Man walks into jewellers and writes cheque for £100,000. Leaves with nothing and is very happy.
This was the unlikely beginning of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in 1896.
The man was whisky distiller Andrew Usher and the jeweller was his friend James Aitchison, goldsmith to the Queen and also a town councillor. His shop was at 80 Princes Street (now Clarks Shoes – the original is behind the later additional frontage).
Usher was reported to have said “I have so much money, I don’t know what to do with it” to which Aitchison replied “I never thought I would live to see the day when anyone would come into my shop and tell me that.”
Two years later Andrew was dead. This being Edinburgh, actual building took nearly two decades and the Usher Hall finally opened in March 1914.
Usher was no ordinary distiller. His family effectively created Scotch whisky as a global brand, first by marketing the Smith’s Glenlivet single malt, then revolutionising mass production of blended whisky.
He was one of founders, along with John Crabbie and William Sanderson (of VAT 69 fame), of the North British Distillery in Gorgie. It was astonishingly profitable, aided by spectacularly successful brand marketing campaigns which enabled Scotch to replace Irish whiskey and French Cognac as the most popular spirit in the Empire and the world.
The Usher Hall wasn’t solely a philanthropic gesture. Usher’s Presbyterian faith had strong views on alcohol. So although built on the proceeds of hard liquor, there were strict conditions banning its sale at the Usher Hall.
It was to be an entertainment venue for the people of Edinburgh, a diversion from the evils that drink could also bring. Usher imposed the same on conditions his benefactions to his local village, St Abbs in Berwickshire.
There was also a wider movement at this time to make drinking respectable. Lavishly decorated new pubs opened (like my local the Guildford Arms in 1897) to offer something more than the dingy hovels that tended to pass for public houses.
Concerns about the dreadful physical state of recruits for the South African War promoted much debate on public health.
Promotion of well being of his fellow citizens also prompted Andrew’s brother, John Usher, to fund firstly a professorial chair and then in 1902 an institute for the teaching of public health in Edinburgh. Other distillers made huge contributions too – without Sir John Dewar there would have been no Highlands and Islands Medical Service, the forerunner of the NHS.
Such individual contributions by whisky families stand in stark contrast to the corporate nature of distilling now where the Scotch Whisky Association remains bitterly opposed to the Scottish Government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing. Although this would have relatively little impact on whisky, the Association fears the impact of any precedent for its international sales. Somehow, I don’t think Messrs Usher, Dewar and others would approve – their priorities were for the health of their fellow citizens.
Whisky families also provided inspirational leaders. Sir Patrick Manson was the father of study of tropical medicine, a key concern for the British Empire. He founded the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine but grew up in Oldmedrum in Aberdeenshire where his family owned the Glengarioch distillery.
Field Marshall Douglas Haig came from the Haig whisky dynasty. He was born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. Perhaps surprisingly, given his social awkwardness, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.
His image was used to promote Haig whisky and he was awarded a cash sum with his earldom after the war – £100,000 the same as Usher’s original bequest for the hall. It was also a prominent venue for recruiting volunteers – particularly Sir George McCrae’s battalion made up of Hearts players and supporters.
On November 27 1914, McCrae addressed a packed audience: “ I would not – I could not – ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side. In a moment I will walk down to Castle Street and set my name to the list of volunteers. Who will join me?”
Hundreds followed and many of these young men were among the casualties in the battle of the Somme when the battalion suffered colossal losses.
War brought horrors that Usher could not have imagined when he wrote that cheque twenty years earlier.
Recent controversies over the centenary of World War One sometimes overlook a key factor – how the survivors wanted it to be remembered by future generations.
In the case of Dr Elsie Inglis, this was quite simple – build maternity hospitals to continue the work she had dedicated her life to before 1914.
Two were constructed – one in Belgrade reflecting the huge sacrifice she and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit (SWHU) volunteers made in Serbia. The other was in Edinburgh, where a public appeal supplemented the remaining funds raised in wartime for the SWHU.
The hospital in Edinburgh was to replace the Hospice which Elsie had set up in 1904. The name a bit of misnomer – it was a maternity hospital run by all-female staff at 219 High Street (part of the Royal Mile) which sounds grand but it was there to serve the poorest families in the Old Town. Inglis’s intentions were clear – she visited the USA in 1913 and at Muskegon, Michigan, found a small memorial hospital as the model she wanted for midwifery in Edinburgh.
The final hospital was completed in 1925 with a glorious outlook across the Holyrood Park. It was incorporated into the NHS in 1948 but forty years later was deemed surplus to requirements along with the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women.
