Archive for ‘Aberdeenshire’

Nov 29, 2022

This was once such a brisk little village: the northeast’s lost communities

The window is nailed and boarded through which I saw…

and will strike the deer that goes dizzily, sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes…

(Hallaig, Sorley MacLean)

One by one northeast Scotland’s wee fishing communities gave up their struggle to eke a living out of the sea for the battle was proving hopeless – up against bigger, better equipped vessels that encroached on the waters off their townships. A separate battle, too, of the young’s discontent with their parents’ and grandparents’ way of life. A life of constant danger that gave little back in return.   

Before the days of the northeast’s millionaire trawler dynasties thousands of northeasters were dependent on the sea for a modest living. Their little brown-sail vessels were a common sight, bobbing up and down on the German Ocean (now north sea) fishing for skate, ling, turbot, whiting, flounders, cod and haddock.  But come the twentieth century those days were numbered. The old were left to maintain the tradition as best they could but penury drove many of them away from the place that had been home for generations. So, they stood to look out one   last time through the windows to the sea and sky not fearing the stirring of a storm, that harbinger of death, but to a capture a memory of times past. Those tiny windows in a wall of stone that engaged a stranger to peek into from outside when walking by deserted home after deserted home.

There was still hope in the 1920s among some in fishing communities that their decline might be stalled. But no. The family fishing boat crewed by fathers and sons and brothers and nephews and cousins could not compete with the big boys from bigger ports. Women were essential, if unacknowledged partners (junior, of course), in the family enterprise through their roles scranning for bait, baiting hooks on fishing lines, cleaning, curing and selling the fish – hard, hard work. Younger women increasingly chose to look for jobs elsewhere, with better pay and didn’t involve being half frozen to death. Women’s work. Traipsing mile upon mile over rough country, back straining under a wicker creel heavy with fish that had to be sold – to country folk. Little wonder, then, given a choice of a different life, there were women who opted for that – emancipation became a dirty word in the opinion of their older menfolk despairing over their lost source of cheap labour.   

Young men, too, were off. Some with a mind to carry on fishing lacked the disposable income needed to buy a share in a boat with gear constantly needing replacing. They also moved to towns, perhaps to the monotony of industrial labour or learn new skills such as quarrying.

Simple, tiny cottages with hardly a stick of furniture, their inhabitants bearded men in blue ganseys, caps and long boots and women in coarse skirts, long aprons, shawls and bonnets – as poor as church mice – yet so appealing. So picturesque. So quaint. They created a charming scene that was a novelty to toonsers from Aberdeen; day-trippers who would come to gawp at these curious natives. As more homes emptied some of the richer folk even bought up a former fisher’s cottage going for a song as a holiday home.

In the gran’ hooses in th’suburbs o’ Aiberdeen ye’ll find th’ money that should ha’e gaunt ae th’ line fishermen.

Bonnie Muchalls (formerly Stranathra) became a popular weekend resort – and Skateraw, now Newtonhill. From fishing villages to holiday resorts and in time they became dormitory towns for Aberdeen. In 1855 twenty-six Skateraw families fished out of the village. Thirty years later the decline set in. Findon, too, suffered the same fate. Findon where smoked haddock originated, Finnan haddies.

Nearby Downies perched above the cliffs with its tiny rocky shore once sent forty fishermen to sea in seven or eight boats but by the start of the twentieth century that life faltered and soon ceased entirely. Portlethen rubs up against Downies and here crab and lobster catches lingered after the village’s ten yawl fishers were forced to turn their backs on the sea.

Cowie, now absorbed into Steenhive (Stonehaven), operated twenty-three boats including nine herring vessels in 1855 but by the 1930s this has dropped to a single yawl. Stonehaven with its substantial harbour was the area’s centre for landing catches -boats from Cowie, Crawton, Skateraw, Shieldhall and Cove landed and sold their catches there, sometimes having them processed in the town before being sent to be sold in the south. Up to two hundred boats landed at Steenhive in the mid-eighteen hundreds providing plenty work for the town’s eight curing businesses. Stonehaven’s own fleet of fishing boats included sixty line boats in the late nineteenth century before the coming of steam trawlers put a lid on that.

Even at Steenhive the young looked to alternatives to the fishing. When unemployment benefit was introduced in 1920 older men in the town complained that the ‘cursed dole’ provided an alternative to youths otherwise compelled to carry on the fishing tradition. Steenhive’s line fishers were making between £2 and £5 a week – hardly a king’s ransom and while the ‘cursed dole’ was little enough (15 shillings a week for men, 12 shillings a week for women for a maximum of 15 weeks) it didn’t involve risking your neck every time you launched a boat into the north sea.

Most older folk had few expectations beyond scraping by on a paltry living. Days when prices were good were welcome bonuses. Sometimes catches exported to England made ‘a fabulous price’ – ten shillings a stone and for a year or two around the turn of the twentieth century. Stonehaven could probably have absorbed more fishers from its neighbouring villages where the trade was dying fast but for a shortage of housing in the town, but even here by 1928 the port was home to a mere twelve boats, providing work for about fifty men. Twenty years earlier there had been thirty-two big yawls each crewed by five men, eight small yawls and twenty-five herring drifters. Then they were gone.

The Great War of 1914-18 that changed so much in the world accelerated the decline of northeast fishing and the stagnant state of European markets pushed more men and women away from fishing and away from fishing villages. Echoes of the dead hand of Brexit.

The foonds of once thriving Crawton survive battered by a coarse wind off the north sea. The stones howked from the land to make homes for fisherfolk sink slowly back into that same ground. Crawton, about four miles south of Stonehaven, a waterfall dropping down to the sea on one side and a steep path leading down to the water’s edge at the other end of the ghost village. In the best of times Crawton provided a living for forty fishermen and their families with about twelve boats pulled up on its tiny shore but by 1900 the fleet was no more than six or seven yawls and three herring drifters for now larger vessels sailed into Crawton’s ‘turf’. By the 1920s the last of Crawton’s fishermen left, taking themselves off to Steenhive to live out their lives at Dawson’s Buildings. And the village fell into ruin.

The tiny village of Catterline with its white washed cottages strung out in a line along the clifftop, high above the small harbour, became home to farm hands not fishers by 1928. As with Crawton, being a distance from the main road became a costly stumbling block when adding transport costs to the margins made from selling small amounts of catches with boxes of fish and shellfish having to be sent for processing to Stonehaven (6d a box of fish, 4d a box of crab and lobster) and then to England by rail for marketing. Catterlines’ rocky coast made it ideal for lobster and crab fishing but the village also had fourteen line boats and seven herring vessels supplying work for forty men and innumerable women at one time.  But in common with other fishing villages the tradition died, the boats were sold and villagers left and the population dropped from about 100 at the start of the century to about thirty people in 1928, and the bulk of those left were aged over fifty.

Farther north lies Newburgh. Now a bird and seal sanctuary, famous for its long stretches of sandy beach, Newburgh once was a thriving fishing port at the mouth of the river Ythan. The river provided fisherwomen with plentiful supplies of bait for line fishing and the Braidsands a good source of mussels and lugworm. In the late 1880s a dozen boats each with a crew of five fished out of Newburgh, their catches carried deep into the countryside by women, to sell to cottagers and farmers around the area of Tarves, Belhelvie and Dyce, some fifteen miles away and buy farm produce, butter, eggs etc in return. Newburgh’s fishers complained about the encroachment of large vessels sailing in close to their village for its decline that begun around 1880 before a three-mile limit was introduced so there was nothing to prevent trawlers from as far afield as Hull gathering ‘like a forest along the coast.’ Large scale fishing by wealthy skippers was blamed for destroying Newburgh’s fishing grounds and lines and several legal disputes were fought between locals and English fishing companies. The imposition of a three-mile limit and ‘exclusive right to fish’ was enacted in 1883 and expanded in 1889 to ban trawling within three miles off the coast over concerns about dwindling fish catches, not declining villages.  However, next along came seine-net fishermen from Aberdeen, Gourdon and Montrose, again encroaching on inshore fishing.  

Collieston with its haphazard arrangement of tumble-down cottages was once a thriving fishing community. In the opening years of the new century Collieston sent out sixteen line vessels with crews of over sixty men to provide for their families from what they took from the sea – and some fifteen herring boats. But as catches fell away the young left for Aberdeen or to live abroad. Women stopped carrying fish inland, instead most of the fish caught here was transported to Auchmacoy railway station for export to England. Soon enough that trade dried up and as was happening elsewhere, Aberdeen folk, taken by the bonnie setting of the village bought up abandoned houses as second homes.

The name Slains lives on as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Under the shadow of the old castle of Slains a village dependent on fishing for a living emerged. At one time twelve boats fished from here but only two remained by the late 1920s and the village suffered a similar fate to its illustrious castle.

Whinnyfold is perched above a little creek to the south of Cruden Bay. The railway station at Cruden Bay kept the village’s fish trade alive for a while into the twentieth century when it cost four shillings for a box or four, a substantial rate from a box of fish that might fetch ten or twelve shillings. The numbers of men willingly continuing to make a thin living from the sea waned. Where in 1900 there were eight crewed boats by the 1920s there were no more than four. The village’s young men with a taste for the sea looked farther afield, to Shetland, Lowestoft and other bigger ports.

In 1928 a fisherman from nearby Port Errol lamented the end of an era

Fishing will soon die out here . . . this was once such a brisk little village.

And so it was – fifteen big yawls manned by seventy men before WWI as well as up to thirty herring boats. By 1928 there were six motor boats with three or four crew each remaining. Aberdeen and Peterhead absorbed some families while others chose to emigrate.

If they would only give us a six-mile limit, we would make a success of it

observed one younger fisherman in the 1920s. But they didn’t. And Port Errol’s fishing paid the price.

Eighty-five herring and twenty haddock boats used to fish out of Boddam. The village supported thirteen curers. By the 1920s some twelve boats remained. Again trawling was seen as a major cause of their downfall. And what a downfall. On one day in 1928 a Boddam fisherman held up his catch for the day, he and his two crew having fished for two and a half hours – one small codling. A day’s catch usually comprised of one or two boxes of codlings worth thirty shillings – divided between three families.

A County Council report looking into the decline of fishing in the northeast’s coastal villages found that in the eleven places they investigated between 1890 and 1911 the number of fishing boats fell by about forty percent, and tonnage of catches by sixty percent. At Skateraw thirty-four boats catching 599 tons of fish in 1890 dropped to five boats taking in only 36 tons of fish in 1911; Downies eighteen boats dropped to five and fish from 133 tons to 23. At Stonehaven the drop was from 110 boats to fifty-two and about 1700 tons fish to 760 tons.

Were I but young an’ feel again –

An’ that can hardly be,

I’d like to mak’ a change or twa;

I widna seek the sea.

(The Choice, Peter Buchan)

Oct 2, 2022

Levelling up, trickling down and a right royal payout

Who pays for the royal family? That shouldn’t be a question. After all nobody pays for my family. Or yours. And the royal family is one of the richest in the UK; estimates of their wealth vary from £28 billion to £67 billion, so obviously they can afford to pay their own way.

