Archive for ‘Scottish history’

August 20, 2018

Tartan Slaves


Oh, thought I, how interesting when I learnt that some Caribbean slave owners dressed their slaves in tartan but looking into it further I discovered that tartan cloth was a fabric like any other so my initial wonder more or less fizzled out. This is what I discovered.

tartan (1)

Plantation owners were obliged to supply clothing or fabric annually to their slaves; primarily for reasons of modesty and also for health. Much of the cloth bought in came from factories in Europe which was shipped out to the colonies and could be striped, checked or plain, sometimes dyed and sometimes not. The colour or design might represent a plantation – a means of identifying human property with a particular plantation – or master’s house  – but as for surprise that slaves were ever attired in tartan, well, these were designs woven into fabrics and not so different from any others chosen by other slave owners.

Slaves were people kidnapped and forced to work for someone till death without pay, kept in the meanest of circumstances – not so different from domestic stock on a farm. Children of slaves were enslaved at birth – every opportunity that life offered other people removed from them with their first breath. They were owned. They were property. Property with a value.

Having property that was potentially mobile, might try to escape, meant clothing could have another function – to identify where an escapee should be returned to if caught; the uniform or livery specific to a plantation.

The livery of house slaves was of better quality than that supplied to field workers for the house slave was visible to family and guests so in a sense represented the household. Plantation slaves were provided with most basic cheap clothing but something that was expected to last until it was replaced the following year. If someone’s clothing wore out within the year and it did because the quality was so poor then the person was reduced to covering up as best they could with the rags remaining. Quality of the cloth also varied according to the skill of the recipient and men, women and children were allocated different amounts of cloth or clothing. Women were provided with less clothing than the men they worked alongside but could be given extra if they had children – providing the estate owner with extra hands. They might also get additional clothing for providing those in charge with ‘sexual favours’ i.e. allowed themselves to be raped or sexually exploited.

The uniform of a male house slaves might consist of a coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirts, cravats, hose and shoes, mostly made up into garments whereas female slaves were often expected to make their own clothes from lengths of cloth supplied to them. House slaves might be given cast-offs by members of the family to save on the expense of clothing.  Women field slaves were dressed in skirts or dresses and men in breeches and shirts while children were given only a short gown until nearly grown. These garments could be made from all kinds of materials, fine and coarse: wool, linen, cotton, calico – patterned such as plaid (tartan) or plain and unbleached such as Osnaburg, a rough linen, like sacking, naturally brownish and produced in Osnabrück in present-day Germany or something similar manufactured in Virginia in America. On the subject of America there were sumptuary laws in some areas which prohibited people from dressing above their station which meant slaves were always supplied with the roughest fabrics available. Another rough fabric, a coarse heavy woollen material called Pennystone was imported from England. 

Many Scots became plantation owners in the West Indies and parts of America and made huge fortunes from what was basically farming, something most of them were familiar with, only without the nuisance of paying for the help. Britain was industrialising and the demand for products to trade around the world and feed the growing population in the UK was huge. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea plantations – whatever the product worked by slave labour mainly supplied from West Africa but also closer to their own homes guaranteed easy and immense profits. A surprising number of Scots in the Caribbean did not choose the life but had it imposed on them – transported there  because of decisions of Scottish and English courts. Some were criminals (crimes were pretty wide-ranging then) or political and religious rebels whose death sentences had been commuted to transportation. Nearly 1,000 Jacobites who weren’t butchered were rounded up and shipped out as plantation slaves. Yet more Scots were kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The case of Peter Williamson, kidnapped along with a large number of children in Aberdeen is well-documented and this kind of human trafficking went on throughout Scotland, certainly the northern part. Some children and adults were sold to estate owners as indentured servants – forced into slavery for a specified time then freed sometimes with a small land holding – a better future than African slaves were given. Against this barbarity the dressing of a plantation owner’s property in his clan tartan is small beer.

tartan (2)Governments working hand-in-glove with plantation owners – they were often the same people or at least members of the same families who used whatever means at their disposal to pull in labour – all the better for them that they didn’t have to pay, other than the cost of shipping to the West Indies or America.

The West Indies became a home-from-home for Scots, enforced and otherwise, when native place names were replaced with ones more familiar to them e.g. in Jamaica and Montego Bay these included Aberdeen, Alva, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Dundee, Dunrobin, Elderslie, Elgin Town, Farquhar’s Beach, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnoch (sic), Perth Town, Roxborough (sic), Sterling Castle (sic), Stewart Town, Tweedside and Culloden – a stark reminder of how men and boys were separated from family and exported like meat carcasses.

‘The Highlander was an object of hatred to his Saxon neighbours…a filthy abject savage, a slave, a Papist, a cutthroat, and a thief.’ They were also vilified by Lowland Scots. A Highlander taken before a court stood little chance of judicial leniency. England post-Culloden, it was reported, hated Highlanders with a passion and were out for vengeance. Slaughter on the battlefield was followed by slaughter in homes across the Highlands and on the scaffold, proscription of a way of life and confiscation of land and the humble tartan on the streets of London led to outbursts of angry reaction for long after the ’45 and presumably tartan was not produced for long after then.  

Check or plaid material, tartan, if you like, was later manufactured in India for export to the West Indies. A red and white check or plaid also came to be made in Britain. It was called Bandana or Madras cloth and used in dresses, blouses and women’s head wraps – Bandanas. Checked material became commonly distributed for clothing so it is perhaps not surprising that Scottish plantation owners would decide to have checks that matched their own clans’ plaid not least to register their all-powerful state against the utterly powerless impoverished chattel. Likewise in other estates the uniform might not be of tartan or plaid, it might have no colour whatsoever yet be distinctly part of a plantation’s identity. Where clothing was not very different from other estates an owner’s initials sewn onto field clothes was used to mark his property or his men, women and children might be forced to wear a lead tag inscribed with the owner’s name around their necks. These were variations on a theme of marking human beings as marketable property.

There we have it then some slaves were dressed in tartan while others were dressed in plainer cloth which might be shipped out from Scottish mills (Wilson & Son of Bannockburn was one), Irish, Welsh, English, German or perhaps American. Huge quantities of cloth was imported annually to plantations, some was imported straight off the loom as broadcloth and some made up into clothing – breeches, jackets, skirts, hose, shirts etc but no shoes for field workers.

Meaner slave owners recycled old sheets and curtains to clothe their slaves or cut them up for patching and mending. Such was the experience of Robert Craig, an indentured weaver from Scotland bought by Londoner, Colonel Joseph Ball, a slaver who emigrated to Virginia in 1661 who thoughtfully left named slaves to members of his family on his death.  

The estates’ head driver who oversaw field work with liberal applications of his polished staff with its pronged end and his whip should raise far greater condemnation than the choice of decorative garb allocated to the poor souls worked into their graves by this monstrous system of exploitation.

Innovative engineering companies such as McKinnon’s in Aberdeen made fortunes exporting machinery to the colonies to better exploit the raw materials, crops and natural resources required for Britain and for export around the world. Interestingly that while machinery for processing mono-crop cultures imposed on colonies such as sugar, coffee, rice etc were essential tools in the profitability of slave plantations the enterprise and invention behind them offers a buffer to their association with human exploitation that went with the territory of slaves in tartan cloth.

July 30, 2018

Caithness Mermaids and Brexit

The Mermaid phenomenon has been with us since time immemorial. Greek and Roman mythologies included Mer people – think the sea God Triton and the Sirens in  Homer’s Odyssey. Sculptors and painters have portrayed Merpeople for millennia. These exotic aquatic beings continue to be worshipped in some religions and there’s no reason why this should be scoffed at any more than worshipping any  invisible god.

Russian merpeople of the 19thC

Russian Mermaid and Merman

Reports from Cambletown to Caithness via the Hebrides, Bullers of Buchan and Portgordon of Merfolk have fed the public imagination of undersea cities and places populated by half-human, half-fish beings. Instances of sightings of  such fabulous creatures are many with little hard evidence to back them for they have proved shy when spotted with a tendency to slip back under the waves. However in 13thC Japan the body of what was described as a Mermaid was washed up on a beach – her remains taken away and put on display. Another version relates how a Mermaid was taken from the water, married, remained young and lived for 800 years doing a lot of travelling during that time, as you would.

By the nature of their occupations seamen were the most likely to spot a Mermaid or two – Scottish sailors certainly claimed many sightings of them across the centuries and Christopher Columbus reported the warm-water species in the Caribbean.

Down-to-earth types have attempted to explain away the phenomenon with incidents of Manatee – sea cows emerging from the salty depth but honestly they really don’t have that much resemblance to the human form.

manatee

A manatee

One of my favourite stories when a child was of the Selkie who inhabit Scotland’s seas who came ashore, began a family of web-handed children and one lonesome day returned to the sea; such tales from Scottish folklore have sustained us Scots on long winter evenings for as long as tales have been told.

It was as usual when working on something completely different, as they say, I stumbled on The Natural History of the Mermaid written in 1809, From a Dissertation on this phenomenon ‘Recently seen on the Caithness Coast by Miss Mackay, Miss McKenzie, Mr Munro and others’ and I began to read…

Dear readers give me a very few minutes of your valuable time and let me guide you through this strange and magical watery world.

