The North East of Scotland has produced, and been home to, some truly inspirational men and women. Pioneers, adventurers, inventors, the fine folk of the North East have trail blazed their way across Scotland, Britain and the World.
Beginning in Aberdeenshire, we've selected just a handful of these heroes and heroines to celebrate over the course of the year. Each month, the spotlight will fall on a new individual. Some are 'weel-kent faces' but others you may not have heard of before - you may be surprised by what you read!
Find out more about the 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology in Aberdeenshire.
Banff and Buchan
General Hugh Mercer (1726 to 1777)
Born in 1726 in Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Hugh Mercer was the son of William Mercer, Minister to the local parish. He studied at Marischal College in Aberdeen, before joining the Jacobite forces as a surgeon. Following their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 he fled to Pennsylvania in the American Colonies.
Mercer became a frontier doctor, later volunteering to fight in the ‘Seven Year’s War’ from 1754 to 1763 where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served with George Washington.
After the war he moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia and opened an apothecary business. One of his patients was Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother. The apothecary still stands today as a museum.
He volunteered again as a Patriot against the British Crown in the American Revolutionary War, and was promoted to Brigadier General on June 1776 by George Washington. On the 3rd January 1777, during the Battle of Princeton, while he was holding off the British, Mercer was unhorsed and attacked, suffering serious injuries. He was rescued by Washington but died of his wounds on the 12th January 1777. He was buried in Christ Church with full military honours.
Through Mercer’s courage and sacrifice, Washington was able to proceed into Princeton and defeat the British forces, thereby regaining support. Most of Washington's army re-enlisted, the French finally approved arms and supplies to the Americans, and the British pulled their forces back to New York. It was a key turning point in the war. Today, Hugh Mercer is viewed as a hero of the American Revolution with numerous monuments to his bravery and legacy.
Reverend James Ramsay (1733 to 1789)
Born in Fraserburgh in 1733, the son of ship's carpenter William Ramsay and Margaret Ogilvie, James Ramsay became a noted and influential abolitionist after having witnessed the inhuman conditions of the slave trade during his naval career.
Ramsay was educated at Fraserburgh Grammar School, then apprenticed to a local surgeon before studying at King’s College in Aberdeen, receiving an MA in 1753. He continued his surgical training in London before joining the Navy as surgeon in 1757.
In 1759, while serving on board the HMS Arundel in the West Indies, his ship intercepted a British slave ship, the Swift, which had been struck by illness. As ship’s surgeon, Ramsay boarded the Swift where he found many of the crew and slaves already dead, and over 100 more slaves packed close together being held in extremely inhumane conditions. This encounter was to have a profound impact on Ramsay. On his return to the HMS Arundel, he slipped and broke his thigh bone; his Navy career over, he chose to become an Anglican minister.
He was ordained in 1761, becoming a minister on the Caribbean island of St Christopher (now St Kitts). All were welcome in his church, regardless of skin colour, he provided free medical care to the poor in this community and he also acted as surgeon to several plantations, again witnessing the horrors of the slave trade. He spoke out against the brutal treatment of slaves at the plantations, and the harsh conditions in which they were kept. And he suffered the consequences, being subject to attacks by plantation owners. Ramsay left the island in 1777, said to have been 'exhausted' by the constant antagonism and attacks.
He determined to continue his fight against slavery, publishing essays entitled 'An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies' and 'An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade'. Ramsay’s works were very influential, detailing first-hand accounts of the atrocities he had seen, but once again resulted in personal attacks on him by English plantation owners. On several occasions he met with Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) to discuss the situation. In 1783, he met with fellow abolitionist William Wilberforce, and in 1786 with Thomas Clarkson, encouraging Clarkson to gather his own first-hand evidence to help strengthen his arguments. He published a further paper in 1788, 'An Address to the Public, on the Proposed Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade', which once more led to personal attacks.
James Ramsay’s legacy should not be forgotten. He played a significant and influential role in the anti-slavery campaign, was well respected by the abolitionist movement and fought on despite constant attacks from British plantation owners. Sadly, he did not live to see the successful result of the campaign. After his death in 1789, fellow campaigners like Wilberforce and Clarkson continued to fight until 1807 when the abolition of the British slave trade was finally passed.
Dame Maria Matilda Gordon (nee Ogilvie) (1864 to 1939)
Born in Monymusk in 1864, the eldest daughter of Reverend Alexander Ogilvie, headmaster of Robert Gordons College in Aberdeen, Dame Maria Gordon was a prolific and pioneering geologist and champion of equal rights for women.
