Posts Tagged ‘Thorntonloch’

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.


Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

William McTaggart

The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.



Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.


My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.


Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.


SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.


Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory


Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.


Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.


Luke Rendell on whales and the colours of tulips

May 9, 2015

As part of my local history research on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, I’ve interviewed local people on a range of topics including the stranding of 147 whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar in May 1950. I’m writing a short local history book on this event and it will examine the press coverage (which greatly exaggerated the number of people who saw the whales), as well as an analysis of the interviews, covering how people got to Thorntonloch,their description of the scene on the beach, how people behaved and their feelings about what they saw, the social aspects of the event i.e. what it tells us about society in 1950, and an examination of why the whales stranded. This week, I interviewed Dr Luke Rendell for the last chapter of my book. He is an expert on whales and dolphins and is the joint author (with Hal Whitehead) of a fascinating new book, cover below, entitled The Cultural Life of Whales and Dolphins, described in a Guardian review as “provocative, brilliant”. Luke Rendell told me that there was no definitive theory of why pilot whales strand in such large numbers, but that it definitely had to do with the social structure of the whale communities. The authors argue that there is a strong culture within groups of whales and dolphins and that these animals (from the Guardian review) “observe rituals of the dead and exhibit grief”. You can hear Luke talking about whales and dolphins (cetaceans) on Start the Week or download the podcast from April 21st 2015.

Whitehead and Rendell book

Whitehead and Rendell book

Another Radio 4 programme caught my ear this week. Word of Mouth which is presented by the children’s author Michael Rosen (poems, articles and performances on this site). This week, the discussion was on the names that people have given to colours over the centuries. Rosen and his guests discussed how, for example, what we now call pink did not always have the same meaning and that, in some languages, there are no words for certain colours such as blue. You can listen to the podcast of the programme and think about what names you allocate to certain colours and how some colours are not defined e.g. mauve. Interestingly, Michael Rosen and his guest pronounce mauve as “mowve” (as in to row a boat), which I would pronounce it “mawve” (as in raw). After listening to this I was out in the garden taking photos of my tulips of which I have this year a “rampant array” (Richard Ford). The photos below show the vibrant colours of the tulips and their abstract appearance when shot in close up. Tulips were originally grown wild in Turkey and came to Europe in the 17th century. The lack of strong winds this spring has helped to make the tulips last longer and the colours – reds, pinks, yellows and purples i.e. different shades of each colour, are a joy to look at. Enjoy the following:

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Red tulip with yellow heart

Red tulip with yellow heart

Tulip head as abstract

Tulip head as abstract

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

Visit to Peebles and spooky whales research

February 15, 2015

We set off for Peebles on a bright sunny morning here in Dunbar, with a big Australian cloudless sky above. We headed for Peebles and took the country way, via Dalkeith (good photos). We got to Peebles and went to the excellent Coltman’s deli and restaurant for coffee/tea and a superb fruit scone (big enough for two), butter and homemade strawberry jam. We changed into walking boots and headed along the banks of the River Tweed, under the main bridge – photo below.

Tweed bridge at Peebles

Tweed bridge at Peebles

We followed the river to a metal bridge and crossed to the far side. From there we headed towards Neidpath Castle, on the site of which a castle has stood from about 1190, with the present castle built in the 1390s. It remains an imposing site and on Sunday, there was still snow lying on the approach to the castle, as in these photos.

Niedpath Castle, Peebles

Neidpath Castle, Peebles

Neidpath Castle, Peebles

Neidpath Castle, Peebles

The railway used to run through Peebles and part of the track is now a walking/cycling path. An impressive bridge remains, giving views up and down the Tweed. The bridge is a magnificent structure (see below) with its numerous arches and strong railings.

Looking up at the old railway bridge, Peebles

Looking up at the old railway bridge, Peebles

The old railway track over the bridge, Peebles

The old railway track over the bridge, Peebles

After our walk, we headed to one of our favourite eating places, the excellent Kailzie Gardens Restaurant. There 2 impressive wood burning stoves in the restaurant. We’ve had wood burning stoves in previous houses, and there is no better heat. There is a danger if you sit facing the stove, as you can easily get mesmerized by the constant changing of shape and colour of the live flames. Our thickly cut lamb was delicious and it was served with a jus that had a real depth of flavour. I asked for more and was quickly given a wee jug of this flavoursome accompaniment to the meat. This restaurant makes the best Border Tart, the subject of much praise on a previous blog.

My research on the stranding of 147 whales at Thorntonloch Beach, near Dunbar in May 1950 is nearly complete and I have interviewed about 2o people who went to see the whales. I also interviewed Dr Patrick Miller an expert on whales from St Andrews University. He told me that there was no defining theory of why pilot whales strand themselves in large groups. I was looking for some articles on this yesterday and up on my screen came news reports that 200 whales had been stranded on that day at Farewell Spit, near Nelson in New Zealand. The BBC News report contains a striking, if somewhat distressing video. It was quite spooky to come across this report on the day that I was researching the stranding of whales.

1950 Whales, cycling and the Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

September 24, 2014

One of the most striking events that I’ve uncovered in my local history research project on Dunbar in 1950 is the beaching and death of 147 whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar. The whales were discovered by two local boys who could see a few whales on the beach but many more in the water. There was an attempt to put some of the whale calves out to sea, but they immediately swam back to their parents. The whales attracted huge crowds and it was estimated that around 33,000 people came to the site. This is a remarkable figure, given that very few people in 1950 had cars. The local paper The Haddingtonshire Courier (now the East Lothian Courier) reported that “hundreds of vehicles, including specially chartered buses” arrived at the scene and people had to walk 2 miles in some cases to see the whales. The photo below – from the Illustrated London News of 1950 – shows the whales and the onlookers. As part of my research, I’m going to be interviewing people who went to see the whales.

Stranded whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar, in 1950

Stranded whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar, in 1950

We’ve had a great summer here in Dunbar and we’re now into an Indian summer, a term which  has its origins in North America, where the native Americans needed warm and settled weather in September in order to get their crops in. The fine weather has meant that I’ve been able to do quite a lot of cycling. This week’s cycles around the East Lothian countryside have seen me accompanied overhead by huge skeins of pink footed geese, heading for Aberlady Nature Reserve. The extended V shapes in the sky are a great sight and you can hear some of the geese calling out. These calls are to keep the younger geese in line and to prevent them from getting separated from the main group. The countryside itself is changing. The harvest is over and the ploughs are back in the fields, turning the fields from the post-harvest yellow to shiny brown. The poet A E Houseman features ploughs in his poems, including Is my team ploughing? which opens with “Is my team ploughing,/ That I was used to drive/ And hear the harness jingle/ When I was man alive?”/ Ay, the horses trample,/ The harness jingles now;/ No change though you lie under/ The land you used to plough”. Horse ploughing in small fields is no more and today’s satnav enabled tractors with their shiny, flashing blades ease across the fields, leaving a glistening brown wake behind them.

Hilary Mantel, the author of the excellent Thomas Cromwell centred novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has a new collection of short stories out, under the arresting title of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The title story was published in full in The Guardian at the weekend and an intriguing read it is. A woman in a flat near a hospital where Mrs Thatcher is being treated answers her door, expecting the plumber and lets the man in as he might be the plumber’s son. The man turns out to be an IRA assassin. I’ll let you read the story yourself via the link, and decide for yourself whether this is up to the high standards set in the two Cromwell novels.