Saturday, 25 November 2017

Forthcoming Conference: Call for Papers

Of possible interest to some readers of this blog:

Call for Papers: reminder
Deadline for abstracts: 1 December 2017

Explorations of Islands in Scottish Literature and Culture
29 June–1 July 2018, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye

This conference will investigate the many portrayals, both historical and contemporary, of the rich, distinctive cultures of the Scottish islands or islands with Scottish connections through poetry and song, fiction and non-fiction, drama, film, art and music.

We invite submissions of abstracts concerning works from all periods which explore any aspect of island experience, from any methodological angle. Papers on contemporary interdisciplinary projects which blend island traditions and artistic experiment to create new works and new ways of living on the islands are also encouraged.

Paper topics could include but are not limited to:

• representations of past and present Scottish island life and culture
• growing up on islands in Scottish literature
• creative and aesthetic approaches to representing Scottish islands
• environments, economies and contemporary change
• Scottish islands’ vulnerabilities and resilience
• the languages of Scottish islands
• archipelagic comparisons: Scottish islands/archipelagos and islands/archipelagos across the world

Please send abstracts (not more than 300 words) for papers of 30 minutes in length to

by 1 December 2017. Abstract submission should include a brief biography and institutional affiliation.

Duncan Jones
Association for Scottish Literary Studies
7 University Gardens
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QH, UK

Tel/Fax: +44 (0)141 330 5309

ASLS is a registered charity no. SC006535

[Conversely, some of this blog may be of interest to those planning papers for this conference].

Island pier and seafront
Group on quay, from the mailboat

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

All Sundays were long days in the Isles...

"There is a proverb in the isles which says ‘As long as a Communion Sunday’. And all Sundays were long days in the isles when there was little or nothing to do except attend the services. In my youth around the turn of the [last] century, it was a day of worship, when the influence of the church was very strong and one dared not do otherwise even if one felt like it. Today [c1950s] it is more or less a day of rest and some people are daring to do small jobs on the Lord’s Day."

- Kenneth MacDonald, Peat Fire Memories: Life in Lewis in the Early Twentieth Century. Tuckwell Press, 2003. Ch.9, pp.46-50, The Sabbath Day.

Kenneth MacDonald, the socialist teacher from Sandwick mentioned in a previous post, goes on to describe what such a day was like for a child - not much fun. One permitted, indeed prescribed occupation was rote-learning the Shorter Catechism (107 Qs&As).
"I don’t know if there is a longer Catechism but the Short one felt long enough!"

Dating from the 1640s,
this was also taught in primary school
until at least the 1950s and '60s.
Reassuringly, by no means all were cowed into piety and submission:
There were times, however, when we managed to slip away from the rigours of the Sabbath and played away from prying eyes on the sands… It was a sin to chastise or punish on the Sabbath [but retribution might well follow on Monday if transgressions were observed and reported] … Everybody stayed indoors on Sunday and read the Bible or [in Gaelic] The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Macdonald supplies a classic example of the absurd lengths to which strict interpretations of the 'law' could lead, with the story of a teacher who cycled to her lodgings in Stornoway from her home in the country on Sunday evening to be ready for work the next day, and was threatened with being thrown out by her landlady for breaking the Sabbath. When she pointed out that the minister drove to church she was told that was not the same at all: on her bike she was 'working' her legs, not like a driver in a car.

Many Stornowegians will share the memory, evoked in the most recent stramash about the opening of businesses or recreational centres – in this case a small specialised shop – on the Isle of Lewis on Sunday, of the melancholy sight of chained-up swings, including “baby-chairs”. Perhaps the toddlers’ little legs, or the arms of parents pushing them, would have worked so hard as to give offence to the Almighty.

A minister said a request was made to a businesswoman to close her shop on Sundays in a bid to encourage people to "enjoy the peace of the Sabbath".

... Mr Flett, who like The Rev MacDonald was born and brought up on Lewis, said he could remember [a] time when play park swings were chained up at dusk on Saturdays for the Sabbath.

