Saturday, 15 December 2012

More on 2012 anniversaries: 3. The British state versus anti-nuclear demonstrators in 1962

The OSA (Official Secrets Act) Trial of 1962: Some gleanings from the files
The British state had secured convictions on a charge of conspiracy against four Committee of 100 activists, for organising a demonstration at Wethersfield airbase. Sentences of imprisonment were handed down after a much publicised, patently politically motivated and blatantly unfair ‘show trial with the Attorney-General leading for the prosecution.’.  Reference: ‘The road to Wormwood Scrubs’, chapter 1 in Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why, Sphere Books, 1990, pp. 1-18. See also Peter Hain, Political Trials in Britain. Penguin 1985.
National Archives:  HO 291/63  Inadequacy or severity of sentences: Nuclear demonstrators.  [When accessed, this turned out to be a collection of 4 files bound together, under the one reference number]
[Notes from top file as above; the others related to earlier demos and arrests. Comments are those of the file, except when in square brackets]: -

Early Day Motion re. prerogative of mercy, Shinwell et al., 53 signatories. Leader of House declined to find time. Representations from Mrs Joyce Butler re. Helen Allegranza: no grounds for intervention found; no trouble since then as far as this prisoner is concerned.
28-6-62  Recent disturbances outside US air base at Greenham Common.  If prisoners were willing to abstain from illegal action in future, might be right to consider clemency, but no indication that this is the case; question of treatment in prison being pursued separately. House of Lords: Judges unanimous that offence had been proved. A number emphasised sincere motives of prisoners. No fresh grounds on which interference could properly be recommended.
1-7-62  Deputation. Shinwell, Greenwood, Brockway, Butler, Hart. Sir Charles Cunningham,
17/7: Clearly wrong that they should be treated differently; to do so would lend colour to claim that they are in prison for political reasons and form a special category; 4 [2?] of the men already in open prison on application of ordinary rules; Randle and Allegranza are difficult prisoners and it looks as though they would not behave themselves in open conditions.
Times 13-7-62, Law Report for 12/7: "Unconstitutional doctrine" (Devlin) put forward by Attorney General that once it was proved intention was to interfere with a prohibited place Judge should be entitled to direct jury to return Guilty verdict. Question whether nuclear weapons are in country's interests dependent on an infinity of considerations.

4-7-62 Note of Deputations. They referred once more to the "hunger strike" of Mrs Allegranza. 
28/6 Briefing: In early May, Mrs Allegranza was "fasting" as a protest against the resumption by the US govt of nuclear tests and also withdrew her labour; awarded certain punishments by Governor and later by Visiting Cmte.; ended fast on 9th May, no further trouble. [See below]
Re. Greenham Common, interesting note (Times) that C100 had given pledge no attempt would be made to enter base, which may suggest that the "OSA trial" has had salutary effect. Fines, temp courtroom in Newbury; 196 arrests, 4 remanded in custody inc 18-year-old girl who would not give name; 1 Not Guilty; fines £2-£5 + costs / 3gns. [= £3.15p] for obstruction.  If this is raised, offences are not comparable. Trafalgar Sq. meeting planned for 7/7 re demo outside Air ministry on 9/9: to organise breaches of law, so cannot be allowed.  ["Raymond" Chandler on draft, uncorrected]. 

Press reports {on same file]: Guardian, Times.  13/2-21/2: Purpose of action; solidarity, self incrimination (Russell, Redgrave) witnesses Pauling, Watson-Watt, Dr J F King; Air Commodore. Wethersfield demonstrators planning to give themselves up to police on guilty verdict.

PCOM 9/2208 ALLEGRANZA, Helen: member of the `Committee of 100'; at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 30 January 1962 convicted of conspiracy to commit breach of Official Secrets Act; sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment; died [whilst in after] confinement.  1962-1963
This file reveals the treatment in prison of the only female defendant, and her repeated clashes with the authorities, as well as detailing unsuccessful appeals made on her behalf. Knowledge of the level of support may not have been clear to her as letters to her were withheld  The description (when last seen) incorrectly states that she died in custody; in fact she committed suicide not long after her release.
Scan of covers of a contemporary pamphlet:

See also chapter in Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley's Lover to Howard Marks - by Thomas Grant (John Murray, 2015; 2016 pbk.)

