Archive for ‘Art’

October 29, 2017

Andy Scott: can a leopard change its spots?

I took the following comment from Flickr on the topic of artist Andy Scott’s leopard in Aberdeen’s hideous Marischal Square shopping complex.

I post this simply to make the point that the sculptor Andy Scott well-known for the Kelpies also raised some publicity for his objection to “Bavarian” burger bar opening at his “masterpiece”. He was quoted as saying that Falkirk Community Trust had “no understanding of the cultural importance of the asset they have inherited, nor of their obligations to the artist who created them”. The Bavarian fast food outlet was described as “tacky”. Andy Scott has just had unveiled a Leopard (in the Kelpie style) at Aberdeen’s Marischal Square, a building which is perhaps the biggest architectural crime visited on Aberdeen in the past fifty years. I do wonder what responsibility the sculptor might feel in helping give artistic credibility to such a terrible project? Oh that we had had the choice in Aberdeen of a small Bavarian burger bar or a monster glass and steel box which hides the magnificence which is granite Marischal College

March 2, 2017

The Fate of the Embroiderer from Peterhead

It was in 1707 that fraudulent bankruptcy became a capital crime in England; what the penalty for personal sequestration in Scotland was then I have not been able to discover but I suppose an English hanging may have been preferable to the French punishment of strangulation. 

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Peterhead’s Alexander Thompson was about thirty years old when he found himself on trial at the Old Bailey in London in February 1756. Brought up in the Blue Toon in the northeast of Scotland, Thompson was educated to some degree, as were most Scots children, in the basics of reading and writing.

Like many of his countrymen and women before him, Thompson travelled abroad, first to Paris where he learned the specialized craft of embroidery.  No mere stitchers embroiderers were skilled in designing patterns used to create gorgeous intricate needlework that would be used decorating clothing worn by the wealthy and for home furnishings. 

After five years in France and still a young man in his early twenties Thompson took his experience as an embroiderer to Holland where he carried out his trade for several years, enhancing his reputation as a successful businessman in both Rotterdam and Amsterdam, before turning up in England.

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In London he took lodgings in a ‘reputable’ coffee house and enjoyed the high life of the city; forever visiting entertainments. It was at a dance he met his prospective wife, Lydia Davis, but safe to say her father wasn’t keen on his prospective son-in-law. Lydia, or rather her father, had some money as apparently did Thompson and the couple moved into a comfortable house in St. James’s, Westminster. From there Thompson earned a living as embroiderer, dealer and a chapman (seller of cheap popular books.)

However, Thompson was of the mind that all work makes Jack a dull boy and quickly the marriage turned sour and the couple separated. Then one evening Thompson asked his wife to go dancing with him and together they went to Fish Street Hill which appeared to have prompted something of reconciliation. They were at a friend’s house when at around four in the morning on the 20th February 1755 the marital home, where Thompson still carried on his business, went up in flames. Fortunately it was well insured nevertheless all his work materials were lost as well as personal belongings and more importantly two people, both servants, died in the fire.  

Rumours abounded that Thompson had been seen in the neighbourhood before the fire broke out, denied by Thompson who maintained he was with his wife the whole of that night. He collected an insurance payout of £500 despite the property having been insured for £900 and immediately went off to a tavern with his father-in-law and a friend to pay off a debt. It emerged Thompson was in debt to several people but despite having enough money in hand he chose not to discharge his debts which amounted to no more than £200 and sent a note to his wife informing her he was leaving London.

His marriage over Thompson sailed for Scotland and in his absence he was declared bankrupt by the courts in England. He later claimed he knew nothing of this although he would have been well aware when he turned his back on England he left as a debtor and failure to discharge debts was then a very serious offence.

Thompson arrived in Edinburgh, described erroneously as the north of Scotland in English court papers and in the southern press. He was still only in his twenties and before long he got married again. History repeated itself when he found this father-in-law was none-too-keen on him either and kept at him to pay off his debts which Thompson must have admitted to so Thompson, possibly reluctantly, sailed back to London. Knowing he was in trouble not only over the money he owed but having committed bigamy Thompson persuaded a woman he met there to impersonate his English wife and swear before a lawyer that they had not been married but only cohabiting in an attempt to make his Scottish marriage legal.

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The attempted fraud was quickly discovered when under pressure the woman broke down and admitted the deception. Thompson was apprehended and dragged before his English father-in-law who identified him. In no time Thompson found himself locked up in Clerkenwell New Prison and later Newgate. His bigamy was by now the least of his worries.

During his absence in Edinburgh the London courts issued an order for his appearance before the Commissioners in Bankruptcy at the Guildhall “to make a full discovery and disclosure of his estate and effects, when and where the creditors are to come prepared to prove their debts.” Having failed to comply, Thompson hired a legal representative to argue he had no knowledge of the matter, being in Scotland at the time. He was put on trial for bankruptcy and failing to comply with an interdict to deal with it. His declaration he knew nothing of the action did not wash with the jury and he was condemned to death for not surrendering himself to the Commissioners’ scrutiny.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Robertson’s portrait of Flora Macdonald

Meanwhile at Edinburgh Baillie Court that July an action was taken out against Thompson by William Robertson, a limner,* for what I don’t know  as the court papers are missing and an application was made by Margaret Lamb, daughter of George Lamb, a wright of Potterow, against Alexander Thompson for his bigamous marriage to her.

Despondent in his English goal Thompson wrote several letters imploring understanding of his situation including one sent to his English father-in-law demanding his help. Thompson, a Protestant, also railed at the church for failing to support him and increasingly desperate angrily declared his desire to die a Catholick. His rekindled interest in religion found him penning prayers, attending chapel and spending time in quiet devotional meditation which led him to regret his ill-treatment of his English wife. And so a contrite Thompson calmly faced the hangman’s rope – and in doing so left two widows.