Post Second World War, the Stornoway Free Church minister who was the main public face of opposition to any mitigation of such rigours was, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not a native if the island, but came from Dingwall and began his Sabbath-preserving activism on the Isle of Skye, as recorded in the biographical material published with his 'Diary' (Diary of Kenneth A MacRae, edited with additional material by Iain H Murray. Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1980).

... An unexpected issue arose which, as it required his presence in Skye, [temporarily] closed the question of his accepting a call away from the Island. Early in 1929 news was circulated that the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company was planning railway excursions from Inverness to Kyle on Sundays, so that trippers could cross to Skye. Immediately MacRae circulated petition forms against this proposal... When, in June 1929, it became clear that they intended to proceed with the plans for excursions, MacRae originated a 'Skye Sabbath Defence League'... the action in view being a boycott of the L.M.S. [...]
  He found it a hard battle to raise the support which was necessary... The truth is that he did not relish controversy... (pp.222-3)
- from 'The Call to Stornoway' in Diary of Kenneth A MacRae. 

The minister evidently relished victory in controversy, however. When a letter in October 1930 informed MacRae that 'Sabbath excursions would not be run next summer to Kyle if our agitation in the Island would end' he was jubilant: 'This is the doing of the Lord and wondrous in our eyes!' His editor considers that a result of this episode was that companies were restrained for many years from trying to implement similar changes. 'When, for example, air services to the Outer Hebrides were being discussed in June 1933 it was at once realised that there would be no Sunday flights.'

The preoccupation was not a new one for MacRae, and not newly controversial, as shown in earlier diary extracts from when he was based in Lochgilphead, Argyllshire:
1n 1917 - 10-8 A letter from home states that a very bitter letter has appeared in the local paper against me in reference to what I said in respect of visitors and the Sabbath; and 22-8 Another letter appeared in the local paper criticising my preaching, and since the tone is in no wise improved with the change of editorship I sent down to the newsagent cancelling my order.
The following year: 7-6 An Arran woman told him how 'one of the old divines had said the time would come when people profaning the Sabbath would be as numerous on the hills as were the sheep then'; and a month later, 6-7  When I was having supper with Miss Scott on Thursday she told me that she asked Mr Livingstone at the time when the letters were appearing in the local paper condemning myself, as to why none of the other ministers said a word in my defence. '"Oh we don't like controversy" was the reply.'

He remained vigilant after accepting the 'call' to Stornoway:
3-4-1934 Had meeting of Presbytery today. Strongly protested against the new regulations which give the Pope and his nuncios naval salutes, and also agreed to approach Woolworth's in connection with the opening of their establishment in Stornoway, with a view to the prevention of any risk of Sabbath work, as has happened under similar circumstances elsewhere. It is high time that strong action was taken against the secret Roman propaganda presently going on in governmental departments.
The perceived excesses of the 'Continental' Sunday were naturally the more deplored for their association with Roman Catholicism. (At this point fans of Hancock's Half Hour may recall the Sunday afternoon episode where the lad waxes lyrical about how different it is in other countries, everyone getting together, happy and laughing, enjoying themselves: "Not over 'ere, though!")

In the following month, May 1934, Murray tells us, he clashed once more with the LMS Railway Company when it announced its intention to run two Sunday excursions to Skye in the summer. MacRae wrote to the Glasgow Herald protesting against this, which led to him being contacted by reporters from two other papers. He got an article published in the Daily Express, but for the next several months he was out of action due to illness. Presumably the excursions went ahead.

The changed circumstances of another world war unsurprisingly failed to modify his stance:, and he was in a position to expect his views to be heeded:
10-12-40... I have been appointed Officiating Chaplain to the local R.A.F. Squadron. Received the information with rather mixed feelings. I don't know how it is going to work.

Problems did indeed arise:
28-4-41 Yesterday, for the first time in its history, Stornoway witnessed a game of football on the Lord's Day. The offenders were naval men. Today... I interviewed the Commanding Officer at the base... He told me that these men had broken the regulations and must have smuggled the football on shore, and that he would signal from the Base at once that there must be no more such offence. He undertook also to notify the commanders of all the vessels that there must be no more football on the Sabbath.

