Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Another "man o' independent mind" - Thomas Wallace Russell (1841-1920) - Part One

Background and Intro
We should have been in Fife, one of my favourite parts of Scotland, for a week over Easter but the current coronavirus 'lockdown' ended that. I've been visiting Fife off and on since 1991 when I was 19 and had completed my Foundation Year at the University of Ulster's Art College in Belfast and had interviews lined up to do a three year design degree at various art colleges including at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. So I travelled around Scotland by bus and train for about a week in April '91 and crashed on spare beds and sofas of various friends' student accommodation in Glasgow, St Andrews and Dundee. Below is a photo of one my mouldy bus tickets from my scrapbook of the trip.

Fife is superb grain growing country, as demonstrated in the small village name Kingsbarns and the distillery there – when I visited it last year a staff member I dealt with had family in Bangor. Fife's 'East Neuk' is a necklace of beautiful wee fishing villages, much prettier and better conserved than those of my own Ards Peninsula.

Fife has a strong sense of its own identity, with the Firth of Tay to the north and the Firth of Forth to the south, with road and rail bridges across both. It proudly calls itself 'the Kingdom of Fife', thanks to a Pictish kingdom of the 6th century.  King Robert the Bruce is of course buried, sans heart but with bronze-cast skull, in Dunfermline Abbey. The Scottish Reformation first took off in 1520s St Andrews and then Dundee. 100 years after that the Covenanters were strong in the area – Richard Cameron was born in Falkland around 1647-8 where a plaque marks his home. Renowned Ulster Presbyterian minister of Bangor, Robert Blair, completed his career at Aberdour where a large memorial plaque on the exterior of his last church commemorates him. Robert Echlin, the episcopal Bishop and fervent opponent of Blair and all of those first Ulster-Scots Presbyterians (who, on his death bed, famously said he was dying of a 'guilty conscience') was from Fife before he relocated to Ardquin near Portaferry. Fife also has a rich Scots language tradition, as Mary Murray's famous 1982 In My Ain Words book shows. The song my mother taught me called Some Say the Divil's Deid (and buried in Killarney) has a Fife version Some Say the Deil's Deid (and buried in Kirkcaldy). Even Johnny Cash's ancestry has been traced back to the village of Easter Cash in Fife.

As this previous post shows, on a July 2008 visit to Fife I got up very early to go to the town of Cupar, just to take a photograph with the sun at the right angle of the gravestone of the Covenanter David Hackston (Wikipedia entry here) at Cupar Parish Kirk, who had been executed in Edinburgh on 30 July 1680. The previous year of 1679 had seen major state repression of the Covenanters and the consequent battles at Drumclog and Bothwell Brig where Hackston had been in a command role. He was one of a group who had planned to ambush the Sheriff of Cupar, but they ended up killing the Archbishop of St Andrews, James Sharp, instead. We were back in Fife again last February and I stopped off at Cupar to see Hackston's gravestone again. The only part of his quartered, dismembered, body that was buried there was his hand, which is why it is the central carving on the ornate stone, with a memorial poem on the reverse side.


Ulster's connections with Scotland are usually assumed as being with the west coast, but in fact they reach into almost all parts of the country. The story below is just one of the many east coast links –

• of a driven working class Scot who moved to Ulster
• became a champion for temperance and land reform
• devoted much of his life to the right of tenant farmers to buy their parcels of land from the landlords
• became the MP for South Tyrone
• had a group of like-minds who became known as 'Russellites'
• for nearly 20 years was utterly committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and travelled its length and breadth to campaign for it
• but after all that, around 1900, changed his mind in what was later called 'an extraordinary volte face'

NB: I'm not into political history much, which I find is an area of either great expertise, or supreme geekery! It's the cultural and integrated Scottish/Ulster/Ireland/UK dimension of this man's life that interests me. And it's very easy to get lost in the weeds of the complexity of the 60+ years that land reform took, so this is just a simple attempt to assemble a story.

Photo above of Cupar from this conservation area document.

Sir Thomas Russell, 1st Baronet - Wikiwand• Thomas Wallace Russell – birth and early life
The part of Cupar in Fife known as the West Port was the birthplace on 28 February 1841 of Thomas Wallace Russell. He was the son of David Russell, a stonemason originally from nearby Kingskettle, and Isabella Wallace. David Russell had been a colleague of Hugh Miller, the stonemason's apprentice who became a famous geologist.

Thomas's grandfather had been evicted from his tenant farmstead and this burning family memory was Thomas's fuel throughout his life. The tenant right newspaper the Ballymoney Free Press of 13 March 1902 quoted him as saying –

"... I am the grandson of an evicted tenant – a man who left his all upon a Scotch farm and went out upon the world penniless and ruined. My father was silent. The grandson has broken out ..."

The family were Free Church of Scotland people; Thomas was educated at the Madras Academy in the town, after which he worked for a time in a grocer's shop.

• From Fife to Dungannon
Russell moved to Ulster in 1859 aged 18 and settled near Dungannon, possibly at Donaghmore. He always used his full name, or else T.W. Russell, perhaps to distinguish himself from his famous Ulster namesake and predecessor. He became secretary of the town's branch of the YMCA which was set up in September 1861 with Major Stuart Knox MP as its President and a young Thomas A. Dickson as its treasurer. It appears that, far from the corny Village People cliché of our era, the YMCA was a very well-connected organisation with the kind of networking opportunity that its ambitious members could make use of. The newspapers of the time have lengthy articles reporting on the activities and meetings of the Dungannon branch, many of which are authored by Russell.

