Posts tagged ‘Scottish history’

August 22, 2016

Kincardine O’Neil home of the Sleepy Market

Kincardine o’ Neil


Kincardine O’Neil is a tiny attractive ribbon of a village on the north Deeside road between Aberdeen and Aboyne. This ancient settlement was originally known in the Gaelic as Eaglais larach (lower church) and later recorded as Kyncardin or Kyncardin Onele which for such a wee village is a bit of a mouthful and surely the reason locally it is simply known as Kinker.  

Neat and well-cared-for Kincardine O’Neil retains several older buildings of architectural interest. The village is home to an impressive gem store, packed to the gunnels with crystals and gemstones of every type, colour and description and much else besides. There is also a post office in the village shop and apparently there is a micro brewery thereabouts but I’ve seen no sign of it.

Kincardine O’Neil is quiet kind; has been for a long time – or that’s the impression it presents. When the Deeside Railway was being pushed through from Aberdeen to Ballater the village was bypassed and so didn’t get the number of visitors other places such as Banchory and Torphins did but now, of course, the railway has gone and a road runs straight through its centre to Aboyne and points west or Aberdeen if travelling in the opposite direction.


The Gordon Arms Hotel appeared in the 1830s as a coaching inn and staging post where coachmen stopped to rest their horses and passengers on the long  journey between Aberdeen and Braemar – the 26 mile trip took anything between 8 and 11 hours depending on weather and the state of the roads – untarred, dirt roads remember. Upkeep of roads was an historic statute of labour meaning local men were obliged to repair and keep them passable, unless they could pay someone else to do it, which was a piecemeal way of maintaining them and not very successful.

For centuries getting about was by foot, horse, wagon or coach and movement was not always free which is why hill tracks were used when possible to avoid toll bars on ‘improved’ roads. There were several miles of improved turnpike roads in the parish of Echt with three toll bars collecting money from travellers passing along their stretch of road.  


The nearby river Dee was a means of transporting goods by raft or small craft but it was also a hazard that had to be forded when moving people and animals across country and once there were 36 fords over the Dee.

 King David I’s army forded the Dee here in 1150 and in 1296 Edward I of England crossed at Kincardine O’Neil with his invading army of 35,000 troops. They camped locally and scavenged the farms and homes in the district for food and drink – stealing and consuming an entire year’s supply in one single day and leaving the local people to their fate.

Derided and despised as they were by people in the south Highlanders were largely allowed to continue their uncivilised existence but when they challenged the crown by supporting the Jacobite cause the government, determined to quell their rebellion, embarked on a major road-building scheme to enable troops with their equipment to speedily move in through the north to deal with insurrection. One such military roads ran from Brechin by Fettercairn over the Cairn o’Mount to Huntly. Such roads symbolised the power of government to enforce its will and were a signal that the old ways -loyalty to a clan – had been superseded by loyalty to the crown and the government of the Union in a different country hundreds of miles away.


Old water pump

A road is a road and where troops march so goods and stock can be transported as well. Indeed it was hoped that easier access to life’s little luxuries, an influx of commodities, would open North Britons’ eyes to a more refined way of living. Not exactly shop till they dropped but certainly shop till they dropped their rebellious attitudes. The Cairn o’Mount  road crossed the Dee near Kincardine O’Neil and the Don at the Boat of Forbes.



Cattle from here and farther north forded the river at Kincardine O’Neil when driven overland by their drovers to markets in the south, at Crieff and Falkirk.

Both cattle and sheep raising were important income sources for the local population and the village ran at least two annual fairs in May and in early September (Bartle or Bartholomew’s Fair) where stock in their thousands was bought and sold – and much else besides (in the 19th century there were four annual stock markets.) Markets were important events, lasting up to three days, and attracting people from quite far afield as a welcome break from the routine of work and opportunity to meet up with friends and buy something unusual from travelling peddlers – merchants who set up their stalls around the village and in the kirkyard. Fairs were not for the fainthearted for a lot of drink was consumed over the duration of markets resulting very often in violence and some unfortunates found themselves taken off to Gallows Hill where they were executed in the best tradition of summary justice. One of Kincardine O’Neil’s ancient fairs was held at night, not sure when this was but maybe in the fourteenth century, and fittingly it was called the Sleepy Market.

wildlife of Aberdeenshire early 1800s

Wildlife once abundant at Kincardine O’Neil

Cattle were used to pull ploughs – 10 to 12 at a time for the heavy iron ploughs needed strength for turning tussocky, often unworked soil. Farming was mainly a part-time activity that earned little so that men learned to work with metal or wood – making tubs, harrows, plough-beams and so on which they would sell at markets and fairs including Old Rayne and Aberdeen’s annual timmer or timber market.

 A few bridges were built over the Dee at various periods. During the 14th century a small wooden bridge for foot passengers was provided by Durward of Coull (see below). Another bridge was built upstream from Kincardine O’Neil at Portarch  – the situation chosen because there was a solid rock base at the riverbank making an ideal platform for a bridge. Much later a ferry-boat was introduced which remained in use until 1937 when it was washed away and wrecked by a flood.


Until fairly recent times goods were mainly transported by loading them onto human backs in creels or they were carried in currocks or currachs which were basket panniers tied onto ponies. I’ve found a reference to litter or littar trees which may have been sledges or similar to the devices used by Native Americans – long branches bound together for carrying good – rather than on wagons, again reflecting the appalling state of roads (tracks) around and about. Until the later 19th century local people did not have hemp rope to secure loads but made tethers from willow or birch withes (a flexible branch or twig.)

In keeping with nearly every parish in Scotland education was encouraged, to some extent, in the village. Usually schools were provided for boys and separate ones for girls, if they were lucky. This was well before compulsory education was brought in in the early 1870s. Kincardine O’Neil did have a female school, one set up by a kirk minister the Reverend William Morrice following the death of his son George in 1850. George and his brother John had made fortunes as timber merchants in London where they were contracted to supply oak to the government dockyards.


Timber was a major industry on Deeside with its forests providing wood for ship building and every other purpose. Felled trees were dragged to the river and floated downstream during spates, to Aberdeen for export. (There’s a great anecdote in Secret Aberdeen about a rafter on the Dee.)

Timber was readily available and easily grown so the people made a living from it. The land around was what folk had to live off, only occasionally would goods be brought in from outside by peddlers. If you wanted something you did it or made it yourself. Homes were built from what was available. Collected stone, turf, heather, timber all went into the construction of buildings, unless you were well-off then you had someone else build your house of stone and slated its roof. Ordinary people built their own simpler, draftier and less waterproof homes with or turf on roofs.


The breachan worn by men

Until surprisingly late heating and cooking in houses was provided by a single fire fuelled by wood and peat – until the peat mosses in the vicinity were dug out. During the 19thC coal, imported into Aberdeen, would have been sold up Deeside for those who could afford to buy it but transporting it was another issue. Many homes, even at the beginning of the 1800s, still had open lums where smoke from fires had to find its own way out the hole in the roof making the inside of a house very black and sooty. Windows were small and in many rural areas contained no glass but had wooden boards, shutters, to close when weather was bad.

Flax was widely grown. Locally grow flax was made into linen for clothing and bedding and sheep’s wool was spun and woven into woollen cloth. Spinning was carried out during summer and in the Kincardine O’Neil area there were several manufactories for spinning lint (linen and wool) and for knitting worsted stockings.

Walking 400px

Women wore sleeved dresses, often a combination of linen and wool with a tartan broad scarf around their shoulders and secured with a brooch. These scarves sometimes had enough material in them to form a hood in cold or wet weather. A plaid shawl would sometimes be worn for extra warmth.  The young men of the district often dressed in kilts, hose and brogues – and all men wore this to church and on market days, many wore a breacan (plaid wrapped around the body and belted at the waist) and a bonnet. Traditionally men were armed and certainly would have had their sgian dubhs on them for short knives were carried by everyone to cut and prepare food before cutlery was readily affordable. In the Highlands the sgian dugh (skeean doo) was carried tucked into a belt or hose. 


Some people with connections to Kincardine O’Neil

On 12 Feb 1685 the Earl of Perth, Lord Chancellor, issued warrant for apprehending John Farquharson of Inverey, the Black Colonel (so-named because of his swarthy looks), and others who had been outlawed for murder of the Baron of Braikley (a Gordon) in Glenmuick in 1666.  Sergeant James Innes and Corporal Radnoch were put in command of a party of troops at Kincardine O’Neil to arrest him. I don’t know what happened to Inverey then, nothing much I imagine for he was still around to fight the Jacobite cause a few years later. An excellent ballad was written about Farquharson’s murder of Braikley.

