Archive for ‘Aberdeenshire’

Dec 18, 2020

The birdcatcher – Fowlsheugh’s heughman and the queets, the nories and kittyweaks (and brawny women)

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

Those defiant rocks form the cliffs at Fowlsheugh, a stones throw from Stonehaven in northeast Scotland.

Now an RSPB Scotland nature reserve and site of Special Scientific Interest, Fowlsheugh is home to countless thousands of seabirds arriving annually to breed on its 200 foot cliffs.

Queets, nories and kittyweaks, their names now more familiarly anglicised to guillemots, puffins and kittywakes are an attraction in their own right with people looking for that perfect photograph or just to gaze at the fabulous sight of them all in the breeding season. Changed times. Their popularity used to be as food or ‘sport’ and were regularly ‘catched’ and traded until seabird fowling was banned in 1954.

Seabirds (all wildbirds) had monetary value until protection was brought in. This monetary value either benefitted local communities (mainly on Scotland’s remote islands) or the proprietor of the land where the birds were caught and killed. Popular for their eggs more than their flesh, birds also supplied feathers for pillows and quills but mainly in the Victorian era, hat decorations, as well as oil for lamps and tanning leather.

Fowlsheugh

Fowlsheugh’s laird rented out ‘his’ bird colonies to a local tenant, the heughman for about £2 a season and the heughman (known as craigsman in other areas and in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality – see below) was also obliged to present the laird with a prize specimen of a young hawk. To gather birds the heughman or bird catcher had to descend the cliff face from the top since the heaving waters of the German Ocean beneath the cliffs prevented any sort of ladder being used to climb up. Rather like a modern-day mountaineer abseiling he was lowered by rope – in his case by five or six of his fellow villagers. These weren’t usually brawny blokes but brawny women. A wooden pulley was also used at times to hold the rope clear so prevent it rubbing and wearing through against the sharp rock. With the rope secured about his person, the heughman was slowly lowered – steadying himself by bouncing his feet against the side of the cliff, signalling to those up top to tighten the rope from time to time so he could empty nests of their eggs.

“Are ye mad?” said the mendicant: “Francie o’ Fowlsheugh, and he was the best craigsman that ever speel’d heugh, (mair by token, he brake his neck upon the Dunbuy of Slaines,) wodna hae ventured upon the Halket-head…” *2

The heughsman’s equipment included a large sack or bag, its mouth kept open by an iron ring, attached to a pole of some twenty feet in length. Using the pole to gather eggs into the sack meant he didn’t have to get too close to nests protected by distressed birds and reach into nests deeper into hollows in the cliff. With his sack filled he would be pulled back onto the cliff top to empty his load before descending again. And so his harvesting of the eggs would continue until huge quantities were taken.  

Eggs were often hard boiled straight away, to preserve them. There was a brisk local trade in them so it was rare that they had to be taken any great distance to sell. Sundays, peoples’ only day off, would find many folk from Stonehaven cover the short distance to Fowlsheugh to buy the heughman’s eggs.

Queets (guillemots) tend to lay a single egg but often will lay a replacement if the first is lost. The kitteweak (kittywake) lays two eggs per season. The eggs of the queets and marats (razorbills) were most sought after because their hard shells meant there was less chance of them being damaged while being collected and selling on. The queets sparse nests sit exposed on open rock while nories (puffins) along with marats nest in niches which offer more protection to the egg and young, though not from a 20-foot pole.

A few weeks after that season’s eggs had been collected the heughman would descend once more, this time to gather young chicks hatched from those eggs left on the rocks. Kittyweaks being the most popular for eating. Demand for these little chicks usually outstripped supply and they were often eaten fresh, sold in local markets, with few being preserved by salting and drying in the open air.  

With the coming of autumn came still more harvesting of the cliff’s bird population. This time Fowlsheugh’s heughman was armed with a net to trap birds before they flew off for winter. These older birds were wanted mainly for their feathers, as explained above to decorate women’s hats or stuff cushions.  

This was, still is, the time known as the shooting season. Crowds came by boat, foot and horseback from Aberdeen, Stonehaven and all around to take pot shots at those birds that had escaped the raid on eggs, chicks and adults. Here was another source of income for the heughman who charged a shilling for each gun. All in all he was provided with a fairly decent living by the wild birds of Fowlsheugh. The birds were easy targets, seldom straying far from the rocks and it was reported as many as six birds could be killed by a single shot. Needless to say the raucous cries of the birds during these attacks was tremendous.