In September 1863 Russell represented the Dungannon branch at the YMCA 'Universal Conference of Delegates' for one week in London. However, the co-operation between secretary Russell and treasurer Dickson would, 30+ years later, be turned to rivalry and rancour.

Russell became a paid representative for the Irish Temperance League and was highly active as a speaker on social reform all over Ireland, even lecturing in Scotland in the Union Street Hall in Cupar on his visits home. Russell honed his oratorical and writing skills quickly.

• Marriage and the move to Dublin
On 29 September 1865 aged 24 the Presbyterian Russell married Harriet Wentworth Agnew, the daughter of Methodist merchant Thomas Agnew of Dungannon, at St Anne's Church of Ireland in the town, with the service conducted by Rev William Quinn of Drumglass and Rev J B Kane of Annaghmore. Thomas and Harriet eventually settled in Dublin where around 1870 Thomas became an insurance agent, secretary of the Dublin Total Abstinence Association, and opened "The Russell Temperance Hotel" at 102 Stephen's Green South. He travelled all over Ireland championing the cause of temperance, and was a frequent lobbyist at the House of Commons where he became a familiar face.

• Land Reform
Ordinary people did not own land. In 1870, 97% of farmers – of all religious backgrounds in every county in Ireland – were tenants of landlords. A new law called the Landlord and Tenant Act was passed that year, By 1881 the Land Law Act was passed. Change was coming and land ownership was a massive political issue.

• Entry to Politics - Dublin and Preston
Aged 43, Russell stood for election in Dublin's Royal Municipal ward in 1884 as a pro-Sunday closing of public houses candidate, and one of his nominees was the Quaker tea and coffee entrepreneur Samuel Bewley Jr, a brand name still very famous in Dublin and Ireland today.

In 1885 Russell unsuccessfully stood as a Liberal Party candidate at Preston in the north west of England. It looked like he might win, but the vote was swung by a last-minute intervention from 'Parnellites' in Ireland to mobilise the Irish and Catholic population of Preston to vote Conservative to oppose Russell (source Fife Herald 23.11.1889).

Soon after, the leader of the Liberal Party, William Gladstone, introduced the First Home Rule Bill. So Russell left the party due to his Unionist convictions, but Land Reform was his real passion, and local campaigns to overturn landlord domination and allow tenants to buy the land were growing. But Gladstone's endorsement of 'Home Rule' brought a new, complicating, political context.

As ever, this caused polarisation in Ulster and Ireland with the all too familiar outcome. The fallout included the formation of both the Irish Protestant Home Rule Association and the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association.

• 1886: MP for South Tyrone
Back north to the Dungannon area and in 1886 Russell was selected as Liberal Unionist candidate for South Tyrone - an election he won, with a majority of just 99 votes, ahead of William O'Brien, who among many things was the editor of United Ireland (Wikipedia here) and the author of the "No Rent Manifesto" during a period of imprisonment in 1882.

That same year Russell delivered this searing address in Grangemouth, using a Biblical turn of phrase which I remember Alex Salmond also using some years ago –

"... What, I ask, have they (the Ulster Unionists) done that they are to be deprived of their Imperial inheritance, that in the words of the Apostle they are to be made ‘bastards and not sons’. Three hundred years ago Ulster was peopled by Scotch settlers … The men there are bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh … they read the same Bible, they sing the same psalms, they have the same church polity. Nor have they proved altogether unworthy of their ancestry…The descendants of these men have made Ulster what it is ..."
– quoted in Intimate Strangers: Political and Cultural interaction between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times by Graham Walker (1995), p. 31. 

However even in victory Russell divided local opinion - the Tyrone Constitution of August 1887 shows that a Church of Ireland rector called Rev Thomas Ellis, and a small but influential section of local Orangemen, were opposed to Russell's stance on land reform for tenants. Those who were supportive of Russell were quick to write letters of support to the paper, and so in September Russell organised a large public meeting of over 1000 people in Dungannon Market Square to state his case openly once again. Russell was never an Orangeman himself, but that particular meeting was chaired by Captain William Brown, the District Master of Castlecaulfield.

In 1889 when Russell was back in Cupar, he addressed the East of Fife Unionist Association in the fishing village of Anstruther (pronounced 'Ainster'), with the Fife News saying that "the visit will not fail to be the political event of the year on the coast". He also spoke in the Town Hall of Leven, a town said to be "the most impregnable fortress of Gladstonism". The land issue remained his overarching passion. Russell proclaimed –

"... the toiling artisans of Belfast and for the farmers and labourers of Ulster, who absolutely refused to take in exchange for the Imperial Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland a vestry on College Green filled by men who signed the 'No Rent Manifesto' ... a picture of Ireland that was repeatedly presented just now to the British elector showed that island as a bleeding country, crushed by unjust laws and coercion and trampled upon by a tyrannical and despotic Ministry. 
But he spoke of a better island than that ... for Ireland the question of land was the supreme question...  with an earnest appeal to Scotsmen not to cast their kinsmen of Ulster adrift ..." (source Fife Herald 23.11.1889)

He was on such a high after the meeting that he declared his intention to return to Scotland in order to stand in East Fife in the 1892 General Election, against the future Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. In 1889 the Sheffield Daily Telegraph said that –

"One of the most hated Unionist MPs is Mr Thomas Wallace Russell MP. He has earned the hatred of the Parnellites, both Irish and British, by the fearlessness with which he has upheld the cause of the Union; the unerring accuracy of his statements; and the unflagging diligence which which he has employed himself in personally acquiring information on the Irish land question".