 Forget Willie Shakespeare if you want to know about history; he was no historian but a dramatist who made things up. Macbeth is a prime example – fictional from start to finish. The real Macbeth was as good a king as kings ever are, not the conniving murderer Shakespeare would have us believe. Macbeth met his end near Kincardine O’Neil and the Macbeth peel is not far away at Lumphanan. (picture to follow, possibly)

This Macbeth slewe thati there
into the wode of Lunfanan
And his hewd thati strak off thate
And that wyth tham fra thair thai bare
Til Kynkardyn, quhare the King
Till thare gayne come made hyding

One of Scotland’s greatest thinkers was born in Kincardine O’Neil. Thomas Reid ( 1710-1796) was a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and for his common sense philosophy in particular. Reid’s major works are – An inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense ; Essays on Intellectual Powers of Man; Essays on the Active Powers of Man.


Young Thomas Reid’s education began at the parish school in the village but he was soon sent to Aberdeen to advance his studies. At twelve or thirteen, as was usual then for a boy taking up higher education, he went to university; Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College, where he studied philosophy with the aim of becoming a church minister. Scottish education has long been valued for its breadth and Reid was also an accomplished mathematics student – a man talented at whatever he undertook.

Reid’s ideas influenced revolution in America and in France – though not, it seems, in Kincardine O’Neil. The man known across the world for his mind did, as he planned, become a minister in his home village. He was also a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Aberdeen and later Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University.


Around a century later, in 1824, Peter Milne was born in the village. By reputation very talented as a composer and violinist Milne was said to have been one of the most able of fiddlers and he became famous for his traditional reels and strathspeys. He was given the name the Tarland minstrel and a memorial stone to him stands at the Tarland graveyard.


Kincardine O’Neil’s own old graveyard surrounds the ruined church of St Erchard’s (the patron saint of the village from the 5th century when he converted many local heathens to Christianity) and what had been a hospital – in the medieval sense of the word – a house of refuge for those incapable of looking after themselves and lodging for travellers.  


The low wall fragments of this 13th century refuge are extant with flowers growing along them and on the church gable some features of where the hospital was connected to it are visible. Hospitals were abutted to churches so their unfortunate inmates could be comforted by hearing mass through internal windows between it and the church.


In 1233 Ailean Dorsair, an English translation of his name is Alan Durward, provided a davach or davoch – a piece of land called Slutheluthy for the building of the hospital.  Ailean was an important figure in Scotland for he played a prominent role in running the country during the minority of Alexander III (Alasdair III mac Alasdair.) His father, Thomas, was an official at the court of King Alexander II, as protector of the king’s property. For a couple of years Dorsair disappeared to England where he toadied up to the English monarch, Henry III, and was rewarded with a manor, Bolsover in Derbyshire. Whether or not he was ever known as the Beast of Bolsover is not recorded.

In keeping with many churches around the northeast this one at Kincardine O’Neil was attached to St Machar in Old Aberdeen: incorporated into the cathedral in 1330.

Over time several churches would have occupied the site of the present ruin, wooden I suppose. What stood there in 1725 was described as “a good edifice, higher and wilder than any other upon Dee, thatch’d with heather…”.   


Yes, even kirk roofs were heather and turf, slate wasn’t easily found and had to be quarried rather than gathered. Heather roofs were a fire hazard and usually if one burnt it was replaced with fresh heather but when the church roof burnt out around 1730 money was found to slate the roof.


St Erchard’s belcote dates from c.1640

When it was decided to build a new church in the village it was constructed of stone. This was 1861-62 and St Erchard’s was left to gently decay and its interior made available for burials although by the look of the memorials there perhaps only for those with a bit of clout.

And that, folks, is Kincardine O’Neil.





November 14, 2014

Bust Up: Women’s Liberation in ’60s/’70s Aberdeen

The 1960s and 1970s – those eras of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were also eras of wars, racism, starvation, massacres, atomic bombs, nuclear threats, assassinations, the Cold War and rampant sexism.

You only have to watch some hideous films of the ’60s and ’70s or listen to song lyrics from the time to realise that while there was much talk about women’s liberation the reality was it was just that – talk.

Bust Up. Aberdeen

So women’s lib movements mushroomed in much the same way they had a century before with the rise of the Suffragists and Suffragettes. That the struggle was continuing 100 years on reveals how resistant British society was to embrace radical change in its power relationship with women.

What women had discovered was if you want an injustice rectified you have to go out and fight for that cause and not to expect rights to be handed out by political bodies. Rights are grabbed screaming and kicking from those who limit access to them.

The 1960s when the taxman sent tax statements and demands and tax rebates relating to a woman’s earnings to her husband! Women were considered incapable of understanding such complex arrangements.

Women in work were horribly exploited by employers and male-dominated trade unions run by dinosaurs content to collaborate with employers to keep women’s earnings lower than men’s for equivalent work.

Along with employment rights, women sought to control their own bodies – to be able to terminate a pregnancy in particular circumstances. The alternative was horrific and sometimes lethal and in 1967 an abortion act was passed which allowed a woman to apply for an abortion if the pregnancy was a risk to her life, her physical or mental health, to her existing children, likely seriously handicap the unborn child or an arguable detrimental social impact going through with the pregnancy.

That same year the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed allowing homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

During the 1960s and 1970s Aberdeen was buzzing with the politicisation of the young. Groups they were involved with included Aberdeen Women’s Liberation made up of young housewives, working women and students.

Much of their discussions centred on questioning the family structure, its strict gender divisions, availability of contraception and developing awareness among girls and women of their status within society.

The group’s very limited resources produced a wee publication called Bust Up. Published here is the second edition and as well it the group printed as a pamphlet on contraception which was distributed outside factories where women worked and secondary schools in the city (which attracted an interview on BBC radio).

I shouldn’t imagine there are many copies of Bust Up or the contraception booklet left some half a century on but a copy of each have recently surfaced and you lucky people have a near unique opportunity to travel back in time catch a glimpse of Bust Up and hopefully soon, the contraception one.

I’ve separated pages from Bust Up with snippets about relevant legislation from around this time for your further enlightenment. Bust Up Aberdeen

 In 1969 the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act guaranteed a wife a share of family assets on dissolution of her marriage, based on her contribution to the household as a housewife or wage earner.


The Divorce Reform Act allowed for divorce on the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and a divorce was granted after five years of separation.

In 1970 the Conservative government of Edward Heath introduced the Equal Pay Act. Equal pay for equal work but what was equal work? That discussion still continues. It was to be another five years before it had to be implemented. 

1973 the British Sociological Association conference on sexual divisions took place in Aberdeen. 

In 1975 Equal Pay Act implemented, in theory although we know there are still women fighting for recognition of equal pay for equivalent work with male colleagues, by Labour under Harold Wilson.



The Sex Discrimination Act was passed which demonstrates that there was no gender equality in Britain. As might be expected the Act failed to cover everything – excluding pensions and social security rights.

Maternity rights were strengthened through the Employment Protection Act.

The same year the Scottish National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Aberdeen and so too did the Northeast Scotland Regional Women and Socialism Conference. 

 In 1976 the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act was passed which made it possible to get a court order to remove a man from the matrimonial home, whether or not he owned or rented it. The Act did not apply to cohabiting couples.

A year on from the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and women at a factory in Middlesex were out on strike for 21 weeks before management agreed to follow the law. Clearly their employers were not the only ones to ignore legislation but the only one where women were prepared to stay out this length of time to force the hand of their management.

The fishing industry was still a major employer in Aberdeen then and many women worked processing and packing fish (where incidentally they were left to man(sic)-handle very heavy wooden boxes packed with wet fish while their higher paid male counterparts drove around in forklifts never lifting anything heavier than their weightier pay packets.


In 1977 the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act recognised battered women as homeless.

In 1978 the ‘Normal Household Duties Test’ a wheeze brought in by the Labour government under James Callaghan, to deprive disabled married women of benefits as they had to prove they could not work but also then they were incapable of doing normal housework for a whole year in order to receive those benefits.


The Scottish National Women’s Liberation Conference met in Aberdeen in 1977 and discussed lesbiansism and heterosexuality, language, the fifth demand.

The Fifth Demand was legal and financial independence for all women.

The women’s movement agreed a series of demands at their conferences in the seventies:

Demands 1 – 4 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Skegness 1971

  1. Equal Pay
  2. Equal Educational and Job Opportunities
  3. Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand
  4. Free 24-hour Nurseries

5 and 6 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Edinburgh 1974

  1. Legal and Financial Independence for All Women
  2. The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians. In 1978 at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham, the first part of this demand was split off and put as a preface to all seven demands

Demand 7 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham 1978

  1. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.



 One young woman, a keen member of the Labour Party, attended a couple of meetings. She said she was quite interested in women’s lib and she’d only entered one beauty competition. The group was arranging to disrupt a beauty contest being held in Union Terrace Gardens, which it did beautifully, with fancy dress, saucepans and lids. The young woman from the Labour Party did not come back.


