Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

April 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 5

Another week gone. Five down and we are now into our sixth week. So how did last week turn out?

Weather has been running hot and cold and very dry. Our last rain consisted of some light showers on 2nd April and we wouldn’t mind a good drenching because we don’t have water to spare for tubs and pots outside which this year will have to be used to grow vegetables and herbs. Bought seeds online and they have now arrived. Didn’t foresee this as after a lifetime of growing fruit and veg we recently got rid of our vegetable plot and this is the year it has become more vital than ever to grow our own this summer so will have to see how that goes. Some vegetable seeds are in as short supply as bread flour and yeast but in a way that’s encouraging because more people appear to be returning to growing plants in their gardens instead of hard-landscaping that has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years.

After deciding to cut down on fresh vegetables because of uncertainty about contamination since so much supermarket produce comes in from abroad, just like PPE, we have refreshed our stocks of gherkins, pickled red cabbage and sauerkraut (I know but it’s pickled) but I did order one or two British-grown apples, red and green cabbage and carrots and tomatoes. The cabbages are tiny wee things hardly worth a damn as my late aunt might have said. The tomato arrived. I stress tomato singular. Described as a British beef tomato it was quite a nice example but a single tomato between two people over a fortnight will take some mathematical calculations over the best way of dividing it up. Cost 85 pence which fairly astonished me. None of the vegetables that arrived I would have selected had I been able to do my own shopping but they are fresh – even having spent their three days in quarantine and undergone a warm soapy bath.

More essential items were sent out by an excellent health store in Aberdeen, although it only posts out a tiny fraction of its food. Our reserves of Vego chocolate and hazelnut spread have been supplemented by two jars. It is the nectar of the gods and just the thing to perk up folk in lockdown who receive a single tomato to last two weeks.

My confidence in the legal profession has taken a dive this week. I’ve had two experiences over recent months – dire and fairly dire but amusing. Dire has descended into dire hell in sheer incompetence. I suppose fairly dire has also but I’m more amenable to that solicitor. I suspect solicitors are finding their proofing skills are sadly lacking without their office staff to check details for them. Latest signed update went into the pillar-box today hot on the heels of another one yesterday. Professionals huh?

Having dipped my toes into the waters of picture communications I set up a WhatsApp account this week to speak with family and friends and have discovered the signal is much better than on our landline.

Still walking locally. Some days it can get a bit too busy for comfort although it’s always good to catch up with neighbours and folk we hardly know who live about the area. This week the cotton mask I ordered arrived. It’s well made and won’t be as hot as wearing a scarf as the temperature increasingly heats up. Lots of unfamiliar faces keep appearing to walk up the hill at the back, most presumably farther away neighbours who’ve always kept their distance till now. Heard from a social media friend that his wife who works in a care home had a run-in with people who had travelled some distance to walk their dogs in our local village park. Some people don’t seem to recognise the devastating impact of possibly carrying infection from one place to another. My friend now has Covid-19 and so his wife is also in quarantine. One of the women who had been delivering groceries and medicines to people in this area is now also self-quarantined.

Still reading Jack London but think I’ve probably reached my limit of stories about dogs and heroic canines taking down other animals. I suspect for many readers times have changed and the thrill of a kill is confined to a blood-thirsty deranged minority. However, London’s To Light a Fire is very fine piece of writing which I urge you to read.

As for our couple of hours of TV in the evenings we gave up on the BFI’s recommended films for a while. Like the parson’s nose, they’re an acquired habit. The final straw was The Long Day Closes by film director Terence Davies. Having spent an inordinate amount of time watching the opening credits scroll down the screen in a font that was all but illegible and around half an hour staring at a bit of a rug I asked my husband if the film was by that bloke that ruined Sunset Song?” It was. I won’t ever forgive him for that. He took one of the best books ever written misunderstood it totally and made a masterpiece into film kitsch. To prove not all directors are self-indulgent bores we watched two super films – The Guilty is a Danish drama largely comprises a single actor in a police control room. Perhaps a little predictable towards the end but enthralling nonetheless. That was on Netflix. On Amazon Prime we watched the Chinese movie The Farewell that explores eastern and western attitudes towards death – charismatic and charming film with the subject ably handled. On a completely different level we’ve started watching Breaking Bad. Yes, I know – so behind the times. But good huh?

And finally – my alter ego Alex Chisholm published the latest magnum opus on Amazon Kindle and paperback due out soon. The Durer Affair is set in the little town of Nuremberg in the year 1504 where the artist, the painter Albrecht Durer, lives in harmony with the world until strangers arrive who turn his world and that of his fellow townsmen and women upside down. It’s comic and it’s tragic – as is life. You can follow the adventures of Durer and his friends Willy and Otto who all have prodigious appetites for pork knuckles washed down by Ana Brauer’s blackest beer and there’s even a doggy aspect to this page-turning thriller in the form of a very un-Jack London little hound called Ulf.

Stay safe.

My blog on Davies’ Sunset Song

March 24, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 1.

Today is Tuesday March 24th which marks my (our) first week in self-isolation. I was lucky enough to have a pre-booked hair appointment on the Monday before taking to inside. My wonderful hairdresser, Sarah, cut my hair with a view to me not getting back to have it cut for months. Was in two minds about going along to her because of anxiety over contagion but she cheered me up. Her website shows her salon is now closed, till the pestilence has passed, as she puts it.

Next day we did our final shopping in the local village. A sombre affair with people clearly worried despite the gorgeous weather. Not everything available but that’s become the norm. Drove back home and locked the door (metaphorically speaking.)

Wednesday was again very sunny and spring-like. We’re so fortunate to have a garden with lots of flowers, shrubs and trees all behaving normally and bursting with life and colour. And a garden means we can work in it and wander around and sit in.

Hellebores in the garden

Ongoing sore throat and cough, so ongoing I’m sure they’re nothing to worry about. Lucky, too, we have quiet places to walk close to us. Check when neighbours go out and come back and nip out before the next lot get their boots on. We’re very rural so there aren’t many immediate neighbours.

The weather is still great on the Thursday with the briefest of a shower later on. I have food intolerances so a bit worried about not being able to get what have become essential foods for me as small shops close so ordered online from a health chain. Phoned the optician to explain I couldn’t get in to pick up my new glasses and they promised to send them out.

On Friday made short video while walking locally along a farm track, always things to see and hear – birds, flowers, mosses, trees, the sky, running water in the burn. Very uplifting but I was suddenly hit by the threat we are all living under while nature does its usual spring stuff. Nature = benign and nature = malign. Our supermarket order from 3 weeks ago was delivered. I dreaded being confronted by the guy at the door. He kept his distance and I kept a scarf over half my face! Probably he thought I was mad. Ah well. I’d let them know I was in one of those ‘vulnerable’ categories so brilliantly they’d packed everything into those usually shunned plastic carrier bags. We put them into an empty room and left everything except fridge and freezer items for three days in case of contagion. Yes, we’re that paranoid. Lots of alternatives and some things I’d never ever order but we couldn’t find the stuff quickly so just accepted the lot.

Couldn’t face not having the FT’s weekend quiz and crossword to do so took out digital subscription to it but haven’t worked out if I can fill in the crossword through the downloaded pdf so decided to print it off.

Days are taken up editing writing. Discovered read aloud on Word and find it a great way to speed up tedious proofing. Publisher was in touch to say that book due out in May might not be because of events. Got me thinking that some of the companies included in it might not be around once we get out of this horror. Sobering thought.

Ordered a few more items online from an Aberdeen health store. They’re always reliable but I wish they’d offer more such as food items. Trying to figure out if dentists will be available if things go wrong. What if the central heating breaks down?

Kindnesses emerge. Online contacts offer to deliver food/medicines and a couple of local women have put a leaflet through the door with their phone numbers on offering the same.

One week in and my mood fluctuates between feeling optimistic (don’t ask me why) and horrible sinking despair. I’m very worried about my family, several have health issues and so are vulnerable and some have lost their jobs as places shut down. Friends, too – and so I got back in touch with a very old friend on Facebook (which I dislike) and found he’s doing okay but very reliant on a younger relative. Lots of messaging going back and fore.

Yesterday, Monday, the teenager next door was out exercising, running around their garden, and soon her mother joined her. Today we went out for a walk along the road. All quiet, a wave from passing farmer, until on our way back another farmer chose that moment to drop off his ewes and lambs – getting out of his truck to open the gate. We slowed down, shouted our hellos, and speeded past once he’d crossed the road. Can’t be too careful. I’ll repeat that, can’t be too careful. And I still haven’t run off the FT crossword. Maybe this afternoon. Our evenings are largely taken up reading – just finished The Life of Irène Némirovsky and starting Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project watching Better Call Saul which is hugely entertaining. Thumbs up for Netflix. No sign of my new spectacles arriving.

Stay safe.

March 19, 2020

Covid-19 – Coronavirus and the Libertarian

Guest blog by Textor

Things, as they say, are sometimes liable to come back to bite you.

That is if you let your guard down.

And let’s face it many of us have in one way or another let our guards down.

