Posts tagged ‘Stonehaven’

Dec 18, 2020

The birdcatcher – Fowlsheugh’s heughman and the queets, the nories and kittyweaks (and brawny women)

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

Those defiant rocks form the cliffs at Fowlsheugh, a stones throw from Stonehaven in northeast Scotland.

Now an RSPB Scotland nature reserve and site of Special Scientific Interest, Fowlsheugh is home to countless thousands of seabirds arriving annually to breed on its 200 foot cliffs.

Queets, nories and kittyweaks, their names now more familiarly anglicised to guillemots, puffins and kittywakes are an attraction in their own right with people looking for that perfect photograph or just to gaze at the fabulous sight of them all in the breeding season. Changed times. Their popularity used to be as food or ‘sport’ and were regularly ‘catched’ and traded until seabird fowling was banned in 1954.

Seabirds (all wildbirds) had monetary value until protection was brought in. This monetary value either benefitted local communities (mainly on Scotland’s remote islands) or the proprietor of the land where the birds were caught and killed. Popular for their eggs more than their flesh, birds also supplied feathers for pillows and quills but mainly in the Victorian era, hat decorations, as well as oil for lamps and tanning leather.

Fowlsheugh

Fowlsheugh’s laird rented out ‘his’ bird colonies to a local tenant, the heughman for about £2 a season and the heughman (known as craigsman in other areas and in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality – see below) was also obliged to present the laird with a prize specimen of a young hawk. To gather birds the heughman or bird catcher had to descend the cliff face from the top since the heaving waters of the German Ocean beneath the cliffs prevented any sort of ladder being used to climb up. Rather like a modern-day mountaineer abseiling he was lowered by rope – in his case by five or six of his fellow villagers. These weren’t usually brawny blokes but brawny women. A wooden pulley was also used at times to hold the rope clear so prevent it rubbing and wearing through against the sharp rock. With the rope secured about his person, the heughman was slowly lowered – steadying himself by bouncing his feet against the side of the cliff, signalling to those up top to tighten the rope from time to time so he could empty nests of their eggs.

“Are ye mad?” said the mendicant: “Francie o’ Fowlsheugh, and he was the best craigsman that ever speel’d heugh, (mair by token, he brake his neck upon the Dunbuy of Slaines,) wodna hae ventured upon the Halket-head…” *2

The heughsman’s equipment included a large sack or bag, its mouth kept open by an iron ring, attached to a pole of some twenty feet in length. Using the pole to gather eggs into the sack meant he didn’t have to get too close to nests protected by distressed birds and reach into nests deeper into hollows in the cliff. With his sack filled he would be pulled back onto the cliff top to empty his load before descending again. And so his harvesting of the eggs would continue until huge quantities were taken.  

Eggs were often hard boiled straight away, to preserve them. There was a brisk local trade in them so it was rare that they had to be taken any great distance to sell. Sundays, peoples’ only day off, would find many folk from Stonehaven cover the short distance to Fowlsheugh to buy the heughman’s eggs.

Queets (guillemots) tend to lay a single egg but often will lay a replacement if the first is lost. The kitteweak (kittywake) lays two eggs per season. The eggs of the queets and marats (razorbills) were most sought after because their hard shells meant there was less chance of them being damaged while being collected and selling on. The queets sparse nests sit exposed on open rock while nories (puffins) along with marats nest in niches which offer more protection to the egg and young, though not from a 20-foot pole.

A few weeks after that season’s eggs had been collected the heughman would descend once more, this time to gather young chicks hatched from those eggs left on the rocks. Kittyweaks being the most popular for eating. Demand for these little chicks usually outstripped supply and they were often eaten fresh, sold in local markets, with few being preserved by salting and drying in the open air.  

With the coming of autumn came still more harvesting of the cliff’s bird population. This time Fowlsheugh’s heughman was armed with a net to trap birds before they flew off for winter. These older birds were wanted mainly for their feathers, as explained above to decorate women’s hats or stuff cushions.  

This was, still is, the time known as the shooting season. Crowds came by boat, foot and horseback from Aberdeen, Stonehaven and all around to take pot shots at those birds that had escaped the raid on eggs, chicks and adults. Here was another source of income for the heughman who charged a shilling for each gun. All in all he was provided with a fairly decent living by the wild birds of Fowlsheugh. The birds were easy targets, seldom straying far from the rocks and it was reported as many as six birds could be killed by a single shot. Needless to say the raucous cries of the birds during these attacks was tremendous.

