Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

Oct 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schluderbach region where May Ogilvie did her fieldwork

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

The peaks of the Dolomites

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

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

Her husband, John, said of her –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Ogilvie-Gordon in 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, 1929)

Additional personal details

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

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

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

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

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

Gordonopteris lorigae

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

A selection of achievements:

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

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast: Paul Dukes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast.

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

Paul Dukes 5 April 1934 – 25 August 2021

Aug 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

Early disease inoculations and the first inoculation against smallpox in Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Variolation to Vaccination

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

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

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

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

Compulsion and the Anti-vaxxers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that there were very few unvaccinated persons in Scotland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horoscope

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

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

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

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

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

March 31

what larks

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

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

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

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

a deterrent

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

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

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

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

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

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

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

Apr 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 27, 2021

A Scot in Africa – victim of Blackwater Fever

British East Africa

 

Background to Roderick James Munro’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

A Scot in Africa 

1 9 1 2 

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

Roderick James Munro’s birth certificate

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dear John,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro

John and Bella Munro on their wedding day in December 1911

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

15 November 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My dear John,

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

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

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

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

19 December 1912 letter to John from Rod.

My Dear John,

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

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

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

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

Your loving brother,

Rod J Munro.

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

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

Rod had just celebrated his 30th birthday.

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10 February 1913 letter to John from Rod.

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

My Dear John,

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

Rod complains about the food provided by the Estate,

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

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

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

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

5 Mar 1913 letter from John to Rod.

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

Dear Rod,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir,

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

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

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

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

With sincere sympathy in your sad loss.

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

18 March letter to John from Don Mackenzie at Inhanguvo.

Dear Mr Munro

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

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

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

Yours faithfully
Don MacKenzie
of MacKenzie
Late Blackstand

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

Dear Sir,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cablegram reads:

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

To the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 April 1913 letter to John from Rule.

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

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

15th April 1913 letter to John from Alex.

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

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

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

Alec ends –

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

I am
Your loving brother
Alec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A handwritten addendum reads:

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

Pocket book with his initials belonging to Roderick James Munro

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every convenience and comfort was supplied.”

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

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

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

31 May 1913 letter to John from Oliver Walpole .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He signs the letter –

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

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

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

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

Date unknown letter from John to Walpole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 Mar 1914 letter to John from Walpole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jess encloses the information he received from Wade & Son.

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

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

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

Unknown date letter from John to Mr R. Jess.

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

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

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


The inscription to read:

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

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

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

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

7th September 1914 letter from Wade & Son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sadly,

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

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

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

18th December 1914 letter to John from Jess.

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

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

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

John as a Lovat Scout in 1915

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

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

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

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

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

“I remain

Yours very sincerely

John Munro

 1 9 1 5 

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

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

 

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

Blackwater  Fever

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

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

Dr John Easmon, seated

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 28, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 23

Boris Johnson was on holiday this week. Don’t know why he thought that was appropriate. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since he comes across as a guy who does virtually no work anyway – getting others to do it for him. He was in Scotland – allegedly, although some people thought he might have posed beside a tent in Scotland then flew off to Greece or vice versa. Who cares. He shouldn’t have been on holiday in the first place during this terrible pandemic. The British prime minister is a man whose moral compass, if he ever possessed one, broke a very long time ago.

See that badger! Domestic crisis last week meant we forgot to take in the bird feeders one night and, of course, by morning the stand inside its very heavy plant pot lay on their sides. The peanut feeder was later found empty and abandoned elsewhere in the garden – a virtually full container of nuts having gone down the badger’s or badgers’ gullet(s.) Both stand and pot were tumbled again the following night by Brutus the Badger but as no feeders had been left on it there would have been disappointment at Tubby Badger Set that night. Angry words have been targeted at the badger.

Last time I was wondering if the house martins, swallows and swifts flew south as early as August because ours seemed to have scarpered. Someone got in touch to confirm they did.  Days later we spotted about 30 – 40 swallows, swifts, martins strung out along power lines near us. A fine sight. As for our own martins they do seem to have abandoned their Scottish homes until next year but we still see a number take to the skies in the evenings.

