Archive for ‘Weird and Wonderful’

February 13, 2020

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

Buckhaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dutch dogger vessel

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

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

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

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

Orkney beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2020

The Rampant Kelt

Pall Mall Gazette 30 May 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2019

Soup, Bread & A Cup of Coffee – Foodbanks 19thC style

Guest blog from Textor

Lena’s recent fun and games with Tory recipes is a timely reminder that class society in subtle and at times not so subtle ways betrays prejudice, arrogance and condescension. But even Poor-house Perkins and Half-pay pudding would have been treats for some when commerce and industry were beginning to put their stamp on not only the face of the city but the throats and bellies of Aberdeen’s 19th century’s poorest.

The Bible tells us The poor you will always have with you and for Aberdonians of the 1840s it must have seemed that yet again the Holy Book was spot on. Charitable giving might be a Christian duty but the Good Book seems to imply poverty could be mitigated but not abolished.

Aberdeen’s former soup kitchen

Aberdeen of the 1840s was a city of growing splendour. It boasted of its Union Street which struck westward from the heart of the old city. It proudly displayed the fruit of its burgeoning stone industry: sparkling granite buildings dotted the landscape. Town houses, commercial buildings, churches and civic grandeur all seemed to say no matter how far the city was from the capitals of Edinburgh and London, no matter how “remote” in so-called North Britain Aberdeen was a place of wealth and good taste.

Paradoxically this revolution in the built landscape was founded not on the thrusting factory system which is usually associated with early industrialisation but on a stone-working industry of hand-craft skills with steam power augmenting only a few deeply laborious processes (polishing and sawing in particular). It was the merest hint of a factory system but nonetheless value producing and profitable. If a visitor wanted to see the fruit of Aberdeen’s factory system it was not to be found in the marvels of Alexander Macdonald’s granite yard on Constitution Street but in the large buildings in the Green, at Broadford and by the River Don at Woodside. There you would find textile mills.

Hadden’s textile mill at the Green
Grandholm works

Where granite yards and quarries might have multiples of dozens employed (all men and boys) textile mills gave work to women, children and men by the thousands with much of their labour dictated by the turns of water wheels and the drive of steam. But as fundamental as these were in determining the rhythms of daily work and the sheer exhaustion of what could be a fourteen-hour day in hot, noisy and dusty workshops “hands” also faced the uncertainties of business cycles. A worker at any of the mills might end a day’s labour overcome by fatigue knowing that the following day meant more of the same but had the “satisfaction” of drawing a day’s wage; just about enough to keep absolute destitution at bay. In the hardest of times even a day’s wage was not be enough to keep hunger from the door – as state of affairs replicated in the 21st century with its so-called gig economy. Back in the 19th century years of poor harvests and the seasonal impact of winter deepened poverty by pushing up the price of meal beyond the pockets of labourers.

Food Banks are the current charitable response to poverty; the 19th century equivalent was the soup kitchen. Established half a century earlier soup kitchens came into their own in 1847-48 when thousands in Aberdeen suffered absolute destitution. First opened in 1799-1800 in St Mary’s Chapel, part of St Nicholas Kirk, for some six months a soup kitchen provided something like 51,000 portions of beef broth and bread. The following year demand was even greater. Admittance was by ticket and those poor lucky enough to get a ticket were charged one penny per serving. As many as 600 per day sat down for what would have been their only meal of the day.

For some thirty years the seasonal kitchen regularly opened at the Chapel, eventually moving to the area of the Vennel, and on to Loch Street where many of Aberdeen’s poorest lived. Having raised enough money in 1894 for a brand-new building the Kitchen remained at the Loch street site for about one hundred years.

But back to the plight of thousands in 1847, a time when the menace of Chartism and radicalism appeared to threaten the very existence of Victoria’s Britain. This was a time authorities feared the strength of discontent would be harnessed by and coalesce under the banner of working class democracy. When the projected Aberdeen railway ran out of cash labourers working on it were thrown out of work and they and supporters, about 200 people, gathered on the south side of the Dee then marched on the Town House where they commenced yelling and causing considerable disturbance. Magistrates hurried to reassure them that they had spoken to grain merchants and were assured that they would not seek to profit from high prices by exporting grain from the city except where they were by law bound to fulfil.

Grain supplied basic and essential food for the poor in the form of bread but grain merchants had no interest in human need only human greed and sold their grain to the highest bidder and stored it until shortages raised its price. If grain could command higher prices outside the city then they would export it.

Of course the railway’s Irish and Highland navvies well knew the practices of grain merchants and refused to be placated. As the Aberdeen Journal reported In the course of the afternoon the crowd attacked some carts on their way to the Quay, and one of the principal ringleaders, while in the act of cutting one of the sacks and rolling it from the cart, was taken prisoner by Mr Barclay, of the police, and lodged in prison. Railway navvies were not alone in suffering the pangs of hunger. Across Aberdeen thousands in and out of work were forced to resort to public charity. Two kitchens were opened; the main one in Loch Street and another in the east end where soup, bread and coffee were sold. In one six-day week in February 1847 over 6,500 meals were served. Local textile magnet Gavin Hadden feeling something like sympathy for his workers proposed a third kitchen be opened near the city centre as it was problematic for his workers to find time in the “dinner hour” to travel far afield for sustenance. His charity did not extend to paying enough to keep them from the Soup Kitchen.

Further afield, and more charitably, Milne, Cruden & Co of Gordon Mills, outside the city boundary at Woodside, decided to open their own soup kitchen. As a voice of the city’s elite the editor of the Journal hoped that the kindness and attention of the employer have produced increased gratitude and fidelity on the part of the employed.

But things got harder for operatives as financial crisis hit. Women,children and men were put on short hours. Wages collapsed and yet more soup kitchens were opened. By April even with the worst of the winter passed Bannermill works in Aberdeen opened its own canteen and once again the local newspaper editor extolled the charitable virtues of the employer:  when the factory bell rings, 600 to 700 of the servants . . . find a warm and comfortable breakfast or dinner ready for them . . . a kindness, on the part of the employer, which we trust they duly appreciate. What would the workers have done without this kindness?

One Factory Inspector was much taken by the utility and efficiency of the canteen, reported that normally workers struggled to make ends meet:  provisions . . . consisting very often of nothing else than a piece of dry oat cake.    Having no house to go to, and no means of getting a more nourishing diet, the poor people subjected to this state of matters suffered much in bodily health and strength, being often quite exhausted before the labours of the day were over.   These consequences, so injurious to the employers and employed, have to a great extent been obviated by the plan which has been happily fallen upon in these northern factories. With pressure of time within the factory and the need to keep production flowing the kitchen could serve, Inspector Walker said, 400 meals in twenty minutes. And then it was back to the grind.

No matter how fast meals were served the kindness so-called was brought to a halt as the crisis in the textile industry deepened. Factory canteens were a viable response – viable in employers’ terms – only so long as some kind of profit could be ground from the workforce and available markets. But when mills closed, canteens closed. Unemployment burgeoned. Two new charities were established: Aberdeen Operatives and Labourer’s Fund and Woodside and Neighbourhood Fund.

1848 dawned for thousands with no prospect of things improving. Across Europe revolution threatened. On the 10 March hundreds suffering, it was said, starvation gathered at the Castlegate. Knowing of recent major disturbances in Glasgow Aberdeen’s magistrates decided to take no chances. Property needed protecting. Eight hundred special constables were enrolled. In the event “order reigned in Aberdeen”. Some charitable help was doled out but it still left the problem of how to keep the peace with so many thousands suffering. How to keep the loyalty of the poor, employed and unemployed.

Woodside ministers of the Established and Free Churches came forward and asked that the canteen at Grandholm mills, shut when work ceased, be made available. These kirk men offered a stark view of Woodside’s communities: upwards of two thousand persons have been deprived of all means of subsistence and this being disastrous more especially to the numerous helpless females at Grandholm, there is no other prospect, but the extremity of destitution . . . famine and its concomitants, disease and death, must stalk through our streets. The starving of Woodside were hit, it was claimed, harder than those of the city to the extent that there was only a small wealthy middle class locally. Most shopkeepers and merchants of the area relied upon the earnings of the textile workers so when they were thrown out of work everyone suffered.

In Aberdeen itself suffering continued. A meeting of close to 1,000 unemployed women and men complained of the soup kitchens failing to meet their needs. Kitchens ran out of soup, tickets which were necessary to gain admittance were, they said, being given to undeserving cases who were themselves drawing on the meagre dole of the Poor Law. Those administering the charities no doubt all with full-bellies decided that the bona-fides of applicants would no longer need the signature of a past employer but all – all! that was needed was  the signatures of two respectable householders. One Council member spoke of  fearful destitution and misery in the city and gave voice to concern of the threat of revolution. Westminster he said needed to act more especially at a time when there is great political excitement abroad, and when the distress in which they are plunged may make them susceptible of impressions, not calculated by any means to advance the peace of society.

