Archive for ‘Aberdeenshire’

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 produced in Scotland and 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 likely 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

Oct 3, 2021

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider: Maria Ogilvie-Gordon pioneering geologist

She was a scientist – a geological pioneer and a driver for the emancipation of women. She classified the geological layers of the Dolomites, the structure of corals found there and explained the powerful earth movements that erupted and folded those rocks into their dramatic peaks. She was Maria Ogilvie from Monymusk in Aberdeenshire and her work in the mountains of Austria and Italy would prove ground-breaking.

Maria Ogilvie, affectionately known as May, was born on 30 April 1864 into a family steeped in education. She was musical; played the piano and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London before having a change of heart and entering the University of London to study science. Graduating with her Doctor of Science degree – the first geology degree awarded in London to a woman, she took herself abroad, to Germany to continue her work in that field.

An application to study at Berlin University was turned down because it didn’t accept women and neither did the University of Munich but she was able to use some of its facilities to continue her research through support of its professor of geology and palaeontology, Karl Alfred von Zittel. Eventually the Ludwig Maximilians-University of Munich did agreed to let Maria study for her doctorate and in 1900 she was the first women awarded a PhDs from Munich. She took it with highest honours. Back home Dr. Maria Ogilvie married John Gordon, a physician from Aberdeen.   

In addition to being an accomplished musician and scientist, May Ogilvie was an active campaigner for the rights of women and children. Hardly surprising given her continuing struggle to be taken seriously in the world of science and male-dominated educational establishments. Her achievements mapping and defining the rock structure of the Dolomites are all the greater for the circumstances in which she was forced to carry out her fieldwork in this perilous terrain; her efforts disparaged and mainly carried out without assistance. Fortunately, coming from rural Aberdeenshire she was fairly familiar with mountains. The Ogilvies owned a holiday home, a very grand holiday home, in Ballater, close to Lochnagar, and with the Cairngorms virtually on her doorstep she had some hill climbing experience though not at the same level of difficulty to be found in the Dolomites.

The Ogilvies had money. May’s father was headmaster of Robert Gordon’s Hospital, later College – an uncle was a chief inspector of schools, another the rector of the established church training college in Aberdeen and another was headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. At the age of nine, May was sent to Edinburgh, to the Merchant Company School’s Ladies College. From there at the age of eighteen she went to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. She matriculated but music did not satisfy her yearning for learning and she returned to Edinburgh, to the home of the first modern geologist, fellow-Scot, James Hutton, and to Heriot-Watt University where one of her brothers was Principal. There she embarked on a Batchelor of Science degree, specialising in geology, botany and zoology, which she completed in London, graduating in 1893.

Schluderbach region where May Ogilvie did her fieldwork

The following year May, paleontologist and biologist, sailed to the continent, travelling to Germany where she began her geological research in the hazardous slopes of the Alps. To get to up into the mountains for a full day’s work meant rising in the very early hours of the morning day after day. Exhausting as this was she also had to deal with rock samples gathered each day and without assistance from the university she either carried them down by herself or relied on help from some of the local people she lived among. The area of Schluderbach  in the Cave Stone Valley and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Northeast Italy was off the beaten-track with virtually no made roads so moving around was difficult and facilities were absent but Maria Ogilvie was a spirited and determined woman and she persevered. She explored, mapped and studied the area of South Tyrol and Dolomites, defining its structure and fossils, presenting her findings in a series of academic papers written in both German and English. She became fluent in German and translated several texts including those of Professor Zittel of the University of Munich, one of the few academics who recognised her talents and who encouraged her. She continued working with Professor von Zittel at his institute and through him was in correspondence with other eminent scientists such as Archibald Geikie, William Topley and Charles Lapworth.  

The peaks of the Dolomites

Eventually Maria was accepted by the University of Munich to complete a PhD; the first woman to do so and succeeding with the highest honours. Slowly Dr. Maria Ogilvie found herself being taken more seriously as her breakthrough findings found greater circulation in science circles. More seriously but not too seriously. In 1925 the determinedly sexist fellows at the Royal Society in London refused to publish her Dolomite geological findings so Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon translated them into German and published them. At least in Germany and Austria there were some geologists who respected her expertise as a geologist.

May Ogilvie-Gordon resented how her work and achievements went largely unrecognised and commented upon in the UK. These slights because of her sex were never forgotten and as an elderly woman she criticised the Geological Society of London for discriminating against her when, finally, her contribution to science was recognised and she was awarded the Lyell Medal in 1932.

Her husband, John, said of her –

It is a lonely furrow you are ploughing, May; for your own sake I wish you had chosen some other interest for your hard work.

Years later with that in mind Maria referred to that lonely furrow –

It was a lonely furrow that I ploughed in my fieldwork abroad. A Britisher – and a woman at that – strayed into a remote and mountainous frontier territory between Austria and Italy, a region destined afterwards to be fought over, inch by inch, in the Great War… In point of fact 17 years passed before I received the first visit of an experienced geologist in the field…Another 15 years passed and the War had taken place before I received the visit of a British Geologist – the late Dr. John W. Evans of this Society, who came at the kind suggestion of Professor Watts in response to a request of mine.

Having spent much time in Germany, including after her marriage and having children – the whole family were often found clambering up Alpine mountains – May Ogilvie-Gordon returned to Scotland during the Great War, abandoning her work and her latest research paper on the eve of its publication, Das Grodener, Fassa, und Ennerberggebiet in den Sudtiroler Dolomiten. When in 1920 she returned to Germany – her husband had died in Aberdeen the year before – she discovered the publishing house was a victim of war and her scientific paper, photographic plates and maps vanished. There was nothing for it but to re-do the work and rewrite from scratch. Dauting as this must have been it was worth it in the end for the work was celebrated as “a monument in the field of Alpine Geology”.

Honours did come, eventually. She was recognised with an honorary membership of the Vienna Geological Society (the first woman to achieve this), was an honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria, the Universities of Trento, Innsbruck, Sydney and Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society but honours were slow in coming because for most of her life her work was largely ignored.

The misogyny she experienced throughout her career undoubtedly spurred Ogilvie-Gordon to dedicate much of her time trying to improve the lot of women and children. Bear in mind May was 74 years old before all women, women like her over 21, were given the right to vote in the UK. She felt she was making a difference and of her social work she said:

 The work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time.

As a representative of the International Council of Women Dr. May Ogilvie-Gordon spoke out against enduring slavery; domestic slavery where women were treated like merchandise in many parts of the world, behaviour that was degrading and evil.

At the National Council of Women in Britain Ogilvie-Gordon promoted the positive merits of film as an instrument for disseminating public information and a means of sourcing social information to feed into government for determining policy on political and civil rights. She was critical of negative influences of film where children were able to watch what were termed adult films – shoot ‘em ups, G-Men type cinema movies, and she advocated the inauguration of film production for child-friendly pictures.  

May Ogilvie-Gordon in 1900

Working children was another cause that deeply concerned her. Practically throughout Maria’s life children were expected to work and contribute to their family’s incomes. Young peoples’ and children’s labour was frequently unregulated and through the Child Welfare Committee Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon was involved scrutinising laws affecting their employment and in establishing Juvenile Employment Exchanges.

A Handful of Employments was published by long-gone Rosemount Press in Aberdeen in 1908 and intended to be a guide for girls and boys entering trades, industries and professions. As its author Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon itemised a long list of occupations and training that might be involved, pay and so on. She wrote of her regret that factories churning out products had replaced small-scale craft methods of production, regarding factory work as demoralising with operatives monotonously feeding materials into machines. Ogilvie-Gordon was critical, too, of girls taking up factory work because that meant they tended to lose household skills such as domestic economy, sewing, cooking, parenting and so on.

Both for boys and girls Maria Ogilvie-Gordon saw education as vital to their well-being and advocated it be built into their working day. She believed it was essential that girls and boys had choice over the work they were to take up rather than being pushed into any old job by their parents whose main interests were getting additional income coming into the home.

In A Handful of Employments she drew up tables of occupations for school leavers, listed alphabetically and easy to consult. Bobbin-turning, for example – both boys and girls at 16 could expect to be paid 6 shillings – note the same wage. Not all wages were equal between the sexes. A fourteen-year-old girl working in a brewhouse earned a shilling a week less than a boy.  

