Archive for ‘Weird and Wonderful’

September 30, 2018

England Expects: so jump Scotland – give us your girls

In 1939 and through the 1940s Scots found they were fighting in England’s war against Nazism.

November 1939 and the Stirling Observer reported that two months into the second world war eyebrows were being raised in Scotland regarding the lack of mention of Scotland in press coverage of the war. 

Munition workersBritish newspapers were consistently failing to mention Scotland in their reporting of the war. It was England at war with Germany, the English army, English navy, English air force. For all the scoffers among you who say, ‘So what does it matter? consider for a moment if there had been wall-to-wall press coverage of Scotland at war with Germany, our men in the Scottish army … our brave Scottish navy… plucky Scottish airmen in the royal air force – ne’er any recognition of the contribution made by English men and women – the outcry would be loud and indignant and rightly so.

Crude English nationalist bigotry was described as –  ‘a slap in the face for the Welsh, Irish and Scots removed from their families for years to defend “the nation”’ and blanked entirely from any acknowledgement of their sacrifice.


The BBC came under criticism for its pro-English bias. Films, too were being churned out featuring heroic pipe-smoking English types with dogs called n****r who were assisted in their mission to save Britain or England by blokes called Taffy, Paddy and Jock. More on the BBC later but let us linger a little longer on conversations in the press and parliament over the flagrant promotion of England that was proving such an irritant to Scots such as complaints that the British navy in which so many Scots (Welsh and Northern Irish) served flew the flag of St George of England as Britain’s naval ensign.

Highland regiments were angered that the kilt was banned – outright until following submissions it allowed their use for ceremonial occasions. In light of this partial climb-down one of the Scottish newspapers expressed its gratitude in the most cringe-worthy fashion by stating they felt ‘Scotland is coming into its own and receiving that consideration we have long yearned for.’

Aye, right.

‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler
If You Think We’re On The Run?
We Are The Boys Who Will Stop Your Little Game
We Are The Boys Who Will Make You Think Again
‘Cause Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler
If You Think Old England’s Done?

And twenty-five years later the Beatles were still at it –

I saw a film today, oh boy;
The English army had just won the war

Persistence delivered some change and it was later reported that the ‘national press’ were beginning to use the word Britain when they meant Britain. Of course newspapers in the days, weeks, months and years following were filled with notices and pictures of young Scots men killed and missing which must have added to the distress of Scottish (Northern Irish, Welsh) bereaved families all around the British Isles when confronted by the aggressive and insensitive nationalism of the English press.

Women, too, played a vital role during the war and this also proved an area of resentment as it was obvious that women – the word girls was invariably used to describe them and I will replicate that here despite it being annoying – would be sent to England to factories and farms leaving Scotland short of workers and their families struggling when both their young men and women were sent away with no-one left to look after older relatives or carry on businesses.

‘Fewer Scots Girls Sent to England’

In July 1943 complaints of large numbers of Scottish girls being drafted into England for war work was raised in the House of Commons with a proposition that instead of sending Scots into England war production industries should be shared out with Scotland.

‘Mobile’ – those without immediate ties – women were ordered to move away from their homes and families from right across Scotland and references to Glasgow are indicative of issues raised not that it was only Glasgow’s women who were involved in this trade.

Why should an industrial city, such as Glasgow, have its women workforce forcibly removed to England when there were workers required at home? it was asked. And were English women being sent into Scotland or was this a one-way trade?

The government response seemed to be irritation that anyone should question why England wouldn’t use Scots to fill vacancies in England. It became clear that was how Scotland was seen from London  – as a resource for men (military) and manufacturing and agriculture (women and men.) The impact of removing Scotland’s remaining workforce with so many Scots men serving overseas in order to protect Scotland’s own industries doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone in government. It was almost as though Scotland was a colony there to service England, like any of the commonwealth nations.