The coming of summer saw no improvement. At Woodside “deserving” cases were being given a daily pound of meal but only after strict enquiry into the circumstances of the applicants. Meanwhile in Aberdeen the kitchens were doling out over 1,000 portions per day.  This continued into autumn by which time it was costing as much as £100 per week to finance the Aberdeen fund, with a running total bill of £1540 in mid-October against receipts of £1,380. Managers of the fund were at a loss, the more they collected the more was required and they conceded that not only was debt increasing, but there was upwards of a thousand persons unprovided for on the roll; deserving men and women and children who could not be fed.

Winter meant the probability of hard weather, the ending of any casual agricultural work, restricted supplies of fresh vegetables, local fishing became uncertain – dire prospects which faced thousands of the local population already suffering from weakened physical condition. Such was the state of male labourers at the time, that is men who were fortunate enough to be given permission to draw on the kitchens, that the managers of the unemployed fund recognised weakness and debility now stalked the workforce, meaning potential labourers were incapable of any strenuous work, that even if the languishing Aberdeen Railway was restarted there were not half a dozen of these poor people fit for labour.

Victoria and Albert arrive in poverty-stricken Aberdeen in 1848

Seeing no end to the call for charity fund managers proposed, and it does sound so contemporary, that any males so benefiting should be expected to give something in return –  this, said Ballie Nicol, had the double advantage of getting work out of the destitute and at the same time deterring “lazy” poor from trying to get something for nothing. And yet another of our contemporary tropes is found among 19th century free-market liberals when it was proposed that the local state might become a major employer. Provost Thompson said that the principle of any community or government providing employment for the people is a bad one, and that we must revert to the principle of using our funds merely for the purpose of preventing starvation, and giving the smallest amount of assistance compatible with bodily support, and by giving it purely as charity. In the midst of such a bleak economy Provost Thompson was, dear reader, able to greet Queen Victoria’s and Albert’s arrival in the Aberdeen in September when he presented her with silver keys to the city. A right Royal Circus at one side of town and bread at the soup kitchen if they were ‘lucky’ for unemployed starving women, men and children at the other.

Victoria visits a poor woman in her rain-leaking cottage at Braemar

There was no revolution. Unemployment and poverty remained hallmarks of the system. Crises pass albeit at the expense of life and hopes of individuals, families and whole communities. By 1849 British capital was entering a period of growth and greater stability as institutions evolved to cope with the forces of the free market.

Loch Street Soup Kitchen? The building still stands; a reminder to present-day food banks that what was, is.

December 16, 2019

Abigail's Party: Food Politics 1930s and 1970s Tory Favourites

Clearing out my large collection of old cookery books I came two curiosities –Tory Treats, Banffshire Conservative and Unionist Association recipes and The Cook o’ the North. Let’s explore some of the delicacies offered up in the first of these and what, if anything, they reveal about the Tory within.

Tory Treats is contemporaneous with Mike Leigh’s 1970s play Abigail’s Party, a satire on the aspirational middle classes with undercurrents of prejudice, pretentiousness, ignorance, and mediocrity. The question is does a cookery book reflect anything of those times in all their gory glory? I’ll rummage through the pages for you but you can make up your own minds.

You’re probably condemning me for affecting a snooty attitude to what is only a cookery book but you’re not the one faced with what journalist Anna Raeburn might describe as ‘ghastly’ concoctions that sum up some of the frankly, well, ghastly, food dished up in the ‘70s. In some cases I’ll include the recipe. Believe me they aren’t complicated. Here’s a flavour so grab a sick bucket. We start with my favourite for quickness and it is so Abigail.

Rich Tomato Soup: – open a can of tomato soup, heat. Add a glass of sherry.

Told you it wasn’t a chore. Cheers m’dears.

Salmon Surprise: – The surprise for me was that the salmon comes from a tin. Open the said tin, remove any calcium in the form of bones, and mix the salmon with heated bread and milk. The salmon goes into an oven dish with sliced egg and, surprise! – a layer of cornflakes and grated cheese. Add white sauce and more cornflakes and cheese and bake. Think we’ll call that brunch.

I imagine the French Onion Soup, Belgian Loaf and Pork Roman would be hard to swallow nowadays given the current xenophobic state of the party, specially in millionaire fishing circles in Banff and Buchan but they might just go for an exotic little number such as Herrings in Orange Juice? Mind you the orange juice might prove a problem. On reflection I’d shelve it. Herrings in Orange Juice sounds – what’s the word? Ghastly. Suspect it won’t compete in popularity with the local delicacy of an Inverurie Speshul. Basically find any meat and bung it all in together – recommended is steak, liver, beef sausages. A scurvy speshul.

So Abigail is the Brazilian Peach: – open a tin of peaches. Place in a dish. Drop in almond essence and cherries and spoon on beaten egg white then grill. That’ll be warmed up tinned peaches. Nice. Pass the Blue Nun.

Being from Banff and Buchan there’s an oddly odd religious element to their grub. How about this one called For a Sudden Visitation. I think the idea is if God calls in unexpectedly you have to grab another tin of peaches (hope the Coopy hasn’t run out) sprinkle on some sugar and cinnamon then – hope you’re still with me – what d’you think? Yes! You heat them up. What is it with Banff and Buchan Tories and hot peaches? Beginning to think hot peaches is code for something else.

Any cornflakes left over from your Salmon Surprise can be used in making Caramel Cornflake Crunch. Take a ¼ lb caramels out of the bag and melt them. At this point you might want to add a few chopped nuts before mixing in those oh-so-handy cornflakes. Spread out and leave to set.

I’m fairly certain this is the sort of cooking once taught in our schools – processed foods, sugar, more sugar, fat and more sugar, and fat. Chocolate Pops have an unfortunate association for me since I first read them as Chocolate Plops. Anyhow, here goes. Melt a bar of chocolate – easy, huh? Add rice crispies or you could add cornflakes but I’m fairly sure the Coopy is now oot o’ cornflakes or as they say roon here, conflakes.

If you are now regretting having embarked on a dander down Conservative cookery retro road with the Hyena can I offer you a slug or five of Tory Potato Wine. It’s made from some old tatties and there are plenty of them available in the Tory Party.

Overdone the Potato Wine? You might reach for a restorative Advocaat. Mmm, this tasty brandy and egg drink was popular in Scotland for just such emergencies but making it with a tin of Carnation milk? Seriously. Seriously just wrang.

You’d have to be blootered to dish up Tripe Scampi. First catch yer tripe (kidding – tripe is in rich supply among Banffshire Tories), chop it up with flour and milk and fry. Yu……………..k.

Clean your palette with a couple of Cheese Meringues or a forkful of Frosted Meat Loaf served with mayonnaise made from condensed milk and mustard.

My other Tory cook book was published in 1936 when people really did cook, if the Tories left them with any money to afford food that is. Which wasn’t often. But Tories will be Tories so let’s dip into their own lifestyle.

The Cook o’ the North is a play on the Cock o’ the North which is – if you don’t know already check out my other blogs. This cookery book contains recipes from Kincardine and West Aberdeenshire Unionist Association which inexplicably has changed its name to West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Totheids or similar.

Mrs Spence’s Frigidity isn’t what it appears but mince. Liver Pie won’t be to everyone’s taste nor will Stewed Tripe which was as prolific among 1930s Tories as it is among today’s. And something else time and Tories hasn’t changed is their appetite for Stuffed skirt. Or does Stewed Capercailzie take the bird? First hunt down the rare bird then kill it and compliment yourself on being an animal lover, on your plate at least. Killed out all the Capercailzies? Worry not here comes a wee Grey Squirrel for the casserole pot. The recipe is from one of those protectors of the countryside, Major Hugh Pollard and The Sportsman’s Cookery Book. Sports it seems is a moveable feast. Well, not so very moveable once they’re shot.

Every kind of animal found its way into Tory bellies. Even Cats Tongues. Fit! Calm down, they were a kind of biscuit. I think, but you can’t be sure with Tories.

Half-pay Pudding wasn’t something that was needed by many Unionists, I’m sure. In the 1930s there were many folk on half or no pay. So what was it? Flour, grated bread, suet, raisins, powdered ginger, syrup and sugar – essentially a sponge pudding. Raspberry Pudding is probably more to the liking of old flush face himself, Jackson Carlaw. Made from raspberry jelly it surely doesn’t turn out as ruby as beamer Carlaw. But maybe Strawberry Fool better represents him. Take one bumbling fool, embarrass him – joking!  Before I leave the subject of poverty included in the book is a recipe for Poor-House Perkins which is pretty damn offensive. The biscuits sound tasty – oatmeal, flour, treacle and sugar but it’s the 1930s equivalent of Tories grinning at cameras and explaining how proud they are to be opening another foodbank.

