Archive for ‘Aberdeenshire’

April 19, 2018

The Buchanites: by a lock of their hair they hoped to fly to heaven

A group of bald-headed women and men clambered their way up Templand hill by Closeburn, Dumfries and onto a platform. With faces turned skyward they waited to be plucked up by their remaining single lock of hair to soar heavenward. They were disappointed when they did not. However, the wind did carry off their wooden platform. 

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These ambitious eccentrics were known as Buchanites. Their leader was a charismatic woman called Elspeth Buchan who explained away their failure to fly by their lack of faith and ordered her followers fast for 40 days and 40 nights then try again. So they did, several suffering badly from starvation, and again they failed to rise up to heaven.

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The immortal Elspeth Buchan

 

In 1783 Elspeth Buchan then in her forties had declared herself a prophet and immortal. She regarded herself as the woman in Revelation 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

Elspeth had been born at Rothiemackenzie in the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire in 1738 to a crofter and innkeeper, John Simpson and his wife Margaret Gordon. The young Elspeth married a local potter called Robert Buchan who some years later went off south with Elspeth and their children following. They appeared in Glasgow and Greenock and what happened to the husband after that I don’t know but Elspeth returned for a time to the Banff area where she opened a Dame school (one taught by a woman or dame) where most of what was taught was the catechism. Needless to say numbers dwindled to none at all and so Elspeth, Mrs Buchan, returned to her husband down south, it has to be said their marriage was a loose affair, and by this time she had some strong ideas over who she was.

She claimed her immortality could be transferred to others by her breathing on them, in quite an intimate way, according to Rabbie Burns. She tried to convince several church ministers of her spiritual powers but only the Rev Hugh White, a minister of the Relief Church* in Irvine was won over. By teaching and Psalm singing they attracted a smallish group of followers who came to be known as the Western Delusion and later better-known as Buchanites. His activities split White’s congregation and he and Elspeth Buchan abandoned his church taking some fifty of the congregation with them. They picked up more followers on their travels.

The group’s proselytising though charismatic to some did not find favour with everyone and they were driven from the town, beaten and thrown in a ditch with threats to drown them in Scott’s Loch. What antagonised many townsfolk and others in parts they passed through were the open relationships practised by the Buchanites, communal living with rumours of orgies in forests and group sex and for the sober Christians of the kirk there was little about them to admire.

Mrs Buchan and her following were expelled from Irvine on the Cow Fair in May 1784; driven into the wilderness from the flood was how it struck the Buchanites concerned. They turned up at Closeburn, north of Dumfries, with Elspeth Buchan resplendent in crimson and riding on a white horse. It was there they made their attempt to fly to heaven but before they did Elspeth Buchan, Mother Buchan, persuaded her flock to hand over their trinkets and jewels to her, as she explained this would make it easier for them to rise up.

So the assembled Buchanites waited, expectantly, for the wind to carry them off and away. As well as permanently parting with their possessions they had prepared themselves by shaving their head of all hair except for a single lock which would be used to lift them up and away from the earth; all had cut off their hair except for Elspeth Buchan. They waited and waited. Then the wind blew down their platform.

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Auchengibbert became home to some of the Buchanites

There were other reports of goods and money being appropriated by Mother Buchan. One of the Buchanites, a Mrs Goldie, left the considerable sum of £500 on her death. Her son was a seaman, often away from home, and he had no idea his widowed mother had managed to save so much money so when Buchan and the Rev White took control of Mrs Goldie’s affairs and offered him a couple of pounds the son went away satisfied.

They were expelled from Dumfriesshire in 1787 and from there they went to Crocketford. Mrs Buchan was also known as Luckie Buchan (Luckie being a common nickname in parts of Scotland as a friendly, familiar term for an older woman.) Elspeth Buchan also took on the more formal title, Friend-Mother in the Lord.

The poet Robert Burns had a bit of a run-in with them when one of his bonnie Jeans, the very beautiful Jean Gardiner whom it is claimed was Burns’ heroine in Epistle to Davie and not Jean Armour, became entranced by and joined the sect. Burns working as a gauger in this part of the country was persuaded by the young Jean Gardiner to accompany her to some Buchanite meetings. He did but he was not won over as she had been. Burns wrote in a letter to his cousin William Burness of Montrose –

“About two years ago, a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow [she had been there with her husband] came among them, & began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, …till in spring last the Populace rose & mobbed the old leader Buchan & put her out of the town…Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures & practices that are scandalously indecent…”

Another giant of Scottish literature, John Galt, also wrote about the Buchanites. Galt was from Irvine and he had a vague recollection, recorded in his autobiography, of seeing the charismatic sect when he was a very young bairn and he recalled how several youngsters of the town, including himself, were beguiled by the Buchanites – their appearance, singing of the Psalms and general conduct that they followed after them, much like the children in the wake of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – Galt’s mother in hot pursuit succeeded in dragging him back home “by the lug and the horn.” Galt wove an impression of the Buchanites spectacle in Irvine into descriptions of Covenanters in Ringan Gilhaize (pronounced Gillies)

The immortal Mrs Buchan proved she was not when she died in 1791. On her deathbed she remained confident her impending death was only an interlude during which she would go to Paradise, briefly, to carry out some business and return within nine days, or perhaps nine years.

In anticipation of her re-awakening Elspeth Buchan was not buried but placed on a bed of feathers and secreted under the kitchen hearth in the farmhouse occupied by the remaining sect members. The group split up with some moving away to carry on their lives elsewhere including a number who went to America, by ship I understand, not taking to the air.

A few including Andrew Innes and his wife remained true to the so-called prophetess and when they moved farms they took Elspeth Buchan’s remains with them and for the next fifty years the deceased Mrs Buchan clung determinedly to earth. Andrew Innes was the last of the Buchanites and when he, too, was dying aged eighty-two at Crocketford in 1846, he revealed the remains of Luckie Buchan lay in an upper chamber on a bed, wrapped in blankets. And there her bones were found and an abundance of hair. Innes asked that his coffin be placed over hers when they were both interred so that if she rose to heaven he would know about it. They were buried at Newhouse graveyard alongside other Buchanites by the northwest wall, doubtless in the expectation of ascending to heaven at some stage.

And so that was the end of the Buchanites. Well, not quite. A group emerged in the 20th century in Aberdeen not at all in the same league but a quaint grouping who celebrated new years in the old Scottish way, burning a yule log, singing and dancing. In the 1930s around 200 would gather in the Cowdray Hall to mark the Aul’ Eel when they drank copious quantities of sowans** and uttered such momentous phrases as, “Man, that’s gran’, sic fine sowens, that gaed doon fine.” As I said not quite in the league of the woman of the sun and moon and crown of stars, but it made them happy.

*The Relief Church (Presbytery of Relief) was a Scottish denomination founded in 1761 by Thomas Gillespie, a Church of Scotland minister who was deposed by the General Assembly in 1752 when he refused to co-operate in the induction of an unpopular minister to Inverkeithing. Relief in the kirk’s name referred to its independence from the patronage associated with the Church of Scotland of the time and it was more free-thinking than the traditional church. The Relief Church was later incorporated into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

** Sowans was a cheap and nutritional drink made from soaking and lightly fermenting oat husks.

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The Buchanite stronghold in southwest Scotland

April 16, 2018

The last woman publicly hanged in Aberdeen

 

A young quine witnessing the hanging of a woman in the town’s Castlegate was struck on the chest by a piece of the noose thrown into the crowd.

In the summer of 1892 as Aberdeen’s old jail at Lodge Walk was being demolished workmen exposed skeletons interred in a walled-off part of the prison – a grassy plot some 30 feet by 20 feet. These were the remains of several men and one woman publicly hanged in the city post-1829; before then corpses of the executed might be disposed of at sea or given to physicians for dissection but in 1829 it was decided to bury them in a concealed area next to the prison.

The woman referred to was Catherine Davidson or Humphrey (her married name.) Davidson came from Keith-hall by Inverurie in Aberdeenshire and lived in Aberdeen with her butcher husband, James Humphrey. As a young woman Catherine was standing in amongst a huge crowd gathered in the Castlegate witnessing the hanging of another woman when she was hit on the chest by a piece of the rope thrown into the throng by hangman, Robbie Welsh, as was the custom. Forty years later she had the dubious distinction, herself, of being on the gibbet; the last woman hanged in public in the city.

The Humphreys were often drunk and abusive towards each other. Catherine Humphrey was said to be particularly violent towards her husband, forever threatening to kill him – but appealing to others to do the dastardly deed for her with poison. She was also seen holding a razor to her husband’s neck and him crying out, “There, do it now, for you will do it some time.”

James, Jeem, Humphrey’s predicted one day his wife would hang; her face looking down Marischal Street for him; public executions took place outside the jail at Lodge Walk, opposite Marischal Street which runs down to harbour.

On evening of Friday 16 April, 1830, the couple quarrelled and Mrs Humphrey ordered her servant to retire early to bed.  According to the servant she heard Mrs Humphrey say, “Lord God if anybody would give him poison and keep my hand clear of it.”

This same servant was wakened in the night by a smiling Mrs Humphrey informing her that Jeem was taken ill. On going into the kitchen where the husband slept the servant found him writhing in agony and roaring, “I’m burned – I’m gone – I’m roasted.” His wife the whole time insisted he had consumed a bad drink while her husband countered, “Oh, woman, woman whatever I have gotten, it was in my own house.” The shouting drew the attention of neighbours who made their way into the house and heard the sick man accuse his wife of poisoning him, “Oh, woman, woman, you have tried to do this often, and you have done it now.”

There were burn marks on the bedclothes and an empty phial was found on the window sill which had contained oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid.)  The victim, known to sleep with his mouth open, cried, “Bad work, bad work – may God Almighty forgive them who have done this to me.” He died on the Sunday morning.  

Jeem Humphrey’s wife, widow, was tried and found guilty by a unanimous decision and sentenced to hang on 8 October. Shortly after being sentenced Catherine Davidson Humphrey made a full confession admitting she had, indeed, poured the burning liquid down her husband’s throat as he lay asleep out of jealousy or malice.

