Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

September 17, 2017

50 years ago today Aberdeen Youth CND beats in bid to stop the war but only stopped a car

 

Fifty years ago today: 17 September 1967

cnd demo crathie 1967

Aberdeen Youth demonstration outside Crathie Church

BANNER RILES CROWD

Hostility as two dart in path of Queen Mother’s car
Part of the 3000 crowd at Crathie Church turned hostile yesterday towards two youths who stepped in the path of the Queen Mother’s car waving a “Peace in Vietnam” banner.

One man lifted his walking stick to tear down the banner, and a woman came out of the crowd pulling at it with her hands. They had to be restrained by the police.

Apparently the demonstrators ‘ plan was to wave the banner in front of the Prime Minister’s car, but this misfired.

The incident happened as the procession of three cars with the Royal Family and Mr And Mrs Wilson was leaving the small Deeside church after the morning service.

One car with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew had passed the corner of the roadway leading to the green bridge near the Balmoral entrance when two young men darted on to the roadway with a banner reading:

Aberdeen youth for peace in Vietnam

Up went the banner as the Queen Mother’s car approached the corner. Two police officers leapt forward and pushed the youths back to the verge.

ANGRY

People standing nearby became hostile. There were angry murmurings and the man with the walking stick hooked it under the banner in an effort to pull it down.

The crowd were told by the police to quieten down.

Mr Wilson’s car was following that of the Queen Mother but was some distance behind. The banner was down by the time he passed.

The Royal Family had driven to the church under low cloud and overcast skies. Mr Wilson and his wife were first to arrive, followed by the Queen Mother, wearing a lime coat and dress with petalled hat.

SMILES

There were smiles and waves from the Queen, dressed in a powder-blue linen coat and dress with matching hat, and Princess Anne, wearing a spring-green coat and white hat topped by a pompom.

The Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and Prince Andrew wore the kilt.

At the service, Mr and Mrs Wilson, who are spending the weekend as the guests of the Queen at Balmoral, were seated in the Royal transept.

Text of the sermon – from the Sermon on the Mount – was “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works.”

(Aberdeen Press & Journal 18 September 1967)

 

July 30, 2017

Archibald White Maconochie Part 2:

In Part 2 of the account of Archibald White Maconochie we find those issues affecting his business and the country are redolent of today’s headlines.

Guest blog by Textor

1907

Nearer to home, in the waters of the Moray Firth, Maconochie complained that local fishermen, in particular line-men, were having their fishing grounds destroyed by trawlers both British and foreign. Steam powered vessels were out-competing older fishing technologies and something needed to be done; trawlers should not take the bread out of other men’s mouths complained Maconochie. Just as he called on the state to intervene in overseas markets he also wanted it to be active here; with strong policing to protect the three mile limit even if this meant prosecuting skippers from Aberdeen. Here we can see a clearer expression of self-interest (or perhaps a hint of sentimentality) on the part of Maconochie for his business at Fraserburgh was dependent upon older less technologically advanced fishing methods.

Maconochie’s stance seemed to fly in the face of his deep-seated belief in progress and competition. He had, after all, enthusiastically adopted mass factory production in his food preservation business employing the latest technology and would (as we shall see) lead a campaign to introduce American business techniques to Fraserburgh but he failed to accept trawling as just another leap forward in competition, albeit one that would leave associated industries and communities managing to survive as best they could. Surely this was progress in his own terms? Interestingly Maconochie did favour some seasonal restriction on fishing as a means of preserving stocks a stance which further alienated him from trawling but which found support amongst line fishermen.

Salmon and Shrimp Paste 1926

Returning to international competition, Archibald began to realise that the Liberal dogma of free trade was problematic in situations where rival nations were introducing tariffs to protect young enterprises or where they had developed industries which could compete on a cost basis with British goods. He allied himself with Joseph Chamberlain’s protectionist politics, denouncing the dumping of foreign imports on the home and colonial markets as unfair – that the free market had broken down and British industry needed protection through the state imposing tariffs to stop such surplus products finding their way onto the British market. In his view such a tax policy would not, as the Free Trade Liberals claimed, result in shrinkage in commerce but on the contrary would encourage foreign manufacturers to open businesses in the UK and so competitors would be forced to employ British labour.

This has a familiar ring about it as the very competitive nature of capital at one and the same moment brings success for some and ruin for others. The squaring of this particular circle, up until post 1945, involved variations of protectionism as each industrial concern and national capital struggled for solutions to failing competitiveness. The British had the advantage of an empire which not only could restrict foreign competition through tariffs on some imports to local markets but also put up barriers to prevent penetration of the colonies; the latter question of colonial markets being open to all-comers became a bargaining chip between debt-ridden UK and the solvent USA after World War 2.

In his six years as an M.P. Archibald Maconochie was constantly harassed by the liberal Aberdeen People’s Journal. Apart from being damned for having no political depth he was also criticised for his frequent absences from Parliament including several visits to the USA where he met with major industrialists including Andrew Carnegie. Being a kingpin in the preserving industry his travels in America took him to Chicago the home of a vast beef slaughter and packing industry famously documented by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. AWM established business contact with The Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company and eventually he became a director of its British division.

Peoples Journal Nov 29 1902

Impressed by American industry, in 1903 he began negotiations to open a “steel works” in Fraserburgh. This was a radical proposal which would extend modern mass production to the fishing-rural economy and introduce a factory system that exploited advanced machine tools and in turn give birth to a concentrated industrial working class in part mirroring the setup already operating at the Kinnaird Head Works but unlike the tinning plant labour would largely be male. The liberal Press’ dismissal of the idea was misplaced as the proposed “steel works” was not a steel mill that required vast quantities of iron and coke but a tool-making business, as stated in the company name.

Criticism fell by the wayside still Liberal opinion fulminated against the new works and Maconochie’s role in bringing it to Fraserburgh. The Unionist M.P. was accused of buying votes with promises to hire local labour but Archibald remained undismayed by the criticism. Neither was he perturbed by the notion of American capital, a “Yankee Trust,” getting a foothold in Britain. So in 1903 plans were advanced for a 50-acre site for the venture and eventually by 1905 Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Co. (better known as CPT) was up and running in the fishing town.

Maconochie had hoped that tariffs would be placed on imported European-made pneumatic tools giving a competitive edge to the US firm but in this he was disappointed. Nonetheless the enterprise proved to be profitable.

Pneumatic Works ADJ March 14 1903

However this achievement was undermined by a scandal which threatened to destroy Maconochie Brothers’ reputation when military authorities in Pretoria condemned thousands of cases of their preserved food as unfit for human consumption. Maconochie was not the only firm involved but it was by far the most prominent and the only one whose owner was a sitting M.P.; elected on the basis of his commitment to empire. The well-being of troops in South Africa and millions of tins of contaminated rations appeared to tell a different story.