The Windsors own land. A lot of land – some is rural and some urban. It owns a share of London’s west end, including part of Regent Street. Beyond land they own much of the seabed surrounding the UK. These holdings, except now in Scotland, are bundled under the title Crown Estate and the family earn a percentage of profits made from enterprises in its Crown Estate. We’ll come back to this.

The royals cost us a lot of money. Their supporters argue they are worth it. These same supporters are often free and easy with figures suggesting the popularity of the royals such as the preposterous figure of 5 billion people said to have watched the late Queen’s funeral. Total fiction.

Figures are important. They certainly are to the royals. The bigger the better. Much like their names and titles the more the merrier which is why we have Charles III, the erstwhile Prince Charles of Edinburgh, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew. Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, Prince of Wales. Titles that lay claim to places whose populations have no say in who flaunts them as idiosyncratic perks. Now that he is plain Mr King, Charles’ titles have magically and effortlessly been passed to his son, Prince William aka Prince of Wales etc – with all the insensitivity we associate with royal privilege.  

With the shift up the ranks, Charles loses his lucrative income from the Duchy of Cornwall which passes to William. The Duchy of Cornwall set up in 1337 by the English king Edward III now has assets worth north of £1.05 billion and surplus of £23 million. Nowadays there are taxes paid on this income, just not in the automatic way the rest of us are taxed. Royals are given a choice over whether to pay tax and at what rate. This also applies to inheritance tax. Royal privilege means their private holdings, such as Balmoral and Sandringham, are exempt from inheritance tax as are other privately held assets such as jewellery, the royal stud, rare art and stamp collections (the late Queen’s stamps are valued about £100 million) so can be passed down the generations in a way not possible for ordinary families.   

But don’t worry about Charles III’s lost Duchy income. There is another Duchy and this comprises the monarch’s main income from a vast portfolio of land, property and assets – the Duchy of Lancaster – it is also exempt from capital gains and corporation taxes. Nice perk if you can work it. And just to turn the screw on the disparity between us punters and royals – they benefit from bona vacantia – cash and property that belonged to people who died without leaving a will or whose heirs cannot be traced. These go to that worthy cause – the Crown. Back it 2000, The Guardian reported that the Queen profited by more than £2.1 million from the proceeds of the intestate. In the same article was an unsavoury revelation that her Duchy of Lancaster fund made a killing from the deaths of widows of soldiers killed in WWII.

The royals, some of them, are immensely rich. And some of them receive public money to carry out public duties and to cover their household expenses – which can come to a lot given the number of properties they elect to live in. Of course, questions have been raised over why tax payers have to fork out at all to boost the incomes of this mega rich family, especially during periods of austerity, such as now. The death of Queen Elizabeth might have created space to discuss the role, if any, for a monarchy in 21st century UK but the family’s seamless transference of roles didn’t allow for that. And that is obviously deliberate. There is so much that is concealed surrounding palace behaviour and its relationship to the state; negotiations over the family’s public funding and tax affairs is highly secretive and entitlement appears to run deep in the royal psyche. In the 1970s Prince Philip complained about the family’s financial hardship.  

We are in the red and we might have to move out of the house next year.

He didn’t say which of their several houses he was referring to but there was at the time a dispute between them and government over the possibility of absorbing the royals and their public personae within a government department to enable their public funding greater scrutiny. The Queen got all bolshy. Her spokesperson said,

It is not clear that the Queen would wish to continue to occupy Buckingham Palace on these terms. If the palace were in effect a government department she might well wish to live elsewhere in a private capacity and appear at the palace only for official functions.  

As with so many wealthy egos who threaten to leave this place or that – they’re doing it now in Scotland over independence – they rarely follow through their emotional blackmail. However, in 1971 the government did not call the bluff of the Windsors and maintained the traditional secrecy surrounding their finances.  

How did the royals get to this coddled position? It all began a long time ago, back in 1649 with another Charles, Charles II, at a time monarchy and government were more intertwined. For services rendered he was the first monarch to receive what was called the Civil List – a useful payment of £800,000 which is equivalent today to nearly £110 million. Annually. In addition, Charles got revenues from Crown Lands. I assume Crown Lands were property sovereigns won through battles fought mostly by poor people against someone else’s army of poor people. From the money supplied by the state the king was meant to pay salaries for the likes of judges, ambassadors, courtiers, state officers etc but not the very expensive game of war hence the term Civil List, distinguishing it from military and naval expenses which were funded through specifically raised taxes.

James II in 1685 received £1,500,000 a year on much the same terms as Charles. Like Charles he was expected to pay government expenses from the Civil List but neither of them did.

William and Mary came in, in 1689.  They were a bargain compared with the profligate James and Charles. They got £1,200,000. Out of this, £700,000 was set aside for the royal household only; the first time such a distinction was made.

In 1697 parliament fixed the king’s payment, in times of peace, at £1,200,000 per year (£170 million today) in the reign of William III. £700,000 (£99 million today) of this from the Civil List. The national debt was instigated under William III, with funds raised through the sale of state securities. Its popularity flourished. War now, pay later meant easier funding of war and at the end of the Napoleonic wars the national debt stood at 200% of GDP.  

Queen Anne in 1702 was paid the same amount as William and Mary but like the rest of her feckless family, Anne ran up debts. Not just any minor debts, she accrued debts of £1,250,000 (£198,000,000 today). Parliament, tax payers, picked up the tab, in effect paying for her twice over. Her excuse? William had given away so many Crown lands. Given away – not in terms we would understand, you understand, royals don’t give anything away.

George I in 1714 saw a ‘mere’ £700,000 (£105 million) go to him to cover his household expenses. This was raised from taxes on liquor. The Westminster government now included Scotland. A tax on malt (used to make whisky and beer) caused riots ending in deaths and transportations for beer and whisky were everyday drinks at a time drinking water was often contaminated and dangerous.

George II in 1727 couldn’t get by on his £800,000 so parliament paid his debts of £456,000 (£72 million) while he didn’t pay for much of anything he was supposed to. Because George II played fast and loose with public money and failed to part fund government George III in 1760 was forced to surrender some profits from the Crown Estate which were redirected to the Treasury. He still enjoyed income from Duchy of Lancaster holdings. He also benefitted from revenue from excise duties, the post office, wine licences and miscellaneous taxes which might have been renamed – the extravagant sovereign fund and an increased Civil List of £1,030,000. You do the maths.

George IV’s annual Civil List was set at £850,000 in 1820. In addition, he pocketed hereditary revenues of Scotland (£110,000) and Ireland (£207,000). And since that wasn’t enough for him, an additional £225,000 from the public purse.

By 1830 the Civil List was restricted to the cost of upkeep of the royal household, separating this from the monarch’s civil government responsibilities. William IV was given £510,000 annually while the revenues of Scotland and Ireland were now paid to the Exchequer instead of the king’s coffers; Scottish hereditary land revenues were switched from the management of the Barons of the Exchequer to the Commissioners of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings and their successors under Crown Lands (Scotland) Acts of 1832, 1833, 1835.

Victoria was next up, in 1837. She received £415,000 annually (£36 million today) with parliament specifying how the funds should be spent. It should be said that other members of the royal family also received public cash but here I’m mostly dealing with the sovereign.  In 1848 the revenue from the Duchy of Cornwall was £67,000 (£6 million). The Prince of Wales, whose revenue stream it was, was 7 years old. An additional award of £7,000 was provided by parliament for his education and maintenance – an annual amount that soared within two years to £39,000 (£4 million). The value of the Crown Estates greatly increased in value over Victoria’s reign.

Ever since accession of House of Hanover, kings of England, as a rule, never lived within their income, and a Sovereign of habits no less simple and unostentatious than GEORGE III, was repeatedly obliged to apply to Parliament to pay his debts. Instead therefore of continually paying sums of money to eke out an income of which a large part was derived from estates of which the rental was unknown, and which were possibly mismanaged, it was obviously an economical course for Parliament to take the landed property of the Crown into its own hands and to settle on the Sovereign for life at the beginning of a reign a revenue sufficient, according to contingencies, calculable at the moment, for a liberal Court expenditure.

(The Mall Gazette, 31 July, 1871)

Prime Minister, William Gladstone, explained in 1871 that the Crown Estates would be transferred to parliament in return for maintenance of the royal family which, he said, gave parliament a moral control over the royal family and was in the long term the most economical. Disraeli argued that the Crown provided as much as the Civil List so defraying their state private expenses but not for providing for the whole of the royal family which begs the question about the size of the royal family and its inability to live within its means.

Edward VII’s initial £470,000 in 1901 crept up to £634,000 by the time he died and was the Civil List paid to George V in 1910. Out of this sum £125,000 was allocated to royal household salaries, £125,800 for pensions and £193,000 for other household expenses.

Into the 1930s, that period of desperate poverty and hunger though not among the royals although George V did give up £50,000 as a token gesture towards what was happening outside his coddled circle.  

Edward VIII, the fascist king, in December 1936 was awarded a Civil List of £370,000. This was due to rise to £410,000 on his marriage. Just not marriage to a fellow fascist. When he was forced out his brother, George VI, got the £410,000 per year.

His daughter, Elizabeth, followed him, in 1952 with the Civil List initially set at £475,000.

The 1972 Civil List Act included provision for a review of royal payments every ten years – but only to allow for increases, not reductions – a result of more secretive negotiations between civil service and palace. So ended a tradition that the Civil List was negotiated once at the beginning of a monarch’s reign for their lifetime.

In 2000 PM Tony Blair told the Commons an agreement struck in 1990 was so generous that the Civil List account was £35 million in the black. But, of course, this did not result in a pause in payments to the palace – because, it was said, of the provisions of the 1972 Act. It transpired the Act never intended any such thing but incredibly the Blair government and the palace agreed on an additional £7.9million a year until 2010.

In 2012 the Civil List was abolished. Not so state benefits to the royals. It was now called the sovereign grant. The sovereign grant in 2020-21 amounted to £51.5 million; a figure calculated at 15% of profits of the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate was valued at £15 billion in 2021 but as royal spending knows no bounds additional claims on the Treasury occur such as £34.5 million for ‘reservicing’ of Buckingham Palace. To cover such costs the palace has been allowed to claim 25% profits until at least 2027 when it is envisaged the rate of income will return to 15%. These extras known as grants-in-aid for unexpected costs such as property maintenance and travel often amount to large sums of cash – in 2017 replacement doors at the orangery at Windsor Castle cost £1.2 million. Where royals are concerned there are always extra costs – policing for royal events, royal weddings, royal celebrations, foreign travel, military parades, RAF flypasts, local government costs during royal visits – it goes on.  

The official expenditure of the Queen 2021 -22 was £102.4 million, a mark-up of 17% from the previous year’s £87.5 million.

It’s costly being a royal. It’s costly not being royal. The sovereign’s personal fund of the Duchy of Lancaster was recently valued at £580 million generating around £20 million in profits annually. The Duchy Cornwall is worth about £960 million and generates something in the region of £20 million. The Queen began to pay tax on the Lancaster income only in 1993. Charles also volunteered to pay some tax. There are other taxes they do pay, VAT and council tax. Council tax on Buckingham Palace is £1,500. A lot of bang for the buck, so to speak.

