Archive for ‘Weird and Wonderful’

Nov 26, 2021

The Book of Deer: so important to Scotland it should be repatriated

Leabhar Dhèir, the Book of Deer, is returning to Scotland, until next summer. In these times when questions are being asked about the ethics of artefacts held in museums and libraries outside of where they originated, often acquired through nefarious means, it is right that we question why one of Scotland’s most significant documents is not being retained in Scotland instead of being returned to England.

So what’s special about the Book of Deer? It is ancient, the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland and unusual in the variety of its contents. What began life as an illuminated gospel book in the 10th century (between 800 and 900 AD) written in Latin and containing some fairly basic illustrations was a couple of centuries later used to record all sorts of information on pre-feudal life in Scotland. Those Latin texts of the liturgical manuscript gave way to vernacular Gaelic, early Celtic Gaelic, that was different from later forms of the language. In short, the Book of Deer provides us with a window into the world of Alba under the Picts and Celts and is a unique contemporary record of those times.   

Those times have long been written off by historians as – the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages when it was said nothing much happened between Roman domination and the Norman Conquests in England. Haverings, of course. One transformational event that occurred then was the Christianisation of the people of Alba with monasteries established across the north which were centres for spreading the Christian gospel – a monastery for each of the Pictish tribes sometimes covering extensive areas and very different from later local churches serving small parishes. One such monastery was at Deer in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire, founded by the missionary evangelist, St Columba and his disciples.  

The first monastery of Deer was probably set up in the seventh century and it is likely the Book of Deer was compiled by a scribe from the monastery. Perhaps the scribe also drew the manuscript’s illustrations. We shall probably never know. A later monastery run by Cistercians was built in the same area.

The Book of Deer

The Book of Deer is small, consisting of 86 parchment leaves,6 inches long and 4 ½ inches broad. In it the Gospel of St John is written out in full along with abridged fragments from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – all in Latin. Each initial letter of the gospels is enlarged and decorated with muted colour and the ends of the principal strokes of the letters terminate in dogs’ heads. As is usual with illuminated manuscripts page borders are also adorned – here mainly with interlaced ribbons and patterns.

The really interesting thing about the Book of Deer are its later additions; the vernacular Gaelic which makes this book hugely significant in historical terms for Scotland with its references to land grants and copy of a formal royal charter from King David I. This was a time in Scotland when agreements were verbal, verified by witnesses, a custom that was abolished by the incoming Queen Margaret from England.

Early Scotland or Alba was largely matriarchal and divided up into seven provinces. Leadership succession ran along lines of brothers not down through the generations of sons i.e. they followed through the female line and not through sons of a marriage. A woman’s husband could hold land through his relationship with his wife but was dependent on her and not through his superior male status. Each tribe or clan was ruled by a mormaer, chiefs or toisechs, brehons or judges and town lands had fixed boundaries and throughout all were rights and burdens.

The Book of Deer

How and when the Book of Deer was removed from Aberdeenshire is not known, as far as I can find out, but from the fourteenth century there was great demand from book collectors for illuminated manuscripts so it’s likely it found a buyer somewhere and by 1697 it was in England, in the collection of John Moore, Bishop of Norwich and Ely. Moore was an enthusiastic book and manuscript collector with an enviable library of very early works. When he died in 1714 his vast library was bought for 6,000 guineas by George I so it could be given to the University of Cambridge, which it was, in 1715. There in the university library it lay unnoticed for nearly 150 years until librarian Henry Bradshaw discovered this wee gem, in 1860.

The double life of the Book of Dee from traditional religious text to a record of 12th century Scotland makes it one of vital importance and surely there is a strong case for it to stay in Scotland where it belongs and from where it should never have left.

The Book of Deer

Nov 7, 2021

Conservation or slaughter? Shot, gutted and stuffed

I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

In 2015 a conservationist, I feel I should put that term in apostrophes, finally discovered a very rare bird he had been searching for for two decades. And killed it.

The moustached kingfisher

Conservationist Chrisopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History was quoted as saying, “there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species.” He referred to rarely seen wildlife that he yearned to find as“ghosts before revealing themselves” – an interesting description for that is the exact same word used about a hundred years before by the English conservationist and hunter, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, on witnessing a succession of beasts making their way to a watering hole in a Congo forest one night before he shot one or two of them. Then they really were ghosts.

When, in 2015, Filardi spied the beautiful and elusive moustached kingfisher in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he and his team of accomplices spread mist nets across that area of the forest and succeeded in trapping a ‘magnificent all-blue back’ male moustached kingfisher with its bright orange face. He gushed –

 “Oh my god, the kingfisher . . . a creature of myth come to life

Then he killed it. Another triumph for western avian conservation.

In 2015, Filardi’s conservation efforts caused a great deal of anger around the globe from people who could not understand the reasoning behind hunting down a near-extinct species and possibly ensuring it becomes extinct. There was no such outcry over the behaviour of Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. Back at the beginning of the 20th century westerners thirsted for information about exotic beasts in lands far from home. Powell-Cotton was the man to hunt them down with his rifle so that science might be informed and people entertained.

An idea they were preserving wildlife, albeit dead, curiosity and entertainment were surely behind the opening of a museum on Powell-Cotton’s family grounds, Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent in England; a museum that exists to this day. It is stuffed, literally, with an enormous number of beasts shot by the man himself or members of his entourage, caravan as it was known in the day comprising of up to 70 hunters and porters. Powell-Cotton was a man-exterminating-machine whose claim to fame (notoriety) is he shot the largest number of wild animals ever destroyed by a single man.  Once upon a time this was thought to be heroic and admirable.

A member of Powell-Cotton’s caravan with animal carcasses. The white rhino Powell-Cotton had permission to shoot from the Congo Free State government. He had its permission to hunt a number of rare animals on its reserves. He was there, primarily, to search for white rhinoceros which at that time was “well-nigh exterminated” and “he was fortunate enough to secure a splendid specimen.” Above right is a honey badger “discovered” and killed by Powell-Cotton and named after him – mellivora cottoni.

Today, Powell-Cotton’s voracious appetite for hunting and ‘collecting’ would make him persona non grata, although to be fair there are many in the UK who, like him, describe themselves as animal lovers and conservationists who get their kicks from blasting wildlife to smithereens, or out of the sky and off their hooves. You know the sort of people – the royal family and lesser mortals who pay to destroy our Scottish wildlife on what’s erroneously described as sporting estates. Nothing sporting about a human armed with a large rifle targeting an unarmed animal.

This is the paradox – can you be a conservationist and animal lover if you slaughter beasts and birds?  For the tweedy/camouflage types who call animals ‘game’, a bit like Blade Runner it is the excitement of the chase and anticipation of the kill they relish. For scientific types it is to enhance human knowledge and understanding of the natural world and place beasts into a context of changing environments and time – the study of avian taxonomy, systemics, zoogeography, geographic variation, anatomy and morphology, sexual dimorphism, age/gender characters, moult, plumage sequences, ecomorphology, ontogeny … STOP! The science argument runs along the lines that taking animals for experiment and research has little impact on their survival compared with major pressures on habitats such as those from deforestation, agriculture, roads and building.

Powell-Cotton doesn’t really come into that camp. His expeditions found him cutting swathes through animal populations, driven by sheer greed. He came up with a cunning plan to assemble a collection of Kashmir and Tibetan ‘game’ all shot by one man – with a nod to science in that each specimen was measured and notes made on where, when, and how the animal was shot.

Perhaps if Powell-Cotton had a proper job wildlife would have faced fewer threats – unless you regard animal massacre as regular work. It sort of was in his case. An itinerant slaughterer of beasts – work that took him to Abyssinia, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, French Equitorial Africa, Cameroon, Switzerland, Chad, Algeria, Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, India, Kashmir, Morocco, Nigeria, Ogaden, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tibet, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more, lots more places.  

It didn’t all go Powell-Cotton’s way. One time an animal retaliated. In 1907 he shot a lion, as one does, and as he approached the poor thing it leapt up and mauled the brute. Powell-Cotton wasn’t badly hurt, saved by a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that protruded from the breast pocked of his jacket. Oh, the lion was put down. This was his thirteenth lion. One can just imagine the mirth that story created, repeated over many a dinner table. His museum has a display of the suit he was wearing, the copy of Punch and the slaughtered lion, stuffed. You can’t beat the English upper classes for taste. I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

To add insult to injury some of the Major’s species trophies were named after him, such as monkey colbus (Piliocolobus) powelli and the white rhino, ceratotherium simum cottoni, the very last male of that species was shot dead in 2018. He was 45 years old

Powell-Cotton’s museum boasts over 6,400 specimens and 230 species including

“Families: Anomaluridae, Bathyergidae, Bovidae, Canidae, Cercopithecidae, Cervidae, Cricetidae, Cryeteropodidae, Ctenodactylidae, Elephantidae, Equidae, Felidae, Galagonidae, Giraffidae, Gliridae, Hippopotamidae, Hipposideridae, Hyaenidae, Hystricidae, Leporidae, Lorisidae, Macroscelididae, Manidae, Muridae, Mustelidae, Nycteridae, Ochotonidae, Pedetidae,  Pongidae, Potamogalidae, Procaviidae, Pteropodiae, Rhinocerotidae, Sciuridae, Soricidae, Suidae, Thryonomyidae, Tragulidae, Trichechidae, Ursidae, Vespertilionidae and Viverridae.

Genera: Acinonyx, Addax, Aepyceros, Alcelaphus, Allenopithecus, Ammodorcas, Ammotragus, Anomalurus, Antidorcas, Antilope, Aonyx, Atherurus, Atilax, Bdeogale, Bos, Boselaphas, Bubalus, Canis, Capra, Capricornis, Cephalophus, Ceratotherium, Cercocebus, Cercopithecus, Cervus, Colobus, Connochaetes, Cricetomys, Crocidura, Crocuta, Crossarchus, Cryptomys, Ctenodactylus, Cynictis, Damaliscus, Dendrohyrax, Dicerus, Dorcatragus, Equus, Erythrocebus, Euoticus, Felis, Fennecus, Funisciurus, Galago, Galagoides, Gazella, Genetta, Gerbillus, Giraffa, Gorilla, Graphiurus, Heliosciurus, Helogale, Hemitragus, Herpestes, Heterohyrax, Hippopotamus, Hipposideros, Hippotragus, Hyaena, Hybomys, Hyemoschus, Hylochoerus, Hypsignathus, Hystrix, Ichneumia, Ictonyx, Kobus, Lemniscomys, Lepus, Litocranius, Loxodonta, Lutra, Lycaon, Macaca, Macroscelides, Madoqua, Malacomys, Mandrillus, Manis, Marmota, Mellivora, Melursus, Miopithecus, Moschus, Mungos, Mustela, Myonycteris, Myosciurus, Nandinia, Nemorhaedus, Neotragus, Nycteris, Ochotona, Octocyon, Oenomys, Okapia, Oreotragus, Orycteropus, Oryx, Otolemur, Ourebia, Ovis, Paguma, Pan, Panthera, Pantholops, Papio, Paraxerus, Pedetes, Pelea, Perodiciticus, Petaurista, Phacochoerus, Phacohoerus, Poecilogale, Poiana, Potamogale, Potomocherus, Praomys, Presbytis, Procapra, Procavia, Proteles, Protoxeros, Psammomys, Pseudois, Raphiceros, Redunca, Rupicapra, Scotoecus, Scotophilus, Selenarctos, Sus, Sylvicapra, Syncerus, Tatera, Tetracerus, Thamnomys, Theropithecus, Thryonomys, Tragelaphus, Trichechus, Ursus, Viverrra, Vulpes, Xerus and Zenkerella.

