Jul 192021

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s latest publication, Long Shadows – Tales of Scotland’s North East.

Authors are told that when they write the blurb for the back jacket of their book they should focus on explaining what the reader will get out of it when they buy it.

So let’s apply this recommendation to Duncan Harley’s new book, Long Shadows. What will you get out of it?
You will be entertained for sure.

Duncan is a walking encyclopaedia of curious and interesting facts about everything that’s been written about Northeast Scotland.

If something extraordinary happened in your town or village, it’s probably in this book.

I can assure you that after reading it you will never dare repeat that ‘nothing interesting ever happens…’ in Buckie, Kintore, Ellon or the likes.

Now I do like quirky stories, and there is plenty in here to tickle the fancy – unexpected tales; little known tales. Take the story on page 54 about the artist Joseph Farquharson from Finzean.

In 1883, Farquharson painted The Joyless Winter Day which hangs in the Tate Gallery. It depicts a shepherd tending his flock in a raging Deeside blizzard. The execution of the painting was tricky because as Duncan explains:

“sheep cannot easily be persuaded to stand still.”

He adds:

“To solve this difficult problem, Farquharson commissioned a flock of life size plaster sheep from Monymusk born craftsman William Wilson of Kelly’s Cats fame, and used these to mark out the positions of the original live subjects in order to preserve the scene as the work progressed.”

The downside of all this ingenuity was that Joseph Farquharson ended up getting the nickname from his fellow artists of ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’.

Or the connection between the horror writer Stephen King and Buckie.

Did you know (a phrase you will find yourself repeating after reading Duncan’s book) that in the course of investigating a terrorist act in If It Bleeds, fictional private investigator Holly Gibney discovers that Buckie Academy is twinned with a bombed US High School.

The two schools take a mutual interest in each other’s local sports teams – Buckie Thistle thus picking up a small fanbase in a fictional part of the US.

Long Shadows comprises thirty-three chapters starting with Aberdeen and ending up with Turriff.

In between are tales from local towns and villages, or in one case, the forest at Lenabo where there was once an airship base during World War I. The airships would fly silently out over the North Sea scouting for German submarines to shoot up with machine guns. The story is laid out in chapter 22.

Now I do know about this. My paternal grandfather, who was too old to fight in the trenches, helped to build the Lenabo base. If that makes me sound ancient – be aware that both my grandfather and father became parents in their forties.

Having written this I now take a peek at Duncan’s back-cover blurb.

“In his two previous two books, Duncan exposed readers to an exciting mix of history and mythology. The intention of this new book is to expand greatly on these themes in an entertaining and informative way.

“Please enjoy these wee snippets of Scottish history and smile gently at the past. Long Shadows – Tales of Scotland’s North East is guaranteed to enthral both residents and visitors alike!”

I must agree.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it. It’s available on Amazon at a price of £17.95 and looks to be selling fast. Do buy it.

Jan 282018

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s ‘The A-Z Of Curious Aberdeenshire: Strange Stories of Mysteries, Crimes and Eccentrics’

Tucked out of the way in the far reaches of the land, behold Aberdeenshire, a place that can boast the forlorn reputation of being largely unknown to the population at large. Edinburgh yes; Glasgow yes; and lots of tourists nip up the west coast of Scotland, but Aberdeenshire?

If the area registers at all in the national consciousness, it’s a vague awareness of something to do with North Sea oil, whisky, farming and a bit of fishing.

Otherwise nothing much ever seems to have happened there.

Then along comes Duncan Harley’s new book to challenge these perceptions. Much in the way of odd and curious things did indeed take place in that north-eastern corner and the world hadn’t known about it until now.

The book follows an alphabetic format starting with A for Aberdeenshire Art and ending up with Z for Zeppelins. Now that last section I found the most curious. During the First World War a German bombing raid went astray as the Zeppelin got lost somewhere over Aberdeenshire.

As Duncan notes:

‘Wildly off course and completely disoriented, the L20’s  sixteen-strong crew flew inland, bombing Craig Castle at Lumsden before overflying Kintore, Old Rayne and Insch, where they dropped bombs and a flare on a field at Hill of Flinder Farm, Mill of Knockenbaird and nearby Freefield House were also targeted. Amazingly though, there were no casualties and next day, curious locals went in search of souvenirs in the form of bomb fragments.’

