Sunday, 24 January 2010

Aberdeen's Blitz - 21 April 1943

In my capacity as Force Curator for Grampian Police, I issue the following invite: you folklorists and oral historians in the Blogosphere - if you're in Aberdeen, Scotland between 30 Jan and 14 Feb, come and visit my exhibition of previously unseen photographs featuring the damage caused in the city's worst air raid of WWII.

As I mentioned on my other blog The Other Scottish Storyteller, I had these slides digitised and printed by John Sullivan of the Aberdeen Environmental Education Centre, based in the city's Skene Square Primary School; the AEEC were doing a fantastic job of presenting the history of Aberdeen's built environment and I wanted to share this resource with them for their school groups, however it turns out that this may be the last EVER event AEEC is involved in. The City Council in its so-called wisdom is planning to shut it down. Therefore, this may be your only chance to see these photos on public display, as the police does not have a museum either.

This date represents a dark chapter in Aberdeen's history - 127 bombs were dropped by a 25-strong squadron of Dornier 217s from the Luftwaffe, who flew over from Norway, bent on the city's destruction. Nazi spies had somehow acquired the 1939 town plan and had a long list of sites they were going to bomb.

  • 98 people were killed, 27 soldiers died at the Gordon Barracks as well.
  • 93 civilians were seriously injured
  • 141 civilians were slightly injured
  • Over 9,300 houses and business premises were damaged - 599 houses irreparable.

Tragic stories have already emerged from the oral history interviews that I've been conducting with local history teacher, Colin Johnston. Some of these will feature in audio extracts at the exhibition, which takes place at the Limousine Bull Artists' Collective Gallery, Unit 3c, Deemouth Business Centre, South Esplanade East, Torry, AB11 9PB. (Click Postcode for Map) from Saturday January 30th - Sunday 14 February, 12-5pm (closed Mondays & Tuesdays).

5 Stafford Street

Two stories which really bring a tear to the eye are firstly the man from 5 Stafford Street, - which was hit by two incendiary bombs in short succession - out in the street with his neighbours after they had all been rescued from the cellar after the first bomb, decided he would go back and collect his boots as his feet were bare. While he returned to the tenement, the second bomb struck, engulfing the building in an inferno. He was never seen again.

Gerry Scanlan was an 18 year-old Glaswegian from the Catholic district of Provanhill, he was a steward in the army, based at the Gordon Barracks. He and 26 of his young fellow soldiers were killed that night. His grave is in Trinity Cemetery, which shows his parents' names. One of his colleagues was so badly burned, the death certificate for the lads which was issued in Oldmachar parish, simply reads 'unidentified male'.

Gerard Scalan - killed by enemy action

Our interviewees, aged from 8 to 12 on the night of 21 April '43, found it hard to keep back their emotions on seeing the pictures again. Swanson McKenzie, a retired teacher, cried when he saw his granny's house, the same tenement in Stafford Street, where her neighbour was lost returning for his boots. I felt it so important to share both their memories and these pictures with the rest of the city, and also to promote my project partners, the AEEC, the Limousine Bull Artists' Collective, Photoghost (a new photo lab soon to open in Bridge St) and students from Gray's School of Art, RGU.

Do come along to the exhibition and take a challenging trip back in time.

More details will appear on Grampian's main website nearer the time, where you will also be able to view a web gallery of the entire slide collection, as only 35 of the 140 images are being displayed at the exhibition.

The areas of Aberdeen represented by the exhibition include:

  • Charles Street & Fraser Place
  • Causewayend
  • Elmbank Road
  • Bedford Road/ Bedford Place
  • Former Meat Market, Hutcheon Street
  • Stafford Street
  • Cornhill former Nurses' Home, Ashgrove
  • Ashvale Place
  • the 'Tartan Kirkie', aka St Mary's, Carden Place
  • Kingshill Avenue (no.19)
  • Kings Cross Terr (no.18)
  • Hilton Terrace
  • Cattofield Place
  • Middlefield Primary School
  • Cummings Park Road (no's 9-11)
  • Provost Rust Drive (no's 106-108)
  • Church Street/ Brown Street, Woodside
  • Clifton Road (no.282)
  • Westburn Drive (no.9)
  • Erskine Street (no's 33-35)
If your address is here, come and see what happened to it in 1943 and compare with images taken between last summer and this winter.