The document argues that for every land creature there is a sea equivalent: horse, cow, there are dog fish, cat fish, parrot fish and more so why is there so much reluctance to accept a creature of the deep might resemble mankind?

Let’s face it people are gullible; we’ve watched the extent of barmyness in the UK among those who accepted the word of the mad, bad and dangerous types who foretold of wealth, health and happiness beyond our wildest dreams with Brexit. The same folk who are prepared to accept as true the most ridiculous nonsense are sceptical about the existence of mermaids.

One day in the year 1797 a schoolmaster from Thurso of the name Munro was walking on the beach when he noticed an unclothed human female sitting on a rock jutting out from the sea, calmly combing her long brown hair with her long fingers. Not an everyday sight even in Thurso. Taking a closer look Munro was able to make out she had a plump face, ruddy cheeks and blue eyes. Her lips and mouth, he said, were as natural as any woman’s as were her breasts and abdomen. He stared at her for around four minutes before she slipped down into the sea.

Twelve years later not too far away in another part of Caithness Miss Mackay a daughter of the Rev. David Mackay, minister of the kirk in Reay, was on the beach at Sandside Bay with three women, including her cousin Miss Mackenzie, and a boy when they spotted a face floating on the surface of the sea. The face disappeared beneath the swell but then reappeared and for around an hour the group had an opportunity to study her: a pink, plump and round face with small grey eyes, wee nose, large mouth and elongated fingers – human-like and not webbed which she used to push back her long thick oily greenish hair the tide kept washing over her face. The Mermaid tossed back her head and rubbed at her slender, smooth white throat with her long slender arms and delicate hands, occasionally waving away a bird that hovered about her. The beach party noticed farther out to sea a seal but agreed it looked nothing like the Mermaid as it was smooth and had no long hair.

Such credible witnesses to the fishy phenomenon forced society to consider whether or not the numerous accounts usually the reserve of untrustworthy observers from the lower class should be taken seriously. Details of the women’s sightings were passed on to fellow-Caithnessian Sir John Sinclair, the man responsible for compiling the Statistical Account of Scotland. I couldn’t say if he was convinced but it appears the Glasgow Philosophical Society was and publicised an account of the sighting of the Reay mermaid.

Outside of Scotland one of the most celebrated incidents of the Mermaid phenomenon was in the Netherlands. In 1403 a Merwoman was captured by some milk maids near Campvear after she was seen in the water one evening. The milk maids kept a watch on her the whole night before they took to boats and arranged them in a half-moon formation cutting off the Merwoman’s escape. The poor woman fish screeched as well she might, a deafening and terrible sound it was reported, dived in her attempts to escape and frantically thrashed her arms and tail swamping some of the little crafts with water that sunk them. The milk maids got their woman, cleaned her up removing sea moss and shells from her body and offered her water, fish, milk bread etc all of which she refused for several days until driven by necessity to eat and drink. It was said she didn’t settle but was always looking for an escape back to the sea but it was not to be. Word spread of the amazing catch and soon the magistrates of Haarlem demanded she be brought before them. 

The Merwoman was taught to spin and to pray. She did not speak but laughed and appeared to understand conversation and so sustained on a diet of bread, butter, milk, water and fish and with her hair made up partly in a Dutch style and partly left as nature intended she remained the centre of curiosity for fifteen or sixteen years. Apparently her portrait was painted and hung in the town house in Haarlem although I haven’t found a copy of it and when she died the Merwoman was buried in a graveyard at Haarlem.

If this were not enough to convince the most disbelieving among you what about the appearance of a Merboy? This poor thing was humiliated as an exhibit in the late 18th century at Leith – preserved in a Mr Weir’s museum to be gawped at by amazed visitors.

The boy’s nails were long, slender and transparent ‘like the teeth of a tortoise-shell comb.’ His head was large on a short thick neck, his broad nose ‘flat like an African negro.’  The child of the sea had hair a shade of marine blue; wiry and bushy. His face was covered in scales, his blue eyes protruded like a haddock’s and his lips were thick and white covering rows of sharp teeth. The Merboy’s ears were two valves set close to his head and the front of his body was partly covered with shell, like a lobster’s but of blue and white colouring similar to a sailor’s striped waistcoat. He had tiny genitals, the skin on his back was tough and thick but not scaled and tails he had two, pale red and of different sizes. The fishboy’s existence was attested to by hundreds of inhabitants of Leith and Edinburgh.

As previously stated once reports of Merfolk emerged from ‘respectable people’ others were more inclined to listen to these educated folk, ‘more erudite witnesses’ of the ‘higher class’ who through ‘their reading and scientific researches … cannot be suspected of being biased by vulgar prejudice’  unlike the ‘lower classes’ who might easily confuse a seal with a Mermaid.’

I suppose whether or not you are convinced of the existence of Mermaids, Merboys, Merwomen and Menmen will be in line with your position regarding Marsians hovering in space ships preparing to invade Earth, viewing climate change as a godsend for achieving a better tan, believing Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 and that Brexit is anything other than an economic, health and social disaster just around the corner. But just in case I’m wrong (never am) keep your eyes peeled when paddling at the seaside.

July 13, 2018

The Good Migrant: Scots who lived by their brains

Handsome, funny, cultured, considerate, sociable, well-read – his library contained over 1000 books mainly in Greek and Latin, a few volumes in French and Italian and lots in Dutch; only two were in the English language – a folio Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1610 and a King James Bible. Learned, definitely, and gifted with a superb memory. That was Gilbert Jack – once regarded as young iconoclast from Aberdeen. He died aged 50 of a stroke which paralysed him down one side and left him unable to speak during the remaining two months of his life. His death came as a great blow to the academic world for Gilbert Jack aka Jacchaeus, long-time professor at Leyden University, was an inspirational teacher of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Now I don’t begin to understand metaphysics. The more I’ve tried the greater my brain hurts but I think, but don’t take my word for it, it is a branch of philosophy that explores what lies beyond the here and now of the world- what’s out there but invisible to us; beyond the physical existence – such as God. The word metaphysics comes from the Greek metá meaning beyond or after and physiká, physics. In the 18th century the giant of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, argued against metaphysics, dismissing it as sophistry and illusion.

Gilbert Jack metaphysicsI don’t remember when I came across Gilbert Jack of Aberdeen. His name came up when I was scraning for something else. And not only his name but countless names of fellow Scots who became major figures in universities across Europe in the study of philosophy and medicine. I’ve thrown in medicine because the development of medicine in Scotland grew out of the close interaction between universities and colleges across Scotland and abroad and in any case Gilbert Jack was also an MD, having taken his medical degree at Leyden at the same time he was teaching there; his dissertation was on epilepsy – De Epilepsia.

The importance attached to education in Scotland led to this small nation punching well above its weight in the supply of talent to the world. In the centuries before the Scottish Enlightenment there was no less exchange of intellectual ideas across Europe which included Scots. Born in Aberdeen c1578 Gilbert Jack attended Aberdeen Grammar School before going to Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College. He appears to have continued his studies at St Andrews before going on to Herborn in Hesse and Helmstädt in Lower Saxony and finally on 25 May 1603 to Leyden, the Netherland’s oldest university .

Within a year of arriving at Leyden, this brilliant intellect, a young iconoclast from Aberdeen, he’s been described as, was made professor of philosophy and logic and for the next 25 years he dominated Aristotelian metaphysics at the university (in his own time Aristotle’s ideas were not themselves described as metaphysics but first philosophy.) However, some of his ideas proved too challenging for Leyden and he was temporarily suspended from the university in 1619 for promoting the notion of predestination rather than free will – but I could be wrong.

Jack wrote up his ideas and proved as able an author as teacher. His first published works came out as 9 volumes in 1612: Institutiones Physicae, Juventutis Lugdunensis Studiis potissimum dicatae which sold well and republished followed by Primae Philosophiae Institutiones and Institutiones Medicae. These works provided textbooks for students elsewhere studying metaphysics and his fame spread. He was sought out and befriended by fellow academics and was invited to take up the chair in moral philosophy at Oxford University but he turned down the offer, preferring to stay at Leyden where he was content and where he had done the bulk of his work.

Today, Gilbert Jack would be regarded as a high flyer; celebrated by his contemporaries as a fine scholar, a grafter, popular lecturer and all-round good man. When he died on 17 April 1628 he left a widow and ten children to mourn him along with the world of academia. His fellow professor at Leyden, Adolf van Vorst, gave his funeral oration in Latin in which he praised his colleague for his contribution to philosophy, his attachment to Leyden and for being a thoroughly nice person.

