Archive for ‘Poor Law’

February 28, 2019

The Church belongs to God but the stone belongs to the Duke: the Highland Clearances as told by Iain Crichton Smith

When Morag R recommended Iain Crichton Smith’s novel about the Clearances, Consider the Lilies and said she’d be interested in my thoughts on it I didn’t think it would lead to a blog on the subject. But it did.

Crichton Smith was a poet as is clear in this book with its constrained sentence construction which slowly works up into a novel. His descriptions of people, places and situations are presented as lean and concise observations that are straight out of a poet’s toolbox.

consider the liliesI didn’t warm to his style immediately. I found it too spare and his protagonist Mrs Scott a little too glaikit and too far gone for a woman of just seventy; a country woman who didn’t know the names of flowers and birds is completely unbelievable – but Crichton Smith’s character grows in awareness throughout the book, driven by circumstance, to question everything she believed in. By the end of the book I was impressed. The simplicity of the tale’s beginning transformed into a rigorous exploration of the deceit and corruption that produced one of the greatest atrocities, arguably the greatest atrocity, to take place in these islands. An atrocity of monumental proportions that has been deliberately under-exposed by generations of historians happily complicit and driven by their own prejudices to sugar-coat the eviction and transportation of tens of thousands of Scots Highlanders from their homes and country – penniless and traumatised to uncertain futures abroad. These apologists are still around – on our radios and televisions – dismissing the Clearances as not so bad – in fact they were the making of the Highlander several claim.

Crichton Smith’s novel is set during the Sutherland Clearances. There were various Clearances around Scotland including Argyll, the Hebrides and the straths of Ross from where my own family were cleared.

Ian Macpherson, MP for Ross and Cromarty 1911-1935, said that there was no ‘more foul deed been committed in the sacred name of property than in the Highlands of Scotland in those days.’

Characters in the novel include James Loch, Patrick Sellar, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland – all infamous rogues and all actual perpetrators of this inhumane episode. The guy in the ‘white hat’, so to speak, is stone mason, Donald Macleod, who was also a real person and was himself a victim of the burnings. Macleod was loathed by the landed interests and their lackeys for speaking out about their barbarism and he exposed the callous removal of whole communities in letters to the press which laid bare the cruelties of this policy of ethnic cleansing.

His letters were published in the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and attracted a good deal of attention and the only thing that prevented the odious Duchess of Sutherland from suing Macleod and the paper for defamation was her recognition that she was as guilty as sin and that the publicity would not do her reputation any good.

‘The Church belongs to God but the stone belongs to the Duke’

The Sutherland clearance began in 1807. Farmers were driven from the holdings worked by their forefathers and themselves. They were pushed to the coasts to take up fishing as if crofters would know one bit of a boat from another and not starve while finding out.

Mrs Scott is visited by James Sellar, factor to the Duke of Sutherland (Marquess of Stafford) who puts the fear of death into her with his talk of destroying her home and moving her off the land that has been home to her people for generations so that sheep can have the freedom to live there. Deeply Christian she goes to the church minister for advice. He is aloof. The pampered world he inhabits bears no comparison to her little smoke-blackened thatched home where she brought up her son and from where her husband went off to fight for the British king and died somewhere in Spain. Why – she doesn’t understand. Nor does she comprehend why years after her husband’s death abroad she never received the pension she was promised. She would not know how much the laird class despised men like her husband while happy to recruit tens of thousands of these strapping and brave individuals to defend the interests of the king and Britain’s wealthy classes.

In the First World War soldiers were promised they would come home to a land fit for heroes. That was a lie. They got unemployment and starvation. In 19th century Scotland soldiers who survived the king’s foreign wars returned to find their homes gone – burnt down, their people gone forever and sheep where their families once stayed, worked and played.

Mrs Scott’s only child leaves for Canada and in a heart rending passage Mrs Scott is left bereft and utterly alone. The much respected minister is no consolation for he is a nasty piece of work and blames the Clearances on sinful villagers not rapacious landowners. Mrs Scott listens to him, to his lies, his dismissal of her expectation of a pension following her husband’s death. He boasts of building the village church with his own hands. She knows he did no such thing and she realises he is not a good man and has only his own self-interest at heart. She loses her innocence. She abandons the church.

When Patrick Sellar returns he is accompanied by fellow flunky, James Loch. They sit in Mrs Scott’s home playing hard cop soft cop – heaping lies upon lies in an attempt to persuade this old woman to leave peaceably and accept this evil action is in her best interests. Mrs Scott has meantime discovered the very folk she had always accepted were her betters were, in fact, her enemies and the ones they vilified were her friends. The atheist mason, Donald Macleod, and his family offer her kindness. She comes to understand him for condemning the minister and the church for sermons that kept the people quiet and obediently loyal to landed interests. She refuses to conspire with Sellar and Loch to speak against Donald Macleod in court. She quietly listens as a furious Sellar threatens to burn her out of her house within two days.

‘…there are far more defeats than victories, and that the victories last only a short time while the defeats last for ever’

In real life Sellar’s infamy lives on. He was a brute. In the spring of 1814 he and his men set fire to pastures at Farr and Kildonan so the crofters’ animals would have nothing to eat and the people would have no choice but to leave their land. The fires spread beyond the grass destroying fences so that fields with crops were trampled by the starving animals. Villagers’ outhouses, kilns and mills were set alight – their means of work and for providing food were destroyed. Homes were set ablaze and if the occupiers weren’t at home or quick their possessions and furniture went up in flames. What could not be immediately saved was lost.

People of all ages were made homeless; the old, the infirm, pregnant women, children and babies were left with nowhere to shelter by lairds who lived in castles – aided and abetted by their willing employees and church ministers. In Sutherland the poorest people were made destitute by one of the richest women in the country acting out of sheer greed and callousness.

deserted home

Deserted home

Of course people died. The most vulnerable died first. The winter of 1815-16 was cold with heavy snow. People were abandoned to find any means of shelter in the open and with no proper access to food. It was hard enough for the healthy but for the frail and young it meant inevitable death. The people burnt out of their homes were left to walk many miles to the coasts carrying whatever they could save from the flames loaded onto their backs, smoke billowing from their past lives behind them.

In 1816 the murderous thug , Sellar, was charged with culpable homicide and fire raising against forty families. He was found innocent. Of course. Witnesses were prevented from giving evidence and two sheriffs instrumental in bringing this man to trial lost their jobs. Stalin’s show trials weren’t handled with more efficiency.

In 1827 the Duchess visited the aptly named Dunrobin Castle – although they never stopped robbin’ the poor. Piling insult upon insult her lackeys went around her tenants forcing them to contribute to a gift for her. Then her tenants were squeezed to bear some of the cost of a mausoleum for the Duke. We’re still living in these times with the wealthiest people in the UK demanding tax exemptions for their estates in Scotland.

When the inevitable starvation visited these cleared families government relief was arranged in some part and the Duchess of Sutherland provided ‘charitable relief’ to some of her tenants who lost their homes and ability to feed themselves through her actions. Surprise, surprise this relief had to be paid back by her tenants. The ‘charity’ was no such thing. And if her tenants refused to pay for their own ‘charity’ they were once more evicted from their recently settled homes.

As for being the voluntary evacuation of worthless land the Highland Clearances were nothing of the kind. Certainly there was poverty and some people chose to leave Scotland to try to make a living in north America but the majority were forced to migrate – to the coasts, other parts of Scotland and abroad. Forced emigration was cruel and violent as in the kidnapping of the folk of South Uist and Barra who were manhandled onboard Atlantic-bound ships and dumped in Canada, destitute. Gaelic speakers thrown into a foreign country that spoke a different language. This was happening as late as 1851.

Thomas Faed's painting The Last of the Clan as they await to board an Atlantic-bound ship

Thomas Faed’s painting The Last of the Clan as they await to board an Atlantic-bound ship

As for the land that was forcibly cleared it became the playground for the rich. When sheep didn’t pay enough to satisfy lairds who owned vast tracts of the country they introduced deer and grouse to be slaughtered by the kind of people who get a kick out of exterminating wildlife. We still have these shooting estates across Scotland – to our shame. Now they are desolate places that once were alive with working communities and where our birds and animals fly over and stray across at their peril.

