Andy Wightman tells the tale: bunnies and brassies

I reckoned that Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers would be my reading for the weekend. I over-estimated my ability to deal with his thorough-going detail. For here we have a “dense” text — dense in the best sense of the word. Wightman is scrupulous in detailing and referencing his arguments.

So I’m currently heading into the middle of the book: chapter 12, Who Owns Scotland. That means I’ve scaled the foothills, and followed Wightman’s exegesis of  land-grabs:

  • feudalism;
  • the Reformation, and how that meant Church lands were acquired by you-can-guess-who;
  • the devices and desires of lawyers, working assiduously in the interests of you-can-guess-who (with many a crumb falling into their maws from the rich man’s table);
  • what, in English terms, would be enclosures, but for Scotland is the way commons were appropriated by you-can-guess-who, at the expense of the vast majority of the populace.

Those are Wightman’s Big Four land grabs, to which in chapters 8 and 9, he adds:

  • the way the assets and properties of the burghs of Scotland were acquired by devious means and to the benefit of you-can-guess-who;

and how, having run out of local realms to conquer,

  • “the sixth land-grab — colonial adventures”: there was land left to plunder beyond Scotland’s shores and Scotland’s land-owners were enthusiastic participants in the imperial century following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo [page 87].

That one gives Wightman the wry opportunity to reward his readers with the final bit of imperial pink to be imprinted on the world map:

On 18 September 1955, Captain Connell of HMS Vidal, acting in pursuance of a royal warrant , led a naval expedition which landed on the rock, planted a Union flag, affixed a bronze plaque and formally annexed Rockall to the British crown. Lieutenant-Commander Scott announced to his two companions on the rock and to the bemused puffins, guillemots and other seabirds in the area, ‘In the name of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this island of Rockall.

The three men stood to attention as the flag was raised and HMS Vidal sailed past and unleashed a twenty-one gun salute as the final act of territorial annexation in the history of the British Empire drew to a close.

Compare that with wikipedia on the same incident. I was greatly disappointed to find that fine naval vessel (all 1,940 tonnes displacement, with no fewer than four 3-pounder “saluting guns”)  was named, not for the distinguished American ironist, novelist and essayist — which would be too, too, sweetly appropriate — but after an influential surveyor or explorer of the Royal Navy… the nineteenth century surveyor Alexander Thomas Emeric Vidal. [Just as well I proof-read that: the ever-interfering spell-check had rendered his middle name as Emetic. Still …]

Perhaps the brightest moment (though I have hopes for the 200 pages yet to come) in Wightman’s ruthless dissection of all that was and is adrift with Scottish land-holding is this:

Another celebrated case concerned what was then known as the Pilmour Links and Commonty in St Andrews and is now better known as the Old Course, the most famous golf course in the world. In 1797, the Town Council was bankrupt and sold the town common to Charles Dempster, a rabbit farmer. The local inhabitants were furious at the fact that their historic commonty was to be turned into a rabbit warren. They obtained legal ruling that they had a customary right to play golf and to destroy the rabbits. This led to a series of ‘community riots’ and twenty years of legal and physical war between the rabbit farmers and the golfers before the golfers prevailed and secured their rights. Without this action and the legal decision that upheld the townspeople’s common rights, there would probably be no golf links in St Andrews today.

In which case, the Lady in my Life would have been standing on a bunny-burrow last Friday:


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This about sums up my morning:


The Lady in my Life was affronted and offended I didn’t recognise a spurtle, when one was waved in my face.

Oddly enough, nor does the spell-check here, which keeps “correcting” to spurt.

The OED shyly admits being at a bit of an etymological loss. It speculates a connection from spartle, which connects to spatula, which is an anglicising of spatule, which is a vamp on spatula. Which all looks like very hard work.

Whereas a spirtle is a little spurt.

And a thieval? Which the spell-check renders serially and unhelpfully as thieves. Ah, yes: here  we enter another OED morass:

In form, thῑvel seems to correspond to Old English þyfel ‘bush, leafy plant’, but no links of connection between this and the modern sense have been found. In its various current forms the word is in use from N. of Scotl. to S. Lancashire, W. and E. Yorkshire; this localization suggests a Norse origin, and it has been referred to Old Icelandic þefja /ˈθɛvja/ ; but this is a very rare word of doubtful standing, and in any case meant ‘to thicken by beating or stamping’ rather than ‘to stir’. The actual Old Norse name for a stirring-stick was þvara, between which and thivel there is of course no connection.

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The case of little Mary Davies

It was in my mind at the time, but somehow was left dangling off the keyboard.

England can boast as rewarding a bit of child-rape as the Cawdor Campbells. By the way, the “Calders” seem to have become “Cawdors” entirely on Bill Shagsper’s typo.