There are some fine sounding recipes in both volumes; Black Piece being one of them. This recipe is at least 200 years old and is a ginger cake made with treacle. Gingerbreads have always been very popular in Scotland and often sold in markets. Descriptions vary but if you were middle class or a toff you’d talk about a moist gingerbread while common-as-muck folk described one that wasn’t dry as damp. At least we got through this section without straying into offensive racist language for describing certain confections, unlike a certain Tory cookery book.

The British Empire has a lot to answer for not least when it comes to Iced Vegetable Curry and continuing the international culinary trail Dresden Patties were a favourite in these parts: chop flesh up into tiny pieces, cook in a hot sauce and fry which was pretty much the fate of women and children in Dresden when Britain and the US bombed it and created a firestorm in 1945.  

Towards the end of the book there’s a list of Five Auld-Farrant Cures From Grannie Mutch of the Scottish Children’s Hour. Grannie provides such sterling advice: make cough mixture with vinegar, sugar candy, eggs (shells included) mixed with 4d of paregoric and shake. ‘The bairns like it fine’ probably because of the paregoric – camphorated tincture of opium. Cheers m’dears.

Finally back to Abigail’s Party and a suggested lunch menu – not a dinner party but hey ho. Mandarin & grapefruit cocktail; salmon scallops; creamed potatoes; garden peas; strawberry whip.

It’s not so complicated. For the cocktail, open a tin of mandarins and a tin of grapefruit segments and mix. For the salmon, open a tin of salmon and mix with cheese, white sauce and grill. And the scallops? Another salmon surprise. There are no scallops. You serve the salmon in scallop shells. Typical Tory promise – ends in let down. To accompany this disappointment open a tin of peas. At least there’s proper mash to go with it. Eh, not quite. This is the 1970s so it’s a case of open a packet of dried potato – instant potato. My farmer uncle told me he was approached by a guy representing a dried tattie company who pointed to a pile of discarded rotting tatties and asked to buy them. Perplexed my uncle told him they were discards not for eating. “Oh,” replied the tattie agent, “we’ll process and bleach them. No-one will ever know they’re eating crap” or words to that effect.

And if dishing up this instant garbage was too much an ordeal for the average Tory then the Links Hotel in Banff was ready to step up –

If your own efforts (sic) are none too successful, book in at The Links for a True Blue Meal!

Nah, you’re alright.

Who’ll join me in a nutritional glass of sherry? Open a bottle and pour into a tumbler. Add a can of tomato soup. Cheers!

December 1, 2019

Iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures – John Steill and William Wallace.

William Wallace at Aberdeen sculpted by William Grant Stevenson in 1888. Paid by John Steill of 38 Grange Road, Edinburgh.

‘Never was the destruction of an ancient state more complete and humiliating than that of Scotland; – never did a people consent so tamely to surrender their liberties, and submit themselves to the overbearing dictation of another kingdom, as the Scotch have done.’

These are the words of John Steill of Edinburgh. I knew that Steill left money to pay for the colossal statue of William Wallace which dominates Schoolhill in Aberdeen but nothing else. Steill would have loved Twitter, with a handle such as @Patriot for he was like the best of us, opinionated. But Twitter did not exist in Steill’s time and he had to make do broadcasting his views through letters to the press and published as pamphlets. His main interests were the union with England and Clearances in the Highlands and Ireland, all of which he vehemently disapproved. The press, mainly staunchly conservative and reactionary, vilified him describing his words as dangerous.

It was in 1844 Steill wrote his most famous letter, later pamphlet, attacking the union and to place it in some kind of perspective I clicked onto Wikipedia to see what else was happening in the UK in 1844. What I found was that nothing at all happened in Scotland that year. Any events worthy of note took place exclusively in England. I expect John Steill could have told me that.  Towards the foot of the Wiki page was a link to Scotland in 1844 which is odd since last time I looked Scotland was part of the UK – apparently an unworthy part but part all the same whose events were just not important enough to get a mention on the UK page.

The following year Steill took out his pamphlet

On the Necessity of Dissolving the Union between England and Scotland, and on Restoring Scotland to Her Ancient Supremacy As an Entire and Distinct Nation

For Steill signing the union between Scotland and England was

 ‘one of the blackest transactions in history’ which reduced Scotland to becoming a vassal nation and he questioned why any Scot would think it right that a once sovereign state could demean itself to become dependent on another –

not least as betrayal of all those Scots who fought and died for their nation – Scotland’s real heroes who

‘would utterly disown and despise us.’

Then as now apologists for the union insist it was good for the Scottish economy  – an argument that failed to dent Steill’s certainty that any margin of economic benefit was a very bad trade-off for the

‘the annihilation of our independence and very name as a nation.’

The economic advantage argument he states could be just as easily applied to justify slavery as slave owners insisted their people were well cared and even prospered under it.

Any prosperity created by Scots, Steill insists, comes not from being in union with England but through Scots using their intelligence and application to prosper.

Wreath on statue of William Wallace
Guardian of Scotland

Scotland has been the butt of an unremitting propaganda assault since before union where she is painted as uncivilised compared with England. The truth is Scotland far from being nation of savages, feckless and barbaric was one of the world’s best educated of nations with a long and significant literary tradition, its people clever, enterprising and outward-looking Europeans, more open to democratic principles than their English counterparts.

That this modern European state could find itself shackled to an insular and war-like country like England incensed Steill. England in union dominated and overwhelmed Scotland, insisted Scots travel to London to represent their Scottish constituents, no easy matter in the 18th century (even before the travails of Scotrail.) Having tackled the hundreds of miles to London over several days through difficult and uncomfortable conditions (still prior to Scotrail) Scottish MPs found their opinions drowned out by

‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

The equivalent of the little woman who could do nothing without the permission of her husband Scots were forced to seek approval for each and every policy to be introduced into Scotland from English MPs. That any Scot should regard this humiliation appropriate for a nation that was once successfully independent struck Steill as reprehensible. In short Scotland, abundantly equipped to being a normal self-governing nation was constrained by England in a way that was degrading and oppressive.

Steill writes that his country is the victim of tyrants – ‘selfish aristocrats’ who contribute nothing but are idle, spend their time hunting on horseback and living in luxury but who have power to ‘beggar, starve, and banish’ Scots men and women who do work and contribute to the wealth of the country.

Steill points to parts of Scotland devastated as a direct result of the actions of tyrant landowners and distant Westminster and advocates nationalising their estates – distributing the land between the people who live there and depend on it. Condemning landowners who sell their land as if it ever belonged to them Steill insists, correctly, they were just lineal descendants of elected chiefs with no special right of property in the soil of Scotland. The land these Highland lairds sold or cleared, he writes, was never theirs – it belonged to the people of to the clan or sept collectively.

Not impervious to the hardships of English people, either, Steill blames their situation on ‘an imperious obligarchy’ stretching back to William the Bastard and his ilk who claimed entitlement to pillage and destroy right across the British empire for their own enrichment.

As though he had Gordon Brown breathing down his neck Steill tackles federal parliaments being proposed to quell Scottish discontent over the dominance of England in union. Steill is not in favour of federalism which he argues still chains Scotland to England with all that such an unequal partnership brings – its only benefit is not having to send MPs to London to look after Scottish interests. Federalism is a ploy to keep Scotland as an appendage of England with Westminster regarded as the chief government where real power resides with minor parliaments dispersed around the UK as England sees fit. The English parliament at Westminster still gets to dictate how every part of the union will be taxed based on England’s needs not theirs and these subordinate parts of the UK would still be obliged to participate in England’s wars.

Steill had no time for ‘crazed “gown-men” and ‘treacherous nobles and gentry’ who sell Scotland short. These scoundrels ‘sold off their native land to her enemies’ – against the wishes of the greater population of Scotland who deplore Scotland’s fate of becoming a vassal state of England’s instead of ranking equally among the ‘States of Europe’ that was once her position.

He pleads for Scotland to become ‘free and unfettered … independent and absolute, not a controllable and subordinate’ region of the UK. Scotland, he insists, should levy her own taxes, enter her own treaties with foreign powers, have control over her defence and not be a state that interferes with other kingdoms – as England does.

Steill’s Scotland once she recovers her independence should apply universal suffrage for her people and get rid of ‘monarchy and hereditary feudal aristocracy, both these useless, tyrannical, and all-devouring institutions…’ in other words become a democratic republic free to run her own affairs.