Sobered up and having reflected on her behaviour Catherine bitterly regretted her actions, “Oh, it’s a sair thing to wash for the gibbet, but I hope I will be washed in the blood of my Redeemer.” She acknowledged her sentence was just but claimed someone else bought the vitriol although she gave it to her husband.

Three days after her day in court Catherine Davidson Humphrey fainted while being taken from the prison to the gibbet at two-thirty in the afternoon and had to be supported by two kirk ministers. She was dressed in black and in her hand she carried a handkerchief. Never once did she allow her eyes to look out over the tens of thousands gathered to witness her execution but discreetly signalled with her handkerchief she was ready for the hangman. As the rope was adjusted about her neck Catherine Davidson Humphrey exclaimed softly, “Oh, my God,” struggled a little then lifted up her hands twice. Her body was left hanging for about an hour before being cut down.

The woman who about forty years earlier, in 1786, Catherine Davidson Humphrey had watched hang was Jean Craig.  Jean’s accomplice in many a theft of poultry, linen and clothing was Elspet Reid who met the same fate a year earlier. Both of these women had been banished previously but repeatedly returned to the city. It was Jean Craig’s noose that had struck the young Catherine Davidson Humphrey, the last woman publicly hanged in Aberdeen.

 

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March 20, 2018

There’ll be Fish Pie in the Sky by and by

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The good ol’ days when – selling the family silver.

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2017 the General Election loomed and with it the small matter of Brexit. The fishermen’s dreams were about to come true.

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Armstrong 2017 no bargaining

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Meanwhile in London the Tories list their priorities for the term ahead – should they win.

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Fishing didn’t make it onto the list. The war of words hotted up between the SNP and the Tories. 

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said Scottish Fishermen’s Federation spokesman Bertie Armstrong.

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And as Brexit draws closer.

DAVIDSON AND GOVE

Oh, oh. 

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In the sweet by and by

We shall meet on that beautiful shore

In the sweet by and by

Aye, maybe.

 

 

March 9, 2018

Bellowed for nearly an hour: fascists V communists in Aberdeen (and Dundee)

Black shirts in Aberdeen

FASCISTS “DROWNED OUT”

NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK

PANDEMONIUM AT ABERDEEN

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BELLOWED FOR NEARLY HOUR

REDS OUT IN FORCE

 

It was the Reds doing the bellowing. The occasion was an attempt by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to speak at Aberdeen’s Music Hall in September 1935.

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Raven Thomson front low left

“They may be croaking like old hens, but their bellowing and braying last night completely drowned out the voice of Fascism in the Ball Room of the Music Hall” reported a local newspaper. Such was the vocal opposition to the extreme rightwing Black Shirts, the report went on, the meeting ended almost the moment it opened. The would-be guest speaker that evening was to be A. Raven Thomson, the BUF’s Director of Policy but before he could utter a sound he and his fellow fascists were given the bum’s rush.

“Aberdeen is the toughest town we have ever struck,” Thomson told the paper’s reporter.

The public address was due to begin at 8pm but an hour before the hall was already packed with a couple of thousand more outside, unable to get in.

Protected by ten black-shirted stewards from Peterhead, Edinburgh and Manchester the Fascists took their seats to a wall of sound of booing and shouting from within the hall. Plain clothes police officer sat amongst the audience and they, too, were loudly booed.

The moment the speaker Raven Thomson got onto the stage and appealed for quiet he was drowned out by a huge roar and a sea of shaking fists. Someone stood up and waved a red flag which set off a rendering of the socialist anthem, the International followed by more noise and chants of  

“One, two, three, four, five,

We want Mosley, dead or alive.”

Thomson tried to press on but his words were totally drowned out with no break in the racket from the public in the hall. At 8 o’ clock the Chief Constable, McConnach, had a word with the Fascists then announced the meeting was cancelled. Wasting no time the Fascists hurried away to the delight of excited demonstrators roaring

“Three cheers for the defeat of Fascism.”

Outside a large force of uniformed and plain clothes police were gathered in anticipation of trouble but the protestors; Communists and Socialists as they were described by the press, were in no mood for violence but “swarmed down Union Street, marched to the Market Stance, singing the ‘Internationale‘ and other Communist songs on the way” and held their own meeting at the Castlegate.

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Raven Thomson

Raven Thomson issued a statement in which he said the Fascists had had several successful meetings on their tour of the country but – “It is very difficult to deal with a town like this where the people do not know our case” adding the reaction they had in Aberdeen was unusual and the city was “the toughest town they had ever struck.”

Edinburgh born Raven – Alexander Raven Thomson – was a theoretician of the British Union of Fascists and grandson of the architect Alexander (Greek) Thomson. One-time a member of the Communist Party he came to admire Nazi Germany and spent time in Germany learning the trade of silver paper manufacturing which later provided his living back in Britain. By 1933 he was a fascist and became the BUF’s Director of Policy and close associate of leading fascists Oswald Mosley and Neil Francis Hawkins. He was interned in Brixton jail for most of the Second World War and remained a fascist all his life. He married Lisbeth, daughter of the x-ray pioneer, Wilhelm Röntgen, and they lived in the East End of London where he died in 1955.  

Chief Constable McConnach was criticised by the anti-Socialist and anti-Communist Union for his handling of the Music Hall meeting. He responded saying the Fascist speakers had been given police protection and suffered no violence in Aberdeen but that he would not put up with speakers being obstructed in future. And he had advice for organisers of meetings, such as the Fascists, that any complaints against the police should be pursued through the courts. In the event the Fascists chose not to pursue their complaint as they didn’t want to appear in court in case what came out damaged their reputation it was said. They did, however, complain in one of their publications of “Mob Rule in Scotland” – indicating only at Aberdeen and Dundee had the British Union of Fascists suffered such disorderliness but they also mentioned they dared not hold meetings in Glasgow after dark.

DUNDEE

The following week the Fascists’ tour of Britain found them in that other most disorderly city, the “Red city” of Dundee, where around 1,000 mostly Communists had already gathered for their own meeting knowing the BUF were due. Fascists G. Easterbrook and J. A. F. Nolan from London planned to speak but they and their fellow Blackshirts were forced into a hasty retreat chased by 500 Socialists. Some Fascists jumped onto a tramcar where Nolan was punched on the jaw, twice, and Easterbrook received a bloody nose before securing safe passage in a police van and driven away from the West Port area with shouts of “Down with the Blackshirts” and “Run them out of town” ringing in their ears – their planned 11 meetings during a week-long stay in Dundee cancelled.

At the time Nolan, insistent they were not Blackshirts but included Liberals and Conservatives, said their campaigns in Edinburgh, Ayr and Saltcoats got excellent hearings while in Aberdeen they’d encountered opposition though not as violent as in Dundee. Easterbrook was more blunt he condemned the reception in Dundee as “contemptible” and “un-British.”

It would be misleading to portray fascism as universally unpopular in Britain. Its ideology took root across Europe in the 1930s including in the United Kingdom. Indeed much of the British press were keen advocates of fascism: The Mirror and Sunday Pictorial were so tickled with fascism they proposed a prettiest woman fascist competition and published photographs of blackshirts having a sing-song around the piano. The Daily Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere welcomed Oswald Mosley’s moves to shake up Britain. On 8 January 1934 the Daily Mail editorial proclaimed –

“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”

 

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And Rothermere’s message to Britons was-

 “Britain’s survival as a Great Power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right, ready to take on responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed.”

And enthusiastic Daily Mail readers clamoured to join the fascist movement. At the Albert Hall in London that April 10,000 people crowded in to hear the movement’s leaders speak. Soon 100 branches of the fascist organisation had sprung up around the UK.

The British Fascist movement was led by the well-heeled Sir Oswald Mosley – an MP with wide interests – at times a Conservative, an Independent and member of the Labour Party he served in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour administration as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After he resigned from Labour he was expelled and formed the New Party, a forerunner of the Union of Fascists.

Mosley favoured greater powers for the state in order to tackle unemployment and argued it should have more control over public assets. Unemployment was a huge problem in the UK in the thirties with levels of poverty and suffering hardly credible to us today. He wanted the UK to adopt the Italian type of fascism and become a corporate state of 24 bodies that would harbour no criticism, be governed by an elite elected through plebiscite every five years and replace local government with appointed representatives provided by the national government. In Aberdeen that man was to be William Keith Abercrombie Jopp Chambers-Hunter.

Despite the British Union of Fascists chiefly being London-based, in the East End in particular, its supporters endeavoured to create a UK-wide organisation. The biggest support outside of London was found in Liverpool and Manchester while efforts to spread their ideology into Scotland, intensified from 1936, were centred in Aberdeen. The simple reason for that was the presence of Chambers-Hunter, a fanatical fascist and his sister-in-law Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha – known as Mrs Botha (the last name might be familiar to you as she was a daughter-in-law of South Africa’s first Prime Minister, Louis Botha.) Chambers-Hunter was a laird at Tillery near Udny in Aberdeenshire who had been educated at public school in England, later spending time as a tea planter in Ceylon before returning to Scotland to live on the estate he inherited. His family’s fortune was made as plantation owners in South Carolina, the heart of slavery for around 200 years, in the 18th century. Chambers-Hunter, himself, was said to have come from a scion of the family born into less affluent circumstances, as the son of a grocer in Footdee (Fittie) and was formerly known as the more humble William Jopp. The family appear to have had a penchant for changing their names for his slave-owning grandfather was once Chalmers before adopting Chambers.

Chalmers-Hunter and Botha were determined fascists who didn’t allow adversity to come between them and their recruitment drive for the movement – and they had to be. Whenever and wherever they turned up Aberdeen’s anti-fascists quickly on hand to provide some opposition. That equal determination of the anti-fascists forced the local BUF from 1935 to stop publicising their appearances in advance instead they would turn up unannounced – most often at the Green, Craigie Street off George Street and Woodside where Chambers-Hunter would stick his head out of the sun roof speak briefly and perhaps sell copies of their newspapers Action and Blackshirt in the hope of getting away before being tracked down by the opposition – not easy for in the city an interesting network of anti-fascists emerged with eyes and ears open to their activities: bus and tram drivers and conductors; unemployed men and women on the streets and more organised groups of Communists and Socialists with bikes who got into the habit of cycling around the town searching out  Blackshirts in their usual haunts. As for the residents of Craigie Street it was said the women there were quite capable of sending the itinerant fascists packing whenever they turned up on their doorsteps.

