Archive for ‘Aberdeen’

November 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

lochnagar-crater

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

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

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

June 24, 2016

Aberdeen Goes to Hollywood

 

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

Polly Walker in Hit the Decks 1930

Polly Walker

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

Bithie cottage.jpg

Bithnie

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

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

Polly

Polly Walker

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

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

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

polly walker wedding christmas day 1935 chicago

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

***

Margaret Mann (2)

Margaret Mann

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

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

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

Margaret Mann

Margaret Mann in costume

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

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

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

Margt Mann in four sons

Margaret Mann in John Ford’s Four Sons

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

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

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

June 10, 2016

Secret Aberdeen

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

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

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

25  jopp 1894

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

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

68 Suffragettes my image save small

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

 

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

 

 

 

June 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

***

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

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

May 2, 2016

O Albin! O my country! John Stuart Blackie

J S Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

Guest blog from Textor

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

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

Grampian storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lochnagar

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

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

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

Deer stalking 2

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

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

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

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

Deer stalking

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

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

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

Glen Callater

Glen Callater

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

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

Braes of MAR

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

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

Deer stalking 3

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

April 23, 2016

Scottish alchemists in search of the philosopher’s stone

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cosmopolite

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

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

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

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

pinakas alchemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

scott_casteldelmonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandro_Botticelli_-_Inferno,_Canto_XVIII_-_WGA02854

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

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

(Dante’s Inferno, canto xx.115-117)

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

(Boccaccio’s Demcameron)

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

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

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

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

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

300px-EildonScottsView

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Napier-Portrait

John Napier

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

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

220px-Williamdavisson

William  Davidson sometimes spelled Davisson

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

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

December 30, 2015

From Silver City to the Golden Screen: Scotty Brown

 

follow thru

When Scotty Brown went to Hollywood in the 1920s he might have been seeking fame and fortune but he went out as a golfer and it was as a golf pro he was most active in those early years it would seem, teaching the game to Hollywood actors and actresses.

He was involved in an early talkie called Follow Thru from Paramount Pictures; a golfing musical with jazzy numbers and lots of pretty faces based on a stage production.

Brown’s own acting career came to a shuddering halt when he got tongue-tied in a scene with Claude Rains but in which film I haven’t been able to find out.

FollowThru 2

It’s very hard to discover anything much about Scotty during those early years but when the golf and the acting dried up he turned to creating a film distribution business. On the wall of his office hung a banner which read There’ll always be an England, aye and Scotland too.

ciros

His film business with its 2000 plus movies was popular with Hollywood’s motion picture stars who liked nothing more than an evening in watching movies. “That’s why you don’t see them so often at Ciro’s or Mocambo,” he said, “they’re home watching motion pictures.” (Ciro’s  and Mocambo’s were nightclubs on Sunset Strip favoured by movie stars.)

mocambo

Hollywood stars are known to be demanding and thought nothing of phoning Scotty Brown in the middle of the night looking for a film or part for their projectors. Frank Morgan (Francis Wuppermann), the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, was one of his demanding customers. John Wayne was another, once calling Scotty at three in the morning for help in repairing his film projector – “Scotty, the darn projector won’t turn over,” he shouted into the phone.

Many actors’ homes had screens in various rooms, including bathrooms, as well as, of course, outdoors by their swimming pools. Cary Grant was one star with a bathroom cum film theatre.

coogan and bette davis

Jackie Coogan and Bette Davis

Stars appetite for films was virtually insatiable: on occasions Dick Haymes (singer, actor – There’s No Business Like Show Business) watched four films overnight while Jackie Coogan (the kid in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) and Donald O’Connor (Singing in the Rain, Ragtime) watched a dozen over one weekend. Bing Crosby was another enthusiastic customer but Brown’s biggest film addict appeared to have been Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello) who had six projectors at home. Apparently when Mickey Rooney and his second wife split up all Rooney wanted to take away from the marriage was his projector and film collection.

Westerns were the most popular films in Hollywood with John Ford’s Stage Coach the most popular movie of all, and anything starring Cary Grant.  Grant, himself, preferred to watch Buster Crabbe (Tarzan and Flash Gordon) and Johnny Mack Brown (Gunsmoke) but he also loved westerns, watching several each week.

ciros 2

Scotty took the Queen Mary home to Scotland in 1949 on a trip which mixed business with pleasure – visiting family in Aberdeen and Partick and purchasing a quantity of 16mm films for distribution back in America.

