Archive for ‘Scottish Nationalism’

May 31, 2018

The Faroe Islands – a lesson in small nation success through ambition not subservience

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/nation

May 18, 2018

Press Freedom, Fake News, the Herald and me

Press Freedom and propaganda

ipso herald breach
Press freedom is an interesting concept. Does it mean freedom for newspapers to write what they choose knowing there will be few or no repercussions even when downright lies are told? We are encouraged to think of press freedom as the ability to investigate and shine a light on corruption at the heart of the establishment – isn’t that worth defending? Of course it is.

In the week a dramatised account of the seamy episode in the ‘illustrious’ career of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe is to be televised nothing could be a better reminder than the cosy alliance that too often exists between the press and powerful individuals who make bargains to keep their murkier activities between friends.

Once again press freedom is high up on the political agenda – some demanding more regulation while others demand less. Whatever the outcome surely nothing will stop the steady drift away from people buying a daily newspaper when there are alternative sources of news available. But! but! scream the journos we are the guardians of the truth in a social media world drowning in fake news.

“I fabricated stories about drug dealers, neo-Nazis, people who were selling guns, people who were selling fake documents.” Graham Johnson (New of the World journalist) May 2012

The Mail, the Telegraph, the Express in 2016 were reported to IPSO for publishing fake stories over Brexit – well, there were plenty of those around. Most of these were scare stories about immigrants, threat of Isil, invasion by terrorists if UK stays in the EU, crime soaring because of foreigners. You get the picture. We got the picture. The slim vote for Brexit proved it.

This was not fake news. The traditional press doesn’t do fake news. It makes mistakes and corrects them in small print, never headlines, always a corner of an inside page that is forever where corrections are buried. And smirks.

Defamation scream journos called out for their absurd prejudices packaged as the sword of truth. The print medium is never nasty, never petty, never offensive – “Up Yours Delors” and a two-fingered gesture to the “French fool” (1990, the Sun) was made in the best possible taste.

There’s nothing like the whiff of xenophobia to accompany your toast and coffee in the morning and there’s always been plenty of that in Britain’s dailies. Germany turning the Europe into a “Fourth Reich” snarled the Daily Mail, measured as always in 2011. Back in 1914 the same newspaper (propaganda weapon) produced hysterical references to the despised Germans to drum up support for war. None of it fake. Oh, no. Means to an end.

The notorious Zinoviev letter – way too far back for today’s journos to know about – was a fiction – a letter said to have been written by Grigory Zinoviev, part of the Soviet Union government, to Britain’s communist party, implicating the Labour Party in dangerous revolutionary politics fair alarmed voters and led to a huge Conservative victory in the impending general election. 

Scare tactics work. Newspapers and TV and radio know that. We saw how scare tactics were used with great success during the Scottish independence referendum and again in the Brexit referendum. Tell a lie, make sure it’s a big ‘un and keep on telling it. People will swallow it hook, line and sinker. Big lies, fake news – same difference – one of the successful methods used by the Nazis. It works.

Hysteria over fake news in social media is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black and déjà vu all over again, and again.

Despite the dramatic fall in readership the printed press is everywhere on our high streets and in our village shops – headlines provide a narrative of events and issues we are expected to care about. Headlines define the scandal/problem/celebration/disaster. Headlines and the sub-heading that lots of readers won’t get past explain the story in a nutshell. The reader who cares to read further into an article will often discover, however, that the headline and sub-heading have been misleading at best and downright lies at worst.

In times of yore (years of reader exploitation) newspapers could print any nonsense then field a few letters to the editor from irate of Gairloch or whoever, pick and choose whose letters would get published and close down the correspondence when it got too boring/ too close to home. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook changed that. What’s the point of writing to a newspaper editor in the slim hope she/he will print it so the world can gain from your unique insights when you can editorialise in your own head and instantly post your opinions to an eager/indifferent readership right around the world, not just in Gairloch, on your favourite social media site?

You can also report dodgy newspaper articles to the press standards bodies: IMPRESS and IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation.) That involves dedication, time and persistence because any complaint against an editor of a newspaper is likely to be met with a quick denial of the wot me gov’? variety followed by a steady shake of the head that they made any mistake/told lies/hacked phones/covered up establishment scandals/covered up thalidomide/ manipulated information – you know – the kind of stuff they say goes on in other parts of the world – always Russia – but never, ever in the UK.

And Leveson ? Leveson peveson. Who cares? Another day. Another little tweek here a snip there – aahh, we wouldn’t have our news stories any other way  – trimmed to fit our own agenda.

Mischief in the art of headline creation is weaponisation of the press to push an ideology close to the editor’s heart. Think of the power of an unscrupulous editor/journo able to churn out articles aimed to discredit/ promote a government/council/issue. I’m sure many of you will have lots of examples springing to mind. And beware of under-educated narcissists who see news in terms of themselves.

With so much trash presented as news in Britain’s newspapers it’s little wonder the press is in the state it is. A dearth of talent, an explosion of one-sided comment from people distinguished only by their mediocrity. Who is the press there for –journalist or readers?

“Power without responsibility” was Stanley Baldwin’s description of the press in 1931. This week the UK government batted away the promised continuation of the Leveson inquiry – a decision immediately challenged in the Lords. Something is rotten in the state of British journalism.

herald - Copy

Earlier this year The Herald gave huge prominence to a story ostensibly about a report from Oxfam, Reward Wealth Not Work on the same day it was published, 22 January. Its headline:
SCOTLAND’S WIDENING INEQUALITY GAP IS ‘OUT OF CONTROL

and beneath

Oxfam report finds nation’s richest 1% has more wealth than the bottom 50%.

The Oxfam report published the day of the Herald article drew on its survey of 70,000 people in ten countries. One of the countries listed was the United Kingdom – nowhere in the Oxfam report was Scotland mentioned. When I challenged the Herald on its coverage of this report the paper claimed the piece and its figures were not a reference to that day’s report Reward Work, Not Wealth which I considered disingenuous to say the least.

The headline was bold – ‘out of control.’ A major claim in itself and a subjective point of view. Readers were led to believe this was a conclusion of that day’s report not least because the piece went on to make reference to that day’s Oxfam report – its international report – but note the subdeck included the term ‘nation’s’ i.e. singular which is odd since this report covered ten nations. The reader was led to assume Oxfam’s findings in the report referred to research done in Scotland since Scotland was mentioned in the Herald piece, however, there was not one mention of Scotland in the Oxfam report itself. I know I’ve read it.