Sadly forgotten in Aberdeen he was, nonetheless, celebrated as a philosopher and physician in the Netherlands; its most famous metaphysicians. Gilbert Jack was but one of so many Scots who went abroad and contributed to the banks of knowledge and learning enjoyed by succeeding generations but who are largely unknown at home here in Scotland: William Makdowell or MacDowell from Roxburgh, professor of philosophy at Groningen; Mark Duncan, also Roxburgh at Saumur in France; John Murdison at Leiden; Walter Donaldson a graduate of King’s in Aberdeen who went to Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Sedan; fellow Aberdonian Duncan Liddell, mathematician, astronomer and physician educated at the Grammar School followed by King’s College then built his life at Gdansk in Polish Prussia and Brandenburg University in Frankfurt with fellow Scot, John Craig, professor of logic and maths (and briefly physician to James VI); Andrew Melville from Baldovy by Montrose at Geneva; Adam Steuart professor of philosophy at Saumur, Sedan and Leiden; John Cameron, theologian at Saumur, Bergerac, Bordeaux and Montauban; Robert Baron, Professor of Theology Marischal – one of the six Aberdeen Doctors – influences in the dispute between supporters of the National Covenant and Episcopacy and who taught at Marischal and King’s universities whose Metaphysica generalis was posthumously published in 1654. A mere handful of examples from a vast haul of home-nurtured talent which grew here and abroad.

Punching above our weight is what Scotland has done consistently over hundreds of years. Of course much of that has been to do with people escaping poverty and using education as a means of improving their lives. Scots became migrants, many to the Continent, though not exclusively by any means, and benefitted from and contributed to the invaluable exchange of ideas once possible before passport barriers were erected. Just as well these bright people lived when they did and not in today’s febrile, hostile, anti-migrant world.

June 4, 2018

Hokum History: Alfred the Great Myth

 

winchester alfred great

Alfred the Great in Winchester

During the summer of 1901 a letter was sent by representatives of the City of Winchester in England to the Lord Provost of Aberdeen appealing for cash. Winchester planned to erect a statue to Alfred the Great and thought the good folk of Aberdeen might be willing to dig into their pockets to help fund it.

Who was Alfred the Great?

He was a king of Wessex. Never heard of it? Not surprising since it was a place in England which ceased to exist 1,200 years ago and in any case was 550 miles to the south of Aberdeen. Travel that distance from Winchester in another direction and their letter might have landed in Nuremberg in Germany. Good luck with Nurembergers contributing to old Alfred’s statue – and probably that was the reason Winchester looked for a handout from Scots not Bavarians. 

Getting down to the nitty gritty – why would/should Aberdonians put cash towards commemorating Alfredo il Grande? The appeal from the chancers of Winchester went something like this –

• He restored London (545 miles away from Aberdeen.)
• He started up our navy (hang on he lived in the 9th century, there is no OUR.)
• He was the ‘saviour and preserver of the most prized of our ancient institutions” (ditto.)
• He “more than any other may be said to be the true founder of England’s greatness” (and your point is?)

 

wessex for alfredmap

The point is at Winchester, so far from Aberdeen there wasn’t a map big enough to include them both

It’s enough to make your head go POP!

“I shall be glad if you, as Lord Provost of Aberdeen, will afford me the advantage of your lordship’s friendly co-operation (read mug) and interest in support of the committee’s wish to raise the balance (some £1500) needed to complete the statue of our great national (sic) hero.”

They aimed to have Alfred erected in time to commemorate his reign over “this country.” Our country? As the union between Scotland and England would not take place for another 900 years there was no ‘our’ country involved. The Great Alfredo was another foreigner from down south. Westeros would be far more appropriate to Aberdeen than Wessex. Not that Winchester stopped at Aberdeen. It held out its begging bowl to America and Britain’s colonies so why would Scots, living  in a place most people from Winchester couldn’t point to on a map, be willing to cough up so that a town over 500 miles away could tart up one of their streets?

Queen Victoria was keen, before she died, and her son Edward, the disputed VII that should have been Edward I of Gt Britain (but then regnal numbers never work in favour of Scotland in this equal union.) How far the ol’ Queen Vic and Ed dug into their bottomless pit of wealth one can only guess. Hint – they weren’t rich because they gave away their cash.

 

alfred great panel

Panel on Alfred the Great’s statue

The we know our place, three bags full brigade crept out cap in hand to support Winchester. Aberdeen kirk minister Reverend George Walker preached a sermon on King Alfred the Great. As if to go out of his way to prove rubbish in = rubbish out George repeated the myth that Alfred, the Christian king, started a wee army in Wessex that grew into the Great British army, or some such nonsense. Not only that, George impressed upon his congregation, surely hanging onto his every utterance, that the Christian king turned a few wooden ships into the British navy so that Britannia could rule the waves.

Amazing! Just amazing on so many levels. Was there no end to the greatness of the Great Alfredo?

Well, no, not according to George. Sunday worshippers were on the edge of their pews as he informed them that Alfred was “our first British educationist.” What can you say? Was George out on special licence? And he wasn’t finished. “His (Alfred’s) conquests with the sword were but means to a higher end.” Oh, George, George, that’s what all the brutal murdering despots say. And still he gilded the reputation of Alfred, “his name was, to this day, written on the living tablets of men’s hearts.”

Folks, don’t listen to the Georges of this world, those who prostrate themselves before others while tugging their forelocks. It’s not a good look. If you must have heroes turn to those who have got up off their knees and exercise the brains they were born with.

So, who really was this veritable god that George worshipped and the man Winchester expected Scots to pay to commemorate in a bloody great statue? He was a killer par excellence that’s who and he was crap at cooking.

Fact 1: he was a slayer of Vikings. Couldn’t get enough of it. Week in week out, month in month out, year in year out you would find Alfred splitting heads like some folk split logs and slicing off arms and legs and slitting throats. The man was a killing machine. Do we erect statues to killing machines? Well, yes – clearly Winchester does.

Fact 2: he ruthlessly expanded his kingdom – not through peaceably buying up spare pieces of land but by, you’ve guessed it, savagery – killing and laying claim to someone else’s place.

Fact 3: not satisfied by killing on dry land his bloodlust led him to put together a small navy so he could kill at sea and overseas. It was not the start of the English navy but even if it had been it was 900 years before the Union so nothing to do with Scotland. George! Sit up laddie and pay attention.

Fact 4: his influence in the construction of laws led to English law. George, George how many times? English law is not Scots law ergo Scots law is not English law. Repeat after me…

Fact 5: he was useless at baking. A woman trusted him to look after the girdle for one minute, one minute and he had everything burnt to a cinder. Great? You see how the world celebrates everything that is wrong in a man? Feeding people is good – Alfred was rubbish at it. He was good at killing but killing is bad and as George, an expert on Christianity would know, it is pretty high up in the commandments, thou shalt not kill.

Fact 6: no one in his time called him ‘the Great.’ Some dreamer, a George down in England, decided he would and like lemmings everyone else thought oh, see that Alfred he really was grrreat. Then Winchester put up a blooming great statue to him which is about the only thing about Alfred that could be said to be great.

May 29, 2018

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks

Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella Bird on Birdie


“There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.”

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermilion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado  so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

The supposedly ailing Isabella set out on horseback to explore the awesome beauty of the American West. Frankly it sounds terrifying but Isabella was up for the challenge. She did depend on others although she wasn’t always appreciative of them. What preserved her mainly was this was a different time, when a woman travelling on her own had little to fear from men, irrespective how wild and violent they were with one another. The only things she was scared of were wild animals and sometimes landing herself in precarious situations; near stranded in deep snow and freezing fog. Her prejudices she took with her from England and are well-entrenched and she was far more comfortable with fellow-English people, often described as civilised and lady-like (the women) than others.

From San Francisco she takes in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Fort Laramie – “a God-forsaken, God-forgotten place” (There’s a Scottish bank note in a bar in Laramie left by yours truly.) She enters a land of displaced Native Americans – “savage Indians” as she describes them, of shanty towns, basic frame houses, disease, early death, widows, widowers, orphans and mountain air as exquisitely healthy as anywhere. Here the people are hard-drinking or temperance. Horses are fine or broncos and mules. Cattle grazed and are driven by the tens of thousands for months at a time, protected by heavily armed vacheros, to their ultimate fate the meat yards of Chicago.

In this wild country where settlers are scattered there is an understanding homesteaders would put up those travelling through and make a little money in the process. The first family Isabella comes across are Scottish. The Chalmers and Isabella are like chalk and cheese. Dirt-poor, not very capable, scratching a living in the foothills of the Rockies as small ranchers and with a sawmill they don’t impress Isabella, until the time they parted. There’s little love lost between them for Isabella is a snob and Chalmers appears to be a bit simple and feckless, the family mostly sleep in the open air as their home is so poor a structure without much of a roof to shelter them. The Chalmers share the little food they have with their ‘house-guest’ but Mr Chalmers doesn’t go out of his way to charm his boarder as he constantly rants against the English – which not unnaturally she bridle at, especially when he vents his spleen against Queen Victoria as he hates the monarchy and the British Empire. Chalmers is clearly from Highland stock, a strict Presbyterian, and the family sing metrical psalms in the traditional unaccompanied way which in church would be led by a Precentor; familiar to many older Highland Scots but doesn’t go down well with Church of England Isabella. It wasn’t only Chalmers who fumed against the English as Isabella discovers. They are unpopular with the majority she encounters, not targeting her – indeed she is assumed to be Danish or Swedish – but as she writes, “I so often hear a good deal of outspoken criticism (of the English)…on the greediness of English people.” She’s is saved from becoming too down about this state of affairs when she comes upon “a refined, courteous, graceful English” emigrant but poor Chalmers – she even despises their children and while they might be scruffy and not much good at farming and cooking at least the family didn’t turn Isabella away from their door (not that they had a door.)