Trigger

Roy Rogers gave Scotty Brown three solid gold figurines of his horse Trigger, with detachable saddles, and Scotty took models of these with him to Scotland in 1949 which he presented to the children of Aberdeen and Glasgow. I have no idea which organisations accepted Scotty Brown’s gifts but does anyone know where these Triggers are now?

October 21, 2015

Aberdeen City Council is forging ahead with hugely unpopular development

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

new block

This nasty block development is being built on land the people of Aberdeen wanted as their civic square.

disappearing marischal

Some opposed to this audacious attack on the wishes of the people of Aberdeen have formed a Facebook page as the cranes work away at concealing this masterpiece of civic architecture. The following is from their pages.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor for Lower Deeside and Depute Leader of the Council and spokesperson for this development.

From Facebook

Marie Boulton – Where are the leases you promised would be signed before you built Marischal Square? We were told that there were 9 interested parties for the restaurants and bars. All Bar One and Lobster Roll have signed, but which others? How many offices are leased? They’re building now, so will you call a halt?

Everything, it seems, is up for sale by this nasty administration, including the 16th century Provost Skene’s House and city museum the public were told would not be touched. skenes
pand j
Jenny Laing is the Labour Party leader of the council perhaps some of you might ask her why she and her party insist on forging ahead with this appalling development.
October 18, 2015

Scotland’s First Oil Boom – the Greenland Whale

Greenland whaling

Scots seamen have been hunting down whales for goodness knows how long and commercially since the middle ages. Aberdeen’s association with whaling is chronicled from the 1750s but its activities are dwarfed by Scotland’s main whaling ports of Dundee and Peterhead. (Curiously and sadly our most significant whaling centres are not featured in the Great Tapestry of Scotland) .

In 1788 the brig Robert, under Captain Geary, sailed out of its home port of Peterhead heading north towards the inhospitable waters that flowed down from the Arctic and home to the great Greenland whales. The lure was precious whale oil and the great fortunes that might be made from it but Geary and his crew did not make their fortunes, not then, but when the good times did come, they came with interest. Their most lucrative year was 1799 when they returned to harbour laden down with 96 tons from 8 whales.

Peterhead Whaling Crew

Peterhead whaling crew

Notable northeast whalers were the Grays from Peterhead , Captain William Parker of the whaler Bon-Accord and Captain William Penny who skippered the first steam whaler out from Dundee (which did not endear him to his fellow traditional whalers who threatened to have him tarred and feathered). Penny was also ‘the first man to winter purposely in Davis Straits’. Greenlanders would normally sail early in spring and return late summer . Traditionally men leaving port would take a cut ribbon from their wives or sweethearts, both holding a half, and the men would knot them together and tie them to the mast where they would stay until the end of the trip.

Penny established a whaling station at Cumberland Sound, part of the Labrador Sea, an area rich in whales and seals. A native of Peterhead he was the son of a whale skipper and his life at sea began when he was 12 years old but despite his adventurous life Penny died in his own bed, at Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen. Many Greelanders were not so fortunate but Penny knew to quit while ahead, retiring as a relatively young man, to Aberdeen.

The Active leaving Dundee

In 1850 Penny led an expedition to find traces of the doomed Franklin expedition that had searched for the North West Passage. He found evidence of their winter quarters and three graves at Beechy Island but little else.

Captain Geary’s eventual successes encouraged other northeast seamen try their luck in the frozen seas off Greenland among them the crews of the Eliza Swan of Montrose and the Hercules and Layton from Aberdeen and the Jane.

On 11th August 1810 the Jane, under its Captain Jameson, scooped the largest cargo of whale oil ever landed in Aberdeen: 17 whales and 383 casks brim-full with oil. It emerged the Captain had captured so many whales he gave part of his catch away to another vessel.

The Jane’s success was commemorated in song:

We’ll gae into Jean MacKenzie’s,

And buy a pint o’ gin,

And drink it on the jetty

When the Jane comes in.

And in 1814, Peterhead whalers killed 163 whales which translated into a huge quantity of oil.

 Cutting up whale

Cutting up a whale onboard

The government paid bounties to the largest of the whaling vessels for it required the oil to lubricate the machinery in the manufactories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Whale oil was used also to light street lamps in an increasingly urbanised country, and later for soap and margarine. In addition to the valuable oil, whale baleen and the flesh were marketable too but for the government having relatively large numbers of men skilled in the toughest of conditions who could then be used to man the navy when required was an additional attraction of the industry. What better school than the treacherous seas around the Davis Straits?

Peterhead ship Hope was in receipt of bounties – a mighty £480 for every voyage she made on top of whatever else was taken for the oil and baleen sold. Baleen, the comb-like filter plates whales use for feeding on krill were eagerly sought-after for use in clothing, including corset ‘bones’ , for umbrella spokes and carriage springs and could fetch £2000 per ton.