Coronavirus aka Covid-19 has bought home to us that as content as we are in our privileged advanced (there’s a cultural joke) economies the world is other than it seems. Assuming we are not in the gig economy, not queuing at a food bank then things can only get better. We who have access to a fair number of the good things of life; we who thought the real world was little more than novelties in the digital market place – including the delights of Amazon Prime or Netflix – or ever more commodities; we have been brought up short in little over three months by the brute fact of Nature.  Bang! Nature has reared up and taken an almighty bite out of this hubris.

Yes, we are all more or less aware, all more or less concerned/unconcerned about climate change and the impact of the Anthropocene (the Age deemed to be when humankind’s effect upon the planet Earth has been sufficient to cause global, catastrophic change.) Regardless of the evident societal alterations required to alleviate a “far off” doom we – those lucky enough to avoid floods, devastating fires etc.- could in the short term just get on with it; recycle as if there were no tomorrow you might say. Waiting for the end of climate change.

But sometimes Nature does not allow us the luxury of waiting for the apocalypse: coronavirus is just such a time. For decades microbiologists have been predicting the coming of a pandemic. The so-called Spanish Flu provided a model of how devastating a modern microbiological disaster could be. Wikipedia gives figures as high as 100 million dying in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20; more than the man-made slaughter on the battlefields of the Great War. Science had the capacity to devise the most wonderful weapons of death but could not stop the ‘flu.

Evolution has “designed” a human organism capable of sophisticated speech with the capacity to adapt itself to wide variations of environmental conditions. At the same time, and perhaps a necessary part of being human, it put its stamp on Nature. Beavers might dam rivers and create lakes but humans could build the Grand Coulee Dam, produce electricity to power a so-called Second Industrial Revolution. Clever, even ambitious. But no matter how sophisticated is the vast commodity producing system that is industrial capitalism it is no match for the potential speed at which a micro-organism might evolve. Humans have brains big enough to predict outcomes and have the technical knowhow (probably) to design and manufacture anti-virals capable of slowing and even halting the spread of Covid-19 – yes humans could in the next few months do this. But for all this Nature remains unconquered. Natural selection continues without any mastermind operating behind the scenes. And we know, or should know, that this process of selection can be good for some species and bad for others.

And so, the long-predicted crisis has arrived. The pandemic is here and the search goes on for a solution. As with previous modern national and global health events the pharmaceutical industry play a crucial role. However, historically necessary component solutions come under the direction and control of local or national state apparatuses. In other words, individuals/institutions are first advised and then told what to do. Sanctions are threatened and sanctions are imposed.

Nothing new in this. Here in northeast Scotland as far back as the 15th century Aberdeen’s magistrates fearful of plague had the bell rung through the medieval town proclaiming the city’s ports (gates) close, lokit with lokis and keis, at night to prevent strangers entering unobserved. A compact medieval town could very swiftly succumb to viral and bacterial threats. Medieval doctors and apothecaries knew little of the causes of infectious diseases but empirically they were aware that for all claims of God expending his wrath on a sinful community, contagion could be slowed by isolating infected families and potential carriers. Whether this would thwart Divine justice was maybe a theological point not to be dwelt upon. And, it’s worth noting that certainly by the 17th century Aberdeen’s magistrates were also attempting to clean the city of middens, street filth and asking that households be kept clean. This lesson on the need for cleanliness was largely lost by the early 19th century when poorer parts of Aberdeen where people living cheek-by-jowl and in slum conditions were condemned to the horrors of cholera and dysentery. This was industrialising capitalism; the poor were there to be exploited and maybe pitied.

As the centuries progressed even more controls were imposed. Vessels were prevented from entering the harbour, merchandise was left in ship holds. On the other hand, when the threat was seen to be coming from internal migration strangers were banned from entering the town. Town ports were watched and at one stage in 1606 dealers in timber were told to stay away under paine of death. Trade suffered as commodities ceased to flow between manufacturers, tradesmen and consumers. In 1647, again in the midst of plague, draconian measures were introduced with, for example, all ydle stranger beggars . . .  forthwith removed and banished. Any who returned were to be scourged, branded and driven out.

Authoritarian management is a basic mechanism for control of epidemic-pandemic events. Our current crisis has stark contrasts. On the one hand the relatively fast and severe imposition of lock-down in parts of China. With over seventy years of state control the Chinese Communist Party has an apparatus better adapted to widespread controls than liberal democracies. Compare the Chinese response to the bumbling worlds of the UK and USA brought stumbling towards closing doors and mass quarantine.

These manoeuvres will probably bring howls of anger from libertarians both right and left – those who don’t want to be told what to do by the state. Their individual rights, some might say entitlement, trumps (if you’ll pardon the expression) all else. Allowing for the nastiness of all three states mentioned (China, US and UK) this form of libertarianism smacks of, at best, infantile petulance and at worst disintegrative individualism which fails to recognise a larger vision of human community even one within a capitalist formation. Remember the outcry about seat belts and crash helmets – with cries of freedom from state tyranny? Of course the consequences of a libertarian freedom to roam in a time of a modern plague threatens not only the lives of the defence of freedom lobby but ultimately the well-being of global communities. 

And the bite of Nature? As much as humankind imagines itself master/mistress of the world the reality is otherwise. From small nibbles such as occasional volcanic eruption to the all-encompassing bite of climate change Nature exists, not dependent on human imagination, not caring one way or another what happens to humans or any other species. It, if that’s the correct word, does what it does.Humans although in Nature and of Nature are different insofar as this species can make choices. It can gather knowledge, can know history and can act. There lies the rub.

March 7, 2020

The High Price of Coffee

Guest post by Textor

Agent Dale Cooper’s much-loved phrase damn fine cup of coffee helped put the dark beverage back on the trending map in the 1990s. Since then it has been once again boosted, this time by hipsterdom and the emergence of the barista. Long gone are the days when the most exotic flavour of coffee was one containing a slug of whisky – or roasted bullocks’ livers; sometimes added to coffee as an adulteration in the 19th century.

Coffee by Mike Kenneally

We hear so much about globalisation today as though the machinations, strategies and practices of industry and capital across the globe are a recent invention. There’s no doubt that since the 1980s the international mobility of capital has increased with whole industries moving lock-stock-and barrel across state boundaries. Commentators tell us that this free-flow of capital and enterprise in search of cheap, more “efficient” labour, and advantageous tax and tariff benefits offered by some national states, has led to the abandonment of so-called traditional industrial workers and their communities. Those affected have to compete for low-paid work or try to live on desperately poor state benefits. It is this, it is said, that lies behind the pathetic fight-back seen in the rise of Trump in the USA and closer to home in the votes given to the Tory party by working class voters in the north of England.

But don’t be fooled. While acknowledging the rapidity of industrial and commercial change in the past four decades it remains true that industrial capitalism was founded on its global reach which entailed the creation of new labour forces and the destruction of “traditional” communities. At times this was a zero sum game with winners and losers across the globe; in the 19th-20th centuries most of the winners were in Europe and North America as national capitals industrialised and turned to far-flung countries and communities for raw materials and cheap labour.This global division of labour literally paid dividends not only for investors but portions of the British working class, although given the necessary competitive nature of capitalism this was always vulnerable to the fluctuations of business cycles, technological innovation and the turbulence of international relations. This meant booms as well as times of depression  with unemployment and wage struggles as workers fought for their own interests. Britain was the empire builder of the 19th century. The stretch of its “pink” across the globe was achieved by a mixture of commercial power and military might with “formal” and “informal” forces conspiring to bring the benefits of global trade back to British capitalists.

Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire 1886

A player in this ever-expanding world-wide market place was William McKinnon of Aberdeen, engineer and iron founder. Originating in 1798 this business on the north side of what was then still a compact city, more medieval in form than modern industrial, McKinnon’s seems to have made do with local customers until about 1850. Its integration into the global market came as a result of an expansion in demand for tropical products, notably coffee, cacao and tea; raw materials which had the distinction of involving the exploitation of indigenous and migrant  labour and land in “faraway” places. While historian Regina Wagner asserts that in the 1840s McKinnon’s “mass produced” coffee machinery I think it’s more accurate to date this to the 1860s and I’d be hesitant about calling it mass production. These caveats aside, it’s true to say that the tropical product market gave McKinnon’s an international reputation which lasted into the 21st century. What’s in a name? In the case of some of McKinnon’s processing machinery are references to a history of imperial enterprise, industrial expansion and, at times, ruthless exploitation; specifically the names Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa who designed machines manufactured in Aberdeen for exporting to coffee plantations in places such as Guatemala in Central America.

McKinnon’s penetration of a markets thousands of miles from Aberdeen seems to have flowed from  a connection with one James Gordon, a locally-trained engineer who in the 1840s “followed the flag” to Ceylon where he became a partner in Affleck & Gordon of Bogambara. After about seven years abroad he returned to Britain and founded the London-based John Gordon & Co. Colonial Engineers. Familiar with Aberdeen’s engineering industries he linked up with McKinnon and this relationship led to the expansion of McKinnon’s tropical trade. To get back to the Guatemala connection and coffee. Three men, Julius Smout, José Guardiola and Emil Robert Okrassa independently designed coffee processing machinery which McKinnon, through either expiring patents or acquisition of rights, manufactured products to their designs.