November 11, 2014

A Highland soldier’s letters to his cousin from the trenches in 1916 & 1917

A young man from the Black Isle  serving with the Seaforth Highlanders wrote to his young cousin Bella back home in Ross and Cromarty. The letters are fragile and very faded now as they were written in pencil on flimsy paper almost 100 years ago. At the bottom of the first letter is a signature of Gemmell whose job it was to censor outgoing mail to make sure no information that might have been regarded as useful to the enemy leaked out. Roddie Bisset’s letters are all about friends and family. We can just imagine how much he longed to be back home with them, farming on the beautiful Black Isle instead of being stuck in the nightmare existence of the trenches. Trenches letter 1916 Highland soldier    December 13th 1916 Dear Cousin I received your most welcome letter and Parcel. I don’t know how to thank you for the parcel. We have fair good weather out here as yet. I believe you had a bad time of it at home. Tell John I will look after the turnip seed bag alright. He will get it if I will be ever able to see him. I had a letter from Whitebog they tell me that Frank is called up. If so, they will miss him very much. This is my address now 40422 Pte Bisset.R A Company 3 Platoon 7th Seaforth Highlanders B.E.F. France We all heard out here that Dan was to get married at the term. Have nothing to tell you as the news are scarce. Hoping this finds you all well, As I could not be in better health. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I Remain Your Loving Cousin Roddie   John Gemmell trenches letter 2 1916 Highland soldier  


trenches letter 3 1917 - Highland soldier

18th March 1917 My Dear Cousin Just a note in answer to your letter and Parcel. Well I thank you very much as I was in the trenches at the time, we have very good weather just now, hoping you have the same and getting on with your work as the winter was so bad. I had a letter from Jhonnie, he says the same. How is Dan getting on. tell him that I told you, if he is wise to stop where he is. you will be all thinking long for the wedding and if it will be a big turnout, for he will not get Annie McIntyre Lambton, for they are a fellow here writing her steady. How is Dan -?-? Donald. I never seen his goodself since a while but I see Plenty of Rosemarkie & Fortrose boys. Willie Cameron Rosemarkie is home for his commision. He was seeing them at home. I believe they have a great – trenches letter 4 1917 Highland soldier This is where the letter ends. I don’t have the next page. I don’t know if Roddie made it back home to Scotland.

Discovered after blogging that Roddie was killed 3 weeks after writing to Bella. He was 26 years old and was never again to walk the beach at Rosemarkie, gaze out at the Souters at the Cromarty Firth or return the turnip seed bag to Bella’s husband John. Young Roddie lies buried in POINT du JOUR Military Cemetery (Athies) Pas de Calais, France. Whitebog was where some of the family rented a farm.

September 17, 2014

Thank you all fellow YESers it’s been great!

The Yes Scotland Campaign

We’ve taken on the Tories

We’ve taken on the BNP

We’ve taken on the Orange Order

We’ve taken on the Labour Party

We’ve taken on the Britannia Party

We’ve taken on the Liberal Democrats

We’ve taken on the National Front

We’ve taken on Ukip

We’ve taken on the BBC, determinedly propagandizing on behalf of the Union

We’ve taken on the luvvies with their enormous egos and holiday homes in Scotland

We’ve taken on the distortions of our views, our desires, our ambitions in the press

We’ve challenged and sang and laughed and chapped on doors in the sun in the rain in howling gales

We’ve spoken at meetings and shrugged off abuse and attack

We’ve turned ordinary Scots into activists

We’ve introduced young people to political participation

We’ve challenged lies and more lies and dirty tricks

We’ve shaken our heads at political posturing and stunts

We’ve shaken our heads at Labour politicians advocating people do not use their democratic vote

We’ve faced up to the whole panoply of aggressive misrepresentation thrown at us by a mischievous media

We’ve used social media to counter media distortions and lies and censorship of our opinions and ideals

We’ve taken on millionaires and billionaires and city folk who aim to buy support

We’ve taken on self-serving corrupt politicians motivated by self-interest who feather their own nests with inflated expense claims paid for by people who are reduced to feeding their families from food banks

We’ve taken on threats and personal attacks from No supporters

We’ve countered the hysterical rantings of fanatical rightwing commentators

We’ve countered the hysterical ranting of Kensington lefties

We’ve grown more confident

We’ve loved being part of a movement that is positive and ambitious to help the majority in our little country of Scotland

We’ve taken the flak and shrugged it off because we’ve been empowered to speak out

Thank you all fellow YESers

It’s been great

September 4, 2014

Slander, Fraud and a Secret Room: William M’Kinnon & Co in the Great War

Guest blog by Textor

It began in 1916 as a telegram, became a whispering campaign, filled column inches in the local press and finished in 1920 in the Court of Session in Edinburgh. This was the scandal of William M’Kinnon & Co. manufacturing faulty shells for use on the Western Front.

Soldiers in WWI (McKinnon's arms)

Founded in 1798 William M’Kinnon & Co’s pedigree was a long and proud one of supplying foundry and engineering products locally but by mid 19th century the company had spread its industrial wings becoming part of the web of commerce which was the British Empire. Sugar, tea, coffee, rice and cacao all needed processing before being sold to customers across the globe.  This was the market that M’Kinnon entered and so they continued into the last years of the 20th century.[1]   Dryers, heaters, graders, sieves, elevators and steam engines were manufactured in the Spring Garden works. In 1914 just weeks before the outbreak of war the firm was awarded a Gold Medal for the excellence of its tropical agricultural equipment. 

Imperialist war demanded cannon fodder and cannons. Men left M’Kinnon’s to fight in Europe and in a mirror action, in 1915, the company decided it too would get involved, in munitions manufacturing. Patriotism would have played its part but an added incentive was a guaranteed market and the prospect that a new factory might be fitted-out at Government expense. Premises were purchased adjacent to the existing works at Spring Garden and David Graeme Robertson came back from the Malay States to run the factory. Robertson was part of the imperial commercial web which had benefitted M’Kinnon so well. Having served his time with them he travelled east, in about 1906, establishing his own engineering in Kuala Lumpur and was also involved in a tin mining scheme whose shareholders were mainly from Aberdeen. In 1913 this particular enterprise hit a rocky patch with David Graeme making accusations of “wicked and unscrupulous action” by one of the scheme’s members; this drew a libel action against him but the case was lost and Robertson left with his pocket and reputation intact. Possibly this court experience played a role in subsequent events.

Whatever his reasons for returning to Aberdeen the fact is that he was in overall charge of the factory when it first received an order for 4.5 inch shells and later 6 inch shells: by mid 1916 over 50,000 of the smaller ordnance had been dispatched to the battlefields along with 30,000 of the larger calibre. In this work “Girl operators” who “did not make a perfect job, but they did very good work” were on the machines, overseen by time-served male engineers given the task of ensuring output was maintained.   One of the gaffers was a Mr Hunter, a man who’d spent 20 years with the firm; he became a key figure in the ensuing shells scandal.  

At the end of 1916 Hunter approached manager Robertson and asked for a rise in wages on grounds of having improved workshop productivity. He was refused and the conversation must have been heated for the outcome was Hunter’s sacking. Unsurprisingly he appears to have left in high dudgeon and when later he met with a Robert Whitelaw, a surgical instrument maker and special constable, he let rip with venom, criticizing the manager in particular. He told Whitelaw that M’Kinnon’s was guilty of fraud, that the war effort was being undermined with their dud shell casings being shipped to the troops at the Front. And this deceit, he declared, was being carried out in a “secret room” in the attic not with “girl operators” but only “skilled” men. Whitelaw had lost a son in the war and the news hit him hard. Appalled at the thought of troops being left vulnerable he immediately drafted a telegram to the Ministry of Munitions informing them that there was a rumour of malpractice at Spring Garden.

mckinnon cocoa bean

This brought a swift response: two inspectors followed by Colonel Stansfield from the Ministry arrived at the works. The premises were searched and in a meeting behind closed doors it was decided the Government should assume control of the factory. The first Aberdonians knew of this was removal of M’Kinnon’s signboard and its replacement by the prosaic “National Shell Factory”.

And there the matter rested until the end of the war. From 1917 to 1918 the nationalised factory operated under the direction of Professor Horne of Robert Gordon’s Technical School but rumours continued to circulate. It was only with the cessation of hostilities that matters came to a head and full public disclosure, as we might now say, was made.

Robert Whitelaw was accused of slander. The company, D G Robertson and Lachlan M’Kinnon sued, seeking damages of £6000 to be apportioned equally between the three pursuers. Whether Robertson’s victory in Kuala Lumpur inspired confidence of a win in this case is unclear what is certain is that he led the trio and sought to vindicate his own reputation as a patriot and an engineer.  

Between July 1919 and May 1920 the public were treated to a case which exposed the running of the shell factory and the Government’s priorities during the war.

The court action began before a jury at the Court of Session in March 1920 with Lord Blackburn presiding. The pursuers initially focussed on Whitelaw’s allegation that the company had conspired to make a Government stamp with the intention of fooling local inspectors. However, Lord Blackburn ruled, before the jury sat, that this was a secondary issue and that the central case was the question of the quality of the shells manufactured and the actions of the company between 1915 and 1916.  