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon lived an exceptional life filled with academic and scientific successes which she earned through strong resolve, tackling each and every barrier placed in her way. She was helped by her intelligence and spirited personality and the conviction that women should have the same rights as men and be treated equally in society. She was also helped in achieving her ambitions by having a cushion of money behind her. For women without May Ogilvie’s resources there has always been and still are additional hurdles of prejudice (those of class, race, background) they must first overcome to begin to be accepted in a man-centred world. Women’s equality had a long way to run across Europe but the Continent was where Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon’s intellect and contribution to science were first recognised while back in the UK the world of science didn’t want to know and her research and achievements were ignored by British geologists – a male clique.

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider.

(Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, 1929)

Additional personal details

Maria M. Ogilvie, D.Sc. married John Gordon, M.D., on 27 November 1895 at the Council Hall in Gordon’s College, Aberdeen. The bride wore an ivory silk dress with a spray of orange blossom on the shoulder. The groom presumably wore a dark suit. To mark the occasion, pupils at the school were given a half-holiday. The family lived at 1 Rubislaw Terrace in Aberdeen.

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon died in London in 1939. Her remains were taken back to Aberdeen and interred in the grave of her late husband, infant daughter and son, at Allenvale cemetery on by the River Dee.   

A brief report of her funeral in a local newspaper mentioned that among wreaths were ones sent by Lord Aberdeen, Lady this and that, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and the Scottish Standing Committee.  

Obituaries of Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon appeared in various journals and publications, such as Nature and the International Woman Suffrage News paying tribute to the eminent scientist and feminist, Dame Maria Ogilvie-Gordon.

Maria and John Gordon named one of their daughters, Coral, to the astonishment of many.

Gordonopteris lorigae

In 2000 a new fossil fern genus discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites was named after Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, Gordonopteris lorigae.

A selection of achievements:

  • 1893 First woman to receive a DSc from University of London
  • 1900 First woman to receive a PhD from the University of Munich University
  •          (with highest honours)
  • 1901 English translation from the German of Professor Zittel’s History of
  •         Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century
  • 1908 Publishes Handbook of Employment for Boys and Girls (Aberdeen)
  • 1916 President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1919 Formed the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of
  •          Nations
  • 1919 Among first women accepted as members of the Geological Society of
  •          London
  • 1920 First JP and chairman of the Marylebone Court of Justice in London
  • 1928 First geological guidebooks to the Dolomites published
  • 1928 Honorary membership of the University of Innsbruck
  • 1928 Honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria
  • 1931 First female honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria
  •          Institute
  • 1932 Lyell Medal from Geological Society of London
  • 1935 Made Dame of the British Empire
  • 1935 Given Honorary LL.B degree from University of Edinburgh 
Sep 11, 2021

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast: Paul Dukes

Patrick Gordon and many other Russian mercenaries set sail from the local harbour. Aberdeen was a port en-route from and to Petrograd during the momentous years of the Russian Revolution.

(extract from A History of Russia c. 882 – 1996 by Paul Dukes)

Two periods from European history: Patrick Gordon, a general and rear admiral in Russia in the 17th century and the Russian Revolution in the 20th century – in common were roles played by northeast Scotland, including Aberdeen’s contribution to the Russian Enlightenment.

Professor Paul Dukes was an expert in Russian history who did so much to uncover that empire’s long links with Scotland and who by his dogged determination, and that of others, finally managed to get Patrick Gordon’s amazing and important diaries published as six volumes, edited by Dmitry Fedosov.

Wee crossed the Northwater, and through Bervy by Steenhave, and June 23. Dinedin Cowy, it being all the tyme a deluge of raine. At the Bridge of Dee, wee drank a glasse of wine, and about four o clock, came to Aberdeen, and lodged in the Katherine Raes. Many Friends came to see me.

(an extract from Patrick Gordon Diaries on a visit home to Aberdeenshire)

Patrick Gordon, a Catholic from Auchleuchries, near Ellon, who fled Scotland in 1651 aged sixteen because of religious persecution and took up arms as a mercenary (soldier of fortune)  for the Swedes, Poles and eventually Russians; persuaded by fellow-Scot, Colonel John Crawford, and a great number of Scottish men. Gordon became an adviser to the future Peter the Great and so was influential in the development of Russia, as Pyotr Ivanovich, Major-General.

Paul Dukes’ fascination with Gordon may have been one of the reasons he changed his mind about using his tenure at Aberdeen University as a stepping stone to an academic post elsewhere. He discovered right there on his doorstep a wealth of material worthy of researching aspects of Russian, Scottish and World history. When a young Dukes arrived in the mid-sixties the history department at Aberdeen showed little interest in Scottish history. It took a while to change. So, with the sixties in full swing the handsome Cambridge graduate – fluent in European languages, including Russian, took up a post of assistant lecturer in the city having previously lectured at the University of Maryland’s French and German campuses and completed his PhD at the University of London. For the next sixty or so years he could be found in an Indian restaurant in Aberdeen each Friday evening with a group of fellow-academics – the Curry Club.

On Friday 10th September, 2021, Paul’s family and friends gathered at Aberdeen crematorium to commemorate his amazingly packed life. The proceedings got underway with the theme tune from his favourite film, The Third Man. Those gathered reflected on the man we knew while a series of photographs of Paul and his family were screened to the music from test match special, Soul Limbo, and at the end of tributes was a rousing version of the Russian national anthem.

Paul, the man from south London, loved Scotland and in his element uncovering the vast web of influences between Scotland and Russia. His knowledge was vast. He was erudite. He was an affable companion who got on with statesmen, academics and the local farmers in the Howe o’ Alford. He loved northeast culture – its music, poetry and literature. Paul became friendly with David Toulmin (John Reid), a farm labourer turned author who wrote in the local Doric and Paul was closely involved in setting up the annual Toulmin Prize for Doric stories. He was also a great fan of Charles Murray, Hamewith, the Alford poet and recognised the importance of the Greig-Duncan collection of traditional ballads and folk songs of northeast Scotland. An example was The Widow’s Cruisie whose beginning amused Paul who chose it for the booklet on the Howe o’ Alford we collaborated on with its mention of places we lived in

Doon by Tough an Tullynessle / Aye the wife wi her vessel…

Paul Dukes wore his considerable knowledge lightly. Quick to laugh and share a joke, a linguist who could, allegedly, sing The Internationale in Latin and during his near-sixty years living in Aberdeen and the shire he picked up a fair number of Doric terms, delivered with his cultured English twist.

It was in the end of the sixties or early 1970s I first came across Paul Dukes. He turned up at a party in a posh part of Aberdeen, perhaps invited by one of his students. He and his companion were interrogated on the stairs by a posse of students who took great delight in refusing them entry – then one of the heels came adrift from his Cuban-heel boots and rolled downstairs.  

The next time our paths crossed was at the wedding of the late George Molland, then Senior Lecturer in History and the Philosophy of Science at Aberdeen University, when Paul and I found ourselves dancing together. I can’t actually recall when we became friends. It wasn’t when I was a student at university and attended one or two of his lectures but some time later.

It was much much later that Paul and his then partner, Cath (later wife), became near (in shire terms) neighbours of ours. We had known Cath since she came to Aberdeen in the late 1960s and through Cath we came to know Paul well. We visited each other, went on outings together, met up for lunches, scones or cake and sometimes all three. We played about on his snowshoes on the hill above their home at Tullynessle one winter when the snow lay deep there. We attended meetings of Alford History group together which is how we came to write that little booklet on the Howe. Much as Paul had encouraged interest in Scottish history at Aberdeen university during his time there he coaxed us, also historians, to take an interest in the history of the Howe o’ Alford. One of his last activities in that area was in persuading a local landowner to open up access to the remains of the Old Keig stone circle with its magnificent recumbent stone.

