What Does The Poppy Represent?

Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.

The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields”  that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance. 

A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’  in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.

As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website – 

‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’

This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. . 

In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War. 

The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website – 

‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’

With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.

To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Bottled History: Museum Acquires Rare Shipwreck Whisky

A piece of Scotland’s bottled history was recently acquired at auction by the Scottish Maritime Museum, based here in Ayrshire; A bottle of whisky salvaged from the wreck of the SS Politician, along with the helmet of diver George Currie, who retrieved the bottle, and two bricks that were also part of the cargo of the ship are now part of the Museums national maritime collection.

 The story of the SS Politician was the basis of the widely popular book, written by Compton Mackenzie, and film of the same name Whisky Galore!, in which the residents of the tiny Scottish Island of Todday are horrified to learn that they have run out of whisky; soon after, the SS Cabinet Minister runs aground nearby during heavy fog, carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky. Theft and hilarity ensue as they try to hide the whisky from the officious English commanding officer Captain Waggett. As it turns out, the true story that Whisky Galore! is based on may be even stranger and more interesting.

Life was particularly difficult for the Island communities in Scotland during the Second World War; the introduction of rationing in 1940 meant that anyone over the age of 5 had a ration book which contained tokens to be used for various items such as butter, sugar, eggs, meat and clothing. This was done to prevent stockpiling and while the Islands in the Outer Hebrides were mostly self-sufficient, it still meant supplies they could not cultivate for themselves were running low. The small island of Eriskay, just south of South Uist, was mostly crofting land at the time and the residents were feeling the brunt of the ongoing war; the constant threat of German U-boats meant that it was dangerous to send out puffers to the islands, so life became quite difficult.

In February of 1941, the SS Politician was heading north to pass the Outer Hebrides on its way to Kingston, Jamaica and then New Orleans. Once past the Isle of Man they hit a spell of bad weather with gale force winds forcing the ship off-course. The captain, Beaconsfield Worthington, attempted to change course to compensate but ran aground on sand banks just off the Isle of Eriskay, rupturing the engines and causing the ship to flood. The crew survived with the help of the islanders but after learning of the contents of the cargo and believing it was perfectly legal to take it under marine salvage laws, the islanders decided to salvage as much of the precious cargo as they could.

Although the ship was carrying all manner of trade goods such as medicine, biscuits and even £145,000 in Jamaican 10-shilling notes, the islanders were mostly concerned with the contents of Hold 5 – around 264,000 bottles of whisky. People from all around the island and others gathered to take part in night raids of the wrecked ship to rescue as much whisky as they could.

The UK Customs and Excise Officers did not share the islanders view on marine salvage, declaring their activity illegal as the whisky was destined for America, so no duty had been paid on the cargo. This prompted a swift response with the authorities raiding villages and crofts to recover the untaxed spirits. The islanders made a valiant effort to hide as much of it as they could – be that by storing it where it could not be found or simply drinking as much as they could. It was estimated at the time that around 24,000 bottles had been stolen and some of the islanders were successfully charged with illegal salvage and black-market trading offenses for which they could spend up to 6 weeks in prison in either Inverness or Peterhead.

In spite of this many of the items recovered from the ship were never seen again, and after the official salvage operation was called off the decision was made to scuttle the SS Politician using dynamite to deter any further temptation. Interestingly, included in the cargo that was initially completely written off were the Jamaican bank notes; after recovering what they could, it was believed the rest couldn’t have survived being in the water and the head of the official salvage operation even handed out the few that were recovered as souvenirs. Only four months later, branches of Barclays in Liverpool started reporting being presented with water damaged Jamaican notes and over the next couple of years these notes would show up from the south of England all the way to the north of Scotland. It took a further fifteen years before Crown Agents decided to make a final tally and what they discovered was that of the 290,000 notes on board, 211,267 had been recovered in some capacity. They calculated that around two thirds of the recovered notes were presented around the world legally which left 76,404 bank notes (£38,202) allegedly salvaged and used by the islanders.

The rest of the goods that went down with the ship remained largely untouched until June 1987 when Orkney resident George Currie decided to dive to the wreck after completing a repair on a sub seas cable between Eriskay and South Uist. Five bottles of whisky were recovered that had lain there for over 40 years and he kept one in his possession until just recently.

Inside the Scottish Maritime Museum

The Scottish Maritime Museum was able to acquire the bottle along with the diving helmet used by George Currie, two bricks that were part of the ship’s cargo and a poster of the 2016 remake of Whisky Galore! thanks to funding from the National Fund for Acquisitions. This brings another important part of Scotland’s rich cultural heritage back to the public. In their own press release on their site the Senior Curator of the Maritime Museum, Abigail McIntyre, is quoted as saying –

“We are thrilled to add this bottle of whisky which has become so embedded in Scottish island folklore to the collection.

“There are so many fascinating topics we can explore with our visitors through it, from island life during the war period and underwater archaeology and recovery through to challenging our understanding and portrayal of smuggling in Scottish waters.

“The wreck of the SS Politician had a profound effect on the life of the islanders of Eriskay, many of whom felt keenly the injustice of being prosecuted. As well as looking at the impact of the shipwreck generally, we will also explore maritime laws and their implications through this wonderful new artefact.”

The bottle of whisky- along with the diving helmet- has been put on display for free in the museums boat shop, and there are plans for the objects to be used in the 2023 exhibition ‘Smuggling and Swashbuckling’, where it will contribute to a discussion around the history of smuggling in Scotland.

At a time when so many cultural and heritage organisations are facing hardship, it’s great to see that the work to protect and maintain Scotland’s cultural heritage continues.

Lessons in Radical Education: The Legacy of R.F. Mackenzie

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that universal access to education has been revolutionary. Only since the late 19th century have people of increasingly diverse backgrounds been able to have some kind of access to formal education, and, thankfully, that access has only improved alongside our understanding of the necessity of education to the development of a flourishing and just society. Yet, as for every hard-won progression, there is an ever-present danger of becoming comfortable and complacent in our attitudes towards these social provisions, of losing forward momentum and, eventually, backsliding. We come to view them as broadly static objects within our cultural landscape, unchanging and indeed without the need to change. They exist as monolithic pillars of our society and of our minds: work is work, school is school, democracy is ticking a box every four years. Our lives exist on an assembly line of citizenship, with school primarily serving to prepare us for later subservience and capitulation to data-driven corporate management and inept local and national governance. Only the university is culturally understood to be the site of liberating self-discovery, of intellectual development and action, and even the integrity of that space is increasingly under threat from the pressures of consumerism and neoliberal orthodoxy. When we think back to our own experiences in primary and secondary school, it’s likely that little, if anything, stands out in memory as radical, revolutionary, or even slightly against the grain. Thanks to rigorous- and often overbearing- systems of standardisation, we can pretty much assume our experiences of education were broadly similar to other students up and down the country: a utilitarian emphasis on conformity, acceptance of authority and a diet of passively received knowledge.

As the foundations of society grow increasingly entrenched, it can be difficult for us to conceive of what a radically different system might look like. In the face of the tedious persistence of modern inertia, it’s useful- revitalising even- to remember the reformist, radical thinkers within our own tradition. In the history of Scottish education, Robert F Mackenzie was one such thinker.

