Archive for ‘Scottish history’

July 29, 2020

Alba, Pictland, Caledonia, Scotland – the birth of a nation

 

Once upon a time long, long ago a man from across the sea and far away travelled to the ancient land of Gaul and there he heard tales of exotic people who painted their bodies with strange patterns and symbols. Never before had the man seen beings with painted skin so he decided that the painted ones, called Picti because there was more than one Pict or picture person and Latin was in vogue at the time, were sufficiently different from all the people he was used to they were positively dangerous and uncivilised.

Roman raiders who invaded and conquered Gaul (in the way people with powerful armies tend to do) agreed with him.

 “We don’t like people who are different and we don’t like people who refuse to capitulate and accept us as their rulers. We like people who look just like us and invite us to take over their lands.”

Tile or Thule showing early map of northern Scotland

The man was called Hieronymus but for obvious reasons he changed his name to St Jerome. St Jerome who is often painted, though not on his body, with a lion representing Christ was disgusted by the weird folk living on the island across the water from Gaul. Not all of them, only the awkward squads of Picts, Atticots or Scoti or versions of the name. They were cannibals, he wailed. To illustrate the point he said if a shepherd, his wife and their flock of sheep were to stroll past a group of Picts, Atticots or Scoti they would be eaten down to the shiver while their mutton on the cloven hoof would be left alone.

“They must be barbarians!” wailed St Jerome; a saint with firm views. And he called out the painted people, Picts and their associates for their attraction to human flesh – in every meaning of the term – one of which old Jerome himself knew a thing or two about.

It may have occurred to some, though not Jerome, that tales of Picti, Atticotti and Scoti barbarity might have been exaggerated – not least by Roman legionaries embarrassed that their marauding antics and expansion into the island across the water from Gaul was only partly successful because the Scoti, Picti and Atticotti in the land called Alba refused to prostrate themselves before the Romans roaming across their territory.

 Angry and embarrassed over their failure to bludgeon the Atticotti, Picti and Scots into submission, legionaries sat around camp fires spinning yarn after yarn about wild, ruthless, cannibals who turned their painted noses up at being invaded in the land the Romans called not Alba but Caledonia – the land the painted people just called Home. Raging Romans and their hingers-on were hell-bent on demonising the Picti, Scoti and Atticoti.  

scotland and pictland

“They were twelve-foot giants, honest. With bad breath. And they’d eat a man as quick as look at him.”

If you make the mistake of looking up Atticotti or rather the alternatively spelled Attacotti on Wikipedia you will read they were –

“a people who despoiled Roman Britain between 364 and 368, along with Scotti, Picts, Saxons …”

 at which stage the author of such nonsense should be reminded in no uncertain terms it was the Romans doing the invading and marauding not the indigenous peoples defending their homes and way of life – including partaking of the occasional shepherd and his wife – not that shepherds had wives, more temporary bidie-ins.

On investigation the Picti – let’s forego the Latin plural and settle for Picts – when they weren’t savaging shepherds were chawing on ears of corn. For they were also referred to as Picts of Cruitnich. Cruitnich, as you’ll know in a minute, means corn eaters. So much for eating fellow men and women. Although no-one can live by corn alone. So, it seems when they weren’t out defending the land from aggressive Imperial Roman types Picts were farming, hunting and fishing and carving imagery into big stones. The Atticotti were doing something else and the Scoti were swatting up on irregular Gaelic verbs.

In the land of corn-eaters spelling was a free-for-all so Cruitnich became Cruitkne and Cruitin. Cruit became a byname for Picts. You can understand it for Picts of Cruitnich is a mouthful, almost as great as a shepherd’s foot. Careless writing turned Cruitin into Priten and as sure as Cruitin is Priten it transformed into Briton. Briton being a word for the people of a place meant Britain was the place where they dwelled.  

 We know some names of Pictish clan chiefs in long-ago Scotland; such as Talorg, meaning bright-browed. His reign as chief was from 388 to 413 and he was succeeded by Drust, son of Erp who ruled till 453. They were quite long-lived these Picts, except for the shepherds.

 The inhabitants of Britain most easy-oasy over being invaded by Romans were soft, southern types while those who weren’t – brawnier, bolder folk backheeled it to the north.   

The land of the north; Alba or Caledonia was demonised by the resentful Romans who felt entitled to conquer any part of the world they fancied. Just because they could. Only they couldn’t. Alba or Caledonia stood firm but their lands so reviled by so many continued to attract the waspish eyes of many a monarch from among the soft folk of the south.   

 The people of Alba were once strangers landing on the shores of the land to the north of the island across from Gaul before Gaul was Gaul. In later times Picts tended to occupy the east of the land while eventually the Scoti or Scots came as boat people from Hibernia – Hibernia later known as Ireland – so the first Scots lived where they dragged their boats ashore, on the southwest coast of Alba. They  were no less ferocious than those pesky Picts, according to the Alexandrian poet, Claudius Claudianus.

Claudius didn’t actually meet any Scoti or Picts but relied on hearsay or anecdotal accounts from – you’ve guessed it – Roman legionaries describing tattooed bodies of the people they had slaughtered in Alba (or Caledonia as they insisted on calling it.) The land that was said to be –

 “tepid with the gore of the Picts and Iere” (Irish Scots)

 “weeping her heaped-up piles of slain Scots”

 …once the Romans had finished with it.

Not that anyone in Pictland or Scotland at this time was averse to slaughtering their fellows. From the Scots or Scoti from Iere or Hibernia who overpowered the Picts to dominate Alba came the first king of Scots to be consecrated, back in 603. This was Aidan who led his men to the Bernician frontier. Bernicia covered the land now southeastern Scotland and northeastern England. In a battle of thrones that was typical of the time, Aidan’s men confronted Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia, at the Battle of Daegsastan on the river Jed and lost – though both armies were virtually wiped out.   

Blood flowed in the north of the north as well. Orkney was reported to have run with Saxon blood. Saxons were people who first washed up on the shores of the island of Britain from the place we now call northern Germany. Most Saxon migrants settled in the southern parts of Britain where they and their close neighbours, the Angles, left their stamp on the heart of every patriotic Englishman and woman revelling in their pure Anglo-Saxon bloodstock, that is – German.

Saxons being a mouthful for the Scoti and Picti was given the Alba treatment and became Sassenachs. Some Sassenachs carried on migrating, northwards, but growing knackered by their long walk they mostly stayed on in a part of Alba called the Lothians.

It was around the year 843 when Kenneth MacAlpin became King of the Scots and Picts and power and control over Alba was centralised in a continuing line of monarchs. This being 1200 years ago means Scotland’s ancient pedigree is a very, very long established one.   

Rivalries continued with Picts losing out to Gaelic Celts and bringing to an end the culture of the Alba’s exotic painted people. By the tenth century the language of the Picts has been lost for all time, replaced by Gaelic, although their paintings and carvings remind us of the very special painted people of Alba. In time Celtic culture itself was diluted and altered from the south by the influences of the Sassenach and from the north the impact of Vikings. 

Hundreds of years later Johnny-come-lately waspish-eyed monarchs from England claimed the ancient land of Scotland belonged to them. Roll on 400 years to the Act of Union where a handful of nobles sold-out the people of Scotland in exchange for bags of cash – to the fury of  Scots.    

This unpopular Union between the ancient land of Scotland and England is but a blink of a bloodshot eye in Scotland’s long, long existence – longer than the English usurper’s.   