The Herald insisted this headline did not breach the Editor’s Code for accuracy and the quote was from an Oxfam spokesperson in Glasgow; we are not told if this person was involved in the report (her name is not included in it.) In any case this was irrelevant. Whether or not she worked for Oxfam had no bearing on the findings of the Reward Work, Not Wealth report – the one alluded to in the piece.

Lest we should doubt which Oxfam report the Herald article had in mind it continued:

“A new report from Oxfam reveals that in Scotland…”

which was a downright misrepresentation of the report and significantly misleading.

I complained to IPSO of the misleading nature of the Herald’s high-profile article. In response the Herald responded, “I accept that the figures in the second paragraph of the story do not come from the Reward Work, Not Wealth report, as the general reader might infer.”

I suppose I am general reader, as will be the majority of Herald readers. Who is the paper written for if not the general reader?

The Herald accepted figures quoted in the second paragraph did not come from that day’s international report – meaning others did, just not those, conceding that the article conflated two reports – that day’s and the reason for running the story on 22 January 2018, not the 21st or the 23rd with an old report. 

Sandra Dick’s article continued : “It is now urging governments around the world, including Holyrood, to rethink economic and tax policies to help tighten the gap Oxfam’s report, Reward Not, Not Wealth, is published today …” The ‘It’ in question is Oxfam – the reference is its report. And, readers, remember there was no mention to Holyrood in the Oxfam report. It was as if desperate to make a political point the Herald included a direct reference to the Scottish parliament and not only that but emphasised Holyrood to make sure we all got the message.

And in the same careless or deliberately misleading fashion the next paragraph also began with ‘It’ – again quoting from the new report. The effect was at the very least sloppy but given the pointed headline surely there was more intention than accident in its construction.

The Herald fought my complaint throughout the IPSO process – threw up all kinds of distractions both bemusing and irrelevant and left me questioning the quality of those at its helm.

The Herald tried to argue the story was presented through a Scottish prism which would be fair enough had this been made clear but the Herald’s handling of the Oxfam report on the 22nd was more like the usual ploy of taking any issue and hanging a kilt on it.

• The report that led to the story being published on the 22 January this year was an Oxfam Report, Reward Work, Not Wealth released that day.
• The story run by the Herald was not run on the 21st nor the 23rd but the 22nd; the day the report came out. To dismiss the charge that it was that day’s report and not another from an earlier period, previously covered by the Herald, stretches credibility.
• The Herald chose to run this story because of the new report and placed it on its front page with a headline suggesting its findings in Scotland revealed Scotland’s inequality gap was ‘out of control.’
• Beneath the headline the paper published “Oxfam report” figures but some of these were from a report that was produced for Scotland in 2015.
• Conflating one report with another in this way the Herald led readers to conclude that day’s report had investigated Scotland and made specific references to Scotland which was not true and to pass this off, as the editor did, of a failure in editing was disingenuous.
• The whole inference in the article, because of the Herald’s construction of the story and its use of quotes and highlighting of certain words, led the reader to believe that day’s published report included data from Scotland (separate from findings across the UK.)
• The Oxfam report, Reward Work, Not Wealth, drew on international data including the UK but did not specifically refer to Scotland. Yet this is not what we are led to believe in the Herald coverage of it.
• That the Herald referred to “A new report from Oxfam reveals that in Scotland…” meaning Reward Work, Not Wealth, is patently untrue and significantly misleading.
• That the Herald made direct reference to Holyrood (the Scottish parliament) in the sentence beginning “It” – a reference to that day’s released report, Reward Work, Not Wealth is again grossly misleading and deceitful – “It is now urging governments around the world, including Holyrood, to rethink economic and tax policies to help tighten the gap Oxfam’s report, Reward Work Not, Not Wealth, is published today …” I reiterate nowhere in that report is there any mention of Holyrood
• The editor’s insistence that its references to Oxfam were to a researcher in Glasgow were not relevant to my complaint. The Herald already covered the information supplied by this researcher in previous editions of the paper.
• That Oxfam in Glasgow was happy with the coverage is again a red herring and this had no bearing on the complaint.
• The editor was happy to run a misleading story on his paper’s front page but coy about putting a link to an apology on this same page to the full correction on page 2.
• The wording for the correction on page 2 can never obviate the misleading impression left by this front page article.

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ipso 2 and 3

Fake news comes in many forms – complete fabrications, omission of information, manipulation of facts, figures and context. It has always been a feature of our press. Fake news wasn’t the invention of social media. It has always been a feature of our press. It always will be. That’s why I don’t buy newspapers anymore. I can get my fake news free on social media I don’t have to pay to read it. That must be progress of some kind.

Thanks for reading my blog and take care y’all.

https://www.ipso.co.uk/rulings-and-resolution-statements/ruling/?id=00855-18

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.

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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.

 

 

December 7, 2017

Short-changed: Scotland’s currency a Unit or Unite?

Or minting it in Aberdeen 

rob iii gold lion

Robert III gold lion

Banks have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, again. Can’t remember when it was otherwise. In certain parts of the country such as where I live it’s virtually impossible to find a working bank that doesn’t involve a round trip in a car that takes a good hour and a half or by bus the greater part of a day. It really is like going back more than a century.

Now it appears banks will also remove many cash machines making it all but impossible for folk in rural areas to access their own cash, never mind the difficulties all of this involves for local businesses in depositing takings at the end of each day or for community groups trying to get their hands on change for admission charges to facilities or indeed bank these safely and locally.  

Not so long ago Scotland’s influence over its money supply was greater than now with local banks and even stock exchanges dotted around the country and like now banks issued bank notes but not coins – this ended in Scotland 300 years ago.

Since the Union of 1707 Scotland’s mints along with so much else were consigned to the scrap heap thereby diminishing this nation’s ability to influence her own economy despite Article 16 of the Treaty of Union stipulating that Scotland retain its own mint –

“…a Mint shall be continued in Scotland under the same rules as the Mint in England…”

What happened to that? The Mint at Edinburgh stopped striking coins a mere two years after the Union with an issue of half crowns and shillings in 1709. In 1870 the Coinage Act transferred the nominal role of Governor of the Mint of Scotland to the English Chancellor of the Exchequer in London. Another Coinage Act, this time in 1971 finally extinguished all sign of Scotland’s distinctive currencies when the Chancellor of the Exchequer became the Master of the Mint under Edward Heath (apologies for any unwanted imagery associated with that statement.)