 

 

Estes Park 1873

Estes Park 1873

 

 

The problem with travelling about on her own (one of them) was she never knew where she would find passable lodgings or who she would come across. Isabella  Bird was quite at home on the back of her horse, Birdie, which she rode like a man not side-saddle (except on occasions it was expected of her and put out her back.) Birdie her sure-footed companion during trying times. She did, however, choose to try somewhere else when late one day she discovered the cabin she hoped to board at already had 17 men settling down to sleep on the floor.

She did seek out the desperado Jim Nugent and the day she rode up to his blackened wood cabin its roof adorned with pelts from all kinds of animals began one of the most unlikely of relationships. 

Mountain Jim about 45 years old with grey-blue eyes, a large moustache and “strikingly handsome” raised his cap to Isabella when she turned up at his log cabin. Sounds like love at first sight for both of them; Jim her “child of nature” must have been a real beauty for he’d lost an eye and one side of his face was badly scarred from a fight with bear. His arm and ribs had also been broken and he was generally “chawed” by the bear who had been protecting her cub. Still, he survived to charm Isabella with his refined accent, easy and elegant way of talking and chivalry towards her. One-time scout he mostly earned his living trapping animals and keeping some cattle. A heavy drinker he was given to extreme violence.

Jim rode a horse, a mare, with a bare wooden saddle from which hung mink, beaver and marten tails. Despite his fiercesome reputation children like him and would clamber all over him playing with his long curly hair. From an Irish family Jim’s father had been a British officer at Montreal but at 17 years Jim turned to hard liquor when his girlfriend died. He moved around, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for some years then became an Indian scout for the US government. This was how he gained his notoriety. He also escorted emigrant groups across the West. Whether he regretted some of his horrible crimes who knows but Isabella did say he was full of self-loathing.

Intent on getting to the summit of Longs Peak Isabella had been persuaded to be accompanied by a couple of youths as guides. The four, along with Jim’s hound, Ring, “said to be the best hunting-dog in Colorado, “with a wistful expression, and the most truthful eye I ever saw in an animal” set off into the high Rockies passing lakes and streams, forests completely silent but for the crack of a branch, gazing up at spectacular views of “dark pines against a lemon sky”, “floods of golden glory pouring through canyons of enormous depth” marvelling over a lily-covered lake “magical its beauty” of “amethyst-coloured water.” Isabella’s sumptuous descriptive palette is a privilege to read.

They made up beds of pine shoots and warmed themselves at a huge log fire over which they cooked a supper of beef strips, “reeking with pine smoke” and drank tea out of “battered meat-tins in which it was boiled.” She wouldn’t have forgiven the Chalmers for such coarse living. Jim’s dog Ring lay down to protect Isabella on nights they were out but with eyes only for his master. They sang and Jim recited poetry while around them in the freezing dark wild animals howled. On wakening to a most stunning sunrise Jim announced, “I believe there is a God!”

Jim and Isabella (and presumably the youths who were still in tow) were roped together with him pulling Isabella up the toughest parts of the route on Longs Peak but initially to no avail for the climb proved too difficult and they were forced to descend to avoid impenetrable ice fields. Battered, bruised and exhausted they moved to another pitch and on hands and knees eventually succeeded to stand on the 15,000 foot summit with one of the youths spitting blood through effort and the thin air. The odd party then scratched their names and date on a tin and stuffed it into a crevice between rocks. They made it in the nick of time for next day Longs Peak was cut off by deep snow for 8 months.

Sunshine by day, freezing night temperatures tested Isabella. Penetrating cold and ice was severe enough to freeze treacle and milk, even eggs, inside cabins and certainly the clothes and hair of wet riders but the young woman in apparently delicate health took it all in her stride.

Isabella despised the wolves, another of her prejudices, describing them as cowardly. She was no fonder of “high-minded” Americans. As we’ve seen she wasn’t keen on  Highlander Scots and fiercely bigoted on Native Americans but she should be admired for her healthy dislike of the sportsman hunters and trappers who slaughtered for pleasure. There were plenty of them who ventured into the “closed” society of the mountains – tourists such as Isabella, hunters and prospectors for silver, gold and land. This wild, majestic landscape was no Utopia for it harboured jealousies, hatred, greed as well as their opposites with the gun being the final arbiter in any argument.

Griffith Evans and his family (and dog, Plunk), Welsh obviously, were Park settlers, living in a wooden cabin roofed with young spruce branches topped off with hay and mud. Despite being well-built the near-incessant driving snow squeezed in through gaps in its walls. It was not unusual for early settlers in their make-do cabins, not great solid building we often see in westerns, waking up in their beds blanketed in snow and were constantly having to dig accumulated snow out of their cabins in the worst winter weather. Isabella tells us that in Estes Park life was spent: tidying, sweeping, hunting, loafing, cleaning rifles, cooking, casting bullets, making fishing flies, baking, reading, mending, waterproofing boots and singing – Yankee Doodle, “Negro songs” and Rule Britannia (which aroused laughter as “it sounded so foolish and mean.”

 

 

Evans place with Longs Peak in the background

Evans place with Longs Peak in the background

 

Evans was another hard drinker and always in debt. As Isabella phrases it he keeps his money in “a bag with holes.” She trusts him with a $100 note to purchase a horse for her when he goes off to Denver but there are problems with the banks and with one thing and another Evans spends her money (he did later repay it and he provided her with a horse.) Mrs Evans works like a slave, as many women did for work was constant – domestic farming – hens, milking cows, washing, ironing, cleaning, shovelling snow, looking after children, cooking, bread and biscuit making. While there Isabella is provided with hearty breakfasts of beef, potatoes, tea, coffee, new bread and butter, cream and milk. Dinner was the same but with a “gigantic pudding” and no coffee. Tea, like breakfast.

 

Isabella finds herself in this “earthly paradise… a temple not made with hands” in contrast to the “bonnets of endless form, and curiously intricate back hair” she associated with church-going in England. In other words nature versus mannered. Her days are often spent in the saddle – not even dismounting to eat, content to gallop and leap rocks and fallen trees, “down-hill, up-hill” till dizzy and out of breath. Her riding ability and bravery astound the men she meets. She notes how Americans attitude to animals differ from in England where whips and spurs are widely used to terrorise and bully animals, as she puts it, while in America there is no such cruelty that she witnesses and even dogs are not permitted to worry animals, “quietness and gentleness were the rule.” Despite the desperados it’s fair to say Isabella is bowled over by the West; stunning scenery, its light, colours, perpetual sunshine – although the snowstorms are dramatic and she finds herself one time in 40 foot drifts. She compares “the fiery hills of Moab and the Desert” with “the gray castellated towers of feudal Europe” coming down on the side of nature. She often rides through the night, in all weathers sometimes literally frozen stiff so that she has to be lifted off her saddle.

When major snows are due women and children move farther downhill to the plains while their men-folk usual stay in their mountain homes, doing for themselves, “baching” as they call it. Isabella sometimes shares accommodation with men, strangers, and they all pull together except for one pretentious, lazy youth who nearly eats them out of house and home and does nothing but boast about his published writings which appeared to be little more than passages plagiarised from books.

The wildest experience Isabella encounters is in Denver, inhabited mainly by men – in search of notoriety as she puts it – “hunters and trappers in buckskin clothing; men of the Plains with belts and revolvers, in great blue cloaks, relics of the war; teamsters in leathern suites; horsemen in fur coats and caps and buffalo-hide boots with the hair outside…; Broadway dandies in light kid gloves; rich English sporting tourists, clean, comely, and supercilious-looking…Indians on their small ponies, the men wearing buckskin, with faces painted vermilion…”

At Deer Valley lynch law rules where “men were shot like skunks.” Here she witnesses senseless violence where shooting to kill to prove one’s manhood prevails. Isabella Bird has descended from Arcadia into hell and as she rides away from this awful place yet another man is strung up within an hour of his “hearing.”

Then again it is here she finds the cleanest, most cared-for establishment in which to spend the night but the impression she leaves with are the often repeated expressions, “There is no God west of the Missouri” and “the dollar is divinity.” What matters in these parts is a person’s ability to succeed, by any means – cheating or smartness, their success attracts admiration and however criminal is of little consequence.  

log cabin

Isabella only once carried a small weapon, a little Sharp’s revolver which kept dropping out of her pocket, but mainly she relied on the goodwill of strangers for her safety. And she was right. As she and Birdie make their way to the Continental Divide where one side drops into Colorado and west to the Pacific and the other to Platte and lands stretching back to the Atlantic she is approached by another lone rider. Male, bearded, blue-eyed with long fair curls dropping from below his “big slouch hat” almost to his waist he introduces himself as Comanche Bill. He is weighed down with arms – a “rifle, pair of pistols in holsters, two revolvers, knife in his belt… a carbine slung behind him.” The two ascend the Divide and wonder at the beauty of the place and she enjoys his company for she describes him as “a real gentleman” despite his reputation as one of the most notorious desperados of the Rocky Mountains and “the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier.” He tells how his family were massacred at Spirit Lake and his young sister kidnapped by the Sioux and that he dedicated his life to finding her and satisfying his hatred of all Native Americans through an orgy of murder.

