Archive for ‘Poor Relief’

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

February 1, 2019

Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds

This blog came about after I was contacted by a reader whose family were involved with kelp preparation in the Hebrides before being forced off their land to make a life elsewhere. What I knew about kelp could have been written on a postage stamp until I looked into it further. This is some of what I discovered.

Much of the glass going into windows in Britain’s better-off households, to protect them from the elements was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, mainly manufactured using kelp produced by the poorest of people in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Highland Scots engaged in this process from very young children to the elderly and infirm enjoyed none of the protection of glass forced as they were through circumstance to live outside among the rocks on the seashore during the kelp season; enduring all weather conditions and blasted by wind, rain and sea or baked under the hot sun on exposed isles and coasts. When crofters were labouring at the shore they were not looking after their crofts which provided their food and so these failed from lack of attention and in any case the seaweed they traditionally used to fertilize the land was needed to be burnt to make kelp.

kelp

Seaweed used to make kelp

Glass and that other major product of kelp, soap, were made using potash and soda produced from burned seaweed; it was also used in calico production, for bleaching, for iodine, for producing potassium alum (an agent in a host of industrial uses) and for fertilisers. Glass used for bottles and drinking glasses was less dependent on kelp than window glass up until the 1830s. That this important trade has been largely ignored by historians and economic historians is surely down to its location – rural Scotland (Wales and Ireland.) Sadly, historians and social commentators indulge their own prejudices which are passed on through their works which have shaped our knowledge of the past. There has been and still is an emphasis on urban employment over rural – urban = good and significant / rural = bad and trivial.

Kelp production contributed in no small measure to the UK’s economy, it became a valuable commodity and was a major source of employment in rural Scotland with around 60,000 involved in kelp production in the Hebrides and Orkney (a similar number in Ireland.) In any measure this is a large number of people dependent on an industry which was essential to the UK’s production of glass and soap – so much so stones were taken to beaches to encourage seaweed to grow on them. Of course essential as the kelp industry was its lynchpin, the kelpers, were ruthlessly exploited. 30 tons of seaweed was needed to produce 1 ton of kelp ash. Something in the region of 2,000 tons of kelp was produced annually in the western isles in the mid-later 18th century. A laird’s cut was around £21 per ton with local workers paid something under £2 per ton at best and 4d (4 pennies at the other end.)

What is kelp? Nowadays we refer to a type of seaweed as kelp but originally this was the name given to the alkali produced from burning seaweed. Hebridean lairds allocated their crofters a small portion of seashore when kelp production was at its height. In addition to working the land crofters and their families were put to work by their lairds producing kelp. Lairds paid their tenant crofters an annual amount for each ton of kelp and the sums paid reflected what was set by agents working for glass or soap manufacturers.

Kelping was heavy work which required many hands to cut, carry, spread to dry and burn the seaweed in stone kilns (filthy work which led to blindness among kelpers.) Kiln fires burned for about 8 hours to produce kelp, dark blue and oily, which then had to be cooled over weeks.

For crofters whose smallholdings were inland kelp production meant moving their whole family to the shore, perhaps many miles away from their homes so forcing them to live on the seashore where they laboured both day and night by torchlight. Men had to go to sea fishing during the only time available to them, in the dark, to feed their families otherwise attempting to live off the odd limpets or shellfish they could find. There are reports of people eating seaweed but they could not eat the weed they needed for kelp. Oatmeal was the staple diet of Scots but on islands where it might not be possible to grow oats, or in sufficient amounts, having this most basic foodstuff was dependent on the arrival of boats from the mainland. Then again meal wasn’t free and these people had no or virtually no cash because their landlords paid mainly in kind, with goods rather than money. To obtain meal people had to barter the little alternative food they had such as cattle or fish. Because kelp required a lot of hands to produce it families were encouraged to have more children which meant more mouths to feed which was difficult at the best of times but when the worst came families were desperate.