Crazy or what? – yet fairly typical of Duncan’s fascinating book. Here’s how it came about. Duncan was asked by the History Press to write the book.

They had been aware of his articles in Leopard magazine, now subsumed into the Scottish Field. Duncan is a known wordsmith having worked for a time on a newspaper before turning to freelance writing. He has also contributed to the Aberdeen Voice which as he writes in the introduction deserves special recognition for their support.

To whet your appetite here’s some more curiosities that you might want to read more about in Duncan’s book:

– Buffalo Bill’s trip to Peterhead and Fraserburgh with his Wild West Show.

– How the Beatles, then the Silver Beetles, were nearly wiped out in a car crash on the road to Fraserburgh.

– The German spies who landed at Crovie during the Second World War.

– The royal wee… Queen Victoria’s toilet at Ballater. And on a similar theme – how a German U-Boat was sunk by its toilet near Cruden Bay.

– The Stonehaven Railway Riot in 1848 during the construction of the line to Aberdeen when over 200 navvies rampaged around the town.

This and so much more – an alphabet soup for the curious. Highly recommended – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire is on sale in bookshops around Aberdeen and the Whisky Shop in Inverurie – where signed copies are to be had. Do have a look.

Mike Shepherd.

Nov 012013

Duncan Harley introduces This Is Me, a positive body image project based in NE Scotland, headed up by Jacqueline Fulton.

Calender Girls 176In 2013, the women of This Is Me have taken part in creating a Positive Body Image calendar for 2014, and it’s on sale soon.
The calendar will raise money for NEEDS & Body Gossip, promoting positive body image and being able to say,


80% of us are unhappy with the way we look and 60% think negatively about our appearance. So says Wikipedia.

Many women feel threatened by the camera, the mirror and that man in their lives – Eric, John, Bryan or whatever his name is.

Fear no more, body image is a blast from the past. A singularly unhelpful mirror of who you thought you were, and a place where you don’t need to be again.

Women are bombarded with Photo-shopped images of perfection every day. The impossible seems possible; the possible seems achievable in every way. It’s generally crap.

The result? This Is Me is a positive body image campaign working to banish body shame, encouraging everyone to be the best version of themselves they can be and to rock their very own brand of gorgeous.

This Is Me is launching the charity calendar at the Albyn Bar, Aberdeen on Saturday 9 November at 1930. Entry is free, but bring a tenner for the calendar.

More at: https://www.facebook.com/events/496088990475310/?fref=ts

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Aug 272013

battery rangefinder innes links duncan harley_1Duncan Harley reflects on the art of street protest.

Belfast remains a sectarian mess. Hatred of the folk next door or over the road, plus a sense of outdated history divides folk who might otherwise be best of friends given the need for a simple cup of sugar. The religious divide may be just a smokescreen for something deeper though.

I well remember an interview with a Serbian who had thrown an old man off a bridge in the “Safe haven” of Sarajevo during the multi-ethnic Bosnian War of the 1990’s. Asked why he had murdered the man he said quite simply that in around 1637 there had been a conflict in which the man’s family had done something similar.

The so called peace walls are a stark reminder of the divide. Belfast has quite a few of these. Symbols of division and hatred, they are reminiscent of the Berlin Wall and the 230 mile long, six metre high wall topped with barbed wire lined with guard towers which the Israelis have constructed in the West Bank. The walls say much about the intolerance of those who rule towards those who are ruled and speak volumes about the state of Israel, Ireland and the UK.

Banksy’s feelings about such barrier’s are made explicit in a statement which says the wall “essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.” Many including the Moray street artist Pantsy wholeheartedly agree. In a rare interview the reclusive Pantsy echoed the sentiments of his mentor.

We met at the Innes Links on the coast midway between the Moray village of Kingston and the township of Lossiemouth. Innes Links for those not in the know is a party place with some attitude. During the 1940’s it was a focus for the defence of the realm. In those dark days there were quite justified fears that the Moray coastline was the soft underbelly of Scotland.