The Dundee Advertiser of 3 February 1890 said that:

"Mr Russell is not an Irishman, nor an Ulster Scot, having first seen the light in Cupar Fife, but he is an Ulster member. He had the honour of defeating Mr W. O'Brien in one of the divisions of Tyrone ... he believes all he says and does not speak for mere effect ... although he has spoken the same speech scores of times, it is always like a hot lava stream. With the exception of Colonel Saunderson, Mr Russell is the only Ulster Unionist the constituencies on this side of the water are familiar with ... Mr Russell is not an Ulsterman at all and he is getting tired of going about alone telling Scotch and English audiences that the Ulster people are honest, industrious and prosperous. What is Ulster doing? How many of her members go out to meet the avalanche of lies with which Great Britain is deluged?".

• 1892: Russell v Dickson
In a year now best-known for the Ulster Unionist Convention in Botanic Gardens of 17th June, at which Russell was present (and was first to endorse a motion from the Lord Mayor of Belfast), he was reported as saying

"... the men of Ulster that day were, indeed, making history. They had no quarrel with their fellow countrymen, but they objected to the system of domination which their fellow countrymen would put them under ..."

The contemporary illustration below shows Russell fourth, in between Rev Dr Richard Rutledge Kane and Thomas Sinclair.

Russell remained focussed upon South Tyrone and stood again as a pro-Union and Presbyterian candidate there in the July 1892 election. The twist in the story is that his opponent this time was his former YMCA pal Thomas A. Dickson, who was now a pro-Home Rule Presbyterian, and had previously been an MP for Dungannon from 1874-80, MP for Tyrone from 1881-85, and had also been MP for Dublin St Stephen's Green - where Russell's own Temperance Hotel was - from 1888-92 (Wikipedia here).

Russell won by 372 votes. The Freeman's Journal of 15 July 1892 detailed the rancour after the count, alleging Russell had 400 bogus votes. Dickson said he –

"... was defeated by the Presbyterian and Protestant farmers to whom he had devoted 18 years of his life... their eyes would be opened as to where their true interests lie ... he would never forget the support he had received from the Church of Ireland, from his own Presbyterian co-religionists he received nothing but the most unscrupulous opposition ... Presbyterian ministers standing beside ballot boxes and intimidating men who had voluntarily offered to vote for him..."

A momentum was now gathering around Russell as a figurehead within the broadly Unionist and Presbyterian rural community. At a meeting in Ballymoney Town Hall, organised by the renowned Rev J B Armour and at which Russell's old friend and recent adversary Dickson was due to speak, another speaker alleged that the Conservative party was being "led round on a chain like a performing bear ... dancing to the tune of Mr T.W. Russell" (Northern Whig 7 Sept 1894).

• Celebrity beckons
It is often unkindly said that politics is showbusiness for ugly people. Even though something of a lone figure, Russell was box office. A search for 'T.W. Russell' on the British Newspaper Archive for 1890–99 gives over 25,000 returns.  He spoke at events the length and breadth of Great Britain and Ireland to large audiences. In June 1893 the periodical World ran a lengthy 'puff piece' entitled 'Mr T.W. Russell, M.P., Celebrity At Home' which reads like a lifestyle article in the Tatler or a segment from MTV Cribs, from his London townhouse home at Ashley Gardens, Westminster. It was widely reprinted in local weeklies like the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.

"... the decorations, the hangings, the furniture, and every aspect of the rooms bespeak what the argot of the day calls 'modernity' ... everything is as bright and cheerful and home-like as the loving labour of two charming women can make it. During the last season or two Mrs and Miss Russell have become known in London society... 
during the past six or seven years few personalities have become better known to the public than Thomas Wallace Russell for he has traversed the entire kingdom and addressed over 800 public meetings in defence of the great cause to which he has devoted his life ..."

1894: Death of Harriet Russell
Suddenly, at what was then the high point of her husband's career, Harriet Russell died of pneumonia on 31 December 1894, at their home at 103 Stephen's Green, Dublin, aged 53. This followed 'a chill' she experienced on Christmas morning at a church service in a Methodist chapel close to where they lived. The funeral cortege left the house at 9.30am on 5 January bound for Amiens Street train terminus (now Connolly Station), to take her body back north to be buried in the Agnew family plot in Dungannon. The Dublin Daily Express of 1 January 1895 warmly remembered her charitable and temperance work, and reported that

"... his friends all over the United Kingdom will learn with deep sorrow of the affliction which has fallen upon him ..."

On 15 January the Northern Whig published the funeral tribute which had been given by Rev Dr M'Cheyne Edgar of Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church in Dublin, saying she had been Thomas's –

"... chief support, his best advisor, his most reliable co-worker ... a mind and will reinforced and strengthened by Christian principle ..."

The united choirs of the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland churches in Dungannon sang "For ever with the Lord, amen so let it be" just before her interment - a combination which says much about the Russells. Their daughter Edith was their only surviving child, an elder child having died in 1874.

Who knows what effect such a bereavement had on 53 year old Thomas Wallace Russell. But there are signs that his mind was starting to change.

• 1895: A Change is Gonna Come
The letters pages of the newspapers for January show that Russell was as active as ever, but the Northern Whig on 17 January quoted him saying, regarding the loss of his wife "... my first impulse would be to give up everything and retire absolutely from public affairs ... when the shadow passes a little I hope again to face those duties...".