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

Fishing rights to the sea below Fowlsheugh belonged to the crown and there was a huge row in 1897 when leasing rights were leased to private interests for salmon fishing by stake netting because this resulted in wholesale slaughter of seabirds, drowned in the nets. An outcry among the public at the carnage led to an end of the practice.

Many of the seabirds took their food from the sea by diving into it and these birds were scooped up in nets; some were hanged in the mesh and some trapped so they slowly drowned. Thousands of queets were destroyed in this manner, to the horror of those who witnessed it, for it proved impossible for the birds to be freed from the mesh without breaking their wings and legs. There were descriptions of the birds’ eyes – wild and staring from fear as they thrashed about in a desperate struggle to escape the mesh which cut deep into their flesh. This horror was repeated daily during the egg hatching season, meaning the young were left without an adult to protect them and provide them with food and it was feared that within a couple of years Fowlsheugh’s bird population might be wiped out. And all this horror so the crown could profit along this four-mile stretch of water to the tune of £70 per annum. On the back of popular local opinion the crown ceased netting under Fowlsheugh’s cliffs early in the season but the slaughter was just delayed for the start of August brought the shooting season and the coastal birds were again targeted.

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

Life was tough for the coastal folk of Fowlsheugh but so was it a sair fecht for the birds breeding on the cliffs there – and wildlife everywhere in Scotland. In 1850 is was reported that ‘Scotland’s largest and most prized hawks (prized in terms of trophies) were virtually exterminated. The kite, the gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons often used in falconry) and goshawk had vanished, persecuted to extinction. The only sighting for ten years of a goshawk in Scotland, was in April 1850, and that bird was trapped two weeks later by a gamekeeper at Doune of Rothiemurchus. The protection of birds is more tokenistic than real, even today.

On the coast the heughman’s trade was not only driven by his local country people’s need for food but Victorian museums’ near insatiable demand for egg specimens to display and stuffed birds to exhibit, such was public curiosity and fascination with nature – mainly of the dead kind (not so long ago natural scientists insisted on killing living species as means of properly identifying them, even in the case of the rarest of specimens.)

The fowls of Fowlsheugh and elsewhere or rather the occupation of bird catcher, craigsman and heughman gave rise to the name Fowler or more commonly in these parts, Fowlie. Scotland had a makar (official poet) called Fowler. William Fowler who was a fixer for James VI and in the pay of the English court of Elizabeth for whom he spied, hired by her spymaster, Walsingham, the man who plotted against James VI’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots and the one responsible for her execution. Fowler was rewarded for his services to the crown with a 2,000 acre estate in Ulster. Talk of feathering nests. When he had a minute to himself he wrote poetry.

Covenanter’s stone at Dunnottar cemetery

And to finish on the subject of writers, Walter Scott met the man who would become Old Mortality in the book of that name, Peter Paterson, when he was cleaning the gravestones of Covenanters who died in Dunnottar castle, at the local graveyard so preserving their names and contributions to this religious struggle in Scotland’s past. The two got into conversation and Peter became Robert Paterson in Scott’s tale of political and religious turmoil during that period.

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar

Dec 7, 2020

The Land Beastie Record set in Scotland – but wait…

The pretty coastal town of Stonehaven on Scotland’s northeast coast is home to the oldest known creature to live on land. Or is it?

At only a centimetre in length the beastie, a millipede, created a real rumpus in the world of palaeontology when she or he came to light in 2003. Cocooned within layers of sandstone for about 428 million years the millipede earned fame at long last when amateur palaeologist Mike Newman from Kemnay, not a million miles away from Stonehaven, cracked open a piece of crumbling cliff rock at Stonehaven’s Cowie beach.  

A series of spiracles or air holes along the creature’s body showed that this tiny beast had breathed air and so could live entirely on land and was not partly dependent for survival on water. Up until 2003 land creatures were thought 20 million years younger than the millipede.

We can give the millipede a name – pneumodesmus newman; pneumo meaning breath or air in Greek, desmus meaning millipede and newman meaning the bus driver from Kemnay.

The creature not only had breathing holes for the exchange of gases but long slender legs to run along the land and so was documented as the earliest arthropod with a tracheal (breathing) system.