Cutting up walruss tusks

Cutting up walruss tusks onboard

The rush for whale oil gave rise to a free-for-all with ships stalking whales and others stalking whaling vessels, to steal their catches. Many a Scottish whaler crew had to fend off privateers from France and Denmark in particular. The Elbe from Aberdeen was attacked on more than one occasion by pirates. The Latona, too, again from Aberdeen, found itself battling Danish pirates. On one occasion it took the intervention of a London whaler to drive off the determined privateer. Later the same year the ill-fated Latona was crushed on ice in the Davis Straits and sank within minutes.

Hope at Aberdeen 1873

Privateers, weather, ice, storms, icebergs, the perilous Arctic waters and the long months away from home made whaling a trying as well as a highly hazardous activity. Many lost their lives, their toes and fingers and their sanity while crewing these great wooden ships.

An average whaler had around 50 of a crew although some carried far more. Usually they were local men from whaling ports but northeast boats often dropped in by Orkney and Shetland on their northward journeys in hope of picking up some of these islands’ hardy and experienced boatmen, greatly valued for dealing with the hardships that lay ahead.

Eclipse of Peterhead

Whaling ships were notorious for their stench of oil and blood that could be smelled long before they returned to harbour and of course made them extremely slippery and dangerous for the crew. They were often painted black and white and had six or seven whaleboats suspended from the sides of the ship. When a whale was sighted the whaling boats were lowered and the lead harpoon man threw his harpoon with a rope attached at the whale. The barbs on the harpoon would attach to the whale’s body and grip tighter as the animal thrashed to free itself. Each boat would have men shoot harpoons at the whale until it was secured to several smaller boats. The danger for the men was if the whale dived below the surface and dragged them with it. Whales can swim at around 20 miles an hour so it was imperative not to be dragged away, too far away from the ship, especially in poor weather such as fog. Whales fought to free themselves but eventually, exhausted, the parties in the small boats would advance to pierce the mammal through its heart or lungs. This was a long process – maybe as long as 40 hours but a successful kill would end with the whale swimming around and around, like a dying fly spinning uncontrollably. This flurry was followed by the whale thrashing the water with its tail then with a final shudder it died and floated over onto its side. The captured dead whale was then towed back to the ship.(If the ship could be found again.)

By this time the small boats may have travelled a considerable distance and had to return to the ship towing the whale behind them. The whale was secured to the side of the ship while the crew flensed it – stripped off its blubber with knives and sharp spades. An average whale provided around 30tons of blubber. The blubber was cut into smaller chunks and stored in containers.

Harpoon gun

Harpoon Gun

In 1830, 19 out of the 91 British ships working the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay were sunk and 21 others returned home with nothing to show for risking their lives for half a year. Many that did make it back had suffered damage to their ships. Peterhead lost the Resolution and Hope that enjoyed so much success in previous years and all in all 1830 was a dismal year for Peterhead whalers.

In atrocious weather the Mazinthien was wrecked at South Bay, Peterhead on her way to the Davis Straits from Dundee in 1878. Its crew were only rescued by breeches buoy after many hours. The ship was eventually salvaged and returned to Dundee as a wreck.

 

Aberdeen’s whalers fared even worse, losing four from ten whalers: Alexander, Laetitia, Middleton and Princess of Wales while one came back with an empty hold the remainder took only 5 whales.

By the mid-1830s it was clear that whalers had largely destroyed their own industry through greed. In response Peterhead captains looked to sealing around Newfoundland and in that they created a lucrative industry out of one that was taken up to cover whaling losses. Sealskin was hugely popular especially the soft skins from very young cubs which were clubbed to death.

Dundee crews were said to be ‘fitba mad’ and made footballs from seal skins. Teams from different ships competed on the ice. On one occasion in 1875 a bunch of men from the Victor had gone well away from the ship so as not to disturb those who remained on board. In the middle of the game a polar bear emerged through the fog and was seen dribbling the ball. His human team-mates ran as fast as they were able across the ice and fought to climb the only ladder hanging down from the ship’s deck.

Such were the times the poor bear was shot dead.

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray

Into the 19th century there was a shift away from wooden to iron vessels and by the late 1850s steam was beginning to supplant sail. This did not please Peterhead Captain Gray who blamed the noise of steam engines for driving whales north out of reach rather than accepting the whale hunters were themselves to blame for the wholesale slaughter of too many whales. Later he did change his mind but placed blame on earlier generations of whalers for massacring immature whales before they could reproduce.