Things are looking up for the Crown Estate with the surge in renewables on and offshore. Twenty-five percent of current and future profits or even 15% of profits amounts to a huge boost in income. The same applies to future gas and carbon storage to the tune of £billions. the sovereign’s rights to profits from wind and wave power is recent – granted by the Blair/Brown government in 2004.

In 2016 Crown Estate Scotland was created by an act of parliament devolving Crown Estate interests in Scotland from those in other parts of the UK. Crown Estate Scotland is run as a public corporation on behalf of the Scottish government. This means the crown’s economic assets in Scotland, including seabed, mineral and fishing rights have been transferred to Holyrood’s control and revenue is paid into the Scottish Consolidated Fund. They remain the property of the monarch but cannot be sold by him or her. However, the palace stuck their heels in over the majority of its Scottish holding worth 60% of the Crown Estate in Scotland – a 50% stake in Fort Kinnaird, a retail park in Edinburgh, which was retained by the queen and soon sold off privately for £167.25 million. The proceeds were used to buy Gallacher Retail Park in Cheltenham. Which is pretty bloody cynical and exposes the disdain this immensely wealthy family holds towards the well-being of Scots and Scotland depriving causes of much needed funds.  

King Charles III is worth an estimated £538 million and £25 – £38 billion in assets including the Crown Estate, palaces and those lucrative Duchies. So who pays for the royals? We all do. There is nothing certain in this world, except death and taxes – to misquote Benjamin Franklin – except in the case of royalty where death is certain, paying taxes – not so much.

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/moray/1504741/uk-crown-estate-accused-of-167-million-cash-grab-from-scottish-purse/

Mar 12, 2022

The Scots that built Russia’s army and navy

Why did so many men from northeast Scotland play such an important part in the development of Russia’s army and navy? According to the American writer, Washington Irving, it was down to the topography of their homeland – the flat coast, eastward-facing that produced

men of the clearest brains, the strongest arms, and the most determined wills, to a country in which these commodities have never been wanting.

Russia’s military and naval might might not be what it is today had it not been for a few Scotsmen. Quite a few Scotsmen as it turns out but one or two who were instrumental in reorganising the Russian empire’s defences (and lines of attack.)

Russian Imperial Navy 1700s

Since boats were boats Scots sailed to the Baltic from Aberdeen and Leith and points in-between to trade, to study and ply their crafts – including the arts of war. Mackenzies, Lindsays, Watsons, Farquhars, Hays, Elphinstones, MacLeods, Learmonths – George Mikhail Lermontov, ensign in the Russian army and descendant of Thomas the Rhymer, Gordons.

There are a lot of Gordons in Scotland and quite a lot were to be found in Russia over the past four hundred years.

Patrick Gordon from Auchleuchries in Aberdeenshire was in danger as a Catholic from the religious civil wars that brought Cromwell to power so at the age of sixteen he was taken by his father and uncle to Aberdeen to purchase clothes and put him aboard a merchant ship sailing to Danzig. Danzig (now Gdańsk) then held within a union between Poland and Lithuania was an important Baltic port. There he found accommodation with another Scot, John Donaldson, before making his way across Europe, lodging as he went mainly with Scots with whom he was put in contact. For a time he travelled with fellow-countrymen, Thomas and Michael Menzies and a Jesuit priest, Father Blackhall.

Not familiar with the local languages and dialects young Gordon struggled at first to get by speaking Latin and a smattering of Dutch. One particular day it all got too much for Gordon and he sat down on the roadside and wept from desperation but on being comforted by a stranger the young lad found the determination to continue.   

In 1655 young Patrick Gordon, a capable swordsman, did what thousands of his compatriots did, he sold his battle skills to the highest bidder, as a mercenary soldier. He enlisted with the Swedish army as a cavalryman. Opportunities there were plenty for mercenaries with Europe in constant turmoil battling over land and power. Gordon’s allegiances switched about. He fought with the Swedes at times and at other times with the Poles, against his former comrades. It was while in the pay of the Swedes he found himself a prisoner of a Russian force led by Scot, Colonel John Crawford (Crawfurd). Crawford persuaded Gordon to cross to the Russian Imperial army where he was told he’d be in the company of many Scotsmen.  

Patrick Gordon proved himself again and again on the battlefield and he rose through the ranks becoming a Major General, later Lieutenant General and Chief of Command at Kiev (Kyiv in Ukraine). By this time Gordon had become Pyotr Ivanovich, a trusted adviser and friend to the Tsar, Peter the Great. Gordon was the first foreigner in Russian history that a Tsar visited privately, when eighteen-year old Peter went to Gordon’s house in Moscow’s German Quarter. Trusted implicitly by him, Gordon laid the foundations of Peter the Great’s army that became the strongest in Europe.

Gordon died in 1699 at the age of sixty-four having served under three Tsars. The young Scottish laddie broken by loneliness fifty years earlier ended his life deeply mourned by a Tsar who provided his friend with a state funeral.

By the Grace of God, We Peter the First, Tsar and Sole Monarch of all Russi …blah blah blah …Be it known to Every one, That We have Graciously Appointed and Constituted Thomas Gordon (Captain Commander in our Navy for his well recommended to us Experiences, Dilligence and Zeal for our Service) to be our Rear Admiral the first day of January, 1719…  blah blah etc etc.

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Gordon’s namesake who made a career for himself with the Swedish and Polish armies in which he attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and earned the nickname, Steel Hand for his swordsmanship, is sometimes confused with the Auchleuchries Gordon.

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Another Gordon was Thomas Gordon, sometime captain of a merchant ship, Margaret, that sailed out of the port of Aberdeen, and was in 1703 in charge of the Royal Scots Navy ship, Royal Mary. Until the Union in 1707 Scotland was often the target of English aggression and ambition – some incidents were deadly and others petty though revealing such as Scottish vessels being denied the right to fly the Scottish pennant when in English waters. Following Union with England the Scottish Navy was scrapped in favour of the continuation of England’s Royal Navy. Scottish vessels and crews were absorbed into it and where both navies included identically-named vessels Scottish ships were ordered to change names – a move that was unpopular with Scots crewmen. From the start of the Union it was clear Scotland would be an inferior partner.

Royal Scottish Navy vessel

Thomas Gordon tholed so much English high-handedness but he refused to take an oath to the newly-crowned George I and left the navy, sailing to France where he stayed for a time before joining the Russian navy in 1717. He was promoted to Admiral in 1727 and later made Chief Commander of the Russian maritime port of Kronstadt. 

In common with numerous other Scots of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Thomas Gordon’s family settled in Russia, either marrying Russians or bringing up their families as Russian. Ann Young was Thomas Gordon’s granddaughter. She married Thomas Mackenzie (Mekenzi) a Rear-Admiral in the Russian Navy. Their son, Thomas, also became a Rear-Admiral in the Imperial navy and founder of the city of Sevastopol – the largest city in Crimea and principal port on the Black Sea, in 1783. Sevastopol under him became a vital station for naval supplies as well as developing its shipbuilding capacity. The Mekenzi mountains in Ukraine are named in honour of him.

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The ’Father of the Russian Navy’

The Sevastopol Thomas Gordon served under another Scot, Samuel Greig. Greig, the son of a merchant captain from Inverkeithing in Fife, became an Admiral and then Grand Admiral during the period of Tsarina Catherine the Great, who tasked him with modernising the Imperial Navy. She was the godmother of Samuel Greig’s son, Aleksei Samuilovich Greig, who was given the rank of midshipman at his birth. Almost inevitably the younger Greig made the navy his life. In 1816 he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Black Sea Fleet and ports at a time when Russia had full control of the Black Sea. Other Greigs enjoyed status roles in both the Russian army and navy. This family were part of the elite of Russian society for a century and a half but the sons were educated in Edinburgh.  

When the ‘Father of the Russian Navy’, Samuel Carlovich Greig, died he was given a magnificent funeral. Laid out with full pomp Greig was dressed in his Admiral uniform, his many medals illustrating his service to Russia Governor of Kronstadt, Chevalier of the Order of St Andrew, St Alexander Newski, St George, St Vladimir, St Anne. A crown of laurel was placed on his head. At the foot of the black-draped bier in a silver urn were his bowels.  

If Great and Good Actions
Command the Respect of Mankind,
The name of Greig will live for Ever.
He deserved good Fortune,
And he found it under the Banners of Cath.II.
He scattered the Enemies of Russia . . .

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James Keith from Inverugie in Aberdeenshire who became a General Field Marshall in the Prussian army, a major military leader in Europe and trusted friend and adviser to Frederick the Great was for a time responsible for the Russian forces in Finland then being fought over by Russia and Sweden. Keith was one of three Inspector Generals of the Russian forces – his responsibility being the frontier with Asia along the rivers Volga and Don and a section of the border with Poland. Keith, however, did not settle in Russia but transferred into the service of the Prussia’s Frederick the Great. Like so many fellow-Scots, Keith was forced to flee Scotland because of his religion and/or his support for the Jacobite cause. He did briefly return to Aberdeenshire once no longer branded an outlaw but couldn’t settle having lived so long on the Continent. He returned to the army and died, killed by cannon fire at the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758. He had been let down by the man whose ear he normally had, Frederick the Great. Keith had warned him his Prussian troops were in grave danger from the Austrians if they didn’t alter position. Frederick disagreed, and Keith paid the ultimate penalty, knocked out of his saddle, he was killed instantly. Generalfedlmarschall Jacob von Keith has a granite memorial at Hochkirch.

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An earlier army reformer with Russia’s Imperial forces was Alexander Leslie of Auchintoul in Banffshire (now Aberdeenshire). Alexander Leslie fought for the Swedes and Poles before transferring to the Russians and becoming Russia’s first General. Leslie recruited men from Scotland as part of his army improvements. He returned to the British Isles and took up arms in the Civil Wars for the Duke of Montrose and was ultimately banished from Scotland. Returning to Russia he lived out his life there, dying in Smolensk in 1663. His son, John, was killed while a Colonel in the Russian cavalry. John was married into the Scot-Russo Crawfords mentioned above.

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Thomas Dalyell (Dalziel) of Binns, West Lothian, Bluidy Tam, fought in the Scottish Royalist army. In the civil wars a price of 200 guineas was put on his head. Not unsurprisingly he fled to Russia, into the service of Tsar Alexis I where his brutal reputation earned him the nickname, Muscovite De’il. He did not remain in Russia but returned to Scotland to crack down on the Covenanters with such force he came to be known here as Bluidy Tam.

Russian Imperial Army in the 18th century

Robert Bruce, not that one but a later scion of the clan, whose family under James Daniel Bruce settled in Russia in the mid-1600s – Robert, Roman Vilimovich Bryusov, served in Peter I’s personal guard and he became the first Commander of St Petersburg. His army career lasted around thirty years and when he died in 1720 he was buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg,

Other members of the Bruce family were prominent in Russian society. Robert’s son, Alexander Romanovich Bruce was a Lieutenant-General in Russia’s Imperial army. Alexander’s uncle, Jacob Bruce, was primarily a diplomat and scientist (astronomer and naturalist – and also an alchemist and magician) but he also did a stint in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish war and the Great Northern War when he was promoted to Major-General of Artillery – and rewarded for his successes by being made a count, one of the first in Russia, almost exactly 300 years ago.  Other Scots would follow into the Russian nobility.