Mrs Scott’s native Sutherland was cleared of 15,000 people in the ten years from 1809 alone. At Strathnaver where the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland torched thatched roofs with flaming faggots over 200,000 acres of crofted land made up of pastures, meadows and cultivated fields worked by communities were turned into five substantial farms. Sellar bought  up some of the land he drove tenants from; terrorised by shouting men wielding sticks and guns and chased by dogs.  

Farmers were forced from fertile land to desolation and starvation and areas of depleted populations became ghost straths.

I recommend Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies as a thoughtful and humane exploration of a callous period of British history. And when you’ve absorbed Smith’s poetic but blunt message take a look at contemporaneous accounts from the period of the Clearances but be prepared for accounts far more harrowing and as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction.

The title Consider the Lilies is taken from the Book of Luke in the Bible. 

Mackenzie’s History of the Highland Clearances 1883 read for free http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51271
Donald Macleod’s Gloomy memories can be read here – https://archive.org/stream/donaldmcleodsglo00mcleuoft/donaldmcleodsglo00mcleuoft_djvu.txt

January 28, 2019

Death of a Pauper

Guest blog by Textor

In June 1850 David Wright, chartist, post office messenger, shoemaker, poet and it seems a police informer, raised a legal action in Aberdeen Sheriff Court. As lowly as the local Sheriff Court might have been the radical democrat was in a sense challenging the might of the British state. His beef was with James Wallace, Inspector of Poor for St Nicholas Parish, one of the many men across Britain who had been given the job of relieving, organising and disciplining the country’s poor.

poors house

The poet’s mother Jean Duncan had recently died. Burial clothing, coffin and interment cost her sons 25 shillings. The poet claimed that St Nicholas Parish, in the person of James Wallace, was due to cover the cost of the funeral. It transpired that Jean had been on the city’s poor roll for over ten years which meant she had been entitled to, and received support from the city. For most of her time on the roll she had been eligible for what was called out-door relief: a meagre amount of entitlement was given while she stayed at what was her home; undoubtedly a poor soul in a poor house.

Circumstances changed about March 1849 out-door relief was withdrawn and she was sent to the Poor’s House on Nelson Street. This recently opened institution became home cum prison for women, men and children from across Aberdeen. We don’t know why Jean Duncan decided the Poor House was not for her; more than likely having been forced out of her own home and losing the degree of freedom that went with it she found institutional discipline at Nelson Street too much and perhaps the mix of residents did not suit her. Whatever the case she abandoned the Poor’s House within three weeks. Sadly for her the rules of the game meant Jean was no longer eligible for poor relief. She lost her official designation of “pauper” and with it any help from the parish.

So it was Jean fell back on the little that her family could provide until her death in the summer of 1850. If the unfortunate woman had died a pauper then the cost of burial could have been covered by parish funds although with the Anatomy Act in operation corpses of any “unclaimed” poor dead were made available to city surgeons for dissection. A “guardian” of Old Machar’s poor put it this way – many prejudices in regard to this subject existed in the minds of some people. Easy for this representative of the middle class to say, he was unlikely to have a family member dispatched to the anatomist and then buried in a pauper’s grave. It’s worth bearing in mind that a pauper’s body could lie unclaimed not because a family lacked feeling or consented to anatomising the corpse but simply because the weight of poverty prevented what was seen as a more fitting interment. Poor’s House inmates almost certainly knew and feared the Anatomy Act and this might have been in Jean Duncan’s thoughts when she decide to go back home.

Sheriff William Watson presided over the case. Here was a man of some local and national standing who was behind the introduction of Industrial Schools across Britain; institutions which by removing the poor’s children from the streets cleared the city of juvenile beggars and “delinquents” and at the same time provided a modicum of education along with opportunities to learn trades. Children were fed, and where necessary clothed. And so streets were cleared of troublesome poor, crime was contained and disaffected children were provided with some sense of their worth and place in industrial Britain. Sheriff Watson in other words was sympathetic towards them and hoped to integrate them into the ways of the Victorian world.

However, as much as the Sheriff was keen to alleviate conditions experienced by some of the city’s poor poet David Wright was treated less fortunately than Aberdeen’s ex-delinquents. Poor Inspector James Wallace argued that having left the Poor House Wright’s mother, Jean Duncan, effectively removed herself from the roll and thus ceased to be a pauper though the Inspector’s action seemed to contradict this when he arranged for a physician to visit the ailing women at her son’s house. This might well have been an act of pure charity by Wallace rather than, as Wright argued, an indication that Jean was still seen as under the care of the Poor Law. The poet’s legal agent explained that he and his brothers had pinched themselves and go into debt in their efforts to support their mother. Sympathy was not forthcoming. Inspector Wallace held against the Wright brothers the fact that on their mother’s death the body was not handed over to the Poor’s House. The legal tide favoured authority, more so when the Sheriff was told that David Wright earned 12 shillings per week as Post Office messenger. Watson ruled that regardless of how the men pinched themselves to perform the last offices in doing this they had been doing no more than was their duty and that they had no call on the parish funds.

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Rowlandson’s Dr William Hunter’s Dissecting Room

The foundation stone of Aberdeen’s new Poor’s House had been laid with Masonic ceremony in April 1848. According to merchant Baillie James Forbes it heralded a new morality where poverty was not seen as a crime. Forbes was a liberal free-trade man and well aware that the competitive trade cycles of capitalism meant periods of unemployment for some with consequent poverty; what Forbes characterised as those unavoidable contingencies which necessarily arise from the peculiar structure of society. Unfortunate, but not a crime. As enthusiastic as he was for free-trade the good Baillie had no reluctance in promoting state intervention in management of the poor. How far this was driven by his sense of it being morally correct is a moot point. More certain is that as a Baillie (magistrate) he was alive to the need for mitigation and control of the worst social and political effects of capitalist commerce, especially so with the burgeoning of the town’s working class. He was unperturbed by the provisions of the New Poor Law Act of 1845 which, according to its critics threatened to bankrupt ratepayers and create a utopia for rogues and vagabonds. For Baillie Forbes the Act was the Magna Charta of the poor in Scotland.

Landowners in the County were aghast at the demands which threatened to be placed on their well-filled purses, but rather than admitting their simple greed they argued that the central weakness in compulsory assessment and state-managed poor relief (as opposed to Church and private philanthropy) was that it could only undermine the “natural” morality of the Scottish poor: the principle of self-dependence. In its place, they said, would be an indifference to industry and careful living.

Baillie Forbes would have none of this. He recognised that with proper organisation, sufficient funds and strict discipline the Poor’s House had every opportunity for engrafting industrial habits on “deserving” cases admitted to it. Of course part of engrafting meant the poor were threatened with “indoor” relief; a threat which promoters hoped would ensure the more indolent and profligate able-bodied persons looking for charity dropped off the poor’s roll, in effect forcing them to work for a living.

sheriff watson

Sheriff Watson

The great and the good who gathered that spring day in 1848 could not but be enthusiastic at the prospect of efficient management of an element of the capitalist social world. Positive feelings of Christian benevolence came from the prospect of providing accommodation, medical care and food for the disabled, the infirm elderly, orphans and even for some able-bodied who were willing to submit to the demands of House rules for short periods of time. Beyond this they hoped their social engineering would go some way to create greater stability and safer political world; at least for commercial and professional classes. After laying the foundation stone some sixty “gentlemen” trooped back down King Street to the Town Hall to partake of a splendid entertainment . . .[where] the wines and fruits were of the most recherché and excellent description. This small feast was provided by Baillie Forbes..

The convivial assembly warmed by the philanthropic glow of the occasion and no doubt buoyed by the wine and fruits on offer listened as Provost George Thompson, local shipping magnate, regaled them with his thoughts on the revolutions rocking continental Europe: dynasties that had stood for ages were being overthrown in a day . . . the whole of Europe was in commotion. However, Britain, he declared, had nothing to fear, his homeland was firm and secure. In her sound and well-balanced constitution there was security for the throne, and protection for the lives and liberties of the people.