We’ve missed out pheasants. Not so long ago lots were coming across to the garden to feed but then they all disappeared apart from an odd sighting. One day this week a scruffy young male with a bad leg turned up. He fairly hirples, poor thing. At least there’s plenty for him to eat once he makes it here from wherever he’s from.   

The woodpeckers have also returned. They are such handsome birds we get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing them. And there’s been a magpie. At one time magpies were breeding close-by and were frequently stopping off in the garden. We’ve even had on occasions a brown and white one but all vanished until I noticed a single one under the bark-peeling acer earlier this week.

Weather has taken a turn for the worse. We in northeast Scotland have enjoyed a lovely summer with lots of bright sunny and warm days and the recent cloudy skies and cool temperatures are disappointing but at least we haven’t experienced the torrential rain that is constant in many parts of the west of Scotland. Don’t go off with the impression it hasn’t rained for we’ve had some downpours but not joined together like western areas get them. With the onset of cooler conditions comes the impression of autumn’s approach – aided and abetted by summer flowers fading and dropping off. Gardening has altered with the weather and back-end of summer so that lots and lots of industrial levels of pruning are happening – in most cases not carried out by me but my trusty husband.

Still going strong is the chard crop. One of the most reliable, tasty and easy vegetables to grow it’s used just about every day by us, one way or another. Until recently ours escaped the unwanted attentions of snails and slugs but our mollusc fellow-gardeners are now chomping their way through our crop. They’ve been warned so they know the consequences of their actions. Broad beans are a welcome addition to home-grown produce as well. We don’t have many plants this year so the freezer won’t be packed with them but we do appreciate those that we have.  Broad beans are one of the most undervalued of vegetables.

The last of the gooseberries have been picked but there are still blackcurrants unbelievably. They are bigger than ever now, presumably having had longer to mature. We must have collected around 3 tons so far.

Last year was a poor one for apples with us – the previous year having produced big crops. This year is another bumper one but several branches on our trees are collapsing under the weight of fruit. What we need are clothes line stretchers to hoist them back up and keep them from breaking entirely. Husband heavily pruned a cooker, Lane’s Prince Albert, which produces muckle-sized delicious apples. The tree grows at a fearful rate and so he topped it but several young apples came off during the operation. Made an apple tart with one or two which has lasted us four days. A slice with a side helping of coconut yogurt or Swedish glace vanilla ice cream is just what the doctor ordered (my husband being a doctor – of the philosophy kind.)

It was my turn for chairing the family virtual quiz so I selected questions for their quirkiness and stuff Scottish. Most were difficult, I admit. Far too difficult for me were it not for having benefit of the answers. All that said our grandson won by a huge margin so he is officially hailed as a genius in addition to being extremely handsome and charming.

Dark – what can I say?  It is extraordinary how it demands total concentration so that it is virtually impossible to divert eyes from the screen while watching it. Characters come and go, the same characters over different periods of time, with most managing to pick up scratches and smudges on their faces as they travel between the 2050s and the 1880s. If you have access to Netflix watch it.

Bedtime reading is currently Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a fascinating look at how our brains respond to events, questions etc through initial responses to slower more in-depth consideration. It’s written with humour and is crammed with examples for readers to try for themselves – raising a smile and some head scratching. Here’s an example of some of the exercises:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Scroll to the end for the answer. Oh, this is the end. Most people immediately answer 10c.  Before thinking about it more closely. The answer is 5c. Another nice one consists of two words –

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 20, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 22

During week 22 of Covid isolation not a lot happened – other than chaos erupting over exam grades across each of the four nations of the UK.

Ruth Davidson in place as the Scottish (sic) Tories interim leader because their last one, some car dealer bloke, was so peeing bad at the job even the Tories couldn’t stomach him. Talking of stomachs they seem to think Ms Davidson would be somewhat better. She sure can pull a sulky face better than the guy unceremoniously shoved aside in a move Stalin would have been proud to pull off. This week the queen of stunts regal procession shuddered to an inglorious halt when confronting the queen of put-downs. She was given her erse to play with, as we say in Scotland, following an attack on the Education Minister,

“They deserved new leadership in education and John Swinney cannot deliver it, why won’t the First Minister see that?” said Ms Davidson.

