The mid 19th century was a period of rapid industrial growth both in the North-east of Scotland and throughout the British Empire. The boom-and-bust times of railway expansion had opened up new markets and stimulated engineering innovation on a scale rarely seen before.
From humble beginnings supplying the likes of the Great North of Scotland Railway’s seemingly insatiable demand for cast iron fence posts and level-crossing gates, Harpers were soon exporting cast-iron pre-fabricated pedestrian suspension bridges right across the globe.
Engineered and manufactured in kit form at their Aberdeen foundry and using innovative techniques gleaned from long experience in the designing of fences, the Harper products required little local engineering expertise to either assemble or construct, making them popular choices in developing countries. These instantly recognisable and iconic bridges – with spans of up to 91m – provided many decades of service in places as diverse as Nepal, South Africa and even the Falkland Islands.
Prior to the manufacture of bridges, Harper’s concentrated on the manufacturing of fence posts and strainers.
On a walk around Scolty woods at Banchory, we chanced upon a pair of 140 year old Harper’s Patented Strainers.

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Trump Trump Trump Trump

Nanny Abercrombie’s Windmill

By Duncan Harley

When Presidential hopeful Donald Trump began his tirade against Scotland’s renewable energy policy year he famously commented “”I don’t want to be standing on the first tee looking into an industrial wind turbine if I’m going to be spending all this money” and “we will spend whatever monies are necessary to see to it that these huge and unsightly industrial wind turbines are never constructed.” Perhaps he would be persuaded otherwise if he were to pay a even a fleeting visit to one of Aberdeenshire’s hidden gems, the Glassaugh Windmill just east of Sandend on the Buchan coast. Both used to blow in the wind.

At first glance, the windmill can easily be mistaken for a Pictish Broch or even a Martello Tower. Set back over 500 metres from the A98 between Portsoy and Cullen the structure has a covering of ivy which masks the outline and suggests a tower house with a walled garden circling around the base. Nothing could be further from the truth however!

In common with much of the Banff and Buchan coastline, the area around Sandend is full of Pictish remains. These are often built over or indeed incorporated in later structures such as farm houses, churches and dykes. The Glassaugh Windmill is just such a building.

General James Abercrombie of Glassaugh was as his title suggests a military man. He was born in 1706 to a wealthy Banffshire family and as was the custom of the time, he purchased a major’s commission to enter the army in 1742. He was promoted to colonel in 1746 and major-general in 1756. He is credited with having good organisational skills but little understanding of the art of warfare and was known to his troops as “Mrs Nanny Abercrombie” because of his skills at provisioning and providing creature comforts such as tents and hot food on the long marches through North America during the French and Indian War of 1689-1763.

Unfortunately, in the July of 1758 he met his “Charge of the Light Brigade” moment when he rather rashly directed his troops into a frontal assault on a fortified French position without the benefit of artillery support. More than 2,000 of his force of 15,000 were killed or wounded resulting in the good general being recalled to Britain where he duly became a member of parliament supporting the cause of British dominion over the Northern Territories of America and Canada. No surprises so far then.

When Major General Abercrombie MP returned to his native Scotland he of course took over the running of the family estate at Glassaugh and possibly lacking much to do in the parliament of the day he began organising the improvement of the agricultural economy of the area.

This was a time of land improvement and land enclosure. Labour was plentiful and indeed cheap as a large number of Irish Catholics had been disposed by the influx of English and Scottish aristocracy and had in many cases sought work on the land in Scotland. What was Major General Abercrombie MP to do?

He had been a poor general indeed but had as has been said, had good organisational skills. In the true spirit of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk which is essentially a series of absurdly comic episodes, Abercrombie decided to build a windmill.

Now, in those far off days, most mills were powered by water. There are tens of thousands of watermills in the UK and at a guess there must be at least one in every inhabited town and village in Aberdeenshire. Transport was improving during the 1750’s but local flour and grain mills were still the order of the day and met the needs of the townships and small communities all around the shire. Windmills were not unknown in the North East, but were not that common due to the ease and availability of waterpower. The good General however decided that wind was the way to go.