* artist, or portraits or miniatures

July 25, 2016

At the foot of the Suie in the land where Druids worshipped a 23 year old nurse is remembered : Tullynessle graveyard

 

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Tullynessle Church or St Neachtan’s Kirk on the hill leading to the Suie

This austere looking church sits on a spot that has been occupied by churches for centuries on the lower slopes of the Suie close to the Suie and Esset burns.  Constructed from local grey granite from Sylavethy quarry in 1876 the church’s dour solidity is broken by elegant lancet windows. The North end was once taller when it featured a 1604 birdcage bellcote that was rescued from an earlier, presumably sandstone kirk, for the bellcote is made from sandstone which is much softer and more pliable than igneous granite. The bellcote now occupies a spot just inside the kirkyard gate.

A sandstone bellcote from an older church was added to the 19th century granite kirk and removed in 1968. It now stands in the graveyard by the gate.

Sandstone bellcote from an earlier church was added to the 19thC building and removed in 1968

http://www.scottishchurches.org.uk/sites/site/id/851/name/Tullynessle+Parish+Church+Tullynessle+and+Forbes+Grampian

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Ancient flat gravestone with symbolic skull bones peeping through the grass

Several flat memorial stones are lost to us under turf

Another largely lost flat memorial stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graveyard doesn’t have very many gravestones though a number of early flat stones lie hidden beneath the turf which is a shame because the few visible points hint at the iconographical treasures of mortality and immortality symbols that lie there forgotten.  What stands upright reads like a history, if short, of the area featuring several families long associated with the Howe o’ Alford such as  Coutts, Comfort, Mathers, McCombie, Spence.

 

McCombie was the name of the family who bred Aberdeen Angus cattle. Presumably this is a relative of one of them.

McCombie was the name of the family who bred Aberdeen Angus cattle. Presumably this is a relative

Tullynessle is an area that lies west of Alford in Aberdeenshire and takes in a large expanse of some great farming country. The old church is situated on the lower slopes of the Suie by the Suie burn and near the burn of Esset which might just have given rise to its name, or not. Tully or sometimes Tilly is well-known around Scotland from the Gaelic tullich for wee hill or knoll. However it got its name it has one.  

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

Typical gravestone flower motif carved by a local monumental mason

This was Forbes country – Forbes with the ‘e’ pronounced as you would German words, sounding all the letters. ForbES is still much heard in the Howe o’ Alford to this day along with the Anglicised Forbs.

Anchors on gravestones signified an association with the sea. Rope motifs strung around stones  often accompanied an anchor as here though not shown.

Anchors on gravestones signified an association with the sea. Rope motifs strung around stones often accompanied an anchor as here though not shown

 

Where the land wasn’t claimed by a Forbes it was said to belong to the Gordons. There are lots of Gordons around this area. The estate of Terpersie at Tullynessle was one of theirs and briefly lost when taken off the Gordons for supporting the Jacobite cause during the rebellion.  Gordon of Terpersie was one of many hunted down by the British state soon after the Union to demonstrate it would deal severely with anyone who defied it. Terpersie was sold to the York Company, as were other Scottish estates but Terpersie was later bought from the English company by a different Gordon – the original having been executed in London.  

Pretty decoration on sandstone memorial stone Tullynessle

Pretty decoration on a sandstone memorial stone at Tullynessle

The history of the area is much more ancient than the 18th century. There’s a mention on one of the gravestones to the deceased having lived at Druidsfield. This is a reference to the very many ancient stone circles, most containing impressive recumbent stones, scattered throughout Aberdeenshire.

Reference to the local place known as Druidsfield - called that because early stone circles and standing stones were  said to form part of Druid worship.

Reference to the local place known as Druidsfield – so called because early stone circles and standing stones were said to be outdoor temples used for worship by Druids

We tend not to speak of them as Druid stones any longer but that’s what they used to be called – and believed to be outdoor temples used by Druids for their ceremonies. Most of them were destroyed over centuries when stones were cleared to make land fit for growing crops. Lots were blown up to help their removal because they were so massive which always makes those of us who visit our stone circles wonder at the ability of Neolithic people to drag them to their hilltop sites and place them so accurately they’ve stood in place for millennia.  If you’ve never seen them some are mind-blowingly large.

 

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Scots migrated to other countries in huge numbers

Scots, like the migrants of today, were inveterate travellers and seekers of a better life such as the sons of David Grant and his wife Margaret Barron who  farmed at Millcroft. Robert and David settled in Australia and New Zealand.

  

This naturalistic flower motif was obviously carved by a very capable hand

This naturalistic slower motif was clearly carved by a very capable hand

One of the grander memorials belongs to the Spence family. Alexander Spence died in 1913 aged 84 years. His wife’s sudden death preceded his about a month, Annie Tawse Morrison was her name. Their two daughters Eliza and Jessie died as young children and were interred in Glenbuchat churchyard while another daughter, Jeannie, died in the same year as her parents, in 1913, aged 48 years.

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Grand polished granite memorial belonging to the Spence family from the Brig

Spence was born in 1829 in Towie at Glenkindie and began work as a farm labourer. He rose to ploughman then he went to take over from his father-in-law who ran the Pooldhullie Toll Car, carriers in Strathdon. It was not until he was an elderly man that Alexander Spence took out a lease on the Forbes Arms Hotel at the Brig.

15 weeks, 15 days children of Mary and Alex Rennie

Their short lives of only 15 days and another 15 weeks – the Rennie children

According to his obituary Alexander Spence had a reputation as being highly talented working with animals, almost equal to a qualified veterinary surgeon it was claimed and he retained an interest in horses throughout his life.  He made the Forbes Arms hotel into a popular venue for anglers and tourists, not so difficult perhaps given its prize location above the River Don and Spence ensuring he had fishing rights on various parts of the river to offer to his guests.  

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Tullynessle war memorial

A fine, well-cared for war memorial stands in a corner of the graveyard: a light grey-white granite  rectangular block topped with a simple cross it commemorates service men and women from the area killed during the Great War and the Second World War.  Their occupations remind us how it was that ordinary young men and women were torn away from everything familiar and transported away never to return home to the familiar quiet beauty of Tullynessle, presumably often in their thoughts: Alex Comfort; Hardware clerk; James Craig: van man; James McGregor: carpenter; William Campbell: mason; John Reid: North of Scotland Bank; I. Spence: nursing sister.

I assume I. Spence belonged to the same Spences who moved here from Glenkindie for the address is close to the Forbes Arms.

