Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 1

In this special two-part post we would like to share the written memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston of the Royal Air Force from Tillicoultry. These letters were originally addressed to his parents who were concerned for his well being on his return home. Passed down in his family, some of which would emigrate to Australia, these letters have found their way back to Scotland to his remaining family in Kilwinning. Shared here on the site not only as a testament to the resiliency of people when faced with horrible circumstances, but as a candid reminder of the brutality of war and the unnecessary suffering it brings.

Dear Parents,

I promised to give you a short sketch of my life in Germany, so I will now try and fulfil my promise. I don’t like looking back on those days, but, here goes.

I left the aerodrome (somewhere in France) on a dual controlled machine with Lt. Jowett as Pilot, with the intention of taking photographs over the German lines. While flying at 6,000 feet between Bapaume and Cambrai, I sighted two “Fockers” making towards us. Being much faster machines than ours, they were soon within firing distance. I opened fire simultaneously with the enemy, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them catch fire and dash to the ground. The other machine swooped down on us and Lt. Jowett was hit in the head, killing him instantly.

My machine started banking over to the right, so I left off firing to try and bring it under control again, but I was not long in finding out that the rudder controls had been shot away, leaving the machine practically useless. We came down from 6,000 ft. in five or six big spirals. When we hit the ground I was thrown out of the machine and landed about 20 yards away. When I recovered my senses, there were about 200 Germans surrounding me; I felt myself all over and was relieved to see that nothing was broken. Except for extensive bruising, I was alright. I went over to the wreckage and assisted the Germans in getting my officer out; shortly afterwards, a red cross car came along and took Lt. Jowett away – the doctor confirming that he was dead.

I was searched, then taken to a dugout and interviewed by a German officer who tried to get all sorts of information out of me. Then I was taken to a small place outside Cambrai where I slept for the night on some straw in a German guard room. The following morning I was taken by train to St. Quentin where I was put in a civil prison. I stayed there for four days; I was in a small stone cell; not allowed to go outside; I thought I would go mad. I put in a complaint to the officer in charge and was allowed out into the prison yard for 2 hours on the 4th day of my imprisonment.

The food here was very good but, as i found out later, half of it was subscribed by the French civil population of the town for P.O.Ws. Up to then I had had no ill-treatment from the Germans; but it was while I was being marched to the station at about 9pm that I saw the first brutality. The group of about 300 prisoners that I was in was made up of all nationalities so, of course, we drew some attention. There was a civilian curfew of 8pm – with blinds drawn across the windows, etc. Well, one lady had pulled the curtains aside to have a look at us, and a big Prussian – one of our guards – rushed up with fixed bayonet and rammed it through the window into the woman’s breast.

All this time, the Germans had taken me for an officer as I still had on my leather flying coat and, so when we got in the train, I was put with some British and French Officers who treated me just like and equal although they knew I was only a Corporal. In the early morning we travelled through the once lovely Louvain district, but which is now severely knocked about. We crossed the Rhine at Cologne and then through the large manufacturing district of Germany (Dusseldorf etc.) We arrived in Gutterslow which is an Officers’ camp at 8pm by which time I was completely fed up, having been on the train for two days and now feeling the full effects of my fall from the machine. So I was glad to stretch myself properly and try to work off the stiffness in my body. At the camp I had a cold bath which was very acceptable.

After three days I was sent to Dulmen which is a camp for N.C.Os and men, a fairly large camp which, seen from a distance, looks like a wooden city. I was very lucky landing in Dulmen, one of the best camps in Germany. Three chaps who had been captured at Mons in 1914 asked me to “muck in” with them until my own packets came through from England; so they kept me from starvation by sharing their home parcels. All the boys were very nice and, of course, I had to give them the news about how the Somme Offensive was going on, and how “Blighty” looked. etc. Being the only ‘flying man’ in camp, I was the authority on aeronautical subjects.

