Monthly Archives: September 2009


Dying Villages Of Europe

Current Issue – Volume 5 Issue 3

Dying Villages Of Europe

Writer and poet Tom Pow makes a journey off Europe¹s beaten track.
In rural France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, populations are declining rapidly.
The Enlightenment move to the urban core of human civilisation has a downside in the countryside.
Pow talks to rural dwellers and, and in this thoughtful essay, ponders what might be lost with the dying of the village.

The SRB Interview with Ian Jack

No Patter Merchant
Tom Leonard – Scotland’s foremost living poet.
An assessment of a new collected poems by Ian Bell.

Memento Mori
Alan Taylor reviews the life of Muriel Spark.

PLUS Regulars – Diary, Gallimaufry, Reviews

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


A Life in a Year

A Life in a Year – Alan Taylor

IN 1786, BY WHEN he had reached the age of 27, Robert Burns was already a man with a reputation as a rake. His girlfriend, the woman he wanted to make his wife, Jean Armour, was pregnant with what would be their twins. Not surprisingly her father was appalled at the thought of Burns as his sonin- law. Had abortion then been an option it would surely, if very reluctantly, have been considered. James Armour, according to one contemporary source, hated Burns “and would raither hae seen the Deil himsel comin to the hoose to coort his dochter than him!”

It is not hard to see why. While some  Burnsians have attributed Armour’s animosityto social snobbery the more simple explanation is that he saw Burns for what he was: a man whose breeches were as often at his ankles as they were tied round his waist. Burns, as the solid kirkman Armour was well aware, was a “fornicator”, whose familiarity with the cutty stool, the kirk’s equivalent to the school dunce’s cap, was unrivalled. Already he had a bastard daughter. Her mother was Elizabeth Paton, a maid who’d taken the poet’s fancy when she had helped on the Burns farm at Lochlie.

As Robert Crawford says in The Bard: Robert Burns, The Biography, the poet’s personal life in 1786 was in “a mess”. In order to spare her family embarrassment Jean had been removed from Mauchline to Paisley. Anyone who inquired after her was told she had gone to visit friends. Unable to undo what was a fait accompli, James Armour was now determined to prevent the marriage of his daughter to the Ayrshire Don Juan. Whether Burns intended to marry Jean is another matter. A document, now missing, in which the lovers pledged themselves to each other, suggests that may have been the intention.

Or so says Crawford. As Patrick Scott Hogg says in Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard, “This matter has engendered much overheated debate.” Such, it seems, is the way of things where Burns scholarship is concerned. But whether or not Burns wanted to marry Jean, her father moved to prevent it, to which end he consulted a lawyer. Thus the evidence – the paper that has “engendered much overheated debate” – was apparently destroyed. Not, of course, that this was in any way legally binding. But what James Armour did succeed in doing was to encourage Burns to believe all was lost as far as Jean was concerned. In part at least Burns felt she was responsible for what had happened. “She is illadvised.” What, then, was Burns to do? Pine? Pitch himself again at Jean? Plead the case of one heart-sick with love? On the contrary, he found succour in the arms of other women, attended Masonic gatherings, drank with his cronies, worked on the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems, and made plans to emigrate to Jamaica.

Sex, however, as ever with Burns, was near the top of that list. While he mourned his severed connection with Jean he was not celibate. Indeed, Burns took the dent to his pride as a signal to throw himself at other women. For instance, as Crawford relates, he had an “intense relationship” with the woman known in Burns lore as Highland Mary, thus romanticising the liaison in Cartland-esque terms. “My Highland lassie,” wrote Burns, “was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love.” How now should we interpret such sentiments. What in this innuendo-strewn age are we to make of that “generous love”?

Highland Mary we now know was really called Margaret Campbell and was born in Dunoon which – as Ian McIntyre, author of Dirt & Deity:A Life of Robert Burns (1995) acknowledged was “no more Highland than the Cowal coast.” In his biography, Hogg says there is evidence to show she was “not the pure-hearted maiden of myth” and not averse to spreading her favours. Astonishingly, in 1920, her grave in a Greenock churchyard was dug up, revealing not her remains but those of an infant. Could it have been yet another fruit of the poet’s loins? “This provoked wild speculation,” notes Hogg. It was discovered,however, that the child had been placed there forty years after Campbell’s internment. Nevertheless, adds Hogg, McIntyre “made calls for the infant’s remains to be exhumed and tested to verify if Burns was the father. It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to work out that this could not have been the case.”

Absurd as this may seem, McIntyre was nevetheless serious in his intentions. Citing scientific advances and namechecking the Turin shroud – the connection between Christ and Burns has never been more tenuous – he argued: “If sufficient undegraded nuclei material could be recovered, it might be possible to compare a DNA profile of Burns with one from the infant remains that lie buried in Greenock.” To this end, McIntyre persuaded his publisher to write to the then President of the Burns Federation. The President seemed inclined to pursue the matter because “it would certainly satisfy and finally answer the universal curiosity (the italics are mine) that exists regarding Robert Burns, Highland Mary and an illegitimate infant.” At this point, notes McIntyre, all went suspiciously quiet. Then the idea was taken up by the Herald, the Law Society for Scotland, the Burns Federation and its offshoots and sundry municipal jobsworths, and finally came to nothing. Where Burns is concerned, it is yet another salutary digression, which keeps the myths buoyant, biographers busy and the reading public enveloped in the densest of mist.

While Burns was juggling love affairs he was also active on other fronts, among which was the first publication of his poems, the Kilmarnock Edition, revered among Burnsians as the First Folio is among Shakespeareans. Burns, of course, was already well known locally as a poet. This is the Burns whom both Crawford and Hogg rightfully hold paramount. All else is a distraction, grist to the mill of the prurient. The poet’s life is interesting but largely because of the manner in which it informed his work. If he was accused and punished for being a fornicator he turned it to his advantage, directing his artillery at the petty bourgeois minds of eighteenthcentury presbyterianism. Every dalliance he had, every “lassie” spied lasciviously, every well-turned ankle and sonsie face was hymned in a poem. Whoever dared spurn him could expect his scorn in verse. His drinking buddies were similarly immortalised; his farm work elevated to a near celestial plane. As well as universalising his experience, no one was more adept than Burns at hyperbolising.

In April 1786 Burns issued a proposal for the publication of his poems and sought subscribers. As portrayed by Crawford, he was a man in emotional turmoil and “may have come close to another breakdown.” That word ‘may’ figures largely in Burns biography. His own letters are difficult to read, in the sense that we are not sure whether to take them literally or as the product of a man intent upon creating an image as the ultimate melodramatic romantic, forever in love, short of money and in a creative ferment. “His self-image as a ‘Poet’ about to publish a book sustained him,” writes Crawford. “So did throwing himself into the search for what he called ‘another wife’. He penned ‘Despondency, an Ode’, bewailing a ‘hopeabandoned’ life with ‘an aim’. He signed himself ‘Misery’s most humble serv[an]t’. Trying ‘to forget’ Jean he threw himself into ‘all kinds of dissipation and riot, Masonmeetings, drinking matches, and other mischief, to drive her out of my head’. Yet he went on finalising the contents of his book. He pursued another woman. He nourished the aim of just clearing out and going to Jamaica.”

For Burns 1786 developed as a make or break year, in which he would come to something or nothing. In June, the screw turned tighter and the pressure on him increased exponentially. Jean, returned from Paisley, confirmed to Mauchline Kirk Session that she was pregnant and that Burns was the father. The punishment – three public appearances before the Kirk to make penance as a fornicator – writes Hogg, was “delivered gleefully, with much hand-wringing and high moral rectitude”. Even in late eighteenth-century Scotland, controlling sexual urges was of great concern to believers, sexual misconduct being a prime reason for being denied access to Heaven. It was the Devil’s work, leading men and women astray and towards an afterlife licked by fire and surrounded by fork-tongued serpents. Meanwhile James Armour, eager that the father of his forthcoming grandchildren would not escape without making provision for them, obtained a writ to prevent him fleeing the country. “Armour,” wrote Burns, “has got a warrant to throw me in jail till I find security for an enormous sum…and I am wandering from one friend’s house to another, and like a true son of the Gospel ‘have no where to lay my head’.” No one ever felt quite so sorry for himself as Burns.

Typically, though, Burns’ biographers have tended to sympathise with their subject. Most of them, of course, are men. Few women, it seems, are eager to enter a fray which, it cannot be ignored, is often bloody and rarely observes the normal niceties associated with literary scholarship. Even Catherine Carswell makes no attempt to see things from Jean’s point of view. If Burns felt any responsibility for the predicament he’d got her into or for the offspring he’d spawned we are not told or he did not care to mention. Burns, it seems, was selfish and self-obsessed. Hogg declares that James Armour was “hell-bent on fleecing every penny from the black sheep of Mossgiel” while Crawford states that though his “feelings for her remained strong” he nevertheless had the option of a “grand cure”. En route from Jamaica, wrote Burns, was the ship that would soon carry him off from all his troubles. “And then, farewell dear old Scotland, and farewell dear, ungrateful (my italics) Jean, for never, never will I see you more!”

What if Burns’ best laid plans had not gone “agley” and he had become one of those countless Scots who gave up on their homeland? Would he have become the icon he is today? Would he be “The Patriot Bard” of Hogg’s sub-title or the definitive “Bard”, as Crawford insists he is known around the world “so winningly and nimbly”? Who knows, but my guess is that he would not, that he would have been relegated to a league containing those who are somehow less Scots, “blood” Scots perhaps or “affinity” Scots, as the First Minister so un-nimbly has sometimes labelled them. More importantly, would his poems have been received with such rapture at Edinburgh soirees where bored guests were only too keen to welcome a bit of rough in the persona of a “Heaven-taught ploughman”?

What we do know is that Burns, as the day of his departure beckoned, was focussed perhaps more directly than ever before and possibly would be even later, on his poetry. On 31 July Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published. Comprising 240 pages and many of the poems now synonymous with his name, it was – in Crawford’s estimation – “a monument to Burns’s talent”, including such masterworks as ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Louse’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. For a man still haunted by a warrant threatening his arrest, Burns couldn’t have been more conspicuous as he delivered copies to subscribers and attempted to winkle out of them his promised due. This was no easy task and involved considerable travel. Burns used friends and Masonic networks to assist him. As Hogg notes, “The Masonic lodges of the west of Scotland disseminated news of his work as a poet and many educated, professional men of the movement gave much-needed support to their somewhat wayward bard.”

The date of his transportation to the West Indies was set at 1 September but for whatever reasons Burns was not able to meet it. By now, it seems, he had been informed by Jean that her father was no longer interested in pursuing him. Perhaps James had begun to appreciate that Burns was not the waster he had first imagined and that he might, ultimately, make something of himself and provide for his daughter and their children. For his part, Burns was adamant that he would return to Jean, an example of his determination to hold the upper hand in affairs of the heart. No woman would ever be allowed to control him. On the day he ought have been setting sail he wrote: “I well expected to have been on my way over the Atlantic by this time. The Nancy, in which I was to have gone, did not give me warning enough. Two days notice was too little for me to wind up my affairs and go for Greenock. I am now to be a passenger aboard the Bell, Capt Cathcart, who sails at the end of the month.”