Paul’s conversation was always interesting and stimulating – 99.9% of the time it would veer towards Russia in some way. His mind aye active – he jumped through hoops to continue his visits to Russia, frustrated but not beaten by its labyrinthian bureaucracy in recent times. He organised cultural and academic visits between the two countries. He was always busy at some project or another – travelling to research, attending and addressing conferences, writing. Always something to discover. Always something to uncover. Always more waiting to be done. If he wasn’t planning a visit to Russia it was China or Switzerland or England. He never stopped. Having just finished his book on Manchuria (oh, the shock of discovering just how many pictures he wanted us to scan for it) he was trying to complete his memoirs in the weeks before his death. He was engaged with life right up to his death. His students would quip that his diary entries would read –

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast.

We last saw Paul when he visited us in our new home a couple of days before he was taken into hospital. What a man…what a life…what a gap in our lives he’s left.

Paul Dukes 5 April 1934 – 25 August 2021

Aug 15, 2021

Epidemic. Scamdemic. Anti-vaxxers. Variolation and Vaccine. Smallpox to Covid.

There is no pandemic. Covid is only flu. Covid symptoms don’t exist – there’s no proof! Scamdemic!

Vaccine = mass control. I will cheerfully risk catching Covid for the sake of freedom.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Early disease inoculations and the first inoculation against smallpox in Britain

Smallpox, a dreadful virus that once ravaged the world killing million upon million – around 300 million died of it in the 20th century alone, was finally eradicated in 1980. A virus found in rodents is suspected to have spread to humans as smallpox variola 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. Having been around this length of time plenty attempts at preventing it were tried including inoculation by one form or another. In China, for example, the skin of a healthy recipient was scratched and infected matter from someone with smallpox applied to the broken surface. Alternatively, dried smallpox scabs were ground down and the material blown up the nostrils of the person being protected.

The method that led to vaccinations that are familiar to us can be traced back to the Ottoman Turk practice of inoculation which was observed in Constantinople in the early 18th century by Lady Mary Worley Montagu, a writer and wife of the British ambassador there. She was, herself, disfigured by smallpox and she was keen her children did not share her fate or worse, death.

Similar to the Chinese method, the Ottomans also transferred pus from a smallpox blister under the skin of an uninfected person, to promote mild infection and protect against a major manifestation of the disease. Lady Mary had her young son inoculated in Constantinople in 1718 by a Greek woman familiar with the technique who was assisted by the Montagu’s doctor at the embassy – a Scottish surgeon from Methlick near Aberdeen, Charles Maitland.

Back in Britain Maitland went on to inoculate Mary Montagu’s daughter and so became the first doctor in Britain to carry out an inoculation against smallpox. This was in 1722 and he continued to practise this method – being granted a licence to test variolation, as it was called, on six prisoners awaiting execution at Newgate Prison in a deal made with them; the prisoners, both women and men, survived and subsequently were pardoned. Maitland’s reputation grew and he went on to inoculate about eighty people, rich and poor, six in his native Aberdeenshire and royalty. With variolation the patient was deliberately infected with a small amount of the smallpox virus (virus was not a term known then) to initiate the disease in a mild form. Deaths that did occur were nothing like in the same numbers as those contracting smallpox through natural contagion. As well as in China and the Ottoman Empire variolation was practised in Africa and the Middle East.

The name of Charles Maitland has been regrettably omitted from the story of virus eradication in the UK. He died at his home in Aberdeen on 28 January, 1748 and is buried at Methlick graveyard. His obituary in the local press described him as

famous for inoculating the small Pox, and was the Person appointed by his present Majesty Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, which he accordingly performed, and for which he was handsomely rewarded.

A reference to him at his old university, Aberdeen’s Marischal, describes him as a surgeon, ‘the first inoculator of smallpox.’

Not everyone who underwent inoculation under Maitland survived but he was confident in his own mind of the efficacy of the technique and is said to have made that known to anyone who’d listen while taking coffee at Child’s Coffee-House near the College of Physicians in London. Maitland returned to Scotland in 1726 where one of the six children he inoculated there died although that child was already ill with hydrocephalus, fluid in the brain. Nevertheless a link was made between inoculation and the death which led to an outcry against the practice so it was another twenty years before Maitland’s technique was revisited, by another Aberdeen surgeon, a Dr. Rose.  

Such was the dreadful impact of smallpox that attempts to stem the deadly virus were on-going with Scots buying inoculations for their children where they could. I don’t know how widespread this was but here in Scotland inoculation did not necessarily involve scraping the skin and applying infected pus to the scratch instead pus-saturated worsted threads were wound tightly around the wrists of children.

Variolation to Vaccination

Vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to fight off a virus.

The next step in the battle against smallpox is far better known. While poor old Maitland’s name has been relegated to the dustbin of history just about everyone is familiar with the name Jenner. The English doctor who was born a year after Charles Maitland’s death noticed that women employed milking cattle were often infected by a cattle disease, cowpox, that erupted as sores on the skin. However, these women seemed to be protected from smallpox so he collected pus from a cowpox sore on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and introduced it under the skin of an arm belonging to nine-year-old James Phipps, son of his gardener, to test his theory that inoculation of cowpox could guard against smallpox. A few weeks later he exposed the boy to smallpox. Thankfully he survived. It appeared the method worked. Jenner tested it again and again. Within five years he was confident enough to promote the practice as a means of combatting the deadly disease. Variolation was outlawed in 1840.

Nowadays vaccination can refer to any of the protections we are fortunate to have against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis, pneumococcal, flu etc but the term vaccination derives from variolae vaccinae  – cow pustules (vacca being Latin for cow.) The word vaccination began to come into common usage from about 1800. The matter used to inoculate against smallpox, cowpox lymph, was frequently taken from cows’ udders but also from the heel of a horse when rubbed with grease (cited in a reference from Aberdeen in 1853.) How do they discover this?

Who should have responsibility for vaccinations? This was hotly disputed in the nineteenth century. Doctors or poor law officials? As with variolation, vaccinations had to be bought by individuals and so it was mainly wealthier folk including the aristocracy who took advantage of them. This ad hoc approach to vaccination meant large sections of the population were unprotected and outbreaks of smallpox continued to ravage towns.  

Compulsion and the Anti-vaxxers

Compulsory vaccination was introduced into England and Wales in 1854. Scotland followed a decade later, in 1864. Dr Seaton’s Handbook of Vaccination: The Registrar-General for Scotland reported that of the 221,980 children born in Scotland between the day the Act came into operation, Jan 1, 1864 and Dec 31, 1865 – only 5,382 were not registered as vaccinated.

Children were the most-at-risk group and so parents were urged to do their duty and ensure their babies under three months of age were vaccinated –

the well-being of the community should not be sacrificed to the whims and senseless prejudices of those eccentric individuals

 Anti-vaccinationers – let’s give them their current title, anti-vaxxers, came from every part of society including the medical professions – and across Europe. In Spain and France unvaccinated children were not allowed to attend schools.

It was found that where rates of vaccination were high incidents of smallpox declined but then eventually complacency set in. With fewer occurrences of the disease people asked why bother vaccinating their children. Vaccination became a victim of its own success and the virus was able to take hold once again.

With cases rising further laws were introduced to reinforce compulsion, in 1871 in England and Wales. In Scotland public compliance with vaccination was greater than in England and Wales with up to 95% of babies vaccinated in the 1860s but here, too, opposition to compulsion was growing with people complaining of their liberty being impinged upon by the state.   

In his evidence to the Vaccination Committee a Dr Wood of Edinburgh said,

that there were very few unvaccinated persons in Scotland.

Dr Playfair, MP for Edinburgh University, was in no doubt compulsory vaccination in Scotland and Ireland could stamp out smallpox but a short time later, in 1871, an epidemic of smallpox raged through Scotland with a death rate of 36,000 per million of the population. The figure for coronavirus deaths in the UK is 1,870 which puts the impact of smallpox into some perspective for we find Covid-19 terrifying enough to live through.

Leith, Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen are suffering most severely from the epidemic. (The Lancet, 17 February 1872)

An anti-vaxxer newspaper, The Vaccination Inquirer, was begun by William Tebb in 1879. Tebb refused to have his own child vaccinated and wrote pamphlets condemning vaccines such as Government Prosecutions for Medical Heresy which is a transcription of his own court appearance.