R.F. Mackenzie was born in Garioch, Aberdeenshire in 1910. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 1931, Mackenzie travelled extensively around Europe, earning a living as a tutor and journalist. During his time in Europe he witnessed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and joined the RAF as a navigator during the Second World War. After the war ended, he trained as an English teacher and in 1957 took a position as Headteacher of Braehead Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven. ‘Junior’ secondary schools were designed for pupils who had failed entrance exams in primary school and offered a narrower curriculum than other schools.

It was during this time that Mackenzie was at his most prolific in pursuing his vision of a radically different education system, developing his ideas in a series of three books: A Question of Living (1963), Escape from the Classroom (1965) and The Sins of the Children (1968). With these, Mackenzie advanced a philosophy of education which was child-centred, humane and compassionate to children living in difficult circumstances, children who were often marginalised by educators and society more broadly. He placed emphasis on allowing students to engage with their learning on a more democratic basis, on developing an interest in the natural world through excursions outside the classroom, and on teaching children to work cooperatively with one another. in the first of his books he outlined his thoughts, saying, ‘I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and “mould” children into some shape but to help them to grow in freedom’. In contrast, Mackenzie took serious issue with the dominance of exams and metrics as the increasing focus of education, as well as with the prevalence of corporal punishment in classrooms, at the time dished out for even the most minor of ‘rebellions’. ‘The tradition of sin and punishment,’ he observed, ‘is deep in Scottish Education.’

With a dedicated staff and the support of an engaged parent council, Mackenzie was able to put a lot of his theories to the test, developing a curriculum which was focused on the well-being of the students first and foremost, and which provided ample opportunity for growth as cooperative individuals beyond the classroom. Mackenzie had a love of Scottish history and the Scottish countryside and, together with mountaineer Hamish Brown, led students on various expeditions to the highlands, observing and commenting positively on the youngster’s response to being allowed a modicum of freedom and the responsibility which comes along with it. He even acquired a country house for the school to carry out regular weekend activities.

Robert was deeply critical of the examination system, believing ‘it inspires boredom; it impedes experiment and progress; it enslaves the curriculum; it ignores real values; it measures useless information; it ignores character.’ He had no qualms in vigorously advancing his position and preference for the abolishment of contemporary examination systems in favour of continuous modes of assessment. 

He was equally critical of corporal punishment- especially for girls- believing it a barbaric relic of the Calvinist tradition. At both Braehead and later Summerhill, Mackenzie made attempts to abolish corporal punishment. On this point, however, he was met with the most resistance from both teachers and parents, and was ultimately unsuccessful.

On the advent of sweeping and prescriptive educational reform, in April of 1968, Mackenzie left his position at Braehead Junior Secondary School for a position at a new Comprehensive- Summerhill Academy in Aberdeenshire. The introduction of the Comprehensive system saw the closure of many smaller schools, which were then integrated into these new campuses which served much larger areas and populations. Alongside this, the reform began to introduce more stringent and centralised standardisation measures. Mackenzie was deeply sceptical of this development, believing this new system simply ‘made the traditional Tory curriculum and view of society available to a larger number of working-class children.’  The limited success of Mackenzie’s programme at Braehead had been aided by the relatively small number of students and an open-minded staff; at Summerhill, he would find neither. He had pleaded with the Education Council to be afforded a staff with at least some similar qualities as those he had worked with in Braehead. No such concession was made, and Mackenzie soon found himself assailed on all sides by disagreeable staff, confused parents and critical inspectors.

For the next six years, Mackenzie fought tooth and nail against a system designed to curtail dissent and prescribe thought, and in 1972 he was formally accused by more than half of his staff of having an ‘unusual and particularly permissive philosophy.’ Without support from staff and parents in his attempted ban of corporal punishment, and occupied with daily battles against draconian education authorities, his methods were increasingly called into question, having never been given much of a fair chance in the first place. The school was perceived to be increasingly ‘lawless’ and in 1974 Mackenzie was called to a meeting with the Aberdeen Education Committee. At the meeting- more accurately a ceremonial sacking- a characteristically impassioned Mackenzie proclaimed “It is not me who is on trial today, it is comprehensive education that is on trial …you have given us children with wounds in their souls. We could have cured them, we should have cured them, but we couldn’t because you gave us a divided staff.” His protestations and admonitions fell on deaf ears, and his initial suspension led to dismissal the following year.

Following his exile from education, Robert wrote his own account of events at Summerhill leading up to his suspension and eventual dismissal, entitled The Unbowed Head (1976). In it he continued to rail against the prevailing culture of standardised testing, corporal punishment and submission to uncaring authority which had begun to fully permeate Scottish education with the introduction of the comprehensive system.

In 1980, he wrote the Manifesto for the Educational Revolution; this work was at once an elegy for wayward ideals in Scottish education and a furious, radical call to arms. The Manifesto failed to find a publisher during his lifetime, but the manuscript was recovered and published posthumously in 2004. Ruminating once more on his disillusion with modern educational practice, Robert said, 

‘This journey into the interior of education showed me how it is powered. I had been aware of its faults and strove to make improvements because I believed that at heart it was sound. I know now that I was mistaken.  At its heart it is not sound. The commodity it is merchandising is Authority, and the teachers, like the commercial advertisers, are the hidden persuaders using subliminal, quasi-religious concepts to assure pupils and parents that their salvation lies in the worship of Authority, in accepting the Law, in preferring Judgements of this ‘revealed’ religion above their own unlettered thoughts.’

Mackenzie had been derided by a backwards establishment as an unruly blight on Scottish education. In our modern context, we can recognise that the only thing Mackenzie was guilty of was being ahead of his time; the intervening years since his dismissal saw the eventual banning of corporal punishment, and, through the recent implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland has been making attempts to allow more space for learners to grow as individuals, for educators to account for agency and difference between pupils, and for assessment to more accurately support and account for the development of students at various levels.

There is, however, an ever-present tension between the ideal of learning for personal and social development and the utilitarian view of learning which reductively and deterministically stratifies youngsters in service of maintaining neoliberal cultural norms. We still conceive of education as being primarily a means to prepare the young for work, an attitude which reproduces on a national level the classroom habit of ‘teaching to the test’, wherein students are rushed through schools with little opportunity to really consider, or even ‘play with’ ideas being presented to them; instead we learn what employers want from us, how we are to conduct ourselves, what level of questioning is acceptable and appropriate. How then, can we expect to develop an informed and engaged citizenry, if from 0-18- despite what toothless philosophising might go on within the safe confines of a Modern Studies classroom- we are instructed to accept the world around us as adequate, fair, or inevitable?

As Scots we are often told- and surely would like to believe- that our education system is the ‘envy of the world.’ If that was ever a certainty, it appears progressively dubious. While our education system is different from Englands, the same cultural forces are at play here as down south, who view education as  little more than a tool to reproduce an authorised image of society, which runs deeper than Labour or Tories or the SNP. `one need only look at reforms pushed through down south as recently as last month to understand what’s at stake; in a new ‘guidance’ brief for teaching, the UK government advised,

 ‘Schools should not, under any circumstances, use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as it could imply an endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to: 

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections.
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
  • the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Elsewhere, the ‘guidance’ advises against working with those deemed to be peddling ‘victim narratives’. While these measures don’t have any bearing on Scottish education, it would be foolish to imagine ourselves as above such restrictions on free and reasonable enquiry, which this suspiciously timed manoeuvre undoubtedly represents; while for some it can be comforting to conceive of primary and secondary schools as idealised spaces free of politicisation- and this latest revision in England comes under the guise of such agnostic principles- in reality, education is always a politicised space, and the powers that be know this only too well. In a cultural moment characterised by civil unrest across the world- in BLM marches, the struggle for advances in LGBTQI+ rights, and a broad interrogation of social inequality in the wake of covid- they have been shrewd to target schooling in their efforts to stem the tide.