McKinnon of Aberdeen

Evidence was presented by the pursuers, the defendant, an ex-Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Government inspectors and a range of employees from M’Kinnon’s. During proceedings it emerged a secret meeting was held in the Palace Hotel on 14th February 1917, led by Director of Munitions in Scotland, Frederick Lobnitz, with Lord Provost Taggart present. In essence this meeting presented D G Robertson with a fait accompli. Robertson was informed that the evidence collected during the snap inspection in January 1917 meant the factory was to be taken out of the hands of M’Kinnon, that the claims made by Whitelaw “were proved to the hilt” and “that was a crime”. It was declared by the Director of Munitions that the criminal action had been carried out under the orders of Robertson. Lord Provost Taggart, a prominent figure in Aberdeen’s granite industry, agreed with Lobnitz. When Robertson protested and asked for a hearing of his side of the issue he was summarily refused and Lobnitz hit back with, “If this had been done in France you would have been stuck up against a wall and shot”. Even the pursuers’ council admitted that if Whitelaw’s allegations were true his clients would have been traitors, their actions treasonable and would have deserved to be shot.


But David Graeme was not shot. Instead he was removed from the factory, which according to him meant M’Kinnon would lose 95% of its business. From the evidence given at the trial it became clear that the Government objective was to ensure the smooth production of deadly ordinance while at the same time suppressing any disclosures which might undermine morale on the Home Front; and prevent troops on the Front Lines learning that their lives were being placed at risk through “friendly” action of a once reputable engineering firm. Shooting one of the city’s leading businessmen was not really an option so state officials being what they are decided that a gentleman’s agreement of sorts should be adopted: if the company signed the factory over to the state it in turn would not shoot Robertson and further it would keep the whole affair hidden from the public. Frederick Lobnitz said they should “give up their contract, when the whole matter would remain private, and no stigma of blame would attach to the firm”. Sir James Taggart was happy to go along with this as it maintained the reputation of the city.

As the slander case progressed David Robertson’s and Lachlan M’Kinnon’s confidence must have waned. Government inspectors spoke of discovering a snibbed “secret room” in which men worked on some 150 to 200 shells, all in various states of disrepair. They testified to having to force entry to the room, literally a foot in the door. The Ministry’s Colonel Stansfield described the practice as a “deliberate attempt to cheat the Government gauges” (used by inspectors on the factory floor).

Robertson’s memory failed him; he told Lord Blackburn that he could not recall Stansfield accusing the company of fraud. Some of M’Kinnon’s employees claimed the snib on the door was there to keep management out so men could have a quiet smoke, something banned during dayshift. An alternative explanation offered was the room was a place men could dodge the gaffer. However the room contained a quantity of shells, new base plates waiting to be riveted, copper bands for attaching, the means of expanding the diameter of cases and so on; none of which was made known to the official inspectors, neither room nor operations. It was not until January 1917 that the secret room was revealed.     

Beyond the walls of the Palace Hotel where David Graeme was offered a deal, or rather an ultimatum, matters looked bleak for Robert Whitelaw. Not unusually for a whistleblower he found himself under threat. The gravity of the charge against M’Kinnon’s ensured the state took decisive action but this did not mean plaudits for Whitelaw; and certainly not any honour which his detractors hinted was the motivation for his action.[2] The problem the state had with him was that he would not shut up. He persisted in speaking to fellow special constables and others about the matter. A Government official contacted Chief Constable Anderson and told him that Whitelaw was making too much of a public fuss, that he should be told to keep his mouth closed. So the special constable found himself before his boss, being warned that there was “an immense amount of talk in Aberdeen” and it had to stop. DORA was the Chief Constable’s answer, no not a close female friend but Defence of The Realm Act, a draconian piece of legislation which was passed in 1914 and gave the Government wide-ranging powers of censorship and control over civilian activities. Whitelaw was warned that his gossip was “Prejudicial to the troops”. Given the prospect of a prison sentence the surgical instrument maker decided to adopt a lower profile and having lost confidence in his boss he resigned as a special constable.

In the end there was general vindication of Whitelaw’s claims. In his summing up Lord Blackburn said that irrespective of David Robertson’s engineering experience and his familiarity with boiler technology he lacked precise knowledge of munitions and explosives which meant that his views on manufacturing techniques were secondary to those of the appointed Government inspectors. Blackburn agreed with Stansfield and also cast doubt on the notion that the attic room was open to any who chose to visit. The jury retired to consider the case and after three hours deliberation returned its verdict. Of the four components of the action, including a counter action by Whitelaw, three were found in the defendant’s favour. The jury agreed that M’Kinnon had on occasion manufactured faulty shells and that these had been sent to a secret room to be rectified, without official permission and with the intention of having the modified shells passed as suitable for shipment to the Front. The only issue which was found in favour of the three pursuers was Robert Whitelaw’s claim that the company had forged a government stamp; this was a false claim (for the engineering minded this was confusion over a knurling tool although being a surgical instrument maker Whitelaw should have known the difference).

How important this single victory by M’Kinnon & Co. was can be judged from the fact that no damages were awarded for this slander. And, equally indicative, when Lord Blackburn came to apportion costs he ruled that the pursuers would pay their own expenses and 3/5 of the defendant’s.

mckinnon machine

In summing up Blackburn made clear that in his opinion the use of the secret room, repairing of faulty ordinance, and presumably the sidestepping of official inspectors, was an act of foolishness on the part of Robertson.   The manager had allowed his judgement as to what was and was not acceptable to override the regulations and the judgement of Government officials.   All had been done with the best of intentions. In mitigation Blackburn observed that no evidence had been brought forward which implicated any repaired shells in the deaths of British troops.   He concluded “Mr Robertson was not actuated by any personal motives in doing what he did, and that he honestly believed that the shells passed after treatment were in all respects as good shells as those which had not been treated”, and observed that the base motives attributed to Robertson and the company through public gossip were unjustified. Accordingly, he concluded that Robertson could leave the court knowing that this misrepresentation of his character had been dispelled.

And so with the end of the war this small skirmish in Aberdeen was settled. The National Shell Factory at Spring Garden ceased production on the 28th November 1918 with most of the workers being demobilised (presumably mostly girl operators) and on the 26th December machinery, tools and other equipment were auctioned off. As for William M’Kinnon & Co. the business turned again to its traditional market and in 1921 it won an award for the excellence of its machinery.   D. G. Robertson died in Montreal in 1926 and Robert Whitelaw died in 1932. Neither death notice in Aberdeen Press and Journal mentioned the scandal.


[1] Founder William M’Kinnon died in 1873 aged 96.   The name can still be found marketing plantation machinery but the business no longer has the local presence it once had.

[2] Throughout the war years Robert Whitelaw was prominent in fund raising concerts for British troops which probably gives a better sense of his motivations.

See photographs on Flickr – you may have to copy and paste the link to get the images up


June 2, 2014

Aliens Act 1705 – yes that’s us Scots. The Union bludgeon.

On 29 November 1704 the Lord High Treasurer of England was at the House of Lords explaining to a no doubt hostile audience why royal assent had been given to the Scottish Act of Security.

This Act was drawn up by the Scottish parliament in response to the terms of the English Act of Settlement of 1701 in which it was determined that the protestant House of Hanover would provide a successor to the British throne.

(In 1604 the crowns of Scotland and England were joined in a union under James VI. There was not at this time a union of parliaments and so were separate governments in both Scotland and England.)

The more quick-witted among you will have noticed therefore that an English parliament took a unilateral decision over the future of the monarchy not just for England but for Scotland as well thereby assuming its right to determine aspects of political control for both, presuming that Scotland, if indeed Scotland ever came into its consciousness at all, would fall into line.

It is not as though there were no Scots at Westminster then. In fact several were there representing (I use that term loosely) Scottish interests; men in key positions willing to go to any lengths to enhance their ambitions and augment their personal fortunes irrespective of the impact on home-based Scots.

The Scottish Act of Security was drawn up amidst a storm of protests within Scotland over how the liberties of the nation might be preserved. At stake the Scottish economy and wider Scottish liberties of religion and law which were seen as being under threat from an overpowering parliament in England that had taken no cognizance of its Scottish counterpart with its unilateral pronouncement over the crown successor.

While not in a union of parliaments, legislation from Edinburgh had to have approval of the monarch – in London. The monarch’s representatives, Lord High Commissioners, carried out this role until superfluous- following the Union in 1707 when the Scottish parliament was subsumed into England’s.

With publication of the Act of Settlement alarm bells were ringing across Scotland over what might be imposed here and led to the Scottish Act of Security which asserted Scotland’s right to determine its own monarch and not accept one imposed on it by England.

Reaction in Westminster was fast and furious. A further act was introduced by it to neutralise what it regarded as a threat from Scotland; possible withdrawal of Scottish troops (arguably England’s favourite and most sought after commodity from north Britain) and Scottish taxes which would weaken England’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession.

I’m not going there – sufficient to say think of that war as the 18th century equivalent of superpowers in the 20th and 21st centuries establishing power blocs across Europe and the world.

There were two ways the English politicians, Tory and Whigs (later materialised into Liberals) – little to choose between them then and now – could handle their tricky situation with Scotland- either as good cop or bad cop.

