Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

Jan 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loaded needles were inserted into malignant tumours

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

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

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

The ‘laboratory’ at Cove quarry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://wilhelmconradroentgen.de/en/

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

Radium ‘girls’

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

*

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

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

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

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

Jan 5, 2022

The Great Hair Cut Riots

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

Frederick Street School with its rooftop playground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head lice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 24, 2021

The Headless Ghost

Jack’s Brae

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

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

“Na, mither, I’m as ill as Bell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tychy’s blog response to mine:

Oct 3, 2021

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider: Maria Ogilvie-Gordon pioneering geologist

She was a scientist – a geological pioneer and a driver for the emancipation of women. She classified the geological layers of the Dolomites, the structure of corals found there and explained the powerful earth movements that erupted and folded those rocks into their dramatic peaks. She was Maria Ogilvie from Monymusk in Aberdeenshire and her work in the mountains of Austria and Italy would prove ground-breaking.

Maria Ogilvie, affectionately known as May, was born on 30 April 1864 into a family steeped in education. She was musical; played the piano and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London before having a change of heart and entering the University of London to study science. Graduating with her Doctor of Science degree – the first geology degree awarded in London to a woman, she took herself abroad, to Germany to continue her work in that field.

An application to study at Berlin University was turned down because it didn’t accept women and neither did the University of Munich but she was able to use some of its facilities to continue her research through support of its professor of geology and palaeontology, Karl Alfred von Zittel. Eventually the Ludwig Maximilians-University of Munich did agreed to let Maria study for her doctorate and in 1900 she was the first women awarded a PhDs from Munich. She took it with highest honours. Back home Dr. Maria Ogilvie married John Gordon, a physician from Aberdeen.   

In addition to being an accomplished musician and scientist, May Ogilvie was an active campaigner for the rights of women and children. Hardly surprising given her continuing struggle to be taken seriously in the world of science and male-dominated educational establishments. Her achievements mapping and defining the rock structure of the Dolomites are all the greater for the circumstances in which she was forced to carry out her fieldwork in this perilous terrain; her efforts disparaged and mainly carried out without assistance. Fortunately, coming from rural Aberdeenshire she was fairly familiar with mountains. The Ogilvies owned a holiday home, a very grand holiday home, in Ballater, close to Lochnagar, and with the Cairngorms virtually on her doorstep she had some hill climbing experience though not at the same level of difficulty to be found in the Dolomites.

The Ogilvies had money. May’s father was headmaster of Robert Gordon’s Hospital, later College – an uncle was a chief inspector of schools, another the rector of the established church training college in Aberdeen and another was headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. At the age of nine, May was sent to Edinburgh, to the Merchant Company School’s Ladies College. From there at the age of eighteen she went to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. She matriculated but music did not satisfy her yearning for learning and she returned to Edinburgh, to the home of the first modern geologist, fellow-Scot, James Hutton, and to Heriot-Watt University where one of her brothers was Principal. There she embarked on a Batchelor of Science degree, specialising in geology, botany and zoology, which she completed in London, graduating in 1893.

Schluderbach region where May Ogilvie did her fieldwork

The following year May, paleontologist and biologist, sailed to the continent, travelling to Germany where she began her geological research in the hazardous slopes of the Alps. To get to up into the mountains for a full day’s work meant rising in the very early hours of the morning day after day. Exhausting as this was she also had to deal with rock samples gathered each day and without assistance from the university she either carried them down by herself or relied on help from some of the local people she lived among. The area of Schluderbach  in the Cave Stone Valley and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Northeast Italy was off the beaten-track with virtually no made roads so moving around was difficult and facilities were absent but Maria Ogilvie was a spirited and determined woman and she persevered. She explored, mapped and studied the area of South Tyrol and Dolomites, defining its structure and fossils, presenting her findings in a series of academic papers written in both German and English. She became fluent in German and translated several texts including those of Professor Zittel of the University of Munich, one of the few academics who recognised her talents and who encouraged her. She continued working with Professor von Zittel at his institute and through him was in correspondence with other eminent scientists such as Archibald Geikie, William Topley and Charles Lapworth.  

The peaks of the Dolomites

Eventually Maria was accepted by the University of Munich to complete a PhD; the first woman to do so and succeeding with the highest honours. Slowly Dr. Maria Ogilvie found herself being taken more seriously as her breakthrough findings found greater circulation in science circles. More seriously but not too seriously. In 1925 the determinedly sexist fellows at the Royal Society in London refused to publish her Dolomite geological findings so Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon translated them into German and published them. At least in Germany and Austria there were some geologists who respected her expertise as a geologist.

May Ogilvie-Gordon resented how her work and achievements went largely unrecognised and commented upon in the UK. These slights because of her sex were never forgotten and as an elderly woman she criticised the Geological Society of London for discriminating against her when, finally, her contribution to science was recognised and she was awarded the Lyell Medal in 1932.

Her husband, John, said of her –

It is a lonely furrow you are ploughing, May; for your own sake I wish you had chosen some other interest for your hard work.

Years later with that in mind Maria referred to that lonely furrow –

It was a lonely furrow that I ploughed in my fieldwork abroad. A Britisher – and a woman at that – strayed into a remote and mountainous frontier territory between Austria and Italy, a region destined afterwards to be fought over, inch by inch, in the Great War… In point of fact 17 years passed before I received the first visit of an experienced geologist in the field…Another 15 years passed and the War had taken place before I received the visit of a British Geologist – the late Dr. John W. Evans of this Society, who came at the kind suggestion of Professor Watts in response to a request of mine.

Having spent much time in Germany, including after her marriage and having children – the whole family were often found clambering up Alpine mountains – May Ogilvie-Gordon returned to Scotland during the Great War, abandoning her work and her latest research paper on the eve of its publication, Das Grodener, Fassa, und Ennerberggebiet in den Sudtiroler Dolomiten. When in 1920 she returned to Germany – her husband had died in Aberdeen the year before – she discovered the publishing house was a victim of war and her scientific paper, photographic plates and maps vanished. There was nothing for it but to re-do the work and rewrite from scratch. Dauting as this must have been it was worth it in the end for the work was celebrated as “a monument in the field of Alpine Geology”.

Honours did come, eventually. She was recognised with an honorary membership of the Vienna Geological Society (the first woman to achieve this), was an honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria, the Universities of Trento, Innsbruck, Sydney and Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society but honours were slow in coming because for most of her life her work was largely ignored.

The misogyny she experienced throughout her career undoubtedly spurred Ogilvie-Gordon to dedicate much of her time trying to improve the lot of women and children. Bear in mind May was 74 years old before all women, women like her over 21, were given the right to vote in the UK. She felt she was making a difference and of her social work she said:

 The work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time.

As a representative of the International Council of Women Dr. May Ogilvie-Gordon spoke out against enduring slavery; domestic slavery where women were treated like merchandise in many parts of the world, behaviour that was degrading and evil.

At the National Council of Women in Britain Ogilvie-Gordon promoted the positive merits of film as an instrument for disseminating public information and a means of sourcing social information to feed into government for determining policy on political and civil rights. She was critical of negative influences of film where children were able to watch what were termed adult films – shoot ‘em ups, G-Men type cinema movies, and she advocated the inauguration of film production for child-friendly pictures.  

May Ogilvie-Gordon in 1900

Working children was another cause that deeply concerned her. Practically throughout Maria’s life children were expected to work and contribute to their family’s incomes. Young peoples’ and children’s labour was frequently unregulated and through the Child Welfare Committee Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon was involved scrutinising laws affecting their employment and in establishing Juvenile Employment Exchanges.

A Handful of Employments was published by long-gone Rosemount Press in Aberdeen in 1908 and intended to be a guide for girls and boys entering trades, industries and professions. As its author Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon itemised a long list of occupations and training that might be involved, pay and so on. She wrote of her regret that factories churning out products had replaced small-scale craft methods of production, regarding factory work as demoralising with operatives monotonously feeding materials into machines. Ogilvie-Gordon was critical, too, of girls taking up factory work because that meant they tended to lose household skills such as domestic economy, sewing, cooking, parenting and so on.

Both for boys and girls Maria Ogilvie-Gordon saw education as vital to their well-being and advocated it be built into their working day. She believed it was essential that girls and boys had choice over the work they were to take up rather than being pushed into any old job by their parents whose main interests were getting additional income coming into the home.

In A Handful of Employments she drew up tables of occupations for school leavers, listed alphabetically and easy to consult. Bobbin-turning, for example – both boys and girls at 16 could expect to be paid 6 shillings – note the same wage. Not all wages were equal between the sexes. A fourteen-year-old girl working in a brewhouse earned a shilling a week less than a boy.  

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon lived an exceptional life filled with academic and scientific successes which she earned through strong resolve, tackling each and every barrier placed in her way. She was helped by her intelligence and spirited personality and the conviction that women should have the same rights as men and be treated equally in society. She was also helped in achieving her ambitions by having a cushion of money behind her. For women without May Ogilvie’s resources there has always been and still are additional hurdles of prejudice (those of class, race, background) they must first overcome to begin to be accepted in a man-centred world. Women’s equality had a long way to run across Europe but the Continent was where Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon’s intellect and contribution to science were first recognised while back in the UK the world of science didn’t want to know and her research and achievements were ignored by British geologists – a male clique.

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider.

(Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, 1929)

Additional personal details

Maria M. Ogilvie, D.Sc. married John Gordon, M.D., on 27 November 1895 at the Council Hall in Gordon’s College, Aberdeen. The bride wore an ivory silk dress with a spray of orange blossom on the shoulder. The groom presumably wore a dark suit. To mark the occasion, pupils at the school were given a half-holiday. The family lived at 1 Rubislaw Terrace in Aberdeen.

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon died in London in 1939. Her remains were taken back to Aberdeen and interred in the grave of her late husband, infant daughter and son, at Allenvale cemetery on by the River Dee.   

A brief report of her funeral in a local newspaper mentioned that among wreaths were ones sent by Lord Aberdeen, Lady this and that, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and the Scottish Standing Committee.  

Obituaries of Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon appeared in various journals and publications, such as Nature and the International Woman Suffrage News paying tribute to the eminent scientist and feminist, Dame Maria Ogilvie-Gordon.

Maria and John Gordon named one of their daughters, Coral, to the astonishment of many.

Gordonopteris lorigae

In 2000 a new fossil fern genus discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites was named after Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, Gordonopteris lorigae.