The mint at Aberdeen was one of the earliest Scottish mints. It began during the reign of William the Lion (1165 – 1214) and continued intermittently until the Act of Union. Despite its long existence few Aberdeen coins are extant for coins used to be melted down and the precious metal re-used for new strikes at the behest of the monarch who pocketed the difference between the higher value of old redundant coins and lesser worth replacements. Essentially this was a means of underhand taxation that benefited the monarch while anyone else caught snipping off pieces of coin for its silver value faced gruesome execution. 

We are all too familiar with being short-changed nowadays when using Scottish currency in England but you may be surprised to learn that the foundation of this has legitimate basis for people with long memories. Way back in the 12th and 13th centuries the amount of silver that went into making silver coins or sterlings was reduced from 240 pennies created from one pound of silver to 252 squeezed out by Robert the Bruce’s moneyers compared with 243 around the same time in England.

When David II was held for ransom by the English the Scots paid £40,000 to get him back using silver from which 294 pennies were extracted (and later still a pound was used to produce 352 coins) giving rise to complaints that the exchange was being carried out on the cheap. It has to be said that England did the same whenever cash was required – for example to finance military campaigns or to pay off debts – the medieval equivalent of quantitative easing. Coins were also cut in half or quartered to provide coins of lesser value used along with small value currency such as round half-pennies and farthings (which date from Alexander III.)

hammered silver penny alex iii aberdeen 1250-80

Alexander III silver penny minted in Aberdeen 1250-1280

It’s not known where Aberdeen’s mint was situated. According to one of the city’s 19th C historians, Kennedy, it was in Exchequer Row, but others disagree – in the way a bunch of historians do (worse than ferrets in a sack.) It might be mints from different periods operated in different parts of the town for there was no need for a specific building as little space was required to produce coins – they were made by hand, stamped or hammered from a die imprinted with the design of the coin. Perhaps a furnace was employed to soften pieces of metal to be cut to an appropriate size of disc and weight which were then placed between a two dies – the top one hammered to make the distinctive markings on the new coin. Mechanisation was brought in during 1637 in Scotland with the appointment of French coiner Nicholas Briot as Master of the Scottish Mint.

Naturally, control over the creation of money was tightly regulated. In 1526 the Scottish parliament decreed that –

“feigners and counterfeiters” of the king’s money should be severely punished by which was supposedly hanging, drawing and quartering.

Such a dire threat might have dissuaded some from forgery but not all and a cursory glance back in time shows just how tempting it was to try. In 1566 arrests were made in Aberdeen of individuals accused of bringing in counterfeit or black money called hardheids from Flanders and the town’s commissioners, Robert Crichton and James Millar, were ordered to carry out an investigation which resulted the following year in Andrew Murray, a burgess from Perth, and Patrick Ramsay, a burgess from Dundee, being found guilty and gruesomely executed. In 1594 Scotland’s Privy Council reiterated a ban on foreign currency to reduce the amount of foreign coins circulating, sometimes from legitimate reasons e.g. the old rose noble of England had been temporarily allowed into Aberdeen to pay for English soldiers then barracked in the town.

As I mentioned above control over currency rested with the monarch who appointed moneyers to mint coins and he or she determined the timing of new issues. Sometimes a moneyer’s name was pressed onto coins, adding to confusion over their source for coiners and moneyers were peripatetic and moved about the country following the monarch’s movements and supplied coins where necessary.

Scotland’s own currency, silver pennies, first appeared in the 12th century during the reign of David I. Before then all sorts of currencies were used for trading including Roman, Northumbrian, Viking and Anglo-Saxon which explain why exposed money hoards have often included money from different parts, for example two hoards of Roman silver denari found in 1966 at Birnie, near Elgin in Moray (pronounced Murray as in Andy not moray as in the eel) inside wee leather purses which had been placed in a pot lined with bracken. A couple of centuries ago several purses and bags of money were discovered in Aberdeen which dated from the time of Mary Queen of Scots and these coins carried both her name and that of her husband Francis, Dauphin of France.

mary and francis testoon

Mary and Francis testoon

It was in 1136 then that Scotland’s first coins were minted – in England, or rather that disputed territory of Carlisle. The town had been taken by the Scottish King David and as there were silver mines there along with a mint he put both to good use and had a number of silver coins struck. These first issues looked remarkably like English money but over time Scotland’s currencies grew distinctive. By the reign of James III (1460 – 1488) instead of showing a nominal portrait to represent the monarch Scottish coins featured realistic regal portraits and were by now more comparable with French coinage than English – a hint at the close relationship between Scotland and France. Those from the reign of James III also featured Scotland’s heraldic emblems of the thistle and the wonderful unicorn. The golds were called riders and the silvers were placks.

2017-12-07_14-30-03

Find the unicorn

Edinburgh has long been Scotland’s financial centre and unsurprisingly an important supplier of Scottish currency although it wasn’t until 1527 that a specific building was designated for the mint. Edinburgh was also the last place in Scotland to mint coins after the Union of Parliaments. The Union of Scotland and England was marked by striking a new coin which interestingly acquired similar but different names north and south of the border – known as a unit in Scotland and as a unite in England (make what you will of the subtext of these names.) The unit was silver and worth £12 Scots or £1 sterling (English) and from the time of the Union Scottish currency had to fit in with England’s; both silver and copper.

Aberdeen minted coins were of a slightly more recent vintage than Edinburgh’s but as parliament followed the king around Scotland with the mint in his wake Aberdeen became a centre of production for several years from 1342 when plague ravaged the country encouraging the nobility to head north in hope of escaping it.  

Whenever mention is made of Scotland’s former currencies it’s usually the groat or bawbee which are recalled but there were many other coins circulating here across the centuries including the plack, bodle, pistole, crown, demi-lion, ducat or bonnet, merk or mark, unicorn, half-unicorn, dollar, farthing and ryal as well as half-groats, half-pennies, and half almost anything – produced by cutting a coin in two. Of course not every coin was minted at each new strike and not every mint from the Borders to Inverness produced a range of coinage.

As trade increased so did constraints on currency. Parliament imposed limitations on the movement of money leaving the country. Such a tax in 1331 was set at one shilling in the pound and provided Aberdeen with over £8 duty taken from £160 of its currency which had moved away that year.    

