plenty willing to be led by the nose by a big-mouthed bigot and bully whose ideas of morality owed more to booze than the bible.

In 1967 he declared shops should shut on Saturdays which meant a big loss of income for shopkeepers as Saturday was the busiest shopping day of the week. Members were torn between making a living and their faith in Big Jim who insisted weekends were to be confined to worship and recalcitrant shopkeepers were pressurised to shut up shop.

In January of 1968 the cult was still making headlines. A fishing boat skipper from Peterhead was put out of the Brethren for hiring two unbelievers onto his crew. There simply weren’t enough sect members to crew every boat and men were hired from places outside the Brethren stronghold. As mentioned above many non-Brethren trawlermen weren’t too happy sailing for Brethren skippers because of the enforced separations on tiny boats which made life unnatural and awkward. There was also talk of strict Brethren skippers entertaining women in their cabins when the boats were in dock which was seen as rank hypocrisy. At the same time younger cult members resisted some of JT’s edicts and a breakaway group formed which defied pet euthanasia, the forbidding of eating with friends and family, dismissing some of the rules as pointless and far from being Christian were more like Nazism.

When people question how ordinary folk can become caught up in extremist movements they need only look as far as Buchan to see the extent of obedience to one perceived as a leader with gullible people willing to comply with outrageous behaviour.

A three-day convention was held in Peterhead in the summer of 1968 with Big Jim driven into town in a white car. The town was filled with vehicles and people; men dressed in smart suits and women wearing fancy hats. Around 1,000 members attended in the Brethren’s lavishly decorated temple – a hall in Constitution Street. Sect members poured in from home and abroad, men taking precedence in the circle of seats at the front with women, who weren’t allowed to participate in debates, consigned to the back of the hall.

Women were encouraged to wear their hair long but tucked up under scarves or hats when outside the home. They were also instructed to dress modestly, although being Peterhead, expensively. Make-up was frowned upon. As for men there were fewer restrictions place on them which surprises no-one.

At Peterhead the split in the movement was discussed along with problems created by ‘mixed marriages.’ Not much detail got out although JT insisted he was happy to talk to the press but locals objected. One local member, Raymond Grugeon, is quoted as confirming there would be no communication with the press, “No, definitely not” he said. And who could blame him since earlier press stories included some far-out behaviour among members of this secretive cult including its anti-puppy edict?

There were grumblings about the interpretation of such edicts: separation of family at meal-times and even couples sleeping together; prohibition of eating in public; membership of trades unions and a ban on life insurance cover.


john nelson darby

John Nelson Darby


While the sect remained strong in Peterhead allegiance to James Taylor’s sect faded in Fraserburgh. Six feet tall and weighing in at 200 lbs Taylor was the son of an Irish linen merchant but the Brethren’s roots stretched back into the early 19th century. In about 1827 a church minister from Northern Ireland, John Nelson Darby, formed the Plymouth Brethren and, some dispute this, the Close or Exclusive Brethren was an offshoot of his organisation – and very different. It was from 1959 that the Close Brethren first attracted the attention of the outside world with their diktat against mixed company socialising which had a detrimental impact on small communities. 

In common with other strict sects food took on importance non-believers might wonder at. Brethren were instructed they could only eat holy bread, or at least bread made by members, and in zealous atmosphere of Peterhead this was extended to cover any food, including the odd biscuit and cake, cans of soup and even ice cream. You can imagine the reaction among the less zealous townsfolk once Big Jim began to interfere with the partaking of a tasty raspberry ripple cone on a summer’s day. This was a contest between the raspberry ripple and Big Jim. The raspberry ripple won that contest and the edict was withdrawn. Now you might be thinking, like I was, why was there no such outrage against putting down cute little pussies – kittens to very old family pets? But them I’m not one of the secretive select so I can’t answer that.

There was also a reaction against those shop closures on Saturdays and so by 1970 only one adhered to the edict – the Seagull Cleaners run by Brethren member Raymond Grugeon who declined to discuss shop closures with the press but did tantalise them with the suggestion that the Archangel was on his way north from England although he refused to confirm he would go to Aberdeen. This was July 1970.


Go to Aberdeen Big Jim did go and I’m sure he regretted that decision. In the August of 1970 the Archangel put out denials he was an adulterer with rumours abounding about his increasingly abhorrent behaviour including at a house at Nigg in Aberdeen when it was said he forced himself on a young man., not to mention women. Such was the reaction to the rumours the sect split with Big Jim holding onto one part and Detroit businessman, Stanley McCallum aka Stanley the Angel, a Detroit factory worker originally from Macduff, in charge of the other. McCallum would later be excommunicated for ‘breaking bread’ with his wife.