Of course, liberty and security for the poor was more circumscribed than that available to the men gathered round the table at the Town Hall. Those forced by circumstance to enter the Poor’s House enjoyed the dubious liberty of being able to offer their corpses to anatomists at Marischal College; a freedom which I suspect was seldom exercised by the men fervently toasting the health of Queen and country. Jean Duncan had briefly experience the liberties and benefits of the Poor’s House and was clearly unimpressed. She was accorded the right, however, to take herself to her son’s home and there experience the rechercé of poverty. Poet David Wright, and police informer or not, recognised that freedom was hinged on wealth and property and that the “working bee” – the working man or woman was at the base of the pyramid supporting all exploiters above. As he put it,

Come then arise–for once be wise,
And imitate the bees;
And all unite in Freedom’s fight,
And spoil the sons of ease.

robber barons

November 5, 2017

The Making of the NHS: from Tannochbrae to the Highlands and Islands

dr finlays

Dr Finlay’s Casebook, a hugely popular television series in the 1960s and ’70s, had something of a reputation for being a bit twee with a good dollop of Scottish sentimentality rolled in; human interest stories of everyday people and a heroic doctor who tried to turn their lives around; except, of course, he couldn’t.

The stories were set in a fictional Tannochbrae somewhere in Scotland during the 1930s – the hungry thirties of the Great Depression when vast swathes of Britain led a hand-to-mouth existence with very little help coming from the state. Those most badly affected were dependent on charities, local health schemes, friends and their own families.

Tannochbrae was not as obviously impoverished as other places – this was no filthy, ugly, disease-ridden inner city but impoverished it was – bonnie but disease-ridden this rural village shared with its urban neighbours hunger, poverty and ill-health. The taciturn Dr Finlay who assisted the inscrutable Dr Cameron was surely the author A J Cronin himself for there is much in the writer that appears in Finlay’s character.  

Underlying the stories is a strong sense of decency – of humanity, a benevolent outlook by Tannochbrae’s doctors who breathed air that was fresher and purer than many of their patients yet were driven by their sense of duty and consideration to ease their lives, as far as they were able; behaviour not always typical of their profession with its share of uncaring snobs, over-ambitious dilettantes and ignorant oafs, if Cronin’s characterisations are anything to go by.

Far from being happy-ever-after frippery the Tannochbrae stories exposed the bleak reality of life for so many before the advent of the National Health Service. Poverty not only produced despair but starvation, susceptibility to illness and premature and avoidable death. Poverty in a world where money is king and the king-makers include respected members of parliament often reluctant to change a system built on inequality because inequality benefits those at the top which often included them. Money didn’t guarantee you didn’t get sick but it did buy medicine and treatment and it did buy better housing, clean running water, a warm fire and with those came better odds, an improved chance, to avoid contagions, work-related accidents and to survive serious illness.

aj cronin portrrait

A J Cronin

Cronin dealt with much of the awkward social divisions that consigned the working classes to unbelievable misery for as a young Scots doctor he found himself thrown into working class communities where life was a daily grind that offered spartan comforts.  

I re-discovered Cronin when clearing out the house of a deceased relative and picked up a copy of The Stars Look Down that had belonged to my late uncle, also a doctor. I was captivated by the book, a tale of miners in northeast England who were victims of political opportunism and betrayal. It is, in my opinion, Cronin’s finest work – hugely impressive and its description of a mining accident is truly memorable. The Stars Look Down should be read by everyone in this country, and should be on school reading lists for not only is it well-written it is our social history in easy bites. But it is not this book that’s being spoken about at the moment. The Citadel has been resurrected for its influence in the debate that led to the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

The Citadel

Set in Wales and London during the 1920s and 1930s The Citadel draws from Cronin’s own experience as a doctor in both places. The young Cronin had his sights on a Harley Street practice and he did get there but by a circuitous route that opened his eyes to the dreadful impact on the poor of Britain’s ramshackle medical services – a rag-bag of medical chance – postcode lottery before postcodes.

Corruption features a great deal in Cronin’s works – the medical officer of health who doesn’t care a fig for the sick, the conscientious doctor driven to drink by a system that overburdens him as an individual, the ambitious practitioner blithely striding forward in his career at the expense of his patients, manipulative politicians on the make – they were Cronin’s colleagues and acquaintances and a rich source of characters for his writing.  

Hatter’s Castle was Cronin’s first book but it was The Citadel published in 1937 that attracted huge attention – and fame and riches for its author when it was made into a Hollywood film with four Oscar nominations in 1938. The Citadel was credited with shifting opinion towards a universal health care system – a national health service. In it a young doctor, much like Cronin, struggled to make a difference to the lives of his Welsh patients in a small mining community. Cronin worked in the Welsh mining town of Tredegar and was employed at the its hospital which was financed locally through contributions paid into Tredegar Medical Aid Society (MAS) in return for medical treatment for contributors and their families. Tredegar MAS was an amalgamation of smaller benevolent or friendly societies. Around Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries there were many similar organisations that helped their working class members – providing a doctor service and sick pay but as they were linked to particular industries and their members largely men women and children were not covered. The Tredegar MAS broadened the range of benefits to include payouts for work accidents, sickness, unemployment and death expenses. Doctors were attached to a society by a ballot of members and in turn he could employ an assistant, the role of Dr Manson in Cronin’s The Citadel.

welsh village

Welsh mining village

Local friendly societies were run by powerful individuals so open to corruption. Medicine was then near wholly privatised with everything having its price as it is in private practice today: consultations, examinations, operations, x-rays, scans, every pill and plaster. Young doctors cut their teeth working as assistants to more senior colleagues who sometimes creamed off a sizeable portion of the little income they earned. Such corrupt practices were exposed in The Citadel. By shining a spotlight on the paucity of health care in Britain Cronin was able to educate and influence people, to alter attitudes towards the ramshackle health (don’t) care system.

“I have written in The Citadel all I feel about the medical profession, its injustices, its hide-bound unscientific stubbornness, its humbug … The horrors and iniquities detailed in the story I have personally witnessed. This is not an attack against individuals, but against a system”

Cronin’s hero, Dr Manson – a Scot like himself – is shocked at what he finds on his arrival firstly at Drineffy, a little Welsh coal mining town. Underpaid and undervalued, Manson struggles to cope so early into his career as the only fit and sober doctor in the town but he also struggles against penury for most of his salary is retained by the senior society doctor. Driven to resign Manson finds himself in a bigger town where there is greater scope to practise and undertake scientific research into the lung disease that he has become all too familiar with since arriving in Wales for it was a major killer in the coal mining communities. Again Cronin draws on his own experience with Manson eventually building his reputation and moving into private practice in search of wealthy patients easily conned to shell out for useless bottles of ‘tonics.’ This was not meant to be a book review so I won’t reveal more of the story for the real value is in its description of an alternative system of health care that stood out amidst all the various styles practised around the UK.

The_Independent_(1849)_(14595849278)

Lord Northcliffe at work

But let us back-pedal a little. A National Insurance Act came into being in 1912, despite the British press loudly opposing it. Most of Britain’s major newspapers were then owned and controlled by Tory press baron Lord Northcliffe whose empire Associated Newspapers Ltd produced such titles as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Observer. They all used their columns to churn out propaganda against the scheme. Northcliffe had no sympathy for working class people and was hostile to old age pensions while at the same time he demanded, through his newspapers, increased government spending on armaments. There is little doubt he was an unpleasant and violent bully and not untypical of his class. He could not stomach a scheme to help protect the most vulnerable which involved employer and government contributions along with workers’ own in order to provide such basic benefits as sick pay, free treatment for tuberculosis, care by a panel doctor and maternity benefits. Despite fierce opposition from Northcliffe and other loud voices the Act became law but it was far from perfect. It was fine in urban areas and much of Britain but Scotland’s topography is markedly different from the south in that it is far more widespread (don’t go by weather maps on television) which meant the Act was unworkable across half of Scotland’s land mass and its crofting communities.