Sculptor and his masterpiece

He concludes with a plea for Scots to demonstrate some of that spirit of the past that resisted when Scottish ‘rights were trampled on, and their national honour invaded.’ Those strengths are even more needed now, he argues, that Scotland has become a ‘contemptible province, stripped of her very name (is referred to as North Britain) , deprived of the power to remove those crying evils which afflict her, both socially and politically, and when she is left with no other memorials of her former dignity and independence but the moss-covered ruins of her palaces and citadels, whose gigantic fragments but too emphatically tell what Scotland once was, and what she now is.’

John Steill certainly had strong views but then so did those who defended the union. He was said to have been a pleasant man, intelligent and a great reader who kept a fine collection of books on Scottish history. When he died he left his money to his housekeeper, Margaret Strachan, with the proviso that what remained after her death went to erecting a sculpture of his hero, William Wallace. Money was also provided by him for repairs and upkeep of the monument, left in the hands of Aberdeen’s magistrates.

The monument he declared was to be a colossal bronze raised up on a large pediment. There would be nothing fancy or fussy about it but bold to properly represent the statesman and warrior. Aberdeen’s granite roughly hewed and imposing would be ideal for its ability to support the hero Guardian of Scotland.  

Around the base would be engraved words spoken by Wallace such as his interview with the English Ambassadors prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge when the English envoy requested the Scots lay down their weapons and submit to the English king at which point Wallace would be pardoned of ‘all his treasons’ – i.e. where treason was defined as daring to protect his country from foreign aggression.  

Wallace, the leader who in England was called the ‘Master of thieves’ told England’s ambassadors ‘to go back to your masters and tell them that we came not here to treat, but to fight and set Scotland free’  and so these words are cut into the plinth.

It should be said this monument is magnificent and undoubtedly the most impressive Wallace statue in Scotland which means in the world. I find it impressive and I’m certain Steill would be pleased at how it turned out. However, I suspect he would have been both amazed and depressed that there are still Scots who are apologists for a union that continues to treat Scotland as a vassal state. Not an admirer of the press which he regarded as apologists and champions of the union Steill reserved much of his ire for the Scotsman with ‘its marked dislike to anything Scotch.’ He dismissed much of the press for being prejudiced against Scotland’s interests and for being “profoundly ignorant” – about Scotland – thoughts that echo through time and are just as relevant today. Yes, John Steill @Patriot would have savaged today’s toady and unprofessional press fawning over ‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

November 11, 2019

What is mine is mine and what is yours is also mine: Scotland in union

Flag of the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies

How England colonised Scotland.

A report out this week is critical of Westminster’s handling of the economy and its impact on Scotland – disastrous. It argues that Scotland’s potential for wealth is – big – but the actuality in a decidedly unequal union is – dodgy.

For fifty years we have watched as £zillions of revenue from oil and gas taken out of Scottish waters flows downhill to London to reduce the size of the national debt, support tax breaks and financial incentives for oil and gas multinationals, enable eye-wateringly costly building projects and infrastructure to boost the economy of London.

Tax revenue from the UK’s offshore industries, 90% of which lie off Scotland, could have been (should have been) designated as Scottish revenue. It wasn’t. Instead Westminster dreamed up a make-believe place which they called the UK Continental Shelf. This meant Scotland could not claim oil and gas fields as hers because they were situated in Wonderland aka the UK Continental Shelf.

At one fell swoop the enormous wealth that might have made such a difference to Scotland’s scattered, much of it rural, population – to the provision of health and social care, education, transport was whipped away. Imagine if anything like the money squandered on the bottomless pit that is London’s cross-rail project or HS2 had been invested around Scotland – proper roads and choice of transport in the Highlands – all you can do is imagine for it never happened. Wealth is what goes to southeast England, from Scotland.

Just to be sure that uppity Scots would not benefit from Britain’s offshore bonanza Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, picked up an HB pencil and drew a line through Scottish waters re-allocating a chunk to England – exemplifying that age-old practice of the coloniser to annexe territory wherever and whenever because they have the powers to do so. Westminster must have been gratified at how easy it was to achieve. That sort of thing used to cause wars.

It is one thing to allow fish taken from Scottish waters to be regarded as Scottish but not highly valuable oil and gas. No ifs no buts Westminster ignored protests from Scotland because despite the union of the UK being described as a union of equals it isn’t. The UK is England’s little empire. Scotland is a mere colony; there to provide the mother country with resources not to benefit directly from them.

Scotland’s waters

Imagine the scene – an office deep inside Westminster where a bourach of suited men with dandruff on their shoulders leaning in over a large table – highly polished by a migrant worker on minimum wage – concocting the means by which they could appropriate Scotland’s cash cow like a bunch of 20th century border reivers.

Of course the colony of Scotland was thrown a crumb in the form of per capita portion of the revenues but as England’s population is ten times that of Scotland you don’t have to be a financial wizard to realise which of the equal partners of the union got the lion’s share.

The plotters in London weren’t even very good at getting the best value out of hydrocarbons. A simple comparison with Norway which virtually mirrors the UK’s oil and gas industries reveals quite astonishingly that the Norwegians generated more than double the revenue of the UK on every single barrel of oil. These civil servants and politicians managed not only to screw Scotland but screw themselves into the bargain. Only just not as much.

Back in 2014 at the time of the independence referendum Scotland was in the unusual position of being a producer of one of the world’s most lucrative products and yet the message coming out from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats was this was a bad thing for once oil was gone it was gone and then where would Scotland be? Same place England would be. And as the silent and largely forgotten partner in the precious union dependent on crumbs tossed northwards from London, that’s where. Since Scotland has a tendency to see Nordic countries as fellow-nations it is highly likely that had Scotland been in receipt of her own oil and gas revenues Scots would be cushioned from the worst times through a Norwegian type oil fund that could have eased the transfer from hydrocarbons to renewable.

There is no question that Westminster is responsible for severely damaging Scotland’s economy. If what came out of the North Sea had been plastic waste Westminster would have let it alone instructing Scotland to deal with its own problem but it wasn’t waste it was wealth. Like the EU farming funds meant for Scottish farmers Westminster grabbed oil and gas revenues for itself. That’s the thing about colonists, remember – what’s theirs is theirs and what is the colony’s is also theirs – if it is valuable.

This is simply state organised abuse. You know the scenario where an abusive husband insists his abused wife stays with him because she keeps getting beaten up – and he’ll protect her. There’s an Eric Bogle song, Glasgow Lullaby about a woman who keeps taking a beating from her drunken man and never leaves –

Oh my God, it’s a weary, weary life
Who wid be a drinkin’ man’s wife
Who wid thole a’ this trouble and this strife
Who but a silly woman

Scotland is Westminster’s abused wife. She should tell it/him where to get off then take away its/his keys to the shared house. Scotland needs to just say no to Westminster. Scotland too poor to stand on her own? It’s the oldest trick in the bullies handbook. Demoralize, demean, intimidate, undermining confidence. Lie. You’re too stupid. Too weak. We’ll hurt you if you leave.

It is said that clarifying what counts as Scottish in the UK economic stakes is complicated. Well, not that complicated but I’ll simplify it.

Let’s take Scotland’s international trade. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the world are counted as Scottish. Or sometimes they are. If goods or services leave Scotland for England, Wales or Northern Ireland and then get jumbled up with other goods or services and are subsequently exported then whatever Scotland’s input is disappears and the export is recorded as a UK export. I have not been able to discover what an English-produced good sent to Scotland and then exported as part of some other product is designated.

Of course that applies to goods apart from oil and gas which are always listed under the UK. The same applies to services provided by offshore industries – these also get added to UK income not Scottish. Anyone living around northeast Scotland will know that over the past fifty years servicing oil and gas here and across the world has been a major source of work and income.

So what will happen in the coming months with another independence referendum on the horizon? The UK’s media will rediscover its Scottish granny once more and we’ll have wall-to-wall Britain rammed down our throats. Once again Scots will be warned and threatened and sneered at for their ingratitude at wanting their country to regain its soverign nation status. You won’t have oil and gas…and neither will England and rumpUK. You’re too wee…as if size matters.

Scotland’s land area covers 77,933 km2 and the population is about 5,424,000. The GDP is currently about $237.628 billion that works out per capita about $43,740. Compare that with other small nations – that just happen to be the wealthiest countries in Europe.

Switzerland is a bit like Scotland – lots of mountains and lochs (they call them lakes) and, like Scotland is a top tourist destination. It doesn’t have oil and gas and it isn’t a major source of wind and wave power. Its population is around 8,600,000 not too different from Scotland’s and its land area a sqeeny 41,285 km2. So far so similar only its per capita is about double that of Scotland at US$ 85,374.