A selection of achievements:

  • 1893 First woman to receive a DSc from University of London
  • 1900 First woman to receive a PhD from the University of Munich University
  •          (with highest honours)
  • 1901 English translation from the German of Professor Zittel’s History of
  •         Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century
  • 1908 Publishes Handbook of Employment for Boys and Girls (Aberdeen)
  • 1916 President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1919 Formed the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of
  •          Nations
  • 1919 Among first women accepted as members of the Geological Society of
  •          London
  • 1920 First JP and chairman of the Marylebone Court of Justice in London
  • 1928 First geological guidebooks to the Dolomites published
  • 1928 Honorary membership of the University of Innsbruck
  • 1928 Honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria
  • 1931 First female honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria
  •          Institute
  • 1932 Lyell Medal from Geological Society of London
  • 1935 Made Dame of the British Empire
  • 1935 Given Honorary LL.B degree from University of Edinburgh 
Sep 11, 2021

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast: Paul Dukes

Patrick Gordon and many other Russian mercenaries set sail from the local harbour. Aberdeen was a port en-route from and to Petrograd during the momentous years of the Russian Revolution.

(extract from A History of Russia c. 882 – 1996 by Paul Dukes)

Two periods from European history: Patrick Gordon, a general and rear admiral in Russia in the 17th century and the Russian Revolution in the 20th century – in common were roles played by northeast Scotland, including Aberdeen’s contribution to the Russian Enlightenment.

Professor Paul Dukes was an expert in Russian history who did so much to uncover that empire’s long links with Scotland and who by his dogged determination, and that of others, finally managed to get Patrick Gordon’s amazing and important diaries published as six volumes, edited by Dmitry Fedosov.

Wee crossed the Northwater, and through Bervy by Steenhave, and June 23. Dinedin Cowy, it being all the tyme a deluge of raine. At the Bridge of Dee, wee drank a glasse of wine, and about four o clock, came to Aberdeen, and lodged in the Katherine Raes. Many Friends came to see me.

(an extract from Patrick Gordon Diaries on a visit home to Aberdeenshire)

Patrick Gordon, a Catholic from Auchleuchries, near Ellon, who fled Scotland in 1651 aged sixteen because of religious persecution and took up arms as a mercenary (soldier of fortune)  for the Swedes, Poles and eventually Russians; persuaded by fellow-Scot, Colonel John Crawford, and a great number of Scottish men. Gordon became an adviser to the future Peter the Great and so was influential in the development of Russia, as Pyotr Ivanovich, Major-General.

Paul Dukes’ fascination with Gordon may have been one of the reasons he changed his mind about using his tenure at Aberdeen University as a stepping stone to an academic post elsewhere. He discovered right there on his doorstep a wealth of material worthy of researching aspects of Russian, Scottish and World history. When a young Dukes arrived in the mid-sixties the history department at Aberdeen showed little interest in Scottish history. It took a while to change. So, with the sixties in full swing the handsome Cambridge graduate – fluent in European languages, including Russian, took up a post of assistant lecturer in the city having previously lectured at the University of Maryland’s French and German campuses and completed his PhD at the University of London. For the next sixty or so years he could be found in an Indian restaurant in Aberdeen each Friday evening with a group of fellow-academics – the Curry Club.

On Friday 10th September, 2021, Paul’s family and friends gathered at Aberdeen crematorium to commemorate his amazingly packed life. The proceedings got underway with the theme tune from his favourite film, The Third Man. Those gathered reflected on the man we knew while a series of photographs of Paul and his family were screened to the music from test match special, Soul Limbo, and at the end of tributes was a rousing version of the Russian national anthem.

Paul, the man from south London, loved Scotland and in his element uncovering the vast web of influences between Scotland and Russia. His knowledge was vast. He was erudite. He was an affable companion who got on with statesmen, academics and the local farmers in the Howe o’ Alford. He loved northeast culture – its music, poetry and literature. Paul became friendly with David Toulmin (John Reid), a farm labourer turned author who wrote in the local Doric and Paul was closely involved in setting up the annual Toulmin Prize for Doric stories. He was also a great fan of Charles Murray, Hamewith, the Alford poet and recognised the importance of the Greig-Duncan collection of traditional ballads and folk songs of northeast Scotland. An example was The Widow’s Cruisie whose beginning amused Paul who chose it for the booklet on the Howe o’ Alford we collaborated on with its mention of places we lived in

Doon by Tough an Tullynessle / Aye the wife wi her vessel…

Paul Dukes wore his considerable knowledge lightly. Quick to laugh and share a joke, a linguist who could, allegedly, sing The Internationale in Latin and during his near-sixty years living in Aberdeen and the shire he picked up a fair number of Doric terms, delivered with his cultured English twist.

It was in the end of the sixties or early 1970s I first came across Paul Dukes. He turned up at a party in a posh part of Aberdeen, perhaps invited by one of his students. He and his companion were interrogated on the stairs by a posse of students who took great delight in refusing them entry – then one of the heels came adrift from his Cuban-heel boots and rolled downstairs.  

The next time our paths crossed was at the wedding of the late George Molland, then Senior Lecturer in History and the Philosophy of Science at Aberdeen University, when Paul and I found ourselves dancing together. I can’t actually recall when we became friends. It wasn’t when I was a student at university and attended one or two of his lectures but some time later.

It was much much later that Paul and his then partner, Cath (later wife), became near (in shire terms) neighbours of ours. We had known Cath since she came to Aberdeen in the late 1960s and through Cath we came to know Paul well. We visited each other, went on outings together, met up for lunches, scones or cake and sometimes all three. We played about on his snowshoes on the hill above their home at Tullynessle one winter when the snow lay deep there. We attended meetings of Alford History group together which is how we came to write that little booklet on the Howe. Much as Paul had encouraged interest in Scottish history at Aberdeen university during his time there he coaxed us, also historians, to take an interest in the history of the Howe o’ Alford. One of his last activities in that area was in persuading a local landowner to open up access to the remains of the Old Keig stone circle with its magnificent recumbent stone.

Paul’s conversation was always interesting and stimulating – 99.9% of the time it would veer towards Russia in some way. His mind aye active – he jumped through hoops to continue his visits to Russia, frustrated but not beaten by its labyrinthian bureaucracy in recent times. He organised cultural and academic visits between the two countries. He was always busy at some project or another – travelling to research, attending and addressing conferences, writing. Always something to discover. Always something to uncover. Always more waiting to be done. If he wasn’t planning a visit to Russia it was China or Switzerland or England. He never stopped. Having just finished his book on Manchuria (oh, the shock of discovering just how many pictures he wanted us to scan for it) he was trying to complete his memoirs in the weeks before his death. He was engaged with life right up to his death. His students would quip that his diary entries would read –

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast.

We last saw Paul when he visited us in our new home a couple of days before he was taken into hospital. What a man…what a life…what a gap in our lives he’s left.

Paul Dukes 5 April 1934 – 25 August 2021

Aug 15, 2021

Epidemic. Scamdemic. Anti-vaxxers. Variolation and Vaccine. Smallpox to Covid.

There is no pandemic. Covid is only flu. Covid symptoms don’t exist – there’s no proof! Scamdemic!

Vaccine = mass control. I will cheerfully risk catching Covid for the sake of freedom.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Early disease inoculations and the first inoculation against smallpox in Britain

Smallpox, a dreadful virus that once ravaged the world killing million upon million – around 300 million died of it in the 20th century alone, was finally eradicated in 1980. A virus found in rodents is suspected to have spread to humans as smallpox variola 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. Having been around this length of time plenty attempts at preventing it were tried including inoculation by one form or another. In China, for example, the skin of a healthy recipient was scratched and infected matter from someone with smallpox applied to the broken surface. Alternatively, dried smallpox scabs were ground down and the material blown up the nostrils of the person being protected.

The method that led to vaccinations that are familiar to us can be traced back to the Ottoman Turk practice of inoculation which was observed in Constantinople in the early 18th century by Lady Mary Worley Montagu, a writer and wife of the British ambassador there. She was, herself, disfigured by smallpox and she was keen her children did not share her fate or worse, death.

Similar to the Chinese method, the Ottomans also transferred pus from a smallpox blister under the skin of an uninfected person, to promote mild infection and protect against a major manifestation of the disease. Lady Mary had her young son inoculated in Constantinople in 1718 by a Greek woman familiar with the technique who was assisted by the Montagu’s doctor at the embassy – a Scottish surgeon from Methlick near Aberdeen, Charles Maitland.

Back in Britain Maitland went on to inoculate Mary Montagu’s daughter and so became the first doctor in Britain to carry out an inoculation against smallpox. This was in 1722 and he continued to practise this method – being granted a licence to test variolation, as it was called, on six prisoners awaiting execution at Newgate Prison in a deal made with them; the prisoners, both women and men, survived and subsequently were pardoned. Maitland’s reputation grew and he went on to inoculate about eighty people, rich and poor, six in his native Aberdeenshire and royalty. With variolation the patient was deliberately infected with a small amount of the smallpox virus (virus was not a term known then) to initiate the disease in a mild form. Deaths that did occur were nothing like in the same numbers as those contracting smallpox through natural contagion. As well as in China and the Ottoman Empire variolation was practised in Africa and the Middle East.

The name of Charles Maitland has been regrettably omitted from the story of virus eradication in the UK. He died at his home in Aberdeen on 28 January, 1748 and is buried at Methlick graveyard. His obituary in the local press described him as

famous for inoculating the small Pox, and was the Person appointed by his present Majesty Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, which he accordingly performed, and for which he was handsomely rewarded.

A reference to him at his old university, Aberdeen’s Marischal, describes him as a surgeon, ‘the first inoculator of smallpox.’

Not everyone who underwent inoculation under Maitland survived but he was confident in his own mind of the efficacy of the technique and is said to have made that known to anyone who’d listen while taking coffee at Child’s Coffee-House near the College of Physicians in London. Maitland returned to Scotland in 1726 where one of the six children he inoculated there died although that child was already ill with hydrocephalus, fluid in the brain. Nevertheless a link was made between inoculation and the death which led to an outcry against the practice so it was another twenty years before Maitland’s technique was revisited, by another Aberdeen surgeon, a Dr. Rose.  

Such was the dreadful impact of smallpox that attempts to stem the deadly virus were on-going with Scots buying inoculations for their children where they could. I don’t know how widespread this was but here in Scotland inoculation did not necessarily involve scraping the skin and applying infected pus to the scratch instead pus-saturated worsted threads were wound tightly around the wrists of children.

Variolation to Vaccination

Vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to fight off a virus.

The next step in the battle against smallpox is far better known. While poor old Maitland’s name has been relegated to the dustbin of history just about everyone is familiar with the name Jenner. The English doctor who was born a year after Charles Maitland’s death noticed that women employed milking cattle were often infected by a cattle disease, cowpox, that erupted as sores on the skin. However, these women seemed to be protected from smallpox so he collected pus from a cowpox sore on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and introduced it under the skin of an arm belonging to nine-year-old James Phipps, son of his gardener, to test his theory that inoculation of cowpox could guard against smallpox. A few weeks later he exposed the boy to smallpox. Thankfully he survived. It appeared the method worked. Jenner tested it again and again. Within five years he was confident enough to promote the practice as a means of combatting the deadly disease. Variolation was outlawed in 1840.