The museum displays some of its animal specimens as dioramas – you know an imaginary landscape populated with stuffed animals shot in their own environments then shipped to England, stuffed and arranged as pretty pictures for people to gawp at.  

If this is your bag you can link to the museum’s FB page here

https://fb.watch/94_Wb-8a1-/

It was written of Powell-Cotton that

“It has remained for Mr. Powell-Cotton to clear up the history of Capra walie by the fine series he has collected of this fast-vanishing form.”

(A Sporting Trip Through Abyssinia, R. Ward, 1902, p 478.)

The Capra walie is an ibex, an endangered ibex. It’s only known wild predator is the hyena (not guilty as charged, m’lud) and humans.

A year or two later Powell-Cotton recalled seeing his ‘ghost’ animals at the watering hole in a  Congo forest – forest elephants, buffalo, antelope, pigs and antelopes and his elation at succeeding in shooting dead two bull elephants and “a fine male buffalo.” On the same expedition, he collected, killed and collected, a large collection of snakes and his wife ‘collected’ about ten thousand butterflies.  

A large elephant prior to being killed by Powell-Cotton – a record elephant taken by a white man – a 198lb tusker

The man revered during his lifetime, whose activities were welcomed by the Natural History Museum in London, boasted of being the first European to kill the Abyssinian ibex, one of which was accepted into the collection of the Natural History Museum.  

At his death tributes were paid to Powell-Cotton: The keeper of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum praised his contribution to zoological science and for being one of the most generous benefactors of the museum’s ethnographical department,

‘Whenever possible he collected duplicate specimens. These, as well as many unique objects, were freely offered to the national collections.”

One of those notable specimens was the heaviest pair of elephant tusks (372lbs) shot by a white man and the tallest elephant to be taken out of Africa. Conservationist or prolific wildlife vandal? You decide.

‘Conserving’ the white rhino

Ref: Bird Conservation International (1995) 5:145-180 The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation J. V. REMSEN, JR.+

Oct 31, 2021

Guising or Trick or Treat – placating evil spirits and me on soul watch

Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is big business nowadays. Where I come from in the Scottish Highlands it was always one of the major occasions in a year we children looked forward to; each 31st of October we went out guising. Guising – or rather disguising – dressed in costumes and wearing a scary face mask we would wander about the village and be invited in from the dark and spooky night to neighbour’s cosy livingrooms  to recite a poem, sing a song or tell a joke. Our adult neighbours would then attempt to identify us. One year one of the older boys had pulled on a white sheet with eye holes cut out which the rest of us thought was cheating as it was nearly impossible to identify him – and this ghostly creature was a terrifying sight back out in the dark . We were invited to dook for apples floating in a basin of water or catch them with our teeth as they dangled from strings. Our reward for entertaining our neighbours were gifts of apples, monkey nuts, a coin perhaps and maybe sweets or cake. I thought of these things as rewards but the Celtic roots of this festival had a more sinister meaning. Contact from a spectral being, albeit a child wearing a false face, had to involve a donation to the spirit to thwart their evil intentions.  

Scots who migrated to America held onto many of their traditions. It has become law in the US that any celebration must be made into a money-making opportunity and so it was with guising. America’s trick or treat hit the shops here. A Scottish tradition that stretched back thousands of years that few south of the Borders had heard of was rebranded as trick or treat in the UK as well. Instead of apples and monkey nuts came commercial sweets, instead of a cardboard or plastic false face and an old sheet came shop-bought costumes and instead of the howked-out neep with a candle in the middle came pumpkins. But the essence remained. A gift to placate evil or have evil done in alive in trick or treat.

Guising took place on the night before the Celtic festival of fire of peace, Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic), on 1 November when fires were lit at dusk and musicians played as people danced and chatter was mostly about foretelling the future. Over time the two celebrations merged as Halloween, originally All Hallows’ Eve – the evening before All Hallows’ Day (All Saint’s Day) is the name that lingers but the festival pre-dates this Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day as Samhain was an important event in the pre-Christian calendar.

Lots of similar festivities took place over a year which were participated in by people living through uncertain times with life and death at the whim of the elements, a poor harvest or series of poor harvests spelled illness and death to communities. Where people lack personal control over their lives and there is continuing uncertainty they look for ways to ensure good luck comes their way. In few places in the UK was life more fraught with threats to survival than in the Scottish Highlands. And so where people today might buy a lottery ticket in the hope of getting out of a financial fix, Highlanders in the past curried favour with the spirits they believed were all around and influenced life and death by making them little offerings.

Highlanders were very superstitious. They were also very vulnerable to all sorts of calamities from the natural world to unscrupulous lairds. Perhaps it is this that made Highlanders particularly humble people, not given to boasting and showing off because luck can change. Nothing was taken for granted. For folk who had next to nothing in material terms a loss of, say, their only cow would mean deeper poverty than they already endured and potentially death for the family. They lived life on the edge, at the mercy of evil spirits, gods – whatever. For anyone who dared push themselves forward, get above themselves, there was a price to be paid. An example of this rashness comes in a story concerning Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots) was visiting Ross-shire when a Mrs Monro introduced her to her 12 sons and 12 daughters – all strong and healthy young people which the mother pointed out to the queen, offering them as her devoted servants of squires and damsels. The queen quite taken aback that the poor woman had borne 24 children immediately rose out of her chair,

“Madam, ye sud tak this chaire, ye best ‘deserve it.’

The queen praised the large, handsome and healthy family. That was not done in Highland culture. To praise was fair enough but a compliment must be qualified with a nod to god such as “God bless the …” could be a bairn, 24 bairns, or the family’s single cow. The queen, not being a Highlander, did not understand this and the family’s fate was sealed, it is said they had ill-luck from then on.

Parents were particularly concerned over their newborn babies who were thought of as particularly vulnerable to the spirits and evil eyes. Some of those evil-doers were fairies. Fairies were wont to steal babies. To Highlanders fairies were not delightful little creatures but conniving spirits that would harm a person as quick as look at them. Babies were watched round the clock to prevent them being taken by these malevolent influences who would swap them for a changeling infant. And you didn’t want a changeling. Changelings weren’t human and sometimes not even children but elderly fairies disguised as infants to get affection and coddling from human mothers. They were evil beings, recognisable by their precociousness or unusual physical attributes. Only when a baby was christened was it thought to be safe. At the christening gifts were given to placate hostile spirits, simple things such as a piece of bread.  

To help forestall any malicious fairy intending harm or a poor harvest or sickness in the family cow a tribute to the spirits might be left at a place associated with the spirit world, such as a well or loch. In the Black Isle, the Clootie Well near Munlochy has for long been one of these places where fragments of clothing, ribbons and even food such as bread or oatcakes were left and a wish made to protect someone. This tradition goes beyond Scotland. I’ve seen the same in Siberia where bushes and trees have offerings in the form of scraps of material designed to deter bad luck and instigate good fortune.

The Clootie Well

Birth was fraught with menaces and so, too, was death. I learnt from my mother that when a person died their souls rose up to heaven. We lived next door to the village church and graveyard and on several occasions the young me would stand watching and waiting, no doubt arms akimbo, to see the soul of a recently buried person rising into the sky, heavenward. After weeks, maybe months of this, I complained to my mother that I never saw any souls in the sky only to be told they were invisible. What a let down! She did not say, perhaps didn’t know though being from Highlanders whose ancestors stretched back into the proverbial mists of time she probably did know that when a loved one died a window in the house was opened to allow the soul to escape. That information could have saved me hours of standing about in our garden on soul watch. The dead were kept at home in our village; their corpses prepared for burial by the next of kin or someone appointed in lieu of them. Not sure the practice of placing a plate of salt on the body to prevent it from swelling and bursting the bands of the shroud was still on the go when I was young, probably not. Mort cloths were long pieces of plain woven linen that covered the body or coffin. I have one from my Black Isle family that was never used – my mother’s cousin cut up another into dish towels. The linen was grown on the family croft near Cromarty. As with babies, family watched over the newly dead until burial, to prevent evil spirits doing them harm. This was known as the lyke wake during which relatives old and young would dance, slowly, in the proximity of the body.

Evil was likely to escape through someone’s mouth as well as eye. To kiss a mouth could prevent fore-speaking – expressing the future (usually bleak) and anyone suffering misfortune was said to have the ‘uncanny eye’ or ‘uneasy eye’ and nobody wanted to catch that. Any afflicted with the uncanny or uneasy eye were offered small gifts, such as bread, oatcakes or pieces of clothing, to keep them on side and encourage them to cast their evil somewhere else.  

Superstition was an everyday part of life for the Highlander as it was for most folk straddling that fine line between survival and death – think of fishermen, famously superstitious. A few superstitions live on in the 21st century. Halloween is a capitalist’s dream of a commercial bonanza but I’d like to see how they would handle another Highland tradition on All Hallows’ Eve in which young women were blindfolded and encouraged to select a cabbage to discover the size and physique of their future husbands. I think we can assume that is something that is definitely relegated to the past.


Oct 21, 2021

Staring at giants

In the army he was invariably placed at the head of his regiment when marching, accompanied by a huge red deer.

He was Samuel Macdonald, Big Sam, born at Lairg in Sutherlandshire whose regiment, the Sutherland Fencibles fought in the American War of Independence – where the ‘bare-kneed Scotch divils’ were more feared than their English equivalents. For a time Sam transferred into the Royals, also as a marker man or fugelman. During this time he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who made him a lodge-porter at Carlton House. Soon bored, Sam rejoined the 93rd Highland Sutherlanders, becoming a sergeant.

Big Sam was modestly big, at 6ft 10 inches or 8ft high, as some insisted, with a 48 inch chest. He was statuesque and towering over his comrades he was usually placed on the right of his regiment in combat or at its head when on the march. Like most very large men Sam was good natured – the advantage of height to intimidate. But there are always some who’ll push their luck. Two fellow-soldiers goaded him to fight. Reluctantly Sam agreed, insisting on first shaking hands. When the first man held out his hand, Sam grabbed it and hoist the fellow up, swung him round and threw him quite a distance at which point the other would-be pugilist scarpered.

As with many large men and women, Sam was coerced into entertaining lesser mortals. While in the Prince of Wales’ household he was persuaded to play Hercules in a play at the London Opera House. Indeed, one of his nicknames was the ‘Scottish Hercules.’ This sort of life did not suit Sam who refused to display himself for money as so many other very large people did.  He resisted becoming a figure of curiosity – or rather wanted to separate that part of his life from his real self and occasionally was coaxed to dress as a woman and appear in exhibitions as “the remarkably tall woman”. Yes, the vogue for men claiming to be women from simply donning a dress is nothing new. Sam died when the Fencibles were in Guernsey, on 6 May, 1802.