During the long years of the French and Napoleonic wars the British government slapped hefty import taxes on foreign goods and British manufacturing became dependent on home produced kelp so Highland lairds forced their tenants into its production. The Highlands’ youth were also in great demand by the British army because of their height and strength but those families who sacrificed their sons in the British crown’s and government’s wars discovered there was no reciprocation for as soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended the government lowered the tariff on foreign kelp with the result that imports of Barilla or Spanish kelp devastated Highland production and pushed already impoverished people to utter despair. Not everyone did badly, in fact some benefitted – the usual people – London speculators and soap manufacturers. Greed was the winner and if the people of the Hebrides had to survive eating the seaweed that once was in such demand then so be it. Reports of terrible starvation, of children with ribs jutting out and bulging eyes in emaciated faces seem not to have lost any greedy government minister or capitalist manufacturer a minutes sleep.

So there it was British manufacturers preferred foreign kelp or adopted a different type of ash made from salt. Islanders lost the little income they depended on and their lairds lost a source of income. Something had to give. Lairds gave the people away. Forced them out. Burnt them out of their homes so they couldn’t go back. Young and old were forced onto vessels heading for North America. Lairds wanted to empty the land of people so they could replace them with sheep. It’s strange how loyalty is so often a one-way street.

reginald george

Reginal George the big spender

One notorious laird who cleared islanders as if they were detritus was Reginald John James George, chief of Clan Ranald, a branch of Clan Donald, at Moidart and Benbecula. Old Etonian Reginald’s father had previously flogged off most of the Clan’s landholding while Reggie spent his time furthering the domination of Britain abroad. He wasn’t familiar with Scotland and had no understanding of his estate or its people. But in an effort to play the laird he did develop a penchant for tartanalia.

You might recall that post-Culloden those symbols of the Highlands – tartan and bagpipes -were banned in an effort to destroy the very way of life of Highlanders. Once the British army eventually abandoned hunting down Highlanders as a sport and when the British government was certain the Highlands had been well and truly crushed faux Highland chic was invented in cartoon form with the appearance of George IV in Edinburgh in 1822 resplendent in a pair of bright pink tights and a mini kilt. He was encouraged in this pantomime by Sir Walter Scott and various other hangers-on including our Etonian Reggie George. It was absentee landlords who finished the job begun by the crown and government in London to destroy traditional Highland communities bound by kinship. The cleansing of the Highlands and islands continued unabated so the resurgence of tartan was neither here nor there. Its specific context and role had been destroyed for good. Time to indulge in games and make-believe.

Reggie discovered he just adored the Highlands, in his Anglicised head. He didn’t live in the Highlands, of course. His home was in the south of England or abroad and but he remembered ‘his people’ in Moidart and Benbecula when it came to collecting their rents which he made sure he received in full irrespective of the extent ‘his people’ were starving to death. In the years of the kelp industry canny landlords based rents not on croft land value but the value of a tenant’s stretch of shore with its seaweed. Self-indulgent Reggie wasn’t doing so well on the cash front either, for he loved to mingle with the rich and powerful and found he had to spend to prove he was one of them. So, like his father, he burnt through his estate’s wealth and was forced to sell his lands in Scotland in 1838 to Gordon of Cluny. Within a year he tried to persuade Gordon to allow him to keep the estate while allowing the new owner take up the old debts and manage the property for he thought it would be lovely for him to spend the remainder of his days among his affectionately disposed tenantry, ‘whose forefathers and mine have ever been united by ties of no ordinary degree of mutual attachment.’

You couldn’t make this stuff up but with the aristocracy you don’t have to – they’re delusional every one. Reggie’s affectionate tenants on South Uist and Benbecula saw him for what he was a nasty and grasping man who cared nothing for them. When the possibility of Reggie living on Benbecula was broached concerns were raised over his safety from his ‘clansmen.’ Such was their regard for this waster.

The tenants fared no better with John Gordon of Cluny; not only considered to be the richest man in Britain but a thoroughly nasty piece of work and not one who accepted criticism. Gordon’s takeover of Reggie’s estate was part of a long game, for worthless as they were to him then he saw a profit eventually. His other landholdings included tracts in Aberdeenshire, Banff, Nairn and Midlothian as well as the Hebrides but by 1848 Cluny’s Hebridean investment was costing him as he had to pay out nearly £8,000 in famine relief to his wretched tenants.

