The Humble Spider – A Measure of Moral Character in Physical Education

In this week’s blog post we take a closer look at the Dunfermline College of Physical Education Archives and attempt to join up the dots between the humble spider and the history of physical education in Scotland. Starting with the spider…

There are more than 45,000 species of spider found world-wide. An arachnid, they belong to a class of arthropods that include scorpions, mites and ticks. They can range in size from 0.11 inches (the tiny Samoan) to almost a foot (the Goliath birdeater tarantula). Metric, that’s around 2.5 mm up to 30.5 cm, or from a pin-head up to the length of your average class-room ruler. While a handful are dangerous to humans, the vast majority of spiders are harmless. They are critical to controlling insect populations.

The Jumping Spider - which can jump up to 50 times its own length

The Jumping Spider – which can jump up to 50 times its own length

Take a closer look at the humble spider and you’ll discover some surprising athletic prowess. The jumping spider can jump up to an impressive 50 times their body length. That’s the equivalent of a human jumping higher than a 25 storey building. The male Peacock spider lifts its legs and shakes its body in synchronised movements in order to attract mates. And every spider produces silk, the strong, flexible protein fibre which they use to build webs, to travel, to anchor themselves for jumping, and to float serenely along in the wind. Allegedly, the silk is so strong that it can absorb three times as much energy as Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests.

Since ancient times, throughout the world, the spider has featured in folklore and cultural tradition. This nifty creature has been assigned a variety of moral attributes and character traits. In some cultural traditions, the spider is seen as an evil arch-intriguer, weaving webs of duplicity, designed to entrap the innocent. In others, it is cast as a model of industry, wisdom and foresight. From Persia to Poland, spiders and caves have featured in the folklore of Kings and Prophets. A Jewish story tells of a spider protecting King David, who was hiding from King Saul, by weaving a protective web across the mouth of a cave. The Story of Hijrah from the Islamic faith tells the story of a spider spinning a web in a cave to protect the Prophet Muhammad.

Here in Scotland, many will be familiar with the fabled encounter of King Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) with a spider, first popularised by Sir Walter Scott in his series ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ (1828-1830). The story goes that after defeat by Edward I at the Battle of Methven (1306), a dispirited and demoralised Bruce fled into hiding. Holed up in a cave, Bruce observed a spider stoically attempt time and again to spin its web. Every time the spider fell, it began again, until at last, the web was spun. Inspired by the tenacious spider, Bruce is alleged to have told his troops, prior to defeating the English at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”. Bruce reigned King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329, and is somewhat revered as a national hero in Scotland.

Lithograph of Dunfermline Abbey by T. Picken after D.O. Hill, 1847-1854 (Corson P.4114)

Lithograph of Dunfermline Abbey by T. Picken after D.O. Hill, 1847-1854 (Corson P.4114)

Dunfermline, the former capital of Scotland, has a long standing connection with Scottish kings. On his death in 1329, Robert the Bruce was the last of seven Scottish kings to be buried at Dunfermline Abbey. Sensationally, his remains were uncovered in 1818 and then re-interred at the Abbey in 1819. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in 1891, the pulpit at Dunfermline Abbey was moved back and a monumental brass inserted to indicate the position of the royal vault.

Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy Scottish-born American industrialist and philanthropist, was born in Dunfermline in 1835. Carnegie was born just over fifteen years after the re-interment of Robert the Bruce at Dunfermline Abbey and only five years after Scott published his ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ featuring the legend of Robert the Bruce and the spider. The works of Scott were prominent in Carnegie’s education, enthusiastically relayed to him by his uncle, George Lauder, Snr. Carnegie’s ancestors had also been tenants on Broomhall Estate, the family home of Robert the Bruce’s descendants.

An embroidered spider motif on the front cover of the Dunfermline College of Physical Education Old Students' Association Minute Book, 1912-1973 (Ref: EUA GD55/1/1/2)

An embroidered spider motif on the front cover of the Dunfermline College of Physical Education Old Students’ Association Minute Book, 1912-1973 (Ref: EUA GD55/1/1/2)

Perhaps it is no surprise then, that the Carnegie funded Dunfermline College of Physical Education (DCPE), founded in 1905, should adopt the humble spider as its emblem. Its motto “Efforts are Successes” a distillation of Robert the Bruce’s alleged message to his troops. By 1905, Robert the Bruce and his spider were embedded in Scottish cultural tradition as a symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity. It is also fitting that this little creature assigned with traits of patience, dedication, resolve and resilience, and seemingly super-power athletic ability should become the lauded symbol of the college graduates.