To which Nicola Sturgeon retorted, “I’m not sure loyalty to colleagues is a strong suit for Ruth Davidson.”

Davidson who has an unfortunate habit of opening and shutting her mouth throughout replies to her questions giving a misleading impression she is saying anything of consequence while impersonating a drowning fish continued to goad the FM who responded that on the day everyone’s thoughts were on a terrible and tragic train accident (everyone’s except the queen of stunts) she was on her own in pushing constitutional differences.

And Sturgeon continued,

“Just in a few months I will submit myself and my government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election. That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. And as we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords. Can I gently suggest to Ruth Davidson that if it comes to holding to account and scrutinising politicians, she’s really not coming at this from a position of strength. It is not me that is running away from democratic responsibility.”

As put-downs go it was brutal although oddly, that organ of honest journalism, the Daily Express interpreted the gutting and barbecuing of Davidson as her ridiculing the FM.

Badger battles continue with one stand of nuts and seeds having to be taken inside overnight because the badger makes off with the lot. One evening we put on the outside light at the back of the house and were able to watch a huge, and I mean huge, badger attempt to scale the heights of a wooden pole with its bounty of fat balls. The pole was too narrow for Brock and she/he returned to the stand that normally contains nuts and seeds, ignored the tray that sits below to catch seeds dropped by birds during the day and scuttled off to try out other feeding stations in the garden. The sheer bulk of the badger is what you get when you guzzle whole containers of peanuts. Mind you, watching the beastie search in vain for the peanuts tugged at our heart-strings and next evening when taking in the feeders we left some peanuts for her or him. And they were gone by morning. Nice compromise.

New kettle bought this week. We have an unfortunate history with kettles in this house. For some reason they break down far too frequently. A few years back we bought a whistling kettle for the top of the stove. It is a work of art but takes 6- 7 minutes to boil which is fine except when there are visitors and coffee and tea need topping up fast. Anyway, when our last electric kettle left this mortal coil – a pity as it was the exact colour of our painted cupboards – we reverted to smart stove kettle. There’s hardly been a soul crossing the threshold since March so what difference did it make? Not much. The whistle was rarely attached because if I thought the nagging sound of the tumble drier having completed its cycle was annoying (it is) it is nothing on the shrill whistle of a steaming kettle. So the whistle tends to get set aside. All well and good until forgetful me went off on my daily jaunt one day and straight into the garden for a spot of weeding and pruning, eventually wandering into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea to discover there was just enough water left in it to stop it melting all over the stove. Straight online and a spanking new electric kettle arrived within days. It isn’t as bonny as the whistling kettle but it’s a helluva lot quieter and does that remarkable thing of switching itself off – safer for forgetful dopes like moi. Oh, it takes 2 minutes to boil. Not that that’s here nor there but maybe one day.

House martins and swallows and swifts appeared in their vast numbers this week like flying dervishes across our evening skies. Usually they pop in and out whenever we walk past the side of the house where their nest is but over the last few days they’ve been visibly absent. What did those great numbers – between 30 and 50 I’d say but it’s impossible to count martins and their cousins while flying – signify? They couldn’t all be ours despite their semi-detached houses and obviously having had a very successful breeding season but then to be no sign of them at all. Had they flown south already? Didn’t seem likely but where had they gone? Nowhere it turns out. Unless some have flown off and left a late brood there are martins still in residence it transpires. And for all you folk stopping martins from sharing your home – there still is no mess after months living with us. And that is always our experience despite having neighbours insisting they make a real mess – neighbours who don’t have any birds. Isn’t it always the way with folk who are so certain in their opinions who have no experience of what they’re talking about?

A powerful thunder storm one morning resulted in a tragic rail accident that has shocked the majority of folk in the northeast. Also shocking has been the irresponsible and hugely offensive sensationalising of it and disgraceful treatment of affected families by The Sun newspaper. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to work for such a disreputable and offensive organ. But it takes all sorts and they must think it’s perfectly alright or else they would go off and take up alternative jobs.