In an attempt to protect his reputation JT distributed 8000 copies of a denial of hanky-panky and boozing at Aberdeen – explaining that a glass of whisky appeared by his chair first thing on the morning at a meeting and while participating and listening to others speak on Abram the Hebrew he sipped the drink. A drop of neat whisky, it was explained to the world, was used by JT to overcome his natural shyness. It was not the odd sip of whisky, however, as hard liquor was liberally taken during meetings which might explain some of the most bizarre behaviour noted below. The Close Brethren became a hard-drinking religious cult.

As for the other matter of illicit sex he explained the wife of a colleague had expressed a desire to wash his feet and massage his head. And so she went to his bedroom and lay down on the bed and found herself under the sheet with Big Jim. When they were discovered together naked and with clothes strewn on the floor JT insisted they could not prove whose they were. Whether the woman had time to wash the feet of the great one and dry them with her hair is lost to history. She appears to have been a willing partner in the affair but other women were not and there are descriptions of the man’s bullying and sexual predatory nature that terrified them.

Back in the bedroom in Aberdeen a doctor was called who presumably thinking Big Jim was a competitive sportsman gave him some injections. No flies on this medic who suggested to Big Jim he was sick to which the Archangel answered, “No.” Still in denial mode Big Jim dismissed the charge he was in bed with another man’s wife, saying if he wanted to sleep with another man’s wife it would be cheaper to stay in Brooklyn. But he admitted “It is true she was laying under the sheet on the same bed as myself. But I was on one side of the bed, and she was on the other.”

This is all quite amusing but the bigger picture is of a dangerous individual who preyed on the vulnerable – women and boys and wrecked lives. He was clearly sick which throws blame for the endurance of this cult in the northeast firmly at the feet, washed or not, of its credulous followers.

His behaviour attracted condemnation from some members but there was reluctance to share their views with the press and doors were slammed shut against their enquiries. Nonetheless Big James Taylor’s notoriety within the inner sanctum of the sect was clear for many were troubled by his overtly sexual behaviour, his swearing and habit of insulting fellow-Brethren as bums and bastards.

It was pretty clear the man was an alcoholic with a reputation to drink whisky through the day and with a penchant for champagne when the need arose along with first-class travel, presumably mixing with well-heeled non-believers. Big Jim made the rules for everyone to follow but him. That’s power. And hypocrisy. Although Brethren were not supposed to marry non-believers Big Jim had a non-Brethren wife. It should be said he also had other members’ wives. He particularly enjoyed having them sit on his knee so he could kiss and fondle them as their husbands looked the other way. Women who objected being mistreated so disgracefully were condemned as hostile to his ministry.

Reports of bawdy behaviour involving the Archangel splintered the sect when during what became known as the notorious Aberdeen incident the home-owner and member had attempted to stop adultery in his home Big Jim rounded on him, calling him a “son of a bitch and a bastard.”



Assembly of Exclusive Brethren in 1959 in London


A year or two back a man claimed he had been raped when a boy by Jim Taylor who calmed him with the words, they were “going to share God’s love.” It’s a situation we’ve become more familiar with in recent times and it should bring shame on anyone who still holds to this moronic, nasty, secretive sect whose members idolised a drunken bully.

I’ve read what’s claimed to be a transcript of a meeting in Aberdeen which comes over as more loony toons than religious gathering. You saw a bit of it at the start, here’s a little more of the abuse, hectoring and insults involved.

“You bastard! You bastard! We need a doctor here. Go to sleep Stanley, go to sleep. We have plenty of hymns, to hell with you. We’re having a very good time. You bum, you. You big bum. Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Now you have it. You never have it. You never had it so good. You never had it like this, you nut, you.
(40 seconds pause with bursts of laughter) (Shouting)
JT Jnr: You stinking bum! You stink! Why didn’t you bring some toilet paper with you. Very fine meetings.
MBTJT Jnr: Look at that son of a bitch there.
(Pause culminating again in laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: You never had it like this before. You bastard you.
(Loud laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?
JAF: James Flett.
JT Jnr: Get to hell out of here! ‘ell, I said. ‘ell
An extraordinary …of nonsense and abuse cheered and foot-stamping and laughter.”

The whole piece can be read at:

Big Jim Taylor died shortly after his notorious visit to Aberdeen in 1970. His last words have been disputed: some claim he lay back and muttered, “I am coming” while another version insists he was shouting at his wife, “Get out of here woman, you were never with me” when he lay back then a look of horror clouded his face and his mouth opened in fright. And so he died.


In recent years the Exclusive Brethren were given charity status and therefore tax relief. When in 2012 the Charity Commission rejected a claim to its charitable status Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke said the Commission was suppressing religion. The sect was duly accorded charity status. I don’t know if it is still regarded as a legitimate charity. The MP was suspended by the Conservative Party for something else and is no longer an MP –