The DCPE spider pops up in all manner of places throughout the the institution’s archives. The first minute book of the DCPE Old Students’ Association (OSA), which dates from 1912, features the spider motif intricately embroidered on its cloth cover. Open the cover and you will find revealed a controversy around the college brooch and its spider design. The minutes of 29 March 1929 read:

The Dunfermline College of Physical Education Brooch, featuring the spider, lion rampant, foundation date (1905) and the motto "Efforts are Successes". Image courtesy of Lorna M. Campbell

The Dunfermline College of Physical Education Brooch. Image courtesy of Lorna M. Campbell

The question of our badge having been raised. Mrs Manifold [the President of the Association] said it had been brought to her notice that our badge, not being registered, could be sold by Messrs R.W. Forsyth to any one who asked for it. She also said that she knew of a small shop-keeper who was making our pocket badge and had sold at least fifty, not necessarily to our members.

Inquiries were made to the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust (who owned the badge) to permit the spider design to be registered. Forsyth’s (a department store with premises in Edinburgh and Glasgow) offered to pay for the registration and were ‘prepared to protect their registration even to the point of a law-suit’ so strong were their feelings about the matter. Forsyth’s also committed to only sell badges to proven DCPE OSA members.

DCPE was founded as an instrument for improving the general health of the child but the story of the spider tells us it was about more than physical health. DCPE students and graduates were encouraged to align themselves to values of respectability, refinement, poise, deportment, and decorum. The moral standing and character of DCPE students was central to their teaching and their distinct identity in this area the source of some pride and cause for protection.

With growing secularisation, questions around how we shape the moral character and civic duty of society are as important now as ever before. Social and moral concepts such as loyalty, dedication, sacrifice, team-work, good citizenship, fairness, justice and responsibility are all tied up in the ethos of sports. But has the development of specialist sub-disciplines such as bio-mechanics, exercise physiology, sport psychology and motor learning led to a marginalisation of the social dimension of physical education? Has the renaming of physical education to ‘schools of exercise’ and ‘sports studies’ diluted its moral character? Does it matter? Asking these questions might lead us not just to a better understanding of the history of physical education, but of the human experience as a whole.

There are many ‘spider’ like stories to be found in the archives. This is one of thousands just waiting to be discovered. It is by uncovering and examining these stories that archives can help us to understand our past and our present, and subsequently, shape our future.

The records Dunfermline College of Physical Education and its’ Old Students Association are held at the University of Edinburgh Archives. You can search the catalogues of the Old Students’ Association online:
Dunfermline College of Physical Education Old Students’ Association
The catalogue of the college records will be made available online soon as part of our Wellcome Research Resource-funded ‘Body Language’ archive cataloguing project.

Sources and further reading:

  • The National Geographic – Spiders
  • On Walter Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’
  • Isabella C. MacLean, The History of Dunfermline College of Physical Education, (1976).
  • Phillips, M.G., Roper, A.P., History of Physical Education in ‘Handbook of Physical Education’ (2006).
  • On Andrew Carnegie

With thanks to Clare Button for her background research of the minutes of the DCPE OSA (Ref: EUA GD55/1/1/2).

The Forsaken Mermaid

This week we dig a little deeper into the story behind a document that was conserved in the course of our project work in 2018, and discover legendary sea creatures and a folk-tale inspired Scottish ballet.  

In 2018, project archivist, Clare Button, made a discovery: Margaret Morris’ copy of Erik Chisholm’s musical score for ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’, the first ever full length Scottish ballet. Clare made the remarkable find during her tenacious work to sort and catalogue over 300 boxes of archive material which make up the Margaret Morris Archives. The collection, which covers almost a century of movement, dance and art in Scotland, was donated to the Fergusson Gallery in Perth in 2010. It forms one of three collections included in our ‘Body Language’ project.