It might be said that RF Mackenzie was a romantic idealist at heart, and surely his philosophy of teaching could often come across as woolly in his various books, light as they were on developing robust educational theory. It might also be said that he placed too much hope in the ability of schooling alone to remake the cultural landscape. While we should recognise that sweeping, radical change rarely springs forth from one area of life in isolation of others, education, as Mackenzie recognised, will nevertheless play a crucial role in any social transformation. ‘A revolution in child rearing is essential to a widespread cultural change,’ he said. ‘ Without it there will be no rule of the majority, that is to say no democracy. With it there will be a new perception of the nature of intelligence and a fusion of thinking and feeling into a deeper understanding; a new perception of how to live our lives; and the healing (the making whole) of our sorely riven society.’ 

In Respect of Stuart Christie: A True Anarchist

On the 15th of August, in the midst of the strangest year in recent memory, Stuart Christie, an important Anarchist figure, activist, writer and publisher passed away at 74 years of age. I say figure because Christie was probably the most famous Anarchist to have come from Scotland. In 1964, at the age of 18, he would be arrested in Spain after being found with explosives that were intended for use in assassinating the Fascist dictator and Nazi collaborator, General Francisco Franco. Outside of his physical activism Stuart Christie’s writing has had a profound effect on many in how they view the world, including this writer. His story is an interesting one and shows the contrast in the sentiment of activists of previous generations compared to those of todays.

Born in Partick, he would move around a lot, staying in Ardrossan, Arran and eventually settling in Blantyre. It was in the political hot bed of Glasgow that Christie would form his world view. Growing up in the highly sectarian city had given him an early indication of injustice in the world. In 1964, out of a strong desire to actually do something, he jumped on the opportunity to help the cause in Spain. He told his family that he was going to pick grapes in France and set out for Paris. Here he was equipped with everything he was to need, including explosives that he kept taped on his person under a heavy jacket. This would prove to be his first hurdle as he had to keep the jacket on in Spanish weather and was concerned that his profuse sweating would cause the tape to come undone and the explosives would fall. Luckily they never did but his mission was not to succeed as it turned out that the organisation he was working with had been infiltrated and he was arrested alongside his collaborator Fernando Carballo.

An amusing myth had formed around Christies arrest; one that he himself had dispelled in later years. It was said that Christie was arrested while wearing his kilt that he had with him to make hitchhiking easier (people tended to be more trusting of a Scotsman than an Englishman), which confused the Spanish press who described him as a “Scottish Transvestite”. This is what Christie had to say on the matter in an article written for Bella Caledonia last year –

‘Also, for the record, although it’s a good canard, I wasn’t wearing my kilt when arrested — or indeed at any time during my travels; it was folded, neatly, under the flap of my Bergen.’

Under the circumstances he would be treated fairly well; after the Allies had won the Second World War, Franco did his best to keep a good relationship them and even opened up trade with the UK. (There was a lot of support for Franco in the upper echelons of British society at the time, he was seen as having saved Christianity in Spain) This meant that he did not want to be seen mistreating a British National. Christie would be sentenced to a 20-year sentence but was released after only 4. While in the Carabanchel prison he was heartily accepted by fellow anarchists and old republicans that appreciated his commitment to the Spanish cause. During his time in prison he studied for his A-levels in English, History and Spanish and worked as a Nurse. His mother would consistently send letters to General Franco pleading for his release which he granted after 4 years. In Christies own words this gave Franco the perfect opportunity to project the image of a gentleman while still being a brutal dictator –

‘He was trying to pass himself off as an old avuncular gentleman on a white charger while in fact he had all these political prisoners, thousands of whom were tortured and some killed.’

After being released from prison he would move to London and find work as a gas fitter. It wasn’t long before he was accused of being a member of the Angry Brigade, a radical group that had planned for bombs to be set off in strategic places to attack the government. Through the trial it was discovered that Christie had only been picked up because of his reputation and the police had planted detonators on him. After being acquitted him and his wife decided to get out of London so as to avoid any further targeting by police. They moved all the way to Orkney where they started the Cienfuegos press and later the Refract press. This would lead to his prolific catalogue of written works, including his memoirs titled “Granny Made me and Anarchist”. He would also set up an online bookstore ‘Christie Books’ documenting Anarchist struggles through books, pamphlets and videos.

Stuart Christie was at the heart of a political movement in the 60’s that genuinely believed it could challenge the power systems of government. It seems a stark contrast to the general apathy that seems to have infected the generations of today. There is a lot we can learn from the life and story of Stuart Christie. We’ll end on another quote from the man himself from an earlier article in Bella Caledonia. Something to think about –

Where are today’s angry young people? They can’t all have been muzzled by debt or seduced by the idea that freedom is somehow linked to property ownership. What if anything are they doing to vent their anger about Britain’s criminal military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the blatant infringement of habeus corpus, the stifling of free speech, the medievalising of the public realm with the so-called anti-terrorism laws which allow police officers to shoot suspects dead and detain people without trial, charge or even explanation. Or to halt the present onward march to an undeclared permanent state of emergency – and the constant, grinding erosion of our liberties.

But I don’t worry too much about it. As the American psychologist William James wrote “The ceaseless whisper of the more permanent ideals, the steady tug of truth and justice – give them but time – must warp the world in their direction.”’

Community Ownership On The Isle of Eigg

The ownership of Land in Scotland has been a contentious topic over the decades. For many years Scotland still had a Feudal Tenure system; private landlords could buy large pieces of land or islands, becoming that lands “Laird”, essentially controlling everything that happened on that land, including housing, jobs and infrastructure. Nowhere were the failings of this system as readily apparent than on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Eigg saw a massive decline in population due to the difficulties of island life and serial mismanagement by the various owners. As a result of this string of bad landlords, the people of this small west coast island banded together to create the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, the vehicle by which they would raise the money necessary to buy the Island and later to “govern” it democratically.

Possibly the most notorious of the Lairds to control Eigg was Keith Schellenberg, a former Olympic bobsleigher and businessman from Yorkshire. He bought the Island on the 1st of April 1975 and would keep control of it for the next 20 years. By all accounts Schellenberg treated the Island as his own personal holiday retreat, having his toff friends visit in the summer where he would drive them around the island in his 1927 Rolls-Royce.

In spite of this the islanders were pleased at first when Schellenberg took over ownership of the island; he promised to bring tourism to the island and re-opened the community hall so that the islanders could take part in some indoor sports during the winter and ceilidhs in the summer. He had buildings renovated into holiday homes and sent out adverts for jobs around the island, bringing the population back up and renewing interest in the small island.

