Posts tagged ‘Banff’

April 19, 2018

The Buchanites: by a lock of their hair they hoped to fly to heaven

A group of bald-headed women and men clambered their way up Templand hill by Closeburn, Dumfries and onto a platform. With faces turned skyward they waited to be plucked up by their remaining single lock of hair to soar heavenward. They were disappointed when they did not. However, the wind did carry off their wooden platform. 

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These ambitious eccentrics were known as Buchanites. Their leader was a charismatic woman called Elspeth Buchan who explained away their failure to fly by their lack of faith and ordered her followers fast for 40 days and 40 nights then try again. So they did, several suffering badly from starvation, and again they failed to rise up to heaven.

buchan 2

The immortal Elspeth Buchan

 

In 1783 Elspeth Buchan then in her forties had declared herself a prophet and immortal. She regarded herself as the woman in Revelation 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

Elspeth had been born at Rothiemackenzie in the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire in 1738 to a crofter and innkeeper, John Simpson and his wife Margaret Gordon. The young Elspeth married a local potter called Robert Buchan who some years later went off south with Elspeth and their children following. They appeared in Glasgow and Greenock and what happened to the husband after that I don’t know but Elspeth returned for a time to the Banff area where she opened a Dame school (one taught by a woman or dame) where most of what was taught was the catechism. Needless to say numbers dwindled to none at all and so Elspeth, Mrs Buchan, returned to her husband down south, it has to be said their marriage was a loose affair, and by this time she had some strong ideas over who she was.

She claimed her immortality could be transferred to others by her breathing on them, in quite an intimate way, according to Rabbie Burns. She tried to convince several church ministers of her spiritual powers but only the Rev Hugh White, a minister of the Relief Church* in Irvine was won over. By teaching and Psalm singing they attracted a smallish group of followers who came to be known as the Western Delusion and later better-known as Buchanites. His activities split White’s congregation and he and Elspeth Buchan abandoned his church taking some fifty of the congregation with them. They picked up more followers on their travels.

The group’s proselytising though charismatic to some did not find favour with everyone and they were driven from the town, beaten and thrown in a ditch with threats to drown them in Scott’s Loch. What antagonised many townsfolk and others in parts they passed through were the open relationships practised by the Buchanites, communal living with rumours of orgies in forests and group sex and for the sober Christians of the kirk there was little about them to admire.

Mrs Buchan and her following were expelled from Irvine on the Cow Fair in May 1784; driven into the wilderness from the flood was how it struck the Buchanites concerned. They turned up at Closeburn, north of Dumfries, with Elspeth Buchan resplendent in crimson and riding on a white horse. It was there they made their attempt to fly to heaven but before they did Elspeth Buchan, Mother Buchan, persuaded her flock to hand over their trinkets and jewels to her, as she explained this would make it easier for them to rise up.

So the assembled Buchanites waited, expectantly, for the wind to carry them off and away. As well as permanently parting with their possessions they had prepared themselves by shaving their head of all hair except for a single lock which would be used to lift them up and away from the earth; all had cut off their hair except for Elspeth Buchan. They waited and waited. Then the wind blew down their platform.

auchengibbert

Auchengibbert became home to some of the Buchanites

There were other reports of goods and money being appropriated by Mother Buchan. One of the Buchanites, a Mrs Goldie, left the considerable sum of £500 on her death. Her son was a seaman, often away from home, and he had no idea his widowed mother had managed to save so much money so when Buchan and the Rev White took control of Mrs Goldie’s affairs and offered him a couple of pounds the son went away satisfied.

They were expelled from Dumfriesshire in 1787 and from there they went to Crocketford. Mrs Buchan was also known as Luckie Buchan (Luckie being a common nickname in parts of Scotland as a friendly, familiar term for an older woman.) Elspeth Buchan also took on the more formal title, Friend-Mother in the Lord.