Isabella’s own deeply held prejudice against Native Americans is set out in this passage: “The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct.” She reports how tribes’ reservations were “rushed” by Europeans; by miners if there was a chance of finding gold on their lands, and tribes men, women and children chased away or shot. It was the actions of miners responsible for the only devastation she personally witnessed – ugly scarring, holes and charred tree stumps ruining the land. In a passage lacking in self-awareness she writes, “Surely one advantage of travelling is that, while it removes much prejudice against foreigners and their customs, it intensifies tenfold one’s appreciation of the good at home and above all, of the quietness and purity of English domestic life.” Perhaps not so quiet and pure for 16 English women jailed for challenging agricultural strike breakers that very year.

Another unpleasant character she encountered was Lord Dunraven, Irish as it happens, a Conservative politician, an Under Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1880s and  Daily Telegraph correspondent. A thoroughly bad lot, violent, ruthless – a “High Toner” she calls him, we might say toff, he was in the West to slaughter as many animals as he could mainly buffalo and elk. He’d done his best to wipe out animals everywhere else he’d travelled so why not in America? He despised all things American, according to Isabella – except the ‘game’ and the land for he conspired to claim 15000 acres of it.

 

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The greedy degenerate Lord Dunraven

Mountain Jim accompanied Isabella back down country to the flat lands but months later he was fatally shot by Evans when he stopped to water his horse at a stream outside the Welshman’s cabin, after Isabella returned to Britain. He died slowly of a bullet in his “magnificent head” filled with poetry and love of nature. Evans appears to have been involved with the scheming Lord Dunraven who fraudulently claimed thousands of acres of Estes Park to create a hunting park – later called “one of the most gigantic land steals in the history of Colorado.” Settlers were opposed to this and Dunraven responded with threats. Mountain Jim Nugent was a prominent opponent of the greedy opportunist Lord and on the side of the settlers and it appears Evans was hired to kill him  – to shut him up, “English gold killed Jim for opposing the land scheme” was informed opinion. A witness told how Lord Dunraven put a double-barrelled shotgun into Evans hands and instructed him to “protect” him. A witness to this was apparently paid by Dunraven to keep his mouth shut and disappear. Dunraven succeeded in his criminal activities and built a hotel on the land he designated a game park.

On opposition to his 33 year land-grab, the despicable Lord complained,

 

“People came in disputing claims, kicking up rows: exorbitant land taxes got into arrears; and we were in constant litigation. The show could not be managed from home, and we were in constant danger of being frozen out. So we sold for what we could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since.”

 

Neck he had. A lot of neck. He sold the land, which wasn’t his which goes to prove life is not fair.

I urge you to read Isabella’s account of her time in the Rockies. It’s an easy canter through pages of fascinating beautifully descriptive text – you won’t like it all but it’s a superb read for all that.

Isabella Lucy Bird was the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Well-travelled she visited Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Morocco, Malaya, India, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey and the Western Isles. She married Edinburgh surgeon Dr John Bishop and died in Melville Street Edinburgh in October 1904 and is buried in Dean Cemetery.

 

self portrait sketch by Isabella

Isabella Bird and Birdie

 

 

For more on the Scots Chalmers click here

April 28, 2018

Abram the Hebrew and sons of bitches: the Close Brethren in Peterhead

 

 

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Big Jim Taylor in the centre

“Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?”

A rant from evangelist and cult leader John Taylor Jr recorded at a meeting of the Exclusive or Close Brethren in Aberdeen in 1970.

Taylor, Big Jim as he was known, wasn’t keen on being interviewed by the press but on one occasion he invited in a journalist with the words:

“I suppose I had better put my pants on. But, quite honestly, I find it more comfortable just sitting in my underpants.”

None of the above is what you expect from a leader of a strict religious sect but then this was a man who attracted adoration and derision in equal measures – well, perhaps not equal. His religious sect lent itself to salacious headlines and it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous nature of his ardent following but there was also tragedy as a result of the fanaticism of this cult.

This was a religious following that championed whisky as “a creature of God and the Saints” which should be taken liberally as was demonstrated by the main evangelist himself, James Taylor.

James Taylor, Big Jim, the Elect Vessel with status above Jesus Christ,  a Detroit businessman living in Brooklyn, New York whose words were taken as the Truth once he became the boss of the Exclusive or Close Brethren.

The Brethren hit the headlines over bizarre and scandalous behaviour in the 1960s but it was around thirty years later I came across people still talking about them in their stronghold of Peterhead in northeast Scotland where children of sect members had to be removed from classrooms when other pupils were watching educational videos or television because these were the work of Satan. I admit some weren’t too good but that was going a bit far and all hell was let loose at the mention of Halloween. Brethren members were not permitted to read fiction, listen to the radio, eat in restaurants where the ‘unclean’ also ate and of, course, cinema was a definite no-go area.

I had heard of ill-feeling among trawler crews with Brethren skippers from northeast fishing villages and towns refusing to allow non-Brethren, the unclean, crew share a table with Brethren which caused all kinds of practical difficulties  in small boats. Such rigid rules applied not only to eating and drinking with outsiders but within families with husbands and wives and their children forced to dine separately. Where women were members they were still designated as inferior to men and subject to distinct rules. If a non-Brethren woman married into the sect, she would be accepted, albeit with constraints, but her family were outcasts – unable to attend the wedding and prevented from giving their children wedding presents. In fact weddings were more like wham, bang, thank you ma’am as they were confined to the bare bones formal procedure with no reception and no honeymoon. And on the other side of life if a cult member died no unbeliever relative, no matter how close, could attend the funeral and vice versa no cult member could go to a wife’s, parents’ or sibling’s funeral if they were not part of the Brethren. The hurt and ill-feeling caused by this zealous following was intense.

For years I forgot about them until a blog I did on another strange religious cult, the Buchanites, attracted a comment on Facebook from someone who once lived in Peterhead and mentioned the Close Brethren in relation to the Buchanites. For the geographically-challenged Peterhead is in an area of northeast Scotland known as Buchan.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. This is what my Facebook contact wrote:

“I find the whole cult thing both horrible and hilarious but when I was a kid in Peterhead in the early 60s we were all rocked by the great schism in the Brethren when their boss arrived from the States and started laying down strict new rules. The chosen couldn’t have anything to do with anyone who did not follow these rules so families were split, workplaces became uncomfortable and there were nasty side effects like people taking their cats, dogs, budgies etc to the vet to be put down because Big Jim Taylor had forbidden them to have pets, along with tv and alcohol. It was a cult but there was a funny side because they were allowed a regular bottle of whisky or whatever for “medicinal” purposes and local joiners got extra business building cabinets to hide tv sets in. Big Jim was eventually hounded out when he was found to be living in sin with his housekeeper (headline news in the nationals) but a lot of damage had been done by then.”

In 1964 Jim Taylor, Big Jim or JT – his names are numerous – was in Aberdeen fronting a rally in the Music Hall. It attracted much interest from the press because of the cult’s notoriety and socially destructive behaviour. As my Facebook friend mentioned the edict which drew attention to this odd and fanatical cult and created headlines in the local press was the instruction that members get rid of their pets as love for them would interfere with their absolute devotion to God, “Save all your love for your religion” was how Big Jim expressed it, according to reports.

Then in 1965 denials were issued that any such edict existed. However, a vet in Peterhead was quoted in the press saying he refused to ‘put down’ any more cats, dogs and every other sort of animal owned by members of the Close Brethren in the town – what he described as “Commandment killings.” All kinds of excuses were offered, he said, and when questioned a few admitted being members of the Close Brethren with others denying they were. Clearly telling the truth wasn’t high up in the priorities of their religious bigotry. Interestingly nearby in Fraserburgh the demanded cull of wee fluffy creatures was ignored by Brethren members.

This was a world-wide sect but within several of the fishing villages of Buchan and Banffshire there were plenty willing to be led by the nose by a big-mouthed bigot and bully whose ideas of morality owed more to booze than the bible.

In 1967 he declared shops should shut on Saturdays which meant a big loss of income for shopkeepers as Saturday was the busiest shopping day of the week. Members were torn between making a living and their faith in Big Jim who insisted weekends were to be confined to worship and recalcitrant shopkeepers were pressurised to shut up shop.

In January of 1968 the cult was still making headlines. A fishing boat skipper from Peterhead was put out of the Brethren for hiring two unbelievers onto his crew. There simply weren’t enough sect members to crew every boat and men were hired from places outside the Brethren stronghold. As mentioned above many non-Brethren trawlermen weren’t too happy sailing for Brethren skippers because of the enforced separations on tiny boats which made life unnatural and awkward. There was also talk of strict Brethren skippers entertaining women in their cabins when the boats were in dock which was seen as rank hypocrisy. At the same time younger cult members resisted some of JT’s edicts and a breakaway group formed which defied pet euthanasia, the forbidding of eating with friends and family, dismissing some of the rules as pointless and far from being Christian were more like Nazism.