Yet his more hardline Unionist opponents still harangued him in the press, often due to his frequent alignment with John Morley who had been Chief Secretary for Ireland. In February Russell penned this letter to Fortnightly Review, which was widely reprinted elsewhere –

"... I am a convinced Unionist. I have told the Ulster farmers that I am a Unionist first and a land reformer after that. But why am I devoted to the Union? It is because I believe that the Imperial Parliament is alike able and willing to do everything for Ireland better than an Irish Parliament can possibly do it. 
Take this belief away, convince me that on this vital issue the Imperial Parliament, as such, is unable or unwilling to do justice – I say that, if I am brought face to face with such a situation, the platform on which I have firmly stood crumbles away... 
... my conduct has brought me into collision with political friends. It has, to a certain extent, divided the Unionist party in Ulster. It has made my own battle in South Tyrone harder perhaps than it need otherwise have been.
For the country, for the Union, for the people, there is no safety but in an honest effort to do justly between the two contending parties on this, the great Irish question..."

(Part Two to follow...)

Monday, April 27, 2020

BBC Scotland 'Rebel Tongue' with Alistair Heather - on tomorrow night

This brand new programme, about the Scots language, presented by Alistair Heather will be excellent. A pre-broadcast review is online here. On BBC Scotland tomorrow night and on iPlayer for 30 days afterwards here. I've met Alistair twice, and we have high hopes of working together on a wheen o things later this year, aa bein weel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"The Professor and the Madman" – the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Ulster contribution to the Scottish National Dictionary

I watched this movie on Netflix a few weeks ago, the dramatisation of how Scotsman James Murray and American William Chester Minor were an unlikely and unconventional collaborating duo in the successful compilation and publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. They were both controversial characters - Murray unorthodox and, some stuffy Oxford dons apparently thought, unqualified. Minor had a remarkable intellect and memory but was also a convicted murderer serving time in the psychiatric institution of Broadmoor. They 'met' as a result of Murray's efforts to find a nationwide army of volunteer assistance via a publicity campaign.

A dictionary committee had begun work in 1857; the project faltered along for 21 years until Murray was tasked with it in 1878. Six years later in 1884 the first volume was printed, and volume by volume followed. In 1928 the entire finished dictionary was republished as a complete set, and so 1928 became known as The Year of the Dictionary.

• James Murray's landmark Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, 1873
Murray was from Denholm in the Scottish Borders. Prior to being commissioned to lead the OED, he had already completed the monumental 270 page volume The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland in 1873 which is online here. His assessment of Lowland Scots v English and his analysis of Burns' poetry on pages 75-77 are worth reading. Interestingly he is also happy to use the term 'Scotch' which these days is often frowned upon.

Murray also makes passing reference to Ulster, and that he had been in correspondence with Rev Classon Porter of Larne and Robert MacAdam in analysing the extent of Ulster Gaelic in the Glens of Antrim and its connections and similarities with Scottish Gaelic, concluding "But there is not the slightest reason to deduce the Glensmen from Scotland; they are a relic of the ancient continuity of the population of Ulster and Western Scotland."

It was a groundbreaking and monumental work, with limited printed sources to draw from. Murray did the 'heavy lifting'. It wasn't perfect, for example in a 1996 paper Professor AJ Aitken remarked that Murray "...overstates what he sees as the moulding influence of Gaelic on Scots pronunciation and understates the Norse element in Scots ..." but also that Murray was "... the founder of the modern study of Scots, both historical and descriptive ...". Aitken also quoted the late Professor Michael Montgomery of Tennessee, a man I had the pleasure of meeting a few times, of hosting in our home, and occasionally corresponding with, concisely saying "all paths lead back to Murray". 

Murray seems to not have paid any attention to Scots in Ulster / Ulster-Scots - but the Introduction of Holywood man William Hugh Patterson's famous 1880 Glossary of Antrim and Down refers to Murray's work in a summary of the survival of Irish language in those counties.

• The Scottish National Dictionary and Dr Robert Moore Fraser
In Murray's native Scotland, and deriving much from his writing, the project to compile the Scottish National Dictionary had begun work in 1908 under the banner of the Scottish Dialects Committee. Interestingly, the Northern Whig published a letter on 12 January 1924 by Belfast Presbyterian and physician Dr Robert Moore Fraser B.A. M.D. (1865–1952) supporting the work of the Dialects Committee, and stating that in 1922 he had proposed at a meeting of the Queen's University Convocation that an equivalent be set up here.

• Robert Moore Fraser's Ulster-Scots background
His father, James, was from Fort Augustus in Scotland but travelled all over the country due to his job as an excise officer. In 1857 he was posted to Londonderry. He met Catherine Ann Moore who was ten years older than him, and they married in Carndonagh Presbyterian Church in 1859. Their first two children were born in Ireland; James was posted back to Scotland, and the family moved first to Pitlochry and then to Creiff.

During their time in Crieff, Robert Moore Fraser was born on 10 February 1865. In 1873, when Robert was 8 years old, the family moved again, this time back across the North Channel to Belfast permanently, and they frequently visited their Donegal family.

Robert was educated at Inst, and then Queen's. He married Margaret Boal Ferguson of Muckamore in Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church on 1 February 1900, but she died of TB in November 1903. He married again, this time a Londonderry doctor's daughter called Alice Josephine Cuthbert, in June 1907. In 1908 he began his medical career at 211 Albertbridge Road.