Skatie shore at Stonehaven

Now rocks are old in Scotland. At Stonehaven, or rather the place that would be appropriately known as Stonehaven, can be found an impressive mixture of rock types because the town lies on the edge of the Highland Fault Line that separates Highland from Lowland Scotland and the conjunction of igneous rocks such as granites produced by molten rock during the earlier years of a volatile earth and eras from where we get sedimentary stone, such as Old Red Sandstone and the mudstone at Skatie shore, which are built up layer by layer. The result is an area enriched by diversity of rock types with stone from one age emerging through breaches in another.  

In young newman the millipede’s day tropical Scotland lay much farther south of where it is now, close to the Equator, part of an area known as Laurentia. Laurentia went on to tear apart  -a fragment incorporated into North America, another travelled north to form Greenland’s land mass and another south east of this to create Scotland. Scotland on the equator was prone to flooding, an attribute Stonehaven carried into the new independent Scottish land mass, and the moist conditions were perfect for the development of life forms – bacteria and possibly viruses, which we are all too familiar with today.

Whatever age newman the millipede is she/he is a youngster in comparison with the age of earth, thought to be in the region of 4.5 billion years old. Much more recently, a mere 2.4 billion years ago,  a series of chemical processes resulted in increased quantities of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere which eventually led to life emerging from the swamps and onto terra firma.  Modern day versions of some of earth’s early wet life such as jellyfish and sea anemones are very visible on Stonehaven’s beaches. Wind the geological clock forward to 540 million years ago when the first animals with backbones emerged – eel-like creatures – and in time critters slipped out of the water and onto the land. Newman’s millipede pretty much had the beach at Stonehaven to her/himself for hundreds of millions of years before humans sauntered onto these shores.

And there the story ends. But wait –

In 2017 a palaeontologist in Texas had the audacity to dispute newman the millipede’s age claiming it to be younger by a whopping 10 million years. The American insisted the oldest found oxygen breathing animal dates from 437 million years ago and is a scorpion from – take a guess — the USA. This rubbishing of newman the millipede’s position in the world has been disputed by other palaeontologists who have poured scorn on the Texan’s claims and say there is no evidence her scorpion ever lived on land. It also emerges that the rock professor from Texas previously raised professionals’ eyebrows with her assertion that earlier generations of palaeontologists all got it wrong over how the Himalayas were formed 55 million years ago.

So, is newman the millipede’s position as the oldest found land living beastie still tenable? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions folks.

Jul 30, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 19.

Nineteen weeks in chokey and it doesn’t seem a day too long. I get the feeling I’ve said something like this before. I realise it’s been easy for us. We’re used to being self-sufficient and let’s face it we’re both happy with our own company – or as some might express it – we’re anti-social. As that well-known Aberdeen salutation/godspeed goes – “Happy to meet, sorry to part but not too sorry – Bon Accord.” Well, that’s the version popular in our hoose.

19 mix 2

We did break lockdown to visit ‘the young folk’ in Stonehaven as the wee one was having a birthday. He’s the nearest human contact we’ve had in 19 weeks – and very pleasant it was too. Of course this visit required a run over the bypass – a good outing for the car which is also in relative lockdown and it was a pleasure for us seeing parts of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine we haven’t seen for a bit. Still bonny.

I nearly forgot. On our way to the bypass, round about Mason Lodge I think, we drove past a field with a tall stone dyke and looking over the dyke was a coo (cow.) As the dyke was pretty high only the coo’s heid (head) could be seen; a bonny cream beastie. There were folk walking by and the coo’s heid followed them, watched them come, pass and move away. It turned to follow their movement and eyed them up and down. It reminded me of my late Aunty Isabel who we used to take for treatment to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. During the inevitable waits for and between treatment, Isabel (in her nineties) would inspect fellow patients walking by – eyeing them and the often weird clobber they wore or their hair styles and colours and half turn to me with a knowing nod and trace of a smile. I should add at this point that Isabel was complimented on her own appearance by a man at the hospital – totally out of the blue he remarked, maybe a bit uncalled for and personal but, along the lines of that’s a beautiful outfit you’re wearing. She did have an eye for quality – and mutton dressed up as lamb, as she might have thought but never said. I miss that shared look and smile that wasn’t meant unkindly but spoke volumes, none-the-less.  

This week I phoned my optician to place on record I’d phoned early in March to report my two new pairs of varifocals made the world spin so much I relegated them to the top of the desk in anticipation of returning them once the lurgy passed. Back in March it looked like that was a real possibility. Oh the innocence of early lockdown. The opticians isn’t back to full operation but said they would be happy to see me given that I’ve been using the old prescription specs. It was very good of them but apart from being willing to hand over the useless pair I wasn’t keen on submitting myself to face-to-face interaction in a closed space and said I’d get back in touch in a couple of months. A couple of months! Where will we be in a couple of months apart from bowling downhill towards winter?