When people question how ordinary folk can become caught up in extremist movements they need only look as far as Buchan to see the extent of obedience to one perceived as a leader with gullible people willing to comply with outrageous behaviour.

A three-day convention was held in Peterhead in the summer of 1968 with Big Jim driven into town in a white car. The town was filled with vehicles and people; men dressed in smart suits and women wearing fancy hats. Around 1,000 members attended in the Brethren’s lavishly decorated temple – a hall in Constitution Street. Sect members poured in from home and abroad, men taking precedence in the circle of seats at the front with women, who weren’t allowed to participate in debates, consigned to the back of the hall.

Women were encouraged to wear their hair long but tucked up under scarves or hats when outside the home. They were also instructed to dress modestly, although being Peterhead, expensively. Make-up was frowned upon. As for men there were fewer restrictions place on them which surprises no-one.

At Peterhead the split in the movement was discussed along with problems created by ‘mixed marriages.’ Not much detail got out although JT insisted he was happy to talk to the press but locals objected. One local member, Raymond Grugeon, is quoted as confirming there would be no communication with the press, “No, definitely not” he said. And who could blame him since earlier press stories included some far-out behaviour among members of this secretive cult including its anti-puppy edict?

There were grumblings about the interpretation of such edicts: separation of family at meal-times and even couples sleeping together; prohibition of eating in public; membership of trades unions and a ban on life insurance cover.

 

john nelson darby

John Nelson Darby

 

While the sect remained strong in Peterhead allegiance to James Taylor’s sect faded in Fraserburgh. Six feet tall and weighing in at 200 lbs Taylor was the son of an Irish linen merchant but the Brethren’s roots stretched back into the early 19th century. In about 1827 a church minister from Northern Ireland, John Nelson Darby, formed the Plymouth Brethren and, some dispute this, the Close or Exclusive Brethren was an offshoot of his organisation – and very different. It was from 1959 that the Close Brethren first attracted the attention of the outside world with their diktat against mixed company socialising which had a detrimental impact on small communities. 

In common with other strict sects food took on importance non-believers might wonder at. Brethren were instructed they could only eat holy bread, or at least bread made by members, and in zealous atmosphere of Peterhead this was extended to cover any food, including the odd biscuit and cake, cans of soup and even ice cream. You can imagine the reaction among the less zealous townsfolk once Big Jim began to interfere with the partaking of a tasty raspberry ripple cone on a summer’s day. This was a contest between the raspberry ripple and Big Jim. The raspberry ripple won that contest and the edict was withdrawn. Now you might be thinking, like I was, why was there no such outrage against putting down cute little pussies – kittens to very old family pets? But them I’m not one of the secretive select so I can’t answer that.

There was also a reaction against those shop closures on Saturdays and so by 1970 only one adhered to the edict – the Seagull Cleaners run by Brethren member Raymond Grugeon who declined to discuss shop closures with the press but did tantalise them with the suggestion that the Archangel was on his way north from England although he refused to confirm he would go to Aberdeen. This was July 1970.

 

Go to Aberdeen Big Jim did go and I’m sure he regretted that decision. In the August of 1970 the Archangel put out denials he was an adulterer with rumours abounding about his increasingly abhorrent behaviour including at a house at Nigg in Aberdeen when it was said he forced himself on a young man., not to mention women. Such was the reaction to the rumours the sect split with Big Jim holding onto one part and Detroit businessman, Stanley McCallum aka Stanley the Angel, a Detroit factory worker originally from Macduff, in charge of the other. McCallum would later be excommunicated for ‘breaking bread’ with his wife.

In an attempt to protect his reputation JT distributed 8000 copies of a denial of hanky-panky and boozing at Aberdeen – explaining that a glass of whisky appeared by his chair first thing on the morning at a meeting and while participating and listening to others speak on Abram the Hebrew he sipped the drink. A drop of neat whisky, it was explained to the world, was used by JT to overcome his natural shyness. It was not the odd sip of whisky, however, as hard liquor was liberally taken during meetings which might explain some of the most bizarre behaviour noted below. The Close Brethren became a hard-drinking religious cult.

As for the other matter of illicit sex he explained the wife of a colleague had expressed a desire to wash his feet and massage his head. And so she went to his bedroom and lay down on the bed and found herself under the sheet with Big Jim. When they were discovered together naked and with clothes strewn on the floor JT insisted they could not prove whose they were. Whether the woman had time to wash the feet of the great one and dry them with her hair is lost to history. She appears to have been a willing partner in the affair but other women were not and there are descriptions of the man’s bullying and sexual predatory nature that terrified them.

Back in the bedroom in Aberdeen a doctor was called who presumably thinking Big Jim was a competitive sportsman gave him some injections. No flies on this medic who suggested to Big Jim he was sick to which the Archangel answered, “No.” Still in denial mode Big Jim dismissed the charge he was in bed with another man’s wife, saying if he wanted to sleep with another man’s wife it would be cheaper to stay in Brooklyn. But he admitted “It is true she was laying under the sheet on the same bed as myself. But I was on one side of the bed, and she was on the other.”

This is all quite amusing but the bigger picture is of a dangerous individual who preyed on the vulnerable – women and boys and wrecked lives. He was clearly sick which throws blame for the endurance of this cult in the northeast firmly at the feet, washed or not, of its credulous followers.

His behaviour attracted condemnation from some members but there was reluctance to share their views with the press and doors were slammed shut against their enquiries. Nonetheless Big James Taylor’s notoriety within the inner sanctum of the sect was clear for many were troubled by his overtly sexual behaviour, his swearing and habit of insulting fellow-Brethren as bums and bastards.

It was pretty clear the man was an alcoholic with a reputation to drink whisky through the day and with a penchant for champagne when the need arose along with first-class travel, presumably mixing with well-heeled non-believers. Big Jim made the rules for everyone to follow but him. That’s power. And hypocrisy. Although Brethren were not supposed to marry non-believers Big Jim had a non-Brethren wife. It should be said he also had other members’ wives. He particularly enjoyed having them sit on his knee so he could kiss and fondle them as their husbands looked the other way. Women who objected being mistreated so disgracefully were condemned as hostile to his ministry.

Reports of bawdy behaviour involving the Archangel splintered the sect when during what became known as the notorious Aberdeen incident the home-owner and member had attempted to stop adultery in his home Big Jim rounded on him, calling him a “son of a bitch and a bastard.”

 

1959

Assembly of Exclusive Brethren in 1959 in London

 

A year or two back a man claimed he had been raped when a boy by Jim Taylor who calmed him with the words, they were “going to share God’s love.” It’s a situation we’ve become more familiar with in recent times and it should bring shame on anyone who still holds to this moronic, nasty, secretive sect whose members idolised a drunken bully.

I’ve read what’s claimed to be a transcript of a meeting in Aberdeen which comes over as more loony toons than religious gathering. You saw a bit of it at the start, here’s a little more of the abuse, hectoring and insults involved.

“You bastard! You bastard! We need a doctor here. Go to sleep Stanley, go to sleep. We have plenty of hymns, to hell with you. We’re having a very good time. You bum, you. You big bum. Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Now you have it. You never have it. You never had it so good. You never had it like this, you nut, you.
(40 seconds pause with bursts of laughter) (Shouting)
JT Jnr: You stinking bum! You stink! Why didn’t you bring some toilet paper with you. Very fine meetings.
MBTJT Jnr: Look at that son of a bitch there.
(Pause culminating again in laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: You never had it like this before. You bastard you.
(Loud laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?
JAF: James Flett.
JT Jnr: Get to hell out of here! ‘ell, I said. ‘ell
An extraordinary …of nonsense and abuse cheered and foot-stamping and laughter.”


The whole piece can be read at: http://www.discourses.org.uk/History/TheAberdeenIncident.pdf

Big Jim Taylor died shortly after his notorious visit to Aberdeen in 1970. His last words have been disputed: some claim he lay back and muttered, “I am coming” while another version insists he was shouting at his wife, “Get out of here woman, you were never with me” when he lay back then a look of horror clouded his face and his mouth opened in fright. And so he died.

 

In recent years the Exclusive Brethren were given charity status and therefore tax relief. When in 2012 the Charity Commission rejected a claim to its charitable status Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke said the Commission was suppressing religion. The sect was duly accorded charity status. I don’t know if it is still regarded as a legitimate charity. The MP was suspended by the Conservative Party for something else and is no longer an MP – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41866970

http://www.christian.org.uk/news/charity-commission-u-turns-over-exclusive-brethren-case/
https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/community-action-blog/2013/jan/03/christian-brethren-legal-appeal-charity-commission-status

 

April 19, 2018

The Buchanites: by a lock of their hair they hoped to fly to heaven

A group of bald-headed women and men clambered their way up Templand hill by Closeburn, Dumfries and onto a platform. With faces turned skyward they waited to be plucked up by their remaining single lock of hair to soar heavenward. They were disappointed when they did not. However, the wind did carry off their wooden platform. 