Also featured are some wartime artefacts from the Grampian Police Force Museum collection

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

All the nines...

Today is 09/09/09.

There are many, many folkloric examples of nine!

The Chinese particularly like nine, because the word for nine pinyin jiu' means 'long-lasting'. Nine is associated with the dragon, and 'Kowloon' means 'Place of Nine Dragons'!

There are nine circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno:

They descend in order of wickedness, the first five being for self-indulgent sins, the sixth and seventh, violent sins, and the last two for malicious sins.

The Devil himself is trapped in a lake of ice, rather than fire at the centre of the ninth circle, chewing on the three greatest traitors of all time, the chief being Judas Iscariot.

  1. Limbo
  2. Lust
  3. Gluttony
  4. Avarice
  5. Wrath & Sloth
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treason
Gustav Mahler - self-fulfilling prophecy?

Gustav Mahler, the composer believed there was a curse against musicians creating any more than nine symphonies. He believed Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak has died when they tried to progress to a tenth symphony. He accordingly died before his tenth was finished!

Russian composer Shostakovich effectively broke the curse by composing an ironic, plagaristic, sarky little ditty for his ninth, which Stalin hated when he heard its first performance. (Shostakovich was lucky he didn't get sent to Siberia for that!)

There were nine worthies of the medieval world who in total represented the perfect warrior:

Charlemagne, Emperor of the Franks
  • Hector
  • Alexander the Great
  • Julius Caesar
  • Joshua
  • David
  • Judas Maccabeus
  • King Arthur
  • Charlemagne
  • Godfrey de Bouillon
And... the nine of Diamonds is known as the 'Curse of Scotland' - Earl Dalrymple, the Master of the Stair reputedly signed the order to slaughter the MacIains of Glencoe on this playing card.

'Butcher' Cumberland

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable also states that William, Duke of Cumberland, 'the Butcher' wrote the order to give no quarter to the Jacobites on the eve of Culloden.

Nine is also three times three, and thus a powerful charm.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Wizards, Burkers and Holy Water

During my PhD fieldwork I was told a fantastic story - apparently true - of an evil laird in Barra by the name of Ferguson; he returned to haunt the islanders in a black phantom coach accompanied by his equally fiendish doctor friend. In life they were Resurrectionists or Burkers - body-snatchers - but Ferguson and the doc didn't just want to learn about anatomy, they wanted to practice the 'Black Airts' as Stanley Robertson often described witchcraft and devilry!

So, this put me in mind of a local story - Alexander, 16th Laird of Skene, apparently went to Padua University to study necromancy, and returned having made a pact with the Devil himself.

He had the power to reest anyone who annoyed him, in other words, he could either force them to remain rooted to the spot, or bend their will to his own. A local ceilidh got on Skene's nerves so much he cast a spell on the dancers so they kept going until their feet bleed and they cried in agony.

The 'Wizard Laird' as he was known, was always accompanied by crows and ravens, the birds of ill-omen. One night, he instructed his coachman, Kilgour to ride the coach and horses across the Loch of Skene, but not to look around at the laird's passenger.

The loch was frozen, so Kilgour fancied his chances. He waited at the water's edge as his master and the unknown passenger climbed into the huge black coach behind him. He cracked the whip and the two horses trotted onto the sheet ice.

The Loch of Skene

Hearing the low whispers, Kilgour couldn't contain his curiosity, and turned to see Alexander Skene, and Auld Cloven Hoddie, the Earl of Hell himself deep in conversation! The Devil had come to visit his new recruit, and Kilgour suddenly realised he was riding the heavy coach into the middle of the frozen loch. The Evil One turned his gaze on the poor coachman, who froze in terror, letting go the reins - the horses, coach, and all sunk to the bottom of the loch and neither Kilgour, nor the Wizard Laird were seen again.

However, Alexander Skene is afforded a grand tomb in the grounds of his house. His former tenants feared him as much when dead as they did when alive, and every Halloween, as Halloween it had been the night the unfortunate Kilgour had been asked to drive the coach across the loch, every Halloween from then on, the people built bonfires and prayed that the purifying fire would protect them from the Wizard's ghost.