Monday, 3 December 2012

More on 2012 anniversaries: 2. BW sea trials 1952 (and after)

Britain as WMD pioneer in the 1950s: The Hebridean connection
After the Second World War, five series of experiments with animals at sea were undertaken as part of the British biological weapons (BW) research programme:
·Operation Harness [a pilot scheme] in Caribbean waters off Antigua, Bahamas, 1948-49
·Operation Cauldron in Scottish waters near Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 1952
·Operation Hesperus (same location as Cauldron), 1953
·Operation Ozone in Caribbean waters off Nassau, Bahamas, 1954
·Operation Negation (same location as Ozone), 1954-55.
At the end of 'Operation Cauldron' a fishing trawler, the Carella, passed through the danger area while the plague organism was being tested, and was kept under covert observation while returning to Fleetwood and then proceeding to the Icelandic fishing grounds, until the incubation period was over. Ministers met to discuss action, and briefings were prepared for the PM. A Naval Medical Officer was on stand-by to render medical assistance; help was not to be sought in any foreign port. The Admiralty kept only one complete file on the 'incident'; all other records were to be destroyed by fire.
The ‘Cauldron’ experiments took place in a bay - on the side of the island nearest the mainland, not way out in the Atlantic - where the deadly germ cloud was released from a specially adapted warship, HMS 'Ben Lomond'. On 15th September 1952, the captain saw the 'Carella' rounding the headland to the north at 19.01 hours. Thinking that the fifteen minutes before anything dangerous could reach it was ample time to get the trawler to change course, he went ahead with the order to begin the test at 19.02. The cloud soon wafted towards its destined target, a pontoon-load of caged monkeys and guinea-pigs - and towards the 'Carella', which did not change course despite frantic signalling from the 'Ben Lomond'.
When news of the incident reached Whitehall, the masterminds of the biological weapons programme realised they had a problem. If anyone on the trawler had become infected with plague there was potential not only for a public health disaster but for a damaging breach of security. The contamination of Gruinard Island with anthrax 10 years before had been only a beginning. These top secret trials were now part of Cold War weapons development.
The authorities were certainly not going to tell the boat's crew of the threat hanging over them and advise them accordingly, since a medically appropriate response would reveal that what was being looked for was plague, with all its terrifying associations. Initially the line was that the "incident should be ignored and nothing said or done about it". The Minister of Supply who had oversight of the administrative side disclaimed any responsibility - "beyond that of having manufactured and released the bacteria".
Meanwhile, the 'Carella' returned to Fleetwood on schedule on the morning of 17th September, and thence to Icelandic fishing grounds, with the crew unaware that they were being watched all the way. In response to discreet enquiries the owners  agreed to keep the Admiralty informed about its movements, and details of the crew were elicited on the pretext of concern that they might have seen "some secret material or weapons". A Warning Notice to Fishermen posted at Stornoway harbour in June had described the prohibited danger area to be used for "special trials…  from time to time" over the summer, so that something hush-hush was known to be going on there.
HMS 'Zambesi' was instructed to be ready to give medical aid if required and to prevent the 'Carella' from entering an Icelandic or other foreign port should any disease develop. A few days later the fishery protection vessel HMS 'Truelove', was detailed to stay within 50 miles of the Carella's estimated position on the way back and keep a watch on her signals. The Naval Medical Officer (MO) should be in a position to render assistance but must at all costs avoid any occasion to call at any foreign port for urgent medical reasons. The end of the danger period for possible infection was agreed with the Ministry of Health as 19.00 on Monday 6th October, three weeks to the minute from release of the germs. If there were no reports of illness on board before then, no further action need be taken and all precautions would be stood down. Evidently this was what happened.
Orders went out ten days after the incident was officially over decreeing that all copies of the signals to HMS 'Ben Lomond', HMS 'Zambesi', and HMS 'Truelove' were to be burnt, and certificates of destruction by fire returned for all the written evidence, including War Registry copies. Only one complete record of the affair was to be kept, in a 1953 Admiralty file (eventually declassified as number ADM 1/26857 in the Public Record Office/ National Archives).
The Captain of the 'Ben Lomond' was considered by their Admiralty Lordships to have made an "error of judgment" in ordering release of the toxic agent before making sure that the trawler would not pass through the danger zone. An fogivable error, though, keenness overcoming judgment - like, as someone understandingly put it, "trying to get off the last shoot at the end of the day with the glass falling".
So the scientists and their political masters had got away with it and were all set to proceed with the next series of BW trials, Operation Hesperus, in the same location in the summer of 1953. This time the Scientific Trials Officer would conduct proceedings from a control hut to be built on a pontoon, which was to be moored further to seaward for a clear view to the north. Again no breach of security was reported: locals showed "the same lack of interest" as in 1952, and HMS 'Ben Lomond' - now with a different Captain - had allegedly become a "not unpopular feature of the North Hebridean landscape". On two occasions small freighters, believed to be Icelandic, crossed the trials area when danger signals were showing, and as no trial was actually in progress they were allowed to proceed.
The next year the trials moved to the Bahamas, where an initial test-run of the method had taken place in 1948-49. A changing political climate, and the enormous cost, brought the end of the sea trials programme in the mid1950s. Official scientific and naval reports on them generally voiced satisfaction, but MPs and doctors were among those who spoke out against BW weapons development. The phrase 'weapons of mass destruction' was current in the wake of allegations about the US deploying BW in Korea.
Forty years later, in a written reply to Parliamentary Question 20, 19th January 1994, the chief executive of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (yes, Porton Down as usual) gave a list of "trials into the dissemination of agent aerosols at sea" including: "Operation CAULDRON in Scottish waters off Stornaway [sic] in the Isles [sic] of Lewis in May-December [sic] 1952 which established that several pathogens could constitute a hazard if used as BW agents [and] Operation HESPERUS in Scottish waters in May-August 1953 which aimed to consolidate data and compare several dissemination and collection methods." Thus Operations Cauldron and Hesperus were written into the official record - even if blandly, sketchily, decades late, and with imperfect accuracy. The 'Carella' cover-up was almost entirely successful for rather longer.
Subsequent publicity about them was sparse and sporadic: an MP's question in 1979; a front-page article in The Observer on 21-7-85, "Germ Bomb Sprayed Trawler"; a mention in A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Gas and Germ Warfare (by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, first edition 1982). PQs in the mid-1990s brought a little more information as noted, then, after declassification of the relevant file, Operation Cauldron received extended treatment in the (Scottish) Sunday Herald in March 2003 and the Carella incident was described in the West Highland Free Press in April 2003. More detailed accounts appeared shortly thereafter in a couple of academic journals (see below) which in turn fed into significant though short-lived publicity in other media.
. __________________
The tests tok place off the north-east coast of the island, between Stornoway and the Butt of Lewis.
Adapted from: ‘Plague tests were carried out by Ministry of Defence off Lewis’, West Highland Free Press 4 April 2003, p.10. <>, and from a seminar paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research (London Socialist Historians Group}, October 6th 2003.
More on the sea trials:  E. A. Willis, 'Seascape with monkeys and guinea-pigs: Britain's biological weapons research programme, 1948-54', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.19, No.4, 2003, pp.285-302. Author's pdf copy here.
More on the Carella incident:  Brian Balmer. How does an accident become an experiment? Secret science and the exposure of the public to biological warfare agents. Science and Culture, Vol.13, No.2, 2004, pp.197-228.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Before 2013. More on 2012 anniversaries: 1. Gruinard 1942