Mangled harpoons taken from a whale

Mangled harpoon arrows taken from a whale

Meanwhile Dundee shipbuilders Stephen eschewed iron for timber, designing a wooden barque-rigged screw steamer that proved highly effective navigating ice-strewn waters. Others copied the design, including the world’s leading clipper shipbuilder Alexander Hall & Co. of Aberdeen who, in 1867, built the Eclipse for Peterhead’s whaling dynasty the Grays.

The whale jaw bones arch was a the Footdee (Fittie) home of Alexander Hall the Aberdeen shipbuilder. There were many such arches in Aberdeen and across Scotland.

A second whaler ship named Hope followed, again for a Gray, Captain John Gray, brother of the Eclipse’s captain. These two ships dominated Peterhead whaling and sealing during the 1870s and ’80s but were still no match for the whaling fleets of Dundee.

Doyle diary 2 (1)

From Conan Doyle’s diary

It was on the whaler Hope that the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle sailed as a 20 year old medical student for the ship’s 6-month voyage to Greenland waters, under Captain Gray in 1880. As the ship’s surgeon Doyle was paid £2 – 10shillings per month and 3shillings a ton oil bonus.

Doyle diary 2 (2)

Pages from Conan Doyle’s diary

The Eclipse, too, had a famous passenger. Walter Livingstone-Learmonth was an Australian born to Scottish parents with a reputation as a ‘keen hunter’. Others might describe him as a butcher. His lust for shooting birds and animals took him aboard the Eclipse, to get to species he had so far not been able to kill. He and Captain Gray did not get on. He also sailed on the Dundee ship Maud from which he shot 26 walruses and seals and 4 polar bears.

polar bear

A proud Livingstone-Learmonth

The Eclipse was sold to the Norwegians and then on to the Russian navy who changed her name to Lomonessoi. She was sunk in 1927, raised and went on to become a research vessel in Siberian waters after that before being finally sunk in 1941 by the German Luftwaffe.

 flencing

Flensing a whale tied to the side of the ship

In 1901 the Hope was lost at Byron Island but the 194 on board were rescued. By this time the northeast whaling industry was all but finished although British whaling did not officially end until 1963.

The industry that had been battling decline found the Norwegians were predominant by the beginning of the 20th century. For the men from Aberdeen, Peterhead and Dundee the tide had turned on an occupation in which they risked their lives on a daily basis, sustained by the potential riches to be made from pursuit of the poor whale.

Where these men’s fathers and grandfathers had taken to treacherous waters in the frozen north to engage in a somewhat equal battle with the magnificent leviathan the whale hunters of the 20th century armed with explosive charges turned whale hunting into nothing short of slaughter.

 Tay Whale at John Woods yard 1884

Whale at John Woods yard, Dundee

 

 