Scotland, the land of Picts, Scots, Vikings and, yes, Sassenachs does not pretend purity of a single race. That peculiar claim of unadulterated national identity is confined to a branch of extreme English nationalism and I don’t want it said that in this tale of the birth of a nation I have forgotten our southern brethren and sistren. So, I’ll leave the last word to an Englishman, a Sassenach, who composed the following ditty in 1839 – 

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

A figurative fib, in fact a fiction;

A something meant t’express in verse

A man akin to all the universe:

From Pict, Scot, Saxon, Norman, Dane, began

That heterogeneous thing – an Englishman.”

 

PS – the peoples of the four nations of Britain lived happily ever after. Or did they?

June 19, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a not very average year. Self-isolation diary week 13

 

Who’d have thunk it – 13 weeks in lockdown. It’s becoming a way of life.

A week in pictures

England is opening up – for business and doubtless greater numbers of Covid victims in two or three weeks’ time. They were to be opening schools but have now decided not to – too dangerous said critics. They were to abandon England’s poorest most vulnerable children to go hungry through the summer holidays but have succumbed to a tirade of criticism and dumped that policy – Tories don’t fall far from their principle of ‘me first and always.’

Tory Messiah, Johnson, bragged to the world in that distinctive bumptious style of his – each utterance stuffed with superlatives signifying absolutely nothing just like his doppelganger, Trump, across the herring pond. Where was I? Oh, yes, Boris Johnson boasted to the world that England would have a ‘world beating’ tracing system from June – not any virus tracing system but a ‘world beating’ one capable of tracking 10,000 new cases a day from 1 June. It didn’t. He just made that up. It seems he makes everything up. So shambolic was No 10’s track and trace system some English folk were being instructed to travel to Northern Ireland for tests.

Johnson’s Cabinet of idiots, including his Foreign Secretary, Raab, a man so ignorant he thought taking the knee came from Game of Thrones, bumble on until their disastrous policies are ridiculed by the public to the extent they grow worried for their jobs – not the wellbeing of the population just their own careers.

It’s interesting to compare the handling of Covid 19 by adjoining neighbours – Scotland and England. For all the problems and faults in the early handling of the pandemic in Scotland with much too close a liaison with Johnson’s disastrous regime Scotland’s FM has risen to the challenge and her strong delivery at daily briefings and months into the virus demonstrates she is conversant with it. The dumb blond at No 10 shirks his duty, tries to duck responsibility for good reason, he is woefully under-informed about Coronavirus and is a liability to his team of nodding and braying donkeys around the Cabinet table – shouting about ‘world beating’ this and that and delivering nothing.

The term collective is absent from England’s Covid 19 briefings because collective signifying ‘the people’ is an anathema to him and his fellow Tories. On the other hand collective is a term often heard at Scotland’s Covid19 briefings – not accidentally because there really are significant differences in attitudes north and south of the border between Scotland and England. Scots tend to value sacrifice in the public good while in England greater emphasis is placed on the individual. Thatcher exemplified this English attribute while making a public exhibition of herself when she tried to tell the Scottish kirk, at the Sermon on the Mound, how they should interpret Christianity – arguing it was about the individual and should not be a basis for improving society as a whole for there was no such thing as society. She was told where to stick her message.

Some birds form societies – or rather they group together. Others live more individual lives. Robins and wrens belong in the first group while sparrows and chaffinches follow a collective lifestyle. Our house martins began as three and are now – goodness knows how many. They decided to re-apply themselves to the task of nest construction and now there are two semis attached to the gable and the birds are very active, flying in that darting style of theirs, feeding on airborne insects. Hope these two stay-put long enough for them to raise a few broods.

Prepare yourselves for a piece of sad news. I found a spotted flycatcher on the floor of our balcony. Beautiful little bird. I’d never seen one before but immediately recognised it. Anyway it had flown against the glass and was dead. I’ve just looked them up. They are in serious decline and this wee mite possibly had just flown in from Africa. It’s always horrible to find a dead bird but knowing that one adds to the species’ decline is depressing. There’s been a 50% decline in their numbers in the UK over the past 25 years.

Walks as per usual – meeting the same people, usually at the same time of day. Crossing road has become a shared practice with one of my neighbours but most just stick to their route irrespective of how close we’d have to pass if I didn’t cross the road and maybe a reason I like walking in dreich weather as that tends to thin out the opposition.

Our Saturday night family virtual get-together came in the form of a murder mystery this week. We all dressed up for our parts – everyone looked amazing. Some adopted great accents but I, who spend my days talking in tongues from all over the UK, found I couldn’t manage anything other than my own when it came to ACTION! Suppose that’s a future stage career knocked on the head.

When it isn’t Saturday our evening television has moved on from films to Babylon Berlin. Thought it looked a bit Readers’ Digest drama set to begin with but it’s good. Very good. Really, really good. Great characters – which is how we like our drama and exciting set pieces. But poor Stefan. 

From RLS last time to another Scottish author, John Gault’s The Provost. This is the first political novel written in English, in 1822, and as sure as eggs is eggs, politics hasn’t altered much in the past two centuries. The novel as I’ve said is written in English but it’s Scottish English and there’s a substantial glossary of Scottish words that will be unfamiliar to non-Scots readers and many Scots nowadays given how universal English English/American English is in Scotland. Among the richly descriptive Scottish terms are beauties such as clanjamphry meaning worthless; jookerie meaning deceit; fashed – troubled – now familiar to many through its use on Outlander – ‘dinnae fash yersel’ Sassenach.’ Phrases such as ‘the cloven foot of self-interest was then and now to be seen to be aneath the robe of public principle’ and ‘the flatulence of theoretical opinions’ are already in my little notebook of dastardly things to say about our current gang of self-interested politicos. It is not an easy read for the modern reader because its style is that of the early 19th century but it is a significant, amusing and perceptive piece of writing – said to be recognised as brilliant by the poet Coleridge.

Stay Safe.

May 29, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 10

Looking back at week 10 I have to report it was a most unusual week.

We had a liaison in a deserted graveyard with our son to receive some health supplies I needed – all gloved and masked up. Social distancing was practised throughout the short liaison which was odd, to say the least. Then it was straight back home and the bag taken from car boot to the quarantine room aka spare bedroom aka pantry for three days. He had slipped a honey comb in with the essentials so looking forward to that.

A couple of days later our daughter and son-in-law brought other medicine and rare commodities such as bags of flour and fresh yeast. It was a lovely warm day and chairs had been set out sufficiently distant from each other (pairs of) and we enjoyed a nearly normal visit albeit we sprayed their chairs and left them outside for several days afterwards.

Another major variation this week was a virtual family quiz. After some instructions earlier in the day from our granddaughter’s partner we got set up and it went remarkably well. Granddaughter spent hours compiling an excellent set of questions and really deserved her glass of wine during the quiz. Make that glasses. Tell me how many glasses does it take to affect eyesight? Grandson thought question about the Spanish Steps was a trick one but I couldn’t follow his logic of assuming they were somewhere in Spain since all steps in Spain are, er Spanish. Also since he has been up and down the Spanish Steps in Rome with US we weren’t too sympathetic when he struggled to get that one right. Well, he didn’t.

Despite all the medicines delivered last week wasn’t a great one for me but nothing too major. Managed to make some delicious griddle cakes which are a bit like girdle scones. Felt obliged to make something other than the bread my husband bakes given the amount of flour we now have; strong white, wholemeal, rye, spelt, Polish, plain white, SR white and banana flour. Yes, banana flour! And if any bananas turn up in our supermarket delivery this weekend I might bake a banana loaf using it. Bananas are a rare treat as we try to eat organic and they seem as rare as hen’s teeth although there were always plenty around when we used to get out shopping. What we did enjoy last week was an organic watermelon but I don’t think I’ll be making watermelon bread anytime soon.