Maconochie was confronted in Parliament by Keir Hardie. The socialist member for Merthyr Tydfil turned his anger on the member for East Aberdeenshire accusing him of threatening the welfare of troops as well as wasting tax payers’ money. Maconochie acknowledged that some discolouration of rations might have occurred but this, he claimed, was no fault of the manufacturer rather it was due to storage in tropical conditions. He maintained that Maconochie’s good name was being tarnished to a greater and unjustified extent than the canned meat and vegetables for irrespective of who tinned the rations Maconochie was global shorthand for tinned food. Speaking for the Government Lord Stanley sided with AWM on the stringency of testing of military rations and pointed a finger at the commanding officer in Pretoria for hastily condemning foodstuffs which Stanley claimed were probably edible (although there was no indication any government minister might be prepared to sit down to enjoy a Maconochie for lunch.) In debate Stanley gave voice to the ingrained and prevalent casual racism of the period when he spoke of natives stealing the condemned rations and apparently displaying no ill effects. And he drew laughter from the Chamber when he said it was questionable whether a thing which agrees with a native would always agree with a European. Archibald Maconochie then asked fellow members to give all manufacturers of rations the benefit of the doubt.

Chinese Labour

An issue which has resonance in 2017, namely migration, was of concern to Archibald Maconochie towards the end of his political career, in 1906. Not that he held to an absolute yes or no on the topic. In response to the question of whether migration was good for Britain and its empire he said it depended upon the immediate context – for example in 1904 he favoured the importation of Chinese labour to the mines of South Africa. At the end of the Boer War private capital and the British state were keen for the systematic extraction of minerals, particularly gold. War had disrupted production; local black labour had drifted to rural areas and towns and was showing a disinclination to accept the harsh conditions of mine owners. A suggestion that white labour might be imported from Europe and beyond to support mineral extraction was opposed on grounds that whites working for wage rates and in conditions formerly the preserve of black labour would undermine the racist division of South Africa. Cheap Chinese labour was the answer. As one commentator for the gold interest put it the greatest hopes lay in China where vast hungry populations vainly sought outlets for their energies. Poor wages, harsh conditions, racism and exclusion from civil rights would be the lot of the Chinese labourer who faced expulsion from the country when its energies were no longer required.

Jewish Pogrom

This type of migration was favoured by Maconochie who like so many of his contemporaries did not mind Chinese labour being imported into South Africa yet he had no wish to have Eastern European Jews admitted to Britain.

The Jews in question were not simply migrating on a whim in search of a different life but were refugees fleeing the bloody pogroms overwhelming Russia and Poland. A report in Aberdeen People’s Journal on a pogrom at Homel (Gomel) in September 1903 described the destruction of hundreds of homes with Jews beaten, bayoneted and stabbed as police, the military and civilians ran amok and again comparisons with today are clear with women, men and children fleeing similar persecution. Many thousands sought safety in the USA whilst others came to Britain seeking sanctuary only to find a growing wave of anti-Semitism which culminated in the landmark Aliens Act of 1905. This weasel-words measure couched its ant-Semitism in terms of undesirable immigrants, travelling steerage and landing at British ports without means of “decent” support and those arriving owing to a disease or infirmity . . . [who were] likely to become a charge upon the rates were to be summarily shipped out. A wall of officialdom was built around Britain’s coasts. Humanitarian need found no place in this legislation.

In an election address of August 1900 Archibald Maconochie had told his audience at Maud –

“I have visited many parts of the world, and I know of no part I go to where strangers, no matter of what nationality, are treated equally, the same as every British subject. Can we say that of any other country, and can we point to any other country where strangers are so well treated as in ours? We cannot.”

1905

Constable John Bull: We’ve admitted a good many aliens before now – in fact I’m a bit of an alien myself. But in future we’re going to draw the line at the likes of you!                                                                               1905

Liberal, we might say, to a fault and of course Maconochie found the fault in 1905 when migrants who travelled first class were quite acceptable but the poor, the disabled and the sick in steerage were altogether another matter – that is if they were east European-Russian Jews. His rhetoric, typical of so much at the time caught the vile spirit of the Act. AWM contrasted the historical example of the Huguenots (significantly Protestants) who he held up as having provided yeoman service in the development of our trade with those immigrants then landing in Britain. According to him these new asylum seekers were criminals, paupers, lunatics, or diseased persons and altogether were not the types of people who were wanted in this country and to allow them in would open the door to crime and moral degeneration as well as threaten the livelihood of British workers. The “Aliens” were willing to work for starvation wages, he complained. He recognised that there were no boat-loads of immigrants coming ashore in Buchan and that the “sweat shops” found in London were unknown in Peterhead but he told his constituents that it remained their bounden duty to keep them out. All this apparently said without using the word Jew, the weasel word “foreigner” standing in for open anti-Semitism.

This was a last hurrah for East Aberdeenshire. Standing on a clear pro-Tory Unionist platform and without the benefit of war psychosis to rouse the electors Maconochie’s racism and protectionist politics were insufficient to see-off the Liberals. On a bigger turn out, although with a far from universal adult electorate, the constituency reverted to its trust in Liberalism. James Annand received 6149 votes to Maconochie’s 4319.

may 1905

Nelson and Britannia May 17 1905
Shade of Nelson – What do you call these, Ma’am?
Britannia – Oh, they’re some of my alien pilots.
Shade of Nelson – What, in British waters? H’m – in my day we kept our secrets to ourselves!
(59 foreign pilots were employed on British coast while British ships abroad were compelled to take native pilots let to calls for an Act to prevent aliens from being granted pilotage certificates for English [sic] waters.)

In 1910 the “Lipton of tinned fish”, as he was once called, asked the voters of Partick to support him. As he’d done ten years earlier he hammered home the message of the German threat. On this occasion Archibald emphasised Germany’s growing naval power as a dangerous challenge to Britain. Germany was after colonies and Maconochie feared a mortal injury would befall the British Empire. Four years later he might have found electors more willing to listen to his woeful prognosis but as in 1906 the electors of 1910 decided to go for the Liberal.

June 28, 2017

Cycling through thirties Aberdeen

1936 cyclists parade in aid of the Infirmary fund

Cyclists parade at Aberdeen beach in an event to raise cash for the new infirmary at Foresterhill   1936

Cycling was promoted as a cheap and enjoyable form of recreation and transport rolled into one by Aberdeen Council in the 1930s. Bicycles were becoming lighter and more easily handled by children as well as men and women and a host of cycling clubs sprouted up all around Scotland as people took to the road at weekends and on their annual summer holidays. Aberdeen Wheelers became one of Scotland’s prominent clubs winning numerous national championships that attracted astonishing numbers of competitors. At the Northeast of Scotland’s time trials, its 7th annual rally, held at Rothienorman in 1936 there were over 8,000 participants.