The Forsaken Mermaid manuscript before treatment (Ref: 2010.718)

The Forsaken Mermaid manuscript before treatment (Ref: 2010.718)

On discovering the manuscript, which is dated to around 1936, Clare found it in rather poor condition. There were multiple tears to the edges of the paper and evidence of some well-intended but rather non-expert repairs. She carefully packed up the fragile volume and arranged for it to be transported by expert couriers to specialist conservators at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections.

On arrival at the University of Edinburgh’s main library, the volume was unpacked by the conservation team in the bright, clinically clean, fifth-floor conservation studio. Amidst a hive of conservation activity (from re-binding rare seventeenth-century books to repairing early twentieth-century glass plate negatives), this curious manuscript met with experienced book and paper conservation student, Lisa Behrens.

Book and paper conservation student, Lisa Behrens, carefully removing adhesive tape from the Forsaken Mermaid mansucript

Book and paper conservation student, Lisa Behrens, carefully removing adhesive tape from the Forsaken Mermaid mansucript

Lisa’s first task was to dry-clean the volume and then, over two days, she painstakingly removed multiple layers of adhesive tape and binding threads. Each of the individual sheets were repaired using Japanese paper, pressed overnight and then re-sewn using a French sewing technique. This ensured that the conservation treatment did not damage the volume further and helps to protect it from further damage while still allowing it to be accessible to researchers.

A University of Edinburgh alumni (1931 and 1934), Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) was a leading Scottish modernist composer. Glasgow born Chisholm jointly founded the Celtic Ballet with Margaret Morris. At the age of 34, he was appointed Celtic Ballet’s director of music in 1938, although he had composed the musical score for ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ earlier, in 1936. The choreography for ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ was by Morris and the set and costumes by the artist, and then principal of Glasgow School of Art, Andrew Taylor-Elder (1908-1966). Celtic Ballet performed ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’, their inaugural production, at the Lyric Theatre, Glasgow, on 6 December 1940.

A curious folk-tale, ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ features those legendary supernatural sea people, human from the head to the waist but with a fish tail instead of legs. There are many folk-tales of love stories and marriages between a mermaid and a man, some have even claimed descent from such a union. This particular story takes place under and on the water and partly on land.  ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ tells the story of a mermaid who fell in love with a man when she is caught in a fisherman’s net. But the man grows tired of her and she returns to the sea in despair. The sea-people seek revenge in a terrible storm, drowning the fishermen. The mermaid pleads for the life of her love.

Subsequent Celtic Ballet productions were set to Scottish themes and incorporated elements of Margaret Morris Movement, Scottish country and Highland dance styles. Celtic Ballet went on to tour in Europe, Russia and the United States of America. They were one of the first British companies to perform in France after the second world war.  Chisholm went on to be appointed the Principal of the College of Music at the University of Capetown where he remained until his death in 1965. He held a lifelong interest in Scottish music and published a collection of Celtic folk-songs in 1964.

The Forsaken Mermaid manuscript after treatment (Ref: 2010.718)

The Forsaken Mermaid manuscript after treatment (Ref: 2010.718)

This annotated manuscript is evidence of just one of multiple collaborations with artists that Margaret Morris spearheaded, which can be found throughout the collection. Since undergoing successful conservation treatment, it has now been returned to its home at the Fergusson Gallery at Perth. While the gallery remains closed for the time-being (July 2020) in line with Scottish Government guidance on coronavirus restrictions, there are lots of sources online where you can find out more.

  • You can read more about the conservation treatment of the volume on Centre for Research Collections conservation blog ‘To Protect and (Con)serve’.
  • We love this fantastic video footage from 1923 showing Margaret Morris Merry Mermaids, showing dancers at Harlech beach performing mermaid inspired movement, courtesy of the British Film Institute.
  • Artist Donald Bain’s painting ‘Celtic Ballet: Forsaken Mermaid’ can be viewed on the National Galleries Scotland website.
  • The Celtic Ballet and its history feature in this opinion piece from ‘The National’ newspaper.
  • There is some fascinating reading around Erik Chisholm and his career to be found on the Erik Chisholm Trust website.

