Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

It was almost incredible that it could be true. We stood together in the darkened street, half delirious with joy, while tears mingled with our laughter.

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Guest post by Textor

Emotionally charged, with an echo of Wordsworth’s response to news of the French Revolution, these are the words Aberdonian John Paton on hearing that the Tsar had been overthrown. It was March 1917. It was the Russian Revolution. The thirty one year old socialist was leaving an election meeting where he’d supported the anti-war stance of Ramsay MacDonald. Since 1914 millions had been sucked into the bloody maelstrom of world war. For small bands of socialists across Europe the war was final proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism and as such had to be opposed despite lies in the press, willingly if not happily accepting threats of violence and imprisonment.

Anti-war socialists saw glimmers of hope in working class militancy which continued through these desperate years. Rent strikes, demands for 40 hour working week, the emergence of an unofficial shop steward movement all implicitly challenged political authority so much so that by 1917 “Red Clydesiders” were being harassed, sent to internal exile and gaoled. Socialists were buoyed but faced the fact that in Britain and across Europe, particularly in Germany, social democratic parties had taken up their respective national flags and helped drum men to the battle-fronts.

When John Paton left the election meeting on that fateful evening he met with a comrade who was almost choking with excitement at the news of the fall of the Tsar. Hardly surprising that local election politics were for the moment put into the shade. For John Paton events in Russia spurred him to greater political activity which eventually resulted in him becoming a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party.

In a similar fashion the cub reporter James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) was inspired by the later Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia so much so that he and a colleague could not sleep o’nights. We prowled Aberdeen . . . talking the moon into morning about jolly and heart-some and splendid things: life, death, the Revolution. Young Mitchell was then working for The Aberdeen Journal; the city’s most important newspaper. Since the 1740s the Journal had served Aberdeen with a generally conservative view of the world. In its time it had wagged a political and moral finger at the excessive demands of Chartists and seen off more radical newspaper rivals by accepting some of the liberal policies of the 19th century. Basically the Journal wanted men to be politically sensible. Political militancy, whether it was votes for women or re-division of land, was unacceptable, at least in the parliamentary “democracy” that was Britain.

James Leslie Mitchell’s enthusiasm was not shared by the Journal nor by its stable-mate The Evening Express.   However, this is not to say that the earlier phase of the Russian Revolution which had so captivated John Paton was denounced by the Aberdeen newspapers. We must remember that the British state and its mouthpieces were concerned with the prosecution of the war. Where John had seen universal hope for an end to the slaughter and the building of a more just world the Aberdeen papers believed that far from doing this the fall of the Tsarist autocracy would mean a more rational organisation of Russia’s military forces, taking power from the hands of an incompetent regime, with what they called dark and mysterious forces behind the throne, and placing it with men in the Russian parliament, the Duma; in other words a new regime with some sort of political legitimacy, consequently better able to work with Britain and her allies by marshalling workers and peasants to fight the German enemy.     

In March 1917 Aberdeen Daily Journal welcomed the “Revolution” and confidently predicted that a more democratic empire could be built with the help of Grand Duke Michael and on this solid foundation the energetic prosecution of the war [would be] their first consideration. And at the same time that it praised Russia for holding fast to the European battlefields where millions were dying the newspaper congratulated Russia for not taking the bloody path of the 1905 revolution or that mapped out in France in 1789. As the Evening Express put it the simple-hearted, generous, hospitable Russians were following a course of common sense in showing a willingness to keep the slaughter going.

On the other hand there was an enemy in Britain, conspiring to defeat the just ends being pursued by the state, personified in the person of Ramsay MacDonald: Aberdeen wants no peace bargainers, no mischief makers, in a time of national crisis. Russia, said the Journal must also beware Socialists and fanatical Revolutionaries. Ramsay MacDonald is now one of the great villains of Labour history; the man who sold out to the National Government and Conservatism. But this is to forget he and others had the courage and we might say the decency to stand against the bloodletting of 1914-18 even if this was from a pacifist stance rather than, as the young John Paton would have demanded, a revolutionary overthrow of the property owning class. 

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It just so happened that Aberdeen played its own small part in ensuring the pacifist MacDonald with his M.P. colleague Fred Jowett of Bradford were prevented in June 1917 from attending an anti-war socialist meeting in Petrograd. Aberdeen was the “certain port” from which these two men attempted to sail only to be stopped by organised labour under the leadership of Captain Edward Tupper of the seamen’s union. Pickets at the harbour threw their luggage ashore and followed them to their lodgings to keep them from sailing. Needless to say the local press was enchanted by this show of militancy, displaying a support for picketing which tended to be conspicuous by its absence in earlier industrial strikes.

When the Bolshevik Lenin was given safe passage by the Germans to the Finland Station in April unsurprisingly he was said to be an agent of the Kaiser, the editor of the Evening Express advised the Russian state now is the time for a supreme effort to trample down the internal enemy before hurling back the invader. Equally unsurprising the newspapers also saw MacDonald and his ILP comrades as doing the Kaiser’s work not to mention men and women going on strike threatening to disrupt munitions production.

Regardless of all the political guidance being given and the moral exhortations made it still looked as if the events in Russia had a dynamic beyond the control of any of the states involved in mutual destruction. The “moderate”, pro-war, Russian leader Kerensky seemed unable to guide things to the desired end. In Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk (Parish Church) on the third anniversary of the outbreak of war Colonel the Rev. James Smith preached asking God to intercede on the side of Britain: he prayed to God that a better day might speedily dawn upon distracted Russia and that the men of patriotic spirit and invincible courage be forthcoming to lead one of the greatest and most ancient of Empires to the destiny that awaited her. That destiny turned out to be not the one desired by the Rev. Smith or the local editors. Perhaps the call for God to intercede had not been heard or God (some Hegelian might say History) had set course for a future beyond their imaginations.

Come October-November 1917 and pro-war elements had their worst fear was realised: in Petrograd and beyond workers and peasants organised in councils sought peace and began to imagine a world which might be other than the one they now lived in. This was, however, more than a mental act. The councils, packed with voices from all parts of the political spectrum, were organised around degrees of holding power, making decisions which carried force and when necessary using armed militias to achieve their ends. This is what the British and other voices of “reason and common sense” could neither comprehend nor accept.   The Bolsheviks were wiser, their political programme, as much as it might have been made on the hoof at times, recognised the dynamics of class action and were able to place themselves at the head of this deeply revolutionary situation. Where revolutionaries saw liberation and new found freedoms the status-quo perceived only anarchy, an upsetting of the natural order and more immediately the loss of privilege and power. 

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One of the local editors wrote: It is incredible that the Russian people would long tolerate a system which aims at undermining the foundations of the whole fabric of society . . . But undermine it they did. The exploited across Russia and many beyond its frontiers recognised that the “foundations of the whole fabric of society” included systematic exploitation of workers and peasants, imperial adventures and colonisation which had given the world the blood drenched trenches across Europe. Who held power, and to what ends, this was one of the keys to explaining 1917 and indeed equally important to understanding the future of what became Soviet Russia and the emergence of a regime which eventually needed no lessons in how to repress and control civil society.

But this was in the future. Socialists might at times be star-gazers but they are not clairvoyants. The emergence of workers and peasant councils pointed to new social forms around which a new world might be built. One hundred years on John Paton’s words hint at how it must have been:

 Every day brought its fresh excitements and new hopes that even now something of lasting good for Socialists in Britain was to come out of the war.

February 2, 2017

The day the Food Controller banned the buttery rowie

 

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Rowie, buttery or Aberdeen roll

Threat to Aberdeen’s Morning Delicacy

ran the headline on an inside page of the local press on 27th August 1917 under pictures of some of the latest local men killed in the Great War – Trimmer Adam Clark of the navy, private William McRobb and gunner James Hutcheson from Turriff.

The rowie warning also appeared below an article on a joint socialist proposal to end this horrific war. Its main thrust was a need for independence for Belgium, Alsace and Lorraine, Polish unity, self-determination for Armenia, India, Egypt, Ireland and Algiers, formation of a Balkan Confederation, a League of Nations and a hands-off approach to German trade – all in all a ‘people’s peace’ they called it.  Of course self-determination and independence are no longer supported by some of today’s ‘socialists’. As with many things a lot has changed in the intervening one hundred years, including the meaning of socialism.

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For the good souls of Aberdeen who were not laying down their arms, legs, minds and lives for the king of more immediate concern was a threat to their fresh hot morning buttery rowie.

War resulted in restrictions and controls over food supplies and the emergence of ‘the Food Controller’. Aberdonians were, and many still are, fond on a warm rowie in the morning. Unfortunately for the buttery rowie one of its main ingredients, butter, or often lard or margarine, distinguishes it from a bread roll or bap. It is frequently compared with a French croissant by those unfamiliar with it – as it is assumed people will be more acquainted with something French than something that comes from the exotic and far-flung northeast of Scotland (a faraway place of which they know little.)

Aberdeen’s buttery rowie was duly sent to the Food Controller with an explanation that it should not be considered as bread but a different product entirely, one that should be consumed within 12 hours of baking. As anyone who has eaten a buttery rowie knows they are soft and melt-in-the-mouth straight from the oven and different, though not unappetising later, when reheated.

The Department of Food had stipulated that bread could not be sold until it was at least 12 hours out of the oven. This was to restrict its consumption. Fresh bread doesn’t slice easily and tends to be sliced thicker than stale loaf so doesn’t stretch as far but that would not affect rolls, also slapped with the same restriction, so alternative thinking was that as fresh bread was tastier than older bread more would be eaten than less appetising stale bread.

Initially the local Food Controller swallowed the difference between the buttery rowie and ordinary bread rolls and decided this was, indeed, a miracle of the baking oven and so exempted it from the 12 hour ruling. Bakers in and around Aberdeen carried on producing buttery rowies while in other parts of the country bakers, ignorant of the marvellous Aberdeen buttery rowie, gnashed their gums, furious at this exception to the bakery rule. But, all good things come to an end and after a few months of exemption from the restriction officialdom proclaimed that the morning buttery rowie –

was to be banned!

Apart from being a low blow to the stomachs of Aberdonians this hit bakers in the city and shire for the sale of buttery rowies made up a significant bulk of their trade. The baker’s union, which nationally used to have its headquarters in Aberdeen in the good old days before Scotland was centralised, and master bakers got together to discuss how they could fight this attack on their trade.

An appeal to the Food Controller again argued the buttery rowie formed such an important part of the food of the working classes in industrial centres the banning order should be remitted.

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Aberdeen roll, buttery or rowie

Aberdeen Trades and Labour Council approached the local Food Control Committee in defence of the buttery rowie. It complained the committee had no representatives from the working class – the very people who relied on the rowie for sustenance through their working hours as well as the  workers who produced them – and working people in Aberdeen were tired of profiteers and those who exploited the working class representing them on committees.