For something like 700 years (250-900 CE) Mayan civilisation dominated the American isthmus. The area’s entry to European history came in the 16th century when Spanish forces landed with the intention of plundering, Christianising and colonising what became Guatemala, part of the so-called New World although, of course, it was only new to the colonisers. This brought to the land and its peoples an abiding connection with Europe which after the fall of the Spanish Empire and Guatemalan “independence” in the 1820s the country became a small focal point in the web of global trade.

Central America c1840s

Julius Smout, from Landsberg in Prussia travelled to Guatemala in the 1840s, an employee of the Belgian Colonization Company. The name betrays its intention. With the connivance of Leopold I and the Guatemalan government the BCC acquired 264,000 acres of “undeveloped” land and was responsible for expelling indigenous peoples from the land. In return the company committed to invest in commerce and industry and in typical imperialist fashion it was awarded tax concessions and monopoly rights. But even this was not enough to guarantee success. BCC organisation seems to have been shambolic; local merchants opposed its monopolization of trade and the company went bankrupt in 1854. Julius Smout was nonetheless in the right place at the right time, at least right for any westerner hoping to benefit from the potential of the tropical land. The ingenious Smout designed a coffee huller and polisher (essential processes in coffee production) so good it was said to process beans to perfection. When Julius sold the patent to John Gordon the Aberdeen connection was made. McKinnon’s went on to manufacture thousands of Smout’s compact hullers and polishers as well as large models, including one which could process 123 tons a day. The compact machines were ideal for small plantations: cheap and fairly easily transportable – to high ground inland where coffee was grown. Replacement parts were despatched from distant Aberdeen or London. Coffee production burgeoned in Guatemala with Europe’s and North America’s near insatiable demand for the beverage.

Smout Peeler and Polisher

Between 1860 and the 1870s production spread like wildfire. Managers, engineers and agronomists arrived to oversee plantation labour, mostly indigenous Mayans whose land was taken for turned over to satisfying the international taste for coffee. While foreign capital invested in coffee production some local landowners, too, looked to take advantage of this expanding market. One such Guatemalan landowner was José Guardiola. Guardiola owned an estate close to the city of Escuintla. He was enthusiastic about the commercialisation of the area’s agriculture and when the Catholic Church began to sell off parcels of land once farmed by independent Mayan families, José was an early investor. Eventually he owned close on 8000 acres. His coffee and cacao estate was called Finca Chocola: Chocola was Mayan for ancient city – little consolation for dispossessed Mayans with ever increasing wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of men of European origin. The inventive landowner increased the profitability of his estate with his design of a dryer capable of processing 120 sacks of beans per day. Apparently when the dryer patent terminated McKinnon stepped in to manufacture an improved version that could be used on either coffee or cacao beans; this was about 1882. In 1891 Guardiola sold the estate to a German businessman.

Guardiola Dryer

The last of the trio, Emil Robert Okrassa, was yet another German. He arrived in Guatemala in 1884 to work on an estate near Antigua in the country’s central highlands (Antigua is now an UNESCO designated World Heritage site.) Famed for its Spanish-influenced architecture the city is evidence of Guatemala’s role in the history of colonisation. By the time Emil arrived coffee exports from Guatemala stood at more than 134 million kilograms annually. Similar to earlier inventors he recognised how technological improvements could ease labour shortages while ensuring the quality of processed beans was consistently high. Okrassa patented a de-pulper in 1891 and an improved polisher and huller. In the first decade of the 20th century he sold patent rights to processors in the USA and McKinnon in Aberdeen. Their roles in the development of coffee processing is the reasons the three names, Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa were cast onto the sides of the coffee trade’s iron machinery and recorded in the pages of the company’s catalogues.

Okrassa Dryer

This period of High Victorian enterprise had its winners and losers. In Aberdeen men fortunate enough to find regular employment in McKinnon’s engineering shops were guaranteed an income. In addition, through a combination of political and trade struggles, allied with progressive employers and others, conditions of employment were improved. It was not a Golden Age for Aberdeen workers but compared to, for example, the horrors which were to be found in textile mills pre-1850 things were definitely better for these men. On the other side of the world workers harvesting tropical products such as coffee were being marginalised from the political process while workers in Britain were slowly being granted franchise rights. Economic power in tropical estates was concentrated in non-indigenous hands and local workers were pushed into debt bondage where running away was often the only way of escaping the clutches of employers. Even today gang masters are still to be found, as is child labour. The long history of colonisation and racism has left a deep and dark mark on Central America.

Harvesting Coffee, Guatemala 1870s

So, enough of the current whinge that globalisation is something new. Enough of the story which has Britain hard done by. Enough of the cry “if only we had not surrendered sovereignty” life would be so much better. This is and has been for a long time the mark of capitalist exploitation. British capital advanced through the 19th century by doing just this and in the process was able to concede benefits to the working class. Of course at the same time it was wasting other cultures and at times reducing foreign labour to all but slavery. This was the hugely productive economic and colonial chain which bound the Victorian world.

McKinnon’s, for all the skills that went into the manufacture of Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa machines, and the pride that men and their families might have felt seeing the company’s name on crates bound for the tropics, it should be remembered that this was but one link in a sometimes cruel enterprise.

The machinery developed by Smout, Guardiola and Ossaka were mainly successful in ensuring beans left plantations in fine condition and ready for roasting to satisfy differing tastes. They still do but Aberdeen’s engineering works, once indispensable to the trade have long gone. And just as 19th century processing technologies can still be found in 21st century plantations so, sad to say, are harsh exploitative conditions. At the larger level, as with all capitalist production, the industry is subject to the ups and downs of supply and demand and practices of their major producers and processors. At the local level – where the trees are grown, where the coffee cherry is harvested, where pulpers, peelers, dryers and graders turn out beans for the world market, there is still child labour, debt bondage and environmental damage – all to satisfy a craving for caffeine and, of course, turn a profit.  So next time you have a cup of Joe remember how it was and still is manufactured. What might be good for you might not be so good for others.

See http://www.chocolaproject.org/finca.html

See https://old.danwatch.dk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Bitter-coffee-Guatemala-2016.pdf

See https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/coffee/

February 13, 2020

When Buckhaven was nearly the Torremolinos of Escocia: herein lies a fishy tail

Buckhaven

Scotland’s European credentials are well established but it may surprise you to know that Buckhaven in Fife just missed out on being the Torremolinos of, well, Spain when Philip II of Spain took a liking to the place and a boat-load of Spaniards were so fixated gazing at this little Fife gem their ship ran aground. Might have been part of the plan for they don’t appear to have left but struck up relationships with the Fifers who were soon speaking with Spanish accents and conversing in Spanish, shouldn’t it have been the other way round? So taken were Buckhaveners and Spaniards they kept marrying each other, tell me any old fishing community which didn’t, and evolved their own distinctive dialect.

And it wasn’t only Buckhaven that Phillip II was interested in. To be fair he was mainly interested in extending his empire – but he recognised quality when he saw it. On the west coast, Ailsa Craig, (now famous for its granite curling stones) whose natives paid their land rents with solan geese, seabird feathers and rabbit skins and caught an awful lot of cod was where Philip thought he would begin his annexation of the British Isles by having a castle built. Why start with Ailsa Craig. Well, why not?

Spanish wrecks littered the seas and beaches of Scotland. Their love of the place was second only to the Dutch’s. Their links with northeastern Scotland are long. Aberdeen’s sold salt herring and cod to the continent as far back as the 12th century and of such importance was this trade the Dutch word for salt cod is Labberdaan, its old spelling was haberdien – a corruption of Aberdeen.

White fish and pink. For hundreds of years salmon, fished out of Aberdeen’s two rivers, the Dee and Don, was exported, at first to the Continent and then around the whole world, in mind-blowing quantities.

In 1705, two years before the union, the Scottish parliament copied the Dutch example and remitted duties on everything herring-related, and other fish taxes. Fortunes were accumulated. Amsterdam is said to have been founded on the bones of Scottish herring (the stone for its Stadthouse was quarried and shipped out from the Firth of Forth but that is another story.)

With the waters around Orkney and Shetland teeming with fish they attracted the attention of European fishing boats. Don’t say I’m not contemporary. In 1633 1500 herring busses (vessels) protected by 20 armed ships and a further 400 dogger-boats went about in convoy as they fished. They were looking for cod, not difficult then, and caught them by rod and line. Sounds a slow business but tens of thousands were employed fishing. So thick on the water were these fishing vessels in what came to be known as the North Sea an area off England was named Dogger Bank.

Dutch dogger vessel

It’s as if fishing wars have always been with us. Post-union government bounties were offered to encourage more vessels take to sea to catch ever more fish, such was their value to the economy. The trouble was, and oh, how redolent this is of today, preferential treatment was provided to the biggest vessels over small fishing boats. After union with England, Scotland fishing trade declined, partly through the application of a salt tax (fish goes off quickly so must be cured for export and salt was one means of curing it.) Regulations surrounding the tax were complex and cumbersome. Salt was also difficult to acquire without having red tape attached. The setup was so confusing and risky potential fishers were put off from signing contracts.