How about Norway another small European country, even more like Scotland with mountains and lakes and it does have an oil and gas industry. It covers 385,207 km2  much of that mountainous with a population around Scotland’s at just over 5,000,000. It is almost Scotland’s double – double in that its wealthy per capita is more than double at US$ 97,226 and its GDP again double, running northwards of $400 billion.

Luxembourg is a tiny country of .2,586.4 km2 and its population just over 600,000. It has no oil and gas and is not exactly graced with mountains and lakes. It is the third richest country in Europe with a per capita income of US $ 116,560.

If the gloom mongers of Better Together are to be believed Lichtenstein would be an independent basket case  – too wee, no oil and gas. It is tiny at only 160 km2  and its population is the size of Airdie’s at around 37,000. It does have mountains and virtually no unemployment. Per capita income is an impressive US $ 143,000.

The richest country in Europe is minisculy, tiny – only 2.2 km2. Monaco has a population of around 40,000 and its per capita runs to US $ 168,000. Oh and it doesn’t have high mountain or oil and gas. And not only is it the richest country in Europe it is the richest country in the world.

Anyone who would deny Scotland’s right to become independent on the basis of size needs to be told again and again and again that size doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with it.

One of the reasons these small independent countries are so successful is that they aren’t tied into an unequal, though precious, union with England run from Westminster.

Westminster has been interfering with Scotland’s economy even before the precious union was a gleam in the eye of some speculators both Scottish and English. In the days when building empires was all the rage and Scots thought they might dabble in just such a thing the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies (and incidentally the Americas) was established. It ran from 1695 – 1707 and the more observant of you will have registered the end date.

This enterprise proved to be an adventure too far – at least for the English state. It was the brainchild of that entrepreneur, William Paterson, the Scot behind the Bank of England.

At the time Scotland shared a monarch with England – the result of the union of the crowns in 1603 – but was otherwise an independent state. However, Scotland was left in no doubt that with the transfer of its king to London so the crown’s interests also moved south. in fact Scotland was regarded as an irritant (not to be dependent upon to back England in its wars of which there were many) and gadzooks a potential economic rival to the East India Company and Royal African Company. Bold Scotland’s attempt to create its own empire – a colony in northeast Canada around what is now Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island in 1621 foundered a decade later – a victim of England’s war with France.

Nova Scotia

Paterson’s scheme to colonise Darien, (Panama) in Central America to provide Scottish commerce with a secure harbour with access to both Atlantic and Pacific oceans found initial support within England as well as Scotland. However, as soon as the East India Company got wind of the plan it lobbied the King and the English parliament to scupper it. English investors took fright abandoning the whole sorry mess to Scots speculators. Those of you familiar with recent banking scandals will not be surprised that bankers and businessmen were equally duplicitous in the 17th century and to cut a long story short much of the money raised to fund the venture disappeared into various deep pockets.

See Darien and Navigation Acts: https://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2017/11/03/theres-nothing-like-the-smell-of-xenophobia-in-the-morning

The Darien scheme had two enemies, aside from the climate, the Spanish who regarded the area as theirs and the English who regarded everything else as theirs. Scots ships were attacked and relations with England reached their lowest point.

Having an enemy on its border concerned the English court and parliament while within Scotland hardship increased not least through the loss of so much money wasted on Darien, lost commerce from confiscated cargoes on top of several seasons of poor harvests which hit the poorest hardest with severe food shortages. Scotland was on her knees.

England’s Navigation Acts crushed Scottish commerce by forcing all goods imported into England to be transported in English vessels. With the wind behind them England’s parliament at Westminster pressed for union with Scotland – to enable it the better to control the land to the north.

There was no democracy back in the 18th century and Scottish merchants who lost fortunes because of Darien and England’s aggressive maritime policy that denied Scotland access to its markets, were made an offer they felt they could not refuse. Come in with England and we’ll pay you compensation or else. This was union at the point of a sword – blackmail. England had the whip hand and used it to great effect. The ‘compensation’ was a carrot – and Scotland’s wealthy donkeys bit.

And so some of Scotland’s landed interests and city merchants accepted the 18th century equivalent of cashback. Cash paid as compensation for losses incurred through the actions of England and Spain. This cashback was called the Equivalent. Needless to say such an enticement came with strings attached. Scotland would have to agree to take on a share of England’s horribly large national debt and – wouldn’t you know – be taxed higher.

Once agreed the Equivalent cashback was distributed from the offices of the former Company of Scotland in Edinburgh and from the ashes a new company emerged imaginatively called the Equivalent Company. This group transformed itself into a banking organisation out of which the Royal Bank of Scotland materialised. And we know what that led to.

Scots were reassured that the proposed union with England would retain Scotland’s sovereignty. Of course that was a lie.

I have read but cannot confirm that a century earlier James VI, the guy who started all this union malarkey, or perhaps it was Sir Henry Savile in 1604, remarked that union between Scotland and England would end with the conquest of Scotland by England. He/he wasn’t wrong.

Ref – A Union for Empire: Political Thought and the British Union of 1707, John Robertson ed.,, CUP 2006

October 8, 2019

The Power of Scotland

July 5, 2019

Scotticisms in our Precious Union or Michael Gove and Sconglais

Perhaps Gordon Brown’s political career would have been more successful had he spent less time trying to reinvent himself as an Englishman. This unfortunate individual suffered from what is known as the Scottish cringe –a state of shame and denial over ties to their homeland and its native tongue.

If any Scots were in doubt before the union with England there was none after it just how much contempt was felt towards them by their new political partners. With the union signed and sealed following a couple of years of scheming by the monarchy and England’s government’s pussy-footing policies such as classifying Scots as aliens and preventing the nation trading with English colonies the gloves were off. Scotland had been emasculated and would no longer pose a threat as a potential backdoor to England’s enemy, France. But this was a union of two very different nations – separated among other things by a common language.

Scots spoke Scots (in a host of dialects) but political discourse with the new partners meant compromise. Let’s be clear – not compromise exactly as that involves give and take on both sides – the kind of compromise you get from an unequal partnership or union where one side dictates and the other complies. To a large degree Scots abandoned their language while the English didn’t. The union or as we now have to call it – the precious union expected those Scots in prominent positions to adopt English as the lingua franca (if you’ll pardon the expression) as the official language of the combined nations. Sometimes it was English with a Scottish frill – let’s call it Sconglais.

Even in areas of cultural life where Scotland was pre-eminent, specifically the Enlightenment, some of its greatest luminaries such as David Hume and James Beattie* sought to eradicate Scotticisms (Scottish words) from their works – possibly to appeal to a broader audience – not England but Continental Europe where the dynamism of the philosophical and medical Enlightenment movement was closest to Scotland’s. Refining the Scotch tongue was regarded as necessary for many an ambitious Scot whose natural way of communicating was regarded as an impediment to advancement.

I was conscious as a child how many Scots sounded clumsy when talking to an English person in English and always felt obliged to adapt their natural flow of speaking to accommodate the visitor, to help their understanding, never the other way round. Scots have long been taught to despise their own tongue and until more recent years were ‘corrected’ at home and school and encouraged to speak ‘proper’ English. It’s often said Scots speak two languages – one among themselves and another in mixed company.  Imagine being led to believe your own language is inferior to someone else’s?

While universities and polite society in the 18th century weaned themselves off broad Scots this didn’t happen among working people whose communications tended to be localised – so they had no need to interpret their words; everyone understood them.

With the union Scotland became North Britain. Was there ever a South Britain?  The language (s) spoken in North Britain were derided as barbaric, like their peoples. Highlanders with their indecipherable Gaelic were regarded with greatest suspicion and loathing. The people were described as savages.  Ironic it was then that the leisured classes included Highland Scotland in their Grand Tours, in search of experiences (tame savagery) and education (if not enlightenment.) During these pre-Victorian years the brutality of Culloden was a well within living memory, Scots were being cleared off their lands and Highland Scotland was in a sense a million miles away from cosy metropolitan life as lived in London or even Edinburgh.

The lexicographer, Dr Johnson, and his side-kick cum translator, James Boswell, ‘did’ the Highlands. He didn’t like it – couldn’t understand the people and through his dictionary he did his bit to regulate the English language which further relegated broad Scots never mind our rich dialect words and expressions to this country’s savage past.

There was no place for uncouth Scotticisms in the brave new world of the precious union of equals – no matter that broad Scots was more akin to the language of Chaucer than Johnson’s tarted up modernisms. For all that the impact of standardising English, and therefore Scots, was felt more in the homes of the upper and middle classes than among the working classes who could read English but continued to communicate in their own tongues.

