Posts tagged ‘Gaelic’

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.              

Jul 29, 2020

Alba, Pictland, Caledonia, Scotland – the birth of a nation

 

Once upon a time long, long ago a man from across the sea and far away travelled to the ancient land of Gaul and there he heard tales of exotic people who painted their bodies with strange patterns and symbols. Never before had the man seen beings with painted skin so he decided that the painted ones, called Picti because there was more than one Pict or picture person and Latin was in vogue at the time, were sufficiently different from all the people he was used to they were positively dangerous and uncivilised.

Roman raiders who invaded and conquered Gaul (in the way people with powerful armies tend to do) agreed with him.

 “We don’t like people who are different and we don’t like people who refuse to capitulate and accept us as their rulers. We like people who look just like us and invite us to take over their lands.”

Tile or Thule showing early map of northern Scotland

The man was called Hieronymus but for obvious reasons he changed his name to St Jerome. St Jerome who is often painted, though not on his body, with a lion representing Christ was disgusted by the weird folk living on the island across the water from Gaul. Not all of them, only the awkward squads of Picts, Atticots or Scoti or versions of the name. They were cannibals, he wailed. To illustrate the point he said if a shepherd, his wife and their flock of sheep were to stroll past a group of Picts, Atticots or Scoti they would be eaten down to the shiver while their mutton on the cloven hoof would be left alone.

“They must be barbarians!” wailed St Jerome; a saint with firm views. And he called out the painted people, Picts and their associates for their attraction to human flesh – in every meaning of the term – one of which old Jerome himself knew a thing or two about.

It may have occurred to some, though not Jerome, that tales of Picti, Atticotti and Scoti barbarity might have been exaggerated – not least by Roman legionaries embarrassed that their marauding antics and expansion into the island across the water from Gaul was only partly successful because the Scoti, Picti and Atticotti in the land called Alba refused to prostrate themselves before the Romans roaming across their territory.

 Angry and embarrassed over their failure to bludgeon the Atticotti, Picti and Scots into submission, legionaries sat around camp fires spinning yarn after yarn about wild, ruthless, cannibals who turned their painted noses up at being invaded in the land the Romans called not Alba but Caledonia – the land the painted people just called Home. Raging Romans and their hingers-on were hell-bent on demonising the Picti, Scoti and Atticoti.  

scotland and pictland

“They were twelve-foot giants, honest. With bad breath. And they’d eat a man as quick as look at him.”

If you make the mistake of looking up Atticotti or rather the alternatively spelled Attacotti on Wikipedia you will read they were –

“a people who despoiled Roman Britain between 364 and 368, along with Scotti, Picts, Saxons …”

 at which stage the author of such nonsense should be reminded in no uncertain terms it was the Romans doing the invading and marauding not the indigenous peoples defending their homes and way of life – including partaking of the occasional shepherd and his wife – not that shepherds had wives, more temporary bidie-ins.

On investigation the Picti – let’s forego the Latin plural and settle for Picts – when they weren’t savaging shepherds were chawing on ears of corn. For they were also referred to as Picts of Cruitnich. Cruitnich, as you’ll know in a minute, means corn eaters. So much for eating fellow men and women. Although no-one can live by corn alone. So, it seems when they weren’t out defending the land from aggressive Imperial Roman types Picts were farming, hunting and fishing and carving imagery into big stones. The Atticotti were doing something else and the Scoti were swatting up on irregular Gaelic verbs.

In the land of corn-eaters spelling was a free-for-all so Cruitnich became Cruitkne and Cruitin. Cruit became a byname for Picts. You can understand it for Picts of Cruitnich is a mouthful, almost as great as a shepherd’s foot. Careless writing turned Cruitin into Priten and as sure as Cruitin is Priten it transformed into Briton. Briton being a word for the people of a place meant Britain was the place where they dwelled.  

 We know some names of Pictish clan chiefs in long-ago Scotland; such as Talorg, meaning bright-browed. His reign as chief was from 388 to 413 and he was succeeded by Drust, son of Erp who ruled till 453. They were quite long-lived these Picts, except for the shepherds.

 The inhabitants of Britain most easy-oasy over being invaded by Romans were soft, southern types while those who weren’t – brawnier, bolder folk backheeled it to the north.   