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

Fishing rights to the sea below Fowlsheugh belonged to the crown and there was a huge row in 1897 when leasing rights were leased to private interests for salmon fishing by stake netting because this resulted in wholesale slaughter of seabirds, drowned in the nets. An outcry among the public at the carnage led to an end of the practice.

Many of the seabirds took their food from the sea by diving into it and these birds were scooped up in nets; some were hanged in the mesh and some trapped so they slowly drowned. Thousands of queets were destroyed in this manner, to the horror of those who witnessed it, for it proved impossible for the birds to be freed from the mesh without breaking their wings and legs. There were descriptions of the birds’ eyes – wild and staring from fear as they thrashed about in a desperate struggle to escape the mesh which cut deep into their flesh. This horror was repeated daily during the egg hatching season, meaning the young were left without an adult to protect them and provide them with food and it was feared that within a couple of years Fowlsheugh’s bird population might be wiped out. And all this horror so the crown could profit along this four-mile stretch of water to the tune of £70 per annum. On the back of popular local opinion the crown ceased netting under Fowlsheugh’s cliffs early in the season but the slaughter was just delayed for the start of August brought the shooting season and the coastal birds were again targeted.

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

Life was tough for the coastal folk of Fowlsheugh but so was it a sair fecht for the birds breeding on the cliffs there – and wildlife everywhere in Scotland. In 1850 is was reported that ‘Scotland’s largest and most prized hawks (prized in terms of trophies) were virtually exterminated. The kite, the gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons often used in falconry) and goshawk had vanished, persecuted to extinction. The only sighting for ten years of a goshawk in Scotland, was in April 1850, and that bird was trapped two weeks later by a gamekeeper at Doune of Rothiemurchus. The protection of birds is more tokenistic than real, even today.

On the coast the heughman’s trade was not only driven by his local country people’s need for food but Victorian museums’ near insatiable demand for egg specimens to display and stuffed birds to exhibit, such was public curiosity and fascination with nature – mainly of the dead kind (not so long ago natural scientists insisted on killing living species as means of properly identifying them, even in the case of the rarest of specimens.)

The fowls of Fowlsheugh and elsewhere or rather the occupation of bird catcher, craigsman and heughman gave rise to the name Fowler or more commonly in these parts, Fowlie. Scotland had a makar (official poet) called Fowler. William Fowler who was a fixer for James VI and in the pay of the English court of Elizabeth for whom he spied, hired by her spymaster, Walsingham, the man who plotted against James VI’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots and the one responsible for her execution. Fowler was rewarded for his services to the crown with a 2,000 acre estate in Ulster. Talk of feathering nests. When he had a minute to himself he wrote poetry.

And to finish on the subject of writers, Walter Scott met the man who would become Old Mortality in the book of that name, Peter Paterson, when he was cleaning the gravestones of Covenanters who died in Dunnottar castle, at the local graveyard so preserving their names and contributions to this religious struggle in Scotland’s past. The two got into conversation and Peter became Robert Paterson in Scott’s tale of political and religious turmoil during that period.

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar

Dec 7, 2020

The Land Beastie Record set in Scotland – but wait…

The pretty coastal town of Stonehaven on Scotland’s northeast coast is home to the oldest known creature to live on land. Or is it?

At only a centimetre in length the beastie, a millipede, created a real rumpus in the world of palaeontology when she or he came to light in 2003. Cocooned within layers of sandstone for about 428 million years the millipede earned fame at long last when amateur palaeologist Mike Newman from Kemnay, not a million miles away from Stonehaven, cracked open a piece of crumbling cliff rock at Stonehaven’s Cowie beach.  

A series of spiracles or air holes along the creature’s body showed that this tiny beast had breathed air and so could live entirely on land and was not partly dependent for survival on water. Up until 2003 land creatures were thought 20 million years younger than the millipede.

We can give the millipede a name – pneumodesmus newman; pneumo meaning breath or air in Greek, desmus meaning millipede and newman meaning the bus driver from Kemnay.

The creature not only had breathing holes for the exchange of gases but long slender legs to run along the land and so was documented as the earliest arthropod with a tracheal (breathing) system.

Skatie shore at Stonehaven

Now rocks are old in Scotland. At Stonehaven, or rather the place that would be appropriately known as Stonehaven, can be found an impressive mixture of rock types because the town lies on the edge of the Highland Fault Line that separates Highland from Lowland Scotland and the conjunction of igneous rocks such as granites produced by molten rock during the earlier years of a volatile earth and eras from where we get sedimentary stone, such as Old Red Sandstone and the mudstone at Skatie shore, which are built up layer by layer. The result is an area enriched by diversity of rock types with stone from one age emerging through breaches in another.  