Another nasty piece of work, Patrick Sellar, the brute and factor who enthusiastically carried out the instructions of George Granville Leveson-Gower and Elizabeth the Duke and Countess of Sutherland. He was the willing hand that carried out many Highland Clearances evicting thousands of families, burning their cottages and establishing large sheep farms. Evicted tenants resettled in coastal crofts were forced to learn to fish and process seaweed. He tried to buy Clan Ranald lands on South Uist, Benbecula and Barra for his employer.

These people were all of a kind. Callously indifferent to human suffering and voraciously greedy. In 1851 Gordon of Cluny began to forcibly evict all his tenants to rid himself of responsibility for providing them with basic relief and with the prospect that sheep would better augment his already obscene level of wealth.

kilns on orkney

Kelp kilns on Orkney

In August 1851 the folk of South Uist were forced to attend a meeting at Loch Boisdale and from there they were grabbed and manhandled onto Atlantic-bound boats like so much cattle by the laird’s lackeys – his factors, estate agents and police. Angus Johnstone was handcuffed and forced onto the ship. Others ran in all directions to find hiding places so desperate were they to stay at home. In one incident a man hid in an Arran boat and was protected by the ship’s master who threatened to ‘split the skull’ of the first man to board his boat. This man survived this particular sweep of people. Most of those who ran were hunted down by men and dogs and dragged onboard vessels. Girls of twelve and fourteen from Barra evaded their persecutors and so the ships sailed to North America without them but with the rest of the family onboard – perhaps to a new life or perhaps to succumb to plague or smallpox during the crossing.

The venerable John Gordon of Cluny was, of course, a scoundrel. His promises were worthless. He told tenants he would pay their passage to Quebec where they would be provided with jobs and land. Reluctantly he paid the ship fees when compelled to by the government but reneged on the guarantees of work and land. So the islanders who left Scotland impoverished found themselves in unfamiliar Canada with nothing. This was no isolated example.

A Canadian newspaper, the Dundas Warder, reported on 2 October 1851
‘We have been pained beyond measure for some time past, to witness in our streets so many unfortunate Highland emigrants, apparently destitute of any means of subsistence, and many of them sick from want and other attendant causes.’

The richest man in Britain was a barbarian who brought incalculable misery, desperation and death to Highland Scots. Add the fate of the cleared people of Scotland to all those other acts of cruelty imposed on helpless communities throughout the British Empire and the slave trade and you have a large slice of British history that is too often glossed over for there is reluctance in many quarters to accept the immense harm created by the most powerful elements in the UK to the most helpless around the world, not least within the British Isles.

Next time you spread toothpaste containing kelp on your toothbrush or sprinkle dried kelp on your salad spare a moment to think of the people whose lives were destroyed by exploitative landlords who forced them to produce kelp when it was worth big money and speculators and the government who threw them to the wolves.

An excellent source is: The Jaws of Sheep: The 1851 Hebridean Clearances of Gordon of Cluny. James A. Stewart, Jr.
Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium
Vol. 18/19 (1998/1999), pp. 205-226

It can be read online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557342?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Shore ownership under udal law in Orkney and Shetland

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.

rowlandson anatomy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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.

December 27, 2016

Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool? Aye. An fa’s fool are you?

The Laird Of Udny’s Fool
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Of all the sayings about fools I’ve come across Jamie Fleeman’s is the most perceptive. Who was Jamie Fleeman? He was employed as a fool – a clown – by the Laird o’ Udny at Knockhall Castle near Newburgh, up the coast from Aberdeen.
When asked,

“Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool?”

“Aye,” Fleeman said, “an fa’s fool are you?”

Except Jamie Fleeman would have said “feel” spikkin Doric as he did – which gives rise to that everyday expression in these parts, g’wa ye feel.

Court jesters and fools have gone, I think, but clowns are still with us although I suspect they are far less popular as entertainers than they were once. Royal court or big hoose clowns were not usually chosen for their sharp wits, although surely some were, but mainly because of something odd in their appearance that made them the butt of jokes. Painters have recorded scenes from European court life that reveal a penchant for males and females of stunted growth who were kept for as long as they were amusing, not only for their looks but how well they danced and sang and sometimes for their witty or silly talk. Such was the clamour for short-legged court jesters in the middle ages unfortunate children who were selected for that part had their growth stunted so they could better fit the bill; in Russia it was de rigueur for court clowns to be chosen because of their unusual appearance, the uglier the better.

