Category Archives: History

Exploring old Edinburgh

I like history – but I’m every bit as intrigued by the way the past connects with the present as I am by historical events themselves. That’s probably why Sackcloth on Skin isn’t the straightforward historical novel which might have more chance of finding a publisher! But they say write about what interests you, and this absolutely fascinates me. How does the past influence and intersect with the present – in ideas, in stories, in objects, in buildings? Does it matter? What if we’re completely oblivious to the history of a place or an idea – does our lack of awareness make the past irrelevant, or does it still have significance? How many layers are there anyway?

Tempting to apply that politically, but that’s not the point of this post.

One of the great things about walking about Edinburgh is that those layers of the past are everywhere around you. A new project by St Andrews University is stripping back the layers and has created a reconstruction of Edinburgh in 1544. If you like this kind of thing it’s fantastic. You can walk up the Royal Mile and through closes which are still there today, or down the steep slope of the now-disappeared West Bow to the Grassmarket.  This trailer is just a taster for the app to be released in May.

Fast forward 150 years, and Dilys Rose’s newly published novel Unspeakable conjurs up just as vivid an experience of Edinburgh’s closes, taverns and lands, this time not eerily empty but full of clamour and stink, humour, struggle and tragedy. It’s the story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. I read it with some trepidation, because when you’ve just finished your first novel you really don’t want to discover that such a superb writer is about to publish something of similar period and theme! But I really enjoyed the book, and with a deep breath can say that Sackcloth on Skin occupies its own territory. Whether that territory ever finds its way into the wider world remains to be seen…

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© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

Glen o’ Dee Hospital

How sad this morning to learn that Glen o’ Dee Hospital, which I wrote about last year, was completely destroyed by fire overnight. Here’s the relevant part of my original post from July 2015. I’m glad we saw it in all its neglected, fascinating glory.

Glen o’ Dee Hospital

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A complete contrast, this one, but another unexpected discovery. I had come across the name of this former tuberculosis sanatorium during the course of some research, and when we saw the signpost we decided to take a quick look. I’m not sure what we expected to find, but my photos definitely don’t do this unusual building justice.

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You can see an image of how it looked originally here, and some photos of the abandoned interior here. Resting among the pine trees on the edge of Banchory, the sanatorium was built in 1899-1900, and modelled on the pioneering sanatorium built in Nordrach in Germany. It was originally known as Nordrach-on-Dee, and was intended to provide fresh air, treatment and research in the battle against the scourge of tuberculosis. As treatments changed and the disease became less common, the sanatorium was no longer needed. Since then the building has had a spell as a luxury hotel, and then was used once more as a sanatorium during the Second World War, before becoming a convalescent hospital. It finally closed in 1998. This stunning building is Grade A listed so can’t be demolished, but instead is crumbling slowly into total decay. Apparently it featured unsuccessfully in the 2003 TV series Restoration, but it’s a tragic loss of an unusual and fascinating building.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Escape from Balranald House

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Balranald House

We’ve just returned from another wonderful holiday in North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. This time the cottage we were staying in was a beautiful conversion of outbuildings once belonging to Balranald House. From one of the windows we could see Balranald House, built in 1832, which was the home of James Macdonald (also known as Seumas Ruadh), factor to Lord Macdonald.

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I ‘got to know’ the Macdonalds of Balranald in my research for Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist (Islands Book Trust, 2012). James Macdonald was part of a close network of power and influence which profoundly affected the lives of those trying to survive on the land in Uist. His brother John lived in Rodel House on Harris and was factor to the Earl of Dunmore; his sister Isabella was married to Finlay Macrae, minister of the Established Church in North Uist who lived on Vallay (see earlier post).  I could see the ruins of Finlay’s church at Kilmuir through another window of the cottage.

