January 23, 2017

BBC Myth of Magic? Part 1

swallow-me

The Rabbit took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket and saw it was 1922.

Broadcasting, “is ultimately a persuasive art” said Hilda Matheson, former MI5 officer and the BBC’s first Head of Talks. Her remark made in the wake of the creation of the BBC in the early 1920s is interesting on two grounds – that broadcasting’s role is to influence and it was the voice of British Intelligence that was invited to set the tone of the BBC.  

Tom Mills in his book, The BBC : Myth of a Public Service, dismantles the claim repeated ad nauseam by the British Broadcasting Corporation that it is an honest and impartial national broadcaster. Presumably their claim is repeated so often because it is challenged so often, with very good reason.

The BBC likes to present itself a bit like the NHS, as a British institution held in high regard by the public. Arguably that was true once upon a time but today it is a spurious assertion.

Broadcasting emerged as an alternative source of news and entertainment to that dished up by newspapers which were all biased in one direction or another and reflected the cultural and political views of their owners; wealthy individuals and corporations. The BBC would be different – as a public service it would report news in an impartial manner. That’s a bit like an historian claiming to be objective in recording events – it never happens. The storyteller’s role is a powerful one where what is not said distorts the message as much as what is selected for inclusion.

In 1926 the new BBC was regarded by the UK government as an ideal medium to inform Britain’s “politically uneducated electorate” an observation I suspect was as untrue then as it is now. Back in the 1920s in the wake of the Great War the majority of Britons would have been pretty clued up on politics – and active – women were still battling to get equal voting rights with men and both sexes had spent the 19th century fighting for employment and political rights a struggle that continued throughout the 20th century.

Of course it wasn’t a politically committed left-leaning electorate the BBC was looking to bring on-board (unless to re-educate) but to counter leftist views and disseminate information provided to the BBC by the government and its associated arms – intelligence, police, military, royalty with the expectation the public would swallow it hook, line and sinker. The BBC became an adjunct of the British state reinforcing its small c (sometimes big C) conservative message – a function is has proved to be well able to fulfil.

The question is,‘ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words means so many different things.’

1926 year of the General Strike with the horror of fighting for King and country in the Great War still fresh in memories and the echo of shelling and promise that returning soldiers would find  a land fit for heroes ringing in their ears Britain’s workers instead found they were being screwed into the ground for a second time in a decade and expected to accept pay cuts to their rock bottom wages and having to work longer hours for less pay. When they resisted the King and government did not come rushing to their defence as workers had for them in 1914 and 1915 – they were no longer heroes but demonised by the press, including the BBC .

bbc-1926

Then conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, said:

“The general strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy.”

His chancellor, Winston Churchill, said:

“I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action. It is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it.”

And BBC management agreed. If it was not exactly happy to oblige, oblige it did and allowed its airwaves to be used to undermine workers and defeat their strike. Far from being impartial the BBC only aired anti-strike opinions and propaganda, co-operating with government to read out its press statements in news bulletins verbatim while deliberately omitting pro-worker views.

Stonehaven man, John Reith, who helped establish the BBC was by 1927 its first Director General . The story goes that Reith made sure all voices involved in the General Strike were heard on the BBC but that wasn’t true. It’s a claim that is still made today. Reith asked the government to decide whether he should allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to go on the air to ask for a compromise between the unions and the government. The government  said no and that was that.  Does that make the BBC a government mouthpiece?  Surely there is no more appropriate term for it.

It was almost as if the British Establishment had discovered a great wheeze whereby it set up its own propaganda machine that could reach out to all four countries in the UK – and soon abroad – get the public to pay for it and claim it represented them.

And so impoverished workers and their families struggling to prevent being pushed into greater poverty were forced to abandon their protest. Many lost their jobs altogether and in the Depression of the thirties, the hungry thirties, these same people had to endure unbelievable squalor and anguish.  

Meanwhile Reith and his BBC colleagues were chummily office-sharing with government personnel in the Admiralty (UK government building) where news bulletins were jointly drafted by the BBC and the government’s press officer. That’s how impartial the BBC was. BBC/Westminster government/military/secret services = one body with tentacles.

Mills teases out an entrenched system of collusion between the BBC and successive governments since its inception in the twenties. Management of the BBC and its overseeing body, the Board of Governors, were and still are government appointees who inhabit the same social circles, attend the same schools, often private, and universities – mainly Oxbridge and, unsurprisingly, they share similar cultural and political outlooks. Basically, they are all the same chaps and gels.

bbc-state

Mills tells us that in 2014 26% of BBC executives attended private schools compared with 7% in the UK as a whole. 33% were Oxbridge educated compared with 0.8% of the population. 62% attended Russell group universities (Wiki – 24 self-selected research universities in the UK. Set up 1994 to represent members’ interests, principally to government and parliament. And receive two-thirds of all university research grants and contract income.) It is their job to represent the British public.

There is no need for any audacious conspiracy to try to link the BBC with the British establishment’s view of the world for their top personnel come from the establishment pool of contacts, friends and families recruited for their dependable attitudes or ability to adopt them to ‘get on’ within the organisation. Just in case any reprobate tried to squeeze in appointments to the BBC used to be vetted by MI5. Not now, of course. No, of course not. Mills tells us this vetting process was known as ‘formalities’ and the BBC pet name for MI5 was ‘The College’, in the spirit of George Smiley.

Why such tight vetting? What were they on the lookout for down at the BBC? Commies or lefties are the easy answers. To give them credit, extreme right-wingers were mostly excluded, too. In the parlance of the BBC those with ‘political reliability’ were the sort of chaps they were happy to recruit. It is just a pity the BBC’s intense vetting failed to uncover an inordinate number of sex fiends and paedophiles employed by the Corporation – all presumably of the ‘right sort.’

In the Alice in Wonderland world of the BBC, Lord Green – if they weren’t Lords when they got the job as Director General then most became one after – Lord Green was keen on upping MI5’s vetting of recruits to prevent the BBC’s reputation for impartiality from being compromised. And that, folks, is a line that Lewis Carroll should have written for the Mad Hatter.  

One of the shadowy figures who features in Mill’s exposure of the BBC was the Corporation’s special little helper Ronnie Stonham also known as Bongo. Stonham was a handy sort of chap with a background in post office communications, the military and the secret services that found him operating in all sorts of shadowy theatres of conflict: Cyprus, Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland. He worked out of Room 105 at the BBC where careers were enhanced or broken and he had the power to prevent programmes being transmitted according to how embarrassing they might become to the government. 

It is said any staffers not quite BBC/establishment enough had their files marked with a triangular green tag or Christmas tree to show they weren’t trustworthy sorts.

Typical of the BBC first it denied any such vetting took place then it reluctantly admitted it. Some things never change. Even when the truth was dragged kicking and screaming out of it  BBC management prevaricated and hid as much as it revealed. – claiming that only around 8 people had been positively vetted when in fact the number was close – well not that close – over 6000.  

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/military-obituaries/army-obituaries/11038585/Brigadier-Ronnie-Stonham-obituary.html

Back in 1969 a young film maker asked to make a film for the BBC about a sit-in at Hornsey Art College in London realised he was being watched by the police and soon his film was cancelled. Fast forward two years and he was again taken on to make a different film for the BBC and provided with a room to work from until thrown out by a member of BBC management. His crime? Travelling to Czechoslovakia as a student. He was far from alone. Read more examples about BBC housekeeping here:

http://www.cambridgeclarion.org/press_cuttings/mi5.bbc.page9_obs_18aug1985.html

Leftwing and communist were indivisible categories of the unclean to BBC management and not the sort encouraged to share their opinions with the public which gives the lie to BBC’s assertion of impartiality and fair representation of all opinions. Never has been and never will be. That is just not its function in the UK – it works for the British state to preserve it as it is, elitist and conservative; the BBC and the British state work hand-in-glove in pursuit of the ‘national interest’ which, of course, they define.

While a function of the BBC was to reinforce status quo in Britain its much vaunted World Service was established to influence political opinion abroad and disseminate British culture and ‘standards’ to a wider audience. This service nearly doubled post 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, according to Mills, who highlighted input from the BBC’s security correspondent, former army captain in the Royal Green Jackets, Frank Gardner, who, according to Mills, admits close contact with MI5 and MI6. Mills described the BBC World Service as ‘an instrument of “soft power”‘ and it is difficult to disagree when in 2015 the Conservative government announced in its National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review of all places investment of £85 million annually in the World Service in order to, in the words of the World Service –

“further enhance our position as the world’s leading soft power promoting our values and interests globally'”

No iffs, no doubts, BBC working for the British state. And, of course, the DG of the BBC, Tony Hall was grateful, acknowledging the World Service as,

“one of our best sources of global influence”

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out

… to be continued

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service
By Tom Mills
Verso, 272pp, £16.99 and £14.99
ISBN 9781784784829 and 4850 (e-book)

January 14, 2017

Good subjects, good men and good Christians – Dr Andrew Bell’s Madras system of education (and the blackguard Joseph Lancaster)

dr-bell-portrait

Andrew Bell was born in St Andrews in 1753 to a wig maker and his wife. He graduated from St Andrew’s University in mathematics and natural philosophy became a minister with the Church of England and is best known for pioneering a teaching method known as the Madras System.

Whereas in times previous educated Scotsmen took themselves off to the Continent to further their education their lesser educated counterparts were often found in foreign parts fighting wars in defence of Britain’s interests abroad. Andrew sailed to America, working as a tutor in Virginia before returning home to Scotland to avoid becoming embroiled in America’s war for independence from Great Britain in which many of his fellow Scots fought (on both sides.)