When they travelled Scots took with them their birth brieve – a birth certificate with details of their origins. Additional documentation was kept in the Propinquity Registers of Scotland. Aberdeen holds some of these among its unique collection of archives dating back to Robert the Bruce’s time. Propinquity Books provided early modern travel documents. There’s an entry on 9th July 1725 relating to the family of the late James Gordon of Auchleuchries, ‘brigadier in the service of the Emperor of Russia’ that records the disposal of his property to his kin in Scotland.  

Aberdeen’s Propinquity Registers reveal the importance and extent of Scotland’s east coast maritime trade with Europe. Sailing from Scottish ports such as Aberdeen to Baltic ports “the path to the Baltic ports was easier, and the welcome greater, than the highway that led to England” it has been said. Europe provided opportunities for wealth and reputation and many a Scottish family counted their fortunes in Russian rubles.

Feb 24, 2022

The Union Dividend: emigrate if you know what’s good for you

     Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character. If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for 50 or 100 or 200 years, some result will inevitably follow.

Edwin Muir, Scottish Journey, 1935:

Migrating Scots mother and children, 1911
(Library & Archives, Canada)

It is reprehensible that any government would regard its people as its main export but this was the fate of Scotland following the establishment of the Union – during the later 18 th century, 19th century and even into the 20th  century.

Without the broad shoulders of the Union, Scots are frequently told, Scotland would be a failing state – which begs the question, if Scotland has done so well from the Union how is it her population was compelled to abandon her in such huge numbers soon after the Union of 1707?

Either the Union has been devilishly good for Scotland and transformed her from a backward and struggling country into one both so innovative and confidently successful that she would have no trouble forging a bright future alone or it hasn’t. Which is it? We should be told.

Size seems to confound Unionists. Scotland’s population of about 5.5 million is too small, they argue. Successful nations with similar sized populations – Ireland, New Zealand, Kuwait, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Norway, Oman, Croatia might disagree and by now I’m getting into the 4 millions – Latvia, Bahrain, Estonia, Cyprus, Mauritius – below 2 million and could carry on to tiny Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Bermuda, Gibraltar – all of 33,000 inhabitants. But where was I? Scotland, unlike some of the above is richly endowed with potential for market-valuable renewables, is still an oil and gas producer, has unique and sought-after food and drink commodities, has an educated and skilled workforce and strong engineering pedigree.  If Scotland with all of this is not capable of standing on her own feet then the Union has failed Scotland and failed Scotland spectacularly, reducing our country to a pathetic dogsbody of a nation perpetually insulted and patronised and one whose interests are simply ignored by Westminster where the Union’s power is anchored.  

Bring on some goalposts. Not there. Over there. Where size is clearly not the issue it must be the economy that stops independence. Scotland isn’t rich enough. Remember the guffawing back in 2014-15 when oil prices collapsed? You’d be broke, Unionists crowed while simultaneously denying Scotland’s seabed was, in fact, Scottish. They aren’t laughing now with Brent crude prices back up in the 90s. Goalpost change. Climate change – you can’t open any more oil and gas fields – although this is a reserved matter and Unionist HQ, Westminster, is doing just that. Scotland’s large and expanding renewable energy sector is dismissed by Unionists who insist England will refuse to buy Scottish power and fresh water. Doesn’t sound like the actions of a friend never mind Union partner. But the Union has never been a partnership based on respect or trust.

From the inception of the Union government in Westminster operated on the principle that England’s industries and trade took precedence over Scotland’s. And in case we didn’t get the message Scots were told their country was poor and barbaric and we should sling our hooks and leave Scotland, the worthless nation, to rot. And many did. Some were forcibly displaced. Some chose to leave. The British Empire had spaces that needed filling with Europeans – so to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – ousting their native populations. Like so many of today’s migrants, Scots moved abroad in the hope of making a a better future for themselves and their families than was possible at home – because the Union dividend has always been a myth. Or they had no choice but to leave. Because the Union has been a disaster for Scotland.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, in the month of April 9,000 people left Scotland – just under 3,000 in a single week. In another week, in May of 1912,  3,520 Scots migrated to Canada or America from the Clyde alone. Other ports were available. On 1st June, again from the Clyde, a further 2,000 were shipped west. On 6th June 1912, a report claimed emigration from Scotland was running twice as fast as from England.

Canada was the favoured destination for Scots. Before the Union, Scotland established a colony in Canada in 1621. It was called Nova Scotia (New Scotland.) This colonisation proved brief, being surrendered to the French in 1632. Two centuries later, under the Union, the Canadian authorities employed squads of agents to sell Canada to Scots – to entice the brightest and best to settle there where farm land could be bought for the price of a year’s rent in Scotland and where industries required skilled men and women. Leaflets were pressed into hands and colourful posters pinned up in public places promising everything that was great and everything that was different from failed Scotland bogged down by hardship, low pay, high rents, filthy slums and poor food – the Union dividend.  

Lord Strathcona, a Scot who became a Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a big shot in Canada, enthused about the vast territory of Canada able to maintain 150,000,000 people – he wasn’t talking about Canada’s own indigenous peoples, you understand, he wanted Scots to up sticks and settle there where everything was “the best.”

“Anyone – even a lady – could succeed on the land there” Strathcona said by way of encouragement. He knew ‘ladies’ from Russia who were farming. 

Back in Scotland the Union had so run down the country Scots took little persuading to leave. In 1912 a flood of humanity boarded vessels, mainly for Canada and America, but also for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This flood was a continuation of the one the year before. In 1911, about 90,000 Scots packed up and left the old country. Across the rest of Europe emigration to America and Canada was slowing down but not from Scotland where it was accelerating because Scots could see no future in Scotland in the Union. In 1906 Scottish exceeded Irish emigration for the first time and did so again in 1911-12.   

In 1911 Scotland recorded its lowest death rate since 1855 (when records began) and lowest birth rate since 1873 except for 1890. The low birth rate might be explained by the drainage of young men, sometimes abandoning wives, and young women moving abroad. Scotland’s population depletion was only regarded with concern once rate payers discovered they were being asked to provide poor relief for deserted families. But emigration provided excellent business opportunities for shipping lines.

American bound from Aberdeen

Between 1830 and 1914 around 2 million Scots emigrated abroad and a similar number are believed to have moved to other parts of the UK. Throughout the 20th century Scotland’s population decline continued. Since 1851 the proportion of Scotland’s population to the population of the UK as a whole has diminished by 25%.

People, industries and company headquarters have moved away from Scotland. The oil and gas sector off the northeast of Scotland ran counter to this long-term trend and had a major impact on population, jobs and wage levels. Unfortunately, the immense wealth produced off Scotland’s coast failed to benefit Scotland. Instead, Thatcher ensured that London and the southeast of England profited with vast building and infrastructure spending there. Compare Europe’s oil and gas capital, Aberdeen, with London. You would never know Aberdeen was the hub of so much multinational activity. Scotland was prevented from benefitting from this klondike which is an odd sort of dividend – aka no dividend at all but cynical exploitation by a greedy partner.

James Annand, an Aberdeenshire journalist and soon-to-be Liberal MP (the shortest serving MP, dying within a couple of weeks of winning and never taking his seat) was campaigning in 1903. He buttered up his audience in St Fergus with references to townies who had no idea how tough life and work were for country folk and complained about the lack of affordable farms for rent. He reminded his audience that Scotland was a poor country – a poor country? Surely some mistake – after two hundred years of that Union dividend how come Scotland was still poor? The Unionist never explained but he did emphasise just how poor Scotland was and how it was understandable that so very many Scots migrated because they could not make a decent living at home. Annand supported Scots getting out of Scotland to Canada – the land of opportunity.

Canada still tempting Scots away in its quest for “suitable men and women to go there.’  Annand mentioned Texas with its “three million acres of land, owned by a single company, that was being offered in lots for sale at £1000 each” and Australia with its “incalculable opportunities for enterprise in connection with unoccupied territory” – where indigenous people didn’t appear to matter.

And so Scotland continued to be drained of many of its most “suitable men and women” – from countryside and cities – the populations of Edinburgh and Glasgow were also in decline. The tide of migration that swept “the best young men and women of Scotland” ashore in North America was detrimental to the economy back home as well as reinforcing how Scotland was failing its own people following years of underinvestment, attacks on its manufacturing, lack of opportunities, lack of hope and ambition over generations. The coming of the Great War placed a temporary halt on Scotland’s population depletion by emigration, replacing it with another loss, of many of its fine young people, in that disastrous bloodbath.

Early in the twentieth century when England’s population was about five times greater than Scotland’s its wealth was about thirty-six times greater than Scotland’s. That Union dividend, again.

Two hundred years of the Union, of the Union dividend, and the message was – emigrate if you know what’s good for you.                   

Westminster government statistics income 2014-16

For centuries England repeatedly attacked Scotland, in an attempt to annex it. It did not succeed until 1707 when a handful of Scottish nobles sold out their country for personal gain. That was the point that Scotland became an irrelevance in the eyes of the British monarchy and government except for the money it could raise from Scots taxpayers to help pay for England’s near continuing wars and her young men to sacrifice themselves as cannon fodder – for wars have a habit of eliminating people at a fearful rate. Peacetime taxes levied by Westminster favoured English industries to the detriment of Scottish ones. The Union was an English protectionist measure set up by the monarchy and Westminster. The myth it has been good for Scotland is just that. Westminster operates to benefit the city of London and this is why present talk of ‘levelling up’ is just talk. Ireland was treated in a similar manner to Scotland. The Irish woollen trade was destroyed to protect England’s and during the terrible famine years of the 1840s while 400,000 Irish people were starving to death the grain they grew on their land was carted away to fill British bellies. Destitute Irish could see no future at home and so left. Likewise in Scotland. Between 1840 and 1940 a little short of a million Scots went to live in other parts of the UK while more than two million emigrated abroad.

The Highlands and Islands Emigration Society encouraged Scots escape starvation during the Highland Potato Famine of 1846 by emigrating to Australia. In Westminster the Emigration Act of 1851 provided subsidies to landlords to ship people abroad like so much livestock. Queen Victoria and assorted aristocrats contributed to the costs to rid Scotland of Scots, though she, herself, decided to use the country as a holiday retreat.   

At the Union Scotland’s population was about 20% of the UK’s population. Today Scotland’s 5.5 million make up 8.2% of the UK’s overall population. According to the James Hutton Institute Scotland’s rural populations could decline by 33% in little more than 20 years.

While I was able to find sources that looked at the impact of emigration on Ireland I found none on the impact of emigration from Scotland on Scotland. Although not identical emigration from Ireland has comparisons with Scotland but in Ireland’s case destitution drove emigration much more than occurred in Scotland. The perception that migrants are always poor and low skilled has never been true. Of course people emigrate for different reasons and some impoverished and low skilled will take their chances moving abroad, often under duress, but these groups are those least likely to migrate while the educated, skilled and ambitious are more likely to voluntarily emigrate.