While there are not many extant Aberdeen minted coins some remain. Several turned up in a silver hoard of 12,000 coins unearthed in a 3-legged bronze pot in 1886 in the city’s Upperkirkgate, at Ross’s Court. Most of these 13th and 14th century coins were English pennies along with a number of French Mary Queen of Scots testoons and 113 pennies from the reign of Alexander III but as to where they were minted there is no record and no hint on the coins.

On the subject of things missing several coins from that cache, sixty-two of them, were bought by Queen Victoria including twelve early ones produced under Alexander III, a couple from the time of Robert the Bruce and two from John Balliol’s pretendy reign – they have since disappeared along with several handed over to both the National Collection of Antiquities in Edinburgh and the British Museum. The bulk of the hoard, around 10,000 coins, was returned to Aberdeen city and the University of Aberdeen but again a portion of these have also disappeared.

Aberdeen coins showed the king’s crowned head on the front except for those dating from Alexander III’s time which show an encircled head containing the king’s name and title. The reverse features a long double and single cross with stars, pellets and so on in the angles – and the mint name in a circle. In the case of the groats and half-groats an outer circle included the motto Dominvs Protector Mevs et Liberator Mevs (the protector and liberator) or contractions of it. On the Alexander III penny the coin includes the name of the moneyer, John of Aberdeen (no, not THAT one!)

David II was the first monarch to have groats and half groats minted, the latter marked Vila Aberdon indicating they were struck in Aberdeen. A Robert III groat reads Villa de Aberdein. A rare James II half groat from the Aberdeen hoard has Villa Aberden. Another variation denoting Aberdeen in James III and IV groats is the legend Villa de Abrde. Coins carrying HA were also Aberdeen mints signifying an occasional spelling of Aberdeen as Habirden.

As British banking staggers from crisis to crisis and the ordinary people of this country are the ones to shoulder the burden of bankers’ incompetency and criminality and at a time financial experts warn that the state of the UK banking system is worse than useless for its ability to ride out another storm the likelihood of which is extremely high it is surely time to return to more localised fiscal controls – not dependent on the whims of a monarch but a national bank of Scotland issuing 21st century currency, perhaps the unit.

November 3, 2017

There’s nothing like the smell of xenophobia in the morning

The Telegraph has run a piece by its digital editor on something very topical, or would have been more than 300 years ago,  under the title  “The farcical story of Scotland’s ill-conceived colony in the jungle” – not many pejorative terms used here, well, not quite all pejorative.

How much the derogatory title is down to a sub-editor with a grudge or the author I’ve no idea and quite why this piece was run is curious for it adds nothing of historical value to the account of this centuries-old venture but with its disparaging title appears as an excuse to have a go at the incompetent Scots. I was not impressed by the character Oliver has chosen to quote in his article on the subject of the Panama isthmus -“you can’t trust the Indians” he says, “with a glint in his eye” as he describes the deaths of hundreds of illegal immigrants in the area. I’m getting that smell again.

The Darien venture runs something like this. Towards the end of the 1600s a group of Scots with some cash behind them planned to establish overseas trading posts with the intention of colonising just like their neighbours the English were doing only the English had got in first and had erected barriers to other nations trading by the imposition of its Navigation Acts.

England’s Navigation Acts of 1651 were protectionism on the high seas. By applying them English colonies and places not colonised had their commerce restricted and were banned from trading in most circumstances except through English vessels and companies. The Acts were enforced by England’s powerful gunboats. The intention was to accrue more wealth for England and to develop London as the world’s powerhouse. Needless to say not everyone was happy with England’s high-handed policies which, in part, stoked resentments among the colonists in America eventually leading to the American declaration of independence from Britain.

While England sought to dominate trade Scotland endeavoured to establish its own merchant enterprise abroad and in 1695 the Company of Scotland for trade with Africa and the Indies was created with monies raised in Scotland and in England. Immediately alarm bells rang in London at the prospect of this mercantile challenge that might impact on the East India Company and aware of the unease south of the border the Scottish company looked at setting up a merchant colony on the other side of the world, around Panama.

The description of the Darien isthmus had been greatly misrepresented by a Welshman with a huge imagination and proved not to be the opportunity he sold it as. If the land was challenging for the Scots who sailed there to establish their trading post the determination of the English to scupper them was as great if not greater for England’s colonies in America and the West Indies were forbidden to trade with the Scots. There is no mention in the piece of the vehemence of England’s active opposition to the Scots e.g that survivors of Darien were denied help when they landed at Jamaica, an English colony, seeking help. When Oliver states “the English still refused to offer any support” he doesn’t quite get to the nub of its wrecking policy.

Oliver refers to the Scots angering “the enemy” not in his view the English but the Spanish who had colonised what England hadn’t in this part of the world. And he can’t help reveal his surprise that in a naval skirmish between the Scots and the Spanish the Scots came out victorious – “an unlikely victory” writes Oliver, dispassionately. Aye, too wee, too feckless.

Vast amounts of Scottish wealth were lost with Darien. Lost to those who had money which excluded the majority of the Scottish population and if there’s something that drives those with fortunes it is the need to preserve if not build on those fortunes so they were open to persuasion to offer up Scotland’s independence as a nation in return for personal gratuities. Even today’s tawdry politicians neck-deep in sleaze and corruption might not quite sell out a whole nation. Well, might.

What the people of Scotland wanted did not come into the reckoning when there was an opportunity to recoup some of the assets lost through Darien. What the people wanted was for Scotland to retain its independence but when did the people matter?

Oliver ploughs on. “The English were blamed for the expedition’s abject failure.” Perish the thought. Surely they must have looked at the evidence. Perish the thought twice.

As I wrote at the outset I don’t know why this article was written other than to take another pop at Scotland – to highlight the ineffectual Scot not quite up to the mark. As for that misguided rascal William Paterson, a director of the Company of Scotland, he went on to found the Bank of England – but Oliver makes no mention of this – well it would be a shame to spoil the damning narrative.

Oliver dismisses suggestions from historians that Darien might have been a success were it not for the fierce opposition it faced from England- he doesn’t explain why so readers are left to surmise it was because Scots have failure built-in.

Not highlighted in the piece:

1) England’s wars with France had seriously damaged Scotland’s mercantile economy.

2) England’s Navigation Laws were aggressively protectionist and rigorously upheld on the high seas by its vast navy preventing Scots pursuing trade.

3) Initially individual English people were found keen to invest in Darien (presumably they weren’t all ineffectual failures) but were strongly pressurised by the government in London to withdraw their money so that England could keep Spain as an ally while it (England) was at war with France (again.)