On 3 September, Jean gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy, called Jean and Robert, not out of parental sentiment but because of Kirk protocol. Five days later Burns visited the mother and the children, which moved him hugely. Was this the reason why he decided finally to abandon the idea of emigration? It was surely a contributory factor. Another, of course, was undoubtedly the success of the Kilmarnock Edition, which demanded a reprint. Burns, it appeared – mistakenly as it transpired – had the wherewithal to rise above his difficult circumstances. It was about now, too, that he was offered the possibility of a career as an Excise Man and a secure income. Suddenly, Jamaica must have felt an awfully long way away and full of unforeseen and unhappy possibilities. So the Bell sailed without him. In terms of his reputation, it was the smartest decision he ever made.

Why Burns wanted to go to Jamaica in the first place is understandable. Like many Scots before and since he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing here for him. Every which way he looked he was locked in and confined by glass ceilings. Late eighteenth-century Scotland, for all the brio of the Enlightenment was, especially in rural parts, still a largely feudal society. For a free spirit and thinker such as Burns it must have been stutifying. Ayrshire in the 1780s may not have been like Germany in the late 1930s, where a wrong word in the ear of the wrong person could have dire consequences, but it was not far off. The problem is that Burns’s chosen bolt-hole, his idealised place in the sun, was underpinned by slave labour.

For Burnsians this is hazardous terrain, which previous biographers of the poet have chosen to ignore, skate over or pepper with excuses. For many of them it is an embarrassment and at odds with Burns’s egalitarian image. This is not the appropriate place to revisit the plight of slaves in Jamaica in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say it was not good. Reporting from Jamaica a few years before Burns was determined to go there, one commentator said the slaves were “badly fed, indifferently clothed, hard worked, and severely whipped.” Was Burns – well-read, well-informed and an ardent debater – ignorant of this? It is hard to believe. For a long time Scottish intellectuals had argued cogently against slavery. George Wallace, author of System of the Principles of Laws of Scotland, published in 1761, wrote: “An institution so unnatural and inhuman as that of slavery ought to be abolished.” Adam Ferguson, Professor of Philosophy at Edinburgh, and one of the luminaries of the Enlightenment, agreed: “no one is born a slave; because everyone is born with all his original rights. [Further], no one can become a slave; because no one, from being a person, can, in the language of the Roman law, become a thing, or subject of property. The supposed property of the master in the slave, therefore, is a matter of usurpation, not of right.”

Intriguingly, the issue of slavery does not figure prominently in either of the biographies by Crawford and Hogg. The former relates that it was through a family “with strong Ayrshire connections” that Burns had obtained a position on a sugar plantation. He was to be an assistant overseer, which mainly involved pen-pushing which would put him “at the heart of slave management during a period when arguments about the inhumanity of slavery rose to a crescendo.” Burns, says Crawford, did proper background research, one source telling him that, “The misery and hardships of the negroes is truly moving…They look on death as a blessing.” However, this seems not to have put him off. For his part, Hogg does not broach the subject of Burns and slavery until much later, noting that in 1789 he was “wholly opposed to the trafficking of human life in this ugliest of capitalist-imperialist developments.” Which is fair enough but were those his sentiments three years earlier as he personally was on the cusp of profiting from it? As Hogg notes, “The movement to abolish the slave trade had become a major issue throughout the 1780s, with upwards of seventy branches of the anti-slave trade movement set up in provincial towns and main cities in Scotland.” Why, then, if he was so opposed to slavery was Burns not a member of these? And why are references to slavery so few and belated in his poetry?

It is a subject directly addressed by Gerard Carruthers in an essay in Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century. Carruthers is Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow and General Editor of the eagerly awaited Oxford University Press edition of Burns’s collected works. It is his unsubstantiated opinion that the poet “Never seriously intended to emigrate.” Not, he adds, that this lets Burns off the hook. “On the contrary, in this episode of the life of Burns, I would argue is a failure of sympathy, a failure of imagination.” To this end, Carruthers turns rather unhelpfully to the couple of bad poems which deal either directly or tangentially with the slave trade. These prove nothing, nor do they shed much clarity on what Burns’s true intentions were or what he believed.

With so little in the way of facts to go on Carruthers prefers to defend his own back. “What has been said…will perhaps be seen as a little negative by some people, those, particularly, who dislike any considered (my italics) criticism of Burns. And there are many: such as the man who telephoned me two months ago and introduced himself by shouting down the line, ‘Ye’re nae freend o’ mine’. When I asked why, he replied that I was ‘questioning Burns’. I replied that this is what I, as a professional academic, am paid to do, which, of course, cut no ice.”

Having read Carruthers’s essay my sympathies are with his anonymous caller. But where Burns studies are concerned such rancorous bluster is regrettably commonplace. In his introduction Crawford attempts to eviscerate any opposition and neutralise rivals before setting out, blighting an otherwise commendable if occasionally gauche work (thanks but no thanks for the references to websites, The Da Vinci Code, condition of memorial tablets and other incongruous interventions). In particular he heaps ordure on the two-volume Canongate Edition of Burns’s poems and songs, edited by Hogg and Andrew Noble, which he insists became “a cause celebre in Scottish publishing [which] made working on Burns confusing and sometimes perilous.” Hogg and Carruthers meanwhile have an ongoing spat which would require the intervention of Kofi Annan – apparently a Burns aficionado – to bring to an amicable conclusion.

In the midst of this enervating bellicosity stands Burns. By the end of 1786 he had found the acclaim he had always sought. Edinburgh had embraced him as, surely, he had more than a few of its hot-flushed women. In the capital he encountered the great and the good, paid homage to Robert Fergusson and impressed the youthful Walter Scott. He flirted outrageously and was fleeced and found that after the first rush of enthusiasm how easily you could fall from favour. Like snow falling on a river, fame, he appreciated, could go as quickly as it had arrived. He may have been feted but he would never be wholly accepted. But two hundred and fifty years after his birth Burns’s flame remains inextinguishable, testimony not only to his undisputed genius but also to his capacity to elude those who go in search of him.

The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
by Robert Crawford
pp 466; ISBN 9780224077682

Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard
by Patrick Scott Hogg
pp 368; ISBN 9781845964122

Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century
Edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers
pp 319; ISBN 978-1-905207-27-5

The Best Laid Schemes: Selected Poetry and Prose of Robert Burns
Edited by Robert Crawford and Christopher MacLachlan
BIRLINN, £12.99
pp 271; ISBN 978 1 84697 094

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry


Gallimaufry – Lesley McDowell and Theresa Munoz

Scotland: A Very Short Introduction
Rab Houston
pp140, ISBN 019923079X

Racing through Scotland’s history in a hundred and forty pages isn’t an easy task: although a rare exception is made for Mary, Queen of Scots, there aren’t too many stopgaps for Houston to take a breath, which means that individual paragraphs, especially in relation to early Scottish history, are generally so chock-full of kings, reigns, battles and treaties it can make the head spin. The value of such a compressed work lies in that it permits the reader to trace a century or two in only a few pages, and so to make a manageable narrative of the most important events. It’s the perfect guide for the i-Pod generation. Scotland’s narrative is a fascinating one, all the more so because Houston refuses to let aristocrats drown out the part played by ordinary people in the country’s history. Nor does he skimp on details, short on space as he is; one is interested to read, for example, that the last execution for blasphemy took place in 1697, or that the last witch was hanged in 1727 – whole books could be written on the connections between those two dates and events alone.

The Earth Hums in B Flat
Mari Strachan
pp300, ISBN 184767304X

In her debut novel, Strachan cleverly marries the feyness of a child’s perspective with the very real and tragic problems of domestic abuse and madness. Growing up in the Welsh countryside, Gwenni is the lesser-loved daughter of her disturbed mother, who fears for her daughter’s ‘gifts’ – she might have second sight. Gwenni believes she flies through the night over her village and sees events before their results are discovered. Her father, in contrast to her mother, adores and encourages her. There are things, however, that Gwenni has more of a problem seeing: when she goes to babysit neighbour Mrs Evans’ daughters, she misses signs of domestic violence because she is too young to understand what she is witnessing. It’s hard to draw originality from as well-worn a form as the bildungsroman, but Strachan has done just that, with a fresh voice and a strong sense of living in a small community. A tiny complaint – although the novel is set in the 1950s, the period could perhaps be more vividly evoked. Still, it’s an excellent debut.

A History of Scottish Philosophy
Alexander Broadie
pp304, ISBN 0748616276

In any study of Scottish philosophy, one would expect David Hume and Adam Smith to dominate, and indeed they do here, meriting entire chapters to themselves, where other philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson or Thomas Reid have to make do with a section within a chapter. However, there is no sense of unevenness or disproportion in Broadie’s meticulous work, drawing attention as he does to John Duns Scotus in his overview of medieval philosophy, and stressing the importance of the German influence for nineteenth century philosophers like Ferrier and Seth. Questions of truth and beauty, pleasure and pain, first posed by Hutcheson, have been somewhat subsumed into other disciplines since then (studies of cinema and photography all deal with these, as does psychiatry), but it’s fascinating to chart the history of Scotland’s contribution to philosophy down to our present-day understanding of the human mind, how it works and, on occasion, how it doesn’t. Broadie demonstrates, with an academic rigour that the casual reader might struggle with, how the origins of our understanding lie in philosophy – without it, there would have been no Enlightenment, and our attitude to sensation and thought would still be dominated by that unsympathetic forebear, religion.

Enlightenment and Change: Scotland 1746-1832
Bruce P. Lenman
pp240, ISBN 978-0748625154

Lenman’s book was first published under a different title in 1981 during the time of another recession, and his partial history of the banking industry in Scot-land, one of the results of Enlightenment, can’t help but catch the eye. The parallels are too chilling: one encounters the fall of the Ayr Bank, due to, yes, unwise and reckless over-lending and the rise of the Royal Bank, willing to lend more and to less reliable customers, which allowed it to eclipse the “more cautious” Bank of Scotland. The thought that at least today we’re not benefiting from the slave trade is small comfort. The link, too, between a country’s commercial prosperity and its artistic activity is forcefully and depressingly made through figures like William Robertson, whose history books made him a fortune. “Starving in a garret”, Lenman dryly observes, “for the sake of Art or Truth was not a lifestyle admired by the Scottish intellectuals of this period. They all tried to make money”. A more fascinating and relevant study than its title suggests, it touches even on London’s hatred of prominent Scots thought to betaking over in the period the book covers.

The Bird Room
Chris Killen
pp202, ISBN 9781847672605

This debut novel focuses on the troubled lives of young people. Written in a self-consciously detached style, the book is divided into two narratives where Killen’s characters contemplate their unhappy, low-income existences. The first narrative describes a monotonous relationship in its dying stages. Self-defeatist Will grows insecure about his relationship with Alice, whom he suspects is interested in one of his friends. Rather than confronting her, he finds solace in the vapidity of pornography. Some of the clips feature a fake brunette named Helen, formerly known as Clair. Helen hopes this kind of work is a mere phase before she becomes a real actress. Her willingness to place herself in compromising situations is more compelling than Will’s pessimistic and circular monologues. In the author’s portrayal of a confused adulthood in Northern England, he draws conclusions between sex and loneliness, and paranoia and love. He explores what drives generally reasonable people to act irrationally. The book’s title refers to a series of paintings of small bright birds that intrigues Will, and supports Killen’s theme of being caged in. Killen’s study of basic human instincts can be interesting, but his commitment to a minimalist, understated style leads to the book imploding to reveal a hollow core.