Nowadays vaccination can refer to any of the protections we are fortunate to have against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis, pneumococcal, flu etc but the term vaccination derives from variolae vaccinae  – cow pustules (vacca being Latin for cow.) The word vaccination began to come into common usage from about 1800. The matter used to inoculate against smallpox, cowpox lymph, was frequently taken from cows’ udders but also from the heel of a horse when rubbed with grease (cited in a reference from Aberdeen in 1853.) How do they discover this?

Who should have responsibility for vaccinations? This was hotly disputed in the nineteenth century. Doctors or poor law officials? As with variolation, vaccinations had to be bought by individuals and so it was mainly wealthier folk including the aristocracy who took advantage of them. This ad hoc approach to vaccination meant large sections of the population were unprotected and outbreaks of smallpox continued to ravage towns.  

Compulsion and the Anti-vaxxers

Compulsory vaccination was introduced into England and Wales in 1854. Scotland followed a decade later, in 1864. Dr Seaton’s Handbook of Vaccination: The Registrar-General for Scotland reported that of the 221,980 children born in Scotland between the day the Act came into operation, Jan 1, 1864 and Dec 31, 1865 – only 5,382 were not registered as vaccinated.

Children were the most-at-risk group and so parents were urged to do their duty and ensure their babies under three months of age were vaccinated –

the well-being of the community should not be sacrificed to the whims and senseless prejudices of those eccentric individuals

 Anti-vaccinationers – let’s give them their current title, anti-vaxxers, came from every part of society including the medical professions – and across Europe. In Spain and France unvaccinated children were not allowed to attend schools.

It was found that where rates of vaccination were high incidents of smallpox declined but then eventually complacency set in. With fewer occurrences of the disease people asked why bother vaccinating their children. Vaccination became a victim of its own success and the virus was able to take hold once again.

With cases rising further laws were introduced to reinforce compulsion, in 1871 in England and Wales. In Scotland public compliance with vaccination was greater than in England and Wales with up to 95% of babies vaccinated in the 1860s but here, too, opposition to compulsion was growing with people complaining of their liberty being impinged upon by the state.   

In his evidence to the Vaccination Committee a Dr Wood of Edinburgh said,

that there were very few unvaccinated persons in Scotland.

Dr Playfair, MP for Edinburgh University, was in no doubt compulsory vaccination in Scotland and Ireland could stamp out smallpox but a short time later, in 1871, an epidemic of smallpox raged through Scotland with a death rate of 36,000 per million of the population. The figure for coronavirus deaths in the UK is 1,870 which puts the impact of smallpox into some perspective for we find Covid-19 terrifying enough to live through.

Leith, Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen are suffering most severely from the epidemic. (The Lancet, 17 February 1872)

An anti-vaxxer newspaper, The Vaccination Inquirer, was begun by William Tebb in 1879. Tebb refused to have his own child vaccinated and wrote pamphlets condemning vaccines such as Government Prosecutions for Medical Heresy which is a transcription of his own court appearance.

Anti-vaxxers got their message out through publications such as Tebb’s along with articles and letters in newspapers, the law courts, public meetings and petitions. They were funded by the wealthy and better-off middle classes – parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords, church ministers, Sirs this and that, the odd countess, Isaac Pitman of shorthand fame and a host of other including a John Davie of Dunfermline, James Greig of Glasgow and Rev John Kirk of Edinburgh and presumably Uncle Tom Cobley.

One of the most prominent anti-vaxxers was Peter Taylor MP for Leicester, a town notorious for its low number of vaccinated children and high death rate. Leicester was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘the Mecca of antivaccination.’ Peter Taylor was the son of a silk merchant and member of the wealthy Courtauld family. Taylor who was president of the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination wrote the preface to the London anti-vaxxers’ bible of 1881 in which he criticised

The small band of medical experts who are paid certain thousands by the State to champion the cause of vaccination…facts which are not facts…statistics cooked into a condition of hopeless confusion.

Loss of liberty aside their main argument was that smallpox was less fatal before vaccination was introduced and fatal cases increased with compulsory vaccination from 1854 (England and Wales.)

Scotland’s Anti-Vaccination League was set up in 1896 and that same year exceptions were allowed – on grounds of conscience. Within a few years the words conscientious objectors would become very familiar at the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18 but before then the term applied to a parent, usually the father, who objected to his child being inoculated. Where no excuse was accepted by the authorities a parent was fined 20 shillings or a few days in jail for refusing to have a child vaccinated.

Objectors to vaccination complained of interference to their parental authority. Pro-vaxxers accused them of exposing their little ones to ‘the horrors of smallpox’ and enabling the deadly disease to spread like wildfire as the cost of everyone else’s liberty. Vegetarian anti-vaxxers could become conscientious objectors on grounds the vaccine was taken from animals – from cowpox lymph. There were anti-vaxxers who dismissed vaccination as “delusive superstition.”

Smallpox was horrible to endure and “the most terrible of all the ministers of death” that filled churchyards with its victims argued Thomas Macaulay the historian, politician and son of Zachary Macaulay the Scottish anti-slave trade activist. Many were not persuaded. Petitions were distributed and demonstrations attended. In England’s anti-vax hot spot, Leicester, in 1884 about 1200 people were summoned by the courts for refusing to have their children vaccinated and two-thirds of the town’s children were unvaccinated. The Vaccination Acts ‘are a dead letter, and there has not been a single case of smallpox in twelve months.’ The Weekly News on August 23, 1884.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Scotland had less trouble from anti-vaxxers, took a firmer line on compulsory vaccinations than in England and Wales and had fewer cases of smallpox as a consequence. But here, too, anti-vaxxers made a lot of noise. Protests broke out from Inverness to probably just about everywhere. The Leicester influence in the guise of a Dr Hedwin turned up in Glasgow in 1903 to lead a protest demo in the city. A year or two earlier a Glaswegian locked up in Duke Street prison for refusing to have his child vaccinated or pay the fine wrote to the newspapers. He was one of those Scots who seeks guidance on all things legal from English not Scots law. He argued that were he in England he would be free a day early due to how England calculated confinement. He also complained about being given sour milk with his skilly (porridge) and made a bizarre Biblical reference to Ezekiel and pastry before describing prison warders as Godalmighties, thick-skulled and ignorant concluding that smallpox could be cured with prayer so vaccinations weren’t necessary.

We can dismiss his ravings because compulsory vaccination in Scotland did have a dramatic impact on smallpox with the Scots and Irish described as ‘long-headed people’ for their support for vaccination. Ninety-seven percent of children six months and older were vaccined against smallpox in the first years of the twentieth century and then prime minister, Balfour, responded to anti-vaxxers demand they shouldn’t be treated like criminals by telling them anyone whose chimney went on fire was held responsible and fined and those opposing vaccination of their children were just as criminal. The Lords went against his wishes and voted to allow conscientious objection to vaccinations in Scotland for the first time in 1907.

Back in the nineteenth century as now feelings were strong on both sides of the vaccination debate. Then, as now, some anti-vaccination zealots were dismissed as bigots. We have Twitter, a platform not available to anti-vaxxers in the 18th and 19th centuries, to spread ill-informed prejudice but those anti-vaxxers a couple of hundred years ago though not keyboard warriors made a fair amount of noise without social media and had friends in high places who provided their blinkered ideas with a veneer of respectability. They lost in the end. Smallpox was eliminated in 1980. Another virus and another bunch of anti-vaxxers emerged as barking mad as the first. They won’t win either.

May 13, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 2 – Guy Bord? You won’t be.

Hullo again. Here I am with week two of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom. If it occurred to me week two would find me on easy-street having completed my initial book blog I was wrong. What certainly occurred to me was to cheat when I realised which books were next in line but that would have been to stoop to cowardly behaviour which I’m not normally averse to but – well a blog is a bit public, even mine. Anyway I’d included a photograph of the shelf in my first blog so such dirty tricks were out of the question.

For any who don’t know what I’m on about this series of blogs emerged from a challenge I set myself to read at least five minutes a day from a book on one shelf in one bookcase in one bedroom of my house. Before I start I should say that I am now reading the Margaret Dewar book I introduced last time and enjoying it though I don’t think she’s a particularly admiral person she doesn’t shrink from opening up her character flaws to her readers.

Not being able to find my notes on the next book along, today’s first book, The Conquerors by André Malraux, had me scranning through the recycling bin and sifting a small mountain of shredded paper through my fingers like an over-confident MI5 agent. Nothing for it but to dust myself down and start all over again.

Until a few mornings ago I had never read Malraux. Never heard of him. Like Margaret Dewar André Malraux was born at the start of the twentieth century. French, he went to Indochina on an archaeological expedition where he became embroiled in the politics of the area.  Later a spell in China then home to France to oppose fascism in his homeland where he would subsequently join the French Resistance and get involved in the Spanish Civil War, that training ground for the German fascist war machine.

His writings earned him many literary prizes though as far as I know, nor for this novel.  

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

The bulletin has been posted since yesterday, underlined in red.

As far as the horizon, the Indian Ocean lies glassy, lacquered, not a ripple. A cloudy sky presses down like the fug in a bathhouse, wraps us in humid air. The passengers pace the deck methodically, careful not to wander too far from the white-framed board where bulletins monitored tonight will be tacked up………

And so on with the author developing a setting for the civil war between the Kuomintang and communists in 1920s China, the parts played by a Bolshevik, an anarchist and pacifist and the war’s impact on many more. As political novels goes it has to be said le Carré it ain’t. I gave it a go but nothing about the story grabbed my interest which no doubt says more about me than the novel but I no longer feel a book begun must be a book finished and so with a great sense of relief it went back onto the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door in the spare room. I exchanged it for Margaret Dewar’s autobiography, and don’t regret it.

Malraux’s cover picture is more captivating than the inside although I don’t know the symbolism of the fly, likely it is explained in the book. Malraux was influenced by Nietzsche and the philosopher’s ideas of uberman or superman – that ability of a hero figure to do something great and so make him all-powerful. Nothing to do with DC Comics superhero, superman – well, I say that but what do I know? It just could be since Superman was a 1930s creation that Jerry Siegel may well have been a Nietzsche afficionado.

All heavy going but wait…hold the front page…Monsieur Malraux it emerged from my googling his name was a tealeaf of some notoriety. In 1923 he was arrested for the theft of 10th century Cambodian temple relics which he intended to sell for cash, being broke at the time. He got a suspended prison sentence. Now I have to ask which crime is greater – art theft or writing a tedious novel?

Was hoping to move on to something lighter but oh, oh next up is Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy (1976.) I’ll keep it brief. Habermas has the reputation of being Germany’s most influential thinker currently. He’s still alive, at ninety-one. His ideas were popular in the 1960s and to give you an impression of what was making it big in the world of philosophy and sociology back then along with Beach boys and Beatles are a few lines from the start of the book – two lines since I feel for you.

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

To use the expression “late capitalism” is to put forward the hypothesis that, even in state-regulated capitalism, social developments involve “contradictions” or crises…

What I did find fascinating is Habermas’ explanation that the commonly-applied term “crisis” was first used in the context of illness. That we can all now appreciate in these Covid-19 times. Crisis in terms of illness suggests helplessness of the patient with very little influence on how the illness affects him or her. Yes, definitely appreciate that nowadays.