With this background of Scottish father, Ulster mother, and various migrations back and forth, it's not surprising that he could see the importance of, and connections between, the vernacular language of Ulster and Scotland.

• 1922: Fraser's attempt at Queen's University
A quick look at the Belfast News Letter of 14 December 1922 gives a full account of that Convocation meeting mentioned above, and Fraser's proposal that "in the event of the establishment of a lectureship in phonetics, the holder of the appointment will be required to exhibit special interest in and knowledge of the Ulster and Scottish vernacular... there should be research into the Ulster vernacular ... the sum he suggested to carry that into effect would be £25,000".

That amount equates to around £750,000 today. It is interesting that he was proposing this around the time that Northern Ireland was established, perhaps seeing it as a landmark project for the new jurisdiction, or perhaps a way of capturing the past before 'progress' might sweep it all away.

His 1924 letter continued that "unfortunately the resolution was defeated", expressed his dismay at the lack of "Ulster's self-respect", and that "it is of no use appealing to the Scottish Committee" so he must have thought it was game over for the idea.

• 1927: Scottish Dialects Committee in Ulster
Fortunately in 1927 Fraser was proven wrong, when the Scottish Dialects Committee placed adverts in Ulster newspapers. Two examples are below, from the Northern Whig in 1927, and also from the Ballymena Observer in 1928.

• 1931: Fraser on the Executive Council
Fraser's commitment paid off when he became the sole Ulster representative on the 30 member Executive Council for the Scottish National Dictionary, with Ulster contributions from the trio of Rev W. F. Marshall, Dr George Browne of Ballynahinch and John Johnston Marshall of Aughnacloy and Belfast. The four names appear on the opening pages of the first volume (pics below) which was published in 1931, with a section on Ulster. Its introduction firmly embraces Ulster as part of the linguistic region and family –
"The area of Scottish speech with which the National Dictionary deals comprises (1) the Lowlands of Scotland, (2) Orkney and Shetland, where it has superseded the Norn language within the last 350 years, and (3) parts of Ulster, especially Antrim, Down and Derry, to which, since c.1606, it has been extended by the immigration of Scottish settlers."

• 1952: Death of Robert Moore Fraser
Fraser died on 28 January 1952 at his home at 10 Winston Gardens, Ballyhackamore. His obituary in the Belfast Telegraph showed him to have been a colourful character - one of the first motorists in Ulster (driving a five horsepower Vauxhall with a crank starting handle) a leading figure during the Great War in the running of the U.V.F. Hospital (which was behind Queen's) active in McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church as Sunday School superintendent and as an elder in Knock Presbyterian Church. His only son, Sir Ian Fraser (Wikipedia here) was a renowned surgeon and President of the British Medical Association.

• Perhaps there are SND archives which might tell more about the importance of Fraser's role.
• Some of the biographical detail above comes from A Surgeon's Century: The Life of Sir Ian Fraser DSO FRCS, by Richard Clarke, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation (2004)
• Fraser's obituary in the British Medical Journal is online here, describing him as "a staunch Unionist".
• An essay by A.J. Aitken about James Murray is online here
• James Murray was born in Denholm in the Scottish Borders; it is likely that he was related to Colonel Adam Murray of Siege of Derry fame, to whom there is a memorial in Selkirk just 20 miles from Denholm.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The lost poem of John Bonar, sundial maker - Ayr, Bangor and Kirkcudbright

Old original sundial from the Bangor Abbey - Picture of North Down ...

Above is a photo from TripAdvisor of the sundial in North Down Museum which was once at Bangor Abbey. It was made by a famous Scottish sundial maker called John Bonar around 1630. Another of his is at Kenmure Castle, Kircudbright. Here is an intriguing reference to him, and to a (sadly lost) poem that he wrote about a journey from Ayr to Bangor.

"... In a manuscript volume of poems and miscellaneous pieces now in the possession of David Constable, Esq. Advocate, written about the year 1631, the author, John Bonar, schoolmaster. Ayr, gives in verse an account of a voyage from the port of Bangor in Ireland, with a description of some of the objects of natural curiosity and antiquity of the coast of Carrick, from Loch Ryan to Ayr. In this volume the following passage occurs:

The britones marchet, tuo dayes before the feild
To Marrok's mote, for easement and for beild;
Afore the night they waughtet liquor fyne,
Lyke filthie beasts lying like drunken swine.
Quhen fergus heare they wer in sutch a pley,
Doune fra Craigsbian he came right suddenly,
And tooke his will upon his traitrous foes,
Quhair thousands lay skatteret like windlestroes.
Coylus he fledd unto the river Doune,
Quher drownet were many yt thair did runn,
And northward held, quhil they cam till a muir.
And thair wes stayet be Scots that on him fuir.
Fergus he followet and came right heastilie,
Quhair Coyll wes killet and all his hole armie;
The cuntry people fra thenseforthe does it call
Coylsfield in Kyll, as ever more it sall.
Within twelve years, or litle mor's I guess,
A trew story ane ditcher told me these;
Tirring the earth for fewell to his flett,
His spead did run upon ane stane bot lett,
Quhilk, quhen he hade espyet earnestlie,
A tomb it wes buildet full curiouslye;
He roll'd awaye, and fund a pitcher law
With ashes, and bones, that all men might it knaw,
Upon the stone wer graven letters fayre,
Koyl's cij-p of this as now 1 speak no more..."