The building was sold and became a nursing home for older people. I should declare an interest here – I and my siblings were all born at Elsie’s and I also covered the closure protest as a Herald reporter. We were repeatedly assured that Elsie’s name would continue to be preserved in a working maternity unit the city
These pledges were not honoured. Instead, the nursing home is now closed in the wake of two deaths of patients.
I don’t think this is quite what Winston Churchill had in mind when he praised the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals: “….the record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr Inglis, will shine in history.” Another part of the site us occupied by a private nursery “Bright Horizons family solutions.” It may well be a wonderful nursery but its website merely uses Elsie’s name – there is no further reference to her.
Contrast this with Belgrade where the other Elsie’s is still going strong, despite a NATO air strike in 1999 which killed several patients. It now bears the name of a Serbian doctor Dr Dragiša Mišović but its website fully acknowledges Elsie Inglis and her colleagues who founded it.
Back in Edinburgh last year even Elsie’s grave in the Dean Cemetery lay neglected and unmarked. Thankfully, good blokes at Scot Mid funeral directors have since restored it.There are several plaques in and around Edinburgh and the Clydesdale Bank put her on their £50 note. She also has a prominent place in the Great Tapestry of Scotland. And that’s great.
But what is there that fulfils the original wishes of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers for a living embodiment of their founder? Something that connects with the present, not just the past.
Involvement in the suffrage struggle made them more determined and resourceful. They hated the propaganda film made in 1917 and contemporary artistic portrayals were also derided by their sisters at the Endell Street Hospital near Covent Garden.
For these reasons alone I am pretty sure they would judge Edinburgh’s attempts at commemoration of Elsie’s legacy as shoddy, shameful … and an utter disgrace.
Their answer now would be in deeds not words.
What did history do to merit the dustbin tag? You don’t hear about things being consigned to the cesspit of chemistry, morass of mathematics or sewer of sociology.
But “dustbin of history” is now in common usage. Mark Liberman has looked at its origins and the unlikely combination of Leon Trotsky, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair gave it wider currency.
What does this say about all the archivists, historians and other interested folk? We’re not averse to a bit of foraging now and again but serial scavengers in mucky discarded trash? I don’t think so!
Treasure chest seems a preferable term which gives the excellent Tobar an Dulchais archive a head start because that’s what it means in translation from Gaelic.
That’s my Hogmanay rant over … in case you missed them, here are some highlights from 2013:
Three short films
All from 1943 and each brilliant in its own way: Highland Doctor is a Kay Mander classic, The Western Isles is a Hebridean feast in glorious Technicolor. And the Polish women soldiers training in Gullane proved fascinating. It has even trended on BBC trending which, for the History Company, is really trendy.
There is a huge amount of work already under way. I was moved by this piece on the first UK homes for heroes and, from the Accrington Pals site, this view of the horrors of the Somme from the German side.
Thanks to all of you who have helped support the History Company over the last year, particularly those who have given feedback, and Twitter chums for their contributions which have made it interesting and fun. Here’s a special treat – a two minute trip across the Tay Bridge in 1897.
And, just to be fair to dustbins, here’s a joyous clip of young Paraguayans making great music out of rubbish:
It’s a production from the Creative Visions Foundation set up in memory of Reuters journalist Dan Eldon. A wonderful way to start the New Year…
The Scottish Parliament has never seen anything like it – more than 30,000 people queuing up outside and desperate to get in.
Over three weeks they waited patiently for an hour or more just to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Bad news – it has closed at the Parliament. Good news – it is now back at Cockenzie House in East Lothian until December 8 and reviewed here in Lucinda Byatt’s splendid post. Lucinda and her mum were among the many stitchers.
It will be back at Parliament next year. And if you want a preview, try the Tapestry website to see much better illustrations than mine here, listen to the audio, or buy the book.
Best of all, just go and see it – take the kids and any auld yins too. Nothing quite crosses all generations like the tapestry. It’s wonderful day out and free to boot.
Quite simply, it is magnificent in so many ways. Aesthetically, it is a stunning evocation of Scotland’s history, from earliest geological era to present day, told in more than 160 panels measuring 140 metres This makes it the world’s biggest tapestry (although, technically, like Bayeux it is actually embroidery).
Some bits you’ll know and others will surprise.
Elsie Inglis appears twice.
A lot of high heid yins but lots more ordinary folk
David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau have books in their heads.
Clearly, the stitchers (more than 1000 of them) have had a lot of fun. They have left their mark in signature panels.
