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.’ 

The NHS Needs Real Solidarity

Today marks the 72nd Birthday of the National Health Service. It officially came into operation at midnight on the 4th of July 1948 and was the first completely free healthcare that was made available anywhere in the world on the basis of citizenship instead of through fees or insurances. It came at a time when the infant mortality rate for children less than 1 year old in Britain was around 1 in 20. Every year saw thousands die of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria, meningitis, polio, and pneumonia. There is a common perception that the NHS was gifted to working people by the altruistic tendencies of the ruling political elites. This is simply not true. The creation of state medical services was a hot topic for debate within the Trade Union Council since the early 1890’s. With the incredible popularity of the Labour Party- which became an official party in 1906- and the massive rise in trade union activity around the same time, the two big-business parties now had to seriously address the concerns of the working class.

In an attempt to stop workers from flocking to the newly formed Labour party the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time, Lloyd George, introduced the National Health Insurance Act in 1911. This act meant that lower paid workers had medical insurance as long as they paid fourpence a week. They had free access to a GP, medicine, and sickness benefit but it did not include dentistry, opticians, artificial limbs, x-rays, or any other kind of hospital treatment. Crucially, it also did not extend to unwaged workers or women and children. Understandably many workers were not pleased with the bill as it did not go far enough. The Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, had this to say on its introduction:

‘What was the answer received when a minimum wage of thirty shillings for all and eight shillings per day was demanded for those who worked underground in unhealthy conditions? No, say the Liberals, but we will give you an Insurance Bill. We shall not uproot the cause of poverty, but we will give you a porous plaster to cover the disease that poverty causes.’

From the passing of this Act to the introduction of the NHS as we know it today, there was a period of great tension between the working class and the ruling class; a back and forth of pressure from the working class and the political parties trying to placate them just enough that they would stop striking and pushing for social change. Around 1944 Tory health ministers started to put forward various plans for a National Health Service in response to the Beveridge Report and the worry of a demoralised workforce during the Second World War. There was no detail included as to when anything would be done and so the Labour Party came to power in 1945 in a wave of support. There was dancing in the streets and the Labour Party sang the Red Flag in the House of Commons.

Aneurin Bevan was appointed as minister of health and set out to organise the new NHS. Private practice was never fully disbanded, but healthcare was now available to anyone that needed it.

The NHS has faced difficulty since its inception. The Tory party has always tried to starve it and bring back more privatisation; in the early 70’s the only way the Tory government was willing to spend money on new facilities was by lowering the pay of the already low paid health workers; in the 80’s Margaret Thatcher would oversee massive cuts in public spending, a privatisation of many nationalised industries and a significant drop in funding for the NHS; hospitals were taken out of the control of district health authorities and run by trusts; an internal market was established, meaning that some parts of the NHS purchased services while other parts provided them. This effectively ended co-operation between districts. Between 1989 and 1992, an extra 30,000 administrators were hired for the NHS and the number of nurses fell by 26,000.

All of these decisions contributed greatly to the defeat of the Tory party in 1997. Tony Blair famously proclaimed in his campaign that he would save the NHS, but instead would only continue the process started by Thatcher as soon as he got into power. This new Labour stopped defending a publicly run welfare state and continued Tory spending plans for 2 years. Bit by bit, parts of the NHS have been given away to private companies. Starting in the early 2000’s, any new hospital that was constructed was owned privately and then hired out to the NHS with guaranteed profits for 30 years or more. Interest payments increased to as high as 16% and according to the trade union Unite private companies were estimated to have made £23 billion in profit over the length of their contracts.

This creeping privatisation has never ended. Back-door deals are constantly made to try and privatise more of the industry. Hospitals are even attempting to set up separate private companies to then hire cleaning staff and porters so that they can pay them lower wages and give them more unsociable hours.

All of this has meant a drop in the quality of outcomes, which the major parties use to sour public opinion on the NHS so that they can claim that people deserve “options”- which just means that they get redirected to private practices.

The current pandemic has been a clear indicator of the attitudes the modern political elites have towards the NHS. Supplying PPE has been an utter shambles, with frontline NHS workers only having surgical masks when dealing with seriously sick Covid-19 patients. The health secretary Matt Hancock simply urged NHS staff to stop overusing PPE and refused to discuss the potential of increasing the wages for the NHS staff that fully deserve it. Instead he claimed that nurses have already had a pay rise and so do not need one, a claim for which he has been roundly criticised. In reality, the findings of the independent fact-checking charity Full Fact make clear that nurses in 2020 are worse off than they were in 2010, as their wages have not kept up with inflation.

Around 200 NHS and social care staff have died due to coronavirus. As a people we seem to be perfectly happy to shower these workers in empty gestures and praise but do not push for any real change or recompense for the risks they take to care for us. If you really want to support the amazing staff of the NHS stop voting for the Tory Party and, just as the workers of the past did, show your solidarity by putting pressure on the government and refusing to back down. If the past teaches anything, it’s that progress can come when we speak out as one against injustice.