In young newman the millipede’s day tropical Scotland lay much farther south of where it is now, close to the Equator, part of an area known as Laurentia. Laurentia went on to tear apart  -a fragment incorporated into North America, another travelled north to form Greenland’s land mass and another south east of this to create Scotland. Scotland on the equator was prone to flooding, an attribute Stonehaven carried into the new independent Scottish land mass, and the moist conditions were perfect for the development of life forms – bacteria and possibly viruses, which we are all too familiar with today.

Whatever age newman the millipede is she/he is a youngster in comparison with the age of earth, thought to be in the region of 4.5 billion years old. Much more recently, a mere 2.4 billion years ago,  a series of chemical processes resulted in increased quantities of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere which eventually led to life emerging from the swamps and onto terra firma.  Modern day versions of some of earth’s early wet life such as jellyfish and sea anemones are very visible on Stonehaven’s beaches. Wind the geological clock forward to 540 million years ago when the first animals with backbones emerged – eel-like creatures – and in time critters slipped out of the water and onto the land. Newman’s millipede pretty much had the beach at Stonehaven to her/himself for hundreds of millions of years before humans sauntered onto these shores.

And there the story ends. But wait –

In 2017 a palaeontologist in Texas had the audacity to dispute newman the millipede’s age claiming it to be younger by a whopping 10 million years. The American insisted the oldest found oxygen breathing animal dates from 437 million years ago and is a scorpion from – take a guess — the USA. This rubbishing of newman the millipede’s position in the world has been disputed by other palaeontologists who have poured scorn on the Texan’s claims and say there is no evidence her scorpion ever lived on land. It also emerges that the rock professor from Texas previously raised professionals’ eyebrows with her assertion that earlier generations of palaeontologists all got it wrong over how the Himalayas were formed 55 million years ago.

So, is newman the millipede’s position as the oldest found land living beastie still tenable? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions folks.

Sep 4, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Final self-isolation diary, week 24

 I’ve decided to close my self-isolation diary after this one because I feel so much has changed, and not changed, over past months and the diary is getting stale. We are also moving on in our lives and so I’ll be preoccupied for some time.

Way back on the 24th March we had just embarked on what was anticipated would be a few short weeks of self-isolation. Six months later we’re not exactly isolating in the same way or with the same intensity but our lives have been turned upside down and normal back then is abnormal today. I wrote then of my final visit to my hairdresser the previous day. I miss our chats as well as having turned into Rapunzel in the meantime but I’m still  disinclined to get my hair cut. It can wait.

 We did our ‘final’ shop in the village in March. I remember it as an anxious experience with the threat of Covid hanging in the air like some 19th century miasma.  We haven’t been back! Shopping for us now is confined to online deliveries. Following a sticky start due to pressure of numbers companies have learnt to cope with vastly increased demand and not driving to the shops has saved us a fortune in petrol. With so little reason to leave the house other than for exercise which we do locally there’s been very little reason to run the car so yet more savings.

 Back at the start of all of this we were both displaying symptoms of something – sore throats and coughs – but nothing developed and we both got better. Was this Covid? We have wondered ever since.

Harvesting the barley, buzzard flying, swallows on power lines, our Aberdeenshire, roe deer in the barley

We’re still reading the Saturday edition of the Financial Times online and I print out their crosswords every Friday or Saturday. It’s not so easy reading online and I read less of the paper but my husband reads massive amounts of it as the sub means we have access to the daily editions, too. Drawback is we no longer have any newspapers in the house for all those jobs old newspapers were used for such as putting down a piece of biscuit or chocolate for the cat if he catches us eating our evening square – well we are from Presbyterian backgrounds so one square is sufficient per day.

 The garden has been a godsend for us. We’ve grown our vegetables and eaten most of them. Tatties are just about ready now. Most of the gherkins, courgettes, broad beans, runner beans have been eaten. Still got lots of salad stuff in the greenhouse and dependable chard provides our daily green helping. Blackcurrants, rasps, strawberries have come and gone. The cherries are never available to us as the birds take them. Blueberries ripening now and with fewer plums on the tree they are a good size this year. Apples coming in abundance and a few pears but that’s a sign of autumn and every day we are out with shears and secateurs trying to control the jungle.

Politically things have changed. March saw the four nations of the UK working together, after a fashion, to deal with Covid. Since then there have been different policies emerging because the pandemic has highlighted that what works for London doesn’t necessarily work for Belfast or Edinburgh or Cardiff.