The weather has been perfect for watermelons which is great for us folk with gardens but not so great for people without. Speaking to a friend on the phone who told me of a friend of hers with severe breathing problems has not been out the whole lockdown. He stays in a small flat. That must be hard. Another of her friends is slowly recovering from Covid19. He was extremely touch and go months ago and his voice was badly affected by the tubes down his throat so that he is only now finding his voice again.

Leaf cover means I can no longer report the starling saga in the tree across the road. Haven’t heard any great ruckus so assuming all is well there. Meanwhile our martins are busy doing what house martins do, eating mainly and tearing around at high speed – sounds like teenagers. They have been surveying another gable at our house for nesting, presumably, because our neighbours have again this year hung plastic carrier bags on the outside of theirs to deter the birds from nesting. Believe me it isn’t a good look (in all senses.)

Runner beans, lazing ladybird, evening sky, red tree peony, griddle cakes (weel done)

Most of the plants being raised in the greenhouse are enjoying the fine weather outside along with everybody else. Runner beans still romping away as much as possible given they are confined in pots. The summer savoury is possibly ready to eat but if we do that would clear one of the pots. The radish competition is hotting up and my five seedling are, well, seedlings not seeds anymore.

Still struggling to find anything we can bear to watch more than twice on Netflix and Amazon Prime (that we haven’t already seen.) I’m sure there are lots but not got into anything recently.

Finished reading Dreamers. The fascists still won. Latest fiction – I read other stuff all the time but the books mentioned are my bedtime reading. The latest as I write this is big, described as an epic and you can’t get bigger than that. As some of you know I’m not keen on big, epic, books as they’re not easy to hold up in bed and I tend to get bored before the end. Will see how I get on with the Icelandic Independent People by Halldór Laxness. It was recommended by my husband, he described it as superb. Annie Proulx described it as funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant though not directly to me. I like Annie Proulx’s writing, her descriptions are funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant.

I’ve not commented on the politics of the lockdown this week. Nothing I can say can top the bizarre and corrupt roguery that’s been happening with the backing of Johnson. We expect nothing less from the contemptible Cummings. Think they’ve ramped up the deceit surrounding ‘we’re all in this together’ crap. From the ridiculous to the sublime. I am not uncritical of the Scottish Government’s handling of Coronavirus, specially at the beginning (and I recognise how difficult handling a new virulent virus must be) but Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has put herself up for scrutiny day in day out. She is faced with a hostile press not like the lame bunch down south and shows she has detail at her fingertips, adroitly handling questions on a wide range of topics. Compare with the bumbling fool that is Johnson. People thought that was an act. How tragic it is to discover he really is not clever but the biggest fool in Christendom. And not only a fool but ignorant. Totally and woefully ignorant – turning his head from side to side looking for someone to dig him out of a ditch because he hasn’t the first clue about – well, anything. Maybe that’s what he meant by dead in a ditch – his reputation.

Stay well.

May 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary Week 9

And here we are again. Week 9. Doesn’t seem too unlike week 8 although each week does have subtle and sometimes not so subtle variations mixed in. It struck me I don’t really say much or, indeed anything, about what I actually do through a week – and that’s not about to change. I’m not one of those let it all hang out types but here’s what I am prepared to tell you.

It won’t surprise you to know I’m still mouthing off at the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic. Machiavelli will be spinning in his grave at the sheer audacity of the lies being dished up daily by government which we are expected to take at face value. My main source of information about coronavirus is the Financial Times which has been unerringly informed and informative on the virus.

No 10 has been spinning like the proverbial top. Matt Hancock is as useless as he looks. No you haven’t ever reached 100,000 tests on any single day – my ref is the FT. And Boris Johnson is now in full Trumpian flow promising even more. It is quite, quite extraordinary that anyone retains any regard for Johnson. He is evidently a lazy, rather stupid man who hides behind other people – occasionally popping up for a photo opportunity such as hypocritically clapping NHS staff and carers and making ridiculous inflated promises.

starlings at nest

Another family birthday this week. Mainly virtual but virtual can be good fun. We’re fairly getting into this singing online lark. Presents were actual and delivered as promised by the Aberdeen shop entrusted to do so.

The starlings are still living dangerously, nesting under the eye of jackdaws and rumours of them having given up on the hole in the ash tree have been greatly exaggerated as they are indeed installed there. With the beech next door to them coming into leaf it will become more difficult to see what they’re up to very soon.

House martins' nest with remains of last years additional nest

The house martins have also being playing games with nest building. Came and seemed to go after a day or two. Then they came back again. We saw them mostly in the evenings for a start and surely they must have been constructing their classy nest under cover of darkness because suddenly it was up. Lots of activity now with them flying back and fore so suspect there are eggs there already or wee ones hatched out. I know why they build under eaves etc – as protection from rain. That probably sounds obvious but it’s a bit strange to build in the open given their nests are made out of regurgitated mud. Last year we had a lot of rain in late summer and the nest collapsed with young dropping to the ground. We tried to save them but couldn’t. The martins then quickly built a second nest, alongside with a late brood being produced. One little one was slow in flying and while the others were champing at the bit to fly away south it couldn’t leave the nest. Fairly sure it did eventually get away but it was late.

carob in greenhouse

Young plants doing well in the greenhouse and the plug gherkins arrived looking in great shape. Those runner beans are now going at a jog. This week we launched our inter-generational radish growing competition. Doesn’t have many rules so far, not even an end date which we’ll have to fix although there seems plenty time since there’s three days after sowing my five seeds there’s no sign of germination. Meant to mention in earlier blogs that our carob tree is looking tip top. It’s kept in the greenhouse, grown from a seed for a bonsai carob, bought by a friend in Aberdeen at least 15 years ago. The carob is also known as the locust tree or St John’s bread and in its natural Mediterranean habitat produces large edible seed pods. Among its uses is as a chocolate substitute. They can grow to up to 50 feet but doubt our little bonsai in a greenhouse in Aberdeenshire will get anywhere near that – or else we’re moving. And I doubt there will ever be a Lenathehyena chocolate. Which is a pity.

Lots of wandering around the garden, in between weeding. Still very dry. The burn is getting lower and lower. Our water supply is, to some extent, reflected by the amount of water flowing downhill. Will be one to watch.

Many of the rhododendrons are passed but several still to come. We have lots of rhododendrons as this is a great area for growing these acid-loving plants. Some are real beauts.

rhodie pic for blog

My marsh marigolds have come on a treat. Can’t tell you how I got them but they’ve taken to their habitat in the old sink. I’ve got a soft spot for marsh marigolds since I was a child in the Black Isle and they grew along the burn at Rosemarkie. Here we’ve grown different varieties on the burn bank but one by one they’ve been washed away downstream during spates.

Got another delivery of all sorts of goodies from a wholefood company in England. Our spare bedroom aka pantry aka food quarantine area smells like an eastern bazaar. We’ve almost finished eating the madjool dates we bought from them last time. There is nothing that can compare with a medjool date from Palestine. Big, fat, soft and bursting with flavour.

Our two hours evening screen watch has moved into suck it and see mode since we finished Breaking Bad. What’s that Walt White like!! We’ve finished Outlander. Good last episode after one or two weak ones. Had to give up on the latest Bosch as it’s far too ‘bitty’ and the fast, clipped accents of some actors are too difficult to make out.

Bedtime reading has moved from fiction to the tragic events of the Bavarian uprising in 1919. Dreamers by Volker Weidermann gives an account of the chaotic attempt to establish a worker’s state in Bavaria on the back of the Great War and its horrific impact on the lives of ordinary people. Dreamers because behind the movement and influential in it were writers and poets whose hearts were in the right place but they lacked the ruthless selfish drive of politicians for their movement to succeed. They had some ideas but no roadmap, as today’s parlance goes. Contrary to the impression always presented in the press and by politicians of most stripes it is the right who tend to be most violent and this was true in Bavaria in 1919 when the extreme right started to shoot anyone suspected of siding with the revolution. The intellectuals and workers who supported a people’s revolution and survived the bullets during the rightwing crackdown were hauled off to concentration camps when the right achieved what the left couldn’t in Bavaria following Hitler’s rise to power. He has a bit part in Dreamers though always denying he was anywhere near there. Wouldn’t recognise truth if it slapped him on the face. A true politician. They’re the real storytellers.

