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  • The Great Scuttle by David Meara

    The End of the German High Seas Fleet

    Witnessing History

    One hundred years ago last summer an extraordinary and dramatic event took place, a coda to the end of the First World War. The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, on 21st June 1919, Midsummer’s Day was the greatest single loss of shipping in maritime history, 74 capital ships scuttled, of which 52 went to the bottom.

    A panorama of the surrender of the German fleet on 21 November 1918, showing HMS Cardiff leading the German battlecruisers, flanked by HMS Lion and HMS Queen Elizabeth. (The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    In spite of the drama and magnitude of the event, it is not as well known as it should be, certainly not in England. Partly because it happened after the First World War had ended, partly because of reporting restrictions at the time, partly because it was, publicly at least, something of an embarrassment to the Admiralty and the British Government, and partly because the Orkney Islands seem to be a long way away. Indeed I have discovered that some people are surprisingly vague about where the Orkney Islands are!

    So it seemed to me that the one hundredth anniversary year was a chance to remind ourselves of this dramatic postscript to the First World War. My personal interest in this subject stems from the fact that my mother and my uncle were witnesses of the event, because they were members of a party of school children from Stromness Academy who were being given a summer treat. A trip around the interned German Fleet on board the boat the Flying Kestrel: and right in the middle of their outing the scuttling began. Big ships turning turtle all around them, German sailors taking to the boats, English sailors shooting at them, the sea foaming and boiling, panic and pandemonium everywhere. It was an experience they never forgot, and my uncle’s diary account of the experience gave me the idea of writing an eye-witness account of the events of that day to mark the 100th anniversary.

    The story of the Great Scuttle is really a drama in three acts:-

    Act I)       The Surrender of the High Seas Fleet at the end of November 1918.

    Act II)     The Scuttling itself, after 7 months of internment in Scapa Flow.

    Act III)    The subsequent salvaging of some of the ships during the inter-war years.

     

    The Flying Kestrel, a tug used to take water and supplies to the British fleet. (Orkney Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act I

    Under the terms of the Armistice of 11th November 1918 the German High Seas Fleet was to be interned in an allied port pending its disposal – and because no-one else wanted it, Admiral Wemyss suggested Scapa Flow.

    On 21st November 1918 under “Operation ZZ” the entire Grand Fleet, plus Allies, put to sea, 370 ships and 90,000 men, to rendezvous with the German Fleet off May Island in the Firth of Forth, flying as many white ensigns as possible. One immense line of ships dividing into two lines, meeting the German Fleet in line ahead, 9 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 7 light cruisers, and 49 destroyers – under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in the Battleship Friedrich Der Grosse. The British light cruiser Cardiff led the German ships between the two allied lines, which then reversed course to escort the Germans to the Forth.  The whole operation was conducted in silence. At about 11.00 am Beatty gave the order that the German flag would be lowered at sunset and not hoisted again without permission. The entire event was carefully choreographed to demonstrate the power and might of the victorious British and Allied Navies, and the humiliation of the Germans. The British could hardly believe that the German Naval Command would submit so meekly, and so the prevailing mood was one of disgust and sadness.

    The ships were then inspected to ensure they were completely disarmed, and then over the next few days groups of ships were escorted northwards by the 1st Battle Squadron to their internment in Scapa Flow.

    Von Reuter decided early on in the internment that he would not let his ships fall into enemy hands unless ordered to by his own government, and so began making plans for scuttling but kept them secret, only telling his commanding officers. Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Freemantle, officer Commanding 1st Battle Squadron, didn’t keep von Reuter informed about the negotiations, and in fact took his ships out on torpedo exercises in the Pentland Firth on 21st June because of the good weather. So the fates conspired to present von Reuter with the perfect moment to scuttle his fleet and redeem his country’s honour. For the Stromness schoolchildren, the morning dawned fine and bright, and they prepared for their treat blissfully unaware of the tensions, humiliations and confusions of the previous seven months. It was going to be a day to remember.

     

    German destroyers ashore on the island of Flara. (Author's collection, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act II

    Leslie Thorpe, my uncle, twelve years old at the time, wrote a detailed account of the day afterwards in his diary and in a letter to his father. He takes up the story:-

    “Went down to see the German Fleet. Everyone came to school about 9.45 am and we marched to the Flying Kestrel, which was at the New Pier.” The Flying Kestrel was a tug from Liverpool, used to supply water and general stores to the British ships in Scapa Flow.

    The Stromness Senior School classes were being taken on the trip, leaving behind the Infants, and they marched down to the pier in class order, between two and three hundred children in all. Leslie Thorpe goes on:-

    The Kestrel was quite big enough to hold us, and we had liberty to go almost all over her. We had the Red Ensign at the stern, the Union Jack at the bow, and the pennant with the ship’s name at the fore-mast-head. We passed through the hurdles” (the anti-submarine defences) “and the first German ship we came to was the SMS Baden. She is a battleship, having two masts, and two funnels close together, two big guns aft, and two forward. The next was the battlecruiser König Albert. The battlecruisers all have very pointed sterns, and their names are at the stern instead of at the bow.

    The next ships were the battle cruisers Kaiserin, Derfflinger, Hindenburg, Von der Tann, Moltke and Seydlitz. I never noticed the Kaiser or the Karlsruhe. Perhaps I wasn’t looking when we passed them.” The central section of my book continues the narrative of the scuttling, largely using eye-witness accounts, which vividly bring to life the events of the 21st June 1919, and the impact it had on those who watched the drama unfold.