Experiments carried out in 1942 and 1943 by British government scientists on Gruinard, a.k.a. ‘Anthrax’ Island made the place officially unfit for human or animal habitation for decades.
What was done?
Official files reveal how the first series of trials began in July 1942 to explore the feasibility of producing lethal effects from an airborne cloud laden with anthrax spores. It was shown to have "enormous potentialities", with "effects on animals of an order of magnitude quite different" from either high explosives or chemical agents.  "Most Secret" veterinary report told how the sheep were bought in Inverness, and gave the gruesome post mortem findings. All the animals were destroyed whether or not the spores had got them (as is the norm in animal experimentation), the carcases covered in earth (peat in sandbags), and "the whole finally [supposedly] obliterated by rock blast".
The second series in September 1942 aimed to confirm the results of the first, obtain further information, and test the same anthrax bomb in conditions approximating to operational use. Trials one and two were considered very satisfactory from all aspects. In Trial three the bomb fell in a very boggy patch, making a three-foot crater, and no animal died. Trial four - an anti-tank project - was satisfactory, establishing a prima facie case for the use of anthrax in anti-personnel munitions.
To ensure that all deaths were due to inhalation of spores from anthrax, the sheep were not just tethered but fixed in special crates to limit head movements. The spores were thought to provide perhaps an ideal "war gas" in a cloud scarcely visible and probably odourless, of a toxicity which far exceeded that of any "pure" chemical agent so far discussed. Scientific and service personnel were thanked for participating with enthusiasm in these difficult and dangerous trials, and locally-based helpers acknowledged.
A third series of tests was conducted in July to September 1943 using four-pound aircraft bombs. Experimental staff were deemed to be at no great risk, although they needed protective clothing. When participants returning from the south of the contaminated area waded through a stream of surface water supplying washing tanks, it was thought it might be "inadvisable" to use this water for washing face, neck and hands.
Who was responsible?
A team had come from Porton Down in Wiltshire.  At the end of September 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had approved a proposal for an expert committee to discuss the possibilities of infection being transmitted by various forms of micro-organisms through the air. The House of Common's Defence Committee sanctioned "appropriate measures to enable retaliation (if the need should arise, i.e. after first use by the enemy) without undue delay". And, as Paul Fildes, who headed the team, observed in his report of Series three of the trials, "experiments of this sort can only be carried out in remote places". Of course it doesn’t seem so remote if you happen to live there.
What about the locals?
Unofficial reports leaked out of an outbreak of anthrax on the mainland in 1943, thought to be from one infected carcase that had been hurled too far out by the disposal blast.
News of a number of inexplicably dead animals was communicated by the Divisional Inspector for Animal Health on 28 February 1943. The death of a heifer a week previously had been reported to the police as suspected anthrax; the background was the washing up of a carcase of a breed and origin unknown locally in an inlet off Gruinard Bay in September 1942. Local enquiries  elicited suggestions about experiments of great secrecy involving poison gas dropped from aeroplanes. One soldier left at the house occupied by the Porton personnel on the mainland confirmed that experiments of some nature had been going on, “in the notion of killing [the enemy] quickly”. A Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) Area Inspector sent to investigate confirmed that at least three sheep had been washed up the previous September, although two had gone back out to sea.
A cover story would be needed if there was to be an official response to the compensation claim lodged by the dead heifer’s owner. A Mr Fish, who described himself as a security officer, had the bright idea of ascribing the anthrax’s origin to one sheep, which it was to be said had been traced to a Greek ship. The utmost secrecy as to the actual source of the sheep was essential, Fish explained, to prevent news of the Gruinard experiments reaching Germany. Fildes approved this “ingenious solution”, by which the payment of compensation would be presented as a charge on the Greek government, to be settled between the two allies after the war. This fishy  story was said to have gone down with the natives as well as could be expected.
The possibility of recurring outbreaks was a difficulty. Alfred Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, was against further payments in the event of more animal deaths. He thought the Greek ship story feasible, but the Treasury rejected it, although they could suggest no alternative other than to pay up and shut up about why. A conference extending to include Foreign Office and Scottish Office participation granted that crofters had suffered, for them, considerable loss. After discussion it was settled that officials would accept the view that the trouble was in some way related to war conditions, and that it was made on account of the death of farm animals. They would continue to monitor the situation.