The land of the north; Alba or Caledonia was demonised by the resentful Romans who felt entitled to conquer any part of the world they fancied. Just because they could. Only they couldn’t. Alba or Caledonia stood firm but their lands so reviled by so many continued to attract the waspish eyes of many a monarch from among the soft folk of the south.   

 The people of Alba were once strangers landing on the shores of the land to the north of the island across from Gaul before Gaul was Gaul. In later times Picts tended to occupy the east of the land while eventually the Scoti or Scots came as boat people from Hibernia – Hibernia later known as Ireland – so the first Scots lived where they dragged their boats ashore, on the southwest coast of Alba. They  were no less ferocious than those pesky Picts, according to the Alexandrian poet, Claudius Claudianus.

Claudius didn’t actually meet any Scoti or Picts but relied on hearsay or anecdotal accounts from – you’ve guessed it – Roman legionaries describing tattooed bodies of the people they had slaughtered in Alba (or Caledonia as they insisted on calling it.) The land that was said to be –

 “tepid with the gore of the Picts and Iere” (Irish Scots)

 “weeping her heaped-up piles of slain Scots”

 …once the Romans had finished with it.

Not that anyone in Pictland or Scotland at this time was averse to slaughtering their fellows. From the Scots or Scoti from Iere or Hibernia who overpowered the Picts to dominate Alba came the first king of Scots to be consecrated, back in 603. This was Aidan who led his men to the Bernician frontier. Bernicia covered the land now southeastern Scotland and northeastern England. In a battle of thrones that was typical of the time, Aidan’s men confronted Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia, at the Battle of Daegsastan on the river Jed and lost – though both armies were virtually wiped out.   

Blood flowed in the north of the north as well. Orkney was reported to have run with Saxon blood. Saxons were people who first washed up on the shores of the island of Britain from the place we now call northern Germany. Most Saxon migrants settled in the southern parts of Britain where they and their close neighbours, the Angles, left their stamp on the heart of every patriotic Englishman and woman revelling in their pure Anglo-Saxon bloodstock, that is – German.

Saxons being a mouthful for the Scoti and Picti was given the Alba treatment and became Sassenachs. Some Sassenachs carried on migrating, northwards, but growing knackered by their long walk they mostly stayed on in a part of Alba called the Lothians.

It was around the year 843 when Kenneth MacAlpin became King of the Scots and Picts and power and control over Alba was centralised in a continuing line of monarchs. This being 1200 years ago means Scotland’s ancient pedigree is a very, very long established one.   

Rivalries continued with Picts losing out to Gaelic Celts and bringing to an end the culture of the Alba’s exotic painted people. By the tenth century the language of the Picts has been lost for all time, replaced by Gaelic, although their paintings and carvings remind us of the very special painted people of Alba. In time Celtic culture itself was diluted and altered from the south by the influences of the Sassenach and from the north the impact of Vikings. 

Hundreds of years later Johnny-come-lately waspish-eyed monarchs from England claimed the ancient land of Scotland belonged to them. Roll on 400 years to the Act of Union where a handful of nobles sold-out the people of Scotland in exchange for bags of cash – to the fury of  Scots.    

This unpopular Union between the ancient land of Scotland and England is but a blink of a bloodshot eye in Scotland’s long, long existence – longer than the English usurper’s.   

Scotland, the land of Picts, Scots, Vikings and, yes, Sassenachs does not pretend purity of a single race. That peculiar claim of unadulterated national identity is confined to a branch of extreme English nationalism and I don’t want it said that in this tale of the birth of a nation I have forgotten our southern brethren and sistren. So, I’ll leave the last word to an Englishman, a Sassenach, who composed the following ditty in 1839 – 

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

A figurative fib, in fact a fiction;

A something meant t’express in verse

A man akin to all the universe:

From Pict, Scot, Saxon, Norman, Dane, began

That heterogeneous thing – an Englishman.”

 

PS – the peoples of the four nations of Britain lived happily ever after. Or did they?

Oct 26, 2017

Timber Rafting on Scotland’s rivers

 

Spey floaters c 1900

In my blog on the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson there was a reference to the practice of floating timber down river to sawmills to sell on for – shipbuilding, houses, furniture, barrels, cart and carriage wheels, bridges later for mine and railways sleepers  and a host of other uses and it was suggested I write more about this unusual method of transportation, so here goes.