Harassing fascists became a popular activity in Aberdeen. Many of you will know that nineteen Aberdonians felt so strongly that fascism had to be resisted they went to Spain as part of the International Brigades to fight it in the Spanish Civil War. Five were killed in Spain.

Aberdeen being a major port meant Aberdonians came into contact with seamen from around the world, including Germany, and from them they learnt about the rise and progress of fascism across Europe and the imprisonment and murder of Socialists, Communists, Trades Unionists, Jews and so many others. 

Communists used the town’s pavements to spread word of their meetings; writing time and place with bits of clay pipe – the habit of chalking messages on pavements lingered on among the city’s Socialists through to the 1960s CND, anti-Vietnam war movement.

The local press proved a lively medium for the exchange of political view. In March 1936 C. W. Edward of Sanquhar, Forres wrote in defence of fascism-

“Mr Chambers-Hunter’s excellent letter of February 28 voices the feelings of a vast number of people in Britain today.”

He went on to condemn the government’s treacherous attitude towards the USSR; its damage of trade through sanctions and risk of war so that “people of all political opinions are turning to Fascism as the only way out of the political morass in which we are floundering.”

His opinions were countered in the same paper by someone with the initials ACH who criticised Chambers-Hunter for his over-simplification of political situations –

“Russians are vermin (168 million people disposed of), Germany and Japan can squeeze them out of existence (No trouble!) Friendship with Russia means the ruin of the British Empire. (Shouldn’t it be the British Commonwealth of Nations?) …Fascism means the Union Jack —Nothing to do with the birch rod evidently…If a thinking man or woman refuses to accept any or all of these postulates, the shape of his or her nose may be taken as decisive evidence that he or she is wrong. – Drivelation. -A.C. H.”

Another correspondent sardonically ‘sided’ with the local fascist leader Chambers-Hunter and his opinions on the activities of Italy in Abyssinia.

“I was very interested in Mr Chambers-Hunter’s views on Italy’s great campaign, but I feel that he errs a trifle on the side of moderation.

It makes my blood boil when I think of the hindrances which have been placed on this great work of extermination, and I was only restrained by silly sentimentality from sending on my signet-ring to that saintly ascetic Il Duce to help him in his great work for civilisation.

The incredible bravery of the Italian airmen cannot be overpraised, considering the immense odds, but it is Marshal Badoglio who will live in history. His great feat of bringing about a series of glorious victories at a loss of a hundred thousand of the enemy to only a paltry thousand of his brave dare-devils marks him as one of the world’s greatest generals and mathematicians.

I remember when the Germans carried out an extermination campaign in their African colonies there was some talk, and the usual busybodies instituted a commission which allowed itself to be fooled by the usual lying stories…is not surprising therefore that misguided people even nowadays, no doubt influenced by lying “Red” propaganda, are squealing because some ****** women and kids happened to be slightly bleached by a harmless form of gas sent out to incapacitate the enemy camels from taking up supplies.”

It was signed  Hero Worshipper.

Asserting its empirical claims to a piece of Africa, Italy had been engaged in converting natives of Adowa to their caring regime through machine gun diplomacy, bombing and spraying poisonous gas from aircraft to kill individuals, poison land and water.

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Fascists and anti-fascists at Aberdeen’s Market Stance 1935

 One evening in July 1937 Chambers-Hunter and Botha and others turned up in a van with four loudspeakers at the Market Stance at the Castlegate. The four speakers were intended to drown out expected shouts and barracking from those against them. The inevitable scuffles broke out and when someone tried to remove the loudspeaker cables he was arrested, along with others. Chambers-Hunter continued to speak for around half an hour under a barrage of missiles of stones, tomatoes and anything else to hand but was scarcely audible over calls for Mosley “dead or alive.”

Once the Fascists had left the Castlegate the crowd turned its attention to the police and their arrested comrades. At police HQ in Lodge Walk the police were ready for them lined up with batons drawn and there was a stand-off with pleas to release the arrested men on bail at the same time the Chief Constable insisted there would be no bail until people moved away from the police station. They did. Back at the Market Stance a large crowd remained  and a collection was taken for bail money but the Chief Constable still refused to bail any of those detained.

Meanwhile a group of women arrived at Lodge Walk with food and drink for the men who they insisted all required special treatment. There were no files concealed in cakes but the men were allowed coffee, sandwiches and rolls provided by the women. One man used his sandwich bag to scribble a note which he hid in the dry lavatory in his cell. Next morning the note went to court along with the accused. As they were leaving the dock he threw the screwed up paper to the public benches but it was picked up by a detective.

Following their court appearance the men were taken to Craiginches prison where the governor tried to intimidate them, according to one of the arrested, Duncan Robertson.

“Stand to attention when you talk to me!” the governor demanded.

“Will I buggery!” came Robertson’s reply.

And he didn’t and the governor didn’t try that again.

A few days later the men were released from Lodge Walk on bail to cheers from a welcoming group waiting outside. One of the detained, Bob Cooney, was carried on shoulders from Lodge Walk to Castle Street where he addressed their supporters. Cooney had been assigned leader of the men by the police who always insisted there must be a leader. In their subsequent court appearance, Cooney was fined £10, being leader, and the others around £3 by Sheriff Laing. The average weekly wage for a skilled man at the time was around £3. Of the nine on trial, two were found not proven and others guilty of obstruction or assaulting the police. In all their fines amounted to £100, a great deal of money for working class heroes.

Following the Battle of Cable Street in London in October 1936 the Westminster government passed a Public Order Act on Jan 1, 1937 which handed greater powers to the police to control demonstrators and enable easier prosecution of hecklers who could be charged with disturbing the peace – a charge frequently employed in Aberdeen by fascists confronted by opposition so providing them with free rein to promote their propaganda unhindered and unchallenged for any who dared shout out could be pointed at and duly arrested with the prospect of being fined a whole week’s pay.

On 23rd October 1937 eight Aberdonians were before the sheriff on charges of acting in a disorderly manner at a meeting of fascists at Woodside. The public benches were filled with their cheering supporters who received a warning from the sheriff. Outside the court the fascists were booed and jeered and given police protection. 

And so the cat-and-mouse game between Left and Right continued with the Left always the ones sent to jail or fined.

Northeast fascists declared they had considerable support in Scotland – for example 200 members by 1933 in Motherwell. In order to boost their numbers Chambers-Hunter and Botha worked tirelessly taking their message to Inverness, Banchory, Kemnay, Inverurie, Forres, Peterhead, Turriff, Oldmeldrum and Stonehaven as well as Aberdeen.

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Scenes at the Market Stance where the BUF tried to speak 1937

In February 1937 the BUF were again at the Music Hall where the main speaker was their National Organiser in Scotland, Richard Plathen. Admission was by ticket only, sold by younger members. Local communists managed to buy a few before their ruse was discovered and a block placed on them obtaining more but the young fascists, not being over-burdened with sense, left the ticket box for a short time but long enough for the Communists to get to it and help themselves. The result was plenty Communist and Socialist comrades were able to find their way into the meeting despite a general warning from the police to the Left to stay away.

The evening began as it ended – in uproar. Around 80% of the audience were hostile to the fascists and they didn’t hold back from expressing their disapproval of the BUF; singing and chanting that familiar refrain -“One, two, three, four…” to which the fascists reacted by singing God Save the King – provoking in turn a hearty rendering of the Internationale accompanied by the waving of a red flag by Communist George Esson.

And so throughout the thirties clashes between Left and Right continued with no real violence other than pushing and shoving, a great deal of noise and forceful expression of opinion. But one Sunday in July 1937 around 50 Communists interrupted a BUF rally at the beach Links. During the ensuing rammy missiles and punches were thrown and a vehicle damaged. This resulted in several weel kent faces among the Communist fraternity being picked up later at home and instructed to appear at an identity parade at Lodge Walk the following day. One who wasn’t obliged to go was prominent anti-fascist campaigner Bob Cooney who later in the year was to head off to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. However on the day of the Links rammy he was in Glasgow but that did not prevent him insisting he take part in the line-up – muddling up the order of men arranged by the police. Being such a familiar face he was immediately recognised by one of the fascists there to identify the man who allegedly assaulted his brother at the Links. He pointed at Cooney and insisted he was the assailant. As this was patently untrue the others in the line-up were allowed to leave after receiving a warning from the police to refrain from hindering fascists in the future, again. Cooney claimed he was approached and asked why he changed the position of men in the line-up which made some suspect an arrangement had been made to get a particular man or men.

On the fifth anniversary of the founding of the British Union of Fascists Aberdeen was chosen as the venue for their Scottish conference. As their van with delegates from Perthshire, Fifeshire and Edinburgh made its way along Union Street towards the Market Stance the waiting crowd surged forward and succeeded in pushing the vehicle backwards for a short distance. The police were ordered to draw their batons and the van, its windows protected by wire, was able to complete its journey. A local paper described the crowd being “in a very noisy mood.” At the Market Stance Chambers-Hunter attempts to address the gathering were once again silenced despite his use of loudspeakers. The newspapers reported that little could be heard of his speech as it was drowned out by the ‘red rabble.’ Once again the fascists appealed to the police for protection before abandoning their pitch. As for the anti-fascists they met later on, in the Music Hall, at a high spirited meeting at which the principal speaker was the Communist Willie Gallacher.

The role of the police handling demonstrators was raised in the council chamber in October of 1937 with claims that they assaulted people in Aberdeen.

“The police seemed to run amok”

“The police concentrated on free speech for the fascists and threw overboard a score of other…rights of the public. Nothing mattered but to preserve the right of free speech for the fascists.”