Stay safe.

April 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep safe.

March 19, 2020

Covid-19 – Coronavirus and the Libertarian

Guest blog by Textor

Things, as they say, are sometimes liable to come back to bite you.

That is if you let your guard down.

And let’s face it many of us have in one way or another let our guards down.

Coronavirus aka Covid-19 has bought home to us that as content as we are in our privileged advanced (there’s a cultural joke) economies the world is other than it seems. Assuming we are not in the gig economy, not queuing at a food bank then things can only get better. We who have access to a fair number of the good things of life; we who thought the real world was little more than novelties in the digital market place – including the delights of Amazon Prime or Netflix – or ever more commodities; we have been brought up short in little over three months by the brute fact of Nature.  Bang! Nature has reared up and taken an almighty bite out of this hubris.

Yes, we are all more or less aware, all more or less concerned/unconcerned about climate change and the impact of the Anthropocene (the Age deemed to be when humankind’s effect upon the planet Earth has been sufficient to cause global, catastrophic change.) Regardless of the evident societal alterations required to alleviate a “far off” doom we – those lucky enough to avoid floods, devastating fires etc.- could in the short term just get on with it; recycle as if there were no tomorrow you might say. Waiting for the end of climate change.

But sometimes Nature does not allow us the luxury of waiting for the apocalypse: coronavirus is just such a time. For decades microbiologists have been predicting the coming of a pandemic. The so-called Spanish Flu provided a model of how devastating a modern microbiological disaster could be. Wikipedia gives figures as high as 100 million dying in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20; more than the man-made slaughter on the battlefields of the Great War. Science had the capacity to devise the most wonderful weapons of death but could not stop the ‘flu.

Evolution has “designed” a human organism capable of sophisticated speech with the capacity to adapt itself to wide variations of environmental conditions. At the same time, and perhaps a necessary part of being human, it put its stamp on Nature. Beavers might dam rivers and create lakes but humans could build the Grand Coulee Dam, produce electricity to power a so-called Second Industrial Revolution. Clever, even ambitious. But no matter how sophisticated is the vast commodity producing system that is industrial capitalism it is no match for the potential speed at which a micro-organism might evolve. Humans have brains big enough to predict outcomes and have the technical knowhow (probably) to design and manufacture anti-virals capable of slowing and even halting the spread of Covid-19 – yes humans could in the next few months do this. But for all this Nature remains unconquered. Natural selection continues without any mastermind operating behind the scenes. And we know, or should know, that this process of selection can be good for some species and bad for others.

And so, the long-predicted crisis has arrived. The pandemic is here and the search goes on for a solution. As with previous modern national and global health events the pharmaceutical industry play a crucial role. However, historically necessary component solutions come under the direction and control of local or national state apparatuses. In other words, individuals/institutions are first advised and then told what to do. Sanctions are threatened and sanctions are imposed.

Nothing new in this. Here in northeast Scotland as far back as the 15th century Aberdeen’s magistrates fearful of plague had the bell rung through the medieval town proclaiming the city’s ports (gates) close, lokit with lokis and keis, at night to prevent strangers entering unobserved. A compact medieval town could very swiftly succumb to viral and bacterial threats. Medieval doctors and apothecaries knew little of the causes of infectious diseases but empirically they were aware that for all claims of God expending his wrath on a sinful community, contagion could be slowed by isolating infected families and potential carriers. Whether this would thwart Divine justice was maybe a theological point not to be dwelt upon. And, it’s worth noting that certainly by the 17th century Aberdeen’s magistrates were also attempting to clean the city of middens, street filth and asking that households be kept clean. This lesson on the need for cleanliness was largely lost by the early 19th century when poorer parts of Aberdeen where people living cheek-by-jowl and in slum conditions were condemned to the horrors of cholera and dysentery. This was industrialising capitalism; the poor were there to be exploited and maybe pitied.

As the centuries progressed even more controls were imposed. Vessels were prevented from entering the harbour, merchandise was left in ship holds. On the other hand, when the threat was seen to be coming from internal migration strangers were banned from entering the town. Town ports were watched and at one stage in 1606 dealers in timber were told to stay away under paine of death. Trade suffered as commodities ceased to flow between manufacturers, tradesmen and consumers. In 1647, again in the midst of plague, draconian measures were introduced with, for example, all ydle stranger beggars . . .  forthwith removed and banished. Any who returned were to be scourged, branded and driven out.

Authoritarian management is a basic mechanism for control of epidemic-pandemic events. Our current crisis has stark contrasts. On the one hand the relatively fast and severe imposition of lock-down in parts of China. With over seventy years of state control the Chinese Communist Party has an apparatus better adapted to widespread controls than liberal democracies. Compare the Chinese response to the bumbling worlds of the UK and USA brought stumbling towards closing doors and mass quarantine.

These manoeuvres will probably bring howls of anger from libertarians both right and left – those who don’t want to be told what to do by the state. Their individual rights, some might say entitlement, trumps (if you’ll pardon the expression) all else. Allowing for the nastiness of all three states mentioned (China, US and UK) this form of libertarianism smacks of, at best, infantile petulance and at worst disintegrative individualism which fails to recognise a larger vision of human community even one within a capitalist formation. Remember the outcry about seat belts and crash helmets – with cries of freedom from state tyranny? Of course the consequences of a libertarian freedom to roam in a time of a modern plague threatens not only the lives of the defence of freedom lobby but ultimately the well-being of global communities. 

And the bite of Nature? As much as humankind imagines itself master/mistress of the world the reality is otherwise. From small nibbles such as occasional volcanic eruption to the all-encompassing bite of climate change Nature exists, not dependent on human imagination, not caring one way or another what happens to humans or any other species. It, if that’s the correct word, does what it does.Humans although in Nature and of Nature are different insofar as this species can make choices. It can gather knowledge, can know history and can act. There lies the rub.

March 7, 2020

The High Price of Coffee

Guest post by Textor

Agent Dale Cooper’s much-loved phrase damn fine cup of coffee helped put the dark beverage back on the trending map in the 1990s. Since then it has been once again boosted, this time by hipsterdom and the emergence of the barista. Long gone are the days when the most exotic flavour of coffee was one containing a slug of whisky – or roasted bullocks’ livers; sometimes added to coffee as an adulteration in the 19th century.

Coffee by Mike Kenneally

We hear so much about globalisation today as though the machinations, strategies and practices of industry and capital across the globe are a recent invention. There’s no doubt that since the 1980s the international mobility of capital has increased with whole industries moving lock-stock-and barrel across state boundaries. Commentators tell us that this free-flow of capital and enterprise in search of cheap, more “efficient” labour, and advantageous tax and tariff benefits offered by some national states, has led to the abandonment of so-called traditional industrial workers and their communities. Those affected have to compete for low-paid work or try to live on desperately poor state benefits. It is this, it is said, that lies behind the pathetic fight-back seen in the rise of Trump in the USA and closer to home in the votes given to the Tory party by working class voters in the north of England.