This blog came about after I watched a Netflix film about a giant and got to wondering if there were Scottish giants. The answer to this question was, of course, yes. Where to stop …

Sam Macdonald was not what might be classed as a giant, more a big bloke. But Scotland, in keeping with every other part of the world has had its share of very large people – those who for some reason kept on growing. Life for many of them was miserable; frequently the subject of ridicule and unwanted attention. People stare at the unusual and people certainly stared at the giants. For some the very act of staring was literally bread and butter to them – and their opposites, dwarves. For those who chose the life, if people wanted to stare they should pay for the privilege. And they did. However, let’s not kid ourselves this was an easy life, sitting about being stared at.

One who adopted this life was a ‘Little Scotchman’, 2ft 6in tall who at 60 years of age in 1698 was still touring as a curiosity, singing and dancing to entertain wealthy people in English country houses. Why he did this, I don’t know, presumably for the money for he was well-educated, knowledgeable about the scriptures and history and ran his own writing school.  

General Tom Thumb dressed as a Scotsman

Staring at giants onscreen through Netflix avoids the discomfort for the viewer of publicly gawping at a fellow-human but we haven’t ended that habit yet in zoos where we pay to gaze at fellow-primates. The circuses and travelling shows that toured people of unusual heights were often referred to as ‘freak’ shows. ‘Freak’ shows were not restricted to unusual humans but any unusual animal, including humans.  

Now I’m going to stick my hand up at this point and admit that one time driving across the United States I, in the company of others, made a short detour to Prairie Dog Town, drawn by enormous advertising billboard. At Prairie Dog Town we saw two headed cows, six-legged cows, a kind of freezer box (unfrozen) filled with writhing rattlesnakes. It was a god-forsaken place of wretchedness and has since been closed down. It is within this context that some overgrown and undergrown people found themselves, centres of attraction for their very differences, to be pointed at, laughed at and objects of revulsion.   

Giants largely have had a bad press, frequently characterised as angry monsters in fairy stories while actual giants appear to have had pleasant natures. Gigantism, a condition where individuals grow excessively tall is rare and it is rarity that attracts attention. There are different causes giantism including a tumour of the pituitary gland and mutated genes. What has surprised me looking into this is the sheer number of males and females affected – either growing very large or hardly growing at all. I also discovered not to believe everything I read. As we saw with Big Sam some people will say anything to separate folk from their money. With that in mind let us begin.

I began on this topic to see if there were Scottish giants and in my head was Donald Dinnie from Aberdeenshire. Now stonemason Dinnie wasn’t as tall as some other big men but he was strong and as a champion on the Highland games circuit here and overseas; an all-rounder described as ‘the nineteenth century’s greatest athlete’ – participating as a pole vaulter, sprinter, hurdler, caber tosser, hammer thrower, wrestler, high jumper, long jumper, stone putter. He died wealthy in 1916, aged 78, and with obituaries galore including in the New York Times. His fame lives on in the form of two muckle boulders known as the Dinnie Steens which weigh 332 kilograms and were famously carried by Dinnie across the bridge at Potarch.

Donald Dinnie with a chestful of medals

But, Dinnie wasn’t a giant. A couple of years before his death, at the start WWI, a group of Highland soldiers disembarked at Boulogne in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the UK’s military vanguard. Disembarking from their ship the British troops were met by a large crowd who were underwhelmed by the men’s khaki uniforms; these French people associated the military with colourful uniforms. Then the Highland division stepped ashore in khaki jackets over kilts. Their appearance drew gasps from the crowd. Who were these men? they asked. On learning they were the Scots a cheer went up and cries of ‘Vive l’Ecosse.’ The cherry on the cake was one of the Highlanders’ officers, all 6ft 4 inches of him. Not a particularly unusual height today but the people of Boulogne were transfixed by his stature and gawped at him in near silence. One of the BEFs began singing, It’s a long way to Tipperary and the rest joined in. Another shouted, ‘Are we down-hearted’ to which his comrades shouted back, ‘No-o-o-o’ and so it went on – flags flying, singing and cheering and women pressing forward to claim the brass initials from the men’s shoulder straps on their khaki jackets. There were lots of tall Highlanders there but none that could be described as giants.

 Most English persons who visit Scotland as strangers are struck with the stature and proportions of the generality of its inhabitants, male and female … However, we did not know till lately that Scotland had produced a rival to the celebrated O’Brien, of Irish birth.

The Mirror, 1830

O’Brien was an Irish ‘giant’ – one of many but I’m still looking for a Scottish one to fit that description.

The people of Berneray, off Scotland’s west coast were some of those unfortunate Highlanders forced out of their homes and packed off overseas in the Highland Clearances, the MacAskill family included, about 1830. A young Angus therefore grew up in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.  And kept on growing, reaching an impressive 7 ft 9 in and and, at one point, weighing in at 425lbs (30 stone.) Canada claimed him as their giant, otherwise known as Big Boy.  

Big Boy was described as the world’s tallest and strongest man – most giants were so described – and his life is celebrated in a museum at Dunvegan on Skye. Typically for people suffering from giantism, his life was short. He died in 1863 aged 38 years having lived mainly out of trunks, touring with circuses and shows as a strongman – his shoulders measured over 44 inches. One of Angus’ feats of strength was to lift a hundredweight with two fingers. He could carry a horse over a 4ft fence, take the place of a horse in ploughing a field and famously he lifted a 2,400lb anchor during an appearance in New York. His sometime employers, Barnum and Bailey, liked to match him with General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), dubbed the world’s smallest man. Both Stratton and Macaskill were physically normally proportioned to their sizes.

William Campbell was another Scottish ‘giant’. Born into poverty in Glasgow in 1852 he was only 26 years old when he died in 1878. It’s a stetch to have him described as a giant for he was a mere 6ft 8 inches tall but heavy and stout; 96-inch shoulders, 85-inch waist, 76-inch chest, 47-inch thighs and 35 inches around the calf, he weighed about 50 stone. Campbell was exhibited as William the Conqueror or the Scotch Giant. Originally a printer, he joined those touring as circus attractions, often the butt of jokes he played up to the public’s insatiable hunger for titbits about his private life by making stuff up.

Being gawped at did not end with Campbell’s death. This fine looking, affable young man said to only drink a small drop of sherry in a tumbler of water had become a pub landlord in Newcastle where his bedroom was on the building’s third floor. Unwell for about a week he died suddenly and because of his gigantic size gave the funeral directors immense problems.  A coffin had to be built in the room to take his body. Made from 2-inch-thick elm the 7ft 4in coffin was lined with lead and covered with black cloth. All these preparations took a while meanwhile others tackled getting the coffin out of the house. The bedroom window was removed along with a section of wall. Outside a block and tackle were set up to lower the coffin. By the time the lid was screwed down on William Campbell’s corpse he was beginning to decompose. For two hours men struggled with strong chains and stout timbers to lower the coffin, under the gaze of a growing crowd of thousands. For a further two hours the coffin sat on a wagon while the crowd of onlookers swelled to 40,000 people.

Enormous numbers followed the funeral procession of the Scotch Giant. People lined the route, clambered over railings, leaned out from windows and perched on rooftops. A band played the Dead March and Newcastle’s mounted police accompanied the cortege of 5 carriages that included one with Campbell’s mother and brother. All went to plan until they reached the cemetery when there was a crowd surge. Women, children and men were trampled underfoot, trees were broken, graves were trodden underfoot. It was chaotic and to prevent more trouble it was decided to forego the last rites and get on with lowering the huge coffin. This took an hour, all the time the crowd pressing forward as a service of sorts was read by the vicar of Newcastle from the back of a wagon.

Murphy is an unlikely name for a Scot, giant or not, and show people were not fussy about the accuracy of their descriptions with lots of men and women dressed in Highland garb and promoted as ‘Scotch’ but it seems one Scottish Murphy was the genuine article.

It happened like this. Murphy was at home in Scotland when one day a Frenchman who heard about a man mountain looked in on him. Satisfied with what he saw he offered Murphy one hundred pounds sterling to go to Paris for a year. He would have board and lodgings, two bottles of Bordeaux a day, pleasant company, nothing to do and be provided with all sorts of amusement. Murphy accepted. The money was handed over and Murphy shared it with his two sisters.

About the 7ft 9in mark Murphy continued growing and this very tall man drew enthusiastic audiences at a concert hall cum café, the Café du Geant on Boulevard du Temple in Paris which was said to have been named after him. Two or three times each evening Murphy would parade up and down the large room, sometimes accompanied by General Tom Thumb and the diminutive Princess Colibri. Customers clambered onto chairs to get a better look at him and he would pick up children in hold them on the palms of his hands.

This life was monotonous. Murphy couldn’t go out without creating a disturbance and took to walking in the middle of the night to escape attention. He became depressed and homesick, longing to go back home to Scotland and spoke about the lochs and hills that he missed terribly. To all outward appearances this now French linguist was contented. He was proving so popular his salary was increased to ten thousand francs a year but his only desire was to return to Scotland. He never made it for he died suddenly in 1869. His two bottles of Bordeaux had increased to six and he took up drinking porter as well. He would down at least a dozen bottles stout a day and always appeared drunk. Despite scarcely earing he grew broader and fatter every day. He weighed 382 pounds (27 stone). Even in death his wish to return to Scotland was denied for he became a museum artefact, his body displayed at the natural history museum at the Jardin des Plantes, alongside those of Native Americans and Maoris.

There were so-called ‘Scotch giants’ galore throughout the nineteenth century – star attractions with travelling shows. Sanger’s Circus boasted of exhibiting ‘the Wonderful Scotch Giant’ – ‘the tallest man in the world’ and ‘the finest specimen of humanity ever brought before the public’ in the 1820s. This was 6ft 9in James Thompson. James died suddenly one winter night in his tent. His death attributed to starvation. Like most ‘giants’ I’ve read about, James was a humble and proud man who suffered in silence rather than seek help for his depression. It has been said, although it sounds far-fetched, that days following his death a relative died leaving him a large estate.

Women giantesses tended to be described as Mrs so-and-so. Mrs Randall was married, to an English giant but Barnum, who they worked for kept up the pretence he was also Scottish and dressed him in Highland garb which was thought to accentuate his size. Mrs Randall was just 6ft 5in so not so very tall and certainly far shorter than a Yorkshire giantess, Mrs Bark, reputedly 7ft tall but perhaps pass the salt at this point.  

One nineteenth century giantess who was actually a Mrs but went under the name of Miss was another celebrated ‘Scotch Giantess’, Miss Freeman. Early one morning in London a carriage was stopped by police because of loud groans coming from it. Inside a couple were found, a man and woman, both very large and clearly ill. They were taken to Guy’s Hospital and had their stomachs pumped. Arsenic was discovered. It emerged Miss Freeman had a husband, the man in the carriage with her, but she was in a relationship with a Spanish giant and at the end of her tether she swallowed poison. Her husband found the cup and finished what was left of it. I don’t know what became of them.