Poking Seaweed With A Stick And Running Away From The Smell
Alison Whitelock
POLYGON, £8.99
pp240, ISBN 1846971152

No matter how far some Scots get away from their homeland, they can’t stop looking back. In her charmingly cynical autobiography, Whitelock chronicles her desperate childhood in Glasgow before fleeing to Australia. Short chapters with lengthy titles portray a working-class family with a shared hatred for Whitelock’s father. Stories of their father stamping on a puppy, staggering drunk into midnight mass, and accidentally burning down the house fill the pages. Whitelock even admits the entire family fantasised about murdering him with a sawn-off shotgun or from a steady diet of high-cholesterol meals. She interchanges these bleak memories with happier ones, including the time she penned a catchy jingle about the River Clyde and won the class prize. Whitlock’s stark honesty and comical turns of phrase buoys this gloomy account of her adolescence. However, her scattered memories don’t form a clear timeline of her own life, and one suspects an even sadder story lurks behind her humorous recollections. Whitelock invites us into her difficult relationship with her father but not the process of how she eventually forgave him; a disparity which tugs at the reader’s mind the entire way through.

Rekindling Community: Connecting People, Environment and Spirituality
Alistair Mackintosh
pp112, ISBN 978-1900322386

A Professor of Human Ecology, Alistair Mackintosh presents a study on the spirituality of urban and rural regeneration. Recalling EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Mackintosh explores what connects humans: the environment and nature. At only one hundred pages, Mackintosh condenses the booklet into five sections. The first explores how communities are understood by the people in them. The second, the internal and external difficulties that communities face. The third concentrates on what it means to be human, and how a cycle of regeneration strengths a community. How spirituality connects people to the land comprises the fourth part, while the last section discusses “economics as if people mattered” – how our basic human needs affect corporate social responsibility. Mackintosh illustrates his thought with intriguing anecdotes, many based on his work in schools in Papua New Guinea. Thirteen case studies by Mackintosh’s students also pepper the pages. The students’ research is mostly conducted in Scotland and topics include a study of urban community in Govan; a discussion of the theology of Scotland’s Modern Land Reform; and a study of why the Isle of Arran is considered sacred to Christians and Buddhists. Though the booklet is loaded with specialised ideas and terms, Mackintosh’s clear writing and the interesting case studies make the doctrines accessible to punters.

The Thistle and the Crescent
Bashir Maan
pp256, ISBN 1906134243

The purpose of Bashir Maan’s pioneering study is to promote harmony between Muslims and other communities in Scotland. He discovers the first contact between Scotland and Islam in the seventh century and traces its development through pilgrimages, Crusades, the travels of diplomats and scholars, and the involvement of Scots in the British Empire. Maan is hampered by a lack of documentary evidence which requires the deployment of “some historical imagination and hypothesising”. A chapter on the settlement of the Muslim community in Scotland, however, draws on his own experience as the first Muslim councillor in the United Kingdom as well as benefiting from community memory. Personal stories illuminate the development of the community from its dependence on peddling clothing in the 1920s to employment by transport authorities, the purchase of corner shops and, finally, access for some to politics and the professions. There has been some dreadful racism in Scotland, but the book ends on a generally positive note. The service of repentance for the Iraq War at St. Giles Cathedral was stopped at 6.15 to allow the Muslim call to prayer next to the altar and “such an unprecedented and noble gesture could only have come about in Scotland, where tolerance and benevolence in some quarters of society sometimes exceed expectations”.

Monkey Puzzle Man: Archibald Menzies, Plant Hunter
James McCarthy
pp223, ISBN 1904445616

Archibald Menzies is not Scot-land’s best known plant collector, but he was the most prolific. He is credited with the collection of 190 species. These include the Monkey Puzzle tree, the Sitka Spruce, and even the Douglas Fir, which was named for fellow Scot David Douglas but hides its correct attribution in the scientific name Pseudotsuga menziessi. Menzies made two journeys to the North West coast of America, the last one on the HMS Discovery with Captain Vancouver. Menzies was answerable to the redoubtable Sir Joseph Banks of Kew Gardens who had the ear of George III, so Vancouver was powerless to resist when Banks insisted that a plant hatch be built on his quarterdeck. Menzies reported directly to Banks and could be critical of his captain, complaining, for instance, that Vancouver Island “should I think, with more propriety be named after His Majesty”. On the return journey to Britain the relationship between Vancouver and Menzies broke down completely. McCarthy’s is the first full length biography of Menzies and you don’t have to be a botanist to enjoy it. There is, however, some dissonance created by the author’s insistence on Men-zies’ heightened appreciation of Native peoples and the repeated references to the Scot ‘discovering’ plants in places where people had lived for thousands of years before he got there.




Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


1979 And All That

1979 And All That – George Rosie

MUCH AS I HATE the idea of sharing an enthusiasm with Margaret Thatcher we both agree that the 1980s television series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were among the funniest programmes ever. The way that Sir Humphrey Appleby manipulated his hapless minister Jim Hacker invariably had me in stitches. It seems that Mrs Thatcher regarded Yes Minister not only as brilliant satire but also as a genuine insight into the ways of Her Majesty’s senior civil servants. When I first read that, I thought she was over-egging the pudding, something to which she was prone.

Now I’m not so sure. Having spent some of the last few weeks in the government archives in London and Edinburgh I’ve decided that Maggie may have had a point. All too often the languid, Oxbridge-educated, London-centric and occasionally cynical figure of Sir Humphrey emerged out of the blizzard of letters, reports, memoranda, minutes of meetings, and draft speeches that swirl around the progress of the devolution project of the 1970s. Which, of course, ended in the rigged referendum of March 1979.

What the records make clear is that the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall thought that devolution for Scotland was a bad idea. So they quietly did their best to ensure that if a Scottish Assembly (the word parliament was never used) ever happened it would never get its hands on the revenues that were beginning to flow from North Sea oil. And, perhaps more worryingly, some did what they could to undermine the SNP, then an opposition party with 11 MPs in the Palace of Westminster.

There’s no doubt that the SNP surge in the early 1970s rattled both Westminster and Whitehall. The general elections which produced Harold Wilson’s second Labour government also produced six Nationalist MPs (in February 1974) then another five (in October 1974). The SNP’s propaganda campaign that “It’s Scotland’s Oil” seemed to have put the nationalists on an unstoppable rise at a time when the British economy needed every penny it could extract from the oil and gas underneath the North Sea.

The hostility of the Civil Service is evident in the archives. When Duncan Wat-son, then Deputy Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), saw a draft of the devolution white paper in July 1975 he wrote, “It seems to me inevitable that the grant of ‘local autonomy’ will lead to demands for more and to increasing political pressures which any Government of the day will find it difficult to resist. I fear, in short, a slippery slope… It seems to me important, therefore, that opposition to fragmentation should be not merely a matter of presentation, but the essence of a clearly-seen policy.”

It’s not hard to see why Sir Humphrey was so worried. Then, as now, the British economy was in dire straits. In the wake of the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 oil prices had soared, petrol shortages and rationing were familiar hazards, electricity black-outs had made a comeback, millions had been on a three-day week and inflation was soaring away (it peaked at around 25%). Things got so bad that in 1976 the Chancellor of the Exchequer was forced to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to beg for funds to bail Britain out. Just about the only glimmer of light in the economic darkness was North Sea oil and now that was under threat from the SNP’s oil campaign.

As Wilson’s government saw it, the best way to head off the SNP was to deliver Labour’s promise of a directly-elected assembly in Edinburgh. The hope was that this would be enough to satisfy the constitutional hankerings of the Scots and secure North Sea oil for the United Kingdom. Whitehall’s strategy of minimising the powers of any elected assembly in Edin-burgh, while at the same time doing what it could to undermine the SNP, has been unknown. In effect, it’s the secret history of home rule.

At the heart of the story is a group of officials from the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit (COCU), which was set up to make devolution work. At their head was John Garlick, a former Post Office engineer and then Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. As his deputies Garlick appointed the brilliant Michael Quinlan and Stuart Scott Whyte, once a senior official at the Scottish Office. Whether Garlick knew it or not, Whyte had already voiced doubts about devolution vis-à-vis North Sea oil.

In retrospect it seems odd to have given the job of helping set up a Scottish Assembly to a man who thought it a big mistake. But civil servants often have to implement government policies they dislike and Whyte went on to play a central part in the fraught debate about how to handle the ambitions of the Scots and how much devolution of power was needed to satisfy them.

But first, the Scots had to be persuaded that separatism would be bad for them. Judging by the official papers the men of COCU saw that as their priority. They saw it as their mission to persuade, cajole and threaten the Scottish majority into resisting the blandishments of the SNP and remain within the fold of the United Kingdom.

That theme was advanced by Garlick in a long letter of March 1975 to John Liverman the chief economist at the Department of Energy. Garlick stressed the need to ensure that any Scottish Assembly, of whatever political complexion, did not have the power to choke off or slow down the flow of oil. In Garlick’s view the government’s priority should be to “Demonstrate that an independent Scottish economy would have serious weaknesses: to persuade majority opinion in Scotland that Scot-land’s future should lie within a unified economy; and by this means lend stability to devolution arrangements which, amongst other things, make it possible for UK oil interests to be safeguarded.”

For the next five years securing North Sea oil for the UK was at the top of White-hall’s agenda. Document after document makes that clear. Whitehall’s strategy was two-pronged. First, make sure that the proposed Scottish Assembly did not have the powers to interfere with the production of oil and, secondly, do what was necessary to halt the SNP by persuading the Scots that independence, even with the oil money, would be bad for their economic health.

Not that everyone saw it that way. One such was Gavin McCrone, then chief economist at the Scottish Office and a well regarded academic economist. When McCrone saw Garlick’s letter to Liverman he responded with a paper he’d written in the dying days of Edward Heath’s Tory government, prior to the first General Election in 1974. Entitled The Economics of Nationalism Re-examined it still makes interesting reading, even if only as an essay on what might have been.

McCrone refused to accept the Whitehall view that oil wealth might be too much for Scotland to handle. Nor did he expect an independent Scotland to be shunned by the EEC (as some politicians were arguing). “North Sea oil could have far-reaching consequences for Scottish membership of the EEC because of the tremendously increased political power it would confer,” he wrote. “As the major producer of oil in Western Europe…Scotland would be in a key position and other countries would be extremely foolish if they did not seek to do all they could to accommodate Scottish interests.”

McCrone concluded with flourish: “This paper has shown that the advent of North Sea oil has completely overturned the traditional economic arguments used against Scottish nationalism… For the first time since the Act of Union was passed, it can now be credibly argued that Scotland’s economic advantage lies in its repeal.”

COCU’s reply was a paper by Whyte. Entitled The Economics of Nationalism, it came to the unsurprising conclusion that any gains in the prosperity of an independent Scotland due to the oil revenues would be more than wiped out by what its author saw as “increased vulnerability and risks for the future.” In other words, all those oil revenues would be bad for Scotland.

