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Monday, April 22, 2019

#52 - King's College, Roycroft Hospital and The Battle for Hill 70

Jack McCurrach served in World War I.  Unlike his brother William, he did not make it through unscathed.  But also unlike his friend Dick, he did not die.  He was wounded in August, 1917 in or near Lens, France and spent some 8 months in hospital before being re-assigned to the Stationery and Typewriter Service in London.

Within the postcard collection, the only indication that Jack was overseas for WWI comes in the form of my favourite postcard of them all.  A coloured photograph of King's College at the University of Aberdeen, it was sent by Jack from Nairn on January 25, 1919 to his 5-year-old daughter, Gladys, in Vancouver.

It makes me cry, because of the note on the back:  "My Dear Gladys  Nairne 25-1-19.  Your Granny says to tell you she wishes you and Mommy were here today as well as Daddy.  I hope you are well also Jack and Jim and the others.  We have fine weather here.  I hope I'd soon be back in dear old Vancouver with you all again.  A kiss to you all from Daddy."

The change in address on the back tells a tale of its own.  Nellie was working at a maternity hospital on Haro Street in Vancouver.  The hospital was called Roycroft and would have been a private institution.  By the looks of it, Nellie was also living there and had Gladys with her.

Kings College was founded in 1495 in Aberdeen.  It was the third university to be built in Scotland and the fifth on the British Isles.  William Elphinstone that year petitioned Pope Alexander VI on behalf of King James IV to build the institution to help battle the ignorance he had seen within his parish and in the north generally.  Construction of the chapel began in 1498, it was consecrated in 1509, and by 1514 had 42 staff and students (Wikipedia). George Keith (of the Keiths of Keith Hall), the fifth Earl Marischal, established a second university in Aberdeen in 1593.  

Ahead a little over 300 years, Jack was wounded at Lens, France on August 22, 1917 (if you are interested in looking for the personnel records of someone who participated in the C.E.F. during WWI, check out Library and Archives Canada's search engine here).  At the time he was a member of the 47th battalion C.E.F. and saw little front line battle before getting wounded.  The WWI engagement known as the Battle for Hill 70 took place in August, 1917.  Hill 70, as it was known, is located to the north of the city of Lens in France.  Lens is in the administrative district now known as Hauts-de-France, and within the district of Pas-de-Calais.

Operation Order No. 78 was sent out on July 25, 1917.  The final objective was to force "... the enemy to evacuate LENS, (and with this in mind,) the Canadian Corps has been ordered to capture Hill 70."  The decision to focus on capturing Hill 70 (and not the city itself) was the first big decision for Arthur Currie who had just been promoted to lieutenant-general (Capturing Hill 70 p.3).  The Operation Order, as well as my great-grandfather's experience, tells us that the battle did not exclude the city - rather, targets imperative to communications and troop movements to and from the city (specific trenches and the Lens-Grenay Railroad) were attacked at the same time.

Soldiers in a recently captured trench near Lens (Library and Archives Canada MIKAN 3404807)

Hill 70 was taken in the battle, but the city of Lens remained in the hands of the Germans at the end of August.  Hill 70 and the fighting in Lens ended up with huge losses with Canadians losing 9,000 soldiers and Germans losing and estimated 25,000 between August 15 and 25, 1917 - more than the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Notre Dame and why we should care.

I was sitting in an Indigo (book store) on Monday, checking out "A History of Scotland" by Neil Oliver and killing time before a lunch date, when the woman beside me asked if I'd seen the news.  I'm always, always leery of people who talk to me when I'm out.  I wonder if they are crazy (like I'm not - LOL) or what they want from me.  I wonder if they want more of me than what I can offer at that moment.  But this time, this nice, older lady just needed to talk to someone about a fire halfway across the world.  She told a couple of other guys - I showed them pictures on the Internet.  

Then everyone I talked to for the rest of the day was sad - heartbroken, even - about this fire in France.  

Everyone on Facebook was talking about it, too.  And I started to see a few people talking about how you shouldn't care about it because it's the Catholic Church, or because it's a symbol of repression or colonization.  And I realized that these people don't understand my point of view and were making some pretty broad assumptions about why people care.  So I posted this this morning on Facebook:

I'm seeing so much bullshit on the Internet about why we shouldn't care about Notre Dame having a fire - somehow we are bad people for being upset - that we should somehow consider ourselves bad, politically-incorrect people because we are sad about the potential loss of a symbol of colonization and the pedophiliac Catholic Church. But I'm not upset for those reasons. I am upset about Notre Dame because it is a physical representation of our history - one that millions of people see every year. And so many of us have experiences there - or at least have seen pictures and know a bit of what it's about. It ties us to the past, it gives us roots, reminds us of how people can accomplish amazing things regardless of the politics and religion involved. But MOST IMPORTANTLY it gives us a point of reference that we can share with most of the world. It belongs to us all in one way or another. 