Aberdeen experienced very dramatic flooding but oddly our son who stays in one of the worst affected areas was oblivious to the drama unfolding outside his window.

The young buzzard has been back out practising her/his call and showing off his/her flying abilities again. A small bird compared with fully grown buzzards and the voice hasn’t yet broken. Unless it’s a soprano.

Another week another virtual quiz controversy. Which pasta means little worms? Well, of course, it’s vermicelli and I had that smug feeling of being assured of one point, at last. Then our beautiful quizzer announced the answer to be linguine. Linguine? What alternative universe do our young people inhabit? Always best to create a fuss in such circumstances and vermicelli was accepted as correct. Didn’t make any difference to the final score. I still lost. Oh, and how many times must I be asked the collective noun for giraffes before remembering it is a tower? Quite a number, I suspect.

My snail banishment scheme appears to be paying off. Numbers definitely down in the garden but too late for the variegated hosta at the front. A poor specimen now riddled with holes and only the energy to send up one pathetic flower head. The angel’s fishing rods in a pot are looking splendid. Love the way they grow into the shape of a 1970s fiber optic lamp. The little pot acer is also looking healthy. The label says it grows about 8 feet by 13 feet. And that, folks, is why we are growing it in a pot.

For years we filled our medium-sized garden with BIG dramatic-looking plants. Off to the plant nursery. Oh look, a big and dramatic looking plant. And so it (they) would come home with us and now we live inside a forest. I once counted our trees and the total came to a staggering forty plus and that excludes tall rhododendrons, azaleas and other large shrubs. This year the gunnera has decided to take off like a rocket. That’ll be down to the mild winters we’ve been having. On the veg front gherkins have been brilliant. Eating them fresh and not pickling so struggling to keep up with their output. They tend to weigh down the fragile plants if not picked early hence supporting them against the greenhouse where we can. Remember the snails ate most of our runner bean flowers? Well today I’m harvesting the single bean from one of the plants! To be shared between two. There are a few more plants but I’m not raising my hopes too high – as this year’s school pupils have been saying. Our fig was really hacked back a few months ago so removing most of the summer crop. Today I picked a little ripe one that escaped the purge. A few more have outwitted the secateurs and wood saw and there’s time for them to ripen.

Finished watching Ozark on Netflix. Brats will be brats. Criminals will be criminals and lawyers will get their just deserts. Or do they? I’d have written it differently.

What to watch now? We checked newspaper and website suggestions. A German Netflix series Dark was thrown up. It requires total concentration. No time to check out twitter with having to read super-quick subtitles and try to keep up with generations of characters. Science fiction is not really my thing and the first episode bored me. By the end of episode two I thought I’d stay with it for one more. By episode 4 I was hooked.

What’s the first thing you do when returning to your house after dark? You open the door and switch on a light. It’s not difficult. So why oh why do authors and film directors present us with that trope of about-to-be victim walking into her house and wandering through it in the dark? Not since the 1930s, folks. Not since the 1930s. Or earlier has it been a thing to enter your house in the dark. The same applies to scary forests. If you lived in a village with a reputation for young residents going missing in the local forest the last thing you’d think of doing is walking in the said forest – alone – in the dark. It’s a relatively simple to equate being alone in a spooky dark forest where folk disappear with it being perilous. But wait! Not only walking the forest, alone, in the dark but entering the caves in the forest.  Oh no! Not the caves! You’d think it but there they go time and time again. Winden ought to have a signpost signalling WINDEN – SLOW – LEARNERS.

Didn’t have a novel I could decide on for bedtime reading so pored over a couple of thin volumes of poetry by Apollinaire and Hans Enzenberger. I don’t know. Some of the arrangements of words by Apollinaire were novel but my sensitivity to some poetry has been irreversibly damaged by reading too many crime novels. Got a flea in my ear from husband for my flippancy over Enzenberger especially – and to be honest I didn’t give his poetry more than a passing glance so I looked him up and he’s still alive – in his nineties. And he comes from my favourite part of Germany, Bavaria, and was born in little town also the birthplace of Hans Liebherr. Hans was a mason who invented the mobile tower crane. That’s impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they can be seen tootling about the country all the time. But even more exciting for me is that Liebherr make fridges and we have one – it’s huge and fabulous.