*****************

These ambitious eccentrics were known as Buchanites. Their leader was a charismatic woman called Elspeth Buchan who explained away their failure to fly by their lack of faith and ordered her followers fast for 40 days and 40 nights then try again. So they did, several suffering badly from starvation, and again they failed to rise up to heaven.

buchan 2

The immortal Elspeth Buchan

 

In 1783 Elspeth Buchan then in her forties had declared herself a prophet and immortal. She regarded herself as the woman in Revelation 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

Elspeth had been born at Rothiemackenzie in the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire in 1738 to a crofter and innkeeper, John Simpson and his wife Margaret Gordon. The young Elspeth married a local potter called Robert Buchan who some years later went off south with Elspeth and their children following. They appeared in Glasgow and Greenock and what happened to the husband after that I don’t know but Elspeth returned for a time to the Banff area where she opened a Dame school (one taught by a woman or dame) where most of what was taught was the catechism. Needless to say numbers dwindled to none at all and so Elspeth, Mrs Buchan, returned to her husband down south, it has to be said their marriage was a loose affair, and by this time she had some strong ideas over who she was.

She claimed her immortality could be transferred to others by her breathing on them, in quite an intimate way, according to Rabbie Burns. She tried to convince several church ministers of her spiritual powers but only the Rev Hugh White, a minister of the Relief Church* in Irvine was won over. By teaching and Psalm singing they attracted a smallish group of followers who came to be known as the Western Delusion and later better-known as Buchanites. His activities split White’s congregation and he and Elspeth Buchan abandoned his church taking some fifty of the congregation with them. They picked up more followers on their travels.

The group’s proselytising though charismatic to some did not find favour with everyone and they were driven from the town, beaten and thrown in a ditch with threats to drown them in Scott’s Loch. What antagonised many townsfolk and others in parts they passed through were the open relationships practised by the Buchanites, communal living with rumours of orgies in forests and group sex and for the sober Christians of the kirk there was little about them to admire.

Mrs Buchan and her following were expelled from Irvine on the Cow Fair in May 1784; driven into the wilderness from the flood was how it struck the Buchanites concerned. They turned up at Closeburn, north of Dumfries, with Elspeth Buchan resplendent in crimson and riding on a white horse. It was there they made their attempt to fly to heaven but before they did Elspeth Buchan, Mother Buchan, persuaded her flock to hand over their trinkets and jewels to her, as she explained this would make it easier for them to rise up.

So the assembled Buchanites waited, expectantly, for the wind to carry them off and away. As well as permanently parting with their possessions they had prepared themselves by shaving their head of all hair except for a single lock which would be used to lift them up and away from the earth; all had cut off their hair except for Elspeth Buchan. They waited and waited. Then the wind blew down their platform.

auchengibbert

Auchengibbert became home to some of the Buchanites

There were other reports of goods and money being appropriated by Mother Buchan. One of the Buchanites, a Mrs Goldie, left the considerable sum of £500 on her death. Her son was a seaman, often away from home, and he had no idea his widowed mother had managed to save so much money so when Buchan and the Rev White took control of Mrs Goldie’s affairs and offered him a couple of pounds the son went away satisfied.

They were expelled from Dumfriesshire in 1787 and from there they went to Crocketford. Mrs Buchan was also known as Luckie Buchan (Luckie being a common nickname in parts of Scotland as a friendly, familiar term for an older woman.) Elspeth Buchan also took on the more formal title, Friend-Mother in the Lord.

The poet Robert Burns had a bit of a run-in with them when one of his bonnie Jeans, the very beautiful Jean Gardiner whom it is claimed was Burns’ heroine in Epistle to Davie and not Jean Armour, became entranced by and joined the sect. Burns working as a gauger in this part of the country was persuaded by the young Jean Gardiner to accompany her to some Buchanite meetings. He did but he was not won over as she had been. Burns wrote in a letter to his cousin William Burness of Montrose –

“About two years ago, a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow [she had been there with her husband] came among them, & began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, …till in spring last the Populace rose & mobbed the old leader Buchan & put her out of the town…Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures & practices that are scandalously indecent…”

Another giant of Scottish literature, John Galt, also wrote about the Buchanites. Galt was from Irvine and he had a vague recollection, recorded in his autobiography, of seeing the charismatic sect when he was a very young bairn and he recalled how several youngsters of the town, including himself, were beguiled by the Buchanites – their appearance, singing of the Psalms and general conduct that they followed after them, much like the children in the wake of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – Galt’s mother in hot pursuit succeeded in dragging him back home “by the lug and the horn.” Galt wove an impression of the Buchanites spectacle in Irvine into descriptions of Covenanters in Ringan Gilhaize (pronounced Gillies)

The immortal Mrs Buchan proved she was not when she died in 1791. On her deathbed she remained confident her impending death was only an interlude during which she would go to Paradise, briefly, to carry out some business and return within nine days, or perhaps nine years.

In anticipation of her re-awakening Elspeth Buchan was not buried but placed on a bed of feathers and secreted under the kitchen hearth in the farmhouse occupied by the remaining sect members. The group split up with some moving away to carry on their lives elsewhere including a number who went to America, by ship I understand, not taking to the air.

A few including Andrew Innes and his wife remained true to the so-called prophetess and when they moved farms they took Elspeth Buchan’s remains with them and for the next fifty years the deceased Mrs Buchan clung determinedly to earth. Andrew Innes was the last of the Buchanites and when he, too, was dying aged eighty-two at Crocketford in 1846, he revealed the remains of Luckie Buchan lay in an upper chamber on a bed, wrapped in blankets. And there her bones were found and an abundance of hair. Innes asked that his coffin be placed over hers when they were both interred so that if she rose to heaven he would know about it. They were buried at Newhouse graveyard alongside other Buchanites by the northwest wall, doubtless in the expectation of ascending to heaven at some stage.

And so that was the end of the Buchanites. Well, not quite. A group emerged in the 20th century in Aberdeen not at all in the same league but a quaint grouping who celebrated new years in the old Scottish way, burning a yule log, singing and dancing. In the 1930s around 200 would gather in the Cowdray Hall to mark the Aul’ Eel when they drank copious quantities of sowans** and uttered such momentous phrases as, “Man, that’s gran’, sic fine sowens, that gaed doon fine.” As I said not quite in the league of the woman of the sun and moon and crown of stars, but it made them happy.

*The Relief Church (Presbytery of Relief) was a Scottish denomination founded in 1761 by Thomas Gillespie, a Church of Scotland minister who was deposed by the General Assembly in 1752 when he refused to co-operate in the induction of an unpopular minister to Inverkeithing. Relief in the kirk’s name referred to its independence from the patronage associated with the Church of Scotland of the time and it was more free-thinking than the traditional church. The Relief Church was later incorporated into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

** Sowans was a cheap and nutritional drink made from soaking and lightly fermenting oat husks.

Dumfries map

The Buchanite stronghold in southwest Scotland

April 16, 2018

The last woman publicly hanged in Aberdeen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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April 3, 2018

If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? – trade unions and women’s inequality

“Stand forward, sons of toil, and speak for the party out of which you may have taken, or may take, your partner for life” wrote a domestic servant from Aberdeen in 1854 in response to a meeting held the previous evening to discuss shortening of the working week by three hours through the introduction of a half-day holiday on Saturdays. The meeting had been arranged by men and the focus of their concern was working class men.

Letter to the Aberdeen Journal, 8 March 1854.

The Half-holiday movement – A word for females

Sir, I have read the report of the meeting held in the County-rooms on January 17th, on the subject of a Saturday half-holiday. It has often struck me that many speak of the working-classes as being only tradesmen, mechanics, carpenters, masons, and such like, and I am certainly quite of opinion that many such have great need for release from their toil, to breathe the air with freedom.

It was said by one who addressed the meeting that time was necessary for repose, for recreation, and enjoyment; but are these blessings needed only by tradesmen? There are others who have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and I also term the working-classes. I for one belong to a class who have very long hours, and very long weeks — just from Monday morning till Monday morning.

I am unable to write logically on the subject, but I may be able to convey my ideas in such a plain way that they may be understood by those interested in the subject. It was stated at the meeting by a speaker that he did not think the sons of toil were ever intended for such long hours of toil by their Maker; and I would add, that I am of the same opinion with regard to the daughters of toil. Just look at their hours of toil. Rise with them on Monday, and go through all the duties of the day till they go to rest at night. Every day and every week has its own duties, and Saturday comes, but in place of a half-holiday, the hours are sometimes as long as decency will admit of, not to infringe on the Sabbath. Then Sabbath morn arrives, but with it very little release from toil, or opportunity to breathe the air. Say, then, should not their hours be shortened?