It is a treasure trove of humour and hidden wit which stands out on closer inspection. And it is impossible to take it all in in just one visit – one lady came up five times from Peebles to see it.
All of this came out of the Pans – the original inspiration being the Prestonpans tapestry celebrating the 1745 battle. Artist Andrew Crummy designed the panels for that one, the Great Tapestry and the next one – the Diaspora Tapestry currentlyh being stitched by Scottish descendants around the world.
Sandy McCall Smith and Alistair Moffatt developed the Great Tapestry. Dorie Wilkie supervised stitching and Jim Naughtie is also a trustee but, sadly, my prediction about a panel for Aberdeen FC’s triumph 1983 at Gothenburg has not been realised.
This is a completely new slant on historiography – vast numbers of ordinary people coming together to weave – literally – their own history sparking new interest among young and old.
See it if you can at Cockenzie – call it stitches in time or history knit large it is not to be missed.
One of the great pleasures of wasting an idle hour looking at archive film is the electric jolt of surprise that causes you to fall off your chair.
In my case it was this clip of around 100 female Polish soldiers drilling somewhere in Scotland in 1943. It is silent, black and white, a bit long for a short at 11 minutes, and nothing to tell you where or why someone bothered to film them in the first place.
The first clue was in the name “Marine Hotel” at the side of the building where the women flock to at the end of the parade. Beryl Robinson’s very good history of the building shows that it is now the Scottish Fire Services College and is pinpointed here by the Britain from Above project.
The Marine was requisitioned at the start of the war as was Greywalls Hotel and Archerfield House, either of which could have been the starting point for the march.
They then move to the sand dunes and the beach via the same route we use today. It looks better in colour and should be familiar to those who saw all the aerial shots of this year’s British Open at Muirfield. There is much more buckthorn now.
The film is unusual in that it shows women soldiers. It is extraordinary because it shows them as individuals in detailed close up. It seems likely they were PWSK support troops gaining basic combat training.
They look like they’re having fun playing soldiers in the sand dunes. No live firing apart from the occasional smoke bomb.But it might well have been for real. Polish troops were deployed en masse in Scotland for a reason. If a Nazi invasion had materialised, much of the blood spilled to defend Scotland would have been Polish blood. This contribution is recognised in the Great Scottish Tapestry:
Three Polish airmen were killed fighting fires during the Clydebank blitz in 1941 when the sailors on the Polish destroyer Piorun delivered constant barrages of anti-aircraft fire.
As the war progressed, Polish troops trained in Scotland formed the armoured spearhead which routed German tank formations at Falaise, the key battle of Normandy. Sosabowski’s parachute brigade played a prominent role in the ill-fated assault on Arnhem.
In later years the relationship soured. Stalin continued to deny the horrendous Soviet massacre Poland’s military and civilian élite at Katyn and he resisted British offers of help to relieve the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. This was crowned by the biggest betrayal in the eyes of many Poles – Churchill’s ceding of Poland to Soviet influence at the Yalta conference.
So this drill and day out at seaside marks the end of an era of innocence. Curiously, Gullane beach also had another reminder from October 1939 when chivalry was still alive. Spitfires from nearby Drem and Turnhouse shot down the first German raiders over British airspace. The sailors and airmen from both sides were buried with full military honours as British Pathé recorded.
The wreckage from one of the Luftwaffe aircraft was buried in the Gullane dunes and lay there for nearly 60 years before being recovered.
A fishing boat rescued the survivors including Uberleutnant Sigmund Storp who gave the skipper his gold ring for saving his life. Their families later became friends. British Pathé and other newsreels recreated this a few days later, wrongly moving the site of the ditching westwards from Gullane to Port Seton.
Most of the Polish troops in Britain were of course men. Another Pathé film, more typical of the propaganda effort to boost morale, shows them in dancing mode.
This account of the Polish women soldiers in Gullane is necessarily incomplete so please leave a comment below if you can shed further light. There will be many mothers and grannies within its frames……
Hooray! Many thanks to filmmaker and historian Marianna Bukowski for identifying the actual film made from the Gullane footage. Stirring martial music encourages women to join up. It is much shorter for the edit – out goes the Marine Hotel but one of the cameramen (there must have been two) stays in. From his uniform, he might be American. By 1943 the USA was the lead player in Allied propaganda films with plenty of ideas, people and equipment.
It is on the VWojtekSolidierBear YouTube channel which has a great range of similar clips, including some of Polish WAAFs, and Polish soldiers at a camp in Scotland in 1940 in which the commentator places Glasgow in England!