In 1850, the Macdonalds of Balranald were at the heart of a romantic drama which was reported in newspapers throughout Scotland. Twenty-one year old Jessie was in love with Donald Macdonald of Monkstadt, Skye, but her father Seumas Ruadh wanted her to marry Patrick Cooper. He was an Aberdeenshire man who was trustee for the heavily indebted Macdonald estates and the main instigator of the recent Sollas evictions. A marriage to Seumas’s daughter would have further strengthened important ties.

In February 1850 Cooper proposed to Jessie. In desperation she wrote to her lover, and the two decided to elope. With the help of Donald’s servant they fled from Balranald House by night, Jessie by all accounts in high spirits all the way to Lochmaddy. But it was a stormy night, and while making for Skye they were swept off course to Harris. By this time the alarm had been raised, and they were discovered by Jessie’s uncle, John of Rodel. Jessie was taken to Rodel House where she was held captive, her aunt sleeping in the bedroom with her to prevent another escape.

Donald meantime returned to Skye, where he gathered some friends and sailed to Harris to rescue Jessie by night. Newspaper accounts state that ‘Mr Macdonald (Rodil) came out of his house in his shirt and drawers, swearing at them as if he was mad.’ Somehow, in the ensuing confusion, Jessie and Donald managed to make their escape. They fled to Edinburgh where they were later married, but Seumas Ruadh and John of Rodel, together with Patrick Cooper, were not likely to accept such defiance. Donald Macdonald was charged with breaking into Rodel House and with assault, but he was cleared – to cheers from the public gallery. The young lovers had excited public sympathy.

Jessie and Donald were married on 22 April in St Cuthbert’s parish, Edinburgh. Church of Scotland marriages required banns to be proclaimed on three separate occasions in the home parish of both bride and groom. In what may have been an attempt by Finlay to lend some belated respectability to the affair, an intriguing entry in the Kilmuir marriage register reads:

Donald MacDonald Tacksman of Baleloch to Jessie Cathrine MacDonald daughter of James Thomas MacDonald Esquire Tacksman of Balranald 31st March 1850.’

It’s interesting to notice that the very next entry in the Kilmuir register records the marriage of another Balranald daughter, Elizabeth, to a Skye minister, also in April 1850. This entry states that the banns were ‘proclaimed in the Parish Church in North Uist in the regular and normal manner’ – a statement that is not made with regard to Jessie’s marriage. No doubt Elizabeth’s wedding was a much happier occasion for the family!

Jessie and Donald eventually emigrated to Australia, but their dramatic story illustrates just how closely factor, minister and land agent were bound together at this critical time in Uist’s history, a theme which I explore in more detail in the rest of the book.

[adapted from Flora Johnston, Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist, Islands Book Trust 2012]

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

William Keith and the Battle of Jutland

Christina Keith, whose extraordinary wartime story you can read in War Classics, was the eldest of eight children. The Keith family, like so many others, saw one child after another drawn into a different aspect of the First World War. One of her brothers, William Bruce Keith, joined the Navy and was involved in the Battle of Jutland, the centenary of which is being remembered today.

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William as a boy, appropriately dressed in a sailor suit.

William is known as ‘Uncle Bill’ in our family, but when he was a young boy his brothers and sisters called him ‘Willie’. He was born on 15 April 1898, so was just 16 at the outbreak of war. According to my father:

William wanted to go into the Navy and he discovered that he had just missed the date by which he had to apply and he would have to do something else, and then the war broke out so he was able to get in after all.

The Navy at Scapa Flow was a very real presence in the lives of the Keith family living in Thurso, and in her memoir Christina often refers to the familiar sight of battleships in the Pentland Firth. In 1916 William, now aged 18, was a midshipman on HMS Warspite.  He describes the whole engagement in vivid detail in a letter to his brother Barrogill, who was serving with the army in France.

Our steering gear now got jammed and we started turning in circles – just before the ‘Defence’, which was quite close to us, caught fire and vanished. We were now helpless and the Germans seeing us turning in circles singled us out and concentrated on us. We had about 6 or 7 firing at us, and we couldn’t reply as we were turning so quickly that the guns wouldn’t train fast enough. Shells were bursting all around us, and I thought it was all up. One shell dropped so close that the spray from it drenched us in the foretop. We were hit several times and one small splinter came into the foretop.