A verse from Enzenberger’s poem, Portrait of a House Detective

He’s twenty-nine,
Idealistic,
Sleeps badly and alone
with pamphlets and blackheads,
hates the boss and the supermarket,
communists, women,
landlords, himself
and his bitten fingernails
full of margarine (because
it’s so delicious), under
his arty hairstyle mutters
to himself like a pensioner.

Decided to try an e-book from the local library via the internet. Didn’t like the library’s website which tends to throw up a lot of rubbish and abandoned the first one I borrowed but this one which I won’t name because although I began liking it, have gone off it. It’s a first novel and a bit over-written, too lush with the adjectives. Ordered something recommended to me on how we think from Amazon, It’s an actual book. Hopefully that’ll be more engaging.

Stay safe.

Aug 12, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 21

One of the things I’ve missed since the appearance of Covid 19 has been our weekly visit to Newton Dee for food shopping and visits to their café for a slice of some of the tastiest organic cakes and scones in the northeast. Newton Dee is an attractive community (part of the Camphill group) that supports adults with special needs where staff from across the world, permanent and temporary volunteer, live with residents and operate craft workshops for skills such as wooden toy making. There’s a farm at Newton Dee and an excellent bakery producing a variety of excellent bread. Their polenta cake is a particular favourite of mine. Given the vulnerability of its residents Newton Dee decided to shut off public access to its store, café and bakery which meant so much of the lovely produce we took for granted before March we now have to obtain online sans Newton Dee’s bakery products, eggs, fruit and veg. What’s missing is contact with the residents we’ve come to know over decades and wish them all well during this exceptionally difficult time.

It’s easy to understand the caution shown to their residents by Newton Dee perhaps best illustrated by Aberdeen’s return to lockdown following a number of the city’s bars failing to adhere to government regulations regarding social distancing. There are always selfish or thoughtless people with no consideration for anyone but themselves – folk desperate to get back into bars and footballers fall into one or other or both of those categories. As someone said to me, footballers aren’t famous for their intelligence. Now a whole city has to pay for the selfishness of pub-goers. With numbers of cases of Covid on the rise it is a difficult time for Aberdonians and those of us in the shire whose lives are inextricably linked with the city; through family, work, leisure etc, now greatly disrupted again. And all for a pint or several.

honey rasps and peanut bisc

Bought some peanut biscuits through our regular online order from a large supermarket. They were horrible. All gloss and no taste so I found a recipe and made some. No flour only straight peanut butter. As I was using smooth I roasted peanuts, broke them up a bit and added them along with an egg and a tiny bit salt. That was it. They weren’t as crisp as they might have been. I could have popped them back into the oven but they were being eaten too quickly and they tasted much nicer than those glossy and tasteless horrors. In the interests of fairness I have tasted excellent peanut biscuits from a different supermarket but they don’t appear to sell them here anymore.

One of the highlights of the daily walk has been tasting some of the yellow rasps growing along the roadsides and farm tracks. They’re small and have a different flavour from their red cousins. We call them honey rasps.

Last Thursday we decided to ring the changes with a trip to the Suie. The Suie is high ground (416 metres/ 1365 ft) between Alford and Clatt with spectacular views. We walked a short way through the pine wood and out onto the heather muir where the Gordon Way starts (or finishes depending on the direction taken.) It was a very warm day and the stiff breeze wafted unusually warm air which intensified the smell of pine.