But don’t be fooled. While acknowledging the rapidity of industrial and commercial change in the past four decades it remains true that industrial capitalism was founded on its global reach which entailed the creation of new labour forces and the destruction of “traditional” communities. At times this was a zero sum game with winners and losers across the globe; in the 19th-20th centuries most of the winners were in Europe and North America as national capitals industrialised and turned to far-flung countries and communities for raw materials and cheap labour.This global division of labour literally paid dividends not only for investors but portions of the British working class, although given the necessary competitive nature of capitalism this was always vulnerable to the fluctuations of business cycles, technological innovation and the turbulence of international relations. This meant booms as well as times of depression  with unemployment and wage struggles as workers fought for their own interests. Britain was the empire builder of the 19th century. The stretch of its “pink” across the globe was achieved by a mixture of commercial power and military might with “formal” and “informal” forces conspiring to bring the benefits of global trade back to British capitalists.

Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire 1886

A player in this ever-expanding world-wide market place was William McKinnon of Aberdeen, engineer and iron founder. Originating in 1798 this business on the north side of what was then still a compact city, more medieval in form than modern industrial, McKinnon’s seems to have made do with local customers until about 1850. Its integration into the global market came as a result of an expansion in demand for tropical products, notably coffee, cacao and tea; raw materials which had the distinction of involving the exploitation of indigenous and migrant  labour and land in “faraway” places. While historian Regina Wagner asserts that in the 1840s McKinnon’s “mass produced” coffee machinery I think it’s more accurate to date this to the 1860s and I’d be hesitant about calling it mass production. These caveats aside, it’s true to say that the tropical product market gave McKinnon’s an international reputation which lasted into the 21st century. What’s in a name? In the case of some of McKinnon’s processing machinery are references to a history of imperial enterprise, industrial expansion and, at times, ruthless exploitation; specifically the names Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa who designed machines manufactured in Aberdeen for exporting to coffee plantations in places such as Guatemala in Central America.

McKinnon’s penetration of a markets thousands of miles from Aberdeen seems to have flowed from  a connection with one James Gordon, a locally-trained engineer who in the 1840s “followed the flag” to Ceylon where he became a partner in Affleck & Gordon of Bogambara. After about seven years abroad he returned to Britain and founded the London-based John Gordon & Co. Colonial Engineers. Familiar with Aberdeen’s engineering industries he linked up with McKinnon and this relationship led to the expansion of McKinnon’s tropical trade. To get back to the Guatemala connection and coffee. Three men, Julius Smout, José Guardiola and Emil Robert Okrassa independently designed coffee processing machinery which McKinnon, through either expiring patents or acquisition of rights, manufactured products to their designs.

For something like 700 years (250-900 CE) Mayan civilisation dominated the American isthmus. The area’s entry to European history came in the 16th century when Spanish forces landed with the intention of plundering, Christianising and colonising what became Guatemala, part of the so-called New World although, of course, it was only new to the colonisers. This brought to the land and its peoples an abiding connection with Europe which after the fall of the Spanish Empire and Guatemalan “independence” in the 1820s the country became a small focal point in the web of global trade.

Central America c1840s

Julius Smout, from Landsberg in Prussia travelled to Guatemala in the 1840s, an employee of the Belgian Colonization Company. The name betrays its intention. With the connivance of Leopold I and the Guatemalan government the BCC acquired 264,000 acres of “undeveloped” land and was responsible for expelling indigenous peoples from the land. In return the company committed to invest in commerce and industry and in typical imperialist fashion it was awarded tax concessions and monopoly rights. But even this was not enough to guarantee success. BCC organisation seems to have been shambolic; local merchants opposed its monopolization of trade and the company went bankrupt in 1854. Julius Smout was nonetheless in the right place at the right time, at least right for any westerner hoping to benefit from the potential of the tropical land. The ingenious Smout designed a coffee huller and polisher (essential processes in coffee production) so good it was said to process beans to perfection. When Julius sold the patent to John Gordon the Aberdeen connection was made. McKinnon’s went on to manufacture thousands of Smout’s compact hullers and polishers as well as large models, including one which could process 123 tons a day. The compact machines were ideal for small plantations: cheap and fairly easily transportable – to high ground inland where coffee was grown. Replacement parts were despatched from distant Aberdeen or London. Coffee production burgeoned in Guatemala with Europe’s and North America’s near insatiable demand for the beverage.

Smout Peeler and Polisher

Between 1860 and the 1870s production spread like wildfire. Managers, engineers and agronomists arrived to oversee plantation labour, mostly indigenous Mayans whose land was taken for turned over to satisfying the international taste for coffee. While foreign capital invested in coffee production some local landowners, too, looked to take advantage of this expanding market. One such Guatemalan landowner was José Guardiola. Guardiola owned an estate close to the city of Escuintla. He was enthusiastic about the commercialisation of the area’s agriculture and when the Catholic Church began to sell off parcels of land once farmed by independent Mayan families, José was an early investor. Eventually he owned close on 8000 acres. His coffee and cacao estate was called Finca Chocola: Chocola was Mayan for ancient city – little consolation for dispossessed Mayans with ever increasing wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of men of European origin. The inventive landowner increased the profitability of his estate with his design of a dryer capable of processing 120 sacks of beans per day. Apparently when the dryer patent terminated McKinnon stepped in to manufacture an improved version that could be used on either coffee or cacao beans; this was about 1882. In 1891 Guardiola sold the estate to a German businessman.

Guardiola Dryer

The last of the trio, Emil Robert Okrassa, was yet another German. He arrived in Guatemala in 1884 to work on an estate near Antigua in the country’s central highlands (Antigua is now an UNESCO designated World Heritage site.) Famed for its Spanish-influenced architecture the city is evidence of Guatemala’s role in the history of colonisation. By the time Emil arrived coffee exports from Guatemala stood at more than 134 million kilograms annually. Similar to earlier inventors he recognised how technological improvements could ease labour shortages while ensuring the quality of processed beans was consistently high. Okrassa patented a de-pulper in 1891 and an improved polisher and huller. In the first decade of the 20th century he sold patent rights to processors in the USA and McKinnon in Aberdeen. Their roles in the development of coffee processing is the reasons the three names, Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa were cast onto the sides of the coffee trade’s iron machinery and recorded in the pages of the company’s catalogues.

Okrassa Dryer

This period of High Victorian enterprise had its winners and losers. In Aberdeen men fortunate enough to find regular employment in McKinnon’s engineering shops were guaranteed an income. In addition, through a combination of political and trade struggles, allied with progressive employers and others, conditions of employment were improved. It was not a Golden Age for Aberdeen workers but compared to, for example, the horrors which were to be found in textile mills pre-1850 things were definitely better for these men. On the other side of the world workers harvesting tropical products such as coffee were being marginalised from the political process while workers in Britain were slowly being granted franchise rights. Economic power in tropical estates was concentrated in non-indigenous hands and local workers were pushed into debt bondage where running away was often the only way of escaping the clutches of employers. Even today gang masters are still to be found, as is child labour. The long history of colonisation and racism has left a deep and dark mark on Central America.

Harvesting Coffee, Guatemala 1870s

So, enough of the current whinge that globalisation is something new. Enough of the story which has Britain hard done by. Enough of the cry “if only we had not surrendered sovereignty” life would be so much better. This is and has been for a long time the mark of capitalist exploitation. British capital advanced through the 19th century by doing just this and in the process was able to concede benefits to the working class. Of course at the same time it was wasting other cultures and at times reducing foreign labour to all but slavery. This was the hugely productive economic and colonial chain which bound the Victorian world.

McKinnon’s, for all the skills that went into the manufacture of Smout, Guardiola and Okrassa machines, and the pride that men and their families might have felt seeing the company’s name on crates bound for the tropics, it should be remembered that this was but one link in a sometimes cruel enterprise.

