Nov 212013

turra Coo duncan harley2One hundred years on, Duncan Harley examines the story of the Fite Coo.

Almost a hundred years ago Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act came into force. The legislation was intended to improve the lot of farm labourers, fisher folk and factory workers who were often employed for a contractual period of six months or less.

The Act of Parliament (The National Insurance Act 1913) provided for medical and unemployment benefits for workers and their families who were in need of state support through either ill health or lack of employment.

The tax received a mixed reception. Suspicion and prejudice against government interference fuelled discontent in many minds and the bare fact that both workers and employers were required to contribute hard cash caused many to consider direct action.

The Scottish Farm Servants’ Union welcomed the measure since it offered some improvement for those workers who simply became worn out and too ill to continue working and who would otherwise have to rely on the mercy and support of former employers.

Many Scottish farmers, however, remained unconvinced of the merits of state support for those in need.

Protest movements arose in various parts of Scotland and in a somewhat strange alliance for the times, the Liberal government of the time found itself in sympathy with the Marxists over the issue of both land reform and workers social security.

The farmers around the Aberdeenshire market town of Turriff in Aberdeenshire were particularly incensed, partly because of the now increased costs of employing farm labourers and also because many genuinely felt that they already took good care of the workforce upon which they relied.

There were riots, demonstrations and protests.

In the end a farmer by the name Robert Paterson of Lendrum near Turriff became the focus of Sheriff’s Officers when he refused to pay what he called the “unfair and unjust tax”. He had previously been convicted and fined in court for 20 such offences against the 1911 National Insurance Act and had paid the accumulated £15 fine, however he refused to pay the arrears of National Insurance.

the authorities reacted by seizing one of his milk cows

A Unionist by nature, he publicly stated that “because it was a service that farmers and farm labourer would rarely use” he would not pay the tax imposed by a Welsh led government. Lendrum to Leeks became the campaign slogan.

Paterson quickly became a cause célèbre in the North East and indeed beyond. Following court action for the unpaid debt to the National Insurance Fund, the authorities reacted by seizing one of his milk cows, intending to auction it to re-coup the debt he owed to the government for unpaid National Insurance Contributions.

Things got from bad to worse. There were further riots and much civil disobedience. The seized cow then became the cause célèbre and the press had a field day.

The immediate events following the seizing of the Turra Coo by Sherriff Officers are well known.

No local auctioneer could be found to sell the beast and the “Fite Coo”, now emblazoned with the painted slogan “Breath Bad – Gummy Leeks” as a reference to the Welsh born Lloyd George, seemingly ran off home to Lendrum where after a few days it was again seized by the authorities and taken by train to Aberdeen’s Denburn Auction Market where it was sold for seven pounds on 16th December 1913 to a Mr Alex Craig.

Mr Craig then sold the animal on to a Mr Davidson for £14 thus making a tidy profit on the deal.

turra Coo duncan harley4

Mr Davidson then transported the now famous cow back to Turriff where crowds of townsfolk and farm workers gathered to witness the event. The local pipe band played “See the Conquering Hero Comes” and the poor cow sported more painted slogans on her sides including “Free! Divn’t ye wish ye were me.”

The war to end all wars was looming. Indeed many of the participants in this sometimes hilarious series of events would soon be dead. Sacrificed on the battlefronts of the 1914-18 war.

The cow however survived and was returned to Lendrum Farm, where it died of bovine tuberculosis in 1920.

Depending on which account is read, it was either stuffed and displayed at Lendrum Farm for a while before being sent by train to Aberdeen’s Marischal College for display or simply buried in a field at Lendrum to remain undisturbed for many years until excavations for a new water supply uncovered her bones.

The myth of the Turra Coo perpetuates to this day however.

The West Aberdeenshire MP of the time, Mr J.M. Henderson MP, had a take on it. He toured the North East in the January of 1914 speaking to meetings of constituents who were mainly opposed to the idea of state care for the elderly and infirm.

At a meeting in Culsalmond he was heckled after saying that  farmers did not seem to grasp the idea that the Insurance Act was designed to provide for those workers who having attained the age of 50 and upwards who were unable to work due to illness or disability.