23-7-41 Was told today that the R.A.F. were playing football on Sabbath on the Melbost pitch. Wrote the Commanding Officer regarding the matter and asked him to act as the naval authorities have done in prohibiting games on the Sabbath. Perhaps the defence of the Sabbath furnishes another reason for my remaining in Stornoway. In Glasgow the Sabbath is gone in any case. Here it is in the balance. [He was 'under call' to Duke Street Free Church at the time].

28-7-41 The Commanding Officer, after plying the usual pretext that the arduous duties of the men allow them no other day free for recreation, has promised that there will be no more ‘Sunday games’… I suggested that the men might more profitably use up their surplus energies by walking in to the church services in Stornoway, and assured him that I would be delighted to see them.

Later in life, he wrote often with regret for the good old days:
“Fifty years ago [c1900s] the Sabbath was universally observed throughout Scotland, and whatever desecration there might have been was furtive and shame-faced. This being so, church-going was the order everywhere…” (Quoted on p.8).

That the balance has shifted further in the past half-century is clear enough. It can no longer be argued with any plausibility that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of the 'old ways' - and there were always dissidents. Some more recent signs:

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Dietary Study in the Island of Lewis: MRC Report, 1940

"You'll get porridge and brose for your breakfast in the madainn

It will make you a braw Hieland laddie!"

Notes and comments from:
Studies in Nutrition. An inquiry into the diet of families in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Medical Research Council. Special Reports Series. no. 242.) 1940 37pp. By Prof. Edward Provan Cathcart (Glasgow), (Mrs.) Annabel Mary Tough Murray, J. B. Beveridge. 

(This may be found in the National Archives, reference FD 4/242, although not a public record as such).

The rate of publication and range of coverage of the MRC's "Green Books" was impressive

Among the many subjects addressed by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) in its long-running and wide-ranging Special Reports Series (SRS, known as the Green Books, from their covers) that of nutrition occurred early and repeatedly: for example, SRS 13, published in 1918, was “An enquiry into the composition of dietaries, with special reference to the dietaries of munition workers”. It was more unusual for biomedical researchers to turn their attention to the far north and west of the country, but this did happen in time for the results of the study looked at here to be published early in the Second World War. Previous studies, SRS 151 1931 (St. Andrews) and SRS 165 1932 (Cardiff, Reading) had focused on different places. Nutrition was of course a key area of government concern during the war, and it may be inferred that some of the findings in these reports may well have influenced policy.

The authors’ method was to select a number of families in the Scottish Highlands on the mainland, and on the Isle of Lewis, and to record their food intake during one week. This was done first in summer, then some of the studies were duplicated in winter. The average intake was standardised as that for an adult male, deduced by formula. They pointed out (Introduction, p.5) that while much information was available about urban settings, the task of obtaining data on the Highlands presented some difficulty. Referring to the Department of Health (Scotland) Committee on Scottish Health Services, 1936, they noted how witnesses deplored the passing of old staple foods – porridge, salt herring and potatoes – and the use of more shop bread, tinned goods, tea, sweets etc. bought from shops and traders’ vans. Deficiencies in diet they reckoned were probably due to economic circumstances, as in the “dismal picture” painted by the Dewar Committee in 1912 (which had led to the setting up of the Highlands & Islands Medical Service). Now, however, they found doctors saying most families were reasonably well fed.

Comments turned up in a historical survey comparing the current situation with the past included:

  • Diet may lack variety; less oatmeal; but “very sound… and I doubt that there is a great difference from that of our forefathers.” 
  • More tea, shop bread, but plenty oatmeal, milk. 
  • More meat, fruits, veg. 

A minority of health professionals apparently believed diet was on a down-grade, but the authors query whether the conditions in the past were so very bright, going into an diverting digression about the 18th century and the controversial introduction of potatoes (denounced by some as “foolish roots”, whilst in one case compulsorily planted on pain of imprisonment).