N.C.Os in Germany are not supposed to work, according to an agreement between the two Governments, and in this camp we did nothing but, as I will tell you later, everywhere in Germany is not the same. Morning roll-call is at 7am and working parties of Privates start work at 7.30am. Dinner from 12.00 to 1.00pm and Tea at 5.00pm when they finish work for the day, then another roll-call at 6.00pm. Lights out at 9.00pm winter and 10.00pm summer. Of course, this is only camp routine; where men are working on farms, coal-mines, salt-mines, munitions factories, etc., it is usually work from daylight until dark. Sunday is usually a day off in camp, when there is a church service.

Then we had a theatre run by the prisoners, where I saw some very good turns. We had a good hall which was built by the Y.M.C.A but the only drawback was that, if there was any trouble in camp, the Commandant usually stopped the gaff for a month or so. He gave out the order one night that the theatre would be stopped if any more prisoners escaped. The following morning three chaps escaped so, when he realised that this method was no good, he had to give up strafing us by this method. (Gott strafe England = “may God punish England”)

I had a try for the frontier from here; and was away for three days before being caught. It is only a distance of about 50 kilometres but the frontier is so well guarded at this point, that you have to be very lucky to get across. It will be much easier now than in 1916, as every available man is now on the firing line, and only wounded men are doing frontier patrol now. There was snow on the ground when I tried, so I can assure you that it was not a picnic.

If you remember we had very cold weather at the beginning of 1917; well, during the first four months of the year there were about 2,000 Russians died of starvation in Dulmen. From our compound we could look into the mortuary, and there were naked bodies – piled one on top of the other, just like frozen sheep. During the very cold snap we had, I have seen at least 20 Russians carried across in one day. I once saw a Russian burial party taking some coffins to the cemetery. While passing a cart laden with turnips, one of the turnips fell from the cart – without more ado the Russians dropped the coffins and made a dash for the turnip, and then ensued a free fight.

It was also a common occurrence to see them diving into swill-tubs and eating anything from fish heads to potato peelings and, I have been told, in 1914 – before the packets started coming – the British soldiers were in little better state. Nowadays, the Germans make the excuse that they do not have the food to give us but, whether they had it or not, the prisoners would not have it – because in 1914, before the blockade took effect, the prisoners were starving just the same.

Part 2 will be with you this coming Wednesday, in which Corporal Johnston further explains the conditions and how life was in the other camps he was moved to. Stay tuned!

The Battle of Largs

While the storms are battering our windows and the sea is churning I’m reminded of another fury that emerged out of the west and hit our Ayrshire shores- the last great invasion of Scotland by the Norse.

In 13th century Scotland Ayrshire was divided between the rising Kingdom of Scotland, and the Viking descended and now Christian Kingdom of Norway. The Norse had had a presence in the West of Scotland since about the 800’s, first as raiders, then as settlers and lords, and Scotland for its own part was a relatively new idea. The kingdom emerged out of the uniting of the Kingdoms of Pictland and Alba, born out of murder, intrigue and even a few massacres. The Scots, a people formed out of this union, made up of Picts, Gaels, and immigrants from what would become Ireland and England began to form an identity and define what it meant to be Scottish, and that identity had begun to take shape as a people that were fiercely proud and proudly fierce.

At the turn of the millennium, the Welsh-speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde was overrun, and Ayrshire was for the first time considered part of Scotland. However, Scotland was still far from what it looks like today. Centuries of bloodshed and intrigue followed, with the Scots of the central belt, again and again, subduing Highland Clans and then going onto push the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria further and further south. It was in this turbulent era that Alexander The Second took the throne.

The son of a king who had lost and then won independence from the English crown, Alexander the Second was keen on ending any dispute with the English and would go onto sign the Treaty of York, which would define the English border to this day. This is not to say that growing up under English overlordship had humbled the Scottish King. In fact, Alexander now saw everything north of that border as Scottish, and that included the Norse settlement on the mainland and the Western Isles. Alexander began a campaign to claim these lands for the Scots, first by pushing north into Caithness, leaving behind a trail of corpses, before forging west, where he attempted to buy over the lands with bribes and purchases. When gold failed he turned to steel and began preparing an invasion. He would never see this come to fruition as he died suddenly while trying to win over nobles to his cause, instead it would be his son, Alexander the Third that would take over his plans to unite Scotland. 