Migrants have also moved to Scotland. Through the 19th and 20th centuries they came mainly from Ireland, the Baltic countries and northern Europe (a reversal of 16th and 17th century Scots moving abroad to trade), Italians and, of course, people from Wales and England. With increasing global migration, the number of Scots born outwith Scotland continues to increase; in 2018-19 just under 40,000 moved to Scotland from overseas – 20,000 greater than left.

Fraser of Allander gross disposable household income across UK 2018

The return of some autonomy to Scotland through the partial resurrection of a parliament in Edinburgh provided hope for the future of the country. However, Westminster jealously guards its overall control of the whole UK and will chip away at Edinburgh’s authority and will as far as possible implement policies that protect and support that southeast corner of England, as it has done since 1707. These are dangerous times for Scots. If Westminster succeeds in extinguishing Scotland’s recently found confidence and optimism the country will again be plunged into a state of hopelessness that led to people leaving over three hundred years. The Union that needed heavily armed fortifications to ensure compliance in its early days, that ran down Scotland and drained it of “its best men and women” might have proved a dividend for Westminster but at a terrible cost for Scotland.

Jan 16, 2022

Oncology – Scottish impact on cancer treatment and the perils of radium

Very many of us have had all too close experience of cancer either in our own lives or in those of family and friends. Cancer is not a new disease and historically surgeons cut out malignant growths to try to prevent their spread. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century that there were major scientific developments that would revolutionise the treatment of malignant tumours – with the discovery of radium and x-rays.

Nowadays we bundle cancer treatments under the label oncology, an umbrella term for medical, radiation and surgical methods of dealing with cancers; the intensity of treatments dependent on the severity and stage of illness – frequently surgery is followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

X-rays were discovered at the very end of the 19th century, in 1895, by the German engineer and physicist, Wilhelm Röntgen.  This must have seemed like magic. In 1896 the first patient with a cancer of the throat was irradiated in an attempt to stem the growth of his tumour. The following year Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays similar to x-rays. That same year Marie and Pierre Curie announced to the world an element they called radium, extracted from radioactive uranite or pitchblende and in 1902 they isolated radioactive radium salts from the mineral.

In 1910 John R. Levack at Foresterhill Hospital in Aberdeen in Scotland sought out a supply of the much talked-about, radium. His request was turned down by the hospital board and then the Great War was upon them so it was not until 1922 that Aberdeen Royal Infirmary obtained a small stock of radium salts, as did a few other hospitals in the UK, which led for instance to their use treating women with cancer of the uterus.

A quantity of radium was provided to the University of Aberdeen’s science hub at Marischal College’s Department of Natural Philosophy (Physics). There radium was turned into radioactive gas, radon, and needles were loaded with radium for medical interventions. Given the hazardous nature of these radioactive substances a radium officer was identified who was given responsibility for their safety. In 1922 this was John Cruickshank, a lecturer in malignant disease. As well as the radium officer, several other new roles were created at the hospital and university relating to the handling of radioactive substances and in order to develop appropriate methods for dispensing radium treatments to the sick.  

Loaded needles were inserted into malignant tumours

New academic and medical departments were created along with a raft of national and international organisations on the back of radioactivity. The British Association for the Advancement of Radiology and Physiotherapy was formed in 1917, later known as the British Institute of Radiology. A UK radium commission was set up in 1929 to regulate the use of radium in Britain, leading to a handful of radium centres and local radium officers. 1. 

Radium requires very careful handling for it is inherently dangerous and at the onset of WWII a new problem arose – where to store the hospital’s supplies safely in the event of Aberdeen being bombed. It was. Aberdeen was the most bombed Scottish city during WW II. On the 21st April 1943 127 bombs fell in just 44 minutes killing 125 people and destroying and damaging a huge amount of property. Any direct hit on the city’s store of radioactive material would have spelled death to many more, to thousands potentially, and for years to come with lethal radioactive dust finding its way into people’s and animal’s bodies the nightmare would be long-lasting. What to do? The answer had to come quickly.

In anticipation of this arrangements were made to protect radium supplies. Burying the material underground, to a depth of 50 feet or more was recommended but given Aberdeenshire sits on fairly impenetrable granite this was problematic so where could a place of real depth but still within the vicinity of the city be found? Anyone with any knowledge of Aberdeen will know what comes next – Rubislaw quarry. Rubislaw is 142 metres (465 feet) deep and one of the largest man-made holes in Europe. Local supplies of radium in solution were taken out of their glass containers, dried and restored. (Supplies from Inverness were included.) They were protected with lead and steel and placed in part of the quarry wall that had been specially prepared and the opening plugged with heavy timbers. Gaining access to the hospital’s supplies during the years of the war involved someone being lowered deep into the quarry on a Blondin  – an aerial ropeway. Not for the fainthearted. None of the handling of these toxic substances was for the fainthearted. As it happened the Germany Luftwaffe did manage to find Rubislaw quarry with a bomb but fortunately little damage was done to the borehole containing the hospital’s deadly supplies, and so the good folk of Aberdeen lived to fight another day.  An additional small quantity of radium was also preserved west of Aberdeen at Torphins hospital. Why I don’t know. Could it be that was closer to Balmoral and potential needs of royalty?

The ‘laboratory’ at Cove quarry

Although it was risky having radium right in the heart of the city there was little option if it was to be available for delivering medical treatments given the very limited life of radon gas. It had to be produced near Foresterhill. This couldn’t take place in Rubislaw quarry and the place chosen was at Cove on the southern edge of Aberdeen. Here both electricity and water were available and the railway ran close-by which was to prove valuable. Cove’s Blackhill’s quarry had a face excavated to store glass bulbs filled with dried radium for making into radon gas when needed. In the same way as it was protected at Rubislaw what became the little laboratory at Cove consisted of the mineral, steel, lead and in addition sandbags and a shed. One bad winter a south-bound train carrying the university’s H.D. Griffith (its first medical physicist) and his staff was stopped close to the site so they could more easily get through the snow drifts to make up essential medical supplies.  

Each time radon was needed liquid oxygen and gas cylinders had to be carried in to the ad hoc lab at Cove. But it worked and between March 1940 and September1945 Cove’s little workroom supplied not only Aberdeen but Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle hospitals with radon gas.

Every care was taken to protect and preserve this potentially lethal but medically beneficial substance but still radium did go missing: seven filled needles of it disappeared in 1932; years later a 50 mg tube was flushed down a toilet by a hospital patient and despite valiant attempts to trace the radium through the sewer system to its outlet at the Bay of Nigg nothing was found; a further 50 mg tube was inadvertently incinerated at Woodend Hospital which must have resulted in radioactive smoke getting out into the atmosphere in west Aberdeen but there were no reports of associated health impacts.

Aberdeen’s early foray into nuclear medicine led in 1950 to Britain’s first oncology unit being established at the city’s Royal Infirmary under Professor James F. Philip who had been the hospital’s radium officer from 1939 till then and was a founding member of the British Association of Surgical Oncology. The department initially known as the malignant diseases unit built on Aberdeen’s ground-breaking joined-up approach to nuclear medicine that would influence cancer therapies across Scotland. By the 1970s all Scottish hospitals were encouraged to setup their own units based on what had been operating at Foresterhill for 20 years.

The most stable radium isotope is radium-226 which has a half-life of 1600 years. Radon 222’s half-life by contrast lasts only 3.8 days. Needles of radium salts were able to be used indefinitely but radon within them built up and leakages were likely. Radon needles were designed for fast application and needed constant replacement but their radiation hazard declined quickly. Needles were inserted directly into tumours as opposed to irradiation from outside. Radium or radon are no longer used. In 1980 caesium-137 replaced radium in the treatment of cervical cancer and iridium wire replaced radium for solid tumours.

Establishing safe and effective doses of radium isotopes became the source of many conversations in the scientific world, as among everyone else. Their impact on patients must have been significant.

Finally, a number of years ago I found myself in Würzburg where Roëntgen carried out many of his x-ray experiments and having read there was a small museum dedicated to the great man I tracked down what I thought was the place. Everyone must have been hard at work in labs or offices for it took me quite a time to find anyone there and none of whom seemed to know about displays so I left as disappointed as they were confused. No idea where I was but it doesn’t seem it was the right place because there is a Roëntgen museum which is, thankfully, available online. Nothing to do with this whatsoever but the small private hotel I stayed in for a couple of nights offered the best breakfasts of any hotels I’ve been to. And I’ve been to lots.

https://wilhelmconradroentgen.de/en/

Finally, finally.  The perils of exposure to radium were not understood at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries and even when its hazards were beginning to be apparent its potential for industrial applications were too great for commercial enterprises to ignore. Staff and customer safety were of no concern and very young women employed in the USA to paint numbers and hands onto watches and military instruments so they could be seen in the dark involved the women licking the paintbrushes to form delicate points. The women were not told of the dangers of handling this curious paint that glowed in the dark and happily messed about painting it onto their fingernails and even their teeth as they kidded about while working. They became known as the Radium Girls and they developed cancers and many died as a consequence.

Radium ‘girls’

A craze for all things radium early in the 1900s led manufacturers to lace all sorts of products with the stuff, for no reason other than they could – chocolate, cosmetics, playing cards, clothing, health tonics. Bizarrely radium was added to hen feed with the idea irradiated eggs would self-cook and perhaps self-incubate.  Sounds nuts to us today but it was all new then. On the subject of nuts – Brazil nuts contain radium, naturally. Two to three nuts daily is not a health risk but go canny with those moreish chocolate Brazils.

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1.One eminent doctor whose name is permanently linked with the early years of radiology is Professor James Mackenzie Davidson one-time president of the British Association of Radiology (BAR) and the British Institute of Radiology (BIR).

Mackenzie Davidson’s parents were among the earliest Scots to emigrate to Argentina, in 1830. At least that was when his father went out there, aged 21, from St Martin’s in Perthshire. Don’t know about his mother because details about women are usually regarded as unimportant – I do know she was from Argyll. The Davidsons bought up pieces of land around the River Platte to farm sheep and cattle and did that successfully. Davidson senior survived many an adventure, including an attack by three gauchos who thought they’d killed him but it was Davidson’s horse that died, on top of him. When he was eventually able to extract himself from under the poor beast he was able, eventually, to find help and lived to experience several more adventures, apparently. The family were related to Marshall Mackenzie, the eminent architect from Elgin and Scotland remained important to the Davidsons who frequently sailed back from South America for visits. Their son, James, was educated at the Scottish School at Buones Aires and studied medicine at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and London. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1882 and opened a medical clinic at West North Street in the city. From there, in 1886, he was appointed Professor of Surgery and lecturer in Ophthalmology at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kid’s hospital and Blind Asylum. James Mackenzie Davidson became fascinated by the newly discovered x-rays and visited him at his workshop in Würzburg in Germany to learn more about x-rays and radiation and was able to carry out his own x-ray of a foot that had been pierced with a broken needle.  He devised the cross-thread method of localization to trace foreign bodies in the eye which proved of immense value for treating horrific eye injuries in WWI. Mackenzie Davidson was by this time in London, working with x-rays at Charing Cross Hospital’s Roëntgen Ray department. Following his death in 1919 an annual lecture in his honour was established by the British Radiological Society and a medal is presented for outstanding work in the field of radiological medicine.