More blackcurrants have gone into the freezer. And still they come. They are handy and most mornings a handful of blackcurrants or other fruit but mainly blackcurrants because we have tons of them is added to our breakfast porridge or cereal. Unfortunately, one morning this week husband announced there weren’t any in the fridge. Not possible. With an exasperated sigh I found the plastic container with its dark red contents in the fridge but when I opened it instead of blackcurrants found cooked aduki beans! I had somehow managed the night before to pick up the blackcurrants and put them into the freezer instead of the beans. I love aduki beans but am holding fire on trying them as a breakfast topping. You never know. Nah, I think we do.

19 mix

Our sweet old cat was ill this week. As he’s getting on, about 112 in human equivalent years, we were preparing ourselves for the worst. Not that you ever are prepared. Next day he was as right as rain and our daughter suggested he might have been suffering from heatstroke. It has been hot and as soon as the sun’s up he’s out to laze under an apple tree or baking in his straw-packed kennel beside the greenhouse. I think I mentioned before that he loves a picnic so doesn’t even come in for grub until evening on the nicest of days.  

 We have a linnet in the garden. Fairly certain that’s what it is. Are they simple? This bird brain can’t find its way to the many sources of bird food we have scattered and dangling. Hope it hangs around. Lovely wee thing. Our house martins are still in residence high up on the gable. See them when we’re round that part of the house and every evening out of the sittingroom window we admire them darting through the air grazing on airborne insects. 

Yesterday I crossed paths with a tiny brown frog yesterday while walking. Thought it was a leaf blowing across the road but then the leaf began hopping and stopped for a moment for me to admire it before hopping off into the grass. A speckled brown butterfly occupied the same spot on my way back. Do frogs turn into butterflies? No? Are you certain of that?

Our blue salvias flowers are taking geological time to open. First saw the plant in a park somewhere in Germany. Can’t recall where but they were massed together and looked fabulous. We have only one or two plants and I suspect winter will be upon us before they fully open. Talking of blue – the wild chicory has been blooming for a good while now in the verges. It’s very pretty and one year I made the mistake of introducing seed into our garden. We are still trying to get rid of plants that spread like wildfire. Every year more spring up. Bloody stuff.

And on the subject of garden pests, although ones we are quite fond of – the badgers are still at it. The heavy pot and bird feeder stand goes over night after night. Now along with the peanuts having to be brought in overnight so, too, is the seed feeder for they pull it to pieces searching for seed. Not that there’s any left by the end of the day. 

The latest trend in lost jobs continues to pick up pace. Three out of five of one arm of our family have recently been made redundant. As they are anything but alone finding work is going to be a nightmare for them. And the knock-on consequences very serious.

It’s a while since I finished reading Ethel Mannin’s series of essays Brief Voices. It covers very many topics; far too many to comment on here so one or two points only. Mannin flirted with Buddhism but was hugely critical of Buddhists in Burma where her writings were banned as a result. She criticised their cruelty and claims of being against killing animals while happily consuming them on grounds they didn’t personally kill them – e.g. fishermen don’t kill fish only take them out of water – where they die, it was the servant who bought meat at market so nothing to do with them eating what was prepared while butchers who definitely did kill animals were, at this time, despised – yet not the meat they produced.

She was very much a woman of her time and class. Despite her radical political views – she was a member of the Communist Party for a time – Mannin was, nonetheless, a bit of a snob and was intolerant of things she didn’t understand or care to understand. She didn’t have much sympathy for aspects of working class lives and positively railed against Teddy Boys and the rock and roll generation (slack-jawed and joyless she described young people), beats and Angry Young Men literature. She thought the ‘atomic generation’ brought up on violent films would become inured to death. How wrong. The protests of the 1960s were just around the corner. Interesting and complex woman, nonetheless. I will look for more of her works in future.

 Stay safe.

 

May 8, 2019

Poor Lexy Campbell, Lord Byron and the man who could raise the dead

Lexy Campbell was very young when she caught Lord Byron’s eye on a visit to his former nurse, Agnes Gray, in the village of Woodside, close to Aberdeen. Agnes and her husband, Alexander Melvin, lived in a first floor flat at 177 Barron Street, its back to the old turnpike road to Inverurie, as was the tradition. Following his visit the tenement was tagged ‘Byron Hall.’