Forests which supplied timber for industry were often some distance from where timber was required. Wood is heavy and awkward to move and before railways and indeed roads in many instances taking great tree trunks, some very old and very very large, was a mammoth task which would have been carried out noisily with much shouting, laughter and not a few oaths uttered in Gaelic, the language spoken by the many of the lumber men who lived in simple wooden shacks which they erected in a matter of hours in each area of forest they worked. Their food was frugal for such physical labour –  doubtless a bowl of brose to begin the day and during working hours they were sustained by bannocks (similar to oatcakes) and cheese  washed down with drams of whisky.

In Scotland, certainly around the rivers Dee and Spey as well as in places around the world, Canada, America, Sweden, Germany the answer was to get these huge logs to a river and let them float downstream where incidentally the value of a felled tree doubled by the time it left a sawmill. Given the sheer bulk and weight concerned a good flow of water was needed and anyone familiar with the Dee will know it isn’t a large river by any stretch and so floating had to be carefully planned to take place in spring when snow melted on the high hills up Deeside or after sufficient rains swelled the river.

Floating timber down the River Dee

St Devenick’s Bridge over the Dee

Floating banks were constructed where the river water was naturally deepest and at these spots the adjoining banks would be cleared of trees and rocks so tree trunks, their boughs and branches having been trimmed off, might be prodded by long poles and rolled down to the water from where they were piled up at the top of the bank. Imagine this hard labour on a freezing cold morning when frosty logs were slippery and hands attempting to shift them numb with cold. Creating open runs for the timber was no easy task for the banks themselves were thick with trees and huge boulders and had to be painstakingly cleared to make slides and even before this part in the process the timbers had to be taken from where they were growing in forests often far afield and up hills closer to the river.

Every stage from tree felling, dressing the tree by stripping of all those unwieldy branches to dragging each trunk to the river bank was carried out by man and horse power. The land wasn’t exactly co-operative for in the 18th and 19th centuries this part of Scotland was dotted with large pools and gigantic boulders, remnants of the last ice age when pieces of rock split, splintered and slid vast distances till finally grinding to a halt in the most awkward places. Tracks, rough drag roads, were cut through forests along which small armies of men and horses trudged with their loads – some so heavy they pushed at them from behind determining the speed of both horse and man. The loss of horse shoes was an everyday occurrence for the going underfoot was so uneven and difficult and with no time to get to a distant blacksmith the foresters learnt to replace shoes so the work could continue without interruption.

At last the river was close and the tree trunks were uncoupled from horse chains and stacked near the slope where the bank dropped to the river in preparation for the float. Certain points and features were used to estimate the depth of water, for example at the Boat of Kincardine when a distinctive large black boulder was submerged floating could begin. At Glen Derry a dam was constructed in 1820 for water to accumulate in preparation for floating timbers.

Floating islands

One by one the stacked trunks were rolled from the top of the riverbank down into the river. There raft men waited waist deep in freezing water to arrange them for the float. Each raft was made up of two halves forming two rows each containing about twenty trees lined up and lashed together with ropes, strung through rings on iron dogs that had been driven into the trunk ends. Where trees were much thinner at one end they might only be strapped together with rope wound around a smaller tree set horizontally and used as a cross spar. Each timber raft had a forward and stern and was roped up to enable the raftsman who would be balanced on top to steer it with an iron pole. It was essential to get this right as the Dee had its share of rough waters – the Falls of Potarch (where one raft rider was drowned in a floating accident and there’s an amusing [sorry] anecdote on this in the chapter Gentlemen Drank Deep in Secret Aberdeen), the Salt Vat at Cairnton and the Mill Rush nearer to Aberdeen.

Floating was a rough, tough, hugely physical and dangerous occupation and liberal imbibing of whisky taken by floaters to see them through their task. They would pull in at each of the riverside inns on their way downstream such as one run by Meggie Davidson, sister of the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson who at one time bought a piece of forest at Glen Derry and had the dam mentioned above built. He hired a squad of men and provided them with ropes, dogs, poles and so on to float down the Dee but at the end of the day he never got paid – but that’s another story. Deeside’s floaters were hard-drinking men and much boozing went on during their stops down river and they whiled away time playing the cairts such as Bawbee Nap, till ready to move on.  

Possibly the best known of the floaters was the artist John Blake Macdonald whose father ran a timber business on Speyside and Macdonald floated there for him but he also did several stints on the Dee. Well-known as a portrait painter his reputation spread among wealthier farmers on Deeside who employed him to paint their portraits.

