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Staneybreeks and Stirling

1983 A momentous year in Stirling, as the town regains its own Parliamentary seat, the modern constituency echoing that of 1708, when the seat was first established. Michael Forsyth is elected, following in the long line of footsteps that go back to Stirling-born John Cowane, Member of Parliament for the Burgh from 1625 – 1632. But Cowane was not a one-trick pony. As well as being a politician he was also a very wealthy merchant, a landlord, a banker, a ship owner, a privateer, and one the biggest benefactors Stirling has ever known. On his death, precisely 350 years ago, he left provision for the establishment of an alms house for ‘twelve decayed Guild members of Stirling’ (and we all know how that feels) , and this alms house then became Cowane’s hospital, which can still be visited today, presided over by the statue of Cowane there, known affectionately as Auld Staneybreeks, which supposedly leaps off its plinth every Hogmanay and take to the streets in merry dance. Speaking of deaths, it is also 400 years since the establishment of the first ever Life Insurance Policy, and it is oddly comforting to know that even way back then, the Insurance underwriters jumped through hoops trying to wriggle out of paying up, despite the fact that the debt seemed clear cut. The policy was taken out on 18th June 1583 for a period of one year precisely, and the subject of the policy, William Gibbons, died eleven and a half months later, on May 29th 1584. ‘Pay up!’ shouted the triumphant beneficiaries. ‘Not likely,’ said the underwriters. ‘We count months in multiples of 28 days, so the policy has expired, and you can go and boil your head.’ The case went to court, and four years later (yes, you heard right!) finally decided in favour of William Gibbons’ family. It took a long time, but the Gibbons got there, and good on them.

Dying in this year also are Tennessee Williams, Umberto the last king of Italy, Gloria Swanson, and Buster Crabbe – best known as Flash Gordon. More tragically, the singer/ drummer Karen Carpenter also died, from heart failure related to the anorexia nervosa that she suffered, and Arthur Koestler (author of Darkness at Noon about the Stalin show trials) and his wife Cynthia killed themselves in a suicide pact. Also dying is the delightfully named Christmas Humphreys, who was a colourful as he sounds, and not only was the father of the Buddhist Foundation in England, but also a leading prosecutor and judge, involved in over 200 murder trials in his long career, including that of the notorious Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed the UK. As prosecutor at the trial, the only question Christmas asked Ellis when she was on the stand was this: ‘When you fired the gun, did you mean to kill?’ To which she replied: ‘It is obvious that when I shot him, I intended to kill.’ Pretty much case over, and the jury took only 14 short minutes to find her guilty, and less than one month later she was hanged.

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