When in 1720 an attempt was made to resurrect Scotland’s languishing fishing trade cash was paid to 2,000 of what were described as Scotland’s principal people. They failed but pocketed the cash. Similar failures followed, under royal patronage. Each one cost money. Each failed. Commissioners appointed to oversee every new scheme were richly rewarded. Always the same people. For them failure meant hardship for someone else, not them. They pocketed the cash. A lot of it.

Scotland’s water were then as now sources of incredible wealth, not always well-handled in the best interests of the people of Scotland. Bressay Sound at Shetland had one of the finest harbours in the British Isles in 1800. The fishing grounds here were almost monopolised by the Dutch; like those folk down the east coast many Shetlanders could communicate in Dutch. English vessels, too, headed north to fish for herring, ling, tusk, sea otters and seals. Sponges were sought and ambergris – a secretion of the bile duct in sperm whales that is disgorged into the sea and once used as for medicines, although Charles II loved to eat this stinking waste product. Whalers passed through this busy area on their way to and from Greenland and the Davis’ Straits from Dundee, Aberdeen, Arbroath and Peterhead.

Herds of grampuses (dolphins), sea otters, whales, fish of every description from round to flat were fished off Orkney including coalfish. Coalfish was a mainstay food for many of Scotland’s poorest folk. In Orkney the youngest fish were sillocks, year-olds were cooths and, I think, mature ones, Sethes. Orcadians preferred these wee fish to herring. They also harvested lots of sponges, corals, corallines, large oysters, mussels, cockles etc. and all kinds of unusual things washed ashore from the Atlantic including Molucca or Orkney beans. How they used these mimosa scandens seeds I don’t know – they might have roasted and eaten them or made them into drinks, used them as soaps or threw them at each other. Beyond exotic seeds many varieties of fish were landed. And the odd man. At least once a fin-man or Laplander turned up in his skin canoe.

Orkney beans

Situated between Orkney and Shetland is Fair Isle. Writing about 1800 one commentator described islanders living ‘almost in a state of nature’, whatever that means. His point was that crews on those fishing vessels from Holland and England fishing in the seas around the island raided not only their waters but stole everything they could lift from the island, leaving the people with next to nothing.

In addition to sea fishing carried out on an industrial scale, local communities fished in bays off their villages, in rivers and lochs. At the Solway Firth four distinct methods of catching fish were employed.

  1. Leister – a 4-pronged fork, its prongs turned slightly to one side, and attached to a long shaft of about 20 -24 feet was run along the sand on its edge or thrown at fish. Some expert fishers could spear fish from galloping horses, at great distances. This method was, apparently, very successful.
  2.  Haaving or hauling where the fisher stood in the current trapping fish with a small hand net.
  3.  Pock or small nets were fixed to stakes in rivers to catch fish swimming downstream.
  4.  Boat nets were used to catch salmon.

Fish provided food, oil for lamps and goods to barter for other items. Because fish was readily available it was an important source of income all around Scotland’s coasts. In the Black Isle or Ardmeanach to give it its old name, Rosemarkie’s salmon fishers preserved their catches in ice stored in an ice house near the shore , a deep, dark, dank echoing play place for local children that is now locked up, probably wisely. Avoch was a thriving fishing port taking large quantities of herring until recent times. Cromarty was another Black Isle fishing village, and Munlochy on the Moray Firth also had an excellent fishing station.

West Kilbride was known for its cod and white fisheries. Loch Leven for perch, pike, char, eels and especially its trout. Hebridean waters were rich sources of fish. Lewis took vast quantities of white fish, herring, trout and salmon as well as shellfish. Creeks around the rocky island of Muck provided shelter for fishing boats landing ling and cod. There, oil was extracted from cearban or sunfish – basking sharks. This oil was once popular as medicine and sold to Glasgow merchants. Seals were killed for their oil, too.

In addition to fish fish, shellfish were gathered from pools, off rocks, trapped in the water. It is patently obvious mussels were gathered at Musselburgh and there and Fisherrow were associated with good quality shellfish. Not only there, of course. Dornoch, Cramond and Inchmickery Island had their own enormous oyster beds, until overfishing of them put an end to that. Burntisland oysters were renowned, as were/are those from Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne also operated hundreds of herring boats. The harbour at Inverary at the head of Loch Fyne was called Slochk Ichopper, the gullet where vessels bought or bartered fish. Bartering herring for French wine took place at an area given the name, Frenchman’s point.

Men fished on boats but women and children were involved in all other aspects of the trade; preparing lines and nets, baiting lines, cleaning and processing fish and selling it. Local trading was hard graft for the wicker creels women carried on their backs were heavy before being loaded with wet fish and fishwives would walk long distances to make sales. As a point of interest, we often hear about fishwives but women hawkers sold all kinds produce in towns and country – kailwives sold vegetables and saltwives sold salt, for example.

The diversity of Scotland’s fishing trade began to dwindle when it stopped being a collective activity and became increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, of major businessmen. In addition, back in 1800 some small communities struggled to keep boats at sea and in rivers because their villages were targeted by the British Navy, eager to take away their fit and healthy young men who were able seamen. As with the army when men were needed all eyes turned northwards to Scotland. London could never get enough of Scots men, not only fit and strong but obedient. This was especially true during times of war – which was most of the time. Johnshaven, south of Aberdeen, lost many of its men to press-gangs.

Back in the day fishing was a community enterprise not confined to the handful of billionaire interests that we have now in the white fish industry but, as we’ve seen by the 18th century, public money found its way into the pockets of the rich through subsidies and enticements. During Scotland’s independent centuries fishing as a trade flourished, it was an important source of revenue for the nation, despite the attentions of Spaniards, Dutch and, yes, English seamen. Post-union whaling was for a fairly brief period enabled by virtue of larger vessels capable of sailing to inhospitable places such as Greenland and the Davis’ Straits. Risks were great, though not for the moneyed men behind voyages to harpoon the whale who waited in the warm comforts of their homes for the expected huge profits to further inflate their fortunes. And there was part of that that went straight into Westminster’s coffers; Scotland’s first oil bonanza went the same way as its second. It is hard for us to appreciate the degree of wealth generated from whaling, white fish and salmon. Good riddance to whaling and as for fishing, Scotland’s waters are no longer stuffed with fish as they once were; greed and overfishing have diminished stocks in our seas, rivers and lochs – denial, greed and short-termism has afflicted the trade of fishing for a very long time.

December 31, 2019

Soup, Bread & A Cup of Coffee – Foodbanks 19thC style

Guest blog from Textor

Lena’s recent fun and games with Tory recipes is a timely reminder that class society in subtle and at times not so subtle ways betrays prejudice, arrogance and condescension. But even Poor-house Perkins and Half-pay pudding would have been treats for some when commerce and industry were beginning to put their stamp on not only the face of the city but the throats and bellies of Aberdeen’s 19th century’s poorest.

The Bible tells us The poor you will always have with you and for Aberdonians of the 1840s it must have seemed that yet again the Holy Book was spot on. Charitable giving might be a Christian duty but the Good Book seems to imply poverty could be mitigated but not abolished.

Aberdeen’s former soup kitchen

Aberdeen of the 1840s was a city of growing splendour. It boasted of its Union Street which struck westward from the heart of the old city. It proudly displayed the fruit of its burgeoning stone industry: sparkling granite buildings dotted the landscape. Town houses, commercial buildings, churches and civic grandeur all seemed to say no matter how far the city was from the capitals of Edinburgh and London, no matter how “remote” in so-called North Britain Aberdeen was a place of wealth and good taste.

Paradoxically this revolution in the built landscape was founded not on the thrusting factory system which is usually associated with early industrialisation but on a stone-working industry of hand-craft skills with steam power augmenting only a few deeply laborious processes (polishing and sawing in particular). It was the merest hint of a factory system but nonetheless value producing and profitable. If a visitor wanted to see the fruit of Aberdeen’s factory system it was not to be found in the marvels of Alexander Macdonald’s granite yard on Constitution Street but in the large buildings in the Green, at Broadford and by the River Don at Woodside. There you would find textile mills.

Hadden’s textile mill at the Green
Grandholm works

Where granite yards and quarries might have multiples of dozens employed (all men and boys) textile mills gave work to women, children and men by the thousands with much of their labour dictated by the turns of water wheels and the drive of steam. But as fundamental as these were in determining the rhythms of daily work and the sheer exhaustion of what could be a fourteen-hour day in hot, noisy and dusty workshops “hands” also faced the uncertainties of business cycles. A worker at any of the mills might end a day’s labour overcome by fatigue knowing that the following day meant more of the same but had the “satisfaction” of drawing a day’s wage; just about enough to keep absolute destitution at bay. In the hardest of times even a day’s wage was not be enough to keep hunger from the door – as state of affairs replicated in the 21st century with its so-called gig economy. Back in the 19th century years of poor harvests and the seasonal impact of winter deepened poverty by pushing up the price of meal beyond the pockets of labourers.

Food Banks are the current charitable response to poverty; the 19th century equivalent was the soup kitchen. Established half a century earlier soup kitchens came into their own in 1847-48 when thousands in Aberdeen suffered absolute destitution. First opened in 1799-1800 in St Mary’s Chapel, part of St Nicholas Kirk, for some six months a soup kitchen provided something like 51,000 portions of beef broth and bread. The following year demand was even greater. Admittance was by ticket and those poor lucky enough to get a ticket were charged one penny per serving. As many as 600 per day sat down for what would have been their only meal of the day.