'Lochaber No More', Prince Charlie Leaving Scotland

John Blake Macdonald’s painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie leaving Scotland, Lochaber No More

Where there were great unwieldy timber rafts on a fast-running river there were dangers not only to life but the bridges in their way. Scotland’s narrow rivers spanned by arched stone bridges were vulnerable to damage in a collision. At Potarch near Kincardine O’Neal a bridge under construction by Alford builder William Minto in 1812 was badly damaged by fast travelling timbers on the Dee. Actually the trees that took down the bridge weren’t bound together and weren’t manned but had been released tree trunks sent in to float down on their own. Because of the risks involved in this practice an act was passed in 1813 to prevent damage to bridges by banning floating of unmanned timbers in certain Scottish rivers and generally controlling floating.

In that entertaining and informative book Memoirs of a Highland Lady, 1797 – 1827 by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus there is a fine description of the number of lumber men involved in logging and floating timber – “a busy scene all through the forest, many rough little horses moving about in every direction, each dragging its load…” and she wrote of a floaters ball in a barn at Christmas with woodsmen and their families, some 100 of them. For hours before the ball men would play a game – the ba’ – an early form of shinty in which piled up plaids set out the goal boxes. The ball began with a meal of beef and mutton followed by a dance with music supplied by fiddlers and thirst quenched by punch made in washing tubs. The thumping noise of the dancers’ feet reportedly heard a mile away.

DSC05824.JPG

 

It was around 1881 that floating timbers down the River Dee ended for by then there were safer and alternatives means to move the area’s forests.

Just a final word on wood. Apparently the best timber comes from felled trees while wind-blown trees tended not to have the same quality – I imagine but don’t know that a weaker, more sickly tree is easier blown over. When major changes were being made to the land in Scotland during the 18th century under estate owners such as Farquharson on Deeside and most famously Archibald Grant on Donside at Paradise Woods new species of trees were introduced here from abroad. It is thought the first larches brought to these islands, at the beginning of the 18th century, were taken, possibly as seed, from their native Russia and certainly a muckle larch estimated to be some 150 years old was blown down at Invercauld near Braemar in the great gale of 1879. It was bought by David Gray, a cartwright from Aberdeen, who used one of its sides to make a large wagon two feet deep to carry traction engines.

 

 

May 2, 2016

O Albin! O my country! John Stuart Blackie

J S Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

Guest blog from Textor

As with all nineteenth century national cultures Scotland’s was an area of contestation. Scotland had lost its identity as a sovereign political state having been subsumed within in the larger formation of Great Britain and the United Kingdom; but at the same time the country retained its distinctive spin on law, education and religion. Added to these characteristics was the legacy of destruction of clan systems, some of which had challenged the rule of the Hanoverian settlement. Into the nineteenth century the question of what it meant to be Scottish had become one with numerous possible answers.

Before the half-century had gone, for example it stretched from the view of Walter Scott who recognised that something of value had been lost in the integration of Scottish life to the larger world of Britain but believed that the benefits of a more peaceable, stable and wealthy society outweighed the losses. In this way he was able to paint pictures of aspects of Scotland’s past as distinct, noble and worthy of praise but now anachronism. Scots could mourn their loss but history had moved on. Get over it.

Grampian storm

However, with the rapid and radical changes in social and economic life strainsof political thought developed which challenged what we might call the Tory radicalism of Scott. By far the most contestationist were those Chartists who used Scottish history to promote their cause of political and economic rights, who called up the ghosts of the past, in particular William Wallace, to rally opposition to all the corruption and injustice of pre-1850 Britain. Chartists challenged basic political power across Britain and gave voice to ways forward which would have appalled the historical novelist.

On the other hand there were those who came from the enfranchised middle class, those who had gained from extension of political power in 1832. They had found a place in the sun and at the same time, through education and religious attachment, were well aware of Scotland’s unique cultural history. Whilst these elements did not challenge the basic political and economic fabric of Britain it would be a mistake to see them as wholly complacent in the post 1832 settlement. One of the challenges they faced was the inherited rights and privileges of landed interests, not that they wanted to overturn the right to private property just that sometimes land use was called into question often manifesting itself as urban and rural rights of way entanglements.