As any engineer will know, the biggest challenge in building large structures is the sourcing of building materials. If you need to build a wall then you will require large quantities of heavy and difficult to transport stone. The shorter the journey from quarry to building site the better.

Well, it just so happened that Major General Abercrombie had a ready made supply of building materials in the form of a bronze age burial cairn. The folk who had built the cairn would have no objections to its recycling after all and of course Scottish Natural Heritage was not even a slight smile in the womb of the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991.

The Cup and Saucer was born. Using the materials from the ancient cairn, Abercrombie bade his workers to build an enormous windmill four stories high and with a tapering tower topped with white sails. It must have been the sight of the century for folk who had never travelled further than Sandend or Portsoy.

How long Abercrombie’s windmill was in full tilt is not recorded, however in a letter dated 23rd August 1761, the good general advised his daughter that high winds had almost blown off “the pompon of the wind mill which was only set up yesterday.”

The ivy covered stump of the structure is all that remains today to remind us of the man who had the vision to build it.

Mind you, when you think about it, you’re actually looking at a Bronze Age burial cairn undergoing a Tibetan sky burial.

Perhaps the man who would be President should re-visit his homeland for a few more hours.

© Images and words – Duncan Harley

(c) Stupidity – Donard Tlump

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The Battle of George Square

The 31st of January is of course the anniversary of the Great Storms of 1953.  It’s also the date of the demise of the Young Pretender – Charles Edward Stuart – in Rome in 1788 after a protracted relationship with Brandy.
But who remembers the Battle of George Square which took place on the 31st January 1919?

They don't like it up em 6

Picture the scene if you will.

The “War to end all wars” has recently ended and the troops have returned home to discover that all is not well in Scotland. There are few jobs for the returning heroes and working conditions are poor with low wages and a long working week.

The workforce which had been in reserved occupations manufacturing the arms and tools for war are unhappy with the cuts in the standard working week due to the fact that the war has ended and there is no longer much demand in France for barbed wire, bullets and explosives.

Plus of course the Bolshevist revolution has taken place leading to the early demise of the Russian Royal Family by a firing squad.

So on Friday 31st January 1919, after a general strike by 40,000 workers in the industrial heartland of Scotland, there was a mass rally in Glasgow’s George Square.  Now the aim of the rally was to hear the response of the UK government to the workers demands so the Lord Provost, Sir James Watson Stewart, and the Trades Council President, Mannie Shinwell, duly entered the City Chambers to have a wee natter.

Sadly things got out of control. As they talked, the Glasgow police baton charged the assembled crowd. A local magistrate tried to read the Riot Act but had the document taken from his hands and ripped up and things just got from bad to worse.

Seasoned troops from south of the border were instructed to open fire if required to do so.

The failure of the police to control the riot prompted the Coalition Government under David Lloyd George to react. After Scottish Secretary Robert Munro described the riot as a “Bolshevist uprising” troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer arrived to occupy Glasgow’s streets.

The howitzer was positioned on the City Chambers steps facing the crowd, the local cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, machine guns were posted on the top of the North British Hotel, the Glasgow Stock Exchange and the General Post Office Buildings.

sarg 1

As is usual in such situations no local troops were used. The Scot’s battalions who had recently returned from France were confined in Maryhill Barracks while seasoned troops from south of the border were instructed to open fire if required to do so.

Amazingly, there was no major bloodshed as far as I am led to believe. There must have been broken heads and limbs via the initial police action but I can find no record of deaths.

The troops did not open fire although the tanks were deployed in Glasgow’s George Square. I can only assume that the government of the day decided that it would be a bad idea to provoke social change via bloodshed and risk a revolution.

Mannie Shinwell and some other trade union activists were jailed for a bit and a 47 hour working week was agreed. Until the 1922 General Strike, things smouldered on of course, but that’s another story.

I have no information about what transpired in Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire on the 31st January 1919 and would ask folk to get in touch with any memories of that day. I did however find a reference to Aberdeen Trades Council discussing the issue and agreeing to mount a protest against the “continued imprisonment of the Clyde Strikers” and I have no doubt that given the politics of the time there must have been folk from the North East not only attending the demonstrations but serving with in the military in the area.