Eventually the focus of the battle moved on, and they managed to sort the steering and were ordered to return to Rosyth. In an understatement so typical of the writings of the time, William says they were ‘rather hungry and tired’. Fourteen men had been killed and sixteen wounded. Inside the ship they found a scene of devastation, with chairs, tables, lamps and pictures broken into pieces. All lifeboats and rafts had been smashed, and they were in immediate danger of being torpedoed, so the men made makeshift rafts from the broken furniture. They eventually made it back to Rosyth in safety, and William writes, ‘when we got inside the Forth Bridge we did feel thankful.’

He was able to take some leave at home in Thurso, just across the water from the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney. Today, one hundred years on, a service was held in beautiful St Magnus Cathedral to commemorate the 8500 men, both British and German, who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Perspectives on peace 1918: the Keith family

[Reposting this from 11 November 2014. Caithness Archive Centre are currently serialising Barrogill’s letters home from the Front on their website: ]

Two sisters and a brother. Three contrasting experiences of peace.

IMG_7354Barrogill was with the army in France:

They picked the divisions for the slaughterhouse and sent them forward with no purpose and no idea save that they be decimated. If that be generalship a bairn could do better! The war dragged on and our pals died. By the end of 1918 after we had assembled the might of the world against Germany, weight and casualties told; the Hun sought an armistice: and the war came to an end.

It was through our lines, just where I happened to be, that in October 1918 the big black car with its huge white flags passed carrying the Hun delegation seeking armistice talks. And Foch was just behind us in his train. I was told by a friend who was present that when Foch read out the terms he was proposing to hand the Germans, Haig intervened saying ‘Good God, the Hun will never accept these terms.’ To which Foch replied ‘I am afraid they will.’ As indeed they did. And so the war ended.
[from family archive material]

Christina was behind the lines in Dieppe:

Outside bells blared; flags flew; bands played; at every window in the Grande Rue faces looked out, laughing, crying. In the distance the ‘Marseillaise’ came rolling down and its echo ‘It’s – a – long – way – to – go.’

I stole into the Cathedral. Over the altar hung our flags, quiet and still. There was no need to wave them now. Utter quietness here and one spot of light only. In the chapel at my side lay the empty tomb and the marble watchers beside it. The figure of the risen Christ was outlined and ringed with light. Never have I seen so many candles ablaze together. Beneath Him in the darkness knelt clusters of black-robed women. Peace had come.

[from War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front, The History Press, 2014]

Mildred was working in London:

There were huge crowds already [at Buckingham Palace] but we were very lucky in getting up on the wall surrounding the statue of Queen Victoria. We were held up on the wall by soldiers and got a splendid view of the Quadrangle. We had only been there a quarter of an hour or so before the place was absolutely black with people so we were fortunate. General French and Townsend passed just beneath us on their way to the Palace – the police making way for them. It was grand. Then a band arrived and after half-an-hour during which everybody was cheering and waving flags and shouting ‘We want King George!’ he appeared! An Australian officer had managed somehow to get on top of the statue and he had most of the ragging. The King, Queen and Princess Mary appeared on the balcony and for fully ten minutes there was an uproar. It was grand and very, very thrilling. I shall never forget it. Then the band played first ‘Tipperary’ and everyone joined in- then ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. One after another of these topical songs, the crowds taking them up, and ending finally with all the allies national anthems. After that the King spoke but naturally I couldn’t hear a word – at least make out a word. I had a splendid view the whole time.
[from family archive material]

Remembering also Louise Keith’s fiancé Daniel Gordon Campbell, Sandy Morrison and Willie West, who didn’t come home.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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The Battle of Loos: a personal story

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Today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, a battle which left deep scars on Scotland. There are commemorations taking place in various locations across the country this weekend, including Dundee and Inverness, home to some of the regiments which were so brutally affected.