Sister Isobel Spence was drowned  in 1944 on active service

Sister Isobel Spence

Nursing Sister Isobel Spence QAIMNS, only daughter of Mr and Mrs John Spence, Waterside of Forbes, Alford, was reported missing at sea shortly before her presumed death was announced. Isobel did her nurse training at Foresterhill in Aberdeen only completing it in March 1942.  Two years later, at the age of 23 years she was killed in action, in March 1944. A great number of nurses were lost at sea, some sailing to other parts of the world as part of their war service and others in the hospital ships they lived and worked on. I don’t know where Isobel was drowned as newspaper accounts gave away little information during the war.

 

Tullynessle Kirk’s alternative name is St Neachtan which is a name I’ve never come across before so had to look it up. It appears this was Neachtan, Nechtan, Nathalan or variations of them who arrived as a missionary from Ireland in the early 9th century as many others were also doing, and his name was adopted in different parts of Scotland.  

Sandstone and worn the decoration at the base of this stone might have been integral to it or else remains of a re-used stone

Obviously an older stone that was well decorated with an angel at the top and various symbols of mortality but they’ve succumbed to time and weather

James Smith was employed as minister at Tullynessle for thirty-six years and was also a schoolmaster in the parish. He died in 1861 aged 63 years and the stone mentions his young daughters who died as children: Elizabeth aged 14 months; Mary Paull aged 10 years as well as Jane Elizabeth aged 19 years. His son died at 17 years old and James was outlived by his wife Jane Robertson (Scottish women retain their single names) who lived into her 70th year.

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Tucked away in a corner is this fine marble tablet in remembrance of an 18thC minister

A fine marble tablet commemorates the life and work of the Reverend Andrew Marshall who served the 18th century church for 25 years and who died in 1812. He was buried with his ten dead children who never survived into adulthood. His widow, Mary Grant, is also mentioned. She died at Aberdeen but was buried alongside her husband and their children.

Bellcote fixing

Iron fixing once used to hold the Tullynessle kirk bell in the bellcote

Tullynessle in a nutshell.

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March 8, 2016

Melancholia 34 – it’s magic!

What strikes me most when I look at Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia I is that bulky human form hunkered down in contemplation at the forefront of the picture. Others are drawn to its celebrated mystical square in which every which way adds up to the magical number 34.

Albrecht Durer is one of the most charismatic and talented artists ever. Let’s cut to the chase as an illustrator he was the epitome of all things brilliant. Melencolia I is literally a magical picture stuffed full of symbolism and disputed meaning – which any trawl through artistic sources will bear out.

 

Leaving aside Durer’s spelling of melancholy for a moment let’s look first at what this term meant during the period of the Renaissance. Before the system of western medicine we use today the ancient Greeks believed human nature and health were determined by four temperaments and their associated humours.

The temperaments or personality types were sanguine (easy-osy), choleric ( angry), phlegmatic (steady-Eddies) and melancholic (depressive). People were susceptible to becoming one or other of these types because of an excess of one of four humours dominating the body: yellow bile, black bile, blood or phlegm.

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Too much black bile for instance was believed to enable malign agents to enter the person so creating an emotional state that could display itself as frenzied or delusional and in some cases the person was believed possessed by the devil. Heroism and romantic yearnings were attributed to others less extremely affected by melancholy, for others still the mood was more despondency tending towards hopelessness.

Look at Durer’s picture and while there are interpretations galore the figure which dominates it certainly has an air of despondency about her. This engraving has given rise to a huge amount of discussion about its symbolism and if you look at it, really look at it, it’s clearly obvious the whole thing is steeped in meaning – only we’re not sure exactly what.

Some symbols are fairly straightforward and recur in very many pictures of the Renaissance, allowing those who know them to find so much more in those pictures than can be gleaned from a casual glance. Some symbols remain with us today on tombstones – e.g. the hour glass signifying the passing of time, life running out, the transience of life.

The bunch of keys hanging from the figure’s belt denotes power – that power which does or should belong to the figure – and a purse implies wealth – which can be interpreted in terms of money or of talent. Perhaps of greater relevance to this picture is when the two, keys and purse, are shown together they represent the cold planet Saturn and Saturn is also associated with melancholy.

There’s a ladder leaning against an unfinished building and tools and instruments used by masons and builders lie scattered around – builder’s block? Is Durer telling us he was suffering from the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block – painter’s block? We don’t know for sure but it seems he was undergoing a crisis of confidence in 1514 with the recent death of his mother. Had he lost his motivation? Possibly.

As a young man there was none more fun-loving, confident and humorous than Albrecht Durer but it may be his life had reached a point of crisis and for many this picture is said to be an allegory for the depression tormenting him.

Empty scales attached to the string course around the unfinished tower or building signify balance (possibly) and those bells attached to the wall – eternity. The skinny dog, I’m not sure, dogs were sometimes included in pictures as able to look into a person’s soul – to find good or evil – which could be what was going on if Durer was suffering doubts and depression. They could also mean faithfulness or devotion – but why so skinny?

 

Things get really interesting with the appearance of that odd 3-D block – a truncated rhombohedron, I believe, that has a human skull traced onto it. Skulls, again familiar in our cemeteries, refer to death (think pirate flag) the passing from life to the afterlife. The solid block demonstrates Durer’s fascination with mathematics- one of the many interests of this highly intelligent man – and is now known as Durer’s solid.

The bonnie wee cherub or putto sitting on a millstone is industriously writing or drawing, perhaps – as Durer should be.

winged genius

Returning to the main image; the winged figure at the forefront of the picture. Winged but earthbound this is a traditional-looking Genius from classical art who is sitting in the chaos of abandoned tools and symbols depicting life’s brief span and clutching a pair of calipers (which measure the distance between two points – which could be an allusion to mood). Genius is awaiting inspiration and without that she, and the tools are useless. A fabulous bulked out figure, no sylph-like muse she sits slouched to one side resting her head on her hand looking more resigned to her predicament than blackly depressed.

The wreath on Genius’s head might be a reference to the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion and adopted at Christian burials in the hope the souls of the dead will be saved. Or it could hark back to Germanic pagan wreaths made to mark a change in seasons or mood. Then again the ancient Greeks adorned their heroes with laurel wreaths and the ancient Romans likewise to portray success and power.