The film has now also received some coverage on the BBC.
From Golfers to Firefighters…where hope is unbroken: the story of Gullane’s Marine Hotel transformed to the Scottish Fire Services College by Beryl Robinson, Gullane and Dirleton History Society, 2005. The Fire College is now facing closure.
For more falling-off-the-chair moments, please see my post on the British Pathé blog
This wee gem from Cardiff University shows Archie Cochrane, the father of evidence-based medicine, in his prime.
He is the narrator so you see him from the start in a 1970s-style pullover. Then it cuts to scenes from the 1950s – some of which are redolent of the later Cholmondley Warner pastiches.
Archie is best known for the collaboration that bears its name – an international movement which scrutinises evidence from medical trials to find out what actually works for patients and what doesn’t.
But this is his great project in the Welsh valleys which resulted in the Rhondda Fach becoming the most medically-examined community in the world.
At first sight, he seems a bit out of place – posh Scottish doctor with a plummy accent, a Cambridge double first and his own private income (enough for him to afford a top- of- the- range Jaguar).
It makes you ask questions, which is what Archie did all the time. Sometimes awkward questions which rankled vested interests and rumbled conventional orthodoxy.
It may be a Scottish trait of constantly inquiring cussedness but that‘s the way he was. And for those who loved his integrity, loyalty and friendship it was a minor foible. Archie also had the Scotsman’s ability to dispense a ready dram and start a party anywhere.
After school and university he studied in Berlin and Vienna where he became fluent in German. He then enrolled as a medical student but with the advent of the Spanish Civil War he joined the International Brigade.
On leave in bar in Madrid he encountered Ernest Hemingway (“an alcoholic bore”). In a Barcelona bar he had a long argument with a tall Englishman over the POUM militia’s failure in the Aragon offensive to take Huesca and Zaragoza. That was Eric Blair aka George Orwell.
As a medical orderly, Archie also suffered every triage nurse or doctor’s nurse’s nightmare – admitting a wounded Julian Bell, a close pal from their Cambridge days, knowing that he was certainly going to die.
Spain confirmed his affinity with ordinary working people and his hatred of fascism. That was further seared during his war service. Like his friends Richard Doll and John Crofton, his war was traumatic – all the more so as a prisoner of war when he had additional pressure as a doctor who could speak German.
In such adverse conditions he managed to conduct some trials and also help some Spanish volunteers in Salonica who faced a tough time explaining why they were fighting with the allies. Archie told the German authorities they had all been born in Gibraltar and were therefore British.
Archie studied under Austin Bradford Hill, the leading medical statistician who provided the randomisation model for trials. Later, he almost carved a career in his native Scotland but a Scottish Office and Medical Research Council (MRC) project fell through. So he came to Wales joining the MRC’s Pneumoconiosis Unit at Llandough Hospital, Cardiff.
This was at the start of the National Health Service which already had strong associations with South Wales and mineworkers. Its founder Aneurin Bevan (whose father died from pneumoconiosis) was from Tredegar which had long had its won comprehensive health service paid for by miners and steelworkers.
The Scottish doctor AJ Cronin worked for the Tredegar Medical Aid Society and every week would roar up the valleys on his motorbike to pursue his studies in Cardiff. His experiences with the mining community formed the basis of The Citadel the novel turned into Hollywood blockbuster which hardened British public opinion in favour of a national health service. (I looked very hard for evidence that he and Bevan actually met in Tredegar but, dammit, could not find any!).
But for Archie it was a relatively favourable environment. The wee Jock with the big Jag had fought fascists and Nazis so his credentials were OK. Around one in twenty miners suffered some sort of disability from working in the pits. It was these men he recruited for the study. They were the key to its success, ensuring an astonishing response – more than 90 per cent of the population agreed to take part.
Its main aim was to see if the common miners’ disease progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) was due to an interaction between pneumoconiosis and tuberculosis. In the end, it concluded that tuberculosis had relatively little or no impact.
Archie followed the research up over 20 years. Its real impact was to demonstrate that epidemiology – looking at the pattern of disease – could be carried out effectively in large-scale field studies as well as the laboratory. If Tredegar was the cradle of the NHS, the Rhondda Fach was its nursery. South Wales also broke new ground in historiography with the Craig-y-nos project recreating the story of a TB hospital through the memories of former child patients.
In the 1960’s Archie expanded his questioning to other areas – use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks and the relative value of specialist coronary care units. In 1967 he asked what the evidence was for cervical screening programmes and concluded it was very flimsy. This was picked up by a newspaper reporter and was the first, but not the last taste, of media controversy.