A couple of years earlier it was noted that summer sports were booming in Aberdeen with many participating in football, bowls, angling, golf, athletics, rowing, swimming, tennis and cricket – and not forgetting cycling.

Between 1934 and 1938 the cycling craze saw the establishment of lots of groups several attached to the Northeast of Scotland Time Trials Association (NSTTA): Aberdeen Wheelers, Bon-Accord (the Bons), Barmen, Woodside and District, Bucksburn and District, Footdee and District and Caledonian and from farther north clubs from Keith, Elgin, Grantown, Inverness, Strichen, Ellon and Deveron Valley as well as many more not attached to the NSTTA. One cyclist stood out above the rest – he was George Lawrie and he was a member of Aberdeen Paragons Cycling Club.

1934

Among his many successes Lawrie smashed the Scottish record for the 100 mile time trial held by Dundee CC member Chick Moncur by 11 mins 50 secs in a time of 4hrs 37mins 14secs on the North Deeside Road. That season he broke records for all three distance runs – 25, 50 and 100 miles time trials making him Britain’s second best all-rounder.

1935

The Bon-Accord Cycling Club’s own 25-mile low gear (63 and under) time trial along the South Deeside Road was won by the Bons James Cameron in a time of 1 hr 12mins 20 secs beating the more fancied Stanley Bennett and Robert Penny. Meanwhile Woodside and District’s 25-mile conditional time trial on the Oldmeldrum Road got delayed twice by flocks of marauding sheep adding precious minutes to the winning time of 1hr 15mins 52secs by Alex Murray. The Stonehaven – Laurencekirk road saw a 5-mile scratch time trial prize taken by Stonehaven and District CC with all riders finishing in under 16 mins.

Tommy Bike

Torry Wheeler Tom Corall c1935 came second to the Scottish champion in the Aberdeen to Braemar race

1936

George Lawrie came first in Perth’s Amateur Open annual 25 mile time trial one wet and windy day in 1936. He set a new cycle record in the June at the NSTTA’s 50 miles time trial along the North Deeside Road coming home in 2 hrs 9mins 46 secs beating his record of 8 days previously by 1 second.

Aberdeen council continued to encourage participation in the sport with a programme of fun cycling events in the city’s Music Hall with Cycle Roller competitions including children’s races. G Adams took honours in the message boys’ race on bikes that weren’t exactly sporty. The Music Hall extravaganza was an opportunity for family participation as well as to be impressed by serious cyclists and unsurprisingly it was Lawrie who shone above all others.  

 

Consignment of bikes being taken from the railway station to Alexanders, 339 Union Street, Aberdeen. A frequent sight in the city.

A consignment of bicycles being transported from the railway station to Alexander’s, 339 Union Street. A common sight in the city during the ’30s

1937

In March 1937 Aberdeen Paragon CC’s 20 mile rough riders time trial took place over a difficult course around Netherley district. The winning time of 54 mins 50 secs belonged again to George Lawrie some 3mins 27secs ahead of William King.

Lawrie put in another impressive performance in the Forfarshire Roads CC Open taking first in the 25-mile medium gear time trial held at Dundee in a time of 1hr 5mins 7secs beating the record by over 3 mins. Seventeen riders from Aberdeen took part and again Lawrie’s club mate Willie King put in as strong showing.

July saw 4,000 turn out for a Sunday meeting of the Newmachar annual rally organised by cycle agents and traders in Aberdeen. The youngest competitor was William Chapman aged 6 years.

William from Ruthrieston Crescent in Aberdeen, dressed in white shorts and jersey, competed on a miniature racing bicycle. He and his keen cyclist dad waited on Marischal Street in Aberdeen for the signal to begin their run out to Newmachar. Groups of between 10 and 12 were released by the organisers to prevent congestion on the roads and when William and his dad were waved forward William jumped onto his bike and began pedalling down Marischal Street in the wrong direction. He quickly sorted himself out and was soon confidently cycling along Union Street on the start of his ten mile run.

Men, women and children made up the 4000 competitors – including one small child. A few that day opted for tandems for the competition was a mixed bag – more a day off for some from the usual run of inter-club rivalry although serious challenges did take place.

The boys’ race winner was E. Chessor with J. McKinnie and R. Thomson second and third. M. Morrice took first place in the girls’ pursuit with M. Ferguson and N. Don running in second and third. The women’s slow bike race was won by P. Flynn and the men’s by A. Dickie of Stonehaven.

You didn’t even need a bike to be a winner. J. Dalgarno hopped in first in the women’s sack race and J. Dalgarno took honours for the men. I don’t know who won the wheelbarrow race but J. Bell and G. Black picked up the prizes for the tyre-bursting competition.

 Multiple-talented women from the Sun Touring Cycling Club beat Clarion women in the women’s five-a-side football competition by one corner while the Torry Wheelers defeated Woodside and District for the men by a single goal in extra time. Clarion women got their own back overwhelming Sun Touring women in the tug-o’-war by 2 pulls to one while Bon-Accord won it for the men against Sun Touring men by two pulls to nil.

stoneage tandem beach money effort for RI

Stone age tandem riders raise money for the new infirmary in 1936

Remember the tandem riders? Winner of the slow race was J. McLeod of Aberdeen Paragon who used the novelty as relief from training for a 12 hour time trial but strangely there is no mention of his partner.

Team honours for the day went to Aberdeen Bon-Accord (the Bons) over Aberdeen Paragon but the Paragon’s George Lawrie showed his mettle by taking first place in the 25-mile race in 1hr 4mins 32 secs. One of Britain’s top riders Lawrie established a new record at Dundee of 1hr 2mins 16secs over 25 miles.

1938

On a lovely day in May the Strichen Wheelers 25-mile time trial was held on the Peterhead road with predictably George Lawrie setting the pace in a time of 1hr 3min 26 secs. James Sinclair and Jack Porter of the Bons ran him a close second and third and Lawrie’s dominance was about to wane. The new kid on the block was another Paragon, 20 year old James Smith.

1939

Within 6-months most of those competing in the 1939 NSTTA open would be in uniform and facing an uncertain future for Britain entered World War Two early in September but that April the focus was on the 25-mile run along the Deeside road. John Whyte of Forres and District came in first in a time of 1hr 5min 32secs, his time hampered by strong winds. Fred Murdoch a novice rider with the Torry Wheelers took the Glegg Trophy with ease and another first year member of the Torry club, Alex Sangster, took the second handicap prize.

At the Inverness Clachnacuddin Open 25-mile time trial on the 7th August Aberdeen clubmen showed the Highlanders a clean pair of heels, taking 6 out of the 7 prizes. Torry Wheelers took their sixth successive team championship, squeezing Paragon by 11 seconds. Alistair McKenzie was fastest over the 25-mile race at 1hr 5min 21 secs and Torry Wheeler brothers David and James Ogilvie came in close behind.