“Insurance follows the servant” said Henderson and he told the heckling audiences that although he knew that a good many masters were good to there servants the facts showed that farm workers rarely stayed in one position for long. The Insurance Act was he said, designed to combat this problem by providing a fundamental right to healthcare and assistance in times of financial hardship.

Not only Culsamond but Tarland, Turriff and indeed seemingly the entire Garioch seemed to agree that the Act of Parliament was both unfair and unnecessary.

Effigies of Lloyd George and the local MP WH Cowan were publicly burned in Inverurie town square.

a crowd of around 1500 packed Turriff’s main square

It does seem ironic nowadays that in many cases those workers whose interests the National Insurance Act was designed to protect were often the most vehement in their opposition.

Cynics of the time suggested that the workforce was being manipulated by the land owners and bullied or perhaps being encouraged into opposition. For example a crowd of around 1500 packed Turriff’s main square on the day of the proposed sale of Mr Paterson’s cow to meet the Insurance arrears due by him.

Many were local farmers and many more were farm workers who had been given a half day holiday at a time when the Scottish Farm Servants’ Union had been unsuccessfully campaigning for regular holidays for farm workers.

The more sympathetic amongst us would perhaps understand that the spectre of state interference in rural affairs loomed large in the minds of both employers and employees.

In a court judgement of the time, Sheriff Stewart of Banff convicted and fined two farmers from Gamrie and Fordyce following representations by the defendant’s legal representatives that they had been “misguided” and “stupid” in failing to pay to stamp the National Insurance cards of their employees.

In his summing up, the good Sheriff said that if there were further examples of resistance to the act of parliament then he would seriously consider whether the penalty should not be materially increased.

Strong sentiments indeed.

The Poetry Mannie – Bob Smith has a take on it.


A bronze statue o the Turra Coo
Noo staans proodly in the toon
Ti commemorate a gweed story
A’ve kent since a wis a loon

The fite coo fae Lendrum
Wis the celebrity o it’s day
Fin fairmer Robert Paterson
Thocht NI wisna fair play

Sheriff Geordie Keith set oot
Tae seize property as a fine
Bit the locals widna help him
An refused tae tae the line

The coo wis pit up fer auction
Fegs iss nearly caused a riot
Syne up steps Alexander Craig
As the bodie faa wid buy it

Noo iss is nae the eyn o the story
Fowk  an injustice they hid seen
A fair pucklie did rally roon
Wi fairmer Craig a deal wis deen

The coo wis noo back at Lendrum
Tae see oot the rest o her days
Nae doot neen the wiser o
The stooshie she did raise

At a junction in the bonnie toon
Iss a sculture o the beast
Faa brocht a fair bit o fame
Tae Turra an the haill north-east

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2013

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Sep 272013

We all love the web. Information undreamed of by our parents and grandparents is just a short search away. With just a few mouse clicks we can research the history of the transatlantic ice trade of the 1840s, the life and times of Field Marshall Edmund Ironside, and the reason why a chap by the name of Verner Sebisch lies buried in a Moray cemetery. Duncan Harley writes.

Roadsign Maggieknockater - Credit: Duncan Harley The web can advise us what our normal blood pressure should be, whether it would be wise to host a barbecue next Sunday, weatherwise; and, if we search hard enough, what the average person in Torry eats for lunch on a typical wet Tuesday.
Then of course there is Maggieknockater.

For those not in the know, Maggieknockater, or in the Scots Gaelic, Mathg an Fhucadair, is a village on the A95 between Craigellachie and Keith.

Well known in country dancing circles and part of the extensive lore of the Whisky Trail, it’s quite a mouthful.

When asked where they live, locals often tell the enquirer Craigellachie, or even Dufftown, rather than the truth. Seemingly if they say Maggieknockater, the enquirer often falls down laughing.

Folk in the North East villages of Glass, Lost, Jericho and Knock apparently have the same problem.

For those living in the village of Premnay just north of Inverurie, the situation is even more problematic since both the Ordnance Survey maps and the roadside signposts spell Premnay as Auchleven, meaning that no one can even find the place, never mind laugh at the residents!

If you check the web for the name Maggieknockater you are likely to find explanations ranging from ‘arable land on the forest’s lower slopes’ to ‘the fullers field’. However there is much more to the place than that. For a start, Mary Queen of Scots may have stayed at the nearby Gauldwell Castle during her tour of Scotland in 1561.