The loch of Skene still exists today on the road to Banchory, and the gate houses of the Skene estate are in a prominent position by the water's edge as they were in Alexander's day. Perhaps due to his nefarious behaviour, his line died out soon after his disappearance, but folk are wary on frosty nights when the loch waters freeze solid!

The Ferguson and Skene stories are very similar, and both could relate to the 'Burkers' Coach' which the travelling people so feared. The 'Burkers' as we know from the original Burke and Hare in Edinburgh soon resorted to murder to get fresh corpses for Dr Knox and the 'noddies' in the medical school, and in rural Aberdeenshire in the nineteenth century, traveller folk often camped in their traditional spots, sitting ducks for these men who snatched children and old people from their bow tents in the middle of the night.

Maggie Stewart, an Aberdeen traveller, had a narrow escape from the Burkers, which she tells Hamish Henderson about in Tocher (vol. 5), the School of Scottish Studies' journal of interview extracts. You can listen to Maggie's tale online here.

She describes the fearful coach:

The Burkers' coach wes like a, the shape of an undertaker's thing, like, it wes aa black covert-in, and thir wir some of them 'at only held three men, and thir some of them held four men, and the chains that wes on them wes, thir wir leather roun aboot it, and the horsefeet wes shod wi rubber, and thir wir rubber roun the wheels. So they niver heard nae noise of horses nor naethin when they wir ganging alang the road, they only cried, "Squeak-squawk, squeak-squawk." And this wes whit frichtent the auld traivlers, ye see, the noise of the coaches...

Aberdeen had its own share of Burking going on; the old Medico-churgical hall, the building behind the Arts Centre, was the site of an anatomy theatre, long before the one at Marischal College (Conveniently next door to Lodge Walk police station which had its own mortuary!). Now someone foolishly allowed their dog to root around in the earth behind the Surgeons' hall, and Rover dug up bones, human bones, well, that's what the terrified owner thought. So ensued a full-scale riot, with people shouting 'Burn the Burking Shop!' and trying to set fire to the hall and the place where the anatomy professor lived.

Medico-Churgical Hall, King St, Aberdeen

This was in 1832, when the Edinburgh resurrectionists were in the middle of their gruesome operations. The Aberdeen riot, and others, were the public response to something in which the authorities would not intervene. Would you believe that stealing a body wasn't a crime? The real crime is breaking into a coffin, (I think!) as did the daft drunk who accidentally broke into the tomb of 'Bloody Mackenzie' in Greyfriar's Kirkyard in Edinburgh! (And that's another story)

The same year, the year of the Reform Bill which allowed many more men the vote than in previous years, the Anatomy Act was passed, the gist of it being, if a body ain't claimed by relatives, then the anatomists can get it! Bodies of murderers used to be supplied - and again this links to another very famous, very silly Aberdeen story, of our city's most useless hangman, Johnny Milne of Tullyskukie. I'll save him for another day, but he was given the job of hanging a man called Andrew Hosack, whom people believed was a murderer, rather than just a thief, for which he was condemned. So, the public were quite happy to intervene and ensure justice was served - Hosack was meat for the anatomists, he deserved no better!

Funny isn't it? One minute they're interfering with hangings - the Hosack case was only a few years before the Burker riot, because Milne died in the early 1830s - next minute they want to burn the doctors at the stake for doing the same thing as they wanted them to do to murderers!

Oh fickle public.

Anyway - the necromancy that attracted people like Alexander Skene and Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's alchemist, and of course, Faustus, was a real medieval practice, the act of summoning the spirits of the dead to learn the secrets of the universe! And churchmen felt they had to learn it to be able to perform exorcisms! The Munich Manual was a famous 'grimoire' or magic book which contained the rules for necromancy, its full title being Forbidden Rites, A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth century.

So the stuff you find in Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling does indeed have a basis in reality.

Just make sure, as the Catholic fishermen in Barra did to ward off the horror vision of Ferguson and his black coach, that you take a bottle of holy water with you any time you're strolling around the Loch of Skene on an October night! The rite of Holy Water is a fantastic church-sanctioned charm against all ills. So convinced was Ruaraidh Cooper, the only Protestant companion of the two Catholics on the boat when they witnessed the black coach, of the effiacy of this 'Popish' charm, that he had what my interviewee described as 'a temporary conversion' and crossed himself with the water. And the coach turned away, but the hoof prints of the ghostly horses are supposedly embedded in the coastal rocks there in the north end of the island to this day.