Early in 1787 Bell turned up in Madras in India where the East India Company was trying to establish a school to educate the many orphans and ‘distressed’ male children of European soldiers garrisoned there. The East India Company coughed up half the amount required to establish a school with the remainder coming from voluntary subscriptions.

bells-madras-school

East India Company school run by Dr Andrew Bell

Dr Andrew Bell was appointed its superintendent and being a nice sort of guy he refused to take any salary for the job which was a reasonable 1200 pagodas or £480. Without further ado he set about his task to instil into his young charges the virtues of diligence, industry, veracity, honesty and, hopefully, a little bit of knowledge.

Whether from necessity or because Bell did not get on with adults nearly so well as he did with children he established an ingenious method of teaching using the best pupils, taught by him, to disseminate what they learnt to their fellow scholars. In Scotland we know this method as pupil-teacher practice common in the 19th century which, presumably, was based on Bell’s scheme.

Children taught by Bell initially learned to write in sand, something he had seen done elsewhere in India, in a school in Malabar. All instruction was done slowly and methodically, ensuring each pupil mastered the first elements before being allowed to go onto the next. Reading was taught using single syllable words and only when they were mastered could the pupil advance to double syllables and beyond. Perhaps there are lessons for schools today in this approach.

Possibly out of expediency Bell encouraged the children to do things for themselves and so they learned self-sufficiency and simple skills ; they had to rule their own paper to help keep their writing straight and made their own pens – quills from feathers for dipping into ink. Each pupil kept a register of his own progress which helped with keeping a track of how well each was doing but also informed the teacher who could not have kept so precise a record with so many under his supervision.

A black book was kept by Bell in which offences were recorded and each week these would be read out and the children asked to judge what should happen to the offenders. The very process of establishing responsibility meant that the system worked as a preventative method of keeping control so that there were few cases ever requiring punishment.

madras-college-bells

Three bells on Madras College’s school motto

There is no doubt that when Bell took up this role in Madras he never approached it as simply a job with a decent salary attached but as a vocation through which he took children whose futures were precarious as orphans and provided them with a basic education which was an opportunity for him to create: good subjects, good men, and good Christians.

Dr Bell’s system of instruction came to be known as mutual instruction or the monitorial system because of the drip-down methods of teaching he employed.

He stayed at his Madras school for seven years but was forced to give up and return to Britain when his health began to suffer in India. He clearly loved the children in his care, referring to them as his own.

 ‘These children are, indeed, mine by a thousand ties!’

Years later forty-four of his former pupils signed a letter thanking him for the care he showed them as their school teacher.

madras-bell

Back home, Bell published a pamphlet called, An Experiment in Education, based on his experiences at the Male Asylum in Madras with the intention of promoting his method of teaching more generally – suggesting what came to be known as the Madras system could be adopted both by schools and parents undertaking instruction.

From Scotland Bell moved to England and there his ideas were picked up by a couple of schools at the end of the 18th century and from that point the Madras system had people talking.

One man who was listening to the talk was a fellow called Joseph Lancaster. In 1803 this Lancaster published a pamphlet called,

Improvements in Education, as it respects the Industrious Classes of the Community; containing a short Account of its Present State, Hints towards its Improvement, and a detail of some Practical Experiments conducive to that End.

A Quaker, Lancaster saw Bell’s methods as a way of educating the children of mechanics in England in reading, writing and arithmetic cheaply. He adapted Bell’s scheme, adding incentives to learn – prizes and badges of merit and through promoting some boys to become monitors.

Then he got above himself and went onto claim he had invented the whole system with the ‘blessing of Divine Providence’ no less! and referred to his as the ‘British or Royal Lancasterian System’. And he had the audacity to warn off others from pirating ‘his’ work – and as he had pirated Bell’s work in the first place he knew the risks.

His Lancasterian system he suggested could mean 1000 kids could be taught by one master alone and naturally schools took up his system and it became very popular.

As for Bell he continued teaching in a quiet way and, still thinking of the interests of others, he and his wife were instrumental in inoculating people in the area of Dorset in which they lived with the recently discovered smallpox vaccination. Despite Lancaster’s attempt to claim Bell’s system of education, Bell’s was recognised and adopted for the teaching of the poor through Church of England schools in England and around the British Empire.

madras-college-st-andrews

Madras College in St Andrews

Bell died wealthy and used his wealthy to establish schools in Scotland; Madras College in his native St Andrews and the High School in Cupar, initially called Madras Academy. Various other schools were named after him.

He died on 27 January 1832 aged 80 years and was buried in Westminster Abbey by which time his method of education was employed in 10,000 schools.

Bell’s innovatory teaching methods, founded in India, became important planks in the education of children during the 19th century until the Education Acts came early in the 1870s. In Scotland the Bell’s monitorial system was replaced by the Glasgow system but that’s another story.

December 27, 2016

Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool? Aye. An fa’s fool are you?

The Laird Of Udny’s Fool
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Of all the sayings about fools I’ve come across Jamie Fleeman’s is the most perceptive. Who was Jamie Fleeman? He was employed as a fool – a clown – by the Laird o’ Udny at Knockhall Castle near Newburgh, up the coast from Aberdeen.
When asked,

“Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool?”

“Aye,” Fleeman said, “an fa’s fool are you?”

Except Jamie Fleeman would have said “feel” spikkin Doric as he did – which gives rise to that everyday expression in these parts, g’wa ye feel.

Court jesters and fools have gone, I think, but clowns are still with us although I suspect they are far less popular as entertainers than they were once. Royal court or big hoose clowns were not usually chosen for their sharp wits, although surely some were, but mainly because of something odd in their appearance that made them the butt of jokes. Painters have recorded scenes from European court life that reveal a penchant for males and females of stunted growth who were kept for as long as they were amusing, not only for their looks but how well they danced and sang and sometimes for their witty or silly talk. Such was the clamour for short-legged court jesters in the middle ages unfortunate children who were selected for that part had their growth stunted so they could better fit the bill; in Russia it was de rigueur for court clowns to be chosen because of their unusual appearance, the uglier the better.

No very prosperous or powerful household in the middle ages (and much later), conscious of its status, was complete without a jester or fool to boost its army of servants pandering and catering for their every whim and incapacity or as one of Aberdeen’s local newspapers put it,

In those days every laird had his ‘feel,’

and the greater the ‘feel’ the more the laird was respected.

jane-the-fool-perhaps-on-far-left-background

Jane the Foole is perhaps the figure on the far left 


Usually fools were male but not exclusively. Two prominent female fools were Jane the Foole at the English Tudor court in the sixteenth century and in France Astaude du Puy hired to amuse Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, a century later.

As late as the nineteenth century Mongkut, King of Siam, employed Nai Teh to fool around, perform gymnastics and generally help him endure life’s long idle hours while his people wore out their fingers maintaining him in wealthy boredom.

Court fools could become confidants of their masters or mistresses because they lived cheek-by-jowl with them and so could get away with being open and critical in their opinions because of their special relationship. They, alone, among staff and hangers-on were not expected to exhibit lackey deference, general fawning and ass-licking that royals, aristocrats and other sub-species generally expect from them.

Fools, as I’ve said, were often sought out as children and trained for the position. Claus Narr was ‘appointed’ in this way. This little German boy was herding geese when he was spotted by a courtier and his father happily accepted 20 guilders for his child.

The prospect of living in a palace as an alternative to sucking on stones throughout their lives probably held a certain appeal for some fools with a thick skin. It was not for everyone, however. Paul Wüst had no qualms about turning down Duke Eberhard the Bearded of Württemberg –

My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself.

And, looking around, who’s to argue they haven’t done just that?

Back in Scotland King James VI* took on Archie Armstrong, a sheep stealer from Eskdale in the Borders as his court jester but he never made the mark in life that Jamie Fleeman did despite being attached to the royal Stewarts. 

Jamie Fleeman’s renown stems mainly from his one brilliant utterance but how many of us will be remembered for anything we say, far less anything so insightful?

220px-knockhall_castle_geograph

Knockhall Castle ruin

Jamie lived in the eighteenth century (that is the 1700s for those who are confused over centuries) and conformed to the idea of odd-looking fools for he reportedly had a big round head and sticking-up hair. He trebled up as the Laird o’ Udny’s cow and goose herd and as a goose herder he is remembered for another anecdote. One day walking home with the Laird’s special geese Jamie was anxious not to lose any and so he tied straw ropes around their necks to lead them back home. He walked on tugging on the ropes as he went and when he arrived back at the laird’s house he discovered he had unwittingly throttled the geese and had dragged back a herd of carcasses. Panicking over how to explain the loss Jamie stuffed feed into the birds’ mouths and when asked how the geese were he replied:

Safe! and gobble, gobble, gobblin as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth. Safe! I warran they’re safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked themsells

Another Fleeman anecdote tells how he went up to a minister with a horse shoe he found and asked the minister what it was. The minister replied –

“Why Jamie, any fool would know that it is a horse shoe”

Fleeman said –

“Ah, what it is to be wise – to ken it’s no a meer’s shoe.”

Famously when dying he said, poignantly –

“I’m of a gentle persuasion, dinna bury me like a beast”

or perhaps –

“I’m a Christian, dinna bury me like a beast”

Fleeman was said to have been immensely strong which proved handy when Knockhall Castle went on fire in 1734. Jamie’s barking dog alerted him but not the folk inside the castle so Jamie picked up and threw a large wooden chest through a window and none of them slept through that.

mary_hay_14th_countess_of_erroll_by_francis_cotes_1726-1770

Mary Hay, Countess of Erroll

Mary Hay was the Countess of Erroll, a Lord High Constable, Knight Marischal of Scotland, Senior Great Officer among the Royal Officers of Scotland and Chief of the King’s Household in Scotland – oh, and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She raised an army in support of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 with Slains Castle (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) a focus for the Jacobite cause. Hay used Fleeman to run messages for the Jacobites, including ones to and from Lord Pitsligo during the time he was in hiding at Auchiries from government troops under Butcher Cumberland who were ruthlessly hunting down Jacobites not slaughtered at Culloden. Jamie Fleeman was such a familiar sight in the neighbourhood and being the person he was did not raise suspicion he might be a courier. Hay lost her Slains estate following the failure of the ’45 when it was seized by the government in London and sold off.