It was argued that while Edinburgh and Glasgow bread rolls had been stopped because of the war the Aberdeen roll was of a very different order, its high lard content making it more akin to ham and eggs than the bread roll that was made everywhere else – meaning it was breakfast for many poorer people in Aberdeen – except in the case of Co-op rowies which were inferior in every way and no different from ordinary rolls found elsewhere around the country.

But the Ministry of Food declared no bread could be sold which contained butter, margarine or any sort of fat so the fresh Aberdeen rowie’s days were numbered. No longer was it possible to run to the local baker shop for a handful of halfpenny rowies hot and greasy in the paper on the way to work or take delivery from the bakery boy  on his rounds so that households would have buttery rowies warm from the oven to eat at breakfast. By the end of September 1917 the morning buttery rowie was but a memory. They could still be bought late in the day having sat around for the requisite 12 hours or indeed those baked the previous day but that meant no rowie on Monday mornings fresher than those baked on Saturday mornings. 

Several cases of the courts seizing Aberdeen buttery rowies ensued with bakers taking matters into their own hands and baking and selling them fresh none-the-less. In July 1919 bakers Peter Main of King Street and Matthew Mitchell of Summerhill Farm, South Stocket in Aberdeen pleaded guilty to selling  halfpenny buttery rowies fresher than 12 hours old. Advocate G M Aitken, a name that will be of significance to rowie aficionados, explained to the Sheriff Court that bakers had been forced to stop making the morning rolls because people did not want to buy day old rowies but his argument fell on deaf ears. The bakers were each fined 20 shillings equivalent to 480 buttery rowies.

war-time-food

In 1919 an appeal was sent to the Ministry of Food requesting permission to produce buttery rowies again. It made the point that these rolls along with porridge and milk made up the ordinary workman’s breakfast in Aberdeen. This was rejected on grounds of economy and labour which appeared to be based on the situation in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Again an appeal was made objecting to difficulties with labour elsewhere being used to determine what happened in Aberdeen.

By early August of that year the unpopular order that caused so much public resentment in the city was revoked allowing Aberdonians once more to enjoy their hot buttery rowies.

December 19, 2016

From Shorter Hours to Zero Hours

Guest blog by Textor

…the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

In 1847 counter assistants (all male) employed in Aberdeen’s drapery and grocery shops got bees in their bonnets over working hours or rather they recognised that the extremely long hours they worked were, as they said, pernicious and hurtful; detrimental to their health and well-being.

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Pratt & Keith, Aberdeen

To their fellow Aberdonians toiling in unhealthy and dangerous textile mills where work was deeply repetitive the shop assistants’ complaints might have seemed a bit of a joke: serving behind a counter was paradise to the “white hell” experience of factory hands. But workers selling their labour must take what they get and regardless of the relative ease of shop work assistants were, nonetheless, exploited according to the demands of the market place and the whims of employers.

In this respect the life of mid-19th century shop assistants differed little from their 21st century counterparts whether among the “fulfilled” staff in one of Amazon’s warehouses or employed on zero hours contracts in high street chains. Still there are differences and they are significant and they tell us something of the past and present trajectories of capitalism.

Who were these Victorian protesters and what was the problem? The Early Shop-shutting or Shorter Hours movement as it was known was in fact a loosely formed nation-wide organisation. The Aberdeen branch appeared in January 1847; a time of emerging economic depression, militant Chartism and glimmerings of revolutionary activity on the Continent of Europe. But it’s clear that as much as the assistants wished to shorten the working day their newly formed Association was not seen as a threat to foundations of capital. These Victorian shop men were workers just like factory hands to the extent that their livelihood came from wage labour but unlike industrial workers they were not aggregated in hundreds rather they toiled in a fragmented sector of the economy, dealing directly with customers and frequently in daily contact with employers. Beyond this shop work for time-served grocery and drapery assistants was seen as socially superior to dirty labouring trades. And important as retail was it did not have the economic clout of factories and workshops.

Consumerism, which is a fundamental part of contemporary capitalism, was largely confined to middle and upper classes.

It is not surprising that shop assistants had little problem attracting goodwill from Aberdeen’s middle class including its “ladies”. Provost Thomas Blaikie who was hostile to Chartism was quite taken by the Association, seeing its demand for shorter hours in the context of the world’s moral and intellectual improvement. Reduced hours presented no challenge to the rights of business, the alteration of working hours could be accommodated through customers becoming more thoughtful and finishing their purchases by the closing time of 7pm. In practice this meant middle class women who shopped personally or their servants following their instructions to complete shopping by seven. Coming from an iron founding business, however, Blaikie recognised the need for men and women factory hands working their long hours to be able to shop and this could be achieved through extended shop opening hours, particularly on pay-days such as Thursdays or Saturdays.

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James Gordon, Silk Mercers, Aberdeen 1840

Professor of Anatomy, Jardine Lizars, spoke up for shop assistants and labour in general – nothing was more desirable and necessary than shorter hours for shopkeepers, mechanic, and persons employed in the mills. He described how some assistants were working as many as 16 hours a day and in extreme cases might only be permitted a 15 minute break for dinner. According to the professor this placed too much stress on mental and physical capacities of workers on top of their exposure to too little daylight resulting in their greater susceptibility to illness and disease.

James Hadden, speaking for the textile interest, was less convinced. He accepted that shorter hours could improve the lives of shop assistants; what Amazon might call (but not give), affording greater fulfilment. Hadden understood this was workable in the retail trade which he believed could make the same profit in 11 hours as it did in 12, but manufacturers had no such leeway as they competed in national and international markets precluding any reduction of factory hours. For him mill hands working 69 hours a week was both normal and acceptable. The proposal to reduce the working week for shop assistants he hoped would not be imposed, no improper means would be used to force any one to do that which he did not conceive to be proper – in other words moral exhortation was unobjectionable but there should be no militant action such as striking.

The assistants rhetorically asked customers:

Have you given thought as to the life of the young man who served you?
Has it ever occurred to you that, tied to the back of the counter from morning to night, his life must be one of tiresome monotony, and one for which you would not willingly exchange?

But neither Hadden nor shop assistants expected shortened hours be extended to factory labour. Their concern stopped at the shop counter. Literally what the assistants demanded was not the formal working day be cut rather that they should only be expected to labour contracted hours. By 1848 shop assistants had successfully rallied support of customers and employers and in the higher ends of the trade shops were closing by 7pm. The Reverend David Simpson of the Free Church praised the campaign for being respectful and conciliatory; and attributed its success to a lack of harshness towards their employers, with no accusations that their masters were unreasonable, avaricious and tyrannical.

The “struggle” was largely couched in terms of moral and intellectual possibilities and responsibilities. Being in Scotland and coming shortly after the 1843 split in the Established Church discussion over altering working hours took on religious connotations. David Gray, Professor of Natural Philosophy, linked the call to curtail shop opening hours to the word of God and the notion that it was not sufficient to recognise the capacity of man for improvement but it was a duty to provide him with opportunities for moral progress and allow him to get home early in the evening to enjoy leisure for reading and so on and keep him out of drinking dens.

It is important to note that whilst there was considerable success in the move towards reducing hours across the city not every employer complied with the assistants’ request. No doubt industrialist James Hadden with his knowledge of competition saw that coming; faced with the chance of a faster buck some employers insisted in staying open beyond the accepted hours eliciting the following response from shop assistants:

…we despair of success, even for the most limited period, so long as a class exist where feelings no appeal of a philanthropic character ever warmed, and who thoughtless of the consequences of the system they are perpetrating, never dream that the youth who serve them ever feel fatigue, or that they have minds capable of expansion, by the interchange of ideas round the domestic hearth.

In other words despite strong moral support the logic of the market place continually reasserted itself tending to leave employees faced with the stresses and strains born out of competition.

Into the debate stepped another professor, John Stuart Blackie, armed with a strong humanist philosophy. His open and welcoming Christianity contributed to a critique which never defied the logic of competition but went a considerable distance to expose the problems facing Victorian and post Victorian labour.

He began from the observation that protracted hours in the Retail Trades are highly injurious to the bodily health, and form a barrier to the social, intellectual, and spiritual improvement of those engaged therein. Additionally he understood the unrelieved working day of the assistant was liable to make him fusionless (weak). What Blackie called the mechanical life of retail was so detrimental that people would become little better than machines and he concluded that it was a duty of Christians and what he called thoughtless madams to support shop assistants.

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Schoolhill, Aberdeen

What Marx and Engels were just then beginning to characterise as the problem of capitalism and commodity production Professor Blackie was groping towards when he cited the question of the shop as, one of the great evils of these times . By this he appeared to be saying men and woman were in the thrall to commodity production with buying and selling taking precedence over moral and intellectual values. Assuredly his critique owes something to the biblical story of driving money-changers from the temple but almost certainly it was motivated by the burgeoning and at times devastating impact of commercialism and industrialisation. Lust was a lesser evil. People, he said, had their moral sense [more] undermined by the shop, than by what is termed the flesh. Men had cast aside the primacy of morals and had reduced everything to what Thomas Carlyle called the cash nexus. The living sentient human was no longer central, what mattered was place and function in the accounting system: a man was the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

But for all that, and for all the evils of capitalism since the 1840s the ability of labour to struggle for its own immediate interests and with the system able to accommodate some of its demands lead to capitalist power improving material well-being across most social classes. This was a bumpy historical ride in which many sectors of labour benefited. Hours of work were restricted by local regulations and state law: unions became negotiators of wages; health and safety standards were enforced etc. This improved working environments as well as saving an otherwise rapacious system from fracturing. Within this model the struggle of the shop assistants was a moment in a rising curve which nonetheless continued to leave many in its wake particularly if they existed outside the centres of capital.

The fate of those in the retail trades, and beyond, today show how things have changed. The halcyon days for labour was probably through the 1950s to the ’70s when post-war growth was rapid, profitability of capital re-emerged and it seemed the benefits of the system were unlimited for the metropolitan countries. Since then growth has faltered, stagnated and recently fallen back calling into question the very historical viability of the system. Apart from the wars, the corruption and financial criminality of the past four decades capital has taken on organised labour and more often than not defeated it to such an extent that the protections which took years of struggle to introduce have been shoved aside. The sense of progressive improvement which characterised much of 19th century capitalism has been lost. Capitalism now promises nothing other than might be accrued through deepening debt and ever harder working conditions.

a-s-cook

A.S. Cook, Aberdeen

If Aberdeen Victorian drapery assistants thought they were having a hard time they would surely have thanked their lucky stars they were not 21st century automatons in gigantic warehouses regulated by the speed of computers, tracked by GPS coordinates and observed, no doubt, by “fulfilled” managers. Today’s employee: often casual labour, searched like prisoners and with no rights beyond that of obeying the machine. This is probably the most extreme end of shop work exploitation where discussions over moral or intellectual improvement are reduced to slogans and propaganda to keep control of labour and exploit the gullibility of the consumer. At the sharp end of the shop counter it is now common to find virtually zero hour contracts where labour has to be ready to accommodate the “flexible” needs of the employer with no wage for standing-by time. It is a bit like the emergency services being on call without either the cash or the social caché. All these assistants have is poverty wages and few “prospects.”