The machinery developed by Smout, Guardiola and Ossaka were mainly successful in ensuring beans left plantations in fine condition and ready for roasting to satisfy differing tastes. They still do but Aberdeen’s engineering works, once indispensable to the trade have long gone. And just as 19th century processing technologies can still be found in 21st century plantations so, sad to say, are harsh exploitative conditions. At the larger level, as with all capitalist production, the industry is subject to the ups and downs of supply and demand and practices of their major producers and processors. At the local level – where the trees are grown, where the coffee cherry is harvested, where pulpers, peelers, dryers and graders turn out beans for the world market, there is still child labour, debt bondage and environmental damage – all to satisfy a craving for caffeine and, of course, turn a profit.  So next time you have a cup of Joe remember how it was and still is manufactured. What might be good for you might not be so good for others.

See http://www.chocolaproject.org/finca.html

See https://old.danwatch.dk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Bitter-coffee-Guatemala-2016.pdf

See https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/coffee/

February 27, 2020

Don’t try this at home, folks: quack medicine, bloodletting and a hen coop at sea

Fear over the spread of coronavirus has led to a spate of so-called miracle cures such as drinking a couple of ginger teas daily. That sounds as useful as Spectator and Financial Times journalist Camilla Cavendish’s recommendation of aerobic exercise to fight off dementia. Neither the tea or exercise will harm you but as for their efficacy – I have my doubts. Much like the ginger tea advice for coronavirus, a strong infusion of elder blossom and peppermint tea at bedtime was recommended to stall death.

Miracle cure claims are as old as the hills. Before drugs were controlled some terrifying concoctions found their way into people’s stomachs, and other parts, with fatal consequences. At the beginning of the 20th century the British Medical Association published information warning the public about quack ‘remedies’ widely advertised and available. The scoundrels who promised cures for everything from alcoholism to corns had a ready market for access to a doctor was usually way beyond the means of most people. The BMA’s cautionary advice might stop folk wasting their money on swallowing cod’s wallop, some deadly, but did not provide alternative relief to impoverished sick people.

Box’s Golden Fire was poisonous. People still purchased it. It is often said that people today live longer than in the past – they don’t. People in the past did live to ripe old ages but fewer of them than now. There were lots of reasons for the incidences of premature death – poor health, dangerous working conditions, accidents, overcrowded living conditions, general filth, lack of sewerage, poor medical facilities and treatment etc – and so of all causes of premature death quack cures probably rate low but they did contribute to dispatching the desperate.

What of Box of the poisonous Golden Fire? Mr Box claimed he could cure cancer, TB, diphtheria, wind, influenza, heart disease and blindness, to name a few. Another of his wheezes, his Electric Fluid of Intense Power – was promoted as being able to dissolve ‘obstructions’ in the system (of sufferers.) Frankly that sounds terrifying.

But, what of his Golden Fire? It could be rubbed on or swallowed. The fire referred to ‘the hidden fire or life of plants and flowers, the “Quint-essence of Life!” His punctuation. “Bottled Fire!” “Bottled Health!” “Bottled Life!” Box was also keen on Biblical quotes to validate his claims, a particularly nasty trait aimed at winning over the sick and vulnerable folk who had little or no access to health care.

And quack medicines were never short of testimonials.

‘My brother-in-law had his leg jammed in South Africa between rocks just above the ankle. He came home, and feared he would be a cripple for life. I advised him to get you Pills and “Golden Fire,” which he did, and after 6 days a spot came out under the heel as Black As Your Hat. He has since left for America Quite Cured.’

I still haven’t said what’s in his Golden Fire. Here we go. Box was enraged by the BMA casting aspersions on his ‘cure’ so in order to ‘sew up the lying lips’ of the medical authorities he submitted his Golden Fire to chemical analysis. His Fire contained ‘certain carefully selected and powerful, but perfectly innocent, ingredients…’, according to him. These ingredients consisted of acetic acid (which can damage skin, eyes and internal organs), sodium chloride (salt), volatile oils (eucalyptus, camphor, amber, rosemary, alcohol, starch, dextrin (glucose), extractive (barley, lobelia, capsicum). Lobelia, poisonous, was widely used in herbal medicines throughout the 19th century. As for Box’s pills their size varied, as did their ingredients which, in addition to the above, contained flour, soap, aloes and water. The pills were sold at twelve times the value of their worthless ingredients.

Syrup of Poppies sounds a bit more like it. A typical recipe would be to add 3 ½ pounds of white poppies to 6 pounds of sugar and steep in 8 gallons of distilled water. That sounds like the makings of a pretty damn good party – a children’s party for the poppy syrup was kid’s stuff.

Morphine from poppies was a common ingredient in infant soothing syrups. Just the job to send a child to sleep and keep her sleeping for the long hours her mother toiled in Britain’s mills and factories. An alternative version contained potassium bromide (another sedative), alcohol, anise oil but mainly sugar. Often Senna, rhubarb, Cascara Sagrada etc were included, presumably because of the constipating effect of the sedatives. `

Naturally adults were also consumers of the old poppy syrup. For those inclined to over-imbibe while on the high seas there was the risk of falling overboard. If this happened it was advised to throw a hen coop into the water as close to the drowning person as possible. Hopefully, the coop would float and the drowning man could grab hold of it. It his rescue took a long time he might have eggs to keep up his strength. But to avoid such unfortunate accidents at sea it was recommended sailors stitch cork shavings into their clothes, to keep them afloat – and make it easier to reach the hen coop.

The Great Indian Gout and Rheumatic Cure, Levasco, was discovered by a Hindu Doctor in the Himalayan Mountains. Rubbed onto the skin it was said to be absorbed and then break up uric acid crystals while diffusing heat to pain centres. This marvellous treatment worked within hours, even banishing bothersome sciatica. Or didn’t. It also claimed to sort out toothache, headaches, earache – aches of every kind. Levasco was made up of capsicum, rosemary, lavender, camphor, alcohol and soap.

from Berlin came Radium Salve to treat lupus, cancer and all skin diseases. Its radioactive ingredients were in tiny amounts but still…also from Germany was Sprengel’s herbal juice – a blood purifier to tackle diphtheria, trichinosis and whooping-cough. A brown liquid it contained powdered jalap bulbs, suspended in a liquid containing alcohol and liquorice. Jalap is a member of the morning glory family of plants and a purgative, and was illegal in Germany.

Men’s preoccupation with preserving their hair encouraged wonderful head tonics such as the Mexican Hair Renewer and Lockyer’s Sulphur Hair Restorer which could even turn grey hair back to its original colour! Actually, most hair preparations claimed this. These quack concoctions were largely sulphur, lead acetate and lead sulphate, glycerine and rose water. You probably don’t need telling that the lead content was highly poisonous.

Fat was tackled with the Nelson Lloyd Obesity Cure; guaranteed to work. There was no such person as Nelson Lloyd, or rather there was a man who used that name on his ‘cure.’ Not only was his name not Lloyd but his claim to have studied medicine was also untrue. All sorts of names to dupe folk were used – Nurse so-and-so was a favourite, designed to fool folk into believing some kind of nursing/medical knowledge was behind the product. Nurse Hammond was typical of the madey up, approach to deceiving the sick. ‘Her’ remedies for not sure what exactly were marketed as Treatment No.1, Treatment No. 2 and Treatment No. 3. The difference? The price. Treatment No. 3 was over three times the price of No 1 which was twice the price of Number 2. Liquid No 2 combined alcohol with glycerine and not much else. Treatment pills contained some iron and very little else besides the talc they were coated with, a tiny bit liquorice, starch, and soap.