Drafting of labour from Scotland to England included skilled Scots men as well as women trained-up in various occupations and there was special outrage that they were being forced away from their own jobs to fill-in in England. Examples were provided of women aged over thirty who were trained by Scottish employers to replace men in the forces who were being forced out of the factories that trained them and dispatched to England leaving no-one to fill their places in Scotland. The charge was that Scotland’s immense manufacturing strength was being sapped to satisfy the demands of English business. It was claimed –  

‘The enforced migration is serious strategically, industrially, socially, morally and racially.’

And – 

‘Scotland is not getting her proportionate share of the munition work of the war. And Scotland’s industrial capacity is being neglected so Scotland will be gravely handicapped with the return of the peace.’ 

With thousands of women compulsorily transferred by the Ministry of Labour in Scotland into England for war work questions were asked of the Minister of Labour, the Labour Party’s Ernest Bevin. He explained that it was through ‘necessity’ and if there was undue hardship (caused by the policy of forced removals of workers) he would look into it – but it was important to ‘fill certain factories’.

ILP MP Campbell Stephen’s comment that there was ‘great discontent in Scotland about girls being sent to England when there was work in their own country’ was dismissed by English Liberal Conservative MP for Holland with Boston, Sir Herbert Butcher, when he joked, ‘Is it unusual for Scots to come to England?’ to laughter in the Commons.

Meanwhile in Glasgow a Scottish spokeswoman for the Ministry of Labour, a Miss Berry, insisted –

‘The factories, thousands of them, are south of the border, and the labour is here. Scottish girls must just be good soldiers and go. Girls must be educated to understand that it is their duty to go’

In July 1943 she insisted there were no vacancies in all of Scotland for skilled mobile women of conscript age. Coming to her defence for such a misleading statement on the state of industry in Scotland Ernest Bevin, replied that what she meant to say was

‘there were no vacancies in Scotland to which this worker could be sent. I know of no reason for supposing that this statement was not correct.’

The issue over Miss Berry playing fast and loose with the actuality stemmed from a question about a woman who had requested to remain in Scotland because of family commitments and whose three brothers were already away in the forces. The Glasgow labour exchange blankly refused to consider permitting her to stay, insisting she was ‘mobile’ and her duty was to go down to England to work.

Bevin squirmed under further questioning over why individuals could not be accommodated but were told by his department in Scotland that Scots must make themselves available for work in England. Resentment over the wider issue of stripping Scotland’s skilled labour force to bolster England’s was also much debated in Scotland.

Bevin was asked

1. the number of women under 40 years of age who had been directed to work in England each month of that year (1943.)
2. The number of women in England who received directions to proceed to Scotland during each month of that year.
3. The number of women from England working in Scottish factories; how many were mobile; and whether they will be directed to work in English factories before Scottish girls are sent away from their homes to such work (in England.)

Bevin replied – women sent from Glasgow to England from start of 1943 to 12 June was 169. In that time 23 specially trained women in aero-engines were transferred to Scotland from England. Information was not available on the total number of women from England working in Scottish factories.

Bevin in an awkward spot blustered – ‘I must again emphasise that this is a total war, affecting Scotland and England as well. We cannot deal with it on a nationalist basis.’

Quite Mr Bevin – colonialism is not dead in the minds of this Welsh Labour MP.

Pressed by Campbell Stephen, Scottish socialist MP ILP. On why Scottish ‘girls’ were not allowed to work in Scotland when they had qualifications for work here. Bevin insisted workers with special skills had to be put where required.

He was pressed still further – that Scottish women were trained and sent away to England while other women were brought in and trained and asked whether ‘this total war does not affect Scottish girls more than English girls?’

Bevin insisted English girls had been moved all over the country (England) and he had not treated Scottish girls differently from English or Welsh’ – and he wasn’t going to treat Scottish girls differently.

It was clear the government was AT IT.

Earlier that year Boothby –who represented Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Eastern asked Bevin about a serious lack of labour on Scotland’s farms at the same time Scots women (girls) were forced to England to take work.

Bevin prevaricated but eventually more figures were provided for general movements of labour.

Bevin told the Commons that 3,385 Scots women were transferred to England in the ten months up to May 1943 – the only figures available as the Department of Labour only began to keep records from May 1942 (following complaints from Scotland) and 57 women transferred to England to Scotland (they had specialised skills and were not generally categorised as  ‘mobile’ women labour.)