If Angkor Wat in Cambodia (the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, L'anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Tikal in Guatemala, Petra in Jordan, or any other historic icon) was destroyed or damaged in a fire or other disaster, I would be just as saddened - the only difference being that I haven't personally been to Angkor Wat or any of those other places and would be just a little more devastated for having NOT seen them. For me, this has nothing to do with Europe, nothing to do with colonization, nothing to do with religion. Nothing to do with my personal heritage.  This is a piece of the built environment that unites us. I think people are finding that hard to understand because we are now being encouraged to divide instead of unite. We are encouraged to attack Catholics, the wealthy men willing to donate to rebuilt it, the colonizing Europeans. Can we just sit for a moment and appreciate this landmark that so many of us are moved by?

FINALLY!  Finally I dug down to the bedrock of my core beliefs.  I found the answer to that question that so many people have asked me over the past 30 years:

Why do we study the past?

This question covers them all:  why do we care about the built environment?  Why do we care about Neanderthals and Homo Erectus?  Why do we care about the peopling of North America?  Why should we care about slavery?  Etcetera, ad nauseum. 

I can't tell you how many times people have asked my why I did archaeology.  Or why we should care about history.  Most recently (on our local Edmonton news): Why should we care that the Rose Country Inn (1904) was destroyed by fire?  Watch me try to explain it (not very well) here:

The pat answer was always someone else's - you should study history, for those who don't are doomed to repeat it.

And that is a really, really good reason to study history - sometimes it feels like we're forgetting everything that came before.  Sometimes it feels like the lessons of history are being mocked, ignored, destroyed - but that's another topic altogether.

We study history because we can learn from past mistakes.  That answer always covered part of it for me.  And it was reasonable.  But it didn't cover everything about that question.

And then Notre Dame caught on fire.  

And I wrote that piece this morning.

And after that I had an epiphany:


History brings us together.  The Notre Dame fire drew heartbreak from all over the world and joined us all together while we held our collective breath to see how things would turn out.  Because people all over the world know what it is, where it is, and at least loosely know how it fits into the past.  People all over the world can appreciate the craftsmanship that existed at a time when technology was much simpler than it is today.  People can collectively discuss this building from many points of view (even the ones I don't appreciate) and can converse on the topic.  We preserve our built environment and study the past because it provides us a place of common knowledge and emotion.

Notre Dame has stood for centuries.  Perhaps Captain William Fraser of Brackla (maybe a relative) saw it when he was with the 92nd Gordon Highlanders overseas.  Richard Grant almost certainly went to Paris during WWI when he was on leave in December, 1916, and sent three lovely postcards to a family friend in Nairn.  

And perhaps my great-grandfather Jack McCurrach saw it when he was in France during the war.  A place like Notre Dame can connect generations.

I was lucky enough to see Notre Dame cathedral when I visited Paris briefly in 1986.  I couldn't remember if I had gone inside - it was so long ago that I don't have an actual memory of it.  But I knew I'd been there.  And thanks to the few photographs I took on a crappy camera, I now know I DID see the inside.  

Most importantly, though, I can talk to other people about it and come together in community to celebrate it's architecture, mourn the damage, and remind others about why we should care.  We are one - and Notre Dame is part of all of us.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

#51 - Mount Carmel, Two Distilleries, a Mausoleum, and King's College Aberdeen

The two Banffs I grew up knowing were the 20,000 square kilometre Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, and the town of Banff within it.  I've driven through the park more times than I can count - I consider it part of my backyard.  Named after the town in Scotland, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has grown into one of the major tourist attractions in Canada with an annual visitation of over 4 million people and a population of around 7500.  It is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  

Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.  Photo by Florian Fuchs.

I always imagined that to have such a place named after it, Banff must be a large city in Scotland and maybe have some mountains.  But by North American standards, there are no really large cities in Scotland, and the mountains are in the Highlands.  Glasgow is the largest city in the country with a population of nearly 600,000.  

Banff, Scotland, in contrast to my expectations, is a very small northeastern town of about 3800 people situated on Banff Bay on the North Sea.  I've previously posted about a postcard from Scotstown, a small area in the west part of Banff.  History, however, does not rely on the size of a community, and the original Banff has an intriguing past.  As I've come to learn, my family has roots pretty deep into in that area.

According to Wikipedia, Banff's first castle was built to repel Viking invaders (who did most of their Scottish plundering in the 6-9th centuries).  My Ancestry DNA results show a 2% Norwegian and 1% Swedish connection at this time.  Looks like a Viking or two might have slipped in there WAY back.  By 1163AD, Malcolm IV was living at that castle in Banff and 101 years later the first recorded Sheriff of Banff in 1264 was Richard De Strathwan.  Robert the Bruce bestowed a chapel to the Carmelite Friars and confirmed it to them in 1324 along with the land for the erection of a church and monastery just to the south of the community.  In 1372 Banff was granted Royal Burgh status by the grandson of Robert the Bruce: King Robert II - who was the first Stewart monarch.  Banff, along with Aberdeen and Montrose, was one of three major exporter of salmon to the continent of Europe by the 15th century.