If Whyte expected a groundswell of support from elsewhere in Whitehall he must have been disappointed. His paper met a salvo of criticism from, of all places, the Treasury. James Shepherd, one of the Treasury’s economic advisers, wrote that Whyte’s paper “seriously overstates the degree of difficulty which an independent administration would face, particularly in the short to medium term…It is far from clear that independence would make internal inflation worse: probably the reverse…The consequent rise in living standards should help in restraining inflationary wage demands…The case falls very far short of suggesting that Scotland would be likely, on balance, to be economically worse off if independent.”

A polite but withering response came from Assistant Secretary Michael Buckley. He wrote: “If the UK discovered enough oil under the English Channel to ensure that we would get net exporters of oil to at least the end of the century, and if we were reliably promised that the real price of oil would be ten times its present amount, would we be thrown into despair by the consequent economic problems? I imagine not.”

The resistance of McCrone and the men from the Treasury seems to have changed Whyte’s mind. In a reply to Buckley he conceded, “There can be no doubt that an independent Scotland would be better off with oil revenues than without them.” But he went on to insist that the Government’s aim must be “to convince a majority of Scottish opinion that a reasonable devolution package represented a ‘first best’ solution and not a first step on the way to separatism.”

In Whyte’s eyes what might be at stake was the stability of the whole UK. What, for example, would be the attitude of the rest of the UK to Scottish Independence. He surmised that it would one of extreme hostility, especially if, consequently, the rest of the UK experienced significant hardships. Nor was Whyte without support. He had a staunch ally in Graham Kear, an Under Secretary at the recently-formed Department of Energy (DoE), which was resolute enemy of devolution.

Kear appears to have suggested to Whyte that if the SNP got its way and throttled back oil production by half to 50 million tons per annum it would cause serious job losses in Scotland. It was a line of argument that appealed to Whyte who wrote to Kear in May 1975 asking “if it is possible to make some attempt to calculate a possible loss of jobs, particularly in platform construction yards.” Kear replied, arguing that if six oilfields were developed instead of 12 it would indeed take a heavy toll on oil-industry jobs.

Which may, or may not have been the case. But what is certain is that none of the great platform-building yards that thrived in Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s – at Nigg and Ardersier on the Moray Firth, at Ardyne Point in Argyll, at Loch Kishorn in Wester Ross, at Methil in Fife – now has any oil industry work. Nor do the module-building yards on the Clyde. Britain’s policy of extracting every drop of oil from the North Sea as quickly as possible meant that Scotland’s ‘oil boom’ was very short lived.

While one set of Treasury mandarins had established that the Scots would be much better off if they could lay their hands on the oil revenues another set was trying to find ways of preventing that happening. At the beginning of May 1975 a simple suggestion emerged from within the Treasury – why not slow the whole process down? That might give the SNP time to run out of steam and the UK economy to recover. The idea came from a Treasury rising star, Assistant Secretary David Walker.

His put his argument in a letter and ‘minute’ to his boss, Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Hedley-Miller. Walker suggested that the business of devolution “seems bound to bulk significantly larger in our consciousness from now on, and I fear that the very existence of the problem, or threat, will have a wholly adverse effect on our external debt management.” What worried Walker most was the effect that an independent, or even devolved, Scotland might have on the UK’s foreign creditors.

Walker’s plea to put the brakes on devolution went down well. His idea was circulated around the upper reaches of the Civil Service and the Bank of England. His paper was passed up the line to Sir Douglas Hen-ley, the Second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury who was due to meet Chancellor Denis Healey at Chequers. It was suggested to Henley that he should “draw the attention of senior Ministers to the numerous grave reasons why they should pause and reflect before becoming committed to early legislation on devolution.”

Healey seems to have got the message. In his account of that Chequers meeting Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Energy, records that “Denis Healey said ‘I am not speaking against the principle of devolution but I am urging caution on speed and content because of the danger of separatism. Therefore I do not want legislation in the next session.’ Roy Jenkins agreed.” It was another four years – far longer than was anticipated – before the devolution question was finally put to the people of Scotland. By which time they were weary with the argument.

Putting the brakes on devolution was one Treasury idea. Another was to stop assigning North Sea oil and gas revenues to the relevant UK ‘economic regions’ (i.e. East Anglia and Scotland) and to create a new ‘offshore economic region’. That particular idea emerged in May, 1975 in a letter from James Shepherd to Michael Buck-ley, spawned in a Treasury department labelled CSO (which no one at the modern Treasury could identify).

Having “found out what the CSO is now doing” Shepherd told Buckley that there are “two possible approaches” to the problem of how to ascribe oil and gas revenues. “(i) To define a separate ‘off-shore’ region to which is attributed GDP equivalent to some basic value of the oil and gas extracted. (ii) To split up the Continental shelf between existing regions and treat exactly as for onshore activities.” It was the first option that appealed to Shepherd and Buckley. And that is what happened. The British sector of the North Sea was redefined as a separate economic region which, to some extent, removed North Sea oil from the political argument and weakened Scotland’s claim to the offshore oilfields. That may not have been the Treasury’s intention but it was certainly the happy result.

In November 1975, a week before the publication of the first devolution White Paper, a message went out in the diplomatic bag from Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan. It advised Britain’s ambassadors and consuls how to field questions on the thorny topic of Scottish nationalism and/or devolution.

“As the White Paper makes clear,” wrote Callaghan, “the Government completely rejects separation if asked whether this would still apply if one of the nationalist parties were to gain a majority in the Scottish Assembly you will say that is a very hypothetical situation. It is clear that the Nationalist parties are supported by only a minority of people and that even among that minority many do not want complete separatism.”

Callaghan added: “If asked whether the Scottish Executive will get a share of North Sea oil revenues, you should say that North Sea oil is a source of revenue for the whole of the United Kingdom. Through the block grant Scotland will receive a fair share of those revenues in accordance with her relative needs. Those claiming the oil for Scot-land seek the removal of oil revenues from the pool of national resources. Their claim for oil is a claim for separation, to keep all the benefits of oil.”

Then in February 1977, at the behest of his civil servants, Anthony Crosland, then Foreign Secretary, wrote to the new Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to say that the FCO had come up with a way to keep the North Sea oil fields out of the hands of the Scots. Simply change the undersea border between Scotland and England so that it ran north-east instead of east and then persuade Orcadians and Shetlanders to declare UDI from Scotland and extend their subsea borders southeast. That way the Scots would be left with hardly any oil and the stuffing would go out of the SNP’s idea of an oil-rich independent Scotland.

If there is one exchange of letters that reveals the mind-set of the London-based civil servant it is that between Brian Willott, then Assistant Secretary at the Department of Industry, and Gavin McCrone. Willott was worried that North Sea oil and gas revenues could strengthen the pound’s exchange rate to such an extent that it would cripple Britain’s exports while swamping the economy with consumer imports. The answer, he advised McCrone in September 1976, was to spend the money on Britain’s infrastructure.

But the infrastructure Willot wanted the money spent on was in and around Lon-don and the southeast of England. In particular, he mentioned the road network between the container docks at Tilbury on the Thames up to the Midlands of England. The oil cash, he wrote, “could be used for the improvement of the north and south circular roads (in London) to motorway standards and to build an outer ring road. Building of the proposed Channel Tunnel might be reconsidered.”

McCrone’s reply was scathing. “The notion that North Sea oil revenues could be used for the improvement of the north and south circular roads may well appeal to the commuting civil servant but it is impossible to present it as a measure to strengthen the UK economy and it would be political suicide for any Government that was anxious to retain seats in Scotland.”

McCrone may have had right on his side, but Willott had the might. When the devolution project foundered in 1979, the Labour government toppled and Margaret Thatcher’s Tories swept to power. Devolution was a dead duck. There was no prospect of the Scots getting at the oil revenues. Most of the money went to pay for the unemployment that the Thatcher’s reforms brought. But the “outer ring road” that Willott had foreseen emerged as the (hugely expensive) M25 and the Channel Tunnel was “reconsidered” and indeed built (also at huge expense). Meanwhile Scotland’s heavy industries were swept away in the economic blizzards of the 1980s and early 1990s. And McCrone’s political warning was borne out – for years there was not one Tory MP north of the border. Today there is one.

The devolution years between 1974 and 1979 certainly “dished” the SNP. The 1979 general election reduced their number of MPs from 11 to two and pitched the party into the wilderness for nearly 20 years. Now the SNP are back, in power in Edinburgh, but much of the oil has gone, and they’re no nearer to getting access to the revenues than they were 30 years ago. One way or another, the Whitehall mandarins succeeded in doing what they set out to: ensuring that the oil money was kept away from the Scots and dragging things out until the SNP ran out of steam.

Most of the Whitehall warriors of the 1970s went on to the usual rewards – knighthoods and gongs. Others found top jobs in the civil service, big business, the City of London or quangoland. It may be coincidence but when Sir John Garlick, the man at the head of the COCU responsible for putting devolution in place, died a few years ago his warmest obituary was penned by Tam Dalyell MP, devolution’s implacable enemy.




Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 5 – Issue 1 – New Poems – Gordon Dargie

New Poems – Gordon Dargie

More or less

I think I see and hear the care with all
the lines rehearsed but then I was a boy
and Mum was acting strangely at the sink
and telling me that I was very special
and so they picked me. What was happening
when what I asked was Where did I come from?
But I was meaning where did babies come from.
Not Glasgow. I did not want to know that
Dad’s not dad and you are not my real mum
and so the aunts and uncles aren’t real
and my cousins know I’m not their cousin
and I don’t know who I am from somewhere else
and she gave me away. No no I wanted
to know about birth and death and sex.

A show of hands

Dad holds my hand and pulls me to the edge
and nervous as a bridge I dig my heels
and when Mum takes my hand on the first day,
my new shoes squealing in the polished school,
still she will have to pull her hand away.
I can remember these things, unlike lessons
from all the years that follow the first day,
remembering the ink wells and the blots
and sudden fears and little that I write
and more and more the pleasantness of boredom.
They teach me well enough. An early profit
will be chalking bugger on our doorstep.
A careful hand’s revenge for those hard hands
brings no more retribution, like applause.

Nothing happened

I take a good long look to see it all
and try to stretch my own one but it won’t
and then the other man he sees me looking
and he whispers something into the man’s ear
and the man just puts his thing under his raincoat
and he steps over and smiles down at me
and then the man says Are ye a poof, son?
and I don’t know and I say What’s a poof?
and he doesn’t say and he says to me
Where’s your mammy? She oot there waitin for ye?
and I’m going to say Yes and I say Aye
and the man says Just you go to your mammy
and the other man is looking all the time
and I go outside and say I managed fine.

Nothing happened on the way to school

Linda, Elizabeth, Henry and me
watched out for each other in Primary 3
on the bus into town and the walk to the school
by the road or the back way we took as a rule
away from the traffic away from the noise
away from the Old Town away from big boys
past the backs of the cinema and the dance hall
past the white painted pub on the corner where all
the houses were gone but the pavement remained
where death up your hole had been put in red paint
and Linda said that could mean any hole but
I didn’t think so but stopped saying that
and we raced the last bit of the road to the gate
where the girls turned left and the boys to the right.