- From The New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845

Constable was a noted collector of Scottish literature, the son of Archibald Constable (Wikipedia here). His collection seems to now be in the National Library of Scotland. Maybe one day the Bangor poem will be unearthed.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Betsy Gray, the 1798 Rebellion, and further evidence for the Six Road Ends traditions - draft

I've posted here about 1798 Rebellion heroine Betsy Gray before, and I was very pleased when Professor Guy Beiner made contact with me to ask permission to incorporate some of that information in his 2019 book Forgetful Remembrance; Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (available here). Betsy's birth place / home place has been contested over the years. The strongest likelihood has always been Six Road Ends outside Bangor. I have visited the ruined cottage, which is in the grounds of Summerhill Nursing Home.

Recently I managed to pick up a fairly obscure little 40 page booklet which was published to mark the 200th anniversary in 1998 by Newtownards Historical Society, Upper Ards Historical Society, the North of Ireland Family History Society and Ards Borough Council. It has seven chapters, all of which are strong, but in particular the one entitled 'The Betsy Gray Legend Revisited' by the late Dr Hugh H. Macartney (1926–2015) stands out as particularly important. As a boy in the 1930s he often visited his relatives who lived in the cottage. He wrote that the family traditions of the Grays and Macartneys at Six Road Ends had not been published elsewhere before, but I think that the NIFHS published them simultaneously in their own journal. He also makes the point that the very well respected late Jack McCoy's booklet Ulster's Joan of Arc made some errors. I have taken the liberty of posting the pages below due the the rarity of the booklet, as I am sure the information will be of interest to some of my readers.

Often, these stories are only mined when they are politically useful. For me, enduring community traditions are far more important. What do we choose to remember? What does our community choose to retell, and how is it retold? What does civic society decide that we should know about? We all bring on our journey the baggage we think important. We all have gaps of important stuff which have been left behind.

Betsy and her continuing appeal is a fascinating phenomenon. Perhaps there is a project in that. But 1798 as a whole is a story which needs to be fully told one day.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Helen Gilliland of Bangor (1897–1942)

Helen Gilliland was a big star in her day, a child prodigy winning singing competitions everywhere in Ulster from the Londonderry Feis in 1910 to big events in the Protestant Hall in Ballymena. Her father John was a well-known official in the Northern Bank who, at the time of his death in 1923, lived at 90 Seacliff Road in Bangor.

Helen was a pupil of Victoria College in Belfast. She hit the big time in 1917 when she signed with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and Gilbert & Sullivan; she became the advertising face of various cosmetic and fashion brands, like Ponds and Debenhams, shown in the adverts here. She graced the major stages of London and New York, and socialised with world famous celebrities like Amy Johnson the aviator.

She only appeared in one film, a minor role in The Storm, in 1938, with Charles Bickford in the lead role. The plot line, set onboard a stricken ship caught up in a typhoon, would seem to have been something of a portent.

When World War 2 broke out, Helen was involved in entertaining troops overseas. After a season in India, in early December 1942 she and her husband Norman Eric Peter Franklin were onboard a troop ship carrying 600 people en route to their next destination, in Africa. The ship was torpedoed by the Japanese Navy. The couple ended up in the water together – Franklin was washed back into the sinking ship but when he emerged he was unable to find Helen again. She was never recovered. Her husband spent five days adrift on a life raft before being picked up.

Her death was widely reported in the UK press, with the Daily Record saying that she was "Irish-born but with a strong Scots parental link" and that she had performed in Glasgow.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

"A man o' independent mind" - James Wood (1865-1936)

When you assume that communities are uniform groupthink 'blocs' then you totally miss the diversity within. 'Old dead guys' get a bad press today because apparently the only thing that matters about them any more is their gender. But ideas, beliefs and actions are more interesting than any individual's chromosomes. Plenty of men stood up and stood out in their own day, sometimes to great personal or professional cost. Bright blazing moments of conviction.

The 'Establishment' in every era sets the boundaries of what is acceptable, usually to preserve its own power. This also happens today, where a cosmetic approach to 'diversity' brings together carefully selected groups of people who appear to be different, but broadly think the same. However it's the Dissenters and Non-Conformists within who are always interesting. Here is one who, as Robert Burns said, was "a man o independent mind". 


James Wood (1865–1936)
Monaghan-born Presbyterian who broke 'landlordism' control in Unionist politics, standing for "Reform, Sobriety, Equal Rights and Goodwill among men"

James Wood was born in Clones in County Monaghan. His parents had been evicted by landlords from a farmstead in County Fermanagh because they refused to vote "Tory". James moved to Belfast as a young man, became an apprentice in a law firm, and settled at a farm called Mount Salem on the Ballyrussell Road in the hills between Comber and Dundonald. There is a property of that name still there today. Land Reform was a key issue of the time and Wood's legal clients included many tenant farmers.

Wood addressed the Ulster Convention in favour of compulsory land purchase at the Ulster Hall on 5 June 1901, as did a fiery Scot with a famous Ulster name – Thomas Russell. Up to 5000 people are said to have attended – "the great mass of the people were Protestant farmers, men with bronzed faces, clear grey eyes, neat but homely dress and the steady, composed air of the countrymen of the North. There was no excitement, no hysterics, but a serious, determined air, such as men wear who know their business and mean to do it", according to the Ballymoney Free Press of 13 June 1901.