The good cop approach was to open negotiations with Scotland’s parliament and offer a free trade agreement.
The bad cop one was to label the Scots as aliens and bully them into submitting to a political union and Hanoverian succession on threat of a boycott of all Scottish goods throughout England and the English colonies along with the confiscation of property held by Scots in England.

For the point of clarity I should say there were plenty Scots included in England’s governing elite, content to wallow in the trappings of power while selling their own country short – the yoke of bondage as it was interpreted in Scottish circles. Any brave or stupid enough to show their faces back in Scotland were more than likely to have them pelted with stones. This happened quite a lot. Sounds barbaric doesn’t it? The other side had guns and swords – perhaps you find them more acceptable – some of a reactionary disposition do. Stones were the weapons of the poor – or the mob as history dubs them – used as a derogatory term for those not in power challenging those in power.

The mob disapproved of Scotland being bludgeoned and kicked into a political union. There is a trend among our current politicians to suggest the union was welcomed by Scotland’s people as the saviour of the country. This is not true. In fact it is a lie.

Anti-union feelings ran strong in Scotland. Protests over English high-handedness following the union of the crowns in 1604 were commonplace. By the start of the 18th century there was strong opposition to a political union. The Worcester incident is an unfortunate example of the degree of resistance to having Scotland absorbed into the English realm.

Recent transfer of 6 000 sq miles of Scottish water in the north sea to England by Blair’s government in Westminster was an audacious piece of Westminster imperialism. Back in 1705 emotions were high when an English vessel was captured off Burntisland. The captain and most of the crew of the English ship Worcester were hanged in front of 80 000 people for their incursion into Scottish water; a foreign vessel in a hostile act.

Amidst an atmosphere of such serenity and friendship, brimming over with trust, honesty, even-handedness and sacrifice the union was born. And from that point the term Scotland has become largely superfluous so much so that you’ll find in the majority of the histories of Great Britain dispensed with any mention of it whatsoever in favour of the term Britain or England.

It was surely the Alien Act 1705 that threatened to classify Scots as aliens (foreign nationals) – even while sharing a monarchy – whose property might be confiscated and whose trade would be embargoed which persuaded many of the Scottish nobility to agree to a union of parliaments. The lessons have surely not been lost on those who are happy to adopt threats, bullying and hostile posturing, with a not inconspicuous dose of outright lies, to ensure that very unequal union stays put.

May 2, 2014

Game shooting is a gun with a dumb animal at both ends

red kiteRed Kites are a magnificent sight around Conon Bridge near Dingwall. Or rather they were. It’s unusual now to spot one of these birds, flying I mean not crumpled up in a wood, despite the area being chosen for breeding them as part of the reintroduction programme of the late eighties. The recent crop of some 20 raptors found deliberately poisoned in the vicinity has turned attention to the owners of gaming estates and the gamekeepers employed on them. Only a few short months ago David Hendry, a former chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, complained that Buzzards were ‘out of control’ and should be culled to protect other wildlife. What’s concerning gamies and their employers is the decline in the numbers of grouse bagged by punters paying for a day’s sport.

Definition of sport with a tweed cap

Google sport and Scotland and you’ll bring up sporting estates. Scotland has lots of them. We’re not talking sport as in running, jumping or swimming but more of a gentle stroll over a heather muir pausing occasionally to take pot shots at birds released through a handy range of means for ease of killing; driven, semi-driven and walked up. No point in frustrating the paying punter or influential house guest.

If you are something in the City with buckshee cash in your back pocket to the value of £7m+ you might consider buying a piece of Scotland. You’d expect something pretty fancy for that outlay and that’s just what you would get.

Estates (of houses) in England are equivalent to schemes in Scotland. Here an estate is something altogether different

Newtonmore is a pretty attractive area as the description in Country Life makes out in a piece selling the virtues of an opportunity to buy A Superb Highland Estate: stunning and accessible location within an hour of an international airport. There’s a 7-bedroom castle included – albeit a touch on the modern side but the pièce de résistance is surely its

“renowned deer forest and grouse moor. Excellent low ground pheasant shooting and duck flighting. Exciting wild goat shooting. Salmon fishing rights on the River Spey and the River Calder and wild brown trout in the hill lochs.”

Have I missed out any living breathing creature that’s not, well fair game for annihilation while whiling away  a pleasant afternoon outdoors? – our rude natives possibly might have been available for a chase at one time but hey, we’re in the 21st century now so there are laws against native abuse. There are laws to protect birds of prey as well but …

Sporting estates -for the hunting of game – a concept synonymous with Scotland. The term game = a sport or activity engaged in for amusement.

Game therefore is a wild animal that can be eaten but is first chased and harried by a human using a powerful instrument against which the animal has little to no chance of escape.

I might not be so hostile to taking wild animals for food if the person tracking down the creature relied on matching their wit and initiative with that of the beast. Of course that would give the animal too much of an advantage. Sporting estates like to make it very easy for punters in tweeds to feel that thrill of success in having overcome a ‘wild animal’ or tweety birdy bred for the purpose and so tailor the exercise according to the punter hunter’s experience. It’s not that these blood lusting types are looking to bag something for the pot – that is incidental. After all there is Waitrose for that. No, game is well, what it says on the hide or tail, a bit of fun albeit involving death inflicted by a person armed to the teeth against a creature that is not.



Hunting as sport

Making money from hiring out sporting rights became popular in the 19th century. Why in Scotland this anachronism still exists is something more people are questioning.

It is as if Scotland occupies parallel universes: a nation with highly sought-after engineering skills from our oil and gas industries and a throwback tradition straight out of Brigadoon down to the hairy tweed knickerbockers and daft hats.

Game Laws

Restrictions over who could take wild animals from the land changed over centuries. It was once established that you had the right to kill game when you owned a ploughgate of land in heritage – the amount of land able to be tilled by one plough. The owner of such a piece of land could give permission for others to hunt on it, if suitably licensed. Where land was leased to a tenant, the owner could permit other people to hunt on it as long as the tenant was compensated for damage to crops or stock. The tenant could kill rabbits on the land he worked but not game.

In the 1830s poaching of game such as muirfowl, ptarmigan, heath-fowl, partridge and pheasant was liable to a fine of £5 for every bird taken, killed or found in person’s possession etc. That is equivalent to around £3,500 today. The fine had to be paid within 10 days on penalty of two months imprisonment for each £5 fine. In other words courts/lairds had no sympathy with any hungry person hoping to feed his family with a stewed partridge, not when there was sport to be indulged in.

Unlawful possession of hares, partridges, pheasants, muirfowl, ptarmigans, heathfowl, snipes, quails merited a fine of 20 shillings (£2) – over £1,000 today for the first offence – 40 shillings for every other- so someone caught with a bagful of birds was liable to being fined an enormous amount. Failure to pay fines called for imprisonment of 6 weeks for a first charge and three months for each subsequent charge.

Night poaching of hares, pheasants, partridges, muir game, black game or bustards was punishable by 3 months hard labour with release only on a promise not to repeat the offence within a year. If poaching was resumed within that time the person was jailed for 6 months hard labour – and with each subsequent offence the term of imprisonment would be doubled with transportation overseas for seven years for repeated offences.

Anyone found carrying an offensive weapon for hunting faced seven years imprisonment with hard labour or 14 years transportation.

The thrill of the kill- the more exotic the greater the joy

The Prince shoots an owl at the fourth attempt

Aberdeen Journal Wednesday 15 September 1847

“Prince Albert had then bagged seven and a-half brace of grouse, a hare and an owl. Minerva’s bird was caught napping. The first shot missed, but the owl slept on; the second shot, also, was thrown away, but the sleepy-headed bird wakened, and gazed round with a stupid, bewildered look. The Prince was equally unlucky with the third shot, and the poor bird, fancying the repeated noises were only harmless pops, dropped its head and dozed on. At the fourth shot the bird fell from its perch.

His Royal Highness and the gentlemen who were with him, on meeting her Majesty and Lady Jocelyn, at once gave up their sport, and mounting their ponies, returned over the hill to the lake, where the royal barge was in waiting, with the crew at their cars.”

Supported by the law any individual could blast birds to smithereens to their heart’s content, the rarer or more magnificent the species the greater the thrill of destroying it, just because one could.

In 1802 two ‘gentlemen’ were happily engaged on a shooting spree around Moffat when a ‘large beautiful young eagle sprang from one of the rocks.’ One of the men ‘happened to have a ball in one of his barrels’- he was slaughtering deer at the time – and grasped the opportunity to fire at the eagle, killing it. Fair chuffed he was. I expect that man lived off the tale of his thrilling encounter with the king of the skies for many a year.

Glossy Ibis (2)

A Glossy Ibis shot at Banchory raised a mention in the Aberdeen Journal in November 1842 as it was the first recorded shooting dead of a Glossy Ibis in Scotland and coincidentally the first recorded sighting of a Glossy Ibis in Scotland. The unfortunate bird had flown onto the Loch of Leys near Banchory where a nasty piece of work in the guise of the Rev. Anderson of Banchory was loitering gun in hand ready to take pot shots at any bird straying into his sights.