On Tinto Hill

The skull and cross-bones marked the burning bing
that slowly burned forever underground.
Though paths led off from gaps forced in the railing
I kept to the rough road. Under the railway
the tunnel you must never use at night,
your loudest cry unheard when trains went by,
came out below a signal box where Dad worked
day or back shift and out into the light
I shouted and waved up when he was there,
and Dad grew up near Tinto not near here.
The last part of the road between two fences
the sense of being outside inside out
went past the bolt works with its orange scrapheap
its rusting puddles tasting like a cut.

The dancing lesson

Not unusual then that sullen boys
and girls would get the belt until the stroke
that brought the tears before the quiet class
and Eleanor the worst in every test
began to learn the hard way every week.
One day she tried to draw her hand away
and so he held her wrist to belt her more
and caught she jigged at every strike until
a whisper went from back to front, from top
to bottom of the class, That’s terrible.
Our one rebellion lost. And who wants more?
We faced the front so only he would see
the eyes down in the lonely shame of fear
that we could be alone like Eleanor.

Boys must wear short trousers

Ye wear short troosers jist tae let the farts oot.
Jist think o aa the farts in that tweed suit
that he wears every day. A thoosan farts!
An when he taks his troosers aff at night
it stinks the place. Aw naw, jist think, that’s right!
It’s so’s ye can lift up the leg tae pish
an never bother wi yir buttons. Jist
think the time ye save, thae times ye coulda pissed
yirsel. The Primary 1s aa weet an greetin!
Aye but the Primary 7s haud ye doon
an shove their haun up there tae show who’s won.
An when ye grow they let ye wear real troosers
or it wid hing for lassies aa tae see.
It widnae. Aye it wid an then they let ye.


We’d gone to Burns’ Cottage and to Prestwick.
We saw the planes supplying Germany.
And coming home across the Ayrshire hills
there was Lanarkshire spread out before us,
from green hill far away at Kirk o’ Shotts,
its TV bulletins invisible,
to Motherwell and Hamilton below,
black spires and lums where once all had been green.
I hoped that Jesus loved me in my corner
in valley of the shadow Lanarkshire
and when we sang on Sunday one hymn said
that everything that was green would be gone,
though not to die together, one by one.
And pray accepting this or pray to learn.

The front

The uniforms all had to be worked out
like money into denominations
heavy coins that worked in mechanisms
and for everything there was a season
and a time for putting off school uniforms
and go, though men in khaki filled the trains,
to Scarborough boarding houses and hotels
in uniform white paint and light pastels
and the heavy coins that were slowly saved
were soon lost in the machines at the front.
Men died at the front in my grandpa’s day
and Dad’s time too but I was not to mind
not on these beaches and not in these days
and jet black jets flew past just in displays.

Uncle John

Uncle John had not been wounded in the war
when just the once I asked the reason why
and what it was they really weren’t sure
or if he said I didn’t hear it all.
Steady me. Steady me, boy. Steady me.
At times I could make out his distress call
as he shuffle-skipped his way to buy the bread.
You go with him and mind he doesn’t fall.
But that might happen and I couldn’t help it
and that was not the thing I had to dread
for we had to pass a convent that he hated
and I prayed each day we wouldn’t meet a nun
or she wouldn’t hear him were some meeting fated
and I never thought to pray for Uncle John.


I’m thinking of dead people that I know.
My cousin Davy marches into mind
from national service in the fifties
when I met him once on leave and he was kind,
with the time he had, to me, shy and slow
in a family with no time for softies.
Davy my big cousin paratrooper
did you really wear a uniform then?
The way that I remember? I don’t wonder
if you wanted men they wanted you in turn.
And later feelings hidden as was proper
when you had Granny down as next of kin
and some pieces of your story came together
when monoxide from the hose had done you in.


Two uniformed policemen filled our hall.
The blackness drained the colour from the walls
and they told Granny Davy killed himself
and all she said in one soft phrase was O.
I was a boy when Grandpa died and O
meant he was hard to like and he was dead
and later when they said on his death bed
he cried to get the guns up to the front
some forty-five years late then I said O.
And all the lovers I would take said O
and so did I. O never meant a promise,
its future to anticipate the past.
O? my mother used to say until the day
when no tried forming negatives of O.

A Tunnel of Love by Gordon Dargie (Kettillonia, £4.50) is available from, or from James Robertson, 24 South Street,Newtyle, Angus PH12 8UQ. Cheques should be made payable to ‘James Robertson’.



Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


The SRB Interview: Angus Peter Campbell

Angus Peter Campbell – The SRB Interview

NOVELIST, POET, journalist, and actor, Angus Peter Campbell/Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul was born in South Uist in 1952. Campbell left Uist to attend secondary school in Oban, where he was taught English by Iain Crichton Smith. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Politics and History. While a student, he met and was encouraged by Sorley MacLean, then Writer in Residence at the University. After graduation, Campbell pursued a career in journalism, beginning a long association with the West Highland Free Press; later he worked on BBC Radio and Grampian television. In 1992, he published The Greatest Gift, the first of several volumes of poetry. While it was written in English, its successor collections have moved between English, Gaelic, and Scots. He has also written a number of novels – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) (2003) and Là a’ Deanamh Sgeil Do Là (Day Speaketh Unto Day) (2004) were written in Gaelic, while 2006’s Invisible Islands was written in English. Also in 2006, he acted in Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, a Gaelic language movie set on Skye. Today, he lives on Skye with his wife and six children. Colin Waters spoke to him about language, the lack of diversity in the Scottish media, and what Gaelic literature, magical realism and Irvine Welsh have in common.

Scottish Review Of Books: You once spoke about how the effort to marry modernism and folk tradition without condescension was a terrific challenge. What conclusions did you come to about that challenge?

Angus Peter Campbell: The conclusion I have come to is that we’re now post post-modernist and that they fit perfectly. You see, the contemporary world seems to me to be straight out of the Gaelic folk tradition: magical and fragmented, without any seeming ‘logic’ weighing it down. The capacity in ancient stories to move from A to Z on a wisp of grass, for example, strikes me as being utterly modern. I think the challenge for Gaelic literature, as it may be for all literature, is to find a means of transporting ourselves as lightly as possible through the ether we inhabit. Which is why, the older I get, the more anti-gravitational I get. The effort is to fly without beard or baggage, which is why the stuff I’m writing now is in many ways simpler and more streamlined.

SRB: What were your earliest encounters with Gaelic literature?

APC: It all depends of course what you mean by Gaelic literature, or indeed by the word literature itself, which has come to be associated with written literature. This is chiefly because the mainstream dominant culture within this country, which is of course mirrored in our mainstream media, choose to associate with this form, whereas we all know that Gaelic, and other European cultures, have equally rich other forms of literature– we have oral literature, and aural literature and visual literature and tactile literature and all kinds of other literature. My first exposure to ‘Gaelic literature’ may very well have been the birds (the curlews) singing outside our house on the moor, or the sound of the cart taking the peats home, or of our neighbour Eairdsidh Beag playing the bagpipes, or of someone singing in the village. I went to primary school in South Uist where ‘official literature’ if you want to put it that way, was hidden between the cover of books and therefore in English. ‘Literature’ was Black Beauty and Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Once in High School we got an official Gaelic book – WJ Watson’s magisterial Bàrdachd Gàidhlig – but as far as I could work out none of the poets in it was still alive. No doubt this set me subconsciously thinking that poetry belonged to the dead.

SRB: You were lucky to be taught by not one but two great Scottish poets, Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean. What was that like, what did you learn from them?

APC: They were both alive. Iain was an absolute joy as a teacher – challenging, inspirational and funny. I was in his English class from age 12 to 17, and during that period he opened windows to world literature. One day he would bring in an LP of Beethoven and play it then ask us to write a poem in response; the next he might read us the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6 – “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” – just for the joy of the words (I can still hear him reading these words); the next day again he would introduce us to Lowell, or Ginsberg or Arthur Miller. I think I learned two things from him – that poets were alive, and that we could stand at ease next to the great internationalists. Sorley didn’t actually teach me – he just happened to be the Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh when I was a student. I went to see him with some poems of mine and he was tremendously encouraging and supportive, and remained so throughout his life. I think Sorley just verified what Iain had seeded: that poetry was a great international language and that Gaelic could proudly stand alongside Spanish or Greek or Russian or English or whatever in that great discourse.

SRB: You were a journalist for how long? How did you get into the profession?

APC: I’ve been a journalist now for 34 years. First of all as a print journalist with the West Highland Free Press, then as a radio journalist with BBC Radio Highland, then as a television journalist and editor with Grampian Television. I got into the profession by responding to an advert for a journalist in the Free Press the year after I left university. In the meantime I’d been working in the building trade.

SRB: I was interested to read that you wrote a weekly column for the West Highland Press on TV. Given your defence of the Gaelic language and culture, I would have thought – correct me if I’m wrong – that you’d be more wary of TV. After all, it does promote a sort of monoculture; it isn’t so long ago, for example, that I read that kids in Glasgow have developed a cockney twang when pronouncing certain words because they watch Eastenders so much.

APC: I’m not in the least ‘wary’ of TV: what I am very aware of is its power, not only as a viewer (or perhaps we’re now called ‘cultural consumers’?) but also as a television maker. I have worked long enough within the industry to know from first-hand experience that I had inordinate power in my hands. As a Television News Editor I was daily aware of the power I had to ‘manipulate’ news, in the sense that it was entirely within my power to shelve certain items, to prioritize, to include, to exclude delete, edit etc. What gave me the right to do that any more than my granny? What I became very aware of is that the power of the media lies in the hands of a few very rich individuals and corporations who – naturally – have their own agendas. One of my tutors at university, Richard L. Aschraft, taught me enough to realize that such power was undemocratic, unfair and unjust. It often came from a class and gender position, so that those who were excluded from that media power were, to put it rather starkly, daily victims of media abuse. That’s why, by the way, I greatly welcome the public democratisation of information via the internet, though that too is now filled with different kinds of cyber-thugs. And while I’m waxing lyrical about the undemocratic power of the media I might as well specifically mention that I include the written press at the heart of that injustice. What gives writers at the Herald or Sunday Herald or the Scotsman or the Scottish Review of Books for that matter, the apparently god-given right to cast judgements on everything from politicians to poets, from stem-cell research to scientology? Are they any wiser than my fore-mentioned, late Granny? Of course not – but what they have is untrammelled access to the daily column pages. Why, as our great writer James Kelman has often said, are the opinion columns of these so-called national organs not graced by the presence of real writers, such as Kelman himself? Which leads me finally to critics and literary journals such as the SRB. Again – apart from the fact that they are given the chosen power to say it – what right have these critics to make or destroy careers and reputations and publishing houses? Of course I’m well aware that hundreds of books come flying for review to the desks of literary editors each week, and the first real power that these literary editors have is choosing which of these books to review and which to discard. The next sword of power in their hands is the power to carefully choose the reviewer, and the reviewer himself or herself then has the added power of not just ‘reading’ a book but obviously reading it with their own pre-given personal agenda. We all have personal agendas. All of us justify a social or linguistic or gender or class position and that has to be read into any text we either write or read. There is also the pressure on the reviewer – which again stems from the incessant demands of capitalism – of the deadline, that dreaded word, which can often contribute to misjudgement and enhance the prejudices. A Gaelic publisher friend of mine often tells me of reviewers asking him for copies of books to read and review – three days before the copy deadline. Quite how you can come to a balanced and full opinion, or even provide a decent snapshot, within such a tight timescale is beyond me.