 Boris Johnson in March was seen as a dilettante fool. Now in September he’s proved himself to be a bone-idle fool.  Nicola Sturgeon has grown as a stateswoman demonstrating her hands-on approach to government and ability to stay on top of her health brief during Coronavirus. Ask Johnson a question about it and he’ll divert attention from the fact he knows nothing but squawk  Trump-like about how FANTASTIC his government is in coping with the pandemic when the evidence shows otherwise.

 September and Covid is still very much with as we hurtle towards winter with the depressing prospect of flu epidemics on top of Coronavirus. It’s hard to see how this won’t mean a return to much tighter restrictions on our behaviour once more. Not that everyone has been modifying their behaviour given the spikes in the spread of the virus in some parts.

 Here in the back of beyond we’re still not venturing too far from the old homestead but we can observe activities are far greater than they were a few short weeks ago. Plenty companies are still complaining the economy isn’t opening up fast enough but I’d rather be guided by Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leach on modes of behaviour than travel firms and airport chiefs driven by what’s in the best interests of their industries – especially a certain vociferous Scottish travel company that drove someone we know up the wall trying to get them to reimburse almost £1000 for a holiday the company cancelled at the start of the pandemic. They weren’t too proactive then. We haven’t seen her since then so don’t know if they ever paid her back. I can’t get myself to sympathise with travel companies and airport managers pushing for more air travel in light of Covid and global warming. It’s as though they live in a bubble where health and well-being are counted only in terms of cash not the nation’s health.

 On the topic of health what’s been a pleasure of late is walking our local highways and byways to the accompaniment of the rustling of broom pods, like water trickling over rocks, as the seed pods burst open distributing their seeds. And that wee roe deer has been back bounding through the barley field again, like Theresa May only cute and not at all dangerous. I should have my camera ready when going along that way to get a half-decent photo but I never do and so the results are dismal. Talking of dismal photographs, the heron flew up from one of the burns right over my head as I struggled to take my camera out of my pocket. I did eventually get a picture but it was of a flying M disappearing into the distance so deleted it. Herons and horses always remind me of dinosaurs which makes them magical in a deep-rooted kind of way, having that link with the earth’s distant (near) beginnings.

 Our house martins are still with us. Frantically feeding so can’t be long before they say their goodbyes. So many of them proving what a fine summer we’ve had here in northeast Scotland. Had some feedback on whether or not martins, swifts and swallows perch on power lines because I’d mentioned seeing one or other of them last time. I checked up and swallows do, so there are plenty of them round here, not swifts and I don’t know about martins. Swallow they were then strung out along the wires.

Graceful clematis and bold-as-brass marigolds

We haven’t settled into a new series on Netflix/Amazon Prime yet. Did have the unfortunate experience of sitting through a truly dreadful film, A Fall from Grace about a woman accused of murdering her husband. What was murdered was the film production. Surely the director has watched films but that wasn’t apparent in his messy and laughable handling of what could have been an interesting subject. The characters were transparent it was easy to work out the end right at the start. The acting was dodgy and the scene at the end where women walk out of a house is straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller while attempting to be empathetic. 

 Haven’t quite finished Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow yet, the psychology book that explains so much about how we think from automatic responses to more considered and logical ones, and the biases we’re largely unaware of when imagining we’re thinking rationally. Every time I try the experiments in it I fall into a trap. Which I still find funny.

 For those of you who’ve been reading this blog over the past six months thank you very much. I might return to self-isolation at some time but then again I might not. Latest book, much delayed publication because of Covid, is eventually coming out on 15 September, you might want to consider buying Aberdeen At Work

 Stay safe and for this sort of blog, that’s  all  folks. 

 

Aug 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Sturgeon continued,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe.

Aug 12, 2020

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

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

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

honey rasps and peanut bisc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe

Aug 10, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2

Guest blog by Textor

PART 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vagrant Lodgers-

                                                 Wi tinklers, knaves, pig wives, and cadgers,

                                                The coarsest kind o’ Chelsea sodgers,

                                                          Like beggars dress’d,

                                                In holes and dens, like toads an badgers,

                                                          Here make their nest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 8, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832

Guest post by Textor

PART 1

On the 27 August 1832 cholera arrived in Aberdeen; its first case from a pandemic that had been moving westward from Asia since the 1820s. Cholera was and is a killer disease – currently afflicting war-torn Yemen with mass infections and death – as Yemen’s civilian populations suffer the consequences of murderous rivalries for control and regional domination.