All this said how do we know this as a picture about melancholy? We know because Durer has handily provided us with its title in the form of a fluttering banner pulled along by a bat. Bats come from darkness. The banner reads, MELENCOLIA I. Not the usual spelling and it has been suggested Durer has broken up the word into mele from the Greek for sweetness and col meaning suffering – a dichotomy of emotions and this contradiction is further alluded to in the squiggly symbols at the end of melencolia which were often used during the medieval period to denote to and fro – going away and returning.

It is not certain either the reason Durer put an ‘I’ after melecolia. For some is stands for our current letter J – a swash letter and an alternative form of the J before the early 15th century and frequently used in religious pictures of Christ – so maybe J for Jesus. Then again it may refer to the three types of melancholia described the German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in De Occulta Philosophia in which he arranged three orders of melancholy – 1 the imagination as required by artists; 2 – reason; 3 – the intellect. In such a case Durer’s engraving is illustrative of the first of these – melancholia I i.e. Imaginative and, yes, he apparently is telling us he is suffering from artist’s block.

Then it is also suggested Durer meant this melancholia picture to be the first of a series on melancholy, just never got round to the others. Not too compelling an argument- but, of course, if he really was suffering from melancholy and couldn’t get himself geed up then it is likely he would not have completed a series but I think this explanation is highly unlikely. Others say the picture is part of a different series, that of the engravings of The Knight and St Jerome in his study.

Back to the banner. It is partly enclosed between a rainbow and the sea and shares the space with a comet travelling across the sky. This is thought to be Ensisheim’s meteorite which landed at Alsace on 7 November 1492 and was described in the wonderful Nuremberg Chronicle and illustrated by Durer. Did I say Durer came from the town of Nuremberg in the German state of Franconia?

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Even people with no interest in art are familiar with Durer’s Melencolia I because of the inclusion of a magic square in this work.

Durer’s magic square has been described by geeks as a gnomon magic square i.e. a square comprising 4 rows along and 4 rows down with each row adding up to the magical number 34- up, down and across. The inner central square of 10, 11, 6, 7 also add up to 34 and symmetrically placed paired numbers add up to 17 – half of the magical 34 which makes this square even more incredible. Apparently.

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There is a lot written about the magical qualities of 34 but you’re on your own with finding out more about it. All I have to say is the square will look familiar to anyone who has ever done Sudoku. Back in Durer’s time people were equally fascinated by puzzles and brainteasers. Durer has configured his square to include the date of this engraving, 1514, along the bottom row which might explain some confusion over changes he made to the other numbers in his square and whether he was deliberately adding or concealing clues as to the meaning of the picture, or not. Certainly this magic square has been the subject of umpteen articles many of which you can read for yourself online if at all interested in tying yourself up in knots and getting nowhere.

A century on from Albrecht Durer the English scholar Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy – exploring how those afflicted with melancholy were driven by emotion that could be either uplifting or depressing. His insights into the condition, such as they were, proved hugely popular and were pinched by other writers for his tongue-in-cheek handling and humour. This meandering literary marathon has been claimed by some to be the best book ever written, but I wouldn’t know.

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The state of melancholia inspired literature of all kinds, musical composition and works of art. Surely the most beautiful interpretation is Albrecht Durer’s engraving of 1514.

Another writer inspired by Durer’s picture was the Scottish poet B. V. Thomson whose work The City of Dreadful Night from the 1870s tells a tale of someone who has lost his religious faith. It begins as it means to go on:

O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!
O battling in black floods without an ark!…

…The moving moon and stars from east to west
Circle before her in the sea of air;
Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.
Her subjects often gaze up to her there:
The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,
The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance
And confirmation of the old despair.

You get the idea, it is not a light piece of verse. Thomson’s great title was soon nicked by the more famous writer Rudyard Kipling for his short stories and by the American author O. Henry. But which writer hasn’t nicked someone else’s brilliant phrase?

Back in Durer’s time life was far less compartmentalised than now and the state of melancholy was seen as affecting people physically, mentally and as Thomson explored through doubts over former certainties. Melancholy was also linked with dilemmas conjured out of conflicting ideas relating to natural and moral philosophy; it was entangled up with the supernatural – as Durer has done here through allusions to alchemy, mathematics and astrology into the bargain.

Durer’s synthesises of melancholy with so many symbols relating to conflict and loss of inspiration were surely references to his own doubting genius but his meticulously worked wondrous talent can keep us guessing as to its true meaning for another six hundred years.

Magical.

December 24, 2015

Tonley House, the Jacobite Major and the Roman Antiquarian

old tonley house

Tonley House is little more now than a rickle o stanes. What’s left standing, not much, hints at the once grand Scottish baronial residence and estate of around 5000 acres belonging to the Moir-Byres family.

When Robert Byres was accidently drowned in Dublin Bay his widow,  Jean Sandilands from Cotton, at Aberdeen, bought the Tonley estate c.1716 and moved in with her young family.

There were two pretty illustrious Byres: Patrick and James.

Patrick Byres was an ardent Jacobite and Major in the Tonley company of Stoneywood’s Aberdeen Regiment, raised by his brother-in-law Moir of Stoneywood in support of the ’45 Rising which ended at the Battle of Culloden. More of the Moirs later.

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Patrick survived the slaughter on the muirs of Culloden (pronounced Cullawden not CullUden), evading death and capture he escaped back to Aberdeenshire where he hid in Cluny Castle until able to escape to France where he joined the Royal Scotch regiment led by Cameron of Locheil.

The Byres family lived on the Continent for as long as Patrick was a wanted man in the period the British Crown and government were taking their bloodthirsty revenge on the people of the Highlands, laying down Draconian laws to further subjugate Scots, destroying property and confiscating land. Tonley escaped that fate through subterfuge, well lies, over Patrick’s identity. Friends of his persuaded the government’s agents that the Byres on their list of wanted men was Peter Byres whilst the owner of Tonley was Patrick and in time Patrick judged it safe to return to the Vale of Alford. His family motto was Marte suo tutus – Safe in his own prowess – and so it proved.

