Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Are you Kerr-Handed?

KERR’S CORNER READERS sometimes surprise me. The last column on the anniversary of the invention of the Biro pen was a case in point. My mention in passing that I found ballpoint pens useful as I am left-handed brought in an email that caused me to take a double-take. At first I thought my email was on the blink! It came from David Kerr of Jordanstown, formerly from the Limestone Road area in Belfast. A double coincidence. I am David Kerr and used to live in the Limestone Road too.

David wrote to say that he too is left-handed and wondered if I had heard about left-handedness being a common trait in people called Kerr. He had heard that castles of the Kerr clan in Scotland had anti-clockwise staircases as a protective measure. These would give left-handed defenders a free sword hand while hampering the progress of right-handed attackers as they tried to fight their way up. David thought this was a bit fanciful, but wondered if I had heard anything about this and if there is any truth in it.

As it happens, there is some truth to this legend. My sister visited Ferniehurst Castle last summer and it does indeed have an anti-clockwise staircase. The legend is even celebrated in poetry. In The Raid of the Kerrs, Ettrick Shepherd summed up the feelings Englishmen had toward this warlike Scottish border clan family. “The Kerrs were aye the deadliest foes that e’er to Englishmen were known, For they were all bred left handed men, and fence [defence] against them there was none”. The Kerrs played a very important role in the Scottish borders. They originally came over to Britain from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066. The clan descended from two brothers, Ralph and John, who settled in Jedburgh around 1330. The clan soon prospered, protecting Scottish borderlands from English encounters and occasionally raiding England whenever they felt the need for some prime beef. Cattle raids were a Kerr speciality. The clan had a long-running rivalry with the neighbouring Scott clan.

In another poem The Reprisal, celebrating the storming of Ferniehurst Castle, Walter Laidlaw wrote “So well the Kerrs their left hands ply, the dead and dying round them lie, the castle gained, the battle won, Revenge and slaughter are begun”. The clan chief was Sir John Kerr. After the battle he and his men played handball with the severed heads of their enemies. A game known as “Jedburgh Ba’” based on this ancient and gory victory is played today with leather balls in the place of English heads.

Ralph Kerr’s line became the Marquesses of Lothian, while John’s rose to the Dukedom of Roxburgh. At different times both lines held the title Warden of the Middle March which consisted of the border area between England and Scotland. By the time of the Jacobite uprisings, the Kerrs opposed the rebels. Lord Robert Kerr died at Culloden in 1746.
There is a Kerr Crest and two tartans. The current head of the Kerr Clan is the leading Conservative MP, Michael Ancram. His family name is Kerr. Until his father’s death in 2004 he was the Earl of Ancrum. He succeeded to the hereditary title of 13th Marquess of Lothian on his father’s death but he was able to keep his parliamentary seat without renouncing his title as hereditary peers are no longer entitled to sit in the House of Lords. He doesn’t use his title.

Approximately some 30% of male Kerrs are supposed to be left-handed. My dad was left-handed for everything but handwriting. He hammered in nails and painted with his left hand. As was common early in the last century, he had been forced to use his right hand for writing at school.

Even today, there are many obstacles for left-handed children to overcome in the classroom. Pencil sharpeners, spiral notebooks, scissors, desks, rulers, and sports equipment such as hockey sticks are all designed for right-handed children.

Things are never as bad as during the Medieval period in Europe when the left hand was linked to Satan and those who used their left hand were thought to be possessed by devils, in league with Satan. One of the qualifications to be questioned, or tortured, in the infamous Spanish Inquisition was to be left-handed and often meant death. The Latin word for ‘left’ is ‘sinister’ and has left us with ‘sinistral’ which is the scientific term for ‘left-handed’. Many other words that translate into ‘left’ in English have secondary meanings. In French: gauche: awkward, clumsy; Italian: mancini: crooked, maimed; German: linkisch; awkward.

This is understandable. We lefties are awkward as the world is not designed for us to fit in easily. We have to adapt as best we can. At home and later in the world of work the following common tools all require left-to-right wrist turning movements more comfortable for right-handers: corkscrews, rotary dial phones, analogue clock-setting & winding, screws, Edison screw lightbulbs, door handles, and ice cream scoops.

The following are specifically designed to be used in a right-handed fashion: scissors, can openers, coffee makers, computer keyboards (numeric keypad on right), many computer mice, calculators and pushbutton phones (left-to-right array), golf clubs, wrenches, slot machines, playing cards, lipped saucepans, gravy boats, rulers, bowling balls, vegetable peelers, phone kiosks, violins (and most other stringed instruments), saxophones, and most hand-held power tools. I’ve nearly come to grief a few times myself as the safety button on electric drills is on the wrong side for me and the flex tends to come out to the left side. The emergence of cordless appliances has been a bit of a help to me.

Because of this there are jobs that are more difficult for the left-handed person to do as safely and as fast as the right-handed. Meat slicers, drill presses, band saws, textile machinery, production lines, and heavy equipment are set up for right hand use. Recent research in this subject has proven the greater threat of harm for left-handers in areas such as manufacturing and construction over the threat for the right handed workers.

I’m glad to report that wider use of ballpoint pens, and greater availability of left-handed scissors, rulers and tape measures are helping left-handed children and adults to fit in more easily. Such items tend to be more expensive than mass-produced products for the greater number of right-handed folk but they are a great help.


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