Anti-vaxxers got their message out through publications such as Tebb’s along with articles and letters in newspapers, the law courts, public meetings and petitions. They were funded by the wealthy and better-off middle classes – parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords, church ministers, Sirs this and that, the odd countess, Isaac Pitman of shorthand fame and a host of other including a John Davie of Dunfermline, James Greig of Glasgow and Rev John Kirk of Edinburgh and presumably Uncle Tom Cobley.

One of the most prominent anti-vaxxers was Peter Taylor MP for Leicester, a town notorious for its low number of vaccinated children and high death rate. Leicester was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘the Mecca of antivaccination.’ Peter Taylor was the son of a silk merchant and member of the wealthy Courtauld family. Taylor who was president of the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination wrote the preface to the London anti-vaxxers’ bible of 1881 in which he criticised

The small band of medical experts who are paid certain thousands by the State to champion the cause of vaccination…facts which are not facts…statistics cooked into a condition of hopeless confusion.

Loss of liberty aside their main argument was that smallpox was less fatal before vaccination was introduced and fatal cases increased with compulsory vaccination from 1854 (England and Wales.)

Scotland’s Anti-Vaccination League was set up in 1896 and that same year exceptions were allowed – on grounds of conscience. Within a few years the words conscientious objectors would become very familiar at the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18 but before then the term applied to a parent, usually the father, who objected to his child being inoculated. Where no excuse was accepted by the authorities a parent was fined 20 shillings or a few days in jail for refusing to have a child vaccinated.

Objectors to vaccination complained of interference to their parental authority. Pro-vaxxers accused them of exposing their little ones to ‘the horrors of smallpox’ and enabling the deadly disease to spread like wildfire as the cost of everyone else’s liberty. Vegetarian anti-vaxxers could become conscientious objectors on grounds the vaccine was taken from animals – from cowpox lymph. There were anti-vaxxers who dismissed vaccination as “delusive superstition.”

Smallpox was horrible to endure and “the most terrible of all the ministers of death” that filled churchyards with its victims argued Thomas Macaulay the historian, politician and son of Zachary Macaulay the Scottish anti-slave trade activist. Many were not persuaded. Petitions were distributed and demonstrations attended. In England’s anti-vax hot spot, Leicester, in 1884 about 1200 people were summoned by the courts for refusing to have their children vaccinated and two-thirds of the town’s children were unvaccinated. The Vaccination Acts ‘are a dead letter, and there has not been a single case of smallpox in twelve months.’ The Weekly News on August 23, 1884.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Scotland had less trouble from anti-vaxxers, took a firmer line on compulsory vaccinations than in England and Wales and had fewer cases of smallpox as a consequence. But here, too, anti-vaxxers made a lot of noise. Protests broke out from Inverness to probably just about everywhere. The Leicester influence in the guise of a Dr Hedwin turned up in Glasgow in 1903 to lead a protest demo in the city. A year or two earlier a Glaswegian locked up in Duke Street prison for refusing to have his child vaccinated or pay the fine wrote to the newspapers. He was one of those Scots who seeks guidance on all things legal from English not Scots law. He argued that were he in England he would be free a day early due to how England calculated confinement. He also complained about being given sour milk with his skilly (porridge) and made a bizarre Biblical reference to Ezekiel and pastry before describing prison warders as Godalmighties, thick-skulled and ignorant concluding that smallpox could be cured with prayer so vaccinations weren’t necessary.

We can dismiss his ravings because compulsory vaccination in Scotland did have a dramatic impact on smallpox with the Scots and Irish described as ‘long-headed people’ for their support for vaccination. Ninety-seven percent of children six months and older were vaccined against smallpox in the first years of the twentieth century and then prime minister, Balfour, responded to anti-vaxxers demand they shouldn’t be treated like criminals by telling them anyone whose chimney went on fire was held responsible and fined and those opposing vaccination of their children were just as criminal. The Lords went against his wishes and voted to allow conscientious objection to vaccinations in Scotland for the first time in 1907.

Back in the nineteenth century as now feelings were strong on both sides of the vaccination debate. Then, as now, some anti-vaccination zealots were dismissed as bigots. We have Twitter, a platform not available to anti-vaxxers in the 18th and 19th centuries, to spread ill-informed prejudice but those anti-vaxxers a couple of hundred years ago though not keyboard warriors made a fair amount of noise without social media and had friends in high places who provided their blinkered ideas with a veneer of respectability. They lost in the end. Smallpox was eliminated in 1980. Another virus and another bunch of anti-vaxxers emerged as barking mad as the first. They won’t win either.

May 22, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 3 – love and loss

Week three of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom finds me in a melancholic mood which I’ll come to later.

First up this week is a copy of poems from one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Gorenko, that contains text both in Russian and English. On opening the book three coloured photographs of northern Canada dropped out which probably indicates the book was bought there some years later than its date of publication, 1976. Every journey is a book purchasing opportunity.

I was born on June 11 (June 23, Old Style), 1889 near Odessa (Bolshoi Fontan). My father was at the time a retired engineering officer on The Russian Navy. At the age of one, I was taken to the north, to Tsarskoye Selo, where I lived till the age of sixteen.

My first memories are of the damp, green grandeur of the parks, the common where Nurse took me for walks, the racecourse where little bright-coloured horses galloped, the old railway station, and some other things that later formed part of the “Ode to Tsarskoye Selo”.

Beneath that ancient maple on the ground

My marble twin* lies broken, listless,

Her face turned ever to the pond

As to the rustling leaves she listens. 

    * a sculpture of a milkmaid with a broken jug by the sculptor P. Sokolov in Tsarskoye Selo park.

Anna Akhmatova was one of six children. Her maternal grandfather’s aunt, Anna Bunina, is said to have been Russia’s first poetess; certainly the first Russian women to make a living solely from her writing. Akhmat was our Anna’s great grandmother’s name and according to family legend it could be traced back to Khan of the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde refers to a state under khan leaders dating from 13th century territorial disputes between Mongols and Turks. And for consecutive weeks we are swept up in the myths and legends of the Netflix series Resurrection – Ertugrul which is about just this. What was golden about it? Apparently the tents lived in by some of the Mongols were golden in colour.

Like Anna Bunina, Anna Akhmatova also became a significant poet. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. In common with so many Soviet writers Anna’s work was criticised and censored under Stalin but unlike some other writers and artists she chose to live on in the Soviet Union, despite the difficulties that caused her. Her first husband was shot by the Soviet secret police – the Cheka.

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There’s an ominous knock behind the wall:

A ghost, a thief or a rat…

Her son was frequently imprisoned in Soviet labour camps. So too was her partner Nikolay Punin (a writer and art historian) imprisoned in the Gulag – dying there in 1953. On his arrest in 1949 (for criticising many of the portraits of Lenin churned out by what Punin described as talentless painters.) Akhmatova left his coat hanging in its place in their flat as a memorial.

During the war 1941 –

Now of all the plenty of this world

What is left? Only one’s daily bread,

Someone’s word – a gently human word –

And the lark’s pure singing overhead.

*

From 20th century Russia to 19th century Scotland and one of the most celebrated couples of their time, the Carlyles.

The Carlyles is the title John Stewart Collis gives to his biography of the illustrious pair, the historian, essayist and translator, Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane.   

The Father

He was among the last of the true men, which Scotland (on the old system) produced, or can produce.

So wrote Thomas Carlyle of his father, James Carlyle, a builder at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. And again,

This birth into a family of Lowland Scottish peasant stock is very important, for such families were often aristocratic in their demeanour and their values.

Carlyle remembered his ‘uneducated’ father, a master-mason and builder, of having a prodigious facility for expressing himself ‘though not on paper.’

The Son

James Carlyle ensured his son, Thomas, was more formally educated and he was able to read as a very young child who at five excelled at arithmetic and Latin. He attended Edinburgh University at fourteen, not unusual in 19th century Scotland where education and learning came next to God in worship.

Jane Carlyle was Jane Baillie Welsh. She was from Haddington in East Lothian, daughter of a doctor and his wife, Grace Caplegil. Jane was also a precocious learner, specialising in the classics before she was five. She loved to express herself in prestigious letter-writing, remarked upon by Virgina Woolf.