Who can say what the future for capitalist development is? It has all the signs of a system unable to solve a multitude of problems. First it breaks the power of organised labour, tries inflation, privatisation, colossal private and public indebtedness, austerity, quantitative easing, negative interest rates, increased rates of exploitation and still it remains in crisis. Professor Blackie could hardly have imagined the depths to which the shop machine could sink as it struggles to survive.

December 17, 2016

Murder and Mayhem at Justice Port

John Simpson, a black drummer, was murdered in Aberdeen on the night of Thursday 3 September 1807. Was it a racist crime? Well, there were surely racist elements involved. After all, slavery with all its connotations was rife then so it would be surprising if something as simple as that did not influence attitudes.

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Two years earlier, in 1805, a bill to abolition slavery went through the House of Commons but the House of Lords stopped it. Needless to say lots of countries abolished slavery years before Britain, ever cognisant of the wishes of propertied and wealthy bigots, so it was only in 1834 that most but not all British slavery was ended.

What happened that night in Aberdeen might have had no direct links to racism. It is very difficult to say but there was a hint of it.

The local paper described the incident as “a dreadful affray” that occurred at a brothel kept by Margaret Creek near the Justice Port involving John Simpson (sic) a drummer with the 29th regiment and other soldiers.

I put ‘sic’ (as it is written) after the name of the murdered drummer because that is how it is recorded in the Aberdeen press but this may be an error for Simpson is a familiar local name whereas it is as Sampson he is recorded in other documents – but then again this might be an error.

Simpson or Sampson was born in Barbados in 1782 and enlisted as a 16 years old. When he died in Aberdeen the 25 year old was one of several from his regiment touring Britain to recruit men into the military in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when there was a desperate need for men to fight overseas.

Black troops were not uncommon in the British army. From the end of the 18th century large numbers of African slaves and the sons of slaves were bought up to serve in British regiments. The going price for a male slave in 1795 was around £80. Simpson joined the army in 1798 when the British army were in the Caribbean – and looking to recruit, as always. Although these black recruits were mainly treated like their white counterparts they were still subject to slave laws until 1807. Even then black recruits signed up to the army were there for life while whites could leave after 7 years. Not all joined so much as were abducted e.g. several young boys at Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in late 1700s – permission to hold onto them was given – by the King of Great Britain.

Some black boys were taken on specifically to be drummers and later bugle boys. The 29th Regiment of Foot to which Simpson was attached had several black drummers in its ranks. Black soldiers in the British army were mainly foot soldiers either incorporated into mixed regiments or segregated ones such as African Corps and 1st and 2nd Black Garrison Companies.

The same month that Simpson was killed another black drummer was verbally attacked in a London street, “Well Blackie, what news from the devil?” someone shouted at him. The drummer retaliated by knocking down his abuser with the words, “He sent you that. How do you like it?”

geo-iv

George IV debauched, fat, profligate, racist

Racism went right through society. It was reported in 1825 that when the leader of the Royal Band planned to take on a black man to beat the kettle-drum he was thwarted by the king who had “an unconquerable antipathy to blacks being near his person.” The band leader, a man called Cramer, was a little put-out and gave the role to a European with a dark skin. When the king first saw him in the music room he was startled and said to Cramer, “I see, Sir, you wish to accustom me to a black drummer by degrees.” The king in question was George IV, best known for being debauched, fat and profligate to which we should add – and racist.

Drummers, by virtue of their ability to beat a drum presumably, were also charged with carrying out corporal punishment – whipping colleagues facing punishment and were not always liked for that reason alone. In the case of Simpson there were other circumstances which might have influenced his attackers which I will come to later. What is clear is that the extent of violence perpetrated against him suggests strong antagonism towards the man by others stationed at the barracks in Aberdeen.

Put simply Simpson was stoned and butchered; his head and face were slashed and his skull fractured in two places. The wound that killed him was a long blade, possibly a bayonet, run through his back with such force it pierced his heart.

Three members of the Argyleshire Regiment of Militia stationed at Aberdeen barracks – James Graham, Donald McCallum and Daniel McPherson were subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Simpson, described in the charge sheet as “a negro and drummer in the 29th Regiment of Foot” and they appeared at the High Court the following January. All pleaded not guilty.

It was not only Simpson’s appearance that made him a weel kent face in pale-skinned Aberdeen early in the 19th century. He was a big man, powerfully-built, and described in the Aberdeen Journal as ” a very formidable character” whatever that was meant to mean. He had a reputation as a boxer who exercised his prowess with a punch that fellow soldiers were keen to test themselves against; Simpson invariably won these contests. During one such challenge he ran at his opponent and pushed his head between the man’s legs then stood up with the unfortunate challenger hoisted onto Simpson’s shoulders. Then he chucked the man down on the ground fracturing his skull and killing him as a result. This episode made Simpson enemies.

Why he reacted so violently is not explained in the local press but it was noted he bore them a grudge. Why would that be? Racist taunts could be the answer. He probably discovered there is no reasoning with racists and responded the way that came easiest to him, through the power of his punches.

On the night of the 3rd of September around ten soldiers were allowed out of their barracks in the early hours and they headed straight for a brothel owned by Margaret Creek. Some of these soldiers took their weapons with them which suggests premeditation although that was denied in court. Those charged claimed only to have gone to the house to buy drink – albeit the middle of the night- but then as soon as they got to the house a window was smashed and bedding slashed in the search for Simpson. The rampaging soldiers shouted for Simpson to appear, “put out the black ——–.” This taunt succeeded and Simpson emerged to face his assailants but was immediately knocked over by a stone thrown at his head. As he lay unconscious he was dragged from the house and badly beaten and slashed and his skull fractured in two places.

At the trial the defence lawyers for the three charged with murder proceeded to tarnish the character and honesty of the two witnesses – brothel-keeper, Margaret Creek and a man called Peter Skinner.

A Counsel for the defence told how Skinner had three years earlier pleaded guilty to robbing a corpse. Skinner had come upon the body of flax dresser Francis Mollison at the beach and stole the deceased’s silver shoe buckles. He was subsequently placed in the pillory but made the best of it by pulling funny faces to the amusement of the public. After this he was transferred to prison before being banished for seven years but when he returned to the city before the end of that term he was given a public whipping. In his defence it was revealed that Skinner had been tried without a jury and was summarily sentenced by magistrates and that sentence was considered harsh.

As for Margaret Creek her word was questioned because of her occupation as keeper of ” a disorderly house” but she was allowed to give her account of events.

We know Simpson had enemies at the barracks, men who used racist language, but we do not know the attitude of members of the jury towards him or how they regarded the two witnesses. We do know the jurors rejected the not guilty pleas of the men charged because they did not return a not guilty verdict instead the jury found the case not proven. As a result the three accused were released.

A racist murder? Perhaps, but whatever drummer John Simpson got no justice in Aberdeen.

Refs:The Black Kalendar of Aberdeen

http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/wr.php?main=inc/em_drummershttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/work_community/fighting.htm

 https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/lenathehyena.wordpress.com

November 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

lochnagar-crater

Lying at the hole’s lip the stonecutter marvelled at the works of men: he had after all spent his working life with granite and knew well what hard graft could achieve.

  Aye, it must hae teen a damned lot o explosives and muscle ti howk this ane oot.

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

  There’s jist something a bit different fae aa the places faar I’ve tyauved. There’s the rauchle aa roon, nae doot, bit the soonds, surely nae fit yi’d expeck? That’s nae steam craan wheezing as it heists steen, nae dreels and haimmers, and far’s the scraich o the blondin rope lowering the skip tae the fleer? I hear men richt aneuch, and aye it myndes me o yoking time wi a puckle chiels nae sae croose in the craa at haen ti ging back t’it, and ithers, resigned ti gettin on wi the jobbie in han; still an on it’s an unca sicht..

  His thoughts wandered off, seeking a firm foundation; bedrock of where and why. Back, back he went to his first day at work in the granite yard.

  Up and oot afore sax o’clock, I wannered doon the Gallowgate, and timorous as a moosie wis into Chairlie MacDonald’s Froghall Works (a queer like name it seemed ti me). Timid but prood, prood that I’d been gien a chance ti be a mason. MacDonald’s wis nae jist ony yaird Na, the wirks wis braw, lang boasting fine conditions even gaan as far as biggin sheds wi fower waas ti keep weet and snell wins oot. But that day wis fine and me a bauch-hertit loon faa kent nae muckle mair than fit a haimmer looked like.

  The foreman took me roon the wirks faar I expeck ti see mannies stannin, cutting and carving. I wis dumfoonert, hid I wannered into a dairk deevilish mull an nae a place of craft and skeel? On ae side o the shed a saa wis swingin back-an-fore, pechin at every lurch wi clarty watter pouring aneth the beast’s teeth. Jist ayont wis a thing like an airon brander fleein roon, wi sic a souch and mair clart (gie’n me a blink the foreman said it sang like Jenny Lind). Nae seener had I teen this in than my lugs caught the soond o a machine makkin a stoor, aneuch ti smoor a body: a dunter, a bauld thing that clouted granite sae hard that the steen surrendered.

  For the life o me I couldnae oonerstaan, faar were the steencutters? Telling me nae ti fash the gaffer said saas, polishers and dunters were needed as much as wis the man wi the haimmer and puncheon. But I wisnae there ti become a mere machineman I wis ti be a mason. And there, in the next shed, were the steencutters, ilka man at his banker, wirkin on crosses and heidsteens . Some hid han haimmers ithers were cutting wi pneumatic chisels; the din wis constant and dist aawye. This wis fit I wanted: ti maister steel on steen. But siccan skeels were nae easily won.

  An so I thoaled the years o it wi split thooms, raxed back, stoor in the een, aye and wirse in ma thrapple. There were times fin I thocht ti caa it a day and mony anither apprentice wis o the same myn. But they were peelie-wally craturs faa up-tail and were aff ti look for greener girse. Me, I’d hae neen o this. If it wis girse I wis aifter then I’d hae feed ti een o the fairmers that gaithered by Hadden Street. I hungered ti ken aathin aboot cutting granite and hid the gweed fortune ti be pit wi a cutter faa’d bin on the tools ower fifty years. An auld man, though he micht hae lost some o his speed he’d lost neen o his skeel. He could cut and carve by han in a wye that wid mak an airtist heave his mell ti the fleer. This wis the man faa telt me hoo ti ging wi the steen: “granite can only be gaared sae far and nae mair. Hans and een is the wye” he said, “feel and see the grist in the glintin granite. There’s a reed and a hem, find this and the wye ti cut is clair”. And damn if he wisnae richt.

  Above the hole, amidst the confusion, the stonecutter’s reverie continued taking him further back to his childhood when his grandfather pulled ghosts from memory.