In September 1943 anthrax was found again, confirmed in another dead heifer. No clue to the origin of the infection could be found other than the ‘centre’ at Gruinard. A letter went out on 10 July 1944 stating that no compensation was being offered, but payment was being made with reference to the death of the animal. An envelope in the file contains a certificate of infection with anthrax.
In June 1945 Fildes admitted that Gruinard Island was very heavily infected, and would not be fit to restore for normal purposes for a very long time, at least 30 years. MAF was to be consulted on any necessary action to prevent it being “a menace to the mainland”.  Fildes in fact abdicated responsibility. It was all very difficult, he wrote on 22 May 1945, and he himself hoped to be out of the subject in a few weeks, except perhaps advising - not to much purpose since he declared “I must say I have no idea how to clean the island up”. It was purchased by the Ministry of Supply in 1947.
In April 1962 the Member of Parliament for Ross and Cromarty was prompted by some of his constituents to pursue the matter of the island. Three years previously he had been sent a letter stating the place was still unfit for human habitation. Certain areas of soil contained organisms dangerous to man and beast, and this hazard was thought likely to persist. An MRE (Microbiological Research Establishment, i.e. from Porton) inspection party visited each year to take samples.
"When safe again" the island would be offered to the former owner. It was likely, though, to remain contaminated for the foreseeable future, was dangerous, and should not be approached. In 1963 people wanted to know what progress had been made, and the media were on the case; the MP had suggested decontamination, until convinced by the authorities that it was not possible. A press release was prepared for that year's inspection, admitting for the first time the nature of the contamination, giving the official line on how and why it occurred, and the need for the annual check.
As a civil servant explained to the Minister concerned, they had hitherto always refused to disclose details as not being in the public interest. Indeed, a former Under Secretary of State had banned use of the word bacteriological "unless cornered". But this was no longer enough. There were rumours, for example, about radioactivity, and incidents of trespass or inadvertent landings, and efforts to maintain secrecy had become an embarrassment. To stop the rot, on 1st August 1963 it was decided that the "Secret" classification for Gruinard files could be abandoned.
How to clean it up?
The annual testing of soil samples, begun in 1948, was continued until 1968, then again in 1972 MoD staff found viable spores although accurate counts were not made. In 1981 experts from the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE - there were many name changes) at Porton Down published their report on the results of the first full survey conducted in 1979. Areas around the gantry where the anthrax bombs were suspended remained contaminated at detectable levels, along with a much wider surrounding zone of undetectable contamination - possibly containing localised high concentrations of spores, which could also constitute a hazard.
Within a year it was announced that the MoD intended to try to clean up the island, after a small spate of Parliamentary Questions. In 1982-83 preliminary results of field trials and laboratory tests showed that decontamination was possible. The work was to be undertaken by a small party from the CDE with a Scottish Home and Health Department representative in attendance.
The Ministry's refusal to give details of the chemicals to be used raised some concerns, while the leading science magazine Nature was fairly relaxed about the anthrax itself and claimed that tourists frequently strayed on to the island without falling ill. Journalists were allowed on in July 1986, the largest group of people to visit the island since the experiment.
All better now?
Finally in 1990 it was announced that Gruinard Island was to be sold back to the heirs of its former owner on 1st May for £500, matching compensation paid at the time of its compulsory purchase. The island as a whole had been passed as safe in 1988 by "independent scientists", after a local farmer had grazed a flock of 40 sheep there for several months with no observable ill effects.
The fears and misgivings aroused by the name of Gruinard may be still more difficult to eradicate.
S PUBSonline
Mostly adapted from:Faraway places: The post-war fate of Gruinard Island’,  West Highland Free Press 6 Sep 2002, p.10, The article was partly based on:  E. A. Willis, Landscape with Dead Sheep: What they did to Gruinard Island', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.18, No.2, April-June 2002, 199-210.
For the 1943 ‘compensation’ story, see E. A. Willis, 'Contamination and compensation: Gruinard as a 'menace to the mainland', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.20, No. 4, Oct.-Dec 2004, 333-42.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Favourable notice of Invergordon pamphlet