Despite being a mere pauper gowk Jamie Fleeman did not just disappear as might be expected instead he left a remarkable impression on the world. He had a biographer, John Pratt, who wrote this of him in his The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeman:

Before the eighteenth century, about the middle of which Jamie Fleeman flourished, matters wore a very different aspect. Jamie was perhaps the ultimus Homanorum, the last of the race of Scottish family fools—a class of beings which the author of Waverley has rendered so familiar to every one by his picture of ” Daft Davie Gellatly.” Jamie differed from his brethren and ancestors in this, that whereas the great majority of them were ” fenyet fules,” he was, in most respects, naturally what he appeared to be, and by chance fell into the very situation in which he was capable of acting a conspicuous part.

Pratt believed a fool’s character was partly real and partly feigned.

Apart from Walter Scott’s Waverley character of Davie Gellatley, Fleeman got a mention in Bram Stoker’s, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories:

‘Na! Na!’ came the answer, ’there is nae sic another fule in these parts. Nor has there been since the time o’ Jamie Fleeman–him that was fule to the Laird o’ Udny. Why, mon! sic a heathenish dress as ye have on till ye has nae been seen in these pairts within the memory o’ mon. An’ I’m thinkin’ that sic a dress never was for sittin’ on the cauld rock, as ye done beyont. Mon! but do ye no fear the rheumatism or the lumbagy wi’ floppin’ doon on to the cauld stanes wi’ yer bare flesh? I was thinking that it was daft ye waur when I see ye the mornin’ doon be the port, but it’s fule or eediot ye maun be for the like o’ thot!’

(Bram Stoker, Crooken Sands)

Caught on the road in the cold and torrential rain one day in 1778 Jamie Fleeman became feverish and in his desperation to find shelter he broke into a barn at Little Ardiffery at Cruden injuring himself in the process. He was patched up and set-off the eight miles to his home at Longside. Normally he would have covered this distance in no time but because of his injury and the sickness that had struck him he took a whole day to get back home. Two days later the Laird o’ Udny’s feel was deid.

Born in 1713 at a croft at Longside near Peterhead Jamie died not so far away at Kinmundy, in 1778. There hasn’t been a published volume of his wit and wisdom but from accounts he did have a way with words and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions. As a young man his quick wit was noticed by many but it didn’t earn him riches. He was listed as a pauper in the Statistical Account for Longside.

Nearly a century later, in 1861 a tombstone was erected to Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s fool when funds were raised in the northeast of Scotland by those who thought it wrong Jamie was buried in an unmarked grave – normal for very poor people. The stone was sculpted by George Donaldson of Aberdeen and inscribed –

Erected in 1861, to indicated the grave of Jamie Fleeman,
in answer to his prayer, “Dinna bury me like a beast.”

220px-jamie_fleemans_grave_longside_-_geograph-org-uk_-_261867Reporters at Aberdeen Journal were sniffy about erecting a memorial to a simple pauper and suggested to readers the money raised should have gone to repair the tablet over the grave of the Rev. Mr Skinner, author of Tulloch-gorum.

The decline of the European court clown was slow in coming given they were still around in the nineteenth century but by then they were uncommon. Shemus Anderson was one of the last of them. He worked for the Bowes-Lyons some of you might know as the Queen Mother’s family – and the last to own a full-time jester in Scotland.

hms-serapis-captured-during-the-american-revolutionary-war-she-was-sold-to-the-french-and-became-a-pirate-shipp-later-lost-off-madagascar-in-1781

Jamie Fleeman’s brother is thought to have died on HMS Serapis. This ship fought against the rebels in the American Revolutionary War before being used as a pirate ship by the French. I don’t know when Jamie’s brother was killed – it may have been when the ship exchanged fire with an American ship under command of John Paul Jones. The Serapis was subsequently taken by the Americans then transferred to France and eventually lost following an accidental fire off Madagascar that involved a huge explosion.

Incidentally Fleming is the Anglicised equivalent is Fleeman.

The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeming: the Laird of Udny’s fool. by John Burnett Pratt was published by Lewis and James Smith in Aberdeen in 1859

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/640914.html

*James VI or James I, as colonists know him.

December 23, 2016

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

December 19, 2016

From Shorter Hours to Zero Hours

Guest blog by Textor

…the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

In 1847 counter assistants (all male) employed in Aberdeen’s drapery and grocery shops got bees in their bonnets over working hours or rather they recognised that the extremely long hours they worked were, as they said, pernicious and hurtful; detrimental to their health and well-being.

pratt-keith

Pratt & Keith, Aberdeen

To their fellow Aberdonians toiling in unhealthy and dangerous textile mills where work was deeply repetitive the shop assistants’ complaints might have seemed a bit of a joke: serving behind a counter was paradise to the “white hell” experience of factory hands. But workers selling their labour must take what they get and regardless of the relative ease of shop work assistants were, nonetheless, exploited according to the demands of the market place and the whims of employers.

In this respect the life of mid-19th century shop assistants differed little from their 21st century counterparts whether among the “fulfilled” staff in one of Amazon’s warehouses or employed on zero hours contracts in high street chains. Still there are differences and they are significant and they tell us something of the past and present trajectories of capitalism.

Who were these Victorian protesters and what was the problem? The Early Shop-shutting or Shorter Hours movement as it was known was in fact a loosely formed nation-wide organisation. The Aberdeen branch appeared in January 1847; a time of emerging economic depression, militant Chartism and glimmerings of revolutionary activity on the Continent of Europe. But it’s clear that as much as the assistants wished to shorten the working day their newly formed Association was not seen as a threat to foundations of capital. These Victorian shop men were workers just like factory hands to the extent that their livelihood came from wage labour but unlike industrial workers they were not aggregated in hundreds rather they toiled in a fragmented sector of the economy, dealing directly with customers and frequently in daily contact with employers. Beyond this shop work for time-served grocery and drapery assistants was seen as socially superior to dirty labouring trades. And important as retail was it did not have the economic clout of factories and workshops.

Consumerism, which is a fundamental part of contemporary capitalism, was largely confined to middle and upper classes.

It is not surprising that shop assistants had little problem attracting goodwill from Aberdeen’s middle class including its “ladies”. Provost Thomas Blaikie who was hostile to Chartism was quite taken by the Association, seeing its demand for shorter hours in the context of the world’s moral and intellectual improvement. Reduced hours presented no challenge to the rights of business, the alteration of working hours could be accommodated through customers becoming more thoughtful and finishing their purchases by the closing time of 7pm. In practice this meant middle class women who shopped personally or their servants following their instructions to complete shopping by seven. Coming from an iron founding business, however, Blaikie recognised the need for men and women factory hands working their long hours to be able to shop and this could be achieved through extended shop opening hours, particularly on pay-days such as Thursdays or Saturdays.

james-gordon-silk-mercer-1840s-castle-street

James Gordon, Silk Mercers, Aberdeen 1840

Professor of Anatomy, Jardine Lizars, spoke up for shop assistants and labour in general – nothing was more desirable and necessary than shorter hours for shopkeepers, mechanic, and persons employed in the mills. He described how some assistants were working as many as 16 hours a day and in extreme cases might only be permitted a 15 minute break for dinner. According to the professor this placed too much stress on mental and physical capacities of workers on top of their exposure to too little daylight resulting in their greater susceptibility to illness and disease.

James Hadden, speaking for the textile interest, was less convinced. He accepted that shorter hours could improve the lives of shop assistants; what Amazon might call (but not give), affording greater fulfilment. Hadden understood this was workable in the retail trade which he believed could make the same profit in 11 hours as it did in 12, but manufacturers had no such leeway as they competed in national and international markets precluding any reduction of factory hours. For him mill hands working 69 hours a week was both normal and acceptable. The proposal to reduce the working week for shop assistants he hoped would not be imposed, no improper means would be used to force any one to do that which he did not conceive to be proper – in other words moral exhortation was unobjectionable but there should be no militant action such as striking.

The assistants rhetorically asked customers:

Have you given thought as to the life of the young man who served you?
Has it ever occurred to you that, tied to the back of the counter from morning to night, his life must be one of tiresome monotony, and one for which you would not willingly exchange?

But neither Hadden nor shop assistants expected shortened hours be extended to factory labour. Their concern stopped at the shop counter. Literally what the assistants demanded was not the formal working day be cut rather that they should only be expected to labour contracted hours. By 1848 shop assistants had successfully rallied support of customers and employers and in the higher ends of the trade shops were closing by 7pm. The Reverend David Simpson of the Free Church praised the campaign for being respectful and conciliatory; and attributed its success to a lack of harshness towards their employers, with no accusations that their masters were unreasonable, avaricious and tyrannical.

The “struggle” was largely couched in terms of moral and intellectual possibilities and responsibilities. Being in Scotland and coming shortly after the 1843 split in the Established Church discussion over altering working hours took on religious connotations. David Gray, Professor of Natural Philosophy, linked the call to curtail shop opening hours to the word of God and the notion that it was not sufficient to recognise the capacity of man for improvement but it was a duty to provide him with opportunities for moral progress and allow him to get home early in the evening to enjoy leisure for reading and so on and keep him out of drinking dens.

It is important to note that whilst there was considerable success in the move towards reducing hours across the city not every employer complied with the assistants’ request. No doubt industrialist James Hadden with his knowledge of competition saw that coming; faced with the chance of a faster buck some employers insisted in staying open beyond the accepted hours eliciting the following response from shop assistants:

…we despair of success, even for the most limited period, so long as a class exist where feelings no appeal of a philanthropic character ever warmed, and who thoughtless of the consequences of the system they are perpetrating, never dream that the youth who serve them ever feel fatigue, or that they have minds capable of expansion, by the interchange of ideas round the domestic hearth.