The poet Robert Burns had a bit of a run-in with them when one of his bonnie Jeans, the very beautiful Jean Gardiner whom it is claimed was Burns’ heroine in Epistle to Davie and not Jean Armour, became entranced by and joined the sect. Burns working as a gauger in this part of the country was persuaded by the young Jean Gardiner to accompany her to some Buchanite meetings. He did but he was not won over as she had been. Burns wrote in a letter to his cousin William Burness of Montrose –

“About two years ago, a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow [she had been there with her husband] came among them, & began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, …till in spring last the Populace rose & mobbed the old leader Buchan & put her out of the town…Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures & practices that are scandalously indecent…”

Another giant of Scottish literature, John Galt, also wrote about the Buchanites. Galt was from Irvine and he had a vague recollection, recorded in his autobiography, of seeing the charismatic sect when he was a very young bairn and he recalled how several youngsters of the town, including himself, were beguiled by the Buchanites – their appearance, singing of the Psalms and general conduct that they followed after them, much like the children in the wake of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – Galt’s mother in hot pursuit succeeded in dragging him back home “by the lug and the horn.” Galt wove an impression of the Buchanites spectacle in Irvine into descriptions of Covenanters in Ringan Gilhaize (pronounced Gillies)

The immortal Mrs Buchan proved she was not when she died in 1791. On her deathbed she remained confident her impending death was only an interlude during which she would go to Paradise, briefly, to carry out some business and return within nine days, or perhaps nine years.

In anticipation of her re-awakening Elspeth Buchan was not buried but placed on a bed of feathers and secreted under the kitchen hearth in the farmhouse occupied by the remaining sect members. The group split up with some moving away to carry on their lives elsewhere including a number who went to America, by ship I understand, not taking to the air.

A few including Andrew Innes and his wife remained true to the so-called prophetess and when they moved farms they took Elspeth Buchan’s remains with them and for the next fifty years the deceased Mrs Buchan clung determinedly to earth. Andrew Innes was the last of the Buchanites and when he, too, was dying aged eighty-two at Crocketford in 1846, he revealed the remains of Luckie Buchan lay in an upper chamber on a bed, wrapped in blankets. And there her bones were found and an abundance of hair. Innes asked that his coffin be placed over hers when they were both interred so that if she rose to heaven he would know about it. They were buried at Newhouse graveyard alongside other Buchanites by the northwest wall, doubtless in the expectation of ascending to heaven at some stage.

And so that was the end of the Buchanites. Well, not quite. A group emerged in the 20th century in Aberdeen not at all in the same league but a quaint grouping who celebrated new years in the old Scottish way, burning a yule log, singing and dancing. In the 1930s around 200 would gather in the Cowdray Hall to mark the Aul’ Eel when they drank copious quantities of sowans** and uttered such momentous phrases as, “Man, that’s gran’, sic fine sowens, that gaed doon fine.” As I said not quite in the league of the woman of the sun and moon and crown of stars, but it made them happy.

*The Relief Church (Presbytery of Relief) was a Scottish denomination founded in 1761 by Thomas Gillespie, a Church of Scotland minister who was deposed by the General Assembly in 1752 when he refused to co-operate in the induction of an unpopular minister to Inverkeithing. Relief in the kirk’s name referred to its independence from the patronage associated with the Church of Scotland of the time and it was more free-thinking than the traditional church. The Relief Church was later incorporated into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

** Sowans was a cheap and nutritional drink made from soaking and lightly fermenting oat husks.

Dumfries map

The Buchanite stronghold in southwest Scotland

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

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

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

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

1828 Plan Union Street

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

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

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

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

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

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

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

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

Local History 010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

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

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

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

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

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

May 18, 2017

Fraternising with the enemy: Scots and Germans

Gordon_Highlanders_(1914)

The Great War front line Christmas truce of 1914 is well known, specially that game of football. Truth is there were several similar episodes and one involving troops of the Gordon Highlanders was recounted by two men who took part when they were invalided to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow.