SRB: Poetry and journalism seem almost polar opposites. Did you feel a real crunching of gears when you swapped from one mode to the other, or is there some hidden sympathy between the two I might not be aware of? Was there anything in the job that prepared the way for your poetry and your fiction?

APC: See above. Having being trained in a newsroom, however, was great preparation for fiction: it’s all constructed. News gathering did teach me certain skills: precision, rapidity and alertness for example. But I recently wrote a poem comparing the making of poetry and fiction to planting crops and journalism to the combine-harvester which comes along and sweeps it all away into the big machine. The media seems to me to be like the fairies of old that would come and steal the goodness out of the produce. Art, in other words, sows growth while journalism steals the harvest.

SRB: If journalism is so mendacious, why do you still work in that field?

APC: Mostly because I only steal the harvest which I have planted myself and which belongs to me.

SRB: In The Greatest Gift, you often link personal, family moments with destructive events then in the news. So, a child’s first day at school brings to mind the Tiananmen Square massacre, a bus passing by reminds you of your father which in turn brings Salman Rushdie and the risk posed to his life by his novel The Satanic Verses. That line “I love you/in the devilish imbalance of every contrary thing”, it’s almost as if by loving or being touched by love you feel duty bound to correct the balance by reminding the reader of horror too, a yin and a yang thing. What made you return so often to that trope in this period of your writing career?

APC: Maybe you’ve got it wrong – maybe it was the other way round, in the sense that every horror was actually outbalanced by the daily touches of love. In that sense, nothing of course has changed, and that balance or imbalance of every contrary thing is as old as the hills. For example, I’m sure there were great moments of tender grace all across Eurasia while Genghis Khan razed everything before him though these have been swept out of history. Think, for example of the number of beautiful private things that happened on 9/11, though the headline now shadows them all.

SRB: The Greatest Gift is a long book for a first collection of poetry. Over how long a period did you assemble it, and if it was a number of years, did you find how you wrote and conceived of verse had changed by the end of that span?

APC: It took a couple of years. I wrote in while living in the Granton district of Edinburgh, conscious of the fact that I was in an area where third-generation unemployment and poverty was common, but that despite that grim fact, folk were doing their best. It seemed (and still seems) to me a terribly tragedy that such great human potential was not only allowed to go to waste, but – through the consequences of the specific free-market forces unleashed by Thatcher – left to die on the margins and fringes of society. The Greatest Gift was an effort at articulating that unnecessary anguish.

SRB: The Greatest Gift, your first poetry collection, is engagé with the politics of the period. Have you ever worried that the namechecks given to Thatcher and so on, might one day make the poems dated?

APC: No. I have no doubts that Margaret has left her permanent marks on history.

SRB: In your first collection, you wrote “The Gaelic language/is an old boxer, flabby, remembering victories”, but by the time of your latest collection Fruit On Branches, it “is like a patient lying/weak on her deathbed”. Do you believe matters are becoming terminal for Gaelic now, or can it still be turned around?

APC: Nothing is terminal.

SRB: In ‘Harvesting The Ocean’ from Fruit On Branches, you write: “I am drowning here trying desperately/to harvest Gaelic/from the great tide of English”. Why then include English translations of your Gaelic poems which stand next to the originals in that volume?

APC: You’re mistaken. They don’t actually “stand next to the originals in that volume” – the English versions of the original Gaelic poems appear as the third segment of a trilingual volume, with the second section of the book being in Scots. To my mind at least that represents three separate and distinct books or streams, rather than a Gaelic river being swamped by an English ocean. What I have deliberately avoided doing in that book is publishing Gaelic on one page with the English on the facing page: that confrontation seems to me to be much more dangerous, like putting my daughter in the ring with Mike Tyson. The trilingual book, to me at least, seems a real choice: the reader can then, of course, choose which language to read free from pressure. I suspect, of course, that what you’re really asking, however, is why have English – or Scots – at all. The practical reason, of course, is that there are many Gaelic learnerswho will find a reference to the Scots or English versions quite useful. No one doubts that English is a huge tide: it is. But that having been said, I can of course swim well in that tide – here I am, after all, speaking to you in English. It seems to me that languages, in the plural, can warp and weave into other. The current global financial crisis, however, surely clearly demonstrates one thing: market forces on their own cannot be permitted to rule people’s lives. The international tongue of that capitalist beast – in other words English – needs to be controlled along with its banks and institutions for the safety and survival of us all.

SRB: Do you look at how the Welsh handled the issue of their native language and then how the Scots have and see a missed opportunity? I know you’ve spoken in the past about the difference in budgets between the Welsh Books Council and the Gaelic Books Council.

APC: Yes. The Welsh were prepared to starve to death for their cause, and won. We were all too fat to go on hunger-strike. Of course the consequences of our continuing timidity are obvious. Take literary funding, as a small example: the Welsh Books Council are handsomely funded by the Welsh Assembly, but the Scottish Government, through their funding agency Bòrd na Gàidhlig, have yet to grasp the importance of seriously investing in literature and publishing. While the Scottish Arts Council do their bit to support the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig currently provide something like 5% of their budget to Gaelic publishing. The Gaelic Books Council still have no full-time editor for Gaelic books, for example – despite Bòrd na Gàidhlig being approached last year for support for a post of full-time editor. Even more telling may be this small statistic – The Gaelic Books Council has a total staff of 4. MG ALBA – the administrators for the new Gaelic TV channel – on the other hand now has a staff of 25. Which, by the way, is probably more than the total number of Gaelic writers we have. That doesn’t take in to account the dozens working for the BBC, or STV, or in the independent sector. The ‘official message’ is that administrators are more valuable than artists and that television is far more important than literature. I believe – of course – that without literature our language will perish, even if everyone in the whole world were to speak it.

SRB: In ‘Victory And Defeat’ (from The Greatest Gift), you write, or your poetic persona writes, that he is “a Gael and a socialist and a Christian”. Are you attracted to causes or cultures that could be said to be in decline?

APC: I’m with the great William Faulkner on this one who said, “I decline to accept the end of man”. It strikes me that I am a day older than I was yesterday and therefore officially ‘in decline’. By that definition, even my young six-year-old son is officially in decline. If your line of argument was followed none of us would believe in anything, campaign for anything, live for anything, hope in anything. Of course it is a fight, but no righteous cause is ever dead and buried. We could all just lie a-bed because all is doomed. I believe the very opposite: that all things uncomely and broken, as Yeats put it, are well worth fighting for. Which is not, by the way, to agree with you that Gaelic or Socialism or Christianity is ‘in decline’. The cause of Gaelic seems to be very much on the rise; the rightness and need for Socialism strikes me as being more relevant right now than it has ever been; and as far as I can make out, rather than being in decline, there are now more professing Christians world-wide than there have ever been. Maybe you’re just being too Euro-centric: Christianity is seeing tremendous growth in places such as China. For the record, I am still a Gael, a Socialist and a Christian.

SRB: Your poetry keeps returning to Biblical imagery and language – what role has your faith played in your creative work?

APC: It has given me assurance, and therefore liberty. There may be others who need neither or who can have liberty without assurance, but I’m not one of them. The Bible itself, of course, covers all the great creative issues, from love to freedom and deals with all of the raw material which provides the bedrock for stories and journalism and poetry, from murder (Cain/Abel), to incest to prostitution, revenge, anger, justice, deceit, duty and all the rest. Tolstoy believed that the templates for all great stories were already rooted in the scriptures and dared anyone to find a thriller better than the story of Joseph and his brothers and an adventure greater than those of Abraham and Moses, for example. It is of course chock-full of great poetry as well, ranging from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathon – “How the mighty have fallen” – to the Psalms, the Song of Songs and many of Paul’s passages. Which is why as a teacher and poet (and not as a theologian) that Iain Crich-ton Smith read them to us so often in class. O, and by the way, they read and sound as beautiful in Gaelic as they do in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and the King James’s English.

SRB: What is it about the magic realism of South American fiction that so speaks to you? Does South American magic realism have something in common with the Gaelic tradition? Is this affinity something to do with Catholicism, as others have suggested?

APC: Yes, I think it does. I think it has to do with transubstantiation and other altered states. Gaelic stories are filled with such translations: you flung an apple behind you, and it turned into a forest, then into a lake, then into a fire, to separate you from the pursuing dragon. I grew up in a community where such stories were both real and true. I think a writer like Irvine Welsh has basically used the same tradition, just in an urban context. He too was surrounded by altered states, and made art out of that same raw material.

SRB: You write in Invisible Islands that language is “essentially political”. Is your socialism linked to Gaelic and if so, in what way?

APC: All language is political in that every word we speak or write or hear or read displays or betrays a class position. The easiest example is accent: whether the accent is an Eton accent or a South Uist accent, it is as essentially a socioeconomic-linguistic-cultural sign or emblem. Language communicates not just verbal, but visual and sociological data. My socialism is linked to Gaelic in the sense that I believe socialism to be the natural manifesto for the wretched of the earth: those on the margins, who have been de-valued not because of any intrinsic lack of worth in themselves, but as the direct consequence of deliberate political processes which have robbed them of their resources, their dignity and their natural rights. That process is called Imperialism and of course was most manifest in the likes of Latin America where the European conquerors immediately enslaved, eradicated and robbed the indigenous peoples of their lands and resources. Aside from the horse and sword, the principle weapon in this onslaught was language itself. If you really want to conquer and enslave a people you must first make sure that they lose a grip on that which gives them a sense of self: their culture and language. Do you really think it was an accident that the Roman Empire – as was the Russian Empire, and the British Empire and the Chinese Empire and the American Empire, etcetera – were each held together, glued together, by a common dominant language? And the best teachers of that dominant language are of course the converted natives themselves. The socialism that I believe in is of course a socialism which is intrinsically opposed to cultural as well as political imperialism. The re-distribution of wealth, which is at the heart of socialism, is not just confined to material wealth, i.e. money and land. It also extends to redistributing linguistic and cultural forces.

SRB: There haven’t over the past hundred years been a huge number of novels in Gaelic. Chiefly, the language – so it seems to this outsider – is at its best when contributing to an oral tradition. Is there something uncongenial about Gaelic used over the long haul of the novel?

APC: The question of course says far more about you and about outdated mainstream opinion than it does about Gaelic or its oral or literary capabilities. Gaelic has a long and distinguished literary tradition, dating as far back as the 10th century and in the 1000 years since then has produced a substantial number of literary works which would grace the top table of any civilization from here to Outer Mongolia. These literary works and manuscripts include the great poem The Lament of Deirdre dated from 1238, the poetry of Muireadhach Albannach from the late 12th century, the Dean of Lismore’s exquisite collection of written Gaelic poetry from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries right up to Sorley MacLean’s Dàin do Eimhir first published in 1943 and then up to the current crop of novels and books of poetry which are being published. The simple point I’m making is that despite your assertion Gaelic has had a long, rich and priceless literary tradition. And of course that literary tradition is now continuing, through the novels being published through new initiatives such as Ur-Sgeul. Alongside that literary tradition it also, of course, had a very vibrant oral culture as you well acknowledge. The survival of that oral culture had to do with many factors, not least of which was the fact that as soon as universal education was instituted in 1872 Gaelic was deliberately excluded so that you had generation after generation growing up and being taught in schools to read and write in English, and not being taught to read or write in their own native language. To put it briefly, illiteracy in their native language was institutionalised, so that – until the emergence of Gaelic-medium education over the past twenty years – a century of deliberate illiteracy was assured. The purpose of course was to extirpate the Gaelic language, which was considered backward, uncivil and uncouth and make us all subjects of an empire upon which the sun never set, apparently. So to answer your question, of course there is nothing ‘uncongenial’ about Gaelic being used over the long haul of the novel. It’s not, after all a disease or a virus. Gaelic seems to me to be as perfectly able to deal with the novel, in any classic, modernist or post- or post-post-modernist shape form or size, as much as any other language. The last five years have seen Gaelic novels (and I don’t just mean my own) covering subject matters every bit as broadminded and as varied as works in English. Novelists were always there – they just haven’t always had the opportunity.