H D Griffith Physicist ARI Zodiac Journal of Aberdeen University Medical Society Vol 1 p 190, Jan 1950.

Aberdeen Royal Infirmary: The People’s Hospital of the North-East. Iain Levack and Hugh Dudley, 1992.

Jan 5, 2022

The Great Hair Cut Riots

While hard-nosed peace negotiations were taking place at Versailles in France at the end of the Great War. While 74 ships of the German fleet were scuttled at Scapa Flow in Scotland. While Greeks and Turks fought over territory, encouraged by Britain. While rioting by Canadian troops stationed in England and Wales resulted in brutal murder. While all this was happening in 1919, a year the world was plunged into crises – uprisings, mutinies, riots and revolution – the Spartacists in Germany, reds versus whites in Russia, rebellion against British imperialism just about everywhere – always viciously repressed – in Egypt, Malta, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, India – and closer to home tanks and military turning their firepower on civilians in Ireland and in Glasgow. 1919 while the world tottered on its axis Aberdeen was rocked by rioting over haircuts. It happened like this.

Frederick Street School with its rooftop playground

In 1919 young girls usually wore their hair long and loose, no less so in pockets of the city where desperate poverty meant large families lived cheek-by-jowl in tenement rooms with limited access to soap and water – cold water from a communal tap on a stair landing or outside. Never hot water on tap. These were the homes for heroes promised by Lloyd George during WWI. In 1919 seriously deprived families, their men-folk just returning (if they were lucky) from serving in one of the most horrific wars ever, were no doubt struggling to contend with adjusting to life, attempting to find work, trying to keep the wolf from the door and possibly one of the last things on their minds were nits (head lice.)

Nits are little insects that crawl from one head of hair to another. There they set up home and lay their eggs until another head of hair comes close, in which case they may decide to jump ship and infest a different head. Nits are blood-suckers. And they itch like mad. Getting from head A to head B is easier on long hair that effortlessly comes into contact with other long hair. In 1919 the Health Committee of Aberdeen Burgh Education Authority decided to tackle an outbreak of nits among school pupils with action taken in the case of schoolgirls whose parents persistently failed to take responsibility for the problem themselves. Dr George Rose, the schools medical officer took it upon himself to deal with verminous heads and if parents would not cut their child’s hair, he would arrange for it to be done.  

In fact incidence of head lice was not an enormous problem in Aberdeen and Dr Rose found only one girl with ‘filthy hair’ at the Middle School when he inspected children there in June 1919 and when an appeal to her parents was ignored the doctor took matters into his own hands. His insensitive handling of the case was misjudged. All hell broke loose.

Several pupils from the Middle School went on strike, their number boosted by youths already skiving (truanting) who when they heard of the hair-cutting incident readily joined the collective action. STRIKE was chalked over the school’s playgrounds to underline their protest. Word got out and pupils from schools across the east end joined the protesters or rioters as they were identified, mainly but not exclusively, teenage boys. They went from school to school drumming up support. More playgrounds were chalked to indicate strike in those schools and school buildings were pelted with stones. Windows were smashed; scarcely a pane of glass remained intact at the Middle School. Marywell Street and Ferryhill suffered similar attacks. Some rioters turned their attention on Union Terrace, gathering outside the education authority offices they booed their disapproval of the committee that sanctioned cutting girls’ hair. Loud protests carried on into the nights of the third week of July 1919 and there was consternation among the citizens of the town about where it would all end. The local authority fought back.

At the root of this Middle School fracas there seems to be the contempt for and insubordination to authority which are characteristics of the times among certain classes of the community.

I think the city fathers feared rebellion against authority affecting both Britain and the rest of the world that year had permeated through to the lower classes in Aberdeen. The haircut riots had become class riots. Working class parents complained of being given no or too little warning to have their girls’ hair cut and heads treated for lice while middle class critics sneered that –

The working-classes are all for State control of everything…glass was smashed because they dislike the medicine they themselves demand.

These were harsh times. A correspondent to Aberdeen Weekly Journal had little patience for treating children with kid gloves and on the subject of punishing school pupils for misbehaviour had this to say,

A few children may have died as the result of corporal punishment, but they were exceptional cases, and furnish not reason for its abolition. 

The school medical authorities justified their behaviour by pointing to powers under the Scottish Act of 1908 that enabled them to act if after 24 hours written notice to a parent to

…cleanse the child within 24 hours…[if] this notice is not complied with, the medical officer…may remove the children…and cause their persons and clothing to be cleansed.

The school strikes spread. Pupils from Skene Square school abandoned lessons and headed to the beach noisily shouting and cheering. At Frederick Street school the appearance of a nurse at a window led to a rumour that the vilified medical officer, Dr Rose, was about to wield his scissors there. In no time local mothers and children assembled by the school gates. The police were called and tried to assure them Dr Rose was not inside but the crowd were in no mood to be pacified. Missiles were thrown. A janitor was struck. At the end of the school day, at four o’clock, pupils were dismissed with no sign of Dr Rose. The crowd waited; certain the now notorious doctor would emerge. He did not.

Head lice

Some striking youths hanging about the nearby Links decided to seek out Dr Rose at his house in the city’s west end, at Rubislaw Terrace. They lined up outside it, shouting and waving union Jacks before pelting it with stones, breaking one window. When the police turned up a group of rioters disappeared round to the rear of the property where the police didn’t think to follow.  Stones rained down on a garage thought to belong to Dr Rose. It was his unfortunate neighbour who lost 19 panes of glass from his garage. From the west end they turned their attention again to Skene Square School which received volley after volley of rocks.   

One of the lads was dressed in soldier’s trousers and puttees and seemed to be in command. He was carrying a banner and shouting his orders to his ‘troops.’ He was considered a great hero that night, and imagined himself as such. His mother stated that he came home that night without his collar and tie; and thinking he had done a great thing.

Eventually the hair cut riots petered out. Then came the aftermath with punishments taking the form of the scud (the tawse or belt) or an appearance at the Children’s Court which resulted in 12 months probation for all the youths who appeared before it, for glass breaking.

Dr Rose was criticised for acting without tact over the few cases he had to deal with; one or two girls in a thousand had their hair cut by the school authorities. Just nine percent of the city’s girls had what was classified as dirty hair compared with forty percent found ten years earlier. So the problem was waning.

A proposed increase in Dr Rose’s salary was turned down by the Staffing, Salaries and Bursaries Committee and remained at £650. The doctor was backed by the BMA who said his salary should be £800, describing him as one of the best school medical officers not only in Scotland but ‘in the kingdom’ and called the local authority members who failed to support Dr Rose, ‘unfair and cowardly.’

It might be supposed Dr Rose would have decided to move on but in 1920 he was still in his position reporting on the usual childhood ailments: whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria – all on the increase. He also noted a resurgence in city children’s ‘fetish’ for sugar – which had been interrupted during the war years when supplies couldn’t get through. Schoolchildren’s teeth were in bad shape. Some schoolchildren were still verminous – from about 93 city families.

1919 the year of revolt and riot. Few protesters came out on top. Authority everywhere had come though four years of terrible bloody conflict and were in no mood to compromise although in a way Aberdeen’s school authorities did by rapping Dr Rose across the knuckles in denying him a promised salary increase and they did ensure that in future parents would be more courteously treated when asked to keep their children’s heads clean and clear of nits.

Dec 24, 2021

The Headless Ghost

Jack’s Brae

It was the winter of 1842 and two thin and poorly-clad girls pulled their shawls closer about their spare bodies in an effort to keep from shivering in the raw cold of a dark November morning. It was early, about five o’clock, a time when better-off children were still fast asleep under feather quilts, but for eleven-year-old Bell Moore and her thirteen-year-old sister the mill bell was ringing as they hurried to work in Spring Garden in Aberdeen.  As they descended Jack’s Brae, Bell uttered a cry and in her terror she stumbled into the icy waters of a burn running along the roadside – for there by the Gilcomston brewery the ghostly figure of a man towered over them – a man with no head. The terrified girl turned and ran back home, abandoning her sister who had also seen the apparition to carry on to work; for their parents were sore in need of their earnings. Young Bell was so distressed she daren’t leave her home for several days for her nerves were shredded and she sighed constantly from anxiety. Eventually Bell was persuaded to return to her work at the mill and she found the courage to set foot outside but that scary apparition was always on her mind and a day or two later, one Friday morning, she could stand it no longer and crept out of the mill to return home. All the time she imagined the apparition jumping out at her and as she approached Gilcomston from John Street her fear was such that she collapsed in a faint in the street. People dashed to her aid and carried the child home where she suffered several seizures.

By the Monday Bell’s extreme distress passed on to her sister who had no sooner finished her supper and gone to bed than she jumped back out of it complaining to their mother,

“Na, mither, I’m as ill as Bell.”

Neither child was capable of standing upright for their legs were weak with fright. Their teeth chattered and when they attempted to drink out of their wooden cogs they bit at them, gripping the rims with their teeth. They talked of the ghostly figure at the brewery and admitted to having seen it several times over the past two or three years but had never been unduly frightened by it for it appeared with a snowy white cap on its head, unlike that unlucky day they saw it, headless. The monster, they said, was known to sometime stand and sometimes sit down, next to the black drinking fountain on the brae.

The phenomenon was the talk of the town. Other people admitted to having seen the ghostly man such as a fellow called MacKenzie and the girls’ aunt. People grew fearful, suspicious of passing down Jack’s Brae by dark. Local doctors put their heads together to explain the appearance but were left mystified.

A week or two later one Tuesday in early December two men were ascending Jack’s Brae. It was between ten and eleven o’clock at night and the two were deep in conversation. Just as they approached the brewery their discussion became so animated they stood still to clear the air when mid-sentence one of them happened to glance to the side and to his astonishment he saw a shape, perhaps a man, slowly emerge from the ground and uncoil upwards. The man, if that is what it was, was dressed all in white but for a broad black stripe up each of his legs. On his head was a white nightcap.

The two friends were momentarily stupefied and stared at the apparition. The apparition stared back at them. Then the ghost took a few steps to the north. One of the companions croaked, “The Ghost!” His friend cried, “We’ll chairge him! We’ll chairge him!” On hearing that the ghost took off at full speed. It ran helter-skelter with the pair of intrepid ghost hunters at his heels.

Along the burn, the lead-side, they ran and into Short Loanings. The phantom turned right. The pair turned right. At the brae head they turned into Back Loanings and down to Skene Square. On and on they sprinted, the ghost never daring to falter and his pursuers gaining on him all the time – along Caroline Place and up into Berryden. The ghost turned back then scaled the high stone dyke into the Barkmill wood where he was swallowed up amidst the trees. The exhausted friends pulled up. They had chased the nimble spectre for about two miles and one had even got a hand onto the ghostly shoulder but couldn’t keep a grip of it.