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Patrick’s son James had attended drawing classes as a child in Aberdeen and when the family fled to the Continent he continued his education there, becoming a member of the academy of artists, Accademia di San Luca, in Rome – as an architect; architectural drawings exist of his for rebuilding King’s College in Aberdeen. He also designed a mausoleum for Castle Fraser. As a painter he was largely a landscapist and portraitist and a copy he made of Jameson’s Dr Dun which hangs in Aberdeen Town House.

James became an antiquarian and art dealer during his forty years in Rome and it was to him the wealthy young of Britain and America went to for instruction when taking in the Grand Tour as part of their education.

For all the times I came across mentions of these Grand Tours I never did come on the name James Byres which is surprising since I was studying at Aberdeen University and he was a local loon fa did weel.

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Among those he instructed and conducted around Italy’s classical and Renaissance masterpieces was the historian Edward Gibbon. In fact Byres knew everyone who mattered in the world of academia and the arts. It was Byres who secured the early Roman Portland vase for his friend Sir William Hamilton which became so influential in the development of Wedgwood china.  

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Byres was hugely respected for his erudition and encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts and built up am extensive collection of paintings and sculptures several of which he took back with him to Tonley in 1790 to live out his remaining thirty years of his life post-retirement, dying at home on 3 Sept 1817.

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This very good portrait of his sister Isabella Byres, Mrs Robert Sandilands, by Pompeo Batoni was owned by James Byres and hung at his house in Rome and afterwards Tonley.

Byres at Cullen

James himself is second from the left next to his sister in this group portrait by Franciszek Smuglevicz. Byres’ parents are the couple in the centre and a colleague on the right.

james byres of tonley

This oval round portrait of James Byres in Rome was painted by Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

How do the Moirs fit in? you’re asking.

Robert Byres who drowned in Dublin Bay and Jean Sandilands, his widow who bought Tonley in 1718, were the parents of the aforesaid Patrick Byres, also known as Peter, who was born on 13 May 1713.  Twenty-year old Patrick married the daughter of James Moir of Stoneywood.

James Moir’s older brother Charles, a shipmaster in Aberdeen, fought alongside Patrick for Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and like Patrick went into hiding afterwards.

Moir is a good old Aberdeen name though its provenance is lost in time. For any not familiar with the name it is pronounced Moyr. In the many disputed versions of the name’s derivation one suggestion is it is an adaption of the Gaelic mhor meaning big and it’s as good as any since Moir is said to mean mighty one.

The Byres are thought to have come here from Hungary – by way of France in the company or thereabouts of Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Interestingly there is a place called Guise at Tough which features in a bothy ballad – The Guise o’ Tough (Tough pronounced Tooch or Tyooch as in loch not Tuff and definitely not Took).

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Back to the Moirs. A Kenneth Moir accompanied Lord James Douglas (the Good Sir James) c. 1330 to Spain when he carried with him the heart of Robert the Bruce inside the Monymusk Reliquary.

monymusk reliquary

Monymusk is a stone’s throw from the estate of Tonley and the Reliquary or Brechbennoch, is an ancient yew, silver and bronze casket decorated with Pictish-worked animals and red enamel. It was given to the monks of Arbroath by King William the Lion as a good luck charm on the battlefield and was carried on a leather halter around the neck of its keeper, the deoradh (giving us the name Dewar) …and so it was at Bannockburn when Bruce’s army secured victory in 1314.

Kenneth Moir, while in Spain, killed and beheaded three Moors on the battlefield hence the Moir family coat-of-arms featuring three Moor heads dripping blood.

At some point the intermarrying of Moirs and Byres led to the two names being adopted as Moir-Byres.

There were lots of Moirs and Byres and some Byres lost fortunes investing in Darien, when the English state sought to and succeeded in closing down international trade with Scotland so ensuring the failure of the enterprise but enough of that, back to Tonley.

Tonley  or Kincraigie, was built in the 18thC and added to over time as a two-storey, grey granite mansion house with towers, turrets, corbels and corbiesteps.  Aberdeen architect John Smith had a hand in it, as had A. Marshall Mackenzie. The lost interiors included a panelled ceiling by Hay & Lyall of Aberdeen with pendent centres and the family motto of the Moir-Byres’ crests were depicted in high relief on the surrounding frieze.

P1040170

During the Second World War the house was used as a hostel for young women in the land army working on local farms. During a storm in January 1953 Tonley was destroyed by fire but by that time it was out of the hands of the Moir-Byres and has been left derelict. 

Tonley or Kincraigie – a farm of that name still remains, as does Tillymair and Tonley Mains, in the parish of Tough a few miles east of Alford but not, I think, the wonderfully named Acheynachie. (Although I have discovered a district of New York called Auchinachie)

Also survived is the estate’s former gardener’s cottage and walled garden, a little distance away to the south. The cottage, thought to have been designed by John Smith, is now a very fine house and the garden with its impressive course rubble wall is still home to some old varieties of apples and pears.

 

July 31, 2015

Westburn House is Falling Down

Westburn House

Westburn House

Old buildings can cost money to keep but where they are the responsibility of a local authority then it is incumbent upon that local authority to carry out its duty. You would have thought.

Westburn House  portico and Doric columns

Westburn House
portico and Doric columns

As you can see Aberdeen City Council is guilty of abandoning a category A-listed building to such an extent it looks to a casual observer like me that the Council is hoping one day Westburn House will simply topple down. One less worry for the Council. Frankly the state of this building is a disgrace. All we get from the Council is mealy-mouthed meaningless froth about caring about the city’s heritage  yet the evidence throws up a contrary view.

We will improve the quality and impact of arts, culture and heritage provision across the city

Westburn House  July 2015

Westburn House
July 2015

Then doesn’t .