He goes on to consider the extent of crisis in other areas of life, the passivity of people affected and loss of individual sovereignty – fatalism. Now we’re talking because we’ve been captivated by Netflix apparently never-ending Turkish series Resurrection-Ertugrul where fatalism dominates life and death – en-shala (if it is the will of God) and if ever there was a heroic figure it is Ertugrul – one that I bet Malraux would have killed for, or at least stolen off someone.

Look, I have to lay my cards on the table – this selection, random I’ll remind you, is as light as a pan loaf sans yeast. This is me preparing you for book number three, Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue from 1954.  The title comes from a vision the 16-year old Koestler had home in Buda in Hungary where he imagined a super-arrow streaking into the blue sky and onwards through space – to infinity. The Koestlers were Russian who like so many thousands before and after them fled first from the terrifying Tsarist regime then the violence of the revolution in hope of a better and more peaceful life in Europe or America which is how the Koestlers came to settle in Hungary.

Arthur Koestler was an interesting man. A near exact contemporary of André Malraux, the name is German but this Hungarian-born writer is classed as British. A one-time communist, Koestler abandoned the party over the ruthlessness of Stalinism and his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon published in 1940, is set during Stalin’s great purge and Moscow show trials.

Goodness knows where our copy of Darkness at Noon is; certainly not on this shelf so let me get back to Arrow in the Blue which begins with –

Horoscope

From the beginnings of civilization man has held the belief that the constellation of heavenly bodies at the moment of his birth had an influence on his fate. (Back to Habermas.) It occurred to me that the constellation of earthly events at that moment might also be of some significance and, one day in 1946, I decided to cast my secular horoscope.

Koestler took himself off to The Times publishing offices in London to pore over a copy of the newspaper published on 5 September 1905, his birthday. What he was faced with were all kinds of mundanity. Just what impact any of the mundane events he discovered had on his future Koestler wasn’t certain but his life turned out to be anything but mundane. He was a member of the KPD, German communist party; a member of a Zionist duelling club; was a farm labourer in Palestine; sold lemonade in Haifa; edited a Cairo newspaper; was a foreign correspondent; a science editor in Germany; a Cold War propagandist in Britain and perhaps most exotically of all he flew to the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin in July 1931. After becoming terminally ill he and his wife, Cynthia, committed suicide in 1983 in London.

I can’t leave matters on that tragic note so will squeeze in a duo of books by John Aberdein. First up is Strip the Willow proving the slapdash storage of books because if there was any order on this shelf his first novel, Amande’s Bed, would be to the left but it isn’t so let’s take a look at Strip the Willow after a brief word about its author, John Aberdein – from Aberdeen.  

Because of the impact made by Amande’s Bed on the reading public Strip the Willow was eagerly anticipated. The book delivers savage satire and splenetic venting through the medium of the Doric; the language rich with its own vocabulary that is spoken from Aberdeenshire to Angus.

The strikes, occupations and demonstrations of France in May 1968 form the background of Strip the Willow which is set somewhere not unlike Aberdeen – in a city called Uberdeen. Uberdeen isn’t a nice place. The rapaciously ambitious LeopCorp dominates everything that goes on in it. For those not familiar with Aberdeen its emblem comprises a pair of leopards. Everything is up for grabs in Uberdeen, everything turned into a money-making opportunity by LeopCorp’s Rookie Marr’s gofer – the wonderfully named Guy Bord, a man who has come though almost as many political groupings as Arthur Koestler. Rookie Marr might be a shoe-in for Nietzsche’s and Malraux’s uberman but they never imagined turning Uberdeen’s majestic granite main street into a giant bowling alley – it’s impossible to overstate the whole bizarre jamboree that is Strip the Willow.  Guy Bord is a nod to the French Marxist philosopher and filmmaker, Guy Debord, and is typical of Aberdein’s clever wordplay.

March 31

what larks

A lemon UCKU plastic bag, flat on the tar, lank in the air, hopped and gusted towards her. According to the latest story, plastic bags were the root of all badness.

Nobody will be free until the last financier is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

L’imagination c’est le pouvoir, Imagination is power. Such was the calibre of slogan she and others had printed and glued to the walls of Paris.

Mort aux sacs plastiques! It didn’t quite fit somehow.

My copy of Strip the Willow was personally inscribed by John in 2009 at a book event at Aberdeen University which is very nice. The novel won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Award for Fiction in 2010.

All this takes me to my final book for now, Aberdein’s debut novel, Amande’s Bed which took the Scottish literary world by storm – a tour-de-force of the Scottish novel that won the Saltire Book of the Year prize in 2005.

Amande’s Bed attacks the ‘plasticated’ incursion of Americanisms into our lives resulting in de-junking of local traditions and values. It is a tale of love and internationalism, European naturally, with the eponymous Amande – a French-Scot – discovering the northeast is well in need of revolution and ripe for it. Aberdein’s entrance into Scotland’s cultural scene if not quite as sensational as the coming of the messiah was nevertheless dramatic. He was immediately compared with, among others, our own Ali Smith and Jackie Kay and James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

No idea if any of the above, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges have tackled the varied occupations that John Aberdein has – herring and scallop fisher, teacher, parliamentary candidate, political adviser… kayak coach, the first man to kayak around the Scottish mainland.

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

His mother woke several times that night, over-sweaty to sleep now with memories stirred. Finally she upped and padded from the bed-recess to the scuffed porcelain sink. She poured herself a cup of cold water, standing and nursing it, her candlewick robe over her nightslip. Dee water it was, Dee water that had come eighty miles from the roof of Scotland into the tenement.

a deterrent

I took the bus up tae see Ludwig. Ward 8.

O, that was good o ye. Ye hardly ken him.

I’ve met him afore. He was gey dozent wi the anaesthetic. I left him a pound o fudge.

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

Better than maist folk that’s just lost a haun. Aye, an far you then?

And we waited after Strip the Willow but John Aberdein didn’t feel obliged to continue indulging us with his raucous and hilarious jabs at authority and exploitative and ruthless capitalism for there have been no more novels.

Enough of this. Till next time, take care a’body.

Apr 23, 2021

St Mary’s of the Storms – 14 hundred years in the lives of the folk of Cowie

Charming and ever-edging towards the beach below sits St Mary’s of the Storms. The church, the last of a number spanning fourteen centuries, is derelict but the graveyard surrounding it remains the eternal home of many of Cowie (Kolly) and district folk – a great number dependent on the sea and coast for their livings, as is apparent from motifs on their memorials.

There are splendid views from the site, grass-covered Old Red Sandstone cliffs stretching up from the North Sea where in the distance elegant white turbines harness the wind. To the south is the bonnie town of Stonehaven and just beyond it another ancient ruin, the renowned Dunnottar Castle, a mere stripling by comparison with the first of the kirks at Cowie, having been built seven hundred years or so later, in the 14th century.

Cowie’s holy site was established by St Nathalan/ Nachlan/ Nauchlan. From Tullich* east of Ballater where he also set up a church and where he is buried (c. 678AD) as well as one at Coull. Legend has it the enterprising St Nachlan had a treasure hoard which he wrapped in a bull hide and buried “between the kirk and the kirk’s ford” at Cowie but I imagine that’s a cock-and-bull story.

Early chapels would have been constructed of timber and turf with the first stone one taking shape during the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the 11th century; the broken-down church seen today dates from the 13th century. At some point in its past it is believed St Mary’s was a creel kirk; a church where a creel (basket carried on the back for carrying fish, tatties, cut peats and babies) was passed around the congregation to collect offerings of food and clothing for local poor.

Hundreds of years of being blasted by coarse winds straight off the sea it is hardly surprising the poor state it’s in but then there was the small matter of an Archbishop of St Andrews who during the Reformation in the 16th century ordered the removal of the roof – and that was that. Having set a precedent other people followed his example and began taking away stones so the dereliction continued. Attempts to stem the tide of stone theft included a legend that whoever dared build a home from kirk stones would suffer bloody retribution.  William Rait of Redclock (sic) shrugged off the threat and helped himself to part of the church roof but soon it was said his house “rained drops of blood.” At least that’s how the story goes.  

Roll on three hundred years and it was proposed to sell the burial ground. Concerned individuals got together in February 1832 and formed a society “for the protection of the dead in the burying-ground of Cowie” – the upshot was a revival of the graveyard but given the times with resurrectionists (grave robbers who sold bodies to medical doctors and students for anatomical study before access to corpses was legalised) such a menace they arranged for a mort house capable of holding 20 coffins to be built to protect recent dead. Erected against the chapel’s west wall it was secured behind heavy doors that required three keys to unlock it. The three keys were kept by different men and all had to be present to open up the vault to receive and remove coffins. The dead were stored for several weeks until such time it was thought bodies were in such a decrepit state they would be of no interest to the anatomists. With the revival of the kirkyard came the acquisition of more land to cope with the demand for burial space and so an extension was consecrated in the 1880s.

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

The location of the kirk and graveyard meant access was precarious, along a track on the clifftop; difficult enough during fine weather for coffin bearers in particular but surely a nightmare in wet and snowy conditions.

St Nathalan’s became St Mary’s or Our Lady of the Storms in the 13th century, on the 22 May 1276 – the dedication carried out by another Bishop of St Andrews, William Wishart. Never a parish church, St Mary’s was part of the parish of Feteresso. Several Scottish kings worshipped in the Cowie chapel. Scottish kings used to be itinerant – travelling around their realm – and when in the Royal Burgh of Cowie they would stay in Cowie Castle – its existence now reduced to a few stones a couple of hundred yards to the south of the kirk and graveyard. Cowie Castle stood on its promontory for 400 years. Malcolm Canmore, the king already mentioned, was behind the building of the castle in the 11th century.  The castle was in time occupied by the Frasers and from 1369 the powerful family of Keiths of Dunnottar (Earls Marischal of Scotland.) Once Dunnottar was built royalty made that their northeast residence. Both Cowie and Dunnottar castles along with nearby Feteresso were raised to the ground on 21 March 1645 during the Covenanting wars.

Travellers from the south heading towards Aberdeen passed through this area – a dangerous stretch of dirt road called the Cowie Mounth that was nothing more than swamp and gulleys until eventually filled with boulders to provide a better surface. It later became a turnpike road. The early highway ended at Kincorth and from there travellers and goods crossed the river Dee by ferry boat to the town of Aberdeen.

The earliest stones, their inscriptions and symbols are lost to us but there are plenty standing to fascinate anyone visiting this charming place. Lots of stones show symbols of the fleeting nature of life (hourglasses, crossed bones, skulls) and trade marks including boats, anchors, ploughs, shoemaker’s knife.

Most of the inscriptions on the table-stones are illegible now but well-known is one –

“To the memory of Raymond Stewart, a Black Man, a native of Granada, who lived for thirty years in the service of the late Mr Farquharson of Breda, in this country, and was much respected. He died at Elsick the 3d January 1834, leaving money which he had saved for charitable purposes.”