Which brings me to Michael Gove. Gove is a hybrid; a Scot/Anglo whose mellifluous vocal acrobatics have resulted in an accent and form of speech that is part Aberdeen (miniscule) but mainly Estuary English – Sconglais. Despite his best efforts Gove absorbed Scots words as a child, yes indeed he was once a child, albeit one who had more in common with 30s-somethings than 13s-somethings. When he spoke of a ‘dunt towards the workplace’ in 2013 his use of the word ‘dunt’ – an everyday term here – created uproar among Britain’s narrow metropolitans. I doubt he picked the word deliberately for effect as Gordon Brown might have done but wouldn’t because that would have highlighted his Scottishness.  Gove was probably as taken aback as we were in Scotland over the reaction created among England’s press.

With radio, television, film and the internet languages across the world are being altered at a terrific speed. Here in Aberdeenshire the unique Doric is fast disappearing – I should say Dorics because there are as many variations as there are communities. The move towards English that began in Scotland with the professional classes continues. You can still hear Scots being spoken where working class folk get together and in farming areas, though not among today’s lairds and lairdesses – though once they spoke as everyone around them did – and would have been proficient in several other languages as well. 

Henry Dundas who more or less managed Scottish political affairs in the late 18th century – a guy on the make who delayed the abolition of slavery and confused public money with his own – that kind of person; I think the technical description is, a piece of shit. All beyond the point, he was Scottish and brought up speaking Scots and one day he asked the PM, Pitt, for the loan of a horse for ‘the length of Highgate.’ Now any Scot would understand that to mean a horse that could cover that sort of distance but the Englishman that was Pitt replied he didn’t have a horse quite so long. Och but those quaint Scots are a constant source of amusement.

It was to avoid such confusion that Johnson compiled his dictionary. Deliberately misconstruing someone’s meaning might have been the case with Pitt. It certainly was by the Provost of Edinburgh who when asked by the Duke of Newcastle following the Porteous Riots of 1736 what kind  of shot the town guard under Captain Porteous used in their muskets, replied -“Ou, juist sic as ane shute dukes and sic like fules wi.” (Oh, just such as ones that shoots dukes and such fools with.)

His comment was condemned as an insult in the House of Lords (which it was) but the provost’s neck was spared when the Duke of Argyle argued it was merely a funny remark that when translated into English meant ducks and water-fowl not Peers and Idiots. As if!

 Scotticisms will linger on for a long time yet but as sprinkles over the cream of the Scots tongue. There should be no shame felt in our unique and descriptive vocabulary and institutions such as Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute provide an important service to our language in celebrating it and collecting examples of our mither tongue.

I grew up knowing that a hog was a sheep and a pig was a coarse earthenware jar but a Scottish servant a couple of centuries ago caused consternation when she set out from her employer’s London home to find “a great broon pig to haud the butter in.”

No self-respecting Scottish butcher would have offered a leg of pork, only a gigot. Gigot is from the French for, well, gigot, and evocative of Scotland’s ancient close relationship with France. There are lots of similar examples – caraff/carafe; gooseberries/groseille; perticks/perdix (partridge); Ashet/assiette; fash – very familiar today through Outlander as in dinae fash yersel – from the French facher; gean/guigne (cherry); ule or yle/huile (oil); serviette/serviette (napkin); gysard/guiser; haggis/hachis; jalousie/jalouser (suspect).

If you were said to be silly in Scotland you weren’t a bit daft but physically under the weather. And it’s common to hear folk here observe that someone’s health is failing whereas this is apparently a term only known in relation to business in England.

Long gone are Scots names for illnesses such as the nirls (measles); blabs (nettle-rash); scaw (clap); kinkhost’ fever (whooping-cough);  branks (mumps); the worm (toothache.)

Imagine the consternation here to be told that political change on the Continent had been brought about by a cow – “a coo dee’t a” (coup d’etat.) Then again in Scotland all things are possible.

At the risk of establishing a cow theme let me remind you, if you need reminding, of the old Scottish proverb, “Do as the cow of Forfar did, tak a standing drink.” It came about because one day a Forfar woman left the beer she had just brewed to cool outside her cottage when up came a cow and drank it. She sued the cow’s owner for compensation but the bailies of Forfar acquitted him on grounds that when Highland folk took leave of one another their last drink would be taken standing up – a dochan doris (deoch-an-doruis) – deoch is a drink/an means of the in Gaelic/ doruis or dorais is the possessive case of dorus, a door so literally the last drink at the door. This last drink was never charged at an inn so it was argued in court that as the cow had stood while drinking the woman’s ale there should be no charge – in both senses.

As usual I have veered straight up a blind alley. Back to the language that divides Britain. The English poet, Charles Lamb, had no time for Scots whom he dismissed as having no humour – presumably it went straight over his head. Some of his prejudice was based on a meeting he had with a son of Rabbie Burns when he wished he’d seen the father instead of the son. A chorus of Scots voices returned, “That’s impossible, for he’s dead.” Lamb considered these Scots didn’t share his wit. And to be honest his droll remark doesn’t strike me as funny, which rather proves his point no doubt.

Perhaps less nowadays than in the past the Scottish sense of humour, a dry pawkish humour, is often misunderstood south of the border (don’t mention the border.) Scots tend to play down situations and are far less respectful of social position – the lack of interest in royal pageantry is a prime example.  

We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns is woven into the psyche of Scots: the take-down is integral to our humour – I kent his faither. Here’s an example from way back. A conceited packman (trader) blawin (boasting) about the grand life of folk in York, London and other English places was asked where he came from.

“Oh, I’m from the Border.’

“Ach the Border, I thocht that. It’s aye the selvedge (seam) is the wakest bit o the wab (cloth)!”

Ah yes there are as many jokes in Scotland about the English as there are in England about the Scots. Here’s a couple of ancient funny stories:  

When an Englishman sneered that no man of taste would spend any time in a country like Scotland  a Scot replied, “Tastes differ; I’ll tak ye to a place no far frae Stirling whaur thirty thousand o yer countrymen ha’ been for five hunder years, and they’ve nae thocht o’ leavin’ yet.”

A Scotsman was making his way back home from an unsuccessful trip selling goods in England. Penniless he reached Carlisle when he saw a notice offering £50 for someone to act as hangman to dispatch a well-known local criminal. He applied and got the job but then a local man condemned him as a “mean beggarly Scot” for doing for money what no Englishman would. Undaunted the Scots trader grinned, “I’ll hang ye a’ at the price.”

Then there’s the story of the Englishman who bought a country estate in Scotland. Travelling abroad one time he tried to pass himself off as a Scot when he met up with a native born one. To prove his claim he went on about Scotland, haggis, whisky, Bannockburn, Queen Mary and even how writers Scott and Burns were superior to all English authors – and so on. Still he failed to convince. The Scot turned to him and said, “Weel, I’m jest thinkin’ my lad, ye’re nae Scotsman; but I’ll tell ye what ye are – ye’re jest an improved Englishman.”  

Time for a last one?

An English tourist enjoying a bit of angling in Scotland asked a local girl to catch a horse-fly for him to use on his hook. The girl stared at him, confused. “Have you never seen a horse-fly?” he demanded. “Na, sir,” she replied, “but ance I saw a coo jumper ower a cliff.” Now if he’d known a horse-fly is really a cleg she’d have obliged him.  

Of course in the union of equals, apologies, the precious union,  it was never England that changed; from its parliament to peely-wally Scots have been the ones to submit to pressure from the bigger partner. I’m sure you have several examples of your own.

*Dr Beattie of Aberdeen wrote: Scotticisms designed to Correct Improprieties of Speech and Writing

June 21, 2019

From Scotland to Australia: Ben Boyd was a nasty piece of work

Benjamin Boyd

Walk around any town any place and it is extraordinary who does and who doesn’t get honoured – with statues, streets and squares named after them, public parks and so on.

I stumbled upon one Benjamin Boyd in the way that is usual for me –by reading about something entirely different. In this latest instance I was fair enjoying a rip-roaring melodrama written and set in Aberdeen in the 1800s called the King of Andaman. Incidental to the story is a reference to an adventurous fellow called Ben Boyd who started up the Royal Australia Bank. I didn’t know if this was fact or fiction so checked him out and discovered it was true and that old Ben was a bit of a scoundrel. Let me tell you about him.

Benjamin Boyd was born on 21 August 1803 in Wigtonshire and met his unexpected death not a day too soon in October 1851, in the Solomon Islands. During the intervening forty-eight years Benjamin Boyd made a fortune, lost a fortune, dabbled in politics and wrecked many a life. In short Benjamin Boyd was a truly nasty and despicable piece of work.