The East Down By-Election of 1902
The Fife-born Scotsman Thomas Wallace Russell was the long-standing MP for South Tyrone, a Liberal Unionist and later an Independent Unionist who was elected with strong support from tenant farmers. Wood joined his cause and stood as a 'Russellite' candidate in the 1902 by-election in East Down. The Irish News published a letter from him on 21 January in which he said –

"... I am and always have been a convinced Unionist, but this election will be fought on One Great Issue, that of the Permanent and Final Settlement of the Land Question ... any scheme for the improvement of the agricultural labourer would have my earnest support ... I am a member of the Presbyterian church... I shall ever advocate the just claims of equal treatment of every other denomination ..."
Wood won by 3576 votes to 3429, his cross-community appeal clinching the victory. He and Russell were carried shoulder high to the Down Hunt Arms Hotel in Downpatrick, where the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister of Moneyrea, Rev R Lyttle, praised their success. Bonfires were lit across the constituency that night.

Wood and Russell went to Westminster; the Ballymoney Free Press described Russell as "the lion of the land of Ulster" on 13 March 1902, and quoted him as saying –

"... I believe that all through Ulster there will be an understanding on these lines ... that the Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant, will go to the polls and make an end of that land system which has cursed all alike... I am the grandson of an evicted tenant – a man who left his all upon a Scotch farm and went out upon the world penniless and ruined. My father was silent. The grandson has broken out. I have hated Irish landlordism since the day I first understood it ... I am for the Union fixed and irrevocably – I am not for the vested villainies which shelter themselves behind it. Against these I shall maintain constant war ..."
1903: North Fermanagh and James Craig's entry into politics
In the following year of 1903 another election opportunity arose, in North Fermanagh. There was local cross-community pressure to select Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett as the Unionist candidate, but Russell was dead-set against him – "Plunkett was a man of family; Russell was a peasant". So the 'Russellites' put forward their own rival candidate, the well-known Fermanagh man and Methodist farmer Edward Mitchell. In the end, Plunkett wasn't selected, but a young début candidate from County Down called James Craig was (more about him shortly). Mitchell defeated Craig with a majority of 152.

In 1904 Dundonald Star Flute Band visited Wood's home at Mount Salem to play a selection of tunes in appreciation for his donation to their uniform fund. On 10 June the Northern Whig reported that "he understood that the band were largely recruited from the labourers in the district, and hoped that the attractions that the band afforded would keep them from the public houses".

Wood and Russell in verse, by Robert Brown, the 'Railway Lad'
Robert Brown was a humble railway worker, originally from the Comber and Ballygowan area. He worked on the Belfast and County Down Railway, initially at Ballynahinch. Like so many County Down country people, the railway took him to east Belfast and he took a new job at Neill's Hill station where he worked for most of his career. His modest, but important, collection of Poems by a Railway Lad (c. 1906) includes a masterful Ulster-Scots poem about James Wood's 1902 election success –

(Entitled ‘A Conversation between Twa Auld Farmers at Ballynahinch Junction’)

“Weel my auld frien how are ye fairin?
How's the health and times noo pairin?
I trust that want's no grimly starin'
        But in his den
But that blithe look that ye are wearin'
        Might make me ken?"

"Ay, Dannie, mon, ye see the beam
That dances thro' my twa auld e'en;
The news I've heard, and things I've seen,
       Would make ye whussle;
Oor negleckit cause is noo between
        Brave Wood and Russell.

Each has an Ulster heather besom,
And a' that dirt ca'd landlordism
'Ill be conveyed doon that dark chasm
         From whence it sprung;
Oor champions, weel, I'll say 'God bless 'm'
          Wi fervent tongue.

The landlords, they're such idle buddies,
And struts about in finest duddies,
While we, like some dumb-driven cuddies,
         Ill-fed and shod,
Wi' worn wife and wee bit laddies
         Hirple oor the clod.

But worse than a', my auld meere Fenny
That earned me mony a bonnie penny,
Sure just last spring she slipped doon cannie
          At the land's en';
But we'll a' stop there, mind ye Dannie
          Baith beasts and men.

I never pass the green-clad heap
But thro' the hedge I take a peep;
The unbidden tear will gie a leap
         And downward birl.
I stammer oot, ‘I trust ye sleep

         Contented, girl!’

"None better served for sweetest rest,
O' a horse kind she was the best
And up life's hill, oft sairly press'd
         In straiten’d gap,

Yet ne'er a brae wi' highest crest
         She could na' tap.

Misfortune oft has me tight-laced.
Worse than this year I never faced;
For a' the hills spring had embraced
        Tae coax the seeds,
Ere the auld plough a rig had creased
        Tae kill the weeds.

But, still, I clear my bleared eye,
Though cauld, wet spring does sairly try
The backward corn, ill-thriven rye
         In hill and bog;
But a' this soon we can defy
         An' merrier jog.

"Ay, ay," speaks Dan, "your story's true,
In a' you've said I'm just wi' you.
Such things mysel' I oft came thro'
         But still I'm canty
To think that a' that hellish crew
         Must shift their shanty.

“Wha' tills the land but each son's fether;
Landlords were shipp'd in some ill-weather
And nestl'd here, and still they neither
        Toil or yet spin,
But greedy takes a' we can gather
        And thinks nae sin.

"If yin ye meet this very hour,
He'd take a long, disdainful glower
Just wi' a face as deadly sour
       As the infernal;
You'd want some sure surpassin' power
       To keep your internal.

“Of oor heritage we've been shorn,

As if we were a' bastard-born
And had for a father that auld horn
       With cloot acloven.
His features in those that do us scorn
       Are better proven.

