Sandy’s Garden ... Without Visible Means of Support

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The speaker at a meeting of the Probus club of Polmont, who was Stirling Council’s Archivist, referred to ‘The Vagabond Book, 1582 – 1587,’ one of the multitude of fascinating records held in the council’s archives.

Vagabonds were, in the 16th century, persons who had no abode or job; and their qualification for admission to this register was the commission of misdemeanours such as vagrancy, theft, breach of the peace and assault. The magistrates were sometimes sympathetic towards first offenders: but repeat offenders were often whipped and banished from the town, sometimes for a set number of years and sometimes sine die.

This aspect of her talk brought back to my mind a report which I had read in the logbook of Holy Trinity Episcopal Primary School … 83 St. Mary’s Wynd, Stirling … during my five-year tenure of the headship there many years ago. This was the tale of a fourteen-year-old pupil … the school admitted older children a century ago … who, in the first decade of the last century, had been arrested and charged for having been on the streets without the price of a night’s stay in the common lodging house in his pockets. The magistrate sent him to the notorious ‘Mars’ training ship, which was moored in the Tay from 1869-1929, whereupon the then headmaster went to the court to assure the magistrate that the boy was a good pupil whose ‘crime’ was to be poor. The school’s governors immediately assured the head that any repeat of arguing with a magistrate guaranteed his immediate dismissal: but he ignored this and returned to persuade the magistrate to reverse his decision, which he did. The headmaster was not dismissed, I am delighted to add.

Well, more than 300 years on from the Vagabond Book, Stirling magistrates still took a dim view of any adult … at 14! … who was without visible means of support. And a mid-September experience in my garden brought that phrase … without visible means of support … to mind. Enjoying breakfast as the sun emerged from behind clouds which had been responsible for an earlier fine drizzle, my eyes were caught by a magnificent spider’s web apparently hanging in space without visible means of support. The individual spokes and their radial links were bejewelled by tiny droplets of water, glistening in the sunshine when seen from my angle of vision like a network of diamond-studded threads. And, once I had taken in the incredible beauty and fragility of the structure, I realised that I could not see any means by which the web was supported between the slim topmost shoots of nearby shrubs. It seemed to be, quite literally, floating in the air; and no matter how closely I tried to look … not an easy task, for the web was at least ten feet above the ground and I did not dare move any of the shrub’s branches for fear of destroying the very thing I was seeking to investigate … I simply could not find the anchor lines which I knew, intellectually, had to be there.

I have since read, in a report in the journal ‘Nature’ of research carried out by Lei Jiang, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the project, that the reason for jewel-like droplets of water hanging on a spider’s web after fog is to be found in the spider silk itself. Dr. Lei explains that, in his own words, “Spider silk can be several tens of micrometres in diameter (whereas the water drops) can be thousands of micrometres wide.” He speaks of the spindles of spider silk being formed from “puffs” of extremely tiny fibres, or nanofibrils, connected by joints. In damp conditions, the nanofibrils shrink, which smoothes out the bumpy silk fibres, driving moisture towards the bumpy knots in the spindle, where it gathers into large droplets, the ‘diamonds’ which I could see sparkling in the sunshine. But I still don’t understand why this web was apparently without visible means of support!