An answer here in Scotland came in 1913 with the establishment of a centralised state-run health service which operated across the Highlands and Islands as The Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS) and it continued until superseded by the UK-wide National Health Service in the summer of 1948. It was the Dewar Report of 1912 which revealed major problems in Scotland’s rural areas with the National Insurance Act so a bespoke alternative scheme was put in place whereby doctors, nurses and midwives were subsidised to live and work in sparsely populated areas with few opportunities to rake in substantial earnings. A medical laboratory was set up in Inverness (which Cronin would have approved of) and an air ambulance eventually provided. This bold endeavour became a model for similar schemes in rural Canada and the USA and in the 1940s influenced the design of the NHS.

The Highlands and Islands Medical Service was not identical to the later NHS for it was not free to patients but it did establish a body that attempted universality of cover and was a vast improvement in what had gone before.

Britain in the 1930s was riven by extremes of wealth and degrees of poverty unimaginable to us today. There was virtually no state help and having nothing then meant nothing to buy food, keep a roof over a head, buy clothing or keep healthy. Living conditions in towns especially were quite atrocious. Cronin’s candid writing about health inequalities helped raise popular awareness and highlighted a system that put patients at its centre. Such was the appetite for his books it was clear public opinion demanded change to lift Britain’s millions of families struggling against the odds out of perpetual misery and despair while others worked the system – political, social, industrial and medical – to amass riches way beyond most people’s comprehension. Then came the Second World War.

During the war a study into the provision of social care in the UK resulted in the Beveridge Report which identified five areas requiring attention by government: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Discussions between the government and the medical professions including the Tredegar Society and the Highlands and Islands Medical Service led to proposals for fundamental reforms in health and social care. At the end of the war there was such a groundswell of opinion for change that the Labour Party was swept into government on the promise it would set up a National Health Service. Central to this was Aneurin Bevan, one-time a health board colleague of Cronin’s in Tredegar. It should be said that Cronin did not support the NHS when it first emerged and his scepticism and opposition was shared by a fair number of the medical establishment. Reading his biography it’s fair to say he comes across as something of a snob, tediously religious in a judgemental way, attached to the very hierarchies that maintain inequality and he was vehemently hostile to abortion (and, yes, I recognise the time he was writing but there were many doctors in Scotland and elsewhere, his contemporaries, who recognised the need for offering abortion in particular circumstances [and in Scotland medical abortion was not the criminal act it was in England and Wales] .) I know from that same uncle that rekindled my interest in Cronin’s works just how split over the prospect of an NHS were doctors – many regarding it as socialism, an anathema to the mostly ultra-conservative medical profession. Cronin shared this view. And, contrary to what you might expect, the NHS was launched not with a bang but a whimper, certainly as far as newspapers I’ve looked at were concerned. The main story of the 5 July 1948 was Britain’s worst air crash or concern over the Russians. 

download

Cronin was born in 1896 at Cardross in Dunbartonshire and as a schoolboy exhibited a talent for writing at Dumbarton Academy. Torn between a career in the church or medicine he said he chose the lesser of two evils, so medicine it was. He won a Carnegie scholarship and graduated from Glasgow University in 1919 and from there went on to obtain further qualifications. He practised medicine in Scotland, England and Wales where he was confronted by life in the raw in a dirty, alien village smothered in coal dust and scarred by distress. He was made Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain in 1924 which provided scope for his research into lung diseases brought on by breathing in industrial dust, such as coal dust, and rife among miners. The link seems obvious to us today but it was not when Cronin studied it. Once he found success as a doctor the work seemed to bore him; prescribing medicines and dispensing advice to his then wealthy patients in Harley Street and Notting Hill in London and he abandoned his medical practice for life back in Scotland to try his hand at writing.

Cronin’s itchy feet saw him move to more places around the world than there is room for here. He became a major name in the world of celebrity and wealthy as Croesus and I suppose it is an irony that he made his money from his gritty depictions of the powerless and exploited during some of Britain’s bleakest and most impoverished times. While not great literary works Cronin’s easy style of writing and his eye for detail makes reading his books a pleasure rarely a chore.

stars look down

I know one or two people, all male, who never – that’s never ever- read books. Literature is not only an enjoyable (mostly) pastime it is a vehicle to encounter experiences we would otherwise never know about. It offers us opportunities to confront issues in a palatable way which might alter our preconceptions. I hope some of you will pick up a Cronin novel – I recommend The Stars Look Down and be prepared to have your eyes opened to a world that is hard to imagine today. In the meantime when you next visit the doctor or are admitted to hospital spare a thought for how the NHS came about and worry that its days might be numbered in which case we might all be closer than we’d like to experiencing the pre-NHS world of Cronin’s sick and vulnerable patients.

August 31, 2017

The Englishman Dr Livingstone, I presume: the unmaking of a nation through its school history

Myths and truths about Scottish History in Schools

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There is a fairly widespread belief that Scottish history has not, until recently, been taught in our schools. This is not true. Let me qualify that. From the earliest days of informal schooling an amount of storytelling doubtless crept into lessons; the exploits of national heroes and heroines until history as a discrete subject was formalised in the 1880s.

Most Scottish children since then were made familiar with some aspects of our past even if that amounted to little more than fleeting references to a handful of monarchs and a few notable battles. Granted among the baby-boomer generation it might have been for some their only encounter with Scottish history, any history, was at primary school – taught by non-specialist teachers in the main. Before the introduction of O Grades in 1962 thousands of Scots children could have left school with their leaving certificate having been taught no history at their junior secondary school and even with O Grades, later S Grades, it was possible for children to get no history after second year.

Does it matter? There are plenty who claim history serves no purpose and time in school would be better taken up teaching maths and science. Consider then waking up one day your memory has gone from an accident or Alzheimer’s disease with you having to make your way ignorant of what you’ve done and who you are. A clean sheet. Make of it what you can. Welcome to a world devoid of history.

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. (Machiavelli)

Even though we are too stupid to learn from those who came before us Machiavelli might have added but did not.

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The actions of our forefathers and foremothers laid the foundations of the lives we lead today. It is useful to understand that process. What we learn of the nation’s past defines our perception of it then and now and our understanding of how our world has evolved – and in that those who argue Scottish children have not been taught their own history are correct to some extent.

History is not a series of facts strung together along a timeline. Although that’s how it has sometimes been presented. It is a muddle of events – a smorgasbord picked over by people who fancy themselves a bit of this and a bit of that. History can be simply entertaining – stories of adventure and discovery and it can be a powerful tool for propaganda. Propaganda of the past is all around us – shops are full of it, radio and television, too, complete with a telegenic communicators eagerly offering their carefully chosen morsels to seduce you into falling for their particular bees in their particular bonnets. My advice is treat with caution. No telling of history is ever neutral – the very facts presented have been selected at the expense of others that don’t fit the message. Scrutinise the historian and ask yourself why she/he is saying this/that/whatever and not something entirely different. Historians are not always transparent – what is it they aren’t telling us? And why have they couched their interpretation of events in that way?

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Despite (almost) every child in Scotland attending school at some point in their lives too many adult Scots are unfortunately ignorant about education – what goes on now and even when they were in the thick of it. Memories are patchy and woefully unreliable. How many Scots have I heard going on about their O Level passes when they never sat any but took O Grades, unless they attended private school? How many Scots bemoan Highers as inferior to the English A Level blissfully unaware the Higher was set to be taken a year earlier than A Levels and the reason ordinary university courses in Scotland were longer than their English equivalents?

There are also those who go on about the national curriculum unaware that there is no prescribed national curriculum in Scotland instead a huge amount of leeway is provided to specialist teachers to use their initiative within guidelines and constraints of the exam system and the reason why some people’s experience of history will be different from others. What you were taught depended a great deal on your history teacher and it might be you went to one of the very few schools, in the west of Scotland I understand, where the openness of the curriculum allowed history to be removed altogether from secondary years one and two. Moronic. Also moronic was the introduction of faculty heads to replace discrete department principal teachers giving rise to the ludicrous situation whereby the history department of a school could be run by someone who dumped history to become better acquainted with a football. Few primary teachers will have been specialists in history but all secondary teachers should be. However that is a great big rag bag in itself.