Their marriage was perhaps platonic and stormy but endured.

Thomas Carlyle’s writings included satirical attacks on the abolition of slavery at a time when British men, women and children were being dreadfully exploited in the United Kingdom. Among his histories his work on the French Revolution is regarded of great importance. But revered as he was for his writing among the poor children in the neighbourhood of Chelsea in London where the Carlyles moved to from Edinburgh he was better known as the man who supplied them with extravagant quantities of sweeties.

Carlyle’s criticisms of the social setup in the United Kingdom made him unpopular with some in the establishment and on a more mundane level both Carlyles experienced that common prejudice experienced by the Scot living in England, ridicule of their coarse Scotch accents which he and Jane retained throughout their lives.

*

Next up is the work of a fellow-Scot who like the Carlyles decided his literary future was best served in England. J. M. Barrie from the home of Scottish gingerbread, Kirriemuir, is best known as author of Peter Pan. He was also from a working class home – his father was a weaver – and like Carlyle he also studied at the University of Edinburgh. Also like Carlyle his marriage was said to have been unconsummated. I don’t know what that says about the University of Edinburgh.

I’m not going to write about Peter Pan as I’m not even sure we have a copy of the book any longer but Barrie’s biographical novel, Margaret Ogilvy. Margaret Ogilvy is a charming account of the author’s mother’s life.

Chapter 1

How my mother got her soft face

On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) – I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked…

Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs.

Was there ever a better beginning to a biography?

Both the child Barrie and his mother were devastated by the death of James’ brother David in an ice-skating accident a day before his fourteenth birthday.  James Barrie tried to protect his mother from the feelings of loss that stayed with all her life and as a small child he wore David’s clothes and imitated his whistling in an attempt to assuage some his mother’s despair. The lost boys and the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter Pan can be linked to David’s death.

 It was from his mother that Barrie learnt the art of the story-teller and when he set out as a writer he revived several of those tales told to him by her of her life as a girl and young woman. Barrie’s fondness for his mother is demonstrated in the touching way he writes of her. Here he describes her approaching death.

They knew she was dying. She told them to fold up the christening robe and almost sharply she watched them put it away, and then for some time she talked of the long lovely life that had been hers, and of Him to whom she owed it. She said good-bye to them all, and at last turned her face to the side where her best-beloved had lain and for over an hour she prayed. They only caught the words now and again, and the last they heard were “God” and “love.” I think God was smiling when He took her to him, as He had so often smiled at her during those seventy-six years.

*

And finally, the reason for my own melancholia (probably not the correct description since I know its cause) is our gorgeous and sweet-natured cat was put to sleep on Monday following a short illness and stroke. The Dude was about eighteen years old, a rescue cat who chose us at the Cat and Dog Home. He came home with us a poor wee specimen of a beastie, severely ill but we nursed him through that bad time and for fourteen years he was our beautiful companion who adopted the sunny front spare room and would settle down on the floor next to me while I read my daily five-minutes and more of books from the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door.

Where we lived in our last house, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, we were semi-adopted by two feral cats who looked very like wild cats. We sometimes fed them and looked out for them. These cats were different generations and one followed the disappearance of the other. Both of these cats we called Murdoch. The first Murdoch and the Dude got on particularly well. One early morning Murdoch appeared as usual in the garden and the Dude ran out to see him. We saw nothing of either of them the whole of that day. It was into the evening before Dude turned up, hungry and exhausted and went straight to bed. He slept soundly that night and most of the following day after his adventure on the road with Murdoch – or more likely across fields and woodlands. Where they got to we never discovered but life on the road didn’t appeal to the Dude and he never again followed his friend beyond the end of the drive.

The younger Murdoch was never such a close companion but he was a frequent visitor and we watched him over the years as his health failed. Cats never give up and so it was that Murdoch would drag his clearly arthritic body around the area he frequented, presumably for food from households such as ours.

One day he turned up at the back door obviously unwell. It was winter but there was some warmth from the sun against the south-facing wall of the house and Murdoch cooried in to rest there. When he went to drink from a little pond he lost his balance and it was obvious he was having a stroke and had lost control of his hind legs. The vet was called out and we managed for the first time to get hold of the poor animal and he was put to sleep on garden bench. Now the two Murdochs and the Dude can roam cat heaven together.

Farewell my old friend.

May 13, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 2 – Guy Bord? You won’t be.

Hullo again. Here I am with week two of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom. If it occurred to me week two would find me on easy-street having completed my initial book blog I was wrong. What certainly occurred to me was to cheat when I realised which books were next in line but that would have been to stoop to cowardly behaviour which I’m not normally averse to but – well a blog is a bit public, even mine. Anyway I’d included a photograph of the shelf in my first blog so such dirty tricks were out of the question.

For any who don’t know what I’m on about this series of blogs emerged from a challenge I set myself to read at least five minutes a day from a book on one shelf in one bookcase in one bedroom of my house. Before I start I should say that I am now reading the Margaret Dewar book I introduced last time and enjoying it though I don’t think she’s a particularly admiral person she doesn’t shrink from opening up her character flaws to her readers.

Not being able to find my notes on the next book along, today’s first book, The Conquerors by André Malraux, had me scranning through the recycling bin and sifting a small mountain of shredded paper through my fingers like an over-confident MI5 agent. Nothing for it but to dust myself down and start all over again.

Until a few mornings ago I had never read Malraux. Never heard of him. Like Margaret Dewar André Malraux was born at the start of the twentieth century. French, he went to Indochina on an archaeological expedition where he became embroiled in the politics of the area.  Later a spell in China then home to France to oppose fascism in his homeland where he would subsequently join the French Resistance and get involved in the Spanish Civil War, that training ground for the German fascist war machine.

His writings earned him many literary prizes though as far as I know, nor for this novel.  

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

The bulletin has been posted since yesterday, underlined in red.

As far as the horizon, the Indian Ocean lies glassy, lacquered, not a ripple. A cloudy sky presses down like the fug in a bathhouse, wraps us in humid air. The passengers pace the deck methodically, careful not to wander too far from the white-framed board where bulletins monitored tonight will be tacked up………

And so on with the author developing a setting for the civil war between the Kuomintang and communists in 1920s China, the parts played by a Bolshevik, an anarchist and pacifist and the war’s impact on many more. As political novels goes it has to be said le Carré it ain’t. I gave it a go but nothing about the story grabbed my interest which no doubt says more about me than the novel but I no longer feel a book begun must be a book finished and so with a great sense of relief it went back onto the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door in the spare room. I exchanged it for Margaret Dewar’s autobiography, and don’t regret it.

Malraux’s cover picture is more captivating than the inside although I don’t know the symbolism of the fly, likely it is explained in the book. Malraux was influenced by Nietzsche and the philosopher’s ideas of uberman or superman – that ability of a hero figure to do something great and so make him all-powerful. Nothing to do with DC Comics superhero, superman – well, I say that but what do I know? It just could be since Superman was a 1930s creation that Jerry Siegel may well have been a Nietzsche afficionado.

All heavy going but wait…hold the front page…Monsieur Malraux it emerged from my googling his name was a tealeaf of some notoriety. In 1923 he was arrested for the theft of 10th century Cambodian temple relics which he intended to sell for cash, being broke at the time. He got a suspended prison sentence. Now I have to ask which crime is greater – art theft or writing a tedious novel?

Was hoping to move on to something lighter but oh, oh next up is Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy (1976.) I’ll keep it brief. Habermas has the reputation of being Germany’s most influential thinker currently. He’s still alive, at ninety-one. His ideas were popular in the 1960s and to give you an impression of what was making it big in the world of philosophy and sociology back then along with Beach boys and Beatles are a few lines from the start of the book – two lines since I feel for you.

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

To use the expression “late capitalism” is to put forward the hypothesis that, even in state-regulated capitalism, social developments involve “contradictions” or crises…

What I did find fascinating is Habermas’ explanation that the commonly-applied term “crisis” was first used in the context of illness. That we can all now appreciate in these Covid-19 times. Crisis in terms of illness suggests helplessness of the patient with very little influence on how the illness affects him or her. Yes, definitely appreciate that nowadays.