Another flat slab records the death in 1763 of John Thom, a tenant in Elrick, his wife, Ann Burnett who died in 1779 and their nine children.

Several ministers are buried at Cowie including the Reverends John Troup, John Petrie and Alex Greig, three Episcopal ministers who defied a law prohibiting them from preaching to more than four people at any one time and were jailed for six months in Stonehaven’s Tolbooth in 1748. Troup played the Jacobite air, O’er the water to Charlie on the bagpipes as he was marched to the prison. Defiant throughout they preached from their cell window to supporters gathered in the street, even baptising babies held up for blessing.

Several illustrious folk are buried at St Mary’s and at least one declared genius. William Kilgour who in addition to being a “superior weaver of bed-covers, and table-cloths, etc” constructed 8-day clocks from beginning to end.

Northeast Kilgours became world-renowned textile manufacturers. I don’t know if William was one of them. Possibly.

A memorial to the crew of Stonehaven’s lifeboat, St George, who died on 27 February 1874 while attempting to rescue the barque, Grace Darling. The lifeboat capsized as it entered Aberdeen harbour with the loss of coxswain and three crew. Two are buried at Cowie, one at Nigg and one at Belhelvie. Memorials such as this are a reminder of the ever-present danger of life at sea. Another tragic incident occurred on 21 April 1880 when a strong gale sprang up from the southwest and three local fishing boats were lost.

A simple gravestone marks the deaths of several members of the Christie family of Skateraw when their yawl, Brothers, went down within sight of land. There were six of a crew onboard: William Christie, sen., William Christie, jun., Thomas Christie, Andrew Christie, sen., Andrew Christie, jun., Peter Christie. Four were seen clinging to the mast spars and two more desperately holding onto the bow of the boat. A rescue craft was sent out and William junior was able to grab hold of a lifebuoy thrown to him but before any others could be rescued the boat turned over trapping them and they drowned. The older men were brothers and each left large families.

*(‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com) )

Feb 27, 2021

A Scot in Africa – victim of Blackwater Fever

British East Africa

 

Background to Roderick James Munro’s story

In the days when the world map was daubed with British Empire pink signifying its dominions, colonies, protectorates and so on men and women from the home nations sought work and investments in each of them. One such territory was British East Africa; an area of about 639,209km2 /246,800sq ml in the vicinity of the African Great Lakes.

Towards the end of the 19th century Eton-educated Englishman, Lord Delamere, turned up in Kenya where he became the lucky recipient of a huge swathe of land, a gift from the British Crown. Delamere had recognised the potential of this area to create agricultural prospects for Britain – monocultures and exports became the modus operandi in British-controlled estates. Single crops – sugar and rubber for example – small local farms growing essential food were swept aside so that the land could be used to grow raw materials for UK industries leading to food shortages and starvation for people who then became dependent on wages to buy food.

Not only did colonies tend to have the sort of climates that made it ideal for the production of raw resources for the mother country they came with plentiful cheap or free labour to boot – all of which hiked up profit levels both for private and government businesses.

Apart from some basic manufacturing most complex industrial operations took place back in Britain, creating jobs for British workers on rock-bottom wages certainly but these were still far in excess of what was paid to native labour in the colonies. 

Vast fortunes were made by some individuals. Little wonder successive British governments resisted demands for independence from its colonies for so long. Sustained exploitation of overseas territory became an established asset to the British economy its knee-jerk response to parts of the Empire daring to demand independence usually took the form of denigration – they were too ignorant and immature to succeed. Where humiliation failed there was recourse to violence. Terrible violence. The British establishment was/is always up for a fight. Times have not changed.

Britain was not alone in being quick to exploit the treasures of Africa. The Scramble for Africa was a late 19th century movement in which European governments disgracefully competed to divvy up the African continent. Portugal was involved in Mozambique in what was called Portuguese East Africa. The Sena Sugar Estates became one of the largest sugar plantations in the world and home to the largest sugar factory in Africa. One man who found work there as an overseer on the agricultural estate was a farmer, a young Scot from the Black Isle, Rod (Roddie) James Munro, and it’s correspondence on his life and death that inspired this blog and will follow.

The Sena Sugar Estates were set up by another British migrant, Peter (Pitt) Hornung. Hornung was the son of Transylvanian migrants to England where they established businesses in coal, iron and timber. Young Pitt moved to Portugal and from there to Portuguese East Africa where he tried to establish an opium farm but when that failed he turned to sugar cane. The result was the Sena Sugar Factory established in 1906 which became the Sena Sugar Estates; operating over 14,000 square miles. The family grew fabulously rich on the back of their African sugar venture. The little township of Beira where it was situated became an important port of entry for deep up country and  was the focus of western commercial activities – a considerable change from 20 years earlier in the 1880s when it was a military post with one or two corrugated iron huts sitting on a sand spit at the mouth of the Pungwe river.  Roderick James Munro was born at the end of 1882.

Less rich, well to be honest, not rich at all were many of the Europeans who went to work abroad, exploited in their own way though not nearly as exploited and misused as native labour living and working under the cosh of the Empire. For some the prospect of adventure was the lure to going abroad, some to see the world and for others a basic need to go anywhere to earn a living. For the majority of people living in Scotland in the 18th, 19th and into the 20th century as well life was hard and poverty never far from the door. As Dr David Livingstone put it in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa – always at home “the anxious housewife striving to make both ends meet.” The 10-year-old David Livingstone was already working in a factory between six in the morning and eight at night to help his mother make both ends meet but like so many poor Scots he benefitted from the elementary parish schooling available to all – precisely the educational blocks that made so many Scots ideal candidates for jobs within the Empire. Levels of pauperism were high across Britain through the 19th and into the 20th century but in the Highlands where Rod Munro’s parents eked a living from the land poverty was extreme.

As a rule of thumb wages in Scotland were lower than in England and in Scotland the lowest incomes of all tended to be in rural Highland communities such as that Rod Munro came from. Most impoverished of all in any communities were its women and children. Widows, women who lost husbands to military service or death, struggled to cope with life for themselves and their children without a husband’s income. Essential to the success of the British Empire was its military – the stick of persuasion to yield to the British crown. From the end of the 18th century the British military predominantly comprised of Scots. Poverty, lack of employment and large families pushed lots of men into the military and both men and women but mainly men to seek work abroad as a means to escape destitution. One in five Scots aged 75 and above experienced extreme poverty. Let no-one tell you the union has been positive for Scotland and her population. That is a myth.

***

A Scot in Africa 

1 9 1 2 

Roderick-James Munro was born at 9.30 in the evening of second December, 1882, at Burnside, Rosemarkie in the County of Ross.  His father was John Munro, a farmer and his mother, Margaret Munro nee Hossack whose occupation before her marriage I don’t know. They married on 10 December 1869 at Rosemarkie and Roderick was one of several children born to them.

Roderick James Munro’s birth certificate

Along with many of his Black Isle neighbours, Rod left Scotland for work abroad. He spent time in Demerara, a former Dutch colony in South America, now Guyana, that later became absorbed into the British Empire, as British Guiana. A century before tens of thousands of people enslaved and brought to the island rose up in revolt, led by plantation cooper, Jack Gladstone. The rebellion was put down and Jack sold and deported, like the disposable property he was. Others were executed. You might know the name Gladstone for this was future British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s family. These Whigs or Liberals raked in huge fortunes as estate owners and later in compensation when slavery was abolished in British colonies.

Men such as Rod Munro desperate for work turned to job adverts in the local press – jobs in cocoa, sugar, coffee and rubber plantations in exotic sounding locations. So a young Roderick James Munro set off into the world, leaving behind the poverty of farming in the Highlands, said goodbye to his parents, siblings and friends and looked one last time at the familiar communities around Rosemarkie, Fortrose and Avoch then headed off, first to South America and then to Africa. He worked some years in Demerara, on farms and there he suffered a serious attack of malaria.

By 1912 and at the age of twenty-nine Rod Munro was an employee of the Coia Estate at Villa Fontes at Chinde, Zambezia in Port East Africa, working for the Sena Sugar Factory. Chinde was developed as a port by the British for people and goods destined for and from the British Central Africa Protectorate.

Rod and his brother John, a farmer at Blairdhu, Killearnan in Ross-shire were in frequent correspondence. Spellings of places varied then and now.

John seated aged 16 with his brother Rod at his side. Rod is then 14yrs old

7 July 1912 letter to John from Rod c/o The Sena Sugar Factory Ltd, Coia Estate, Villa Fontes, Zambezia, Chinde, Port East Africa.

My dear John,

I am very glad that I have heard from you at last with your new address.

Of course I can quite understand your writing and not mentioning it, but it kept me from replying to you. Well I suppose you will be getting settled at Blairdhu by this time. I hope you have been lucky with your valuations at both places.

I am enclosing a bank draft for £150 which will help you a little. I want you to give me an I.O.U. for it, just to keep things square. I am also sending home four lion claw brooches, one for each of my sisters and sisters-in-law. I am sending them all to you so you might pass them along for me.

It is very cold here just now at nights and the mornings it makes one fairly shiver, and glad to sleep under blankets.

We are very busy here just now as this is our crop time, and we have a lot of other work on hand besides.

I am at present making a railway out to the new land we are taking in. We have to make it through about 3 ½ miles of forest before we come to where we want it and it will be going five or six miles after that. However that last part won’t be bad, it is the forest part that will take the work as we have some heavy cuttings and embankments besides the trees. We have only about half a mile of it done, and have struck stone in our second cutting, so there is going to be some sport before it is finished.

Now John, I don’t think I have any more news this time so I will close with love to all from

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro

John and Bella Munro on their wedding day in December 1911

John Munro had recently married Bella Millar of Whitebog near Cromarty and the couple became tenant farmers at Blairdhu near Muir of Ord. John had been a tenant farmer at Feddonhill (Feddiehill) above Fortrose.

15 November 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My dear John,

I must really apologize for being so long in writing this time, but I have been very tired when I come in at nights, and a bit worried besides.

He had previously worked for another sugar plantation, the Beira Rubber & Sugar Estates at Inhanguvo near Beira, East Africa before moving to the Sena Sugar Estates and when he was approached by Beira to return to them as a head-overseer he thought he was free to do so and so accepted the offer.

Unfortunately, Sena’s general managers refused to let him go and there was a disagreement over whether Rod was free to leave. Beira then came back with an enhanced offer of £5 more than he was earning with Sena plus offering him responsibility for 2,500 acres. Sena then offered him more money to stay and when Rod insisted he wanted to leave his boss at Sena, a Mr Durward, lost his temper and refused point blank to allow it. Rod accepted the Beira job, insisting he would leave at the end of the month (November.) Still the General Manager, Schmidt, refused to let him go. During an argument Rod told Schmidt he could do what he liked but he was leaving, as arranged. Schmidt referred the matter to company’s Commandant who suggested Rod leave half-way through the month, taking into account when he had first told them he was leaving, though not officially on paper, but Schmidt refused to accept the arrangement. Rod worried he would be prevented from leaving quickly and that Beira might not hold the position for him – and if it didn’t he would have no job because Sena would not want to keep him.