The Norse were not, however, a spent force. The age of Vikings had long passed but the converts to Christianity had managed to keep their pagan fury despite their newfound faith. Scotland represented something important to the Norse, as this was the first place in Britain they had settled, the island of Iona one of the first places they had raided. So long as the kingdom of the Isle stood the era of the Norsemen was not over, even if Harold Hardrader had failed in England, even if the Danelaw was now gone, and Cnut’s empire was now history the Norse still had a presence in Britain. When Alexander the Third took up his father’s mantle and started pushing into Norse controlled lands and raiding villages under Norse protection, King Haakon the Old brought together a great fleet and set sail for Scotland. Wintering in the Orkneys and then Arran the stage was now set, in the year 1263 for a confrontation between the ageing but still fierce Norse, refusing to let go the past and the upstart, brutal Scots, determined to take what they saw as rightfully theirs.

Haakon the Old, leading the invasion fleet himself, was met with tempestuous and stormy seas as he attempted to cross the sea from Arran to the mainland, battering his fleet and forcing some of his ships to shore earlier than intended just outside the town of Largs. These poor crews were harried and harassed by Scottish archers, and Haakon ordered the rest of the fleet to land, and support these men. After seeing this the Scots disappeared into the hills, while the Norwegians landed and set up camp for the night on the shores of Ayrshire. 

A few days later the main Scottish force arrived from Ayr, led by the Steward of Scotland, confusingly also called Alexander. His men in gleaming armour and supported by hundreds of knights, Alexander marched his troops north along the coast, coming across a small Norwegian Warband held upon a hill. When faced with the larger Scottish army, the Norwegians attempted to move back to join the main invasion force on Largs beach, but the Scots managed to reach them first, turning what was an orderly withdrawal into a panicked flight.

On the beach themselves, seeing their countrymen fleeing, fear set in and some men made for the boats, others used the ships that had come ashore in the storm as a makeshift battlement, and fought to the bitter end.  It was during the retreat that the Norwegians suffered the worst of it. Afterwards, on the next morning, the Norse would return to the beach to bury their dead and burn the ships that had run ashore. After this, they sailed back to Orkney, where the Old king would pass away after a sudden illness. 

In the coming years, the Scottish and Norwegian kingdom would sign a treaty, giving the Isle of Man and the Hebrides to Scotland, while leaving the Orkneys and Shetlands in Norse control. Alexander the Third would spend this time punishing the lords of the realm that hadn’t supported him or his father’s war effort. 

This battle, while not a massive confrontation with thousands and thousands of men, did one important thing in helping to solidify Scottish identity: it defined what Scotland was. After the battle the question was settled, the isles were Scottish, Ayrshire was Scottish, the borders were Scottish, the highlands were Scottish. In the coming years after Alexander the third’s death, Scotland would again fall under the overlordship of England, and this budding identity, the brewing nationhood no doubt seeded the zeitgeist that the Scottish resistance would crystallize around. I think it’s worth remembering that on a stormy day like today, on a beach here in Ayrshire, What Scotland meant was defined.

The Last Joust

Kilwinning, in the heart of Ayrshire, is the site of an interesting historic event not spoken of often enough:
In the year 1839 Kilwinning played host to the last great joust in the United Kingdom, organised by Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton.

Archibald himself was an interesting man. Born on the 29th of September in Palmero, Sicily to a Major General he would go on to study at Eton and in later life join the Conservative Party. At the height of his political career, he would serve as a Conservative whip and in the House of Lords, eventually becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, not once but twice. Unfortunately one of his most noteworthy political moments was organising the House of Lords in opposition to the Jewish Disabilities Bill of 1844, a bill that would let Jewish people stand in parliament as MPs. Not exactly progressive, even for his time, but what else would you expect from a 19th Century Tory lord?

Aristocratic and reactionary as only a Brit can be Archibald was a man born in the right era. In the late 18th and early 19th century, The Romantic cultural movement had gripped the nation and everyone was obsessed with chivalry, and knights and stories of medieval valour. Archibald himself was also very fond of the knightly blood that ran in his veins; a member of his family tree even managed to best Harry Hotspurs – a famous English knight – at the battle of Otterburn.