Mind you, she stayed at some seventy Scottish castle residences during her travels, so perhaps Maggieknockater requires a somewhat greater claim to fame to justify the long name.

The Maggieknockater school was of course closed in the 1960s and the local church was famously turned into a home in the early 1970s. What was once a smithy is now a garage but still in the hands of the MacLean family, which has lived there for quite a few generations.  Maggieknockater formerly had a post office which seemingly opened in June 1876 and closed in the mid-20th century.

Not much going for the place perhaps, unless you count the bees.

It seems that up until the late 1960s there was large apiary in the village.

Highland Dance -  Ccredit. Janice RayneIt was started by an Aberdonian by the name of George McLean who made heather honey on a grand scale and sold it far and wide.
Crate loads of the stuff went to Ireland and outlets all over the UK, but the best was sold at the roadside to passing motorists who saw the Maggieknockater Apiary as a welcome pit stop on the road to either Craigellachie or Keith.

George was in fact one of the most prominent beekeepers in Scotland.

A farmer, grocer and blacksmith, he was also the secretary of the North of Scotland Beekeepers’ Association for a time.

The man died some years ago at a very ripe old age but his legacy lives on in the Scottish country dance “The Bees of Maggieknockater”.

Internationally famous and a favourite of those in the know, it runs something like:

‘1- 8 1s cross RH and cast 1 place, dance RH across with 3s and end 1M+3L also 1L+3M in prom hold facing out to pass corner person RSh. 9-24 All dance 4x½ Reels of 3 on sides (to right to start, then left, right and left) with 1s+3s changing partners in centre at end of each ½ Reel to progress Men clockwise and Ladies anticlockwise. End in centre 1s facing down and 3s facing up. 25-32 1s dance between 3s turning 3s with nearer hand 1½ times, crossing over to own sides and turn 4th person 1½ times (Men RH and Ladies LH). 2341.’

It’s a fun dance indeed, which was devised by an Englishman by the name of John Drewry. The dance is a 32-step jig, requiring four couples to dance facing each other. Forres Country Dance is the usual tune used. Seemingly John, a computer programmer from Aberdeen, was inspired by the banks of beehives at Maggieknockater; although in fact he never took the time to stop and buy any of George’s honey!

John wrote some 300 Highland dances but perhaps this is his finest. While in Banff, Alberta in the 1980s, he witnessed a comedy sketch of the dance written to Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’. Sadly George McLean missed it by a few years, but he would probably have been proud of the spectacle.

As regards the web, Edmund Ironside was the man in charge of Britain’s coastal defences in 1940, Verner Sebisch was one of 4 crewmen who died when their Junkers ju 188 bomber crashed 5km northwest of Rothes in the midsummer of 1944, and the folk of Torry eat various things for lunch on a typical Tuesday.

As regards blood pressure? Make an appointment to discuss this with your GP, since you can never completely trust the web.

The Bees of Maggieknockater is a lovely Highland dance. Next time you are on the A95 between Craigellachie and Keith, take a wee minute to remember George and John, as you pass the village.

After all, they combined to make Maggieknockater internationally famous.

The Bees of Maggieknockater (Japanese version):
The Bees of Maggieknockater (Traditional version):
The Bees of Maggieknockater (Pudsey Bee version):

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Sep 132013

In 16th and 17th Century Scotland literally anyone could be accused of dealing with the devil and practising the black arts, relates Duncan Harley, one of Voice’s local history research wizards experts.

Witch Stone Forres - Credit: Duncan HarleyThese were times of great superstition backed up by the force of what now appears to be a cruel and brutal legal system which commonly used torture and trial by water and fire to determine the guilt or innocence of those unfortunates accused of consorting with the devil.

Taking her lead from a Europe-wide inquisition leading to the mass burning of heretics and those thought guilty of witchcraft, Mary Queen of Scots had officially banned witchcraft in Scotland in 1563.

Known as Mary’s Law, the Witchcraft Act of 1563 defined witchcraft as sorcery and described a witch as a person considered to have supernatural powers granted by Satan in exchange for the giving up of their soul.

Under Mary’s Law, both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences.

Although repealed in 1735, by which time the House of Lords considered the crime of witchcraft to be ‘an impossible offence’, witchcraft was an offence which, in fact, remained on the UK statute books in various forms until 1951.