As it happened a compromise was reached and soon Rod had taken up a position as Chief Overseer at Inhanguvo.

19 December 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My Dear John,

I am afraid I have been rather neglectful in writing of late but things were a bit topsy-turvy and I was always putting it off till they had settled down.

He found the company had changed since he had last worked for them and “not for the better” and suffered regrets at leaving his last position for he found the Inhanguvo estate poorly run. The weather had been extremely dry which did not help with the crop but commented that the rains had begun so he hoped that soon there might lead to improvements in output. The company projected making about 8000 tons of sugar the following year which in Rod’s opinion was wide of the mark for he calculated about 5000 tons or even 4000 being produced. That current year production stood at 4300 tons.

Leaving aside his employment concerns, Rod congratulated John and Bella on the birth of their first child, Christina (Chrissy.) Rod regretted missing another New Year back at home in Scotland. He would never make it home for one again.

The letter ends on a light note with him welcoming the laying out of a nine-hole golf course due to be opened on Christmas Day by one of the directors, a man called Rennie. Rod kidded John that when he got home he would be regarded as “one of the ‘bhoys’” and signed his letter in his usual way,

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro.

1912 Christmas Card to John and family from Rod. His last one to his brother.

Inhanguvo Christmas Day 1912. Rod is 4th man from right marked by X.

Rod had just celebrated his 30th birthday.

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10 February 1913 letter to John from Rod.

Rod scolds his older brother for being a worse letter-writer than he was.

My Dear John,

You are even more careless than myself in writing I think.

Rod complains about the food provided by the Estate,

“nothing fresh here, not even meat or vegetables. Fowls are very scarce and as a result we have been living almost entirely on tinned stuff for the last 2 months and I am beginning to get fed up with it as it is hardly the best thing for the liver of the stomach.

He blames the poor quality of food in part for the amount of sickness among Estate employees.

The weather as “fearfully dry” as he begins the letter but he lays it down and when he next writes there has been a heavy fall of rain of about 7 inches. One extreme to the other.

He mentions an acquaintance of theirs, Sandy McDougall, an old man who died alone – presumably at home in Rosemarkie or Fortrose.

5 Mar 1913 letter from John to Rod.

The envelope has been re-addressed from Inhanguvo to c/o the British Consul.

Dear Rod,

We have no letter from you now since four weeks, I hope that there is nothing wrong with you.

I have been a little irregular in writing lately, but there is really very little to write about apart from the usual daily round.

I see in this week’s paper that McKenzie, Kildary has bought a house in Alness, and that he will live there after Whitsunday and also that he is sailing this week for Brazil to report on some land there. I expect that Fraser will have arrived in Africa again by this time. Alex Ferguson (a cousin) was up at Edinburgh lately getting an operation done on one of his eyes. They were all here for a weekend after coming back. I hope that he will now feel better, but we have had no word from them since a week.

Flora’s bairns (Flora was their sister in Fortrose) were all laid up with measles. I saw Rory (Flora’s husband) in Dingwall today, and he told me that they are now on the recovery.

I am kept pretty busy just now with the cattle and sheep. The sheep are now getting cut turnips, which means a good bit extra work, but I am looking forward to a big price in a few weeks, which will make up for the extra trouble.

Both cattle and sheep are selling very well this season, but I expect the profits will be all required, as the expenses are very much more here than at Janefield. (the family worked here as tenants, at Rosemarkie.)  Labour especially as we have to keep two men, and a boy, besides a girl in the house.

Bella and I were at Munlochy at the Scouts Dance a week ago. It was very good, as usual. The only dance or entertainment of any kind we have been at since coming here.

The Mason’s Dance comes off in Avoch on Friday. I don’t think we will go. It is rather a long drive, and the weather is very rough at present.

I have had no word from the Junors (cousins) since six months but sometimes hear that they are still alive from Tom McDonald. Jamie and they are still near each other, and I suppose they have horses of their own on some Government work. I suppose they will be so busy making their pile that they will have no time to write.

The baby is growing fast, and is doing her best to keep us lively.

Now, as I have really no news I must close, hoping to hear from you next mail.

With Love from all,
I remain,
Your loving brother
John Munro

John’s concern at the start of the letter is prescient. His brother Rod was by then gravely ill at Inhanguvo.

18 March 1913 a typewritten letter to John from Rule H.B.M Vice Consul, Beira.

Sir,

I regret to have to inform you that your son (confusion here over which John as Rod’s and John’s father was also called John) Roderick James Munro died at Inhanguvo on the 16th inst. of heart failure following an attack of blackwater fever.

The sad news has just reached me from the General Manager of the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates, where your son was employed, and I trust that the address furnished me will find you.

(The letter arrived at John’s farm of Blairdhu near Munlochy since he was the one in correspondence with Rod and his address would have been found among his belongings.)

The effects of the deceased will be disposed of in the usual way by the Portuguese authorities, and any balance that may remain after administration of the estate will be handed over to this office in due course for transmission to the next-of-kin.

With sincere sympathy in your sad loss.

I am,
Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
F. Rule
B. M. Vice Consul.

18 March letter to John from Don Mackenzie at Inhanguvo.

Dear Mr Munro

It is with the deepest regret that I take up my pen to inform you of your poor brothers death which occurred on the 16th instant.

I am very sorry to say that he had Black Water fever and his illness only lasted 15 days, he had all the attendance that he possibly could get there was a nurse and myself looking after the poor fellow but it was God’s will to take him away from us. I was looking after him when he died at 9pm he went unconscious and at twenty past he was dead.

He was a great favourite by all how new him and every body is very much cut up indeed. He was a very great friend of mine and I can’t express how I feel the loss of such a valuable friend. These will be sent straight home his Album Bible  and Prayer book also a small toilet case which he got a present in 05 and his ring. All this will be sent direct home this mail.

Yours faithfully
Don MacKenzie
of MacKenzie
Late Blackstand

20th March 1913 letter to John (John senior, although the letter was sent to Blairdhu) from Beira’s General Manager, Mr. O. Walpole.

Dear Sir,

It is with very great regret that I have to advise you of the death of your son Roderick James Munro.

Rod had been taken ill on second of March and was said to have been successfully treated for the fever but complications affecting his liver and heart set in. He was attended by a doctor and a nurse who nursed him day and night along with help from Donald Mackenzie (who I think was his cousin and also employed by the Estate) and they were with him when he died.

Towards the end of his illness death came suddenly and unexpectedly, his heart failing at 9 o’clock in the evening of Sunday 2nd March.

He was buried in the cemetery at Luzitania the next evening.

Days later another letter arrived, this time from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London.

25 March 1913 letter to John from the Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates headquarters at Gresham House, London, England.

A typewritten letter acknowledging a telegram sent to them by John urgently inquiring about his brother’s death.

The letter contains a reference to a cablegram from a Mr Murdo Grant on the subject of Rod’s death. The letter writer explains the delay in responding to John’s telegram was because the London office was shut up for Easter.

The cablegram reads:

“Regret to inform you that Mr. R. Munro died March 16th heart failure after blackwater. Advise relations.”

To the point.

The letter from headquarters explains that Rod’s body had been buried and that his illness must have been short for there was no reference to him in the weekly medical reports. It also reports that the doctor attending Rod was a Dr Somershield. The secretary who signs the letter finishes by saying he had met Rod before he went out to Beira and “formed a very high opinion of him” and asks John to pass his deepest sympathy onto their parents.

East Africa under British Administration included the port of Beira in Portuguese territory where Rod worked. Beira was an important and bustling port and point of access deeper into the interior of the continent. Situated on the estuary of the Pungwe river, the harbour was capable of berthing very large ships while smaller lighters were used to load and discharge cargo from the great vessels. Harbour facilities were split between ones operated by a Mozambique Company and others under the authority of a British South African Company.

Even in this one small area within the Empire it is apparent the large scale of jobs available to British subjects. And they were attracted abroad in their tens of thousands. But while ordinary British people were employed in a host of positions on estates such as the Beira Sugar and Rubber Estates and Beira port the men who ran things and who whose bank balances benefitted as a result came mainly from the British establishment. Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor who was appointed to Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates was the 1st High Commissioner of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate amongst other positions. His death, suicide, was blamed in part for effects he had of Blackwater fever and malaria.

30th March 1913 letter to John from his brother Alec, a doctor in Kilmarnock.

Enclosed with the letter is another from the Beira Office in London and Alex requests its return once John has read it. He writes that he intends contacting Dr Somershield, the doctor attending Rod through his illness and asks John to forward any letters he receives from Beira.

Alec writes how depressed he is feeling and clearly concerned for their parents, enquires about their health, as well as that of John and his family.

2 April 1913 letter to John from Rule.

Typewritten letter from the British Vice Consul at Beira referring to the letter sent by him on 18th March to Rod’s father informing him of his son’s death but sent to his brother John instead. In contrast to the letter of the 18th this one is strictly business-like even arrogant, certainly insensitive. No apology for the confusion instead the Consul passes responsibility for the error onto someone else, anyone else except the man who sent the letter, the Consul himself. This is how the British government treated ‘their own’ people. We can only imagine the disdain they had for local people.

“Your letter of the 5th March which was opened by me is enclosed.”

15th April 1913 letter to John from Alex.

This letter in the form of a mourning note and envelope, black margined was sent along with two letters he had received from Beira in London (John returned those letters so they are not available.) Alec asks after their parents; their mother presently being looked after by their sister Flora, and their father.

“We had a letter from Flora today in which she says mother has been in bed but is up again. Is it a cold or what? I hope she is better. How is father?”

The rest of the letter continues in a similar vein, on family matters. The whole family must have been suffering the sudden loss of Rod with him so far away, knowing they can never attend a funeral for him or bury him at home.

Alec ends –

“There is nothing else to tell you or at least I can’t think of it just now. Everything is overshadowed by Roddie’s death.
We shall be glad to hear from some of you soon.
Hoping you are all well,

I am
Your loving brother
Alec.

On 14th May letter to John from Oliver Walpole, General Manager at Beira.

Typewritten letter from Walpole in response to one sent by John on 17 April enquiring about Roddie’s effects. The belongings of any worker who died in harness to the British Empire, though perhaps not at board level, were sold to pay for expenses incurred by them prior to their deaths, such as their board and lodgings. Walpole tells John that he went into Rod’s room and removed some little personal items before a local judge was placed in charge of Rod’s possessions ordered the effects be listed and removed to the judge’s office and Rod’s room sealed. Creditors were invited to send in their claims which would be met from the proceeds of an auction of his property and cash found in his possession. Any balance after debts had been met would be handed over to the British Consul who remitted any money remaining to the family – eventually.