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Teachers and what they teach is only as good as their own learning and the resources available to them. Just where do you find quality materials to teach a range of topics to pupils whose ages range between 12 and 18? No history teachers enters the profession equipped with an expansive knowledge of every topic required in the classroom so where to find material? Books you may reasonably say. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Books are expensive and teachers have a tiny budget that always fails to cover the essentials to teach everything covered in years one to six. Books get destroyed, lost and tatty and even history books become out-dated. This is why so many teachers make up their own worksheets – and we have all experienced how iffy that can be. But even worksheets are expensive to create given the budgets available and they have a short shelf life.  

That said there was a time when reasonable supplies of  books were to be found in classrooms. Many were published in England and were almost like foreign texts. What is taught as ‘British’ history does not always sit well in the Scottish classroom. For example an awful lot, let me repeat that, an awful lot of histories written by English teachers and/or historians largely ignore Scotland. Try finding examples of everyday life in the Victorian period – it’s as if everyone in the UK lived in London or Manchester. Look at histories of the Napoleonic wars – presented as English wars fought by Englishmen on the other side of the English Channel. What, historian Sydney Wood, asks

“… went through the mind of the Scot from Lewis who was required to haul aloft Nelson’s pre-Trafalgar signal of ‘England expects every man to do his duty?”

Wood goes on

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Convention of Scottish Burghs (1905) complained of the existence of school books in which: Great Britain is called England, the British throne is called the English throne … David Livingstone is called an Englishman, James Watt and Adam Smith are called English.”

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To that list we might add were there no Chartists active in Scotland organising for democracy? Were Scots instead quietly sitting at home supping porridge? In British histories Scotland is excised again and again. That literary tick of substituting English for British, England for Britain produces an untrue twist on its narrative of the lives of our ancestors in these islands yet there it is on a page in black and white so it must be true. Such crass sloppiness is everywhere from Oxbridge dons to daft little-Englanders cheering on England’s Brexit from the EU.

What did you learn in school today dear little boy of mine?

I learnt that the government of Britain was English and that in England both parties, Liberals and Conservatives, favoured peaceful progress and social reform unlike most countries of Europe afflicted by conflicts and political revolution.

I learnt that Dr David Livingstone from Blantyre was English.

I learnt that the poet Lord Byron was English because he had an English father (and Scottish mother) and he was born in England.

I learnt that the philosopher economist John Stuart Mill was English because he had a Scottish father – uhm – but he was born in England so he was definitely English.

I learnt that the writer Rudyard Kipling was English because he had an English father and was born in India – but couldn’t possibly have been Indian because he was English, after all.

History our flexible friend.

For most Scots Scottish history in primary and the early stages of secondary school was very well covered – but it was a case of pupil beware.

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I don’t know who Flora Forbes MA was but her Past and Present books, published by John Cormack of Edinburgh presented a very unionist interpretation of Scotland (but then so did they all.) She wrote of an “angry” Scottish Parliament demanding equality with England over trade and shipping at the adoption of the Hanoverians and how “moderate men” saw the sense of a union of the two parliaments. She did not mention the storm of opposition to this in Scotland but noted Scots “naturally feared that England would once again deal unfairly with the smaller country.” Perish the thought.

On Mary, Queen of Scots and the English Queen Elizabeth she wrote:

“When Queen Elizabeth began to reign, England was not yet in a settled condition with regard to the religion of the people. Although the government was Protestant, half of the people were Catholics, and they believed Mary Stewart to be their rightful queen. Elizabeth’s task in ruling the country was therefore far from easy, but she proved to be a wise and clever ruler, and she was helped in the work of government by very able men.”

Some might call them liars, conspirers and charlatans but there you go.

Not all Scottish school textbooks were as partial and sickeningly obsequious as Ms Forbes’s efforts.

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John Patrick’s SCOTLAND  the age of achievement was less whimsical and more authoritative (nothing to do with him being a bloke.) A lecturer at Aberdeen College of Education he used Hogarth’s drawing which contrasted poverty in Scotland – the ill-fed Scot – against the prosperity of the well-fed Londoner inside the cover. “Many English cartoons in the eighteenth century made fun of Scotland’s poverty,” he explained.

Patrick took a responsible approach to the scoundrels of Scottish history in his account of the trials of 18th century reformers Muir and Palmer and we are left in no doubt who he believed was the scoundrel in that episode. In his summing up the hanging Lord Braxfield intent on suppressing sedition addressed the court:

“…the government “is made of landed interests, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them?”

Ah the witty and respected judge Braxfield set the tone for a fair trial-

“Come awa, sirs and help us hang these rascals…”

Rascals were people who dared to criticise the monarchy and corrupt governments made up of the landed gentry in government to enhance their own interests and shitting themselves that revolution in France might prove to be contagious. Dundee minister Palmer was sentenced to 7 years transportation and lawyer Muir to 14 years.

IMM Macphail, A History of Scotland Book 1, 1950s

Many of you will surely have been familiar with A.D. Cameron’s History for Young Scots Books 1 and 2 which were widely used in primary and early stages secondary during the 1970s and ’80s and created a patchwork impression of Scotland from the Neolithic settlers at Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands to more recent time when the European Coal and Steel Community was held up as a beacon of hope for peace and prosperity in a coming-together of nations in the Common Market.

“Could Britain afford to remain outside such a large and vital market in Europe? Could she become a member without endangering her unique partnership with the other nations in the Commonwealth”  he asked without a question mark. Tut tut.

Cameron ended on a note of optimism explaining that Britain did join the European Economic Community and people found they could travel more freely and got on with one another. Where did that get us?

Cameron made up dialogue to inject life and human interest into what is sometimes dismissed as a dry subject.

“Here is food; here is plenty” the comment of a contented Skara Braen tucking into a mountainous whale as a wise old man surveys the scene on the beach, “There is food for many moons,” he declares with just a touch of Tonto from the Lone Ranger. Cameron was nothing if not confident in his statements for example he assured us the women of Skara Brae spent about an hour every day grinding corn into flour.

Patrick achievement

Cameron’s approach to school history was entertaining and his books were well-illustrated: Picts, Celts, Romans, Vikings, English, Wars of Independence, burghs and so on- to the Union –

Britain” – (hang on A D you mean England and Wales?) “was at war with France during Queen Anne’s reign, and the English, fearing the Scots” (not at war with France – just saying) “might select a king of their own and revive the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, decided to allow the Scots free trade” – (which they had done their level best to destroy up till then) – “if they would consent to the creation of a British Parliament.”

Cameron fell into the British/English trap there did you notice?

Under the Union he informed us English and colonial markets were to be opened up to Scottish merchants and Scottish currency, weights and measures were abandoned in favour of English equivalents. Religion and law remained uniquely Scottish.

And with the Union an end was put to Scottish history – in a sense – that’s me, not Cameron.

Patrick, no Union

Cameron’s school histories were enjoyable and useful tools for teachers but frustrating for those parts of Scotland ignored in their pages. Pupils in Dundee, Aberdeen and areas north, northwest, south and east found little there to reflect the lives of their foremothers. The nature of the colossus that is history means inevitably there are gaps but where those same gaps are replicated a false impression of the past becomes entrenched into our minds: Cameron illustrated the widespread Highland Clearances with a snapshot of the Sutherland clearances at Strathnavar; Industrial Scotland was largely and predictably confined to the Clyde and west of Scotland. Cameron was a Principal Teacher of History at Inverness Royal Academy and should have known better. That’s all I know about A D Cameron.

 Aside from those unfortunates not offered history in a handful of secondary schools a perception that Scottish history was not taught might be because pupils chose not to study it as an O grade or Higher and simply forgot or because their teacher lazily churned out what she/he came across in muddled myth-laden textbooks entirely Anglo-centred: agricultural and industrial revolutions; social and political changes; housing; transport etc  – as far as the eye can see.

Historical events and change in England has always been taught in Scottish schools whereas in England Scotland seldom features – and usually only as that pesky aggressive neighbour to the north. Where Scottish histories have generally reflected Scotland as part of the United Kingdom English histories have a tendency to see England standing alone bold and magnificent – succeeding. European and World history as portrayed in history texts are seen through the lens of England and the English people with Scotland rarely a footnote.