We will protect and enhance our high-quality natural and built environment through support of initiatives including open space

Blah de blah de blah. Every so often it offers up a Master Plan signifying nothing. Master Plan, Mister Plan, Mistress Plan, Misconceived Plan, Missed Plan – all words and picture projections amounting to sweet f.a.. Aberdeen’s principal architect, Archibald Simpson, designed Westburn House for the Chalmers family who owned the forerunner of the Press & Journal, the Aberdeen Journal, in the 19th century. The Westburn estate comprised large grounds and the house. When the estate was broken up it was bought over by the then Town Council in 1901 and the house converted into a restaurant with some of the acres of land becoming the Westburn Park, including bowling greens and tennis courts in the formal walled garden. Part of the estate houses Cornhill Hospital. The house has been used for a variety of functions since, including a nursery and by community arts. There’s been no shortage of ideas for using Westburn House – a registry office, a council training centre, wedding venue. There were hopes that the building would become a museum for the City’s vast costume collection but nothing came of these plans either, just like nothing has come of all sorts of other noises about setting up museums in the city. The reason? Money stupid. And indifference. It is Aberdeen we’re talking about here so it’s always easier just to let the building decay and fall down than actually see such plans materialise. Aberdeen Council is that aspirational. The building is built of stuccoed brick with a portico with Doric columns and pediment on the western side and a lovely cast iron veranda facing south (added later). Being of brick is very unusual in granite Aberdeen. The Westburn (Gilcomston burn) runs through the park, through the guitar-shaped paddling pool but here too the decay has spread. Look at the state of it. Broken sections and filthy mud add to the evidence of an authority that has lost all sense of pride in the city it purports to look after. Another time, same place… …before this kind of neglect   I don’t think preventing bathing is the most important issue in Westburn Park. This is the flower garden at Westburn House.   The roof and ceilings at Westburn House are falling in, timbers are rotting, grass has blocked up the gutters leading to water seeping through the building. What should be a fine example of Simpson architecture is in ruin. It’s in a worse condition than the abandoned Wallace Tower but that’s a tale for another time.

PS Would it not be feasible for colleges or private businesses who train people in building skills to work with councils on properties such as Westburn House in order to preserve them at little to no cost and to provide practical training at the same time?

Are council employees too locked into their tiny cut-off areas of responsibilities when a wider vision and inclusiveness in the wider community be advantageous to all of us?

There is definitely a man with a clip-board mentality. The man says no.

June 7, 2015

Picture of the Month: Darkened Figure by Anthony Scullion

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion Darkened Figure

Anthony Scullion’s figurative paintings are ethereal and mysterious. To me his subdued palette emphasises a profound sadness that haunts the people that populate his canvases.

Sketchily drawn figures move silently across his pictures, oblivious to the viewer, intent on activities we cannot even guess at, absorbed in their own worlds, or else gaze out, their stare seldom engaging with us.

His figures are like characters from a play or people inhabiting a parallel universe that seems consumed by conspiracy or anxieties – victimised and vulnerable and to me reminiscent of Goya although he is influenced by the ‘chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and the spirituality of Giacometti and distortions of Francis Bacon’.

This Scottish artist, born in East Kilbride, studied at Glasgow School of Art in 1992.

Darkened figure oil on canvas

This monochrome study of a female drawn entirely in black emerges from a greyish-white background exudes mystery and contemplation. The girl’s downcast eyes suggest her uncertainty, her vulnerability, that makes it uneasy for the viewer staring at her as if we’re intruding into her thoughts.

May 6, 2015

Picture of the Month: The Dominee by Henry Wright Kerr

 

'The Dominee' Henry Wright Kerr

‘The Dominee’
Henry Wright Kerr

Henry Wright Kerr was a Scottish artist born in 19th century Edinburgh. He is best known for his rather couthy impressions of scenes from Scottish life and character portraits.

Kerr began his working life as apprentice in a factory (manufactory) in Dundee before returning to his native Edinburgh where he attended evening art classes at the Royal Scottish Academy.

To extend his artistic skills Kerr went to the Netherlands, to the famous Hague School.

He became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1891, an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1893 and member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1909.

Kerr preferred working in watercolour and gouache. Often his subjects were portraits, as here in this etching, but he made a half length portrait of the horticulturist James Grieve, of the apple fame, and this picture is held by the National Gallery of Scotland.

Kerr was a book illustrator and best remembered for his illustrations for John Galt’s celebrated work, Annals of the Parish. He also illustrated Dean Ramsay’s (Edward) Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character.

This etching, the Dominee, is a cracking study of an elderly man, his tie knotted into a floppy bow and from under a dark felt hat pulled down over his brow the man’s shrewd eyes settle on someone or something out to the side. Kerr has captured the quiet confidence and intelligence of the man, the Dominee or headmaster. Note his signature is seen as reversed from the print process. A fine study.

 

March 30, 2015

High Jinks at Aberdeen Art Gallery

They were queuing down Schoolhill to get into the high jinks at Aberdeen Art Gallery this weekend despite there being no exhibition.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

One hundred and thirty years down the line and the gallery is finally getting a major extension and refurbishment. It is not without controversy for the rooftop addition seems oddly out of kilter with the grand, sombre pink Corrennie and white Kemnay granite solidity of the weel kent facade on Schoolhill.

Aberdeen granite

The unique granite columns in a rainbow of colours, most from local quarries, topped with gilded Doric capitals are a reminder of an industry that will forever be associated with Aberdeen and the northeast of Scotland, and that the gallery was first established to promote local industry and craft.

But this blog is not about architecture. That is a dreary enough topic in the realm of Aberdeen City lately but a meandering, though short reminiscence of what the gallery has meant for me for I’ll miss it over the next couple of years.

It used to sit next door to Gray’s Art School. Not that the gallery has moved but the art school has, and while attending Saturday morning classes there as a youngster I suppose I was first introduced to the gallery.

It was a very different place from how it looks today. For example the once much loved sculpture court, filled with figures I think copies of ancient classical statues, was a source of infinite fascination for kids, and probably adults. I spent hours drawing one or other of them. I think we had names for one or two but can’t remember what those were. Can’t recall either when it was decided the sculptures were too out-of-date and were relegated to the knackers yard but they were sorely missed. Their departure opened up a large hall for temporary exhibitions but I never felt the same about them as I did about the maze of ghostly figures that invited you in to wander around and up to them to stretch out a tentative hand to trace the smooth plaster of a beautifully formed limb or take their icy cold fingers in yours.