    At the end of that extraordinary day there must have been many excited children being coaxed to bed. Admiral von Reuter, after a game of piquet with his flag lieutenant in his cabin aboard the British flagship, HMS Revenge, now a prisoner of war, settled down in his bunk. The next day he and the rest of the German sailors were taken south to prisoner-of-war camps in England.

     

    The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg has by this stage settled on the bottom, with only her masts, funnels and the upper part of her superstructure showing. (Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act III

    This extraordinary drama was played out over the years leading up to the start of the Second World War, when through the efforts of Ernest Cox, a scrap metal merchant from the Isle of Sheppey, and his successors, all of the destroyers and many of the bigger vessels were salvaged, using pioneering techniques and sheer dogged hard graft and determination.

    Seven wrecks still remain at the bottom of the Flow, now scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. They have become a top diving destination, bringing in a substantial boost to the local economy. Those wrecks and the German graves at Lyness Naval Cemetery on the Island of Hoy remain as mute testimony to the events of that day in 1919.

    The events of the 21st June 1919 were never forgotten by those who witnessed them. When interviewed for a magazine article in her 85th year one of the schoolchildren, Peggy Gibson said:-

    “I still think about it. It was really remarkable, and not something anyone could easily forget, seeing those great ships first listing, then sinking, with a great roar of steam escaping, and the German sailors jumping into the water.”

    One hundred years on, there are no witnesses to the scuttling still alive. But, through the memories and records they left behind, the drama, chaos and terror of that fateful day can be vividly recreated for later generations for whom the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet is simply part of distant history. Young Leslie Thorpe called his outing on the Flying Kestrel with his sister and schoolmates “a most thrilling experience”, and in a PS to his long letter to his father describing their adventures, added:-

    “Don’t you think I’d better write a book about the scuttling of the German Fleet!”

    Over the succeeding years a number of accounts have indeed been written, and one hundred years later my own account of that one momentous day, Saturday 21st June 1919, fulfils that young boy’s aspiration, and tells this dramatic story afresh, through the eyes of those who saw it happen. As the young Leslie Thorpe said to his sister Winnie at the time: they were indeed “witnessing history.”

    David Meara's book The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet is available for purchase now.

  • The Scottish Rail Scene in the Twenty-First Century by John Jackson

    The date was 9th August 1968, a day I remember well. That was the day I crossed an imaginary line, and my imagination turned to reality. My love affair had begun.

    Leaving Carlisle’s Kingmoor yard behind me, my first entry in my beloved spotting notebook was to be at the isolated community of Beattock, around forty miles north of the border on the West Coast Main Line. That was the day that I had crossed the border from England to Scotland for the very first time.

    The iconic Forth Bridge, spanning the Firth of Forth since 1890. (The Scottish Rail Scene in the Twenty-First Century, Amberley Publishing)

    In the next few days I will notch up my fifty-first consecutive year of visiting Scotland at least once, and, most years, many times more.

    Just a couple of years ago, my visit to the re-opened Borders Railway ensured that I have still visited every open passenger railway station in that country. Of course, many escaped my grasp due to the ‘Beeching Axe’ taking out much of the Scottish passenger rail map before both my maturity and financial position would have enabled me to visit.

    Back in 1968, I was a teenager with a hobby, but it was so much more than that. It was, and still is, a passion. My father had lit the touchpaper by sharing with me his love of steam engines. Those beasts may have come and gone but my love affair with our railways remains. In recent years, my camera has become my travelling companion as I pursue another railway target, this time to take at least one photo at every station on the rail network. That remains a tall order.

    So, fast-forward fifty years from that teenage moment in 1968, and I am standing on the single platform at Altnabreac. This isolated station is just over forty miles south of Wick on the Far North Line. My wife and father-in-law, and our car, are left behind at nearby Scotscalder as I make the ‘out and back’ journey with a twenty-minute connection here at Altnabreac having arrived on the lunchtime southbound train and then returning north almost immediately.

    The remote outpost of Altnabreac on Scotland’s Far North Line. (The Scottish Rail Scene in the Twenty-First Century, Amberley Publishing)

    As I stood at this remote outpost I had to pinch myself. The motivation for this particular journey was to take a photo, not just for my private enjoyment, but also for imminent publication.

    I had decided that Altnabreac was to feature on the Far North Line pages of ‘The Scottish Rail Scene in the Twenty-First Century’, my tenth title for Amberley Publishing. It didn’t matter that there was no road access to this station whatsoever! The twenty minutes waiting here between trains gave me the chance to archive yet another chapter in my Scottish Railway memories.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed travelling the length and breadth of Scotland’s railways over the last half century. Of course, the Scottish railway scene has changed much in that time. By the time of my early ventures north the steam engines had disappeared, but in their wake came a wide variety of Diesel locomotive types. Most of these locos seemed to spend most of their time stabled out of use at the many depots that littered Scotland in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Most of those locos and depots have also been consigned to history. But Scotland’s railways still have much to tempt me north.

    The last few years of these travels are reflected in this book. The publication takes a whistle-stop tour of those lines that survived into the twenty-first century. From the border city of Carlisle to the Far North termini at Wick and Thurso, the book covers the length and breadth of the country. I have included as many lines and locations as space constraints allow. I hope you have the chance to share my journey.

    John Jackson's new book The Scottish Rail Scene in the Twenty-First Century is available for purchase now.

  • Brexit, King Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

    When I look for something in history that is like Brexit, I find the Scottish prayer-book rebellion against Charles I.

    Charles I - poised and withdrawn. Daniel Mytens. (c. Private collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    In summer 1637 the Scots in their thousands rejected the religious liturgy which the king wanted to impose on them. The year before he had introduced new Canons (church law) and now asked his northern kingdom to accept and use a new prayer-book. It was drafted largely by Englishmen under the guidance of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury. The Scots had not objected to the Canons. They said no to the prayer-book.