By the 1980’s the island had established many tourist attractions but struggled to keep them staffed. The people that were hired for these positions were housed in poor conditions so turnover was high. Outside of this Schellenberg himself had divorced from his 2nd wife so found himself in a more precarious financial situation with an island to look after. The Farm manager quit and tractors that ran out of diesel were not being refuelled. Buildings- especially the older islander homes- were becoming more and more dilapidated and the only way Schellenberg could keep money for anything was through specific government tax breaks, one of which requiring that he introduce environmentally harmful plantations of non-native trees to the island habitat.

A lot of the people Schellenberg hired and then fired did not leave the island. They had fallen in love with the community so decided to stay and eke out a living any way they could, usually on small self-sustaining crofts. A sense of solidarity grew out of this between the older islanders and the newcomers. Schellenberg started to claim that Eigg had a growing population of no good hippies, characterising the people that he had let down as wasters that could not handle the real world so had come to his island. He was not doing a particularly good job of coping with island life himself and was taken to court by his ex-wife over his mismanagement of the island. It was around this time, in 1991, that the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was founded, and an appeal was started to raise the millions of pounds needed to buy the island. The following year Schellenberg was forced to put the island up for sale but simply bought it back himself. He had planned a victory lap of the island in his Rolls-Royce when it was roadworthy again but only a couple of years later the sheds on the pier where he was keeping the car burned down with the car inside. When later interviewed by the American TV program ’60 Minutes’ and asked about this event local woman and administrator of the Heritage Trust Maggie Fyffe simply replied, “a mysterious fire, spontaneous combustion, who knows.” The culprits were never found.

Determined not to let the islanders claim ownership, Schellenberg sold the island to a German artist that went by the name Maruma. In one last act of selfishness, Schellenberg went back to the island to take an 1805 map of the island from the craft shop. Hearing of his imminent arrival, the islanders parked an old community bus across the doors to the shop to stop him from entering. He left again by boat shouting “you never understood me!” and did not return to the island.

Again, at first, Maruma seemed to want to do great things with the island; he promised to implement a renewable energy grid and remove old rusty cars; he was to build a swimming pool and improve opportunities for the local residents- none of which came to pass. Even outside of the fact that he only spent a total of 4 days on the island (He remained resident in Stuttgart), it turned out that he was not who he said he was and had used Eigg as security on a £300,000 loan.

The Trust restarted its efforts to raise the money to buy the island, this time gaining a lot of attention. They had captured the imagination of many as a modern-day David & Goliath story, a whopping £900,000 was donated from one wealthy woman from England whose only condition was that she remained anonymous.

The islanders victory eventually came on the 4th of April 1997; after Maruma had defaulted on his loan, his creditor went through the Scottish courts to force him to put the island back up for sale and his solicitors accepted the islanders offer of £1.5 million. The chairman of the trust is quoted as saying at the time –

‘a triumph for all that is good in humanity and certainly one in the eye for everything that is mean spirited and self-seeking.’

Eigg has been owned by the community now for over 20 years and since it has been freed of the greedy objectives of private landlords it has flourished in many ways. The Trust operates its own housing association which provides housing with much cheaper rent, about half the level of affordable housing in the rest of Scotland. They also have a self-sufficient energy grid that is mostly renewable that provides electricity for the community all year round.

There is a lot to be learned from the community ownership on Eigg. Partly due to the success on the island there has been a push for land reform in which local communities get first dibs on the land that they call home, a big change from the previous feudal system. This, along with the push towards workers ownership of businesses is an exciting positive step for the future of Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it seems that once any enterprise is freed from the grip of private, profit driven individuals and given back to the community that cares for it we tend to see a dramatic increase in life satisfaction and positive environmental outcomes.

Crazy right?

Subclub and the decline of the Glasgow Nightclub

In recent years the nightlife of Glasgow has gone through a decline, even before the impacts of lockdown. While not a trend unique to Glasgow- nightclubs all over the UK have been struggling for the last 10 years– a combination of circumstances have devastated the city’s nighttime landscape and next on the chopping block might be the iconic Subclub. 

Subby has been a pillar of Glasgow’s EDM and techno scene, with DJs from all over the world coming to the club, as well as being an integral part of the city’s music scene more generally since it was founded in 1987; bands like Primal Scream had their first gigs in the small but illustrious venue. Once voted the 10th best club in the world despite a capacity of just over 400, the club’s future is now looking uncertain. Having survived a fire in 1999 and even the accidental demolition of one of its walls, it looks like a legal battle over an empty plot of land might be the greatest threat the club has faced yet.

Situated between the iconic club and Crystal Palace, the Jamaica Street Wetherspoon, the plot of land was sold to the national chain of pubs to be developed into a hotel in 2014. The club says that the idea of building a hotel on the street will threaten Subclub with a litany of noise complaints and other issues that will make the clubs existence untenable. A bit of drama emerged this week when it came to light that the plot of land was sold to Wetherspoons by the club director’s own family. Explaining in the same article to the Ferret, Barry Price- the director- made it clear that they didn’t object to a hotel in and of itself, but that any plans would have to take into account the existence of Subclub and accommodate the urban history of the street and club as a world famous music venue and nightclub. 

On top of this existential threat the club is already struggling, after an administrative error meant that the club was unable to access the government’s furlough scheme. Subclub submitted an online crowd fund to help make sure the club survived this financial difficulty and had its goal met in a couple hours after posting and finishing at £189,620 raised by 4339 supporters in 28 days. Clearly showing that there is support for the club in the community, and I do hope Subby does buck the trend of nightclub closures. 

A similar tragedy that hit the city was the closure of the Arches nightclub in 2015, literally just round the corner from Subclub. Serving as a grim reminder of what can befall even the most popular venue, the Arches was once a cultural Mecca of the city. On top of being renowned as one of the city’s best nightclubs it was also known for its support of the arts with plays and art exhibitions, as well as weirder nights like Alien Wars, an Alien inspired, horror adventure through the venues lower levels. 

The Arches founding has a bit of a mythology behind it. Andy Arnold, a theatre director, was looking for a unique setting for a show and came upon the venue almost by accident, disused and unloved under the train station, with no one quite sure what to do with the space. With a bit of imagination and ingenuity, it was soon opened to the public and the rest is history

After police complaints about drug abuse on the site following the death of a 17-year-old girl, the city council withdrew the venue’s license, meaning it could no longer operate as a nightclub as of April 2015. This was done despite an appeal by Scottish creatives that had loved the venue, including author Irvine Welsh, members of Mogwai and Franz Ferdinand, and came amid criticism that the local council had an anti nightclub agenda. The council has been accused previously of withholding late night licenses and generally making business for the clubs difficult, the use of drug abuses as a reason for closure were seen as especially flimsy when down the street a food venue (which will remain unnamed) that had for a long time been anecdotally more associated with drug abuse, and drug deaths remained open. As the nightclub side of the business had been the money generator that funded the arts and culture events, the business soon entered a tailspin. Despite being promised support from the Scottish government, the venue closed its doors in June. Anecdotally, a friend of mine was personally affected by this closure as he won a TV in a raffle on one of the last club nights; after the venue went into administration he never did get his prize. The venue is now open again under the name Platform as a 350 seat bar and restaurant.

Another victim of club closures has been the O2 ABC, a massive venue host to club events and an important stop in any major artists european tour. On the 31st of January 2019 a proposal to demolish the entire building was submitted to local authorities after it was severely damaged in the tragic Art School fire. Who knows what will be replacing it, or even when the demolition will go ahead but the venue that used to host popular nights like Propaganda will be missed. 