Sound familiar? The first white-tailed eagle to fledge in Scotland in 200 years flew from Fife to the Glenbuchat Estate in Strathdon earlier this year at which point some bastard stopped it dead.

It is the habit of young Eagles when fledged to be sent away from the nest to a hunting ground of their own and the reason they aren’t found in flocks. Young eagle chicks are fed on freshly killed food while mature birds mainly exist on carrion so feed when they can and fast when there’s nothing lying around. The assumption by some gamekeepers and farmers is that birds of prey are eating significant numbers of their young stock. This is not true but do dinosaurs have ears?

The case of the Banchory Glossy Ibis was set in context by the newspaper report along the lines of – unusual visiting bird spotted, remarked upon then summarily executed. Around the same time it was noted that Ospreys were particular favourites with sportsmen with several shot on the Don and Ythan rivers and a Honey Buzzard was taken out near Braemar. Peregrine Falcons nesting in the cliffs at Cove by Aberdeen, Dotterels at Strathdon and Towie, Little Terns at Belhelvie sands and a flock of Velvet Ducks were all regarded as fair game.

The magnificence and unusual nature of such birds did not escape the Aberdeen Journal writer who was at pains to stress how more such birds ought to be killed, treasures he described them, which might then be displayed in museums so that others might ‘foster a taste for such pursuits among the inhabitants of our city,‘ and so doubtless encourage them to travel into the country where they too might shoot several rare birds out of the sky. Hurrah I say.

In April 1914 Seton Gordon’s book on The Mountain Birds of Scotland was published. Gordon knew his birds. He wrote about the Erne or White-tailed Eagle that lived in the cliffs along the west coast of Scotland and how until the middle of the 19th century every headland of Skye could boast a pair of these ‘fine birds’ nesting.

He commented on the terrible harrying of Eagles by egg collectors and ‘the keeper’s gun’ which helped wipe out or endangered so many species along with nests raided and eggs smashed. Early last century £2 exchanged hands for anyone handing over an Eagle’s egg.

By 1912 Eagles were scarce in Perthshire. When in early December of that year a huge Eagle, estimated at 4-5 feet long and showing a lot of white was spotted ‘an organised effort’ was made to ‘effect its capture.’

By 1925 there were warnings over the danger of extinction of the Golden Eagle – destined to go the same way as the White-tailed and Osprey already wiped out in Scotland.

Aside from egg collectors and the rifle, trapping was also a cause of dramatic losses of their number. Whether through intent or not many magnificent birds were caught in traps usually set for foxes. Eagles being relatively strong were sometimes reported flying off with a trap attached. The outcome was predictable. Traps would become entangled in tree branches and the bird would starve to death.

A White-tailed or Sea Eagle was spotted in the island of Yell in Shetland in March 1937 but it was an unusual sight.

In 1933 landowners and farmers were encouraged to recognise that lamb losses were the exception rather than the rule for raptors. An eyrie under observation noted the food being fed to the Eaglet – Eagles normally lay one or two eggs a season – consisted of mountain hares, a few grouse, a water rat.

The Scottish Society for the Protection of Wild Birds was so concerned about Eagle numbers that in 1947 it offered £10 reward to the owners of land for every Golden Eagle that left the eyrie safely at the end of the breeding season. It also tried to encourage gamekeepers to help re-establish White-tailed Eagles, Ospreys, Kites, Honey Buzzards and other species.

The following year, a very young Adam Watson, the naturalist still on the go in these parts, talked about how egg hunters of mountain species had been successfully tackled through the £10 reward offered for each occupied eyrie.

‘No longer is the Eagle regarded as a menace,’ he said. ‘Gamekeepers have no longer biased opinions about the destruction wrought by these birds. They have been brought to appreciate that the Eagle does not do much harm at all.’

Maybe ayes and maybe nos.

Eagles are reputed to live well over one hundred years – when given the chance. In 1872 a ‘fine specimen of the Golden Eagle’ was captured at Castle Grant, Grantown-on-Spey. It was kept in captivity and died in 1907. 30 years is considered a long time for such a large bird in captivity but I expect it felt like a hundred years to that unfortunate Eagle.

Eagles of course are not game. Precisely what is meant by game cropped up in a court case involving Lady Forbes-Leith of Fyvie Castle in which a farmer was charged with trespass and poaching on her land after being caught shooting rabbits. He claimed his crops were being destroyed by them and as rabbits were not described as game under the Agricultural Holdings Acts he was at liberty to control them. You can imagine on whose side the court’s judgement fell.

Game Laws have been criticised for making property of wild animals. These laws differed in Scotland and England, emerging from different systems of law in each of the separate nations. In England all game was assumed to belong to the monarch and only those granted forest rights were permitted to kill wild animals or birds with hounds and hawks. In Scotland game laws were not tied to the crown but to acts of law; natural rights, as embodied in Roman law. The old Forest Law of Scotland referred only to royal forests but outwith these wild animals could be hunted for food or pelt, with seasonal restrictions. Throughout the early modern period birds of prey were persecuted in Scotland; their nests and eggs destroyed to preserve wild mammals in the forests and muirs. In England, by contrast, the destruction of a hawk’s egg could result in imprisonment for a year and a day, irrespective of who the culprit was.

Trespass – an offence under Roman law was, until the 15th century, in Scotland the only offence in pursuit of wild animals, except in the case of deer.

Over time Game Laws evolved from protection of food supplies to quite the opposite, with wild animals designated as sport rather than food – the principle of property having been applied to them.  During the reign of James III game was regarded as property – game then being mainly deer and rabbits or connings as they were known in Scotland (think Coney Island), birds and fish – all could only be taken by licence of the owners of the land on which they roamed, over which they flew and through which they swam. Mind you irrespective of law what happened on a laird’s land, as now in some cases, came down to what could be got away with.

Such was the persecution of some species of birds and wild animals that laws were introduced in an effort to protect them. Under James VI anyone shooting with bow or firearm without the king’s licence, except on official duty, risked the loss of all the offender’s goods – half of which went to the informer, in addition to his usual payment.

We should remember that it is only very recently poor people in this country ate much meat. The average diet, except for the wealthy, was composed of vegetables and grains with occasional meat or fish. But desperate hungry people are potentially dangerous and from the time of James IV the Scottish parliament ordered every landowner to erect a doocot (then dowcat) to provide stocks of pigeons (non-Scots note a doo is a pigeon). Doos were therefore offered some kind of protection and the result was a large increase in their numbers with the inevitable impact on farm crops therefore causing different food shortages and so doocots went out of favour.

Scotland’s roe deer population was severely reduced when James VI ordered that the animal be taken south into England to repopulate the forests there after it had been virtually hunted to extinction. One of his final acts in Scotland was the Game Laws which introduced the ploughgate qualification for killing rights. At the same time the sale of game was prohibited – with a penalty of £100 imposed on both buyer and seller for its contravention. Thereafter game laws grew similar between the two countries, Scotland’s falling in line with England’s.

Red Kites

The old Scottish name for Red Kite is Geld. The late 19th century saw the last breeding Kites before the 1980s programme to reintroduce the species to Scotland.

Red Kites are mainly scavengers, meaning they live off dead animals. They also eat live earthworms, small mammals, amphibians and other birds. They were, and possibly still are, in some quarters regarded as vermin. Their persecution was widespread and still is as witnessed in the killing fields of Conon Bridge and Muir of Ord.

For many of us they became a common sight, magnificently soaring high above Conon Bridge but no more. They’ve been missed from the skies there and the recent shocking discovery of so many deliberately killed Kites exposes that dark underbelly of ignorant mischief associated with some who like to hold themselves up as conservators of the countryside. They are not of course. They are despicable criminals and the law should treat them as such.

In 2012, according to the Scottish raptor study group, only 52 pairs of Kites laid eggs in the Black Isle compared with around 1000 breeding pairs in the south of England from almost equivalent numbers of birds released into these areas.

‘Between 1999 – 2006, an estimated 166 red kites from the Black Isle population were illegally poisoned’.

Clearly what’s been happening with Red Kites and other raptors is not game hunting as the birds are not being killed for sport and certainly not for food but from a misconceived belief they pose a threat to young farm animals, lambs, or birds specially bred on sporting estates destined to be blasted out of the skies for fun.

The Sport of Game is vital to the Scottish Economy

Defenders of this loathsome activity justify it in terms of its tradition but mainly its benefit to the economy. To that end various figures are bandied about which frankly I don’t swallow.

Sporting estates are run by wealthy business types who rarely stay in them year-round but fly in for ‘the season.’ And while headlines warn that the threat of Scotland becoming independent (shouldn’t that be re-introducing independence?) is making businesses prepare to pack up and leave in a veritable flood of biblical proportions it seems nothing will put off canny and loaded potential buyers wanting an acreage or thousands thereof of shooting and fishing rights here.


‘Every self-respecting billionaire should own their own country estate – it’s the ultimate prestige purchase’ according to a piece in The Telegraph in 2011.