Health in Motion: I move, therefore I am

As many of us face the challenge of managing our mental and physical well-being during the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we look to the doyenne of movement and pioneer of dance, Margaret Morris, for inspiration…

Scrabble letters laid out to spell out 'Mental Health'In 2018, a YouGov online poll (based on a sample of 4619 participants) recorded that 74% of people have felt so stressed that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope, 61% felt anxious and 37% lonely due to isolation. A further 36% of adults who reported stress in the previous year cited either their own or a friend/relative’s long-term health condition as a factor, rising to 40% in adults over 55. Housing worries were another key source of anxiety. In 2013, there were 8.2 million recorded cases of anxiety in the UK.

Reproduction of an image illustrating CoronavirusIn 2020, we can now add the stresses and strains of coronavirus (COVID-19) into the mental health mix. There is little doubt that current measures around social distancing and restrictions on movement – in place to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus – are exacerbating the collective strain on mental and physical well-being. Mental health organisation websites (such as the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, and the Scottish Association for Mental Health) are all leading with how to protect our mental well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. On 27 March 2020, the Scottish Government announced an additional £3.8 million investment to expand support for digital mental health services specifically in response to further demand as a result of the current crisis.

As our first-hand experience of social isolation informs our understanding of its impact, many of us are developing a new found empathy for those who had been living in social isolation pre-coronavirus. For those of us accustomed to leading active lives and moving around freely, we are now having to consider carefully the new risks associated with moving and exercising outwith our homes. For many of us, physical movement will be at the very bottom of our priority list as we juggle all of our other commitments. After all, just thinking about how to incorporate physical movement into our new daily routine (if we have managed to establish one) can be mentally exhausting given our work, family, child-care, pet-care, carer, domestic, social media, volunteering, and the new plethora of video group-chat catch-up commitments. That’s before we even register the anxiety around actually becoming infected with or transmitting coronavirus.

There are many studies which have shown that doing physical activity can improve mental health by aiding sleep, releasing feel-good hormones, distracting our brains from intrusive and racing thoughts, improving self-esteem, and reducing the risk of depression. All even more important in the current environment. How then, at this time of crisis, do we move physical and mental well-being up the priority list? For help, we decided to look to our archives and into the past. We look to the great doyenne of all things movement and pioneer of dance, Margaret Morris (1891-1980), for some inspiration and guidance.

Reproduction of Front cover of Margaret Morris' Basic Physical Training, 1937, courtesy of Culture Perth and Kinross

Front cover of Margaret Morris’ Basic Physical Training, 1937, courtesy of Culture Perth and Kinross

Ideas around the integration of mind and body are not new. In the 1920s, Margaret Morris, a dancer, choreographer and teacher, was part of a wider campaign that promoted health via ‘movement, wholefood, fresh air etc’. Morris developed her ‘Margaret Morris Movement’ method in which students studied form, line, colour, movement, music, rhythm, sound and composition. When she was interviewed in 1926 for Architecture: the magazine of architecture, the applied arts and crafts, Margaret Morris highlighted one of the primary problems in the area of physical movement which was, (and still is), ‘how can physical exercise be made interesting?’ Morris remarked in her 1937 publication Basic Physical Training, ‘corrective exercises have…excellent results when persisted in long enough – but they are terribly boring to do…’ Morris was convinced that interest could only be done by bringing the creative or artistic element; which she argued was not so difficult or far-fetched as it may at first appear. Underlying her approach was the inter-relation and harmony of all the arts. ‘All movements performed for the establishment of health…must combine the aesthetic as well as the medical values of movement.’

Morris developed and refined her method throughout her lifetime. By 1938, four divisions of Margaret Morris Movement had been established: normal, medical, athletic and aesthetic, all of which were interrelated. Morris propounded the remedial and health benefits of dance and her particular movement method as she witnessed improvements in her dancers’ posture and general health. Morris developed a dance system which, she argued, was more natural than classical ballet and allowed for all the possibilities of movement, including spring and balance, without artificialities or contortions – to allow a true freedom of expression. Many of us are currently experiencing high emotional states, but may be finding it difficult to express ourselves in words. Dance allows individuals to express powerful emotions through their physical bodies perhaps more instinctively and intuitively, and our bodies provide a physical medium through which pent up emotion may be released.