The Hob’s Choice feature in Black Flag magazine, No. 235, mid-2012, has as its first item (p.36) a mini-review by Ade Dimmick of  Invergordon 1931. Shipshape and Mutiny Fashion: How they Fought the Pay Cuts. It includes a (slightly mis-transcribed) except from the pamphlet’s Introduction, a brief summary of what it’s about (see earlier posts here) and concludes:-
“The pamphlet is based on the various sources available and is probably one of the best overviews from a libertarian socialist perspective written to date.”

Sources for the pamphlet include:
Anthony Carew, The Lower Deck of the RN, 1900-1939: the Invergordon Mutiny in perspective, Manchester U P, 1981. 

Cover Photograph (Front)
“The crew of HMS Norfolk on strike; Invergordon,  Scotland, 14-15 September 1931. From a snapshot taken by a member of the crew.”


Monday, 22 October 2012

Availability of pamphlets through AK Press and Distribution

Copies of the following SmothPubs pamphlets may now be purchased through  AK Press and Distribution, :
What is Libertarian History? by Liz Willis (2011) 12pp. 90p
Invergordon 1931. Shipshape and Mutiny Fashion: How they Fought the Pay Cuts by Liz Willis (2011). £0.70p
Women in the Spanish Revolution by Liz Willis (Autumn 2010 edition)16pp. £1.00.
These may also be on sale on one or two stalls at the London Anarchist Book Fair on Saturday 27th October: see

Bad News for Labour History

In a ‘Statement on status of destruction of archival material Ruskin college’ dated 15 October 2012 historian Dr Hilda Kean tells the sorry tale of how ‘Archive material dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century of the internationally renowned labour movement college, Ruskin College, Oxford has been destroyed and material constituting its radical history has been dispersed. The integrity of the material in the college as an archive of working class history no longer exists. Sadly, this process of destruction and dispersal has not finished.’
‘Although Bishopsgate Institute in London advised the college management that it could take unwanted material in July, the college management did not take up that offer.’
For further details see inter alia
Whose archive, whose history?       (Comment by L.W.)
There are parallels, obviously, with things happening in other institutions and organisations where mindless authoritarian management rides roughshod over the welfare of people working in them, the needs of those they were intended to serve, and, often, the principles which led to their being set up in the first place. The breath-taking arrogance and ignorance of the Principal’s quoted comments beg the question of how anyone like that was allowed to get into a position to wield such power unchecked, in such a context, but will be horribly not unfamiliar to many who have found themselves working within an admin-heavy hierarchical set-up where corporate newspeak mentality and unquestioning subservience to government policy rule.
On a brighter note, Volunteer students working in the archive instructed to shred labour movement pamphlets acted with the imagination and integrity one expects of the best of the Ruskin tradition. Other material such as pamphlets or ephemera has been squirreled away by staff keen to preserve the past.. .’ Grass-roots spontaneous action has thus achieved some damage limitation at least. Copy that!
Related SmothPubs pamphlet: What is Libertarian History? by Liz Willis (2011) 12pp. 90p/.60p (depending on where purchased).