Through a break in the trees we glimpsed the distinctive shape of Tap o’ Noth (yes, Noth not North.) Tap o’ Noth is a flat-top mountain near Rhynie – an ancient vitrified hill fort dating back to Pictish times. Further on the view opens out to take in the rural landscape around Huntly. On the muir ling and bell heathers were blooming in great profusion as well as a bumper harvest of cranberries and blueberries; ripe and glossy under the sun. And through the wood lots of fungi, always a magical sight for their sheer variety and strangely magical connotations. Marked march (boundary) stones which delineate the parishes of Leslie, Tullynessle and Forbes are scattered about the area.

mix 1

Having had a couple of weeks hiatus with the weekly virtual family quiz we were back in harness on Friday. A thunder storm was forecast and at eight o’ clock just as we were connecting up daylight turned into night outside our window and we feared the worst but aside from a single brief very heavy shower of rain it was quickly back to blue skies so we got through the quiz with nothing more dramatic happening than a query over the answer to the question – what are ladies’ fingers? Everyone knows it’s okra. Well, three of us knew. The answer expected was bananas. Bananas! I don’t think so! Apparently, there is a cultivar of banana called The Lady Finger which is nothing like ladies’ fingers. Got to keep on your toes with quizzes.

Our larger-than-life owl is still doing her/his thing keeping death at bay on the balcony among our wee kamikaze birdies who are contenting themselves with drinking plenty during this hot spell from the various water stations we have around the garden and eating a small fortune of seed and nuts. What sounds like a young buzzard has been making a right racket recently. The cry of the buzzard is my ultimate favourite bird call which I associate with being outdoors in fine, bright weather observing this majestic bird wheel overhead. The young buzzard’s more urgent, high-pitched scream is less pleasant. Saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows yesterday – the crows will be protecting young – so it might have been an alarm call. Or it might just have been a contralto buzzard. Our house martins are multiplying. Lots of them out flying in the evenings with considerable activity also during the day. It’s been a good summer for house martins in our part of Aberdeenshire. Lovely little birds.

P1130476 - Copy

Missing out on home-grown tomatoes? The next best thing I’ve discovered is to store shop bought ones on a south-facing windowsill. It makes them warm and sweet. Gherkins get warm and not particularly sweet all on their own in the greenhouse. We’ve had quite a lot so far and promised some to our son in Aberdeen. That was the day before Aberdeen was locked down. Did contemplate going to the shire/city boundary near Westhill and throwing a few to him.

Courgettes have been alright but there’s something in the garden that likes them. Bite marks look too big for snails and slugs. I’m wondering mice. Do mice like courgettes?  The runner beans that got off to such a good start have succumbed to squadrons of large snails that plague us. Eaten most of the flower they have. Every morning after I’ve cleaned down the front door I check a hosta growing in a tub nearby at the front. Except for two consecutive days recently I’ve found one or several snails in the tub. I pick them out and throw most of them over the road, to a bank above a burn I might add, not a neighbour’s garden. Funny thing is the hostas we have in other parts of the garden are seldom attacked and I wonder if this particular one is attracting snails building up their shells on the lime mortar around the house. I find loads of them clinging to our house walls and dispose of them in that half-hearted way that avoids death. Do the same ones return? I don’t know. Often thought of marking their shells with tippex to see if they are returnees or different snails. Shock horror! I’ve just discovered one slithering up the wall in our upstairs sittingroom. How it got here is one helluva mystery. However that happened the little blighter has ruined what was a perfectly painted wall. What did I do with it? Should have chucked it off the balcony but took it downstairs and freed it in the back garden.

Finished series 2 of Ozark. For those of you not familiar with it the story-line goes something like this – F**k you. F**k you. F**k you. He’s dead! You killed him. F**k you. F**k you. You bitch. F**k you. I’m their lawyer. F**k you.

Reading an e-book, a novel called The Dentist. Apparently it’s part of a series of police procedural stories. I’m not really into reading full books on my tablet and I don’t find it as relaxing as a proper paper book but times must. The novel reminds me of the style of detective novels created by Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s in their Martin Beck books. And that’s a compliment.

Stay safe

Aug 10, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2

Guest blog by Textor

PART 2

The way in which the financial side of the 1832 cholera pandemic crisis was handled in Aberdeen reflects something of the social and economic climate of the period. Central government established rules and guidelines to manage threats to civic and commercial life while at local government level it was left to commercial and professional classes, ratepayers of some standing, to decide how the financial demands of cholera should by managed.

cholera 3

In Aberdeen it was proposed that £4,500 would be necessary for the Board of Health to operate effectively. The question then was, how the money should be raised. Eventually it was decided against a specific compulsory local tax in favour of voluntary charitable contributions from better-off ratepayers. To this end local men-of-standing were identified and canvassed and £2,172 was raised. By the time the city came out of the crisis in May 1833 the Board of Health had £735 of this amount unspent. 