It was in this background of archaic obsession and his own personal fascination with feudal life that the Earl heard that the Whig government would not hold the traditional banquet in Westminster during the coronation of Queen Victoria. Now the Earl took this attempt to distance Britain from its past as a personal slight and set out to right this wrong.

The preparations began, with genuine medieval armour being sourced for genuine knights, which Britain still had at the time. Around a hundred and fifty were invited, though less than a third of that number actually attended. Great dress rehearsals happened in London, and invitations were sent out – in the Earl’s own words – “only to the most elite of the elite”. Stalls and markets were planned and memorabilia and artworks were commissioned en mass for the event. Some critics were even starting to begrudgingly admit the joust was going to be a good show, even if Queen Victoria herself privately admitted to thinking the tournament was “foolish”. The Whigs were not cowed, however. Many were critical that such vast expenses were being spent on a flight of fancy when the economy was in shambles and people in cities across the UK were starving. Nonetheless, the event was set to go on. As the anticipation for the event began to gather steam the general public were invited, with free tickets available to be applied for, though the Earl did ask for people to wear medie val dress where possible. This caused a groundswell and soon thousands had applied to attend.

People started pouring into Ayrshire, by trains, boats and carriages, overwhelming Kilwinning and Irvine, which only had one hotel at the time.  The roads between Ayr and Glasgow were said to be full to the brim and the newly opened train line from Glasgow to Irvine packed, with people literally fighting for tickets.

The tournament drew in massive crowds – nearly one hundred thousand people – as well as notable foreign dignitaries including nobility from Hungary and Poland, as well as Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Boneparte.

The Joust itself began on the 28th of August at noon, with a procession of knights on horseback. Forty knights lead the parade, with their retinues in tow, banners fluttering and crowds cheering. Unfortunately, all the chivalry and charisma and charm was for nothing, as nothing can prepare you properly for the weather in Ayrshire.

As the knights approached the tournament grounds, the heavens opened, turning the land beneath their feet to mush. Ladies in fine dresses fled for their carriages, and the crowds sheltering under leaky grandstands had to turn back. Lord Eglinton announced that the tournament would gather again the next day but it wasn’t until the 30th that the event actually took place, this time with a far smaller crowd around a waterlogged field. Afterwards, a banquet was held, with only 400 people in attendance.

The tournament would go down as a massive blunder, one which the Earl’s political opponents parodied and mocked for years to come, and which proved a huge financial disaster for The Earl. Despite its resounding failure to capture knightly valour and wow crowds with an example of British nobility in action I think this event is worth remembering, both because for a brief moment Kilwinning was the centre of attention, not only for Britain, but also further abroad, and also because it imparts an important lesson – never trust the weather to stay sunny on an important day in Ayrshire.

5 Scottish Ghouls to look out for this Halloween

The history of everyone’s favourite Autumn celebration is indelibly linked with Scotland’s own history. Naming the holiday ‘Halloween’ was originally coined in Scotland in the 16th century as a derivation of ‘All Hallows Eve’, a tradition that had it’s roots in the Gaelic fire festival known as Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”) that would mark the ending of the harvest season and the ushering in of the dark half of the year. The Gaelic people believed that the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds would break down during this time, allowing for interactions between the people of our world and the other. Great fires would be lit to keep back evil spirits and people would take fire from these bonfires back to their homes to keep hearth fires lit for the full 3 days of the festival.

The tradition of ‘Trick or Treating’ as well is derived from the Irish and Scottish tradition of ‘Guising’. Children would dress up as evil spirits in the hope that being in disguise would save them from harm from any wandering evil spirits that would mistake them as one of their own. After performing songs or tricks ‘Guisers’ were given gifts.

You might be wondering about the kinds of malicious entities that people of Scotland used to fear. Scotland has a rich mythical history and the people had many monsters to watch out for that have mostly been forgotten in the modern age. So! we aim to remedy this… If you find yourself out ‘guising’ this Halloween here is a list of Scottish monsters that you might want to keep an eye out for!