A young George Gordon, Lord Byron, admirer of Lexy Campbell

I don’t know when that was but reckon she was around fourteen or fifteen, ten years younger than Byron; known in Aberdeen by his mother’s family name, George Gordon.

Lexy, Alexandrina Campbell was five foot three, fair with light brown hair and hazel eyes with a little mole on her right cheek. She lived near Agnes in Printfield, in the flat of a ‘very respectable spinster, called Nelly Calder. It was subsequently reported that poor Lexy’s reputation suffered following the attentions of George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose reputation is well-known but on this occasion he appears to have been innocent – well fairly innocent for she might have been tainted by the whiff of scandal that always hung about the poet and ‘Poor Lexy lost caste by this affair, and her subsequent history was unfortunate.’

When she was 30 years old Lexy Campbell was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) Australia along with 99 other prisoners from Britain on the ship, Harmony. Why? Well, it all started like this –

Lexy Campbell became the housekeeper, tutor to his children and perhaps mistress of the notorious Black Malcolm Gillespie. Dark haired with a dark complexion Gillespie was a gauger, an exciseman – employed by the government to collect taxes, for the purposes of this account we’re concerned with the whisky tax imposed on the spirit in Scotland by the British government eager to control the smuggling of foreign spirits and illegally produced whisky in Scotland – illegal in the sense of not paying the government’s tax. Originally from Dunblane, Gillespie worked in various districts including Collieston, Stonehaven and later went to live at Crombie Cottage at Skene, west of Aberdeen. He was a very successful gauger and for 28 years he was a scourge of local whisky smugglers, well-informed and knowledgeable on the whereabouts of stills and routes taken by smugglers. He’s credited with seizing 410 gallons on a single occasion and over his time as an exciseman he captured 22,751 gallons of spirits, 165 horses and 82 carts.

It appears the government didn’t pay their gaugers very much for Gillespie felt the need to make a bit more besides to maintain the lifestyle he thought should be his. But I’ll come back to that.

One of Black Gillespie’s adversaries was entrepreneur whisky man, John Duff – a prolific whisky maker and smuggler. One day with 40 gallons of whisky concealed in his house ready to be carted to Aberdeen for sale he was dismayed to spot the approach of the exciseman, Gillespie. Time was too short to shift the barrels of whisky so Duff frantically thought how he might prevent Gillespie searching his property.

Landseer’s romantic image of an illicit whisky still

This was a time when itinerant craftsmen took their skills around the countryside rather than folk going to them in a village or town. It so happened that a travelling tailor was at Duff’s house ‘whipping the cat’ i.e. engaged on making up clothes there.

This particular tailor was a Highlander although that probably has little relevance to his insatiable thirst for whisky. And no, he wasn’t persuaded to drink 40 gallons of the stuff in the time it took Gillespie to arrive.

‘There’s Gillespie, we maun try to save the drink. Will ye render assistance, Tam?’ John Duff asked the tailor.

The tailor agreed to help Duff when he was promised he would be paid as much whisky as he could drink in a week but on discovering the plan involved him playing dead Tam the tailor was less enthusiastic for as a Highlander he had sufficient respect for religion to worry about playing with fate and death.

However, he agreed and lay down on the long table with a napkin tied under his chin and a cloth spread over his face – every inch a corpse.

Gillespie marched straight into the house and was surprised to be greeted by a body laid out in front of the window and Duff and his relatives seated about in a state of mourning – their faces wet with tears and bibles in their hands as they sang a Psalm.

‘Oh, Mr Gillespie! Ye hae come to a hoose o’ mourin’. As ye see, we hae just been askin’ Divine aid to sustain us in this sair dispensation, but come inbye! Come inbye,’ invited Duff.

The two men talked a little about the dead man who Duff claimed was his brother newly returned home from America. Gillespie was well-informed about the people in the community he policed and was certain Duff had no brother. Suspicious, he enquired what the man had died from. Duff was dumfoundered and thinking fast thought it best to say it was something highly infectious to encourage Gillespie to leave but his mind went blank. He dropped his gaze and his eyes fell on the open bible in his lap. And he read the first words he saw.

‘’Nae ither than leprosy,’ he said.

‘Leprosy, did you say?’ cried an astounded Gillespie.

The gauger was more suspicious than ever and asked to see the corpse. Duff warned him he was taking his life in his hands but to go ahead.

