Friday, 30 September 2011

Change From a Fifty?

From November, Greenock's most famous son will be gracing the front of the new fifty pound note, along with Matthew Boulton, the man who backed his pioneering invention.

Its a note which harkens back to an imperial Britain, where innovation and invention blazed the way for the nation to become the hotbed of the industrial revolution. Which is why its so ironic that this particular note is coming out now.

Anyhow, if you're lucky enough to get one, and if local shops are refusing it as legal tender, here's a wee magic trick you can do with it instead.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Bells and Monkeys

There is, let's be charitable and call it "a friendly rivalry" that exists between Greenock and Port Glasgow, epitomised in the phrases. “Who hung the monkey?” “Aye well who boiled the bell”

While the phrases themselves have fallen out of common usage, there are many variant stories told locally regarding the legends which inspired them. Most popular amongst these is the suggestion that silly Greenockians hung a shipwrecked monkey believing him to be a Napoleonic soldier, while daft Portonians boiled away their town bell trying too hard to clean it. There are many folk who believe that neither story is true, and a whole lot of Port folk who think that Greenock people hung a monkey AND biled a bell...cos Greenock folk are like that.

Regardless, the stories of the hanging of the monkey and the boiling of the bell have been commemorated in two local folksongs, widely distributed across the West of Scotland in the nineteenth century as broadside ballads. The first, “The Fisherman and the Monkey”, deviates dramatically from the traditional local legend; this ballad tells the story of the fisherman, Dunkey, and his brother, the sailor, who returns from distant shores with a monkey. Neglecting to warn his brother of the monkey's existence, the young sailor travels to Glasgow to visit a sweetheart, leaving the monkey behind in Dunkey's house. The ballad ends with Dunkey and some fellow fisherman hanging the poor monkey. Although humorous in tone, this ballad ends on a rather grisly note - only adding to its appeal amongst audiences! Upon its publication, strains of this ballad would probably have been heard issuing forth from the alehouses and taverns of Greenock and its environs..

“Now the fishermen they laughed like
Such fun before they never had
When a wild young chiel whose name was Rab
Proposed to hang the monkey O
Then round it’s neck a rope they threw
And through a cleek the end they drew
And quickly to the riff it flew
For the fishermen hung the monkey O”

Conversely, “The Bilin’ o’ the Bell” is actually a very proud and celebratory affair, where the fortunes of the town are linked to the fate of the Port Glasgow bell.

There's a Wee Port, an' three things are its pride,
First is the auld Newark Castle;
Neist, whaur the Comet was launched on the tide
First paiddle steamer toply on the Clyde,
 The ootcome o' John Wood's sair wrastle.

Fill up your glass! Let the toast pass
"The couthie Wee Port whaur I got me my lass!"
Up tae your feet! let it go roun'
"The couthie Wee Port! May Good bless the auld Toun!"

Stories of hanged monkeys and boiled bells are replayed in coastal towns up and down Britain, often serving to highlight cultural and religious differences between neighbouring ports and villages. The most famous hanged monkey apparently met his end in Hartlepool. Indeed, there, the legend actually forms part of the town’s tourism strategy. The monkey has even been elected town mayor. Recently, a bone supposedly from the monkeys leg was displayed in a local heritage centre. It just goes to show you don’t have to take heritage tourism so seriously. People love a good yarn.

"The Bilin' o the Bell" was recorded for our Downriver CD by Marky : Boy of Destiny.

Marky : Boy of Destiny - The Bilin' o' The Bell by Auld Dunrod

The song also gave its name to a Port Glasgow heritage project, which produced a book "Newark to Newark", charting the social history of Port Glasgow. The full book is available for download here.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Sweet Deal

As you may know, we've been involved in a campaign to Keep Greenock's Sugar Sheds A Community Space. If not...get right over to our campaign blog and check it out.

Long story short...the opportunity now exists for us to pull together a series of events for the Sugar Sheds. But we will require to fundraise to do that. Quite a bit of fundraising in fact.

For years, we've sold our books and dvds as a way of raising funds for our heritage projects, so from this weekend forward, as part of our fundraising, all proceeds from our local bestsellers "Tales of the Oak" and "Downriver" will go towards getting events happening in the sheds.

But where can I get a hold of these books and at the same time support potential future events in Inverclyde?

Why by coming along to the Sugar Sheds Campaign stall at Cathcart Square this weekend, where you will not only find both books for a fiver each, but also balloons. The balloons are free.

