Digging into insults

You know you are really digging in to a topic when you buy a specialist dictionary for the task. And so I am now the proud owner of the second edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary.

I have a range of physical dictionaries – the classic monster Oxford English Dictionary, a dictionary of slang, one for quotations and then French and Spanish dictionaries – but to be honest, I rarely use them these days thanks to the internet.

Niche dictionaries are different though; their contents aren’t readily available online. And since I’m writing a book about a Scotsman born in the 1840s who proudly retained and used his Scots dialect, I decided I needed to understand exactly what he meant when he used words only vaguely familiar to me. Plus John McLaren loved Rabbie Burns and the dialect in Burns’ poems has always made me a wee sleekit and timorous beastie when it comes to going beyond his most famous work.

I also recall listening to Billy Connolly once talk about his favorite bits of Scottish dialect and slang, enjoying them as he belted them out. Anyway, the word that kicked it off was this: stookie.

There are countless references to John McLaren and “stookie” in newspapers and magazines and books because that is the word that he choose to use to refer to statues in his beloved Golden Gate Park. No one really knew what he meant when he called them stookies but two things were clear: one, it was a Scottish word; and two, he was not using it kindly.

No one really knew what he meant when he called them stookies but two things were clear: one, it was a Scottish word; and two, he was not using it kindly.

McLaren famously hated statues in the park and just as famously would plant trees around the base after their grand unveiling that would grow and eventually cover up the statues entirely. Years after his death, people were still finding long-forgotten statues that he had hidden in this way.

I’ve always loved this story because it shows an extraordinary streak of pragmatism: he didn’t fight their entry into his park, presumably because he knew he would lose the battle, but then used his unquestioned authority over plantings to ultimately succeed.

But I still didn’t really know what the word “stookie” meant so when I was in Bannockburn in 2019, researching McLaren’s childhood, I asked the lovely Margaret Pollock – who is head gardener at Bannockburn House and helped me enormously while in town – if she knew what it meant.

She knew straight away. “If you break a leg or arm and need to have a plaster cast put on to help the bone set, that is referred to as ‘getting a stookie put on’,” she told me. The name comes from the Italian “stucco.” She also told me that in the past in Scotland little plaster statues of saints and such were popular in Scottish households and they were often referred to as “stookies” – not in a positive way – presumably to differentiate them from the fancier and more expensive marble or stone statues. She summed up: “Basically, John Mc Laren disliked ‘plaster’ statues. Hope that makes sense.”

Which it did. But something has never sat right with me about the whole stookie/McLaren thing. For one, McLaren did use his considerable control of San Francisco’s parks to stop all kinds of things he didn’t like – from roads, to police stations, to cars on Sundays, to just about anything – so why did he let statues in, especially if he seemingly hated them?

And, why did he hate statues anyway? He had no problem with tennis courts and ball parks and bison and a golf course and so on – what was it about statues that he seemingly hated so much? So I dug in and I have built a theory that I am now trying to nail down through research. I don’t think McLaren hated statues per se, I think he hated the man who was putting them into the park, and who, not coincidentally, was also the man that sculpted many of them; a man named M. Earl Cummings.

Why was McLaren unable to stop Cummings’ statues from being repeatedly installed in his park? Well, it just so happens that Cummings was one of the Park Commissioners and so his boss. Cummings was on the Park Commission for years – well over a decade (I need to nail down the exact dates) – and even died while still on it.

Among the statues of his currently in the park: the Doughboy in the Redwood Memorial Grove; an Indian boy playing the pipes to two mountain lions at the Garden of Enchantment (by the deYoung museum); a cougar and bear at the north 8th street entrance to the park; Robert Burns on JFK Drive; and – my favourite given my current theory – that of John McLaren himself positioned at the entry of the John McLaren rhododendron dell. There may be more.

I think John McLaren hated the statues because there were the rare example of him being unable to stop someone else from interfering with his park. If M Earl Cummings got a commission for a statue- and he made excellent money from such commissions – then he had the means to get that statue placed in the premier recreation spot in all of San Francisco – Golden Gate Park. And there was little John McLaren could do about it.

I have to dig into whether there’s any evidence that Cummings used and abused his position to his own profit; but if he did, that would have infuriated McLaren, who was a scrupulously honest man, all the more. I need to see when the various Cummings statues were commissioned and if there was any noise around them. And when was the first one, and did McLaren fight and lose the first time? And so on.

Anyway, back to “stookie.” I found a fascinating reference to the word in Hansard – the official record of the UK’s House of Parliament in London – where an unpopular Conservative Scottish MP was referred to as a “stookie.” The term was not meant kindly. And so, it turns out, there is another meaning of the word, as confirmed by the Concise Scots Dictionary: “A slow-witted, dull or shy person.”

This is the full entry:

stookie n. 1 plaster of Paris, stucco; a plaster cast encasing a broken limb 2 pipeclay 3 a stucco figure 4 a slow-witted, dull or shy person 5 a children's game in which the players are required to remain motionless.

My theory is that McLaren was purposefully using an obscure Scottish word to refer to statues in his park so he could both insult them and the man who made some of them and pushed more of them into his park, sculptor, commissioner and society figure M Earl Cummings who also happened to be his boss.

As I’ve dug in, I’ve found some intriguing details. For one, the statue of McLaren that stands in a prominent position in the park today and was sculpted by Cummings himself? McLaren hated it. So much so in fact that after he was presented with it, he stuck under some garbage in the horses stables and it wasn’t discovered until after his death. Only his foreman knew about it.

The horse manure aspect also came up another time with McLaren and Cummings. On McLaren’s 85th birthday, he was taken to the Conservatory of Flowers and – much to his surprise – found his likeness and the message “Happy Birthday John McLaren” emblazoned in flowers on the hill in front of it. It made the front page of the newspapers and everyone made it plain that it had been really hard to pull off the feat without McLaren getting wind of it.

Anyway, there is a famous quote of McLaren’s that it turns out stemmed from that very day. When asked by reporters – because reporters had been invited to capture McLaren’s surprise – what he wanted for his birthday, he responded: “Ten thousand yards of manure for my trees.”

Which was a peculiar but funny response and people have often used to relay McLaren’s singleminded dedication to his craft and the park. But I suspect it was his famous irritation coming out at Cummings. Because it was Cummings who had masterminded the entire thing, including using a sketch of McLaren that he personally drew as the likeness of him used as the flower template. I suspect that McLaren, while touched that his gardeners had done such a thing for him, was at the same time supremely annoyed that someone had approved a big change to his park and in a very prominent position without talking to him.

I suspect as well that Cummings knew all too well that McLaren didn’t like him and was possibly a little hurt and confused by it. Cummings was, after all, a social climber and a people pleaser. He made a statue of him while McLaren was still alive that McLaren hated, and then created an entire birthday flower tribute. Why was he so desperate to please him? And why did McLaren clearly not reciprocate? That’s what I’m digging into.

I’ve some way to go on that and I need to get on with more writing so it may have to wait. But while doing some quick research into Cummings, I did come across another extraordinary piece of information, and one I’ve never heard about before. Cummings didn’t make just one statue of McLaren.

In 1981, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature on statues in the park and heaped praised on former Park Commissioner and sculptor Cummings who was responsible for more of them than anyone else. It included pictures of two of his works – the Indian pipe boy and Rabbie Burns – and a photo of the man himself… next to “his fifteen-foot-high bust of John McLaren.”

I can only imagine McLaren’s reaction to finding out there was a fifteen foot high bust of his face. He likely used a word that you’d need the Concise Scots Dictionary to fully appreciate.