Gillespie stepped up, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s much danger, for I am not very liable to infection.’ He lifted the cloth and was sure he recognised the man laid out who didn’t look very dead or diseased. It came to him that this was none other than the wandering and often drunken tailor he had seen weeks earlier. From his pocket he took out his snuff box and taking a pinch of the stuff pushed it into the nostrils of the ‘streekit’ man. The corpse sneezed, again and again, and sprung to his feet, tearing off the cloths around his face while the Duff family looked on aghast and Gillespie smiled.

‘What the devil gar’d ye stap yer langnailed fingers up my nose?’ demanded the risen corpse.

‘Man, I think you have reason to be thankful that I did so. If I had not, our friend here might have buried you alive. If you ever again fall a victim to the leprosy you now know the cure. Just try the effects of a pickle snuff,’ said Gillespie.

Then turning to Duff he told him he had just witnessed one of those miracles he read about in the bible.’ As for raising the dead Gillespie insisted he couldn’t do that but had come close, ‘for I have at least raised the ninth part of one… you thought the body only remained, and that the spirit was fled: you see you are mistaken. After such an error I could never pardon myself if I departed without searching the house. It is not known what further discoveries I may make. I may even find spirits absent from the body.’

And so it was that John Duff’s store of whisky spirit was discovered and confiscated and Duff dealt with by the courts which put a stop to his whisky smuggling career.

When it came to his turn Gillespie’s own court appearances must have raised a wry smile and a slàinte mhath or two around the straths and townships of Aberdeenshire.

In 1827 Malcolm Gillespie and George Skene Edwards were charged with forgery to obtain money. On his arrest Gillespie uttered, ‘Good God, I am a gone man. You must allow me to disappear and this will be all settled.’ He appealed to have the charges removed which was rich given his ruthless approach to those he apprehended. Before his arrest when he became aware the game was up on his forgeries he told one witness against him, ‘for God’s sake good woman, don’t do that, for, if the fiscal got notice of that, I might as well cut myself in pieces, or blow out my brains.’

The man with a craving for high living, or as high as a gauger cum fraudster could expect, who forged Treasury bills went on to try to defraud two insurance companies.

The home he and Lexy lived in, Crombie Cottage, he insured for £530 with one insurer and £300 with another. One or two others shared the house and all were implicated in Gillespie’s plot to burn down the house and claim insurance money on it. Gillespie took himself off to Edinburgh, presumably to give himself an alibi, leaving the others to arrange the fire by smearing the furniture with rosin, inflammable solid pine resin, jamming more resin between roof joists, pouring turpentine around and sprinkling gunpowder over surfaces. Coils of dry ropes were brought into the house to help it burn and one part of the thatch was cut to prevent a single area go up in flames.  On the night of 21 February 1827 all the participants took a dram of whisky then Lexy took a lit candle into the cellar and set it alight while another ignited the dry ropes.  

It was an elaborate plan and it worked. The house burnt down good and proper or in Gillespie’s words it was ‘genteelly done.’

On 30 April Gillespie was apprehended for his claim on the insurance companies. He, Lexy and the rest were held in Aberdeen’s tolbooth. By a majority verdict Gillespie was declared guilty of forgery and told to expect no mercy in this world. He bowed to both bench and jury. Gillespie retained hopes of a reprieve to near the end for he was much respected as guardian of the law of taxation by many a landed gentleman and MP but when that didn’t come the gauger became introspect and dejected. At the last moment he admitted his forgeries, protesting he acted honestly. He was executed on 16 November. When he stepped up to the scaffold he looked towards the west – supposedly towards Skene. Following his hanging he was cut down and transported back to Skene and buried there.  

The type of convict ship Lexy sailed on to Van Diemen’s Land

As he had been convicted on the capital offence of forgery Gillespie was not tried on fire-raising to defraud. His accomplices faced that charge but it was accepted by the court that Gillespie had been behind the plan so they were shown leniency – seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land – which is why Byron’s early love, fair Lexy Campbell, at the age of thirty found herself in the company of 99 others on a convict ship, Harmony, bound for Australia on 9 September 1828. Her fate there? I don’t know.

PS Thanks to John and Lesley who responded to the initial blog with links to information about Lexy. I had read previously she was from Ross-shire (like me) but dismissed this as it mentioned a place called Haries (which doesn’t exist) however it must mean Harris in the Western Isles which is in Easter Ross.

I didn’t find out much more about Lexy post-transportation other than she was described as well-behaved and married a man called Bryan. Grateful to readers and https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/about-convict-lives/about-convict-lives for this information and anymore is welcomed.