The Kelpies

Beware of Horses grazing at the waters edge

These terrifying aquatic spirits haunt rivers and lochs and normally take on the appearance of a horse (Although they can also take the form of a beautiful young woman). They draw in their victims by emitting a sound like a woman screaming. If you decide to ignore all of these quite obvious warning signs and touch the Kelpie you will become stuck and the water horse will dive in to the water with you attached and drown you.

Particularly fond of children there is an old Scottish legend of a night in which a Kelpie had gathered 9 children and was going for it’s 10th victim but the young boy touched its nose and when the horse dove for the water he managed to cut off his finger and survived. It’s said that this monsters only weakness is its bridle and if you can break that you will take control of the beast.

Bean Nighe

Another reason to avoid the rivers

The name ‘Bean Nighe’ means ‘washerwoman’ in Scots Gaelic. Another water based beastie, the Bean Nighe is said to haunt streams where she washes blood from the clothing of those about to die. She is normally described as appearing as an old hag with webbed feet, one nostril and one long tooth. Our neighbours over on the Isles of Mull and Tiree have the colourful description of Bean Nighe as having breasts so long that she throws them over her shoulders to drape down her back. She is believed to be the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth that is now doomed to wash the clothes of the almost-dead until the day that they would have otherwise died.

The Bean Nighe isn’t likely to do anything more to you than give you a hefty fright but it is said that if you sneak up on her as she sings and grab her before she can run away she will tell you the name of the person that is supposed to die. She might even grant you three wishes if you’re lucky.

Still, please don’t go around grabbing women that are near rivers. That’s a good way to get arrested.

The Red Cap

Curious fashion choices

Is that wee Brian down the street there dressed up like a garden gnome? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a Red Cap Goblin looking for its next victim!… OK, if you’re trick or treating and see a small person with a red cap it’s probably safer to assume they aren’t a malevolent goblin hell bent on murder, but you never know!

These wee buggers are also known as Powries or Dunters and are a type of Dwarf, Goblin or Fairie that generally are said to hang around down at the borders. They inhabit ruined castles and are said to murder anyone who strays in to their homes and dye their hats with the blood of these victims. Strangely enough it’s also said that they need to kill regularly because if the blood in their caps dry out then they die. With dwindling interest in Museums and Heritage sites I’d say it’s probably a safe bet that these wee guys are probably done for…

Baobhan Sith

What lovely hooves you have

If you find yourself alone this Halloween and desiring a lady companion, be very careful if a beautiful woman in a green dress suddenly turns up out of nowhere with an interest in you. Especially if this woman has hooves instead of feet!

Normally victimising hunters in the Highlands, but also appearing to desperate men, it is said that the Baobhan Sith appears as a beautiful young woman that wears a long green dress but has deer hooves instead of feet. She is in fact a vampire, and one that has a strange and gruesome way of killing her prey. She dances with her chosen victim until they are exhausted, at which point her nails turn in to talons. Preferring to use brute force over the finesse we usually associate with vampires who drink from a persons neck; the Baobhan Sith would slit open the man’s chest and proceed to drain them completely of blood.

Bag Snatchers

Also known as “Wee Dafties”

These elusive creatures can sometimes be found roaming the streets on the night of Halloween in large groups looking for anyone much smaller than them. Once they have picked a victim they will approach from behind so as not to be seen and grab the bag containing all of the child’s hard earned treats gathered over the night.

Although just as despicable as the other ghouls on this list these are much easier to deal with. It is recommended that you walk the streets either with your parents or in groups. Bag Snatchers become easily frightened and generally wont approach unless you are on your own.

Can you think of any other Ghastly Ghouls that haunt Scotland? Lets discuss it over on our facebook page!

Stay safe out there.

The Ayrshire Boy Who Tried to Kill Hitler.

Small as it may be, Saltcoats has its share of heroes and history. Everyone knows that the town got its name from the salt harvesting industry which formed it. Some might know it was once home to Colin Hay of Men At Work fame (however he did quickly relocate to a Land Down Under). Perhaps fewer people know that it was the only place in Scotland where the Italian ice cream shops didn’t get their windows tanned in amidst the anti-Italian sentiment that swept through the country during WW2. Interestingly enough, it’s got another claim to fame, being the birthplace of one of the men that tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

That man was Otto Kiep, born in Saltcoats in 1886 while his parents were on holiday there. The family were already well respected within Glasgow society, with Otto’s dad working within the Imperial Consulate at the turn of the 20th century. Otto’s cousin would even go onto serve in the British Army. Otto however eventually returned to Germany to study law and take up a job within the German civil service after World War 1.