Following the race competitors assembled at Elgin’s Masonic Hall to listen to Aberdeen cyclists Alex Christie, Archie Christie, A J Finlayson, L Emslie and CC Russell discuss the sport.

At the outbreak of war club stars – George Lawrie of Paragon, twice holder of the Scottish short distance championship, went into the army as did his team-mate Willie King, holder of the Aberdeen to Inverness and back record. Jack Porter of the crack Torry Wheelers joined the RAF.

Aberdeen’s Paragon, Sprite Club, Cyclists’ Touring Club, Bon-Accord, Clarion, Torry Wheelers all went into abeyance during the war. A few survived it – but not all their pre-war members did. The Northeast of Scotland Time Trials Association never re-emerged after May 1940.

A proposal that bike mad Aberdeen build a sports stadium was opposed by a councillor Mackintosh as too ambitious. Dearie me isn’t it the truth that Aberdeen councillors have a track record of being nothing if not lacking in ambition? If the peoples’ representatives in the council were incapable of building on the accomplishments of the city’s citizens local people at least recognised George Lawrie as a major sportsman who deserved recognition and respect for his achievements in the saddle.

braemar gathering 35 years before 1936

Cycling was popular at Braemar Gatherings

 ***

Finally a cycling tragedy that occurred in 1936 which had nothing to do with racing.

Three brothers from Tullos Crescent in Aberdeen set off for a day’s fishing at Cove. They were making their way along the grassy cliff top and had just passed the Aulton fishers’ bothy where the path narrowed when two dismounted their bikes while the third brother, 21 year old Thomas Stoleworthy, happily cycled on ahead. His pedal caught on the grass and his brothers alerted by a shout from Thomas watched horrified as they saw him hurtle over the cliff. As the younger boy ran back to the salmon fishermen’s bothy to raise the alarm the other brother climbed down to Thomas, lying in a pool of water, badly injured but conscious. Both his legs and an arm were broken but Thomas told his brother, ‘I haven’t shed a tear yet.’

Fishermen quickly arrived by boat and transferred the injured man to their bothy. Having alerted the coastguards at the Gregness station Thomas was taken on an improvised stretcher to an ambulance and on to the Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen where two hours later he died. He had been due to be married later in the summer.

 

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

On April 26 1820 Aberdeen was witness to one of its grandest processions of the early 19th century. With great pomp and even some circumstance around 1500 men (no women) formed orderly lines and marched westward from the heart of the burgh at the Castlegate to Union Bridge above the Denburn and beyond to the site designated for a new Public Hall which would become known as the Music Hall. Laying of the hall’s foundation stone, as it turned out, became an occasion for celebrating local and national pride but first let us establish our historical bearings.

The economic and political disturbances of the wars with France were over. Stability, growth and progress seemed possible and probable with the United Kingdom – Britain (often conceived as England) to the fore. The Public Hall was a sign of this confidence. And where better to show such confidence than on Union Street? Here was a street slowly but surely becoming the grand carriageway for traffic to the city centre and it continued beyond the old town in a semi-rural setting; well away from industry, overcrowding, noise, filth and disease. As one commentator said of the area –

On the whole a more dry, healthy, and eligible situation for Building, is not to be found in the vicinity of the Town.

1828 Plan Union Street

Site of the Music Hall between Golden Square and Union Street 1810

Whether for a new villa or grand public hall the land west of Union Bridge was full of prime sites, ripe for speculative development. As the street was very underdeveloped any impressive new building would stand in near splendid isolation – an emphatic visual sign of confidence and good taste not to mention ostentation.

To note in passing, when the west side of Broad Street was recently cleared to reveal for the first time Marischal College in all its architectural glory (or folly depending on taste) how easy it would have been to emulate the architectural commitment of Georgian Aberdeen but no sooner did we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be than it was snatched away as Willie Young and his Council cohorts spurned the notion of giving the city an iconic architectural facade. Instead they gave Aberdeen the monotony of uninspired glass and steel boxes; like cartoon characters with cash signs in their eyes their vision saw money to be made from the cleared site.

Those private investors in the 1820 hall were also motivated in part by commercial concerns – of what they might make from shares in the enterprise. But they at least recognised that site and architecture mattered. Designs were invited including from Aberdeen’s two foremost architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith. They were men with established architectural reputations and just as importantly their local work had given them a strong sense of what could and could not be achieved with granite, the local building stone. This is important as the very hardness of the stone and the low-technology available to masons imposed severe limitations on the ornamental styles possible. Granite lent itself to the austere rather than decorative exuberance of freestone architecture. The Aberdeen Journal praised the submitted designs, saying they exhibit a chaste imitation of the simplest style of Grecian Architecture, to which the celebrated Granite of this County is so admirably adapted. Simpson won the commission: local man, local stone, local pride.

And here we are at April 1820. Men assembled, about to march. And not just any men. They were Freemasons. Changed days. Long gone are the times when masons assembled with banners and regalia to march through the town to mark civic occasions or for the funeral of a lodge member. Tradesmen, professionals and aristocrats were proud openly to display their Masonic beliefs. European Freemasons might have been tainted by notions of radicalism and ideas of popular democracy but here in 1820 Aberdeen participants, whether operative members or those drawn from higher social circles were intent in showing loyalty to the Town and to Britain (Crown and Country).

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

Heading the Masonic dedication was James Duff 4th Earl of Fife, Depute Grand Master of Scotland. The Earl had fought under Wellington in France; he was a friend of the British King although this did not stop him voting against a Royal tax policy in Parliament. His “liberal” views led him to support Catholic Emancipation and vote for parliamentary reform in 1832. He seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and far from being in the same reactionary mould of Wellington and his cohorts. But like the Iron Duke he was a staunch patriot.

Duff’s speech to fellow masons was replete with a mixture of calls to patriotism and hinted at concerns particular to his neck of the woods which was Banffshire. With an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered Rule Britannia was sung, followed by a Masonic blessing of Cornucopia, May the all-bounteous Author of Nature bless this city with an abundance of Corn, Wine, and Oil. The Earl of Fife then got stuck in, telling the multitude, those close enough to hear, how pleased he was at the local initiative and especially happy that the investors had not been obliged to resort to foreign artists to furnish the design for the Public Rooms. Simpson’s work was admirable, he said, as was the industry of Aberdonians, making gems from barren rock, meaning turning brute granite into a material for wealth, utility and beauty.