The financial shock felt in the pockets of Scottish nobles, many of them parliamentarians, took Scotland into a Union with England. There was no popular support for this, quite the contrary, and it was a cynical self-serving betrayal of the Scottish people. As for the London government it was keen on the union because Scotland was too friendly with France for England’s liking and Scotland was seen as a potential backdoor into England for France. And for those who argue the union was of greater value to Scotland than England the response is that if that were true England would not have entered into it. England was fiercely protective of its own power and status. England wanted to shut down Scotland’s relationship with France, it wanted to absorb Scotland’s exports and it wanted that immensely valuable resource it has been exploiting for 300 years Scotland’s strapping young men to fight in its never-ending wars with the enemies it kept making.

Those same people sneered at in “The farcical story of Scotland’s ill-conceived colony in the jungle” went on, as Paterson did, to start up the Bank of England and become core administrators in the vast East India Company till eventually Scots ran it along with many of the colonies that shaped the British Empire which is strange for a nation that was a ship of fools a few short years before.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/central-america/panama/articles/darien-scheme-scotland-only-colony/

October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

deer stalking 2

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

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

Poacher and Dancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His foot was foremost in the dance,

His laugh the loudest rang;

Nae e’e could match his mirthful glance,

Nane sung so sweet a sang.

 from Norman MacCaig ‘s A Man in Assynt

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

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

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

Like Walter Scott’s Bertram he possessed:

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

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

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air,

Nor less confirmed to undergo

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

 

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

Brig o Feugh

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

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

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

John Stuart Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

 

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

“A minister of sacred things,

He bound together, by higher ties than human law,

The men that shared his faith with awe;

He had his seat at power’s right hand,

And lords and ladies of the land

Did call him brother.”

 John Stuart Blackie’s The Cottage Manse

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

“Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?”

 from Norman MacCaig’s A Man in Assynt

(Sandy Davidson 1791 – 1843)

*Finzean – pronounced Fingin

** Avon – pronounce An

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

 

 

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

On April 26 1820 Aberdeen was witness to one of its grandest processions of the early 19th century. With great pomp and even some circumstance around 1500 men (no women) formed orderly lines and marched westward from the heart of the burgh at the Castlegate to Union Bridge above the Denburn and beyond to the site designated for a new Public Hall which would become known as the Music Hall. Laying of the hall’s foundation stone, as it turned out, became an occasion for celebrating local and national pride but first let us establish our historical bearings.

The economic and political disturbances of the wars with France were over. Stability, growth and progress seemed possible and probable with the United Kingdom – Britain (often conceived as England) to the fore. The Public Hall was a sign of this confidence. And where better to show such confidence than on Union Street? Here was a street slowly but surely becoming the grand carriageway for traffic to the city centre and it continued beyond the old town in a semi-rural setting; well away from industry, overcrowding, noise, filth and disease. As one commentator said of the area –

On the whole a more dry, healthy, and eligible situation for Building, is not to be found in the vicinity of the Town.

1828 Plan Union Street

Site of the Music Hall between Golden Square and Union Street 1810

Whether for a new villa or grand public hall the land west of Union Bridge was full of prime sites, ripe for speculative development. As the street was very underdeveloped any impressive new building would stand in near splendid isolation – an emphatic visual sign of confidence and good taste not to mention ostentation.

To note in passing, when the west side of Broad Street was recently cleared to reveal for the first time Marischal College in all its architectural glory (or folly depending on taste) how easy it would have been to emulate the architectural commitment of Georgian Aberdeen but no sooner did we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be than it was snatched away as Willie Young and his Council cohorts spurned the notion of giving the city an iconic architectural facade. Instead they gave Aberdeen the monotony of uninspired glass and steel boxes; like cartoon characters with cash signs in their eyes their vision saw money to be made from the cleared site.

Those private investors in the 1820 hall were also motivated in part by commercial concerns – of what they might make from shares in the enterprise. But they at least recognised that site and architecture mattered. Designs were invited including from Aberdeen’s two foremost architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith. They were men with established architectural reputations and just as importantly their local work had given them a strong sense of what could and could not be achieved with granite, the local building stone. This is important as the very hardness of the stone and the low-technology available to masons imposed severe limitations on the ornamental styles possible. Granite lent itself to the austere rather than decorative exuberance of freestone architecture. The Aberdeen Journal praised the submitted designs, saying they exhibit a chaste imitation of the simplest style of Grecian Architecture, to which the celebrated Granite of this County is so admirably adapted. Simpson won the commission: local man, local stone, local pride.

And here we are at April 1820. Men assembled, about to march. And not just any men. They were Freemasons. Changed days. Long gone are the times when masons assembled with banners and regalia to march through the town to mark civic occasions or for the funeral of a lodge member. Tradesmen, professionals and aristocrats were proud openly to display their Masonic beliefs. European Freemasons might have been tainted by notions of radicalism and ideas of popular democracy but here in 1820 Aberdeen participants, whether operative members or those drawn from higher social circles were intent in showing loyalty to the Town and to Britain (Crown and Country).

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

Heading the Masonic dedication was James Duff 4th Earl of Fife, Depute Grand Master of Scotland. The Earl had fought under Wellington in France; he was a friend of the British King although this did not stop him voting against a Royal tax policy in Parliament. His “liberal” views led him to support Catholic Emancipation and vote for parliamentary reform in 1832. He seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and far from being in the same reactionary mould of Wellington and his cohorts. But like the Iron Duke he was a staunch patriot.

Duff’s speech to fellow masons was replete with a mixture of calls to patriotism and hinted at concerns particular to his neck of the woods which was Banffshire. With an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered Rule Britannia was sung, followed by a Masonic blessing of Cornucopia, May the all-bounteous Author of Nature bless this city with an abundance of Corn, Wine, and Oil. The Earl of Fife then got stuck in, telling the multitude, those close enough to hear, how pleased he was at the local initiative and especially happy that the investors had not been obliged to resort to foreign artists to furnish the design for the Public Rooms. Simpson’s work was admirable, he said, as was the industry of Aberdonians, making gems from barren rock, meaning turning brute granite into a material for wealth, utility and beauty.