    On 28 February 1638 the rebel Scottish leaders produced their manifesto: the National Covenant. It was signed throughout Scotland and is one of the great documents of history. The Covenant proclaimed loyalty to the king but said no to the changes he wanted.

    This was the Brexit moment. A nationalist response to foreign imposition. That was then, this is now. The National Covenant of 1638 was an agreement not only with the other subscribers but with God.

    The prayer-book rebellion was not secession. Scotland was a separate and independent country. It just happened to have the same king as England. The Scots had their own Privy Council, their own parliament, their own laws, their own church (the Kirk). They wanted to keep it that way.

    On the path to war

    It began with a riot in church after the congregation pelted the Dean of Edinburgh, when he started to read from the new prayer-book, with whatever came to hand, including the stools on which they sat (23 July 1637). According to legend the first to attack was Jenny Geddes who rose to her feet yelling ‘Daur ye say Masse in my lug (ear)?’ To Jenny the project seemed ‘Romisch superstition.’ The Bishop of Edinburgh was attacked in the street after the service (but survived).

    The Covenanting movement led to war. First the two Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640, between the Scots and their monarch.

    They were Bishops Wars because the Scots wanted to get rid, not just of the new prayer-book, but of their bishops. In the first Bishops War not a blow was struck. In the second, contrary to the king’s plan, a Scottish army invaded northern England and occupied Newcastle. Incidentally this army was led for a time by the subject of the book I am now writing, James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose.

    More dramatically the Scottish prayer-book rebellion led to the outbreak of civil war in England. There are a hundred twists and turns on the way. But there is no doubt that it was trouble in Scotland that opened the floodgates in England (also in Ireland, the third Stuart kingdom).

    Henriette Marie and Charles I. Engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1634. (c. Rijksmuseum, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast and loose…

    My feeling, when I wrote my biography of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was that Henrietta Maria would have made a better king than her husband, and it remains my feeling. She certainly did what she could for Charles I and the Stuart family, including literally standing in the line of parliamentary fire. As thing were, could she have prevented the Scottish collapse? It seems unlikely.

    Not that I wish to deny the king’s qualities. He was an admirable person, much more so than some of his predecessors and successors on the throne. He was energetic, high-principled, a devoted family man, aesthetically discerning, a stickler for the law up to a point. His eleven years of personal rule in England (1630-1641), the period when he dispensed with parliaments, were unpopular with many influential people. But they were years of legalistic government.

    Still one cannot deny that Charles I played fast and loose with that delicate animal, the English constitution. He imprisoned a number of the men who refused to pay or assist in the collection of his forced loan of 1628. He imprisoned Members of Parliament after undignified scenes in the House of Commons in the last days of the 1628-1629 parliament. One, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower.

    Those undignified scenes included physical assault. The Speaker, Sir John Finch, when he tried to adjourn the session by leaving the House, was wrestled and held in his chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine. Finch was held down to allow a protestation to be read (by Sir John Eliot) against royal policy in religion and finance.

    Charles I, at St Margaret's Westminster. (c. Author's collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature of the king

    Scholars have gone almost mad trying to pin down what went wrong in the seventeenth century. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Civil War. It scared the life out of the ruling classes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and led to the parliamentary system which distinguishes British history.

    In the nineteenth century the Civil War became a romantic dream of cavaliers and roundheads. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish nationalism was reborn and is growing up fast helped by the Brexit vote of 2016. This blog is not the time to explore the history of Ireland but that country above all bears the marks of those struggles four centuries ago.

    On the whole historians agree that the character of Charles I was at the heart of the matter. If he was dealt a difficult hand, he played the wrong cards. However it is hard to challenge the proposal that the king, if perhaps he succeeded as a martyr, was a failure as king.

    The failure of Charles I was not the iron fist of autocracy. His failure was political clumsiness. He could not read minds. He could not, until very late in the day, read situations. He did not judge loyalty well. Unlike his father and his eldest son he could not see that even a king must embrace, from time to time, the art of compromise, perhaps a king most of all. And, far from being his wife’s lapdog, as his enemies proclaimed, it could be said he did not listen to her enough.

    Dominic Pearce's new paperback edition of Henrietta Maria is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Leith by Jack Gillon

    Having previously written Leith Through Time (2014) and Leith History Tour (2018) for Amberley, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to delve deeper into Leith’s past and some of the lesser-known aspects of its long and distinguished history with Secret Leith (2019).

    Leith from the Firth of Forth, 1820. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Leith has played a long and prominent role in Scottish history. As the major port serving Edinburgh, it has been the stage on which many significant events in Scottish history have taken place. It was first established on the banks of the Water of Leith, at the point where the river entered the Firth of Forth. The first historical reference to the town dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. The early settlement was centred on the area bounded by the Shore, Water Street, Tolbooth Wynd and Broad Wynd. It became Edinburgh’s port in 1329, when King Robert I granted control of the shoreline hamlet to the Burgh of Edinburgh. In the early days it consisted of the two independent settlements of South Leith and North Leith.

    Leith frequently features in the power struggles that took place in Scotland and the battles, landings, and sieges of Leith have had an influence on its development. It was attacked by the Earl of Hertford in 1544 during the Rough Wooing – his mission was to arrange a marriage between the young Mary Queen of Scots and her English cousin, later Edward VI. Three years later, it was pillaged after the defeat of the Scottish army at the Battle of Pinkie. Immediately following this, Mary of Guise, the Roman Catholic Regent of Scotland, moved the seat of government to Leith and the town was fortified.