Born in Scotland to an English merchant and his wife at the family’s country estate in the southwest Ben was ascribed Scottish nationality while his brother, Mark, who was a writer as well as brother-in-crime is said to be English. This is all pretty well besides the point.

The Boyd children, there were more of them, grew up in the expectation that life was about getting rich. Benjamin who became a stockbroker in London soon cast an eye towards Australia which he viewed as the place to make his fortune. Australia had been claimed as British in the 18th century because it could. But what use was all this land so far from Britain if there weren’t skilled people to work and develop it? Obviously the racist British dismissed Australia’s indigenous population as being nothing less than a nuisance with no claim to the place they had occupied for tens of thousands of years.

The first British colony there was established in 1788 in what was named New South Wales – an area covering over half of mainland Australia. The first imported labour comprised American Loyalists, Chinese and South Sea Islanders but in a light bulb moment it was decided that transported prisoners from Britain would make ideal captive workers to establish agriculture and industries. Unlike the popular image of these unfortunates torn away from their families the people shipped thousands of miles were not uncouth vicious criminals but skilled artisans, farmers and the like convicted of petty misdemeanours. Before long fleets of ships brought consignments of men, women and children to turn this far off land into profit.   

 Australia was regarded as the ideal place to acquire fortunes on the cheap. Ben Boyd certainly thought so. He tried to buy up land in New South Wales but was resisted by the British authorities who were unwilling to sell to an individual; leasing was his option. As a merchant trader Boyd established harbours and coaling stations for his vessels in Australia. The finance he needed to setup came from the Royal Bank of Australia – Boyd’s own bank. He and his brother Mark had taken the precaution of raising money in London in 1839, prior to Ben’s move to Australia. They gave the bank an appropriate name, Royal Bank of Australia, and sold debentures of £200,00 – that is they raised funds through promises of good returns for investors and so suitably financed Ben Boyd sailed to Australia aboard his luxury schooner, Wanderer.

I should say just prior to this Boyd set up two businesses in addition to the bank; The Australian Wool Company and Boyd Brothers. As with dodgy companies today these two were essentially the same but under two names.

Boyd dispatched several vessels filled with merchandise prior to his journey so his arrival in Australia meant he had items to trade. Once landed in Australia Boyd established a branch of his Australian bank in Sydney, along with fellow entrepreneur, Joseph Phelps Robinson. At the same time, c.1844, he became a squatter – taking over huge tracts of land for grazing thousands of sheep and cattle. Boyd’s bank stayed buoyant long enough for the pair to add to their livestock holdings several times over and enabled them to lease extra millions of acres of land. The money Boyd used to pay for land, sheep, cattle, horses, houses etc was borrowed from his own bank – in short he was speculating with bank money.

Having acquired the land for next to nothing Boyd also expected labour to come for a song.  His plea to the British authorities was to provide cheap labour, virtually slave labour, to enhance profits from investing in Australia but despite having access to transported convict labour Boyd remained dissatisfied.

He suggested to the government and it agreed that he take (take as in compel)people from nearby island communities including Tanna (New Hebrides) and Lifu (Loyalty Islands.) Ships were sent and bullies hired to kidnap and ship to Australia fit men and women, blackbirding, who would be indentured to Boyd for 5 years. As for pay that was set at 26 shillings a year along with meat, trousers, two shirts and a Kilmarnock cap (non-islander shepherds were paid £10 annually plus meat and flour but no luxuries such as tea and sugar.) Nervous British authorities recognised Boyd’s kidnapping activities were illegal. Some islanders ran away and tried to return to their homes. Others became ill. All in all these unfortunate people suffered dreadfully and despite their distribution across a wide expanse of land an organised uprising occurred with bids for freedom. Boyd saw people only in terms of profit and having lost some of the original islanders he tried to replace them by kidnapping others. At this point the New South Wales Legislative Council stepped in to stop him. While this was progress it didn’t help islanders already abandoned in Australia unlikely ever to get back home. White settlers and the press demonised victim islanders – describing them as wild savages which is extraordinary given the savagery of Ben Boyd’s behaviour.  He, in turn, was furious that the authorities had denied him and that the very people he was exploiting failed to appreciate the opportunities he provided them with.

Boyd’s ruthless approach to making money attracted a large amount of criticism at the time but that hasn’t dented the apparent admiration later generations of Australians felt for the guy.

The town he set up was called, naturally, Boyd Town or Boydtown and established on Twofold Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. It was used to service Boyd’s farming interests. Here his livestock was butchered and processed by boiling and salting. In addition to houses and the essential stockyards the town had a hotel and church and, of course, a jetty several feet long as well as a lighthouse for the safety of Boyd’s merchant ships carrying mutton, beef, wool and skins to Britain. Always on the lookout for yet another source of cash Boyd also set up a whaling station with 9 or 10 sperm whalers.

Boyd’s house

Boyd’s decision to enter politics appears to have been pragmatic; to smooth the way for his business interests. Australia was attracting attention for its economic potential and Boyd got himself into a position of representing big farmers like himself. It’s clear he was ambitious and his ambitions ran away with him. He had fingers in numerous pies and he was secretive about his business activities which were obviously shady enough to be criminal. When his financial ship ran aground he was found to have lied about the business profits and in 1847 he was ousted by angry shareholders and replaced by yet another brother, William Sprott Boyd. This Boyd proved as unreliable as Benjamin and a couple of years later a liquidator took over. When in 1848 the debenchers who had funded the Royal Australian Bank were due to be paid back it was discovered the money was gone and Boyd’s property was seized as some kind of recompense. I’m fairly certain that the bulk of monies taken out of the failing bank were sent back to London to Boyd’s accounts there. Boyd’s murky financial deals were described by one of his contemporaries as a Chinese puzzle. It cannot be but argued that the bank he set up was a shell company to advance the Boyds. Both Ben and Mark were made bankrupt.

Smarting from his downfall in Australia Benjamin Boyd turned his attention to America and the lure of California’s gold rush in 1849 but when that didn’t work out he jumped back onboard his ship Wanderer to set up a republic in the Pacific Islands. As you do.

The deeply ingrained racism and hypocrisy that drove European colonisation was never far from Boyd’s thoughts. The Wanderer docked at Guadalcanal in the Solomons at San Christobal Island and early one morning Boyd disembarked for a spot of shooting. And disappeared.

Shots had been heard, presumably fired by Boyd. Who or what he shot at is not recorded but it was supposed that islanders dealt with this usurper – “wandering, perhaps, among antipodean savages, naked and tattooed, or perhaps tomahawked, or probably eaten!” A tough bite. During the day, before it was realised Boyd had disappeared, islanders had tried to coax the ship’s crew ashore. When they refused some attempted to board Wanderer but were fought off and killed. An armed party went ashore and found Boyd’s footprints surrounded by other prints along with a piece of his double barrelled rifle. They searched every house for miles but didn’t unearth Boyd. On its return to Australia Wanderer was wrecked in a storm.

Rumours persisted that Boyd still lived and was a prisoner. It was said his initials were seen carved on trees. Guadalcanal islanders claimed he was alive. A search was undertaken in 1854 but to no avail. More stories emerged – that Boyd had been killed by native islanders after their own folk were attacked by the crew of Wanderer; Boyd was said to have been hanged in the canoe house of King Tabula. Such accounts led to a reward being issued for Boyd’s skull and an enterprising native produced a skull. By the time it was realised the skull belonged to a long dead Papuan with perfect teeth, as opposed to Boyd’s false teeth, the payment of 20 tomahawks had been paid.

During his lifetime Boyd made a great show of his wealth but it was built on criminal schemes and borrowed cash. He lived the life but like his bank it was an empty shell. All the money that slipped though his fingers he spent on a lavish lifestyle that was enabled by the very labourers on whom he depended and ruthlessly exploited. He was a man on the make without the acumen to succeed without cheating.  When he died Boyd was worth less than £3000.

The town he established, Boydtown, became a ghost town after his business empire collapsed until the 1930s when it underwent a revival. Boyd has been commemorated in other ways including the Ben Boyd National Park, set up in 1971. Frankly it seems gauche and extraordinary that Australia regards Benjamin Boyd worthy of honouring. I’d have thought Australia’s indigenous population or those kidnapped and enslaved Pacific Islanders were far more deserving.

Ben Boyd National Park

https://www.smh.com.au/national/blackbirding-shame-yet-to-be-acknowledged-in-australia-20150603-ghfn9c.html

May 28, 2019

You can’t be a doctor you are a women: Scotland’s first women physicians

Men only medical lecture Glasgow

In ancient and early civilisations women physicians were accepted within their communities to practise healing but when medicine was professionalised through university degrees women found themselves excluded and their practical expertise scorned. Universities were for centuries exclusively male institutions of learning. The first chair of medicine at any university in the British Isles was introduced in Scotland, at Aberdeen’s King’s College, in 1497.