He goes on to consider the extent of crisis in other areas of life, the passivity of people affected and loss of individual sovereignty – fatalism. Now we’re talking because we’ve been captivated by Netflix apparently never-ending Turkish series Resurrection-Ertugrul where fatalism dominates life and death – en-shala (if it is the will of God) and if ever there was a heroic figure it is Ertugrul – one that I bet Malraux would have killed for, or at least stolen off someone.

Look, I have to lay my cards on the table – this selection, random I’ll remind you, is as light as a pan loaf sans yeast. This is me preparing you for book number three, Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue from 1954.  The title comes from a vision the 16-year old Koestler had home in Buda in Hungary where he imagined a super-arrow streaking into the blue sky and onwards through space – to infinity. The Koestlers were Russian who like so many thousands before and after them fled first from the terrifying Tsarist regime then the violence of the revolution in hope of a better and more peaceful life in Europe or America which is how the Koestlers came to settle in Hungary.

Arthur Koestler was an interesting man. A near exact contemporary of André Malraux, the name is German but this Hungarian-born writer is classed as British. A one-time communist, Koestler abandoned the party over the ruthlessness of Stalinism and his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon published in 1940, is set during Stalin’s great purge and Moscow show trials.

Goodness knows where our copy of Darkness at Noon is; certainly not on this shelf so let me get back to Arrow in the Blue which begins with –

Horoscope

From the beginnings of civilization man has held the belief that the constellation of heavenly bodies at the moment of his birth had an influence on his fate. (Back to Habermas.) It occurred to me that the constellation of earthly events at that moment might also be of some significance and, one day in 1946, I decided to cast my secular horoscope.

Koestler took himself off to The Times publishing offices in London to pore over a copy of the newspaper published on 5 September 1905, his birthday. What he was faced with were all kinds of mundanity. Just what impact any of the mundane events he discovered had on his future Koestler wasn’t certain but his life turned out to be anything but mundane. He was a member of the KPD, German communist party; a member of a Zionist duelling club; was a farm labourer in Palestine; sold lemonade in Haifa; edited a Cairo newspaper; was a foreign correspondent; a science editor in Germany; a Cold War propagandist in Britain and perhaps most exotically of all he flew to the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin in July 1931. After becoming terminally ill he and his wife, Cynthia, committed suicide in 1983 in London.

I can’t leave matters on that tragic note so will squeeze in a duo of books by John Aberdein. First up is Strip the Willow proving the slapdash storage of books because if there was any order on this shelf his first novel, Amande’s Bed, would be to the left but it isn’t so let’s take a look at Strip the Willow after a brief word about its author, John Aberdein – from Aberdeen.  

Because of the impact made by Amande’s Bed on the reading public Strip the Willow was eagerly anticipated. The book delivers savage satire and splenetic venting through the medium of the Doric; the language rich with its own vocabulary that is spoken from Aberdeenshire to Angus.

The strikes, occupations and demonstrations of France in May 1968 form the background of Strip the Willow which is set somewhere not unlike Aberdeen – in a city called Uberdeen. Uberdeen isn’t a nice place. The rapaciously ambitious LeopCorp dominates everything that goes on in it. For those not familiar with Aberdeen its emblem comprises a pair of leopards. Everything is up for grabs in Uberdeen, everything turned into a money-making opportunity by LeopCorp’s Rookie Marr’s gofer – the wonderfully named Guy Bord, a man who has come though almost as many political groupings as Arthur Koestler. Rookie Marr might be a shoe-in for Nietzsche’s and Malraux’s uberman but they never imagined turning Uberdeen’s majestic granite main street into a giant bowling alley – it’s impossible to overstate the whole bizarre jamboree that is Strip the Willow.  Guy Bord is a nod to the French Marxist philosopher and filmmaker, Guy Debord, and is typical of Aberdein’s clever wordplay.

March 31

what larks

A lemon UCKU plastic bag, flat on the tar, lank in the air, hopped and gusted towards her. According to the latest story, plastic bags were the root of all badness.

Nobody will be free until the last financier is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

L’imagination c’est le pouvoir, Imagination is power. Such was the calibre of slogan she and others had printed and glued to the walls of Paris.

Mort aux sacs plastiques! It didn’t quite fit somehow.

My copy of Strip the Willow was personally inscribed by John in 2009 at a book event at Aberdeen University which is very nice. The novel won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Award for Fiction in 2010.

All this takes me to my final book for now, Aberdein’s debut novel, Amande’s Bed which took the Scottish literary world by storm – a tour-de-force of the Scottish novel that won the Saltire Book of the Year prize in 2005.

Amande’s Bed attacks the ‘plasticated’ incursion of Americanisms into our lives resulting in de-junking of local traditions and values. It is a tale of love and internationalism, European naturally, with the eponymous Amande – a French-Scot – discovering the northeast is well in need of revolution and ripe for it. Aberdein’s entrance into Scotland’s cultural scene if not quite as sensational as the coming of the messiah was nevertheless dramatic. He was immediately compared with, among others, our own Ali Smith and Jackie Kay and James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

No idea if any of the above, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges have tackled the varied occupations that John Aberdein has – herring and scallop fisher, teacher, parliamentary candidate, political adviser… kayak coach, the first man to kayak around the Scottish mainland.

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

His mother woke several times that night, over-sweaty to sleep now with memories stirred. Finally she upped and padded from the bed-recess to the scuffed porcelain sink. She poured herself a cup of cold water, standing and nursing it, her candlewick robe over her nightslip. Dee water it was, Dee water that had come eighty miles from the roof of Scotland into the tenement.

a deterrent

I took the bus up tae see Ludwig. Ward 8.

O, that was good o ye. Ye hardly ken him.

I’ve met him afore. He was gey dozent wi the anaesthetic. I left him a pound o fudge.

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

Better than maist folk that’s just lost a haun. Aye, an far you then?

And we waited after Strip the Willow but John Aberdein didn’t feel obliged to continue indulging us with his raucous and hilarious jabs at authority and exploitative and ruthless capitalism for there have been no more novels.

Enough of this. Till next time, take care a’body.

May 3, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 1 – What Katy did and revolution

Dusting down one of the bookcases in the spare bedroom one day I thought it might be an interesting challenge to read just 5 mins from each of the books along one of the shelves every day. There has to be a start somewhere. Many of our books I have read, some several times over, but many more I haven’t and thought it might be an exercise in discipline to force myself to pick up a volume or several I’d normally walk by.

We’ve had most of our books for a very long time, although our recent flit meant several hundreds were given away to charity shops but our new house was partly chosen on the amount of space available for books, pictures and finally us (who don’t take up much room.) We didn’t quite make it and there are several filled bookcases stored in the garage and a box or three yet unopened. We have books on just about every subject under the sun, or did until the flit clear-out, and apart from history, cooking and mountaineering most of those that have found house-room have been shelved fairly randomly.

It wasn’t more than a few days into my 5-minute reads when it struck me this might make for a blog in the way just about everything is a blog opportunity. Clearly what I pick up in 5 minutes hardly allows for much context and I had no intention of doing book reviews so these blogs will be whatever I dig up on the subjects or authors of the works, and their ideas where I can understand them.

So here we are. Blog 1 on the books on shelf three of the bookcase next to the front bedroom door.

I hadn’t read What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge since I was a child. The copy I have now belonged to my late mother, a school prize won when she was twelve years old, the same age as the novel’s protagonist, Katy Carr.

Katy was a young tomboy as girls who didn’t conform to established mores of what was deemed feminine behaviour in the near past. Nowadays she would probably be encouraged to change gender and become Keith Carr since stereotypical behaviour is again becoming rigorously applied. Katy’s life is turned upside down by an accident that has her re-appraise her behaviour and she transforms and conforms to the idyl of womanhood, obedience. Coolidge’s tale, written in 1872, is set in the American mid-west where Katy’s father, a widower doctor, secures the services of his sister, Izzie, to help bring up his six children.  

The book begins with a poem, To Five (Katy’s siblings)

Six of us once, my darlings, played together,

Beneath green boughs, which faded long ago,

Made merry in the golden summer weather,

Pelted each other with new fallen snow.