No very prosperous or powerful household in the middle ages (and much later), conscious of its status, was complete without a jester or fool to boost its army of servants pandering and catering for their every whim and incapacity or as one of Aberdeen’s local newspapers put it,

In those days every laird had his ‘feel,’

and the greater the ‘feel’ the more the laird was respected.

jane-the-fool-perhaps-on-far-left-background

Jane the Foole is perhaps the figure on the far left 


Usually fools were male but not exclusively. Two prominent female fools were Jane the Foole at the English Tudor court in the sixteenth century and in France Astaude du Puy hired to amuse Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, a century later.

As late as the nineteenth century Mongkut, King of Siam, employed Nai Teh to fool around, perform gymnastics and generally help him endure life’s long idle hours while his people wore out their fingers maintaining him in wealthy boredom.

Court fools could become confidants of their masters or mistresses because they lived cheek-by-jowl with them and so could get away with being open and critical in their opinions because of their special relationship. They, alone, among staff and hangers-on were not expected to exhibit lackey deference, general fawning and ass-licking that royals, aristocrats and other sub-species generally expect from them.

Fools, as I’ve said, were often sought out as children and trained for the position. Claus Narr was ‘appointed’ in this way. This little German boy was herding geese when he was spotted by a courtier and his father happily accepted 20 guilders for his child.

The prospect of living in a palace as an alternative to sucking on stones throughout their lives probably held a certain appeal for some fools with a thick skin. It was not for everyone, however. Paul Wüst had no qualms about turning down Duke Eberhard the Bearded of Württemberg –

My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself.

And, looking around, who’s to argue they haven’t done just that?

Back in Scotland King James VI* took on Archie Armstrong, a sheep stealer from Eskdale in the Borders as his court jester but he never made the mark in life that Jamie Fleeman did despite being attached to the royal Stewarts. 

Jamie Fleeman’s renown stems mainly from his one brilliant utterance but how many of us will be remembered for anything we say, far less anything so insightful?

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Knockhall Castle ruin

Jamie lived in the eighteenth century (that is the 1700s for those who are confused over centuries) and conformed to the idea of odd-looking fools for he reportedly had a big round head and sticking-up hair. He trebled up as the Laird o’ Udny’s cow and goose herd and as a goose herder he is remembered for another anecdote. One day walking home with the Laird’s special geese Jamie was anxious not to lose any and so he tied straw ropes around their necks to lead them back home. He walked on tugging on the ropes as he went and when he arrived back at the laird’s house he discovered he had unwittingly throttled the geese and had dragged back a herd of carcasses. Panicking over how to explain the loss Jamie stuffed feed into the birds’ mouths and when asked how the geese were he replied:

Safe! and gobble, gobble, gobblin as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth. Safe! I warran they’re safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked themsells

Another Fleeman anecdote tells how he went up to a minister with a horse shoe he found and asked the minister what it was. The minister replied –

“Why Jamie, any fool would know that it is a horse shoe”

Fleeman said –

“Ah, what it is to be wise – to ken it’s no a meer’s shoe.”

Famously when dying he said, poignantly –

“I’m of a gentle persuasion, dinna bury me like a beast”

or perhaps –

“I’m a Christian, dinna bury me like a beast”

Fleeman was said to have been immensely strong which proved handy when Knockhall Castle went on fire in 1734. Jamie’s barking dog alerted him but not the folk inside the castle so Jamie picked up and threw a large wooden chest through a window and none of them slept through that.

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Mary Hay, Countess of Erroll

Mary Hay was the Countess of Erroll, a Lord High Constable, Knight Marischal of Scotland, Senior Great Officer among the Royal Officers of Scotland and Chief of the King’s Household in Scotland – oh, and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She raised an army in support of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 with Slains Castle (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) a focus for the Jacobite cause. Hay used Fleeman to run messages for the Jacobites, including ones to and from Lord Pitsligo during the time he was in hiding at Auchiries from government troops under Butcher Cumberland who were ruthlessly hunting down Jacobites not slaughtered at Culloden. Jamie Fleeman was such a familiar sight in the neighbourhood and being the person he was did not raise suspicion he might be a courier. Hay lost her Slains estate following the failure of the ’45 when it was seized by the government in London and sold off.

