May 152020

With thanks to Alec Westwood.

A new series exploring true stories from Aberdeen’s mysterious and murky past has been launched.
Delivered as a podcast, ‘Darkside Of The Deen’ is presented by Aberdonian actor Alec Westwood.

Following on from playing Sgt Howie in the audio drama sequel to The Wickerman, Alec set up a home studio and began working remotely with writers and producers Richard Skinner (Turriff) and Cliff Hughes (Peterhead).

Known for his role Folly the Jester in cult childrens’ TV show Knightmare, Davy Reins in the BBC’s Roughnecks and portraying Robert Louis Stevenson on Radio 4’s Great Lives,  Alec also enlisted help from a number of fellow local actors and musician/Inverurie Postmaster, Rory Will to bring dark stories from Aberdeen’s past to life.

In the show Alec presents a different true story from the shadier parts of Aberdeen’s history in each new episode, from bubonic plague, to bodysnatching, all the way to more recent, intriguing, true crimes.

The first episode (available now) recounts the time in 1964 when the city was hit by the biggest typhoid outbreak in modern day history.

He investigates the causes of the outbreak, the effect it had on local individuals and the lessons learned that are relevant more than ever during the current Covid-19 crisis.

There will also be special episodes that will bring strange stories from further afield in Scotland, such as the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the remote island of Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides during the festive period of 1900 – an event which inspired the 2019 Gerard Butler film The Vanishing.

Alec is enthusiastic to bring interesting stories from Aberdeen’s past to a global audience via Darkside Of The Deen.

Episode one ‘The Summer of 64’ is available now on Acast, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube.

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Jun 102014

Following on from Duncan Harley’s two part article marking the 50th Anniversary of the typhoid epidemic in Aberdeen, Sandra McKay shares with Aberdeen Voice readers her childhood memories of 1964 when she and her mother survived the disease.

1024px-Typhoid_inoculation2I remember standing holding my daddy’s hand, my sister on the other side of him as we watched the ambulance disappear down to the end of our road.
I was six years old and this was the day my mummy was taken into hospital with typhoid.

I thought I would never see her again.

Everyone was talking about it. The Typhoid. Neighbours in the street, people in shops, bus conductors, even children.

Newspapers and television were advising the nation how many more people in Aberdeen had fallen victim to the disease. Families were cancelling holidays. Other towns and cities were urging Aberdonians not to visit.

Our lives over the following weeks seemed empty without our mum.

She had apparently bought cold meat from a shop in Union Street called Lows. My sister did not eat any, as she had been attending a friend’s birthday party. Mum, Dad, and myself ate the meat.

We visited my mummy at the City Hospital in Aberdeen. This was a bleak experience. We had to speak to her through huge closed windows. I found it sad as I watched other families trying to converse with their loved ones in the same way.

The long days continued to pass. I too became very unwell. Mummy was still gone. Daddy was at home looking after us. Schools were off. There seemed to be numerous doctor’s visits and lots of samples were taken.

Eventually I was taken into hospital. I do not remember anything about getting there. All I remember was looking up at lights and screens at night. The first few days must have passed in a blur as I have no memory of this time. However, as I became a little stronger I was allowed to get up and dress. Unfortunately I was given boy’s clothes to wear. This was a less than positive experience for a six-year-old girl.

How time dragged. I can still remember the layout of the ward. Where the clock was, where the ‘clothes choosing’ and dressing area was, how the windows were allowed to open, and more importantly how they had to remain tightly closed. Lockers and beds were dragged into the centre of the ward every morning at cleaning time, 10 a.m.

This movement was exciting to watch. I remember the medicine trolley with the thick brown stuff, and the milky white stuff.  Both were really horrible.

There is no memory of anyone coming in to play with us and time seemed to go on for ever

I remember our family coming to visit me every day. My mummy was with them as she had been given the ‘all clear’ after a stay in hospital of four weeks. I hadn’t been close to her for such a long time. The emotion was difficult for everyone. One day they brought my friend Susan down to visit me.

I can still remember that feeling, tears in our eyes, as young six-year-olds tried in such a grown up way, to deal with the ‘situation’ and the impossible task of interacting through granite walls and huge closed windows. It was easier when everyone just went away.

More long days and weeks passed. I did lots of colouring-in and received lots of crayons and books. I was also given by an older girl in the ward, who was given the ‘all clear’ ahead of my time, two little dollies with a few pieces of clothing. These dollies became really precious to me. Another memory I have of isolation at Ward 2 was the number of ice lollies we were given. Something to do with the fever I think.

There is no memory of anyone coming in to play with us and time seemed to go on for ever. I remember watching the jerky movement of the big minute hand on the ward clock as time passed by. I remember looking through colouring books for a page that wasn’t coloured in.  I remember changing the dollies for the millionth time. I remember not liking the food or the food smells.