The words, ‘cones are placed in the rectum’ drew my attention when reading up on the topic. This was a wheeze from a ‘Mrs Stafford-Brookes’ – her pelloids were pessaries of boric acid, oil of Theobroma and a smidgen of quinine. Boric acid has been used as an antiseptic for a long time. Theobroma is cocoa butter and was often an ingredient in suppositories and pessaries. Quinine is famously used to treat malaria but it can be lethal in the wrong hands. Just why Mrs Stafford-Brookes wanted folk to stick her pelloids into their rectums I haven’t managed to get to the bottom of yet

Quack medicine providers

In that vicinity, the Absorptive Pile Treatment sound worrying while Martin’s Apiol and Steel Pills aimed at women – they were pink chalk-coated – thankfully contained not steel but iron, Barbados aloes, apiol (known to cause liver and kidney damage) cinnamon and cardamom. Cheap ingredients sold at extortionate prices.

Pregnant women were encouraged to take Matrozone to ensure their children became healthy, beautiful and smart. This was basically diluted alcohol. The few trace solids detected in the cure were suspected to have come from through the tap water content or dust or other chance contamination when it was being bottled.

Alcohol and drug addictions were tackled with the highly dangerous poisons, strychnine and brucine (similar to strychnine.) I think the idea was to induce vomiting and get up what had gone down. These poisons were also promoted for gnawing and baldness. Gnawing might have been used here as a reference to depression or extreme worrying.

In the United States leprosy was put down to cigarette smoking by some authorities (not very authoritative authorities.)

More universal was bloodletting. Once this procedure was regarded as an important means of ridding the body of all things harmful. Hospital floors were described as slippery hazards, awash with patients’ blood. A German physician visiting England in 1836 found medicine there consisted of prescribing mercury, purging and blood-letting. Draining patients’ blood was very popular for a time. Barber-surgeons often carried out this procedure (think of the red and white barber poles still around – red for blood and white for bandages) – they would ‘breath’ a vein – cut into an artery. Another means of bloodletting was carried out with a scarificator, a smart piece of kit that was spring-loaded and armed with gears to enable a blade to move in a circular fashion through the skin.  Leeches, lots and lots of them, were frequently applied to the skin, again and again till patients ran out of blood and fainted. Fainting was seen as a good sign.

“Leeches were applied, and over and over again the patient died while the leeches were on his temples- died as surely as if shot through the head.”

There was nothing that the removal of copious amounts of blood could not cure. Allegedly. It did not matter what the complaint was – cancer, plague, TB, stroke, leprosy, herpes – bloodletting would sort it out. Even a broken heart was tackled, in France, by spilling blood till the point of death.

Bloodletting

Mercury was a standard medicine for treating parasites and syphilis as far back as ancient Greece. In the 19th century it was applied to the treatment of typhoid fever. And before you shake your head at physicians and others being so free with this dangerous metal think about those amalgam fillings in your teeth. Amalgam was introduced in the 1830s to preserve rotting teeth – an amalgam of silver, tin, copper, zinc and mercury. Antimony was another favourite and toxic purgative that saw off many a man and woman. And children, in more recent times the presence of antimony in mattresses was suspected of being implicated in some cot deaths.

The Pharmacy Act 1868 aimed to restrict the sale of poisons in so-called cures and remedies to qualified pharmacists and druggists, a move not without its critics. Fifteen poisons were named and could only be purchased if the buyer was known to the chemist and the sale recorded in a poison register. Arsenic, commonly used in agriculture to treat sheep ticks etc, was already controlled following the tragic poisoning of over 200 people in Bradford, England, when arsenic inadvertently found its way into sweeties.

Trader, Humbug Billy, sold peppermint humbugs, lozenges, made by a man called Joseph Neal. Neal intended substituting gypsum for sugar which was more expensive. In the 19th century all kinds of nasties went into food and drink, in the drive for profit. On this occasion it appears a young pharmacy assistant got confused and sold arsenic instead of the gypsum (chalk) or dust or whatever the chemist usually sold to bulk foods. Neal then made about 40lbs (18kg) of lozenges and some of these were sold by Humbug Billy. Many died as a result of eating his sweets but at first the deaths were put down to cholera. Eventually the real culprit was detected. Each sweet was found to contain over three times a lethal dose of arsenic.

Inadvertent poisoning was a consequence of quack medicines during the 19th century. Strychnine; potassium cyanide; ergot (grass fungus) used to treat migraine and post-childbirth bleeding; opium and all poppy preparations were as common as aspirin today. Laudanum, tincture of opium, was frequently taken to tackle pain and as a cough suppressant.

Every so often a medical crisis, such as coronavirus, reminds us there are always challenges to be met when it comes to illness. Vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) has been one of the greatest preservers of young lives. There have been questions asked about having the three injected as one dose but there is no evidence of this being harmful and hysterical outcries against the vaccine are positively dangerous to life. The discredited former doctor, Andrew Wakefield, struck off in 2010, has influenced public opinion against vaccination, linking it to autism. The success of measles vaccination has meant huge numbers of people have not encountered how deadly it can be for both children and adults and so underestimate its dangers. Now the incidence of measles is rising across Europe.

There always was opposition to vaccination driven by ignorance, self-interest and belief that mass immunisation was tantamount to totalitarianism – with the population deprived of choice over immunisation, in the interests of the greater good. Sir John Ledingham from Boyndie in Banffshire , a director of the Lister Institute in 1939, was an outspoken critic of such opposition. Ledingham condemned Britain for dragging its feet behind other countries when it came to preventative medicine at a time when children died needlessly from diphtheria, whooping cough and measles.

A fascinating little detail – the prevalence of measles among London’s children at the beginning of the 20th century was so widespread that medical authorities found it near impossible to obtain serum for vaccines from the adult population. It was then discovered that Scottish policemen and domestic servants, and Irish domestics, too, often fell victim to measles on arriving in London from rural parts of Scotland and Ireland where they had never encountered the disease as children. They were pressed to provide serum containing active measles antibodies to protect the city’s youngsters.

Time for a cup of ginger tea followed by some light aerobic exercise. And remember, prevention is better than cure.

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/05/train-your-brain-how-to-keep-your-mind-young/

February 13, 2020

When Buckhaven was nearly the Torremolinos of Escocia: herein lies a fishy tail

Buckhaven

Scotland’s European credentials are well established but it may surprise you to know that Buckhaven in Fife just missed out on being the Torremolinos of, well, Spain when Philip II of Spain took a liking to the place and a boat-load of Spaniards were so fixated gazing at this little Fife gem their ship ran aground. Might have been part of the plan for they don’t appear to have left but struck up relationships with the Fifers who were soon speaking with Spanish accents and conversing in Spanish, shouldn’t it have been the other way round? So taken were Buckhaveners and Spaniards they kept marrying each other, tell me any old fishing community which didn’t, and evolved their own distinctive dialect.

And it wasn’t only Buckhaven that Phillip II was interested in. To be fair he was mainly interested in extending his empire – but he recognised quality when he saw it. On the west coast, Ailsa Craig, (now famous for its granite curling stones) whose natives paid their land rents with solan geese, seabird feathers and rabbit skins and caught an awful lot of cod was where Philip thought he would begin his annexation of the British Isles by having a castle built. Why start with Ailsa Craig. Well, why not?

Spanish wrecks littered the seas and beaches of Scotland. Their love of the place was second only to the Dutch’s. Their links with northeastern Scotland are long. Aberdeen’s sold salt herring and cod to the continent as far back as the 12th century and of such importance was this trade the Dutch word for salt cod is Labberdaan, its old spelling was haberdien – a corruption of Aberdeen.

White fish and pink. For hundreds of years salmon, fished out of Aberdeen’s two rivers, the Dee and Don, was exported, at first to the Continent and then around the whole world, in mind-blowing quantities.