The Highland subjects comprised (p.11) 58 families, living in the counties of Ross-shire (Ross & Cromarty), Sutherland, and Inverness-shire. Most were occupied in crofting, many with additional work such as fishing or labouring. It was found impossible to obtain much trustworthy information for the majority as to their economic status, in terms of income, but this was felt to be no great loss to the study. A total of 349 people were included, 118 of them under 12 years of age. As noted, the original studies were done in spring or early summer; seasonal variations were not in practice thought to be a major factor (44 families agreed to a re-study in autumn/winter). Children made up 36.4% of the summer, 37.5% of the winter samples.

Among the findings were that some items would be prepared in larger amounts than immediately required, to allow for leftovers to be given to hens and so on, “the actual waste of edible calories by the various households [being] very small”.  Compared with previous studies, a slight but definite increase was observed in the percentage of calories derived from protein, less came from fat, intake of carbohydrate substantially higher (Lewis was different – see below) and it was concluded that (p.16): “It is clear that, so far as gross quantities are concerned, these rural Highland diets are superior to the earlier urban ones.” 50% of the protein consumed was rated “first class”.  No definite increase in food intake was observed (as might have been expected) in winter, a possible explanation being that energy expenditure was less, because of weather conditions hampering activity. Intakes of vitamins A, B, C might “be seen as adequate”. Food common to all included butter, white bread, potatoes, and “tea” bread (which from the context probably means baked bannocks, oatcakes, scones and similar items eaten at tea-time). Eggs were scarce in winter. Beef, ham, bacon, cheese, and root veg were common to about ¾ of the sample (Further statistical details of the comparison are given in a Table). More fresh than tinned fruit was eaten, and consumption of fresh fish, perhaps surprisingly, not high. Brown bread was not appreciated by everyone, eating it “almost indicative of social standing”; green leafy veg was similarly undervalued, and it was suggested that the Women’s Rural Institute (WRI) could be mobilised to educate people (housewives) as to its benefits, favourable reference being made here to a similar initiative in the USSR.

Section III, beginning on p. 29, is specifically on the Dietary Study in the Island of Lewis. “Just as the dietary study of the highland families was drawing to a close,” the authors tell us, “we undertook, at the suggestion of Sir Edward Mellanby [then Secretary of the MRC, special interest nutrition with particular reference to vitamin deficiency] an investigation of a small group of families living in an isolated area in the Island of Lewis.” These too were engaged mainly in crofting, most men having in addition other, often seasonal work especially fishing. This study was done in summer.
A Lewis family, transitional between rural and town life.
(Slightly earlier than the date of the study),
Compared with Wester Ross (19 families), thought to be the closest and most useful comparitor set, the 23 Lewis families’ percentage of total calories derived from protein and fat was very definitely higher, and the percentage of protein rated first-class about 10% more. Their intake of 3 minerals (calcium, phosphorus, iron) was definitely above, plus slightly more lime and more vitamin A, but less B & C; oatmeal figured largely in the diet. Marked differences were noted in actual foodstuffs: on Lewis more mutton than beef was consumed, and all ate fresh fish, especially fatty varieties (herring, mackerel); they got more cheese/crowdie (fine-grained creamy ‘cottage’ cheese). No leaf veg was eaten, but 74% ate root veg. along with slightly more fresh fruit, and less sugar, jam, eggs, and whole milk. Dental condition in relation to diet is mentioned on p.32, referencing SRS 241 (see below).

Overall, the Report’s Conclusions (p.34) were favourable:
“It may be noted that both in Lewis and in the Highlands generally the standard of maternal efficiency is remarkably high... We have included a summary (Table XX) which suggests that the children both on the island and on the mainland are well up to standard in both height and weight.”

The phrase “maternal efficiency”, given inverted commas at one point in the Report (a raised eyebrow on the part of the female author, perhaps?), was evidently current usage among pundits of the time. Although deployed in commendation here, albeit with a tinge of patronising surprise, it carries the judgmental assumption that a mother should be able to raise healthy children in whatever conditions prevailed. Acknowledgements, after the practitioners and district nurses among others who helped, wind up “... and finally to the many long-suffering housewives who so graciously permitted us to investigate their household economy.”

The preceding Special Report, No.241, had also looked at the Isle of Lewis
(and drawn some similar conclusions about health benefits versus lack of variety of the rural diet).
A later generation of island housewives, being encouraged to cater for tourists.