Lion's Face Drive near Invercauld scene of Rights of Way battle in 1891

Lion’s Face Drive near Invercauld – the scene of a rights of way battle in 1891

Which, at last, takes us to John Stuart Blackie. JSB was born in 1809 into a middle class family, his father was a banker. He was educated at Peter Merson’s school in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate where, so the story goes, he would daily gaze on the sculptured figure of a knight mounted high on the town house known variously as Benholm’s Lodge and the Wallace Tower. What matters here is that JSB claimed this became the basis of his fascination and enthusiasm for Scottish culture and history. He like so many others mistakenly believed the figure to represented William Wallace.

Leaving the Netherkirkgate school in 1821 he began attending classes at Marischal College. In the same year his mother died. The poor women in her fourteen years of married bliss had given birth to ten children, six outlived her.

Lochnagar

Wildly compressing his years as a young man: JSB dropped out of university in 1824, tried his luck in a lawyer’s office but gave this up following spiritual turmoil akin it seems to the protagonist in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or the angst of Kirkegaard. Death became a fixation and religion the answer. He had been raised in a relaxed Presbyterian home, religion was there but as a guide rather than a dictator. But now he had religion and entering the ministry was to be his salvation, or so he thought. Hence it was in 1825, with his father’s permission and money he travelled to Edinburgh to find certainty and salvation. Interestingly he not only prayed deeply and frequently with his cousin Archy Gibson but also believed that good works were important which led him to the poorest parts of Edinburgh.

Restlessness once again overtook him and he was back in Aberdeen in 1826, still studying theology. This lasted until 1829 when his intellectual curiosity, and his father’s money, took him to Germany the most important event in his life; and before the year was out had given up all thoughts of becoming a minister and worse, at least for those who had hopes of him becoming a leading Scottish Divine, he rejected the Westminster Confession of Faith and turned instead towards a more liberal, historical and humanist doctrine which he was finding in Germany; he also discovered beer and Greek. From being a young man configured with thoughts of death, atonement and redemption he travelled across the liberal divide to arrive at the opinion that Scottish Presbyterianism was silly and pernicious, threatening to stunt the spirit and intellectual lives of children. This was balanced, if balance is the correct term, by his Scottishness, by his continuing sense of pride in the distinct contribution that Scotland had made in religion and despite his criticisms would have none of the bigotry of English High Churchism.

For a moment he toyed with Roman Catholicism but soon gave this up preferring Scottish Sabbatarianism to racket and rattle, fiddling and frivolity . . . and tasteless mummery. His antipathy to aspects of English culture was heightened by his experiences in Germany where he found that John Bull . . .speaks no German . . . is not a great favourite . . . proud selfish and has a mercantile spirit.

Deer stalking 2

Illustrating his secular turn of mind, on a walking tour to Florence he took the opportunity of studying peasant farming and landholding using this to ask questions of Irish land law; and he expressed his support for parliamentary reform and read Shelley’s “Queen Mab” with enthusiasm. However, he was given little time to speculate on possible social injustices as his father had grown weary of the Continental Jaunt.

JSB was summoned home in 1831 where he was told to return to Edinburgh University to study law, which he did. A hateful experience which resulted in his admission in 1834 to the Society of Advocates. At the same time his father stopped JSB’s allowance. It was now sink or swim by his own abilities.

Resenting spending time on the minutiae of Scots Law Blackie resolved to earn a living from writing aiming at the burgeoning market for learned reviews but his central goal was find a university post in Scotland. Aberdeen at the time was a city being run by middle class, liberal Whig men. Blackie’s father Alexander was of this ilk and had the ear of these men. One of the ways of extending influence across the city and beyond was to have a university Chair filled by a sympathetic academic or even, as happened in Aberdeen, canvas for creation of a new Chair and connive to have a suitable candidate win the post. A Chair in Latin was created at Marischal College of which Blackie said a Whig job it unquestionably was, not that this made him unhappy, far from it. With strong political friends he had every chance of winning the Chair. There was one fly in the ointment: his rejection of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was horror-struck, for to accept the post meant signing up to Calvinism, a condition of teaching at universities.

JSB was no fool. He had the wit and the legal training to get round issue, a little deceit and fancy footwork was the answer. He signed the Confession which was accepted and ratified by the Presbytery. To the Church of Scotland’s horror the new Professor then admitted that signing of the document was not a statement of his own beliefs simply a statement that his teaching would be within the bounds imposed by the Confession. A storm blew-up but in the end the blast of a trumpet for secular education was heard and Blackie began his university career in 1841.

