Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Old Greenock Characters - Blind Dominick

From John Donald's first volume of Old Greenock Characters...

The mere mention of this well known and well remembered individual recalls many memories of youthful days long past; for it is impossible to think of Dominick without conjuring up contemporaneous persons, places and things. He was a blind fiddler named Dominick O'Donnell, a native of Ireland, from the town of Glenties in County Doengal who spent several years in America where, it is said, he was deprived of sight by sunstroke. On his return to this country he settled in Greenock and, until his death about thirty years later, earned a subsistence as a street fiddler, his income from that source being augmented by the generosity of shopkeepers and others upon whom he called periodically.

Tall, well set-up, with full beard and good features and decently clad in a tweed suit with a round felt hat, Dominick presented quite a respectable appearance.

While his performances as a violinist were in some respects striking, they by no means suggested the genius of a Paganini. His repertory was limited, very limited. The strains of 'The Girl I left behind me' and only they, come quevring through the past. Dominick may have essayed other tunes, but I cannot recall them. With a courage worthy of a great cause, he would tackle the special request of a patron, valiantly tackle any melody - and conquer it; for it speedily became absorbed in a fantastic fantasia of the irrepressible girl he could not leave behind him.

The story goes that Dominick was one day sawing away at his favourite melody when the late genial Dean Gordon of St. Mary's passed. Slipping a coin into the blind fiddlers hand, he said, smiling pleasantly "Hurry up Dominick, or the girl you left behind you will soon be before you."

When Dominick approached Provost Dugald Campbell with a request for a certificate of character to support an application to play on certain river steamers, the provost, with a due appreciation of the applicant, referred to him as "a man whose character is good, but whose music is not of the best!"

Dominick had a narrow escape from drowning at Sandbank one summer Saturday afternoon. The steamer 'Vivid' was embarking passengers, and Dominick, one of the last, stood on the quay outside the gangway with one hand on the rail while with the other he held his favourite instrument under his coat. Evidently thinking he was on the gangway, he stepped forward, and, before he could be prevented, fell into the water between the steamer and the quay. The screams of some women who had witnessed the accident and cries of "A man in the water" instensified the bustle and excitement which had immediately ensued.

It was at once observed that Dominick was not only uninjured, but that he was a powerful swimmer, and sufficiently self-possessed to follow exactly the instructions shouted down to him by the Vivid's crew. Captain Campbell, who was in command, kindly delayed the steamer until not only Dominick but his fiddle also, had been picked up by a small boat and taken on board. He had a great reception from passengers, who vied with each other in efforts to restore him to comfort and prevent ill-effects of the immersion. He was well plied with liquid refreshment while his clothes were being dried, and, as he bewailed the 'ruin' of his fiddle, a collection was promptly instituted which yielded the sum of about 30 shillings to enable him to replace the instrument, which, it may be said, sustained little injury, and was as good, or as bad, after its bath as before it. Indeed, he was so well treated and compensated that, before reaching Greenock, he declared his willingness to have it all over again.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


As well as writing stuff for this blog in spare moments, or running my own blog Stramashed, I'm lucky enough to actually to do a wee bit of heritage in my proper day job. Right now, that's a Heritage Lottery Scotland funded project called Identity, which also has its own blog and facebook page.

Here's a wee vid explaining what the project is all about...

The project will be launching a graphic novel later in the year, prepared by the project team and local schools - a couple of stories from the Tales of the Oak the blog have also been adapted. You can help decide the title of the graphic on the Identity blog.

The smashing wee video above really makes me want to watch classic 80s TV series Knightmare. Really looking forward to the graphic novel...and if we're extra lucky...the launch will be pretty special too.

For those who were also following the Sugar Sheds Campaign - which has been a bit quiet of late - we are hoping for a few interesting announcements there too over the next few weeks. Fingers crossed.

And back here on Tales of the Oak, we're busy preparing for May's annual Captain Kidd Month.

Hibernation over all round.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Unlucky Bag

It has been 13 years this month since we started collecting stories locally, and here, is the very first story that was told to us, in Port Glasgow Library on a rather nice spring morning and originally printed in Clann Abhainn Cluaidh...

"So there was my gran, and there was Margaret, and this other girl J___, but remember her family still lives round here mind. That was the gang, must have been Victorian times this was. Every Saturday they'd go to the tally and get a lucky bag wi' their pocker money. Only this week, my Gran and Margaret decided on this wee thing called 'John Brown's Body' instead...a wee chocolate coffin wi a wee sweetie skeleton in it. Strange wee thing, but no stranger than what the weans eat nowadays.
That night, poor wee J___ dies in her sleep. Poison, the doctor says. Well, here mammy's goin spare, thinks it's these lucky bag sweeties whit killed her, seeing as my gran and her pal were both alright, see? So she kicks up a fuss, and eventually they perform a post-mortem - send the lassies stomach off to get examined. Long story short...her mammy wis right. Poisoned by the sweeties in her lucky bag...mercury or something. Something like that happened today, there would be a right outcry. Don't you think?"

Friday 13th of course also has its Knights Templar connections, as does our local area, enough indeed to apparently inspire a Nazi treasure hunter to visit the Clyde...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

National Poetry Month - Davydeep

I was really pleased to rediscover this piece recently, it was given to us for Clann Abhainn Cluaidh by (we are pretty sure) local born poet Raymond Friel, it is presented here exactly as was provided to us in 1999, though sadly, it would have been added to since then...

