Category Archives: Looking Back

The Brandsbutt Stone, a Pictish Puzzle.

The Brandsbutt Stone

One of the joys of living in Scotland is that there is a story to be found at every turn.  As you travel the country the landscape and buildings make it hard to resist stopping to take in what they are trying to tell you.  Sometimes it’s the sight of a magnificent building such as Dunottar Castle which practically shouts at you to come and bear witness to the history surrounding it. Other times it’s a gentle whisper from a plaque on the side of a nondescript city centre building.  With such a wealth of antiquities it can be easy to take it all for granted yet some of the voices calling us from the distant past can still surprise us by appearing in the most unexpected  places.

In the middle of a modern housing development in the ever expanding North East town of Inverurie lies an example of one of the most baffling messages left behind by our ancestors, the Brandsbutt Stone.  It does seem a bit peculiar to find such a wonderful piece of Pictish art surrounded by 21st century dwellings but that’s what makes it so much more enjoyable. The stone itself is only about a meter tall, the material being the locally abundant whinstone.  At some point it was broken up and used to repair a dyke at the edge of the now long gone Brandsbutt farm.  Luckily it was rediscovered around 1900, pieced together again and erected near where it would have originally stood,  possibly as part of an even older stone circle.

With so little evidence as to what these Pictish stones were for it is left to the visitor to gaze at the carvings and imagine for themselves just why so much care was taken to create them. This stone contains two of the most frequently recurring Pictish symbols, a crescent and V rod sits above a scaly serpent and Z rod.  On the right hand side of the stone is an ogham inscription, an alphabet which originated in Ireland consisting of a series of lines. It has been deciphered as a reference to the name Eddarrnonn who may have been a local saint or a person of high rank.  Possibly it’s a territorial marker, a declaration of status.  It may simply be a memorial, the symbols depicting death and the entrance to the after world.  The V rod and crescent could just as easily be a primitive sundial, marking the passing of the seasons.  Trying to weigh up the various theories all adds to the fascination that an encounter with one of these ancient objects can generate.

The symbols could even be references to the ancient Roman religion of Mithraism, also rather wonderfully known as the Mithral Mysteries.  Brought to the Picts by Romans who remained behind after their armies withdrew there are claims that the rituals of modern day freemasonry have their origins in this ancient religion.  Looking at the V rod and crescent depicted on the Brandsbutt stone the similarity to modern day masonic emblems is striking.

Sometimes you have to work a wee bit to conjure up a complete tale from the past. There may be no obvious ending to the story the Brandsbutt stone is trying to tell us but as opening lines to a mystery go it’s up there with the best.

The Brandsbutt Stone is located near the junction of Gordon Terrace and Brankie Road in Inverurie.   Turn on to Gordon Road from Burghmuir Drive then take the second left on to Gordon Terrace.

Finlaggan. Where the Lords ruled the Isles.