In 1705, two years before the union, the Scottish parliament copied the Dutch example and remitted duties on everything herring-related, and other fish taxes. Fortunes were accumulated. Amsterdam is said to have been founded on the bones of Scottish herring (the stone for its Stadthouse was quarried and shipped out from the Firth of Forth but that is another story.)

With the waters around Orkney and Shetland teeming with fish they attracted the attention of European fishing boats. Don’t say I’m not contemporary. In 1633 1500 herring busses (vessels) protected by 20 armed ships and a further 400 dogger-boats went about in convoy as they fished. They were looking for cod, not difficult then, and caught them by rod and line. Sounds a slow business but tens of thousands were employed fishing. So thick on the water were these fishing vessels in what came to be known as the North Sea an area off England was named Dogger Bank.

Dutch dogger vessel

It’s as if fishing wars have always been with us. Post-union government bounties were offered to encourage more vessels take to sea to catch ever more fish, such was their value to the economy. The trouble was, and oh, how redolent this is of today, preferential treatment was provided to the biggest vessels over small fishing boats. After union with England, Scotland fishing trade declined, partly through the application of a salt tax (fish goes off quickly so must be cured for export and salt was one means of curing it.) Regulations surrounding the tax were complex and cumbersome. Salt was also difficult to acquire without having red tape attached. The setup was so confusing and risky potential fishers were put off from signing contracts.

When in 1720 an attempt was made to resurrect Scotland’s languishing fishing trade cash was paid to 2,000 of what were described as Scotland’s principal people. They failed but pocketed the cash. Similar failures followed, under royal patronage. Each one cost money. Each failed. Commissioners appointed to oversee every new scheme were richly rewarded. Always the same people. For them failure meant hardship for someone else, not them. They pocketed the cash. A lot of it.

Scotland’s water were then as now sources of incredible wealth, not always well-handled in the best interests of the people of Scotland. Bressay Sound at Shetland had one of the finest harbours in the British Isles in 1800. The fishing grounds here were almost monopolised by the Dutch; like those folk down the east coast many Shetlanders could communicate in Dutch. English vessels, too, headed north to fish for herring, ling, tusk, sea otters and seals. Sponges were sought and ambergris – a secretion of the bile duct in sperm whales that is disgorged into the sea and once used as for medicines, although Charles II loved to eat this stinking waste product. Whalers passed through this busy area on their way to and from Greenland and the Davis’ Straits from Dundee, Aberdeen, Arbroath and Peterhead.

Herds of grampuses (dolphins), sea otters, whales, fish of every description from round to flat were fished off Orkney including coalfish. Coalfish was a mainstay food for many of Scotland’s poorest folk. In Orkney the youngest fish were sillocks, year-olds were cooths and, I think, mature ones, Sethes. Orcadians preferred these wee fish to herring. They also harvested lots of sponges, corals, corallines, large oysters, mussels, cockles etc. and all kinds of unusual things washed ashore from the Atlantic including Molucca or Orkney beans. How they used these mimosa scandens seeds I don’t know – they might have roasted and eaten them or made them into drinks, used them as soaps or threw them at each other. Beyond exotic seeds many varieties of fish were landed. And the odd man. At least once a fin-man or Laplander turned up in his skin canoe.

Orkney beans

Situated between Orkney and Shetland is Fair Isle. Writing about 1800 one commentator described islanders living ‘almost in a state of nature’, whatever that means. His point was that crews on those fishing vessels from Holland and England fishing in the seas around the island raided not only their waters but stole everything they could lift from the island, leaving the people with next to nothing.

In addition to sea fishing carried out on an industrial scale, local communities fished in bays off their villages, in rivers and lochs. At the Solway Firth four distinct methods of catching fish were employed.

  1. Leister – a 4-pronged fork, its prongs turned slightly to one side, and attached to a long shaft of about 20 -24 feet was run along the sand on its edge or thrown at fish. Some expert fishers could spear fish from galloping horses, at great distances. This method was, apparently, very successful.
  2.  Haaving or hauling where the fisher stood in the current trapping fish with a small hand net.
  3.  Pock or small nets were fixed to stakes in rivers to catch fish swimming downstream.
  4.  Boat nets were used to catch salmon.

Fish provided food, oil for lamps and goods to barter for other items. Because fish was readily available it was an important source of income all around Scotland’s coasts. In the Black Isle or Ardmeanach to give it its old name, Rosemarkie’s salmon fishers preserved their catches in ice stored in an ice house near the shore , a deep, dark, dank echoing play place for local children that is now locked up, probably wisely. Avoch was a thriving fishing port taking large quantities of herring until recent times. Cromarty was another Black Isle fishing village, and Munlochy on the Moray Firth also had an excellent fishing station.

West Kilbride was known for its cod and white fisheries. Loch Leven for perch, pike, char, eels and especially its trout. Hebridean waters were rich sources of fish. Lewis took vast quantities of white fish, herring, trout and salmon as well as shellfish. Creeks around the rocky island of Muck provided shelter for fishing boats landing ling and cod. There, oil was extracted from cearban or sunfish – basking sharks. This oil was once popular as medicine and sold to Glasgow merchants. Seals were killed for their oil, too.

In addition to fish fish, shellfish were gathered from pools, off rocks, trapped in the water. It is patently obvious mussels were gathered at Musselburgh and there and Fisherrow were associated with good quality shellfish. Not only there, of course. Dornoch, Cramond and Inchmickery Island had their own enormous oyster beds, until overfishing of them put an end to that. Burntisland oysters were renowned, as were/are those from Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne also operated hundreds of herring boats. The harbour at Inverary at the head of Loch Fyne was called Slochk Ichopper, the gullet where vessels bought or bartered fish. Bartering herring for French wine took place at an area given the name, Frenchman’s point.

Men fished on boats but women and children were involved in all other aspects of the trade; preparing lines and nets, baiting lines, cleaning and processing fish and selling it. Local trading was hard graft for the wicker creels women carried on their backs were heavy before being loaded with wet fish and fishwives would walk long distances to make sales. As a point of interest, we often hear about fishwives but women hawkers sold all kinds produce in towns and country – kailwives sold vegetables and saltwives sold salt, for example.

The diversity of Scotland’s fishing trade began to dwindle when it stopped being a collective activity and became increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, of major businessmen. In addition, back in 1800 some small communities struggled to keep boats at sea and in rivers because their villages were targeted by the British Navy, eager to take away their fit and healthy young men who were able seamen. As with the army when men were needed all eyes turned northwards to Scotland. London could never get enough of Scots men, not only fit and strong but obedient. This was especially true during times of war – which was most of the time. Johnshaven, south of Aberdeen, lost many of its men to press-gangs.

Back in the day fishing was a community enterprise not confined to the handful of billionaire interests that we have now in the white fish industry but, as we’ve seen by the 18th century, public money found its way into the pockets of the rich through subsidies and enticements. During Scotland’s independent centuries fishing as a trade flourished, it was an important source of revenue for the nation, despite the attentions of Spaniards, Dutch and, yes, English seamen. Post-union whaling was for a fairly brief period enabled by virtue of larger vessels capable of sailing to inhospitable places such as Greenland and the Davis’ Straits. Risks were great, though not for the moneyed men behind voyages to harpoon the whale who waited in the warm comforts of their homes for the expected huge profits to further inflate their fortunes. And there was part of that that went straight into Westminster’s coffers; Scotland’s first oil bonanza went the same way as its second. It is hard for us to appreciate the degree of wealth generated from whaling, white fish and salmon. Good riddance to whaling and as for fishing, Scotland’s waters are no longer stuffed with fish as they once were; greed and overfishing have diminished stocks in our seas, rivers and lochs – denial, greed and short-termism has afflicted the trade of fishing for a very long time.

January 5, 2020

The Rampant Kelt

Pall Mall Gazette 30 May 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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