A new novel set partly in Ladakh

Liz Harris, The Road Back, Choc Lit,  2012. £7.99
It’s not likely that many reviews of self-identified (?-confessed) ‘romantic’ novels will appear on this blog but this one is special. Its inspiration was the same album, compiled by the author’s uncle, which also inspired our Himalayan Encounters pamphlet (see below). Many of the scenes photographed for the album – people as well as places – and described in its notes are visited in the central section of the novel, making for an unusual, perhaps unique, background to a well constructed and effectively told tale. 
This background is perhaps subject to a slight chronological slippage, given that the album with its many authentic details of a vanished way of life dates from the early 1940s, while the two main characters encounter each other about twenty years later, at a time when the region was a bone of contention between India and Pakistan post-partition, not to mention China muscling in. For one thing, it is doubtful whether travel to and within it would have been quite as easy for Brits as it appears here, if indeed it was possible at all.(Politics as such are largely absent, although there is obviously an awareness of imperialist attitudes, culture clashes and other social issues.)  Such pedantic caveats aside, it’s a good read, and an impressive and original first novel,
Related SmothPubs pamphlet: Himalayan Encounters: Ladakh 1944. (Notes on a ‘Trip’ from Srinagar to Khalatse) by Kenneth Behrens.(2011). 20pp. £1.50: pdf here.

UPDATE (June 2017)
A new pdf of the pamphlet with the images is now available

Monday, 11 June 2012

Rough winds do shake th’ Olympic flames of June

They might have known...
“Windy conditions put out two flames on lanterns at the Callanish stones monument, promping an emergency dash to collect a spare flame.” - BBC News UK, 11-6-12
An Ill Wind
“But nor satisfied ever, nor weary / Is ever the wind.”   [A.C. Swinburne, ‘By the North Sea’]
                One of the things about Lewis that visitors find not only disconcerting but even downright annoying is our habit of greeting each other with the words.  “It’s a bit breezy!” when in fact, we are gasping our way through a howling gale; it is annoying for many of them because the persistent high winds is the one aspect of our climate to which they find it most difficult to adjust themselves.
                Natives, like myself, usually accept as a matter of course, especially in the winter time, the necessity of almost perpetually leaning in one direction in order not to be blown in another.  But when one has to resort to such devices for a fortnight in the month of May, even the native begins to grumble, because by that time we are beginning to look for softer weather and some of the balm that gives us growth.
                Instead of that a cold grey wind has been blowing out of the west with wearisome and unabated persistence, keeping home fishing boats in harbour, sending strange craft for its land-locked shelter, chasing the grey seal (which appears to have adopted Stornoway) to some more sheltered nook of his own, blasting flowers, shrubs and trees, laying its mortifying hand on all tender growth, - until as I listen to “the moan that he borrows from darkness and depth of the night” I am left with “the sense that eternity never shall silence his voice.”
                - from another 'As I See It', “M.S.”, Stornoway Gazette, 22 & 25/05/1956

Saturday, 9 June 2012

56 YEARS AGO, Not the Olympics: A columnist looking back in 1956 at Sports Days gone by

 “And we run, because we like it” [Title from C.H. Sorley, The Song of the Ungirt Runners] by
“M.S.”, (AS I See It), Stornoway Gazette, 12 & 15 June 1956, p.3. [Excerpts.]

                ... Some attempt was made immediately after the war to keep alive the spirit of the old Football League Sports – that field day, yes, even gala day, of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties which was the Lewis equivalent of Highland Games. However, in spite of gallant efforts by organisers the endeavour to keep things going weakened and faded until it finally died ...
                Many people will tell you that the “gates” at these Sports became so poor that they could not hope to survive. And, certainly, not only did the public interest of pre-war years never revive fully, but what interest there was to start with petered out. It must, however, be admitted, in fairness to the paying public, that there was a marked deterioration in the enthusiasm of competitors, and a demoralising paucity of entrants for events. Had the sports provided on these days retained the keenness and put on the showmanship of earlier days, spectators would have flocked to watch as they did before; and as they always will do if the show is worthwhile ...
                What appeared to me to be lacking was the general enthusiasm of other times – times when you got a dozen lads entered for the mile race, all of them in and all of them fighting, although very often nine out of the dozen knew before they started that on form they hadn’t got a chance. However, although they couldn’t all be in front, they were all there and the also-rans helped as much to make the race a spectacle as did the prize-winners.
                Now, I will agree that there are not at present very encouraging games or training facilities available for potential athletes. And, in return, I think that such aspirants will concede that in the ’twenties and ’thirties we had no more – possibly less. I’m not arguing that because we didn’t have the facilities they shouldn’t – I think they should be given every chance and encouragement – but why the difference between “then” and “now” if the opportunities were roughly the same?
                I may be wrong but, as I see it, the difference lies in the mental approach to training. Nowadays facilities are expected and, if not provided, the young hopefuls just sit back and wait for them. We knew that facilities would not be forthcoming so we provided our own. Every stone of a certain size and shape was a special dispensation of providence for enthusiastic shot-putters; similarly every piece of timber of a suitable length or gauge was a caber; we made our own “hammers” out of lumps of iron or lead and lengths of chain; every “poll mònadh” [peat-bank] or wide burn was a jumping hazard. We were in training of one form or another all the year round. The lack of training facilities only acted as an incentive. Everything imaginable – and some not! – became a training facility.
                Of course, I think that sports fields and games facilities should be provided. But while waiting for them, could not the young lads [and lasses – Ed.] of today take a few leaves out of their predecessors’ books. Could they not carry into later years the keenness, enthusiasm, and competitive spirit which gives us such good school sports – both urban and rural. Then they would not only be ready for any opportunity that came along but I feel sure they could put on shows that would revive again the almost dead spirit of the inter-war years in Willowglen.
[Isle of Lewis, social history]

