History of here…

Our house, circa 2003

We have just had a lovely couple of days with my brother Steve, his wife Kate and little Jamie. Lots of sillyness and laughter, too much food and not a lot of sleep. I only wish my sister could have been there too- but life has thrown us all into a complication of geography and distance.

This morning we intended to take a walk through Dunoon, but it was lashing down with rain, so we went to Castle House museum. I have only been once before- years ago- and we were wondering whether they would have any information about our house- who lived here previously, what it was used for etc.

Because here is where we are, and being fully here seems to me to involve an appreciation of connection- with family and friends now, but also with who has been here before us.

I discovered today that behind where we live there was an Episcopalian church- made of corrugated iron, which eventually burnt down. And a little further back into the woods is a mound that was thought to be a Roman Fort.

What we discovered about our house turned out to be a little more than we expected. Maps of the plot of land before the house was built, old land records listing the details of the person who built it, a Robert Donaldson, who seems to have been an instrument maker from Glasgow. We need to go back to dig a little deeper into the copper plate records, but another thing we discovered is that our house used to be a ‘nursing home’- not in the sense of elderly care, but rather a place where people went to give birth to babies, or to recover from illness. It was called ‘St Margaret’s nursing home’ and there are people alive today in Dunoon (and elsewhere) who were born here.

Scratch the surface, scrape back the paint and peeling paper, and there are whole lives laid out before us. The hopes, aspirations, triumphs, disappointments and tragedies of those who used to be here, but now are elsewhere.

It is humbling, but also makes me grateful.

(Not least as this week, Michaela and I have been married 21 years!)

The battle against racism returns to Dunoon’s foreshore…

There is a rock about a hundred yards from where I live that has been decorated for about 100 years like this-

I have previously described some of the controversy that surrounds this rock (here and here.)

I recently came across another website run by someone I know in Dunoon, which was set up as a result of his concern about what the history and symbolism of the rock might mean…

He quotes someone called Dr Waters from the Institute of Race Relations as saying this-

“… there can be no doubt that the painting of the ‘face’, with its exaggerated red mouth, is a typically caricatured image of a black person, as popularised by the American entertainer T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century. [...] I feel certain that black visitorsfrom outside would see this as somewhat insulting [...] as a derogatory reference to their skin colour and origins.”

Last year someone took matters in their own hands and painted out the rock with some brown paint. They did a rather good job, and it was hard to tell that it had ever been decorated.

And as the local furore raged, someone else simply redecorated it as above.

Well, last night someone revisited the rock- this is what it looks like today-

Is Dunoon a racist town?

No more than any other I would say- although the largest ethnic minority here are the English, and we have a measure of anti-English sentiment like most places in Scotland. But narrow mindedness and prejudice are a feature of all our human communities and perhaps in small isolated towns like mine they can be long lasting.

There are not many black faces here. However, there used to be an American Naval base here until around 15 years ago, and there were lots of black American servicemen here then. Stories of race riots and segregated drinking are part of the local folklore. As are fond memories of the life and vitality brought to our community by people from African American origin.

Quite what these servicemen thought about the rock, I would love to know. Where they so used to such images that it was unremarkable? Were they told not to protest by their command structure? Or did it carry no racist meaning for them?

I hope that this latest act of direct action might yet highlight the meaning of ‘Jim Crow’ for Black Americans to people in Dunoon.

Because I think that we have should challenge prejudice wherever we find it- whether or not it is unintentional, or inherited from a previous generation with a different world view.