In other words despite strong moral support the logic of the market place continually reasserted itself tending to leave employees faced with the stresses and strains born out of competition.

Into the debate stepped another professor, John Stuart Blackie, armed with a strong humanist philosophy. His open and welcoming Christianity contributed to a critique which never defied the logic of competition but went a considerable distance to expose the problems facing Victorian and post Victorian labour.

He began from the observation that protracted hours in the Retail Trades are highly injurious to the bodily health, and form a barrier to the social, intellectual, and spiritual improvement of those engaged therein. Additionally he understood the unrelieved working day of the assistant was liable to make him fusionless (weak). What Blackie called the mechanical life of retail was so detrimental that people would become little better than machines and he concluded that it was a duty of Christians and what he called thoughtless madams to support shop assistants.

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Schoolhill, Aberdeen

What Marx and Engels were just then beginning to characterise as the problem of capitalism and commodity production Professor Blackie was groping towards when he cited the question of the shop as, one of the great evils of these times . By this he appeared to be saying men and woman were in the thrall to commodity production with buying and selling taking precedence over moral and intellectual values. Assuredly his critique owes something to the biblical story of driving money-changers from the temple but almost certainly it was motivated by the burgeoning and at times devastating impact of commercialism and industrialisation. Lust was a lesser evil. People, he said, had their moral sense [more] undermined by the shop, than by what is termed the flesh. Men had cast aside the primacy of morals and had reduced everything to what Thomas Carlyle called the cash nexus. The living sentient human was no longer central, what mattered was place and function in the accounting system: a man was the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

But for all that, and for all the evils of capitalism since the 1840s the ability of labour to struggle for its own immediate interests and with the system able to accommodate some of its demands lead to capitalist power improving material well-being across most social classes. This was a bumpy historical ride in which many sectors of labour benefited. Hours of work were restricted by local regulations and state law: unions became negotiators of wages; health and safety standards were enforced etc. This improved working environments as well as saving an otherwise rapacious system from fracturing. Within this model the struggle of the shop assistants was a moment in a rising curve which nonetheless continued to leave many in its wake particularly if they existed outside the centres of capital.

The fate of those in the retail trades, and beyond, today show how things have changed. The halcyon days for labour was probably through the 1950s to the ’70s when post-war growth was rapid, profitability of capital re-emerged and it seemed the benefits of the system were unlimited for the metropolitan countries. Since then growth has faltered, stagnated and recently fallen back calling into question the very historical viability of the system. Apart from the wars, the corruption and financial criminality of the past four decades capital has taken on organised labour and more often than not defeated it to such an extent that the protections which took years of struggle to introduce have been shoved aside. The sense of progressive improvement which characterised much of 19th century capitalism has been lost. Capitalism now promises nothing other than might be accrued through deepening debt and ever harder working conditions.

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A.S. Cook, Aberdeen

If Aberdeen Victorian drapery assistants thought they were having a hard time they would surely have thanked their lucky stars they were not 21st century automatons in gigantic warehouses regulated by the speed of computers, tracked by GPS coordinates and observed, no doubt, by “fulfilled” managers. Today’s employee: often casual labour, searched like prisoners and with no rights beyond that of obeying the machine. This is probably the most extreme end of shop work exploitation where discussions over moral or intellectual improvement are reduced to slogans and propaganda to keep control of labour and exploit the gullibility of the consumer. At the sharp end of the shop counter it is now common to find virtually zero hour contracts where labour has to be ready to accommodate the “flexible” needs of the employer with no wage for standing-by time. It is a bit like the emergency services being on call without either the cash or the social caché. All these assistants have is poverty wages and few “prospects.”

Who can say what the future for capitalist development is? It has all the signs of a system unable to solve a multitude of problems. First it breaks the power of organised labour, tries inflation, privatisation, colossal private and public indebtedness, austerity, quantitative easing, negative interest rates, increased rates of exploitation and still it remains in crisis. Professor Blackie could hardly have imagined the depths to which the shop machine could sink as it struggles to survive.

December 17, 2016

Murder and Mayhem at Justice Port

John Simpson, a black drummer, was murdered in Aberdeen on the night of Thursday 3 September 1807. Was it a racist crime? Well, there were surely racist elements involved. After all, slavery with all its connotations was rife then so it would be surprising if something as simple as that did not influence attitudes.

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Two years earlier, in 1805, a bill to abolition slavery went through the House of Commons but the House of Lords stopped it. Needless to say lots of countries abolished slavery years before Britain, ever cognisant of the wishes of propertied and wealthy bigots, so it was only in 1834 that most but not all British slavery was ended.

What happened that night in Aberdeen might have had no direct links to racism. It is very difficult to say but there was a hint of it.

The local paper described the incident as “a dreadful affray” that occurred at a brothel kept by Margaret Creek near the Justice Port involving John Simpson (sic) a drummer with the 29th regiment and other soldiers.

I put ‘sic’ (as it is written) after the name of the murdered drummer because that is how it is recorded in the Aberdeen press but this may be an error for Simpson is a familiar local name whereas it is as Sampson he is recorded in other documents – but then again this might be an error.

Simpson or Sampson was born in Barbados in 1782 and enlisted as a 16 years old. When he died in Aberdeen the 25 year old was one of several from his regiment touring Britain to recruit men into the military in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when there was a desperate need for men to fight overseas.

Black troops were not uncommon in the British army. From the end of the 18th century large numbers of African slaves and the sons of slaves were bought up to serve in British regiments. The going price for a male slave in 1795 was around £80. Simpson joined the army in 1798 when the British army were in the Caribbean – and looking to recruit, as always. Although these black recruits were mainly treated like their white counterparts they were still subject to slave laws until 1807. Even then black recruits signed up to the army were there for life while whites could leave after 7 years. Not all joined so much as were abducted e.g. several young boys at Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in late 1700s – permission to hold onto them was given – by the King of Great Britain.

Some black boys were taken on specifically to be drummers and later bugle boys. The 29th Regiment of Foot to which Simpson was attached had several black drummers in its ranks. Black soldiers in the British army were mainly foot soldiers either incorporated into mixed regiments or segregated ones such as African Corps and 1st and 2nd Black Garrison Companies.

The same month that Simpson was killed another black drummer was verbally attacked in a London street, “Well Blackie, what news from the devil?” someone shouted at him. The drummer retaliated by knocking down his abuser with the words, “He sent you that. How do you like it?”

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George IV debauched, fat, profligate, racist

Racism went right through society. It was reported in 1825 that when the leader of the Royal Band planned to take on a black man to beat the kettle-drum he was thwarted by the king who had “an unconquerable antipathy to blacks being near his person.” The band leader, a man called Cramer, was a little put-out and gave the role to a European with a dark skin. When the king first saw him in the music room he was startled and said to Cramer, “I see, Sir, you wish to accustom me to a black drummer by degrees.” The king in question was George IV, best known for being debauched, fat and profligate to which we should add – and racist.

Drummers, by virtue of their ability to beat a drum presumably, were also charged with carrying out corporal punishment – whipping colleagues facing punishment and were not always liked for that reason alone. In the case of Simpson there were other circumstances which might have influenced his attackers which I will come to later. What is clear is that the extent of violence perpetrated against him suggests strong antagonism towards the man by others stationed at the barracks in Aberdeen.

Put simply Simpson was stoned and butchered; his head and face were slashed and his skull fractured in two places. The wound that killed him was a long blade, possibly a bayonet, run through his back with such force it pierced his heart.

Three members of the Argyleshire Regiment of Militia stationed at Aberdeen barracks – James Graham, Donald McCallum and Daniel McPherson were subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Simpson, described in the charge sheet as “a negro and drummer in the 29th Regiment of Foot” and they appeared at the High Court the following January. All pleaded not guilty.

It was not only Simpson’s appearance that made him a weel kent face in pale-skinned Aberdeen early in the 19th century. He was a big man, powerfully-built, and described in the Aberdeen Journal as ” a very formidable character” whatever that was meant to mean. He had a reputation as a boxer who exercised his prowess with a punch that fellow soldiers were keen to test themselves against; Simpson invariably won these contests. During one such challenge he ran at his opponent and pushed his head between the man’s legs then stood up with the unfortunate challenger hoisted onto Simpson’s shoulders. Then he chucked the man down on the ground fracturing his skull and killing him as a result. This episode made Simpson enemies.

Why he reacted so violently is not explained in the local press but it was noted he bore them a grudge. Why would that be? Racist taunts could be the answer. He probably discovered there is no reasoning with racists and responded the way that came easiest to him, through the power of his punches.

On the night of the 3rd of September around ten soldiers were allowed out of their barracks in the early hours and they headed straight for a brothel owned by Margaret Creek. Some of these soldiers took their weapons with them which suggests premeditation although that was denied in court. Those charged claimed only to have gone to the house to buy drink – albeit the middle of the night- but then as soon as they got to the house a window was smashed and bedding slashed in the search for Simpson. The rampaging soldiers shouted for Simpson to appear, “put out the black ——–.” This taunt succeeded and Simpson emerged to face his assailants but was immediately knocked over by a stone thrown at his head. As he lay unconscious he was dragged from the house and badly beaten and slashed and his skull fractured in two places.

At the trial the defence lawyers for the three charged with murder proceeded to tarnish the character and honesty of the two witnesses – brothel-keeper, Margaret Creek and a man called Peter Skinner.

A Counsel for the defence told how Skinner had three years earlier pleaded guilty to robbing a corpse. Skinner had come upon the body of flax dresser Francis Mollison at the beach and stole the deceased’s silver shoe buckles. He was subsequently placed in the pillory but made the best of it by pulling funny faces to the amusement of the public. After this he was transferred to prison before being banished for seven years but when he returned to the city before the end of that term he was given a public whipping. In his defence it was revealed that Skinner had been tried without a jury and was summarily sentenced by magistrates and that sentence was considered harsh.