Saudi Arabia, a friend and ally of the arms-supplying British state, has played no small role in creating the conditions for cholera to thrive: poverty, hunger and destruction of the country’s sanitary and healthcare infrastructure which are vital to prevent the spread of infectious-contagious diseases. The scale of the tragedy in Yemen, to coin an historical anachronism, is of Biblical proportions. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control between 2017 and February 2020 there were 2.3 million suspected cases of cholera with close on 4,000 deaths; children being particularly vulnerable. (https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/all-topics-z/cholera/surveillance-and-disease-data/cholera-monthly )

Cholera is a water-borne disease so disruption to supplies of clean water make spread largely unavoidable. Add to this poor sanitation and a population becomes highly vulnerable. The bacterium Vibrio cholerae, to be anthropomorphic, is the guilty party (but nowhere near as guilty as those responsible for bombing Yemen.) The comma-shaped organism was first isolated in 1854 by Fillipo Pacini. His work was little known within the scientific community and it took another thirty years and the research of Robert Koch to more firmly and widely establish the bacterium as the cause of cholera. Also in 1854 the physician John Snow satisfied to his own, if not other medics’ satisfaction, that an outbreak of cholera centred on Broad Street in London’s Soho district was related to the local water supply; hence his removal of the water pump handle so potentially hindering the spread of the disease.

Patrick Manson, physician, born in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire provided detailed descriptions of the disease in his seminal work of 1898, Tropical Diseases. He outlined its cause, history, means of spread and containment along with how it manifested itself in patients. Manson described it characterised by profuse purging and vomiting of a colourless serous material, muscular cramps. “Serous material” is watery fluid often likened to “rice water” – in plain language more solid and normal faecal waste becomes liquid. The accompanying cramps of an agonising character attacks the extremities and the abdomen. Of course, the fluids being expelled by the poor suffering patient contain virulent bacterium. In addition, such massive loss of liquid profoundly dehydrates a sick person, damaging the intestines and threatening organ collapse and eventual death. 

With Vibrio cholerae in the community, the break-down of sanitation, the destruction of clean water supplies in areas of high-density populations, such as in Yemen, mean an epidemic is almost inevitable. A product of war – collateral damage used to be the term, and for the barbarous perpetrators of conflict an additional source of fear and terror suffered by civilians which, if pushed far enough, can lead to the collapse of civil society.

When a cholera pandemic (often labelled Cholera Morbus) arrived in Aberdeen in 1832 its cause was unknown. The contagion originated in Asia and moved westward, carried along trading routes – as Patrick Manson observed cholera follows the great routes of human intercourse. Traders, whether overland or sea-going, might carry more than recipient nations bargained for. In much the same way the 2020 pandemic Covid-19 was carried country to country on motor vehicles, cruise ships and aircrafts transporting thousands of passengers across boundaries. Global movement of people and commodities existed long before the modern period but by the 19th century the reach, density and speed of travel accelerated substantially.

Aberdeen of 1832 was one thread in the web of global trade. Without any railway connection to the rest of Britain and with a very rudimentary national highway network it was the city’s port that was the main point of entry for infectious diseases. Imports and exports, particularly to and from the Low Countries and the Baltic along with coastal trading were Aberdeen’s main commercial arteries. Consequently, when cholera moved east into Russia and onto the Baltic ports an infectious line of transmission was established. Similarly with coastal trading the movement of people within Britain provided further points for potential cross-infection. In the event the first appearance of cholera locally was not in the city as such where it might have been expected but to its northern outskirts, at Cotton and Old Aberdeen.

Cholera had been “raging” in Russian territory since the summer of 1831 but like many contagions it moved in waves. The master of an Aberdeen merchant vessel berthed in Riga wrote home in July that year that the cholera morbus is much abated here . . . We are obliged to lay off work at 11o’clock a.m. Until 3 p.m. No sort of out work is allowed to be carried on in Riga, or on board ships during that time. This partial “lockdown” presented little defence to transmission of the disease but because it was thought disease was present in a miasma of bad air which could easily be transmitted from infected persons to others, the health measure made some sense.

Equally sensible for a Christian nation which believed in sin, retribution and atonement was the response of the Scottish clergy, ministering to coastal communities, who humbly called on God to forgive transgressions and stop this great calamity from our country. By late 1831 cholera was present in Sunderland and spreading. The Presbytery of Aberdeen petitioned for a day of national fasting and humiliation to be held. The call repeated in February 1832 for a measure more likely to induce the Divine Disposer to avert or mitigate the calamity with which we are threatened. Such spiritual pleas might boost moral but provided no barrier to the yet unidentified bacterium. Aberdeen’s weaver poet William Anderson wrote “The Cholera” in which he gave quietistic voice to the Christian vision: Our hope is not in man, nor in man’s aid;/In Heaven we put our trust, and shall not be dismay’d.

