Archive for ‘Doric’

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.              

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

Aug 10, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832. Part 2

Guest blog by Textor

PART 2

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

cholera 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vagrant Lodgers-

                                                 Wi tinklers, knaves, pig wives, and cadgers,

                                                The coarsest kind o’ Chelsea sodgers,

                                                          Like beggars dress’d,

                                                In holes and dens, like toads an badgers,

                                                          Here make their nest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 8, 2020

Pandemic: Cholera 1832

Guest post by Textor

PART 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 to follow.

Apr 29, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 6

Week 6 was fairly uneventful. That is probably a good thing.

News and figures of casualties of Covid-19 continue to be grim. It’s a strange kind of reality that we grow accustomed to high numbers of dead and dying overnight from a single cause. It is a shock to the system that so many of those we are dependent on, carers and NHS staff of every level, have lost their lives to this terrifying virus. It is a sharp reminder that our complacent lives built around consumerist capitalism and celebrity banality are nothing compared with the force of a tiny virus with knobs on; rich 21st century nations brought to their knees.

We learn revelation by revelation prised from the mouths of politicians of rising numbers of dead. We learn there are so many different ways to count the dead – confirmed by tests, confirmed at hospitals, confirmed by GPs but some dead are omitted. Some in this case being around the same number again and way above the figure of 20,000 quoted by Sir Patrick Vallance on 17 March as the number below which would be a “good result.” As that figure has already been swamped by upwards of 100 per cent it appears the get-out-of-jail card “we are following the science” used as a shield by politicians has been exposed as not being quite THE science it was held up to be. THE science behind Westminster’s response to the virus is a secretive club called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and includes Sir Patrick Vallance who is the government’s chief scientific adviser. Westminster has been forced to admit that SAGE includes Johnson’s political aids. So, the mantra should be – “we are following the political science.” The political science isn’t that good for as the Financial Times has been highlighting the real number of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is running in excess of 40,000. Perhaps SAGE should change its name to STAGED – Scientists and Tories Advisory Group for Emergency Deception.

The seeds are out of quarantine and sown so fingers crossed we’ll have good germination and a bumper crop of veg and herbs later in the summer. Some begonia plug plants arrived, too, for pots and containers which would normally be packed with annuals but as we can’t get out to buy them this year it’s going to be a begonia summer.

Walks have been largely uneventful although I did have a socially responsible social distanced conversation with a local man who cycles for exercise and was lugging around a plastic sack full of empty drinks cans thrown out of vehicles by litter louts or as they are known in these parts, minkers. I felt obliged to do my bit a few days ago and picked up yet another can, the usual Red Bull, and placed it in a recycling bin near at hand. Only then did I remember I should have been wearing gloves so had to do the whole washing of hands thing when I got home. Would love to walk along a beach but the nearest beach is 25 miles away so I’m making do picking over some delightful types of rock filling our ditches. Mainly granites there are other igneous rocks, some white quartz, lots of stones with shiny pieces of mica and bits of flint. You have to find interest where you can and rocks and minerals are fascinating – and every one is different.

Birds – house martins have arrived. Not yet building nests but flying overhead with that fast, darting movement. They are only in penny numbers where in recent years we would see lots of them. It’s beyond sad that some people actively prevent them from building their beautiful nests against gable walls. We love our house martins, waiting impatiently for them to arrive from the south, watching them build and following the broods fly for the first time catching insects in the air. Some folk need to get a life and stop complaining about bird droppings. In actual fact there was no mess beneath our martins’ double nest last year although that’s not always the case. Hanging plastic carrier bags on the end of houses and garages to prevent birds building nests is shameful – and looks mingin – adjective from the noun minker. Pulling down nests is criminal.

Those starlings still seem interested in nesting in the tree hole still under scrutiny from jackdaws. It’s a strange setup. These starlings are like cowboy builders – start a job, turn up once or twice then disappear for ages.

I’ve been re-reading some of Stewart Alan Robertson’s essays in A Moray Loon (loon is a youth in northeast Scotland.) Stewart from Loanhead in Midlothian was a teacher in Scotland and England and for a time an inspector of education. He wrote engagingly on all kinds of fascinating Scottish topics from Kale Kirks to the scientist Mary Sommerville (science writer and polymath – I bet she would have come up with better science than any emerging from SAGE.) Stewart used his extensive Scottish vocabulary to great effect in his articles – many largely forgotten terms such as halflin for a young loon (usually a farm labourer) and blackneb which was one who sympathised with the French Revolution.

I’ve just started J. MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. MacDougall Hay hailed from Tarbert. Goodness know what sort of place Tarbert in Argyll was in the mid-19th century – this is where the novel is set. It’s dark. Very dark. Perhaps too dark to read during these dark times.

Keep safe.

Jan 5, 2020

The Rampant Kelt

Pall Mall Gazette 30 May 1896

A familiar sight to Aberdonians Rob Roy MacGregor at the Culter burn

Those pesky Scots (Welsh and Irish), complained a writer in a London newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette on 30 May 1896. Pesky, uppity Scots – just when Britain thought the ‘Kelt’ was dead and a stone added to ‘his cairn’ the pesky Scot – that nuisance who has ruined the English language ‘by mis-spelling’ blah, blah, blah refuses to go away.

Speaking for England Pall Mall insists they are heartily sick of these pesky, ‘scant kilt’ wearing Scots reeking of Glenlivet and the rest of their ‘eccentricities.’

Just as well kilts are water-resistant the amount of abuse hurled at their wearers. Tongue-in-cheek, of course, that relentless racist ranting – and yet and yet.