Finlaggan 02-01-2016

On the Hebridean Island of Islay, not far from the small village of Ballygrant and at the end of a short single track road, lies Loch Finlaggan. Cradled within the lower slopes of the gentle surrounding hills you cannot fail to be struck by the almost other worldly atmosphere that pervades the area. On an Island where clean air is in no short supply things still seem even fresher here. The abundant sheep, slowly wandering from one fine grazing place to another, seem whiter than elsewhere, like wee fluffy clouds on legs. As you look across the Loch the sky, even on a rain swept day, seems bigger and higher. There is also something else here that is hard to escape, a sense of solemnity, the feeling that there is some sort of direct connection with people and events faraway in the past.
At the Northern end of the loch sits two small islands. The larger island, Eilean Mor, is connected to the shore by a wooden walkway. The smaller island is known as Eilean Na Comhairle and for over 150 years these two islets hosted the administrative centre of one of the most powerful seagoing powers of its time, the Lordship of the Isles. Nominally under the overall rule of the Scottish Kings, the Lords of the Isles were effectively autonomous rulers of the Hebrides. They also controlled large parts of mainland Scotland including Kintyre and Knoydart, the actual areas governed changing as power ebbed and flowed between the Lords and the Kings of Scotland.
Initially it is difficult to see quite why this place was chosen as the headquarters for a great seafaring power. As you wander around the skeletal remains of ancient buildings on Eilean Mor an understanding starts to develop. That same sense of connection with the past felt on arrival at the shores of Loch Finlaggan seems amplified, as if the remaining stonework is somehow resonating with scenes from the past. This would have been a vibrant place, a centre not only of power but of culture, for the Lordship of the Isles was distinctly different from the rest of Scotland where the Anglo Saxon influence was already firmly evident. This was an emphatically Gaelic kingdom. Archaeologists have found solid evidence that music was played here, mainly on harps. Songs would have been sung and poetry, composed by the favoured poets of the Lords, the MacMhuirich family, would have been recited in the great hall, praising their Lordships as benevolent rulers and great warriors. Under the patronage of the Lords sculptures were commissioned. Stone slabs carried images of the great and good. Magnificent stone crosses were created, many of which still remain on Islay.
The discovery of a 14th century pilgrims badge, which was only obtainable in Rome showed that these were well travelled people, knowledgeable about the world around them. The medical needs of the Finlaggan people were met by the Macbeatha family, incomers from Ireland who practiced a fairly advanced form of medicine for the time.
The actual business of the Lords of the Isles was conducted on Eilean Na Comhairle where the fourteen man council met, away from the hustle and bustle on the main island. Treaties would be discussed, documents signed, laws passed. The only surviving Gaelic charter in existence, dating from 1408, may well have been signed here given that the witnesses were all Islay men.
Remains of human habitation from Stone Age times show that this was a special place from the earliest of times. And maybe that’s where the biggest clue to  why the Lords of the Isle chose this place to take their most serious decisions. Perhaps it was already known as a place of ritual, a serious place that added extra gravitas to proceedings. We will probably never know. What remains on these two small islands throws up as many questions as answers and that for me is one of the main attractions of Finlaggan. In order to truly savour this distinctive location requires you to engage your imagination and maybe just let yourself remain still for a while as you try to hear the echoes of some long gone ballad seep out of the now humble ruins.

There is a small but informative visitor centre at Finlaggan,  operated by the Finlaggan Trust.  Entry to the islands is by way of donation which can either be given at the visitor centre of placed in the honesty box as you approach Eilean Mor.

The Finlaggan Trust website is here.

Robert Hichens, Titanic Villian?

RMS Titanic
RMS Titanic

In Aberdeen’s Trinity Cemetery, sheltered from the cold North Sea by the squat mound of the Broadhill, a simple wooden cross on an otherwise anonymous grave marks the final resting place of Robert Hichens, the man who was at the wheel of the Titanic on the night that she struck an iceberg leading to her loss.

Robert Hichens
Robert Hichens

Hichens was one of six Quartermasters on board the Titanic on that fateful night. An experienced sailor, it should have been the pinnacle of the twenty nine year olds career. Instead the events of that night were to send him on a downward spiral, eventually leading him to a spell in prison for attempted murder.

Robert Hichens took the wheel of the Titanic at 10pm on the night of April 14th, 1912. One hour and forty minutes later the alarm was raised as a massive iceberg was spotted. The First Officer immediately ordered that the wheel be turned hard to starboard. Despite reports that Hichens panicked and turned the wheel the wrong way the order was complied with, the Sixth Officer checking that it had been done. It was to be a case of too little, too late. As Hichens turned the wheel the ship was already in contact with the iceberg, the violence of the collision rupturing her hull fatally.