For some thirty years the seasonal kitchen regularly opened at the Chapel, eventually moving to the area of the Vennel, and on to Loch Street where many of Aberdeen’s poorest lived. Having raised enough money in 1894 for a brand-new building the Kitchen remained at the Loch street site for about one hundred years.

But back to the plight of thousands in 1847, a time when the menace of Chartism and radicalism appeared to threaten the very existence of Victoria’s Britain. This was a time authorities feared the strength of discontent would be harnessed by and coalesce under the banner of working class democracy. When the projected Aberdeen railway ran out of cash labourers working on it were thrown out of work and they and supporters, about 200 people, gathered on the south side of the Dee then marched on the Town House where they commenced yelling and causing considerable disturbance. Magistrates hurried to reassure them that they had spoken to grain merchants and were assured that they would not seek to profit from high prices by exporting grain from the city except where they were by law bound to fulfil.

Grain supplied basic and essential food for the poor in the form of bread but grain merchants had no interest in human need only human greed and sold their grain to the highest bidder and stored it until shortages raised its price. If grain could command higher prices outside the city then they would export it.

Of course the railway’s Irish and Highland navvies well knew the practices of grain merchants and refused to be placated. As the Aberdeen Journal reported In the course of the afternoon the crowd attacked some carts on their way to the Quay, and one of the principal ringleaders, while in the act of cutting one of the sacks and rolling it from the cart, was taken prisoner by Mr Barclay, of the police, and lodged in prison. Railway navvies were not alone in suffering the pangs of hunger. Across Aberdeen thousands in and out of work were forced to resort to public charity. Two kitchens were opened; the main one in Loch Street and another in the east end where soup, bread and coffee were sold. In one six-day week in February 1847 over 6,500 meals were served. Local textile magnet Gavin Hadden feeling something like sympathy for his workers proposed a third kitchen be opened near the city centre as it was problematic for his workers to find time in the “dinner hour” to travel far afield for sustenance. His charity did not extend to paying enough to keep them from the Soup Kitchen.

Further afield, and more charitably, Milne, Cruden & Co of Gordon Mills, outside the city boundary at Woodside, decided to open their own soup kitchen. As a voice of the city’s elite the editor of the Journal hoped that the kindness and attention of the employer have produced increased gratitude and fidelity on the part of the employed.

But things got harder for operatives as financial crisis hit. Women,children and men were put on short hours. Wages collapsed and yet more soup kitchens were opened. By April even with the worst of the winter passed Bannermill works in Aberdeen opened its own canteen and once again the local newspaper editor extolled the charitable virtues of the employer:  when the factory bell rings, 600 to 700 of the servants . . . find a warm and comfortable breakfast or dinner ready for them . . . a kindness, on the part of the employer, which we trust they duly appreciate. What would the workers have done without this kindness?

One Factory Inspector was much taken by the utility and efficiency of the canteen, reported that normally workers struggled to make ends meet:  provisions . . . consisting very often of nothing else than a piece of dry oat cake.    Having no house to go to, and no means of getting a more nourishing diet, the poor people subjected to this state of matters suffered much in bodily health and strength, being often quite exhausted before the labours of the day were over.   These consequences, so injurious to the employers and employed, have to a great extent been obviated by the plan which has been happily fallen upon in these northern factories. With pressure of time within the factory and the need to keep production flowing the kitchen could serve, Inspector Walker said, 400 meals in twenty minutes. And then it was back to the grind.

No matter how fast meals were served the kindness so-called was brought to a halt as the crisis in the textile industry deepened. Factory canteens were a viable response – viable in employers’ terms – only so long as some kind of profit could be ground from the workforce and available markets. But when mills closed, canteens closed. Unemployment burgeoned. Two new charities were established: Aberdeen Operatives and Labourer’s Fund and Woodside and Neighbourhood Fund.

1848 dawned for thousands with no prospect of things improving. Across Europe revolution threatened. On the 10 March hundreds suffering, it was said, starvation gathered at the Castlegate. Knowing of recent major disturbances in Glasgow Aberdeen’s magistrates decided to take no chances. Property needed protecting. Eight hundred special constables were enrolled. In the event “order reigned in Aberdeen”. Some charitable help was doled out but it still left the problem of how to keep the peace with so many thousands suffering. How to keep the loyalty of the poor, employed and unemployed.

Woodside ministers of the Established and Free Churches came forward and asked that the canteen at Grandholm mills, shut when work ceased, be made available. These kirk men offered a stark view of Woodside’s communities: upwards of two thousand persons have been deprived of all means of subsistence and this being disastrous more especially to the numerous helpless females at Grandholm, there is no other prospect, but the extremity of destitution . . . famine and its concomitants, disease and death, must stalk through our streets. The starving of Woodside were hit, it was claimed, harder than those of the city to the extent that there was only a small wealthy middle class locally. Most shopkeepers and merchants of the area relied upon the earnings of the textile workers so when they were thrown out of work everyone suffered.

In Aberdeen itself suffering continued. A meeting of close to 1,000 unemployed women and men complained of the soup kitchens failing to meet their needs. Kitchens ran out of soup, tickets which were necessary to gain admittance were, they said, being given to undeserving cases who were themselves drawing on the meagre dole of the Poor Law. Those administering the charities no doubt all with full-bellies decided that the bona-fides of applicants would no longer need the signature of a past employer but all – all! that was needed was  the signatures of two respectable householders. One Council member spoke of  fearful destitution and misery in the city and gave voice to concern of the threat of revolution. Westminster he said needed to act more especially at a time when there is great political excitement abroad, and when the distress in which they are plunged may make them susceptible of impressions, not calculated by any means to advance the peace of society.

The coming of summer saw no improvement. At Woodside “deserving” cases were being given a daily pound of meal but only after strict enquiry into the circumstances of the applicants. Meanwhile in Aberdeen the kitchens were doling out over 1,000 portions per day.  This continued into autumn by which time it was costing as much as £100 per week to finance the Aberdeen fund, with a running total bill of £1540 in mid-October against receipts of £1,380. Managers of the fund were at a loss, the more they collected the more was required and they conceded that not only was debt increasing, but there was upwards of a thousand persons unprovided for on the roll; deserving men and women and children who could not be fed.

Winter meant the probability of hard weather, the ending of any casual agricultural work, restricted supplies of fresh vegetables, local fishing became uncertain – dire prospects which faced thousands of the local population already suffering from weakened physical condition. Such was the state of male labourers at the time, that is men who were fortunate enough to be given permission to draw on the kitchens, that the managers of the unemployed fund recognised weakness and debility now stalked the workforce, meaning potential labourers were incapable of any strenuous work, that even if the languishing Aberdeen Railway was restarted there were not half a dozen of these poor people fit for labour.

Victoria and Albert arrive in poverty-stricken Aberdeen in 1848

Seeing no end to the call for charity fund managers proposed, and it does sound so contemporary, that any males so benefiting should be expected to give something in return –  this, said Ballie Nicol, had the double advantage of getting work out of the destitute and at the same time deterring “lazy” poor from trying to get something for nothing. And yet another of our contemporary tropes is found among 19th century free-market liberals when it was proposed that the local state might become a major employer. Provost Thompson said that the principle of any community or government providing employment for the people is a bad one, and that we must revert to the principle of using our funds merely for the purpose of preventing starvation, and giving the smallest amount of assistance compatible with bodily support, and by giving it purely as charity. In the midst of such a bleak economy Provost Thompson was, dear reader, able to greet Queen Victoria’s and Albert’s arrival in the Aberdeen in September when he presented her with silver keys to the city. A right Royal Circus at one side of town and bread at the soup kitchen if they were ‘lucky’ for unemployed starving women, men and children at the other.

Victoria visits a poor woman in her rain-leaking cottage at Braemar

There was no revolution. Unemployment and poverty remained hallmarks of the system. Crises pass albeit at the expense of life and hopes of individuals, families and whole communities. By 1849 British capital was entering a period of growth and greater stability as institutions evolved to cope with the forces of the free market.

Loch Street Soup Kitchen? The building still stands; a reminder to present-day food banks that what was, is.

December 16, 2019

Abigail’s Party: Food Politics 1930s and 1970s Tory Favourites

Clearing out my large collection of old cookery books I came two curiosities –Tory Treats, Banffshire Conservative and Unionist Association recipes and The Cook o’ the North. Let’s explore some of the delicacies offered up in the first of these and what, if anything, they reveal about the Tory within.

Tory Treats is contemporaneous with Mike Leigh’s 1970s play Abigail’s Party, a satire on the aspirational middle classes with undercurrents of prejudice, pretentiousness, ignorance, and mediocrity. The question is does a cookery book reflect anything of those times in all their gory glory? I’ll rummage through the pages for you but you can make up your own minds.

You’re probably condemning me for affecting a snooty attitude to what is only a cookery book but you’re not the one faced with what journalist Anna Raeburn might describe as ‘ghastly’ concoctions that sum up some of the frankly, well, ghastly, food dished up in the ‘70s. In some cases I’ll include the recipe. Believe me they aren’t complicated. Here’s a flavour so grab a sick bucket. We start with my favourite for quickness and it is so Abigail.