The uncomfortable truth which he highlighted in his 1971 Rock Carling lecture Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random reflections on health services was there was no good evidence for many medical intervention and treatments. Too often it was based on subjective ignorance (from fellow doctors, which didn’t endear Archie to many colleagues) rather than objective evidence from randomised controlled trials.
Only after Franco died did Archie return to Spain to revisit his old haunts from the civil war. Overseas travel was not his forte. “…More things happened to Prof. Cochrane when he was abroad than to anybody else since. He got his passport stolen, he was accosted in lifts, he lost his luggage every single time he went abroad” colleague Janie Hughes recalled in a Wellcome witness seminar
He also directed attention to his personal life and discovered his sexual impotence was due to the inherited disease, porphyria. He then tracked more than 100 members of his wider family to have them tested.
A keen art collector, Archie even ensured questions continued to be asked after his death in 1988. He left a bequest of more than £300,000 to Green College, Oxford, newly established by Richard Doll, with the stipulation that part of the money should be used in the field of randomised trials.
He did not set up the Cochrane Collaboration. This was the work of Iain Chalmers and others first in Oxford and now around the world but he wholeheartedly approved of its aims.
The Collaboration logo (left) shows seven controlled trials of the use of corticosteroids to women expected to give birth prematurely. The first trial was in 1972 and the last in 1991. Lines on the left show positive results for the treatment – cutting the odds of baby death between 30 and 50 per cent.
The trouble was for two decades doctors simply didn’t know the life-saving benefits of this treatment. It wasn’t until 1989 that the results were brought together in a systematic review. As a result, tens of thousands of premature babies probably and suffered and died.
The explosion in the number of controlled trials has continued unabated since then and with it the work of thousands of Cochrane researchers critically assessing all available trial results and then publishing them.
So Archie’s questioning continues…..
Isabel Baker’s informative post on the MRC Insight blog adds interesting details on Archie’s team
The James Lind library (named after the Scottish physician who first conducted medial trials in the 18th century) has very useful Cochrane links.
Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random reflections on health service – online version from the Nuffield Trust which also has a series of essays on Archie Non-random Reflections on Health Services Research viewable here.
Archie Cochrane: Back to the Front by F Xavier Bosch, Barcelona, 2003 is a very good collection of essays on Archie with particular reference to his time in Spain.
The Cochrane Collaboration has been a leader in harnessing the internet to make its work readily accessible online. This is a good short video of its early years:
Professor Jimmy Williamson, who died in June, was the last surviving member of the Edinburgh group which found the first 100% cure for tuberculosis.
In 1954 he was the last consultant to join Sir John Crofton’s team in Edinburgh. As a junior doctor he saw his wages double with he advent of the NHS and he had two notable celebrity patients George Orwell at Hairmyres Hospital and Bill McLaren, the future rugby commentator at East Fortune Hospital.
By that time three drugs were available – streptomycin, isoniazid and PAS. Many people were cured but thousands also developed resistance to individual drugs, relapsed and died. The Edinburgh group’s approach was approach was revolutionary using all three available TB drugs from the outset.
Rising TB notifications in Edinburgh were halved between 1954 and 1957, a feat not achieved anywhere before or since. Waiting lists disappeared and the epidemic was halted in its tracks. Jimmy was technical director of a mass x-ray campaign in 1958 which with enormous support from newspapers and broadcasters rooted out residual TB in the city
Many did not believe the Edinburgh group’s results. When Jimmy presented a paper at a conference in Istanbul, all the American delegates walked out. An international trial was arranged which used the Edinburgh model as a protocol. It became the gold standard for TB treatment in the developed world. Landmark trials by the Medical Research Council offered affordable treatments for developing countries.
There is much more on this in Sir John’s memoirs, newly published by his daughter Alison and son-in-law David and available here.
Jimmy’s career, particularly in geriatrics, the speciality he did so much to create, is well told in Colin Currie’s lovely Scotsman obituary. It also refers to the ruse Bernard Crick played on Jimmy to ensure his recollection of George Orwell was based on fact.
But best always to listen the man himself. Here are two interview clips previously available on the NHS 60th anniversary website – the first on Orwell
And the second on Highland nurses who succumbed to TB
For more on the history of tuberculosis, the University of York hosted an interesting conference in June. More information and downloadable booklet (in English and Italian) is available here
The best account of Orwell as a patient is by Hilda Bastian
Also worth a look is my Reuters Foundation study (inspired and supported by Jimmy and Sir John) and available at the RCPE