While everyone else is scrabbling down the back of the sofa for the last of the loose change in these economically straightened times it’s good to know our billionaires are still shelling out to own large tracts of our country. Grouse moors are particularly attractive or so I’ve read and they often sell privately in deals arranged between friends and acquaintances.

A Fraser of Allander Report on game estates in Scotland in 2010 found they created 705 jobs amounting to £9.7 million in wages and contributed £15.6m to the Scottish economy.

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland – if ever there was an organisation named ironically it is surely that one – claims for every 1 direct job in grouse shooting a further 12 jobs are supported realising £15 million in wages and a contribution of £23.3million to the country’s GDP. A case of think of a number , then another number and multiply the two. The Allander Report concluded that for every 1 job on an estate an additional 0.5 of a job was created elsewhere. Which one do you believe?

Permanent employees on estates in 2009 were recorded as 260 , averaging under 3 per estate. A large estate might have twice as many employees. Not high numbers you’ll agree.

Fraser of Allander Institute – An Economic Study of Grouse Moors 2010

The sporting estate lobby likes inflate the figures it bandies around as their contribution to the economy and the national press are usually happy to repeat them without challenge.

So how does the economic importance of gaming estates figure in the Scottish economy?

Gaming Estates £15.6 million and providing 705 jobs

The Scotch whisky industry contributes £4 billion – that’s billion not million – gross value to the economy with £1.1 billion invested locally annually, supporting 35 000 Scottish jobs, with £10 billion exports.

Scotland’s oil and gas industry contributes £22 billion to the Scottish economy and £300 billion in tax receipts 2012/13.

Tourism in Scotland brings in £1.9 billion.

Food and drink £5.4 billion.

Exaggerated claims by sporting estates of their contribution to Scotland’s economy cannot disguise it is negligible and trails a whole raft of other industries besides those listed above.


Mismanagement and criminality

There are far too many incidents of mismanagement and downright criminality occurring on sporting estates. Again and again we are told gamekeepers are not to blame for illegal poisonings and the like. What we do know for sure is whenever someone is convicted of wildlife crime the slap on the wrist they receive from the courts is no deterrent.

Snaring, poisoning, shooting of protected species is an offence to the whole of Scotland. These things don’t happen by accident. A few years back I spotted a trap hidden in a dyke in a relatively lonely spot near Balmoral. I filled up the space with stones. No doubt whoever set the trap would have gone straight back to uncover it.

If you think this is all a fuss over nothing with only a very few offences occurring take a moment to check out the list of estates where alleged wildlife incidents have been reported.

Who owns Scotland?

Run your eyes over a list of some individuals, families, investment companies who own the land under our feet

Unknown Malaysian 1,600,000 acres

Mohammed bin Raschid al Maktoum 270,000 acres

The Duke of Buccleuch with 270,000 acres valued at around £800m to £1bn.

Kjeld Kirk-Christiansen 260,000 acres

Joseph and Lisbet Koerner 175,000 acres

Stanton Avery 135,000 acres

Alcan, Rio Tinto – an Australian company – global leader in the aluminium industry 135, 000 acres

Blair Charitable Trust ie land of the Duke of Atholl 130, 000 acres

Mohammed al Fayed 130,000 acres

Captain Alwyn Farquharson 125.000 acres

Urs Schwarzenburg 125,000 acres

Count Knuth 120,000 acres

Duke of Westminster 120,000 acres

Earl of Seafield 105,000 acres

Mahdi Mohammed al Tajir 105,000 acres

Professor Ian Macneil 100,000 acres

Edmund Vestey 100,000 acres

Lucan Ardenberg 100,000 acres

Eric Delwart 92,000 acres

Sir Donald Cameron 90,000 acres

Countess of Sutherland 90,000 acres

Paul van Vissengen 87,000 acres

Robin Fleming 80,000 acres

Hon Charles Pearson 77,000 acres

Lord Margadale 73,000 acres


The Land Reform Act of 2003

A veritable wailing wall of protests from landed interests and their supporters greeted this legislation. Their warnings were stark:

A red tide is about to sweep Scotland

The socialist hordes are at the gatehouse

The masses are crawling forth from their urban slums and massing on the hillsides

Socialist-style collectivisation of the land

Och if only.

What the Act did was established the right of access to land and provide some rights for crofters and communities to buy the land on which they lived and worked. It is this latter provision that has those who own great chunks of our glens and their obsequious defenders frothing at the mouth. But Lord Folderol has nothing much to worry about. Post-2003 is not so very different from pre-2003.

It does beg the question whose land it is, or rather whose land it should be. Why is it that a few people own so much of it yet so many others live on it, work on it yet don’t own it? Down to luck? ‘My ancestors fought for this land,’ is an oft-repeated remark from a concerned laird to which the obvious reply is, well how about you and me fighting for it now? And I suspect his ancestors were helped by a few other men who weren’t rewarded with the odd thousand acres of glen.

Sometimes a man who owned a stable full of fine steeds didn’t even have to leave his bed to accumulate property far less lug a great sword around. Sometimes it just fell into his lap. I’m sure all estate office have their original deeds proving their right to the land safely stored – oh don’t tell me, they didn’t require these with squatters’ rights.

We don’t have land collectivisation to benefit communities but we do have land accumulation which benefits individuals or investment companies, to our shame. According to Buccleuch Estates, collectivism of the land ‘is not representative of the body-politic of Scotland.’

I think you might find it is.

The SNP have said it plans to double the amount of land under community ownership by 2020. At present some 432 people own half the land in Scotland. I think they have a job on their hands. Scotland needs a fundamental shake up of land holding in the 21st century. Paradoxically criticism of any meaningful alteration to the system of land ownership is labelled as starry-eyed romanticism .

If any side is pushing the romance of Scotland it is surely those clinging determinedly to their heathery acres against the tide of opinion from Scots with their feet planted firmly in the here and now.

As for the argument that protected species and habitats are best protected by these large sporting estates, surely the evidence points the other way? As in previous centuries irrespective of the law, estate owners and their lackeys will do whatever they want or think they can get away with.

Red Kites, Eagles and Buzzards flying over Scotland are part of our heritage. I marvel at the Kites and Buzzards I see soaring over my house and have no wish to kill them. But then I don’t hold the title deeds to a vast estate where wild animals are regarded as a marketing product and raptors a threat (however misconceived) to its income. What if a few (or many) illegally shot or poisoned Kites, Eagles and Buzzards – and any other creature that happens upon the poison bait have to be sacrificed? People will forget and life will carry on as normal – Game Laws, Land Reform Acts won’t fundamentally impact on the division and purpose of our land. Toothless courts will not deter these people.

Not yet.

We, the hoi polloi, are constantly being reminded by the gaming estates mafia that land ownership is in fact often a ‘burden and a liability’ so let us , sir or madam, relieve you of that burden.


April 28, 2014

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win – women taking on the establishment in Aberdeen in 1912

suffragettes from newspaper 1912

There were extraordinary scenes in Aberdeen’s police court on 30 November 1912 when a group of suffragettes were accused of disorder during a visit to the city by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, in town to address a meeting at the city’s Music Hall. Amid the farsical prodeedings one accused removed her shoes and threw one at the magistrate and the other at the procurator fiscal.

One of the four, Mary Humphreys, was charged with breaking a window of a car she maintained carried Lloyd George. However in what reeks of jiggery pokery by the prosecution and the court authorities the actual charge and the identity of the car were brought into question.

The men of the court, thinking they had matters well in hand, proceeded to outline the case against Humphreys which involved a good deal of ridicule. However Humphreys realised she was being faced with a different charge from that on arrest so repeatedly asked for it to be re-read so she could understand precisely what it was she was accused of.

The baillie or magistrate tried to ignore her and pressed for her plea, guilty or not guilty. Humphreys insisted the charge be re-read so she could follow the names of those the court claimed were involved in the incident and was eventually told by the clerk to read it for herself. She did then contested the charge on the grounds that no owner of the car was named, only a chauffeur.

A verbal rammy ensued between her and the Fiscal who maintained it was irrelevant whose car it was but Mary Humphreys insisted that was entirely relevant to any charge against her.

After a delay the charge was clarified. She was accused of breach of the peace and behaving in a disorderly manner. Humphreys retorted the breach of the peace charge was ‘very vague.’

A clearly exasperated Fiscal tried once more to drag a plea out of her but found his match in Humphreys who declared she had acted for political reasons, not criminal, and the charge was inaccurate and she demanded witnesses, including Lloyd George whom she maintained was her target and was in the car she attacked and so the reason for the incident.

The bickering continued, neither side willing to relinquish ground until the baillie ordered she be bailed till the following Tuesday. Humphreys was told if she wanted witnesses from those in the car she should provide the court with their names. She did, requesting Lloyd George be called as a witness.