Rich Tomato Soup: – open a can of tomato soup, heat. Add a glass of sherry.

Told you it wasn’t a chore. Cheers m’dears.

Salmon Surprise: – The surprise for me was that the salmon comes from a tin. Open the said tin, remove any calcium in the form of bones, and mix the salmon with heated bread and milk. The salmon goes into an oven dish with sliced egg and, surprise! – a layer of cornflakes and grated cheese. Add white sauce and more cornflakes and cheese and bake. Think we’ll call that brunch.

I imagine the French Onion Soup, Belgian Loaf and Pork Roman would be hard to swallow nowadays given the current xenophobic state of the party, specially in millionaire fishing circles in Banff and Buchan but they might just go for an exotic little number such as Herrings in Orange Juice? Mind you the orange juice might prove a problem. On reflection I’d shelve it. Herrings in Orange Juice sounds – what’s the word? Ghastly. Suspect it won’t compete in popularity with the local delicacy of an Inverurie Speshul. Basically find any meat and bung it all in together – recommended is steak, liver, beef sausages. A scurvy speshul.

So Abigail is the Brazilian Peach: – open a tin of peaches. Place in a dish. Drop in almond essence and cherries and spoon on beaten egg white then grill. That’ll be warmed up tinned peaches. Nice. Pass the Blue Nun.

Being from Banff and Buchan there’s an oddly odd religious element to their grub. How about this one called For a Sudden Visitation. I think the idea is if God calls in unexpectedly you have to grab another tin of peaches (hope the Coopy hasn’t run out) sprinkle on some sugar and cinnamon then – hope you’re still with me – what d’you think? Yes! You heat them up. What is it with Banff and Buchan Tories and hot peaches? Beginning to think hot peaches is code for something else.

Any cornflakes left over from your Salmon Surprise can be used in making Caramel Cornflake Crunch. Take a ¼ lb caramels out of the bag and melt them. At this point you might want to add a few chopped nuts before mixing in those oh-so-handy cornflakes. Spread out and leave to set.

I’m fairly certain this is the sort of cooking once taught in our schools – processed foods, sugar, more sugar, fat and more sugar, and fat. Chocolate Pops have an unfortunate association for me since I first read them as Chocolate Plops. Anyhow, here goes. Melt a bar of chocolate – easy, huh? Add rice crispies or you could add cornflakes but I’m fairly sure the Coopy is now oot o’ cornflakes or as they say roon here, conflakes.

If you are now regretting having embarked on a dander down Conservative cookery retro road with the Hyena can I offer you a slug or five of Tory Potato Wine. It’s made from some old tatties and there are plenty of them available in the Tory Party.

Overdone the Potato Wine? You might reach for a restorative Advocaat. Mmm, this tasty brandy and egg drink was popular in Scotland for just such emergencies but making it with a tin of Carnation milk? Seriously. Seriously just wrang.

You’d have to be blootered to dish up Tripe Scampi. First catch yer tripe (kidding – tripe is in rich supply among Banffshire Tories), chop it up with flour and milk and fry. Yu……………..k.

Clean your palette with a couple of Cheese Meringues or a forkful of Frosted Meat Loaf served with mayonnaise made from condensed milk and mustard.

My other Tory cook book was published in 1936 when people really did cook, if the Tories left them with any money to afford food that is. Which wasn’t often. But Tories will be Tories so let’s dip into their own lifestyle.

The Cook o’ the North is a play on the Cock o’ the North which is – if you don’t know already check out my other blogs. This cookery book contains recipes from Kincardine and West Aberdeenshire Unionist Association which inexplicably has changed its name to West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Totheids or similar.

Mrs Spence’s Frigidity isn’t what it appears but mince. Liver Pie won’t be to everyone’s taste nor will Stewed Tripe which was as prolific among 1930s Tories as it is among today’s. And something else time and Tories hasn’t changed is their appetite for Stuffed skirt. Or does Stewed Capercailzie take the bird? First hunt down the rare bird then kill it and compliment yourself on being an animal lover, on your plate at least. Killed out all the Capercailzies? Worry not here comes a wee Grey Squirrel for the casserole pot. The recipe is from one of those protectors of the countryside, Major Hugh Pollard and The Sportsman’s Cookery Book. Sports it seems is a moveable feast. Well, not so very moveable once they’re shot.

Every kind of animal found its way into Tory bellies. Even Cats Tongues. Fit! Calm down, they were a kind of biscuit. I think, but you can’t be sure with Tories.

Half-pay Pudding wasn’t something that was needed by many Unionists, I’m sure. In the 1930s there were many folk on half or no pay. So what was it? Flour, grated bread, suet, raisins, powdered ginger, syrup and sugar – essentially a sponge pudding. Raspberry Pudding is probably more to the liking of old flush face himself, Jackson Carlaw. Made from raspberry jelly it surely doesn’t turn out as ruby as beamer Carlaw. But maybe Strawberry Fool better represents him. Take one bumbling fool, embarrass him – joking!  Before I leave the subject of poverty included in the book is a recipe for Poor-House Perkins which is pretty damn offensive. The biscuits sound tasty – oatmeal, flour, treacle and sugar but it’s the 1930s equivalent of Tories grinning at cameras and explaining how proud they are to be opening another foodbank.

There are some fine sounding recipes in both volumes; Black Piece being one of them. This recipe is at least 200 years old and is a ginger cake made with treacle. Gingerbreads have always been very popular in Scotland and often sold in markets. Descriptions vary but if you were middle class or a toff you’d talk about a moist gingerbread while common-as-muck folk described one that wasn’t dry as damp. At least we got through this section without straying into offensive racist language for describing certain confections, unlike a certain Tory cookery book.

The British Empire has a lot to answer for not least when it comes to Iced Vegetable Curry and continuing the international culinary trail Dresden Patties were a favourite in these parts: chop flesh up into tiny pieces, cook in a hot sauce and fry which was pretty much the fate of women and children in Dresden when Britain and the US bombed it and created a firestorm in 1945.  

Towards the end of the book there’s a list of Five Auld-Farrant Cures From Grannie Mutch of the Scottish Children’s Hour. Grannie provides such sterling advice: make cough mixture with vinegar, sugar candy, eggs (shells included) mixed with 4d of paregoric and shake. ‘The bairns like it fine’ probably because of the paregoric – camphorated tincture of opium. Cheers m’dears.

Finally back to Abigail’s Party and a suggested lunch menu – not a dinner party but hey ho. Mandarin & grapefruit cocktail; salmon scallops; creamed potatoes; garden peas; strawberry whip.

It’s not so complicated. For the cocktail, open a tin of mandarins and a tin of grapefruit segments and mix. For the salmon, open a tin of salmon and mix with cheese, white sauce and grill. And the scallops? Another salmon surprise. There are no scallops. You serve the salmon in scallop shells. Typical Tory promise – ends in let down. To accompany this disappointment open a tin of peas. At least there’s proper mash to go with it. Eh, not quite. This is the 1970s so it’s a case of open a packet of dried potato – instant potato. My farmer uncle told me he was approached by a guy representing a dried tattie company who pointed to a pile of discarded rotting tatties and asked to buy them. Perplexed my uncle told him they were discards not for eating. “Oh,” replied the tattie agent, “we’ll process and bleach them. No-one will ever know they’re eating crap” or words to that effect.

And if dishing up this instant garbage was too much an ordeal for the average Tory then the Links Hotel in Banff was ready to step up –

If your own efforts (sic) are none too successful, book in at The Links for a True Blue Meal!

Nah, you’re alright.

Who’ll join me in a nutritional glass of sherry? Open a bottle and pour into a tumbler. Add a can of tomato soup. Cheers!

December 1, 2019

Iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures – John Steill and William Wallace.

William Wallace at Aberdeen sculpted by William Grant Stevenson in 1888. Paid by John Steill of 38 Grange Road, Edinburgh.

‘Never was the destruction of an ancient state more complete and humiliating than that of Scotland; – never did a people consent so tamely to surrender their liberties, and submit themselves to the overbearing dictation of another kingdom, as the Scotch have done.’

These are the words of John Steill of Edinburgh. I knew that Steill left money to pay for the colossal statue of William Wallace which dominates Schoolhill in Aberdeen but nothing else. Steill would have loved Twitter, with a handle such as @Patriot for he was like the best of us, opinionated. But Twitter did not exist in Steill’s time and he had to make do broadcasting his views through letters to the press and published as pamphlets. His main interests were the union with England and Clearances in the Highlands and Ireland, all of which he vehemently disapproved. The press, mainly staunchly conservative and reactionary, vilified him describing his words as dangerous.

It was in 1844 Steill wrote his most famous letter, later pamphlet, attacking the union and to place it in some kind of perspective I clicked onto Wikipedia to see what else was happening in the UK in 1844. What I found was that nothing at all happened in Scotland that year. Any events worthy of note took place exclusively in England. I expect John Steill could have told me that.  Towards the foot of the Wiki page was a link to Scotland in 1844 which is odd since last time I looked Scotland was part of the UK – apparently an unworthy part but part all the same whose events were just not important enough to get a mention on the UK page.