“But it's no the men, 'tis that spirit

by some ill-luck they do inherit;
My concience, Will, we will tear it
        Topsy turvy,
And show that we are men o' merit
        And aye right worthy,

"I've heard o' Wood, I've heard o' Russell,
At the east Down election tussle;
The landlords need nae make sic bustle
        They're fairly doomed;
We'll neither spare oor tongue or muscle
        Till glory croon'd."

Wi' that the train did skelp the rail
Which somewhat shortened Dannie's tale;
I trust their hearts'll never fail
       Tae earn their breid;
Hae rousing crops o' grain and kail
       For a' in need.

Hopefully you can get the gist of it, an overheard conversation between two farmers (called Dannie and Will - potentially two symbolically cross-community names?) who were delighted that Russell and Wood might sweep out landlordism once and for all, a landlordism that treated people like beasts.

Later career

Wood ran again in 1906 (but this time lost to the former Fermanagh candidate, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig by 670 votes) and 1910 (again losing to Craig, this time by 974 votes). The labourers of North Down had approached Wood to run in their constituency in 1910. The land issue had been progressed by the Land Act of 1903 and the Labourers Act of 1906. The political landscape had shifted, and James Wood's moment had come and gone.

He died in 1936, at his home Marino House near Holywood. the Irish News describing him as –

"... unsparing in his efforts on behalf of the downtrodden small farmers under the regime of landlordism ... impatient of anything that savoured of oppression or tyranny, of which he was an implacable foe."
He was buried at Belfast City Cemetery.

Not all landlords were exploitative of their tenants - William Sharman Crawford of Crawfordsburn is just one example. I am very sure that James Wood, Thomas Wallace Russell and many others of their ilk were far from perfect. They probably had self-advancement in mind just as much as any other politician. Yet it seems that they were champions of the working people in the era when both of my grandfathers were born into tiny cottage homes.

My maternal grandfather, William James Wilson, was born in 1906. His father Hugh lived in a labourers cottage on the Crommelin estate in Carrowdore. William bought an old pig shed in 1940 and turned it into a home where my mother and all of her 8 siblings were born.

My paternal grandfather, William Thompson, was born in 1901. His father Robert Thompson managed to buy the tenant farm in 1929. Many generations of Thompsons were born there, including my father and his four siblings.

Wood and Russell, as Robert Brown wrote, spared neither "tongue or muscle". Ulster is a better place because of the improvement of conditions of ordinary folk they helped to bring about.

• Article about Wood by Berkley Farr in the Journal of Liberal History, Spring 2008, is online here
• James Wood's archives are understood to now be in the Linen Hall Library
• The elections that James Craig ran in are described in great detail in his 1949 biography by St John Ervine


(Here's a short film about the poet Robert Brown that I worked on a few years ago with my lifelong friend, and a descendant of Brown's, Darren Gibson)

Robert Brown from Storyhouse Films on Vimeo.

Monday, April 13, 2020


This is a new word to me. But it is magnificent. This is from its Wikipedia page:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external "evil."
Even in the midst of the current coronavirus global pandemic I see people online blaming everybody else for their problems. This is especially true for those whose clearest perception of themselves is as members of a group, a tribe or a nation-state. Some other group, tribe or nation is to blame for everything. The construction of a conceptual enemy is perhaps a flaw in the hardwired human condition, and one which the manipulative and power hungry can exploit.

Friday, April 10, 2020

"Mr Peabody's coal train has hauled it away"

John Prine has died. This is my favourite song of his, on face value a nostalgic tale of bygone days:

...When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn 
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mr Peabody's coal train has hauled it away...
I've never been in western Kentucky but on honeymoon in 1997 I drove through the east of the state, a scarred landscape with flattened and excavated coal-bearing hills which once stood full and proud. Founded in 1883, Peabody Energy is an actual company which still exists today. They don't like the song, as this 2015 lawsuit shows. Perhaps the original George Peabody himself doesn't really deserve to have his philanthropic legacy undermined.

But the themes of the song reach far beyond the strip mines of Kentucky; I have often thought that "Mr Peabody's coal train" is also an emblem, representing anything and everything which strips rural communities of their sense of value and dignity.

These days there are very few corporations ripping up the countryside. Green energy and wind turbine farms might be, but they say they’re not. One strong equivalent is the international and national chain stores that have parachuted in to towns and villages over the past generation and killed off so many local family-run independents, replacing painted community surnames with backlit neon corporate logos.

Powerless, disadvantaged, urban communities are in the same boat as their rural cousins.

But a prime candidate for me as a present day "Peabody coal train" is the vanilla-flavoured, suburban-minded, unaccountable, "knowledge class" managerial public sector culture which dominates everyone's lives and wields its taxpayer-funded power, privilege and editorial control over almost all of life. There is plenty to say about this, maybe another day.

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

Friday, April 03, 2020

American Aquarium - "me and mine have worked this land as long as my grandfather can remember"

I've been listening to this band a fair bit lately, a new 'discovery' thanks to the YouTube algorithm. American Aquarium is an unusual name, their music is quality blue collar 'alt-country' type stuff. From Raleigh, North Carolina - the town that birthed the acclaimed Whiskeytown back in the 90s.

Their new album, Lamentations, will be released in May.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

"I've got a deed to the land, but it ain't my ground, this is God's country"

Two versions here of a song which was big in the USA in 2019, performed by two of its writers.