Banff is situated to the north and west of the River Deveron (previously known as Dovern) which divides Banff from Macduff and flows into the north sea.  A successful bridge crossed the river in 1779 after the first one failed in a flood.  Upriver from that bridge, in a forested area where the river turns south, is situated Hospital Island, and on the north side of the island is an old weir.  It is at that spot that the Mill of Banff used to stand.

William Robertson (one of my 4x great-grandfathers) was a distiller at the Mill of Banff Distillery (which existed from 1826 to 1863).  This is well documented on at least two of his children's birth records, the 1841 census:

and in a notation in The Annals of Banff (1893) by William Cramond, referring to a grave marker in the Old Church yard in Banff:

Here's the actual headstone:

Photo courtesy of the Banff Preservation and Heritage Society

The Elizabeth referred to on the grave marker is the same one on this death record from 1870:

You'll note that (1) Elizabeth Robertson was born a Fraser, (2) she was the widow of William Robertson (brewer / distiller / vintner) and (3) she died at the Blacksmith Croft at Blairshinnoch Banff, which I have discussed in length before - this was where my 3x great grandmother (Grace Fraser Robertson) and 3x great grandfather (James Steele) lived and where James and his son, Alexander Milne Steele were both blacksmiths.  These documents come together in irrefutable proof that these documents are all discussing the same woman.

To sum up:  Elizabeth Fraser and her husband William Robertson ended up at the Mill of Banff Distillery by at least 1828 and were still there when William died in 1843 (and I can rightly claim that a drop or two of whisky runs through my veins).  

Earlier, in 1824, on Grace Fraser Robertson's birth record, we see that Elspet and William had been living at or near Brackla as that this is where Grace was born (the birth recorded in Cawdor).

"Grace Fraser Daughter to William Robertson at Brackla and Elspet Fraser his wife was born the 23 of April and baptised the 8th of May 1824. Witnesses Mr. Alexr Fraser and John MacLean Excise officer there".  The Fraser name was important at Brackla as what would become the Royal Brackla Distillery was started by Captain William Fraser in 1812.  I am trying to find out if and how Elspet was related to the Captain.  Brackla was the first distillery to be given the Royal monicker and is still in operation as part of Dewars.  It was built on the estate of Cawdor Castle.

Here it was in ca. 1870:

It would appear from Grace's birth record that the family was either living at Brackla in 1824, or they lived nearby and Elizabeth had travelled to the big house for the birth.  They are tightly tied to the nearby parish of Ardclach as that is where William and Elizabeth married and baptized several of their children.  But since William Robertson was a distiller, he may well have been working at Brackla before getting the opportunity at the Mill of Banff Distillery.

To remind you, by 1841, William, Elizabeth, their daughter Ann (20) and 4 other children are living at the Mill of Banff.  The Mill of Banff is elusive on maps - I haven't found one yet that records its location.  The first mention of it I found at Scotlandsplaces is in relation to St. Mary's Well (according to the 1867-1869 Ordnance survey name books, Banffshire, Volume 3 / OS1/4/3/87) which was "... in the grounds of Duff House, Situated near the river Deveron, South of the Mausoleum and near to where the Mill of Banff Stood.  It is said to be a Holy Well."  Also noted in the Annals of Banff (1893, p3), The "... convent stood on Dovern at Miln of Banf in Banf parish."

St. Mary's Well is on the property of the Duff House.  It is west of the golf course that is there now, and to the northwest of the big bend in the river.

The main structure on this small property now is the Duff Mausoleum (directly SE of the turquoise-y fields in the upper middle of the image - one can barely see a white dot which is the roof of the mausoleum).

If you look at the Ordnance map from 1866, you can see the area's history up to that time - in place names alone.

You'll note the Mausaleum is on the site of St. Mary's Chapel.  St. Mary's Well is also there. According to the Canmore National Record of the Historic Environment, the first documentation of this site was in 1321 when as mentioned above, Robert the Bruce bestowed a chapel to the Carmelite Friars (note Mount Carmel beside Bachlaw Bridge, too).

So, the Carmelite Friars used it, a holy well is located there, the Mausoleum for the Duff house is there, a hospital was probably established during some epidemic on the land.  And a Mill and Distillery lived there.

What is odd, though, is that in 1574, James VI granted the lands, buildings and revenues from this land to King's College in Aberdeen (all listed at Canmore under "Duff House Mausoleum").  The Mill of Banff Distillery would have paid taxes on this land that would have ended up at King's College.  

Oddly enough, the only Aberdeen postcard in my collection is of King's College - a simple postcard to Gladys McCurrach - a 5-year-old girl who (in her whole life) had no idea that her ancestors helped pay to keep the place running.