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Plain-speaking Trump

Most sentient beings would recognise that they are in trouble when even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu body swerves you.
Donald Trump has seemingly simply put plans to meet the man on hold until such time as he becomes the 45th President of the USA.

topiary 004 b and w

Despite this, Inverness man Donald J. Morrison in a letter to the editor of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, sides with “Plain-speaking Donald Trump” and in addition offers Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, a fully paid one way ticket to oblivion.

Here, for your bemusement is the letter as published on page 26 of today’s edition:

“Sir, – Having launched his bid for the White House a few months ago, Donald J. Trump – whose mother came from Lewis – continues to be embroiled in controversy because he has the guts to say what others daren’t say.
His sentiments that there should be stricter scrutiny of Muslims wishing to enter his country should be endorsed. Although what he has said recently concerning a total ban may not have been “politically correct” it is becoming apparent that he is fast becoming the mouthpiece of what ordinary people across his nation are thinking and saying.
Whether you love or loath him, Mr Trump has to be admired for speaking honestly and directly on issues that have to be said, instead of rambling and waffling on about what people want to hear – to win votes and hearts.
There is no doubt that his comments have hit the nail on the head with many ordinary Americans, over live issues they are deeply concerned about and which they want addressed.
I sincerely hope that this perceptive, robust, honest-talking, plain-speaking American, whose Scottish blood is strong and his heart is Highland, becomes the next president of the United States.
If somehow he doesn’t make it to the White House, he would make for an ideal candidate for the less-grand office of first minister at Holyrood. I would happily nominate him, and at the same time joyfully offer Nicola Sturgeon a one-way ticket out of Scotland.

Donald J. Morrison
Old Edinburgh Road,

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Remembrance Day


Remembrance Day

By Duncan Harley

As the barriers again go up between Croatia and neighbouring Slovenia it is worth remembering the Dayton Agreement. Known mainly as an accord it led to a bitter peace indeed.

The leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia signed the Dayton Accord in Paris to end three-and-a-half years of war in the Balkans.

In the bloodiest conflict seen in Europe since World War II, President Clinton led the NATO forces into the war torn Balkans to broker an aid dependant peace deal following the deaths of at least 200,000 people.

The deal had a limited success and the Balkans continue to simmer.

This time round the barriers are migrant led but they are a symptom of continuing mistrust between neighbours.

Two decades ago we were treated to the spectacle of a set of little nations at war with each other – yet again – a failed intervention by those who know best and of course blood soaked scandals such as that at the safe haven of Srebrenica where eight thousand people were murdered as we all looked on daytime TV.

When in Croatia recently it was obvious that past differences remained unresolved. We looked at the shell torn buildings on the border in disbelief. Some 19 years on there are still burned out houses and shrapnel rendered buildings. The border areas are still referred to as the front line.

Locals talked about the good days before Tito died. One young man commented “Most families lost people in the war. We welcome our neighbours but they come to our country as if nothing happened. We go to their country and say nothing also, it can’t last, it is unreal.”

In far off Alford in 2001 the local transport museum hosted a Dayton Agreement ex-Balkan tank. With a hole drilled through the gun muzzle to immobilise it, this symbol of peace was as I recall a tired veteran of some middle-east war or other. Probably Israeli, a US Sherman based gun platform of a 1944 design. God knows how many saw the bad end of the bloody thing.

No matter, it is long gone and no doubt resides in some armoured vehicle collection or other as a revered piece of the military past.

My point? There is none. Time marches on and people make choices.

Personally I would start avoiding the Balkans yet again. After all, dismal failures in the region led directly to the slaughter of the First World War.

If only Archduke Ferdinand had varied his route to the palace.

a pig in Venice

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Post Office Factotum

I’d read some of Bukowski’s work prior to my job in the sorting office … sic … it was xmas nineteensomethingorother and I was charged with sorting out parcels in Dixon’s Blazes. The name of the game was smashing up the mail. “Chuck it into the bags, who cares where the stuff’s meant for.”
red post box_edited-1

The children? “Smash the toys.”

During the night shift some drunks drove a red Queen painted Post Office van through the sorting office doors and got fired. Who cared.