When challenged on the huge disparity between forced transfers in both countries Bevin agreed the only women sent out of England to Scotland had special skills, ‘Otherwise, we have sent no people from England to Scotland, although we get a constant influx of Scotsmen into England.’ – note his switch from women to men.

Resentment in Scotland over the ignorance of BBC employees boiled over in the summer of 1940 when the BBC was dubbed ‘the English Broadcasting Corporation’ for having little input from Scotland and its continuing England-focus was having a detrimental impact on morale within Scotland. While BBC programmes appealed ‘to the patriotism of Scotland’ they provided little representation north of the border and constantly used the term ‘English’ in place of British.  The usual bluster and mumbled defence from the BBC was that Scots and their queer language and dialects were unintelligible to most listeners and the BBC had no intention of altering its approach to broadcasting.

The BBC has at least been consistent across time reacting to criticism with a shrug of its collective shoulders then it carries on as usual. During the war the BBC’s Scottish regional director, Melville Dinwiddie, issued instructions to announcers that the word Britain was to be used wherever possible (if only old Melville was still around today we might have lost the smug Home Counties BBC – but no.) 

He explained that announcers use the word England subconsciously, and without any intention of giving offence to Scotland. No change there – with a few exceptions where it is meant to cause offence. But that is surely the point that in England Britain is England. It’s offensive and disrespectful. Scotland’s press, some of them, were grateful to Dinwiddie and hoped that others would adopt this more accurate form of reporting. Fat chance.

It is clear that the war-time government in London was oblivious to the discriminatory impact of its policies across the UK. It didn’t help that Winston Churchill sometimes referred to England when the subject was Britain. Scotland was before World War 2, during World War 2 and since World War 2 a useful resource of men – and women – ripe for exploitation – Scotland the nation with no name – Scotland the invisible. Just look at the representation of Scotland’s politicians on BBC news and current affairs programmes – provide your own magnifying glass. Eighty years on what has changed? Answers on a postcard.


September 17, 2018

Women’s football: More than a game

‘It goes without saying that the play was of the most amateurish description.’

women 11.jpgThe rest of the report of an international football match between Scotland and England was written in the same sneering vein. It went on to draw a picture of the hilarity of the event as spectators cheered, laughed, hooted and shouted vulgar insults at the players. The cause of so much derision was the match was being played by women.

It was on the evening of Monday 16th May 1881 that the international game got underway on Shawfield Grounds near Rutherglen Bridge. The fixture wasn’t ideal but it was the only one the organisers were able to secure as the men’s clubs refused permission for their pitches to be used – on grounds that female football could ‘only be regarded as an unseemly exhibition, and sent those getting up the match to seek for a field elsewhere.’

Women’s (the word was never used as far as I could see, instead ladies, girls or female) football matches in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries were often arranged to raise funds for charities. This international was no different and around 400 persons paid to watch the game with hundreds of others sneaking in without paying.

‘It goes without saying that the play was of the most amateurish description’ which may have been true but you just know the report was partly written before a ball was kicked. So it continued in this sneering tone confirming how women were ill-equipped to play the sport along the lines of what do women know or understand about such manly activities? 

About 55 minutes into play and part of the crowd, ‘the rougher elements’ cut through the ropes separating spectators from the players and the pitch was invaded by a gleeful mob of some 4000 men surrounding the women. The police in attendance charged into the crowd hitting out with their batons and though greatly outnumbered eventually managed to get the women off the park and onto their bus. It must have been terrifying for them and no details were given in the report but some of the players were said to have been ‘badly treated by the mob.’ As the women players were driven away they were hissed at by the pack of men.

The report ended with the view it ‘was hoped such an exhibition would not be repeated.’ Whether it was the male mob mentality or women’s football was unclear.

‘We do not know whether these Amazons had shocked the delicacy of the multitude, but the fact remains that they would not allow the game to proceed.’

There we have it that old ploy – blame the victim. The 4-5,000 men gathered to laugh and abuse women playing a game don’t sound like they were encumbered by delicate sensibilities.