The elephant in the room for every club in the city is lockdown. It’s uncertain how these venues will recover after the financial hit which has meant the they have remained shut for nearly half a year. On top of this Donald MacLeod- the owner of both the Garage and the Cathouse- is currently going through a legal battle after he had taken out insurance against outbreaks of infectious disease, and now is getting stiffed by the insurance company. The first in what might be many insurance disputes, other venues are watching MacLeod’s struggle to get his payout with interest but it paints a poor picture for the city when even clubs that had done their best to prepare for something like this are now struggling.

Little by little the clubs we went to in our youth are closing, and the cultural venues that had shaped the landscape of the city’s music and art scene are being resigned to the history books. I hope Subby survives this ordeal, and doesn’t go the way of the Arches but the only thing we can be certain about is that after Covid we’ll be left with a very different Glasgow.

A Short History of Policing

As a result of the ongoing civil unrest in the United States, brought about by the consistent and repeated police brutality on flagrant display in the past few weeks, the Overton window has shifted dramatically and now we have police abolition being discussed seriously by those in power. Places like Minnesota- the city at the heart of the recent reaction against police violence following the murder of George Floyd- recently unanimously voted to replace their police service with a community led model. The project is currently in the early phases, the motion giving a year to research and engage with the community to develop the idea. With the suddenly very real possibility that we might- perhaps sooner than expected- be witnessing the belated end of a particularly grim and militaristic chapter in policing, I thought it worthwhile to give an account of the history of policing.

Let’s take a look at where the institutions of policing and legalism originated from. Strangely, these are two separate histories; the oldest known codified legal code being the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu originated around 2100 BC, while the earliest recorded instance of what could arguably be called a police force did not develop until around a thousand years later, in ancient China as part of the prefecture system. So what happened in the time between inventing a legal system and a police force? Laws were enforced, often brutally, by whatever petty king ruled over you at that time and because of this the legal tradition of early civilisation matched the barked orders a king would give in his court. As a result, most of the laws in the Code of Ur-Nammu would be more at home in the old testament than in the high court; crimes like theft and murder are swiftly dealt with via execution; punishments are dealt out for adultery and sorcery, and finally a good chunk is devoted to when and when it’s not okay to sow another man’s field. These laws would not have been enforced by anything like police, instead the king would enforce them by right of having a local monopoly on violence, with weaker warlords agreeing to enforce them in their own lands as part of working for their king, and the priest caste making themselves useful by dealing with the complex issues of divorce and witchcraft. 

While this might sound like an ideal system, as these kingdoms grew in size, and the king was no longer able to personally hand out justice on the end of a spear, these warlords began to employ other men with spears to make sure their laws were enforced further and further from the capital. In Egypt the policing had a very militaristic structure. Policing often involved enforcing borders, protecting caravans and suppressing slaves. Not exactly dealing out justice for the common man but more so keeping the increasingly complex economy running. The guards of temples however would go on to take an increasingly more civil role; instead of just being men with spears that reported to the Pharaoh, they would be taken into the religious structure as priests. These guard-priests would be responsible for handling religious law by conducting arrests and acting as judges in the Pharaoh’s name.

In the Jin state of early China, bureaucrats would appoint prefects to investigate crimes and enforce the law in their jurisdiction, this is where things start to look a bit more recognisable as a precursor to the modern police force. Prefects were appointed by the state, reported to the local magistrate, had limited authority and served until dismissed, obligations which differentiate them significantly from the warlord-enforcers of earlier periods.

Much like in Egypt, where the early judges would get their authority from the Pharaoh, these prefects drew their legal power from the Emperor, who had appointed the governor, who had appointed the bureaucrats, who had appointed the prefect. It was this trickle down of authority that defined early policing. But what if your society didn’t have a king?

Both Rome and Athens decided they didn’t like kings, and politely yet firmly asked their kings to leave the city. This however left the people of these cities with a conundrum: all legal authority was handed down by a king, so what do we do now without one? Well, in deciding new laws Rome invented the senate, originally made up of the aristocratic families that had done the firm but polite asking earlier, who took on the responsibility of making new laws. In Athens, they decided that anyone could propose a new law and everyone would get to vote on it, and by everyone I mean adult men, who weren’t slaves, or women and weren’t considered metic (someone who’s family had lived in Athens for multiple generations but weren’t quiet Athenian enough to have a vote). 

Now that the boring legal stuff was decided, who would do the policing? Both cities had experimented with a police force but these had quickly devolved into gangs, loyal to whoever paid them. This wasn’t so much of an issue when the king was the one doing the paying- everyone was already meant to be loyal to him. Instead, whoever was willing to put up the money could have roving gangs meting out “justice” in the city. People quickly decided this was a bad idea. So what did they do? Athens came up with the interesting, and incredibly amoral idea of purchasing 300 slaves that were collectively owned by the Athenian state. These men would be responsible for arrests and guarding important events, as well as preventing riots. The investigation part of police work however fell to the average citizen, if you wanted to take someone to court over something you had to prove it yourself. 

Rome went a different path. After overthrowing their last king, Roman culture underwent a bit of an obsession with legalism; where other cultures would brag about their kings, or in the case of Athens define themselves by democracy, the Romans decided they were the superior culture due to their rule of law. Legal ceremonies took on almost religious significance, and in a few instances like designating the legal boundary of the city, actual religious significance. Lawyers like Cicero would go on to become celebrities and statesmen. So how did this city obsesses with law decide to form its police force? Well, it didn’t. The laws inside Rome weren’t enforced by any separate group of privileged nobles or state owned slaves, but instead every citizen made sure the rule of law was upheld. This sounds like a system doomed to fail, and it eventually did, after a few hundred years. Eventually, the Roman republic gave way to the Roman empire, and Augustus established the Vigiles, a mix of police, firefighter and town watch, bringing with them the end of Rome’s experiment with legalism without a police force. 

Now that we’ve taken a look at the early history of policing and legalism let’s move on to take a look at the institutions in the UK that gave rise to modern policing. 

After the Act of Union, Glasgow had started to grow rich by being the main link to the Americas: sugar, cotton and about half the empire’s tobacco flowed through the city. With all this wealth going about, things started to go missing- a crate here, a box there. Eventually the leakage brought about the attention of the Tobacco lords. In the late 1770s the city of Glasgow had been experimenting with its own police force, and in 1800 the Glasgow Police act was officially passed by the government, establishing the City of Glasgow Police. While it began small, only 8 officers assembling for the first time at the Trongate on a cold November’s day, this group would go on to set the mould for what modern policing would become. The philosophy of this group of men was different than what had come before; rather than just react to crime like town guards had done in the past, the new name of the game wasn’t simply to catch criminals, but to actively prevent crime. Another important tenet was non-lethality, which saw these men armed with a lantern and a long stick as opposed to a pistol or sword. If things got rough the idea was people left with bruises not bullet wounds. Finally each officer was given a badge with a numbered ID, a distinctive uniform and a 24 hour rotating rota. 

The success of the Glasgow model would not go unnoticed by the rest of the Empire. Soon other towns in Scotland had adopted a similar force to patrol 24 hours a day, and by 1822 Ireland would go onto found its own police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary. 