As for Margaret Creek her word was questioned because of her occupation as keeper of ” a disorderly house” but she was allowed to give her account of events.

We know Simpson had enemies at the barracks, men who used racist language, but we do not know the attitude of members of the jury towards him or how they regarded the two witnesses. We do know the jurors rejected the not guilty pleas of the men charged because they did not return a not guilty verdict instead the jury found the case not proven. As a result the three accused were released.

A racist murder? Perhaps, but whatever drummer John Simpson got no justice in Aberdeen.

Refs:The Black Kalendar of Aberdeen

http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/wr.php?main=inc/em_drummershttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/work_community/fighting.htm

 https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/lenathehyena.wordpress.com

November 27, 2016

Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami

Guest post by Textor

Fidel is dead.
The Leader has gone. The tyrant has perished.
Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami.
And so the story goes on.

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To listen to the commentators and read the headlines it all comes across so easily. At best the consensus allows that Cuban health care was good, the spread of literacy and education in Fidel’s fifty years of power was good; but all done at a terrible cost. Physical violence by the secret police, suppression of dissent, lack of a free state, a cult of leadership and countless executions were all blights of such a magnitude that the gains pale into virtual insignificance. The revolt of the late 1950s might well have started from a high idealistic point, they say, the removal of Batista was needed but not at any cost. If decent moral men had only got together things could have been so different. This takes us to the nub of the problem, a liberal dilemma which centres on the sense that if only idealists and revolutionaries could be a bit more like “us” and allow a broad spectrum of opinion, a “free press”, political opposition etc. If only they would let people get on with their daily lives. Toleration they say is all that is required.

What the liberal spirit fails to answer is the question what is a state to do if in seeking to change fundamental political relations with both internal and external powers it comes up against deep-seated opposition which uses military and economic strength to stop change. Will openness to liberal values advance a cause? Will, as would have been the case in Cuba, having a “balanced” debate with greater financial powers of Batista and his backers be helpful? Or should the new proto-state not only arm itself against enemies but use extreme force to root out all who would destroy it? The same problem faced the French Revolution when reaction of the 1790s threatened to roll back gains. Was the “Terror” wrong, would it have been better if a re-born Ancien Regime had gained the upper hand, which we might speculate would have been equally bloody? And when the Bolsheviks instituted bloody force during the Civil War would it have been better for them to relinquish power or compromise with the Whites and the intervening powers, find a “middle way” with high moral values and respect for the individual? In situations of radical political change, where fundamental property and economic structures are being re-made is there really a half-way house, where we can all agree and no one is harmed or is this a lie which first obscures, then denies and finally reintroduces the injustices and inequalities of the regime under attack?

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What liberal opinion in the west fails to acknowledge is the extent to which its freedoms and material well-being have been and are dependent upon a bloody and brutal swathe cut across history. Yes there have been huge gains in material well-being in western societies but at what cost? Ignoring the impending global devastation of Climate Change the history of the modern material world (the surpluses necessary for capital accumulation) was generated via slavery, devastated urban and rural populations, famines, genocides and wars. But that, they say, was then, this is now. We know better. However, the comforts, now rapidly shrinking for millions, were born of this brutality and history marches on. High liberal values of the west have not stopped wars. Capital in its various forms ceaselessly searches the world for opportunity; labour is there to be exploited brutally or otherwise depending upon circumstances. Nation states arm themselves to the teeth to defend their interests. These, as well as the liberal values of the free press, right of political dissent are components which make up the worlds we inhabit.

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 Fairness will not carry the day. Can we expect economic power to be relinquished through a gentle Socratic dialogue? Was there no brutality marching on in 18th century France? Was the opposition of Louis XVI and his class simply based on a misunderstanding? And the Tsar if only he had sat round the table with moderate men in a convivial atmosphere then the Soviet regime, and even Hitler some say, would not have happened. Then Fidel, surely Batista with the backing of the USA could have shared a cigar, had a decent coffee and worked out a deal to make everybody happy.

What if?
What if history had not happened.
What if we could start before the Fall and have our Maker use a different Road Map.

November 14, 2016

Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)

 

Were the people willing to go?

Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

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Isle of Eigg

A recent discovery of an anchor believed to have belonged to a floating kirk that sailed around Ardnamurchan from the time of the Disruption  coincided with me reading about a floating manse from the same era.

When the Church of Scotland split in 1843 its breakaway congregations set themselves up as the Free Kirk.  When they tried to build their own churches they were often denied permission by lairds still attached to the Church of Scotland, men who governed the lives of those who lived on their land, and so worship was frequently carried out in the open air in all weathers in places they could not be chased off by landlords. However, Free Kirkers at Loch Sunart found money to have a ship built to sail the Western Isles so providing a watery kirk for the folk in the islands out of reach of controlling lairds. The anchor found is thought to have come from it.

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Towing the iron church into Loch Sunart

I don’t know how many such vessels were used in this way but loathe to let a coincidence pass by I was pressed to retell a little of what struck my ancestor, Hugh Miller, when he voyaged around the Inner Hebrides on a floating manse in 1858 – a journey recorded in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey.

Miller was a journalist, a newspaper editor, an evangelical Christian, a folklorist and an archaeologist. From Cromarty in the Black Isle he travelled around the Sound of Mull – to Rum and Eigg looking for fossils, the bloodstones of Rum included, and discovered more than a pile of old stones.

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Hugh Miller

The evangelical Christian was immensely moved by seeing the impact of the Clearances on these isles. He was, as a Highlander, familiar with the Clearances and, indeed, his own family had been cleared from their glens so he was sensitive to the evidence revealed by the land from some eighteen years earlier when nearly 400 men, women and children, virtually the entire population of Rum, were dragged out of their homes and shipped off to a foreign country leaving behind all they knew and loved.

Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs of Bosnian Croats and Muslims rightly aroused outrage at the end of the 20th century when people were thrown off their homeland because they were despised for having a different religion and culture from their oppressors. In Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries people were thrown out of their communities, off the land they worked, to make room for sheep and later deer in acts of economic cleansing that involved a wholesale disregard for them as human beings. Both these despicable acts involved the imposition of cruelty by one group upon another and enforced deportation.

As he stepped ashore on Rum (pron. room from the Gaelic now anglicised to sound like the spirit) from the floating manse, the Betsey, Miller noticed patches of green on the island’s hillsides – places once home to people for generations who had been summarily cleared out as if that was of no significance – “cleared off to the backwoods of America” as Miller phrased it. Several homes were razed to the ground in 1826  so the men, women and children dragged from them would not be able to live there anymore while others were left to fall down over time. Miller was struck,too, by the little patches of corn still growing where once farming had followed the seasons and provided food for islanders. He stared at abandoned cottages; homes that once rang out to the sounds of christenings, weddings and New Year celebrations – and the land about them where the peoples’ loved ones were buried.

“…it seems a bad policy,” Miller remarked, despite the chilling argument from economists at the time “that there are more than people enough in Scotland still.”

On population size being a determinant for clearances Miller commented –

“There are, I believe, more than enough in our workhouses, – more than enough on our pauper-rolls, – more than enough huddled up, disreputable , useless, and unhappy, in the miasmatic alleys and typhoid courts of our large towns, but I have yet to learn how arguments for local depopulation are to be drawn from facts such as these.”

Miller mentioned a solitary shepherd’s house standing at one end of the island where the shepherd and his wife lived-

“the sole representatives in the valley of a numerous population, long since expatriated to make way for a few flocks of sheep, but whose ranges of little fields may still be seen green”.

As the party that disembarked from The Betsey searched the hills for Rum’s renowned bloodstones they were spotted by island’s shepherd and soon he and his wife had clambered up, she carrying a “a vast bowl of milk, and he a basket of bread and cheese” out of kindness and hospitality.

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Isle of Rum

It struck Miller that the more remote places were the greater the hospitality – that is certainly true of friendliness among people in Scotland’s small villages where few would walk by another without a nod, smile or a hello.

Miller put it more eloquently –

“[that]…hospitality dwindles and disappears, like fruits in the thick of a wood; but where man is planted sparsely, it blossoms, and matures, like apples on a standard or espalier. It flourishes where the inn and the lodging-house cannot exist, and dies out where they thrive and multiply.”

The 400 souls of Rum were crammed on board ships, Highland Lad and, oh the irony, the Dove of Harmony  to Nova Scotia in Canada to begin their lives from scratch. They left behind their island, one sheep farmer and 8,000 sheep.

“All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep-farmer, and a few shepherds, his servants.”

Those who survived the shocking conditions and overcrowding on-board during often rough passages across the Atlantic had to find whatever way they could to house, feed and clothe themselves and families in unfamiliar territory while back in their homeland the sheep experiment to make money for the laird failed when the price of mutton plummeted. Rum was sold off – another piece of property, like the people who once lived there. At his time of writing Miller believed the new owner was an Englishman looking for an opportunity to make money by turning the island into a deer forest – a sporting estate to amuse wealthy gunmen from the mainland.

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Rum had been populated by human beings since the 8th millennium BC. It is surely understandable that succeeding generations of the island’s inhabitants regarded the island as theirs but others held a different perspective so the folk of Rum lost out to speculators investing in “wool and mutton” and then deer. Islanders were pawns in a bigger game that turned a once thriving island into a desert. Rum would be sold several times over in the search for  profit.

The island’s streams that once provided food for its people were found by Miller to be full of fish with no-one to take them. Rum’s former fishers not possessing fishing nets used to bunch heath roots together which they arranged in mounds across burns, securing them in place with boulders then one or two involved would walk downstream beating the water  and driving trout towards the dam where they would get caught up in the heather roots. The bigger fish were scooped out for food while the immature ones were returned to the burns.

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Isle of Eigg

The Betsey called in at the island of Eigg whose people were also evicted and shipped abroad and here Miller and his associates came upon the site of notorious mass murder that took place from an earlier time – remnants of civilisation: straw beds, human bones, household objects, the handle of a child’s wooden porringer (a bowl with a handle) with a hole through it to hang it to a wall, strands of grey hair.