Far taller women from around the world were involved in the world of showbusiness, many as strongwomen, such as the German Josephine Schauer who could break horseshoes and catch cannonballs fired from a cannon. She married an American giant. Another couple popular in America were the Quaker Giant and Giantess in the 1840s. He was said to be 8ft tall with her about the same height. The craze for giants and giantesses (and dwarves) led to impersonations. Someone in the UK was accused of impersonating a famous Swiss giantess, Fair Circassian, in the 1820s. There were questions over whether the fake Circassian was a woman or a man in a dress.  

And there we will leave it. People of uncommon size whether tall or small have probably always attracted attention for being out of the ordinary. Every country has them, including Scotland. For some fortunes were to be made on the back of their special differences but for others what marked them out as unusual caused them misery. It is natural for people to find difference interesting but there’s a fine line between that and having callous disregard for the feelings of those whose lives must always be defined by what marks them out as curiosities.


https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0

Oct 3, 2021

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider: Maria Ogilvie-Gordon pioneering geologist

She was a scientist – a geological pioneer and a driver for the emancipation of women. She classified the geological layers of the Dolomites, the structure of corals found there and explained the powerful earth movements that erupted and folded those rocks into their dramatic peaks. She was Maria Ogilvie from Monymusk in Aberdeenshire and her work in the mountains of Austria and Italy would prove ground-breaking.

Maria Ogilvie, affectionately known as May, was born on 30 April 1864 into a family steeped in education. She was musical; played the piano and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London before having a change of heart and entering the University of London to study science. Graduating with her Doctor of Science degree – the first geology degree awarded in London to a woman, she took herself abroad, to Germany to continue her work in that field.

An application to study at Berlin University was turned down because it didn’t accept women and neither did the University of Munich but she was able to use some of its facilities to continue her research through support of its professor of geology and palaeontology, Karl Alfred von Zittel. Eventually the Ludwig Maximilians-University of Munich did agreed to let Maria study for her doctorate and in 1900 she was the first women awarded a PhDs from Munich. She took it with highest honours. Back home Dr. Maria Ogilvie married John Gordon, a physician from Aberdeen.   

In addition to being an accomplished musician and scientist, May Ogilvie was an active campaigner for the rights of women and children. Hardly surprising given her continuing struggle to be taken seriously in the world of science and male-dominated educational establishments. Her achievements mapping and defining the rock structure of the Dolomites are all the greater for the circumstances in which she was forced to carry out her fieldwork in this perilous terrain; her efforts disparaged and mainly carried out without assistance. Fortunately, coming from rural Aberdeenshire she was fairly familiar with mountains. The Ogilvies owned a holiday home, a very grand holiday home, in Ballater, close to Lochnagar, and with the Cairngorms virtually on her doorstep she had some hill climbing experience though not at the same level of difficulty to be found in the Dolomites.

The Ogilvies had money. May’s father was headmaster of Robert Gordon’s Hospital, later College – an uncle was a chief inspector of schools, another the rector of the established church training college in Aberdeen and another was headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. At the age of nine, May was sent to Edinburgh, to the Merchant Company School’s Ladies College. From there at the age of eighteen she went to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. She matriculated but music did not satisfy her yearning for learning and she returned to Edinburgh, to the home of the first modern geologist, fellow-Scot, James Hutton, and to Heriot-Watt University where one of her brothers was Principal. There she embarked on a Batchelor of Science degree, specialising in geology, botany and zoology, which she completed in London, graduating in 1893.

Schluderbach region where May Ogilvie did her fieldwork

The following year May, paleontologist and biologist, sailed to the continent, travelling to Germany where she began her geological research in the hazardous slopes of the Alps. To get to up into the mountains for a full day’s work meant rising in the very early hours of the morning day after day. Exhausting as this was she also had to deal with rock samples gathered each day and without assistance from the university she either carried them down by herself or relied on help from some of the local people she lived among. The area of Schluderbach  in the Cave Stone Valley and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Northeast Italy was off the beaten-track with virtually no made roads so moving around was difficult and facilities were absent but Maria Ogilvie was a spirited and determined woman and she persevered. She explored, mapped and studied the area of South Tyrol and Dolomites, defining its structure and fossils, presenting her findings in a series of academic papers written in both German and English. She became fluent in German and translated several texts including those of Professor Zittel of the University of Munich, one of the few academics who recognised her talents and who encouraged her. She continued working with Professor von Zittel at his institute and through him was in correspondence with other eminent scientists such as Archibald Geikie, William Topley and Charles Lapworth.  

The peaks of the Dolomites

Eventually Maria was accepted by the University of Munich to complete a PhD; the first woman to do so and succeeding with the highest honours. Slowly Dr. Maria Ogilvie found herself being taken more seriously as her breakthrough findings found greater circulation in science circles. More seriously but not too seriously. In 1925 the determinedly sexist fellows at the Royal Society in London refused to publish her Dolomite geological findings so Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon translated them into German and published them. At least in Germany and Austria there were some geologists who respected her expertise as a geologist.

May Ogilvie-Gordon resented how her work and achievements went largely unrecognised and commented upon in the UK. These slights because of her sex were never forgotten and as an elderly woman she criticised the Geological Society of London for discriminating against her when, finally, her contribution to science was recognised and she was awarded the Lyell Medal in 1932.

Her husband, John, said of her –

It is a lonely furrow you are ploughing, May; for your own sake I wish you had chosen some other interest for your hard work.

Years later with that in mind Maria referred to that lonely furrow –

It was a lonely furrow that I ploughed in my fieldwork abroad. A Britisher – and a woman at that – strayed into a remote and mountainous frontier territory between Austria and Italy, a region destined afterwards to be fought over, inch by inch, in the Great War… In point of fact 17 years passed before I received the first visit of an experienced geologist in the field…Another 15 years passed and the War had taken place before I received the visit of a British Geologist – the late Dr. John W. Evans of this Society, who came at the kind suggestion of Professor Watts in response to a request of mine.

Having spent much time in Germany, including after her marriage and having children – the whole family were often found clambering up Alpine mountains – May Ogilvie-Gordon returned to Scotland during the Great War, abandoning her work and her latest research paper on the eve of its publication, Das Grodener, Fassa, und Ennerberggebiet in den Sudtiroler Dolomiten. When in 1920 she returned to Germany – her husband had died in Aberdeen the year before – she discovered the publishing house was a victim of war and her scientific paper, photographic plates and maps vanished. There was nothing for it but to re-do the work and rewrite from scratch. Dauting as this must have been it was worth it in the end for the work was celebrated as “a monument in the field of Alpine Geology”.

Honours did come, eventually. She was recognised with an honorary membership of the Vienna Geological Society (the first woman to achieve this), was an honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria, the Universities of Trento, Innsbruck, Sydney and Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society but honours were slow in coming because for most of her life her work was largely ignored.

The misogyny she experienced throughout her career undoubtedly spurred Ogilvie-Gordon to dedicate much of her time trying to improve the lot of women and children. Bear in mind May was 74 years old before all women, women like her over 21, were given the right to vote in the UK. She felt she was making a difference and of her social work she said:

 The work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time.

As a representative of the International Council of Women Dr. May Ogilvie-Gordon spoke out against enduring slavery; domestic slavery where women were treated like merchandise in many parts of the world, behaviour that was degrading and evil.

At the National Council of Women in Britain Ogilvie-Gordon promoted the positive merits of film as an instrument for disseminating public information and a means of sourcing social information to feed into government for determining policy on political and civil rights. She was critical of negative influences of film where children were able to watch what were termed adult films – shoot ‘em ups, G-Men type cinema movies, and she advocated the inauguration of film production for child-friendly pictures.  

May Ogilvie-Gordon in 1900

Working children was another cause that deeply concerned her. Practically throughout Maria’s life children were expected to work and contribute to their family’s incomes. Young peoples’ and children’s labour was frequently unregulated and through the Child Welfare Committee Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon was involved scrutinising laws affecting their employment and in establishing Juvenile Employment Exchanges.

A Handful of Employments was published by long-gone Rosemount Press in Aberdeen in 1908 and intended to be a guide for girls and boys entering trades, industries and professions. As its author Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon itemised a long list of occupations and training that might be involved, pay and so on. She wrote of her regret that factories churning out products had replaced small-scale craft methods of production, regarding factory work as demoralising with operatives monotonously feeding materials into machines. Ogilvie-Gordon was critical, too, of girls taking up factory work because that meant they tended to lose household skills such as domestic economy, sewing, cooking, parenting and so on.

Both for boys and girls Maria Ogilvie-Gordon saw education as vital to their well-being and advocated it be built into their working day. She believed it was essential that girls and boys had choice over the work they were to take up rather than being pushed into any old job by their parents whose main interests were getting additional income coming into the home.

In A Handful of Employments she drew up tables of occupations for school leavers, listed alphabetically and easy to consult. Bobbin-turning, for example – both boys and girls at 16 could expect to be paid 6 shillings – note the same wage. Not all wages were equal between the sexes. A fourteen-year-old girl working in a brewhouse earned a shilling a week less than a boy.  

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon lived an exceptional life filled with academic and scientific successes which she earned through strong resolve, tackling each and every barrier placed in her way. She was helped by her intelligence and spirited personality and the conviction that women should have the same rights as men and be treated equally in society. She was also helped in achieving her ambitions by having a cushion of money behind her. For women without May Ogilvie’s resources there has always been and still are additional hurdles of prejudice (those of class, race, background) they must first overcome to begin to be accepted in a man-centred world. Women’s equality had a long way to run across Europe but the Continent was where Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon’s intellect and contribution to science were first recognised while back in the UK the world of science didn’t want to know and her research and achievements were ignored by British geologists – a male clique.

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider.

(Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, 1929)

Additional personal details

Maria M. Ogilvie, D.Sc. married John Gordon, M.D., on 27 November 1895 at the Council Hall in Gordon’s College, Aberdeen. The bride wore an ivory silk dress with a spray of orange blossom on the shoulder. The groom presumably wore a dark suit. To mark the occasion, pupils at the school were given a half-holiday. The family lived at 1 Rubislaw Terrace in Aberdeen.

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon died in London in 1939. Her remains were taken back to Aberdeen and interred in the grave of her late husband, infant daughter and son, at Allenvale cemetery on by the River Dee.   

A brief report of her funeral in a local newspaper mentioned that among wreaths were ones sent by Lord Aberdeen, Lady this and that, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and the Scottish Standing Committee.  

Obituaries of Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon appeared in various journals and publications, such as Nature and the International Woman Suffrage News paying tribute to the eminent scientist and feminist, Dame Maria Ogilvie-Gordon.

Maria and John Gordon named one of their daughters, Coral, to the astonishment of many.

Gordonopteris lorigae

In 2000 a new fossil fern genus discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites was named after Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, Gordonopteris lorigae.