London was having similar troubles to Glasgow in the late 1790s, a bustling port with no one to watch over it resulting in a leakage of stock. The merchants of the capital were fuming, and decided to form groups like the Thames River Police. Much like in Glasgow these proved incredibly successful in protecting shipping cargo, however this was not to last. Soon, London was in the thrall of the industrial revolution, and the city, which was already massive, began to expand even faster as people from the countryside migrated for work. Robert Peel, home secretary at that time decided now was the time to reform all the volunteer and private police forces into something modern and capable of maintaining order in the city. Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and this force would take on a lot of what had made the Glasgow City Police a success, there was a focus on visibility to deter crime, and because of the cities distaste for the French Model, which was heavily militarised, the Met had a big focus on being civilians policing civilians. This model eventually spread throughout the empire and commonwealth, influencing policing across the world, from Hong Kong to Delhi to Vancouver. 

Across the pond in America, however, policing grew out of a different tradition. The early colonies had a police force that was organised around elected officials called sheriffs, who would then raise a volunteer militia from within the community to police the community. This all sounds rather idyllic- democratic accountability, community focused recruitment- so what went wrong? Well, the modern American police force is not descended from this volunteer group. Instead the men that would be the foundation for policing in America were slave catchers. Places like Carolina heavily depended on slavery to maintain their economy and out of fear of a slave rebellion the men of wealth created groups like the Charleston Guard and Watch. Salaried professional police that had a distinctive uniform, these figures laid the foundation of police work in America. These men were given a strict chain of command, sole authority for policing in their jurisdiction and given the right to use force as they deemed fit. They also took on the lessons from the UK about preventative policing, but with a focus on preventing slave uprisings rather than petty crime. Their role was more similar to the ancient’s way of executing authority and population control rather than anything worth praising. 

Looking at the history of policing it seems its historic role is at odds with how we imagine the role of policing today. Instead of being about protecting people the ancients, like in Egypt, used policing as a method of population control and a way of exerting central authority into places the Pharaohs could not reach themselves. Further we can see that the idea of legalism hasn’t always been married to a police force, in both Athens and Rome the existence of a police force was seen not only as unneeded to enforce law and order but also as anathema to democracy. In modern policing’s foundation we also see a divorce from the ideal that policing is about protecting and serving the public. Instead these early forces were formed by the wealthy classes to stop their property going missing, and in the case of America, that property was sometimes people. Next time we’ll take a look at how a modern society could function without a police force. 

The Scottish Utopia Myth

As protests start to be organised across the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement it has been troubling to see the criticism that has been used against them. A lot of people in the UK like to look to America and criticise the failings of its systems but put the blinders on when it comes to being a bit more introspective and taking a look at the country we live in. This phenomenon is even more prevalent in Scotland. There is a tendency to think of Scotland as the “best wee country in the world”; a place where the majority of us reject Tory rule and are proud of an international reputation for friendliness and good humour. Many only think of the wars of independence and our countries involvement in the world wars when they think of the history of Scotland. While being important parts of the history of the Scottish people they are not the only parts. Ignoring Scotland’s role in the British Empire and involvement and benefit from the Atlantic slave trade, as well as ongoing issues with racism and tribalism invalidates the experiences of people of other ethnicities and makes it less likely that these issues will be meaningfully dealt with.

To be clear, this article is not here to proclaim that Scotland is a racist nation and all Scottish people should be ashamed of themselves (although some definitely should be!) It is simply a candid look at the issues, both historically and currently, that contribute to inequality. There absolutely is reason to take racism seriously in this country and the people marching for Black Lives Matter have every right.

THE PAST

As part of the British Empire, Scotland had an incredibly involved role in all its aspects. From military to plantation ownership and even as settlers the people of Scotland were involved all over the world. North America, the Caribbean, Australasia, South Africa, India as well as colonies in South-East Asia and Africa all saw involvement from the Scots.

One mainstay of Scottish history is the wealthy elites of Scotland jumping on any opportunity to make more money and grab more power. It was true in the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England which, after the failure of the Darien venture, gave the wealthy in Scotland access to all of England’s colonies as well as to the East India Trading Company. This meant that Scotland became heavily involved in the colonies in India and the Caribbean very quickly with many plantations in both areas. And with plantations came involvement in the slave trade.

Glasgow is most notorious for its involvement in the trade, especially with the so called “tobacco lords”. Men that made so much money through dodgy dealings and the slave trade that they were said to live as well as aristocrats, these men were well respected in their times. Glasgow was seen as the second city in the Empire and reaped a lot of benefit due to the slave trade. Many streets in the city are still named in honour of these men, something that has recently come into the conversation again. Over 16,000 people have signed a petition to have the names changed and one activist has attached alternative street signs such as ‘Fred Hampton Street’ and ‘Rosa Parks Street’.

Moving on from the 18th and 19th centuries, let us look at the 20th century. You may have heard of the “Battle of George Square” in 1919, the day that between 30,000 to 60,000 peaceful protestors in Glasgow were violently put down by the police for asking for the 40-hour work week, amongst other basic workers’ rights. This was the famous event in which Winston Churchill was so afraid that it would turn in to a revolution that he had Scottish soldiers contained in the Maryhill barracks and ordered tanks into the city. A moment of pride to many in the struggle for workers rights, however the labour movement at the time was also implicit in racism. Just a few days before the Battle of George Square one of the ugliest events in Glasgow’s history took place. Known as the ‘Broomielaw Race Riot” it was the result of speeches delivered by local delegates of the National Seamen’s Union in which they scapegoated, mainly black British colonial and Chinese sailors as the reason that the white Glaswegian sailors were finding it hard to get work. It was all an attempt to gain support from the local seafaring workforce in the general strike that was planned for that Sunday. Such inflammatory speeches simply stoked fires that had already been lit. The shipping trade already enacted racist policies with many shipowners instigating a ‘colour ban’ in response to trade unions opposing the hiring of non-white British subjects.

The events unfolded later in the day as sailors were waiting at the port offices to try and get work. A group of around 30 African sailors were harassed by a much larger group of white sailors, it got so bad that the African sailors ran away to seek shelter where they were staying in Broomielaw. The mob of white sailors followed them and attacked the building causing the African sailors to run again to a nearby lodging house. Again, the crowd followed them, now numbering in the hundreds, and attacked the building with bricks and bottles. The police eventually arrived and took the African sailors away in ‘protective custody’ but subsequently charged them with riot and weapons offenses. None of the white rioters were arrested or charged.

Scotland has always struggled with poverty and is a place in which the scapegoating of immigrants has always had purchase. Whether it’s African and Chinese sailors in 1919 or South Asian migrants in the 50s and 60s or more recently the Syrian refugees; there has always been a narrative pushed that the poor people of this country have the poor people from other countries to blame for their woes.

THE PRESENT

If you read all of that and scoffed, thinking them the actions of a past nation no longer linked to the Scotland of today, think again. The systemic racism of that time has reverberated through the generations and is still evident today.

In response to a Glasgow Times article discussing the Black Lives Matter protest, this is what the comments section looked like –

Comments section of a Glasgow Times article about BLM protests

Interestingly in 2018, Glasgow University academic Neil Davidson, a lecturer in Sociology, co-authored a book with findings that between 2000 and 2013 there were 1.8 race-related murders per million people, compared to 1.3 per million in the rest of the UK.