  The images came, flickered in ma heid, as if back in the Alhambra packed into the het guff o the picter hoose. There’s granfaither, a douce lang-heidit man, wabster by trade, faa’d been brocht up in the Denburn. I’d sit wi him for oors as he telt me o the lang, slow deeth o han weaving and hoo the eenjustice o it aa guidit him into Chartism. He’d seen nae jist his skeel as a wabster connached bit wirse, hail faimlies beggin for wirk ti cam their wye. Nae muckle mair than a loon granfaither wis doon at the Links, miscaain the Provost and his cronies and aa the sichts and soonds o priveelidge. Oh he kent fine that the bonnie Chartists didnae win through but so fit? aa’s important wis that fowk widnae bou doon ti the laithsome few faa’d want coorse wirkers keep their moos shut. In his wye granfaither wis nae doot dooncast but being a man faad seen mony a warsle he wis gey stoical and kent that looms and wabsters and aa that wis the Denburn were awa. “Aye”, he telt me, “there’s been mony cheenges but this only means wirkers hae ti find new wyes o deein things. But ae thing disnae cheenge, the need for fowk ti stick the gither. Britherheed is aathin”.

  There’s me, jist a laddikie, sittin wi granfaither, like some drouthie nyagg aye gaan back ti the troch for anither suppie. Mither lauched telling me that I’d drink the Don dry an then sook the banks for mair. But granfaither hid me. Skeels and smeddum wis his wye and dang if it widnae be myne. Aiblins the auld man saw his youngsel in the loon wi mizzlet shins sittin at the reenge hingin on his every wird; and the tales kept comin, tales o muckle gaitherins wi aabody kittelt-up by the braw speechifying. But he took me back ayont his days ti lang, langsyne fin his faither hid been wi Aiberdeen fowk, fechtin agin thieving dealers faad beamfill their girnals, huddin meal back, aa the better ti mak extra siller. Great granfaither an aa the rest, weel breid wis there richt as they saa it. They micht be poor bit they wernae feart so it wis aff ti the hairbour faar they caad doon the doors o the thieves and tyeuk fit wis theirs even fan the militia wis on the streets.

  And that wis me, draain fae the kist o memories and then it wis on ti granfaither’s beuks. A smaa library but wi choice wirks. He wisnae Christian an put my wye Tam Paine’s Age O Reason a grand tale that made me suspeck aa the fine words o meenisters. There wis anither Tam, Carlyle, a Scotchman, a sage some said, and I’ve nae doot he was verra clever bit there wis something aboot the gabby man that made him seem mair feel than pheelosopher. The man seemed ti think that in times fin knights were galloping aa ower the kintraside, well he seemed ti think this wis grand and we hid ti find a wye of re-kinlin a gowden age. Granfaither was fair teen by him but for me keeking backwart an girnin about the wye of the warl wis jist wind. As the auld man said aboot meenisters and their hivven, you micht jist as weel look for partans in mosspots and puddocks in the sea. But ae thing Carlyle got richt, this wis his gweed words for skeeled chiels wi hans, hert and brain aa wirkin the gither; wis this nae jist fit a steencutter did? Granfaither’s library hid the poems o Wullie Thom, a wabster ti trade and an Aiberdonian. He’d kent the poet and said he wisnae the easiest body ti get on wi but the man’s words, weel they brocht haim ti me the muckle cheenges needed.

  Beuks and granfaither’s tales, maist o this wis fin I wis gey young and still withoot a noshun o foo the hale jing bang micht hing the gither. But a bit later I cam upon the screeves o Wullie Morris and for him the wye wis forrit, wirkers fechtin for socialism and haen han skeels that wid turn fit they made inti airt: a soond veesion, biggit on granite foons, nae sand.

  At the crater’s lip, the mason could see figures moving, struggling, far below. They appeared to him like quarrymen, working their way through the debris of an explosion gone wrong.

  Wrang – there wis sae much wrang wi the warl but noo that I’d served my time and become a journeyman, as I saa it, I wis ready ti dee mair than shape steen; noo I’d fashion wirkin men into socialists. I’d been gaan ti peelitical meetings o the SDF, ance Morris’s pairty, faa were verra keen on haen the bawbees fae the pooches o the weel-aff. I wis affa fierce and fit I widnae dee if I got hud o them but I foond that maist o the men in the yaird wid raither thole me than jine me. Fooivver, as a journeyman I could jine the operatives’ union, the finest craft society in the toon and fae there I began fechtin for better conditions in Aiberdeen yairds and in kintra quarries. Wi my brither operatives we tyauved ti get an extra maik or twa and even a shorter wirkin wik. Stoor fae dunters, that wis anither lang sair fecht. These muckle skelpers o granite were gweed at makin a profit for the maisters. But they turned men deef and wirse the stoor wis teen into their lungs Yairds were full of wirkers faas lungs wis rived by fit we caad the kirkyaird-hoast and fit the quacks said wis the soond o phthisis brocht on by dist. We tried ti gaar the maisters tak tent but verra little cheenged.

  Nae maitter, as my granfaither wid hae said, we hid ti keep trying. And I did. Fooivver, this gave me tribble. On ae han I wis trying ti win a hantle o cheenges ti mak things tholeable but on the ither I wis looking ti caa doon the maisters an aa their wirks. As you micht say nae seeking ti tak a puckle crums, gaan instead for the loaf and the gullie ti pairtit. Wis ther ony wye o yoking the twa sides the gither? At nicht fin I wis aff doon ti Belmont Street wi my SDF freens pittin the warl ti richts, kennin the maisters’ days wid seen be ower; well britherheed seemed affa easy. Then aifter the claik it was haim and up in the morning into the yaird wi the argie-bargie stairting again. This wis like haen twa heids, ain for socialism and anither for the tyauve o wirk and the union Aiblins I should hae seen the gate I wis on but ony anxeeity I hid wis seen through a damn mirkie gless.

  A puckle o my socialist freens said it wis aa for nithin, that I’d spend my time in the parlours o maisters, bunnet in han jist waiting for a han-oot. I widnae hae this. The union did mak things better, maisters supplied tools, wirkin oors were shorter and even wages had gin up. Wis this nae the wye forrit, and onwye britherheed amang wirkers surely this wis the union? Some o these socialist billies didnae unerstan. Maisters could be a hard-faced lot, a puckle o them widnae want ti gie onything ti the men, grippy disnae dee them justice, they would hae raiked hell for a saxpence. An fan this happened it wid be neives heisted, us threetnin strike and them lock-oot. But some of the employers were fair-hannit and we wid find wyes roon tribble: give-an-tak as you micht say. Och aye, we widnae win aathin but fit did my freens expeck: ging ti the maisters and demand socialism?

  What would his friends now think of the mason in a world where give and take had transmuted to something far beyond the tactful diplomacy of a negotiating table? His vision of internationalism and brotherhood dissolving and re-forming much as the dust around him settled and rose.

  Wirkers fae aa the airts gettin the gither, this wis my granfaither’s dream and it wis myne. The union, weel it wis a stairt. But the streetch o my veesion o britherheed wis sair tested faan steen fae Norway came inti Aiberdeen. Och aye some o the maisters were contentit, they wid mak some siller but nae aabody wis happy, especially merchants wi quarry interests. They said only oor granite should be wirked; or at warst Scotch, or at verra warst British steen. Aa foreign muck wis ti be stopped itherwise trade in yairds and quarries wid be lost. This vext me and like a thoom that’d been skelped by a haimmer ma conscience began ti stoon, winnerin far britherheed came inti this? I sair needed, something ti tak the pyne awa.

  I hid a freen Wullie, oot by Alford, secretary o the union at Cluny. A fine man, gweed at his trade and nae feart o stannin up for his preenciples and fyles he’d bin a soondin board for my thochts. So it wis awaa doon tae the station. On the rinnie oot in the train I hid a chance ti think aboot this britherheed. My workmates were unca happy tae fecht and tak fit could be won but a fair puckle o them were jist as contenit ti keep the men on saas and polishers doon (mere machinemen I’d aince caad them). Britherheed in a yaird seemed hard aneuch withoot takkin on the warl. Gaan oot in the train wis aye a trait and my speerits lifted as we steamed into quarry kintra faar fowk hid howkit at coorse and rochsome grun ti mak a living. Nature can hae a bonny face but only ance the faimly is hoosed and his mait on the table .

  Wullie had been brocht up in the Vale and he kent as weel as onybody the hardships o quarriers. Toon wirk, weel it seemed safter. For a stairt in Aiberdeen we didnae hae the fell winters that hit the quarries wi grun beeriet under deep snaa an men getting peyed by the piece for steen wirked and naething for staanin up ti their oxters in fite pouther. In Aiberdeen cutters were peyed by the day. I speired ti Wullie fit wye the Donside men didnae wint redd o piece work. This wis nae mystery, he telt me, twa gweed reasons for keeping it were, auld near-caad-deen quarriers were able ti tyauve on an mak a puckle bawbees and keep the maisters happy and anither thing, a chiel wi a craft could ging aff in a quait spell an wirk their lan and nae loss ti onybody. But I saw it as jist anither wye o the dirt o property skaillin the sharny-bree o oonjustice ower common fowk. Nae doot there were honest an gweed-hertit quarry maisters, but they were catcht in this guids-an-geer fankle. Wullie agreed that men like Fyfe o Kemnay were dacent aneuch bodies faa didnae draa bleed fae men, even if in winter wirkin in the slabber o snaa an dubs the bleed wid come. But there were ithers he said, lairds, men sleekit in their beesiness and faa gripped on tae lan and if they hid their road wid close the quarries and be rid o the dirt of quarrymen. “Fur and fedder o Bennachie and roon aboot”, said Wullie, “this is their interest nae men and wirk. Pheasants and rubbits dinna spik back. Lairds want the moos o quarrymen stapped and fowk ti beck an bou afore their betters.” Aa this wis hinnie ti my lugs, a sweetness o thocht but a clearance o the clart o lairds still left me raivelt aboot britherheed. Spikkin ti Wullie I felt a bit like a loon again, sittin in a neuk by the fire, a micht even had mizzlet shank. “Things in Donside”, he said, “arenae gweed. Dreelers, cutters, settmakkars are aa streevin for wirk, maist are fit wi caa loafin” and “men are gaan across the pond ti America in the howp o job. And for them that hinna shipped west it’s a maitter o inti an Aiberdeen factory or aff ti be third billies at twa-horse fairm toons.” Soondin like granfaither, Wullie raged at the eenjustice, “ if things ging on like this the quarries’ll be seelent, as if the warl had teemt the men fae the holes”. For a meenit I couldnae meet his een for I kent fine that like ithers I’d wrocht Norwegian granite and even if I’d makkit the grandest o heidsteens I jaloused that it could mark the deeth o the quarries. Faar wis britherheed here?