Otto Kiep (7 July 1886 – 26 August 1944)

Despite inadvertently being part of the Nazi government, Otto was not happy serving under Hitler or following the Nazi party line, once losing his job because he attended a dinner in New York in honour of Albert Einstein. Celebrating an openly socialist, anti-Nazi Jewish German academic was not something a member of the German administration at that time was meant to be doing. Otto recovered from losing his position however and returned to a government role, secretly joining the “Soft Circle”, a German resistance organisation that would work from within the German government and attempt to bring down the Nazis. Their meetings would discuss the on-going war and occupation of Europe as well as organising aid to Jews and political dissidents across Nazi Europe. This group included Germans from all across the political spectrum (at least the parts that weren’t already apprehended) and all walks of life that were opposed to Hitler.

Unfortunately Otto- along with most of the Soft Circle- was later betrayed by a Gestapo informant. For nearly a year Otto was held in prison where he faced abuse and torture.

Otto was, however, also part of another group of German resistance, the far more militant Kreisau Circle. Composed mostly of military men, this group had a more focused idea on how to topple the Nazis and kill Hitler. While there were many plans, the most notable- especially in regards to Otto- was the July 20th incident, where a member of the Kreisau Circle placed a bomb in Hitler’s bunker. The bomb unfortunately failed to kill the Fuhrer, and Otto, despite being in jail at the time of the attempt on Hitler’s life, would soon be killed for his involvement with the group. Around 4000 others would face the same fate in the aftermath.

From this point onwards we know the rest of the story. Hitler would be dead less than a year after Otto, and the Soviets would go on to occupy Berlin, ending the war in Europe.  We do have to ask ourselves how would history have been different if Otto hadn’t been caught along with the rest of the Soft Circle, and if the attempt on Hitler had succeeded? Would the war have ended sooner? Would more lives have been saved?

Today Otto is remembered by the German Resistance Memorial Centre for his opposition to the Nazis, and I think with him being an Ayrshire boy, at least by birth, he should be remembered by us as well.

What Went Wrong?

A lot can and has been said about living in Ayrshire. In our own articles we have pointed out a struggling population with some of the highest rates of unemployment, mental health issues and drug related incidences.

Ayrshire is just one county in a country in which these issues are seemingly becoming better managed. There was a time when Ayrshire boasted important shipbuilding harbours such as Irvine with its Ayrshire Dockyard Company and Troon with the Ailsa Shipbuilding Yard. Some of the most important trade from Ireland and the Americas would pass through this county first. Sunny Saltcoats used to be one of the most popular holiday destinations in the country!

So, what happened?

Where did it all go wrong?

It seems the biggest problem with Ayrshire is the same problem with a lot of smaller counties in the country; it’s a place where industry used to be. The biggest industry that used to be in Ayrshire was the coal mining. Even today, mentioned within ear shot of the right people, talking about the miners strike that started Friday March 9th, 1984 will warrant a response of bitterness and anger. The dispute would last around a year and the result was a community all but torn apart. The miners argued that the government were going to cause mass unemployment by destroying an industry that the area so relied upon and some accused Thatcher of doing it to spite the communities that didn’t support her. The government would claim that it was simply a dying industry that was running at a loss, so it needed to be stopped.

The plan proposed by the National Coal Board that would cause the miners’ union president Arthur Scargill to call for a national strike meant the closure of 20 pits. This would mean the loss of around 20,000 jobs with the next steps being to open ‘super pits’ that would produce more coal with less workers. The only pits that would benefit from this plan would be one in Yorkshire and one in Nottinghamshire.