SRB: One of the problems with writing books in Gaelic is that because the pool of Gaelic speakers is so small, it tends to be enthusiasts for the language who review the books. Does it concern you that this may distort a true assessment of a book’s worth?

APC: I can assure you that this is absolutely not the case: the ‘professional’ Gaelic reviewers may or may not be enthusiasts for the language – how would I know? – but they can also be as unbalanced and as prejudiced as any other reviewer. I often privately compare critics to nose-pickers: if they want to pick and chew their own noses, that’s fine by me, but I would generally prefer if they left mine alone. The real value of a book, however, lies well beyond the artificial limits of a review. The real value is when it becomes part of a folk consciousness. The real value is when someone writes privately to you, as they have, to say that the book moved them to tears or joy and – most importantly – brought them to a new or renewed sense of the value of life.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Editorial

Volume 5 Issue 1


Between our last issue and the one you hold in your hands, Harold Pinter died. There are many things we could mention at this point to honour his memory – the plays, the poems, the screenplays, the Nobel Prize speech – but one in particular comes to mind in these first months of 2009. In 1965, Pinter’s play The Homecoming premiered in London. At the centre of the play is a philosophy professor returning to his childhood home after working in America. As Pinter knew too well, homecomings are frequently fraught matters, brimming with ambiguous, sometimes hostile emotions.

2009 has been marked down by the Scottish government, in association with EventScotland, as Scotland’s Year of Homecoming. Robert Burns is central, with 2009 marking the 250th anniversary of our national poet’s birth. Other cosy identifiers of supposedly echt-Scottishness have been drawn into promoting the Year of Homecoming – Golf, Whisky, the Enlightenment, and so on. The centrepiece of the campaign is a star-studded tartanified take on the BBC’s ‘Perfect Day’ advert of some years back, where the celebs, one at a time, sing a line of a song, in this instance ‘Caledonia’. Once used to punt beer, ‘Caledonia’ is now selling Scotland itself to tourists, homesick Scots and descendents of Scots.

What the advert doesn’t and couldn’t acknowledge is exactly what Pinter homed in on: the discomfort and hostility homecomings engender. For, if we’re honest, we would admit Scots, while generally friendly towards visitors, have not always been welcoming to those brothers and sisters who have left the country behind.

One area in which this has been conspicuously the case is literature. There are numerous examples of Scottish writers who have been snubbed by native critics, academics, and anthologists for not being, in their collective opinion, Scottish enough. Robin Jenkins, for example, opined that “any real Scottish person” would not believe Muriel Spark was one of them. Allan Massie has on occasion been moved to prove his Scottish credentials, while William Boyd was excluded from The List’s Best 100 Scottish books in favour of those diehard Caledonians George Orwell and Virginia Woolf.

The reasons for this blindspot are complex. It’s partly to do with class, place of origin, and what might be called thematic concerns. Massie and Boyd were born abroad, Massie in Singapore, Boyd Ghana. Although they both returned to Scotland to be educated, they did so at fee-paying public schools. Their class, at a time when Scottish literature was thought to be defined by the grittier school of Kelman, was a liability as far as achieving recognition in Scotland itself. Similarly, Boyd and Spark were often accused of writing novels that did not convey distinctly Scottish concerns. Frequently, the novels weren’t set in Scotland! Worse, the authors didn’t even live here! Paradoxically, should such successful Scots return home and comment on their country, particularly its ills, their gift will only be even more resentment.

While there are no consistent criteria as far as judging who’s in and who’s out – Robert Louis Stevenson appears to have escaped unfavourable comment despite his globe-trotting – the sense of betrayal when Scots leave is genuine. Which leads us to an intriguing ‘what if’. In 1786, an impoverished Burns had planned to emigrate to Jamaica to take up work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. To pay his way, he was persuaded to publish a few of his poems, a process that ended in the publication of Poems, Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect, and literary success. The trip was off. Still, it raises the question, if he had left, whether we would ever have heard of Burns? And even if he had published, would Scots hold so dear to their hearts, an expatriate?

This month sees a new phase for your Scottish Review of Books. For the magazine’s first four years it has been under the ownership of independent book publisher Argyll Publishing. Now it is owned by a new company, Scottish Review of Books Ltd. This new company has attracted a complementary and supportive board of directors. Membership comprises Christopher Gane, Vice Principal of the University of Aberdeen; Christopher Harvie MSP; Harry Reid, author and journalist; and Jan Rutherford, publicist in the books world. The magazine’s editor Alan Taylor will join the board as will Argyll Publishing’s Derek Rodger who will act as managing director over the transition period. We have interest from other potential members, but already the make-up of the board gives a rich spread of expertise and a wealth of commitment and energy to take the magazine forward.

Some of our plans are mentioned in our Subscriber advert on page 27. As regular readers know, nothing about Scottish Review of Books is cheap, so if any readers wish to lend support, joining our core of subscribers is a good place to start.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms – Stuart Christie

WRITING IN the preface to l’Espagne Libre, in 1946, the year of my birth, Albert Camus said of the Spanish struggle: “It is now nine years that men of my generation have had Spain within their hearts. Nine years that they have carried it with them like an evil wound. It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy”.

On 1 April 2009 seventy years will have passed since General Franco declared victory in his three-year crusade against the Spanish Republic. His victory was won with the military support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the moral support of the Roman Catholic Church and the covert diplomatic connivance of Britain and France, the prime movers in the Non-Intervention Agreement. It brought not peace but the outbreak of a vengeful and prolonged forty-year war of vindictive terror, humiliation and suffering for the losers, the Spanish people. Apart from the victims of the war itself, between 1939 and 1951 at least 50,000 Spaniards paid with their lives for their support of the Republic while hundreds of thousands paid with their freedom. Today, forty-four years after Franco’s death, Spain still has unfinished business to deal with.

In July 1936, progressive people everywhere seized on the Spanish workers’ successful thwarting of the attempted coup by a cabal of ultra-rightist Spanish generals in Spain and Africa. It became the great idealistic cause of the twentieth century’s first half. Some, particularly the Defence Committees of the anarcho-syndicalist labour unions of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) – the ones who seized the initiative by declaring a revolutionary general strike and arming the people in the face of government opposition, confusion and middle class horror – saw it as the start of the social revolution, whereas the middle classes, the petite bourgeoisie and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), which sought to become their champion, chose to view it in terms of a struggle between bourgeois democracy and fascism. But despite their differences, for all of them it became the line in the sand; the rallying point for over 30,000 mostly idealistic and heroically selfless men and women from fifty-three countries who realised that here, possibly, was an opportunity to connect all the 1930s’ struggles for social and political justice and, at the same time, roll back the inextricably interlinked rise of fascism and reaction.

During the first days of the army uprising, as many as 1,500 foreigners living in Spain took to the barricades to join the armed workers’ defence groups in surrounding the barracks and quashing the military rebellion. Among these were two hundred athletes who had come to Barcelona to compete in the People’s Olympiad (Spartakiad) organised by the trades union movement and the Popular Front government, in protest against the official Olympic Games then taking place in Hitler’s Berlin. The Peoples’ Olympics had been due to open on July 19, the day the fascist army marched out of their barracks to seize control of Barcelona.

Many workers and intellectuals of every conceivable nationality had been horrified by their own governments’ inaction in the face of fascist aggression and had gone off to fight for justice on their own. The first, informal, ‘Internationals’ were the foreign volunteers who flocked to join the union-organised militia units such as the Durruti, Ascaso and Ortíz columns, named after their charismatic organisers of the Nosotros action group. People of all ages, from fourteen to seventy, and all nationalities – French Germans, Italians, Moroccans, British and Americans – enrolled in these and other anarchist and socialist expeditionary columns to liberate Zaragoza and hold the front line in Aragón. Some of these militia columns were led by four Scots’ bagpipers, four of whom had been due to open the Spartakiad ceremonies on that fateful day. Toronto Star journalist Pierre van Paassen, for example, refers to the fact that one of Durruti’s adjutants, a Briton by the name of Middleton, had jumped ship in Barcelona when he learned of the workers’ uprising and the social revolution that was sweeping the country.

Ethel MacDonald, an anarchist from Motherwell, just a few miles up the road from where I lived in Blantyre, was another of the countless people who made this individual pilgrimage to Spain. In October 1936 Ethel left Glasgow for Spain with another Scotswoman, Jenny Patrick, a long-time anarchist activist who had been the secretary of the Glasgow anarchists during the industrial troubles of 1916. Ethel became a regular broadcaster on the English-language programmes of the Barcelona anarchist radio station. Their high profile and defence of the social revolution led to both Ethel and Jenny being arrested and held without trial by the Stalinist secret police. But they were among the lucky ones who survived and were able to return to Glasgow. Her extraordinary story is told in Chris Dolan’s An Anarchist’s Story: The Life of Ethel Macdonald, a fascinating personal account of the pivotal events of the spring and summer of 1937 as seen through the prism of a Scottish anarchist woman who was at the centre of contemporary events. Dolan’s book has particular resonance for me because of the people and places he talks about, names known to me personally from my youth: Charlie Doran, Bob Smillie and ‘Big’ Dan Mullen from Victoria Crescent in Blantyre where I spent my formative teenage years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was there I first came across these names and others, local men like Tommy Brannan, Tommy Flecks, Willie Fox, dead Brigaders who were spoken of, rightly, as heroes and martyrs. Nor was it unusual on a Friday or Saturday night for old anarchist and communist miners to end rancorous discussions about the role of the Communist Party in Spain brawling outside the Miners’ Welfare.

But not everyone could make their own way to Spain, and for some the process was too hit and miss – too uncontrolled and unmonitored. The decision to set up an organisation to capitalise on and channel the popular wave of anti-fascist enthusiasm and idealism, and coordinate the mobilisation of volunteers to fight for the Spanish Republic was taken in Moscow on September 18, 1936, during a meeting of the Comintern Executive Committee. It was a little over a week after the Non-Intervention Committee met for the first time in London, and just five days after the decree from Spain’s pro-Soviet Finance Minister Juan Negrín authorising the transfer of all of Spain’s 510 tons of gold reserves first to Cartagena, and thence to Moscow – for safekeeping! This Comintern-led initiative – which became known as the International Brigades (IBs) – should be seen, therefore, in the context of Soviet geopolitical leverage and paid-for, stringsattached, military aid. It should also recognised that membership of the Partido Comunista Española (PCE) at the outbreak of the uprising was small and largely middle class, perhaps between thirty- and a hundred-thousand, and with little influence among the workers when compared with the two million members of the anarcho- syndicalist CNT and the million and a half members of the socialist UGT. The PCE had virtually no militia presence of its own in the late summer of 1936, yet by the end of the year its membership had increased tenfold to around a million.