The tale proper finds Katy sitting in a meadow when she overhears a conversation between two tiny pale-green creatures wearing black goggles and each with six legs. They seem to be discussing her.

“Katy did.” “Katy didn’t.” “She did.” “She didn’t.” “She did.”  “She didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.”

Walking home Katy reflects on those words and the many wonderful things she planned to do with her life and the little she achieved but in consolation there were other things she did which proved better than those in her first dreams.

While Katy Carr was submitting to the limitations imposed on women by American society actual American women were standing up to oppression and laying their lives on the line in pursuit of women achieving equality with men. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth were both arrested for making the case for women’s right to vote.

Susan Anthony entered the fray when she discovered she and her fellow-female teachers were being paid a tiny fraction of that given to their male colleagues. So began a lifetime commitment to activism and she was instrumental in the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association in America.

At her birth in 1797 Sojourner Truth was already a slave. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree but she chose to change it to Sojourner Truth. Right from the start of her life Sojourner learnt how unfair life could be. Born into bondage, Sojourner was bought and sold like a piece of disposable property and was frequently physically attacked and beaten. In 1872 having been denied her promised freedom Sojourner one day walked away from her master,

I did not run away, I walked away by daylight…

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Sojourner Truth was active in the antislavery movement and campaign for women’s rights. I suspect the young Katy Carr would have admired both Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. As for the later Katy, she needed to listen to those little green creatures with black goggles to remind her who she really was.

*

Another radical woman is the subject of my second book, The Quiet Revolutionary by Margaret Dewar.

The year was 1904. We were travelling in a kibitka through the snow. Sitting snugly on straw in the depth of the sleigh, wrapped up to the tips of our noses in rugs, our nanny, my sister Helga and I were following the kibitka carrying my parents, on our way from the port of Arkhangelsk to Ust-Tsylma, some 300 miles further north-east, less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. Suddenly our kibitka turned over and we all tumbled into the deep snow. No harm was done except for the shock to our parents. My sister was just over a year old, I was three. These are my very first memories.

This is a biography of Margarete (Rita) Watz born in Latvia into a Latvian-Russian-German family. Her childhood was spent in Riga, Siberia, St Petersburg and Moscow during the period before the Russian revolution. Descriptions of her early life in Russia are a joy to read for they are filled with all sorts of magical details about places, children’s toys, foods eaten and the sorts of clothes people wore but this was no fairy tale.

Young Margaret lived through the terrible Tsarist period with all the uncertainties that brought and then there was the upheaval and violence of the revolution and reaction. Margaret’s family left Russia for Germany in the early 1920s and between her life in Latvia and Russia and experiences in in post-war Germany it is little wonder she became politicised. The rise of fascism in Germany was a real threat to her survival and so once more she fled, eventually reaching Britain hence her British-sounding name, Margarete anglicised to Margaret and Dewar from her Trotskyist husband, Hugo.  

*

Book three is about yet another strong woman. Unlike Margaret Dewar one whose life became dedicated to revolutionary activism from an early age. Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, around the time What Katy Did was being written, a daughter of a timber trader and his wife she was encouraged to read widely, a passion shared by Margaret Dewar. By the age of fifteen Rosa was involved with the left-wing Proletariat Party and soon active organising a general strike. Her political activities drew her to the attention of the state and she came under constant surveillance and intimidation. Dangerous times and four of Rosa’s comrades were executed for their activities.

The book Comrade and Lover, Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Leo Jogiches, translated by Elizbieta Ettinger, concentrates on personal aspects of Rosa’s life as suggested by the title.

In much the same way as Margaret Dewar, Rosa sought safety by fleeing her home. Initially she went to Switzerland where she attended the university of Zurich and left it with a Doctor of Law degree, a rare achievement for women back then.

The Leo Jogiches referred to was a fellow-Marxist and Rosa’s lover to whom Rosa wrote nearly a thousand letters. She was always an inveterate letter-writer and the  book features a small selection of them.

Here’s a flavour from my five minute read –

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1870, in Zamość, a small town in Poland under Russian rule. The youngest child of Elias Luxemburg and Lina Löwenstein, she had a sister, Anna, and three brothers, Mikolaj, Maksymilian, and Józef. Polish and German culture permeated the family’s life. The Luxemburgs had no connections with the Jewish community of Zamość, which was one of the most cultured in Poland. When they moved to Warsaw in 1873, they left nothing behind – not ties, no regrets. Elias Luxemburg, a well-educated merchant, identified himself with the Polish patriots who, in two unsuccessful insurrections (1830 and 1863) sought to overthrow the hated czarist regime. Lina Luxemburg, a cultivated descendant of a long line of rabbis, was enamored of German poetry and music. Each parent leaned toward a different way of shedding Jewishness, although neither way was mutually exclusive.

Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with Jogiches, a Latvian (Latvia was then part of the Russian empire), lasted many years but was largely secret even from her family for a long time because while they often lived together they were not formally married. Rosa and Jogiches were often apart, hence the letters, with him largely in Switzerland while Rosa lived and worked in France and Germany. Both were involved in the Spartacus League, a German Marxist organisation aimed at an international proletarian revolution (it changed its name to the German Communist Party [KPD].)

Leo Jogiches

The early letters are mainly love letters typical of any young people but Rosa and Leo Jogiches lived under constant strain of state surveillance. Germany in the early years of the twentieth century was a hostile environment for anyone daring to question the direction being taken by the state, the left being singled out for particular scrutiny and intimidation. For Marxists like them life was positively perilous, as they along with many of their comrades discovered to their cost. Later letters lack the intimacy of the early ones and tend to concentrate on aspects of the couple’s activities and Rosa’s dependency on the wealthy Jogiches for money.

Here’s a flavour of a letter sent from Rosa to Jogiches when she was in Berlin in June 1899.

You horrid monkey!

   Again you’re furious! And why? Because I must wait a few days for a letter from my father. You seem to forget that my father hasn’t seen me for 10 (ten) year. And from what I hear about his health, it’s clear that this is going to be our last meeting… As I wrote to you, I’m leaving on Wednesday, and will meet my father in July. He is very ill and I’ll have to put him up in a sanatorium. I’m on my way to K [autsky].

   Kisses, though you aren’t worth it.

Katy Carr’s fictional spinal injury that led to the transformation of her character from rebel to obedient young woman has resonance in the life of Rosa Luxemburg who really did suffer from bone disease that was badly handled by doctors and left her with a permanent limp. But Katy’s life lacked the adversities faced by Rosa for whom interrogation and prison became increasingly her reality. During one interrogation in 1919 she was very brutally beaten by the extremists from the  rightwing freikorps (German paramilitaries – the sort of people who created the fascist state in Germany within a few short years.) On 15 January 1919 Dr Rosa Luxemburg, philosopher, economist, anti-war campaigner and revolutionary socialist was beaten while held in prison, her skull smashed with a rifle butt and she was shot through the head before her frail body was dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr canal (a fate shared by her fellow-KPD comrade Karl Liebknecht.) Leo Jogiches, too, was murdered while in prison in Berlin a few weeks after Rosa.

*

The Germany Rosa Luxemburg fought to alter descended through years of terror and oppression into fascism and Nazism. Eventually Europe then the world was once more at war.

My final book for now just happens to be on the subject of the Second World War. Poems of this War by Younger Poets, edited by Patricia Ledward and Colin Strong.

Published in 1942 this anthology features verses written during the first three years of the war. As the poet, Edmund Blunden, writes in his introduction the 1914-18 war was reflected in some very great poetry and this second world war inspired a fresh set of young poets to express their feelings having to endure the fear and unknown future of the then current war.  

The first poem is by Emmanuel Litvinoff, We saw doom patterned in the ordinary sky

The Conscripts

We go to war in various ways

From farms and factories, the usual ways

Of life suddenly distorted to terrible

Experience. This fear becomes the visible

Coffin at the funeral.

Litvinoff’s recurring theme is the sky – from doom patterned in the ordinary sky to birth patterned in the deathly sky. Hope? I imagine so yet we know the killing would continue for another three years.