  Wullie calmed my anxeeity and for him the answer wis ae step at ae time. Socialism and britherheed wid hae tae start at oor ane front door. There wis nae eese in being vext aboot steencutters in Norway or ony wye else if the granite beesiness here wis feenished. We hid ti hud oot for oor ane fowk afore aathin else argued Wullie and ti mak his case he pynted ti the Navy buying foreign steen for biggin hairbours. Turning aa poetic he pit a verse ti me,

“If for our Fleet we feel it meet
With natives true to man it,
Why make a dock of foreign rock
Inferior to our granite?”

  It wis like licht gaan on in my heid: a wye forrit wis seen, ane that conneckit wi aathin I’d deen as pairt o the union. Fechtin that hid ti ging on, but fyles ca-canny and wirk wi the maisters for the steen industry itherwise we could wak-up wi, nae yairds and even fewer quarries.

  And as the dust around him settled and the noise ebbed and flowed he could see that the Cluny man’s arguments had been sufficient to propel him further along a path upon which he had already embarked. This was the path that led him to the hole.

  I teuk my thochts on aa men being brithers and union wirk and wupped them the gither ti mak a stepledder o richts and loyalties, wirken up fae the yairds ti aa the warls ayont. It wis at the Mairket Stance fan the fou meanin o the cheenge wis brocht haim ti me. Jist anither day, haen a dauner ower the plainsteens, keekin up at the braw sicht o the Toon Hoose, a work o airt in granite but wastit on Cooncillors. My scance at the fine Kemnay steen wis distractit by a stramash at the Cross. Gaithered there were kiltit sodgers surroondit by local billies an it wis plain as porritch this wis nae stoorie atween Aiberdonians an militia, scantlin an inklin o meal riots o langsyne. Aabody respectit the sodgers and winted ti jine them. Granfaither wid’ve been scunnered but I kent that ance a waar stairts fowk aften rin ti the flag. And a waar hid stairted. I got ti thinkin, and wis clair that I hid tae tak a puckle steps up the loyalty ledder and look ti britherheed wi fowk ootside the yairds. I widnae jouk the deecision aifter-anaa wis it nae the case it wis my ain kintra, and the great chiel Hyndman, ance o the SDF, hid screeved it wis a man’s duty ti fecht against the Hun faa wis ettlin ti pit Britons in thirl ti Germany. It wis only a step or twa ti the Barracks tae tak Geordie’s shillinn.

  Sic a few smaa steps but they took me a lang wye. On this new gate I wutnessed muckle things, men fechtin ower pooshened grun, aneuch ti mak a plooman greet. In the mirk o aa this I did find britherheed at least wi aa the Britons and French fowk but universal? weel that wid hae ti wait. Gey blaik noshuns swirled in ma heid as I watched britheheed gaither in heeps afore my een: some micht miscaa the waar, bit ae thing aboot this ledder o fraternities, at the hinner-en o the slauchter there’d be damn gweed beesness for masons an maisters, aa the heidsteens wid keep them at the bankers and the order beuks weel past the dainner oor. Ah weel I’d chosen my gate an I jist gid on wi it.

  The stonecutter was at Mametz when off to the west there was a sound of such force that even amidst the carnage he was awed. Distracted with his mind wandering to ghosts of far-off places and knowing not how, he found himself at the lip of the hole and the enormity of his journey all but overwhelmed him.

  I looked doon and I could see this wis nae quarry, nae a place far men tyauved ti win bonny steen fae the ooncarin airth – na this hole wis far caring men focht ti win ither treasures. And as I dwalled on this, like the grun aneath, I shuddered.

  I survived the waar and foond oot that the hole wis caad Lochnagar Crater, made by moudiewart men wi ower twenty tons o explosives. Neen o Byron’s frowning glories here, dairker than onythin the hirplin Laird could hae imagined; the braw days o spikkin tae granfaither, anither warl, sae far awaa.

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

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Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have produced a fair list of well-known singers and actors from Annie Lennox, Evelyn Glennie, Mary Garden, Lisa Milne, Sandi Thom, Emeli Sande, Andrew Cruickshank and David Rintoul (both Dr Finlay’s Casebook) to Laura Main from Call the Midwife  – lots and lots and recently I came across a couple of women I’d never heard of so thought I’d find out a bit more about them.

Polly Walker in Hit the Decks 1930

Polly Walker

I should say that I spent a huge amount of time on this and turned up very little so if anyone has information about the incident relating to Polly Walker’s father in particular I would love to hear from you. Okay, this is what I’ve managed to dredge up. Polly Heather Walker wasn’t born in Aberdeen but her father, John, came from Alford, from Bithnie where her grandfather William Walker was a prominent farmer.

Bithie cottage.jpg

Bithnie

Polly’s aunt, John’s sister Margaret, lived at Kemnay and others in the family lived at the Smiddy at Whitehouse. John, Polly’s dad, moved to Aberdeen where he was an apprentice draper with Esslemont and Mackintosh before migrating to the United States. This was back at the turn of the 20th century.

Polly Walker2
John played the bagpipes and was something of an all-round entertainer. He married into a travelling circus family, his wife was the niece of a famous clown and somersault leaper Al Armer. Polly was born in 1904 in Chicago but tragedy struck the family when John Walker was shot dead by a drunk in the audience at the circus where he was performing when Polly was aged three. Apparently the killer took exception to John appearing in a kilt, dressed as a Highlander with an act called the Scotch Pipers.

Polly

Polly Walker

Al Armer helped support the child and her mother and trained Polly for life in the circus paying for lessons in singing and dancing but Polly had different ideas. She certainly followed the family tradition and went on stage as a young child, in Vaudeville, travelling around the States but she rejected life in the big tent for the world of films and stage, finding success on Broadway and with the Ziegfeld Follies.

Movie_Poster_for_Hit_the_Deck
Polly grew into a beautiful, talented young woman who was selected to star in the RKO Picture Hit the Deck in 1930, one of the earliest films to be shot in Technicolor and in which she played Looloo, a winsome and charming darling of the US navy – so the publicity reads, and she was in Sleepless Nights with Stanley Lupino.

polly walker June 1933
As a stage actress Polly appeared often in New York and while in London for a part in Lovely Lady at the Phoenix Theatre she met her future husband a Harley Street doctor. She also used the opportunity while in Britain to meet her family in Scotland. 

polly walker wedding christmas day 1935 chicago

Polly’s life was far more glamorous than her parents experience in the entertainment business blessed as she was with ‘beautiful titian-blonde’ looks which helped her celebrity status. 

***

Margaret Mann (2)

Margaret Mann

Margaret Mann was most definitely an Aberdonian but unlike Polly she wasn’t a blond bombshell and only found film success when a much older woman, in character roles.

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Margaret was born on April 4th 1868 in Aberdeen and died in Los Angeles in 1941. Her remaining sister, she had seven, she visited one final time in 1928 at her home in Forest Avenue when they were both aged and the sister was about to lose her sight.220px-Film_Daily_1919_Dorothy_Phillips_The_Heart_of_Humanity.png

When Margaret entered the film business films were still silent. Her first picture was The Heart of Humanity in 1918. In 1921 she was in Black Beauty and in ’28, the year she returned to Aberdeen, she played the mother who lost three sons in the Great War in John Ford’s drama Four Sons which incidentally was one of John Wayne’s first movies.

Margaret Mann

Margaret Mann in costume

Margaret’s kindly appearance led her to be somewhat typecast in motherly roles but she picked away with parts until sound came in which more or less did for her career that included over 80 movies. Her appearances were numerous but often she appeared in bit-parts and wasn’t always credited.

Margaret M
She played a grandmother, Mrs Mack, in two Our Gang comedies in 1931; had a small role in Frankenstein, in You Can’t Take it With You, she was in Gone with the Wind and appeared as a nun with cheering orphans in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and took a part in Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland. Her final film was The Remarkable Andrew in 1942 which was released a year after her death. 

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Margaret died of cancer at the age of 72 on Feb 4th 1941. Described in American newspapers as Hollywood’s unofficial ambassador of sweetness and light, it was said Margaret’s life was a sad one despite the career she forged for herself in the film industry.

Margt Mann in four sons

Margaret Mann in John Ford’s Four Sons

Her final visit to her home city of Aberdeen came about when her sister wrote telling her how much she was looking forward to seeing Margaret in the John Ford picture Four Sons but regretted her cataracts were so bad she might not see it. Margaret immediately cabled home to say she was coming back home, after thirty-eight years, and so she did.

Margaret Mann 1
Margaret got into films when she moved to San Diego where she was approached by the governor of Washington State who was struck by her likeness to the former American president George Washington’s wife Martha. Margaret was hired to appear as Martha Washington in a tableau which formed part of the opening of the state fair. Following this she was persuaded to move north to Los Angeles where she approached various movie casting directors and three days later she was called by Universal Studios. Her career was born. There never were really major starring roles, although the Ford film was I suppose, and she became well-known as a film actress but work was always piecemeal; often her pay amounted to just a few dollars. When she was signed up for the role of the mother in Hearts of Humanity for Universal in 1917 she got her first proper contracted salary of $60 a week.

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When film-goers became more interested in glamorous Polly Walker actress types rather than white-haired older women Margaret’s roles dried up. The film extra who ambled to fame retreated to obscurity once again.

June 10, 2016

Secret Aberdeen

A new book which takes the reader into some unfamiliar and some forgotten territory and packed with an impressive array of images.

Aberdeen has suffered and benefited from its geography. Suffered because it is seen as isolated on the shoulder of northeast Scotland. Look at how this area’s road and rail infrastructure has hardly advanced in fifty years; never a priority for governments whatever their wing or colour.

Benefits, in a sense, have come because Aberdeen has been the centre not only of the UK’s oil and gas industries but Europe’s but to see Aberdeen today, shabby and badly managed you would never know this. This city is no burgeoning Houston but a rather prim and neat corner of oft-forgotten Scotland, unrepresented in the country’s culture, media and awareness.

25  jopp 1894

What has oil done for Aberdeen and its people? is the question that has been asked repeatedly over the last forty years. Precious little good with energy giants salting away their huge profits, cutting and running, having contributed nothing to the city beyond jobs, yes mostly well-paid, exorbitant house prices and rents and restaurant and taxi charges which still apply the oil premium.

The book doesn’t look at the impact of recent energy developments on the city instead it presents us with an impression of a place used to its successes being under-played and under-valued.

68 Suffragettes my image save small

It jogs along at a good pace exploring aspects of the city and its people over a couple of centuries: the inn Robert Burns, Boswell and Dr Johnson stayed in; Aberdeen’s original gas boom; how you have Aberdeen to thank for chocolate bars and for free school milk and why Aberdeen was labelled Sin City for its courageous work on family planning and women’s health.

 

This book, despite its ridiculous cover which illustrates the triumph of marketing over good sense, is a reminder of Aberdeen’s importance not only in Scottish and UK terms but globally as well.

 

 

 

June 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

This is a tale of two parrots, well three but one is only of passing interest.