We also have similar issues with policing. Although nowhere near the extent that the policing in America is a problem, a remarkably similar incident to the murder of George Floyd happened here in Scotland. In May 2015 in Fife, police were called out to reports of a man acting erratically with a knife. The mans name was Sheku Bayoh and by the time the officers arrived he was in no possession of a knife. The officers used CS spray, leg restraints and batons to subdue him resulting in 23 separate injuries. Much like George Floyd he shouted that he could not breath, he died in hospital after the incident. The officers denied all wrongdoing and were never charged for his death, luckily the incident is being investigated in a public enquiry.

Other than these examples there are always reports of racist abuse at football games, of attacks on people of other ethnicities and a normalisation of the use of racist language.

Racism is not something that can be ignored until it goes away. It is a parasite that must be confronted head on. The collective ignorance or wilful dismissal of the issues of racism in Scotland, whether in the past or the present, simply entrench the problems further. As a people we need to be educated and mindful of this country’s historical place in the implementation and complicity in scientific racism and can only claim to be the friendly wee country we seem to think we are if we start acting like it.

Photo by Donald Edgar on Unsplash

Scotland and the Black Death

Recently we’ve focused a lot on Covid-19 and the ramifications it’s already having for our society but this week I thought we would take a step back from the ongoing pandemic and instead focus on something a bit lighter – the Black Death

Our story starts in 1348, when the Black Death first arrived in England. 1348, simply put, was not a great time to live in Britain. The Second War of Scottish independence had already been  raging for over a decade, and England had been embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War for nearly as long. On top of this, the common people of the towns and villages were also suffering under high taxes, little food and failed harvests. Life was pretty bleak, but it was about to get a lot worse. 

It was Bristol that would be first hit. A vibrant trading port that had until that time remained untouched by war or famine; instead it was the third horseman of the apocalypse, pestilence, that would leave its mark here. Before the plague Bristol was the second largest city in England, taking silver place only to London, but when the plague hit, Henry Knighton, a monk who recorded the history of the plague described the city as being devastated, saying “almost the whole strength of the town perished” and transforming, almost over night from a city full of life and joy and trade, to a city of corpses where the few survivors didn’t have the strength or numbers to bury the deceased. This, unfortunately, was only a taste of things to come for the rest of the Isles. 

By 1349 London would follow in Bristol’s grim footsteps, and alongside the Back Death, Pneumonic Plague would also ravage the city. This outbreak would take thousands upon thousands of lives, the plague would also break up Parliament and take the lives of at least three Archbishops of Canterbury greatly weakening the English Kingdom’s feudal management.

All this chaos was not unnoticed in the court of King David the Second of Scotland, and many argued the plague was God’s wrath on the English for… well being English. It’s not hard to see how the calamity could be seen to have had a hand of the divine, wherever the plague went it left biblical destruction. Further still, the Scottish nobility argued that because Scotland had remained untouched, this showed that God had picked a side in the war, the Scottish side. It was decided that rather than lay back and watch the southern kingdom burn Scotland would take an active hand in the chaos, and push its advantage to win the war. After all, god had clearly decreed the end times for England, it was their Christian duty to see his will acted. 

The Scots at this point were resurgent, they had already pushed Edward the Third’s armies out of Perth and Fife, and now a great host assembled to invade England itself. When news of this approaching army reached Durham the plague stricken town burst into riots. This incursion, however, was ultimately doomed and the Scots were routed in battle, soon the Scottish army was in full retreat back home. To add to the misery of defeat, among the fleeing soldiers and levies the plague lurked and soon Scotland would be hit with the same divine wrath that the English had suffered. 

Though Scotland was less vulnerable than England, lacking the centralised population centres that England had developed in the centuries prior, the pestilence still took a dire toll. Exact numbers aren’t recorded but what is known is that cities like Edinburgh were devastated, losing nearly half of their population. By the end of the outbreak some estimate almost half the population of the Island would succumb to the disease.

So, you might be asking, why have I chosen to bring to attention this particular part of history? Well I think it conveys a very important message. Even if you think God is telling you to invade England, please, please stay in doors, save lives.  

Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article we uploaded the first half of the memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston from Tillicoultry in which he described his dramatic plane crash behind enemy lines and the trials he had started to face as a prisoner in the German run P.O.W camps in WW1. Below he continues his story. Enjoy.

In May 1917 Dulmen camp was broken up, the N.C.Os being sent to Minden and the privates to another camp. This place was very good (as prisoners’ camps go in Germany). The only work we had to do being the usual camp fatigues, keeping the place clean, etc. We were allowed to have games and play football in the meadow outside the camp twice a week. There was also a Theatre and a prisoners Brass Band, and a two or three hours walk on a Sunday.

It was this camp that I started learning French properly and, another thing that helped to pass the time, was cooking our grub. As a rule, there were from two to six chaps – what we term in army slang “mucking in together”; one usually did the cooking, the others either washing up or drawing the packets for our “school.” I will now give you an outline of the packet system in this camp and, as most camps are run on the same principle, it can be taken as a general rule.

When a packet wagon arrives at the station, about 5 Kilometres away, word is sent up to the camp and 20 or 30 men are assigned to go down and unload it, and bring the packets back in a cart. When the packets arrive they are checked and a list of the names of the owners was put up. The packets were opened by the Germans, and all the loose articles were put into our soup basins – or bags that we had made for this purpose. We were not allowed one scrap of paper out of the packet, not even the tea wrappers. All the tins were kept by the Germans until we required them; then they were opened and the contents put into our basins or bags. This was a great nuisance as the ‘tin department’ was only open at certain hours of the day and, if we were on fatigue duty, we got no tinned stuff that day. Then all cigarettes were cut up and the cigarette papers confiscated. This was about the worst blow for the ‘boys’ in Germany because, out of 50 or 100 cigs, there would be only a handful of tobacco to show for them.

All biscuits were broken, and the butter, etc cut into two or three pieces. The bread from Copenhagen & Berne was cut in two to see if there was any contraband inside and, in the summertime, bread cut in half did not keep so well – especially when four men were “mucking in” and received 12 or 16 loaves at a time. The empty meat tins were boiled by the Germans, and the fat strained off and sent somewhere; the tins were sent to an iron foundry – I can assure you that nothing is wasted in Germany.

I got quite adept at cooking and could make anything from pancakes to pies. I found that the camp menu was much the same in every camp I was in, and can be listed as follows:-

Monday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – One basin of soup
  • Tea – Hot Water or Coffee and one ration of black bread (daily allowance 1 loaf of about 5lbs between 12 men.)

Tuesday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – One basin of Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage)
  • Tea – Hot Water or Coffee and bread ration

Wednesday

  • Breakfast – Hot Water or Coffee
  • Dinner – Three potatoes
  • Tea – the usual, and so on for the rest of the week…

Just a word or two about the coffee – I don’t know what it was made of, but some chaps who have seen it made, say it is burned acorns ground down. There is never sugar or milk in it, so you can judge how it tastes. The soup is 90% water with the remainder vegetables of some sort. The bread is almost black, has a sour taste, and is made from mainly sawdust and potato flour. Anytime I was compelled to eat the stuff it gave me awful indigestion – and you know I don’t have what you might term a weak stomach!

I can tell you that we used to grumble about the packets – and not without just cause at times – but if it had not been for these packets, very few of our chaps would have ever returned from Germany. It is only in the case of necessity that we touched German food at all – we always gave it to the Russians or Rumanians, and it was that extra stuff that kept the poor beggars alive.