Monies were also raised in the County of Aberdeen, a portion of which was used to identify and forestall the entry of vagrants. This made some medical sense for many though not all physicians believed cholera to be contagious. Ratepayers in the County set aside £200 for constables to guard strategic points (such as the Bridge of Don) – protecting the shire from unwanted visitors. Somewhat akin to present-day migrant watches by July 1832 it was claimed 1,000 vagrants had been turned back from attempting to get into the County.
Cholera brought with it fear to communities. An incident at Skene Lane a fortnight before Aberdeen’s first case was identified demonstrates this.  Citizens on the lookout for carriers of the disease discovered a man collapsed on the roadway. He was seized, bound hand-and-foot and carried away to the infirmary at Woolmanhill where the hapless individual was diagnosed as drunk. The infirmary did not want him so the police were called and he was wheeled off in the Police Barrow: The mob cheered, the straps were firmly fixed, the cholera subject writhed and cursed, and the policeman went on with his barrow.

Not every incident connected with “mob” action had such a light-hearted (though not for the victim) tinge. Prejudice mixed with perfectly rational fears could excite communities sufficiently to result in threats of violence against those attempting to impose quarantine and other regulations. An incident at Wick found a Dr Alinson under attack and forced to seek refuge when fishermen threatened him at the quarantine hospital. He was rumoured to have been involved in scandals involving acquiring corpses for medical study and of killing patients in Edinburgh to supply the College of Surgeons with bodies for dissection. In Wick it was feared patients in the quarantine hospital faced the same outcome. Before dismissing this as irrational and blind prejudice it should be remembered that the 1832 Anatomy Act created the opportunity for surgeons to claim bodies of the poor for dissection. And who were the ones almost certain to die in quarantine? The poor. Not for them the prospect of a noble memorial stone cut in granite but the unceremonial disposal of their dismembered parts.

Before the Anatomy Act was passed, the poor or “lower classes” (as defined by the local paper) in Aberdeen hit out against the cavalier and at times illegal behaviour of the medical profession. In December 1831 the Anatomy Theatre in St Andrew’s Street was the scene of a riot when skulls, bones, and entrails were discovered on open ground. The building was attacked, wrecked and set alight while the anatomist was forced to run for his life. Nobody died. We cannot know whether the febrile atmosphere of a country threatened by the cholera epidemic helped provide an explosive edge to the “mob” but given that this was also the period of agitation for political reform and democratising of the parliamentary system the city’s streets where popular action occurred must surely have had a buzz about them we can only imagine.

Cholera visited Aberdeen very late in the day and never assumed the large epidemic proportions of elsewhere in the UK. Glasgow, for example, had thousands of deaths. Why Aberdeen had such a low number of cases is unclear. Within ten days of the first diagnosed case (27 August) at Cotton and Old Aberdeen there were a further nineteen cholera patients recorded on the register. The death rate among those affected was high – eight succumbed putting the death-rate at 40%. The spread of the disease was slow. By mid-September thirty-three cases were listed with fourteen recorded deaths. The gradual increase in numbers led Aberdeen’s physicians to conclude that while very dangerous cholera was not highly contagious, unlike scarlet fever. The editor of the Aberdeen Journal musing on the reason for so few cases in the town concluded that amongst other things it was probably the gracious interference of superior power-an interference which we shall ill-deserve, did we not gratefully endeavour to testify, as we best may, our humble acknowledgements.

With the spread of disease it became apparent it was the poor who suffered most. The first case occurred at a centre for textile production, at Cotton, and where textile and other workers lived. In late September cases emerged in the city, again among the poor, in the east end, where people lived cheek by jowl in crowded and at times insanitary conditions. By the end of the following month a total of ninety-two had contracted cholera with thirty-three cases fatal. In one particular week twenty-three fresh cases were diagnosed, mostly in the area of Park Street and Justice Street.