She studied variously in Edinburgh and London, receiving a BSc in 1890 from University College London, with a gold medal in zoology and comparative anatomy, and in 1893 she became the first woman to win the London University degree of Doctor for original research in natural science. She continued her geological studies at the University of Munich, becoming the first woman to gain a PhD from there in 1900, with distinction in geology, palaeontology, and zoology. In the meantime she had married an Aberdeen physician, Dr John Gordon, later having three children, all of whom often joined her on field trips to the Dolomites. However, marriage and family life did not prevent her from continuing with her research.
Maria Gordon specialised in the study of fossil corals, produced the definitive work on the geology of the Dolomites, and earned wide professional acclaim as well as the Lyell medal from the London Geological Society. Over the years, she published more than 30 original papers on the geology of the South Tyrol region. She was also was one of the first geologists to show that the limestone peaks in that region were formed by movements of the Earth's crust. She has been called the most productive female field geologist of her era, and in recognition of her work a new fossil fern genus, discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites, was named after her in 2000 (Gordonopteris lorigae).
As well as her extensive scientific career, she was also a supporter and campaigner for the rights and equality of children and women, and in 1935 was honoured with a DBE and an LLD from Edinburgh University for her work concerning the welfare of women. She died in London in 1939, and her ashes were interred at Allenvale cemetery, Aberdeen.
Peter Williamson 'Indian Peter' (1730 to 1799)
Born in Hirnlay, near Aboyne, in 1730, Peter Williamson is remembered not only as a showman and entrepreneur, but also for the hardships and trials endured throughout his lifetime. From humble beginnings in rural Aberdeenshire, a fateful decision by his parents, to send him to live with his aunt in Aberdeen, led to Williamson’s life taking a dramatic turn at an early age.
Amongst the darkest periods of Aberdeen’s history, child kidnap and trafficking was common in the early part of the 18th Century as merchants and magistrates of the City kidnapped hundreds of children from the region and sold them into slavery in the American colonies. This same fate awaited Peter Williamson – in 1743, aged only 13, he was kidnapped and shipped to North America. On arrival in Philadelphia, he was sold to Hugh Wilson, himself a Scot and former child slave, for the sum of £16. By Williamson’s own account, Wilson treated him kindly and on his death in 1750 he bequeathed Peter the sum of £120, his best horse and saddle, and all of his clothes.
With this change of fortune, Williamson married and moved to Pennsylvania to begin his life anew as a farmer. This was not to last. Soon after, in October 1754, the farm was attacked by the Cherokee who captured and kidnapped Williamson. His time with the Cherokee was harrowing, but after several months he managed to escape. Sadly, on returning home, he learned his wife had died in his absence. Called before the State Assembly in Philadelphia to report on the kidnapping, he enlisted there in the army, becoming lieutenant after 2 years.
Once again, Peter found himself taken captive – this time by the French troops he was fighting against. He was marched to Quebec, and sent as an exchange prisoner to Plymouth (England) arriving November 1756. On arrival, he was discharged from the army as unfit, the result of a hand wound. With his army gratuity of 6 shillings, he set off on the long walk home to Aberdeen. By the time he arrived in York he was penniless, but his stories aroused great interest, and he was encouraged to commit them to paper. He sold 1000 copies of his memoirs, 'French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his Infancy and sold as a slave in Pennsylvania.', and the £30 profit he made allowed him to recommence his journey home to Aberdeen. As he traveled, he began dressing as a 'Red Indian' and giving demonstrations of 'Indian' culture. In 1758, fifteen years after his forced removal from the City, Peter Williamson returned to Aberdeen. Worried local authorities sued him for libel for the accusations in his book of their involvement in his childhood kidnapping. Judged by the very same magistrates he was accusing, he was found guilty, fined and banished from Aberdeen.
He moved to Edinburgh, where he opened a coffee house which soon became a favourite haunt for the city’s lawyers, some of whom encouraged and helped Williamson to take his Aberdeen court case to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. This time, justice was on his side – the court reversed the original decision and made the Provost of Aberdeen, 4 Bailies and the Dean of Guild pay £100 in compensation. Soon after, he raised another court case against those specifically responsible; the original decision went against him, but again the Court of Session reversed the previous outcome, and a further £200 in damages plus 100 guineas legal costs was awarded to Williamson.
He used this money to open first a tavern in Parliament Close, and, in 1769, a printing shop, where he taught himself how to print before inventing a portable printing press and a waterproof ink for linen. In 1773, he was responsible for producing the first complete street directory in Edinburgh and soon after used this to create a postal service for the city which he ran independently until it was integrated in the General Post Office in 1793. He also published various magazines throughout his printing career. He died in Edinburgh in January 1799.
Peter Buchan (1917 to 1991)
Born in Jamaica Street, Peterhead, in 1917, Peter Buchan was a fisherman, poet, writer, broadcaster and a champion of local heritage and in particular the Doric dialect.