Local History 010

A more familiar picture of the Music Hall on Union Street now an urban setting

A landowner with a reputation for his willingness to listen to claims or complaints from his tenants on his Banffshire estates James Duff applied himself to their problems and the fact that disparities of wealth were about to be highlighted with the construction of the large neo-classical hall. The granite edifice might well give employment to many quarriers and masons around Aberdeen but at the same time standing on its prestigious site clearly visible from Union Bridge the hall embodied difference and exclusion: its doors were open only to those with wealth and social connections, made more obvious by its countryside setting. James Duff got straight to the point –

…although it was constructed more immediately for the purpose of innocent festivity and
amusement, the wants of the poor and indigent would not be forgot by those within its
walls, who might tread upon the light fantastic toe, and lead the mazy dance; the situation of the public charities of the place would be considered, and liberal contributions made to relieve the distressed . . . and thus prove that, although they [the poor] could not partake of the festivities for which the Building was about to be erected, those who enjoyed them were not unmindful of their privations, but anxious to alleviate them; thereby conveying to them some of the fruits of the social scene, and sweetening as far as is in their power, the bitter cup of their adversity, to receive their blessing in return.

He found in poet James Thomson’s “Four Seasons” moral, patriotic and ideological support for his opinions and the verse from Thomson the Earl chose that day in 1820 included a call for protection of British fishing interests:

nor look on, Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets
Defraud us of the glittering, finny swarms,
That heave our friths, and croud upon our shore.

British waters for British fishermen. The poem comes from the early 18th century but the message James Duff decided was applicable to the 1820s after seeing off Napoleon the United Kingdom must keep hold of its global maritime power or as Thomson put it, … united Britain make Intire, th’ imperial Mistress of the deep. Maritime freedom was essential as British commercial and industrial might was then in the process of encircling the globe. In the two years following the ceremony Fife backed Banffshire fish curers when they sought relief from the salt tax; similarly he backed local herring fishermen when they asked to be exempt from paying tax on imported European oak staves.

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

But the Earl was not satisfied simply with being British. He had a double or more complex identity; two nationalities. He was British and also Scottish – from a country with its own traditions and history and this he employed to enthuse and legitimise the 1820s. Having already used the words of one Scotch poet for defence of Britannia he turned to another for fashioning Scottishness: Sir Walter Scott, prolific author and said to be the inventor of the historical novel. With a European-wide readership Scott’s poetry and novels made him amongst the most influential writers of the period. James Duff found the model and images in he sought in the romantic poem “Lord of the Isles”; a work which extols the virtues of initiative and independence as portrayed in the trials, tribulations and victories of the Bruce. Scott’s narrative tells how the would-be King of Scots defeated the foreign foe, the English. Duff drew Aberdeen citizens into the narrative, explaining that the city had played a noble role in the saga when citizens provided a place of safety for Bruce then pursued by enemy forces. “Inventing” a local history for Bruce the Earl imagined the fleeing man dreaming of Liberty at the site of hills. In the Earl’s imagination Bruce has been inspired by landscape and the loyalty of Aberdonians leading to, in Walter Scott’s words, the heartfelt cry –

Oh Scotland! Shall it e’re be mine/ To Wreak thy wrongs in battle-line/ To raise my victor head and see/ Thy hills, thy dales, thy people free.

On the face of it this was a battle-cry for a return to the former glories of an independent country. But no. The Earl told his audience that the days of the Bruce were past; events that happened in “times of Yore”. Romantic visions of medieval kings defeating foes was a great story but he and his fellow masons lived in the world of Hanoverian settlement and post 1707 Union. It was not political independence he called for but the qualities of determination, commitment, initiative and loyalty which he found in the story of Bruce to be used to strengthen the forces of commercial progress and Rule Britannia. Much like Sir Walter Scott who described, dramatised and absorbed Scotland’s distinct and turbulent past Fife’s lesson was that was then this is now and progress henceforward would come in the guise of a new identity albeit one containing the DNA of previous forms.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

So James Duff 4th Earl of Fife laid the foundation stone and in doing this provided the multitude with a sense of the moral and political lights that should guide them. Finally turning to the assembled spectators he thanked them for their respectable behaviour, for their silence and proprietary of demeanour all a sure sign of the good sense of the citizens of Aberdeen.

May 28, 2017

Bridge over the Don

The following has been taken from the Flickr account of Aberdeen Granite

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Bridge of Don, Aberdeen

Until the recent opening of a new bridge over the river the Bridge of Don was the main crossing point for traffic to and from the north of the city. Built when Aberdeen was beginning to break free of the commercial and physical bounds of the old town this bridge, like the earlier Union Bridge in the heart of the city, was not only a transport improvement but also a boost for the burgeoning granite industry. The elegant five-arched bridge illustrated the wealth of the area and the showed how the local stone could satisfy aesthetic and engineering needs or as Provost Brown put at laying of the foundation stone in 1827, the designers had looked to “unite utility with ornament”.

Utility, however, was delayed in arriving as there were considerable problems with subsidence of piers, but eventually all was remedied and by late 1830 the bridge was opened to traffic. Design and modification had involved contributions from Telford, Gibb of Aberdeen and the local architect John Smith. And so the “ornament” stood in its original dimensions until the 1950s when the voracious demands of motor lorries and cars led to a widening of the bridge but even so the elegance of the granite structure remains, and the piers still refuse to subside.

May 18, 2017

Fraternising with the enemy: Scots and Germans

Gordon_Highlanders_(1914)

The Great War front line Christmas truce of 1914 is well known, specially that game of football. Truth is there were several similar episodes and one involving troops of the Gordon Highlanders was recounted by two men who took part when they were invalided to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow.

Privates Garden McIntosh and W. Kiloh from Banff near Aberdeen were serving at the front with the 6th Gordon Highlanders on Christmas morning in 1914 when they were startled to see several German soldiers emerge from their trenches and approach them with their hands held up. Speaking in perfect English the Germans wished the young Scottish troops a Merry Christmas.

Once over their surprise the kilted Gordons happily joined in the good wishes and soon Scots and Germans, who were from Bavaria, were exchanging gifts; long German rolls for bully beef and other rations although the dark German bread rolls were not much appreciated by the Scots.

Present too was the regiment’s padre, Aberdonian Rev. J. Esslemont Adams, who addressed men from both sides with a message in keeping with Christmas and in return he received a generous gift of a beautiful melodeon. It struck the two Gordons this was a considerable sacrifice for playing music was one of the few means of keeping up spirits so far from home and in the midst of the horrors of war and tense frustrating stalemates.

This truce lasted for several days before it came to the notice of German officers -goodness knows where they were all this time but when they became aware of the fraternisation between the two sides they moved their men away to a different position. Until then an occasional German voice would call out in the middle of the night to one of the Scots, addressing him as sergeant —-, and inviting him to “come and have your rum.” The sergeant always resisted the offer to ‘stand treat.”