Through November reported cases fell away before more incidents emerged in Windy Wynd and the Vennel; areas that housed the poor. A description of the Vennel comes from the poet William Scott:

Vagrant Lodgers-

                                                 Wi tinklers, knaves, pig wives, and cadgers,

                                                The coarsest kind o’ Chelsea sodgers,

                                                          Like beggars dress’d,

                                                In holes and dens, like toads an badgers,

                                                          Here make their nest.

High occupancy where cleanliness was difficult to ensure increased the danger of contracting disease. The most shocking outbreak occurred in the fishing community at Fittie (Footdee)  where in November “with some virulence” fifty-six cases of cholera appeared out of a local population of about 480. It was calculated that the occupancy of each house was four persons per room. The Board of Health was particularly scathing at the state of drainage at Fittie. Aberdeen Town Council was the landlord.

By the end of the epidemic Aberdeen had 260 diagnosed cases. Mortality was high, 105 persons died which, however, was small compared with Glasgow where over 3,000 died between February and November 1832. In our current Covid-19 pandemic habits have changed. The emphasis on hand washing has been particularly important, even men, it is claimed, have taken to washing after going for a pee. Back in 1832 the Board of Health patronisingly commented that even the lower classes [resorted to] unwonted cleanliness in response to its injunctions. In 1833 the city’s charitable Dispensary reported on the impact of cholera highlighting a subsequent slackening in demand for their assistance from the poor. This they put down to three factors: cleaner housing; more fever wards at the infirmary; and “full employment” of the labouring classes, enabling them to have a marginally better standard of living, better diet, clothing and furnishing.

However, this apparent improvement in personal cleanliness among the poor was unsurprisingly not matched by significant improvements in the housing available to them. When doctors Kilgour and Galen reported on the sanitary state of Aberdeen, they described ill-ventilated properties with gutters running with all sorts of filth. People without privies (dry earth or bucket non-flush lavatories) and sewers had no option but to dump human waste. Dunghills built-up at doorways. The Gallowgate, with about 170 houses, had ten privies used by about 500-600 persons. Bad as this was at nearby North Street there was not a single privy. As for the availability of fresh water it was estimated that just under 6,000 persons lived in homes with their own water supply in a population of around 58,000 in Aberdeen at the time. All others relied on public wells distributed across the city. Attempts at cleanliness by poor tenants was further frustrated by the very high occupancy rates in accommodation. A Dr Keith reported crowding was fearful. His colleague Dr Dyce’s opinion was that with the first case of fever in a poor family came the likelihood it seldom ceases until all its members have been attacked.

As much as some local ministers considered epidemics to be a kind of divine retribution Boards of Health concentrated on the disease being a sign of an active and toxic agent which might be stopped or mitigated against by social measures such as quarantine, whitewashing walls and improvements in hygiene. The role of Christian God in sending cholera their way to chastise sinners might have occupied their private thoughts but their main preoccupation was with providing some form of active intervention.

Cholera, like Covid-19, is a product of Nature. Both are organisms capable of living in and harming the human frame. To this extent at least epidemics are “natural disasters.” But just as these harmful organisms can evolve so, too, can the human-social context within which they might find a home.

Both in 1832 and 2020 the economically vulnerable in society have suffered high infection rates. In both pandemics greater precautions could have been set in place prior to the outbreaks; there were no providential reasons why conditions could not have been other than they were. The NHS should have been better prepared for a pandemic as epidemiologists have been predicting one for decades.

Despite what Bob Dylan might say about the loss of lives on the Titanic there is understanding of pandemics, whether the one in 1832 or 2020. Grounded in the appearance of a harmful organism does not mean they are Acts of Nature. The way in which these organisms hit populations is dependent upon the state of scientific knowledge and divisions of wealth and power across society. The poor of Aberdeen occupied insanitary housing because of such divisions not because a God so decided. Equally the way in which the NHS found itself ill-prepared for pandemic despite decades of warnings speaks of economic and ideological priorities rather than an act of nature. Dylan’s song Tempest is wrong. We can understand and we can change things.