    The Signal Tower - An important Leith landmark at the corner of the Shore and Tower Street. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    The town expanded significantly during the nineteenth century, associated with railway building and the growth of the docks. Port related industries and warehousing also grew rapidly during this period. This contemporary description paints a vivid portrait of the Port at the time – ‘Leith possesses many productive establishments, such as ship-building and sail-cloth manufactories ... manufactories of glass ... a corn-mill ... many warehouses for wines and spirits ... and there are also other manufacturing establishments besides those for the making of cordage for brewing, distilling, and rectifying spirits, refining sugar, preserving tinned meats, soap and candle manufactories, with several extensive cooperages, iron-foundries, flourmills, tanneries and saw-mills.’

    In 1833, the town was established as an independent Municipal and Parliamentary Burgh with full powers of local government. It expanded as massive warehouses and additional docks were built: the Victoria Dock in 1851, the Albert Dock in 1881 and the Imperial Dock in 1903. After the passing of the Leith Improvement Act in 1880, many of the sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings were cleared away.

    In 1920, despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 26,810 to 4,340 against the merger, it was incorporated into Edinburgh. The 1960s, brought the final days of the old and ancient thoroughfares in the heart of Leith – the Kirkgate, St Andrew Street, Tollbooth Wynd, Bridge Street and many more would disappear in the coming decade. However, the town retains a passionate sense of individuality and its people a proud sense of identity.

    Mary, Queen of Scots landing at Leith. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Many of the stories in the book have been told before by accomplished local historians. However, it is hoped that the book, by using early sources; media reports, contemporary with events; and a mix of old and new images, has uncovered some fresh aspects of the long and distinguished history of the town, even for people that know it well.

    On 20 April 1779 the Leith Mutiny, in front of Leith’s Ship Tavern, a fateful clash between soldiers of a Highland Regiment and Lowland troops, ostensibly on the same side but divided by cultures, left the Shore at Leith strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded.

    In August 1816, Hans Zakaeus, who was known in Scotland as John Sakeouse, a native of Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland, landed at Leith. The curious locals were soon given the opportunity to have a closer look at Sakeouse when he gave a demonstration of his skills with his kayak and harpoon in the Wet Dock at Leith Docks.

    In 1753, it was discovered that a lack of vitamin C was the cause of scurvy amongst sailors. To prevent this it became a legal requirement for sailors on long voyages to receive a measure of lime or lemon juice, as protection against the disease – giving rise to the nickname Limeys for British sailors. In 1868, Lauchlan Rose set up a factory to produce the world's first concentrated bottled fruit juice drink – Rose’s Lime Juice – on Commercial Street in Leith.

    Zeppelin L9, which is identical to the Zeppelin that bombed Leith. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    From an aeronautical viewpoint, I was intrigued to discover that Leith had a short lived airport for flying boats and that some of the earliest aeroplanes in Scotland were manufactured in Leith.

    The First World War resulted in a Zeppelin bomber attack on Leith, on the night of 2 April 1916, bringing the First World War to the home front. It caused considerable damage to property and tragic loss of life. In 1918, Julian the Tank Bank arrived in Leith – a unique and novel fundraising project, which tempted the war-weary public to part with its hard-earned cash to help the War effort by allocating a number of Mark IV tanks to tour the towns and cities of Britain, in a campaign which raised many millions of pounds. The German Kultur Panel on Leith’s Pitt Street depicts the alleged atrocities by the German army in the early years of the First World in Belgium.

    I also took the opportunity to describe in detail the events depicted on the People’s History of Leith Mural. It was painted in 1986 and is an evocative celebration of Leith’s maritime, social and industrial heritage.

    Jack Gillon's new book Secret Leith is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Aberdeen by Lorna Corall Dey

    Places-People-History

    “I’m really intrigued by this one and have been pretty distracted by it all day.”

    Castlegate. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    The words of a reporter from Aberdeen’s Evening Express on receiving a review copy of A-Z of Aberdeen. Such a positive response from someone fielding innumerable publications straight off the press is heartening for, by its nature, the A-Z is selective and subjective and might have proven to be too personal, too close to me as the author. It appears this has not been the case.

    Aberdeen Grammer School. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Compiling A-Z of Aberdeen I was something of a hostage to fortune, for Aberdeen is a city with a long, long recorded history, and during the last thousand years or so many great lives were lived, and countless notable events occurred. As I explained in the introduction to the book the areas covered were picked because they were of special interest to me or stood out in the context of Aberdeen. In the end one hundred and twenty-five topics were included, many illustrated with photographs, but another volume could easily look quite different. Indeed I had to remove several entries from the original draft due to sheer lack of space.

    As a historian my natural inclination was to head back in time – trawling through out-of-print books or old newspapers for lesser-known anecdotes or detail which will add flourish to the contents. To find curiosities that will stick in the minds of readers.

    William Wallace, Guadian of Scotland. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    I love quirky items such as the story I stumbled across of a natural feature which has disappeared from the city and was known as the Roon O (Round O.) The O was a dip in the landscape formed by boulders scouring away at land during the last ice age in what became the area of Ferryhill. Once a little church was said to have stood upon the Roon O. One night its minister and elders were indulging in a spot of illicit gambling when a great flash of lightning lit up the kirk and Auld Hornie (the Devil) was seen dancing there as church and its sinners were drawn down into hell. Perhaps pause for thought for those residents living in the vicinity of the Roon O today.