Then came the 1970s and the space was populated with abstract sculptures equally tactile and hugely attractive for wee bairns for some of them would not be out of place in a children’s playground.

I always had more conservative tastes as far as the gallery’s collections were concerned. My favourite pictures were upstairs in the green room where a cluster of tiny portraits were exhibited on vertical display boards that you could open up. Several were by the Aberdeen artist George Reid and the translucency of his skin tones are breathtaking; on a par with Ramsay’s.

Titian's First Study in Colour

It too disappeared, into storage as the gallery changed. What did stay in that room was the hugely popular William Dyce picture, Titian’s First Essay in Colouring. The colours, appropriately enough are sumptuous and it is one of those paintings you can spend a long time staring into for its detail and magic. Aberdonian Dyce was part of the pre-Raphaelite circle and while the gallery has several by the better-known of the movement’s artists, it is the Dyce that I prefer. Here in the green room was Millais’s portrait of a young girl, Bright Eyes, with its striking resemblance to my daughter so that it became a must-see whenever we were in the gallery.

bright eyes

Henri La Thangue’s Ploughboy was another of my favourites and possibly one reason I took so much to the French realists who painted artisans, peasants and labourers with near spiritual reverence.Ploughboy Guthrie

page

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of a child Going to School is simply charming. An everyday scene from a French village the sparsity of the background means it is the elaborate headgear worn by the child as well as its sweet face which are the captivating elements within it.

And the Goose Girl or as it’s not known, To Pastures New. This wonderful study by James Guthrie is such an striking image and the colours so subtle and perfect and quiet and ideally pastoral.

goose girl

Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious I used to find oddly captivating in an understated way.

trains

As a teenager I visited the red and green rooms less often preferring to look at the Leger still life and Paul Nash’s trees in a landscape. nash

The shapes fascinated me. George Braque too was one of my introductions to cubism. But a visit was never complete without a peek at Landseer’s Highland Flood for few could resist reading this vast picture like a book brimmed with tragedy and drama.

flood

There were the chairs. Fittingly the gallery chairs were very different from any we had at home. Very designery and modern (though in fact by the time I was going into the gallery they were old designs), black leather and chrome: squashy soft seats that invited visitors to sit and stare into the fountain, once it was added and which used to have a Barbara Hepworth piece at its centre.

I never took to the café which replaced the old teashop with its cake stands filled with sandwiches and fancies. There was something quintessentially sophisticated and worthy about the old place which the cafe never achieved, always found it a noisy, uncomfortable space with far less attractive food than most other places nearby and not a patch on any other museum I’ve visited.

One upon a time Aberdeen did have a museum dedicated to, well, Aberdeen. Housed in the dunks of the Cowdray Hall it was a long narrow space, all dark varnished wood and, as I remember though I expect misremember, filled with dusty glass cases you had to peer into and were filled with all kinds of this and that to enthral young minds.

In the modern era I quite like Julian Opie’s Sara Walking for its rhythmic almost hypnotic quality. Almost. opie

My favourite of the most recent acquisitions is the figure of a Chinese girl holding flowers aloft as a salute. Can’t remember what it’s called or who the artist is but there’s something highly attractive, in a literal sense, to this piece.

boy

There were no such attractions on show this weekend. The hundreds who waited patiently to get in were the attraction in a sense, putting their mark on its walls, it is their building after all and joining in the fun and games, and cake eating on offer. By any standards it was a huge success. When it re-opens in 2017 I hope there will be something similar, to entice back the regulars and coax in some who are still daunted by the exterior grandeur of the place to persuade them art galleries and museums are or should really be about them and be palaces of fun and education.

Don’t know if the old closing bell will survive the revamp. Maybe it will. The old wooden revolving doors went several years ago, thought to be a deterrent to potential visitors. Dyce (Aberdeen International) Airport doesn’t appear to have that problem with its revolving door but there you go.

The marble staircase is going much to the disapproval of some. No idea what will happen to the marble.

P1030569

Two years is a long time but there are other museums available, not enough, but we are in Aberdeen after all. Meanwhile you can catch and play around with some of the collections at Aberdeen Quest http://www.aberdeenquest.com/home/home.asp

quest

P1030599

March 16, 2015

In the midst of poverty there was plenty: William S Rennie – Socialist

William Simpson Rennie Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie
Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie: Socialist & Stonecutter

Guest blog by Textor

William Simpson Rennie, 1866-1894, was a man of his time and one who would have asked questions of the present morass of greed, wars and crises.   Sadly aside from labour historians he is probably unknown to most Aberdonians, but for a brief period, too brief a period, he was one of the best known men amongst the city’s working class.

He was a member of that band of activists of the 1880s and ’90s who fought hard for the rights of working men and women.   At meetings, demonstrations and marches he, with others, stood against wealth and privilege and argued for the right to unionise as well as believing in the need for labour to have its own distinct political voice in parliament.   In other words he had a notion that the classes defined society and as a consequence favoured foundation of a Labour Party, although not necessarily the one that we now know. Through the later part of the nineteenth century most of the parliamentary and municipal representation of workers found expression through the Liberal Party.   Socialism challenged this.

S. Rennie came originally from Ellon but spent most of his life in Aberdeen. where he served his apprenticeship with Bower & Florence at the Spittal Granite Works, becoming a qualified stonecutter in the 1880s, when the reputation of the city as the place for quality granite work and workers was at its highest.   From the beginning of the 19th century to William’s time the sophistication of the stone trade had come on leaps and bounds.   Basically the trade consisted of the building side and the monumental-decorative industry.   Evidence of the skills of both can be seen in not only the remarkable monuments standing in cemeteries across the world but also the fine cutting displayed on buildings, bridges and other civil engineering structures.   This was the working life of William Simpson.   Like many others he crossed the pond and spent some time in the United States, taking his skills to Concord, New Hampshire to work with many other Scotsmen and stonecutters from across the world.   William was there 1889-1890. when Concord’s granite industry was at its height, with 20 local quarries, 44 stone companies and 45% of the population were foreign born. Apart from the attraction of available work the town had a further attraction for W.S.: Concord was at one time the home of the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and this fact made work in New Hampshire doubly attractive.   When he returned to Aberdeen he came, back as his fellow stonemason and historian of the Trades Council records, abuzz with stories of his time in the US and replete with Americanisms.