Hope to see you down there.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Vikings - Gimme A Ring

In honour of the Largs Viking Festival we've decided to have a few weeks of Viking related mayhem.

Today, here's Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", accompanied by illustrations that Arthur Rackham did for the "Ring of the Nibelung"

And while we're on the Ring Cycle, it would be criminal not to take the opportunity to show the best Looney Tunes cartoon ever made...What's Opera Doc...

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Battle of Largs

Today the Largs Viking Festival celebrates the historic Battle of Largs with the traditional battle re-enactment, culminating in the burning of a Viking longship. Top notch. But why is the Battle of Largs so important?

Norse Signals

At the opening of the 13th century, the West of Scotland was a divided and dangerous place. The Viking raids of the eighth and ninth centuries were replaced with successive settlings and annexations of the outer lying Scottish Islands by Norse Kings.  Following a rebellious uprising by the Norwegian Allied Thane, Somerled of Argyle in 1164, much of the mainland had been brought under Scottish control. But the battle to unify the Scottish nation was far from won and the hand of the Norse Overlords still held much control on the West Coast.  When Alexander II came to the throne in 1214, the Islands of Cumbrae and Arran, along with large areas of the Clyde Estuary still owed their allegiance to Norway and there was little hope that things were about to change. Alexander, with support from the powerful Nobles of the South Clyde area, began an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion into the Norse held regions of the west. The King’s attempts were met with swift retaliation in the form of a short-lived invasion of the Firth of the Clyde by Norse raiders. That same year, King Alexander II died suddenly, bringing to an end Scotland’s brief attempt to rid themselves of the Norwegian presence. It would be nearly twenty years before Scotland was ready to continue the battle.

Hakon Hakonson

Far across the seas, Hakon Hakonson, King of Norway watched as the nobles of the fledgling Scottish nation attempted to take the lands to which he believed himself to have rightful claim.  First and foremost among the complaints brought to him was Scotland’s claim to the Hebrides, about which Alexander III sent envoys to Norway in 1261.  Around the same time, Hakon began to receive reports that the Scots were burning farms on the Outer Hebrides. The Hakon Saga , written just after King Hakons death and one of the best accounts of the battle of Largs states: “They burned farmsteads and churches, and killed many of the people, both men and women.”  Concerned by these reports, as midwinter approached, Hakon dispatched the fiery cross, calling all Norway to the raising of a navy come springtime. By the summer of 1263, Hakon had amassed an impressive fleet, ready to sail west and secure his lands. The Icelandic Annals record that it was “the largest army that had ever sailed from Norway” and most scholars agree that what the King  had planned was nothing less than a full-scale invasion of the Scottish mainland. Sailing west to Orkney, Hakon rallied more ships to his cause. Much of fleet seems to have suffered a bout of superstition following an eclipse of the sun, furthered by unsuccessful attempts to raise more troops in the Northern Isles. Yet things improved as the fleet turned south, strengthened in numbers by a Fleet from the Isle of Man. By mid August, they had passed Oban and were fast approaching the firth of the Clyde. And then Hakon stopped. It seems that at this time he had received an urgent request to take his army to the aid of the Irish, who were desperately trying to rid themselves of English invaders. In return for his help, the Irish would swear fealty to him. At this moment, the fate of nations rested in his hands. In which direction would he sail?


Had Hakon accepted the offer of Kingship from the Irish, the future for both Scotland and Ireland might have looked very different indeed. Yet instead he decided to steer the course he had set out on and thus as September approached he headed for the firth of the Clyde.  He dispatched a small number of ships to round the Mull of Kintyre, most likely to scout out the river defenses. However, interested in taking in some of the local sites, the ships decided to raid the Isle of Bute, and for the second time in thirty years Rothesay castle was under the control of Norse Vikings. This same raiding party is thought to have burned farms on the mainland north of the firth, and may have even reached the southern shore. At this time, feeling he had made his point, Hakon dispatched envoys to discuss terms with Alexander. Early discussions centred over the control of the Clyde estuary islands; Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes.  Suspicious that the Scots were stalling in the hope that bad weather would deal with Hakons fleet, the Norse King broke off negotiations and moved his ships to the sheltered waters off Cumbrae. The time for talking appeared to be over, and in true to form, storm clouds appeared to be gathering over Largs.