I had been in Minden for a couple of months when about 40 of us were transferred to another camp, Soltan, where we were joined by another 60 N.C.Os. The whole lot of us had either tried to escape at one time or another, or had been troublesome to the German authorities in various camps – so we had been sent here to keep us out of mischief. After staying in Soltan for a week, we were sent to Heestenmoor and it was here that I had my first real taste of POW life. I had very little to complain of in my previous camps regarding the treatment by the Germans.

We stepped off the train at a railway siding and were marched across the moor for 5 kilometres, carrying all our belongings. The Germans do not supply us with anything so we have to be very careful with our private stuff, and take it all with us when we move from one place to another.

Our new camp, at first sight, was a small desolate hole, covering about an acre of ground and just about big enough to make a chicken run for about 100 fowls. We were put into an empty barrack room were we were searched, baggage as well. All our cooking utensils – and I might say they are the most important things for a POW – were taken from us; also cardboard boxes, cigarettes, money and all our tinned stuffs.

There were over 100 N.C.Os here who had been working behind the lines for some months and were not yet in receipt of packets. It would have made you weep to see the state they were in. I met a sergeant from my regiment who was absolutely skin and bone. He had been taken in April (1917) and had been forced to work behind the lines. The French civilians used to try and smuggle them food while working there, but if they were caught the Germans used to beat them with their rifles. This chap also told me how to they used to make soup out of nettles and dock leaves – anything to try and satisfy the pangs of hunger.

He and I started “mucking in” and just at that time the R.F.C. packets were something scandalous, so you can guess my issue didn’t go very far between the two of us. I used to be so hungry that I thought that it would take years of good feeding to make me feel satisfied again. When in this state you always talk about the good feeds you have had, and what you intend having when you get back home – which of course makes a chap feel the hunger all the more.

Well, to continue, we arrived on a Friday and with the exception of the usual roll-call parades, we were left alone until Monday – then the fun began!

The German officer in charge of the camp told us we had to go out and work – so, of course we refused. He called out the guard and gave them orders to use their rifles if we still refused. We refused, and the Germans waded into us. The officer drew his sword and shouted “I will show you Englishmen who is in charge of this camp!” and then made a dash for us. Two rifles were broken in the scrap, and several of us were put in the arrest house, and, I can tell you, it was no joke.

The cell was in total darkness and you were only allowed the German ration of bread and water. Every 5th day the small shutter is opened to allow light to come in, and you also got a basin of soup. Well, after being strafed for some time, we decided to go out and work. This entailed one party cutting the turf off the moor and getting it ready for cultivation; another party digging up roots of trees which had burned down at some time or another.

You know the old saying ‘You may lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.’ This applied to us; they did not have enough sentries to watch us all, so we took advantage and either broke or buried the tools. At first they used to try and make us hurry, but we soon got the sentries to our way of thinking. Taking the German soldiers individually, they are not too bad – it is fear of their superiors that make them what they are.

We had lots of petty punishments in this camp, such as standing on parade for two or three hours at a time, having the packets stopped for a few weeks, barrack room searches, and also we had to clean the latrines – a job normally done by the Russians in other camps. We were not allowed any games, and the walk round the compound was only 200 yards so, after walking round for about half an hour, you got quite giddy. We were sleeping on bare boards with two thin rags for blankets; and it was not for a couple of months after we arrived that we received a canvas sack which we were allowed to fill with straw for a mattress. As there were plenty of fleas among the straw, we were not much better off.

The only benefit we ever had from the Germans was a hot water spray bath, every Saturday. The usual washing arrangements in this camp were pumps out in the open and, during winter, washing our clothes outside was cold work, I can tell you. And the only place to dry the clothes was on the barbed wire surrounding the camp. In most other camps there were proper wash houses.

Some days there would be searches, when we would have to stand out in the cold from 8.00am to 7.00pm. During that time we had only three small potatoes for dinner. We had nothing else to eat all day and were not allowed to enter the barrack room for our own grub. The cooking arrangements in this camp were just awful. We had to bring in sticks when we came from work, and make ourselves fires on the ground. Just before meal times it was just for all the world like a gypsy camp but of course on windy and rainy days, we had to go without cooked food.

In the potato season we were put on digging them up and, although the sentries searched us when we came in, we could always manage to fetch in enough for a good feed – which goes to prove ‘necessity is the mother of invention’! I reckon we POWs would make the finest smugglers in the world. We had no issue of coal during the winter. There was a stove in each barrack room and we burned the wood that we had brought in during the summer but, for days at a time, we had no fire at all owing to the shortage of wood.

The Dutch Ambassador visited the camp twice during my stay and, due to his influence, a good many improvements were carried out – but I can assure you that there was still plenty of room for improvement.

You may think that I have had a rough time, but it was nothing compared to the private soldiers who were compelled to do all sorts of work. I know men who have deliberately broken their arm, and smashed their hand with a rock, so as to get away from the coal mines and back into camp again. Others have come back from the salt mines absolutely covered in sores. I was talking to a chap from the Scots Guards, who had been warned by the Germans to go on a working party, but told me that they would have thrown him down the shaft before he entered a pit. A few weeks later, I was told that he had been killed. The Germans had pushed him down a shaft because he refused to work.

For any misbehaviour, the men are sometimes kept down the mine for a week at a time. The Dutch Ambassador who is the British Prisoners representative in Germany knows as well as we do that such atrocities are carried out, but the trouble is proving them. The Germans are too cunning to leave any evidence about it. If the Ambassador asks permission to visit a mine, he is certainly taken there but, everything and everybody who is likely to cause trouble, is put out of the way. The Ambassador may know that everything is not as it should be, but still he cannot get the evidence.

Before we were allowed to cross the frontier we had to sign a paper to the effect that we had no claim on Germany whatever. I know of a Frenchman at Dulmen camp, who was crippled in a coal mine through ill treatment and the Germans told him that if he signed the paper to the effect that this was caused by an accident then he would be exchanged to Switzerland – but he would not sign.

I expect that you have heard about the food riots in Germany, and how the soldiers turned the machine guns on the people. I have spoken to chaps who saw it done.

I could carry on for hours yet, but I think I have written quite sufficient to show what kind of people we are fighting against. The country is in an awful state, with women and prisoners doing practically all the work. At Aachen where we stayed for a couple of days, the children and even the soldiers were asking us for food. They only received enough food to keep body and soul together: you at home really don’t know what war is.

Another time , we stopped at a fairly large station for a few hours, so we went into the station restaurant and had dinner. We all had a few tins of meat and white bread, which we had saved up for the journey to Holland. You should have seen the people stare when we out our stuff on the table. Every day there are stories in the German newspapers such as “Owing to our U boat warfare, England is starving.” and yet here were allied prisoners with more meat than most Germans had seen for months; but what flabbergasted them most was when we brought out our tea and asked the barmaid to let us have some boiling water to make it. All foodstuffs in Germany are rationed, so you folks at home are fortunate in having unlimited supply of bread and potatoes: even here in Holland, these articles are rationed.

After being in Germany for about two years my feelings can be better imagined than described, when I knew I was crossing the frontier into freedom. Hoping never to be in the same predicament again.

Your loving son,

Gordon.

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