What was it that made these men feel it was acceptable behaviour to go out of their way to sneer and jeer at women participating in a harmless game to raise money for charity? Why could they not just ignore the women if they thought their game would be so ridiculously poor quality? Because it was never about the women’s football prowess it was all about harassment and ridicule of a group they learnt through their lives were inferior to them and deserved their scorn. That sort of attitude can take people far- you can build empires on the back of denigrating whole populations – deny they are your equals so easing your conscience over controlling, manipulating and exploiting them.

Women from all classes in society were active in the 1890s to improve their rights in law, education, employment, politics and in society in general. Women, irrespective of their position, excluding a certain queen, were regarded as weak and vulnerable children and incapable of logical thought and whose function was solely biological – producing children (the BMJ warned that women’s organs would suffer if they played football.) And yet, working class women were working their fingers to the bone. Poor women had always worked and contributed to family incomes. Many single middle class women also worked. At the same time women were being outrageously exploited as cheap labour and were undermined in every way possible.

Women can’t …because they are women.

The more women fought for the same rights  as men to votes, to education, to careers, to handle their own affairs, to be taken seriously the more strident the opposition to these demands became because it was against – nature? Christian values?

This is all very confusing for during earlier periods of Scottish history football was not so clearly regarded as male. Wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots supposed to have enjoyed a bit of kick-about on the royal lawn? Weren’t football matches between single and married woman in Scottish villages accepted as part of the culture as for example Musselburgh’s annual Shrove Tuesday match between married and single fish women?

Fast-forward to the 19th and 20th centuries and antagonism towards women appears to have hardened in some quarters. When the Chartists turned round and dropped women’s enfranchisement as one of their demands because it was argued working class men could achieve the vote faster and then give their sisters a hike up the political rights ladder they began a trend which side-lined women.

There was no simple journey to achieve a level of political representation for working class men (from political rights others follow) for the middle classes had dropped them at the Great Reform Act 1832 in much the same way as women were sold-out by their men a few years later but women not only had to fight the political establishment they had to fight their own men folk as well.

Chartism gave way to Trades Unions and right up to the 1970s (and beyond) this male dominated institution has put up barriers to women’s equality. They were never for the many but always for the few. They were about skills and preserving status within skill groups. They were about preserving the status and privileges won by men at the expense of the non-skilled and women. They were about ensuring those with particular skills received higher pay than others in jobs designated less skilled  – which always included women’s work. Trades Unions fought and fought hard to prevent equal pay for women. They were still doing it recently in Glasgow where the council has to find cash to reimburse women who were sold out by the Labour Party and Unions.

So what’s this got to do with women’s football? you ask. Everything.

It does not matter what activities are being discussed women’s participation was, until recently, ridiculed. Even in those occupations regarded as female – nursing, primary school teaching – it was the pattern up until the last couple of decades that most promoted posts were held by men. Different battle. Similar tactics.

Football was not played by ‘self-respecting females’ it was said. When matches ended in violence it was seen as possibly a good thing, likely to put an end to silly girls thinking they could do everything men could and put an end to such nonsense.

The report in  The Greenock Advertiser in 1881 whose headline ran –‘The Glasgow Roughs and the Female Football Teams’ – when ‘ruffians’ cut the ropes at a ‘So-called female football match’ there was condemnation of a dangerous situation but antagonism towards women for creating the problem. Just who did these women think they were?

‘ladies in knickerbocker suits was a women’s right too far. It is indecent and ought to be suppressed by the police.’

England, Preston, 1920 - Copy

England, Preston 1920

Women didn’t slink away to lick their wounds. They carried on playing football. Four years later when a British Ladies Football Club toured Scotland a London sport journal employed predictably robust language to describe it: a ‘farce’, they (ladies) were ‘ignorant of the simple rudiments of the Association rules’ ‘painful to look at’ – which all smacked of that familiar anger  over women being so uppity  as to think they were entitled to indulge in sport – they might have been asking for something equally ridiculous such as representation in parliament.  The reporter applauded leading Glasgow clubs approached by the ‘girls’ for coaching who would have nothing to do with them.