Claims that his error had actually caused the famous disaster were bad enough. Descriptions of his conduct whilst in charge on lifeboat number six and subsequent fictionalised re-telling of the story were to see his reputation damaged beyond repair. As a Quartermaster Hichens was given command of a lifeboat with thirty eight women and four men including himself on board. One of these women was Margaret ‘Maggie’ Brown, better known now as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (She was never called Molly in her lifetime, the name being a Hollywood invention.) Allegations about Robert Hichens bravery (or lack of it) and general demeanour during his time in charge of the lifeboat were disputed vigorously by the man himself during the official enquiry in to the sinking. Some survivors suggested that he refused to return to help other drowning passengers. Hichens himself said that he was concerned that if they did not get away from the stricken liner they would be sucked down with the ship. It would not be unreasonable to assume that some of the wealthy socialite passengers felt less than enamoured with a West Country accented seaman being in charge of their fate. However claims that ‘Molly’ Brown effectively took control of the boat appear to be based on Hollywood’s depiction of events with some of the more unsavoury claims being mere legend. Hichens was to say in later years of the woman he was so often linked with, “She could have walked in to any lifeboat, why did she have to walk in to mine?”

The Unsinkable 'Molly' Brown
The Unsinkable ‘Molly’ Brown

Unable to ever fully clear his name, for the rest of his life Robert Hichens was  a haunted man. A failed boat chartering venture in the 1930’s appears to have been the final tipping point for him. Mentally damaged by his Titanic experience, Hichens behaviour became more erratic as alcohol and possibly post traumatic syndrome  took its toll. By 1933, his wife had left him and he was bankrupt and homeless. Hichens, desperate to punish somebody for the situation he was in, attempted to shoot dead the man who had sold him the boat for his failed business. The intention had been to take his own life but his victim managed to overpower him and have him taken in to custody where he was to remain for four years.

Released in 1937, Hichens resumed his seagoing career serving on several vessels as an uncertified Third Mate. His final voyage was to be on board the English Trader, a cargo ship carrying coal from North Africa to the UK. On the 23rd of September 1940, whilst anchored outside Aberdeen harbour, Robert Hichens was found dead in his bunk, his heart having failed. For years it was thought that he had been buried at sea but in 2012 his Great Granddaughter Sally Nilsson discovered through Aberdeen Council that he had been buried  in an unmarked plot containing two other men in the Granite City.   As a man who spent so many years trying to escape his own notoriety it is perhaps apt that he found anonymity in his final resting place

Robert Hichens Grave, Aberdeen
Robert Hichens Grave, Aberdeen

His final ship, The English Trader, was to outlast her most famous Officer by a mere thirteen months. In October 1941 she ran aground on a sandbank off the Norfolk coast in gale conditions. Thankfully all 44 men on board were rescued before Robert Hichens final ship sank to the bottom of the North Sea.

Deacon Brodie, Edinburgh’s Gentleman thief, hung on this day in 1788.

On the 1st of October 1788 Deacon William Brodie of Edinburgh was executed for his crimes on a gallows he reputedly played a part in designing.

William Brodie was born in September 1741 in Edinburgh, the son of a successful cabinet maker. Following in his father’s footsteps, young Brodie entered the family business and soon built a reputation for himself as a highly skilled craftsman and respectable businessman. His standing was further enhanced by his position as Deacon of one of Edinburgh’s trade guilds, The Incorporation of Wrights. As a member of the Cape Club, a convivial society which met nightly in Edinburgh’s Old Town, he rubbed shoulders with local dignitaries and higher members of society.

Deacon Brodie Figure on The Royal Mile (by Kim Traynor)
Deacon Brodie Figure on The Royal Mile (by Kim Traynor)

Deacon Brodie had a dark side though, he was a compulsive risk taker. During the hours of darkness Brodie was fond of frequenting some of the more unsavoury establishments in the Cowgate area where opportunities to gamble on cards, dice and his favourite, cock fighting, were plentiful. His personal life was no less risky or expensive. Brodie had two mistresses to support as well as five illegitimate children.