More effective and practical were the actions of the British government which set about establishing Boards of Health across the nations with the Central Board in London publishing guidelines for managing the spread of cholera and ways of caring for patients. Using the experience of previous epidemics quarantine became a key approach: identify and isolate those carrying the disease and at the same secure property, including clothing and furnishings, which might harbour cholera. Quarantine was also applied to shipping. Cromarty Bay to the north of Inverness, became a holding point for Baltic trade ships flying the yellow flag of infection aboard. Fear stalked the area’s byways. The Cromarty geologist and writer, Hugh Miller, records a decline in local trade, Occasionally, however, a few of the more courageous housewives might be seen creeping warily along our streets; but, in coming . . along the edge of the bay . . . struck up the hill if the wind blew from off the quarantine vessels.

Further south one of Aberdeen’s vessels, Thistle, sailing from Newcastle with a cargo of coals discovered a crew member displaying symptoms of cholera. By the time the ship reached North Berwick the unfortunate seaman was dead, leaving the master with the problem of disposing of the body. Signalling a local pilot he asked permission to bury the man on a local island. Permission was refused and he was instructed to bury the body at sea. In the event the master seems to have simply laid the seaman to rest in waters close by the shore.

In February 1832 Aberdeen’s Board of Health advertised for Active Men and Women [to become attendants on the sick] either in hospitals, or where they may be required. Reminiscent of recent events surrounding Covid-19 Aberdeen’s General Dispensary which gave aid to the city’s poor, warned that its facilities and finances, should cholera appear, were likely to be overwhelmed as the poor were expected to become the first and overwhelming victims of the disease.

The Central Board of Health provided guidance in November 1831 based on its observation that the poor ill-fed part of the population was most at risk also offered a moral judgement that this section of the population was most likely to be beset by the sin of intemperance, addicted to drink and spirituous liquors. Their weakened constitutions would do nothing to help the poor in tackling the pandemic but perhaps it was drinking water (contaminated) that posed the bigger threat of disease transmission than alcohol. Still, as has been found with the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown bars and conviviality weaken links in chains of quarantine.

Part 2 to follow.

Aug 6, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 20

I’m writing this account of week 20 on Wednesday, the first day of week 21 hours after news that Aberdeen will go back into lockdown because of growing cases of Covid-19. Thank you, whoever you are. 

Easing lockdown, an inevitable part of moving on, before a vaccine becomes available was always going to be risky. Just how risky was/is dependent on people being sensible and considerate. Those are two qualities not usually associated with boozing.

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It’s not a blame game, our government insists. Oh really? Why not? The majority of folk are not playing Russian roulette with the lives of people they know and don’t know. But some just wanna have fun. So, I know who I blame for this present state of affairs and it isn’t the mask-wearing keeping social-distance thoughtful folk it’s the me, me, me I’m entitled to play around like there’s no risk type of heid banger.

We were in Aberdeen yesterday meeting up with our son who lives very close to the Hawthorn Bar the origin, apparently, of this spike in cases. Across the other side of town our daughter has just returned to work from furlough. Her employer has spent time and money organising things to make it as safe as possible for everyone. Then Covid walks in the door, apparently linked to the bar outbreak, and everything and everyone are thrown into confusion, some into a 14-day quarantine and others hoping they aren’t carrying Covid back into their homes, endangering family members.

This is a reminder that danger lurks and we should be vigilant and responsible in protecting ourselves and others. Of course, not everyone agrees. Twitter is full of crazies and weirdos ranting on about dictators and folk choking on their masks. Okay, many are spammers from goodness knows where but many, far too many, are the mad, bad and sad who spread nonsense because of the thrill it provides them with and satisfies their craving for attention.

Back in week 20 I eventually made contact with an old friend – very old friend – we were fifteen when we met so it wasn’t yesterday. I was concerned because he’s usually active on social media then wasn’t. Eventually we spoke to one another and it transpired he had been ill and in hospital. It is not a good time to be ill, especially when you’re no longer fifteen, so wishing a man who was a hugely talented writer in his time, well.

The pair of lovely yellowhammers still entertain us on our regular walk. Can’t say we’ve missed the raucous call of our pheasants lately but their disappearance is troubling since there are folk who prefer their pheasants served on a plate. We’ve had a number of bird casualties in recent week with them flying against windows. Some survive but others quickly expire. We have things dangling inside several windows in an attempt to deter them but with so many birds in the garden I suppose it’s inevitable that some will fall victim to seeing reflections in glass windows as part of the great outdoors. To try to limit our aves deaths my husband purchased an owl. Not an actual owl but a larger than life version with a head that moves with the wind, allegedly, and eyes that gleam in the dark, allegedly. It perches on a table on the balcony in front of a very large window and so far since it’s been on the job we haven’t picked up any dead birds from there.