Nothing like a good prophylactic ritual to keep the bogles at bay!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Who Do You Think You Are?

Peter Anderson, born in Aberdeen, 1938 knew, he was one of the grandsons of Aberdeen City Police's first official Chief Constable, William Anderson.

He got in touch with me in my capacity as police curator for Grampian as he had been told that his aunt had donated grandfather William's artefacts to the museum, a ceremonial sword, medals, his cap, belt and baton.

Ceremonial Chief Constable's Cap
Kings Police Medal & Coronation medal

I was delighted to be able to tell him we had these items on display at Woodhill House. He was so interested in finding out more about his grandfather, who was born in the 1860s, son of a Forfarshire farmer, and the rest of the large Anderson clan, that he enthused to his brother Ian, who said, 'Oh, by the way, I have grandda's OBE medal.' Peter was so impressed by this discovery he told me he would like to have it on display in Aberdeen on long loan. And so started the long process of organising a visit, Peter to Aberdeen, and me organising some publicity for this lovely story about the city's first chief.

William Anderson escorts the HM Inspector of Police to visit the troops c.1930

Peter visited today with his wife, Sandie, and produced a huge volume on the family tree. We looked at old photos of his grandfather, which I scanned in digital format for him, then we went to look at the artefacts - Peter commented that he had never seen the medals, William's KPM (King's Police Medal) and the Coronation Medal, issued on the crowing of King Edward VII after the death of Victoria in 1901, and had only seen tiny reproductions. Sandie was charmed by the KPM which featured the device of a knight with a shield and pike, on the shield it read 'I will defend the people.' Looking at the sword, Peter reckoned the one he had at home perhaps belonged to an uncle - and indeed, he had an Uncle David who died in the Great War in 1917. The 3.5 ft steel blade is highly decorated and shines like it was new, not bad for a century and a bit old! The cap was looking a mite discoloured, but still very pretty with its gold braid and Aberdeen City crest. Our current chief has nothing so fancy!

William Anderson in Dress Uniform

After lunch we went across to Force Headquarters where a bevy of media bods were waiting. Since the current chief, Colin McKerracher was away on holiday, Chief Superintendent Bert Donald, an native of Aberdeen, deputised for him. The head of corporate communications was there too to direct the journalists and photographers. We met with people from the P&J, BBC Radio Scotland, Original 106 FM (and yes, I was telling the truth when I said that it is my favourite station! I think Emma Pettes didn't believe me!), the Evening Express and the syndicate press peeps. They were fascinated by the tale of William Anderson, who was a true gentleman.

Peter was quite emotional when he described his grandfather's determination to make the police force open and friendly to the public. He said 'My grandfather did not want people to be scared of policemen, he wanted anyone visiting police headquarters not to have a frightening experience.' He did a number of other things to revolutionise the force including -
  • introducing the 'beat system' of policing to ensure that officers could stay in communication with headquarters
  • introducing 'police boxes' the tardis-style boxes that really were containers for a phone, which the public had access to, a space to keep a spare uniform, notebook, first aid kit and a temporary 'lock-up' for unruly suspects in the street
  • founded the Police Pipe Band
  • introduced a rank structure to CID
  • introduced medals for exceptional policing
  • employed the first WOMAN police officer
Peter said when he was awarded his OBE by Edward VII, William Anderson regarded it as a personal honour, not one to be flaunted, never ever wore it other than on ceremonial occasions and never used the post-nominals. Another member of the family recalled Chief Anderson refused to accept gifts of any sort, but passed them on poor and less-privileged folk in the city.

And so, the OBE will be on display at Force Headquarters along with the Chief's other items and artefacts belonging to chiefs of other eras.

To hear that William Anderson rose from humble beginnings but even from his youth had ambition and intelligence as his first job was in the Fiscal's office in Forfar at the age of 14, reminded me very much of my own ancestor, x3 great uncle, Charles Stephen, who was the Chief Constable of Perth City Police in 1938. Charlie was born in Fraserburgh, the son of a fisherman and fisherwife at the height of the herring fishing in 1881, yet was a pupil teacher in his final years of schooling at Inverallochy Public School, an insurance agent, and then joined Perth City force. Like William, he too rose rapidly through the ranks.

