Scotland and the Black Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris and Colin Weir, Ayrshire’s Lotto Winners

What would you do if you won the lotto? Me? I would like to say I would be responsible but I’d more than likely buy my mum a nice wee house and then spend the next years of my life having Buckfast and steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s right, I do dream big. When Chris and Colin Weir from Largs won £161 million- at the time the largest payout for anyone in the UK-instead of living a life of hedonism and tonic wine, they decided to put their money to good use by providing funding for the Yes campaign during the run up to the independence vote. They ended up contributing around 4/5ths of the yes campaigns funding and played a significant role as some of the campaigns biggest financial backers.

The couple ended up in total donating nearly £3 million to the yes campaign, making them the top donors, followed up by Dan Macdonald, a developer involved with the Yes Scotland campaign and Mark Shaw, the director of the campaign, who each donated around £50 thousand. 

When this hit the press it wasn’t taken well by the better together campaign, with claims that the couple had been harassed for money and others who said that the small number of donors donating vast amounts showed that the campaign itself wasn’t that popular with the average person in Scotland. The Weirs themselves said that they had been lifelong supporters of Scottish Independence, there had been no bullying or pressure and that while the campaign did get its funding from a few large donations they believed that Scotland wanted to have a debate about independence- funding would give Scotland the opportunity to be well informed.  

The Better Together campaigns finances were a bit murkier, with Tory party financiers, bankers and even, according to the Guardian, individuals linked to the intelligence services being top donors. 

Sadly, for the Weirs and the rest of us, the No vote won and we have yet to see an independent Scotland. While they spent millions funding the campaign which ultimately lost the battle, they did contribute greatly towards making the debate more substantive than a one-sided shouting match. When up against long-standing institutions like the government, the Tory party and the media- including the BBC- there is no doubt that the funding given by the Weirs helped level the playing field and made the referendum far fairer than it otherwise might have been.

Outside of the referendum, the couple’s charitable ventures didn’t stop. They had been known to support their local football teams in Largs, as well as setting up a charitable commission called the Weir Charitable Trust in 2013. The trust is still active today and has put funding into Scottish sports and culture, as well as supporting things like the Gareloch Riding for the Disabled Association, which aims at making carriage driving more inclusive,  and the Kelso Heritage Society, a project that aims to promote local heritage in Kelso. 

Sadly In April 2019, the couple announced they were splitting up, however stating they were remaining amicable, and on December 27th Colin Weir, after a short illness, passed away. His funeral cortege passed by the Partick Thistle grounds one last time, a team he had become the largest stakeholder of earlier this year through his group Three Black Cats. Respects were paid at Partick Burgh Hall, which was open to all. At the service it was said that Colin would be remembered as “A Scottish patriot, philanthropist and Jags man to the end”. 

What would you do if you won the lottery? After reading through everything the Weirs have done, and Chris continues to do, I do hope I would be a little like them. Promoting culture and sports across Scotland, working to make political debate fairer and more equal, even if I couldn’t find myself supporting Partick Thistle.

Indy2 March

With the new year, things haven’t calmed down over the election results. With an overwhelming win for the Tory government and massive wins for the SNP in Scotland, the political differences in the United Kingdom have only become starker as we enter this new decade. The night after the election, the first of what is now appearing to be many marches happened in Glasgow; with what might have been the biggest independence march in Scottish history taking place this weekend, things are shaping up to be interesting in 2020 for Scotland.

This weekend’s march was organised by All Under One Banner, a group founded in 2014 to help raise the profile of Scottish independence by raising funds and supporting marches while also stressing inclusion. This message has apparently been very popular as the group has had vocal support from the First Minister and even drew in a fair share of SNP MPs and MSPs. The crowd also had supporters from other independence movements across Europe, with Catalan and Welsh flags waving alongside the Saltire. As well as a spirit of inclusion and solidarity, a clear opposition to the Tory party was a galvanising factor for vast swathes of marchers, with chants of “Tories Out” and “Fuck Boris” being heard throughout the day.

The march has been said to have drawn in nearly 80000 people from all over Scotland, despite issues with public transport and atrocious weather. While these figures aren’t one hundred percent accurate, with people joining and leaving the march at different points making it harder to get an accurate count, this still makes it well in excess of the 35000 figure from the last march in Glasgow. Scotland’s pro-independence voices are understandably becoming more and more insistent post-election, drawing in larger crowds and more support, as can be clearly seen by the increase, in turn, out at this weekend’s march compared to the one in 2018. Even if the 80000 figure is on the high end, which I don’t doubt, it’s impossible to deny there has been a groundswell of support for the cause.

Increasingly we are seeing political support not only from the SNP but also from Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour at one turn flirted with the idea of supporting a second referendum, but have since shelved a motion calling for a special conference to discuss the issue. It’s clear that while some party members support independence, the party structure is still hesitant to address it. I hope the party does get their finger out and take a long look at their own stances; down south having a Brexit policy that was more complicated than yes or no undoubtedly hit the party hard. Scottish Labour can’t afford to ignore its own party members when its already struggling for votes.

I myself have been cautious about the prospect of Scottish Independence in recent years. Sure, during the last referendum I voted yes, and door knocking for the Yes vote was the first time I’d been politically active but since then my political priorities have changed a lot; I don’t particularly care what flag I am under or which capital my taxes are going to. I care about the material conditions of me and mine- being a scheme wean, that means working class. It doesn’t mean British or Scottish. While I have come round to the idea that Westminster isn’t fit for function- a centuries-old institution steeped in traditions that don’t have any relevance and packed with more blue bloods than an Oxbridge rugby match – I’m not overly enthusiastic over the SNP’s lack of support for the working class. In the last election, they went as far as taking out opposition to Thatcherite anti-union legislation. A party happy to keep any part of Thatcherite policy is not going to get me to trust that they have working-class folk’s best intentions at heart.