Blackcurrants are still coming and, yikes, so are the gooseberries. We have different ones – why do we grow so many? Seemed a good idea years ago. Yellow-green ones, really big yellowy-green ones and red ones. They are all best eaten straight off the bush along with handfuls of plump blackcurrants and deliciously sweet raspberries. On the subject of raspberries I’ve noticed how heavy this year’s crops of wild rasps along the verges are and as usual few seem to attract birds. Could it be they don’t relish chewing through all that flesh to get to the tiny seeds? We, on the other hand, love the flesh but aren’t too fond of raspberry seeds.

Our cat’s been fine this week aside from his dodgy eye. I’ve been applying those expensive eye drops for weeks but suspecting they weren’t doing him much good and wondering it they were actually exacerbating the problem I stopped them for a week. The eye then looked a little better until it didn’t once more and so back to the drops. He wanders around doing an impression of Nelson. Without the telescope.

The blue salvias still haven’t fully opened. Is there a lazier plant in the whole of the world? Beginning to think it’s down to the variety. The blue that’s showing is vibrant only there’s not much of it. Will keep you informed.

Watched the film Knives Out. Boring. Daniel Craig is miscast as an American. On the other hand started watching season 2 of Ozark. It’s just okay and not a patch on Bordertown but I have to say that the excellent Peter Mullan’s American drawl is way better than Daniel Craig’s insipid-nothing-like-any-American-I’ve-ever-heard accent. W-a-a-y better.

Some of you will remember we passed hundreds of our books to charity shops before  lockdown so I’m struggling for reading because so much of what’s left is fairly heavyweight or I’ve read them. This week I picked up one of the slimmest volumes I could find, as good a ways of selecting a book as any. Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie.  No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one.  Pass the port and cigars.

They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

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Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI  –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

 “The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

 “Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”

Lord McGowan was instrumental in establishing the German chemical industry after WWI through company amalgamations including ICI. There’s a fair amount of detail on the wheeling and dealing in the book.

Finally, back to Scotland where we are used to being denigrated and treated with not a little contempt within the union. The authors explain that in 1939 a question was asked in the House of Commons about anti-aircraft provision in Scotland (on the verge of WW2) and the reply ran along the lines of – it’s all hunky dory. When pushed for detail it transpired there were two anti-aircraft units for the whole of Scotland… that Glasgow was eventually issued with one barrage balloon (lent by London) but when London MPs demanded they get their balloon back it was admitted the Glasgow balloon was a dud.

A scandal. Yes, “there is a tremendous amount of fraud and swindling… the government is either impotent or quiescent…”  Sounds all too familiar.

Stay safe 

Jul 30, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 19.

Nineteen weeks in chokey and it doesn’t seem a day too long. I get the feeling I’ve said something like this before. I realise it’s been easy for us. We’re used to being self-sufficient and let’s face it we’re both happy with our own company – or as some might express it – we’re anti-social. As that well-known Aberdeen salutation/godspeed goes – “Happy to meet, sorry to part but not too sorry – Bon Accord.” Well, that’s the version popular in our hoose.

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We did break lockdown to visit ‘the young folk’ in Stonehaven as the wee one was having a birthday. He’s the nearest human contact we’ve had in 19 weeks – and very pleasant it was too. Of course this visit required a run over the bypass – a good outing for the car which is also in relative lockdown and it was a pleasure for us seeing parts of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine we haven’t seen for a bit. Still bonny.

I nearly forgot. On our way to the bypass, round about Mason Lodge I think, we drove past a field with a tall stone dyke and looking over the dyke was a coo (cow.) As the dyke was pretty high only the coo’s heid (head) could be seen; a bonny cream beastie. There were folk walking by and the coo’s heid followed them, watched them come, pass and move away. It turned to follow their movement and eyed them up and down. It reminded me of my late Aunty Isabel who we used to take for treatment to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. During the inevitable waits for and between treatment, Isabel (in her nineties) would inspect fellow patients walking by – eyeing them and the often weird clobber they wore or their hair styles and colours and half turn to me with a knowing nod and trace of a smile. I should add at this point that Isabel was complimented on her own appearance by a man at the hospital – totally out of the blue he remarked, maybe a bit uncalled for and personal but, along the lines of that’s a beautiful outfit you’re wearing. She did have an eye for quality – and mutton dressed up as lamb, as she might have thought but never said. I miss that shared look and smile that wasn’t meant unkindly but spoke volumes, none-the-less.  