Local History 010

A more familiar picture of the Music Hall on Union Street now an urban setting

A landowner with a reputation for his willingness to listen to claims or complaints from his tenants on his Banffshire estates James Duff applied himself to their problems and the fact that disparities of wealth were about to be highlighted with the construction of the large neo-classical hall. The granite edifice might well give employment to many quarriers and masons around Aberdeen but at the same time standing on its prestigious site clearly visible from Union Bridge the hall embodied difference and exclusion: its doors were open only to those with wealth and social connections, made more obvious by its countryside setting. James Duff got straight to the point –

…although it was constructed more immediately for the purpose of innocent festivity and
amusement, the wants of the poor and indigent would not be forgot by those within its
walls, who might tread upon the light fantastic toe, and lead the mazy dance; the situation of the public charities of the place would be considered, and liberal contributions made to relieve the distressed . . . and thus prove that, although they [the poor] could not partake of the festivities for which the Building was about to be erected, those who enjoyed them were not unmindful of their privations, but anxious to alleviate them; thereby conveying to them some of the fruits of the social scene, and sweetening as far as is in their power, the bitter cup of their adversity, to receive their blessing in return.

He found in poet James Thomson’s “Four Seasons” moral, patriotic and ideological support for his opinions and the verse from Thomson the Earl chose that day in 1820 included a call for protection of British fishing interests:

nor look on, Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets
Defraud us of the glittering, finny swarms,
That heave our friths, and croud upon our shore.

British waters for British fishermen. The poem comes from the early 18th century but the message James Duff decided was applicable to the 1820s after seeing off Napoleon the United Kingdom must keep hold of its global maritime power or as Thomson put it, … united Britain make Intire, th’ imperial Mistress of the deep. Maritime freedom was essential as British commercial and industrial might was then in the process of encircling the globe. In the two years following the ceremony Fife backed Banffshire fish curers when they sought relief from the salt tax; similarly he backed local herring fishermen when they asked to be exempt from paying tax on imported European oak staves.

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

But the Earl was not satisfied simply with being British. He had a double or more complex identity; two nationalities. He was British and also Scottish – from a country with its own traditions and history and this he employed to enthuse and legitimise the 1820s. Having already used the words of one Scotch poet for defence of Britannia he turned to another for fashioning Scottishness: Sir Walter Scott, prolific author and said to be the inventor of the historical novel. With a European-wide readership Scott’s poetry and novels made him amongst the most influential writers of the period. James Duff found the model and images in he sought in the romantic poem “Lord of the Isles”; a work which extols the virtues of initiative and independence as portrayed in the trials, tribulations and victories of the Bruce. Scott’s narrative tells how the would-be King of Scots defeated the foreign foe, the English. Duff drew Aberdeen citizens into the narrative, explaining that the city had played a noble role in the saga when citizens provided a place of safety for Bruce then pursued by enemy forces. “Inventing” a local history for Bruce the Earl imagined the fleeing man dreaming of Liberty at the site of hills. In the Earl’s imagination Bruce has been inspired by landscape and the loyalty of Aberdonians leading to, in Walter Scott’s words, the heartfelt cry –

Oh Scotland! Shall it e’re be mine/ To Wreak thy wrongs in battle-line/ To raise my victor head and see/ Thy hills, thy dales, thy people free.

On the face of it this was a battle-cry for a return to the former glories of an independent country. But no. The Earl told his audience that the days of the Bruce were past; events that happened in “times of Yore”. Romantic visions of medieval kings defeating foes was a great story but he and his fellow masons lived in the world of Hanoverian settlement and post 1707 Union. It was not political independence he called for but the qualities of determination, commitment, initiative and loyalty which he found in the story of Bruce to be used to strengthen the forces of commercial progress and Rule Britannia. Much like Sir Walter Scott who described, dramatised and absorbed Scotland’s distinct and turbulent past Fife’s lesson was that was then this is now and progress henceforward would come in the guise of a new identity albeit one containing the DNA of previous forms.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

So James Duff 4th Earl of Fife laid the foundation stone and in doing this provided the multitude with a sense of the moral and political lights that should guide them. Finally turning to the assembled spectators he thanked them for their respectable behaviour, for their silence and proprietary of demeanour all a sure sign of the good sense of the citizens of Aberdeen.

December 23, 2016

Watch “LONDON CALLING: BBC bias during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum” on YouTube

 

 

https://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/oh-what-a-tangled-web-we-weave-when-first-we-practice-to-deceive-bbc-scotland-and-the-labour-party

https://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-bbc-and-the-2015-general-election-its-at-it-again

https://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/good-morning-scotland-sic-bbc-scotland-sic-a-station-like-no-other

 

May 2, 2016

O Albin! O my country! John Stuart Blackie

J S Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

Guest blog from Textor

As with all nineteenth century national cultures Scotland’s was an area of contestation. Scotland had lost its identity as a sovereign political state having been subsumed within in the larger formation of Great Britain and the United Kingdom; but at the same time the country retained its distinctive spin on law, education and religion. Added to these characteristics was the legacy of destruction of clan systems, some of which had challenged the rule of the Hanoverian settlement. Into the nineteenth century the question of what it meant to be Scottish had become one with numerous possible answers.

Before the half-century had gone, for example it stretched from the view of Walter Scott who recognised that something of value had been lost in the integration of Scottish life to the larger world of Britain but believed that the benefits of a more peaceable, stable and wealthy society outweighed the losses. In this way he was able to paint pictures of aspects of Scotland’s past as distinct, noble and worthy of praise but now anachronism. Scots could mourn their loss but history had moved on. Get over it.

Grampian storm

However, with the rapid and radical changes in social and economic life strainsof political thought developed which challenged what we might call the Tory radicalism of Scott. By far the most contestationist were those Chartists who used Scottish history to promote their cause of political and economic rights, who called up the ghosts of the past, in particular William Wallace, to rally opposition to all the corruption and injustice of pre-1850 Britain. Chartists challenged basic political power across Britain and gave voice to ways forward which would have appalled the historical novelist.

On the other hand there were those who came from the enfranchised middle class, those who had gained from extension of political power in 1832. They had found a place in the sun and at the same time, through education and religious attachment, were well aware of Scotland’s unique cultural history. Whilst these elements did not challenge the basic political and economic fabric of Britain it would be a mistake to see them as wholly complacent in the post 1832 settlement. One of the challenges they faced was the inherited rights and privileges of landed interests, not that they wanted to overturn the right to private property just that sometimes land use was called into question often manifesting itself as urban and rural rights of way entanglements.