And still the women played on. A month after the outrageous scenes at Rutherglen the international was resumed, this time at Windmill in Yorkshire, when Scotland came out on top beating England 3-2.

When in March 1895 a gate of 10,000 turned up for a women’s match in London the teams were greeted by a

‘roar of laughter. Hundreds fell off the fence … Tears rolled down cheeks of men never known to weep in public. They fell upon each other’s necks and shoulders. Small boys fell into paroxysms. Women smiled and blushed. The referee, a small man but brave, grinned and made desperate but ineffectual efforts to cover his face as well as his head with his cap.’

More sexist abuse came thick and fast.  

‘One of the Blues was built on Dutch lines, and was at once dubbed “Fatty”. The reporter on the Gloucester Citizen made special reference to the women’s hairstyles and it went to town on the appearance of one player.

‘ One of the Red side’s appearance caused shrieks of laughter – on account of her size and boyish appearance. She looked ridiculously, even insanely, diminutive for a football game. Then she was built like a boy, ran like a boy, and like a boy who could run very fast at the age of ten, and she seemed to know too much about the game for a girl of any size, her height being about three feet.’

And so it went on in this offensive and hysterical tone, commenting on how the women ran, not waddling like most girls and how few seemed familiar with the rules of the game. At the end of the match the women departed to shouts of ‘Chuck on another scuttle of coals.’

Of course women persevered. It’s what women do. Their football matches across England attracted huge crowds – sometimes a gate of 40,000. 

There were few such hang-ups over women being able to step into men’s boots at the outbreak of World War I. Then they were essential to the war effort- not only continuing to operate Britain’s infrastructure but manufacturing munitions. Women from across the British Isles were drafted in to work making explosives, shells, tanks, bullets, gas masks. This was dangerous work and munitions women used to let off steam through playing football in their dinner breaks with the best taking part in inter-factory competitions.

After the war women resumed their roles of being feeble and incapable and their abilities diminished – even in something as simple and straightforward as a game of football. Good God! they were exposing their legs. Football associations did their level best to prevent the women’s game emerging in any meaningful way. At the millennium men were still wading through the merde of their prejudices – Joe Royal, an English football club manager insisted, ‘I’m not sexist but I don’t approve of female officials in professional football.’ Yes, Mr Royal that is being sexist.

In 2004 FIFA President Sepp Blatter advocated women should ‘wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts…to create a more female aesthetic.’ He is currently under a ban by FIFA but not for such sexist claptrap.

Brit ladies football club - Copy

132 years and a distance of 13 miles after women footballers were abused on the park at Rutherglen Motherwell and BBC Scotland sport pundit Tam Cowan demonstrated a century plus was a mere blink in terms of male hostility towards the game. He might have been writing the report on the game in May 1881 but it was 2003 when he was quoted in the Daily Record saying –

‘Fir Park should have been torched after it hosted women’s football’ Why do they still persevere with this turgid spectacle? And why was it allowed anywhere near Motherwell’s hallowed turf?

‘Just the other week, I bumped into a couple of women footballers (I’ve still got the bruises to prove it) and they were honestly two of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met. But no amount of politically correct claptrap could force me to say I enjoyed a single second of that guff at Fir Park on Thursday night. BBC Alba must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if they’re now broadcasting this tosh live.

‘Aye, give me an hour of some dreary Highlander reciting poems about the fishing industry – in Gaelic – any day of the week. Incredibly, the game was live on telly AND radio!’

His tedious prejudices where he dismisses the lives and culture of my grannies in a sentence provide a fine example of not just one but several sets of ascribed status – placing groups into categories redolent with shared characteristics which makes them easy targets for humiliation and denigration. This bloke from a town in the central belt demonstrates his dislike of Highlanders whose lives are different from Cowan’s and so to be disparaged through the placing the adjective ‘dreary’ in front Highlander. He shows up his intolerance with a jibe at the fishing industry – perhaps not seen as manly as steel men? How do I know what goes through this guy’s minced head. He’s definitely one of those types who maligns Gaelic, preferring the glottal stop type of speech more familiar to him. And behind all this fume and fury? Women. Bloody uppity women.