Shame about the weather
As mid September approached, Hakon dispatched a large portion of his fleet northwards up the firth, past the castle of Ardgowan and silently under the watch of the Kempock stone. Some fifty ships are said to have travelled the length of Loch Long, terrorizing the locals as they went and leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Upon reaching Arrochar at the head of the loch, the Norse-men dragged their ships a short distance across land and re-launched them into the northerly section of Loch Lomond. From here they laid waste to much of the Lennox countryside and the islands of the loch, burning farms and seizing cattle. As they returned back down Loch Long, a violent storm erupted, destroying nearly a quarter of their ships. This same storm was simultaneously battering Hakons main force, striking his ships hard as the winds whipped in from the south-west.  Anchors dragged, hull crashed against hull and many a crewman perished before morning. As dawn broke and the sky cleared, Hakon found that he had lost many fine warriors not to the Scottish forces, but the Scottish weather. Indeed, it seems that the storm was so powerful, that many believed it was an omen from the Gods, a sign of poor fortunes to follow.

A trip to the beach

Two days later, on October 2nd Hakon himself came ashore to rescue what was left of the cargo washed up from the wrecked ships.  It was at this time that the Scottish army was sighted approaching from the south, and Hakon made the final preparations to receive them. It seems that at this point there were around 900 Norwegian warriors already ashore, and the approaching Scots army consisted of 500 heavily armed mounted Knights and a large number of archers. The Scots army had undoubtedly been drafted from the surrounding Clyde valley, with men from Ayr and Cunningham fighting alongside those of Gryffe and Renfrewshire. Indeed, just over a hundred years ago, the people of Kilmacolm were proud to say they had sent men to fight at Largs.  Initial fighting seems to have consisted primarily of arrow exchanges, and the Hakons Captain, Ogmund Crow-Dance took command of the Norse-men as the King withdrew to his ship. As night fell the Vikings had been pushed back to their ships on the beach, and it was from here that they mounted a final counter attack- pushing the Scots off the beach and allowing for their escape back onto the river. The following morning the Vikings returned to reclaim their dead. The Hakon saga states “they had no idea how many had fallen.” Hakon's fleet regrouped and having burned the wrecked vessels the Norse-men made ready to leave. The battle was over. But who had won?

What’s the Point?
Even today, Norwegian historians deny that the Norse-men lost the battle, although they do not rate it as a particularly important engagement either. Hakon may not have lost the battle, but he most certainly lost the war. The king died before he reached Norway, and within three years all claim to the Islands had been ceded to the Scots. Thus the battle marked the end of Norway’s involvement in the affairs of Scotland and the maturing of the Scottish Kingdom towards a unified nation. Yet at the time, it does seem to have been perceived as such. Indeed, the Chronicle of Melrose, a historical manuscript written around the time of the battle, makes only a passing mention of it, and does not name the location. However as time passed, the significance of the battle seems to have grown with almost miraculous intent, so much so that by the 16th century, it was claimed that nearly 50,000 troops fought at the battle. Three hundred years later, attempts were made by Victorian scholars to emphasize the significance of the battle with regards to Scottish Nationalism.  Here, they said, was the mighty Scots army standing up to some of the most fearsome warriors in history, the Vikings. In true Romantic style, historians portrayed the battle as a link from the early Scottish Nation, through Wallace and Bruce right up to the men of Scotland who fought in Victorian Crimea and India. The image of the fierce and brave Scottish Warrior was secure, becoming a useful political image for all those who wished to emphasize the countries distinct cultural autonomy. Nowhere seized on this more than Largs itself where the battle became both a national symbol and also a marketing tool for tourism.  So it was that in 1912, a monument to the battle was erected on what was regarded as the traditional site of the battle; the so-called "Pencil Point.", and even today the battle is remembered with the Largs festival and the Vikingar Centre. And it is here that we find the true victory of the "Battle of Largs", the mythical connotations of a conflict which in the words of historians may only have been "a small skirmish", but which in our imagination can come to symbolize so much more.

Article by Neil Bristow

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Vikings Bearing Gifts

Just a wee shameless plug for our colleagues at Inverclyde Community Development Trust.

Newark Enterprises, The Trust's enterprise programme has been down at the Viking festival all week selling a new range of viking themed gifts and woodcuts...they even brought their own Viking Ship. (actually its a St Ayles Skiff, but lets not ruin the magic)

If you are down for the big finale on Saturday, be sure and pay their stall a visit. here's some of the stuff that's on offer...