Deer stalking

JSB found teaching at Marischal too constrained and hidebound. He wanted a bigger and more stimulating environment for his pedagogic skills. With Greek being his first intellectual love he set up the Hellenic Society, took to lecturing to working men and women outside the university bounds where he found a more receptive audience; in contrast the university had a low standard of attainment and ambition. With this opinion it is hardly surprising that he was on the lookout for a post away from Aberdeen. But it took years for him to find a job which he eventually did in 1852 when he was appointed to the Chair of Greek at Edinburgh University, this after again undergoing questions as to his religious affiliation which he had said was the gospel of the heart as found in the New Testament. Unlike the youth of the 1830s he now had no interest in going into a corner to look at the point [of my nose] and solve the mystery of the Trinity. Nonetheless, he might not be interested in biblical nasal gazing but some men who influenced university appointments were concerned and it took hard canvassing by Blackie to win the post but win it he did. He remained at Edinburgh University until retirement in 1882 and died in 1895.

Within the sixty odd years of active intellectual life JSB displayed an amazing ability to at one and the same moment be the odd man at the table, the one who looked and sounded wrong to men and women of conventional wisdom yet always seemed to be welcome at the table. Perhaps it’s a bit like fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle (Blackie described him as a notable monster) who cried misery to Progress and so much of what Victorian Britain stood for yet was keenly read and listened to by both a middle class and working class audiences.

Blackie differed in many ways from Carlyle, he had a joy of good living of company and the pleasures life, including female company (he had married in 1841 with a most unconventional romance). Unlike the London based “Sage” he was not miserable. But he did, like Carlyle, betray that willingness to express affection for working men and women, for their capacity to deal with adversity, their willingness to labour and to grasp at learning. But again like Carlyle grasping could only go so far. Under the tutelage of enlightened men such as himself industrious classes could find a better world, unease only emerges when working men and women begin to formulate alternatives generated by themselves. As with so many of the middle class reformers of the 1830s JSB could not get his head around the notion that Chartists might be proposing alternatives which needed to be taken intellectually seriously. Attending a Chartist meeting in 1843 he heard a meagre scarecrow of a man extolling Carlyle’s critique of industrialisation, pouring out floods of real natural eloquence on the triumphs of democracy. Much impressed by the physical looks of the orator and the voice the Professor of Latin pulled back from full endorsement, perhaps not wishing to be deceived as he had deceived the Presbytery of Aberdeen. Appearance and sound was all very well but what of the Chartist substance? And this was found wanting.

Glen Callater

Glen Callater

Democracy, there was truth there too, but more than half-a lie. I believe the majority are good-but are they wise can a multitude of passion-moved men be wise? His answer was no. Critical thought and wisdom of any value could not come from mass movements rather it was to be found with a solitary sage in a chamber. Having said this when in 1843 the Scottish Church split Blackie sided with the dissenters, which in Aberdeen was all the ministers in the city, describing the men who walked out of the Church as noble but these men were of course from a respectable class.

But to return to his Scottishness, apart from wearing a plaid as everyday dress he asserted his national if not his class identity by questioning land usage in the Highlands. Addressing the problem first broached in the 1830s he turned to the medium of poetry to show his distaste for families being cleared from land. Like his one-time colleague at Marischal College, William MacGillivray, Blackie walked Scotland. This gave him ample opportunity to see the cleared land and with him learning Gaelic in the 1860s was able to speak directly to men and women forcibly driven from crofts.

Braes of MAR

The poems he published in 1857 under the title “Braemar Ballads” gives vent to his anger and sadness at viewing deserted and ruined clachans across the landscape: Where the stump of a stricken ash tree/ Shows the spot, where the home of the cottar should be. Villain of the piece is the destruction of social unity which, he said, had underpinned Highland clan society being replaced first by sheep farming then deer forest. It’s not great poetry but the message is clear, the chieftains are gone, the kind lords of the glen have left the heather muirs, they bartered the rights of the brave Highlandman putting what should be a Scottish heritage into the hands of stalkers of deer . . . lordlings that live for the pleasure to kill. Make no mistake the man hostile to organised Chartism makes a searing indictment of clearances: O heartless lords, O loveless law, with calculation cold / Ye sold the mighty force, that glows in faithful hearts, for gold . . . Woe unto you, the grasping crew . . . By Heaven, it is a lawless land! We boast that we are free. And he asks how and why this has happened. Having pretty well jettisoned the ideology of Providential acts with his turn to the morality of love he squarely puts the blame on the drive for wealth and money and the absolute right of an owner to dispose of property as he or she saw fit.