1895 scotland team - Copy

Scotland team 1895

Ascribed status is discrimination and with discrimination comes humiliation, mockery and a touch of outraged anger at the group’s activities. Cowan went on –

‘This was a Group 4 game and the Bosnian team looked as if they’d just arrived in one of their vans. Did you see their goalie? She put the baws into Bosnia (although on the off-chance she reads this, I hasten to add I’m only kidding).

It was 1972 when the first official women’s international took place, in Greenock when England beat Scotland 3-2.

On 4 September 2018 Scotland’s women qualified for the 2019 Women’s World Cup Finals. Well done them.

September 6, 2018

I’ll build a great wall, said the toothless Queen of England, triumphantly.

‘I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great great wall on our northern border and I’ll have the Scotch pay for that wall.’

Elizabeth the Tootheless, Queen of England reportedly said in 1560.

And why wouldn’t she? The Romans did it and in 2014 Ed, I’ll carve my pledge in stone, Miliband hinted he’d love to do it with guards striding along the border.

Let me take you back a wee while – to the 13th century, that’s the 1200s, just so you know,  to the Scottish town of Berwick. Berwick was not the sleepyville it would become but a thriving and vitally important port and source of revenue for Scotland, particularly from its exports of the nation’s wool and grain. During Alexander III’s reign Berwick’s income was equal to one quarter of all of England’s revenue and reason in itself for competition between Scotland and England over which country would control it – 13 times this border town switched between nations. And so the townsfolk of Berwick and that whole area saw a lot of military activity and strong fortifications.

berwick 1

There was a look-in from England’s Richard, I’m just away for a bit of R and R in the Holy Land to have some fun with any Johnnie Foreigners lurking there, I – oh, and I need you to cover my travel costs and a spot of spending cash so he traded in the vassalage of Scotland for 10,000 marks. Fast on his heels was some guy called John who, in the best English tradition, set fire to the town leaving Scotland to clear out the dead bodies and the charred remains of all those destroyed buildings and biggit it again.

Edward, A Right Royal Bastard, I of England was a greedy so-and-so. He built walls around Berwick. When I say he built – he pulled hundreds of blokes off their other work to build the town wall around Berwick. Not that that was unusual. Before bobbies on the beat just about every town containing anything worth stealing had its walls – and the necessary gates but -Edward the Nippy had just completed his latest tranche of beating up and slaughtering wee Scottish babies and their parents, their grannies and grandas, cousins, aunties, uncles – anyone with two legs and everything with four so he could claim the deserted town of Berwick was now all his.

To pay for the Berwick town wall Edward, the Fluid Stool, I put himself in charge of revenues raised from Scottish goods and crops and charged a wall tax, a murage, on goods taken into the town for sale but as the dead don’t breed there wasn’t much collected and when bits started falling off his wall there was no cash for repairs so they stayed off.

When the gummy Elizabeth I of England was told of the state of the walls she gnashed her blackened stinking tooth stumps and demanded a new wall be constructed – a great wall, a very very great wall. It just so happened an Italian ice cream seller was in the vicinity and he said he knew a family who were dab hands at the building business and so Berwick was surrounded by an attractive Italianate muro.

This muro was super-strong, a very very strong wall with very very strong earthworks and very very strong battlements to repel artillery attacks by the enemy in the north and cost someone, not the Queen with the stinking breath, an awful lot of cash. Her old man Henry, the Lead Pillager, VIII had the lead stripped off church roofs melted down and flogged off and he dissolved all the remaining friaries and chapels in some kind of acid conjured up for the purpose then claimed all the revenue from their deserted sites.

And still the walls tumbled down.