(P&J 7 Oct 1937)

A complaint went to the Secretary of State for Scotland but was taken no further. In defence of police action it has to be said without their presence it is likely there would have been more injuries, to fascists at least, for tensions and tempers ran hot and wherever the fascists turned up their vehicles were set-upon and rocked, usually fairly gently. On one notable occasion, however, a fascist meeting had been arranged in Torry and people were again out in force with lots of yelling, fireworks and missiles. The police were also on hand but interestingly refrained from intervening until the crowd had toppled the fascists’ car was onto its side.

The worm had turned. Without police protection the fascists had to face up to the anger they provoked among Aberdonians. Unable to get to a public spot to speak from in Torry because of the crush of a crowd of around 6,000 the fascists slipped along Sinclair Road and stopped at a coal yard, misguidedly. Pieces of coal became missiles to be hurled their way. The coal yard was also private property and the owner complained to the police who ordered them off. A furious Chambers-Hunter turned on the police inspector -“You bastard!” which might have proved unwise. But Chambers-Hunter was nothing if not thrawn.

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Mosley visits Aberdeen

Oswald Mosley visited Aberdeen only once, on 22nd November 1937 where a luncheon was given in his honour in the Caledonian Hotel. The police blocked off the whole street to prevent demonstrators getting close to him. However, Aberdeen’s Communists were aye on the ba’.  Painted in huge letters across the road, in full visibility of guests at the hotel read the message FASCISTS OUT

SIR OSWALD MOSLEY SAYS “FINE”

 ran the Press & Journal headline

NOT PERTURBED BY ABERDEEN’S YELLING CROWD OF ANTI-FASCISTS

“Fine” the only comment Mosley is recorded as saying of his visit to Aberdeen.

The report claimed over 100 Aberdeen Fascists attended the luncheon. It is doubtful they all came from Aberdeen given the paltry numbers involved in their other activities but presumably were members who travelled near and far to touch the cloth of their leader.

The newspaper also reported the luncheon was disturbed by “continuous derisive shouts and the singing of the “Internationale” coming from Union Terrace, where a large crowd of anti-Fascists had assembled. Mosley’s address to the faithful centred on the wickedness of international Jewery and the fascist ambition to create a self-contained empire. At their lunch the fascists were subjected to catcalls which most ignored although one young woman did return the fascist salute.

Later, greater numbers gathered, having finished their work, to vent their feelings against the visiting fascists. When Mosley emerged from the Party’s base on Union Street he was faced by a “yelling and gesticulating crowd” and as he waited to for a flunky to open his car door he smiled towards those booing and gesticulating.  

In July 1938

Anti-Fascist crowd demonstrate

Police Escort for Witnesses

Five Sentenced at Trial

 “The trial on charges of breach of the peace and assault of five Aberdeen anti-Fascists, two of whom were sent to prison and the others fined, ended with a remarkable demonstration of anti-Fascist feeling at the door of the Aberdeen Sheriff Courthouse last night.”

The five told the court they had no religious beliefs and affirmed instead of taking the oath. They denied the charges, maintaining provocation by the Fascists who had shouted “One day Hitler and Franco would conquer the world, Hail Hitler, Join the Blackshirts, Keep Out Moscow and gave the Nazi salute.”

Lots of noise in the courtroom resulted in Sheriff Dallas warning that he would clear them from the court if they didn’t keep quiet. Witnesses came and went and the accused were found guilty.

Convicted were George Shepherd a salesman of Roslin Street and John Winton a sawyer of King’s Crescent both sent to jail for 30 days; Alexander Shepherd, son of George, also a salesman of College Bounds was fined £15 or 30 days in prison; Sydney Shepherd, labourer, of Bloomfield Road, another son of George Shepherd along with George Esson, labourer, of Chronicle Lane were each fined £3 each or 10 days in prison.

When their accusers William Keith Abercromby Jopp Chambers-Hunter and Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha of Tillery, Udny Station and Jane Imlah whose address was given at the headquarters of the BUF in Aberdeen on Union Street left the courthouse they were confronted by a large crowd, fists raised in the Communist salute shouting “Down with Fascism.” As the demonstrators surged forward the three fascists retreated into the building before being given police protection back to their car.  

An appeal against these sentences was made to the Secretary of State for Scotland but went nowhere.

In October 1938 Chambers-Hunter addressed Aberdeen Round Table Club.

“The doctrine of Fascism simply was, “‘United we stand, divided we fall'” and went on to condemn international finance for skewing economies explaining Hitler was hated by international finance run by Jews for trying to break free of the “net of borrowing and lending” in order to make his country self-sufficient.

“Twenty-four years ago, if the Kaiser had walked up Union Street on a Saturday afternoon he would probably have been lynched. If the poor old gentleman were to do so now, probably no one would recognise him, or if they would not worry about him.”

He told his audience he had fought during the war in the Cameroons and German Togoland and the natives there were treated as well as in Ceylon where he’d also lived as a planter and in fact the natives of Cameroons and Togoland were “devoted to their German masters.”

Which I suppose is why the Germans required an army to protect their interests there. To explain further – the extent of German popularity in East Africa can be illustrated by the Maji Maji War fought over resentment of enforced labour, heavy taxes and violent repression responsible for destroying the lives of so many and devastating the area’s social fabric. German imperialists adopted a scorched-earth policy of punishment and control along with horrendous brutality and cruelty – much like, it should be said, practised by other western  powers to their shame.  

Germany, along with other European states, undertook what was known as the Scramble for Africa – carving up the continent to stake their claims to areas they regarded ripe for exploitation, to appropriate and control their colony’s natural wealth and resources from precious metals to bananas, cacao, coffee and cotton.

And so for years the clashes between Left and Right were unrelenting. Then something happened – as atrocities carried out in the name of fascism across the world came to be taken more seriously mainly for the threat fascism posed to the UK so support for fascism began to lose its vigour. In 1939 Aberdeen’s own fascist Chambers-Hunter retired from politics presumably exhausted from the uphill struggles he encountered on each occasion he went public and in addition he had spent huge sums of his own money supporting the BUF. In June that year Chambers-Hunter’s country house at Udny burnt down.

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Driven out of his home by fire Chambers-Hunter, his wife and Mrs Botha

As for the Left there ranks were split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet non-aggression Pact) signed between Germany and the USSR in August 1939. At the start of the Second World War Stalin argued it was not an anti-fascist struggle but an imperialist war but then came Operation Barbarossa when the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 and dragged it into the conflict. At that point the Left forgot their differences to defeat the fascist states of Germany and Italy. Of course the Left had already been destroyed in Spain where a form of fascism survived until 1975 … at least.  

Sources: Aberdeen newspapers; Fascism in Aberdeen – Street Politics in the 1930s (Aberdeen People’s Press.)

 

February 3, 2018

Gordon’s of Alford – more than a local shop or Gordon’s of Alford versus the Luftwaffe

Gordon’s of Alford is no more.

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James A Gordon started out by taking over William Coutt’s shop in Alford

From a washer to a high fashion, from flower seeds to carpets, from a teaspoon to a wardrobe the place to go was Gordon’s of Alford.

This was a business that was innovative and ambitious. The intrepid Gordons took the road – rural roads, unrecognisable as roads to most, their familiar maroon vans stuffed to the gunnels with goods destined for Durness at the top of the mainland and across the sea to Skye. Their fleet of transport was impressive. It was Gordon’s who started up the first self-service (pre-supermarket) shop in this area.

 

Watch a potted history of Gordon’s of Alford

James Gordon opened his first store in Alford in Aberdeenshire in 1923 and from modest beginnings the business expanded, proving highly successful and attracting not only locals but enticing people out from the city of Aberdeen and everywhere round and about – for it sold nearly everything at one time.

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Many’s a time we’ve been in Aberdeen and come away having failed to get whatever in the likes of B&Q, got back home, nipped into Gordon’s and found it there. This is one store that is going to be missed.

It was back in the 1930s that Gordon’s first drapery van took the shop out to farms in outlying areas in this agricultural part of the world. Twice a year Gordon’s made the run over the west and north, in April and October – providing the west’s first fashion show with professional models from Aberdeen. Women, not only in the Vale but right across the west came to rely on Gordon’s for their annual replacement corsets.

During World War II a couple of members of the Gordon staff were in Aberdeen picking up goods when the air raid sirens sounded. The city emptied; people heading off to shelter and abandoning Union Street – except for a solitary Gordon’s of Alford van with two stalwarts on board determinedly driving along a deserted Union Street as fast as their wheels could turn. And make it home they did – in a clash between the Luftwaffe and Gordon’s of Alford – the men of Aberdeenshire triumphed.

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The Old Howe of Alford 

January 24, 2018

Smear For Smear: a call for women to take the smear test

The statistics are impressive: 5,000 women’s lives saved annually; 94.8% tests are negative (EngNHS figs) 75% tests prevent cancer developing.

BUT

1 in 4 women don’t take up invitation to be screened, a depressing figure which rises to 1 in 3 for young women between 25 and 29 with fewer young women now choosing to be screened for cervical cancer.

There is something counter-intuitive about this trend given the growing openness towards all things sexual that young women are so coy over a procedure that takes moments and may prevent a tragically early death.

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Dr Elizabeth Macgregor

Aberdeen pioneered programmed cervical screening back in the 1960s. This progressive practice was one of many aspects of celebrated care for women’s health undertaken in the city under the remarkable Dr Dugald Baird which included access to birth control, pre-natal and post-natal care, childbirth and sexual health. Baird asked a young medical researcher, Dr Elizabeth Macgregor who had joined him in 1958, to set up screening for women in the city and the surrounding shire and to collect research statistics on its efficacy. This was in 1960, nearly 60 years ago.

Then as now cervical cancer was a major killer of young women, one that creeps up with few distinctive symptoms.