Around 30,000 Scots were involved in the battle, and the losses were absolutely devastating. Loos was an attempt by the Allied forces to gain ground and create movement in attack, but as the troops launched their attack on 25 September it became clear that much of the German barbed wire was still in place, and the enemy machine guns and artillery were ready and waiting. A failure to provide reinforcements and relief to the first wave of attack contributed to the horror that unfolded. Loos was also the first time that the British army used poison gas.

My great-uncle, Alexander Morrison (Sandy), was killed at Loos on 25 September, one hundred years ago today.

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Sandy Morrison as school captain

Sandy was the third of seven brothers, born to Hebridean parents living near Oban. The family moved to Edinburgh for the sake of the education of the boys, sending them to George Watson’s College. By all accounts, Sandy was outstanding. This could simply be family legend, the natural result of grief over his death, but it seems to be borne out elsewhere.

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The Morrison family: Sandy is standing on the far right.

I spent the last three years of my schooling at the same school as the Morrison brothers. I remember towards the end of either fifth or sixth year, during that wonderful lazy time we used to have after exams (which today’s students don’t have with the much more efficient but much less enjoyable system of moving on before the summer holidays) I managed to escape some classes and spent the time instead in the library, going through old editions of the school magazine searching for references to the Morrison brothers. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed by all this stuff since back then!) There are some hugely entertaining references to these loud voiced Gaelic speakers keeping everyone else awake on camp, or to one of the brothers playing the bagpipes through Morningside at midnight, and many references to their full involvement in school life. Through it all it’s clear that Sandy was exceptional, and you can find out more about his school career here.

After school Sandy studied agriculture at Edinburgh University, then emigrated to become a farmer in Edmonton, Canada. The records suggest he was already making his way home to Scotland – probably for a visit – when war was declared. He joined up with the Cameron Highlanders, becoming a Captain.

In 2008 I was working on an oral history project, and took the opportunity to record some of my father’s wealth of family stories. This is his account of Sandy’s death at Loos, one hundred years ago today:

On the 24th of September 1914 Shakes [Sandy’s brother, William Shepherd Morrison] was stationed at Loos and he was forward in the trenches because he was spotting the fall of the shells and he met his brother Sandy. Now Sandy according to the family was the brightest of them all and the leading one of the family, and he had become a farmer in Canada but immediately that the First World War broke out he came back to Britain. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and at this stage he was a Captain in the 5th Camerons. The Colonel was Lochiel, Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of the Camerons. And there was to be a big attack on the Germans on the following day, the 25th, and the order was that the officers were not to be armed with their revolvers as was usual, but they were to carry rifles. But Sandy carried neither. He went into battle with an axe. His company was a Gaelic speaking company – this is the 20th century, but this is what happened! The night before then he met Shakes and he told Shakes that he didn’t think he would survive the following day and he didn’t – he was killed in the attack. And they found his body lying beside three dead Germans all with axe wounds on them.

One hundred years on it’s hard to be sure of the truth of this family anecdote. Despite the story, Sandy’s body was never found and buried – like 20,000 others who fell at Loos he has no known grave but is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. But of course, in the carnage and confusion of a battle which lasted for days, someone might well have seen his body and testified to the manner of his death without a burial taking place or being recorded.

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There is in fact an echo of the story of the axe in an unexpected place. In War Classics, my book about Christina Keith’s time in France at the close of the First World War, I published some letters written by her brother Barrogill to their mother from the Western Front. Just a few weeks after Loos, Barrogill was repeating a story he’d heard about the actions of someone they knew during the battle:

I heard that AS Pringle – who was north with Keith Fraser – has been badly hit. He was magnificently game. With a battleaxe and a revolver old Toosie got over the trenches. He was hit 4 or 5 times and still fighting when last seen.