(being  an  alphabetical  list,  or  litany, of  Clyde  Shipwrecks  from  1770  to  the  present  day)












Belle Adventure








Castle Hill

City of Madras

Clan Campbell



Comet II

Mother of Christ, star of the sea,
Pray for the wand'rer, pray for me







Ellen Ann




Firth of Cromarty

Flying Scud



Golden Effort

Harriet Julia





Mother of Christ, star of the sea,
Pray for the wand'rer, pray for me




Jeannie Blair


Lady Mary






Lizzie Gardner

Loch Etive



Maid of Orleans

Marjorie Seed


Mocking Bird







Mother of Christ, star of the sea,
Pray for the wand'rer, pray for me

Queen of May




Sea Bird


Solway Queen




Storm Lights













Wild Duck


Mother of Christ, star of the sea,
Pray for the wand'rer, pray for me

Sunday, 1 April 2012

All Fools

We originally celebrated April Fools in Scotland by sending people on a fools errand, "hunting the gowk". An unfortunate would be given a letter, and told to deliver it to member of the community immediately as a matter of urgency. When the fool turned up at the door and passed over the letter, the person at the door would open it and read what was written.

"Dinna lauch, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk anither mile"

Pledging to help, they would announce that the message also needed to be delivered to someone else, setting the poor fool off to another door. Hilarious fun. See if you can do it today, and if you do it in the afternoon and someone suggests that "you are the fool" for trying a trick after noon, just tell them that you are playing US, German, Irish or South Korean rules, where the tricks can last all day. And if they don't buy that, stick a fish on their back like they do in France on "poisson d'avril" (one of the few key facts that remains with me from French at school).

People celebrate in different ways. Grumpy sceptic James Randi chooses April 1st to announce the winners of his Pigasus Awards, awarding excellence in the fields of parapsychology. Here's this years winners. The flying pig awards are sent to recipients via telekinesis.

These days of course, hoaxes are generally media driven, my favourite last year was the announcement of the discovery of an unfinished Narnia book in the notes of CS Lewis. This year, I love this Googlemaps for SNES, but that Virgin Volcanic announcement is only marginally less mental than Virgin Galactic, and to be honest Shaun Ryder probably should start advising the coalition government.
Here's a round up of this years best. Down our way, Inverclyde Now excelled itself this year as well.

Many people find the generally very obvious hoaxes a tedious press indulgence, personally, I think thats just how the tradition is maintained now, I enjoy finding them throughout the day - though it becomes increasingly difficult in an ever more ridiculous social media driven world, the truth is almost always stranger than fiction. It was only a few years ago that a local housing association ill advisedly chose April Fools Day to announce a campaign to cheer up some hiflats by covering them in massive pictures of local people. Except it wasn't a joke. Nothing so far in Inverclyde has matched the dizzying heights of these top 100 April Fools Day Hoaxes of all time. Have a good one.

Time for a Sea Serpent Sculpture?

New archaeological evidence, published last month, suggests that there may be more to local legends about sea serpent worship than we previously thought. The original discoveries are detailed in Skelmorlie : The Story of The Parish Consisting of Skelmorlie and Wemyss Bay (Walter Smart).

In Skelmorlie is one of the most remarkable antiquities in Scotland a ‘Serpent Mound’, supposed to have been used by the  ancient Britons in the worship of the Sun and the Serpent, and other religious rites. The head of the Serpent lies behind Brigend House and the ridge forming the body is now severed by the road running up the hill at Meigle. In the 1870’s Dr. Phen√© of Chelsea made some interesting excavations, discovering a paved platform some 80 feet long, and evidence of early cremations. The details were fully reported in the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman at the time and there are specimens in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

Recent examination of the pieces at Kelvingrove confirms that they are indeed burned human bones, something which was always disputed about Phene's original findings. Artefacts found at the Kempock Stone during similar excavations in the 19th Century are now also due to be tested alongside items found during the controversial excavations at Langbank, recently rediscovered at the National Museum Edinburgh. It is suggested that dating of the artefacts and remains will show them to be contemporary, and that the strange serpentlike drawings uncovered on stones at Langbank are linked to the "serpent mound" at Skelmorlie, via some sort of celtic river or serpent worship cult.

Sadly at this point no one has discovered any evidence of a big monster in the river. But of course there is certainly plenty of myth and legend linked to serpents and the West of Scotland, believed by many to be largely due to our links with Ireland. Certainly we have our own "Saint banishing serpent" legend for the area, and of course the washing up of the mysterious "Gourock monster" at Cardwell Bay during the Second World War.

The discovery has prompted local calls for a sculpture of the beast to be sited somewhere on the riverside, with space adjacent to Newark Castle, or locations at Cardwell Bay or Lunderston Bay being suggested.An online petition to pledge support to the potential sculpture has been set up.

Public art is itself a strange beast, wee Annie Kempock seems very popular, debate is still raging on the Endeavour sculpture up the Port, and its largely safe to say no one is altogether fussed about Ginger the traditional Greenock Arabian Stallion carthorse. We still think we've missed a trick on a Captain Kidd statue. But I'm happy to pledge support to this one...though I think the good people of Skelmorlie might have something to say about it...but who doesn't like sea serpents? Apart from sailors obviously.