Dr Macgregor’s inspiring work in Aberdeen was based on that of the American Dr Georges Papanicolaou whose screening test in the 1940s for human papillomavirus (HPV) was known as a Pap smear. Dr Macgregor’s approach was meticulous; testing and carefully recording the impact of screening on the women under her care. Under her a systematic public health programme was introduced to tackle cervical cancer, in Aberdeen this targeted poorer women who had fewer opportunities to access health care.  Patients were invited to her clinic and through a punchcard system recalled for follow-up smears. Dr Macgregor found there was a dramatic drop in the incidences of cervical cancer in the northeast as a result of her screening clinics despite some reluctance by a number of GPs to participate – Dr Macgregor went around the northeast carrying out and analysing these smear tests herself.

In the first five years of her work a huge decrease in cervical cancer rates in northeast Scotland were recorded. Her published outcomes proved so impressive others followed her lead made all the easier through Dr Macgregor’s bank of research evidence but it was not until the late 1980s her practices were widely adopted.

In 2016 the age range for cervical screening in Scotland was changed from women between 20-60 years to those between 25 and 64. Women up to 49 are re-screened every three years and older women from 50 to 64 are re-tested every 5 years (those above this age group being followed-up when medically advisable and similarly with women younger than 25.)  

Since Dr Macgregor’s time vaccines have been developed to protect against types 16 and 18 HPV which are the main causes of cervical cancers and in 2008 Scotland introduced a programme of school-based vaccination for cervical cancer for 12 and 13 year olds. As a result early signs of these potential cancers have almost halved.

The success of the school vaccine is clear with 90% uptake among Scotland’s girls making it among the highest in the world.

Women in this country are fortunate to be able to have this dangerous disease caught early – and for free. Women in other parts of the world must be envious wondering why anyone would not jump at the opportunity.

Women of all ages keep safe – take advantage of the smear test.

 

 

 

December 19, 2017

The Whip Hand

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Prison warder with a cat-o-nine-tails from Peterhead Prison Museum

On January 2, 1891 it was reported in an Aberdeen newspaper that the town’s whipper had resigned after his home was besieged by angry protesters.  

It was New Year and it may have been the occasion with all that involves that emboldened Aberdeen’s citizens to vent their disapproval not-so-much of the man but his chosen occupation. Whatever the stimulus that attracted a crowd to his door that particular night their actions unnerved him sufficiently that the town’s whipper got to thinking about his job and when he had done thinking he decided to quit it.

His appointment a year earlier attracted the attention of the London Echo which described his role as more akin to barbarous practices of earlier and ruder times. In response a Glasgow newspaper ridiculed the London Echo‘s reporter for getting, well – the wrong end of the stick – and imagining Aberdeen loons (boys) were being strapped to grills to be lashed to within “an inch of their lives by some brawny and brutal giant wielding the cat-o-nine-tails.”

The Echo was quoted in the piece –

“If the hardened burglar sinks into deeper degradation through the lash, what effect,” this tearful Echo exclaims, “will it not have upon the delicate and impressionable mind of a lad?”

The Glasgow reporter reassured the London Echo its imagination went far beyond the truth. It was pointed out that schools used corporal punishment through caning and there was no intention to treat Scottish youth to immeasurable agony and disgrace but only to extend the type of punishment commonly applied in schools to municipal whipping rooms. The alternative of a fine, the reporter argued, only punished parents not the lad.

Many will remember more recent controversies over the birching of youths, notably on the Isle of Man, for misdemeanours too inconsequential for custodial sentence. Edinburgh’s whipper was busy as late as 1927 birching around six boys aged between ten to fourteen accused of stealing money from gas meters and other articles. One lad was given twelve strokes while the rest got up to six.

At the Borders town of Hawick a public whipper was sought in 1889 when 17 boys were brought before the police court on charges which included the theft of turnips, handkerchiefs, a hammer, a tea-cup and maliciously breaking a ladder. Casting an eye towards parents and teachers Hawick’s magistrates insisted that if they could not restrain the laddies then the police and magistrates would have to take them in hand.

Whipping is the act of using an instrument to strike a person or animal to cause pain as punishment or instil fear to teach a lesson or encourage compliance. If I might divert a little – who would be a whipper? A bully or inadequate type of person surely and there’s a fine line between legally sanctioned whipping and violent assault against a person.

In 1868 in Milwaukee Wisconsin a man called Downer charged his neighbours with assault and intent to kill after he was attacked by them. He claimed he had been sitting peaceably at home when a group of women broke in and without a word set about him; striking him with clubs, sticks and guns. He was left soaked to the skin, his clothes torn, his face and neck badly scratched and missing clumps of head hair and whiskers and he angrily demanded the women be arrested and punished. In the subsequent court hearing a witness told how that evening Downer was indulging in his ‘usual amusement’ of whipping his wife when neighbours were alerted by her desperate cries and responded armed with a mop, a broom, fire shovel and pair of tongs. They struck out at Downer mopping his face with dirty water and beating him. He fought back punching at least one woman which only enraged the rest to thrash him more soundly till he was the one crying out and begging not to be killed.

Back in the UK there were references to the distinctive coats or robes worn by town whippers but I haven’t come across actual descriptions of any which is a pity as I would like to have an accurate picture of the men whose task it was to lash 18th century scallywags who cared so little for their passengers they carelessly let go when carrying sedan chairs propelling the unfortunate traveller inside tumbling out and meriting, according to the custom of the time, a sound thrashing.

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Tripod to hold prisoner receiving a flogging from Peterhead Prison Museum

The 1880s appears to have been pivotal to changing attitudes towards whipping. At Peterhead’s fine prison museum there is a contraption that was used in the 19th century to flog prisoners with the cat-o-nine-tails. A designated prison warder took on this role until public pressure ended the practice and in Aberdeen the last whipper was engaged in September 1885. The following year magistrates tried to have all whipping or birching carried out in prisons because of the reluctance of the public to take on the role but the prison authorities resisted and the law was changed to allow the police birch youths in police cells or court rooms.

 

In August of 1886 Exeter was the last cathedral in England to take on a dog whipper and so mercifully vanished another ancient occupation used to keep dogs from wandering into open churches and devouring communion wafers, or whatever. It was in the 1880s that the British Navy notorious for its floggings largely gave up the punishment although it wasn’t formally removed from the statute books until 1949. I suppose schools were the last stronghold of the whipper in a physical sense with the term whipping giving way to birching or belting and punishment confined to particular institutions.

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The Lochgelly, belt, strap, skud, tawse

In Scottish schools the 2-foot long piece of coiled leather known as the tawse, strap, belt, skud or Lochgelly (the town where they were made) continued whipping by another name and on another part of the body, except perhaps in public schools. The strap was banned in state schools in 1987 while public schools hung onto it, or a cane, for a further ten years. The ban came after years of campaigning against corporal punishment in schools. In 1961 Aberdeen’s redoubtable Trades Council secretary James Milne, in response to a council plan to permit only headmasters administer the strap, said corporal punishment in schools was no business of the Trades Council but that of teachers alone. Headteachers complained they were to be made into public whippers – turned into ogres who would be feared instead of regarded with affection and trust by their pupils. The Trades Council called on the education committee to impose a headmaster only rule as first step towards abolition of the strap in city schools and suggested parents should be forewarned when their child was due to be strapped – a view rejected as daft by at least one headteacher for drawing out the punishment.

For those of us who don’t saddle up to terrorise our native fauna whipping now conjures up its symbolic form – in the Westminster parliament. There MPs are frequently ‘whipped’ to vote along party lines although there is no physical assault involved, as far as I’m aware, more the application of something akin to strong persuasion and even blackmail. The parliamentary whipper-in was initially appointed to make sure enough recalcitrant members of parliament would abandon their appointments with horse racing, women and bottles of claret to ensure sufficient were available to carry on the duties of government. Without the whipper-in it was doubted parliament would meet one day in seven during the earlier 19th century. Whippers-in made it their business to know what was happening in London’s social scene – gatherings and parties; and who was invited where. London clubs around Westminster were often the first port of call when bodies were required to back a vote.

“The whipper had to get to know new members and flatter and cajole them if they were gastronomic he dines him, operatic then attends opera with him, the sport lover, foxhunter, literati, Soyer with the epicure, John and Jesus men of Exeter Hall with the devout member, admirer of women with others, informed on cotton twist with the manufacturer, of guano with top boots and breeches… he lures radicals with a ticket for the Speaker’s dinner, introduces him to Court in a bobwig, sword and ruffles and makes him a member of some safe committee, like that upon petitions – after a session or two he is no longer a flaming radical but a mere whig, a ministerial driveller and a safer voter than even Lord Tom Noddy.”

The parliamentary whipper had learnt the art of subtle people-handling at the smooth and oily school. And for their great service to the state the whipper-in might expect fine reward – a plum job in a position quiet, well paid and respectable or a sturdy pension. 

Whipper-in was first applied in parliament when in May 1769 that giant of 18th century politics Edmund Burke referred to Treasury officials ‘whipping in’ members for the final parliament of the session. The term caught on and was soon abbreviated to whips.

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Captain Edward Ramsden convicted of animal cruelty

The whipper-in title came from fox hunting as I hinted above – but you probably knew that and to Westminster’s shame it still hasn’t loosened its attachment to that particular appalling pursuit. One whipper-in who caught my attention when researching this piece was one Captain Edward Ramsden, master of the South Durham hunt, who in 1935 was found guilty of cruelty to animals after he entered a house in pursuit of a terrified fox that had sought shelter there. The conquering hero emerged dragging the fox by a leash wrapped around its neck and tally-ho’d to the hounds who set upon the distraught animal tearing it to pieces. He was fined £10. Personally I would have had him publicly whipped.

 

 

November 20, 2017

Lady Gordon Cathcart one of the last of Scotland’s tyrants

It takes a certain type of personality icily detached from common humanity to be at  ease with plucking people from all that they hold dear and is familiar to them and transplant them like so many cabbage plants into an area of foreign soil with nothing to sustain them.

Scarth family from Scotland

Scottish settlers in Canada

Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart was one such woman. Famous and notorious in equal measure she wielded power like so many demi-gods of the 18th and 19th centuries in turning people off their hereditary lands; populations with more claim to the land than her. Her tyranny was one of the last of its kind in Scotland. She died in 1932 and not a moment too soon.