    Being a city renowned for its education Aberdeen has been a cradle of many a great intellect – people who influenced politics, science and social thinking not only in Scotland and the UK but across the world. Aberdeen has always been an outward-looking town with its mercantile tradition but also because of its two universities and their strong links with prestigious European seats of learning. Some of the greatest minds who contributed to that remarkable intellectual force of the 18th century. The Scottish Enlightenment, honed their intellects in Aberdeen – such as Thomas Reid who founded the Scottish Philosophical School of Common Sense and the innovative educationalist, George Turnbull.

    Trawlerman in the 1970s. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Several of the cities curiously named places and buildings get mentioned in the book such as the Monkey House and Monkey Brae, the Vennel, Patagonian Court and Froghall. There are tragedies, too, such as the high loss of life from the whaling ship, Oscar, when it sank at the mouth of the harbour. That was a natural calamity but another tragedy that was man-made was the despicable treatment of innocent women and men convicted of witchcraft in the town who were dipped into the harbour from the cran (crane) or partly strangled and burnt.

    Aberdeen being a Scottish city there are the inevitable unicorns – an ancient emblem of the nation. As a former shipbuilding port the odd zulu is included for good measure. Ships carry cargo and maritime trade in and out of Aberdeen has been controlled through the institution of Aberdeen Harbour notably the oldest surviving recorded business in the UK with records stretching back to 1136. The city is also the proud home of the oldest surviving co-operative business, Shore Porters’ Society, dating from 1498.

    Aberdeen rowies. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Ten centuries after Ptolemy of Alexandria recorded a place called Devana by the River Diva (Dee) on his 2nd century globe, the community later known as Aberdeen has flourished as an international city of trade, engineering, fishing, woollens, granite, ideas. A vital servicer of the British empire, the UK centre of oil and gas production while retaining its unique character because of its relative isolation from the central belt of Scotland. This is a place where a distinctive dialect of Scots known as the Doric is spoken.  Doric has its own vocabulary and pronunciation, the result of the many peoples who lived around this part of Scotland from Scots to Scandinavians and perplexes many a visitor to the area.

    Another vital ingredient that demanded inclusion in the book is that culinary delicacy that is quintessentially Aberdeen – the rowie, roll or buttery. The origins of this half bread, half pastry are unknown although some suspect they were produced as an alternative to bread for the city’s fishermen away at sea for days at a time. David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones (once Zowie Bowie), developed a taste for the rowie when he spent part of his childhood in Aberdeen with his city nanny, Marion Skene. Nowadays Duncan makes his own rolls which prompts the expression ‘from Zowie Bowie to Zowie Rowie.’

    This is a real dip into book packed with information but as the reporter quoted at the top commented it isn’t an easy book to put down either.

    Lorna Corall Dey's new book A-Z of Aberdeen is available for purchase now.

  • Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide by Jan-Andrew Henderson

    For much of Edinburgh’s long existence, there was only the Old Town. Perched on a high basalt ridge, it slowly turned from a collection of rude cottages with a fort at the top and arable slopes on either side, to a collection of towering tenements clinging to the ridge.

    The original New Town. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This was the perfect defensive site. Scotland’s history was a turbulent one, so the Old Town never really expanded. It just got more and more crowded. Surrounded by a fortified wall, the greenery disappeared under a rash of tenements, which grew so high they were the tallest in Europe, reaching fifteen stories in some spots. People lived in underground cellars and tunnels, sanitation was non-existent, and the dwellings were rickety fire hazards and living conditions utterly deplorable. By the time the New Town came along, The Royal Mile’s glory days were fading. A huge number of Edinburgh aristocrats and ambitious, well educated innovators had taken off for London, were no longer willing to live in such a dirty, smelly, violent place.

    North of the city, however, were vast swathes of pastoral land. Separated from the Royal Mile only by the pungent expanse of the sewage filled Nor’ Loch, it was too tempting a prize to ignore. Along with Glasgow, Edinburgh was the focal point of the Scottish Enlightenment and still teeming with men of learning. Though the crowded conditions in the Old Town had actually been a perfect cauldron for brilliant ideas and innovation, better living conditions were deemed essential if all those geniuses were to be persuaded to stay. In 1752 a pamphlet called Proposals by Sir Gilbert Minto (1693-1766) argued that a nice new northern development was just the ticket to stop a potential brain drain and bring the cream of Edinburgh society back.

    Princes Street Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    This required more than a new area to inhabit. It called for something to equal, or even surpass, the finest suburbs of London. Nothing parochial. British rather than Scottish, to give a cosmopolitan and classical feel. After all, you couldn’t beat the Greeks and Romans at this sort of thing.

    The man who got the ball rolling properly was Lord Provost George Drummond (1688-1766). His tentative first step was to build a gateway between the Royal Mile and the flat, open lands ripe for development – the North Bridge. Next, Drummond needed a builder with a grand plan. So, in 1766, the city launched a competition to design a New Town for Edinburgh.

    The winner was a little-known architect named James Craig (1739-1795), only 26 at the time. His layout wasn’t exactly earth shattering, merely a simple grid structure of three parallel main streets with a large square at either end. But it was loaded with allegory, (very) roughly mimicking the Union Jack, symbolizing the union of Scotland and England under the reigning king George III (1738-1820).

    Walter Scott Monument. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    But the New Town was also symbolic of the Scottish Enlightenment and its beliefs – that society and its environment could be improved by logical and pragmatic thinking. Though grand in scale, the layout was deliberately functional and uncomplicated, rather than the organic, messy development of most cities.

    A natural reluctance by Edinburgh’s citizens to embrace change meant that it took almost fifty years to finish the first New Town. But the result was stunning and the influx slow and steady.  Ironically, the aristocrats Scotland hoped to entice back avoided the place, since they couldn’t plonk some stately home with a mile long driveway in the middle of such a carefully regulated area. This was no great loss, for it was the wealthy and cultured middle class who were most enthused by the ideals and aspirations of the Scottish Enlightenment. And they loved the place.