Privates Garden McIntosh and W. Kiloh from Banff near Aberdeen were serving at the front with the 6th Gordon Highlanders on Christmas morning in 1914 when they were startled to see several German soldiers emerge from their trenches and approach them with their hands held up. Speaking in perfect English the Germans wished the young Scottish troops a Merry Christmas.

Once over their surprise the kilted Gordons happily joined in the good wishes and soon Scots and Germans, who were from Bavaria, were exchanging gifts; long German rolls for bully beef and other rations although the dark German bread rolls were not much appreciated by the Scots.

Present too was the regiment’s padre, Aberdonian Rev. J. Esslemont Adams, who addressed men from both sides with a message in keeping with Christmas and in return he received a generous gift of a beautiful melodeon. It struck the two Gordons this was a considerable sacrifice for playing music was one of the few means of keeping up spirits so far from home and in the midst of the horrors of war and tense frustrating stalemates.

This truce lasted for several days before it came to the notice of German officers -goodness knows where they were all this time but when they became aware of the fraternisation between the two sides they moved their men away to a different position. Until then an occasional German voice would call out in the middle of the night to one of the Scots, addressing him as sergeant —-, and inviting him to “come and have your rum.” The sergeant always resisted the offer to ‘stand treat.”

These particular Scots and Bavarians got on well and it emerged that several of the Germans had worked in Scotland as hotel employees before the war and their hearts were not in fighting but soon that was what they were all ordered to do.

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At the same time as reading about the 6th Gordons and their Bavarian foe I came across this poignant tale relating to the death of a twenty-one year old soon after he arrived in France from the northeast of Scotland.

In October 1915 Mr and Mrs Merson of 17 Mount St in Aberdeen received word that their son Lawrence, a lance corporal with D Coy., 13 Platoon of the 1/4th Gordon Highlanders, had been killed in action in France.

Lawrence was fourteen when he began work with the post office in Aberdeen and before joining up for war service he was postie at Blairs outside the city. At the age of 21 years he volunteered for the Great War.

A young German soldier came across his corpse in a front line trench and went through Lawrence’s pockets removing his identification disc, papers and letters, including his paybook and sent them all to his (the German’s) sister in Frankfurt asking that she send them on to the Highlander’s family. The sister was happy to oblige and wrote an accompanying letter and forwarded the lot to her uncle in Switzerland that he might send them to Mr and Mrs Merson in Aberdeen. This is her letter.

Frankfort-on-Maine

  It is a very sad matter I am writing you. My brother sent home a letter from the front and begged me to write you.

  He stands in the West, and it was in his first letter since the hard fights there. My eldest brother was killed last year at Ypres, so that I know how glad we were to hear any details of his death.  I think you have already heard that Lawrence B. Merson, whom I believe to be your son, did not come back from the last fight. We were enemies, but pain and mourning are uniting us. So thought my brother, too, for he wrote everything about your son he could find out. I just will translate it to you –

  “We led the way to our position, and found there a dead Highlander, who had a deep wound above the right eye, probably by a thrust of the bayonet. We found the following objects: – Book of payments, mark of distinction, a small sketch, and an instrument against the gases. The dead Englishman had his gun with the bayonet at it (and there were spots of blood on it) on his right side. He was a Highlander with a kilt, and bare knees.”

  My brother sent these photos. I am sure my brother and his comrades did all honour to their enemy who died in their tracks.

The young Germans’ uncle in Geneva also wrote a letter to Lawrence’s parents expressing his feelings:

“My brother is a clergyman for French Protestants in Frankfort, and his son is in the German army, although we are of old Swiss origin, and he sent the intimation to his sister in Frankfort. Your son did his duty for his country, and he will find his reward. God help you in these dark days.”

This was in October of 1915 and Lawrence died in the February that year so it is likely that the Mersons already knew of their son’s death but it is also likely the most affectionate communication wasn’t that of the army but from the ‘enemy’.