Cathcart came to own chunks of the Hebrides through her marriage to Captain John Gordon of the Cluny estate in Aberdeenshire (a long way from the Western Isles.) He had inherited parts of the Hebrides from his father who bought up islands from the Chief of Clanranald in 1838. The Gordons were fabulously wealthy chiefly from the several slave estates they owned in the West Indies.

Up to their necks in the slave trade the Gordons were represented in parliament, for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis by John senior, a Tory. This John, unsurprisingly opted to see something of the world, and get paid for it so he joined the military. In Egypt he admired many of its ancient monuments and with characteristic humility carved his name on several of them – the Dendara temple was graffitied by him in 1804. He did the same at the temple of Edfu, and at Esna, and at Gebel el-Silsila and in Thebes at the temple at Karnak and at the pylon of the Luxor temple, and the great temple of Medinet Habu and in the mortuary temple of Ramesses II, and on several tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and at Kom Ombo at the Isis temple at Philae, and at the Tomb of Paheri – on both its east and west walls. In fact he was the first to vandalise the tomb.

The vandal John Gordon

Fast forward to his inheritance of both Cluny Castle and estates and riches from his uncle’s six properties in Tobago. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833 and slave owners were very well compensated. Gordon’s 1400 slaves proved to be a good money earner when the UK government paid him nearly £25,000 which would work out around £100,000,000 today in compensation for the loss of their human chattels. He didn’t require much of that to buy up North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra plus estates closer to home (not Weymouth but Aberdeenshire) of Midmar, Kebbaty and Shiels, Banffshire, Inverness-shire, Midlothian and Nairnshire.

Like so many of today’s British super-wealthy this Gordon senior invested substantial part of his fortune overseas for he was notoriously greedy as well as being a disreputable rogue who evicted 3,000 tenants with centuries-long ties to the land. Those who resisted were handcuffed and forced aboard Atlantic-bound ships. Some thought they might run off and hide in caves but were hunted down by men and dogs. When homes were pulled to pieces islanders propped up blankets on sticks for shelter but these were taken from them. Some concealed themselves under fishing boats but they, too, were exposed and their boats destroyed. The choice to stay or go was not offered to the Gordon tenants. They were regarded as vermin, and not dissimilar to the Tobago slaves, property to be dispensed with however the laird liked.  

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Benbecula

All sorts of promises were made to cajole people to leave the Highlands and Islands. Promises of a grand life awaiting emigrants but as with most promises they turned out to be nothing but lies. There was not work, nor land for them all. Ripped away from everything they had known Scottish Islanders were reduced to begging. Scottish child migrants were badly undernourished in this land of plenty. The Reverend Norman MacLeod reported seeing them with shrivelled legs, hollow eyes and swollen bellies. For the privilege of slowly starving to death Gordon’s islanders were forced to pay for their imposed migration by this the wealthiest ‘commoner’ in Scotland.

John Gordon far from doing anything positive with his vast fortune proved to be an utter scoundrel. He attracted the reputation as one of the most hated men in Scottish history but his name has faded from our collective memory so I thought it time to revive his notoriety.

Motivated by greed and vanity he earned himself a reputation at the time for his brutal treatment of the islanders of the Hebrides. He wanted them out and so they were sent packing – lock, stock and barrel the populations of the islands were given no choice – no generous compensation from a sympathetic government for them – if only they had been slave owners -but instead they were booted out of their homes, their crofts, and onto ships that took them to Canada to survive or fail in the strange environment where a different language was spoken for these were entirely Gaelic speaking people. Those who survived the long weeks at sea had to get by or sink.

John Gordon senior died without any legitimate heirs and several dead illegitimate ones bar one, John, husband of Lady Emily. He was as vicious as his father in his treatment of the islanders and he, too, left no legitimate heir and so his wife inherited everything. She shared his malicious temperament and she persecuted the poorest in these lands with the same vigour as her obnoxious husband. Their contribution of clearing and re-settling people was, at the time, seen as both an outrage and an impressive contribution to empire building.

Lady Emily Gordon fairly quickly remarried and she added Cathcart to her list of names, taken from her new husband Sir Reginald Cathcart of Sunninghill, Berkshire in England.

The banished populations of the Hebrides disembarked on the northeast coast of Canada and straightaway had to erect shelters, initially of turf, as well as try to find a means of providing food and income for their families. Food prices were extortionately high in the area – eggs sold for one dollar per dozen, flour was six dollars for one hundred pounds, sugar cost a dollar for four pounds and salt ten cents a pound. Mostly farmers several Scots tried to re-establish croft life digging land to create smallholdings around Moosomin in Saskatchewan. Land that was sold to them for $2.50 an acre by the Canadian Pacific Railway company who lay claim to it. And who just happened to own shares in the Canadian Pacific? None other than Lady Gordon Cathcart who also held stock in Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company. As an investor in the potential of Canada Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart had strong reasons for sending enforced labour to this part of the empire. Bad doesn’t get close to describing parasites such as the Lady Gordon Cathcart aka Lady Bountiful.

They made do, these hardy souls, torn from their lands while the Gordons clung onto their vast estates and Castle Cluny itself. At Moosomin the Scots deposited there were said to have taken the Scotchman’s Trail to the place that would become their new home. They had virtually nothing to get established with and turned old herring barrels into sleighs so they could move around in the deep snows that fell in this inhospitable land. The woollen clothing that kept them warm in Scotland was no use in this harsh climate and they took to wearing animal skins in winter for protection.

And what of the natives of this dumping ground? They were Chipewyan, Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, Atsina and Sioux. Their hold on the lands they had lived on for generations was no more secure than that of the Scottish Highlanders and like them they were banished and confined to designated areas. Part of the territory Lady Cathcart targeted for her cleared people was known as Assiniboia, the name taken from the First Nation peoples whose land it once was before being purloined by the government and in turn sold off to settlers.  

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Assiniboine Woman c 1900

 

 

Those recent settlers from the Hebrides hewed the untamed soil to establish their farms. To retain their newly acquired property they had to reside on it for at least six months annually over the first three years. Winters were brutal, far worse than anything known to them in Scotland and they were forced to move into towns during the worst months when snows made remaining on their farms impossible, sometimes taking their basic shacks with them. Winter started around the end of November and lasted until around April. Out of necessity Scottish islanders learned to skate, toboggan, to get around on snow shoes and by sleigh, originally as we’ve seen converted herring barrels.

Everything froze. Solid blocks of milk were broken up by hammer and chisel and sold by the pound. Live stock had to be shut up for the whole of winter and fed from hay gathered from the prairie. Traditional Scottish woollen clothing was fairly useless at keeping out the cold and so the Scots took to wearing animal skins and furs.

Frostbite was rife. One man, a Jewish rabbi, (not from the islands) undertook a journey of two miles in a blizzard with only cotton socks and moccasins on his feet. Sixteen hours later he was found close to death and his legs had to be amputated.

There were regulations imposed. Alcohol was regulated and mostly confined to the sick, although I imagine it was available to wealthier people in the area. A government permit was required if the need was desperate, ie illness, and the permit allowed the recipient to get liquor for up to six months. Inevitably this policy led to an upsurge in sick claims, especially from young men. When that failed several decided their only recourse was to produce their own booze through illicit distillation – of which there is a good strong tradition in Scotland.

Newcomers found the communities welcoming and traditional British class distinctions tended to fall away. People became less subservient. There is a nice account of a young girl from Benbecula who discovered being a servant didn’t suit her and so after three days she told her mistress she wouldn’t wait on her any longer and off she went. Her attitude chimed in  with members of First Nation tribes who resisted being constrained by European master/servant relationships and the trappings of European dress.

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It has to be said that scraping a living in the Hebrides was no easy task but then neither was it in the wild uncultivated part of Canada many found themselves. When some neighbouring islanders took to boats and landed on the empty acres of Vatersay they took cattle, sheep and ponies with them to set up farms there, earning themselves the nickname of Vatersay Raiders and were duly thrown into prison for daring to defy Britain’s property rights and squatting on Gordon Cathcart’s land. They could have chosen to cross the Atlantic to Canada or America but they wanted to stay in Scotland. The press, fawning towards the wealthy and powerful as ever, demonised the squatters on land Lady Bountiful herself had described as barren and inhospitable with no good water supply and where even potatoes would not grow. Still, she liked the place enough to hold onto it and fought those who tried to make a go of farming it. She demanded the Trespass Act be employed to defend her property from the audacious pirates who had taken ‘violent possession of it.’

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The Vatersay Raiders

The matter was raised in the Commons where her supporters and detractors stood up to defend or attack her for her behaviour towards tenants. She was described as a harsh and inconsiderate landlord but jumping to her defence was Lord Tweedmouth, First Lord of the Admiralty, who claimed she had done great work for encouraging work in Scotland and

“It was a monstrous proposal from men not even in the status of crofters to cross the sea to Vatersay, which was not included under the operation of the Crofters Act, and which was in occupation of a tenant, to take possession, and put their cattle upon it.”

In 1908 she took the squatters to court to reinstate her empty land – and to punish them, of course. A number were tried in Edinburgh and jailed. There were references to Scotland’s ‘semi-Celtic populace’ who, given half a chance, would spread the contagion of lawlessness if not controlled. She was accused of being an unprincipled owner intent on getting the government to purchase her property.

The disgraceful antics of Lady Gordon Cathcart attracted so much public attention the government did indeed buy the island in 1909 and divided it up into 60 working crofts.  

Again in 1914 questions were asked in the House of Commons over compensation for her losses – the goose and duck shoots, value of coastal products (seaware and tangle – seaweed kelp was a valuable resource for making into iodine and soda for the manufacture of soap and glass) to the tune of £13000.

