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Scottish Fleet, Week 14: 8 November

SF151109-1One of the advantages of being an archivist—apart from the afternoon naps, and the respect and adulation of apple-cheeked teenagers (at least I think “top ranker” was what they were shouting) is that you see days of yore as they really were. If you only view the past from the point of view of the novels of the time you’d never know that anyone used bad language. But they really did. Rather a lot.

Take the case of Charlotte Bronte. She of course swore like a navvy and used to sneak out of the vicarage to go bare-knuckle fighting in country fairs to earn a little extra pin money. Indeed, the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is so full of swearing that it had to be heavily censored by her sister Emily before it could be published—and the famous sentence at the end of the novel, “Reader, I married him”, was originally so shocking—the verb describing what Jane did to Mr Rochester (and his dog, Pilot), so explicit—that the manuscript remains under guard in a locked vault beneath the British Library to this day.


The Girnel, Staxigoe

Well, I was reminded of this by a manuscript in the archives at Wick that we came across last week. It dates from 1753 and describes an encounter between a merchant called John Shand and the Excise. In short, Shand landed a cargo of French brandy and tobacco at Staxigoe harbour a couple of miles up the coast from here, and it was impounded. The Excise men hired boats to take the goods to Wick, and Shand, evidently a man of strong passions, at once hired a boat of his own to intercept them in the bay.


Pigeons on the harbour wall

Shouting abuse he got on board one boat and attacked a member of the crew with a cudgel, then threatened to shoot him with a loaded pistol. Luckily no one was hurt (and Shand, with a persistence that’s really rather admirable, went on to break into the Tollbooth at midnight to rescue his cargo).

But I was intrigued by a deposition by the crewman who’d been assaulted: he said Shand came on board calling him a “scoundrel son of a bitch”. (Isn’t that great? I plan to use it in my next appraisal.) I’ve never heard of anyone being called an SOB that early—it’s something I associate with Chicago gangsters or, at a pinch, my dentist under her breath whenever I break another tooth—but this dates from a generation before American Independence.

SF151109-2I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Sooner or later the unexpurgated Pride and Prejudice will be published (“Petticoats of Fury” by Jane Austen: Cage Fighter), with its famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife who can suck the pips out of an orange without peeling it first.”

What’s that you say? Ganseys? Oh, yes. Well, as you will see, I am rapidly advancing down the second sleeve and expect to finish it sometime this week. Then it’s just a question of darning in the ends, blocking, and then I’ve got a few days pencilled in for panicking that it’s not going to fit…

Finally, thanks to everyone for your solicitude and suggestions regarding my various ailments. I now have no fewer than three referrals to Inverness Hospital—I had already been thinking of leaving my body to medical science; it’s just that I’d planned to do this after I was dead…

[P.S. You can read more about the adventures of potty-mouth John Shand on the Caithness Archives website.]

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