Historians’ estimates of the numbers of people executed in Scotland between 1563 and 1735 vary widely, but the numbers are likely to be in the tens of thousands and most towns and cities have both tales and historic sites related to this period of terror.

In Keith, there is the notorious Gaun’s Pot, a pool just under the present A96-bearing Union Bridge, where alleged witches were once drowned. Forres has the Witches’ Stone where according to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, ‘from Cluny Hill witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrels stopped they were burned with their mangled contents.’

It may be no accident that in Macbeth, Shakespeare placed his three witches on a heath near Forres!

It wasn’t just the ordinary mortal who could be accused of doing the devil’s work in the 17th century, however, as the tale of Robert Gordon illustrates.

Better known as the Wizard of Gordonstoun, Sir Robert Gordon, the 3rd Baronet of Gordonstoun, was born in 1647 and lived out his 57 years during a highly-superstitious and God-fearing period in Scottish history. Educated in Italy where he studied chemistry and mechanics, he had somehow acquired the reputation of being a wizard. It was said he ‘gave himself away’ to gain more knowledge.

Image Credit: Duncan Harley

Sir Robert Gordon

Some said he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for thirty years of life and the understanding of science. An inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray perhaps?

The rumours followed him home to Gordonstoun, where he was seen to conduct scientific experiments in a round house connected to the sea caves at Covesea beach via a secret tunnel. Seemingly, he supped with the Devil and danced with naked women.

He was said to have no shadow and was rumoured to have learned the mysteries of necromancy during his residence at the University of Padau in Italy.

Many other rumours circulated and Robert’s reputation was perhaps not enhanced when it emerged that he had slow-cooked a salamander over the course of seven years to persuade it to reveal scientific secrets.

Fortunately for Sir Robert, his great wealth and not a few lofty connections meant that those who would have tried him for wizardry, or indeed witchcraft, were powerless to act against him. In the light of history he was probably just a rather eccentric but dedicated scientist who lived in a highly superstitious age.

One of Sir Robert’s significant achievements was the design of a ‘better sea pump’ for the British Navy. Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Navy during 1687, obtained a warrant from King James II to pay Sir Robert £318 in recompense for the new and improved pump design, which was, according to Pepys, ‘beyond what has ever been achieved by the present ordinary chain pump.’ Praise indeed.

The last convicted witch in Scotland, an unfortunate lady by the name of Janet Horne, was burned at the stake in Dornoch in 1722. The last successful trials under what had become The Fraudulent Mediums Act were heard in 1944 when two separate cases involving mediums were brought to court resulting in the convictions of Jane Rebecca York and Helen Duncan.

72 year old Ms York was fortunate in being punished by a fine amounting merely to five pounds after being convicted of falsely claiming that her spirit guide, a Zulu warrior known as Guide Spirit Zulu, could contact the dead.

The slightly more unfortunate Ms Duncan received a nine month prison sentence following her quite-detailed revelations about a highly-censored and extremely secret report about the wartime sinking of the battleship HMS Barham off Dakar in 1941, in which a great loss of life was sustained. Seemingly the authorities chose to view her powers as a medium as a threat to national security during the run up to the invasion of Europe.

Whatever the truth about mediums, warlocks and witches, Sir Robert Gordon was probably not in league with the devil. He probably did cast a shadow and was almost certainly endowed with scientific knowledge far advanced for the times he lived in.

He did invent a better sea pump for the Navy after all.

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May 312013

This has nothing to do with Derek McInnes keeping secret a raft of new players destined to bring the Dons trophies next season. Rather, it’s “a fascinating look at the history of the Granite City”, according to Black and White Publishing, learns David Innes.

“From Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, folklorist, educator, storyteller and founder of Hidden Aberdeen Tours, comes a book that will open your eyes to the hidden, the forgotten and the abandoned remnants of the past which lie under your feet as you walk round the city today.”

Our review copy is being digested by one of the Voice team, who almost qualifies as a forgotten and abandoned remnant of the past, and that review will appear in Voice very soon.

You can get your own copy and meet the author at the same time, as she’ll be greeting the public and signing copies of Hidden Aberdeen at WH Smith, St Nicholas Centre on Saturday 8 June and at Waterstones, Union Bridge on Tuesday 18 June.

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