Eventually the day came, when I was informed of my ‘all clear’. I was going home. Someone in authority assured me that the little dollies would be fumigated and sent to me with other belongings. This seemed OK with me.

On the day of my release from hospital, the weather was very warm. At my request our family visited the Beach park with the concrete train and rail track. We also spent time at the pony and trap rides which were at Aberdeen Beach during the sixties. I felt very peculiar, as if I didn’t fit in. I just wanted to get home to see if the dollies had arrived.

Unfortunately they never came.

Sandra McKay (Aged six, letter written aged 41, now aged 56)

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Sep 132013

I spent a day in Elgin this week researching the news from 1964 at the town’s local history resource centre, reports Duncan Harley. Quite a gem. Full of information from the present day to goodness knows when in the past. Run by enthusiastic and helpful staff, it is a Scottish national treasure!

Elgin Gordon - Credit: Duncan HarleyElgin is a grand town full of rich history. William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw went to speak there in the 1930s, in an inspired effort to recruit for the Blackshirts.

The sensible folk of the town heckled him, but he chose to tell the assembled crowd of around seventeen that he appreciated their support and knew that they were for his cause. He was, of course, later hanged for treason despite being an Irish-American.

Elgin also has a ruined cathedral and some very fine statuary, including a monument on the hill just west of the town centre, comprising a Doric column topped by a statue which might just be mistaken for a second Nelson’s Column.

Nothing could be further from the truth however. It is in fact a monument to one George Gordon, who in 1794 raised the famous Gordon Highlanders.

The Gordon regiment joined an army under the command of General Moore in the Netherlands campaign, and fought at the Battle of Bergen in 1799 in which Gordon was severely wounded. He was presented with the Grand Cross of the Bath in 1820.

In 1964 there was, of course, the grand opening of the Forth Road Bridge by the Queen and the death of, thankfully, a very few unfortunate folk in the NE from typhoid, so in general life went on.

Hand Washing. Credit Duncan HarleyMany were surprised that after the event – that is the typhoid epidemic, not the opening of that road bridge – when Michael Noble MP and then Secretary of State for Scotland, chose to set aside funds to allow local authorities in Scotland to provide ‘hand washing facilities in public lavatories’.

Vivian Stanshall famously drew attention to the issue on an early 1970s John Peel Show when, in an episode of Rawlinson’s End, he wrote a script which read in part,

FLORIE: Perhaps you’d care to wash your hands?

OLD SCROTUM: Arr, no thank’ee ma’am, I already did that up against a tree afore I came in ‘ere.

Stanshall was found dead on 6 March 1995, after a fire broke out at his Muswell Hill flat. In 2001 Jeremy Pascall and Stephen Fry produced a documentary about him for BBC Radio Four.

Some typhoid facts –

  • A few weeks after the end of the typhoid epidemic, Elgin hosted the Annual Congress of the Royal Sanitary Association
  • During the typhoid epidemic, many NE caravan sites refused to take bookings from folk from Aberdeen
  • Grantown Town Council banned Aberdonians from the locality
  • In 1964 you could have purchased a nice black and white TV for less than £25
  • Corned beef can still be found on supermarket shelves throughout the NE
  • The Elgin Marbles have very little to do with Elgin

Vivian’s full sketch can be read at:

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Sep 082013

2014 will be the 50th anniversary of the then-terrifying outbreak of typhoid in Aberdeen, once commemorated by the scallywags of Scotland the What, ‘I can mind the typhoid epidemic at its worst, we never washed wir hands unless we did the lavvie first’. Duncan Harley muses on food hygiene then and now.

Food. Credit: Duncan Harley

Sadly, three patients being treated in Aberdeen’s City Hospital died, but it could have been much worse indeed had the authorities been slower to act.

There have been several such public health epidemics since 1964 but the 1996 Lanarkshire E. coli O157 food poisoning outbreak must rank as being among the most devastating, both in terms of deaths and of the failure of those charged with keeping our food supplies safe.

A total of twenty-one people died in the 1996 E. coli outbreak after eating contaminated meat supplied by a butcher’s shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire. In 1998, Sheriff Principal Graham Cox concluded after a two-month inquiry that the shopkeeper, John Barr, had been ignorant of food hygiene procedures and had also deceived food inspectors.

Sheriff Cox also severely criticised the Environmental Health service as acting too slowly in linking the outbreak to Mr Barr’s shop.

Both the Aberdeen and Lanarkshire E. coli cases were, of course, public relations disasters for the businesses concerned. John Barr’s shop was closed for three months but it did reopen at the end of February 1997 after remedial work had been carried out. However, the shop closed again in April 1998 when the building began to collapse because of old mine workings.