GrosvenorPermit me to introduce you all to Sir Thomas Grosvenor, baronet.

Already possessed of his family estate in Cheshire, on 10th October 1677 Sir Thomas, aged not-quite twenty-three, married Miss Mary Davies. Since Miss Mary was born in 1665, that makes her fully a dozen years of age.

What made Mary Davies such a ripe prospect was her inheritance: her late Daddy, Alexander Davies, had been a scrivener — a law-writer — who had come into possession of Ebury Farm, now buried under the bricks and masonry of London’s Chelsea, and other lands between Tyburn Brook and Park Lane, convenient for the imminent expansion of Westminster. All told about five hundred acres.

I’ll pause for a moment, to draw breath, sip coffee, and meditate on how Alexander Davies came to own these lands.

We have to start with Geoffrey de Mandeville, one of Guillaume le Bâtard’s William the Conqueror’s henchmen, who received this tract as a thank-you. Much of it was swampy marshland, so Geoffrey de Mandeville passed his manor to the Abbey of Westminster, doubtless for the benefit of his immortal soul. Which meant, in due course, it came back, after the monasteries were shut down, into the sweaty maw of Henry VIII. This became the “Manor of Hyde”, and was leased out.

In 1618 much of this land was acquired, a bit dubiously, by  Sir Lionel Cranfield, an upwardly-mobile tradesman, who had taken several official post under James I, until he was impeached for corruption. Canfield, in due course, fell upon harder times, and sold his freehold on to Hugh Audley (as was the norm of that time, his name could be rendered as “Audley” or “Awdeley”). This involved one of those dodgy back-to-back transactions (the kind of thing that, in these days, gets solicitors struck off, and SNP MPs rendered semi-detached). Audley was a law-clerk, working in  the Court of Wards and Liveries. By no coincidence, he had a side-line in money-lending, and had built himself a fat bank-roll. On Audley’s death, half-a-century later, the land passed to his grand-nephew, Alexander Davies, who promptly pegged out himself, leaving the six-month-old Mary as his heiress.

Mary was to be married off to to the Hon. Charles Berkeley, the eldest son of John, first Baron Berkeley of Stratton; but the Berkeleys had overstretched themselves, and the deal didn’t go through. Waiting in the wings was aforesaid Sir Thomas Grosvenor, who acquired the girl, sorted out the monies due to the Berkeleys, and laid out certain insurances that Mary would reach the age of 21, and inherit the property.

There are three, at least, little wrinkles here:

At the age of twelve, Mary was deemed mature enough to consent to the marriage;

the monarch, in this case Charles II Stuart, had a duty of care to orphaned wards, and it must have helped his caring soul that Grosvenor was such an upright chap, friend of the king, and a good Tory.

Throughout her life, Mary showed increasing signs of what we might be benignly-termed “mental instability”, to the extent that, in her widowhood, she was adjudged insane.

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Noblesse obliges itself

Andy Wightman — as far as I can see (and I’m now through Chapter 5) — nods at it just the once:

The first Duke of Bucceuch, for example, was the illegitimate offspring of court harlotry and the Cawdor Campbells’ origins are with the kidnap and forced marriage of a twelve-year old girl.

The tenth Duke of Buccleuch is still the largest private landowner in the British Isles. The Buccleuch Estates amount to 270,000 acres, or 420-odd square miles, give or take. As Andy Wightman points out on his web-site (yes — I’m fascinatedly appalled or appallingly fascinated by all this):

… on Buccleuch Estate there are workspaces, sawmills and a variety of other business premises and they are liable for business rates (to be paid by the occupier who is often not the owner). But the estate as a business – the 270,000 acres – pays nothing. Why in Scotland in 2012 do landowners still get away with not having to pay their fair share of property taxes?…

Buccleuch Estates Ltd. is in fact a parent company for a range of businesses in Germany, Luxembourg, Russia, Germany and the UK. But “embracing the corporate business interests of the Buccleuch Family” rather suggests that the company is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and family.

The fact is, however, that the shares of Buccleuch Estates Ltd. are wholly owned by Anderson Strathern Nominees Ltd., a company with a total paid-up share value of £4, whose shareholders are four Edinburgh lawyers, whose total assets amount to £4 and which has not traded since its incorporation in May 1992.

Now, why would a Lowlands peer have business interests in Luxembourg? Unless, of course, it was for the tax-avoidance.

The Buccleuch dukedom was created for James Scott (a.k.a James Crofts and James Fitzroy), by-blow of Charles II Stuart’s dalliance in The Hague with Lucy Walter. He is better known in english history-books as the Duke off Monmouth. Monmouth was attainted for his 1685 rebellion against James VII and II Stuart, and was beheaded by Jack Ketch on 15 July 1685. Since Crofts’/Buccleuch’s/Monmouth’s wife, Anne, had been created duchess in her own right, the Scottish title persisted, despite her husband’s attainder.