There is no doubt that for much of the 20th century Scottish history has been much under-represented in our own schools while any Scottish dimension of British and world history virtually disappears south of the border. Can we wonder then at the sheer level of ignorance in England when it comes to Scotland? Watch as bemused smiles break out on the faces of quiz show contestants when asked anything relating to Scotland.

Historian Sydney Wood considered the role history education plays in the development of our sense of national identity – pointed to how Scotland’s education system retained its independence post-1707 until the English Education Act of 1872 gave London oversight of Scottish education right up to 1939.

Decades later Thatcher’s Tories tried to mould education to suit her rightwing agenda but found strong resistance in Scotland yet English Tories were able to wield some influence here. Devolution in 1997 returned education in Scotland to the responsibility of the Scottish government, albeit still following a unionist agenda.

It is true that teaching distinctly Scottish history tottered during the 20th century. Children might learn about early settlers – Skara Brae in the neolithic period and Stonehenge – but how many were taught about the sheer richness of neolithic evidence there is in Scotland? How many English children ever learnt about any early settlers in Scotland? Precious few. Vikings were mainly English Vikings. The Industrial Revolution took place mainly in England. Urban expansion and overcrowded homes were suffered in England. Poverty was English. No-one rioted in Scotland because they were starving. We were led to believe. Orator Henry Hunt and the Spa Fields (somewhere near London) riot over parliamentary reform (lack of) was drummed into the lugs of young Scots while in Scotland all was quiet – we were led to believe. Not that there has been much sympathy for rioters in history books – mad, angry, mobs, unruly, violent. As for the politicians whose actions led to such deprivation and inequality – they avoided pejorative adjectives attached to their activities.

Life expectancy as many Scots pupils once knew was very different between a man in Liverpool and one in Bath. Bath – Bath? Where’s that Miss?

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Every child in Scotland learnt about the Speenhamland system – a barbaric means by which magistrates in Berkshire in England provided charity to starving men, women and children. What was happening in Scotland? Scotland that impoverished neighbour of England? Presumably all was hunky dory.

Chartism was scarcely a whisper in Scotland – if you believe many of the histories taught in our schools. And in Scottish histories Chartism only occurred in Glasgow.

Scottish school children learnt about changes in English farming – the Norfolk system of crop rotation but who in England learnt about farm toons and run rigs?

Britain’s Story Told in Pictures printed in Manchester c1950. Brave to title the book Britain but let’s take through its chapters.

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I guess the authors were too busy putting the book together to visit Callanish standing stones or Orkney to become acquainted with its amazing Neolithic sites – or any of the unique recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire and other important features all around Scotland dating back over 5000 years. Let’s try the chapter Roman Britain. In what sounds like a national entity called Britain life was evidently most interesting in the south, as that’s all presented here. Picts of Caledonia get a single mention only in relation to Hadrian’s Wall not who they were of any reference to their pictorial art.

Let’s try Anglo-Saxon Britain 410-1066 – you can imagine I’m not too hopeful for this chapter. Aha, at least we have more definition as it begins with “The English are descended from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes…English conquest” blah, blah, blah…”English race” an interesting concept – especially given the previous paragraphs explaining the number of different peoples who’ve formed this ‘race’. I’m not expecting any mention of Scotland because this chapter doesn’t apply here – although Scots kids all learnt about it. But what is this? There’s a sketch of a Viking cross at Oransay, Scotland – that’ll be Oronsay I expect – and it’s what we call a Celtic cross and it dates from around 500 years after the chapter’s cut-off date. History our flexible friend again.

Chapter 4 looks at Medieval Britain 1066-1485 with not a cheep about Scottish royalty but everything you need to know and more about the line of English kings. There is a mention of Scotland in relation to the English Edward I. That’s it. There’s a nice drawing of a battering ram – know what I’d like to do with that – lots of Norman this and that. But hark! What comes here? It is an illustration of Robert the Bruce (again because of the association to England as is the case for the sketch of Joan of Arc.) So that’s it for Medieval Britain – must have passed Scotland by.

Tudor Britain up next and as Scotland didn’t do Tudors there’s no point looking here but I can’t resist having a wee peek. Elizabeth I of England, “greatest of the Tudors” and what’s this? “Foreign policy was directed against the menaces of Scotland, France and Spain.” That’s not very nice – first we’re all part of the British family then we’re a foreign enemy – again. Glowing it is – glowing in its admiration of Elizabeth I of England – and the advances in trade – Levant and East India, ne’er a hint of exploitation and stripping India of its assets …”Many universities and Grammar Schools were founded” – not a mention Aberdeen which between 1596 and 1826 had as many universities as in the whole of England. That’s worth putting in a book on Britain only it was in the wrong part of  ‘Britain’ evidently.

Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots, is included in Tudor Britain for some reason when it should be in a chapter called Stuart Britain – which comes next – and why? because it covers the period from 1603 when the Stuarts decamped to England. This is not a history of Britain it is a history of England – a bundle of baloney.

James VI is introduced as James I – because that’s his English regnal number and England precedes mention of Scotland because English historians know Scotland’s place. Back! Get back!

The Act of Union – I’ll get my magnifying glass out – straight FACT “Act of Union (1707). “By this Act the United Kingdom of Great Britain was established under a single government, Scotland being represented in Parliament by forty-five Members in the Commons and sixteen Peers in the Lords.” Parliament being in London,  not Edinburgh, naturally.

Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil is a case of move along nothing of interest here. No mention. Sure there are sketches of the Duke of Cumberland – Butcher as he’s known here – and Charles Edward Stuart, “the Young Pretender” – note that slick derogatory description we’ve come to accept – not forgetting his old man, another Pretender. There’s a pic, too, of George I who “succeeded under the Act of Succession” aye he did – positive write-up we may say for George.

There’s a fine illustration of a Highlander – post Union – not doing what most Highlanders would have been doing at home whatever that might have been and we certainly don’t find out from this book but as a soldier from one of the Highland regiments which became so popular with successive governments of the United Kingdom. Not so much back! back! as get to the front! to the front!

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The chapter on Modern Britain pauses long enough to condemn the General Strike of 1926, to praise the national spirit, to picture the murder of a British bishop in Uganda, to comment on the notable growth of democracy during Victoria’s reign – notable being an elastic term for restricted. There are lots of pictures of ‘natives’ from the Empire – Zulus being war-like, ‘Kaffirs’ being obedient, a Maori looking a bit savage. There’s a head and shoulders of Cecil Rhodes, boo; Gordon of Khartum, boo; the cantilever bridge over the St Lawrence River at Quebec – but not the magnificent Forth Railway Bridge, boo – evidently a victim of being located in North Britain. There’s a sketch of a round table conference, at a long table, at which Mahatma Ghandi and his pals “demanded independence for India” – blighters. There’s mention of the “heroic Red army” in WWII, hurrah; there’s Lord Woolton representing rationing during WWII but no mention of John Boyd Orr. Shamefully predicatable.

If you were spared this sort of nonsense in place of real history at school be grateful.

It is apparent that generations of  Scottish schoolchildren left school better informed about the Nazis in Germany or the poor laws in England than they did about lives led by past generations of their families here in Scotland. Our ancestors were living breathing people very much like ourselves – dour or cheerful, cup half-full or cup half-empty types but Scotland, even a short historical hop back in time, was a very different place and it’s near impossible for us to really imagine their dreams, sorrows and pleasures. Our connections with the past are the vital means of securing our place in present-day Scottish society; understanding the route we have come to where our lives are today with a backward glance at patterns of struggle and achievement which form lessons for us now and into the future. It is a scandal that history has been so badly served since the formalisation of education in this country – that so much in history books is nonsense, jingoism and cant  – that knowledge of the Kirk post-Reformation; the Scottish Enlightenment; Scots in the Empire (warts and all); Scots in America – even events surrounding that most important detail were marginalised even here in Scotland, the Union of Parliaments, getting scant recognition until recent times. Why? You may well ask. And demand better. But, of course, sifting through the dross there are truths there to be found that should not be forgotten.

