Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

April 11, 2017

The day young Byron was nearly lost in a snowstorm

Engraving based on the Kay portrait

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

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

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

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

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

leaves in St Nicholas graveyard cropped

Ledger tombstones in St Nicholas Kirkyard

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

Mither Kirk St Nicholas

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

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

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

 ***

Morven

Morven

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

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

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

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


*Lochnagar

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

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

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

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

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

George Gordon Byron

Mad, Bad and Dangerous

FICTION – The Gowk

April 1, 2017

News in Scotland 100 years ago today

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

dundee

Daughters of some of Dundee’s men at the Front

  • Aberdeen to get women police patrols.
  • Proposal to start a co-operative jute factory in Dundee.
  • Edinburgh grocers are in favour of a card system for sugar distribution.
  • Some Glasgow grocers are selling sugar in pennysworths.
  • Holidays in munition areas are to be deferred until after the end of July.
  • It is reported that 11,000 teachers in Scotland are getting less than £100 a year.
  • Protests in Lochgilphead against Sunday labour in the woods and fields.
  • Net profits of £270,432 reported by the Bank of Scotland for the past year.
  • There is a credit balance of £150 from the British Industries Fair recently held in Glasgow.
  • Crookston Combination Poorhouse is to be taken over for the reception of mentally afflicted soldiers.
  • A ban on the sale of spirits in parts of Argyllshire and Buteshire has come into force.
  • Some conscientious objectors from England are to be employed in forestry work at Ford in Argyllshire.
  • The Marchioness of Graham has undertaken to provide Lamlash with a convalescent home for the wounded.
  • The Dunoon and District Merchants’ Association have agreed to hold the Fast Days.
  • The fishing village of Whitehills near Banff has lost in one week four men who were on Admiralty service.
  • Tillycoultry Parish Council has decided to proceed with an extension of the cemetery at a cost of £2000.
February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

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

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Guest post by Textor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2017

The day the Food Controller banned the buttery rowie

 

rowie-closeup
Rowie, buttery or Aberdeen roll

Threat to Aberdeen’s Morning Delicacy

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

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

dead-of-aberdeen-newspaper-1917

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

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

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

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

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

was to be banned!

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

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

rowie-3

Aberdeen roll, buttery or rowie

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

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

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

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

war-time-food

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

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

December 19, 2016

From Shorter Hours to Zero Hours

Guest blog by Textor

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

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

pratt-keith

Pratt & Keith, Aberdeen

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

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

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

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

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

james-gordon-silk-mercer-1840s-castle-street

James Gordon, Silk Mercers, Aberdeen 1840

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

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

The assistants rhetorically asked customers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

schoolhill-2

Schoolhill, Aberdeen

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

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

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

a-s-cook

A.S. Cook, Aberdeen

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

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

December 17, 2016

Murder and Mayhem at Justice Port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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George IV debauched, fat, profligate, racist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refs:The Black Kalendar of Aberdeen

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

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

November 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

lochnagar-crater

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

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

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

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

Polly Walker in Hit the Decks 1930

Polly Walker

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

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Bithnie

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

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

Polly

Polly Walker

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

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

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

polly walker wedding christmas day 1935 chicago

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

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Margaret Mann (2)

Margaret Mann

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

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

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

Margaret Mann

Margaret Mann in costume

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

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

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

Margt Mann in four sons

Margaret Mann in John Ford’s Four Sons

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

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

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

June 10, 2016

Secret Aberdeen

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

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

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

25  jopp 1894

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

June 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

***

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

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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