Their language – not the racist’s you dope – is deplorable. Deplorable! Like Welsh. As for Gaelic with all those consonants! How is an Englishman supposed to be able to understand that! I bet the same was said of just about every other language on the planet apart from God’s own tongue, English. But don’t mention the origins of English … German, Italian and Scandinavian from migrants landing their boats on proud England’s xenophobic shores.

Steer clear of Scotland Pall Mall warns its readers or you’ll have to speak English adulterated by Scots and the local lingo – go to Blairgowrie and you’ll have to be proficient in Scot-English and Blairgowrie babbling. Ach, that rich vein of bigotry and intolerance has always been the mark of the Union.

Determined the reader is left in no doubt to his views the green-ink contributor goes from ridicule of the contamination of the English language by the Welsh and Scots into full-throttle racism explaining the chances of any quality Welsh and Scots literature is as likely as the ability of ni***rs to develop sophisticated society.

Picts –  the race whose stone-built heritage amazes, impresses and confounds us – he dismisses as fairies. His inkwell of green ink is fathomless. Abdy frae Scotland is by definition contemptible. Keep the Scots out of England, behind Antonine’s Wall; banish the Irish from ‘the sacred precincts of Westminster’ and ‘shut up’ the Welsh in Wales – or best of all – shouldn’t England be able to ‘abolish’ these pesky Celts?

The House of Commons a year or two earlier was facetiously referred to as having become a “Scotch Assembly” in which too much was heard from Scots members. They were boring, these Scots, their debates “duller than an Irish” debate. And then, as now, Scots opinions scarcely tolerated were irrelevant at the end of the day because on every occasion they could be outvoted by English MPs whose interests lay in what benefited England not Scotland.

Abuse and prejudice tarted up as journalism drew a response from a Donald MacGregor writing from London. Clearly a Scot, he refused to rise to the bait over the use of the term ‘Kelt’ but agreed that, yes indeed, the ‘Celt is Rampant’ and a good thing, too. He was stirred to write because Celts have for too long been too passive, forbearing, and forgiving of attacks from south of the border. He guessed the frothy-mouthed green-inker was English, but wrote he might have been one of those Lowland Scots who revels in belittling fellow-Scots. Finally he decided the writer was, in fact, a Sassenach with a grudge. As for green-ink wanting to ‘abolish’ Celts – MacGregor wrote that this had been attempted – by the most successful empire builders of all time, the Romans and some pushy Anglo-Saxons but they couldn’t hack it though a ‘goodly number of them’ (Anglo-Saxons) were ‘lodged’ around Bannockburn.

The essence of his letter was that Celtic culture can match anything produced by Anglo-Saxons; that Scots heroes and champions are demonised as degenerates and outlaws by English commentators e.g. Rob Roy (a MacGregor like him) driven off his land is dismissed as a cattle thief while the perpetrators of land clearance – nobility who having acquired lands through nefarious means trade them as they would any speculative venture. A practice evident throughout the British Empire when Johnnie Foreigner’s lands were there for the taking by rogues such as Cecil Rhodes who had he been a poor native in what became Rhodesia would have been shot for his audacity.

What is Pall Mall, I hear you ask. A place, aye, but what was it originally? A game, readers, a game. Can you think where that game started? Go on – take a punt. England? Nah. England? Nah. England? Nah. Pall-mall, palle-malle or pelemele was a Scottish and French pastime. It was the Scottish King James VI aka James I in England – a man too lazy to get off his horse to pee (allegedly) who encouraged the English to play it. And they loved it so much they named a street after it. The Duke of York was very keen on pelemele – but you probably don’t need me to tell you that.

Pall-mall, palle-malle, pelemele are reminders that Scotland’s thousand-year-old Auld Alliance with France is way longer than an embittered, xenophobic, corrupt Union. Lady Violet Greville wrote that, or words to that effect. French and Scottish Celts – we are all Celts. And in a Celt union we’d like to stay.

Apr 16, 2018

The last woman publicly hanged in Aberdeen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dec 19, 2017

The Whip Hand

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

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

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

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

The Echo was quoted in the piece –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tripod to hold prisoner receiving a flogging from Peterhead Prison Museum

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

 

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

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The Lochgelly, belt, strap, skud, tawse

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Edward Ramsden convicted of animal cruelty

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

 

 

Oct 26, 2017

Timber Rafting on Scotland’s rivers

 

Spey floaters c 1900

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

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

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

Floating timber down the River Dee

St Devenick’s Bridge over the Dee

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

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

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

Floating islands

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

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

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

'Lochaber No More', Prince Charlie Leaving Scotland

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

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

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

DSC05824.JPG

 

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

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

 

 

Oct 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

deer stalking 2

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

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

Poacher and Dancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His foot was foremost in the dance,

His laugh the loudest rang;

Nae e’e could match his mirthful glance,

Nane sung so sweet a sang.

 from Norman MacCaig ‘s A Man in Assynt

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

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

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

Like Walter Scott’s Bertram he possessed:

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

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

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air,

Nor less confirmed to undergo

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

 

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

Brig o Feugh

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

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

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

John Stuart Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

 

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

“A minister of sacred things,

He bound together, by higher ties than human law,

The men that shared his faith with awe;

He had his seat at power’s right hand,

And lords and ladies of the land

Did call him brother.”

 John Stuart Blackie’s The Cottage Manse

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

“Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?”

 from Norman MacCaig’s A Man in Assynt

(Sandy Davidson 1791 – 1843)

*Finzean – pronounced Fingin

** Avon – pronounce An

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