    This, to me, is the great irony of the New Town. In my opinion, the truly innovative ideas of the Enlightenment came out of the Old Town. Carried to the New World, they found a receptive audience in the thousand of Scots Irish and Scottish Presbyterians who had relocated there. This irrevocably shaped the ethos and national character of what would become the most powerful country in the world – the USA.

    Naturally, the occupants of the New Town were less radical, happy to keep up the momentum that had started on the Royal Mile. The ‘Scottish School’ of thought argued that we were ultimately creatures of our environment – and what an environment the residents now had. But they had no intention of resting on their laurels. They acquired knowledge like sponges. Considered bettering themselves a necessity. Exuded an unshakeable self confidence that their English counterparts now lacked and their predecessors in the Old Town, brilliant though they might be, had never really known. Along with Glasgow’s more free-wheeling counterparts, they altered the face of the globe by becoming the practical and intellectual backbone of an even greater force than the USA. The British Empire.

    Albert Memorial, Charlotte Square Gardens. (Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    The city of Edinburgh finally had a civilized veneer and projected itself as ‘the Athens of the North’, despite the Old Town being a total cesspit. And that’s the sad part, in a way. For the first time, true public division had arrived. Instead of the rich and poor living cheek by jowl, complimenting each other in the generation of innovative ideas, the haves and have-nots were suddenly segregated by distance and class. Civilization had arrived and Edinburgh embraced the fact that it wasn’t just riding the coat tails of Britain’s bid to take over the globe. It was leading the charge.

    The New Town isn’t simply an architectural masterpiece but a monument to the body of men (and a few convention defying women) who changed the entire world.

    Jan-Andrew Henderson's new book Edinburgh New Town: A Comprehensive Guide is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Leith by Lisa Sibbald

    Places - People - History

    Citadel Caption - The remains of 17th century Leith Citadel. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite having visited Leith on many occasions over several decades, and only living a few miles away in another part of Edinburgh, I never really appreciated Leith’s history until I wrote a small piece for my previous book, A-Z of Edinburgh. I spent a short time walking around parts of Leith and taking photographs, and I knew then that I wanted to write a book about Leith. I spent several months researching the area, taking photographs, and talking to Leithers both online and in person, and I learned so much in the process.

    I was always aware that Leithers were very proud of their heritage and their home, and now I feel I can understand why. There are centuries of history still evident in the very stones and streets – the remains of Leith Citadel date back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and Leith Fort to the late eighteenth century. The street names themselves hark back to a bygone time and Leith’s overseas trading connections – Cadiz Street, Elbe Street, Madeira Street, Timber Bush. Leith’s proud history as a port and docks is all around, from the wonderful Trinity House which was the base of the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipbuilders and is now a maritime museum, to the Malmaison Hotel which is in a former sailors’ home, to the Corn Exchange building with its magnificent frieze showing cherubs taking part in sowing, harvesting and transporting the grain which would eventually make its way to Leith. It has survived wars, sieges, bombings, and being amalgamated, against its will, into the city of Edinburgh!

    Swing Bridge Caption - Victoria Swing Bridge built in 1894 to connect the east and west sides of the harbour. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    From the sixteenth century, Leith had been a centre for storage of wine and brandy, and later whisky production and storage. The whisky industry, with its associated trades such as coopering and transporting, employed thousands of people in Leith, and several famous names were created here, including VAT 69 and Highland Queen whiskies, Glayva, Crabbie’s Green Ginger and, unusually, a non-alcoholic drink, Rose’s Lime Juice. Sadly, from there being as many as 100 whisky bonds at the peak of the industry, the last whisky bond closed in 1995, but the buildings still remain, converted into flats or commercial property.

    Shipbuilding was of course another major trade and employer in Leith for many centuries, with the shipyards having built vessels which sailed all over the world. The last Leith shipyard, Henry Robb, closed in 1984 and another great tradition and major employer came to an end.

    Reflections Caption - Reflections of old and new Leith, with modern flats alongside the Malmaison Hotel, situated in the former Sailors' Home of 1885. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    But Leith isn’t all about history. After a decline which saw many sub-standard tenements being demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, property developers began to see its potential for water-front redevelopment. This led to many new properties being built, along with wine bars and expensive restaurants. Old, run-down, historic buildings were repaired and restored, and given new life and a new purpose. This ‘gentrification’ has been, and continues to be, a subject of great debate, as the price of these luxurious new water-front housing developments is far beyond what many long-time Leith residents can afford. The wine bars and restaurants have replaced the pubs and fish and chip shops that had been there for decades. The Shore area in particular has gone from being the haunt of sailors and “ladies of the night” to a place where people arrive from other parts of town or other countries to eat expensive meals and drink expensive wines in Michelin-starred restaurants.

    Despite some of the new developments being given almost a “theme park” image with nautical themes and paraphernalia seemingly randomly dropped in, Leith isn’t just an area looking to its past. Leithers never forget their motto - “Persevere” - and they move forward. There are now many new businesses dealing in design and IT, buildings providing hubs for small businesses, and unique shops and coffee bars serve locals and visitors alike. The area continues to produce writers, artists, and musicians. It remains a vibrant community, proud of its past, but always looking to the future.

    Lisa Sibbald's new book A-Z of Leith is available for purchase now.