The Union with England of 1707 afforded opportunities for lairds to transform their estates from places where people lived and reciprocated services to land that could be exploited for new-found commerce – game shoots, grazing for cattle to provide meat for the English market, sheep to provide wool for clothing for the domestic market but more importantly to provide uniforms for the military in the never-ending wars Britain was involved in. Mutton, too, from sheep and not forgetting kelp. The barren Highlands turned out to be an area rich for development, like any other colony and while the native people were not slaves as the West Indians were they were helpless, nonetheless, when it came to deciding their futures. And, er, she had a golf course built at Askernish on South Uist – make of that what you will.

 Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart’s character was rarely far from public scrutiny. Still she had many of her class ready to come to her defence. Unionist MP Sir George Younger, member for Ayr, rejected accusations that she had forcibly cleared crofters off their lands (and there are still unionist revisionist historians that will applaud Younger’s view that the Hebridean crofters voluntarily left their homes and boarded ships for Canada. Some would have but the majority did not.) Younger claimed Lady Cathcart’s tenants had their passages paid by her which was not true. Yes some received a loan but it had to be repaid. Younger told the House of Commons the former crofters were prospering in their Canadian homes and were grateful to Cathcart for the opportunity of moving there. Not everyone in the House was convinced. One asked if she had offered to transport the geese to Canada, or indeed Sir George Younger himself.

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Lady Cathcart had written to newspapers the year before attempting to salvage her reputation for being a nasty piece of work, insisting that in 1883 she ‘assisted a number of crofter families from the Islands of Benbecula and South Uist to emigrate to Canada, where their well-being and prosperity are assured, and they have repaid all the advances which I made to them to settle them on their homesteads.’ She produced a letter written by one of the settlers as part of her defence. It was well-known that Lady Gordon Cathcart was vehemently anti-Catholic and as most of her islanders were Catholic I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions how that might have affected her behaviour aside from her business interests in the northwest territories of Canada, around Regina and Wapella,   

The notorious clearer of people from their homelands Lady Gordon Cathcart of Cluny died at Westgate-on-Sea that well-known Scottish part of Kent at the age of 88yrs. In her will she left £5000 to Princess Helena Victoria “if she will accept it.”

Bet she did.

 

 

 

 

October 26, 2017

Timber Rafting on Scotland’s rivers

 

Spey floaters c 1900

In my blog on the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson there was a reference to the practice of floating timber down river to sawmills to sell on for – shipbuilding, houses, furniture, barrels, cart and carriage wheels, bridges later for mine and railways sleepers  and a host of other uses and it was suggested I write more about this unusual method of transportation, so here goes.

Forests which supplied timber for industry were often some distance from where timber was required. Wood is heavy and awkward to move and before railways and indeed roads in many instances taking great tree trunks, some very old and very very large, was a mammoth task which would have been carried out noisily with much shouting, laughter and not a few oaths uttered in Gaelic, the language spoken by the many of the lumber men who lived in simple wooden shacks which they erected in a matter of hours in each area of forest they worked. Their food was frugal for such physical labour –  doubtless a bowl of brose to begin the day and during working hours they were sustained by bannocks (similar to oatcakes) and cheese  washed down with drams of whisky.

In Scotland, certainly around the rivers Dee and Spey as well as in places around the world, Canada, America, Sweden, Germany the answer was to get these huge logs to a river and let them float downstream where incidentally the value of a felled tree doubled by the time it left a sawmill. Given the sheer bulk and weight concerned a good flow of water was needed and anyone familiar with the Dee will know it isn’t a large river by any stretch and so floating had to be carefully planned to take place in spring when snow melted on the high hills up Deeside or after sufficient rains swelled the river.

Floating timber down the River Dee

St Devenick’s Bridge over the Dee

Floating banks were constructed where the river water was naturally deepest and at these spots the adjoining banks would be cleared of trees and rocks so tree trunks, their boughs and branches having been trimmed off, might be prodded by long poles and rolled down to the water from where they were piled up at the top of the bank. Imagine this hard labour on a freezing cold morning when frosty logs were slippery and hands attempting to shift them numb with cold. Creating open runs for the timber was no easy task for the banks themselves were thick with trees and huge boulders and had to be painstakingly cleared to make slides and even before this part in the process the timbers had to be taken from where they were growing in forests often far afield and up hills closer to the river.

Every stage from tree felling, dressing the tree by stripping of all those unwieldy branches to dragging each trunk to the river bank was carried out by man and horse power. The land wasn’t exactly co-operative for in the 18th and 19th centuries this part of Scotland was dotted with large pools and gigantic boulders, remnants of the last ice age when pieces of rock split, splintered and slid vast distances till finally grinding to a halt in the most awkward places. Tracks, rough drag roads, were cut through forests along which small armies of men and horses trudged with their loads – some so heavy they pushed at them from behind determining the speed of both horse and man. The loss of horse shoes was an everyday occurrence for the going underfoot was so uneven and difficult and with no time to get to a distant blacksmith the foresters learnt to replace shoes so the work could continue without interruption.

At last the river was close and the tree trunks were uncoupled from horse chains and stacked near the slope where the bank dropped to the river in preparation for the float. Certain points and features were used to estimate the depth of water, for example at the Boat of Kincardine when a distinctive large black boulder was submerged floating could begin. At Glen Derry a dam was constructed in 1820 for water to accumulate in preparation for floating timbers.

Floating islands

One by one the stacked trunks were rolled from the top of the riverbank down into the river. There raft men waited waist deep in freezing water to arrange them for the float. Each raft was made up of two halves forming two rows each containing about twenty trees lined up and lashed together with ropes, strung through rings on iron dogs that had been driven into the trunk ends. Where trees were much thinner at one end they might only be strapped together with rope wound around a smaller tree set horizontally and used as a cross spar. Each timber raft had a forward and stern and was roped up to enable the raftsman who would be balanced on top to steer it with an iron pole. It was essential to get this right as the Dee had its share of rough waters – the Falls of Potarch (where one raft rider was drowned in a floating accident and there’s an amusing [sorry] anecdote on this in the chapter Gentlemen Drank Deep in Secret Aberdeen), the Salt Vat at Cairnton and the Mill Rush nearer to Aberdeen.

Floating was a rough, tough, hugely physical and dangerous occupation and liberal imbibing of whisky taken by floaters to see them through their task. They would pull in at each of the riverside inns on their way downstream such as one run by Meggie Davidson, sister of the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson who at one time bought a piece of forest at Glen Derry and had the dam mentioned above built. He hired a squad of men and provided them with ropes, dogs, poles and so on to float down the Dee but at the end of the day he never got paid – but that’s another story. Deeside’s floaters were hard-drinking men and much boozing went on during their stops down river and they whiled away time playing the cairts such as Bawbee Nap, till ready to move on.  

Possibly the best known of the floaters was the artist John Blake Macdonald whose father ran a timber business on Speyside and Macdonald floated there for him but he also did several stints on the Dee. Well-known as a portrait painter his reputation spread among wealthier farmers on Deeside who employed him to paint their portraits.

'Lochaber No More', Prince Charlie Leaving Scotland

John Blake Macdonald’s painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie leaving Scotland, Lochaber No More

Where there were great unwieldy timber rafts on a fast-running river there were dangers not only to life but the bridges in their way. Scotland’s narrow rivers spanned by arched stone bridges were vulnerable to damage in a collision. At Potarch near Kincardine O’Neal a bridge under construction by Alford builder William Minto in 1812 was badly damaged by fast travelling timbers on the Dee. Actually the trees that took down the bridge weren’t bound together and weren’t manned but had been released tree trunks sent in to float down on their own. Because of the risks involved in this practice an act was passed in 1813 to prevent damage to bridges by banning floating of unmanned timbers in certain Scottish rivers and generally controlling floating.

In that entertaining and informative book Memoirs of a Highland Lady, 1797 – 1827 by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus there is a fine description of the number of lumber men involved in logging and floating timber – “a busy scene all through the forest, many rough little horses moving about in every direction, each dragging its load…” and she wrote of a floaters ball in a barn at Christmas with woodsmen and their families, some 100 of them. For hours before the ball men would play a game – the ba’ – an early form of shinty in which piled up plaids set out the goal boxes. The ball began with a meal of beef and mutton followed by a dance with music supplied by fiddlers and thirst quenched by punch made in washing tubs. The thumping noise of the dancers’ feet reportedly heard a mile away.

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It was around 1881 that floating timbers down the River Dee ended for by then there were safer and alternatives means to move the area’s forests.

Just a final word on wood. Apparently the best timber comes from felled trees while wind-blown trees tended not to have the same quality – I imagine but don’t know that a weaker, more sickly tree is easier blown over. When major changes were being made to the land in Scotland during the 18th century under estate owners such as Farquharson on Deeside and most famously Archibald Grant on Donside at Paradise Woods new species of trees were introduced here from abroad. It is thought the first larches brought to these islands, at the beginning of the 18th century, were taken, possibly as seed, from their native Russia and certainly a muckle larch estimated to be some 150 years old was blown down at Invercauld near Braemar in the great gale of 1879. It was bought by David Gray, a cartwright from Aberdeen, who used one of its sides to make a large wagon two feet deep to carry traction engines.

 

 

October 22, 2017

Who owns this landscape? The Braemar poacher who would not be a rich man’s flunkey.

The year is 1843 and on the 25th of August a party of gunmen come upon a corpse; cold and stiff on the moors of Glencairney at Creagan Sgor in the wilds of Glenbuchat, a pointer dog docile at its side.

“Brave Sandy, art thou dead?” Word spread like wildfire through the Highlands.

Sandy – Alexander Davidson – a poacher, famed, renowned, notorious and, aye, a dancer of great reputation had lain down one last time never again to rise up at first light and set out over the springy heather to claim his dinner.  

Sandy was a mountaineer – a mountain man – whose home was the purple heather-clad hills of Scotland. He rejected the habiliments (clothing) of the Sassenach preferring ‘the garb of Old Gaul’ which he would close about him at night under the shelter of a rock or thicket to sleep the sleep of the just, his dog Charlie a quiet and attentive guard.

deer stalking 2

It’s easy to romanticise the poacher of the past and in truth there is a difference between those who took an animal from need and those men and women who take to the hills for the thrill of the kill, a handsome payout for a saddle of venison from a none-too-fussy restaurant owner or in other parts of the world those who indifferently help wipe out whole species for the sheer fun of it or slaughter to satisfy a yearning for horn for remedies or decoration – and I accept some of that is done by very poor people who have few alternatives to scrape a living.  