All kinds of obstacles were placed before young women attempting to enter the medical profession. Initially denied admittance to lectures, they were then tholled in some circumstances and confronted by male anger and hostility, sometime violence.

When eventually in the 19thc century women endeavoured to set up their own medical training facilities they faced reluctance from some male lecturers to provide classes. Undeterred these women stuck to their principles that women should have the opportunity to study and practise medicine in Britain.

By the eighteenth century attitudes towards female medics elsewhere in Europe were more enlightened.

Dorothea Erxleben was the first European women to be granted a decree to practise as a physician in Europe, in 1754. This was in Prussia. It took a century and a half for Scotland to produce its first graduate woman doctor, Marion Gilchrist from Bothwell in 1894.

Dr Marion Gilchrist

In England the London School of Medicine for Women was set up in 1874, its prime mover being the overbearing figure of Sophia Jex-Blake, and in 1876 a highly controversial Act of Parliament afforded females the right to gain access to the medical profession. Opponents of this Act included many women who thought themselves too feeble and inferior to the male species to cope with any professional career including medicine. Although Queen Victoria gave her assent to the Act she was staunchly opposed to any rights for women, not any that infringed on hers you understand.  

This Act meant women could now practice in the UK but not graduate in medicine here, kowtowing to those misogynist strongholds – British universities. British females were obliged to complete their studies at enlightened foreign universities. The first woman to be registered as a practising physician in the UK was Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1859. From Bristol in England she took her degree at Geneva Medical College (incidentally she was also the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.) Blackwell has a fascinating history and I urge you to read about her life.

A substantial number of women had their ambition to practise medicine thwarted by prejudice, discrimination and ignorance. When in the later 19th century Edinburgh’s prestigious medical school opened its lecture room doors to female students it still denied them completion of their courses so Jex-Blake replicated the school of medicine for women in London with a similar one in the Scottish capital in 1886. The women behind it were known as the Edinburgh Seven and comprised of Blake; Isabel Thorne ; Emily Bovell; Edith Pechey , Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans and Mary Anderson.This small body was representative of a larger body of women equally determined to break through the male-dominated profession and offer help to people and communities in desperate need of medical assistance.

Agnes Henderson from Aberdeen lived in grand Devanha House along with her parents, fifteen siblings, several horses and a kangaroo. The Hendersons were progressive people; her father supported and campaigned for the right of women to study medicine at Edinburgh and Agnes came to know and befriended Sophia Jex-Blake but in one of those disconnects that affects people Agnes’ father, William Henderson, a Lord Provost in Aberdeen, did not extend his support to his own daughter’s ambitions.

However Agnes Henderson was her own woman, she studied at the London School of Medicine for Women and took her LRCPE and LRCSE – Licence of the Royal College of Physicians of London and Licence of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh – a means of becoming registered with the General Medical Council for those prevented from taking the straightforward route through university medical schools.

Despite her top qualifications Agnes was unable to practise as a doctor in Scotland so this bright young woman took her brilliance to the Continent; to Brussels and Vienna and became a member of the Royal College of Dublin. From there she went to India where her wealthy father had funded a clinic in Nagpur (Bombay.) Agnes decided she would like to run it and so at the age of 53 Dr Agnes sailed to India. One reason behind her decision might have been a ban on women Catholics practising medicine (until 1936) and she had converted to Catholicism while in Ireland.

Many of the women who fought the system to practise medicine were driven by what they witnessed of the appalling conditions women and children in particular lived in through the Victorian era. Women, especially poor women, were oppressed by child-bearing – denied information and access to family planning, to abortion, to safe childbirth by the indifference of society they were at the bottom of the social ladder in terms of social and medical care and wages. As bad as life was for men it was worse for women and children.

Dr Agnes Henderson of the Mure Memorial Hospital

It is still the case that in parts of the world women are denied the health care they desperately need because of gender discrimination. So it was when Agnes went to India. She worked to employ her medical skills to help women and girls and at the same time spoke out against the white slave trade that exploited so many females. For her service to medicine and missionary activities in India Agnes Henderson was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind medal.

Britain’s pioneering women doctors were often active in other areas of social improvement such as the women’s suffrage movement. Agnes was secretary of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage and her stepmother, Priscilla Bright McLaren, was also active in the movement and the pair along with Jane Taylour (Taylor) travelled to Orkney and Shetland to promote women’s suffrage there.

The British Empire created opportunities for early women doctors to practise. India also attracted Dr Isabella Macdonald Macdonald from Arbroath who graduated as a medical doctor and pharmacist in 1888 from the London School of Medicine for Women. Another who used her skills to develop health facilities for women in India was Margaret Ida Balfour. She was born in Edinburgh, her mother a Blaikie from the prominent family of Aberdeen Blaikies who were industrialists and one a Lord Provost. A year after completing her qualification as a physician at Edinburgh in 1891 Margaret Balfour travelled to India, to Ludhiana, and within two years she had helped create a medical school for women. Margaret Balfour spent her working life in India in roles that included assistant to the Inspector General of Civil Hospitals in Punjab and Chief Medical Officer of the Women’s Medical Service.  She, too, was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind medal for public service in India, in 1920.

Mary Anderson mentioned above as one of the Edinburgh Seven came from Boyndie in Banffshire in northeast Scotland. She, like Agnes, thwarted by the male stranglehold over medicine in Scotland went abroad to complete her studies – in Mary’s case to Paris after Edinburgh. She was forty-two when she completed her medical doctorate in France; her thesis was on mitral stenosis (heart disease) which disproportionately affected women. Mary Anderson went on to become a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in London.

Flora Murray from Dumfries was another early Scottish woman doctor and in common with others who fought for the right to study and qualify she was very active in the women’s suffrage movement – in her case that included tending suffragettes forcibly fed in prison.  

The story of Dr Elsie Inglis is better-known. Born into a Scottish family in India in 1864 she studied at Edinburgh’s School of Medicine. She, too, was politically active and a supporter of women’s suffrage and advocate for social and political improvements in society in general.

Elsie Inglis went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service committee during the Great War which made it possible for women to become involved in the war. Elsie Inglis worked in France, Belgium, Russia and Serbia. It is there in Serbia she made the greatest impact, developing its health care institutions and was responsible for reducing the incidence of typhus. For that she was recognised there with the Order of the White Eagle (first class) and a memorial fountain in Mladenovac.

I’ve selected a handful of Scotland’s early women doctors who succeeded against the odds to push the boundaries that restricted smart and ambitious women in this country but two that must be included before I wind up are the sisters Grace and Martha Cadell.

The Cadell sisters were involved in Sophia Jex-Blake’s Edinburgh group but were thrown out of the course for being over-attentive to a patient and breaching Jex-Brake’s hard-and-fast rules. The Cadells challenged Jex-Blake through the courts and won, damaging the Edinburgh School’s reputation. Then they along with Elsie Inglis formed the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women – and prevented Jex-Blake from getting involved in it – soon after Jex-Blake’s own school closed down, in 1898.

In 1892 women eventually obtained the right to study at Scottish universities and Edinburgh born Jessie MacLaren MacGregor became one of the first women to graduate from Edinburgh University having begun her studies at Jex-Blake’s school. She was evidently extremely intelligent and highly qualified and she embarked on her medical career providing care for women and children in the capital, and to its working class women and their families in particular. Tragically Jessie MacGregor was only 43 when she died of acute cerebral meningitis in 1906 at Denver, Colorado in the USA where she had been working.  

Finally a word on Dr Mary Esslemont. She was a giant of the medical profession. Born in Aberdeen in 1891, her mother had studied medicine in those years when women were denied the ability to graduate but worked in her later years alongside Mary. Mary’s own career illustrated the backwardness of misogyny that denied women like her the opportunity to apply their skills to health and welfare throughout centuries of gender discrimination. Like so many women doctors, Mary Esslemont provided essential care to the poorest in society, and to the travelling community who spent time in Aberdeen. She was involved in establishing the NHS (the only woman on the BMA committee in talks with Bevan), was an assistant medical officer in Yorkshire, promoted family planning and free contraception, was a popular and enterprising general practitioner in Aberdeen – introducing child-centred practices from around the world to the city’s communities.

Being a feminist and determined woman seeking equality in the 19th century was a whole lot harder than it is today. There is still misogyny and now a different kind of gender politics which some see as threatening women from a different perspective. That’s the future. I deal in history.