Norway had been invaded by the German’s and with air raids over Moray and Aberdeenshire a daily menace it seemed logical to expect invasion from the sea. Nowadays however the coastal defensive structures are a mecca for those intent on a few beers and a wee barbeque.

The Innes battery ( pictured above ) features a couple of gun emplacements, a couple of searchlight casements plus a rangefinder housing. There are the obligatory latrines plus a few thousand anti invasion blocks manufactured by Polish troops employed as forced labour by a local building company who got the contract for General Ironside’s anti invasion plan.

pantsy graffitti Innes Duncan HarleyPantsy has added a few pieces of his art to brighten up the somewhat outdated 1940’s décor of the Innes Links Battery.

In fact his spray paintings put to shame those who like the anonymous “FU” reflects “Mo Mo is fat”.

Pantsy told me “My art is simply a reflection of what humanity does to the underdogs and I don’t need to defend it”.

I asked if he was expressing something deeper.

The response came fast and sharp.

“Keith lads suck, Lossie lads are much better, in fact ten times as good, maybe even more. Try them at darts is all I can say. But I’m not sure.”

When further questioned Pantsy revealed his Irish heritage.

He told me of his grandparent’s experiences during the Irish rebellion of 1916. How those patriots were mistreated by the Black and Tans. How the ordinary folk of that island, were mistreated. How the folk in his country were vilified by a war torn Britain who only saw the rebellion as a treason in the face of the common enemy who threatened death and destruction from the air, land and sea.

Seemingly his great uncle was murdered by the men of the Staffordshire Regiment and a cousin far removed met a similar fate in rural Cork.

It’s really no great surprise though that the Irish needed their independence. There had been the British indifference after the harvests failed and folk in the south began to starve.  There had been the issues of the setting up of a general election set up by the British authorities in 1918 where 70% of the voters decided to support candidates pledged to abstain from the ties of English authority but were ignored.

There had also been the issues of Easter 1916 when a “terrible beauty was born” and many good Irish folk died by shooting and hanging in the cause of shedding the yoke of an oppressive and often uncaring ruling elite.

Tom Barry wrote in “Guerrilla Days in Ireland” about those dark but somehow progressive days. Tom was Commandant General of the West Cork flying column and in his early career was pitted against the combined might of the British Army in the days just after the first war to end all wars.

People like Major Percival and Montgomery were on his hit list.

orkney 205 italian chapel

The first, who was later to surrender his entire army to the mercy of the Japanese in Singapore, due to his extreme anti-Irish attitude and encouragement of torture. The second because of the man’s habit of allowing his troops free reign to murder and pillage at will.

Percival survived the assassination attempt seemingly due to his habit of raiding and murdering IRA sympathisers at random, he was out on a raid on the night in question it seems.

Montgomery simply went to tea with a new mistress on the night in question thus avoiding the assassin’s bullet.

One ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese and the other ended up as the heroic general who led his troops to victory in the Western Desert at El Alemain.

After Montgomery’s desert victory, there were many prisoners a number of whom were brought back to the UK to live out the rest of the war in captivity. The Italians were the most numerous. Their leader Mussolini had neglected to provide them with much transport and their German allies stole what was left forcing most of the Italian desert troops to surrender at the first opportunity.

orkney 205 italian chapel

Out of over one hundred thousand Italians who surrendered in 1942, around 1300 were sent to Orkney and housed in three prisoner of war camps tasked with building the Churchill Barriers following the disastrous sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow by the U 47.

From the desert heat and water issues they then faced the freezing winds and belting sleet of an Orcadian winter.

This beautiful chapel is their legacy.

Built using found materials and the parts from two Nissan Huts it survives to this day as a memorial to the spirit and resourcefulness of the people of Italy in the face of the defeat of Fascism.

If Tom Barry had succeeded in the assassination of General Montgomery then in all probability this chapel would not exist.

Now there’s a thought.

With grateful thanks to Wm Yeats, Pantsy and Tom Barry without whose help this article could not have been written.

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Aug 012013

By Duncan Harley.