The first account is of Polly, a male parrot, who shared a home with two women at 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen in the 1920s.

Polly was no bird-brain but an exceptionally bright bird who recognised and welcomed regular visitors to the house by calling out their names when they appeared. When he heard the postman coming he’d shout “Annie, that’s the postman, hurry up, hurry up!” It seems he didn’t just pick up words and phrases with ease but could produce conversation that related to his circumstances…I’ll give you an example.

One time when the women went off to Ballater for a short holiday Polly was taken along as well, in his cage.  When they arrived to catch the Deeside train at the Joint Station Polly shrieked out, “Hire a cab! Hire a cab!” All went well and the women settled in but somehow or other Polly escaped. This was on a Thursday and the following Sunday morning a local crofter opened his door to discover the poor wee bird cowering on his doorstep, cawing in distress. The man called out to his wife, as reported later, “There’s something at oor door. I ken na gin’t be beast, body, speerit, or deevil, but I wish ye wad come oot an’ see’t.”

The parrot sensing the woman was a body with a bit more sense spoke to the wife, “Take me in, I’m very cold, I’m very hungry, very thirsty. I’m Polly Walker, 32 Witehehall Road, Aberdeen. Take me home!”

And so they did take him in and fed him before heading out to the kirk service. There they heard of a missing bird and a reward of £5 for its return but thought little of it since the description didn’t seem to fit their visitor; the lost bird was said to have a crimson tail and the bird at the croft had no tail at all. Despite this a message was sent to the women in Ballater who quickly arrived at the croft in a phaeton and when they saw the bird they agreed it wasn’t theirs before Polly piped up, “I’m Polly Walker, 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen.” The poor thing had been so desperate and hungry when lost it had pulled out all its tail feathers, and now I’m reporting what was said, sucked the sugar from their roots.

Off it went with its owners who nursed it back to health but the trauma of its adventure was such that Polly complained, “Polly, far, far away; lost, tired, cold, hungry, such a disgrace.”

Oh, and during its sojourn in Ballater the bird had picked up the phrase “You’re a devil!” from some of the local rascals but that sentiment was excised from Polly’s vocabulary once back in Aberdeen.  

 ***

Three years later, in 1932, another Aberdeen parrot raised the alarm and saved lives when his owner’s house at 10 King Street went on fire and it called out, “Come here! I’m feart!”

***

My final parrot story is of a visitor to Aberdeen, this parrot was perched on the right shoulder of its elderly lady owner as she made her way  along Union Street. The year was 1924 and the parrot was called Monsieur Coco who bowed to a Press and Journal reporter, or so he imagined, who had been sent out to get an exclusive on the two strange birds gadding about the town. 

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

The reporter learnt the woman dressed in fur was a Mrs Pearse and her companion was “an intelligent Amazonian parrot.” Mrs Pearse was rather better known than her parrot. Formerly Mabel Cosgrove from London, her family were friends of Oscar Wilde’s and she was once married to a Mr Chan Toon, a Burmese barrister of the Middle Temple. She was something of a novelist, in her head at least, which may account for the following. On the other hand she was getting on in years and may have been suffering from senility but wherever the truth lay she claimed she was the widow of Pearse the Irish poet and nationalist executed for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and that the parrot had been with her husband in the moments before he was shot at Kilmainham jail but apparently sensing the approach of death it flew off into a hedge. 

In fact the Pearse she had married was an Armine Wodehouse Pearse who died in the Great War days before the Armistice.  She, herself, lived partly in Ireland but travelled extensively and appears to have maintained herself through robbery, blackmail and forgery, even claiming to have written or co-written plays with Oscar Wilde.

The parrot, she said, had been thrown from its nest by its mother when six hours old and quite featherless because its wings were paralysed. This was is Guadalajara and Mrs Pearse took care of him, feeding him on bread and milk and so he grew. From Mexico they travelled to New Orleans where she claimed the two witnessed the execution of two prisoners found guilty of murdering an Irish policeman.

She returned to Ireland and overcame reluctance to admit the parrot on grounds he was poultry and the Irish Free State was afraid of the spread of foot and mouth – though I don’t think birds get foot and mouth but then I’m no vet. The Irish customs officer let the bird in in exchange for a photograph of King George – which I find even more far-fetched than a bird with foot and mouth.

Once home in Ireland her parrot attracted suspicion, that it was “a new dodge on the part of the British Government for recruiting” and so Mrs Pearse and the parrot were given police protection. She countered these accusations by saying if anything the bird’s green and orange feathers were Sinn Fein’s colours and that, apparently, ended suspicion of it and her.

The parrot was a fluent French speaker, from their time in Paris and it was claimed had his portrait painted by the artist Dorin, as Monsieur Coco (the bird not the painter) and while in France he enjoyed a dejeuner of omelette and black coffee outside. In addition the parrot spoke excellent Spanish and English as well and was said to have had an extraordinary memory which is more than can be said for his mistress who appears to have confused memory with imagination.

 

 

 

May 2, 2016

O Albin! O my country! John Stuart Blackie

J S Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

Guest blog from Textor

As with all nineteenth century national cultures Scotland’s was an area of contestation. Scotland had lost its identity as a sovereign political state having been subsumed within in the larger formation of Great Britain and the United Kingdom; but at the same time the country retained its distinctive spin on law, education and religion. Added to these characteristics was the legacy of destruction of clan systems, some of which had challenged the rule of the Hanoverian settlement. Into the nineteenth century the question of what it meant to be Scottish had become one with numerous possible answers.

Before the half-century had gone, for example it stretched from the view of Walter Scott who recognised that something of value had been lost in the integration of Scottish life to the larger world of Britain but believed that the benefits of a more peaceable, stable and wealthy society outweighed the losses. In this way he was able to paint pictures of aspects of Scotland’s past as distinct, noble and worthy of praise but now anachronism. Scots could mourn their loss but history had moved on. Get over it.

Grampian storm

However, with the rapid and radical changes in social and economic life strainsof political thought developed which challenged what we might call the Tory radicalism of Scott. By far the most contestationist were those Chartists who used Scottish history to promote their cause of political and economic rights, who called up the ghosts of the past, in particular William Wallace, to rally opposition to all the corruption and injustice of pre-1850 Britain. Chartists challenged basic political power across Britain and gave voice to ways forward which would have appalled the historical novelist.

On the other hand there were those who came from the enfranchised middle class, those who had gained from extension of political power in 1832. They had found a place in the sun and at the same time, through education and religious attachment, were well aware of Scotland’s unique cultural history. Whilst these elements did not challenge the basic political and economic fabric of Britain it would be a mistake to see them as wholly complacent in the post 1832 settlement. One of the challenges they faced was the inherited rights and privileges of landed interests, not that they wanted to overturn the right to private property just that sometimes land use was called into question often manifesting itself as urban and rural rights of way entanglements.

Lion's Face Drive near Invercauld scene of Rights of Way battle in 1891

Lion’s Face Drive near Invercauld – the scene of a rights of way battle in 1891

Which, at last, takes us to John Stuart Blackie. JSB was born in 1809 into a middle class family, his father was a banker. He was educated at Peter Merson’s school in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate where, so the story goes, he would daily gaze on the sculptured figure of a knight mounted high on the town house known variously as Benholm’s Lodge and the Wallace Tower. What matters here is that JSB claimed this became the basis of his fascination and enthusiasm for Scottish culture and history. He like so many others mistakenly believed the figure to represented William Wallace.

Leaving the Netherkirkgate school in 1821 he began attending classes at Marischal College. In the same year his mother died. The poor women in her fourteen years of married bliss had given birth to ten children, six outlived her.

Lochnagar

Wildly compressing his years as a young man: JSB dropped out of university in 1824, tried his luck in a lawyer’s office but gave this up following spiritual turmoil akin it seems to the protagonist in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or the angst of Kirkegaard. Death became a fixation and religion the answer. He had been raised in a relaxed Presbyterian home, religion was there but as a guide rather than a dictator. But now he had religion and entering the ministry was to be his salvation, or so he thought. Hence it was in 1825, with his father’s permission and money he travelled to Edinburgh to find certainty and salvation. Interestingly he not only prayed deeply and frequently with his cousin Archy Gibson but also believed that good works were important which led him to the poorest parts of Edinburgh.

Restlessness once again overtook him and he was back in Aberdeen in 1826, still studying theology. This lasted until 1829 when his intellectual curiosity, and his father’s money, took him to Germany the most important event in his life; and before the year was out had given up all thoughts of becoming a minister and worse, at least for those who had hopes of him becoming a leading Scottish Divine, he rejected the Westminster Confession of Faith and turned instead towards a more liberal, historical and humanist doctrine which he was finding in Germany; he also discovered beer and Greek. From being a young man configured with thoughts of death, atonement and redemption he travelled across the liberal divide to arrive at the opinion that Scottish Presbyterianism was silly and pernicious, threatening to stunt the spirit and intellectual lives of children. This was balanced, if balance is the correct term, by his Scottishness, by his continuing sense of pride in the distinct contribution that Scotland had made in religion and despite his criticisms would have none of the bigotry of English High Churchism.

For a moment he toyed with Roman Catholicism but soon gave this up preferring Scottish Sabbatarianism to racket and rattle, fiddling and frivolity . . . and tasteless mummery. His antipathy to aspects of English culture was heightened by his experiences in Germany where he found that John Bull . . .speaks no German . . . is not a great favourite . . . proud selfish and has a mercantile spirit.

Deer stalking 2

Illustrating his secular turn of mind, on a walking tour to Florence he took the opportunity of studying peasant farming and landholding using this to ask questions of Irish land law; and he expressed his support for parliamentary reform and read Shelley’s “Queen Mab” with enthusiasm. However, he was given little time to speculate on possible social injustices as his father had grown weary of the Continental Jaunt.

JSB was summoned home in 1831 where he was told to return to Edinburgh University to study law, which he did. A hateful experience which resulted in his admission in 1834 to the Society of Advocates. At the same time his father stopped JSB’s allowance. It was now sink or swim by his own abilities.

Resenting spending time on the minutiae of Scots Law Blackie resolved to earn a living from writing aiming at the burgeoning market for learned reviews but his central goal was find a university post in Scotland. Aberdeen at the time was a city being run by middle class, liberal Whig men. Blackie’s father Alexander was of this ilk and had the ear of these men. One of the ways of extending influence across the city and beyond was to have a university Chair filled by a sympathetic academic or even, as happened in Aberdeen, canvas for creation of a new Chair and connive to have a suitable candidate win the post. A Chair in Latin was created at Marischal College of which Blackie said a Whig job it unquestionably was, not that this made him unhappy, far from it. With strong political friends he had every chance of winning the Chair. There was one fly in the ointment: his rejection of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was horror-struck, for to accept the post meant signing up to Calvinism, a condition of teaching at universities.