The source of the Aberdeen typhoid epidemic was a Granite City supermarket which unwittingly sold on contaminated supplies of corned beef imported from a cannery in Rosaria in the Argentine. The shop closed for good in the light of the episode and a good few folk breathed a sigh of relief.

Dr Ian MacQueen’s use of the words ‘leper colony’ may have been particularly unfortunate

The economic effects on Wishaw are difficult to calculate. It was not a tourist Mecca nor was it endowed with copious volumes of North Sea oil. On the other hand, over a decade before the oil started coming ashore, Aberdeen suffered great economic hardship in the years following the 1964 epidemic.

Hotels and restaurants were perhaps the worst affected and the area Tourist Board’s attempts to encourage folk back to the Granite City were not helped by the proclamation of the then Medical Officer of Health, Dr MacQueen, “we’re not a leper colony!” His subsequent advice to Aberdonians and holidaymakers alike to avoid swimming or paddling in the sea led to a local paper headlining on ‘Beach Bombshell’ and pretty effectively killed off any short term prospect of the return of the lucrative ‘Glasgow holiday trade’ to the beach seafront area.

Dr Ian MacQueen’s use of the words ‘leper colony’ may have been particularly unfortunate though. Perhaps lacking an in-house spin doctor, he may have imagined that the proclamation would have had a more positive effect. After all, the epidemic had more or less been contained and, from a health perspective, the battle was all but won.

The word leper however, then as now, is closely associated with grotesque suffering and disfiguration leading to the shunning of sufferers and their treatment as outcasts.

Leprosy is an infectious disease causing severe disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs. The disease has been around since ancient times and is often associated with some quite terrifying negative stigmas. Outbreaks of leprosy have affected and panicked people on every continent.

St Fitticks Torry Leper 2 Duncan Harley

St Fitticks Church on Nigg Kirk Road reputedly features a leper’s window

The oldest civilisations of China, Egypt and India feared leprosy as an incurable, mutilating and contagious disease. According to recent World Health Organization estimates, around 180000 people worldwide are currently infected with leprosy.

Even today, over 200 people are diagnosed with leprosy in the US every year, mostly in California and Hawaii. There was even a recorded case in Eire a few years ago.

Leprosy died out in Scotland several hundred years ago although there are a few sites in Aberdeen associated closely with the disease. The Grampian Fire and Rescue Service headquarters, for example, was constructed on the site of an old Leper House just off Kings Crescent. Bede House in Old Aberdeen also has associations with leprosy and may be situated on the site of a lepers’ hospital.

St Fitticks Church on Nigg Kirk Road reputedly features a leper’s window although this is now in some dispute since the disease may well have died out in the area well before the small opening in the northern wall was formed.

St Fittick was of Scottish or Irish descent. He may have been a son of the Dalriadan King Eugene IV and might have been brought up on Iona. Equally, he may have been born into a noble Irish family. What is certain though, is that as a young man he lived in France.

Scottish tradition suggests he was sent by the Bishop of Meaux to deliver Christianity to the Picts in the North of Scotland. He was seemingly swept from his ship during a storm and washed ashore at Nigg Bay, where he refreshed himself from a well which took his name and caused the church to be built. Some accounts relate that he was thrown overboard by the crew of the ship who feared that he was unlucky.

The truth may never be known.

What is known is that St Fittick became the patron saint of gardeners, having performed a miracle in instantly clearing a large area of forest for cultivation.

St Fitticks Church, Torry. Credit: Duncan Harley

St Fitticks Church, Torry, Aberdeen.

He is also, seemingly, the patron saint of Parisian taxi drivers, which is hard to explain unless you are a Parisian taxi driver.

St Fittick’s Day is usually celebrated on 30 August in the UK and a day later in Ireland.

As well as having a long and fascinating religious and social history, St Fittick’s Church in Nigg is also where William Wallace, or at least the relic of the man which was sent to this corner of Scotland, is said to be buried.

But, back to the events of 1964.

We frequently hear complaints from restaurateurs and publicans about the strict food hygiene rules and the cost of training staff to adhere to the standards required by Environmental Health Inspectors.

It is most unlikely that food inspection or hygiene courses will cause either E. coli or leprosy, but they may prevent us getting sick. If Dr MacQueen had been more astute in the PR department in 1964, then perhaps Aberdeen would now be the tourist destination of choice for the cognoscenti of Europe instead of the Oil Capital of Europe.

Described by a colleague as ‘a bulldog with the hide of a rhinoceros’ Dr MacQueen’s strategy of innovative traditionalism has been seen by some as an attempt to protect and extend his department’s services. He was deemed to have made excessive use of the media and to have turned the outbreak into an event approaching a national crisis.

Compared to the human cost of the Lanarkshire E. coli outbreak, Aberdeen’s typhoid epidemic pales into insignificance, except that we all remember it.

The legacy of Dr MacQueen lives on, even after fifty years.

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