Schooled at Peterhead Academy, Buchan went to sea aged 16 and was a fisherman for over 30 years. He began writing poetry at age 30 and wrote almost exclusively in Doric, his native tongue. Throughout his lifetime he wrote over 70 poems as well as numerous short stories about the fishing life in North East Scotland.
His first collection of poems, “Mount Pleasant”, was published in 1961; other publications include “Fit like, Skipper?” and “Fisher Blue”, both collections of stories and poems. Inspiration for his work came from his daily life and surroundings, and the people he met along the way – as he called it, “Human naitur”.
A champion of the traditional language of North East Scotland, Buchan, along with David Toumlin, also wrote a compendium of North East words and phrases, “Buchan Claik: The Saut an the Glaur O't”, which brought together Buchan’s coastal Doric with famer Toumlin’s inland Doric.
Peter Buchan broadcast regularly on radio during his lifetime, and was often described as the voice of the North East’s fishing community. He was Vice-President of the Buchan Heritage Society from 1988-1990, and Patron until 1991. To commemorate his importance in the North East, a portrait was commissioned in 1991 by the North East Scotland Museums Service (now Aberdeenshire Heritage) which is on display in Arbuthnot Museum in his hometown of Peterhead.
Peter Buchan was a true guardian of the Doric tongue, presenting, and preserving, this distinctive language through his expressive poetry and prose, building a rich resource for generations to come. He died on 12 December 1991 and is buried in Peterhead.
Extract from “The Buchan Clan”:
Altho’ yer name’s nae Buchan if ye come fae Peterheid,
It’s surely mair gin likely ye’ve a drap o’ Buchan bleed,
For the Buchans thro’ the centuries, for better or for waur,
Hae mairrit into ither tribes till gweed kens fit ye are,
Ye’re a Pirate, or a Tinkie, or a Royal in yer pride,
Or ye’re come o’ auld man Noah, that shivved Buchan ower the side.
Dr Elizabeth Latto Ewan L.R.C.P.&S., L.R.F.P.S. (1875 to 1965)
Born in Fyvie in 1875, the daughter of the Reverend of the Free Church at Fyvie, Elizabeth Latto Ewan (sometimes Ewen) is famed as being Aberdeen's first female General Practitioner and a champion for healthcare rights for women of all classes. Elizabeth studied medicine in Edinburgh at the Medical College for Women, becoming, in 1895, the youngest recipient of the Scottish Triple Qualification. She went on to specialise in midwifery and women’s diseases, continuing her studies in Dublin and Glasgow before returning, in 1896, to Aberdeen where she opened the city's first women-only medical practice at 26 Chapel Street. She made a special point of offering care to women of lower classes, who were more susceptible to illness and disease, and clashed with her “conservative male colleagues”.
At the same time, she worked as a medical examiner for the Colonial Mutual Assurance Society, and in 1898 became the first female member of the Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine branch of the British Medical Association. In 1889, Elizabeth married Dr George Gibb, a prominent Aberdeen physician, and gave up her own practice to assist him with his. She continued to run the practice after his death in 1942, and it was later taken over by one of her sons. Elizabeth and George had two sons and four daughters, nearly all of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps to work in the field of medicine – 2 sons and 2 daughters became doctors; 1 daughter was a Red Cross nurse prior to marriage; and 1 daughter broke with tradition to become a botanist.
Elizabeth was described in the “Aberdeen Journal” (August 1896) as being “possessed of a charming manner” and having “the good wishes of many friends for success in the work she has chosen”. She was praised by her contemporaries for her high standards of professional integrity, and throughout her career she continued to improve her knowledge always keeping up to date with the latest developments in medicine.
Elizabeth Latto Ewan was an inspiration to generations of north east doctors, including Aberdeen’s Dr Mary Esslemont who, like Elizabeth before her, fought for healthcare rights for the working-class women and children in the City. She is celebrated in Aberdeen with a commemorative plaque on the building in Chapel Street which once housed her practice.
Alexander Mitchell (1817 to 1887)
Born in Ellon in 1817, the son of a farmer, Alexander Mitchell found success in America as a banker, financier, railroad builder and politician. Determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, Mitchell’s first forays into banking were in Peterhead where he soon came to the attention of banker and financier George Wilson who was himself a former Aberdeenshire resident (born in Old Deer) who had relocated to Chicago in the 1830s. Alexander emigrated to the USA in 1839, tasked by Wilson to set up a bank in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) – the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company. He weathered many storms, but the bank succeeded.
From 1864 until his death in 1867, Mitchell was President of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, turning the business around from near bankruptcy to become the most profitable in the United States, and in the process becoming the wealthiest man in Wisconsin. When he took over as President, the company had only 270 miles of track. By the time of his death, over 5000 miles of track had been laid in seven different states and Mitchell owned 99 percent of the company shares.
In 1871, he was elected as the Democratic representative for Wisconsin's 1st congressional district in the Forty-second United States Congress, and for Wisconsin's 4th congressional district in 1873 in the Forty-third Congress. He declined to stand in the next Congress (1875). He was nominated for Governor in 1877, which he also declined, instead resuming his banking career.
Outside of his business life, Alexander was an avid curler, founding the Milwaukee Curling Club in the 1840s and helping to popularize the sport in the United States. His legacy lives on in Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park and Mitchell Street, along with the city of Mitchell, South Dakota, and the World War II Liberty Ship (a cargo vessel) 'SS Alexander Mitchell', all named after him. He also built the Mitchell Building (1876) and Mackie Building (1879) in Milwaukee, both designed by architect Edward Townsend Mix and both now included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Alexander Mitchell had a meteoric rise from his humble beginnings in Ellon, leaving an estate said to have been in excess of $20,000,000. He died in 1887, of influenza, at the Hoffman House in New York City, and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee.
Kincardine and Mearns
Professor James Blyth MA, LLD, FRSE FRSSA (1839 to 1906)
Born in Marykirk, Aberdeenshire, to innkeeper and farmer John Blyth and his wife Catherine, James Blyth was a pioneering electrical engineer, academic and inventor, most noted for his groundbreaking work in the field of wind generated electricity.
His early schooling was at the Marykirk parish school and Montrose Academy, later studying at the General Assembly Normal School in Edinburgh, having won a scholarship to attend, and the University of Edinburgh (graduating Batchelor of Arts in 1861).
After a spell teaching maths and science at various schools, Blyth completed his Master of Arts in 1871, and in 1880 was appointed Freeland Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's College (now the University of Strathclyde) where he began a research programme into the use of wind power for electricity generation.
This work resulted, in July 1887, in Blyth building a cloth sailed, tripod mounted, horizontal wind turbine in the garden of his Marykirk holiday cottage. While American engineer and inventor Charles F. Brush is often attributed as being the builder of the world’s first wind turbine, Blyth beat him to it by several months. Brush's turbine was considerably larger and included the useful safety feature of an automatic brake to prevent damage in high winds, a feature absent from Blyth’s design. Blyth's turbine was 33 feet (10 metres) in diameter and stored the electricity generated in “accumulators” (batteries). Effectively, Blyth had built the world’s first known structure which generated electricity from wind power.
Blyth offered the surplus electricity generated by his wind turbine to local villagers to light the main street of the village, but they refused it having branded electricity “the work of the devil”. Not deterred by this, or suggestions that his turbine was not “economically viable”, Blyth determined to prove the value of his invention, and in 1895 he installed a larger, much improved version of his wind turbine at the Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary (later known as Sunnyside Royal Hospital), where it ran successfully as an emergency power source until is was dismantled in 1914. There would not be another public utility wind turbine in Britain until 1951.
Blyth received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 1900 for his work. He died in his Glasgow home in 1906, and he was memorialised with the establishment in 1908 of the Blyth Memorial Prize which continues still at the University of Strathclyde.
Mary Elizabeth Hawker (also known as Lanoe Falconer) (1848 to 1908)
Born in Inverurie in 1848, the eldest daughter of Major Peter William Lanoe Hawker and his wife Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth Hawker was a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Lanoe Falconer. While Mary’s formal education was somewhat limited, she was a prolific reader and talented pianist from an early age, and as the family moved from Aberdeenshire first to Hampshire and later to France and Germany, she displayed a skill with languages becoming fluent in both French and German.
Her passion for writing developed early, first with family stories and plays and later with short stories and essays published in magazines and newspapers. Mary’s first novel was published in 1890 under the penname “Lanoe Falconer” (combining her father’s middle name, and perhaps a play on her own surname) in T. Fisher Unwin’s 'Psuedonym Library'. An often overlooked classic of the Victorian era, 'Mademoiselle Ixe' combines mystery, politics, satire and intrigue as the title character finds herself in the realms of Russian nihilism embroiled in an assassination plot. Although banned in Russia, the book proved popular, selling over 40,000 English copies and counting Gladstone amongst its fans. It was reprinted in America, and translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian.
Following from the success of her first novel, Mary’s subsequent works, 'Cecilia de Noël' and 'The Hôtel d'Angleterre' (both published in 1891), proved just as popular and engaging with readers. Much to her frustration, Mary’s output was hampered around 1894 as her health began to decline; she then nursed both her mother and subsequently her stepfather through their final illnesses. Her final book, 'Old Hampshire Vignettes', was published in 1907, just a short period before her death in Herefordshire in June 1908 of tuberculosis.
Despite the fact that her output was not as prolific as it might have been, Mary Elizabeth Hawker was nevertheless a popular author with her challenging and entertaining short stories and novellas, and merits her inclusion in 'The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel (2013)'.