One winter, possibly during the 16th century, members of the clan Macleod from Skye sailed to Eigg and having offended the native people, the Macdonalds,  the raiders were strapped to boats and pushed out into the sea. Following their rescue they plotted vengeance on the people of Eigg and returned to the island, well-armed, and so terrified the people they ran away and hid in a large narrow cave. The Macleods searched the island but not finding anyone they contented themselves with ransacking the islanders’ houses and were about to leave with their booty when one of them spotted a figure on the beach. They renewed their hunt and as this was in the winter-time a light fall of snow exposed the lookout’s footprints. The footsteps led to the mouth of the cave. Because the cave’s entrance was very narrow the Skye men were unable to enter it safely so they gathered heather and ferns and packed them into and around the entrance and set fire to them so that in time those hiding – the entire population of Eigg – elderly to babies were smothered to death by the smoke.

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Narrow-entranced cave where the population of Eigg took shelter and died

Sir Walter Scott raised money to provide Christian burials for these sad remains when he found out about the massacre.

Miller did discover samples of the bloodstones he was after on Rum – the hard stone once used to shape into tools and weapons by the island’s early settlers. The populations of Rum and Eigg survived centuries of hardship, Viking invasion, occupation by Scots but coarse, selfish, inhuman lairds finally destroyed civilisation on the islands.

Evidence to a government select committee on enforced emigration in 1827 recorded this question:

Were the people willing to go?
Answer:
Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

A witness to the deportation of the people of Rum recalled hearing plaintive echoing cries from aboard Atlantic-bound ships as their human cargo watched their homeland disappear from view forever.

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Preaching to a breakaway Free Kirk congregation at the seaside

Rum was sold to Nature Conservancy in 1957 as a nature reserve, now under the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.

November 11, 2016

Foo Far Doon?

by Dunter

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Lying at the hole’s lip the stonecutter marvelled at the works of men: he had after all spent his working life with granite and knew well what hard graft could achieve.

  Aye, it must hae teen a damned lot o explosives and muscle ti howk this ane oot.

  Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.

  There’s jist something a bit different fae aa the places faar I’ve tyauved. There’s the rauchle aa roon, nae doot, bit the soonds, surely nae fit yi’d expeck? That’s nae steam craan wheezing as it heists steen, nae dreels and haimmers, and far’s the scraich o the blondin rope lowering the skip tae the fleer? I hear men richt aneuch, and aye it myndes me o yoking time wi a puckle chiels nae sae croose in the craa at haen ti ging back t’it, and ithers, resigned ti gettin on wi the jobbie in han; still an on it’s an unca sicht..

  His thoughts wandered off, seeking a firm foundation; bedrock of where and why. Back, back he went to his first day at work in the granite yard.

  Up and oot afore sax o’clock, I wannered doon the Gallowgate, and timorous as a moosie wis into Chairlie MacDonald’s Froghall Works (a queer like name it seemed ti me). Timid but prood, prood that I’d been gien a chance ti be a mason. MacDonald’s wis nae jist ony yaird Na, the wirks wis braw, lang boasting fine conditions even gaan as far as biggin sheds wi fower waas ti keep weet and snell wins oot. But that day wis fine and me a bauch-hertit loon faa kent nae muckle mair than fit a haimmer looked like.

  The foreman took me roon the wirks faar I expeck ti see mannies stannin, cutting and carving. I wis dumfoonert, hid I wannered into a dairk deevilish mull an nae a place of craft and skeel? On ae side o the shed a saa wis swingin back-an-fore, pechin at every lurch wi clarty watter pouring aneth the beast’s teeth. Jist ayont wis a thing like an airon brander fleein roon, wi sic a souch and mair clart (gie’n me a blink the foreman said it sang like Jenny Lind). Nae seener had I teen this in than my lugs caught the soond o a machine makkin a stoor, aneuch ti smoor a body: a dunter, a bauld thing that clouted granite sae hard that the steen surrendered.

  For the life o me I couldnae oonerstaan, faar were the steencutters? Telling me nae ti fash the gaffer said saas, polishers and dunters were needed as much as wis the man wi the haimmer and puncheon. But I wisnae there ti become a mere machineman I wis ti be a mason. And there, in the next shed, were the steencutters, ilka man at his banker, wirkin on crosses and heidsteens . Some hid han haimmers ithers were cutting wi pneumatic chisels; the din wis constant and dist aawye. This wis fit I wanted: ti maister steel on steen. But siccan skeels were nae easily won.

  An so I thoaled the years o it wi split thooms, raxed back, stoor in the een, aye and wirse in ma thrapple. There were times fin I thocht ti caa it a day and mony anither apprentice wis o the same myn. But they were peelie-wally craturs faa up-tail and were aff ti look for greener girse. Me, I’d hae neen o this. If it wis girse I wis aifter then I’d hae feed ti een o the fairmers that gaithered by Hadden Street. I hungered ti ken aathin aboot cutting granite and hid the gweed fortune ti be pit wi a cutter faa’d bin on the tools ower fifty years. An auld man, though he micht hae lost some o his speed he’d lost neen o his skeel. He could cut and carve by han in a wye that wid mak an airtist heave his mell ti the fleer. This wis the man faa telt me hoo ti ging wi the steen: “granite can only be gaared sae far and nae mair. Hans and een is the wye” he said, “feel and see the grist in the glintin granite. There’s a reed and a hem, find this and the wye ti cut is clair”. And damn if he wisnae richt.

  Above the hole, amidst the confusion, the stonecutter’s reverie continued taking him further back to his childhood when his grandfather pulled ghosts from memory.

  The images came, flickered in ma heid, as if back in the Alhambra packed into the het guff o the picter hoose. There’s granfaither, a douce lang-heidit man, wabster by trade, faa’d been brocht up in the Denburn. I’d sit wi him for oors as he telt me o the lang, slow deeth o han weaving and hoo the eenjustice o it aa guidit him into Chartism. He’d seen nae jist his skeel as a wabster connached bit wirse, hail faimlies beggin for wirk ti cam their wye. Nae muckle mair than a loon granfaither wis doon at the Links, miscaain the Provost and his cronies and aa the sichts and soonds o priveelidge. Oh he kent fine that the bonnie Chartists didnae win through but so fit? aa’s important wis that fowk widnae bou doon ti the laithsome few faa’d want coorse wirkers keep their moos shut. In his wye granfaither wis nae doot dooncast but being a man faad seen mony a warsle he wis gey stoical and kent that looms and wabsters and aa that wis the Denburn were awa. “Aye”, he telt me, “there’s been mony cheenges but this only means wirkers hae ti find new wyes o deein things. But ae thing disnae cheenge, the need for fowk ti stick the gither. Britherheed is aathin”.

  There’s me, jist a laddikie, sittin wi granfaither, like some drouthie nyagg aye gaan back ti the troch for anither suppie. Mither lauched telling me that I’d drink the Don dry an then sook the banks for mair. But granfaither hid me. Skeels and smeddum wis his wye and dang if it widnae be myne. Aiblins the auld man saw his youngsel in the loon wi mizzlet shins sittin at the reenge hingin on his every wird; and the tales kept comin, tales o muckle gaitherins wi aabody kittelt-up by the braw speechifying. But he took me back ayont his days ti lang, langsyne fin his faither hid been wi Aiberdeen fowk, fechtin agin thieving dealers faad beamfill their girnals, huddin meal back, aa the better ti mak extra siller. Great granfaither an aa the rest, weel breid wis there richt as they saa it. They micht be poor bit they wernae feart so it wis aff ti the hairbour faar they caad doon the doors o the thieves and tyeuk fit wis theirs even fan the militia wis on the streets.

  And that wis me, draain fae the kist o memories and then it wis on ti granfaither’s beuks. A smaa library but wi choice wirks. He wisnae Christian an put my wye Tam Paine’s Age O Reason a grand tale that made me suspeck aa the fine words o meenisters. There wis anither Tam, Carlyle, a Scotchman, a sage some said, and I’ve nae doot he was verra clever bit there wis something aboot the gabby man that made him seem mair feel than pheelosopher. The man seemed ti think that in times fin knights were galloping aa ower the kintraside, well he seemed ti think this wis grand and we hid ti find a wye of re-kinlin a gowden age. Granfaither was fair teen by him but for me keeking backwart an girnin about the wye of the warl wis jist wind. As the auld man said aboot meenisters and their hivven, you micht jist as weel look for partans in mosspots and puddocks in the sea. But ae thing Carlyle got richt, this wis his gweed words for skeeled chiels wi hans, hert and brain aa wirkin the gither; wis this nae jist fit a steencutter did? Granfaither’s library hid the poems o Wullie Thom, a wabster ti trade and an Aiberdonian. He’d kent the poet and said he wisnae the easiest body ti get on wi but the man’s words, weel they brocht haim ti me the muckle cheenges needed.

  Beuks and granfaither’s tales, maist o this wis fin I wis gey young and still withoot a noshun o foo the hale jing bang micht hing the gither. But a bit later I cam upon the screeves o Wullie Morris and for him the wye wis forrit, wirkers fechtin for socialism and haen han skeels that wid turn fit they made inti airt: a soond veesion, biggit on granite foons, nae sand.

  At the crater’s lip, the mason could see figures moving, struggling, far below. They appeared to him like quarrymen, working their way through the debris of an explosion gone wrong.