JSB was no fool. He had the wit and the legal training to get round issue, a little deceit and fancy footwork was the answer. He signed the Confession which was accepted and ratified by the Presbytery. To the Church of Scotland’s horror the new Professor then admitted that signing of the document was not a statement of his own beliefs simply a statement that his teaching would be within the bounds imposed by the Confession. A storm blew-up but in the end the blast of a trumpet for secular education was heard and Blackie began his university career in 1841.

Deer stalking

JSB found teaching at Marischal too constrained and hidebound. He wanted a bigger and more stimulating environment for his pedagogic skills. With Greek being his first intellectual love he set up the Hellenic Society, took to lecturing to working men and women outside the university bounds where he found a more receptive audience; in contrast the university had a low standard of attainment and ambition. With this opinion it is hardly surprising that he was on the lookout for a post away from Aberdeen. But it took years for him to find a job which he eventually did in 1852 when he was appointed to the Chair of Greek at Edinburgh University, this after again undergoing questions as to his religious affiliation which he had said was the gospel of the heart as found in the New Testament. Unlike the youth of the 1830s he now had no interest in going into a corner to look at the point [of my nose] and solve the mystery of the Trinity. Nonetheless, he might not be interested in biblical nasal gazing but some men who influenced university appointments were concerned and it took hard canvassing by Blackie to win the post but win it he did. He remained at Edinburgh University until retirement in 1882 and died in 1895.

Within the sixty odd years of active intellectual life JSB displayed an amazing ability to at one and the same moment be the odd man at the table, the one who looked and sounded wrong to men and women of conventional wisdom yet always seemed to be welcome at the table. Perhaps it’s a bit like fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle (Blackie described him as a notable monster) who cried misery to Progress and so much of what Victorian Britain stood for yet was keenly read and listened to by both a middle class and working class audiences.

Blackie differed in many ways from Carlyle, he had a joy of good living of company and the pleasures life, including female company (he had married in 1841 with a most unconventional romance). Unlike the London based “Sage” he was not miserable. But he did, like Carlyle, betray that willingness to express affection for working men and women, for their capacity to deal with adversity, their willingness to labour and to grasp at learning. But again like Carlyle grasping could only go so far. Under the tutelage of enlightened men such as himself industrious classes could find a better world, unease only emerges when working men and women begin to formulate alternatives generated by themselves. As with so many of the middle class reformers of the 1830s JSB could not get his head around the notion that Chartists might be proposing alternatives which needed to be taken intellectually seriously. Attending a Chartist meeting in 1843 he heard a meagre scarecrow of a man extolling Carlyle’s critique of industrialisation, pouring out floods of real natural eloquence on the triumphs of democracy. Much impressed by the physical looks of the orator and the voice the Professor of Latin pulled back from full endorsement, perhaps not wishing to be deceived as he had deceived the Presbytery of Aberdeen. Appearance and sound was all very well but what of the Chartist substance? And this was found wanting.

Glen Callater

Glen Callater

Democracy, there was truth there too, but more than half-a lie. I believe the majority are good-but are they wise can a multitude of passion-moved men be wise? His answer was no. Critical thought and wisdom of any value could not come from mass movements rather it was to be found with a solitary sage in a chamber. Having said this when in 1843 the Scottish Church split Blackie sided with the dissenters, which in Aberdeen was all the ministers in the city, describing the men who walked out of the Church as noble but these men were of course from a respectable class.

But to return to his Scottishness, apart from wearing a plaid as everyday dress he asserted his national if not his class identity by questioning land usage in the Highlands. Addressing the problem first broached in the 1830s he turned to the medium of poetry to show his distaste for families being cleared from land. Like his one-time colleague at Marischal College, William MacGillivray, Blackie walked Scotland. This gave him ample opportunity to see the cleared land and with him learning Gaelic in the 1860s was able to speak directly to men and women forcibly driven from crofts.

Braes of MAR

The poems he published in 1857 under the title “Braemar Ballads” gives vent to his anger and sadness at viewing deserted and ruined clachans across the landscape: Where the stump of a stricken ash tree/ Shows the spot, where the home of the cottar should be. Villain of the piece is the destruction of social unity which, he said, had underpinned Highland clan society being replaced first by sheep farming then deer forest. It’s not great poetry but the message is clear, the chieftains are gone, the kind lords of the glen have left the heather muirs, they bartered the rights of the brave Highlandman putting what should be a Scottish heritage into the hands of stalkers of deer . . . lordlings that live for the pleasure to kill. Make no mistake the man hostile to organised Chartism makes a searing indictment of clearances: O heartless lords, O loveless law, with calculation cold / Ye sold the mighty force, that glows in faithful hearts, for gold . . . Woe unto you, the grasping crew . . . By Heaven, it is a lawless land! We boast that we are free. And he asks how and why this has happened. Having pretty well jettisoned the ideology of Providential acts with his turn to the morality of love he squarely puts the blame on the drive for wealth and money and the absolute right of an owner to dispose of property as he or she saw fit.

Clearances, he said were a man-made phenomena, one that his beloved Scotland needs hang its head in shame: O Albin! O my country! O my dear Highland home/ The lust of gold hath ruined thee, the lust that ruined Rome. Absentee proprietors he wrote These be the masters, Scotland! Commerce was the problem. A society which centred its activity in manufacturing for profit rather than expanding the moral worth of individuals was bound to slip towards treating men and woman as numbers in an accounting ledger. This was a theme he had touched on in the 1840s when he encouraged Aberdeen male shop assistants to treat with both customers and employers for the restriction on what we would now call unsocial working hours. Long working days Blackie said gave little time for education and appreciation of the better things of life. Interestingly the shop men found a great deal of support for their request amongst Aberdeen’s great and good but there was little similar enthusiasm for improving the working conditions of men and women employed in more industrial enterprises. With this moral stance it should come as no surprise that JSB was hostile to utilitarian philosophy.

Deer stalking 3

Land use and tenure had to change, one remedy was to find men in Parliament to represent the needs of small farmers and find some way of restricting the spread of large farms; to bring back the form of close relationship which had at one time, he believed, typified clan society. Absentee landlords could have no feeling for the men and women of the land and being a Gaelic speaker he excoriated those who lived in the Highlands but would not learn the native tongue. We should remember that the university professor had got his first step up the academic ladder with the assistance of Aberdeen’s Whigs, men who favoured (without being absolutists) the free play of the market and the right of capital to make capital. Clearly any whiggism retained by Blackie was held within his moral critique. His liberal view of religion and pedagogic humanism melded with the large ethical stance to make him a man well-able to sit with academics across Britain and beyond, to flirt (literally) with women of the highest social standing, be invited to the houses of great landowners and give talks on politics, literature to working men. Looking at JSB it is easy to conclude that for all that he made the call to action a central issue of his philosophy he was sufficiently distant from it to actually upset the social circles he inhabited. But this would be unfair. For all his deviousness in rising to his first professorship he did raise publicly the issue of the right to teach without affirming membership of or agreement with the Church of Scotland; this was a conscience issue which he resolved by being cleverer than his opponents. Similarly his outspoken attack on clearances could have threatened to close many doors in his face. Indeed following the publication of the poems he was encouraged to write a letter The Times setting out his views; this was no shrinking sentimentalist, my whole breakfast table was deluged with papers about the desolation in the Highlands. In 1883 Blackie demonstrated his continued commitment to reforming Scotland’s land laws; he gave evidence to the Napier Commission where he called for fair rents with fixity of tenure for small tenants; called on restrictions on both large sheep farms and deer forests and for a Royal Commission to look into some way of redistributing land to the benefit crofters. These and other points made by him showed that the example of Ireland with soul-destroying poverty and rapacious landlords and Gladstonian liberalism’s attempt to relieve the conditions of the poor farmer was not lost on JSB. Unlike some of his contemporaries he did not blame Popery for the sad state of Ireland it was, he said, down to the English . . . [who] sucked the blood systematically out of the people; the English were filled with measureless greed. Scots it seems had nothing to do with the state of Ireland which sounds a bit like his plea that it was English landlords who brought the Highlands down, move along no Scots here. Paradoxically for all the denunciation of clearances he had a very good relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, one of the most kind-hearted easy-going . . . creatures that I have ever met . . . a sweet blooded race these Sutherlands. There is surely a question mark over this view of the family notorious for its clearances. Probably the solution to the tensions and dissonances in Blackie’s social policies is that on the one hand he wanted to avoid materialism (philosophical and otherwise) of liberalism and the closed reactionary bulwarks of the Tories. Thus he would swing between them, looking for spiritual values, liberal education and decent treatment of the poor. Liberals gave so much as did Tory paternalism, at one point he wrote that Tories are the best landlords and true friends of the crofters; and the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland would have fallen into being the best of the lot as they were drawn from the old heads of houses and clans. Flying between the two poles of liberalism and Toryism of course left him adrift from the one philosophy of action emerging from outside his class, namely socialism. For all the progressive things he stood for he was constrained within the limits of his class vision forced to search for solutions and salvation in the world of commerce.

April 23, 2016

Scottish alchemists in search of the philosopher’s stone

 

teniers alch
If only the alchemists of centuries past had the key to creating great wealth out of nothing that our directors of banks and industries have discovered life might have been a lot less dangerous for them.

Alchemy: the ancient art of transforming one thing into another and achieving wisdom and, hopefully, gold along the way.

Let’s face it few are interested in wisdom but the art of transforming base metals into gold, well that was something else entirely. Every avaricious, greedy prince and tyrant wanted two things out of life – greater power and greater wealth – which made life precarious for the alchemist.

Imagine if you claimed to have a recipe for turning a lump of base metal into gold – do you think you’d be allowed to get on with life or might you find yourself hunted down, locked up and tortured until you revealed your secret formula (which let’s face it were worthless)?

The philosopher’s stone* was the name given to the substance that was believed to transmute base metals into noble ones (such as gold) and its secret was sought for centuries by men and women through experiments with metals and minerals. They were known as alchemists and they popped up just about everywhere in the known world but I’m going to concentrate on one or two Scots associated with the craft.

Alexander Seton’s launch into the cunning art of alchemy began when a Dutch ship foundered off Scotland’s coast at Seton near Edinburgh in 1601 and Alexander Seton was one of those who rescued its crew. The ship’s pilot and Seton became friendly and the following year the Scot visited the Dutchman in Holland and as they parted Seton produced a piece of gold in front of the astonished Dutchman as a gift.

News of the amazing creation quickly spread and Seton, it seems, was happy to display his remarkable ability, repeating the performance all around the Continent accompanied by his servant William Hamilton. While Seton wasn’t particularly Scottish-looking with his French-cut beard and florid face Hamilton was – red-headed and bearded (Scottish not French).

cosmopolite

At Strasbourg Seton demonstrated to a local goldsmith how to make gold and gave him a portion of the powder he used in his transmutations. The goldsmith successfully replicated the process until he ran out of the powder given him by Seton and soon gained a reputation for the feat. His name was on everyone’s lips and soon it came to the notice of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague who ordered the goldsmith to his court.