A selection of achievements:

  • 1893 First woman to receive a DSc from University of London
  • 1900 First woman to receive a PhD from the University of Munich University
  •          (with highest honours)
  • 1901 English translation from the German of Professor Zittel’s History of
  •         Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century
  • 1908 Publishes Handbook of Employment for Boys and Girls (Aberdeen)
  • 1916 President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1919 Formed the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of
  •          Nations
  • 1919 Among first women accepted as members of the Geological Society of
  •          London
  • 1920 First JP and chairman of the Marylebone Court of Justice in London
  • 1928 First geological guidebooks to the Dolomites published
  • 1928 Honorary membership of the University of Innsbruck
  • 1928 Honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria
  • 1931 First female honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria
  •          Institute
  • 1932 Lyell Medal from Geological Society of London
  • 1935 Made Dame of the British Empire
  • 1935 Given Honorary LL.B degree from University of Edinburgh 
Sep 11, 2021

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast: Paul Dukes

Patrick Gordon and many other Russian mercenaries set sail from the local harbour. Aberdeen was a port en-route from and to Petrograd during the momentous years of the Russian Revolution.

(extract from A History of Russia c. 882 – 1996 by Paul Dukes)

Two periods from European history: Patrick Gordon, a general and rear admiral in Russia in the 17th century and the Russian Revolution in the 20th century – in common were roles played by northeast Scotland, including Aberdeen’s contribution to the Russian Enlightenment.

Professor Paul Dukes was an expert in Russian history who did so much to uncover that empire’s long links with Scotland and who by his dogged determination, and that of others, finally managed to get Patrick Gordon’s amazing and important diaries published as six volumes, edited by Dmitry Fedosov.

Wee crossed the Northwater, and through Bervy by Steenhave, and June 23. Dinedin Cowy, it being all the tyme a deluge of raine. At the Bridge of Dee, wee drank a glasse of wine, and about four o clock, came to Aberdeen, and lodged in the Katherine Raes. Many Friends came to see me.

(an extract from Patrick Gordon Diaries on a visit home to Aberdeenshire)

Patrick Gordon, a Catholic from Auchleuchries, near Ellon, who fled Scotland in 1651 aged sixteen because of religious persecution and took up arms as a mercenary (soldier of fortune)  for the Swedes, Poles and eventually Russians; persuaded by fellow-Scot, Colonel John Crawford, and a great number of Scottish men. Gordon became an adviser to the future Peter the Great and so was influential in the development of Russia, as Pyotr Ivanovich, Major-General.

Paul Dukes’ fascination with Gordon may have been one of the reasons he changed his mind about using his tenure at Aberdeen University as a stepping stone to an academic post elsewhere. He discovered right there on his doorstep a wealth of material worthy of researching aspects of Russian, Scottish and World history. When a young Dukes arrived in the mid-sixties the history department at Aberdeen showed little interest in Scottish history. It took a while to change. So, with the sixties in full swing the handsome Cambridge graduate – fluent in European languages, including Russian, took up a post of assistant lecturer in the city having previously lectured at the University of Maryland’s French and German campuses and completed his PhD at the University of London. For the next sixty or so years he could be found in an Indian restaurant in Aberdeen each Friday evening with a group of fellow-academics – the Curry Club.

On Friday 10th September, 2021, Paul’s family and friends gathered at Aberdeen crematorium to commemorate his amazingly packed life. The proceedings got underway with the theme tune from his favourite film, The Third Man. Those gathered reflected on the man we knew while a series of photographs of Paul and his family were screened to the music from test match special, Soul Limbo, and at the end of tributes was a rousing version of the Russian national anthem.

Paul, the man from south London, loved Scotland and in his element uncovering the vast web of influences between Scotland and Russia. His knowledge was vast. He was erudite. He was an affable companion who got on with statesmen, academics and the local farmers in the Howe o’ Alford. He loved northeast culture – its music, poetry and literature. Paul became friendly with David Toulmin (John Reid), a farm labourer turned author who wrote in the local Doric and Paul was closely involved in setting up the annual Toulmin Prize for Doric stories. He was also a great fan of Charles Murray, Hamewith, the Alford poet and recognised the importance of the Greig-Duncan collection of traditional ballads and folk songs of northeast Scotland. An example was The Widow’s Cruisie whose beginning amused Paul who chose it for the booklet on the Howe o’ Alford we collaborated on with its mention of places we lived in

Doon by Tough an Tullynessle / Aye the wife wi her vessel…

Paul Dukes wore his considerable knowledge lightly. Quick to laugh and share a joke, a linguist who could, allegedly, sing The Internationale in Latin and during his near-sixty years living in Aberdeen and the shire he picked up a fair number of Doric terms, delivered with his cultured English twist.

It was in the end of the sixties or early 1970s I first came across Paul Dukes. He turned up at a party in a posh part of Aberdeen, perhaps invited by one of his students. He and his companion were interrogated on the stairs by a posse of students who took great delight in refusing them entry – then one of the heels came adrift from his Cuban-heel boots and rolled downstairs.  

The next time our paths crossed was at the wedding of the late George Molland, then Senior Lecturer in History and the Philosophy of Science at Aberdeen University, when Paul and I found ourselves dancing together. I can’t actually recall when we became friends. It wasn’t when I was a student at university and attended one or two of his lectures but some time later.

It was much much later that Paul and his then partner, Cath (later wife), became near (in shire terms) neighbours of ours. We had known Cath since she came to Aberdeen in the late 1960s and through Cath we came to know Paul well. We visited each other, went on outings together, met up for lunches, scones or cake and sometimes all three. We played about on his snowshoes on the hill above their home at Tullynessle one winter when the snow lay deep there. We attended meetings of Alford History group together which is how we came to write that little booklet on the Howe. Much as Paul had encouraged interest in Scottish history at Aberdeen university during his time there he coaxed us, also historians, to take an interest in the history of the Howe o’ Alford. One of his last activities in that area was in persuading a local landowner to open up access to the remains of the Old Keig stone circle with its magnificent recumbent stone.

Paul’s conversation was always interesting and stimulating – 99.9% of the time it would veer towards Russia in some way. His mind aye active – he jumped through hoops to continue his visits to Russia, frustrated but not beaten by its labyrinthian bureaucracy in recent times. He organised cultural and academic visits between the two countries. He was always busy at some project or another – travelling to research, attending and addressing conferences, writing. Always something to discover. Always something to uncover. Always more waiting to be done. If he wasn’t planning a visit to Russia it was China or Switzerland or England. He never stopped. Having just finished his book on Manchuria (oh, the shock of discovering just how many pictures he wanted us to scan for it) he was trying to complete his memoirs in the weeks before his death. He was engaged with life right up to his death. His students would quip that his diary entries would read –

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast.

We last saw Paul when he visited us in our new home a couple of days before he was taken into hospital. What a man…what a life…what a gap in our lives he’s left.

Paul Dukes 5 April 1934 – 25 August 2021

Aug 24, 2021

Bottom Lining: blood and soil Tories, a mad monarch and debauched Duke of York

The UK is not a migrant friendly country. It says it is. It isn’t. The UK is hostile to migrants. Not all of the UK but certainly that bit that controls migration.

People have migrated. That’s it. People have migrated the whole of human existence. Migrated to find the essentials of living – basically what it takes for survival.

When humans migrated across continents they came from Africa. Oh, yes. Even you racists out there, pucker up because you are basically, African. Learn to love your genes. Of course none of those emigrants who landed on these shore about 1,000,000 years ago would be welcome today. Imagine the scene  – boats loaded with terrified people attempting to make safe landing. But wait, back then there was no evil little Home Secretary shooing them away. There was nobody here at all. And so the British African arrived. And that was that. People forgot who they were. But we haven’t got all day – fast forward to – not Patel but a government not unlike today’s unscrupulous Tory gang of spivs and toffs.

James Gillray’s depiction of British MPs getting ready for the daily grind

The year is 1803. Britain was at war with France. Again. They didn’t want any queer democratic revolutionary happenings in Blighty. So war it was. Tories were in charge. Again. A guy called Henry Addington and a mad King. Just call him George.

The mad king has his sights on Boney

Like most Tories the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Back in 1803 it was all the rage – on the take, doing a mate a favour, you scratch my back. We’re well acquainted with the idea. Well acquainted. Pub landlords getting squoodles of millions for making virus test tubes. Turns out they were – well not test tubes as science understands the term. But. Well, always a but. Didn’t have viruses back then. They did but didn’t know them as viruses.

Anyway. 1803. War. Tories in power. Tories everywhere. Even those who didn’t call themselves Tories were Tories. Tory = look out for the bottom line. In Tory minds that meant squeezing the last sweat of profit out workers. One of the most horrible jobs back about 1803 was cutting, gathering, laying out to dry, burning and collecting the ash of kelp. Kelp is a type of seaweed that was essential to manufacturing soap and glass. Everyone needs glass and/or soap – except the Hudsons. In-joke involving cruel snorting schoolkids at sight of 19th century add for Hudson’s soap because of a local family of that name who weren’t too familiar with soap. Enough of this nonsense. Soap and glass back in 1803 delivered excellent bottom lines because so much of the hard graft going into them was done by kids. What do child workers mean? Profits. Kids and their folks were sick of this work. They’d been farmers until thrown out of their homes by their lairds. This is Scotland, in the Union, in 1803. Highland lairds (landowners) found a better bottom line by throwing impoverished natives off the lands of their ancestors and replacing them with sheep. People pay to eat sheep and wear wool and sheep don’t need much looking after. Bottom line, remember.

Where were we? Yes, people were sick of this kelp drudgery. They couldn’t return to their burnt out homes invaded by sheep so many chose to migrate to North America. Migration was quite a thing across the British Isles and families who claimed to own the Highlands were so bottom lining with sheep they’d persuaded lots and lots of people to pile into boats and take their chances in North America where they might eventually be able to farm.  What I mean by persuaded is forced. Some had a choice. Some had no choice. People wept, said their last farewells to any too old or decrepit to migrate. They wouldn’t see them again. Or the land. Or the graves of their families. Choice wasn’t really a thing back then – for the poor.  One way out was to risk everything, basically everything these folk had was their lives, and emigrate. No Union bonus for them.

Pause for a link but come back a’body. Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds

Furious lairds did what they could to dissuade them from leaving – apart from paying them properly and improving their working conditions. When this didn’t work they lobbied their friends in government to make it all but impossible for these poor folk to leave the country and so leave proprietors without labour to do their dirty work for them.

The Tory government and the mad king were happy to play their part. The Passenger Vessel Act was quickly pushed through parliament in London. To add insult to injury it was tarted up as being in the interests of migrants – to protect them from being exploited by transportation organisations with less overcrowding and better treatment of passengers. Bunkum, of course. The motivation was entirely to prevent workers leaving the United Kingdom to settle in North America, for example, the fare to Canada tripled from £3 to at least £10 which in today’s money is a hike from £300, still a small fortune back in 1803, to an outrageous £1,000 per person; on a par with people smugglers skinning desperate immigrants nowadays. And we’re talking about the most impoverished folk with virtually no money to their name. It’s worth saying at this point that the Act was repealed in 1827 when prices for kelp plummeted and Highland lairds wanted rid of what had become unwanted workers – 20,000 once employed in the kelp industry. Westminster was only happy to oblige them once again by dropping the cost of migration onboard vessels to North America. Westminster politicians were as unscrupulous then as they are today.  Alexander Macdonell, chaplain of the Glengarry Fencilbes, said the 1803 Act was passed on a

specious pretext of humanity & tender benevolence towards the emigrants.