  • Greyfriars Graveyard by Charlotte Golledge

    Greyfriars Graveyard, east wall. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Greyfriars Kirkyard has been described as being the leading burial ground in Scotland. Not only for its place in history but also for those whose final resting place is beneath its turf. These great figures who, although may have been forgotten over the passage of time lent their achievements and successes to the City they called home, contributing to the modern day Edinburgh lived in by a population of over 482,000 people. Within in its walls are forty-four ministers of both Old and New Greyfriars Kirks; forty-one Lord Provosts; thirty-three lawyers and senators of the College of Justice; twenty-six principles and professors of the University of Edinburgh, including two of its founders.  Not to mention numerous doctors, surgeons, solicitors, soldiers, sailors, authors, merchants, artists, architects to name but a few along with families of great fortune and prestige and the more ordinary folk. Collectively they all played their part no matter how big or small in the history of Edinburgh.

    However, it is not these great and ordinary citizens of yesteryear that captivate the visitors to Greyfriars. It is the fantastic monuments the more wealthy citizens left behind. For example, if someone was asked to identify the monument for James Borthwick, most people would not be able to clarify which one it was, especially as his name is no longer visible. With extra information that beside Greyfriars Bobby’s marker it is one of the most photographer mural monuments in Greyfriars, some people would be able to guess which one it is. However if the monument was described by its appearance as a near life size skeleton that appears to be dancing, then apart from a first time visitor who had entered the kirkyard by the lower original entrance then the monument would be instantly identified. This depiction of the King of Terrors instantly draws attention and sets the imagination running. In one hand he holds the book of Destiny and in the other a scythe. There are clues to James Borthwick’s profession in life with the surgical tools that can be seen at either side.

    Flodden Wall, Greyfriars. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    The majority of the symbolism falls into three main themes: mortality; immortality through resurrection and finally the means of salvation. The emblems of mortality are to remind us that death will come to us all. So the time spent in our earthly bodies should be spent well, living a good and moral life before judgement. The most recognisable of these emblems is the death head. There are hundreds throughout the graveyard in different guises: the full face; without a bottom jaw; facing front; partial profile; with cross bones below or behind the skull; the sextons’ tools in place of the bones and the winged skull. There is also the addition of the words Momento Mori which translates as ‘remember that you must die’. There are incorrect theories of what this symbol represents, the most popular being that they are for pirates or plague victims. In the late 1640s plagues began to disappear from the Scottish capital and there are certainly no known pirates buried it its grounds!

    One possible explanation for the use of the skull and cross bones stems from those on medieval monuments when during the times of the crusades, knights or persons of note who died in distant lands and the need for the body to be transported home. Mos Tentonicus was a funerary process that stripped the flesh from the bones that entailed the more hygienic means to transport the bones for proper burial once home. While the skull is pretty self-explanatory the bones being most likely the sword arm that was fighting for God.

    Some symbols of the freemasons. (Greyfriars Graveyard, Amberley Publishing)

    The emblems of immortality are there to remind us of the resurrection and the immortal life of the soul. Again the most numerous of these emblems shows the head. In this instance a head coupled with wings, known as the winged soul. It can be used as a main feature or as multiple decorations along the upper detail of a mural monument, such as can be seen on the monuments along the east wall. The winged soul is commonly depicted as a face, often taking the form of a cherub or angels whose gender is not identified, with feathered wings like that of a bird. This represents the deceased person’s soul leaving the body at death and ascending, the body will then rise and join it on the day of judgement.

    The third theme is that of the moral emblems, these are usually the personification of the moral messages they represent. The use of female forms of the classical Greek or Roman world are typical of the early seventeenth century. These include the seven virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity. These along with other virtues are there to remind us of how to live a good life.

    Other symbolism includes animals, plants and flowers and, though few in number in Greyfriars, the emblems of trade. All of these are covered in detail in Greyfriars Graveyard and enables the reader to gain the skills to read the monuments and depict what that person, or their family, is trying to say.  Giving clues to the character of the deceased and how they lived their own lives. These skills can be used not only in Greyfriars but other Scottish graveyards and while the carvings may differ in accuracy, depending on the skill of the mason, the meanings are nearly always the same. As George Elliot said ‘Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them’.

    Charlotte Golledge's new book Greyfriars Graveyard is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Dumfries by Mary Smith

    When burials in churches were banned in Scotland.

    Plaque on the site of the monastery. (Secret Dumfries, Amberley Publishing)

    One of my favourite parts of Secret Dumfries was a quote from Alf Truckell’s preface to the 1928 edition of McDowall’s History of Dumfries. He gave a colourful and somewhat startling account of events in the year 1607, taken from the town’s Privy Council records: ‘A man tries to strangle a boy with a garter and throws him in the Mill Dam in March: the King’s messenger comes through the town in May, to find the inhabitants dressed in green and armed for the May Play: a couple of Baillie’s sons take up the cry “a Lorebourne”, their fathers repeat it: shots are fired and horses wounded: the Messenger and his men flee: church burials have been outlawed some years before, a family break open the church door with tree-trunks and bury a dead relative within, whereupon another family hurry home, grab a corpse, and bury it, and a third family dig up an uncle and are about to bury him when the Law finally turns up…’

    I was especially intrigued by the references to church burials and how determined people were to defy the law and bury their relatives within the church itself. I had no time to do further research into when and why burials inside churches became illegal.

    I read the extract at the launch of Secret Dumfries and was delighted when someone emailed me a part of an article from a magazine which said The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland outlawed church burials, which it deemed idolatrous, in 1576. Anyone breaking the new rule could be suspended from the church until they repented publicly (did they have to remove the body?) and minsters who allowed the practice would also be suspended.