The ensuing strike would see the best and worst of the community come out. Hunterston power station became a large target for picketing with men being driven there in buses. Although the strike would start out peacefully enough as it went on there started to be some ugly fighting. Strikers would clash with the police as well as ‘scab’ workers (workers that crossed the picket line). Thatcher was well prepared for a response like this and had stockpiled coal from Australia, South Africa and Poland ensuring that the dispute would be a long and arduous one.

The men on strike were accused in the papers of bringing the communities to the brink by being so stubborn and preventing coal supplies going to those in need. In response strikers would go into the hills themselves to dig coal for the more vulnerable members of the community. In spite of the struggle many people would give their last in solidarity with the strikers.

As the strike dragged on through the year it slowly became evident that it couldn’t last. The support from Strathclyde council, although welcome, couldn’t sustain them. The pressure of trying to live on only £15 a week was too much for a lot of families. It all came to an end March 5th, 1985 almost a year since the strike began. Then came the job losses.

Everywhere in Ayrshire there are sad reminders of the industry of the past. Open pit mining has even continued in the area but suffers from similar job loss issues to this day.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow but there was right and wrong on both sides of the picket line in ‘84. Coal mining really was a finite industry and couldn’t sustain itself long term, however the worry that a lot of the coal miners went on strike for was also true. They could see that if Ayrshire lost its biggest industry it would lose its sense of pride and see years of hardship and unemployment. This prediction has come true. The Ayrshire of today is not completely devoid of all industry, the booming electronics industry has a foothold in the area and there is hope yet for the tourism sector. The problem is that nothing has ever filled the hole left by the closure of all the industry that used to be in the area.

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The Radical Rabbie Burns

Quite possibly the most famous man from Ayrshire is Robert Burns. Born in 1759, the Bards presence can still be seen all over Ayrshire. Guaranteed if Robert Burns sat down somewhere somebody has put a plaque there to commemorate it. As well as being a cultural torch for the area, Burns has also been a great tourism tool for Ayrshire and Scotland as a whole. Interest in the poet brings millions of tourists to Scotland every year and the Scottish Government even funded a study at the University of Glasgow into the exact economic value of Robert Burns to Scotland and the potential for this global icon to further support regional growth.

As with most things that are examined and displayed with a capitalist mind set, the general representation of Robert Burns over the years has been heavily sterilised and romanticised. It would be interesting to ask the man what he thought about todays world.

It may come as a surprise to some- or not at all to others- but Robert Burns was far from a supporter of the established system and in fact was politically radical for his time, to such an extent that he even earned attention from the police.

Robert Burns was born into a family of tenant farmers. This meant that his family rented the land from a landlord who would take a share of either their crop or money. Most tenant farmers at the time were all but owned by their landlords and lived a life of poverty and hard labour. In his early life Burns would work long hours on his family’s farm and this no doubt contributed to his poor health later in life, eventually leading to his death in 1796 aged only 37. His hard drinking is often blamed for his poor health, but this vice simply added to already existing health issues, most likely gained from the horrid agricultural work he had to endure in early life.

Burns never quite climbed out of poverty which meant that he was never a full-time poet. He always had another job in addition to his writing and his financial hardships were a clear influence on his works. In his writing Burns addresses the environment, enlightenment, government tyranny and a person’s right to freedom.

In regards to his love of nature and his thoughts on blood sports such as fox hunting, Burns would write in a letter in 1789: “Indeed there is something in all that multiform business of destroying for our sport individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, that I could never reconcile to my ideas of native virtue and eternal right.”

Burns involvement in what was known as the Scottish Enlightenment regularly brought him trouble from the state. His outspoken support of both the French and American revolutions drew the attention of the authorities and anti-radical groups such as the Dumfries Local Natives (who would attack Burns and other radicals) and he was regularly accused of disloyalty to the king. The French revolution in particular seemed to inspire Burns, who would include the Tennis Court Oath of the French Revolutionaries in one of his most famous poems ‘Scots Wha Hae’ (1793): “Let us do or die!”. His support didn’t stop on the page either; Burns purchased four cannons from an impounded smuggling ship named the ‘Rosamond’ and sent them with a letter of support to the Legislative Assembly in France.