This oft-disputed border town was the focus of negotiations when the halitosis-plagued Elizabeth I of England and James VI of Scotland, a man too lazy to get off his horse to pee signed a treaty, imaginatively called The Treaty of Berwick, in July 1586. The basic facts of it, so as not to detain you too long were – 1. We don’t like Catholics and 2. James, Slow Down a Mo I’m Bursting, VI would get to be king in London (mainly because it rains all the time in London and no-one would notice him indulge in his puerile habit) once her flunkies had dragged off the stinking corpse of Elizabeth I of England and stuffed her into the ground but only after she had chopped the head off Mary Queen of Scots, mother of the conspirator James.

There are walls still at Berwick. They are being kept. Just in case.

August 20, 2018

Tartan Slaves

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

tartan (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 30, 2018

Caithness Mermaids and Brexit

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

Russian merpeople of the 19thC

Russian Mermaid and Merman

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

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

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


A manatee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2018

The Good Migrant: Scots who lived by their brains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2018

Death by wormy sausage or golf ball – your choice: the weird world of duels

In days of old when knights were bold and the equivalent of twitter squabbles were settled by duels it is amazing the lengths people went to, well – men, mostly but not exclusively men, were prepared to go for that thrill of dicing with death. Or were they?

Think duels and you’re thinking of a couple of guys in wigs trying to shoot or slash each other to death – and you’d be right – up to a point. In working class areas this sort of aggressive behaviour would be described as mindless violence – mindless violence and criminal but we all know there are laws for for them and others for the rest. Whatever the aristocracy indulges in is always held up as a tradition – and honourable; traditions such as flogging servants, keeping slaves, eliminating animal and bird species – all proud long-established rights of the not-so-common-man and woman.

Now I think of it perhaps these degenerates going at it hammer and tongs (not literally but not far off it) wasn’t such a bad idea given the damage they might otherwise have been doing to society.

Pistols and swords were the most popular weapons of choice but when the Americans got in on the act all that classy aristo stuff went all skew-whiff. Let me give you an example.

A couple of guys enjoying the rays in Florida playing a round of golf at Howey-in-the-Hills found they couldn’t play their strokes and keep count at the same time so an argument brewed up over the number of shots played. It’s a game of golf, guys! But umbrage is umbrage and plenty was taken and before you could call out FORE it was a case of golf clubs at dawn. Each man armed himself with a driver, an iron and two dozen balls. Tees were arranged 50 paces apart. A hat was dropped, presumably by someone of a calmer disposition and the duel got underway.

Wait for it…wait for it…your thinking they whacked like hell to see who hit the longest strike? Well, that would be golf. No, this is what they did…

The first man drove a ball into the second man’s shin. Ouch! The second man, let’s call him injured no. 1, presumably through gritted teeth, aimed and walloped his opponent square on the ribs with his ball. The guy with cracked ribs then blasted his ball at…and so they continued knocking seven bells out of one another until some nervous cops arrived chorusing Fore! very loudly. Honour satisfied the pair hobbled off to lick their wounds.


Another bizarre one was the case of Alessandro Cagliostro, an 18th century infamous Italian magician, infamous for his weirdness. Cagliostro wasn’t his real name – he went by a string of alternatives when the need arose and it did, often, for he led as they say an interesting life. There was the matter of a diamond necklace and Marie Antoinette which ended with his banishment from France but I digress. The incident I want to draw to your attention to involved a certain Scottish doctor, John Samuel Rogerson, a physician to Catherine the Great of Russia, whom Cagliostro insulted, calling him a quack, so in defence of his reputation the physician challenged the Italian to a duel. Cagliostro the showman suggested that given the involvement of a physician the duel should be appropriately medical and came up with the suggestion they get hold of two pills, one harmless and the other poisonous. An arsenic pill was found and placed in a box along with a harmless one. Cagliostro needled Rogerson that if he was indeed a real physician he would be able to treat the effects of the poison so there was nothing to worry about. Quack or not Rogerson was not stupid and refused to indulge the Italian and the duel by poison was stopped without a pill passing either’s lips.

As for Cagliostro his addiction to strange behaviour made him into a hunted man across Europe, he escaped from prison just before he died, how I’ve no idea. But that might not have been the last of the strange magician for according to another one, Aleister Crowley, the Italian was reborn in his body which only goes to prove you can’t keep a good occultist down. Or maybe you can.

dr Rogerson duel

Dr Rogerson

Incidentally the ‘quack’ Rogerson whose home was Dumfriesshire and who lived in Russia most of his life died peacefully back in Scotland at Dumcrieff in 1823 at the ripe old age of 82yrs.