And that is a true story of the headless ghost of Aberdeen. Some people said the mystery of the spectre had been solved – that the mischievous spirit was someone in high spirits who set out to terrify folk out of their wits because of his cantrips and was not a late-deceased owner of Gilcomston brewery come back to check on how it was getting on.

The Moore girls admission of having seen a ghostly figure for at least two years including on early mornings meant it was not likely it was an impish youth intent on scaring honest folk but that, too, was explained when it was told that during cold weather the outside iron waterpipes attached to the brewery were wrapped with straw ropes which when frosted could appear to be a tall unearthly goblin wearing a snowy white cap.  

If you ever have cause to find yourself on Jack’s Brae on a cold and dark winter night, or even very early in the morning, don’t stop. Walk on, as fast as you can because you just never know.  

Dec 8, 2021

The Book of Deer . . . my response to Zbigniew Tycienski’s response to it

Firstly, many thanks for commenting on the blog. I did enjoy your own blog response – an excellent rejoinder to my rather glib piece on the Book of Deer.

Allow me to address some of the points made by you.

The question of where the Book of Deer should be housed – at Cambridge University Library in whose collection it has lain for so long or closer to the area whose name it takes and where it is likely it was compiled.

I’m not sure your phrase, “… to consign the Book of Deer to Aberdeen would have been unreasonable” is fair. Aberdeen has for over 500 years been the centre of learning for northeastern and northern Scotland with an excellent reputation across the areas of learning for being innovative and outward-looking. The implication in your response to me that scholars interested in the book would be forced to travel to a remote Scottish city – Aberdeen – to carry out their researches is a bit insulting. For a start Aberdeen is not a remote backwater and if you insist it is remote, then remote from what and where? Many assumptions are carried in the term remote. It may surprise you to learn that even in a remote city there can be found academics who are more than capable of appreciating, understanding and researching the manuscript. That they should be content with a high-quality copy is a strange argument that can be turned on its head. If a facsimile is good enough for Scottish researchers at Aberdeen then it must be equally good enough for researchers south of the Border. As Walter Benjamin might have said – as wonderful as a reproduction of the Book of Deer might be there is something wonderfully evocative being up and close to the original and the sensory experience of working with a manuscript dating from the 10th century enhances the researcher’s experience, albeit separated by touch by a cotton glove.  

Of course the initial importance of the Book of Deer was as a Christian book. But the perception of any item can change with time. Think of a pair of ploughman’s boots. When worn by an early 20th century ploughman they are just work boots but when acquired by a museum they are instantly reinvented as objects of cultural historical significance and so treated with respect, tended and protected and they attain a life story surrounding their initial existence; the boots that during their natural lifetime would have been casually pushed aside take on an artificial life in a museum where they become treasured artefacts displayed behind glass with a card alongside explaining their relevance. And so, too, the Christian Book of Deer that evolved during its own lifetime into more than a gospel book when two centuries later it was used as a notebook in which formal Latin gave way to the vernacular language of the time, Gaelic. While appreciating that for Christians the Book of Deer is as a religious script for me the fascination lies in the insights it provides into the cultural life of Scotland of around the 12th century. The world is filled with religious texts but the Book of Deer is unique in its marginalia and accounts of land deeds. And that, to my mind, is absolutely breathtakingly wonderful. Now I don’t expect anyone in Cambridge to get quite as excited about this aspect of the book as some Scots will. And there is the nub of the matter. Where does the book rightfully belong?

Your flippant dismissal of Scots caring where the Book of Deer is kept as ‘paranoid’ is unworthy. Why must Scots have to travel to England, or elsewhere, to appreciate artefacts that relate to Scotland and/or derive from Scotland – and this one is unique as the earliest surviving document created in Scotland. Surely, surely there is a strong case for it to be given back to Scotland?

Tychy’s argument that Scottish relics displayed outside Scotland can help non-Scots appreciate Scotland is neither here nor there and not a strong argument for having Scotland’s treasures kept in places outside the country. If having Scotland’s artefacts kept in places outside the country where they can be better appreciated and through them greater appreciation of Scotland as a nation then why not apply this to all and everything in Scotland’s museums and galleries? What other country in the world would the argument be – it is better that we spread our cultural treasures here there and everywhere than house them close to the people whose ancestors created them and who are the people they are because of them? Scotland is no different from any other nation in recognising that objects that add to our understanding and appreciation of our own past should be readily available to the people they best represent. Artefacts have greater relevance in or close to their own place of origin. London Bridge dismantled and shipped to Arizona lost its English historical resonance and became just another bridge in its new setting.  

As for the argument that artefacts should be housed where they can be accessed by the greatest numbers then let’s see how popular that is when the British crown jewels are removed from the Tower of London and sent to a museum in Tokyo which has the largest population in the world. And if that is convincing then send every artefact from everywhere to Tokyo for the very same reason.

I don’t advocate Aberdeen refuse to return the book but given the current propensity for returning national cultural assets there is surely a case for Cambridge returning this one.

Tychy’s blog response to mine:

Nov 26, 2021

The Book of Deer: so important to Scotland it should be repatriated

Leabhar Dhèir, the Book of Deer, is returning to Scotland, until next summer. In these times when questions are being asked about the ethics of artefacts held in museums and libraries outside of where they originated, often acquired through nefarious means, it is right that we question why one of Scotland’s most significant documents is not being retained in Scotland instead of being returned to England.

So what’s special about the Book of Deer? It is ancient, the earliest surviving manuscript perhaps produced in Scotland and definitely used in Scotland, it is unusual in the variety of its contents. What began life as an illuminated gospel book in the 10th century (between 800 and 900 AD) written in Latin and containing some fairly basic illustrations was a couple of centuries later used to record all sorts of information on pre-feudal life in Scotland. Those Latin texts of the liturgical manuscript gave way to vernacular Gaelic, early Celtic Gaelic, that was different from later forms of the language. In short, the Book of Deer provides us with a window into the world of Alba under the Picts and Celts and is a unique contemporary record of those times.   

Those times have long been written off by historians as – the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages when it was said nothing much happened between Roman domination and the Norman Conquests in England. Haverings, of course. One transformational event that occurred then was the Christianisation of the people of Alba with monasteries established across the north which were centres for spreading the Christian gospel – a monastery for each of the Pictish tribes sometimes covering extensive areas and very different from later local churches serving small parishes. One such monastery was at Deer in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire, founded by the missionary evangelist, St Columba and his disciples.  

The first monastery of Deer was probably set up in the seventh century and it is very possible the Book of Deer was compiled by a scribe from the monastery. Perhaps the scribe also drew the manuscript’s illustrations. We shall probably never know. A later monastery run by Cistercians was built in the same area.

The Book of Deer

The Book of Deer is small, consisting of 86 parchment leaves,6 inches long and 4 ½ inches broad. In it the Gospel of St John is written out in full along with abridged fragments from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – all in Latin. Each initial letter of the gospels is enlarged and decorated with muted colour and the ends of the principal strokes of the letters terminate in dogs’ heads. As is usual with illuminated manuscripts page borders are also adorned – here mainly with interlaced ribbons and patterns.

The really interesting thing about the Book of Deer are its later additions; the vernacular Gaelic which makes this book hugely significant in historical terms for Scotland with its references to land grants and copy of a formal royal charter from King David I. This was a time in Scotland when agreements were verbal, verified by witnesses, a custom that was abolished by the incoming Queen Margaret from England.

Early Scotland or Alba was largely matriarchal and divided up into seven provinces. Leadership succession ran along lines of brothers not down through the generations of sons i.e. they followed through the female line and not through sons of a marriage. A woman’s husband could hold land through his relationship with his wife but was dependent on her and not through his superior male status. Each tribe or clan was ruled by a mormaer, chiefs or toisechs, brehons or judges and town lands had fixed boundaries and throughout all were rights and burdens.

The Book of Deer

How and when the Book of Deer was removed from Aberdeenshire is not known, as far as I can find out, but from the fourteenth century there was great demand from book collectors for illuminated manuscripts so it’s likely it found a buyer somewhere and by 1697 it was in England, in the collection of John Moore, Bishop of Norwich and Ely. Moore was an enthusiastic book and manuscript collector with an enviable library of very early works. When he died in 1714 his vast library was bought for 6,000 guineas by George I so it could be given to the University of Cambridge, which it was, in 1715. There in the university library it lay unnoticed for nearly 150 years until librarian Henry Bradshaw discovered this wee gem, in 1860.

The double life of the Book of Dee from traditional religious text to a record of 12th century Scotland makes it one of vital importance and surely there is a strong case for it to stay in Scotland where it belongs and from where it should never have left.

The Book of Deer

Oct 21, 2021

Staring at giants

In the army he was invariably placed at the head of his regiment when marching, accompanied by a huge red deer.

He was Samuel Macdonald, Big Sam, born at Lairg in Sutherlandshire whose regiment, the Sutherland Fencibles fought in the American War of Independence – where the ‘bare-kneed Scotch divils’ were more feared than their English equivalents. For a time Sam transferred into the Royals, also as a marker man or fugelman. During this time he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who made him a lodge-porter at Carlton House. Soon bored, Sam rejoined the 93rd Highland Sutherlanders, becoming a sergeant.

Big Sam was modestly big, at 6ft 10 inches or 8ft high, as some insisted, with a 48 inch chest. He was statuesque and towering over his comrades he was usually placed on the right of his regiment in combat or at its head when on the march. Like most very large men Sam was good natured – the advantage of height to intimidate. But there are always some who’ll push their luck. Two fellow-soldiers goaded him to fight. Reluctantly Sam agreed, insisting on first shaking hands. When the first man held out his hand, Sam grabbed it and hoist the fellow up, swung him round and threw him quite a distance at which point the other would-be pugilist scarpered.

As with many large men and women, Sam was coerced into entertaining lesser mortals. While in the Prince of Wales’ household he was persuaded to play Hercules in a play at the London Opera House. Indeed, one of his nicknames was the ‘Scottish Hercules.’ This sort of life did not suit Sam who refused to display himself for money as so many other very large people did.  He resisted becoming a figure of curiosity – or rather wanted to separate that part of his life from his real self and occasionally was coaxed to dress as a woman and appear in exhibitions as “the remarkably tall woman”. Yes, the vogue for men claiming to be women from simply donning a dress is nothing new. Sam died when the Fencibles were in Guernsey, on 6 May, 1802.

This blog came about after I watched a Netflix film about a giant and got to wondering if there were Scottish giants. The answer to this question was, of course, yes. Where to stop …

Sam Macdonald was not what might be classed as a giant, more a big bloke. But Scotland, in keeping with every other part of the world has had its share of very large people – those who for some reason kept on growing. Life for many of them was miserable; frequently the subject of ridicule and unwanted attention. People stare at the unusual and people certainly stared at the giants. For some the very act of staring was literally bread and butter to them – and their opposites, dwarves. For those who chose the life, if people wanted to stare they should pay for the privilege. And they did. However, let’s not kid ourselves this was an easy life, sitting about being stared at.