Clearances, he said were a man-made phenomena, one that his beloved Scotland needs hang its head in shame: O Albin! O my country! O my dear Highland home/ The lust of gold hath ruined thee, the lust that ruined Rome. Absentee proprietors he wrote These be the masters, Scotland! Commerce was the problem. A society which centred its activity in manufacturing for profit rather than expanding the moral worth of individuals was bound to slip towards treating men and woman as numbers in an accounting ledger. This was a theme he had touched on in the 1840s when he encouraged Aberdeen male shop assistants to treat with both customers and employers for the restriction on what we would now call unsocial working hours. Long working days Blackie said gave little time for education and appreciation of the better things of life. Interestingly the shop men found a great deal of support for their request amongst Aberdeen’s great and good but there was little similar enthusiasm for improving the working conditions of men and women employed in more industrial enterprises. With this moral stance it should come as no surprise that JSB was hostile to utilitarian philosophy.

Deer stalking 3

Land use and tenure had to change, one remedy was to find men in Parliament to represent the needs of small farmers and find some way of restricting the spread of large farms; to bring back the form of close relationship which had at one time, he believed, typified clan society. Absentee landlords could have no feeling for the men and women of the land and being a Gaelic speaker he excoriated those who lived in the Highlands but would not learn the native tongue. We should remember that the university professor had got his first step up the academic ladder with the assistance of Aberdeen’s Whigs, men who favoured (without being absolutists) the free play of the market and the right of capital to make capital. Clearly any whiggism retained by Blackie was held within his moral critique. His liberal view of religion and pedagogic humanism melded with the large ethical stance to make him a man well-able to sit with academics across Britain and beyond, to flirt (literally) with women of the highest social standing, be invited to the houses of great landowners and give talks on politics, literature to working men. Looking at JSB it is easy to conclude that for all that he made the call to action a central issue of his philosophy he was sufficiently distant from it to actually upset the social circles he inhabited. But this would be unfair. For all his deviousness in rising to his first professorship he did raise publicly the issue of the right to teach without affirming membership of or agreement with the Church of Scotland; this was a conscience issue which he resolved by being cleverer than his opponents. Similarly his outspoken attack on clearances could have threatened to close many doors in his face. Indeed following the publication of the poems he was encouraged to write a letter The Times setting out his views; this was no shrinking sentimentalist, my whole breakfast table was deluged with papers about the desolation in the Highlands. In 1883 Blackie demonstrated his continued commitment to reforming Scotland’s land laws; he gave evidence to the Napier Commission where he called for fair rents with fixity of tenure for small tenants; called on restrictions on both large sheep farms and deer forests and for a Royal Commission to look into some way of redistributing land to the benefit crofters. These and other points made by him showed that the example of Ireland with soul-destroying poverty and rapacious landlords and Gladstonian liberalism’s attempt to relieve the conditions of the poor farmer was not lost on JSB. Unlike some of his contemporaries he did not blame Popery for the sad state of Ireland it was, he said, down to the English . . . [who] sucked the blood systematically out of the people; the English were filled with measureless greed. Scots it seems had nothing to do with the state of Ireland which sounds a bit like his plea that it was English landlords who brought the Highlands down, move along no Scots here. Paradoxically for all the denunciation of clearances he had a very good relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, one of the most kind-hearted easy-going . . . creatures that I have ever met . . . a sweet blooded race these Sutherlands. There is surely a question mark over this view of the family notorious for its clearances. Probably the solution to the tensions and dissonances in Blackie’s social policies is that on the one hand he wanted to avoid materialism (philosophical and otherwise) of liberalism and the closed reactionary bulwarks of the Tories. Thus he would swing between them, looking for spiritual values, liberal education and decent treatment of the poor. Liberals gave so much as did Tory paternalism, at one point he wrote that Tories are the best landlords and true friends of the crofters; and the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland would have fallen into being the best of the lot as they were drawn from the old heads of houses and clans. Flying between the two poles of liberalism and Toryism of course left him adrift from the one philosophy of action emerging from outside his class, namely socialism. For all the progressive things he stood for he was constrained within the limits of his class vision forced to search for solutions and salvation in the world of commerce.