Meanwhile let’s have a quick dekko at Muriel Calder, born 13th February 1498. She was the daughter and heiress of John Calder. Her uncle, Hugh Rose of Kilravock, intended to marry her off to his grandson, and thus keep the real estate in the family. Alas! The Kilvarocks had a thing going with the Urquharts of Cromarty, which ended up before the Justice General of Scotland. Who happened to be the Earl of Argyll, a Campbell. Who happened to make an offer of leniency, provided he became guardian of the young Muriel, with the right to marry her to one of his own kin.

9780747568759What happened next is one of the great horror stories of Scotland.

In 1505 Campbell of Inverliver was sent to collect the wee girlie. The Roses and Calders took severe umbrage, and set about the arrivals.  Campbell of Inverliver had to fight a running battle (in which four of his sons were killed), but stripped Muriel down to her nudies, and decorated a hay-stack with her clothes. In 1510 (do the maths!) Muriel was married, without the option, to Sir John Campbell (himself just 20 years old), and they produced a litter of offspring. More of the same, courtesy of Angus Calder.

These, of course, are the types we lesser beings are expected to respect, and to whom even doff our sweaty caps.

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A very peculiar practice

Back in 1986, Andrew Davies wrote a black comedy for BBC TV, A Very Peculiar Practice. It went to a second series, and had a spin-off (a failed pilot?) based on the collapse of Communist Poland.

Well, odd-to-the-point of surreality as Davies’s take on the modern concrete university was, I think my day in St Andrews could match it.

St Andrews is a small town at the end of the East Neuk of Fife. It has a population of some 14,000, of whom half must be the around 7,000 students at the oldest university in Scotland. About a third of the student body come from south of the border, which must make it freakish among Scottish universities outside Edinburgh.

That last factoid might, just might have a connection with a not-quite-recent royal matching.

Oh, and attached to the town is a golf-course or three.

Wander the main drag, and note the proliferation of young-fashion stores.

That leads me to muse there is another oddity about the student population. It seems very, very well-heeled. Most undergraduate populations tend to the scruffy jeans-and-hoodie. St Andrews has a large contingent remarkable for what I tend to term the Morningside Glide. Morningside, for the uninitiated, is the terribly-naice suburb of Edinburgh, and was the natural home of Miss Jean Brodie. The Morningside Glide involves a young woman, clearly a bourgeoise of means, even aspirant bon chic, bon genre, swanning along with total insouciance, almost certainly wearing a tweedy cloak or (at the very least) well-draped shawl, who insists she walks straight at you, expects you to give way, and can look right through you. So clear the way.

Meanwhile, down on the Old Course, I was able to observe a foursome completing their round-of-golf. To be kind, they were not particularly good. But then, since this is still High Season, they would be paying £170 each for the pleasure and privilege. The grass is impeccably maintained, of course.

A very peculiar and expensive practice.

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This I know. This I like.

The normal:

Off the book-shop shelf, I pick up a book. I flick its pages. I scan a paragraph or two.

The less normal:

Occasionally, just occasionally, there is that electric moment. The hairs on the neck prickle. The consciousness kicks in. The book sells itself.

Just that latter occurred yesterday, in Waterstones on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

The exact reference was page 3 of Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers.


And the quotation was from Tom Johnston, one of the Red Clydesiders of the early twentieth century, and — incredible as it now seems — Secretary of State for Scotland in the war-time coalition government.

Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands — stolen either by force of fraud; show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating, or Court harlotry; dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title; let the people clearly understand that our present House of Lords is composed largely of descendants of successful pirates and rogues; do these things and you shatter the Romance that keeps the nation dumb and spellbound while privilege picks its pockets.

Source: Tom Johnston: Our Scots Noble Families, page x.Tom_Johnston_(British_politician)

Wightman’s book was my reading on the last train south from Waverley, surrounded as I was by the hen-parties to Newcastle, and the rugby-men from Newcastle. Its will be my study for the rest of the weekend.
Meanwhile, this is Tom Devine on Johnston (page 551 of my well-thumbed paperback edition):

Scotland’s wartime supremo was the former Red Clydesider and Labour MP for West Stirlingshire, Tom Johnston, who had been appointed regional commissioner charged with responsibility for civil defence north of the border at the outbreak of hostilities. His success in that post and Churchill’s determination to avoid the industrial troubles on the Clyde during the Great War led the Prime Minister to appoint a man with a long and distinguished left-wing pedigree to the office of Secretary of State for Scotland in February 1941. Churchill had chosen wisely. Johnston was a giant figure in Scottish politics and is revered to this day as the greatest Scottish Secretary of the century.


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Where were we?


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October 11, 2015 · 11:27 am