Thursday, 31 May 2012

... YEARS AGO: Some 2012 anniversaries which may escape official notice

70 YEARS AGO: Summer of 1942
Experiments begun on Gruinard – a.k.a. ‘Anthrax’ – Island, close to the north-west coast of Scotland by scientists from Porton Down under the auspices of the British government. The first series of trials was to explore the feasibility of producing lethal effects from an airborne cloud laden with anthrax spores. (It was shown to have "enormous potentialities"). As is now well known, after this and two further series, the Island was rendered unfit for human or animal habitation for decades.
E. A. Willis, 'Contamination and Compensation: Gruinard as a 'Menace to the Mainland', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.20, No. 4, Oct.-Dec 2004, 333-42.
E. A. Willis, Landscape with Dead Sheep: What they did to Gruinard Island', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.18, No.2, April-June 2002, 199-210

60 YEARS AGO: Late Summer 1952
 Britain as WMD pioneer in the 1950s: The Hebridean connection
British government’s biological weapons (BW) experiments continued after the Second World War, with multiple ‘sea trials’ in which organisms for plague and other deadly diseases were tested on animals.
Towards the end of ' Operation Cauldron', in September 1952, a Hull trawler passed through the danger area, near the east coast of the Isle of Lewis, while a toxic cloud was being released ('the Carella incident') .This caused a flurry of near-panic in Whitehall driven by concern with maintaining secrecy at all costs.
B. Balmer. How does an accident become an experiment? Secret science and the exposure of the public to biological warfare agents. Science and Culture, Vol.13, No.2, June 2004, pp.197-228.
 ‘Plague tests were carried out by Ministry of Defence off Lewis’, West Highland Free Press 4 Apr 2003, p.10. <>
E. A. Willis, 'Seascape with monkeys and guinea-pigs: Britain's biological weapons research programme, 1948-54', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.19, No.4, October-December 2003, pp.285-302

50 YEARS AGO: The OSA (Official Secrets Act) Trial of 1962
The British state secured convictions on a charge of conspiracy against four Committee of 100 activists, for organising an anti-nuclear  demonstration at Wethersfield airbase. Sentences of imprisonment were handed down after a much publicised, patently politically motivated and blatantly unfair ‘show trial’.  
‘The road to Wormwood Scrubs’, chapter 1 in Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why, Sphere Books, 1990, pp. 1-18.

More on some or all of the above stories here later, possibly.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Malcolm (Calum) Smith Centenary, 29th May 2012. About "As ‘Safety’ Saw It".

Between 4 October 1955 and 7 September 1956 a weekly column appeared on page 3 of the Stornoway Gazette, under the heading “As I See It: M,S.”
This is an annotated (or pedant’s) edition of all the articles, reproduced with some notes by the author himself (e.g. on Gaelic terms) and identifying many literary allusions, along with extracts from reactions to ‘M.S.’ in the same newspaper.
 "Around the Peat-fire", by Calum Smith (“M.S.”) was published by Birlinn (Edinburgh) , in  November2001. A new  ‘Anthology’ edition including a selection from ‘As I See It’ appeared in September 2010 (Birlinn) and is still available.
Further details and/or extracts could be posted here if requested by email or via a comment.
The range of the articles is show by this Rough Guide to Topics:-
Automation, expectation of benefits from
Bothans (drinking dens); vs. village halls; and Daily Herald reporter
Bridge, in need of repair
Burns, Robert: Burns Night
Camouflage, nature vs. artifice
Capital punishment, case against
Christmas, commercialisation of
Corporal punishment in schools (Essex, Lewis)
Crofting: proposed Crofters' Society; viability of; Crofting Commission
Deadline-meeting, early morning, seagull
Economy: egg-scheme, argument over; fish, price for varied catch
Food: kippers (and jam); herring, school canteen, spam
Gaelic language: erosion of; used in advertising
Gambling, football pools: advantages of nationalising
Graffiti and desk-carving, suggested remedy for
Harris, distinct from Lewis; Harris Tweed, rapid production of
Highlanders, fighting spirit
Lewis: as ‘abroad’; criticised; holidays in; need for (social) history of 
Moon, in poetry and space race
National Service, criticism of in Economic Research Council report
Newspapers, falling circulation
Peat-cutting, experience of
Registrar-General for Scotland, Annual Report 1955
Religion, requirement to profess, in Navy
Reputations, posthumous: Henry VIII, Richard III, Stalin
Rivers, falling in
Robeson, Paul, appreciation
Royal tour, unreliable reporting
Rubbish: bins; dumping, litter
Segregation, racial (USA), iniquity of
Smith, Roderick, ex-Provost of Stornoway, appreciation of
Smoking, and lung cancer risk
South Uist Rocket Range, local reactions to
Speech, articulacy, elocution
Sports, value of participation in
Squatters, on land, and plot-holders
Stone-throwing, dangers of
Stornoway Trust
Stornoway: sheep wandering in; municipal improvements ahead of royal visit
Story-telling: a Lewis ‘character’
Street-lighting, benefits of
Subsidies, public spending: opera compared with local needs
Sunday trading (London)
Supernatural: fairies; ghost-stories
Superstition: prevalence of; detrimental effects
Teachers: Superannuation Bill; political vetting (Renfrewshire)
Temperament, `artistic', flaws in
Tinkers: attitudes to, changing way of life
Trees, protection of (firewood in Castle Grounds)
Wind: hurricane names; unseasonal May weather
Youth, attitudes to; swimming, boys