It was probably a combination of financial pressure and the  thrill of it  that saw his criminal activities commence. It is thought his first robbery occurred in 1768 but he may well have started before then on a smaller scale. As an accomplished locksmith it was easy for Brodie to copy the keys to a bank door enabling him to enter with ease at night and steal over £800. His criminal activity gradually increased over the years as his lifestyle became more and more costly but it was his meeting with George Smith in 1786 that was to see him crank up his crime wave considerably. Smith, an Englishman newly arrived in Edinburgh, was also a locksmith and the two men were to plan and carry out several robberies together. Several prominent citizens and businesses saw themselves targeted and relieved of property and cash. It can only have added to Brodie’s excitement when as a councillor he found himself discussing what was to be done to catch the ne’er do wells responsible.

It was the desire to pull off ever bigger crimes that was to prove Brodie’s undoing. Within a year of meeting Smith the duo had become a gang of four, as criminals John Brown and Andrew Ainslie were recruited. They began to spread their operations further afield with properties in Leith also being targeted. The gang must have thought themselves untouchable as they decided to pull of the big one, an assault on the Excise office at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The job was an unmitigated disaster. Departing from their normal modus operandi they decided to break in to the building. This time they were disturbed and had to flee the scene, their haul only amounting to £16.

Brown was the first gang member to be arrested and in return for a pardon he gave evidence blaming Smith and Ainslie for the robbery. Brodie fled to Amsterdam but was soon captured and returned to Edinburgh to face trial. Ainslie also received a pardon in exchange for giving a full account of the robbery so it was that only Brodie and Smith stood together in the dock in August 1788. The case against them was overwhelming. The verdict was guilty, the sentence, hanging.

Deacon Brodie was hung on the 1st October in front of a huge crowd. His case had totally gripped Edinburgh as the man formally seen as a respectable citizen had his outrageous private life laid bare. Rumours circulated that he had somehow cheated death by wearing a steel collar to prevent his neck from breaking on the gallows. The rumours however were false. If Brodie had been involved in designing the gallows he met his fate on then his skill as a craftsman had triumphed again. Brodie was cut down and declared dead. However his story did continue as Robert Louis Stevenson used it as inspiration for his classic tale of a man with two identities, Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Nowadays the story of Deacon Brodie is often retold to Edinburgh’s tourists. Of the man himself there is little sign, his body having been consigned to a long lost unmarked grave. However you can visit the pub on the Royal Mile that bears his name or enjoy a coffee at the Deacons House café in the Old town, reputedly the site of Brodie’s workshop. And whilst you enjoy a leisurely coffee or beer you can look around the room and wonder which of your fellow customers are, like Brodie, harbouring a dark side.

Deacon Brodie's Tavern. (by Kim Traynor)
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.
(by Kim Traynor)

Lord Byron -First modern style celebrity was a Scot. England’s maddest and baddest poet was really an Aberdeen loon at heart.

It is impossible to avoid the cult of celebrity with so many magazines, TV show and websites all dedicated to bringing us every tiny detail of the lives of the rich and famous. You may think that this is a modern phenomenon but the first modern style celebrity emerged in the early part of the nineteenth century and he was a Scot, Lord George Byron.  Yes, the man commonly feted as one of the great English Romantic poets was actually a proud Aberdonian.

Statue of Lord Byron in grounds of Aberdeen Grammar School
Statue of Lord Byron in grounds of Aberdeen Grammar School

George Gordon Byron was born in London in 1788.  His father, Captain Jack ‘Mad Jack’ Byron was an Officer in the Coldstream Guards. Unfortunately the only thing admirable about him was his rather wonderful nick name.  A profligate spender, Captain Byron had already worked his way thorough his first wifes’ fortune prior to her death in 1784.  Mad Jack needed a fresh income stream and the very next year he married Catherine Gordon,  heiress to the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  It didn’t take long for him to waste her fortune as well and after a few short years the couple fled to France in an attempt to evade his creditors.

Catherine returned to London in 1788 to have their child, the future Lord Byron. Following the birth contact between Catherine and her husband was limited with Mad Jack only communicating at all to beg for more money.  In 1790, after being toally abandoned by her husband,  Catherine moved with her infant son to Aberdeen,  closer to her ancestral family home. Initally they moved in to lodgings on Queen Street before moving to the nearby Broad Street. Catherine still had a small annual income from a dowry so although leading an impovershed exsitence the pair were able to survive. Byron’s father died in France in 1791, destitute,  possibly at his own hand.