The scum was there. One guy had even been fired last year for sticking it in big time. He had met the supervisor in the canteen and beat him with a loaded mail bag. You just never know who you’re associating with. They took him on again. Unbelievable.

Anyway, in about nineteensomethingorother, we felt privileged to be looking after the Royal Mail despite the obvious blemishes.

“You got any mail for me?”

“How the F… ck should I know … I’m only the mailman.”

“You got any mail for me?”

“How the F… ck should I know … I’m only the mailman.”

“You got any mail for me?”

“Who the F…ck are you and why should I even care?”

“You got any mail for me?”

Bukowski throws you over the place. After all, he’s dead and even when he wasn’t he didn’t give a shit.

Apoligies to Post Office Workers everywhere …

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An Audiological issue

Orkney 209 megabus

An Audiological issue

By Duncan Harley

A progressive and proud nation, Scotland takes good care of its senior citizens.

With a transport network second to none, Scotland’s bus pass holders can enjoy free travel to and from most anywhere on the Scottish mainland.

Skye and the Western Isles are on tap. Edinburgh, Glasgow and even Portlethan beckon, subject of course to an occasional 50p booking fee

Courtesy of Megabus Gold, the aged can even eat completely free en-route. Ticket holders are entitled to a meal on board – courtesy of the Scottish Government.

Perhaps it’s just a pack of cheap sandwiches, a small dried up croissant and wee cup of coffee, but in the big scheme of things it is surprising that more of us Scot’s don’t simply sell up and live on the buses. No Council tax, no heating bills and a food bank on tap. Bring it on! Plus the view over the Dee is simply amazing from the top deck.

The NHS by contrast has quite a long way to go. Underachieving seems to be the preferred way forward.

I recently returned from a trip abroad with that dreaded lurgie – blocked ears!

Over the past few decades I have often suffered from this problem. Air travel and high altitude is the usual cause and the resulting issue is a hearing one. Imagine being in a glass jar with echoes all around. All communication becomes strained. Tibet was the worst. There is nowhere in country with an altitude of less than 12k feet. Peru was just as bad.

The cure is a good, old fashioned syringing of the ear canals. Cotton buds only make the problem worse. A brisk syringing makes the wax flow out and hearing returns. My GP at Insch loved this procedure. It was he said “Almost the only procedure a GP can perform with an immediate and life transforming chance of success … patients love it. “

In the past few years, I have moved a couple of times. The surgery at Keith took good care of me and one GP at my new local surgery took time to ensure my survival from a life threatening complaint. Aware that appointments are hard to get, she insisted I come back to be seen until the issue resolved. I am grateful.

Cured, I slipped off the map until today.

The dreaded auditory lurgie involved phoning in for a non urgent appointment.

  • The surgery is very busy today. The appointment line is available between 8am and 8.30am. At other times please call back later. We are very busy. You are at position 53 in the queue.

I called back later only to be told by a young lady to call back in two months.

  • Two months? Are you joking?
  • Both of our ear nurses are unavailable. One has left and the other is on maternity leave. I’m not sure what they will do about this. We are very busy.

Tempted to ask who “we” might be I asked the nice young woman what I could do.

  • So what can I do?
  • You could speak to one of our doctors.
  • Let’s arrange that.
  • The earliest phone consultation is in 6 days.
  • So will the doctor syringe my ears over the phone?
  • Pardon?
  • Is there anyone else I can speak to?
  • We are very busy.

I phoned various places. I called my local hospital. They laughed and advised calling NHS Grampian who advised calling Audiology, seemingly NHS Grampian were unaware that Audiology deals with stuff like hearing aids and non-medical issues. Audiology then advised calling ENT who of course insisted on a referral from my GP. I asked the stern woman at ENT about private treatment but she said that my GP would need to refer me to a private consultant who would of course ask me for a hefty fee to cover his expenses.

I called my local surgery back with this information. The receptionist offered to get a doctor to call me back.

“The first available phone appointment is in seven days.”

“I could be deaf by then” I told her.

“That’s the best I can offer” she replied jauntily.


Something sounds completely rotten in the NHS.

Words and images © Duncan Harley

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