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

Audrey and the Dutch Resistance

Audrey Hepburn. The name alone conjures up images of elegance and the romance of old Hollywood. Being one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award there is no question why Audrey is so tied to the golden age of American Cinema.

But before she was a world famous actress Audrey lived another, altogether quite different life providing support for the Dutch resistance during The Second World War.

In 1939, when Audrey was just 10 years old, Britain declared war on Germany and soon Hepburn and her mother were fleeing to the Netherlands from their native Belgium. Hoping that this war would play out like the Great War before it, where the Dutch managed to maintain their neutrality, Audrey and her mother set up shop in Arnhem. This plan to avoid the war would unfortunately fall apart, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands less than a year later.

By all accounts, this occupation was brutal. Audrey herself said that “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves”, going on to say that the only thing that kept them motivated was the belief that the war was constantly just a few weeks from ending.

Audrey’s family, being privileged Dutch aristocrats were not spared from Nazi cruelty; her half brother was be deported to a Berlin work camp and in 1942 her uncle would be assassinated by the Germans for his support of the nascent resistance movement. This would prove to be a pivotal moment for Audrey and her mother, and both fought desperately against giving in to nihilism, leading them to take up their uncles cause and support the resistance from that moment on.

This was a surprising change of heart for Audrey’s mother especially, who had previously openly supported fascism; she wrote columns in support of Mosley’s Union of Fascists in paper “The Black Shirt”, joined the far right movement and even personally met with Hitler. This was all done alongside Audrey’s father, who had abandoned the family years before the war. He had also been an avid supporter of the far right ideology, but for him there would be no redemption or renunciation. He spent the entire war in prison for his support of the Third Reich. 

 

Audrey eventually fell in with Dr. Visser ’t Hooft, a charismatic and intelligent leader of the local resistance. Taking the young rebel under his wing, he later described her as his star pupil. It was under the doctor’s encouragement and urging that Audrey, who had studied ballet in England, would have her strange entrance into the performing arts. In an attempt to raise morale and funds for the resistance, Audrey set up the “Black Evenings”, secret dance shows and charity evenings. These were highly illegal and if caught, the audience, performers and organisers would all likely be facing down a Nazi rifle squad. To hide the events they were often performed in basements, with blacked out windows, thus the name, and audiences weren’t allowed to cheer or clap. Audrey said later in life say “the best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance”.

This is an image that stuck with me after reading on the subject: a young girl with barely enough food in her belly to keep the pangs of hunger away, dancing her heart out to a silent audience, hidden away from the prying eyes of the evil occupying force. A young girl that, during peacetime, should have been in school instead literally pushed onto centre stage through grief and loss to put on performances in an attempt to keep the flicker of hope alive.

These funds were sorely needed by the resistance, who had been carrying out various anti German acts, one of the most famous being the bombing of a public records office by Willem Arondeus, who hoped to protect Dutch Jews by making it much harder for the Nazis to track them down. Among their other activities was an underground railroad for escaping Dutch Jews, dissidents and captured allied airmen. Audrey would play a part here too; the resistance made use of young members to pass around messages and supplies as children and teenagers could get around without provoking the notice of the occupiers. In 1944, Audrey- playing the part of messenger for the resistance- supplied food to downed airmen hiding in the Dutch woods under cover of night. 

 

In that same year, Nazis would subject the Netherlands to their worst cruelty yet: aiming to punish the Dutch for helping the allies, the Germans cut off food supplies to the already impoverished and starving country. The Dutch Winter of Hunger had begun. Starvation swept the nation and millions were affected, Audrey among them. At this time she was just a teenager and the lack of food severely affected her development throughout the rest of her life. The young girl who danced for silent audiences would never grow up to be the ballerina she had dreamed of being when she had started to dance all those years ago in England. 

As we know, Audrey still found success, albeit as an actress instead of a dancer. Her acting career brought her the chance to meet a fellow survivor of the occupation, Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank. Otto met with Audrey hoping to convince her to play Anne in a film about the Dutch girl’s life. He had been inspired by the role Audrey had played during those long years of struggle, although ultimately Audrey turned down the offer. She said she had felt connected to the young girl after reading her diaries, saying that “it’s a little bit as if this had happened to my sister”. She wouldn’t be able to give Anne the performance she deserved, feeling she would be overcome with grief. 

Outside of her incredible acting career, Audrey became a UNICEF ambassador, travelling the world even as she suffered from cancer. Peace was important to her, in the way that it often is for survivors of war.

On the evening of 20 January 1993, in her home in Switzerland, Audrey Hepburn passed away peacefully in her sleep. 

I find it strange, especially so after researching more on the topic of her life, that Audrey Hepburn- so emblematic of the glamour of the movies- inspires me more by the story of her own life than by any story she starred in on the silver screen. Audrey is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest actors to have ever lived, but I think we should also remember her as the young girl, who refused to give into fear, dancing to a silent audience.

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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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.

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.