These particular Scots and Bavarians got on well and it emerged that several of the Germans had worked in Scotland as hotel employees before the war and their hearts were not in fighting but soon that was what they were all ordered to do.

***

At the same time as reading about the 6th Gordons and their Bavarian foe I came across this poignant tale relating to the death of a twenty-one year old soon after he arrived in France from the northeast of Scotland.

In October 1915 Mr and Mrs Merson of 17 Mount St in Aberdeen received word that their son Lawrence, a lance corporal with D Coy., 13 Platoon of the 1/4th Gordon Highlanders, had been killed in action in France.

Lawrence was fourteen when he began work with the post office in Aberdeen and before joining up for war service he was postie at Blairs outside the city. At the age of 21 years he volunteered for the Great War.

A young German soldier came across his corpse in a front line trench and went through Lawrence’s pockets removing his identification disc, papers and letters, including his paybook and sent them all to his (the German’s) sister in Frankfurt asking that she send them on to the Highlander’s family. The sister was happy to oblige and wrote an accompanying letter and forwarded the lot to her uncle in Switzerland that he might send them to Mr and Mrs Merson in Aberdeen. This is her letter.

Frankfort-on-Maine

  It is a very sad matter I am writing you. My brother sent home a letter from the front and begged me to write you.

  He stands in the West, and it was in his first letter since the hard fights there. My eldest brother was killed last year at Ypres, so that I know how glad we were to hear any details of his death.  I think you have already heard that Lawrence B. Merson, whom I believe to be your son, did not come back from the last fight. We were enemies, but pain and mourning are uniting us. So thought my brother, too, for he wrote everything about your son he could find out. I just will translate it to you –

  “We led the way to our position, and found there a dead Highlander, who had a deep wound above the right eye, probably by a thrust of the bayonet. We found the following objects: – Book of payments, mark of distinction, a small sketch, and an instrument against the gases. The dead Englishman had his gun with the bayonet at it (and there were spots of blood on it) on his right side. He was a Highlander with a kilt, and bare knees.”

  My brother sent these photos. I am sure my brother and his comrades did all honour to their enemy who died in their tracks.

The young Germans’ uncle in Geneva also wrote a letter to Lawrence’s parents expressing his feelings:

“My brother is a clergyman for French Protestants in Frankfort, and his son is in the German army, although we are of old Swiss origin, and he sent the intimation to his sister in Frankfort. Your son did his duty for his country, and he will find his reward. God help you in these dark days.”

This was in October of 1915 and Lawrence died in the February that year so it is likely that the Mersons already knew of their son’s death but it is also likely the most affectionate communication wasn’t that of the army but from the ‘enemy’.

 

 

 

April 28, 2017

“Up Fittie down with the Hun”: 1920s xenophobia and trade

Guest post by Textor

On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

German Trawlers 4

At a time when the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia drifts over the stinking frame of crises ridden economies it’s worth recalling that there is nothing new in this. It’s what the class divided beast does; cling to backward-looking, mythologised national identity; to blame others for what are in fact consequences of the endemic conditions of international competition is so much easier than seeking out the social foundations of crises.

This is not to say that xenophobic opinion has no location in objective reality, that it is necessarily the manifestation of mad psychologies. No. The current spectre haunting Europe and beyond draws on ways in which the “free movement” of labour has increased competition between workers and helped keep wages down. In other words “foreign” workers are in a sense a threat to older labour markets. But it is the underpinning forces which mobilise them.

In the 1920s Aberdeen was hit by problems and disputes across two of the most important sectors of the local economy: trawling and granite. The foundation of both lay in intensification of international competition and the legacies of the Great War, and both centred on foreign labour undermining British industry.

 

German Trawlers 5

Trawling

It was hardly surprising that when the German trawler Bremerhaven attempted to dock and land fish in Aberdeen in 1919 that there was a wave of revulsion. The war had just ended and Aberdonians, like so many others, had suffered deeply in the slaughter of 1914-18. Men gathered at the quayside to refuse the Germans the right to land. Following its search for a berth the trawler eventually grounded and its crew stoned with the demand the German flag be run down. The local paper described the skipper’s attempt to land as brazen insolence and sinister and making clear its animosity to German trade said it was an unfriendly act of a nation not penitent but revengeful. The editor went so far as to sneer at the country’s Kultur of dried raw fish as a delicacy. Bremerhaven was forced out of Aberdeen, eventually landing at its home port where the Social Democrat Party came to its fishermen’s defence and denounced the Aberdeen men as an English rabble claiming Aberdonian screamed Baby killers. Pigs. Shoot down the Huns.

Three years later the trawler Else Kunkel II steamed into Aberdeen hoping to land its fish; again there was opposition to former enemy, now called alien exploiters who were threatening the livelihoods of local families. Aberdeen’s fishermen were said to hold bitter hostility against their former enemy. However their fish was landed and so the trade was continued sporadically through the year. Skippers and mates appealed to the Government for enforcement of the Reparations [Recovery] Act and that it applied 26% duty on German fish. No help was forthcoming. Matters were made more difficult when the particular interests of buyers and fish processors opposed the embargo demanded by trawlermen; and there was local bitterness when Peterhead harbour offered to give room to German boats, not through internationalism but for the money to be made. The local newspaper acknowledged the need for Europe-wide trade in fish but realised with more powerful trawlers and crews able and willing to fish dangerous Icelandic waters the local industry faced a serious threat: A German monopoly of the fish trade of Aberdeen would leave the consumer in the grip of alien exploiters and would mean a disaster to a great local industry.

German Trawlers.jpg

 

So matters simmered until February 1923 when skippers and mates voted to strike. Once again the rhetoric of wartime found a voice: you are fighting the Hun a second time for your rights. By the end of the first week of March 100 boats were tied up with hundreds of men out of work. Share fishermen, skippers and mates, led the dispute fearing for their livelihoods. Waged men, deckhands and engineers, were what you might call victims rather than being instrumental in this strike. Although local communists mobilised meetings around the notion of the internationalism of the working class as distinct from men such as skippers and mates there is no evidence that any significant animosity split the ranks nor that the waged men felt kinship with the German crews despite rumblings about some share men having avoided service in the war and making money out of wartime demand.

In fact solidarity within and across the fishing communities of Torry and Fittie was strong enough to draw them together to fight German landings, strike-breakers and police. When one local boat decided to scab hundreds turned out from Torry to confront the skipper and turn him back. Boats were sabotaged including the German trawler Senator Sache; while its crew slept the moorings were cut; eventually saved from grounding by the local pilot. Porters landing German fish were threatened with violence and police were defied. On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

But so much conspired against the lcoal trawling industry, both men and forces of international trade. Trawl owners looked for compromise, buyers needed the Icelandic fish brought by Germans, the herring industry needed access to the German market and the British government was unwilling to hamper this sector of international trade. From the German side it made so much sense to continue coming to Aberdeen or failing this perhaps Peterhead. With the German Mark devalued, and the hyperinflation of 1923, the prices realised at British ports easily covered the costs of labour and coal. Stones and insults were little compared to the high explosives of the Great War.