Coming from the highly esteemed granite industry William, within his own class, was in an envious position.   Stone masons had a long history of being willing to defend their craft status against any attempts either to cut wages or undermine their rights.   Like others they suffered the ups and downs of economic cycles, trade slumps and booms.   But given that so much of the work they carried out depended upon knowledge of stone, manual skill and dexterity, in times of business upswing masons were in a relatively strong position.    Unlike trades such as handloom weaving which had been destroyed by mechanisation machinery had not pushed their skills to the margins.

William S Rennie Headstone

William S Rennie
Headstone

It seems that W. S. first entered the political arena in the mid 1880s when he joined Aberdeen Parliamentary Debating Society a forum for all manner of opinions.   This was some forty plus years after the high points of the Chartist movement, years which had seen the creation and expansion of a more secure industrial capitalist society.   In the process, or perhaps more correctly part of the process, elements of the working class had organised themselves into trade unions which had more solid foundations than those of the earlier period.   Working class interests became more distinct and with a gradual expansion of workers’ indirect representation in Parliament socialist ideas began to permeate ever wider circles with a corresponding challenge to and gradual decline of Liberalism’s influence.

William Rennie was in at the formation of Aberdeen Socialist Society, he represented Aberdeen Operatives’ and Stonecutters’ Union on the Trades Council and was a founding member of the local Social Democratic Federation and Aberdeen Independent Labour Party.   This was a period of mass outdoor meetings with Castle Street-Castlegate being particularly favoured for gathering.   He was no shrinking violet and had no hesitation in addressing hundreds of workers, whether it was damning the managers of the gasworks for sacking men with many years service, calling for the introduction of the eight hour day, demanding that all Town Council workers be paid union rates, or seeking help for the unemployed; all these issues and more drove the stonecutter to fight for a fairer more just society.

He was a member of what the conservative Aberdeen Daily Journal called the advanced wing of socialists which, for them, was evident in, among others things, in his call for the nationalisation of land.   No doubt this was confirmed when William Rennie took part in a demonstration in 1891, standing behind an Aberdeen Socialist Society banner which made fun of the Duke of Argyll.   Aberdeen’s socialists did not falter when it came to attacking privilege and wealth and when necessary denounce the class pretensions of local Town Councillors: in 1892 William writing as a representative of the city’s unemployed demanded relief work for those in distress, including men being put to work on building council housing.   This letter was not couched in wheedling tones but in terms of strident rights for the unemployed.   Some Councillors took great exception to this including Provost Stewart who said the letter had a disrespectful tone; Baillie Lyon said it came from a subversive street meeting and was seditious.   Unperturbed W. S. damned the Council decision to pass a list of the city’s unemployed to the Aberdeen Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.   It was not improving that was needed he said; not charity, but the abolition of the conditions of exploitation which gave rise to poverty.   he recognised that in the midst of poverty there was plenty.   An unemployed man he said was like a man buried up to the neck in sand, and surrounded with food which he could not reach.

William Simpson Rennie worked closely with fellow socialists such as James Leatham.   Not that they agreed on everything, far from it.   Ideas and arguments were the stuff of political discourse; it might be over who should be chosen as a parliamentary candidate in a coming election or, indeed, with the presence of the Anarchists and Revolutionary Socialists whether Parliament was in fact the way forward.   William sided with the parliamentary road and was one of the Aberdonians who in 1891 called for a conference of all Scottish Trades Councils and socialist societies with a view to establishing a national presence to fight for greater representation of the working class.   However, despite significant differences he had with others it seems he did not fall into a narrow sectarianism and was willing to march and associate with a wide spectrum of left wing opinions.

It’s clear that William Simpson must have spent most of his time on union and socialist business.   He had a wife and child (sadly I have no further information on them), how far, if at all, the strains of such a heavy load played on the family I cannot say.   It must surely have been present in one way or another.   What we can say is that there is every likelihood that the volume and pace of political work he undertook, not to mention the physical toil of being a stonecutter, played some part in his sudden death on 3rd August 1894.   For three months prior to his death he had been staying with his wife and child at Kincardine O’ Neil, just west of Aberdeen, working on a contract of stonecutting at the local mansion, a new-build castle in the ever popular Scots Baronial style.   On Friday the 3rd William returned to his lodgings at the end of the working day.   Was taken ill and died shortly after.   Dr Cran of Banchory issued the death certificate, concluding that death was caused by heart disease.   William Simpson Rennie was twenty eight years old.

Kincardine o' Neil castle

Kincardine o’ Neil castle

It is a sad irony that a man who campaigned against privilege should die while employed on the grand folly at Kincardine Castle

The following day his body was taken from the village to the railway station at Torphins to be carried to his home town.   In a mark of respect some fifty of his fellow workers at Kincardine O’ Neil, dressed in working clothing, followed the coffin to the station.

When it came to his burial at St Peter’s Cemetery at 6.30p.m. on the evening of 7th August (allowing workers time to attend) the extent of his influence became apparent.   The cortege of mourners was in the region of 1600 with thousands lining the streets to the graveyard.   And, again giving an indication of how he stood for breaking of many of the conventions of bourgeois society a large number of processionists were ladies.   Women walking to the graveside en-masse, not a common sight in late Victorian Aberdeen.   His coffin was draped with a red flag, bearing the words “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”.   An indication of the non-sectarian strength of the man and others was that at the graveside orations were given by men from the Anarchist Communist Group, the Trades Council, the SDF, the Aberdeen ILP and the Secularist Society; and at William’s home at Kingsland Place the Reverend Alex. Webster had conducted a short religious service.

At the Trades Council meeting of 15th August W. S. Rennie was described as one of their youngest and best members . . . one of their most eloquent speakers . . . always endeavoured to convince rather than to bully . . . a credit to the council and an honour to the working men of the city.

John H Elrick

John H Elrick

His headstone was erected by fellow workmen to a design by John H Elrick, mason, trade unionist and socialist.   Drawing on his own verse inscribed on the headstone it’s fitting to describe William Simpson Rennie as “A Courageous Friend of Freedom”.