Litvinoff was from a Russian Jewish family that had fled pogroms in Tsarist Russia in 1914. Within three years his father would return to Russia to fight alongside the Bolsheviks in the revolution – and so he vanished from young Litvinoff’s life.

Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, Emanuel Litvinoff celebrated his Jewishness which was integrated into his writings. From an inauspicious start in life, brought up in a working class Jewish community in London’s east end, Livinoff went on to become an significant poet and novelist portraying Jewish struggles in Europe. He died in 2011.

The works of several women poets are also featured in the volume, including Margery Smith. My efforts to discover something, anything, about the life of Margery Smith have fallen on fallow ground. Her name crops up in some poetry reference books with examples of her verses but of her life, I’ve drawn a blank.

This is a fragment of her poem, Peace from Poems of this War

World-peace goes leaden-footed between the wars,

Limps wearily between the roars

Of iron days

But in among the murder-rays,

A brighter flame,

Peace, enters singly as she always came

When she desired Eternal rest:

It is her singleness impressed

Upon a soul, a soul, a soul,

That shall in time give wisdom to the whole.

One can hope. There is that word again. We all need that.

Till next time when I open up what comes next on the shelf.  

Apr 23, 2021

St Mary’s of the Storms – 14 hundred years in the lives of the folk of Cowie

Charming and ever-edging towards the beach below sits St Mary’s of the Storms. The church, the last of a number spanning fourteen centuries, is derelict but the graveyard surrounding it remains the eternal home of many of Cowie (Kolly) and district folk – a great number dependent on the sea and coast for their livings, as is apparent from motifs on their memorials.

There are splendid views from the site, grass-covered Old Red Sandstone cliffs stretching up from the North Sea where in the distance elegant white turbines harness the wind. To the south is the bonnie town of Stonehaven and just beyond it another ancient ruin, the renowned Dunnottar Castle, a mere stripling by comparison with the first of the kirks at Cowie, having been built seven hundred years or so later, in the 14th century.

Cowie’s holy site was established by St Nathalan/ Nachlan/ Nauchlan. From Tullich* east of Ballater where he also set up a church and where he is buried (c. 678AD) as well as one at Coull. Legend has it the enterprising St Nachlan had a treasure hoard which he wrapped in a bull hide and buried “between the kirk and the kirk’s ford” at Cowie but I imagine that’s a cock-and-bull story.

Early chapels would have been constructed of timber and turf with the first stone one taking shape during the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the 11th century; the broken-down church seen today dates from the 13th century. At some point in its past it is believed St Mary’s was a creel kirk; a church where a creel (basket carried on the back for carrying fish, tatties, cut peats and babies) was passed around the congregation to collect offerings of food and clothing for local poor.

Hundreds of years of being blasted by coarse winds straight off the sea it is hardly surprising the poor state it’s in but then there was the small matter of an Archbishop of St Andrews who during the Reformation in the 16th century ordered the removal of the roof – and that was that. Having set a precedent other people followed his example and began taking away stones so the dereliction continued. Attempts to stem the tide of stone theft included a legend that whoever dared build a home from kirk stones would suffer bloody retribution.  William Rait of Redclock (sic) shrugged off the threat and helped himself to part of the church roof but soon it was said his house “rained drops of blood.” At least that’s how the story goes.  

Roll on three hundred years and it was proposed to sell the burial ground. Concerned individuals got together in February 1832 and formed a society “for the protection of the dead in the burying-ground of Cowie” – the upshot was a revival of the graveyard but given the times with resurrectionists (grave robbers who sold bodies to medical doctors and students for anatomical study before access to corpses was legalised) such a menace they arranged for a mort house capable of holding 20 coffins to be built to protect recent dead. Erected against the chapel’s west wall it was secured behind heavy doors that required three keys to unlock it. The three keys were kept by different men and all had to be present to open up the vault to receive and remove coffins. The dead were stored for several weeks until such time it was thought bodies were in such a decrepit state they would be of no interest to the anatomists. With the revival of the kirkyard came the acquisition of more land to cope with the demand for burial space and so an extension was consecrated in the 1880s.

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

The location of the kirk and graveyard meant access was precarious, along a track on the clifftop; difficult enough during fine weather for coffin bearers in particular but surely a nightmare in wet and snowy conditions.

St Nathalan’s became St Mary’s or Our Lady of the Storms in the 13th century, on the 22 May 1276 – the dedication carried out by another Bishop of St Andrews, William Wishart. Never a parish church, St Mary’s was part of the parish of Feteresso. Several Scottish kings worshipped in the Cowie chapel. Scottish kings used to be itinerant – travelling around their realm – and when in the Royal Burgh of Cowie they would stay in Cowie Castle – its existence now reduced to a few stones a couple of hundred yards to the south of the kirk and graveyard. Cowie Castle stood on its promontory for 400 years. Malcolm Canmore, the king already mentioned, was behind the building of the castle in the 11th century.  The castle was in time occupied by the Frasers and from 1369 the powerful family of Keiths of Dunnottar (Earls Marischal of Scotland.) Once Dunnottar was built royalty made that their northeast residence. Both Cowie and Dunnottar castles along with nearby Feteresso were raised to the ground on 21 March 1645 during the Covenanting wars.

Travellers from the south heading towards Aberdeen passed through this area – a dangerous stretch of dirt road called the Cowie Mounth that was nothing more than swamp and gulleys until eventually filled with boulders to provide a better surface. It later became a turnpike road. The early highway ended at Kincorth and from there travellers and goods crossed the river Dee by ferry boat to the town of Aberdeen.

The earliest stones, their inscriptions and symbols are lost to us but there are plenty standing to fascinate anyone visiting this charming place. Lots of stones show symbols of the fleeting nature of life (hourglasses, crossed bones, skulls) and trade marks including boats, anchors, ploughs, shoemaker’s knife.

Most of the inscriptions on the table-stones are illegible now but well-known is one –

“To the memory of Raymond Stewart, a Black Man, a native of Granada, who lived for thirty years in the service of the late Mr Farquharson of Breda, in this country, and was much respected. He died at Elsick the 3d January 1834, leaving money which he had saved for charitable purposes.”

Another flat slab records the death in 1763 of John Thom, a tenant in Elrick, his wife, Ann Burnett who died in 1779 and their nine children.

Several ministers are buried at Cowie including the Reverends John Troup, John Petrie and Alex Greig, three Episcopal ministers who defied a law prohibiting them from preaching to more than four people at any one time and were jailed for six months in Stonehaven’s Tolbooth in 1748. Troup played the Jacobite air, O’er the water to Charlie on the bagpipes as he was marched to the prison. Defiant throughout they preached from their cell window to supporters gathered in the street, even baptising babies held up for blessing.

Several illustrious folk are buried at St Mary’s and at least one declared genius. William Kilgour who in addition to being a “superior weaver of bed-covers, and table-cloths, etc” constructed 8-day clocks from beginning to end.

Northeast Kilgours became world-renowned textile manufacturers. I don’t know if William was one of them. Possibly.

A memorial to the crew of Stonehaven’s lifeboat, St George, who died on 27 February 1874 while attempting to rescue the barque, Grace Darling. The lifeboat capsized as it entered Aberdeen harbour with the loss of coxswain and three crew. Two are buried at Cowie, one at Nigg and one at Belhelvie. Memorials such as this are a reminder of the ever-present danger of life at sea. Another tragic incident occurred on 21 April 1880 when a strong gale sprang up from the southwest and three local fishing boats were lost.

A simple gravestone marks the deaths of several members of the Christie family of Skateraw when their yawl, Brothers, went down within sight of land. There were six of a crew onboard: William Christie, sen., William Christie, jun., Thomas Christie, Andrew Christie, sen., Andrew Christie, jun., Peter Christie. Four were seen clinging to the mast spars and two more desperately holding onto the bow of the boat. A rescue craft was sent out and William junior was able to grab hold of a lifebuoy thrown to him but before any others could be rescued the boat turned over trapping them and they drowned. The older men were brothers and each left large families.

*(‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com) )

Dec 18, 2020

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

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

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

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

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

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

Fowlsheugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

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

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

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

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

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

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

Covenanter’s stone at Dunnottar cemetery

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

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar