Category Archives: History

The Passing of Mr Stubbs

The people of Talkeetna, Alaska sound like my kind of people:  No-nonsense and pragmatic with a big dose of humour.  If you haven’t heard the sad news, their honorary mayor of twenty years, Mr Stubbs, passed away recently.  He was originally elected because they couldn’t find a politician worth voting for; he was merely “honorary” because Talkeetna is only a historical district, and holds no local election.  Mr Stubbs was a cat.

Historically, he’s not alone in being a non-human electoral candidate; often, votes for such candidates are a form of protest or political satire.  There has been a long line of them:  In 1938, Milton, Washington elected a brown mule, Boston Curtis – he won 51 to 0; in the 1968 US Presidential election, Pigasus the Immortal, a boar hog, was nominated as candidate; Sunol, California elected Bosco – a black Labrador-Rottweiler mix – as mayor, 1981-1994; there have been turkeys, monkeys, rhinos, goats, and even non-animate objects such as a fire hydrant, a sock puppet, and a ficus tree that have attempted (and sometimes succeeded in) getting on the ballots.

Did you know that America could have had a much worthier president now?  Limberbutt McCubbins, a cat, was officially registered with the Federal Election Commission as a Democratic candidate for the 2016 Presidential elections.  His campaign slogan was “Meow Is The Time”.  Here is the link for you to peruse the extensive list of historical non-human politicians and candidates.

Go to the list and choose your favourite example; it might give someone inspiration for their own political conundrum!  Comments about non-human politicians, only, please…

 

Mr Stubbs, Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska

Mr Stubb’s presidential campaign, 2012

 

 

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On Bending History

robert-john-kennedy

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Robert F. Kennedy

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Shetland

I don’t know about you, but when we go on holidays, we usually head to cooler climes.  We were recently (technically) in Scotland for a fortnight’s holiday, this time on the Shetland Isles:  For those of you who don’t know where that’s at, hop on to Google Earth, and have a vicarious look around.  Shetland is a subarctic archipelago in the Atlantic; you’re never more than 3 miles away from the sea because, though the total landmass is about 1,470 square kilometres, there are over 2,700 kilometres of coastline.

We stayed at the Lerwick Hotel, making day-trips out from there.  In the 2 weeks we were there we managed to see nearly every nook and cranny by rental car.  Many of the “towns” are no more than a collection of a house or two; Lerwick is really the only proper town on Shetland.  We covered everything from Sumburgh Head in the south to Hermanness on the northern tip of Unst, the northerly-most inhabited island of the UK.

We usually had perfect weather for being out and about; the wind was mild, and only one day of what’s known as a “flying gale”… that’s when the wind actively tries to either rip the car door out of your hands or slam it shut as you’re trying to get in or out of the car; flying gales drive ships ashore.  I point that out because great weather is not to be taken for granted on rocks in the middle of the Atlantic that have no naturally-occurring trees, i.e. windbreaks, and everything that happens is scheduled with the contingency of weather permitting.  While we were there, it was “Simmer Dim” = NO night; you could easily read a book outside, no matter the time of day or night.

Some of the Highlights:

Our hotel window:  We could see Breiwick Bay, the traffic of large ships coming and going from the harbour (even this large three-masted sail ship), and the wildlife of Shetland:  Otters, both grey and common seals, dive-bombing gannets, arctic terns flitting over the water like butterflies, and a variety of gulls that kept us entertained.

Mousa Isle:  We took a “dusk” (midnight) boat trip and hiked ½ a mile across the moors to the Mousa Broch, the most intact broch in the world.  In the walls of this ancient tower are around 500 pairs of Storm Petrels – swallow-like sea birds who sound like purring kittens with hiccups as they call for their mates, to be found by them in the crowded darkness.  Darkness is relative in the summer; they need to wait until it’s darkest before returning from their time at sea, as they are targets for larger bird’s menus.

Norwick Beach:  On northern Unst, this beach is a visual smorgasbord for any geologist, because it’s where an ocean floor was thrust upward to collide with the continent millions of years ago.  The stone formations jutting out in the middle of the beach are two distinct colours, dark and light, side by side.  That beach is just an example of the stunning geological history and beauty of the islands.  They’ve even got an app, “Geopark Shetland”.

Wildlife:  Shetland has the highest density of otters of anywhere in Europe, with around 1,000; Shetland ponies (everywhere!); puffins – the darlings of the sea, and one of our favourite birds; gannets, terns, guillemots, razorbills, oyster catchers, great black-backed gulls, great skuas, herring gulls, black-hooded gulls, kittiwakes, and dozens of other seabirds; cliff-dwelling rabbits (puffins are even known to share their burrows with them); Shetland sheep – they’ve got very soft wool, and tend to be brownish with black spots; some of them were adorable, with spotted eyes like pandas.

History:  With over 6,000 archaeological sites and dozens of great museums, there was never a dull moment!  Clickhimin Broch was a short walk away from our hotel; Mousa Broch was an amazing experience – to sit inside it, as people did 2,000 years ago… you could still see the slats in the walls where wooden beams would have supported upper floors.  We spent a lot of time at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick; well laid out, it was informative and inviting, with a great restaurant.

I could go on and on – and perhaps I’ll write an article or two more about some aspect of the Isles in the future, but for now, here are a few photos.

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On Long Walks

“In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favour of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk?  I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten.  We live in days of water trips and land trips, excursions by sea, road and rail – bicycles and tricycles, tram cars and motor cars… but in my humble opinion, good honest walking exercise for health beats all other kinds of locomotion into a cocked hat.”

T. Thatcher, “A Plea for a Long Walk”, the Publishers’ Circular, 1902

Walking Tours

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On Repetition

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.

John W. Campbell

History Repeats

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History Undusted: Atlantic Iron Age Souterrains

DCF 1.0A Souterrain is a type of underground construction mainly associated with the Atlantic Iron Age.  Built near settlements, they were used as storage for food or as a hiding place from raiders.  After being dug out, they were lined with flat stones and staircases down into their depths.  Of those excavated throughout the UK and Ireland, artefacts are rare, indicating that they were merely in use temporarily.  Some are very small, while others resemble passageways; my guess is that it would depend on the size required by the settlement, and how much time they had to prepare it.

Day 8, 1.146 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012I came across a souterrain along Loch Eriboll in 2012, as I was in the area doing research for my novel, The Cardinal.  In these photos, you can see that, if you were walking out there at night or dusk, they could be very treacherous.  My husband crawled down inside to take a picture back out; it was roomy enough for him to stand once inside (in this particular souterrain even the ceiling was lined with large stone slabs), though the narrow stone stairs and proportions, in general, indicated a much shorter population than modern humans.  You can see from the photo of myself how overgrown the bracken and heather is; the entrance was nearly completely hidden; we were looking for it based on a geological map’s markings, but if we hadn’t known it was there, it would have gone completely unnoticed.

I needed a tunnel entrance in the exact location of the souterrain for the novel, so it enriched the story by fitting reality and the fantasy together perfectly!

Day 8, 1.149 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012

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History Undusted: Skara Brae, Orkney

Skara BraeSkara Brae is probably the single most famous Neolithic settlement uncovered in the world.  It gives us the most complete picture of everyday life in that period of time, and has quite a few surprises:  Indoor running water?  Dressers and beds?  Yep.  They had storage rooms, and even toys for the kids.  There are some objects that they can’t figure out, but that just makes it all the more tantalizing.

Originally much farther from the shoreline, over the centuries erosion has eaten away at the land; Skara Brae will itself eventually succumb to the pounding Atlantic waves.

I was there in 1989 for the first time, and again in 2002; the first time I was there, I was with a group of friends, and we were given a private tour by a friend’s uncle who worked there.  It was an amazing way to see this prehistoric site, tourist-free and (back then) largely untainted by tourism.  In 2002 it was a different matter altogether:  A tourist shop had sprung up, and we had to time our viewing between bus-loads of day-tourists from “doon sooth” (down south = Scotland).  Also on that second visit, the Atlantic winds were so strong that we were literally leaning into the wind at a 45° angle; if it had had a sudden lull, we would have been flung into the sunken dwellings; it was an adventure.

Skara Brae stone objectsIf you get a chance to go, do so; take at least a fortnight on Mainland Orkney.  It’s known as the Archaeologist’s treasure trove, and for good reason – just about any stone you turn over has some kind of historical significance, and there are many sites to take in:  Maeshowe, Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar, and chambered cairns to name a few, and even more modern sites such as Churchill Barrier, and sunken World War 2 vessels (some portions are visible in low tide).