Then, when we consider how the education of the female part of the working-classes has been neglected in youth, I think one and all ought to consider if something cannot be done for them. If it could be felt how much of the well-being of society depended on the female part of it, every energy would be put forth in their behalf. It comes home to all in some respect or other. There are few of the sons of toil, but try to have a home of their own as soon as possible, and some fair one to make it comfortable to them, and manage the affairs of it. In the wife and mother is laid the foundation of character and education for the rising generation. How necessary then that it be a solid foundation! I did not think so much could be done by women in this respect, as I have seen within the last three years that I have been eye-witness to it, and you know seeing is believing. Stand forward, sons of toil, and speak for the party out of which you may have taken, or may take, your partner for life.

My idea is, that if masters and mistresses could do a little for the bettering of their female servants, they would suffer no loss by their work falling behind, and they would have less to do with Industrial Schools. There are many mistresses who cannot tell if their servants can read or repeat any part of the Shorter Catechism. Show them, by your way of treating them, that you wish to better them; and it must be a strange heart that love does not beget love in. Many servants, in place of going to church on Sabbath, go to see their friend, and acquaintances; and who can blame them for so doing, when they have no time allowed them for it, on week days or evenings? Give them a half-holiday, that all such visits may be made, and on Sabbath spend an hour in hearing them read and repeat the Shorter Catechism, and any such Sabbath like employment.

I may be blamed for bringing family matters before the public, but perhaps what I have said may be taken up more fully by some one who can say it better. But, here again, I am sorry to remark, that I find that the best public man is not always the best in the family circle. My creed is – if you wish any benevolent project to prospect in public, it must be begun in private, and carried out in your own family circle. I support this idea by my observation for years of those who, in public, say, Shut the Post-office, but whose letters go regularly thither on Saturday afternoon, to be carried forward by the Sabbath post. We have seen the length of the speakers at the meeting, now let us see their breadth, and whether they will come and help us. We cannot raise a public meeting to tell our grievances; yet I hope they will not leave the work half done. But I am encroaching on your space and time too much; so I remain, yours,

A HOUSEHOLD SERVANT

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

Sejourney Truth

Sojournor Truth

 

About this same time in the USA women were involved in similar and different struggles, against sexism and racism –

“That little man…he says women can’t have as much rights as men, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from: From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with Him.”

(Sojourner Truth, evangelist and reformer, at a Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio, 1851.)

The anonymous domestic servant in Aberdeen wanted women in non-industrial occupations to benefit from a little time off so they could visit friends and family, go for a walk or simply read a little much like other people not constrained by long and exhausting hours labouring for their employers.

The movement to shorten Saturday work to a half-day – not really a half-day as work was to stop at two in the afternoon instead of five – had been gathering momentum. For the working classes then there were no happy Fridays. Working hours established by governments and laid down in legal frameworks for employment did not follow a trajectory of improvement necessarily as is only too clear today. When the working week ran over 6 days and before the introduction of a 10-hour day males and females were worked to death. In 1847 the maximum hours a woman could lawfully be employed for in a factory was 58 a week. Three years later this was increased to 60 hours.

With half-day Saturdays (2pm stop) the rest of the working week had to be squeezed into what remained of Monday to Saturday early afternoon. Of course for many domestic servants there was no clocking on and off; they were on duty around the clock seven days a week. It is against this background the letter-writer put pen to paper to record her frustration at the different attitudes between organised industrial labour and much women’s work. She is angry that consideration has all gone towards the interests of men with no recognition of the plight of domestic servants and women in particular. The very nature of domestic labour split up this huge workforce into individual households so there were not the opportunities to meet and organise to put pressure on employers and governments to act in their interests.

For those whose voices were heard the prevailing sentiment as demonstrated in press reports was of the generosity and kindness of employers in granting extra hours off on a Saturday instead of condemnation of practices which overworked employees to the detriment of their health and family life. Some who opposed a 2pm stop on Saturdays complained that working men would make bad use of their leisure time, as if that was any business of theirs.

It is incontestable that the emergence of trades unions led to improvements in working conditions and pay. The declining influence of unions is regrettable and the result has been a mushrooming of low wages, long hours, zero hours contracts and the rest where we’ve seen successive governments working in cahoots with greedy and unprincipled employers to drive ever-greater exploitation of the workforce.

equal pay 1

However, Britain’s trades unions been equally culpable in the gross and unwavering exploitation of women workers. Too often they have been organised by self-serving cliques who enjoy practices of patronage that any Renaissance prince might be proud of. They emerged to protect and advance the interests of members and being mainly male continued to be defined through their advocacy of male interests and to that end were found to be opposed to what they regarded was the dilution of their crafts by women. We should not be surprised for union men did not live in a bubble of social democracy but were influenced by the mores of the time in which women were seen and treated as inferior beings. It was, therefore, a case of men putting obstacles in the way of women and of women’s skills being designated subordinate to men’s purely on grounds that if women carried them out they must be substandard.

Don’t pay attention to nonsense you read in books that suggest women hardly participated in ‘manual’ work over the centuries. They always have been whether from necessity or choice women could hammer, mould and chisel as well as any man given the opportunity but were denied such opportunities increasingly as male unions dominated protection of industries. And don’t confuse the lives of middle class and upper class women with the experiences of the poor and working classes – chalk and cheese.

Women have always been active in socially progressive movements alongside men although they haven’t always been welcomed. Within trades unions female membership increased through the 20th century but the unions remained in the hands of men, run by them for men. For lots of trade unionists they might talk a good talk but walk arm-in-arm with women – no. Women were always regarded as a threat to their status.

For a lot of people the adaptability of women to pick up traditional men’s jobs during the Great War and later during the Second World War was something of a revelation but most regarded this interregnum as a blip on the employment landscape and women were quickly hustled off to resume more domestic labour. And the unions were there to make sure they did.

In more recent times the unions pushed for and won equal pay legislation for women – of course the definition of what that meant in reality was a thorny one – with that ever-present anomaly of the definition of skilled work against unskilled aka women’s work.

A sheen of equality in the workplace: in 1965 the Trades Union Congress pushed for equal treatment of women workers in industry. But…but…it’s that old canard of you can take a horse to water or more relevant to women… you can agree policy/pass laws but you can’t make the men around you recognise and implement them.

In 1968 women workers at the Ford plant at Dagenham in London and later at Halewood famously went on strike for equal pay. The legislation was there but did that make any difference to their earning? Did it hell. The Labour Party was in government and its female Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, was sympathetic and the women were granted an increase – initially that was still 8% lower than men doing equivalent work.

Much foot shuffling and more horses led to a barricade of water troughs with courts, male unions and governments all resisting female equality. In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed. No rush boys…to be implemented five years later. Where’s that bloody horse when you need her or is it a him? It was the UK’s membership of the EU and equality legislation under the Treaty of Rome that moved things on a bit for women.

Equality for females in the workforce has been a sair fecht (hard struggle.)

You could be forgiven for thinking that into the 21st century women, at long last, were recognised for their contribution to the economy and their skills. But here comes horsey.

Among the most glaring examples of deliberate resistance to implementing equality practices trot up Glasgow City Council, run by the Labour Party- a party stocked and maintained by trades unions – for the best part of 80 years was exposed as under-paying women and not only that so determined were they to deny there was any wrong in their practices, they spent or rather squandered £2.5 million of public cash in an attempt to prevent women from getting compensated for years of underpay through a legal challenge in the courts. One hundred years and counting women were still being sidelined by the personification of the union movement in power with Glasgow’s Labour governing body still ‘at it.’

equalpaydemo.jpg.gallery

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15568711.Revealed__Labour_led_Glasgow_council_spent_millions_fighting_women_workers__39__equal_pay_claims/

As I write the current Labour leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard, agreed that the Labour run council had put ‘too much resistance’ to equal pay claims by women under their control.

“We have seen the length of the speakers at the meeting, now let us see their breadth, and whether they will come and help us” wrote our doughty Aberdonian over 160 years ago.

It took a woman and a new political party, the SNP, in Glasgow to clean out the equivalent of the Augean stables.

A sair fecht? It surely has been and one that isn’t over, not by a long chalk but it’s time that old horse was put out to grass.

download

March 20, 2018

There’ll be Fish Pie in the Sky by and by

Armstrong 2016 brexit

The good ol’ days when – selling the family silver.

quota sale

quotas article 2

quotas article 3

quotas article 4

article on quotas 1

dumped fish

dumped fish 2

2017 the General Election loomed and with it the small matter of Brexit. The fishermen’s dreams were about to come true.

Armstrong 2017 no bargaining 1

Armstrong 2017 no bargaining

brexit pledge

Meanwhile in London the Tories list their priorities for the term ahead – should they win.

tory manifesto no fishing

Fishing didn’t make it onto the list. The war of words hotted up between the SNP and the Tories. 

snp V tories election 17

snp election april 17 2

scot gov v armstrong 1

said Scottish Fishermen’s Federation spokesman Bertie Armstrong.

pre election april 17 2

april 2017 1

 

june 6 17 1

june 17 2

june 17 1

june 17 3

duguid election 1

june 17

april 17 welcome gove

And as Brexit draws closer.

DAVIDSON AND GOVE

Oh, oh. 

EU brexit 2 days ago

 

armstrong 2 dys ago 2

 

 

duguid today

snp 2 dys ago

In the sweet by and by

We shall meet on that beautiful shore

In the sweet by and by

Aye, maybe.