Lion's Face Drive near Invercauld scene of Rights of Way battle in 1891

Lion’s Face Drive near Invercauld – the scene of a rights of way battle in 1891

Which, at last, takes us to John Stuart Blackie. JSB was born in 1809 into a middle class family, his father was a banker. He was educated at Peter Merson’s school in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate where, so the story goes, he would daily gaze on the sculptured figure of a knight mounted high on the town house known variously as Benholm’s Lodge and the Wallace Tower. What matters here is that JSB claimed this became the basis of his fascination and enthusiasm for Scottish culture and history. He like so many others mistakenly believed the figure to represented William Wallace.

Leaving the Netherkirkgate school in 1821 he began attending classes at Marischal College. In the same year his mother died. The poor women in her fourteen years of married bliss had given birth to ten children, six outlived her.

Lochnagar

Wildly compressing his years as a young man: JSB dropped out of university in 1824, tried his luck in a lawyer’s office but gave this up following spiritual turmoil akin it seems to the protagonist in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or the angst of Kirkegaard. Death became a fixation and religion the answer. He had been raised in a relaxed Presbyterian home, religion was there but as a guide rather than a dictator. But now he had religion and entering the ministry was to be his salvation, or so he thought. Hence it was in 1825, with his father’s permission and money he travelled to Edinburgh to find certainty and salvation. Interestingly he not only prayed deeply and frequently with his cousin Archy Gibson but also believed that good works were important which led him to the poorest parts of Edinburgh.

Restlessness once again overtook him and he was back in Aberdeen in 1826, still studying theology. This lasted until 1829 when his intellectual curiosity, and his father’s money, took him to Germany the most important event in his life; and before the year was out had given up all thoughts of becoming a minister and worse, at least for those who had hopes of him becoming a leading Scottish Divine, he rejected the Westminster Confession of Faith and turned instead towards a more liberal, historical and humanist doctrine which he was finding in Germany; he also discovered beer and Greek. From being a young man configured with thoughts of death, atonement and redemption he travelled across the liberal divide to arrive at the opinion that Scottish Presbyterianism was silly and pernicious, threatening to stunt the spirit and intellectual lives of children. This was balanced, if balance is the correct term, by his Scottishness, by his continuing sense of pride in the distinct contribution that Scotland had made in religion and despite his criticisms would have none of the bigotry of English High Churchism.

For a moment he toyed with Roman Catholicism but soon gave this up preferring Scottish Sabbatarianism to racket and rattle, fiddling and frivolity . . . and tasteless mummery. His antipathy to aspects of English culture was heightened by his experiences in Germany where he found that John Bull . . .speaks no German . . . is not a great favourite . . . proud selfish and has a mercantile spirit.

Deer stalking 2

Illustrating his secular turn of mind, on a walking tour to Florence he took the opportunity of studying peasant farming and landholding using this to ask questions of Irish land law; and he expressed his support for parliamentary reform and read Shelley’s “Queen Mab” with enthusiasm. However, he was given little time to speculate on possible social injustices as his father had grown weary of the Continental Jaunt.

JSB was summoned home in 1831 where he was told to return to Edinburgh University to study law, which he did. A hateful experience which resulted in his admission in 1834 to the Society of Advocates. At the same time his father stopped JSB’s allowance. It was now sink or swim by his own abilities.

Resenting spending time on the minutiae of Scots Law Blackie resolved to earn a living from writing aiming at the burgeoning market for learned reviews but his central goal was find a university post in Scotland. Aberdeen at the time was a city being run by middle class, liberal Whig men. Blackie’s father Alexander was of this ilk and had the ear of these men. One of the ways of extending influence across the city and beyond was to have a university Chair filled by a sympathetic academic or even, as happened in Aberdeen, canvas for creation of a new Chair and connive to have a suitable candidate win the post. A Chair in Latin was created at Marischal College of which Blackie said a Whig job it unquestionably was, not that this made him unhappy, far from it. With strong political friends he had every chance of winning the Chair. There was one fly in the ointment: his rejection of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was horror-struck, for to accept the post meant signing up to Calvinism, a condition of teaching at universities.

JSB was no fool. He had the wit and the legal training to get round issue, a little deceit and fancy footwork was the answer. He signed the Confession which was accepted and ratified by the Presbytery. To the Church of Scotland’s horror the new Professor then admitted that signing of the document was not a statement of his own beliefs simply a statement that his teaching would be within the bounds imposed by the Confession. A storm blew-up but in the end the blast of a trumpet for secular education was heard and Blackie began his university career in 1841.

Deer stalking

JSB found teaching at Marischal too constrained and hidebound. He wanted a bigger and more stimulating environment for his pedagogic skills. With Greek being his first intellectual love he set up the Hellenic Society, took to lecturing to working men and women outside the university bounds where he found a more receptive audience; in contrast the university had a low standard of attainment and ambition. With this opinion it is hardly surprising that he was on the lookout for a post away from Aberdeen. But it took years for him to find a job which he eventually did in 1852 when he was appointed to the Chair of Greek at Edinburgh University, this after again undergoing questions as to his religious affiliation which he had said was the gospel of the heart as found in the New Testament. Unlike the youth of the 1830s he now had no interest in going into a corner to look at the point [of my nose] and solve the mystery of the Trinity. Nonetheless, he might not be interested in biblical nasal gazing but some men who influenced university appointments were concerned and it took hard canvassing by Blackie to win the post but win it he did. He remained at Edinburgh University until retirement in 1882 and died in 1895.

Within the sixty odd years of active intellectual life JSB displayed an amazing ability to at one and the same moment be the odd man at the table, the one who looked and sounded wrong to men and women of conventional wisdom yet always seemed to be welcome at the table. Perhaps it’s a bit like fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle (Blackie described him as a notable monster) who cried misery to Progress and so much of what Victorian Britain stood for yet was keenly read and listened to by both a middle class and working class audiences.

Blackie differed in many ways from Carlyle, he had a joy of good living of company and the pleasures life, including female company (he had married in 1841 with a most unconventional romance). Unlike the London based “Sage” he was not miserable. But he did, like Carlyle, betray that willingness to express affection for working men and women, for their capacity to deal with adversity, their willingness to labour and to grasp at learning. But again like Carlyle grasping could only go so far. Under the tutelage of enlightened men such as himself industrious classes could find a better world, unease only emerges when working men and women begin to formulate alternatives generated by themselves. As with so many of the middle class reformers of the 1830s JSB could not get his head around the notion that Chartists might be proposing alternatives which needed to be taken intellectually seriously. Attending a Chartist meeting in 1843 he heard a meagre scarecrow of a man extolling Carlyle’s critique of industrialisation, pouring out floods of real natural eloquence on the triumphs of democracy. Much impressed by the physical looks of the orator and the voice the Professor of Latin pulled back from full endorsement, perhaps not wishing to be deceived as he had deceived the Presbytery of Aberdeen. Appearance and sound was all very well but what of the Chartist substance? And this was found wanting.