Photo: E. A. Smith
Stornoway c1959

Booklet as a pdf here.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Burns Night – As ‘Safety’ Saw It 56 years ago: Gastronomic Immortality?

For A’ That

All over the world, at this time, elaborate preparations are being made to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of “Scotland’s National Bard” and to “honour” the ploughman poet who has found for himself a place, if not in the hearts, at least in the stomachs, of a wide variety of people in many countries and climes.
            So now would seem as good a time as any for me to confess that I have never attended a Burns’ Supper. Not that I have any rooted objection to supping, or to Robert Burns – although he wrote almost as much bad verse as he wrote good – but rather because I cannot reconcile in my own mind two such separate appetites as one for food and one for poetry; and I feel that by trying to combine the two I would only succeed in confusing both. For me, there is no common link between a palate for whisky and haggis and an aesthetic appreciation of lyrics.
            One may commemorate a dead genius in many and meaningless ways – meaningless at least to those whose hearts or brains are illumed by a flicker from the torch of the genius; but he can only be honoured through his works, and by any enlightenment that a diligent perusal of these works may bring to the genuine seeker: certainly he cannot be honoured by producing, in his name, elaborately succulent suppers interspersed with dilettante sentiments.
            How much more sparsely would a great many such anniversary functions be attended were the food and drink eliminated and only poetry served up neat? It would appear that Burns, and he shares the distinction with many other poets and artists in all fields, has achieved a sort of gastronomic immortality. And it is ironical that so much in the way of good things should be consumed, using Burns as an excuse, when he himself, during his lifetime, on occasion found it difficult to fend for himself and his family.
            Another irony of this poet’s post-mortem fame is the diverse creeds, classes, countries, and peoples that are gathered together – at least once a year – to do him homage. People who would look at him askance were he alive today, go into raptures over him – post-prandial raptures anyway. Representatives of countries where his outspoken expressions of his social and spiritual values would possibly earn him incarceration come flocking to his shrine – but then just as the schools expurgate some of his works, so many who pay lip-service to his genius, do not hesitate to smother the flame of his spirit when the implications are unpalatable.
            When God left man in the freedom of his own will he bequeathed upon him the right to rebel. And seldom has the flame of rebellion against convention, injustice, tyranny, and hypocrisy burned more fiercely in any heart than it did in the heart of Robert Burns. Like every true poet, every true artist, he respected realities and detested shams. That is why it seems almost like blasphemy to have so many shams perpetrated in his name, for no-one can persuade me that the vast majority of celebrations this month will not be attended as social, rather than literary functions – or convince me that apart from the briefed speakers, more tributes will be paid to the poetry than to the cooking.
            Consider with what a white heat of indignation he himself would have lambasted the contributors to such a situation, or, with what derisive mockery lampooned them!
            You will have understood by now that I think quite a lot of Robert Burns, although I do not worship at his shrine. You will also have begun to understand why my only participations in anniversary rites have been confined to the simple, but enjoyable, literary ones of my school debating society days.
            And there is also, of course, the fact that I don’t think Robert Burns is Scotland’s best poet; although he may be Scotland’s National Bard not only by Scotland’s but by the world’s acclaim. One or two poets in the Gaelic language, if less prolific, were just as good: and I consider that Duncan Ban Macintyre was a better lyric poet than Burns.
            And anyone who wants to argue about that must have read both Robert Burns and Duncan Ban Macintyre; and I’m not prepared to discuss the matter over a supper!

Calum Smith writing as M.S., in the Stornoway Gazette, 17 & 20 January 1956.
Burns’ song “A man’s a man for a’ that” was played at Calum’s (humanist) funeral in 2003.