 

Granite Yard

Granite

Much less militant but driven by very similar forces Aberdeen’s granite industry also found itself in 1923 under threat from German competition. It is probably the case that much of the militancy of the fishermen and their families was born from the closeness of their communities with so many of them living together in the tenements of Torry and Fittie. Granite workers had a much more fragmented life style.

Granite like fish was as open to international competition. And like the owners of trawler Bremerhaven German manufacturers could and did take advantage of the opportunities afforded by devaluation. Selling in the British market was more profitable and vitally gave payment in Sterling, then an important international currency.

Just as the trawler dispute had at times adopted a stance of being anti-German as opposed to anti German competition so also did the dispute with foreign granite traders. Not that Aberdeen’s stone trade was against the import of foreign granite in fact since the later 19th century the trade had depended on imports to meet the fashion for greater variety of colour in memorials. What disturbed Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers was the threat of dressed stone being sold to British customers.

The first hint that there might be competition coming from Germany was reported in 1921when the defeated nation was found to be trading in France. Bad enough there being a competitor on the block but made worse by the belief that monuments made by the one-time enemy were to be erected over the graves of dead French soldiers. In the following year one Friederich Hagelauer of Fürth was said to have been offering memorial crosses for British graves.

German Granite Leaflet 1923

By 1923 the “scandal” was being highlighted in Aberdeen’s Press & Journal with German’s accused of dumping fish and dumping granite. The Sunday Post took up the cry of an insult to our heroic dead the stones being erected where woman pray . . . and children weep. Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers sided with the newspapers and led the way in Scotland to enforcing an embargo on this foreign stone. However, it was one thing to achieve success in the home country it was another to get English dealers and customers to agree to a boycott. For customers there was the incentive of cheaper stone, if they were willing to turn a blind eye to origins; and for dealers there was the carrot of more profit. With the English market still accepting German imports Aberdeen’s trade with the south was threatened.

The difficulties Aberdeen’s stone trade faced were nothing compared to the chaos hitting Germany as it struggled to meet reparation demands of the Versailles Treaty. Its economy had all but collapsed, made worse when France occupied the Ruhr bringing its vast coal industry to a halt. Compared with the French the British state favoured a more conciliatory attitude to the defeated enemy, favoured international trade and stabilisation of the German economy.

Consequently when the granite traders approached the Government and asked for an increased tariff on German stone, like the trawlermen they met with refusal, indeed they faced the prospect that the existing tariff might be cut. The Press & Journal argued the local case, believing (and this sounds eerily like opinion in 2017) that by giving up free trade and enforcing tariffs the grave menace of foreign competition could be brought to heal. Regardless of the clout the local press had in the North East its opinion failed to sway the government and into 1926 imports continued.

Employers led the way in this dispute. There were no bands of granite-cutters and families guarding cemeteries, dinging doon German memorials; the nature of the trade simply did not lend itself to this form of action. But labour did have a voice which put itself behind the demands of the masters. George Murray, who lost a son in the Great War said it made his blood boil that German stone should even be offered as suitable material for British graves. Putting a stop to this, he said, was not only the correct thing to do but also good for the industry and what was good for business was good for workers: We in Belmont Street [offices of the Trades Council] are always favourable to the bosses . . . but of course we expect a good living wage from them in return.

 

 

Apart from the notable success in Scotland the best legislative advance made was to seek the protection of the Merchandise Marks Act, at one point speaking to Sidney Webb at the Board of Trade arguing that the granite imports should be marked “Made in Germany”. Eventually in 1929, after extensive evidence given including opposition from granite retailers, the Government decided that stone should be marked with its country of origin. Although important to local communities across Britain the Government had decided the granite industry was of no great significance in the national economy hence refusal to “safeguard” it from overseas competition. Marking stone was the most it would concede but even here it was niggardly in the eyes of merchants as only the slightest of marks-stencilled- was insisted on, not the heavily-cut lettering asked for by manufacturers.

The year after being given nominal protection the complaints continued. Germans were accused of stealing designs, appropriating the names of granites made famous by the Aberdeen industry and despite the legislation they palm off cheaply produced monuments . . . as British made.

British made; a rallying cry of the period as the United Kingdom hoped to engender patriotism in consumers and at the same time draw from the still important empire preferential treatment for manufacturers. But even here, with the cold wind of protectionism blowing across economies dealing with slump and the fall-out from the Crash of 1929, even here Aberdeen’s granite merchants struggled. Canada, for instance, did a curtsy to the “Mother Country” but refused to bow the knee. Canada gave some slight advantage to British granite but it still bore a tariff of 27% thus favouring Canadian manufacturers.

 

Cheyne Nellfield granite Works 1915 (2)

And so the Aberdeen granite industry, along with other British manufacturers, found the battle largely lost, found its markets shrinking and in an increasingly unstable world was forced to look to improving its competitive position by reorganising the use of labour and introducing new technology to raise productivity. And where in 1936 did Aberdonians go to see how granite could and should be handled? Germany.

Under the auspices of the British Institute of Quarrying a deputation representing the trade plus engineer Frank Cassie were content to take lessons from “the enemy”. At one site near Dresden they visited a quarry where 2000 men were said to be employed, where 250 men working at stone-splitting machines produced thousands of granite setts. Although Frank Cassie believed Aberdeen granite was unsuitable for mechanical sett-making overall the deputation was impressed by the thoroughness with which the German does the job, and the importance attached to organisation. Three years into Hitler’s rule the British deputation was envious of Germany’s road and bridge building – a policy they said the British government should put in hand. Whether the deputation witnessed other aspects of the young Nazi regime is not recorded.

 

Pneumati Tools

The pressures of social disruption and global economic crises exposed the trawling and granite industries as poorly equipped to meet the threat of external competition. Trawl owners were content to fish middle-distance waters using an ageing fleet and granite merchants managed an industry characterised by a few large employers in a sea of small businesses, far from ideal when foreign competition became very keen.

April 11, 2017

The day young Byron was nearly lost in a snowstorm

Engraving based on the Kay portrait

Engraving of Byron as a boy based on a painting by John Kay

Into the midst of a great snowstorm and winds of unusual strength emerged a group of schoolboys. It was a wild wintry day during the late 1790s and the folk of Aberdeen had never before seen anything like the ferocious gusting blasts swirling hale and the driving snow that fell with such intensity that stepping out into it was fraught with danger. Yet at twelve mid-day pupils from Aberdeen’s Grammar School set off as usual towards the St Nicholas Street school where they were due to attend Mr Duncan’s writing class.