Charles Stephen - Chief Constable, Perth City Police - my ancestor

From joining in 1890, William reached the rank of Deputy Chief Constable by 1899. He succeeded Thomas Wyness when the latter died in December 1902.

So I know how Peter felt when he spoke of his grandfather, proud, pleased, delighted at the kindness and interest from those who follow in his grandfather's footsteps. I now look at William's photo and see the fine gentleman smiling with modest joy that his grandson has got to know him, even though Peter was only six when his grandfather died. Charlie Stephen's father, James, a fisherman, was lost at sea when the lad was only six also.

Coincidence? I don't think so!

(BBC Website)

(STV Footage)
(this clip from last night's news is available until 6pm on 7th July)

and by the way... the missing baton is my latest mystery to solve!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

New Facebook Group

Hi all,

Facebook is the place to be! Or so it would seem. Since the demise of the folklore forum I found out where a'body was - on FB.

So I've joined the Social Network Revolution - firstly have set up an oral history/reminiscence group. I'll do a folklore one later. But for now, the Aberdeen & Region Oral History Association presents the first Facebook Oral History Group - obviously you need to be registered for Facebook to join.

Do please join up, I know alot of you folkie ppl are on FB. Oral reminiscence is the backbone of folklore, so we need to make sure it's recognised as a proper source by traditional historians.

And don't forget the Oral History Society's conference at Strathclyde Uni, Glasgow in 3 wks time 3-4 July, 2009: See link

also - Voices in Visual Art (VIVA) is an on-going oral history project based in London College of Arts.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Shop Signs

Just started a new Flickr site for recording 'material culture' - started with shop signs - here do please let me know if you have any good ones I can link to!

Of course, I saved on just for this post!

Not got a shot of the shop yet, but this is the bag that rowies are transported from the great shop in!!

Dinna tell ma ye dinna ken wot a rowie is!!

Heating on my shiny new toaster's crumpet rack!!

And they are sooo fine that people will pay alot o money for them!!

So, get out your I-spy books and look for some nice signs!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Papa Stour Sword Dance

As performed at the Shetland Museum & Archives, Lerwick, May 2007.

George Peterson, former teacher from Brae High School, Shetland, introduced the dance. He had taught it to some of his pupils a few decades back which they very much enjoyed. The dance he suggested could have been influenced by servants of the earls from Northumbria who would have been familiar with sword dances. The figures are very much like the 'Rapper' dances of NE England, especially the end figure where the swords are put together to make a 'shield' which is much more like a star - Star of David perhaps?

Anyway, though not so energetic as the rapper dances I've seen, this one features another medieval tradition - the Seven Champions of Christendom the seven 'saints', George of England, Andrew of Scotland, David of Wales, James of Spain, Denis of France, Patrick of Ireland and Anthony of Italy. St. George - wearing the red sash - is the dance master and recites all the poetic material between each feature at the beginning. I find it quite a hoot to hear 'St George' speaking in a broad Shetlandic twang! Mind you, if the 'real' George was an Anglo-Saxon, he'd have Viking blood anyway!

Ok, so Sir Walter Scott (he of the nice slippers), famous usually for the 'Tartanisation' of Scottish culture, records the text of the dance in his 1822 novel The Pirate, which he claimed had come from an 'ancient text' dated 1788. At the Shetland 'Out of the Box' conference there was a great ballyhoo about this text and the editing thereof between Paul Smith and Michael Preston (Colorado) and others. It was great fun, but very little other than George Peterson's suggestions as to where it came from.

Guess that's another debate waiting to happen. It seemed a bit too much of 'the text' (literally) is the thing! But fascinating that, like the Mari Lwyd last summer, here's another traditional 'play' which has re-emerged into modern day to be performed. Terry Gunnell also presented a great paper about guising, which also informs the folk play discussion (He was even asking the wifie in the shop at Tangwick Haa about it!).

So if anyone wants to tell us any more - do email me and I'll add it.

I've actually submitted this to Shetlopedia as well, since they don't have an up-to-date film!