  Wrang – there wis sae much wrang wi the warl but noo that I’d served my time and become a journeyman, as I saa it, I wis ready ti dee mair than shape steen; noo I’d fashion wirkin men into socialists. I’d been gaan ti peelitical meetings o the SDF, ance Morris’s pairty, faa were verra keen on haen the bawbees fae the pooches o the weel-aff. I wis affa fierce and fit I widnae dee if I got hud o them but I foond that maist o the men in the yaird wid raither thole me than jine me. Fooivver, as a journeyman I could jine the operatives’ union, the finest craft society in the toon and fae there I began fechtin for better conditions in Aiberdeen yairds and in kintra quarries. Wi my brither operatives we tyauved ti get an extra maik or twa and even a shorter wirkin wik. Stoor fae dunters, that wis anither lang sair fecht. These muckle skelpers o granite were gweed at makin a profit for the maisters. But they turned men deef and wirse the stoor wis teen into their lungs Yairds were full of wirkers faas lungs wis rived by fit we caad the kirkyaird-hoast and fit the quacks said wis the soond o phthisis brocht on by dist. We tried ti gaar the maisters tak tent but verra little cheenged.

  Nae maitter, as my granfaither wid hae said, we hid ti keep trying. And I did. Fooivver, this gave me tribble. On ae han I wis trying ti win a hantle o cheenges ti mak things tholeable but on the ither I wis looking ti caa doon the maisters an aa their wirks. As you micht say nae seeking ti tak a puckle crums, gaan instead for the loaf and the gullie ti pairtit. Wis ther ony wye o yoking the twa sides the gither? At nicht fin I wis aff doon ti Belmont Street wi my SDF freens pittin the warl ti richts, kennin the maisters’ days wid seen be ower; well britherheed seemed affa easy. Then aifter the claik it was haim and up in the morning into the yaird wi the argie-bargie stairting again. This wis like haen twa heids, ain for socialism and anither for the tyauve o wirk and the union Aiblins I should hae seen the gate I wis on but ony anxeeity I hid wis seen through a damn mirkie gless.

  A puckle o my socialist freens said it wis aa for nithin, that I’d spend my time in the parlours o maisters, bunnet in han jist waiting for a han-oot. I widnae hae this. The union did mak things better, maisters supplied tools, wirkin oors were shorter and even wages had gin up. Wis this nae the wye forrit, and onwye britherheed amang wirkers surely this wis the union? Some o these socialist billies didnae unerstan. Maisters could be a hard-faced lot, a puckle o them widnae want ti gie onything ti the men, grippy disnae dee them justice, they would hae raiked hell for a saxpence. An fan this happened it wid be neives heisted, us threetnin strike and them lock-oot. But some of the employers were fair-hannit and we wid find wyes roon tribble: give-an-tak as you micht say. Och aye, we widnae win aathin but fit did my freens expeck: ging ti the maisters and demand socialism?

  What would his friends now think of the mason in a world where give and take had transmuted to something far beyond the tactful diplomacy of a negotiating table? His vision of internationalism and brotherhood dissolving and re-forming much as the dust around him settled and rose.

  Wirkers fae aa the airts gettin the gither, this wis my granfaither’s dream and it wis myne. The union, weel it wis a stairt. But the streetch o my veesion o britherheed wis sair tested faan steen fae Norway came inti Aiberdeen. Och aye some o the maisters were contentit, they wid mak some siller but nae aabody wis happy, especially merchants wi quarry interests. They said only oor granite should be wirked; or at warst Scotch, or at verra warst British steen. Aa foreign muck wis ti be stopped itherwise trade in yairds and quarries wid be lost. This vext me and like a thoom that’d been skelped by a haimmer ma conscience began ti stoon, winnerin far britherheed came inti this? I sair needed, something ti tak the pyne awa.

  I hid a freen Wullie, oot by Alford, secretary o the union at Cluny. A fine man, gweed at his trade and nae feart o stannin up for his preenciples and fyles he’d bin a soondin board for my thochts. So it wis awaa doon tae the station. On the rinnie oot in the train I hid a chance ti think aboot this britherheed. My workmates were unca happy tae fecht and tak fit could be won but a fair puckle o them were jist as contenit ti keep the men on saas and polishers doon (mere machinemen I’d aince caad them). Britherheed in a yaird seemed hard aneuch withoot takkin on the warl. Gaan oot in the train wis aye a trait and my speerits lifted as we steamed into quarry kintra faar fowk hid howkit at coorse and rochsome grun ti mak a living. Nature can hae a bonny face but only ance the faimly is hoosed and his mait on the table .

  Wullie had been brocht up in the Vale and he kent as weel as onybody the hardships o quarriers. Toon wirk, weel it seemed safter. For a stairt in Aiberdeen we didnae hae the fell winters that hit the quarries wi grun beeriet under deep snaa an men getting peyed by the piece for steen wirked and naething for staanin up ti their oxters in fite pouther. In Aiberdeen cutters were peyed by the day. I speired ti Wullie fit wye the Donside men didnae wint redd o piece work. This wis nae mystery, he telt me, twa gweed reasons for keeping it were, auld near-caad-deen quarriers were able ti tyauve on an mak a puckle bawbees and keep the maisters happy and anither thing, a chiel wi a craft could ging aff in a quait spell an wirk their lan and nae loss ti onybody. But I saw it as jist anither wye o the dirt o property skaillin the sharny-bree o oonjustice ower common fowk. Nae doot there were honest an gweed-hertit quarry maisters, but they were catcht in this guids-an-geer fankle. Wullie agreed that men like Fyfe o Kemnay were dacent aneuch bodies faa didnae draa bleed fae men, even if in winter wirkin in the slabber o snaa an dubs the bleed wid come. But there were ithers he said, lairds, men sleekit in their beesiness and faa gripped on tae lan and if they hid their road wid close the quarries and be rid o the dirt of quarrymen. “Fur and fedder o Bennachie and roon aboot”, said Wullie, “this is their interest nae men and wirk. Pheasants and rubbits dinna spik back. Lairds want the moos o quarrymen stapped and fowk ti beck an bou afore their betters.” Aa this wis hinnie ti my lugs, a sweetness o thocht but a clearance o the clart o lairds still left me raivelt aboot britherheed. Spikkin ti Wullie I felt a bit like a loon again, sittin in a neuk by the fire, a micht even had mizzlet shank. “Things in Donside”, he said, “arenae gweed. Dreelers, cutters, settmakkars are aa streevin for wirk, maist are fit wi caa loafin” and “men are gaan across the pond ti America in the howp o job. And for them that hinna shipped west it’s a maitter o inti an Aiberdeen factory or aff ti be third billies at twa-horse fairm toons.” Soondin like granfaither, Wullie raged at the eenjustice, “ if things ging on like this the quarries’ll be seelent, as if the warl had teemt the men fae the holes”. For a meenit I couldnae meet his een for I kent fine that like ithers I’d wrocht Norwegian granite and even if I’d makkit the grandest o heidsteens I jaloused that it could mark the deeth o the quarries. Faar wis britherheed here?

  Wullie calmed my anxeeity and for him the answer wis ae step at ae time. Socialism and britherheed wid hae tae start at oor ane front door. There wis nae eese in being vext aboot steencutters in Norway or ony wye else if the granite beesiness here wis feenished. We hid ti hud oot for oor ane fowk afore aathin else argued Wullie and ti mak his case he pynted ti the Navy buying foreign steen for biggin hairbours. Turning aa poetic he pit a verse ti me,

“If for our Fleet we feel it meet
With natives true to man it,
Why make a dock of foreign rock
Inferior to our granite?”

  It wis like licht gaan on in my heid: a wye forrit wis seen, ane that conneckit wi aathin I’d deen as pairt o the union. Fechtin that hid ti ging on, but fyles ca-canny and wirk wi the maisters for the steen industry itherwise we could wak-up wi, nae yairds and even fewer quarries.

  And as the dust around him settled and the noise ebbed and flowed he could see that the Cluny man’s arguments had been sufficient to propel him further along a path upon which he had already embarked. This was the path that led him to the hole.

  I teuk my thochts on aa men being brithers and union wirk and wupped them the gither ti mak a stepledder o richts and loyalties, wirken up fae the yairds ti aa the warls ayont. It wis at the Mairket Stance fan the fou meanin o the cheenge wis brocht haim ti me. Jist anither day, haen a dauner ower the plainsteens, keekin up at the braw sicht o the Toon Hoose, a work o airt in granite but wastit on Cooncillors. My scance at the fine Kemnay steen wis distractit by a stramash at the Cross. Gaithered there were kiltit sodgers surroondit by local billies an it wis plain as porritch this wis nae stoorie atween Aiberdonians an militia, scantlin an inklin o meal riots o langsyne. Aabody respectit the sodgers and winted ti jine them. Granfaither wid’ve been scunnered but I kent that ance a waar stairts fowk aften rin ti the flag. And a waar hid stairted. I got ti thinkin, and wis clair that I hid tae tak a puckle steps up the loyalty ledder and look ti britherheed wi fowk ootside the yairds. I widnae jouk the deecision aifter-anaa wis it nae the case it wis my ain kintra, and the great chiel Hyndman, ance o the SDF, hid screeved it wis a man’s duty ti fecht against the Hun faa wis ettlin ti pit Britons in thirl ti Germany. It wis only a step or twa ti the Barracks tae tak Geordie’s shillinn.

  Sic a few smaa steps but they took me a lang wye. On this new gate I wutnessed muckle things, men fechtin ower pooshened grun, aneuch ti mak a plooman greet. In the mirk o aa this I did find britherheed at least wi aa the Britons and French fowk but universal? weel that wid hae ti wait. Gey blaik noshuns swirled in ma heid as I watched britheheed gaither in heeps afore my een: some micht miscaa the waar, bit ae thing aboot this ledder o fraternities, at the hinner-en o the slauchter there’d be damn gweed beesness for masons an maisters, aa the heidsteens wid keep them at the bankers and the order beuks weel past the dainner oor. Ah weel I’d chosen my gate an I jist gid on wi it.

  The stonecutter was at Mametz when off to the west there was a sound of such force that even amidst the carnage he was awed. Distracted with his mind wandering to ghosts of far-off places and knowing not how, he found himself at the lip of the hole and the enormity of his journey all but overwhelmed him.