One who adopted this life was a ‘Little Scotchman’, 2ft 6in tall who at 60 years of age in 1698 was still touring as a curiosity, singing and dancing to entertain wealthy people in English country houses. Why he did this, I don’t know, presumably for the money for he was well-educated, knowledgeable about the scriptures and history and ran his own writing school.  

General Tom Thumb dressed as a Scotsman

Staring at giants onscreen through Netflix avoids the discomfort for the viewer of publicly gawping at a fellow-human but we haven’t ended that habit yet in zoos where we pay to gaze at fellow-primates. The circuses and travelling shows that toured people of unusual heights were often referred to as ‘freak’ shows. ‘Freak’ shows were not restricted to unusual humans but any unusual animal, including humans.  

Now I’m going to stick my hand up at this point and admit that one time driving across the United States I, in the company of others, made a short detour to Prairie Dog Town, drawn by enormous advertising billboard. At Prairie Dog Town we saw two headed cows, six-legged cows, a kind of freezer box (unfrozen) filled with writhing rattlesnakes. It was a god-forsaken place of wretchedness and has since been closed down. It is within this context that some overgrown and undergrown people found themselves, centres of attraction for their very differences, to be pointed at, laughed at and objects of revulsion.   

Giants largely have had a bad press, frequently characterised as angry monsters in fairy stories while actual giants appear to have had pleasant natures. Gigantism, a condition where individuals grow excessively tall is rare and it is rarity that attracts attention. There are different causes giantism including a tumour of the pituitary gland and mutated genes. What has surprised me looking into this is the sheer number of males and females affected – either growing very large or hardly growing at all. I also discovered not to believe everything I read. As we saw with Big Sam some people will say anything to separate folk from their money. With that in mind let us begin.

I began on this topic to see if there were Scottish giants and in my head was Donald Dinnie from Aberdeenshire. Now stonemason Dinnie wasn’t as tall as some other big men but he was strong and as a champion on the Highland games circuit here and overseas; an all-rounder described as ‘the nineteenth century’s greatest athlete’ – participating as a pole vaulter, sprinter, hurdler, caber tosser, hammer thrower, wrestler, high jumper, long jumper, stone putter. He died wealthy in 1916, aged 78, and with obituaries galore including in the New York Times. His fame lives on in the form of two muckle boulders known as the Dinnie Steens which weigh 332 kilograms and were famously carried by Dinnie across the bridge at Potarch.

Donald Dinnie with a chestful of medals

But, Dinnie wasn’t a giant. A couple of years before his death, at the start WWI, a group of Highland soldiers disembarked at Boulogne in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the UK’s military vanguard. Disembarking from their ship the British troops were met by a large crowd who were underwhelmed by the men’s khaki uniforms; these French people associated the military with colourful uniforms. Then the Highland division stepped ashore in khaki jackets over kilts. Their appearance drew gasps from the crowd. Who were these men? they asked. On learning they were the Scots a cheer went up and cries of ‘Vive l’Ecosse.’ The cherry on the cake was one of the Highlanders’ officers, all 6ft 4 inches of him. Not a particularly unusual height today but the people of Boulogne were transfixed by his stature and gawped at him in near silence. One of the BEFs began singing, It’s a long way to Tipperary and the rest joined in. Another shouted, ‘Are we down-hearted’ to which his comrades shouted back, ‘No-o-o-o’ and so it went on – flags flying, singing and cheering and women pressing forward to claim the brass initials from the men’s shoulder straps on their khaki jackets. There were lots of tall Highlanders there but none that could be described as giants.

 Most English persons who visit Scotland as strangers are struck with the stature and proportions of the generality of its inhabitants, male and female … However, we did not know till lately that Scotland had produced a rival to the celebrated O’Brien, of Irish birth.

The Mirror, 1830

O’Brien was an Irish ‘giant’ – one of many but I’m still looking for a Scottish one to fit that description.

The people of Berneray, off Scotland’s west coast were some of those unfortunate Highlanders forced out of their homes and packed off overseas in the Highland Clearances, the MacAskill family included, about 1830. A young Angus therefore grew up in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.  And kept on growing, reaching an impressive 7 ft 9 in and and, at one point, weighing in at 425lbs (30 stone.) Canada claimed him as their giant, otherwise known as Big Boy.  

Big Boy was described as the world’s tallest and strongest man – most giants were so described – and his life is celebrated in a museum at Dunvegan on Skye. Typically for people suffering from giantism, his life was short. He died in 1863 aged 38 years having lived mainly out of trunks, touring with circuses and shows as a strongman – his shoulders measured over 44 inches. One of Angus’ feats of strength was to lift a hundredweight with two fingers. He could carry a horse over a 4ft fence, take the place of a horse in ploughing a field and famously he lifted a 2,400lb anchor during an appearance in New York. His sometime employers, Barnum and Bailey, liked to match him with General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), dubbed the world’s smallest man. Both Stratton and Macaskill were physically normally proportioned to their sizes.

William Campbell was another Scottish ‘giant’. Born into poverty in Glasgow in 1852 he was only 26 years old when he died in 1878. It’s a stetch to have him described as a giant for he was a mere 6ft 8 inches tall but heavy and stout; 96-inch shoulders, 85-inch waist, 76-inch chest, 47-inch thighs and 35 inches around the calf, he weighed about 50 stone. Campbell was exhibited as William the Conqueror or the Scotch Giant. Originally a printer, he joined those touring as circus attractions, often the butt of jokes he played up to the public’s insatiable hunger for titbits about his private life by making stuff up.

Being gawped at did not end with Campbell’s death. This fine looking, affable young man said to only drink a small drop of sherry in a tumbler of water had become a pub landlord in Newcastle where his bedroom was on the building’s third floor. Unwell for about a week he died suddenly and because of his gigantic size gave the funeral directors immense problems.  A coffin had to be built in the room to take his body. Made from 2-inch-thick elm the 7ft 4in coffin was lined with lead and covered with black cloth. All these preparations took a while meanwhile others tackled getting the coffin out of the house. The bedroom window was removed along with a section of wall. Outside a block and tackle were set up to lower the coffin. By the time the lid was screwed down on William Campbell’s corpse he was beginning to decompose. For two hours men struggled with strong chains and stout timbers to lower the coffin, under the gaze of a growing crowd of thousands. For a further two hours the coffin sat on a wagon while the crowd of onlookers swelled to 40,000 people.

Enormous numbers followed the funeral procession of the Scotch Giant. People lined the route, clambered over railings, leaned out from windows and perched on rooftops. A band played the Dead March and Newcastle’s mounted police accompanied the cortege of 5 carriages that included one with Campbell’s mother and brother. All went to plan until they reached the cemetery when there was a crowd surge. Women, children and men were trampled underfoot, trees were broken, graves were trodden underfoot. It was chaotic and to prevent more trouble it was decided to forego the last rites and get on with lowering the huge coffin. This took an hour, all the time the crowd pressing forward as a service of sorts was read by the vicar of Newcastle from the back of a wagon.

Murphy is an unlikely name for a Scot, giant or not, and show people were not fussy about the accuracy of their descriptions with lots of men and women dressed in Highland garb and promoted as ‘Scotch’ but it seems one Scottish Murphy was the genuine article.

It happened like this. Murphy was at home in Scotland when one day a Frenchman who heard about a man mountain looked in on him. Satisfied with what he saw he offered Murphy one hundred pounds sterling to go to Paris for a year. He would have board and lodgings, two bottles of Bordeaux a day, pleasant company, nothing to do and be provided with all sorts of amusement. Murphy accepted. The money was handed over and Murphy shared it with his two sisters.

About the 7ft 9in mark Murphy continued growing and this very tall man drew enthusiastic audiences at a concert hall cum café, the Café du Geant on Boulevard du Temple in Paris which was said to have been named after him. Two or three times each evening Murphy would parade up and down the large room, sometimes accompanied by General Tom Thumb and the diminutive Princess Colibri. Customers clambered onto chairs to get a better look at him and he would pick up children in hold them on the palms of his hands.

This life was monotonous. Murphy couldn’t go out without creating a disturbance and took to walking in the middle of the night to escape attention. He became depressed and homesick, longing to go back home to Scotland and spoke about the lochs and hills that he missed terribly. To all outward appearances this now French linguist was contented. He was proving so popular his salary was increased to ten thousand francs a year but his only desire was to return to Scotland. He never made it for he died suddenly in 1869. His two bottles of Bordeaux had increased to six and he took up drinking porter as well. He would down at least a dozen bottles stout a day and always appeared drunk. Despite scarcely earing he grew broader and fatter every day. He weighed 382 pounds (27 stone). Even in death his wish to return to Scotland was denied for he became a museum artefact, his body displayed at the natural history museum at the Jardin des Plantes, alongside those of Native Americans and Maoris.

There were so-called ‘Scotch giants’ galore throughout the nineteenth century – star attractions with travelling shows. Sanger’s Circus boasted of exhibiting ‘the Wonderful Scotch Giant’ – ‘the tallest man in the world’ and ‘the finest specimen of humanity ever brought before the public’ in the 1820s. This was 6ft 9in James Thompson. James died suddenly one winter night in his tent. His death attributed to starvation. Like most ‘giants’ I’ve read about, James was a humble and proud man who suffered in silence rather than seek help for his depression. It has been said, although it sounds far-fetched, that days following his death a relative died leaving him a large estate.

Women giantesses tended to be described as Mrs so-and-so. Mrs Randall was married, to an English giant but Barnum, who they worked for kept up the pretence he was also Scottish and dressed him in Highland garb which was thought to accentuate his size. Mrs Randall was just 6ft 5in so not so very tall and certainly far shorter than a Yorkshire giantess, Mrs Bark, reputedly 7ft tall but perhaps pass the salt at this point.  

One nineteenth century giantess who was actually a Mrs but went under the name of Miss was another celebrated ‘Scotch Giantess’, Miss Freeman. Early one morning in London a carriage was stopped by police because of loud groans coming from it. Inside a couple were found, a man and woman, both very large and clearly ill. They were taken to Guy’s Hospital and had their stomachs pumped. Arsenic was discovered. It emerged Miss Freeman had a husband, the man in the carriage with her, but she was in a relationship with a Spanish giant and at the end of her tether she swallowed poison. Her husband found the cup and finished what was left of it. I don’t know what became of them.

Far taller women from around the world were involved in the world of showbusiness, many as strongwomen, such as the German Josephine Schauer who could break horseshoes and catch cannonballs fired from a cannon. She married an American giant. Another couple popular in America were the Quaker Giant and Giantess in the 1840s. He was said to be 8ft tall with her about the same height. The craze for giants and giantesses (and dwarves) led to impersonations. Someone in the UK was accused of impersonating a famous Swiss giantess, Fair Circassian, in the 1820s. There were questions over whether the fake Circassian was a woman or a man in a dress.  

And there we will leave it. People of uncommon size whether tall or small have probably always attracted attention for being out of the ordinary. Every country has them, including Scotland. For some fortunes were to be made on the back of their special differences but for others what marked them out as unusual caused them misery. It is natural for people to find difference interesting but there’s a fine line between that and having callous disregard for the feelings of those whose lives must always be defined by what marks them out as curiosities.


https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0