Despite being a mere pauper gowk Jamie Fleeman did not just disappear as might be expected instead he left a remarkable impression on the world. He had a biographer, John Pratt, who wrote this of him in his The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeman:

Before the eighteenth century, about the middle of which Jamie Fleeman flourished, matters wore a very different aspect. Jamie was perhaps the ultimus Homanorum, the last of the race of Scottish family fools—a class of beings which the author of Waverley has rendered so familiar to every one by his picture of ” Daft Davie Gellatly.” Jamie differed from his brethren and ancestors in this, that whereas the great majority of them were ” fenyet fules,” he was, in most respects, naturally what he appeared to be, and by chance fell into the very situation in which he was capable of acting a conspicuous part.

Pratt believed a fool’s character was partly real and partly feigned.

Apart from Walter Scott’s Waverley character of Davie Gellatley, Fleeman got a mention in Bram Stoker’s, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories:

‘Na! Na!’ came the answer, ’there is nae sic another fule in these parts. Nor has there been since the time o’ Jamie Fleeman–him that was fule to the Laird o’ Udny. Why, mon! sic a heathenish dress as ye have on till ye has nae been seen in these pairts within the memory o’ mon. An’ I’m thinkin’ that sic a dress never was for sittin’ on the cauld rock, as ye done beyont. Mon! but do ye no fear the rheumatism or the lumbagy wi’ floppin’ doon on to the cauld stanes wi’ yer bare flesh? I was thinking that it was daft ye waur when I see ye the mornin’ doon be the port, but it’s fule or eediot ye maun be for the like o’ thot!’

(Bram Stoker, Crooken Sands)

Caught on the road in the cold and torrential rain one day in 1778 Jamie Fleeman became feverish and in his desperation to find shelter he broke into a barn at Little Ardiffery at Cruden injuring himself in the process. He was patched up and set-off the eight miles to his home at Longside. Normally he would have covered this distance in no time but because of his injury and the sickness that had struck him he took a whole day to get back home. Two days later the Laird o’ Udny’s feel was deid.

Born in 1713 at a croft at Longside near Peterhead Jamie died not so far away at Kinmundy, in 1778. There hasn’t been a published volume of his wit and wisdom but from accounts he did have a way with words and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions. As a young man his quick wit was noticed by many but it didn’t earn him riches. He was listed as a pauper in the Statistical Account for Longside.

Nearly a century later, in 1861 a tombstone was erected to Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s fool when funds were raised in the northeast of Scotland by those who thought it wrong Jamie was buried in an unmarked grave – normal for very poor people. The stone was sculpted by George Donaldson of Aberdeen and inscribed –

Erected in 1861, to indicated the grave of Jamie Fleeman,
in answer to his prayer, “Dinna bury me like a beast.”

220px-jamie_fleemans_grave_longside_-_geograph-org-uk_-_261867Reporters at Aberdeen Journal were sniffy about erecting a memorial to a simple pauper and suggested to readers the money raised should have gone to repair the tablet over the grave of the Rev. Mr Skinner, author of Tulloch-gorum.

The decline of the European court clown was slow in coming given they were still around in the nineteenth century but by then they were uncommon. Shemus Anderson was one of the last of them. He worked for the Bowes-Lyons some of you might know as the Queen Mother’s family – and the last to own a full-time jester in Scotland.

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Jamie Fleeman’s brother is thought to have died on HMS Serapis. This ship fought against the rebels in the American Revolutionary War before being used as a pirate ship by the French. I don’t know when Jamie’s brother was killed – it may have been when the ship exchanged fire with an American ship under command of John Paul Jones. The Serapis was subsequently taken by the Americans then transferred to France and eventually lost following an accidental fire off Madagascar that involved a huge explosion.

Incidentally Fleming is the Anglicised equivalent is Fleeman.

The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeming: the Laird of Udny’s fool. by John Burnett Pratt was published by Lewis and James Smith in Aberdeen in 1859

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/640914.html

*James VI or James I, as colonists know him.

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.

Plan_for_Aberdeen_Poorhouse

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