This week I phoned my optician to place on record I’d phoned early in March to report my two new pairs of varifocals made the world spin so much I relegated them to the top of the desk in anticipation of returning them once the lurgy passed. Back in March it looked like that was a real possibility. Oh the innocence of early lockdown. The opticians isn’t back to full operation but said they would be happy to see me given that I’ve been using the old prescription specs. It was very good of them but apart from being willing to hand over the useless pair I wasn’t keen on submitting myself to face-to-face interaction in a closed space and said I’d get back in touch in a couple of months. A couple of months! Where will we be in a couple of months apart from bowling downhill towards winter?

More blackcurrants have gone into the freezer. And still they come. They are handy and most mornings a handful of blackcurrants or other fruit but mainly blackcurrants because we have tons of them is added to our breakfast porridge or cereal. Unfortunately, one morning this week husband announced there weren’t any in the fridge. Not possible. With an exasperated sigh I found the plastic container with its dark red contents in the fridge but when I opened it instead of blackcurrants found cooked aduki beans! I had somehow managed the night before to pick up the blackcurrants and put them into the freezer instead of the beans. I love aduki beans but am holding fire on trying them as a breakfast topping. You never know. Nah, I think we do.

19 mix

Our sweet old cat was ill this week. As he’s getting on, about 112 in human equivalent years, we were preparing ourselves for the worst. Not that you ever are prepared. Next day he was as right as rain and our daughter suggested he might have been suffering from heatstroke. It has been hot and as soon as the sun’s up he’s out to laze under an apple tree or baking in his straw-packed kennel beside the greenhouse. I think I mentioned before that he loves a picnic so doesn’t even come in for grub until evening on the nicest of days.  

 We have a linnet in the garden. Fairly certain that’s what it is. Are they simple? This bird brain can’t find its way to the many sources of bird food we have scattered and dangling. Hope it hangs around. Lovely wee thing. Our house martins are still in residence high up on the gable. See them when we’re round that part of the house and every evening out of the sittingroom window we admire them darting through the air grazing on airborne insects. 

Yesterday I crossed paths with a tiny brown frog yesterday while walking. Thought it was a leaf blowing across the road but then the leaf began hopping and stopped for a moment for me to admire it before hopping off into the grass. A speckled brown butterfly occupied the same spot on my way back. Do frogs turn into butterflies? No? Are you certain of that?

Our blue salvias flowers are taking geological time to open. First saw the plant in a park somewhere in Germany. Can’t recall where but they were massed together and looked fabulous. We have only one or two plants and I suspect winter will be upon us before they fully open. Talking of blue – the wild chicory has been blooming for a good while now in the verges. It’s very pretty and one year I made the mistake of introducing seed into our garden. We are still trying to get rid of plants that spread like wildfire. Every year more spring up. Bloody stuff.

And on the subject of garden pests, although ones we are quite fond of – the badgers are still at it. The heavy pot and bird feeder stand goes over night after night. Now along with the peanuts having to be brought in overnight so, too, is the seed feeder for they pull it to pieces searching for seed. Not that there’s any left by the end of the day. 

The latest trend in lost jobs continues to pick up pace. Three out of five of one arm of our family have recently been made redundant. As they are anything but alone finding work is going to be a nightmare for them. And the knock-on consequences very serious.

It’s a while since I finished reading Ethel Mannin’s series of essays Brief Voices. It covers very many topics; far too many to comment on here so one or two points only. Mannin flirted with Buddhism but was hugely critical of Buddhists in Burma where her writings were banned as a result. She criticised their cruelty and claims of being against killing animals while happily consuming them on grounds they didn’t personally kill them – e.g. fishermen don’t kill fish only take them out of water – where they die, it was the servant who bought meat at market so nothing to do with them eating what was prepared while butchers who definitely did kill animals were, at this time, despised – yet not the meat they produced.

She was very much a woman of her time and class. Despite her radical political views – she was a member of the Communist Party for a time – Mannin was, nonetheless, a bit of a snob and was intolerant of things she didn’t understand or care to understand. She didn’t have much sympathy for aspects of working class lives and positively railed against Teddy Boys and the rock and roll generation (slack-jawed and joyless she described young people), beats and Angry Young Men literature. She thought the ‘atomic generation’ brought up on violent films would become inured to death. How wrong. The protests of the 1960s were just around the corner. Interesting and complex woman, nonetheless. I will look for more of her works in future.

 Stay safe.