Glen Callater

Glen Callater

Democracy, there was truth there too, but more than half-a lie. I believe the majority are good-but are they wise can a multitude of passion-moved men be wise? His answer was no. Critical thought and wisdom of any value could not come from mass movements rather it was to be found with a solitary sage in a chamber. Having said this when in 1843 the Scottish Church split Blackie sided with the dissenters, which in Aberdeen was all the ministers in the city, describing the men who walked out of the Church as noble but these men were of course from a respectable class.

But to return to his Scottishness, apart from wearing a plaid as everyday dress he asserted his national if not his class identity by questioning land usage in the Highlands. Addressing the problem first broached in the 1830s he turned to the medium of poetry to show his distaste for families being cleared from land. Like his one-time colleague at Marischal College, William MacGillivray, Blackie walked Scotland. This gave him ample opportunity to see the cleared land and with him learning Gaelic in the 1860s was able to speak directly to men and women forcibly driven from crofts.

Braes of MAR

The poems he published in 1857 under the title “Braemar Ballads” gives vent to his anger and sadness at viewing deserted and ruined clachans across the landscape: Where the stump of a stricken ash tree/ Shows the spot, where the home of the cottar should be. Villain of the piece is the destruction of social unity which, he said, had underpinned Highland clan society being replaced first by sheep farming then deer forest. It’s not great poetry but the message is clear, the chieftains are gone, the kind lords of the glen have left the heather muirs, they bartered the rights of the brave Highlandman putting what should be a Scottish heritage into the hands of stalkers of deer . . . lordlings that live for the pleasure to kill. Make no mistake the man hostile to organised Chartism makes a searing indictment of clearances: O heartless lords, O loveless law, with calculation cold / Ye sold the mighty force, that glows in faithful hearts, for gold . . . Woe unto you, the grasping crew . . . By Heaven, it is a lawless land! We boast that we are free. And he asks how and why this has happened. Having pretty well jettisoned the ideology of Providential acts with his turn to the morality of love he squarely puts the blame on the drive for wealth and money and the absolute right of an owner to dispose of property as he or she saw fit.

Clearances, he said were a man-made phenomena, one that his beloved Scotland needs hang its head in shame: O Albin! O my country! O my dear Highland home/ The lust of gold hath ruined thee, the lust that ruined Rome. Absentee proprietors he wrote These be the masters, Scotland! Commerce was the problem. A society which centred its activity in manufacturing for profit rather than expanding the moral worth of individuals was bound to slip towards treating men and woman as numbers in an accounting ledger. This was a theme he had touched on in the 1840s when he encouraged Aberdeen male shop assistants to treat with both customers and employers for the restriction on what we would now call unsocial working hours. Long working days Blackie said gave little time for education and appreciation of the better things of life. Interestingly the shop men found a great deal of support for their request amongst Aberdeen’s great and good but there was little similar enthusiasm for improving the working conditions of men and women employed in more industrial enterprises. With this moral stance it should come as no surprise that JSB was hostile to utilitarian philosophy.

Deer stalking 3

Land use and tenure had to change, one remedy was to find men in Parliament to represent the needs of small farmers and find some way of restricting the spread of large farms; to bring back the form of close relationship which had at one time, he believed, typified clan society. Absentee landlords could have no feeling for the men and women of the land and being a Gaelic speaker he excoriated those who lived in the Highlands but would not learn the native tongue. We should remember that the university professor had got his first step up the academic ladder with the assistance of Aberdeen’s Whigs, men who favoured (without being absolutists) the free play of the market and the right of capital to make capital. Clearly any whiggism retained by Blackie was held within his moral critique. His liberal view of religion and pedagogic humanism melded with the large ethical stance to make him a man well-able to sit with academics across Britain and beyond, to flirt (literally) with women of the highest social standing, be invited to the houses of great landowners and give talks on politics, literature to working men. Looking at JSB it is easy to conclude that for all that he made the call to action a central issue of his philosophy he was sufficiently distant from it to actually upset the social circles he inhabited. But this would be unfair. For all his deviousness in rising to his first professorship he did raise publicly the issue of the right to teach without affirming membership of or agreement with the Church of Scotland; this was a conscience issue which he resolved by being cleverer than his opponents. Similarly his outspoken attack on clearances could have threatened to close many doors in his face. Indeed following the publication of the poems he was encouraged to write a letter The Times setting out his views; this was no shrinking sentimentalist, my whole breakfast table was deluged with papers about the desolation in the Highlands. In 1883 Blackie demonstrated his continued commitment to reforming Scotland’s land laws; he gave evidence to the Napier Commission where he called for fair rents with fixity of tenure for small tenants; called on restrictions on both large sheep farms and deer forests and for a Royal Commission to look into some way of redistributing land to the benefit crofters. These and other points made by him showed that the example of Ireland with soul-destroying poverty and rapacious landlords and Gladstonian liberalism’s attempt to relieve the conditions of the poor farmer was not lost on JSB. Unlike some of his contemporaries he did not blame Popery for the sad state of Ireland it was, he said, down to the English . . . [who] sucked the blood systematically out of the people; the English were filled with measureless greed. Scots it seems had nothing to do with the state of Ireland which sounds a bit like his plea that it was English landlords who brought the Highlands down, move along no Scots here. Paradoxically for all the denunciation of clearances he had a very good relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, one of the most kind-hearted easy-going . . . creatures that I have ever met . . . a sweet blooded race these Sutherlands. There is surely a question mark over this view of the family notorious for its clearances. Probably the solution to the tensions and dissonances in Blackie’s social policies is that on the one hand he wanted to avoid materialism (philosophical and otherwise) of liberalism and the closed reactionary bulwarks of the Tories. Thus he would swing between them, looking for spiritual values, liberal education and decent treatment of the poor. Liberals gave so much as did Tory paternalism, at one point he wrote that Tories are the best landlords and true friends of the crofters; and the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland would have fallen into being the best of the lot as they were drawn from the old heads of houses and clans. Flying between the two poles of liberalism and Toryism of course left him adrift from the one philosophy of action emerging from outside his class, namely socialism. For all the progressive things he stood for he was constrained within the limits of his class vision forced to search for solutions and salvation in the world of commerce.