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March 7, 2017

The Transportation of Angus Gillies

Angus Gillies from Inverness-shire was convicted of simple larceny (theft) at the Old Bailey in London in February 1845 and sentenced to seven years transportation.

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I don’t know what attracted Angus Gillies to make the long journey south into England but he worked for a time in the household of a Dr Dowler, as a carer for a man described at the time as ‘a lunatic’. Dr Dowler’s cook and housekeeper, Mary Lewis, and Gillies struck up a relationship and together they planned to open a coffee-shop which was to prove the undoing of Gillies when he was accused of stealing fifteen £10 bank notes and three £5 bank notes which Mary Lewis had withdrawn from a bank to pay for the business.

Full of anticipation the pair set off to check out the property and settle the payment. Mary picked up her money – notes and a little in gold coin when Gillies suggested she let him carry the money –  “You had better hand over that money to me, as I have had the paying of the other money, and I will pay it” – he had earlier paid a deposit of £5.

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Bangalore is on extreme left

Mary Lewis replied, “Well, Mr Gillies, as you had the paying of the other, I suppose you will have the paying of this” and so she gave him notes worth £165 which he slipped into his pocket-book and off they went to the coffee-shop on Ludgate Hill. Satisfied with the premises they were shown into a back room to settle the deal but no sooner had they sat down when Gillies jumped up stating, “I have lost my book.”

Mary Lewis replied, “That is impossible.”

He said, “Then I have dropped it from my pocket in your room; give me your key to go back and look for it.”

She handed over the key to her room and Gillies went out returning within the hour to report he found no sign of the money. Mary Lewis insisted it was impossible the money could have been lost as they had gone straight to the coffee shop from her home. Gillies then urged her to return to the Glyn and Co bank and get from them the numbers of the bank notes paid out to her so they might be stopped.

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Onboard a convict ship

After this Gillies proposed marriage to Mary Lewis but when their marriage banns were put up he disappeared and that was the last she saw of him until his appearance in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with larceny.

In court as a witness was Janet Gillies, Angus’s cousin. She had travelled all the way from Inverness-shire and as Janet spoke only Gaelic her evidence was relayed through an interpreter. She told the court she saw Gillies at her home a few days before Christmas the previous year when he gave her a bundle of money and asked her to take care of it. In turn she gave the money to Angus MacDonald, a magistrate in Inverness-shire, for safe-keeping. For whatever reason MacDonald passed the money on to Andrew Wyness, a police constable, who was also a witness in court having arrested Angus Gillies at his home in Inverness-shire on the 29th December 1844.

Thirty-five year old Angus Gillies was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land on the 3rd February, 1845.

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Convict hulk

Gillies was duly put on to one of the very many ships that sailed non-stop delivering their cargoes of criminals to whichever part of the British Empire there was a need to for their labour, far away from families. The majority of this human cargo was composed mainly of the impoverished and desperate among Britain’s population and the trade was a major source of income for shipping companies. Whether or not the transported could ever return to their homes was of no interest to the British authorities.

One of the ships on the Britain to Australia route was Angelina which makes it sound rather nice. In April 1844 she set sail with 171 prisoners stuffed into her hold and docked in Australia in August – four months of incarceration in crampt and unhealthy conditions all the time the distance stretching between the ship and home. Disease and death cut many a sentence short.   

I didn’t expect to find any record of Angus Gillies’ transportation but such is the magic of the internet that is precisely what I did – not in Australia but in the year 1848 – three years after his transportation order from the court – he was at last en route for Van Diemen’s Land on board a wood barque, the Jersey-built Bangalore, along with 203 fellow prisoners sailing from Bermuda.

In 1823 Parliament passed an Act permitting the courts to send their British and Irish convicts to any of Britain’s colonies to provide free labour. Times had become harder for the Britain’s capitalists anxious to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the Empire once slavery was abolished in 1806 -although they kept the trade going until 1833. Over the next forty years 9,000 were transported from Britain and Ireland to Bermuda and put to work mainly on the island’s naval dockyard – quarrying the local limestone and constructing a breakwater, similar to the construction of a prison to provide prisoners for forced labour to construct a breakwater at Peterhead in northeast Scotland.

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Convict hulks and ships of the British fleet at Bermuda

Seven old hulks were moored off Bermuda to house prisoners many of whom had been given shortish sentences such as Gillies’ with his seven years for larceny. The hulks were steaming hot in summer and freezing cold in winter and were breeding-ground for disease – dysentery, consumption bronchitis and all manner of fevers.

It was easy to become a convict in 19th century Britain and Ireland when people lived in unimaginable poverty and starvation was ever-present. The 1840s was the period of the worst of Ireland’s famines when food grown in that country was carted past hungry men, women and children – food they could not afford to buy and which was being taken to the ports to be exported to England. Anyone caught stealing was arrested, tried and transported.  

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Whatever happened to Angus Gillies once he landed in Australia on 14th July 1848 I have not been able to discover. Did he ever get back to Inverness-shire and his family? Perhaps someone out there knows.

February 29, 2016

The Black Isle Poorhouse

Coping with the poor has long been a problem for governments and local communities and, of course, let’s not forget enduring the indignity of relying on others for something to eat and a place of shelter has never been much fun for the poor themselves.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when times are tough those with the least take the biggest hit – an attitude gladly adopted during these austere times by the UK government.

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In the not-so-distant past help for the poor came through charities, mortification funds or bequests, personal handouts and assistance usually undertaken by the local presbytery. In the 19th century Poorhouses were introduced to provide an alternative to outside support for those incapable of surviving on nothing: no job, no income, no home. Today we have the safety-net of benefits -albeit they are being whittled away – but before universal benefits were introduced poor relief was applied on a one-to-one basis and was of the merest kind.

There’s slight confusion between Poorhouses and Workhouses. The terms are often conflated but in Scotland indoor relief was provided through the Poorhouse and the more familiar Workhouse was in fact an English institution somewhat different in that inmates had to work for their keep hence the name. The impression is the same system operated throughout Britain which is not true but a legacy of careless and misinformed teaching in our schools. Another difference was that the poor in England and Wales were expected to pay towards their keep whereas that was not so in Scotland.

Scotland’s poor relief was less weighted down by regulation than in England and Wales so that a body looking into improving poor law there looked at the Scottish system before implementing its 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. And despite another myth taught in schools Scotland was not regulated by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

The Act of Union of 1707 preserved poor relief within the laws of Scotland which gave rise to differences in attitude and application across the nations. However being poor and dependent on charity was no more fun in Scotland than elsewhere.

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Prior to the inauguration of Poorhouses which it has to be said only helped a tiny fraction of the destitute the degree of poverty among the people is difficult for us to imagine today. Most people lived on practically nothing but some literally had nothing beyond the clothes they stood up in.

In Edinburgh in 1826 it was found in one beggar’s hotel down one of the city’s closes thirty people sharing one room with each paying between 1 penny and 3 pennies a night.

Twenty years later provision for the poor in Scotland underwent major changes with the introduction of the 1845 Poor Law Act which called for parochial boards to be established to organise local poor relief with the boards’ overall management retained in the capital, Edinburgh, and made up of representative from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Renfrew and Ross and Cromarty. The Act allowed for neighbouring parishes to join together to build Poorhouses for the needy in their vicinity – those who could not be sufficiently helped through outdoor relief (money, food or clothing and such.) Soon after the 1845 legislation was passed permission was given for building eight new Poorhouses.

Prior to the Act little Rosemarkie on the Black Isle had 39 paupers out of a population of 350 with poverty increasing. The poor at Rosemarkie may have lived in turf houses like many in their condition but were said to be better fed and clothed than in some other parishes and reasonably well educated with most children attending school though occasionally they didn’t because it was suspected from lack of clothing although this was never admitted to by families. The next village of Fortrose recorded 49 on the poor roll from its population of 559. Losing your job was the quickest way to becoming a pauper then but age was an important factor as was desertion of women and children by men.