The stretch of water between Scotland and Orkney, the Pentland Firth, is known as “The Sailor’s Nightmare”; there are several currents that flow and mix into this bottleneck, not only making for treacherous sailing, but it can also make even the hardiest sailor lose his lunch.  Word to the wise:  When heading out of Thurso with the ferry to the Mainland (the largest island in the Orkney group), a) don’t eat yet (it usually leaves around lunch time, and believe me, you won’t keep it long…), and b) as soon as you get on the ferry, head to the dining room and get a window-side table; this is because they will not only fill up fast, but once you’re out of the relatively calm / wind-sheltered bay into the open strait, you’ll be glad for a ring-side view from a wind-sheltered, spray-sheltered spot; keeping your eye on the horizon helps the brain deal with the swells, and keeps seasickness at bay…

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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History Undusted: A Small Treatise on the Viking Age, began at Lindisfarne

Viking ship

In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain.  The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history.  Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.

I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages.  They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions:  The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.

“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)

This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne.  Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points:  “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807.  The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.”  The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa.  Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.

Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.

I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries:  Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art.  Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world.  Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.

Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves.  It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port.  So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom?  The answer might actually be found in Rome.

Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier.  It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope.  Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.

In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology.  In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)].  Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.

“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed.  Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798….  Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]

The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea;  Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.

The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants.  They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea.  The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.

Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld.  But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim.  One might say that what goes around comes around.  It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries.  And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.

Originally posted on History Undusted on 14 July 2013
Image Credit: Origin Unknown, Pinterest

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Basque Musings

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I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain.  I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country.  There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.

As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)!  Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round.  Here are some highlights:

Guggenheim Museum:  The building itself is well worth the visit!  The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line…  it’s an engineering feat, to say the least.  Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark.  There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider.  Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons:  “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.

The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.

Pintxos:  You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant!  You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner.  They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal.  12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer.  Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies.  Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain.  Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls.  If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.

Language:  The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse.  But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path.  Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point:  “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”.  It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe,  with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically.  It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown.  It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!

One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…

 

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History Undusted: The History of the Ampersand & Other Ligatures

Emoticons 2.1The ampersand (&) may seem like a modern invention for lazy spellers, or a typesetter’s solution to limited space, or an English teacher’s pet peeve on exams; but it can actually be traced back to the 1st century Romans.  In English, “&” is pronounced “and” rather than its original Latin word “et” (meaning “and”).  Hannah Glasse’s writings show us that “etc.” was, in her time, written as “&c.” which may look strange to our modern sensibilities, but makes perfect sense when you know the origin of the ampersand.

There are many examples of ligature (characters consisting of two or more symbols combined into one) in use today; everyday symbols we use likely have quite a history.  Have you ever wondered about @, #, ©, ¶, or % ?  Or even “?” ?  And no, I’m not cussing.

Many currency symbols are a combination, abbreviation or contraction of words or letters:  The British pound symbol £ derives from the Roman word “Librae;” Libra was the basic Roman unit for weight, derived from the Latin word for “scales,” or “balance.”  “L” was the abbreviation (see, we aren’t the first generation of lazy spellers; but then again, you would be too, if you had to chisel it into stone, or cure hides for scrolls).  The Pound Sterling has quite a pedigree and is worth a read over at Wikipedia.

19-manasses-chronicle

 

Credit:  Wikipedia

 

Believe it or not, the “at” symbol, @, was first used in a religious text:  The Bulgarian translation of the Greek Manasses Chronicle (c. 1345) used it as an abbreviation for “Amen”.  There are several theories as to why it was used in this way; perhaps it was in an effort to save space and ink and hard-won writing surfaces.  In English, the symbol was originally an accounting and invoice abbreviation for “at a rate of”. In fact, it has long been used in financial or commercial contexts in several languages.  The use in email addresses began in 1971, and we all know how it’s used in web page addresses, and increasingly in use in text messages; it is probably the most common ligature of all.

Emoticons 1Our modern language has added Emoticons to the list of ligature symbols; many computers automatically convert certain combinations of symbols into a different one altogether; for example: :+-+) becomes ☺, <+3 becomes ♥; for more, take a gander at the image to the right.

Our language is full of history; those little symbols, punctuation marks that we take for granted, that necessary “@” for connecting to the world… what would we do without them?  And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old ☺ is; they might even wonder what a physical computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.

 Originally posted 2 July 2013 on History Undusted

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