The anoraks among us relish street furniture. It’s all around us and much of it, especially the older pieces, has attained iconic status. The humble cast iron manhole cover and the quite majestic GPO red phone box are fine examples.

Those red pillar boxes which have graced our streets for over 160 years and those railings topped with Kelly’s Cats which adorn both the Winter Gardens and Union Terrace Bridge are equally as fine if you take the time to look and admire.

Kelly’s Cats are of course nowadays on a nightly suicide watch alongside the Samaritan posters which urge would be jumpers to think again and seek kind words, advice and help before taking that drastic step into the void and the GPO cast iron Red telephone boxes are now becoming a rarity due to being superseded by the somewhat bland but functional metallic modern payphone stations which in their turn will no doubt become cultural icons a few more decades down the line.

That is if they survive the vandalism, under use and neglect which they currently suffer from.

Indeed most folk have quite forgotten that these public payphones exist since most of us have a mobile in the trouser pocket or handbag nowadays. The public payphone is surely on the way out.

Mind you it would take a genius to work out how to use the things, what with all those helpful instructions pasted around the interior.

“Please be prepared to use no more than four coins” reads one. Another advises that BT accept no more than 4 coins as the initial minimum fee however additional coins can be added as the call progresses. A third sign advises that these are no smoking premises and that if you see someone smoking you should write to a PO Box in Manchester so as to nab the offender in the very act!

The BT Payphone website advises that they have 63,000 of the bland things all over the UK. It seems they are keen to persuade community groups to adopt an old fashioned red phone box however. Seemingly the reds have outlived the original design and operational criteria by around 70 years or so but have been so robustly designed and manufactured that they may well last another hundred years. Helpful suggestions as to what to do with the boxes include turning them into art galleries, grocery shops and wildlife information centres. BT is nothing if not inventive!

There is no mention of making phone calls from them however and for those old enough to remember, no sign of Button A or Button B for the connection of calls or refund of monies if the person being called fails to lift the handset.

Cast iron pillar boxes in Scotland at least have a much more colourful history.

There were protests when the first boxes made in the reign of Elizabeth II were produced.

These bore the infamous inscription “E II R” and upset many who pointed out that Queen Elizabeth is the first Queen of Scotland and of the United Kingdom to bear that name, Elizabeth I having been Queen of England only.

After several “EiiR” pillar boxes were blown up by Scottish Nationalists protesting “No Unlimited Sovereignty for Westminster in Scotland” including one in the Scottish capital, the General Post Office (as it was called at that time) had the remaining boxes North of the border replaced with ones which only bore the Crown of Scotland with no Royal cipher.

But if any casual passer by had chosen to look just a wee bit further down, then Scottish pride might just have been restored despite the postal authorities royalist blunder, their for all to see, albeit 3 inches from kerb level was the inscription “Carron Iron Works, Falkirk”. Made in Scotland indeed!

The Carron Iron Works was established in 1760 at the height of the Industrial Revolution and the company continued to produce pig iron through the 19th century, together with cast-iron products such as balustrades, fire grates, and the rather famous and delightful Carron bathtub which can still be seen outside crofts up and down the west coast in its new geriatric role as a cattle trough. It ran its own shipping line and produced munitions in both the World Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Carron was one of several UK foundries producing red pillar boxes and was one of five UK foundries casting Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic red telephone boxes. In the 1960s it produced cast-iron rings to line the Tyne Tunnel and the old pedestrian Clyde Tunnel which still runs under the River Clyde from Whiteinch to Govan in Glasgow’s docklands seemingly has Carron ironwork within it dating from Victorian times.

An impressive record indeed and one which any casual walker in virtually any street in Scotland can still see abundant evidence of.

The Carron Iron Works Company went into receivership in 1982 and all that remains, apart from some buildings erected in the late 20th century, is the factory clock tower with its embrasure containing a display of Carron cannons. However the Carron legacy lives on in every street and in every town in the land.