August 9, 2015

The Wallace Tower – Not just any banishment but Marks & Spencer banishment

Wallace Tower  Mention the Wallace Tower and some smart Alec’s bound to chip in, it’s nae the Wallace Tower, it’s Benholm’s Lodgings, to which the appropriate response is, aye I ken but it’s bin the Wallace Tower for well over a century so it’s earned the name Wallace Tower. If someone turned up at my house and insisted it was so and sos because they’d lived there a few decades ago I’d tell them where to get off, wouldn’t you? Built for Sir Robert Keith, whose brother the Earl of Marischal founded Marischal College (once a separate university from King’s College) the house was also known as Keith’s Lodgings. Given its long existence – 500 years – it has seen a lot of comings and goings. For most of that time it occupied a prime position the corner of the Netherkirkgate (the lower gate or port into the town – the Upperkirkgate being the higher up gate), above Carnegie’s brae, which came to be known as the Wallace neuk (corner). At one time the area was known as Putachieside. The home of Lord Forbes at Keig by Alford used to be known as Putachie.  Lord Forbes kept a town house in Aberdeen, near Benholm’s Lodgings and  referring to the area by his country house name stuck. It was near where the Aberdeen Market is now… beside Putachie’s house – Putachieside. I hope you’re still following – and one of the streets, which ran from Carnegie’s brae towards what is now Market Street (or as near as damn it) came to be called Putachie. Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. The Wallace name was used when a bar of that name occupied part of the building when it was slap bang in the centre of town not in its present location on a grassy knoll at Tillydrone. The low hill it stands on is the remains of a Norman motte. As for the  name it’s possibly a corruption of wally meaning well (a nearby well-house) with the diminutive ie or y wally hoose or well-house for folks uncomfortable with the Doric. This is all a long way from the Wallace Tower’s current abode at Tillydrone. It’s a fine enough site for this fine wee building but for many Aberdonians of a certain vintage – it’s not its home. Home should be, they believe, somewhere close to the vanished Netherkirkgate – maybe close to the Upperkirkgate… maybe it could have occupied pride of place, or second place to Skene’s House in Marischal Square but then there is no longer to be a Marischal Square so it can be added to my banished list.  Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. Marischal Square has gone before it’s ever been. Rewind…why did the Wallace Tower go west? Think Marischal Square – what’s driving this corporate carbuncle? the ugly face of capitalism silly. It was a similar situation back in the swinging sixties. Marks & Spencers wanted to expand their store across from the Wallace Tower and councillors sucked on their pencil tips and thought how old fashioned this auld rickle of stanes looked in what could be a modern shopping precinct. What to do? Before you could say pretty fine example of a late 16th early 17th century rubble-built  Scottish tower house it was howked up and trundled on the back of several lorries far enough away from the city centre that those pencil sucking councillors were no longer reminded that Aberdeen did once have some very fine buildings indeed. The M & S extension turned out to be a not-so-very fine a building or even a half-decent building but who cared? This was the 1960s and anything went then, even prefabricated lookalike every other prefabricated buildings that littered every other town’s high streets. Still, as we know when it comes to Aberdeen city centre it’s a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Actually I don’t really mind the Tower being at Tillydrone for it is a good enough spot, at the edge of Seaton Park, but look at it – no, really look at it. When did you last see anything of architectural importance in Aberdeen look this bad? Well how about last week – and Westburn House. As far as preserving historically important architecture/introducing high quality contemporary buildings to the city Aberdeen councils would get straight As for corporate delinquency. Here we have boarded up windows to prevent another empty building falling victim to vandalism – the petty kind that ends up in courts and fined not the kind that is carried out on a large scale by local authorities. The original Benholm’s lodging house was constructed as a unique Z-plan tower house that was used as lodgings. In the late 18thC a wing was added and various adaptations have been made. At one time a balcony was built to provide grand views across the south of the area. There have been many plans to get the Wallace Tower back into some kind of useful existence but all fall through. It’s not connected with The Wallace … Aye we ken. Wallace never came this far north… So you say.  Since it is in Tillydrone it would be good if that community could make something of it but everything comes down to having sustainable funding in the end. Given that it is so close to the University it might find a use but not at its loss of it as a public asset (although the Council might question that and presumably regard it as another liability).

You can see the z-plan – or not. Corbelled features. Two round towers. The sculpted knight isn’t Wallace… they insist Aye, we ken, fit exactly IS yer problem, min? Who the rough and ready figure of a knight in a recess is no-one knows. It isn’t Wallace that’s for sure – William Wallace and his dug.  It might be Wallace and Gromit. That is a joke by the way… in case the pedantic echo is still on my case. Some think it came from the nearby St Nicholas graveyard. Whatever’s its provenance it is a rude representation of a Scottish knight with his favourite cur by his feet. He used to hold a sword – the knight not the dug that was made from a bent bit of metal. Definitely not worthy of The Wallace. Who he was we probably shall never know. Wouldn’t it be grand if it turned out his name was actually Wallace. He’s been broken and repaired and painted and broken and painted and repaired and broken.

A remaining armorial panel is not in the finest condition but at least it’s remaining.

Gunport quatrefoil.

The walls had originally been harled and presumable painted in the old Scots tradition. As of March this year planning permission for a change of use from residential dwelling to mixed use as a community cafe and office was being sought. The Wallace Tower which has undergone so many guises including lodging house, bar, tobacconist, snuff merchants was once upon a time a council house, gadzooks, rented out, controversially, to someone who would later become a councillor and Provost. It surprised some Aberdonians that the rent for such a unique cooncil hoose was the same as for ‘any other three-bedroomed council house in the city.‘ (The Herald 3 Oct 1996) but when this tenant vacated the Tower no-one else was given the chance to rent it but we were into the era of selling off council homes so the council did well to avoid falling into that trap with the Wallace Tower. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12023249.Convoluted_background_to_portrait_of_provost_who_had_listed_council_house/ I’ve been inside the Wallace Tower once or twice and it wasn’t particularly attractive as a home – stairs to everywhere and fitted out in 1970s drab but that is just decoration and doesn’t detract from its importance as a medieval tower-house. There is no question the Wallace Tower is a ‘lost gem’. It lies forlorn and unused. Largely ignored. Unwanted or rather unaffordable for those who would love to bring it back to life.