Central to the Margaret Morris Movement method is the science of breathing, and she advocated the teaching of correct breathing before anything else so that the breath is synchronised with movement. Many of the movements she devised are based on a ‘twist of the trunk, with counter-balancing arm and leg movements’. Writing in her book Roar (2016), about female physiology, health and fitness performance, Dr Stacy T. Sims tells us that ‘when our entire torso (collarbone to hip) is strong and solid, so are you.’ Unlike many other sports or physical activities, dance develops core strength as the foundation of every other move. Morris underlines the importance of the lungs, the abdomen and feet in Basic Physical Training claiming, ‘their efficient functioning is unquestionably of the first importance for success in any form of physical activity whatsoever.’

A coloured drawing by Margaret Morris, showing muscles of the arm, drawn as part of her physiotherapy training.

Margaret Morris Movement was informed by Morris’ deep understanding of human anatomy, illustrated here in one of her many anatomical drawings, underaken as part of her physiotherapy studies.  Courtesy of Culture Perth and Kinross

From 1925 Morris began to demonstrate remedial qualities of her movement method to health professionals. In 1930 she qualified as a physiotherapist and by 1937 she was invited to join the National Council for Physical Education. By 1939 Margaret Morris had authored or co-authored a number of publications which described the Margaret Morris Movement method and explained its application to a range of physical activities including dancing, skiing, maternity and post-operative exercises, tennis and basic physical training. The continuing relevance of her ideas was recognised in 2013 in the New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy in which her ‘maternity exercises’ from 1938, are considered to translate well to the present day, with more evidence to support their use in some instances. Margaret Morris Movement dance teachers continue to teach her technique and dances today to encourage the love of dance and movement for health benefits, satisfaction and performance. You can read more about Margaret Morris and the current work of Margaret Morris Movement International Ltd on their website.

While our freedom of movement may be geographically constrained, why not let Margaret Morris and her dancers inspire you to explore a physical freedom of movement and expression within your home? There is wonderful video footage of Margaret Morris demonstrations to be found online via British Pathé. Perhaps put on some music, breathe a little more deeply and rhythmically, give your trunk a little twist, counter-balance your limbs, think a little less, move a little more. Dance your way physically, through your body, to a better mental space. Alone or with your family, or dare I mention it, shared via video call. Test the assumption of intellectual superiority suggested by Descartes when he declared “I think, therefore I am” and try out our favoured alternative: “I move, therefore I am”.

We hope Margaret Morris will inspire you to add a little physical movement to your day.  Stay safe, stay well, stay home – keep moving.

Elaine MacGillivray – Project Archivist

The Margaret Morris Archive was gifted by the International Association of Margaret Morris Movement to our project partner Culture Perth and Kinross in 2010. Images are courtesy of Culture Perth and Kinross and Margaret Morris Movement International Limited.

The Margaret Morris Archive is being catalogued as part of our Wellcome Research Resource-funded ‘Body Language’ project. The archive is held at the Fergusson Gallery in Perth. The Gallery is currently closed in line with Scottish Government guidance relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Updated information regarding re-opening will be published on the Culture Perth and Kinross Museums web-pages when available.     

Morris, Margaret and Daniels, Fred, Margaret Morris Dancing, (Kegan Paul, 1926)
Morris, Margaret, The Notation of Movement, (Kegan Paul, 1928)
Morris, Margaret and Falkner, Hans, Skiing Exercises, (Heinemann, 1934)
Morris, Margaret and Randell, M., Maternity and Post-Operative Exercises, (Heineman, 1936)
Morris,Margaret, Basic Physical Training, (Heinemann, 1937)
Morris, Margaret, My Life in Movement (1969)
Power, Richenda, Healthy Motion: Images of ‘natural’ and ‘cultured’ movement in early twentieth-century Britain, in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol 19, Issue 5, (Sept-Oct 1996)
Simpson, Betty and Whitfield, Frank, Notes on the theory of teaching Margaret Morris Movement (1936)
Sims, Stacy T., Roar, (Rodale, 2016)
Hay-Smith, E Jean C, Maternity Exercises 75 years on: what has changed and what does experimental evidence tell us? in New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy, Vol 41, Number 1, (March 2013)
Miss Margaret Morris at Crosby Hall in The Academy, (25 May 1912), p.658
Architecture, a magazine of architecture and the applied arts and crafts, Vol 4, Issue 10, (London, February 1926).
Margaret Morris Movement International Ltd website
Mental Health Foundation website
Mind: the mental health charity website
The Scottish Association for Mental Health website
The Scottish Government website (news web-pages)