Meanwhile three other women who planned to target Lloyd George while at the Music Hall, by attacking him with Knall Korkes (a kind of cork used in small guns to make loud noises), had also pleaded not guilty to their charges of breach of the peace. Contesting her charge also was a Miss Parker. She had been arrested for being in the Music Hall for ‘some unlawful purpose’ but in court she was told, “You are charged with breach of the peace now.”

antii suffrage pc


The Fiscal was keen to delay the proceedings while the defendant wanted it finished there and then and carried on with her defence,  challenging the court’s refusal to bail the women the previous evening when they were detained, forcing them to endure a night in the ‘drunk cells’ with a man staring at them throughout.  All to no avail – the case was adjourned and she was granted bail. At this point another of the accused, Locke – an art student from London, removed her shoes and hurled one at the magistrate and the other at the Fiscal. She was manhandled out of the court by five bulky bruisers. The women’s supporters in the court room were thrown out at the same time.

When Humphreys case was resumed the car’s occupants were then  identified as a Mrs Crombie, owner, and two prominent northeastern men, Robert and Joseph Farquahrson.  Robert Farquharson was a Liberal MP, from Lloyd George’s Party. The chauffeur was Thomas Bartlett of Balgownie Lodge. Humphreys questioned their involvement – especially when they were said to have travelled in a blue car while she had thrown her stone at a red one, carrying Lloyd George. And once more she demanded the Chancellor turn up in court as a witness. The court ignored her repeated demands for him to be called insisting he had not been in the car.

Humphreys more of less accused Joseph Farquharson, an artist of considerable reputation, of dressing up as Lloyd George to give the appearance of confusion. Despite his abilities with paint pots Farquahrson did not appear to know whether the car he travelled in was red or blue and he came across as an unreliable witness. He didn’t recall which window had been broken, misidentifying it. The more Humphreys questioned him the more agitated he became.

There ensued a game of evasion. Humphreys again called on Lloyd George as a witness but the court prevaricated over whether or not he should have been cited – clearly not taking her request seriously. When pushed they replied they hadn’t bothered citing him as -“he was out of town” and the court had no jurisdiction beyond the city, not in the Shire and certainly not in the Houses of Parliament which Humphreys gave as his address.

She accused all involved of a cover up to protect Lloyd George from facing her in court.

A witness came forward to say the suffragette had broken the window of a red car while the car with the Farquahrsons was blue. Again the court found the best means forward was opacity. The charge was read out that she had damaged a ‘certain motor-car’ and so in a clear case of witness collusion the ill-tempered exhanges resumed.

A fine of 40 shillings was placed on her but when Humphreys refused to leave the court she was set upon by several policemen who tore her clothing as they ejected her to cries of ‘Shame! from the back of the court.

The women refused to pay their fines  and so were sent to Craiginches prison.


Following his engagement the Chancellor Lloyd George had been returning home by train and so the Joint Station became the focus for suffragettes hoping to catch his ear before he fled south.

Moments before the train departed, a Baptist minister, Rev Forbes Jackson, said to resemble Lloyd George, was standing in a compartment taking leave of his wife, when a woman, mistaking him for the Chancellor, hurled herself forward and struck him across the face with a dog-whip.

“Villain, traitor! take that – and that,” she cried while continually ‘pummling’ him.

The police were called and she was dragged away still convinced it had been the MP she had assaulted. Of course at a time before television when peoples’ likeness came from newspaper photographs it was very easy to misidentify a person. As for the minister, Rev Jackson, he took the incident very calmly, saying his concern was for the woman and in her defence agreed he did bear a striking resemblance to Lloyd George.

Despite his not wanting to press charges the authorities were determined to do so and the suffragette in question, who found herself before Aberdeen Police Court was none other than Emily Wilding Davison (or Mary Browne as she was named) who died a few months later under the king’s horse while fighting the cause of votes for women.

Emily Davison at court in Aberdeen

Emily Davison at court in Aberdeen

That December 1912 she was found guilty of whipping the minister and her fine of 40 shillings was paid anonymously. Might it have been by the Baptist minister?

During her four days in Craigniches prison she maintained a hunger strike but did comment that she was treated kindly by the prison staff. force feeding






The newspaper account of the court case exuded prejudice and hostility against the women and their cause, showing itself a stout defender of the status quo. Some things don’t change.

‘Something in the nature of a sensation was created yesterday afternoon when, shortly after four o’ clock, three Suffragettes with ‘explosive bombs’ in their possession were found concealed in the Aberdeen Music Hall three hours before Mr Lloyd George was to address his great meeting. The discovery was made while the attendants, accompanied by detectives and members of the Shore Porters’ Society, were making a careful search of the premises.

One of the Suffragettes was discovered in the hall, and two in a paybox at the Golden Square entrance. This paybox is open at the top but had the door locked. In the possession of one of the Suffragettes there was a box of Knall Korke explosive cork cartridges, known as ‘explosive bombs,’ which, when fired from a small toy pistol, make a loud report. No pistol was found, but it is assumed that the intention of the Suffragettes was to throw the cartridges high over the hall from the open spaces above the paybox, so that they might fall on the platform while the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking, and thus create a disturbance, and, in all probability, a panic. The box of those cartridges found in the possession of the Suffragettes contained several dozens of the explosive corks, and, if the plot had not failed, would probably have been the cause of great alarm; indeed, might have resulted in a fatal rush from the building.


When the women were discovered they manifested great disappointment, and at once showed signs of fight when the attendants sought to arrest them. According to the police report they struggled and kicked out vigorously, scratched and bit their would-be captors, and resisted with considerable power. At length superior forces and numbers prevailed, and the Suffragettes were taken into custody. Chief Constable Anderson, who happened to be in the vicinity at the time, ordered the prison van to be sent for, and it was not long before passers-by were surprised to see “Black Maria” in front of the Music Hall Buildings. When the women were conveyed to the Police Office in Lodge Walk they were asked to give names, addresses, and other information, but this was looked upon, in certain cases, as inquisitorial. According to the statements given the women are –

JOYCE LOCKE, aged 22, art student, London

MARION POLLOCK, who, though not belonging to Aberdeen, gave her address as the Aberdeen Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 7 Bon-Accord Street, Aberdeen; and

FANNY PARKER, who would give no address.

The three will be brought before the Aberdeen Police Court to-day on a charge of having been found upon premises – namely, the Aberdeen Music Hall – contrary to the Prevention of Crimes Act, for an unlawful purpose.

In the course of the evening a sympathiser took tea to the Police Office for the three arrested women. There was no question of bail, and the Chief Constable stated that that would have required consideration if it had been raised.

It is pointed out that although the “explosive corks” may not be dangerous in the sense of inflicting bodily harm, yet by the loud report they give on exploding were calculated to create panic, and that therefore they were not to be used with impunity at any large meeting, where panic might lead to serious disaster.


While the arrest of the three Suffragettes referred to was being effected, a fourth was seen making her way from the hall, but she escaped and no attempt was afterwards made to secure her. It is alleged that she had a dog-whip in her possession.


While Mr Lloyd George was departing, in a motor car from the Young Men’s Christian Association Hall, a Suffragette was seen to throw a piece of granite in the direction of the car. As was remarked, a woman’s aim in missile throwing is proverbial for its inaccuracy, and that proved so in this case, for instead of striking the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the motor car he had entered, the granite struck and did some slight damage to a cab in the vicinity! The Suffragette who threw the missile was arrested, and speedily removed to the Police Office, where she refused to disclose her identity. She was locked in a cell, and will appear with the other three before Baillie Robertson at the Police Court to-day.


Just as he had reached the entrance gateway to Glenburnie Park on his return from the meeting, Mr Lloyd George had his narrowest escape from personal violence. Very few people were in the vicinity of Rubislaw Den North at ten o’clock. About the time the the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s motor car was approaching a Suffragette, well known to the authorities, made her appearance on the scene. Her movements naturally attracted attention and her companion, who remained less conspicuous, forced her way forward when the motor car was entering the gateway. With a big stone in her hand she thrust it at the car, crashed it through the window, and made her escape.’

 Aberdeen Journal Sat 30 November 1912

suffragette cartoon male suffering


The Chancellor’s venture north was deftly defended by a thick black line of police and the courts. There was so much social agitation taking place in Britain during this period and women, demanding equal rights with men, were proving to be some of the most ruthless and determined campaigners – demanding answers from the politicians who, abetted by the police, courts and other parts of the establishment, evaded whenever possible being accountable for their actions.

A male supporter of the women’s cause shouted out to Lloyd George as he passed by the Music Hall, “Don’t forget the women,” but the local newspaper said with not a little glee, ‘The Chancellor passed on without taking any notice.’

Protesters spilled out from the Music Hall, congregating by the Wallace statue including members of the Aberdeen Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union to plan for another day.

The reluctance of politicians to defend their positions through proper debate with those whose lives are impacted by their actions was as reprehensible then as it is now.

The disgraceful behaviour of the courts to cover-up, collude over evidence and protect public figures was as reprehensible then as it is now.


The shameful denigration of women through coverage in the press is part of a broader attack that goes on by much of the press when authority or the establishment is challenged by any group. The eagerness to laugh at, collude against, humiliate and dismiss arguments – to concentrate on the sensational at the expense of the rationale behind protests was as reprehensible then as it is now.