“This in Munro’s case should be I think a fair sum, as he was a careful man, and had, I believe, a considerable balance at Beira.”

Walpole took one or two items away before Rod’s room was locked and other bits and pieces he bought at the auction – a very few items he thought the family would value having, watches which may have been family pieces, private letters, a bible and hymnal – those items presents from his mother, and the ring he was wearing at the time of his death. Walpole explains he did not see any need to purchase Rod’s clothing and travelling trunks. Those possessions retained would be sent on to John at Blairdhu.

The paltry number of Rod’s possessions at his death were split into three auction lots –

Clothing
4 watches
Letters and papers
1 cash box
1 Bible
1 Hymnal
2 pocket books
1 hydrometer in case
1 ring
1 album
1 toilet case

A handwritten addendum reads:

“If I find the parcel will be too large for post I shall send it by first steamer.”

Pocket book with his initials belonging to Roderick James Munro

14 May 1913 letter to W. Murray Bemister at Beira HQ in London from Oliver Walpole at Inhanguvo.

This letter is in response to one sent him by Bemister and in it Walpole refers to the death of “poor Munro” and tells Bemister he has already written giving Rod’s father a brief account of his son’s death but was busy at the time so had not gone into detail about his funeral. In the meantime, a letter was received by Dr Somershield at Inhanguvo from Alec Munro – who the writer notes “is a medical man” asking details of the illness. Walpole says the doctor (Somershield) will get in touch personally with the family. Walpole is careful to emphasise the care and attention provided to Rod, possibly in light of the fact that Rod’s brother Alec is a doctor and so covering their own backs in a way they might not have generally done over the deaths of employees. The letter is a fulsome account of Rod’s last days presumably so Bemister will be forearmed for any future enquiries from the family.

He was taken ill on night of Sunday 2 March. On that afternoon he had been playing golf and was apparently well. He sickened later in the afternoon and went back to his quarters and to bed. His room is in the double story building near the office known as the Towers (not according to Rod, for the Scots there referred to their lodgings as the Crofter’s Arms.)

When Walpole saw Rod the next morning it was clear that the blackwater fever had set in. The doctor was called and by the following Thursday when a

“Mr Rennie saw him the Blackwater had disappeared although Munro was naturally in a very weak condition at this time we had no doubt about his ultimate recovery, and as I believe I mentioned in one of my letters it was arranged that he should proceed to England as soon as he was fit to travel.”

By the following Monday, 10th, he was ‘not so well.’   On the Wednesday his condition had worsened and a nurse, Walker, was put in charge of his case and Rod’s friend and compatriot, Donald Mackenzie, was then relieved of his duties looking after him full-time but he did continue to stay with Rod overnight while the nurse did the daytime shift.

“Every convenience and comfort was supplied.”

However the ice machine was ‘temporarily out of commission’ and Walpole explains he arranged for ice to be taken up daily from Beira to treat Rod’s fever for Rod was constantly asking for ice or cold soda to slake his thirst.

Dr Somershield visited Rod morning and evening and Walpole claims to have looked in several times. He was chatting with Rod about 5.30 that last Sunday evening when Rod appeared quite cheerful and was joking about the good time he would have on board the boat home. But by 9pm Don Mackenzie sent a message to Walpole. Rod’s condition had deteriorated. Walpole and Nurse Walker attended and found him unconscious and close to the end. Don Mackenzie said he had taken a drink of barley water at 8.30pm and grumbled that it was not “sufficiently salt.” He then fell asleep and passed away. The time of death was given as 9.20pm.

The majority of the Estate’s staff were said to have attended Rod James Munro’s funeral. His coffin (made on the Estate) was draped with the union jack and carried by his fellow overseers from his room to the landing stage on the Pungwe River, then referred to as the Biera River by the white immigrants there, placed in a boat and towed by motor launch with its flag flying at half-mast and on to Luzitania.  There the coffin was taken ashore and carried the mile or so the cemetery. A trolley had been laid on but Rod’s fellow worker’s chose to carry him all the way on their shoulders. No church minister was available to read the service so Walpole did it. Fifty-four people of all nationalities were at the graveside as Rod’s body was lowered into the grave “as Munro having been here for some considerable time was well known to everybody in the District.”

31 May 1913 letter to John from Oliver Walpole .

Typewritten letter and receipt for the box containing Rod’s effects. Walpole lets John know how much he paid for those of Rod’s possession he bought for the family at the sale and the cost of postage for sending them to Scotland – 10/6 (ten shillings and six pence.)

June 3rd 1913 letter to Alex from Dr Somershield, Inhanguvo, Beira, Port East Africa.

John retained his own handwritten copy of the letter sent to his brother Alec in Kilmarnock. The letter goes into some detail of the care of Rod since Dr Somershield took over his case on 5th March.

He saw him on three occasions when Rod was suffering from malarial fever. On 8th March the Blackwater symptoms had disappeared and his temperature had returned to normal two days later. On 11th March Rod had a relapse of malarial fever but his temperature never got above 101 and only reached that on a few occasions. His relapse was complicated with congestion of the liver which had suffered from attacks of malaria and was enlarged, as was his spleen. In his final hours Rod was perfectly lucid and he spoke about looking forward to getting home to Scotland and the Black Isle when his heart suddenly gave out, explained Somershield, and he died from an accumulation of carbonic acid the blood in about twenty minutes; describing his death as peaceful under slowly increasing drowsiness.

Walpole mentions how well Rod was looked after by an excellent nurse and one of his friends,

“In this neighbourhood no patient had ever been so well looked after.”

“He was buried on the other side of the Biera River, at Nova Luzitania, and his funeral was the most imposing seen here.”

16 June letter to John from his brother Alec in Kilmarnock.

Alec writes to John enclosing a letter he has received from Bemister, of Beira HQ in London. He says he has not yet heard from Dr Somershield but will pass any letter he does get onto John. He tells John that what he does know as a doctor is that Blackwater fever is ‘very fatal’ and he thought a result of malaria – “probably Roddie got it in Demerara when he was so long ill there.”

Alec recognises Bemister’s kindness and asks John to let their sisters Flora and Mary read Bemister’s letter. He asks after their parents and tells John he sent a urinal to their father who was ill so that their mother would not have to rise so often in the night to help him to the lavatory. In closing he mentions his own wife, Annie, who he describes as very well and wondering if a bonnet she sent to their mother fitted and if not to send it back to be altered or exchanged.

Rod’s sister Mary (left) holding Bella’s (next to her) baby Chrissie. Rod’s mother extreme right and sister Flora behind her. The boys are Mary’s sons.

 Sept 19th 1913 letter to John from Walpole at Inhanguvo.

In this typewritten letter Walpole acknowledges John’s receipt for the safe delivery of Rod’s things. It is clear that John asked him about money in Rod’s possession and Walpole tells him the British Consul is handling that and it should have been forwarded to the family.

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31 Jan 1914 letter from John to F. Rule, British Vice Consul in Beira.

John replies to an earlier letter from Rule informing him the proceeds of his brother’s estate will be transmitted by Rule to H M Consul General at Lourenço Marques for distribution to the next of kin. Neither his father (staying at Blairdhu) nor John have heard anything about this.

“I understand that he had a balance at Beira, as you would no doubt have seen on going through his papers, as well as any money in his possession or due him by the estate where he was employed at the time of his death.

“Mr Walpole informs me that you have paid his expenses in connection with the things which he so kindly sent here, for which I sincerely thank you.

“My father and I would consider it a great favour if you would send us particulars regarding the administration of the estate, or communicate with H.M. Consul General at Lourenço Marques inquiring into the cause of the delay.”

He signs the letter –

“I am, Sir
Yours very respectfully
John Munro Jr.

3 Mar 1914 letter to John from H M Vice Consul, F. Rule.

Typewritten letter in reply to John’s letter of 31 January. Rule informs John that the balance of funds of his late brother’s estate have been forwarded to the Consul at Lourenço Marques for distribution.

He has copied the Consul General into this correspondence and expects he will contact John.

Date unknown letter from John to Walpole.

John is very apologetic about contacting Walpole once again but he says in an earlier correspondence Walpole had mentioned a movement among the overseers to erect a stone to Rod. He asks if this has been done. If it has not he says he would be pleased if it could be done and he would send the money required in connection with it.

“I would also consider it a great favour if I could get a photo of his grave, and the house where he died, or any other photos in connection with this work.

I was glad to see by your last letter that your expenses in connection with the things which you so kindly sent have been paid by the Consul.

I have not yet heard anything from the Consul regarding the administration of the estate but I am writing to him by this mail.

Again apologizing for troubling you, and thanking you for all the kindness and sympathy you have shown towards us in our bereavement.”

Finding the money to pay for a gravestone would not have been a simple affair for John. The Munro family were by no means wealthy and he was a recently married, small tenant farmer setting out on his own with a young family. The heartbreak he feels at Rod’s death is apparent in this letter. And the desperate need to place what has happened in some context that John can comprehend of a young brother dying in a place he cannot imagine and is so different from all that is familiar in the Scottish Highlands.

27 Mar 1914 letter to John from Walpole.

In it Walpole confirms receipt of John’s letter of Jan 31st 1914 in which he asked about plans to have a memorial stone erected on the grave. It’s clear he has heard no word on the subject from East Africa. Walpole admits nothing has been done to date, adding that many of Rod’s friends have left Inhanguvo – implying most who knew and cared for him enough to see the work through had moved on but he names an accountant, Mr Jess, as being most likely to ensure a stone is erected. Walpole, himself, has also left the company and Inhanguvo and will be returning to England shortly. He also mentions the firm has recently ‘disposed’ of property. So things have changed in several ways with Beira Sugar and Rubber. Ending, Walpole tells John he will forward his letter to Jess and ask him to take up the matter and provides John with his address in Derby if he can be of further assistance.

4 April 1914 letter to John from R. Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter confirming Walpole has forwarded John’s letter to the writer, R. Jess, an accountant at Beira.

Jess explains the Estate has been recently taken over by a new syndicate and Walpole has left but that he, Jess, would make enquiries about the cost of getting a memorial stone from Durban and hopes to be in a position to let John know how much that involves in a few weeks.

There are only six white men now on the Estate who knew your brother and most of them could only give a pittance towards the cost of erecting a stone, however, I shall let you know about this when next I write.”

Jess tells John he knew his brother, Rod, well – both living in the same quarters until Jess married. Both being Scottish they tended to spend a lot of time together. He describes Rod as a man who knew his own mind and that often the two argued politics over the dinner table in the evenings. Rod, he says, was always cheery “and appeared to me to be particularly solid and well.”

Referring to the days before his death, Jess describes visiting Rod almost daily throughout his illness and reiterates reports of the good care provided to him after his relapse.