Realising he was in trouble, the goldsmith explained that a Scotsman, now gone away, had supplied him with the powder  and it had run out but this cut no ice with Rudolph who insisted the goldsmith supply him with gold. Of course he could not and tried to run away but was captured and died in the Emperor’s tower prison.

Seton was not so naive and as he moved across Europe he frequently changed his name to avoid detection though still practising his art – each time amazing those who witnessed his experiments. In Frankfurt-am-Main eyewitness watched him add his secret powder to an ounce of mercury and potash heated in a crucible and when the mixture was really hot a pellet of yellow wax was dropped in. The result was gold which was then weighed and assayed as twenty-three carats.

Subscribing to the scheme of thought, best to leave them wanting more, Seton soon made himself scarce only to pop up somewhere else, replicate the procedure and move on leaving an air of mystery behind. People called him Cosmopolite (citizen of the world), for want of his own name.

pinakas alchemy

He and Hamilton continued to roam around the Continent demonstrating and promoting the art of alchemy always one step ahead of discovery until Seton was overheard asking for lapis lazuli in an apothecary shop in Cologne. The city was full of self-proclaimed alchemists and alchemy detractors – well where else would they congregate? – and so it was suspected this stranger wanted the lapis for such practices and laughed at another puffer in their midst. Seton felt he had to defend the art and so set up a demonstration. Once again gold was produced, this time from antimony oxide heated with the magic powder. One man there insisted Seton repeat the experiment with lead and unseen by Seton slipped a fragment of zinc into the crucible with the intention of sabotaging the affair. Imagine his fury when Seton again produced gold.

Before he left the city Seton amazed a group of men by heating broken iron pliers in a crucible along with some of the powder and succeeding again in making gold which was duly tested by a goldsmith’s wife, herself proficient in metals, and declared true. By now Seton’s profile in Cologne was dangerously high and he and Hamilton fled once more.

A strange and frenetic existence was about to get a little bit more hazardous. Seton fell in love.

He ran away from Munich with a beautiful Fraulein to Krossen and was summoned to his court by the Elector of Saxony. Seton, being too busy on honeymoon business sent Hamilton to put on a show in his place. It all went well, perhaps too well, and Hamilton suspected anyone capable of producing gold from nothing would not be a free man for long. Sensibly he headed back home to Scotland.

Seton was taken by the Elector’s men and when he refused to reveal his recipe for the secret powder he was bound to a rack and his body stretched until his joints dislocated, he was whipped, stabbed and burnt with molten lead but refused to talk.

A Moravian called Michael Sendivogius planned to save Seton, to find out his secrets of course. He sold his house and with the money bought a great deal of drink for the dungeon guards. Once they were well and truly drunk he sneaked in and carried Seton off, for by now the Scot was so tortured he was incapable of walking. They stopped by Seton’s lodgings to pick up his stock of powder, and his wife, and made for Poland.

At Cracow Sendivogius asked that Seton reveal to him his secret potion. Seton refused but said he would provide him with sufficient powder to produce gold, and so he did, giving the Moravian all his remaining powder.

Seton died soon after and possibly in the hope of finally obtaining the secret formula Sendivogius married Seton’s young widow. She did not have the formula but still the Moravian had a substantial quantity of the powder Seton had given him and so he became an alchemist demonstrating in much the way Seton had done until he was kidnapped by a fellow countryman of his, a dignitary in search of the secret of gold.

Unable to provide him with the information Sendivogius was locked up in prison from which he managed to escape and set out again as not any old alchemist but adopted Seton’s title of Cosmopolite. He was not as smart as Seton and was tricked and all the remaining Seton powder was stolen from him. He lived long after that but without Seton’s powder his powers of alchemy were at an end.

***

The most famous of Scotland’s alchemists was Balwearie man Michael Scot or Scotus whose life straddled the 12th and 13th centuries. Educated at Durham, Oxford and Paris universities Scot was a philosopher, mathematician, theologian and astrologer. A polyglot, he was very well-educated and influential.

scott_casteldelmonte

At one time he was employed by Emperor Frederick II of Sicily as his court astrologer and fount of knowledge on just about everything under the sun: geography, astronomy, locations of hell, purgatory and heaven; volcanoes, rivers, seas, human souls. Scot was today’s equivalent of Google.

Men such as Scot were in great demand by rulers with some education who desired a whole lot more and Scot was hardly bashful about his abilities-
“Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour since by such a doctrine such as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.”

He was the author of books on alchemy including Magistery of the Art of Alchemy and Lesser Magistery which describe his experiments with alums, salts, vitriols, spirits in conjunction with herbs and minerals as exotic as you like from as far away as Alexandria and India. Nothing escaped his trials – dust of moles, owl blood, opium, toads he fed on herbs and vinegars.

He translated Liber astronomiae (Book of Astronomy) by Alpetragius (Abu Ishaq, Nured-din al-Bitruji al-Ishbilt), which examined Aristotle’s astronomical system and other Aristotelian works and wrote commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on natural philosophy and studied physiognomy (reading character from faces) and his De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione proved so popular it went to 18 editions between 1477 and 1660. He was also into chiromancy (reading palms).

Scot’s powers as a magician were marvelled at – he rode astride a demon horse and sailed the seas on a demon ship that terrified pirates. On his arrival one time in Paris it was said when his jet-black steed set its first hoof down on Parisian soil the bells of Notre-Dame rang out, the second hoof tore down the walls of the palace and before the third foot touched the ground the king of France promised Scot all he desired. As well as having a reputation so great that his name was woven into mythology, Scot dressed for the part in long flowing robes and pointed cap that have come to epitomise wizards.

Such was the faith in Michael Scot’s ability to see into the future the Emperor Frederick avoided Florence for that was where the Scot predicted he would die. Unfortunately the Emperor did go to Firenzuola and died. Firenzuola, which the Emperor should have known, means Little Florence.

Scot foresaw his own death from a blow on the head by a stone and so he took to wearing an iron helmet. On the one day he removed it during a church service a small stone dropped from the church roof and killed him (soon after which might demonstrate the power of thought for he feared just such a happening yet this was a small pebble.)

Sandro_Botticelli_-_Inferno,_Canto_XVIII_-_WGA02854

Michael Scot achieved celebrity or is that notoriety in Dante’s Divine Comedy where he suffers abominably for his arts and Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Quell’ altro, che ne’ fianchi è così poco
Michele Scotto fu, che veramente
delle magiche frode seppe il gioco
That other there, whose ribs fill scanty space,
Was Michael Scot, who truly full well knew
Of magical deceits the illusive grace.

(Dante’s Inferno, canto xx.115-117)

You must know then, sweet Master, that not long ago there dwelt in this city (Florence) a great master of black magic named Michael Scott (because he came from Scotland), who was greatly honoured by many gentlemen, of whom few are now alive.

(Boccaccio’s Demcameron)

The philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola disapproved of Scot while the French scholar Naudé supported him.

The Scottish 18thC Border’s Orientalist makes mention of Scot the magician in his Lord Soulis –

The black spae-book from his breast he took,
Impress’d with many a warlock spell:
And the book it was wrote by Michael Scott,
Who held in awe the fiends of hell.

Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) dedicated his mathematical work, Liber Abaci, to Scot. Liber Abaci was one of West’s earliest references to Hindu-Arabic numbers and examined currency, measurements, perfect numbers, Euclidean geometry, formulas for square pyramidal numbers etc and most notably a section on the growth of rabbit populations.

The most prominent Scottish author with references to Michael Scot is his namesake Sir Walter Scott who in The Lay of the Last Minstrel has him as the magician who divided the Eildon Hill into three.

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Scot was also worked into that marvellous writer James Hogg’s story The Three Perils of Man.

Following his death, Scot’s body was returned to Scotland from the Continent and along with his magic books he was interred in Melrose Abbey – or so it is said. The reason for his books being buried along with him might relate to the legend that within his books were such secrets, even fiends lurked within, and anyone who opened them up did so at their peril.

***

King James IV’s interest in alchemy was such he had a laboratory made at Stirling Castle around about 1500. He was the man who left two babies with a dumb woman on Inschkeith Island in the Firth of Forth as he was curious as to which language they would speak – apparently “good Hebrew” .

Hugely interested in the world and its mysteries James IV studied medicine among other subjects and would pay people to have him do things to them, medically speaking. At least he asked – and paid for the privilege.

But to return to the alchemist lab at Stirling. There the alchemist-in-residence, an Italian called Damian, dressed appropriately in a damask gown and velvet hose when carrying out his experiments on metals and minerals: gold, silver, lead, tin, sulphur, white lead, cinnabar (a bright red form of mercury), alum, aqua vitae (distillations of substances from ethanol to whisky [a lot of it]). The lab contained the usual paraphernalia you see in illustrations of similar alchemist workshops – bellows to fire up charcoal, peat, wood and coal furnaces for heating substances, glass flasks for holding solids and liquids, mortars to crush minerals and gems, vinegar to produce metal salts, sugar (no idea) and so on.

Damian was not the most successful of alchemists, nor great at flying – a feat he attempted from high up on a tower at the castle. He broke his leg on landing and blamed his failure on having used the wrong kind of feathers for his wings and, as the author John Holmyard commented – “Had eagle feathers been used exclusively he would no doubt have touched down at Le Bourget.”

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John Napier

The illustrious Scottish mathematician and magician John Napier of Merchiston of the 16th and 17th centuries and inventor of logarithms was captivated by the sciences of alchemy and necromancy so that it seems only appropriate his constant travelling companions were a black spider and a black rooster.

My final shout to Scottish alchemists is one who really wasn’t one but more a conventional chemist who had a particular interest in crystallography, a 17th century Aberdonian called William Davidson who became physician to both the Kings of France and Poland. Davidson was the first to occupy a chair of chemistry in France, in 1648 and apparently the first person from the British Isles to become a professor of Chemistry. He wrote an influential work called Philosophia Pyrotechnia seu Cursus Chymiatricus which integrated Neoplatonic, Paracelsian and corpuscular theories. Davidson was a popular lecturer and his talks on chemistry at the Jardin du Roi attracted all sorts of people, including England’s philosopher Thomas Hobbes and diarist John Evelyn.

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William  Davidson sometimes spelled Davisson

Alchemists were chemists, men or women who mixed substances together to create something else more significant – or tried to. Their claims to be able to make gold made them into targets for rapacious individuals who would stop at nothing to learn their ‘secrets’. Their laboratories were often little more than a corner filled with the accoutrements of their art. The substances they used were often dangerous and the life they led and the claims they made certainly made their existence fraught with menace too. By comparison today’s fat cats and company directors who award themselves and each other obscene bonuses on top of obscene salaries have no need of the art of alchemy, the art of kidology does them nicely.

*Philosophers’ stone created from a complex set of operations involving grinding, combining, distilling, condensing and much more to produce a very volatile substance known as water of the Sun and from this liquid all sorts could occur, or not.