Betwen 1794 and 1798 Byron attended Aberdeen Grammar School,  then located on Schoolhill close to his home. In 1798 he inherited the tile Lord Byron and moved down to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire with his Mother.  His education then followed the traditional path taken by the English gentry as he attended Harrow  followed by studies at Trinity College,  Cambridge. By 1807 he wss already a published poet. It was to be the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812 that would catapult him to the type of fame we associate with our modern day celebrities.  he had already come to the attention of the public after making a series of speeches in the House of Lords,  speaking in support of the Luddites,  an unusual stance for an aristocrat to take.  Fame had come quite quickly for the young poet.  As he said himself. “I awoke one morning to find myself famous.”

Afairs with various society ladies (and gentlemen) served to scandalise and delight his followers.  Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of him as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ helped to build the legend growing around him. His fame was immense,  even by todays standards. His good looks, charisma, lifestyle and romantic desire for adventure created  an enormous interest in him domestically and world wide. Many portrats were produced of him, copies of which sold in huge numbers to his fans.  Like his modern day equivalents Byron was both aware and protective of his image insisting that he be portrayed in a more reflective profile pose than having his face shown full frontal.

In 1815 Byron married Annabella Milbanke.  Despite the union producing a daughter, Augusta,  the marriage was a short lived affair and the couple formally seperated in 1816. Byron left England in April of that year, never to return in his lifetime.

Lord Byron, resplendent in Albanian dress.
Lord Byron, resplendent in Albanian dress.

The rest of his life was spent travelling Europe whilst continuing to write poetry and engage in regular sexual adventures with members of both sexes.  In 1824, whilst preparing to take part in an attack during the  Greek War of Independence,  Byron contracted a fever and died. His body was returned to England.  Westminster Abbey refused to allow him to be buried in Poets corner due to his unconventional lifestyle.  He was buried at St Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, close to his inherited ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.

In Greece Byron is still revered as a national hero. The town of Vyronas,  North East of Athens is named in his honour and the anniversary of his death is designated as a day of celebration of all things Greek. Nottinghamshire is never slow to make the most of their connection to this fascinating man yet Aberdeen makes little fuss.  Perhaps that is because the Aberdonians are secure in the knowldge that he considered himself a Scot. He retained a Scottish accent for the whole of his life and in his final days was often seen wearing a jacket adorned with tartan.  In his epic poem Don Juan he took the opportunity of  proclaiming just where his national allegiance lay.

But I am half a Scot by birth, and bred

A whole one, and my heart flies to my head, –

As ‘Auld Lang Syne’ brings Scotland one and all,

Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and the clear streams,

The Dee, the Don, Balgounie Brig’s black wall,

All my boyhood feelings, all my gentler dreams

Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their pall,

Like Banquo’s offspring

Scottish folk duo The Corries used to regularly perform the song Dark Lochnagar about the stark beauties of that mountain. Many would have been unaware that the lyric was actually a poem by Lord byron,  written in 1807.  It is known that Byron spent some time at a farmhouse near Ballater on the South Deeside Road so there is little doubt that the song is an expression of fond childhood memories.

  England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,

To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar

Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic

The deep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.”

Aberdeen grammar School has a fine statue of their former pupil in a prominent postion as you enter th grounds.  Elsewhere in Aberdeen the Northfield housing estate has an number of streets named after the man including Byron Square where the Lord Byron pub can be found.  Other than that there is little civic acknowledgement  of the influential part that the Granite City played in his life. As Aberdeen struggles during the current downturn in the oil industry perhaps it’s time to make more of a claim to the legacy of Lord Byron by inviting tourists to follow in the footsteps of one of our literary greats.  Here’s to Lord Byron,  celebrity poet, playwright,  Scot and Aberdonian loon.