“It was then the trained nurse was brought in – or perhaps a day or two after – when it was seen he was not making the usual recovery. I was in his room the day before the nurse took up the case and he was then for the first time depressed; complained of weakness, and having to lie in bed. Of course I tried to rally him, gave him the usual little attentions one does in a sick room and he appeared cheerier when I left him. That was the last time I saw him, as I went straight from his room to my bed with a serious attack of malaria. I only recovered in time to attend the funeral.”

Jess adds to what Walpole had to say about the funeral. Not only was Rod’s coffin carried by his companions to the cemetery but his friends and companions insisted on filling in the grave instead of leaving it to the gravediggers. Walpole who gave the readings and conducted the service according to the English Church broke down towards the end and it was Jess who took the book from him and finished the readings.

Jess informs John that he and his wife later visited Rod’s grave and tidied it up with his wife intending to plant flowers around it. Describing her as an amateurish photographer, Jess promises John he will try to send him photos that might interest the family and finishes by assuring John the quarters occupied by Rod were in the healthiest place on the Estate with the exception of the manager’s house.

3rd June 1914 letter to Jess from H. L. Davis, Manager at J. H. Wade & Son of West Street, Durban (funeral managers and monumental sculptors.)

This communication was to obtain suitable designs of memorial stones for Rod’s grave.

Wade provides a few examples varying in price from £15 to £45 for stone and base and kerbing. Stones were mainly offered in marble and there was a polished black granite cross. Inscription was extra at 7 shillings per dozen letters incised into marble and 9 shillings per dozen in the harder granite. Delivery to Beira was on top of this. All in all a great deal of money for the young tenant farmer. 

9th June 1914 letter from R. Jess to John.

Typewritten letter with the heading The Beira Rubber and Sugar Estates scored through and over stamped Beira Illovo Sugar Estates.

Jess encloses the information he received from Wade & Son.

The prices, from an African point of view are very reasonable” Jess notes and if John selects a stone, he, Jess, will see it gets moved from Durban to Beira. He has also “approached the white men here and they have promised to assist in this way.

“Mr Harper, our new Manager, has kindly promised to have the Stone brought here from Beira and will also provide the labour and material necessary to erect it substantially.”

Jess reassures John he will make any arrangements that are needed to the memorial stone erected on Rod’s grave and while he still has no photograph of the grave he is enclosing photos of Inhanguvo so that John might see for himself where Rod lived and worked. He asks that John return the photos which presumably he did.

Unknown date letter from John to Mr R. Jess.

John acknowledges letters from Jess of 4th April and 9th June on the subject of Rod’s memorial stone. He thanks Jess for his involvement and thanks, too, to Mrs Jess for both had been tidying up Rod’s grave and sent photos to John, “which I prize very much.”

John apologises to Jess for his delay in writing back but his father died about the time Jess’ first letter arrived and he was busy with family matters. John also notes that since this, the family’s second recent bereavement, he was “not now in a position to spend so much on my brother’s memorial, as I formerly would have done.”

The family’s limited resources had to stretch to two gravestones – one for their father and one for Rod. John does, however, select one of the stone’s offered by Wade & Son in Durban – a Houlton Cross priced at £12. 12s. He advises Jess to have it erected without surrounding kerbing (to reduce the cost) and encloses a money order for £17, to cover stone and inscription.


The inscription to read:

In Loving Memory of
Roderick James Munro
Born 2nd December, 1882
At Rosemarkie, Rossshire
Scotland
Died at Inhanguvo
16th March 1913
Peace, Perfect Peace

John asks to be informed if the £17 does not cover all the costs incurred.

“Please convey my warmest thanks to Mr Harper, and others out there who have assisted with the arrangements.”

He ends apologising for the trouble he’s putting Jess to and asks him about Donald MacKenzie and if he is still at Inhanguvo, commenting that he only knew him slightly but knows his father well. The MacKenzies lived about 20 miles from John, at Fortrose, and may have been related to the Munros.

7th September 1914 letter from Wade & Son.

Confirmation of order for memorial stone for Rod’s grave.

24th September 1914 letter to John from John T. Rennie Son & Co, Aberdeen Direct Line of Steamers London Natal and East African Ports.

Business letter requesting receipt for parcels “duly endorsed for the box ex s.s. “Inkosi””and enquiring if it should be locked for the key to be sent to them (to check contents) after which they will forward the item to John, according to his instruction.

29 September 1914 letter to Wade & Son from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter refers to their communication of 3rd June, and confirming Jess has now heard back from the late RJ Munro’s relatives who have commissioned him to order the Houlton cross and bases – and provides Wade with the inscription written by John.

1st October 1914 letter to John from Jess at Beira Illovo Sugar Estates, Inhanguvo, near Beira, East Africa.

Typewritten letter acknowledging the safe receipt of John’s money order for £17 and confirmation he has ordered the memorial requested and arranged with the Durban agents for the work to be carried out properly. He also promises to let John know when that work is completed.

And sadly,

“You mention Donald McKenzie in your letter, but you will probably have since learned that the poor fellow died on the 29th of July last of Blackwater. We laid him side by side of your brother.”

11th November 1914 letter to John from Jess at Inhanguvo.

Typewritten letter in which Jess lets John know the cross and base have arrived at the Estate but not been unpacked. He assures him the stone will be erected as soon as a man is made available for the task. Jess paid the stonemasons at Durban £16-6-8; £12-12/- for the stone plus £3-14-8 for the inscription. He also had to pay £1-6-3 for transporting the lot from Durban bringing the total up to more than the £17 provided by John but says he is not asking him for the 12 shillings and 11 pence difference, as this cost will be carried locally (by company or men it is not specified.) Jess adds that he (and his wife it appears) visited the cemetery the previous Sunday and tidied the graves of Rod and his friend Donald MacKenzie and photographed them. He ends by informing John they were leaving Inhanguvo at the end of the year, with him going on active service in German S. W Africa but he would try to get a photo of the raised cross taken before leaving.

18th December 1914 letter to John from Jess.

Typewritten letter from Jess informing John that the stone has now been erected and inscribed, as requested, and promises photos of it. He mentions that they have been suffering “very trying weather” there and yet another employee was buried last week – “Blackwater as usual. I shall be glad to get away from the place.” Jess ends by providing John with his new address in Johannesburg.

27th December 1914 letter from John at Buckden, Huntingdon, England to Jess.

John has a different address, in England, a reminder the year is 1914 and John is undergoing military training hundreds of miles from home, as a member of the Lovat Scouts.

John as a Lovat Scout in 1915

He refers to Jess’ letters of 1st October and 11th November, welcoming the delivery at Inhanguvo of the memorial stone from Durban and reacts to the tragic news of Rod’s friend and colleague Donald MacKenzie.

I was very grieved indeed to hear of Donald McKenzie’s death of which I heard some time before receiving your letters.

I am afraid I am putting you to a great deal of trouble, but I know that you are doing it willingly, and I feel that I can never repay either yourself or Mrs Jess for all you have done and I daresay you will note that I have changed my address but it is only temporary, as I have been on Service with the Lovat Scouts since the 5th of Aug, and we are shifted about a good deal. I am pleased to note that you are also going to don the Khaki. We expected to have been sent abroad before now, but I understand that mounted troops are not so urgently required as this seems to be a war of artillery and trenches but we expect to be sent out early in the spring. 

I shall be pleased to hear again from you at any time, and any letters addressed as formerly to Blairdhu, Killearnan, Rossshire will be forwarded to me if I am away from home.”

He thanks Jess for all his kindnesses and wishes he and his wife “all happiness in the New Year.

“I remain

Yours very sincerely

John Munro

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30th August 1915 letter to John from Commercial Bank of Scotland in Muir of Ord.

This typewritten letter came in response to one John sent to the bank on 25 August in which a cheque was enclosed drawing on his account the sum of £150 in favour of Dr Alexander Munro, as Executor of Roderick James Munro, for a loan of that amount paid to the Farm. This must have been money lent to John by Rod when John took up tenancy at Blairdhu farm, to help him with initial expenses and was now being paid back into Rod’s estate. Bank charges on the cheque came to 1/11d which the bank requested John pay in the form of postage stamps.

 

John’s and Bella’s wedding in Inverness. John and Bella seated centre, front row. Alec is seated to the left of John. Their father, with beard, is seated on front row 4th from right. Rod does not appear to be in the group.

Blackwater  Fever

Blackwater fever continues to be a dangerous disease in tropical areas of the world with a death. Haemoglobinuric fever caused more deaths and chronic illness than all other diseases among Europeans and Chinese labourers in West Africa and East Africa in the 19th century.

The eminent German microbiologist, Dr Robert Koch, described it as a disease creating the greatest havoc amongst Europeans in German East Africa which he attributed to quinine poisoning following treatment for malaria. The ‘father of tropical medicine’, the parasitologist from Old Meldrum in Aberdeenshire, Dr Patrick Manson, was first to bring Blackwater fever to the attention of western medicinal authorities and it was his work which led to its inclusion in English language medical textbooks late in the 19th century. But it was Dr John Farrell Easmon, an illustrious Creole doctor and Chief Medical Officer at Cape Coast in Ghana who was from Sierra Leon who, in the latter 19th century, wrote a treatise on The Nature and Treatment of Blackwater Fever in 1884 which first linked Blackwater with malaria and who gave this horrible disease its name, Blackwater fever.

Dr John Easmon, seated

Blackwater fever was characterised by haemoglobinuria, jaundice and vomiting. Its name comes from the darkness of urine passed by those affected; coloured by the presence of haemoglobin or methaemoglobin.

Blackwater fever was not confined to Africa but reported in a host of places including China, Italy, Sicily, New Guinea and Java. It was promulgated that its suspected increasing prevalence in Africa was in part due to disturbing soil and opening up waterways that accompanied the drive of colonists to increase farming areas and build ports, factories, houses, stores etc.. Bad outbreaks coincided with long very hot dry spells which included lagoons and ponds drying up then being heavily disturbed by eventual heavy rains.

Given Rod Munro’s complaints about lack of fresh food it is interesting that doctors suspected Blackwater was a greater threat during shortages of fresh meat and vegetables.

The Blackwater victim experiences fever often to over 103F with the patient fitting on the second or third day of the fever but it was noticed in many fatal cases the temperature had often returned to normal. As mentioned above the urine turns dark – but varies in colour between light red to very dark. In addition to fever and darkened urine patients often experience nausea or vomiting and diarrhoea which tend to cause most distress because of their persistence and mean that victims find it difficult to retain medicines and nourishment.  Vomit is often bright or olive-green colour. Headaches tend to be severe and there is pain felt in loins and limbs with numbness in hands and feet. Both liver and spleen are enlarged, causing further discomfort. Of those affected by this horrible illness it proves fatal to about twenty percent. 

When chloroquine replaced quinine as the medicine administered to tackle the disease its incidence declined, from the 1950s but more recently resistance to chloroquine has seen a rise in cases.

Nova Luzitania, now Búzi, where Rod James Munro was laid to rest was devastated by cyclone Idai in 2019 killing 534 people so even if his granite cross survived a century of upheaval in Mozambique it is unlikely anything of it remains today.