The Grammar School was in Schoolhill and the boys thought to follow their normal route cutting through St Nicholas kirkyard. By luck the high wall there offered a degree of protection from the windstorm and drifting snow but still progress was tricky. It was when they came to where the wall finished, to the gate, the boys were taken by surprise by the intensity of the tempest, a hurricane it was described, against which the smallest boys could make no progress but were driven backwards and scarcely able to keep their feet. So they retreated to the relative safety of the wall too petrified to move. One of the wee boys was George Gordon Byron.

Two of George Gordon Byron’s bigger classmates took hold of the his hands and they tackled the blinding snow together but the ferocity of the wind proved too much and it became every boy for himself. Poor wee George Gordon’s hands were let go of and he was swept back into the graveyard by the hurricane.

When by evening he failed to return home one of the servants was sent out in search of him. At the home of one of his fellow-pupils she was told about the struggle at the height of the snowstorm and how it might be the poor lad was still in the churchyard, hiding under one of its many large flat ledger tombstones.

leaves in St Nicholas graveyard cropped

Ledger tombstones in St Nicholas Kirkyard

A party of men was hastily dispatched, lanterns in hand, to search the now dark St Nicholas kirkyard and eventually they found the lost and tearful George Gordon Byron shivering and on the point of collapse under a ledger. And so the world of poetry was not deprived of a genius of verse.

However, as an old man, another of Byron’s school friends told a different version of the incident.

“No such thing! I was with him,” he recalled, “the weaker boys could not get into the churchyard at all. We could not leave the Schoolhil, and we found shelter in Mr Leslie Cruickshank’s hosiery; in whose kitchen we were dried and warmed, and sat waiting till our friends fetched us in the evening, when they could get to us, and found where we were.”

Of course both accounts could be largely true; that the boys battling through the unrelenting storm were so exhausted and frightened they gladly retreated to the warmth of the hosiery while the bigger loons (Aberdeen Doric term for boys) continued on to Mr Duncan’s writing class. And there is no dispute that several boys, including George Gordon Byron, had still not made it home by the evening.

One of George Gordon Byron’s fellow- pupils, of the name Cruickshank, remarked many years later that it was while sheltering at the hosiery they became aware of Byron’s ability as a story-teller when he captivated them with his rendering of “a beautiful tale out of the Arabian Nights.”

 ***

Mither Kirk St Nicholas

As an adult George Gordon Byron’s behaviour was frequently looked on askance so it is little wonder he was a mischievous wee devil as a child in Aberdeen.

Late in his life one that knew George Gordon Byron at the Grammar School criticised him for having a “most damnable disposition” and told of the day they were sitting together in a classroom when Byron cut the buttons off the boy’s coat. He added that he gave the young Byron a “good hiding” in return.

The same man also recalled that Byron loathed ‘dumpy women’ although this man commented that Byron’s own mother was ‘the dumpiest woman I ever saw in my life.’

 ***

Morven

Morven

Byron spent his childhood in Aberdeen close to his mother’s family estate north of the town and loved the bonnie countryside out to the west* – returning there to renew acquaintances and walk up the hill of Morven one last time. It was in Aberdeen he learnt to swim and became an accomplished swimmer by all accounts; as an adult he swam the Hellespont Strait between Europe and Asia. In Aberdeen he also became a proficient boatman.

George Gordon Byron and his mother left Aberdeen when he was ten and became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale. The boy’s friends discovered his inherited knighthood when the attendance was being taken at the Grammar school and instead of the teacher calling him George Gordon Byron he referred to him as Georgi, Baro de Byron. Instead of his usual reply Adsum (I am present) the boy burst into tears and ran out of the classroom.

His nurse May Gray stayed behind when Byron and his mother left for the south and young George Gordon gave her his watch as a parting gift along with a full length portrait of him painted by Kay of Edinburgh in 1795 in which he posed with a bow and arrows and long hair falling about his shoulders.

Finishing his education in England Byron then left for Lisbon and the Mediterranean at the age of 21, famously taking part in the Greek civil war and it was in Greece he died in 1824 aged 36.


*Lochnagar

Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses!
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks where the snow-flake reposes,
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love;
Yet, Caledonia, beloved are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam ‘stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.

Ah ! there my young footsteps in infancy wandered;
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains long–perished my memory ponder’d,
As daily I strode through the pine–covered glade;
I sought not my home till the day’s dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheered by traditional story,
Disclosed by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.

“Shades of the dead! Have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night–rolling breath of the gale?”
Surely the soul of the hero rejoices,
And rides on the wind, o’er his own Highland vale.
Round Loch na Garr while the stormy mist gathers,
Winter presides in his cold icy car:
Clouds there encircle the forms of my fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.

Ill–starr’d, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?
Ah! were you destined to die at Culloden,
Victory crowned not your fall with applause:
Still were you happy in death’s earthly slumber,
You rest with your clan in the caves of Braemar;
The pibroch resounds, to the piper’s loud number,
Your deeds on the echoes of dark Loch na Garr.

Years have rolled on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
Yet still you are dearer than Albion’s plain.
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one who has roved o’er the mountains afar:
Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

George Gordon Byron

Mad, Bad and Dangerous

FICTION – The Gowk

April 1, 2017

News in Scotland 100 years ago today

Some of the stories making the news around Scotland on 1 April 1917 (outwith the Great War with over a year to run.)

dundee

Daughters of some of Dundee’s men at the Front

  • Aberdeen to get women police patrols.
  • Proposal to start a co-operative jute factory in Dundee.
  • Edinburgh grocers are in favour of a card system for sugar distribution.
  • Some Glasgow grocers are selling sugar in pennysworths.
  • Holidays in munition areas are to be deferred until after the end of July.
  • It is reported that 11,000 teachers in Scotland are getting less than £100 a year.
  • Protests in Lochgilphead against Sunday labour in the woods and fields.
  • Net profits of £270,432 reported by the Bank of Scotland for the past year.
  • There is a credit balance of £150 from the British Industries Fair recently held in Glasgow.
  • Crookston Combination Poorhouse is to be taken over for the reception of mentally afflicted soldiers.
  • A ban on the sale of spirits in parts of Argyllshire and Buteshire has come into force.
  • Some conscientious objectors from England are to be employed in forestry work at Ford in Argyllshire.
  • The Marchioness of Graham has undertaken to provide Lamlash with a convalescent home for the wounded.
  • The Dunoon and District Merchants’ Association have agreed to hold the Fast Days.
  • The fishing village of Whitehills near Banff has lost in one week four men who were on Admiralty service.
  • Tillycoultry Parish Council has decided to proceed with an extension of the cemetery at a cost of £2000.
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.

1

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.