I like to photograph the graceful roe deer I encounter near here and hate to hear blasts from rifles I know are targeting these little creatures and shake my head when I come across their tiny hooves and discarded hides at a roadside. I’m fairly sure I know someone round here who does this, and it isn’t from want.

Poacher and Dancer

Alexander Davidson was born at Mill of Inver by Crathie (close to Balmoral) in 1792 and as a child was put to learn the art of gamekeeping possibly with Farquharson of Finzean*. Farquharson was a reluctant politician preferring to while away his time taking pot-shots at game on his lands. He was great friends with Lord Kennedy, a fellow ‘sportsman’ by choice who one October (of many) was ‘much amused with a wild boar hunt’ at which he shot both tusks off a fine specimen eventually felled by volleys of shots from his gentlemen companions ‘but so tenacious was he (the boar not Lord Kennedy) of life, that he did not yield it until after receiving six shots through the head and body.’

In a normal week of ‘sport’ Kennedy, Farquaharson and their gentrified mob would bravely slaughter several ‘very fine red deer’ from the safe end of a rifle and at the end of a good season would go on to celebrate at a grand ball in Braemar’s Fife Arms Inn.

Sandy Davidson also loved the thrill of a chase and kill but he had the misfortune to have been born into poverty and not upon a soft bed belonging to a family whose lands and titles came to them because of battles fought long ago or ‘arrangements’ between similarly fortunate families. Having grown up knowing these people Sandy developed a healthy loathing of toadyism and proclaimed he was not designed to doff the cap to the gentry, “sooner than be in any way a flunkey, I’d rather go and beg my bread” – admirable sentiments which upped my opinion of the man, albeit he was a poacher. And being something of a Sabbatarian, though lapsed due to his way of life on the muirs, Sandy Davidson objected to being ordered out to shoot on a Sunday by the laird so turned his back on paid employment as a gamie. Having to live somehow, Sandy – Roch Sanie – turned to smuggling of which opportunities were ample up Deeside and Donside – for venison but mainly for whisky and while his new occupation was fraught with more dangers than that of a rich man’s flunky it was very lucrative and did not involve humiliating himself in the service of another man who regarded himself superior.  

Sandy was fit, well-built and handsome with a ‘finely chiselled face’ and ‘hairy as an ox.’ In summer he dressed himself in a kilt, cotton shirt and thin tartan coat with Forfar brogues on his feet and when winter came he changed into trousers; a style of clothing he adopted out of patriotism to Scotland he explained and possibly for that same reason he generally spoke the native Gaelic although his English was very good. Gaelic was the language of the glens up Deeside until the ’45 and the Union of Parliaments determinedly set about undermining it by insisting on English being spoken in schools until most traces of it, bar place names, were near completely eliminated.   

Sandy was also renowned as a dancer; a graceful dancer with great lightness of feet and wouldn’t that be an advantage in a poacher? His Highland reels and other dances won him prizes at Highland Games and competitions around Scotland including the Caledonian Hunt Club in Edinburgh, an organisation designed to preserve Highland culture – dance and games – after decades of attempts by government to snuff it out.

At a time when Deeside’s forests provided vast amounts of timber for building and ships felled tree trunks were dragged to the banks of the River Dee strapped together in great rafts and floated down river with men on board to provide timber for Aberdeen’s shipbuilding yards. Sandy Davidson leased a section of forest from the Earl of Fife at Glen Derry and hired men to help with the treacherous river journey but this attempt to earn a legal living came to nought when the Earl of Fife was made bankrupt and failed to pay Sandy.

Having been burned once too often by the titled and wealthy estate owners Sandy picked up his bag and gun and for 20 years roamed the Highlands as a ‘free forester’ of ancient times claiming privilege of the unalienable right of a free-born Scot.

Each March found him fishing the best salmon pools on the rivers Dee and Spey and fearlessly he would walk into the water, up to his neck, irrespective of the cold and wait till he caught something or it became clear he would catch nothing.

Charlie was trained to remain quiet at the approach of strangers for the last thing Sandy Davidson wanted was to alert a gamie of his hiding place when he was in possession of a bag filled with hare or fowl. But one time Charlie did his job too well and Sandy was discovered fast asleep in the heather by a laird who demanded his name.

“My name is Alexander Davidson; what is your name?”

“My name,” replied the other, “is George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch, and I require you to follow me.”

Sandy was duly taken to court and fined £5. In retaliation Sandy made sure he poached the moors of Ballindalloch thoroughly after that.

He was polite and his manner encouraged the gentry to treat him with more care than they might otherwise but their laws were there to protect their property so they wouldn’t let him away with taking anything that had a price. On his ‘annual tour’ around estates he would sometimes approach a big house and ask permission to cross the land, to keep to a straight line and only kill what he required. Any laird who refused him could expect him to take his revenge in bagging as many animals and birds as he was able for cross the estate he would irrespective of an officious owner.

Said to be fearless, generous and kind-hearted Sandy Davidson became the stuff of legend.

His foot was foremost in the dance,

His laugh the loudest rang;

Nae e’e could match his mirthful glance,

Nane sung so sweet a sang.

 from Norman MacCaig ‘s A Man in Assynt

Despite tensions in his relationship with lairds several had a sneaking regard for him and invited him to entertain their guests with his dancing; his notoriety no doubt adding to his attraction.

Many a chase on a muir ended with him slipping into a bog, a moss-pot, his nose all that remained above the water till a perplexed gamie gave up the chase. But he did not always evade them and whenever he was overcome he offered no resistance but would go with the laird’s lackey for another appearance before the law. The last time this happened Sandy Davidson was apprehended near Dufftown and taken by his pursuers to Elgin via every public house along the way.  

This “perfect child of nature – as complete a Hawkeye of the old country as the times would admit of” had no home but everywhere was his home across the broad bonny face of the Highlands. One day his gun would ring out in Perthshire, another in the wilds of Lochaber, or on the muirs under the black shadow of the Cairngorms, around Inchrory where the Avon** and Don gather water or at Strathspey and the hills of Moray and Inverness.

Like Walter Scott’s Bertram he possessed:

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

To leap, to climb, to dive, to swim;

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air,

Nor less confirmed to undergo

Fatigue’s chill faint, and famine’s throe.”

 

In 1820 Farquharson of Finzean and Lord Kennedy had a £50 bet – £50 in 1820 was worth around £1500 in today’s value – with Davidson that he would not run without clothing from Barclay Street in Stonehaven to the gate of Inchmarlo near Banchory, a distance of around 20 miles, within a given time. Davidson had almost made it but the men had paid a posse of women under the stewardship of a Mrs Duncan to guard the Brig o’ Feugh at Banchory to prevent Davidson crossing. Duncan was paid a generous 20 shillings and the others something less to fill their aprons with stones and other missiles to chuck at the exhausted man as he attempted to run over the bridge. Mrs Duncan was also armed with a heavy knotty stick she intended to use against Sandy Davidson. As Davidson neared the brig and paused to catch his breath he noticed the trap and at the same time his enemies spotted him and began pelting him with their stones but bounding with renewed vigour the fleet-footed Davidson evaded them and crossed to the other side of the river. Later Mrs Duncan complained Sandy Davidson to be “not a man but a beast” whether from his hirsute appearance or from peak because he had foiled her efforts who knows. At any rate Sandy Davidson reached Inchmarlo within the given time and pocketed the £50.

Brig o Feugh

Behind occasional sport of this kind Davidson’s chosen lifestyle was fraught with danger. He had to go out of his way to make himself into a character to evade the tyranny of Britain’s Game Laws passed by members of parliament who as landowners created laws to benefit themselves and preserve their property rights including the wildlife that passed across the lands they claimed as theirs. Their lackeys, game keepers and river ghillies, rarely shied away from carrying out their duties irrespective of whether a rabbit or bird was being taken to prevent a family starving. For those caught a hefty fine awaited and for any who repeated the crime the prospect of transportation somewhere across the oceans. Magistrates and sheriffs fulfilled their roles to serve the wealthy, their own people, and rarely extended sympathy to the impoverished and desperate brought before them.  

Temptation must have been great for a parent living close to land teeming with food denied to them wholly on grounds they were the property of one family and were wanted for sport, a pastime, for their exclusive enjoyment. Out of necessity many risked capture and the courts to take something for the pot, and sometimes more, from under the noses of the gentry and were loudly and soundly condemned by the great and the good who regarded poaching as the nursery of robbers and murderers and poachers as desperate characters who infested the hills.

As for Sandy Davidson he lived a charmed life in many ways. He refused to kowtow to those accidentally privileged whose fortune was to be born with political rights they could use to enhance their own interests at the expense of the rest of the population.

John Stuart Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

 

Radical, humanitarian and Scottish nationalist John Stuart Blackie commented in the mid-1800s on how far removed were the privileged few from the morality of the New Testament. He was writing about the hypocrisy of the landed interests who trotted into church on a Sunday to sing psalms and pray about goodness and mercy who went back to their mansions to dine while their lackeys denied a starving child a mouthful of food. And Blackie implicated the church for its willingness to conspire with the ruling classes to maintain such inequality.

“A minister of sacred things,

He bound together, by higher ties than human law,

The men that shared his faith with awe;

He had his seat at power’s right hand,

And lords and ladies of the land

Did call him brother.”

 John Stuart Blackie’s The Cottage Manse

Sandy Davidson has long gone and so too has John Stuart Blackie but their sentiments that emerged from a different time have echoes today for here in Scotland the landed estate maintains its swagger as it endeavours to retain the privileges of power of a rotten system of elitism and inequality.

“Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?”

 from Norman MacCaig’s A Man in Assynt

(Sandy Davidson 1791 – 1843)

*Finzean – pronounced Fingin

** Avon – pronounce An

See also for John Stuart Blackie – O Albin! O my country!