Aberdeen however has a very special Carron item on display at the corner of Holburn Street and Justice Mill Lane. Described in the city archives as:

“Circa 1905. Cast-iron ventilator in tower form with decorative Art Nouveau detailing, sited on traffic island at head of Justice Mill Lane, at junction with Holburn Street. Later concrete base with splayed corners supporting cylindrical shaft adorned with stylised foliage at base, and rising with reeded moulding in 4 places (suggesting plant stalks) and terminating in frieze of stylised flowers, crowned with arcaded ventilator head further adorned with stylised foliage and terminated by polygonal, finialled cap.   

“The ventilator marks the end of the remarkable cable subway running from here, under Crown Street, to the former Electricity Works and Tram Car Depot in Millburn and Crown Streets, to which it provided necessary ventilation. The Art Nouveau style employed for the fine Paris Metro station entrances (designed by Hector Guimard), perhaps inspired its use to demark this underground subway, similarly linked to transport.”

It is a beautiful piece indeed. In fact it is a work of art, albeit a functional one and was recently faithfully re-painted in the original and highly decorative Art Nouveau style by the late Ally Sim of Inverurie.

If you ask the average Aberdonian about it however, they will often shrug and simply say that is has always been there. If pressed further some will comment that it has something to do with ventilation.

A few will even go so far as to deny ever even noticing the structure which in a way is what good honest functional street furniture is really all about.

Source: Falkirk History: http://www.falkirklocalhistorysociety.co.uk/home/index.php?id=107

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Jul 122013

In part one of a feature on the terror caused in summer 1940, when Luftwaffe bombers unloaded their murderous payload on our streets and lanes, Duncan Harley offers his critique of the contemporary written media.

There was a time a few years ago when local newspapers reported on real news events. Not of course, the likes of that old hoary tale from 14 April 1912 when, four days into the crossing of the Atlantic and about 375 miles or 600 km south of Newfoundland, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. Marconi had a wireless set on board, but what can you expect from a man whose second marriage was witnessed by Benito Mussolini as best man?

The Titanic only carried enough lifeboats for 1178 people which, it seems, was slightly more than half of the number on board and a third of her total passenger capacity. The sinking caused 1502 deaths in one of the most fatal peacetime maritime disasters of modern times and led to the production of many books, films and tales of sacrifice.

The myth, which still haunts that local Aberdeen daily paper, is that when the steamship sank with such great loss of life, the headline for the day read something like, ‘RMS Titanic sinks with great loss of life, local Aberdeen man loses ten shillings in Broad Street incident’.

The coverage of events local and international leads me to think of the reports about the Zeppelin bombing of Old Rayne and Insch in 1916, the Great Moray Floods of 1829, the Turra Coo debacle of 1914, and of course the famous Fraserburgh harbour whale incident of more recent years.

We now have a divided press. On the one hand there are the good and great heavies like The Times, The Independent and The Guardian. The Daily Mirror, Sun and Sunday Post offer platitudes, of course, but mainly fail to deliver the news of the day. Then there are the locals. Some, such as the Hamilton Advertiser deliver local news and comment about murders and drug barons.

Others such as the Banffshire Advertiser carry a mix of local news and the adverts for local services. If you need a chimney sweep or a clock repairer, take a look. Good honest reportage from a local perspective.

This week’s Advertiser features Buckie Community Warden Andrew Mackie who has been at the forefront in challenging fly tipping in Findochty. Seemingly, the good folk of Findochty have been bothered by an elusive dumper with a penchant for ditching two or three black bags full of bottles of Albali Rose each week for a year or so. Following an expose by the local paper, the dumping has ceased and Andrew is quoted as saying_

“I’m delighted to report that since I highlighted this in the Advertiser, there have been no more problems. It just stopped dead.”

That’s the sort of news reporting which is well and good in a local context. Today’s Evening Express headline features a man who crashed his glider, with an inside page reflecting on something about Piper Alpha.

I have so far failed to check out the Press & Journal but no doubt it will have a front page devoted to something about a bypass or a very dead donkey.
In next Friday’s thrilling Aberdeen Voice episode we look at the events of July 12 1940 when news was news and the North East was under attack by Nazi invaders from Norway. No place was safe, as this image of bomb damage inflicted on gravestones in Aberdeen’s Trinity Cemetery shows.

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