Bismarck the German Minister President was once challenged to a duel by sausage by Rudolf Virchow. Virchow, was a doctor who paved the way for pathology but more relevant to this story was a co-founder of Germany’s Progressive Party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) and political opponent of Bismarck. The pair had a spat over military spending to the fury of Bismarck who challenged him to a duel to resolve the dispute – possibly in the hope of eliminating the mouthy nuisance. A bit like Jeremy Thorpe in this country except Thorpe didn’t let his adversary know he was about to have him shot.

In the boring version of this tale Virchow turned down the opportunity to die prematurely but let’s not linger on this account and instead hear about the sausage. As he was the one challenged to duel Virchow got to choose the weapon so he suggested two sausages; he would be armed with a cooked pork sausage and Bismarck with a raw one infected with trichinella .

For the uninitiated among you, trichinella is a genus of parasitic roundworms, nematodes, which were a big problem in the German population in the 19th century and numerous in Virchow’s laboratory where he was looking for a means of eradicating them. Virchow picked up a couple of identical looking bangers – one healthy and the other infected with the deadly trichinella which cause a range of symptoms from intense muscular pain, to difficulties in breathing, kidney failure and death.

Virchow waggled his sausages and said, “ I have a choice of weapons. Here they are! One of these sausages is filled with trichinae – it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome, externally they cannot be told apart. Let His Excellency do me the honour to choose whichever of these he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” The bold war-monger Minister President, however, turned down the wormy sausage challenge.

Did this happen? Well, maybe.


In a duel not dissimilar to the golfing combat was the battle of the billiard balls. In 1843 in France an argument broke out over a game of billiards. Standing 12 paces apart the two involved agreed to pelt each other with balls. The man who won the draw got to throw first but before he did he warned his opponent, “I’m going to kill you on the first throw.” He took aim, threw his billiard ball and hit his opponent smack on the forehead – killing him stone dead. He was later arrested and tried for murder. Did he survive the trial? I haven’t been able to find out.

I’m tempted to leave you with the impression that men, alone, indulged in this sort of pique with consequences but that would be misleading.


The petticoat duel

 On one much highlighted occasion Princess Pauline Metternich, Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, and the Countess Kielmannsegg, the Exhibition’s President, came to proverbial blows over flower arrangements for the Exhibition of 1892. There was a time when women would have elected a man to fight for them but these women were prepared to stand up for themselves – and rightly so. Being aristos they plumped for traditional swords. To avoid possible prosecution in Austria they hopped it to Liechtenstein and duly duelled topless. Topless? Not quite although that is how many like to tell the story but they stripped down to their underwear. The duel was adjudicated by a Polish woman doctor who had seen dreadful infections caused by clothes poked into fresh wounds hence the women removing their outer garments. Neither woman died in what’s referred to as the petticoat duel although both were injured – Pauline Metternich was cut on the nose and the Countess on the arm, however, they parted good friends, embracing and making up.

Maybe twitter isn’t too bad after all. At least blocking is less bloody than resorting to deadly blades or wormy sausages.

June 4, 2018

Hokum History: Alfred the Great Myth


winchester alfred great

Alfred the Great in Winchester

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

Who was Alfred the Great?

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

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

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


wessex for alfredmap

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

It’s enough to make your head go POP!

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

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

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


alfred great panel

Panel on Alfred the Great’s statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2018

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

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

Isabella Bird on Birdie

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

And so it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Estes Park 1873

Estes Park 1873



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Evans place with Longs Peak in the background

Evans place with Longs Peak in the background


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


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

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

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

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

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

log cabin

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

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

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



The greedy degenerate Lord Dunraven

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

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


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


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

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

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


self portrait sketch by Isabella

Isabella Bird and Birdie



For more on the Scots Chalmers click here

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:

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.

ipso 1

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.