The following year Steill took out his pamphlet

On the Necessity of Dissolving the Union between England and Scotland, and on Restoring Scotland to Her Ancient Supremacy As an Entire and Distinct Nation

For Steill signing the union between Scotland and England was

 ‘one of the blackest transactions in history’ which reduced Scotland to becoming a vassal nation and he questioned why any Scot would think it right that a once sovereign state could demean itself to become dependent on another –

not least as betrayal of all those Scots who fought and died for their nation – Scotland’s real heroes who

‘would utterly disown and despise us.’

Then as now apologists for the union insist it was good for the Scottish economy  – an argument that failed to dent Steill’s certainty that any margin of economic benefit was a very bad trade-off for the

‘the annihilation of our independence and very name as a nation.’

The economic advantage argument he states could be just as easily applied to justify slavery as slave owners insisted their people were well cared and even prospered under it.

Any prosperity created by Scots, Steill insists, comes not from being in union with England but through Scots using their intelligence and application to prosper.

Wreath on statue of William Wallace
Guardian of Scotland

Scotland has been the butt of an unremitting propaganda assault since before union where she is painted as uncivilised compared with England. The truth is Scotland far from being nation of savages, feckless and barbaric was one of the world’s best educated of nations with a long and significant literary tradition, its people clever, enterprising and outward-looking Europeans, more open to democratic principles than their English counterparts.

That this modern European state could find itself shackled to an insular and war-like country like England incensed Steill. England in union dominated and overwhelmed Scotland, insisted Scots travel to London to represent their Scottish constituents, no easy matter in the 18th century (even before the travails of Scotrail.) Having tackled the hundreds of miles to London over several days through difficult and uncomfortable conditions (still prior to Scotrail) Scottish MPs found their opinions drowned out by

‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

The equivalent of the little woman who could do nothing without the permission of her husband Scots were forced to seek approval for each and every policy to be introduced into Scotland from English MPs. That any Scot should regard this humiliation appropriate for a nation that was once successfully independent struck Steill as reprehensible. In short Scotland, abundantly equipped to being a normal self-governing nation was constrained by England in a way that was degrading and oppressive.

Steill writes that his country is the victim of tyrants – ‘selfish aristocrats’ who contribute nothing but are idle, spend their time hunting on horseback and living in luxury but who have power to ‘beggar, starve, and banish’ Scots men and women who do work and contribute to the wealth of the country.

Steill points to parts of Scotland devastated as a direct result of the actions of tyrant landowners and distant Westminster and advocates nationalising their estates – distributing the land between the people who live there and depend on it. Condemning landowners who sell their land as if it ever belonged to them Steill insists, correctly, they were just lineal descendants of elected chiefs with no special right of property in the soil of Scotland. The land these Highland lairds sold or cleared, he writes, was never theirs – it belonged to the people of to the clan or sept collectively.

Not impervious to the hardships of English people, either, Steill blames their situation on ‘an imperious obligarchy’ stretching back to William the Bastard and his ilk who claimed entitlement to pillage and destroy right across the British empire for their own enrichment.

As though he had Gordon Brown breathing down his neck Steill tackles federal parliaments being proposed to quell Scottish discontent over the dominance of England in union. Steill is not in favour of federalism which he argues still chains Scotland to England with all that such an unequal partnership brings – its only benefit is not having to send MPs to London to look after Scottish interests. Federalism is a ploy to keep Scotland as an appendage of England with Westminster regarded as the chief government where real power resides with minor parliaments dispersed around the UK as England sees fit. The English parliament at Westminster still gets to dictate how every part of the union will be taxed based on England’s needs not theirs and these subordinate parts of the UK would still be obliged to participate in England’s wars.

Steill had no time for ‘crazed “gown-men” and ‘treacherous nobles and gentry’ who sell Scotland short. These scoundrels ‘sold off their native land to her enemies’ – against the wishes of the greater population of Scotland who deplore Scotland’s fate of becoming a vassal state of England’s instead of ranking equally among the ‘States of Europe’ that was once her position.

He pleads for Scotland to become ‘free and unfettered … independent and absolute, not a controllable and subordinate’ region of the UK. Scotland, he insists, should levy her own taxes, enter her own treaties with foreign powers, have control over her defence and not be a state that interferes with other kingdoms – as England does.

Steill’s Scotland once she recovers her independence should apply universal suffrage for her people and get rid of ‘monarchy and hereditary feudal aristocracy, both these useless, tyrannical, and all-devouring institutions…’ in other words become a democratic republic free to run her own affairs.

Sculptor and his masterpiece

He concludes with a plea for Scots to demonstrate some of that spirit of the past that resisted when Scottish ‘rights were trampled on, and their national honour invaded.’ Those strengths are even more needed now, he argues, that Scotland has become a ‘contemptible province, stripped of her very name (is referred to as North Britain) , deprived of the power to remove those crying evils which afflict her, both socially and politically, and when she is left with no other memorials of her former dignity and independence but the moss-covered ruins of her palaces and citadels, whose gigantic fragments but too emphatically tell what Scotland once was, and what she now is.’

John Steill certainly had strong views but then so did those who defended the union. He was said to have been a pleasant man, intelligent and a great reader who kept a fine collection of books on Scottish history. When he died he left his money to his housekeeper, Margaret Strachan, with the proviso that what remained after her death went to erecting a sculpture of his hero, William Wallace. Money was also provided by him for repairs and upkeep of the monument, left in the hands of Aberdeen’s magistrates.

The monument he declared was to be a colossal bronze raised up on a large pediment. There would be nothing fancy or fussy about it but bold to properly represent the statesman and warrior. Aberdeen’s granite roughly hewed and imposing would be ideal for its ability to support the hero Guardian of Scotland.  

Around the base would be engraved words spoken by Wallace such as his interview with the English Ambassadors prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge when the English envoy requested the Scots lay down their weapons and submit to the English king at which point Wallace would be pardoned of ‘all his treasons’ – i.e. where treason was defined as daring to protect his country from foreign aggression.  

Wallace, the leader who in England was called the ‘Master of thieves’ told England’s ambassadors ‘to go back to your masters and tell them that we came not here to treat, but to fight and set Scotland free’  and so these words are cut into the plinth.

It should be said this monument is magnificent and undoubtedly the most impressive Wallace statue in Scotland which means in the world. I find it impressive and I’m certain Steill would be pleased at how it turned out. However, I suspect he would have been both amazed and depressed that there are still Scots who are apologists for a union that continues to treat Scotland as a vassal state. Not an admirer of the press which he regarded as apologists and champions of the union Steill reserved much of his ire for the Scotsman with ‘its marked dislike to anything Scotch.’ He dismissed much of the press for being prejudiced against Scotland’s interests and for being “profoundly ignorant” – about Scotland – thoughts that echo through time and are just as relevant today. Yes, John Steill @Patriot would have savaged today’s toady and unprofessional press fawning over ‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

November 11, 2019

What is mine is mine and what is yours is also mine: Scotland in union

Flag of the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies

How England colonised Scotland.

A report out this week is critical of Westminster’s handling of the economy and its impact on Scotland – disastrous. It argues that Scotland’s potential for wealth is – big – but the actuality in a decidedly unequal union is – dodgy.

For fifty years we have watched as £zillions of revenue from oil and gas taken out of Scottish waters flows downhill to London to reduce the size of the national debt, support tax breaks and financial incentives for oil and gas multinationals, enable eye-wateringly costly building projects and infrastructure to boost the economy of London.

Tax revenue from the UK’s offshore industries, 90% of which lie off Scotland, could have been (should have been) designated as Scottish revenue. It wasn’t. Instead Westminster dreamed up a make-believe place which they called the UK Continental Shelf. This meant Scotland could not claim oil and gas fields as hers because they were situated in Wonderland aka the UK Continental Shelf.

At one fell swoop the enormous wealth that might have made such a difference to Scotland’s scattered, much of it rural, population – to the provision of health and social care, education, transport was whipped away. Imagine if anything like the money squandered on the bottomless pit that is London’s cross-rail project or HS2 had been invested around Scotland – proper roads and choice of transport in the Highlands – all you can do is imagine for it never happened. Wealth is what goes to southeast England, from Scotland.

Just to be sure that uppity Scots would not benefit from Britain’s offshore bonanza Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, picked up an HB pencil and drew a line through Scottish waters re-allocating a chunk to England – exemplifying that age-old practice of the coloniser to annexe territory wherever and whenever because they have the powers to do so. Westminster must have been gratified at how easy it was to achieve. That sort of thing used to cause wars.

It is one thing to allow fish taken from Scottish waters to be regarded as Scottish but not highly valuable oil and gas. No ifs no buts Westminster ignored protests from Scotland because despite the union of the UK being described as a union of equals it isn’t. The UK is England’s little empire. Scotland is a mere colony; there to provide the mother country with resources not to benefit directly from them.

Scotland’s waters

Imagine the scene – an office deep inside Westminster where a bourach of suited men with dandruff on their shoulders leaning in over a large table – highly polished by a migrant worker on minimum wage – concocting the means by which they could appropriate Scotland’s cash cow like a bunch of 20th century border reivers.