Passengers were crowded onto vessels

The swiftness of the Act’s passage through parliament took some Hebrideans by surprise. They had already given up their tenancies and were abandoned by the government for a generation.

However – always a however – there were exceptions allowed. What are friends in high places for if not to pull strings. The Earl of Selkirk who had ambitions to resettle Scots in Prince Edward Island in Canada was indulged as was the Hudson’s Bay Company (echoes of PPE contracts). Selkirk set up travel agents at Portree and other Highland ports to collect prospective migrants’ deposits, some very large amounts.

Highlanders were being pushed from pillar to post. They were despised by most of the rest of the United Kingdom as uncivilised brutes and scum. But uncivilised brutes were exactly what UK military leaders, government, the mad king and the Duke of York (who was involved in sex scandals which seem to be an occupational hazard for Dukes of York) wanted as recruits to fight its wars. A regiment was formed in North America to absorb some of these hulking Highlanders who had proved so willing to spill their blood for king and country; the Canadian Fencible Regiment appeared then disappeared in 1804 when recruits grew disgruntled over their treatment and were condemned by the military authorities, parliament, the mad king and the debauched prince as strìopach (stroppy). The government, mad king and the grand ol’ Duke of York were feargach (angry) and raged at the men they’d soft-talked into signing up for becoming ‘troublesome’. Though not so troublesome they’d leave them be. Parliament and royalty – mad and bad – were desperate for cannon fodder, fit and brave young men they could sacrifice on the altar of Empire. The 1819 Military Register refers to Highlanders’

blood copiously shed in our service.

In 1810 Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register asks why government grants that were provided to the Highlands to keep the young from migrating was not available in Ireland. Perhaps it was something to do with the copious amount of blood shed by the youth of the Highlands and Islands.

So, sheep were moved onto land where once there were people; families and villages and the communities scattered hither and yon. Not untypical were the seven or eight families who lived on a farm in Argyleshire forcibly evicted and the farm let to “a gentleman because he can give more rent” and the 100,000 acres of lands of Glenshiel (then Glen Sheal), Morvich and Dornie on the west coast of Ross-shire once filled with communities of people was advertised in 1810 as pasture for sheep and black cattle, game, fishings, lead and other minerals. 

Oh, why I left my hame by Thomas Faed

There was panic on both sides – months before the Act with warnings over the “destructive depopulation of our island” and calls for “immediate and vigorous interposition of our Legislature” to stop the removal of desperate Highlanders with no means of support by what amounted to ‘unwilling banishment’. Highlanders whose only language was the Gaelic were approached by human traffickers armed with travel documents in English. Some were inevitably duped by them.

Highlanders were the disposable property of landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the ’45 uprising and the butchery and cruelty that followed there were Scots desperate to leave to find safety. The Highlands were treated as alien territory by the British army which built forts which it filled with loyal troops to remind Highlanders who was in charge and put down resistance to its hegemony. The incursion of sheep and sporting estates created other incentives to leave. The 1803 Act was another means of controlling Highlanders. And that was another bottom line for the Union.

Aug 15, 2021

Epidemic. Scamdemic. Anti-vaxxers. Variolation and Vaccine. Smallpox to Covid.

There is no pandemic. Covid is only flu. Covid symptoms don’t exist – there’s no proof! Scamdemic!

Vaccine = mass control. I will cheerfully risk catching Covid for the sake of freedom.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Early disease inoculations and the first inoculation against smallpox in Britain

Smallpox, a dreadful virus that once ravaged the world killing million upon million – around 300 million died of it in the 20th century alone, was finally eradicated in 1980. A virus found in rodents is suspected to have spread to humans as smallpox variola 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. Having been around this length of time plenty attempts at preventing it were tried including inoculation by one form or another. In China, for example, the skin of a healthy recipient was scratched and infected matter from someone with smallpox applied to the broken surface. Alternatively, dried smallpox scabs were ground down and the material blown up the nostrils of the person being protected.

The method that led to vaccinations that are familiar to us can be traced back to the Ottoman Turk practice of inoculation which was observed in Constantinople in the early 18th century by Lady Mary Worley Montagu, a writer and wife of the British ambassador there. She was, herself, disfigured by smallpox and she was keen her children did not share her fate or worse, death.

Similar to the Chinese method, the Ottomans also transferred pus from a smallpox blister under the skin of an uninfected person, to promote mild infection and protect against a major manifestation of the disease. Lady Mary had her young son inoculated in Constantinople in 1718 by a Greek woman familiar with the technique who was assisted by the Montagu’s doctor at the embassy – a Scottish surgeon from Methlick near Aberdeen, Charles Maitland.

Back in Britain Maitland went on to inoculate Mary Montagu’s daughter and so became the first doctor in Britain to carry out an inoculation against smallpox. This was in 1722 and he continued to practise this method – being granted a licence to test variolation, as it was called, on six prisoners awaiting execution at Newgate Prison in a deal made with them; the prisoners, both women and men, survived and subsequently were pardoned. Maitland’s reputation grew and he went on to inoculate about eighty people, rich and poor, six in his native Aberdeenshire and royalty. With variolation the patient was deliberately infected with a small amount of the smallpox virus (virus was not a term known then) to initiate the disease in a mild form. Deaths that did occur were nothing like in the same numbers as those contracting smallpox through natural contagion. As well as in China and the Ottoman Empire variolation was practised in Africa and the Middle East.

The name of Charles Maitland has been regrettably omitted from the story of virus eradication in the UK. He died at his home in Aberdeen on 28 January, 1748 and is buried at Methlick graveyard. His obituary in the local press described him as

famous for inoculating the small Pox, and was the Person appointed by his present Majesty Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, which he accordingly performed, and for which he was handsomely rewarded.

A reference to him at his old university, Aberdeen’s Marischal, describes him as a surgeon, ‘the first inoculator of smallpox.’

Not everyone who underwent inoculation under Maitland survived but he was confident in his own mind of the efficacy of the technique and is said to have made that known to anyone who’d listen while taking coffee at Child’s Coffee-House near the College of Physicians in London. Maitland returned to Scotland in 1726 where one of the six children he inoculated there died although that child was already ill with hydrocephalus, fluid in the brain. Nevertheless a link was made between inoculation and the death which led to an outcry against the practice so it was another twenty years before Maitland’s technique was revisited, by another Aberdeen surgeon, a Dr. Rose.  

Such was the dreadful impact of smallpox that attempts to stem the deadly virus were on-going with Scots buying inoculations for their children where they could. I don’t know how widespread this was but here in Scotland inoculation did not necessarily involve scraping the skin and applying infected pus to the scratch instead pus-saturated worsted threads were wound tightly around the wrists of children.

Variolation to Vaccination

Vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to fight off a virus.

The next step in the battle against smallpox is far better known. While poor old Maitland’s name has been relegated to the dustbin of history just about everyone is familiar with the name Jenner. The English doctor who was born a year after Charles Maitland’s death noticed that women employed milking cattle were often infected by a cattle disease, cowpox, that erupted as sores on the skin. However, these women seemed to be protected from smallpox so he collected pus from a cowpox sore on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and introduced it under the skin of an arm belonging to nine-year-old James Phipps, son of his gardener, to test his theory that inoculation of cowpox could guard against smallpox. A few weeks later he exposed the boy to smallpox. Thankfully he survived. It appeared the method worked. Jenner tested it again and again. Within five years he was confident enough to promote the practice as a means of combatting the deadly disease. Variolation was outlawed in 1840.

Nowadays vaccination can refer to any of the protections we are fortunate to have against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis, pneumococcal, flu etc but the term vaccination derives from variolae vaccinae  – cow pustules (vacca being Latin for cow.) The word vaccination began to come into common usage from about 1800. The matter used to inoculate against smallpox, cowpox lymph, was frequently taken from cows’ udders but also from the heel of a horse when rubbed with grease (cited in a reference from Aberdeen in 1853.) How do they discover this?

Who should have responsibility for vaccinations? This was hotly disputed in the nineteenth century. Doctors or poor law officials? As with variolation, vaccinations had to be bought by individuals and so it was mainly wealthier folk including the aristocracy who took advantage of them. This ad hoc approach to vaccination meant large sections of the population were unprotected and outbreaks of smallpox continued to ravage towns.  

Compulsion and the Anti-vaxxers

Compulsory vaccination was introduced into England and Wales in 1854. Scotland followed a decade later, in 1864. Dr Seaton’s Handbook of Vaccination: The Registrar-General for Scotland reported that of the 221,980 children born in Scotland between the day the Act came into operation, Jan 1, 1864 and Dec 31, 1865 – only 5,382 were not registered as vaccinated.

Children were the most-at-risk group and so parents were urged to do their duty and ensure their babies under three months of age were vaccinated –

the well-being of the community should not be sacrificed to the whims and senseless prejudices of those eccentric individuals

 Anti-vaccinationers – let’s give them their current title, anti-vaxxers, came from every part of society including the medical professions – and across Europe. In Spain and France unvaccinated children were not allowed to attend schools.

It was found that where rates of vaccination were high incidents of smallpox declined but then eventually complacency set in. With fewer occurrences of the disease people asked why bother vaccinating their children. Vaccination became a victim of its own success and the virus was able to take hold once again.

With cases rising further laws were introduced to reinforce compulsion, in 1871 in England and Wales. In Scotland public compliance with vaccination was greater than in England and Wales with up to 95% of babies vaccinated in the 1860s but here, too, opposition to compulsion was growing with people complaining of their liberty being impinged upon by the state.   

In his evidence to the Vaccination Committee a Dr Wood of Edinburgh said,

that there were very few unvaccinated persons in Scotland.

Dr Playfair, MP for Edinburgh University, was in no doubt compulsory vaccination in Scotland and Ireland could stamp out smallpox but a short time later, in 1871, an epidemic of smallpox raged through Scotland with a death rate of 36,000 per million of the population. The figure for coronavirus deaths in the UK is 1,870 which puts the impact of smallpox into some perspective for we find Covid-19 terrifying enough to live through.

Leith, Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen are suffering most severely from the epidemic. (The Lancet, 17 February 1872)

An anti-vaxxer newspaper, The Vaccination Inquirer, was begun by William Tebb in 1879. Tebb refused to have his own child vaccinated and wrote pamphlets condemning vaccines such as Government Prosecutions for Medical Heresy which is a transcription of his own court appearance.

Anti-vaxxers got their message out through publications such as Tebb’s along with articles and letters in newspapers, the law courts, public meetings and petitions. They were funded by the wealthy and better-off middle classes – parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords, church ministers, Sirs this and that, the odd countess, Isaac Pitman of shorthand fame and a host of other including a John Davie of Dunfermline, James Greig of Glasgow and Rev John Kirk of Edinburgh and presumably Uncle Tom Cobley.

One of the most prominent anti-vaxxers was Peter Taylor MP for Leicester, a town notorious for its low number of vaccinated children and high death rate. Leicester was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘the Mecca of antivaccination.’ Peter Taylor was the son of a silk merchant and member of the wealthy Courtauld family. Taylor who was president of the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination wrote the preface to the London anti-vaxxers’ bible of 1881 in which he criticised

The small band of medical experts who are paid certain thousands by the State to champion the cause of vaccination…facts which are not facts…statistics cooked into a condition of hopeless confusion.