So maybe Sandy did go into battle armed with only an axe, and maybe he wasn’t the only one. If so, it’s perhaps little surprise that he didn’t survive the horrors of Loos. His death was a huge loss to the family – decades later my grandfather, a doctor, still kept a photograph of his older brother in his consulting room. In Sandy Morrison we see the loss of someone with enormous potential – a tragedy which is repeated in the lives of every single one of those young men who fell.

In memoriam.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Deeside discoveries – Migvie, Glen o’ Dee and Dunnottar

We spent most of last week exploring Deeside in the sunshine. There were various historical sites we planned to see, but it’s often the hidden places you come across unexpectedly which catch the imagination. Here are just a few…

Migvie Church

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We tracked down Migvie Churchyard in search of this Pictish symbol stone, which was well worth seeing. There was an interesting 17th-century graveslab nearby too. There was, we noted, no sign outside the church, but it’s always worth trying the door of a country church. What we found inside was utterly astonishing.

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The building was painted white, lit through beautiful coloured stained glass windows, and furnished and decorated with painting, stonework and woodwork which incorporated many Celtic and Pictish saints and symbols as well as verses from Scripture and other writers.

It turned out to be the work of local craftspeople, commissioned by Philip Astor (of the Astor family, and married to the writer Justine Picardie), who owns Tillypronie estate, as a memorial to his parents. I’m not sure how it is used, but it was a place of real beauty and peace, thought-provoking, and somewhere I could easily have spent far longer than we were able to.

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Glen o’ Dee Hospital

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A complete contrast, this one, but another unexpected discovery. I had come across the name of this former tuberculosis sanatorium during the course of some research, and when we saw the signpost we decided to take a quick look. I’m not sure what we expected to find, but my photos definitely don’t do this unusual building justice.

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You can see an image of how it looked originally here, and some photos of the abandoned interior here. Resting among the pine trees on the edge of Banchory, the sanatorium was built in 1899-1900, and modelled on the pioneering sanatorium built in Nordrach in Germany. It was originally known as Nordrach-on-Dee, and was intended to provide fresh air, treatment and research in the battle against the scourge of tuberculosis. As treatments changed and the disease became less common, the sanatorium was no longer needed. Since then the building has had a spell as a luxury hotel, and then was used once more as a sanatorium during the Second World War, before becoming a convalescent hospital. It finally closed in 1998. This stunning building is Grade A listed so can’t be demolished, but instead is crumbling slowly into total decay. Apparently it featured unsuccessfully in the 2003 TV series Restoration, but it’s a tragic loss of an unusual and fascinating building.

The Whigs’ Vault, Dunnottar Castle

This one was top of the list of places I wanted to visit. My ongoing, long term writing project touches tangentially on some of the Covenanters who spent six weeks imprisoned in horrendous conditions in a vault in this inaccessible castle. Dunnottar sits in a spectacular location on the cliffs, almost completely surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, and can only be accessed by a narrow path and steep steps.

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We had a prior engagement with some puffins at Fowlsheugh a little further south. We basked in sunshine as we walked along the cliff edge spotting razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and the elusive, wonderful puffins, then drove back up to Dunnottar. It was a perfect summer’s day.

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But this was the view when we reached Dunnottar, just five or ten minutes up the coast.

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A bit unfortunate for the poor people who were trying to celebrate a wedding on the cliffs overlooking the castle.

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The east coast haar remained stubbornly persistent throughout the rest of the afternoon, so we didn’t get the full effect of being surrounded by the sea – but in some ways the swirling mist added to the atmosphere. And nothing could remove the resonance of standing in the vault where over 150 Covenanters who had survived the walk from Edinburgh were imprisoned, with no sanitation and little food and water.

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In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Chris and Ewan spend a day at Dunnottar:

There the Covenanting folk had screamed and died while the gentry dined and danced in their lithe, warm halls, Chris stared at the places, sick and angry and sad for those folk she could never help now, that hatred of rulers and gentry a flame in her heart, John Guthrie’s hate. Her folk and his they had been, those whose names stand graved in tragedy.

Much to think about, much to work on.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.