In an echo of recent times when the poorest in our society have been charged more for gas and electricity through pre-payment meters the poor during the 1840s  – unemployed labourers – had to plead credit from shopkeepers and were charged more than 5% interest on their meagre purchases, certainly in and around Fortrose.

By the end of the 19thC, in the 1890s, Scotland had Poorhouse provision sufficient to accommodate more than 15,000 paupers although the actual numbers living in Poorhouses at any one time was never near that number.

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Poorhouse at Aberdeen

The Poorhouse for the Black Isle was built at Chanonry between Rosemarkie and Fortrose, in the parish of Rosemarkie, and designed by William Lawrie of the Inverness office of Aberdeen architect James Matthews. The Chanonry Poorhouse looked similar to the company’s other Poorhouses at Inverness, Bonar Bridge and Nairn only smaller. The Matthews office designed several Poorhouses, some as Mackenzie and Matthews, notably one for the parishes of St Nicholas and Old Machar in Aberdeen following a blueprint for Scottish Poorhouses that aimed to make them less oppressive in appearance, to give them an air of domesticity and so limit the impression of them being what they were, heavily regulated institutions.

Back in the Black Isle a Combination Poorhouse for some fifty poor souls from the parishes of Rosemarkie and Fortrose, Avoch, Cromarty, Killearnan, Knockbain, Resolis and Urquhart was erected at Chanonry where folk now go to observe dolphins. There may have been a start on a Poorhouse as early as 1856 but the Lawrie one materialised in 1859 and opened its doors only in 1861. Domesticity is surely in the eyes of the beholder because the Poorhouse remit of an H-form, two-storey building plus attic does not soften its severity, although that might be reading into its appearance what is known of its purpose. Staff were accommodated in attractive single-storey cottages alongside.

The familiar H-shape Poorhouse enabled easy separation of male and female inmates. There was further separation of able-bodied (fit for work) and the infirm. Children were removed from their parents and separated again by sex so that each group had its own area within the H-block. Work areas were provided, again according to women’s or men’s work- a bakehouse in the male part and a laundry in the female area.

Poorhouses were run like prisons without the enforced stay. You entered through a public area where you were checked – your identity and for diseases both physical and mental. Your belongings were searched and your clothes removed for washing and put away until you left, if ever, and you were bathed and provided with a uniform.

The central front area housed the offices of the Poorhouse master and matron along with a kitchen and dining-room which also served as a chapel. Also at the front was a room that could supply clothing to those on outdoor relief who did not stay overnight in the institution. In the yard outside areas were designated for male and female activities and a privy was provided in one corner. The whole area was enclosed by a high stone wall.

The Poorhouse provided both refuge for those incapable of fending for themselves and as a hospital of some kind. You could not just walk in but had to be referred, usually by the local Inspector of the Poor, and although you were free to leave you did not automatically get re-admission so a person had to think long and hard what was best for them for there might be even greater hardship to endure on the outside.

The need for Poorhouses grew through the 19thC because of differences in the social makeup of Scotland, its landholdings and changing work practices and, of course, tied houses – those that went with a job and were taken away once the worker died, left or was sacked. By 1868 Scotland had some fifty Poorhouses, mainly around the central belt.

At Chanonry Poorhouse four staff members are listed in the 1881 census but presumably others were involved working with inmates but living outside. The master of the Poorhouse then was John Fraser of Avoch (pronounced Och) and his Glaswegian wife Agnes as well as two young women housemaids, Ann Mackenzie from Avoch and Kate Noble from Durnish who was also the Poorhouse cook.

The committee running the Poorhouse in 1907 was headed by the master or governor of the Poorhouse, John McKay, and met there at 12 noon on every fourth Monday of May, August, November and February and involved the doctor assigned to the house; A. H . Mackenzie from Fortrose as well as committee secretary Robert Gillanders who was also the local Inspector of Poor.

poorhouse committee
Medical relief for paupers was often provided freely at the discretion of doctors, certainly in Rosemarkie, Fortrose, Avoch and Cromarty although some parishes such as Kilearnan did grant small sums to pay for medicines.

When the census was taken in 1881 Chanonry Poorhouse housed 21 people ranging from 90 year old farmer’s widow Ann White from Avoch to two abandoned little children – Isabella McIver and Hugh McLennan both 2 years old and both from Rosemarkie.

The sorry list of their fellow-inmates reveals how awful life was for working people before old age pensions were brought in, especially those only scratching a living while fit and others who were vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. Back in ’81 the majority brought low enough to turn up at the door of the Poorhouse were women, and most of them were over 60 years of age though not all. Amongst the 21 recorded at the time of the census we find a fisherman’s widow, a woman shoebinder, a porter, farm workers, a domestic servant, a laundress, a housekeeper, the widow of an iron moulder, a needlewoman, a weaver, a shoemaker.

Widows were liable to find themselves with nothing to live on once their husbands died and especially if they stayed in accommodation tied to their husband’s job and both men and women had to keep working into old age or severe infirmity because until the 20thC there was no alternative. At Alford agricultural workers who did not rent land were found to be particularly vulnerable to hostile landowners who would not let cottages without land attached which the poorest could not afford so became homeless. A couple of miles away at Tough it was found most day labourers did keep a tiny piece of land, a croft with one or two cows, so were better protected from destitution.

Poor relief outwith from the Poorhouse was managed by kirk-sessions. At Rosemarkie old paupers who were not confined to bed were given 4 to 5 shillings annually for their upkeep but widows and children received less. Mostly the poor in the Black Isle lived on nothing much more than potatoes and with the tiny allowances allotted them often turned to begging (which in Rosemarkie was not punished as it was in many other places.)

Poor funds were supplemented by legacies, mortification money or sometimes pockets of land, and these attracted people to move to areas where it was known they had funds for distribution, such as Fortrose.

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Looking towards Rosemarkie from Chanonry Point

Cromarty too had mortified funds which attracted its fair share of folk from surrounding areas as well as people in search of work at the town’s hemp manufactory. Ropemaking and fishing were main sources of income for people in that town but many supported themselves gathering sea weed which they sold to farmers for fertilisers and widows could find work baiting hooks for 4 pennies a day for Cromarty’s fishermen. Seasonal work such as harvesting was also a source of employment for women around Cromarty who might earn 6 pennies a day in the fields. That said Cromarty’s poor were said to suffer more extreme poverty and destitution than in other areas. Among those requiring help were people suffering mental illness who were supported from locally raised funds. Amounts paid to recipients varied widely from as little as 2 shillings a year and rarely exceeded 10 shillings but a few payments of 20 shillings were made at Rosemarkie while the average in Cromarty was 12 shillings annually.

Mary Ann Cumming from England was 76 years old and a resident in the Chanonry Poorhouse in 1881. Her fellow-countryman, Ely Thimpeny, a former weaver, was a year older. He was there with his wife, a local woman from Kilmuir in Ross & Cromarty, but of course they would be mostly separated from each other as long as they remained in the Poorhouse. Another originally from outside the area was Charlotte Mackenzie from Glasgow. Donald McDonald was only 18yrs old and described as a pauper on the census. Donald was blind and presumably unable to fend for himself and so found himself at such an early age an inmate of the Poorhouse.

In 1894 Poor Law in Scotland was replaced by the Local Government Board and then in 1919 a Scottish Board of Health assumed responsibility for poor relief. After the end of the Second World War and the start of a proper welfare system Poorhouses became relics of the past. By then the need for the Black Isle Poorhouse had diminished and its name was changed to Ness House in the late 1930s but long after continued to be known as the Poorhouse.

Wi silver in ma pocket an oatmeal in ma scoo
Ah’ll tramp gladly homeward like cadgers always do
An when Ah reach the bothie so sair an tired I am
Ah’ll keep the home fires burnin an fry the ham

An then to bed as usual, three, four pints o beer
It’s best to tak things easy, we’ll no be always here
Oh wha would slave like Storum or stare like Jessie Poose
There’s little sense in savin pence for Chenrey Hoose.

verse taken from The Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect http://wanderengland.com/images/The%20Cromarty%20Fisherfolk%20Dialect.pdf