Loss of liberty aside their main argument was that smallpox was less fatal before vaccination was introduced and fatal cases increased with compulsory vaccination from 1854 (England and Wales.)

Scotland’s Anti-Vaccination League was set up in 1896 and that same year exceptions were allowed – on grounds of conscience. Within a few years the words conscientious objectors would become very familiar at the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18 but before then the term applied to a parent, usually the father, who objected to his child being inoculated. Where no excuse was accepted by the authorities a parent was fined 20 shillings or a few days in jail for refusing to have a child vaccinated.

Objectors to vaccination complained of interference to their parental authority. Pro-vaxxers accused them of exposing their little ones to ‘the horrors of smallpox’ and enabling the deadly disease to spread like wildfire as the cost of everyone else’s liberty. Vegetarian anti-vaxxers could become conscientious objectors on grounds the vaccine was taken from animals – from cowpox lymph. There were anti-vaxxers who dismissed vaccination as “delusive superstition.”

Smallpox was horrible to endure and “the most terrible of all the ministers of death” that filled churchyards with its victims argued Thomas Macaulay the historian, politician and son of Zachary Macaulay the Scottish anti-slave trade activist. Many were not persuaded. Petitions were distributed and demonstrations attended. In England’s anti-vax hot spot, Leicester, in 1884 about 1200 people were summoned by the courts for refusing to have their children vaccinated and two-thirds of the town’s children were unvaccinated. The Vaccination Acts ‘are a dead letter, and there has not been a single case of smallpox in twelve months.’ The Weekly News on August 23, 1884.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Scotland had less trouble from anti-vaxxers, took a firmer line on compulsory vaccinations than in England and Wales and had fewer cases of smallpox as a consequence. But here, too, anti-vaxxers made a lot of noise. Protests broke out from Inverness to probably just about everywhere. The Leicester influence in the guise of a Dr Hedwin turned up in Glasgow in 1903 to lead a protest demo in the city. A year or two earlier a Glaswegian locked up in Duke Street prison for refusing to have his child vaccinated or pay the fine wrote to the newspapers. He was one of those Scots who seeks guidance on all things legal from English not Scots law. He argued that were he in England he would be free a day early due to how England calculated confinement. He also complained about being given sour milk with his skilly (porridge) and made a bizarre Biblical reference to Ezekiel and pastry before describing prison warders as Godalmighties, thick-skulled and ignorant concluding that smallpox could be cured with prayer so vaccinations weren’t necessary.

We can dismiss his ravings because compulsory vaccination in Scotland did have a dramatic impact on smallpox with the Scots and Irish described as ‘long-headed people’ for their support for vaccination. Ninety-seven percent of children six months and older were vaccined against smallpox in the first years of the twentieth century and then prime minister, Balfour, responded to anti-vaxxers demand they shouldn’t be treated like criminals by telling them anyone whose chimney went on fire was held responsible and fined and those opposing vaccination of their children were just as criminal. The Lords went against his wishes and voted to allow conscientious objection to vaccinations in Scotland for the first time in 1907.

Back in the nineteenth century as now feelings were strong on both sides of the vaccination debate. Then, as now, some anti-vaccination zealots were dismissed as bigots. We have Twitter, a platform not available to anti-vaxxers in the 18th and 19th centuries, to spread ill-informed prejudice but those anti-vaxxers a couple of hundred years ago though not keyboard warriors made a fair amount of noise without social media and had friends in high places who provided their blinkered ideas with a veneer of respectability. They lost in the end. Smallpox was eliminated in 1980. Another virus and another bunch of anti-vaxxers emerged as barking mad as the first. They won’t win either.

Aug 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 8 – final one in the series: Fallada’s Berlin, Musil’s pointless modernist novel and Laxness’ Independent People – a nice note to end on

This is it, folks. We’ve reached the final blog about a random bookshelf in a random bookcase in a not-so-random house in northeast Scotland.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann is a cracker. Otto and Anna Quangel are an ordinary couple living in Berlin surviving as best they can in Hitler’s Germany. It is 1940 and World War 2 is in its second year. Their son Ottochen has been killed fighting in France. With their lives turned upside down by Hitler’s fascists Otto decides to do what he can to fight back and embarks on a one-man campaign of resistance.

Otto writes comments on postcards and leaflets, urging people to work slowly, sabotage the factory production that finances Hitler’s military campaigns and generally encourages individuals to do what they can to defy the state. He distributes the postcards around his neighbourhood. It is only a matter of time before this anonymous activism is brought to the attention of the Gestapo – and Otto’s daring defiance enters a new and more deadly stage.

Hans Fallada was the pen-name of Rudolph Ditzen, born in 1893 in Greifswald, Northeast Germany. Fallada comes from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale tradition. The Grimms were arguably the world’s best story-tellers, certainly the most famous – famous, too, for horror often woven into their tales. But nothing imagined by the Grimm Brothers can match the terror experienced in Germany by those opposed to its terrifying totalitarian regime. Fallada has his readers in a cold sweat because it is obvious there will be no happy ending to this tale despite the humour he injects into it. His own life was pretty horrific. A drunk and drug addict Fallada killed a friend in a duel and shot at his wife. Clearly mentally unstable during periods of his life Fallada died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947.

Translator Hofmann is an author in his own right, a poet he has translated the works of many authors, including Joseph Roth and Kafka. Born in Freiburg in 1957 into a literary family who moved from Germany to Bristol and then Edinburgh the adult Hofmann divides his life between Germany and the USA. He received an award for his translation of Hertz Muller’s fabulous novel, The Land of Green Plums – an astonishingly seductive piece of writing. Note to self: add to the growing list of must re-reads.

Back to Alone in Berlin –

The postwoman Eva Kluge slowly climbs the steps of 55 Jablonski Strasse. She’s tired from her round, but she also has one of those letters in her bag that she hates to deliver, and is about to have to deliver, to the Quangels, on the second floor.

Before that, she has a Party circular for the Persickes on the floor below. Persicke is some political functionary or other – Eva Kluge always gets the titles mixed up. At any rate, she has to remember to call out ‘Heil Hitler!’ at the Persicke’s and watch her lip!

Later Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is visited by his boss, SS Obergruppenfuhrer, Prall. After exchanging Heil Hitlers, Escherich explains he has been thinking about

…the postcard phantom – the “Hobgoblin”, as I like to call him.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“No reason. Just thought of it. Maybe because he wants to make everyone afraid.”

Escherich hasn’t the faintest idea how to track down the dangerous postcard hobgoblin who is spreading anti-fascist thoughts among the people – his boss is impatient.

Take that grin off your face, you loon! If something like this comes to Himmler’s attention, all bets are off, and who knows if we won’t meet one day in Sachsenhausen, reminiscing about the good old days when all we did was stick flags into maps!”

A serious topic tackled with a lightness of touch and humour. But . . . but this is grim reading for we know we are learning about actual events and for the Quangels read Elise and Otto Hempel, a working class couple who had taken little interest in politics before Elise’s brother was killed in the war. This one incident altered their lives forever. Their postcard campaign was crude and perhaps did not have much effect other than place their lives in great danger. Hitler’s Germany showed no tolerance to those who questioned it or resisted being a tool of its repressive controls. It was a brave act to do what the Hempel’s did. No-one knew who among neighbours were informers and there were plenty of them. That’s how totalitarian regimes survive – by breeding suspicion, fear and treachery. The inevitable happened and someone identified them. They were arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo, found guilty in the People’s Court and sentenced to death by beheading in March 1943. Fallada was given access to their Gestapo file.

Reading Alone in Berlin one is reminded how easily a country can slip into a totalitarian state through apathy and compliance by ordinary people. It is a whole other matter finding the courage to resist and bring down that state.

That’s another book onto the must read again list.

*

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil is a book I’ve never read, nor have I any intention of doing so. Why? It is huge for a start, 1130 pages long. I have aversion to huge books for several reasons – mainly I tend to get bored before the end and they are almost impossible to hold comfortably. According to the publicity speel on the cover I’m missing out on, “A great novel” and “towering achievement” – such is life.

The Man Without Qualities belongs to my husband who has read it. Tell me something he hasn’t read. He bought it with a book token given to him by my late mother, in 2009, (another voracious reader right up to the end of her extremely long life.)

Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt in Austria in 1880. A scientist/philosopher/military sort of man he turned to novel writing – as one does. This book was threatened with being banned in Germany and Austria and to avoid too close scrutiny by the Nazis Musil emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. He died during World War 2. A completed edition of this book was published in 1978.

Remember Schnitzler from an earlier blog in this series? His Dream Story failed to impress me and I’m beginning to think there’s a trend happening here as far as Austrian writers are concerned. According to the only person in this house who has read it, The Man Without Qualities is a book in which nothing happens. It is a modernist novel and nothing of consequence may be expected. Modernist writing looked to create writing that was different from traditional story-telling. So there is no story. That is the point. If point is not too constructive a description.

On that age-old question: what would you do if you could rule the world for a day? Musil responded, “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality.”

Call me picky but I don’t find that helpful. I suppose it is clever in a smart Alec sort of way.

The first chapter of the book is entitled: “From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops” and it continues in this vein.

The story, such as it is, is set in the aftermath of the First World War and Germany’s crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire.

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility.”

Don’t you know that every perfect life would be the end of art?”

I bet he was a bundle of laughs to live with.

The book was unfinished at Musil’s death, of a stroke, in 1942. Just where it might have gone and how many pages it would have taken Musil to tell his non-story there is no point in guessing.

*

And finally, Sjálfstætt fólk – Independent People by Halldór Laxness the pen name of Halldór Guðjónssonan, Icelandic writer and translator from Reykjavik who lived between 1902 and 1998. His translator, James Anderson Thompson, hails from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Thompson travelled to Iceland in 1931 which presumably inspired him, later, to translate Independent People (his only translation of any book and his translation is regarded as the finest of any of the book’s translations into any language.) J. A. Thompson’s apotheosis came with the Laxness novel for his biographies can be dismissive of him as a failed academic and hotelier. Laxness and Thompson worked closely on the translation and Laxness appreciated Thompson’s brilliant effort which took him eight years to complete.

Laxness won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952, the World Peace Council Literary Prize in 1953, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and the Sonning Prize in 1969. Throughout his long life he wrote until struck down with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s.

Another long novel although about half the size of the previous one, coming in at 544 pages, it was first published in 1936. Set in rural Iceland it tells of  Guðbjartur Jónsson, known as Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who longs for independence and eventually owning his own farm that he re-names Summerhouses from its original name of Winterhouses. He brings a wife home to Summerhouses. Rosa is already pregnant by another man. She hates Summerhouses and the life she’s expected to live. It’s not a good start to the marriage but that’s the best of it although there is a daughter who softens the heart of Bjartur. Described in the New York Review of Books as not just great but “the book of your life” – some accolade.

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.”