    St Mary's Church. (Secret Dumfries, Amberley Publishing)

    There were other good reasons for discontinuing the burial of bodies within the church. Before the Reformation wealthy and influential people such as the lairds (landed estate owners) were buried inside the church – sometimes beneath the family pew. This reduced the space available for the congregation. Also, bodies were not always interred very deeply and the smell of decomposition would have been unpleasant to say the least. Parishioners sometimes brought their dogs to church and dogs like nothing better than to dig up bones.

    I almost included a paragraph in Secret Dumfries saying this practice of sometimes shallow interment inside churches gave rise to the expression ‘stinking rich’. I’m so glad my word count was at its limit and I didn’t because, according to the website https://www.phrases.org.uk, apparently the expression only came into use in the twentieth century.

    The 1576 act was repeated in 1588, 1631 and in 1643, which is probably a good indication of people’s resistance to it. One rather extreme, and unpleasant, example occurred in 1607 in Durisdeer, near Dumfries. Adam Menzies, laird of Enoch had buried his young son in his family’s aisle of the kirk. Sir James Douglas, a staunch Presbyterian, of Drumlanrig had servants dig up the child’s body and rebury it in a shallow grave away from the church. Adam Menzies and his wife, who had just had another child, were understandably very upset. Despite being attacked by the minister, he reburied his son’s body in the kirk and appealed to the Privy Council. Although he was breaking the law regarding burials inside a church, the Privy Council took his side, allowing his child to remain in the family’s burial aisle.

    As for the family who used tree trunks to break down the door in the Dumfries church and set off a chain reaction as quoted at the start of this article, I was very pleased to learn his identity. According to Maureen M. Meikle in her book, The Scottish People 1490-1625, it was a John Irving who wanted to bury his mother.

    Mary Smith and Keith Kirk's new book Secret Dumfries is available for purchase now.

  • Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways by Colin J. Howat

    No. 90001 (HQ) at Glasgow Central with a dynamometer coach. This was a special coach used by BR to record track alignment and provide various other technical information mainly for the benefit of the civil engineers. Taken March 1988. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways covers virtually the whole of the electrified network across Scotland. The first electrification took place on the north side of Glasgow from 1960 when the Airdrie to Helensburgh line and branches in between were done. This was followed closely by the Glasgow South side when electrification spread to the Cathcart Circle, Neilston and Newton areas in 1962. In 1967, the lines between Glasgow Central and Gourock along with the Wemyss Bay branch were added to the system. Progress throughout the Central Scotland area has been steady since with now approximately 40% of the whole network now electrified. This book covers electric locomotives from humble Class 81s up to and including Class 92s with images from 1974 until the present day. I have also included shots of the APT (Class 370) and Virgin Class 390s (Pendolino) as they show the further development of the original AC locomotives. Technically the APT and Virgin Pendolinos are electric multiple units but I have included them as most people regard them as electric locomotives within a powered unit.

    No. 92031 (CE) “Schiller” stabled at Ayr Depot. This was an open day organised by EWS for staff and friends. This loco is still active with DB Cargo. Taken April 2002. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    The AC electric locomotive fleets are not among the most popular to have operated over Scottish metals. The 100 strong first generation of AC electric locomotives came from five construction groups. All were built to a common design theme stipulated by the British Transport Commision (BTC) design panel. Originally classified as AL1 – AL5, the fleets were later classified 81-85 and were the backbone of the modernised electric Scottish routes until AL6 (Class 86) locomotives emerged in the mid-1960s. The first generation fleets were not without operational problems and I feel if it had not been for the extension of the WCML electrification to Glasgow Central in 1974, some would certainly have been withdrawn much earlier than they were.

    The UK government gave the go ahead for the electrification of the WCML from Preston to Glasgow Central in 1970 and this was completed in 1973 with services between Glasgow Central and London Euston commencing from May 1974. In conjunction with this, the Hamilton Circle line from Newton and the Belshill route to/from Motherwell were also electrified. Next on the list was the Argyle Line between Kelvinhaugh Junction in the west and Rutherglen Central Junction in the east which allowed through running of trains between the south and north side of Glasgow. This also included a small spur at Rutherglen West Junction which allowed trains direct access from the Argyle Line to the WCML and thence direct access to/from Shields Depot.

    No. 86438 (WN) at Glasgow Central having just arrived with the overnight postal from London Euston. This loco is still employed by Freightliner. Taken February 1990. (Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1986 the Ayrshire area was added to the electrified network when the overheads were extended from Paisley Gilmour Street to Ayr, Largs and Ardrossan Harbour. However, in one of the more short sighted decisions made by BR and Strathclyde PTE, the track bed beyond Paisley Canal was lifted and houses allowed to be built on it. This has made it virtually impossible to re-open services to/from Kilmacolm. However, given the amount of houses that were compulsory purchased for the re-opening of the Waverley route to Tweedbank, nothing is impossible. Other parts of the Scottish network added in have been the Whifflet spur which allows trains to run from Motherwell onto the North Electric system. This was used extensively from December 1994 until December 1995 after the Argyle Line was shut due to severe flooding. The Larkhall branch was added in 2005 and the R&C line from Rutherglen to Whifflet via Mount Vernon was also electrified in 2014. The E&G line between Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh was finally opened up for electrics in December 2017. On the East Coast main line, the Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed line was electrified in 1989. This included the North Berwick Branch and in 1991 the line between Midcalder Jn and Carstairs was electrified allowing GNER trains from London Kings Cross direct access to Glasgow Central. Photographing electrics can be a challenge particularly from high locations as the overhead equipment creates obstructions which in turn affects focusing. Most of the shots in this book are taken from ground level. Some modern electric locomotives are so silent that they are literally on top of you before you know where you are particularly during windy conditions.

    Colin J. Howat's new book Electric Locomotives on Scottish Railways is avialable for purchase now.

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