The Tory Pitt government would embark on a crusade of repression wherein popular radical voices were silenced, usually with sentences of transportation to penal colonies such as Australia. They also passed the Seditious Meetings Act and Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act, meaning that it became treasonable to bring the king into contempt, and any gathering of more than 50 people had to be authorised by a magistrate, ensuring that free speech was entirely suppressed. By the end of 1792, 3 years before the so-called “gagging acts” mentioned above were passed, Burns was already being investigated and observed by the elaborate spy network set up by the government. Fear of being arrested forced him to write under a pseudonym, and he started to employ a writing technique of ironic assent in his poems, on the surface appearing to support things he was in fact criticising. One of his most iconic songs ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’, written in 1795,  attacks the aristocracy and champions the worth of the common, working man.

Burns didn’t solely concern himself with the freedom of his fellow workers in Britain. Although he was criticised for perhaps being slow to acknowledge the issue of slavery, as the years went on and he became more aware of the atrocities of the slave trade, Burns became a staunch abolitionist. In 1792 he would write ‘The Slave’s Lament’, proving his pro abolitionist stance, for which Burns was recognised on the international level by some of the greats of the abolition movement, including former slave and author Frederick Douglass. Douglass visited Burn’s birthplace in April 1846 and in writing of his travels to Alloway confessed to being a great admirer of Burns as someone who “broke loose from the moorings of society” and was “filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy.” 150 years later, African American poet and writer Maya Angelou also visited his birthplace and is quoted as saying “He was the first white man I read who seemed to understand that a human being was a human being and that we are more alike than unalike.”

Burns was not perfect, he never did escape his vices and he was definitely influenced by the wider societal status quo in how he regarded women- by all accounts he was a loving man but certainly held traditional and patriarchal views when it came to relationships. In the modern interpretation of Burns a lot of facets of his life and character are disregarded and this is a real shame. Especially in todays political climate it should be remembered that Ayrshire’s favourite son was a great advocate for freedom, enlightenment and a fair and just society.

Who was John Smith?

by Alex Osborne

John Smith holds the interesting honour of being the only man from Irvine to join the International Brigade. John was born in 1907 in his parents’ home in Clark Drive, into a large family, having three brothers and five sisters. John himself would marry but lose his wife, along with their only child due to complications at childbirth in 1933.

On the 1st of January 1937 John would join the international brigade and leave Scotland for Spain to fight against the rise of Franco and his Fascism. Never far from the fighting, John would get wounded several times throughout the course of the war. On one of these occasions, while recovering from wounds sustained on the front lines, he would write home to his mother “If this does not make the Labour Party do something, nothing will”.

While Attlee, leader of the opposition at the time and future Prime Minister would visit Spain later that year and reaffirm his party’s commitment to support Republican forces, Attlee would not go into government until the Second World War and there would be no great international response to the Civil War from Britain. In fact, the British government would encourage France to follow the UK in its dedication to inaction. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico would provide the Democratic forces with direct support, while Franco would get support from both Germany and Italy.

In September 1938 John would give his life fighting for his beliefs in the climactic battle of Ebro.

This battle would see the Republican army crushed by Franco, supported both by Mussolini’s Italian fascists and Hitler’s Nazis and all but signaled the curtain call for democratic forces in Spain. The free air force would no longer operate as an effective fighting force and the territories loyal to the Republic were split in two. John was one of as many as 30,000 men who died during the brutal battle that lasted from July to November. After the battle Franco would go on to win the war and Spain would not return to democracy until the late 70’s, after Franco’s death.

While John’s story has a sad ending, John is far from forgotten. Listed on the roll of honour for the International Brigade he was also honoured by Cunninghame District Council in 1988 who would erect a plaque on the anniversary of his death at Irvine Library. More recently he would be remembered by the North Ayrshire Trade Union Council who would host a townhouse memorial gathering in 2017 and raise a memorial stone to John in 2018.

It is important to remember John’s story because he was an inspiration to many, both during and after his life. A hero who believed so strongly in the ideals of democracy and justice that he would take up arms at the idea that someone, anywhere would be denied either. John’s example would inspire his own family and his own brother would become a councillor in 1945. It is important that we continue to honour and remember his legacy in our community.