Of course the colony of Scotland was thrown a crumb in the form of per capita portion of the revenues but as England’s population is ten times that of Scotland you don’t have to be a financial wizard to realise which of the equal partners of the union got the lion’s share.

The plotters in London weren’t even very good at getting the best value out of hydrocarbons. A simple comparison with Norway which virtually mirrors the UK’s oil and gas industries reveals quite astonishingly that the Norwegians generated more than double the revenue of the UK on every single barrel of oil. These civil servants and politicians managed not only to screw Scotland but screw themselves into the bargain. Only just not as much.

Back in 2014 at the time of the independence referendum Scotland was in the unusual position of being a producer of one of the world’s most lucrative products and yet the message coming out from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats was this was a bad thing for once oil was gone it was gone and then where would Scotland be? Same place England would be. And as the silent and largely forgotten partner in the precious union dependent on crumbs tossed northwards from London, that’s where. Since Scotland has a tendency to see Nordic countries as fellow-nations it is highly likely that had Scotland been in receipt of her own oil and gas revenues Scots would be cushioned from the worst times through a Norwegian type oil fund that could have eased the transfer from hydrocarbons to renewable.

There is no question that Westminster is responsible for severely damaging Scotland’s economy. If what came out of the North Sea had been plastic waste Westminster would have let it alone instructing Scotland to deal with its own problem but it wasn’t waste it was wealth. Like the EU farming funds meant for Scottish farmers Westminster grabbed oil and gas revenues for itself. That’s the thing about colonists, remember – what’s theirs is theirs and what is the colony’s is also theirs – if it is valuable.

This is simply state organised abuse. You know the scenario where an abusive husband insists his abused wife stays with him because she keeps getting beaten up – and he’ll protect her. There’s an Eric Bogle song, Glasgow Lullaby about a woman who keeps taking a beating from her drunken man and never leaves –

Oh my God, it’s a weary, weary life
Who wid be a drinkin’ man’s wife
Who wid thole a’ this trouble and this strife
Who but a silly woman

Scotland is Westminster’s abused wife. She should tell it/him where to get off then take away its/his keys to the shared house. Scotland needs to just say no to Westminster. Scotland too poor to stand on her own? It’s the oldest trick in the bullies handbook. Demoralize, demean, intimidate, undermining confidence. Lie. You’re too stupid. Too weak. We’ll hurt you if you leave.

It is said that clarifying what counts as Scottish in the UK economic stakes is complicated. Well, not that complicated but I’ll simplify it.

Let’s take Scotland’s international trade. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the world are counted as Scottish. Or sometimes they are. If goods or services leave Scotland for England, Wales or Northern Ireland and then get jumbled up with other goods or services and are subsequently exported then whatever Scotland’s input is disappears and the export is recorded as a UK export. I have not been able to discover what an English-produced good sent to Scotland and then exported as part of some other product is designated.

Of course that applies to goods apart from oil and gas which are always listed under the UK. The same applies to services provided by offshore industries – these also get added to UK income not Scottish. Anyone living around northeast Scotland will know that over the past fifty years servicing oil and gas here and across the world has been a major source of work and income.

So what will happen in the coming months with another independence referendum on the horizon? The UK’s media will rediscover its Scottish granny once more and we’ll have wall-to-wall Britain rammed down our throats. Once again Scots will be warned and threatened and sneered at for their ingratitude at wanting their country to regain its soverign nation status. You won’t have oil and gas…and neither will England and rumpUK. You’re too wee…as if size matters.

Scotland’s land area covers 77,933 km2 and the population is about 5,424,000. The GDP is currently about $237.628 billion that works out per capita about $43,740. Compare that with other small nations – that just happen to be the wealthiest countries in Europe.

Switzerland is a bit like Scotland – lots of mountains and lochs (they call them lakes) and, like Scotland is a top tourist destination. It doesn’t have oil and gas and it isn’t a major source of wind and wave power. Its population is around 8,600,000 not too different from Scotland’s and its land area a sqeeny 41,285 km2. So far so similar only its per capita is about double that of Scotland at US$ 85,374.

How about Norway another small European country, even more like Scotland with mountains and lakes and it does have an oil and gas industry. It covers 385,207 km2  much of that mountainous with a population around Scotland’s at just over 5,000,000. It is almost Scotland’s double – double in that its wealthy per capita is more than double at US$ 97,226 and its GDP again double, running northwards of $400 billion.

Luxembourg is a tiny country of .2,586.4 km2 and its population just over 600,000. It has no oil and gas and is not exactly graced with mountains and lakes. It is the third richest country in Europe with a per capita income of US $ 116,560.

If the gloom mongers of Better Together are to be believed Lichtenstein would be an independent basket case  – too wee, no oil and gas. It is tiny at only 160 km2  and its population is the size of Airdie’s at around 37,000. It does have mountains and virtually no unemployment. Per capita income is an impressive US $ 143,000.

The richest country in Europe is minisculy, tiny – only 2.2 km2. Monaco has a population of around 40,000 and its per capita runs to US $ 168,000. Oh and it doesn’t have high mountain or oil and gas. And not only is it the richest country in Europe it is the richest country in the world.

Anyone who would deny Scotland’s right to become independent on the basis of size needs to be told again and again and again that size doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with it.

One of the reasons these small independent countries are so successful is that they aren’t tied into an unequal, though precious, union with England run from Westminster.

Westminster has been interfering with Scotland’s economy even before the precious union was a gleam in the eye of some speculators both Scottish and English. In the days when building empires was all the rage and Scots thought they might dabble in just such a thing the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies (and incidentally the Americas) was established. It ran from 1695 – 1707 and the more observant of you will have registered the end date.

This enterprise proved to be an adventure too far – at least for the English state. It was the brainchild of that entrepreneur, William Paterson, the Scot behind the Bank of England.

At the time Scotland shared a monarch with England – the result of the union of the crowns in 1603 – but was otherwise an independent state. However, Scotland was left in no doubt that with the transfer of its king to London so the crown’s interests also moved south. in fact Scotland was regarded as an irritant (not to be dependent upon to back England in its wars of which there were many) and gadzooks a potential economic rival to the East India Company and Royal African Company. Bold Scotland’s attempt to create its own empire – a colony in northeast Canada around what is now Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island in 1621 foundered a decade later – a victim of England’s war with France.

Nova Scotia

Paterson’s scheme to colonise Darien, (Panama) in Central America to provide Scottish commerce with a secure harbour with access to both Atlantic and Pacific oceans found initial support within England as well as Scotland. However, as soon as the East India Company got wind of the plan it lobbied the King and the English parliament to scupper it. English investors took fright abandoning the whole sorry mess to Scots speculators. Those of you familiar with recent banking scandals will not be surprised that bankers and businessmen were equally duplicitous in the 17th century and to cut a long story short much of the money raised to fund the venture disappeared into various deep pockets.

See Darien and Navigation Acts: https://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2017/11/03/theres-nothing-like-the-smell-of-xenophobia-in-the-morning

The Darien scheme had two enemies, aside from the climate, the Spanish who regarded the area as theirs and the English who regarded everything else as theirs. Scots ships were attacked and relations with England reached their lowest point.

Having an enemy on its border concerned the English court and parliament while within Scotland hardship increased not least through the loss of so much money wasted on Darien, lost commerce from confiscated cargoes on top of several seasons of poor harvests which hit the poorest hardest with severe food shortages. Scotland was on her knees.

England’s Navigation Acts crushed Scottish commerce by forcing all goods imported into England to be transported in English vessels. With the wind behind them England’s parliament at Westminster pressed for union with Scotland – to enable it the better to control the land to the north.

There was no democracy back in the 18th century and Scottish merchants who lost fortunes because of Darien and England’s aggressive maritime policy that denied Scotland access to its markets, were made an offer they felt they could not refuse. Come in with England and we’ll pay you compensation or else. This was union at the point of a sword – blackmail. England had the whip hand and used it to great effect. The ‘compensation’ was a carrot – and Scotland’s wealthy donkeys bit.

And so some of Scotland’s landed interests and city merchants accepted the 18th century equivalent of cashback. Cash paid as compensation for losses incurred through the actions of England and Spain. This cashback was called the Equivalent. Needless to say such an enticement came with strings attached. Scotland would have to agree to take on a share of England’s horribly large national debt and – wouldn’t you know – be taxed higher.

Once agreed the Equivalent cashback was distributed from the offices of the former Company of Scotland in Edinburgh and from the ashes a new company emerged imaginatively called the Equivalent Company. This group transformed itself into a banking organisation out of which the Royal Bank of Scotland materialised. And we know what that led to.

Scots were reassured that the proposed union with England would retain Scotland’s sovereignty. Of course that was a lie.

I have read but cannot confirm that a century earlier James VI, the guy who started all this union malarkey, or perhaps it was Sir Henry Savile in 1604, remarked that union between Scotland and England would end with the conquest of Scotland by England. He/he wasn’t wrong.

Ref – A Union for Empire: Political Thought and the British Union of 1707, John Robertson ed.,, CUP 2006

October 8, 2019

The Power of Scotland