  I looked doon and I could see this wis nae quarry, nae a place far men tyauved ti win bonny steen fae the ooncarin airth – na this hole wis far caring men focht ti win ither treasures. And as I dwalled on this, like the grun aneath, I shuddered.

  I survived the waar and foond oot that the hole wis caad Lochnagar Crater, made by moudiewart men wi ower twenty tons o explosives. Neen o Byron’s frowning glories here, dairker than onythin the hirplin Laird could hae imagined; the braw days o spikkin tae granfaither, anither warl, sae far awaa.

  Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.

August 29, 2016

From the Cock o’ the North to Commissioner Jim Gordon via Huntly Castle

Huntly Castle mid 15th - early 17th centuries

Huntly Castle from the mid-15th to early-17th century

Huntly Castle is a ruin but what a ruin. It is big and bold and sits in a green park surrounded by trees and the rivers Bogie and Deveron.

DSC03465

The calm side of the River Deveron

Motte where the first motte and bailey castle of Strathbogie was built in the late 1100s

Motte where the first motte and bailey Strathbogie castle was built in the late 1100s

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next to what remains of the castle is part of an extant motte site of the original 12th century Strathbogie castle – built for an earl of Fife. This first castle was wooden and was burnt down by the Black Douglas clan in 1496. Out of the ashes emerged first a tower house built soon after the fire and gradually more buildings were added until the great hulk of castle we see now – bigger and bolder than the earlier one emerged and to be on the safe side it was constructed of stone; mainly sandstone and freestone, altogether more resistant to fire than wood. Practically nothing remains of the tower house but the later castle, though tumbledown, hints at what it must have been like – something pretty amazing.

stables, brew house, bake house and other lost buildings including where an L-plan tower house once stood built in the early 15thC to replace the lost wooden castle

Stables for the short garron ponies, brew house, bake house and other remains including  the area where the L-plan tower house was erected in the 15th century to replace the lost wooden castle

King James IV used to make annual pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Duthac in Tain, north of Inverness, and he often stopped off at Huntly en route. During one visit, in 1501, he watched the stonemasons at work building or biggin the castle as they say in the northeast of Scotland and so impressed was he with their handiwork he gave them some tokens in the way of money and I’m not surprised because they made a grand job of it; the stone carving is superb.

A fragment of the original roughly paved road made up of pebbles and boulders which led to the eastern part of the castle constructed in the 17thC

The spectacular ruin that stands in Huntly belonged to the Gordon family. Many of you will know that the name Gordon is very much associated with Aberdeenshire although scratch around and you might disturb some French roots in the guise of Gourdon (there is a place of that name farther down the Aberdeenshire coast) and a nod to Berwickshire where a bloke by the name of Sir Adam de Gordon thought he would like a bit of a change – and having shifted allegiance during the Scottish Wars of Independence he eventually ended up on the right side and was promptly rewarded with parcels of land in Strathbogie by Robert the Bruce. Such is how land came to be distributed – ending up in the hands of powerful families – handed out like sweeties. Cronyism has a long pedigree. Doing someone a favour, raising troops to fight their cause once secured immense tracts of land for families who prided themselves on their ability to accumulate piles and piles of the countryside. Some of them are still determinedly clinging on to land they acquired in all manner of dodgy ways in the past and will fight anyone who suggests they don’t have fair claim to their estates – in the courts not on the battlefield anymore.

The Gordons - not shrinking violets

The Gordons were proud of their lands and the great muckle house built at Huntly. George Gordon the 1st Marquess of Huntly had pride a-plenty which probably explains why plastered his and hers names right across the front of their impressive pile – akin today of installing neon lighting on the front of your house. The bold inscription reads:

GEORGE GORDON FIRST MARQUESS OF HUNTLY 16
HENRIETTE STEWART MARQUESSE OF HUNTLY 02

Not forgetting the hand of God pointing out each name. Well if you have it, flaunt it, said God.

The hand of God points out George Gordon's name and points out his wife's name as well

 

The hand of God points to the names of the Gordons who owned the castle

All generations of Gordons included a George so the story of the George Gordons can get very muddled and as the Gordons were always in the thick of the action, more than your average family, I will avoid going into detail. However, I cannot entirely.

three storeys

Three storeys of the castle

Old door

Original studded oak door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the several George Gordons – the one who wrote his name across his house – was an influential political figure in Scotland, attached to the royal court, and a nephew of James V. He was no shrinking violet as you may have deduced and earned himself the nickname, the Cock o’ the North.

 

The oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland

Certainly one of the oldest wooden lavatory seats in Scotland

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This epithet transferred to the Gordon Highlander regiment who came to be known as the Cocky wee Gordons and not-so-long-ago a popular ditty was oft sung across Scotland – ask your granny or maybe your great granny and watch her face light up with the memory.

A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me,
If ye’re no a Gordon ye’re no use to me.
The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a’
But the cocky wee Gordon’s the pride o’ them a’.

Stairs in castles were usually built to give advantage to the castle family in the case of invading swordsmen (usually right-handed) and disadvantage to their enemies

Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, was involved in a plot to clip the wings of the Cock o’ the North. I should have said the Gordons were Catholics and so was Mary of Guise but then she turned on some other Catholics at the time of the Reformation because – well, because that was the politic thing to do – and heads were optional extras in those days.

Gordon the Catholic was ambushed by a party of royalist Stewarts and he was killed. His corpse was then embalmed and put on trial for treason. I can assure you stranger things have happened. His castle was looted and religious carvings relating to the old faith found there, including two medallions above his front door – most unusual in Scotland, were destroyed.

cropped carving at door featuring family and Scottish national heraldry

The main doorway beautifully carved

 

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views acrosss the countryside

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views across the countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you will have gathered people, let’s be clear men, were pretty bloodthirsty all those centuries ago – and that’s without video nasties – and there was a definite trend for Scotland’s landed families to go at it hammer and tongs against their neighbours. You would think history has been a constant power struggle for land and political influence and you’d be right.

Remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle was packed with ornate work

A remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle once was adorned with such intricate craftsmanship

Back to the castle. Medieval palaces tended to expand over the centuries ending up in a melange of architectural styles. Huntly Castle is no different. Building was still going on when the Scottish civil war broke out in the 17th century. All these centuries on and the Gordons were still fighting anyone and everyone; family, strangers, neighbours – everyone.

 

Graffiti is there in abundance in the castle with some beautifully written letters

At the Battle of Aberdeen in 1644 at the time of the Scottish Civil War the Gordon clan fought on both sides – Covenanters and Royalists so that at least some of them would be on the winning side.

Details of another fireplace with medallion portraits of George Gordon and his wife Henrietta Stewart

Another fireplace with medallions of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart

George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, (son of George Cock o’ the North and Henrietta Stewart) brought up a Protestant Episcopalian at the court of James VI, was on the winning, royalist, side at the Battle of Alford in 1645 at which he fought alongside his son, also George, who was killed. George the 2nd Marquess had, in 1639, been secretly appointed to oppose the Covenanters in the north of Scotland and at Turriff he led a force of 2,000 in a show of strength against a gathering of 800 men led by the Marquess of Montrose (then in support of the Covenanters.) The two sides sized each other up but a tense situation passed without the spilling of blood.

 

Stone stairs lead to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Some original joist ends have survived and the later castle from the north side

The peace was not to last and there followed a game of cat and mouse between Montrose and Gordon who was none too keen on getting dragged into the whole difficult affair with the Covenanters.

One day Montrose said to Gordon, “Do you fancy a trip to Edinburgh?”

Gordon smelling a rat replied, “No, not really.”

Montrose, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer and so Gordon was taken to the capital to intimidate him into behaving but he shrugged off the threat and travelled north again and fought in a battle at the Brig o’ Dee at Aberdeen. As a punishment Huntly Castle was plundered and the fate of both castle and the Gordons thereafter followed a downward trajectory. Gordon/Huntly was again a wanted man who embarked on the 1640s equivalent of trains, planes and automobiles to make his escape – by horse, foot and boat. He kept on the move – all around the north of Scotland but was captured at Strathdon in a violent incident that saw both his servants and friends killed. Gordon ended up back in Edinburgh, locked up in the tolbooth until in March 1649 he was beheaded.

prisoners

Prisoners abandoned in a deep, dark hole beneath the castle had no chance of escape

Life was one long power struggle for wealthy families in past centuries but there were occasional intermissions when peace broke out long enough for a game of football to take place or even a marriage. Football was a popular pastime with the rich and powerful in Scottish society in past centuries – less so today.

 


The Gordons enjoyed a game of fitba and like most landed gentry they also liked to keep their options open by shifting allegiances according to where their interests happened to lie on any particular day. They were split as a family during the Jacobite risings in 1715-16 and 1745-46 when once more royalist/government troops took over Huntly Castle and the gentle decay that had begun in the previous century continued apace following the unfriendly attentions of anti-Jacobite government troops.

It’s hard to get an impression of how opulent Huntly Castle must have been in its heyday – reputedly no expense spared and very grand indeed with all the main rooms highly decorated and beautifully painted ceilings. John Anderson was the painter responsible for some of the ceiling work, not sure if he was local, might have been and so impressive were his efforts he was commissioned to work on Falkland Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Of course Huntly Castle set the standard. The few remaining carvings tease us into regretting what has been lost but Historic Scotland have done a grand job both with the preservation of the place and a highly informative glossy booklet available in the shop.

landscape window frame

As for the Gordons they were scattered across the country and the Continent some settled in Poland. There are still an awful lot of Gordons around Aberdeenshire and some famous ones around the world – and the most famous of all surely Commissioner Jim Gordon of Gotham City unless you think Lord Byron better known – he was half-Scottish – a Gordon through his mother’s family and known as – well what else but George Gordon before England claimed him.

Swallow on nest Huntly Castle

The castle is now home to nesting swallows

Enjoy Huntly Castle.