Laxness is referring to Icelandic sagas that told of Irish monks, the Vestmanna or west men,  who spread Christianity up the islands of Scotland and across to Iceland before Norse families arrived in the latter 9th century.  Iceland shared with other island communities a struggle to retain their young people who saw the outside world offering them what they imagined must be better than the life familiar to them.

Take Ragnas of Urtharsel, for instance; how did he fare? He had three sons, all as strong as horses; Their beards had hardly begun sprouting before they were off to sea. One was drowned and the other two finished up in America. And did they drop their mother a line in spring, when their father died? No, not a word; not even a couple of shillings to keep her mind off her sorrow.”

Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.”

Having been born in Iceland, Laxness died in Iceland but in-between he travelled the world absorbing ideas but it is his native Iceland that stimulated his greatest works, including Independent People. Curiously a stay in America attracted him to socialism. Laxness’ home is now a museum.

And that, as they say, is that; from What Katy Did to its near neighbour, Independent People. I’ve found delving into the shelf of books stimulating as it has encouraged me to break out of my rather limited choices of reading material and further explore the many books this house has to offer, as first time and repeat reads. I won’t be reading Musil but I’ve already gone back into Independent People, though it will take me a while to get through it.

The initial idea of the exercise, to dip into a different book each day for 5 mins fell by the wayside when I decided to turn it into a blog so I’ve decided to carry on with my daily 5 min reads across the bookshelves without becoming diverted into doing something different in the form of blogging and I won’t be running out of books anytime soon. With the easing of Covid restrictions we managed to divest ourselves of eight boxes of books this week – into the Oxfam book shop. We still have seven bookcases of books stored in the garage and others scattered about the house. I might not be inclined to linger in the garage during winter but it’s a pleasant enough place when temperatures outside are reasonable. Still, I’ll start in the house and I may never make it into the garage at all. Thanks for keeping me company and to those of you who got in touch a special thank you. Enjoy reading whatever your own choices for passing the time/learning/escaping might be. And remember to stay safe.

Jul 16, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 7 – culture, cannibalism and courage

I ended last time with Charles Dickens, a wonderful writer whose novels and commentaries evoke Victorian England in all its captivating awfulness to the extent they found a new lease of life in the guise of the television serial and Christmas special. If it isn’t Dickens then it’s Austen. And if it’s Dickens or Austen it’s Christmas. Except nowadays Christmas tends to be cheap and trashy dancing shows and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. The progress of civilisation, huh? With both Dickens and Austen we feel we know their worlds for we’ve been exposed to a succession, a very long succession, of directors and scriptwriters who’ve reinvented their characters and storylines, adapting them to the mores of the day. Of course, we don’t. We have not the faintest sense of the privileges and suffering they wrote about. Suffering we’ll come back to but none can deny that many a Dickensian character sticks in our minds as clear as any picture because of his sheer ability to distil their persona onto a page of letters. Pictures are a powerful medium – I feel a link coming on.

Think Renaissance with a capital R and you are probably thinking pictures and characters. First book up is The Penguin Book of the Renaissance edited by J. H. Plumb. Plumb had a long and glittering career as a historian. Not your average working historian for a glance at his Wiki page explains how this well-connected academic was so successful he was able to ‘indulge his taste for fine food and wine, build a collection or rare porcelain; drive a Rolls-Royce’ and had residences in England, France and New York. But this isn’t about him.

I used this little book when studying History of Art at university and for some reason while other books from that time went the way of many things, this one has stuck fast to a book shelf, possibly because it is small and can be squashed in between other books. Anyway, renaissance art was one of the major topics in my degree cannily chosen to overlap with aspects of my history degree which included Renaissance Italy. Art was intrinsically mixed up with the treacherous, inspiring, enlightening social and political events of that tumultuous period – ever fascinating and exciting.

It is impossible to isolate the art: painting, drawing, etching, sculpture, architecture from dynastic struggles between feuding families who were the main patrons of the arts. This was the world of political murders and unquenchable corruption that affected religious and lay life: the Borgias, Sforzas, Medici, Machiavelli. Ruthless tyrants and immoral politics. The wealth and privileges enjoyed by the great families associated with the renaissance was only made possible because of the craftsmen and women who manufactured items, agricultural labourers who worked their lands, their guards and militiamen who protected them from equally rapacious rival clans or families. Not that any Borgia or member of the Medici would have acknowledged they were dependent on anyone so low.  

Fifteenth century Italy – magnificent and cruel. Artists who stood on the shoulders of their forebears of classical Rome and Greece in developing their specialisms that so beguiled their unsavoury patrons continue to fill us with awe and admiration today – indulgent, ravishingly beautiful – often providing pictorial evidence of that period. Architects designed homes for the powerful, fortresses, chapels and churches. They painted their portraits positioning them alongside saints as though they were part of the narrative of Christ’s life and work. They flattered and massaged the egos of Italy’s elites. And that got them more work.

The book looks at many works in detail: The Tribute Money by Masaccio – researching Scottish farming many years ago I chanced on a bull in the Scottish Highlands called Masaccio. I liked that. But back to the art. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his figure of David, Fra Angelico’s Life of St Nicholas.

The arts at this period flourished to a level that was astonishing and inspiring despite or was it because of the back-stabbing that was happening in pursuit of power both religious and secular, including in the Vatican. Whereas now rich and powerful individuals and families indulge themselves and show off their wealth through owning fast cars, enormous yachts, racing horses, properties in the world’s chic destinations, trips into space and art collections – but often collecting art created by long-dead artists who starved to death in the proverbial garret. Fine art consumption, a bit like hoarding bitcoin. Back in the renaissance living artists were given contracts by princes and tyrants keen to bask in the glory of an outstandingly beautiful cathedral or sumptuously painted ceiling. Okay, so they didn’t pay much but usually they paid something.

Paintings, sculpture, architecture and other associated crafts were rarely just seen for their intrinsic beauty but as property and narratives that carried a message to influence behaviour.

Nowadays? Well, there are pally newspapers and TV editors to massage the egos of the great and the good (sic) and mould a public impression of them that flatters and deceives. Different times, different media but essentially buying an image has been around for a very long time.

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And from the old world to the new – or so those Europeans who settled in what became America would have us believe was new. A new world to them, certainly. Again, there are comparisons with today. We’ve become inured to flimsy vessels taking to the seas packed to the gunwales with the scared, the frightened and the ambitious. It was ever thus. Where do you think we in the British Isles first came from? Under a cabbage leaf? Think boats and migration.

The factors that influence people to up-sticks and migrate to another country or a different part of a country vary but for most it is in the hope of a better life – somewhere safer, more pleasant, land available, work available, exploration. The ‘pioneers’ who took to a temporary itinerant life to travel westwards across America from east to west, to California, were following their own individual drives but surely all shared the belief they were heading towards better times.

Ordeal by Hunger by George R. Stewart is one of the most harrowing books you will ever read. He tells the story of the final group of the 500 wagons that left Independence Illinois for California in the spring of 1846. The pioneers tailing onto this huge body of migrants came to be collectively known as the Donner-Reed Party. Stewart’s account was first published in 1936 but our copy is from the press of Ace Star Books, 1960 edition, which we bought from Old town Books in Tempe, Arizona in April 1991.

During that spring of 1846 hundreds of people; single people, servants, whole families (there were many children), rich and poor thought to undertake a journey of more than 2,000 miles for a host of reasons – to escape difficulties, to find land to farm, to forge new businesses, to find work, to find religious freedom, for adventure – all adults had their own reasons. They were not the first to head westwards and of those who made it through some sent letters to their folks back east or in other parts of Europe that California was a fine place to settle and bring up a family. So, under the leadership of George Donner and James Reed this last group set off along the Oregon Trail. They would have anticipated reaching California by fall, all going to plan but the plan was altered. Instead of continuing along the established trail as those ahead of them had done it was decided they would take a largely untried route recommended by Lansford Hastings, an explorer who had never attempted to take a wagon across this inhospitable and unbroken diversion. On the map it appeared Hasting’s trail would shorten the journey and because of earlier mishaps that had held up the wagon train the Donner-Reed party was behind in their schedule and winter was fast approaching in the high territory that lay ahead. This decision was their undoing. They became completely bogged down in the mountains in treacherous conditions. Snow tens of feet deep prevented wagons progressing, oxen disappeared and horses couldn’t cope. What hope was there for men, women and children on foot, fast running out of food? Practically none. These were not mountain men and women but people used to the plains of the east. They did not have the knowledge of folk living in extreme conditions who in any case would not have considered embarking on moving people, the majority children, and goods across untamed boulder and tree strewn mountainous landscapes with snow, ice, gale-force winds and swollen rivers.  

It is impossible to imagine the extent of miseries experienced by the men, women and children who found themselves stranded in a living nightmare.  One by one they weakened, grew sick or got injured and began to die. Some of the stronger ones endeavoured to scale the mountains to make contact with help. One or two made it. They were met with enthusiasm from settled Californians who volunteered food, money and animals and some risked their own lives to rescue those trapped across the Continental Divide who were dug into rudimentary shelters completely submerged under deep snow with nothing to eat.

Well before this stage because of the delays in crossing the lower part of the trail food was in short supply and water frequently unavailable for many miles. To try to prevent their mouths feeling so dry distressed children were given a flattened bullet to chew on. With food supplies dwindling to non-existent some folk were reduced to eating grass. That was fine, in a sense, until heavy snows piled feet high over the ground. Animal hides, used as tent covers and cut into strips to make fastenings for quickly manufactured snowshoes from ox yokes were soaked and cooked over fires and eaten – a choice of food over shelter. They ate tallow and mice. Then it was decided they would have to eat human flesh. One can only imagine the tensions ensuing during a discussion about how this might be done. It’s almost unbearable to read a passage describing two men contemplating firing loaded revolvers at each other until one is shot dead instead of black-and-white murder. When it came to eating human flesh revulsion prevented this for long and some never would touch it except to keep children alive.

Stewart is a good story-teller. His descriptions of landscape and horror are well-done. And, too, his accounts of kindnesses for this is not simply a horror story but one where adversity brought out the very best in people as well as the worst. There are so many characters involved it is hard for the reader to keep individuals in focus but there’s a roster of the Donner Party at the end and a condensed itinerary plus other notes on people and incidents to assist.

Accounts of their harrowing trial came from survivors and diaries kept by some of the migrants. Forty-eight of the ninety pioneers who set out made it to California. Some fared well in their new lives but for others so deeply were they affected by the horror imposed upon them they were never able to reconcile what they lived through.

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As though there was method in the madness of filling bookshelves the next book along is also about the land featuring above, only thirty years later and from the experience of a lone traveller – I offer you A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.

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

And so it was.

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

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

Okay, so I’ve cheated. The passage above comes from a blog I wrote some years ago on the intrepid Ms Bird and being someone who doesn’t believe in wasting energy reinventing the wheel I’m reproducing a fragment from my earlier piece, A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks. For the whole blog click on the link:

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

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

If you haven’t yet read it then give this one a go. I’m not a great one for re-reading books, with a few exceptions such as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Bird’s tales of the American West. Her book on China I didn’t like as much.

We’re just about there, folks. Next time should do it. End of a bookshelf. Till then forget Freedom Day. Being free to contract Covid is no kind of freedom so take care and keep well.