By championing the privileges, status and property of the professional as well as the urban and rural bourgeoisie against the rapid advances of the anarchist-led social revolution, the Catalan counterpart of the PCE, the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) – formed on July 23rd 1936 with between 3,000 and 6,000 members – increased its membership dramatically within a matter of months. Spanish anarchist historian Jose Peirats estimates that in Catalonia, between July and October, the PCE recruited to its ranks 8,000 landowners and around 16,000 middle class ‘professionals’.

The most powerful reason for the rapid growth in influence of the PCE, however, was Stalin’s decision to provide military support for the Republic which had nothing to do with altruism or working class solidarity. His decision to send arms to Republican Spain was based on the diplomatic and strategic exigencies of Soviet foreign policy. For Stalin, Spain was a pawn in a diplomatic chess game being played out by the three great European power blocs – the Axis, France and Britain, and Russia. Stalin hoped that the surrogate war being fought in Spain would provide him with sufficient breathing space to divert or minimise the effect on the Soviet Union of a wider European conflict, which was looking ever more inevitable. Hitler’s expansionist policies would, Stalin believed, drag Germany into conflict with Britain and France leaving Russia as an onlooker. However, Soviet foreign policy at the time was in fact counter-revolutionary, requiring that the European balance of forces should not be disturbed as any perceived support for social revolution in Europe would upset Russia’s delicate military alliance with France and its relationship with Great Britain. But the problem, as dissident Marxist historian Fernando Claudín pointed out, was that neither could the USSR realistically dodge its duty “to show active solidarity with the Spanish people in arms without risk of losing all prestige in the eyes of the world proletariat”.

Take Dolores Ibárruri Gómez for example, La Pasionaria whose statue looms over Glasgow’s Clyde Walkway. She was a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party, a parliamentary deputy and a Comintern delegate. She effectively blackmailed the Republican government into accepting Communist Party demands which included: the right to nominate and appoint political commissars and Soviet military cadres to each army unit; the dismantling of the agricultural, industrial and service industry collectives that were being set up in the social revolution that was then building momentum; and the outlawing of the independent Marxist and allegedly ‘Trotskyist’ POUM. Remember, too, that this period coincided with the start of Stalin’s most murderous phase of his reign of terror within his own country, flagged by the Moscow show trials that opened in August 1936. The message was simple: if the Republican government refused to accept the conditions demanded by the Communist Party then the Soviet freighters lying offshore would not unload their cargoes of arms and ammunition.

Charlotte Haldane, the honorary secretary of the IBs’ Dependants’ Aid Committee in the UK, has stated that each national Communist Party was assigned a recruitment quota linked to the size, age and the strategic importance of its paid-up membership, as well as the number of fellowtravellers it could count on. The Communist Party of Great Britain, for example, because of its size, had a smaller quota than most, but even so, between late October 1936 and the summer of 1938, it was still able to recruit between 1,800 and 2,400 volunteers (estimates vary here), of whom 563 were killed and most of the others wounded.

A NEW and fascinating contribution to Scotland’s role in the Spanish Civil War, Daniel Gray’s Homage To Caledonia brings together for the first time riveting accounts of the plots and sub-plots of the 1930s Scottish- Spanish connection, together with the personal stories and testimonies of some of the 549 Scottish volunteers who made Spain’s struggle their own. Most of this Scottish contingent (around twenty-three per cent of the British Battalion) came from the urban and industrial areas of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, specifically Maryhill, Springburn and Bridgeton and, of course, the mining communities of Lanarkshire and Fife. Of the ninety-two Scottish IB volunteers killed in Spain, sixtyfive were from Glasgow; another nine came from the Lanarkshire mining communities around Blantyre. Sixty-seven per cent of them were members of the Communist Party.

With the British Battalion so overwhelmingly dominated by Party cadres, rank-andfile militants and fellow travellers, it’s hardly surprising that so many of them belonged to either the CP or the Young Communist League. Even so, in spite of tight Party discipline, most rank-and-file volunteers were far from being ideologically sectarian; their reasons for risking their lives to fight for the Republic or for socialism may have been complex and diverse, but the one thing they all had in common was a visceral loathing of fascism and a profound sense of international solidarity.

With the UK’s Foreign Recruitment Act making enlistment in a foreign army illegal, the British authorities became increasingly rigorous in their attempts to enforce nonintervention and implement the law, so Brigaders were recruited discretely through the Communist Party network by local cadres and ‘Spanish Aid Committee’ organisers who took it on themselves to vet all volunteers, especially non-party members. Politically, around sixty per cent of the Scottish IB volunteers were paid-up CPGB members with twenty per cent or so drawn from the Labour Party, with, perhaps, a scattering of ILP, Scottish Socialist Party or Scottish Workers’ Republican Party members. The remaining twenty per cent claimed to have no formal political allegiances. These figures were more or less the same for the whole of the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade, although it’s impossible to say how many of the 110 Labour Party members were also – as Lewis Clive was – covert CP members. The British Battalion appears to have had at least seven ILP volunteers which to me was unusual given that the ILP line was close to that of the CNT defence committees: that the social revolution was inseparable from the war. It was for this reason that most of the 175 ILPers who fought in Spain did so with the anarchosyndicalist militias or, like George Orwell, with the anti-Stalinist, Marxist POUM.

Few British workers had passports in those days so the usual practice was for the volunteers to make their way across the Channel on special weekend returns – which didn’t require passports – and then travel down to Spain with the help of the efficient and well-disciplined French Communist Party – and the French authorities mostly turning a blind eye. The first batch of foreign volunteers to arrive in Spain in the autumn of 1936 were obliged to surrender their passports to the ‘Foreigners’ Bureau of the Catalan Communist Party, the PSUC, then controlled by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Later the International Brigade established its own ‘Control and Security Service’ headed by Alexander Orlov, chief of NKVD operations in Spain. Their passports were never returned and were used in covert NKVD and GRU clandestine operations. There was also an IB ‘Cadre Commission’ set up in Albacete in February 1937 to monitor and assess the “trustworthyness’ of volunteers” and to expose ‘fascist’ spies and Trotksyist-anarchist provocateurs. A cadre report on the British Battalion, for example, listed 363 British volunteers, half of them CPers, and described forty-one them as ‘cadres’, 142 as reliable, and 133 – of whom forty were Party members – as ‘weak or bad’.

In contrast to the Comintern, the anarchist international, the AIT, did not mount a central recruitment campaign. The CNTFAI, the anarcho-syndicalist labour union and the Spanish anarchist federation, disapproved of recruiting foreigners into its militias – except, of course, for stateless refugee volunteers such as the Italians and Germans – preferring instead for comrades to show their solidarity and defend the revolutionary nature of the Spanish Civil War by actions and applying political and industrial pressure at home. The French Anarchist Federation, however, did have a network in place for sending foreign revolutionary volunteers into Spain, but on a much smaller scale than that of the Comintern. The reality was that more than two thousand foreign anarchist volunteers joined the CNT militias.

Between October 1936 and September 1937, when they were finally incorporated into the Republican army as Spanish Foreign Legion units, seven International Brigades were headquartered in Albacete under the commissarship of the paranoid Comintern Secretary Andre Marty – the XIth, XIIth, XIIIth, XIVth, XVth, 129th and 150th. Each of these, led by a brigade commander and a political commissar, consisted of four battalions of mainly foreign volunteers organised by language group and ethnic background – to avoid problems of communication. An increasing number of Spaniards were conscripted into the Brigades as the war progressed, but there was no attempt to teach Brigaders Spanish until 1937, and even then few actually bothered to learn the language or even have much to do with their fellow Spanish Brigaders. There was actually a fair bit of racism, especially in the French and German IB Battalions.

The fact that so few Brigaders understood Spanish meant they were largely dependant on the overwhelmingly pro- Soviet and virulently anti-Trotskyist and anti-anarchist International Brigade press for information as to what was happening in Spain, especially relating to the events of May 1937 in Barcelona and the NKVD-led Stalinist repression both in the Soviet Union and in the Spanish rearguard. On February 16, 1937, the IB paper Soldado de la Republica stated that after the latest of the Moscow trials “the whole world can now see” that the Trotskyists were “agents of German-Japanese fascism…and an incredible system of provocations, sabotage and murder” who in Spain had been revealed as “the artificial mist that hid Franco’s Fifth Column…. The unmasking of Trotskyists united all International Brigaders”.

Tragically, most ordinary International Brigades volunteers were unaware of the strategic geopolitical ‘great game’ they were engaged in on behalf of Stalin. They were idealists manipulated by cynics, lions led by vipers.

Morale was undermined constantly, especially among non-Communist volunteers. Jason Gurney, the British sculptor who fought with the IBs from December 1936 until August 1937 described the process in his memoir, Crusade In Spain: ‘the pattern of unkept promises of support, chaotic orders and communications, followed by inquests, the search for scapegoats and their execution as enemy agents was to underlie the whole course of events. The battle of Jarama in February 1937, the first major battle in which the British participated, was presented as a victory, mainly because they managed to recover the ground they had lost, but it was won at a heavy price with over a quarter of the five hundred-strong British Battalion killed and a comparable number seriously wounded. Around thirty-five Scots died in the main battle at Jarama and many were taken prisoner, including James Maley of the Calton who died in April 2007. Steve Fullarton, the last surviving Scottish IB veteran, passed away just a year later.

The erosion of Brigade morale began with Jarama. Partly this was due to the harsh realities of a war in which they were used as expendable shock troops, but other things were bubbling below the surface at Brigade level. Command of the Battalion had been due to be taken over by Scotsman Wilf McCartney, but he was shot and wounded, allegedly accidentally, by Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan, the CPGB representative to the Comintern and the commissar for the English-speaking International Brigaders at Albacete just before the British left for Jarama,. McCartney was forced to return to Britain due to his injuries and command of the Battalion passed to an Englishman, Tom Wintringham.

The next battle in which the British Battalion was involved occurred a few months later, in July 1937, at Brunete, the first major offensive of the war. It quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster, both tactically and in terms of personnel. Of the 331 Britons who answered roll call on July 6, 1937, the first day of the battle, by July 24, when Franco’s forces finally broke through the Republican lines, 289 of them were dead, wounded or captured. With such enormous losses — most battalions were now down to under 200 men —morale plummeted and there were increasing outbreaks of insubordination and desertion. Around 298 British volunteers deserted (16 per cent) compared with about 100 Americans.

In the British Battalion, punitive action focused on indiscipline and desertion, with two re-education centres and three jails established at IB HQ in Albacete specially to deal with these cases. After the Battle of Guadalajara, in March 1937, André Marty reported to the Comintern that the Brigades were on the verge of collapse due to the loss of men through demoralisation, deaths, casualties and desertions. Men previously commended for their courage were now described as “cowards, amoral and alcoholics”. No one knows how many IBers were executed by the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM) and the Chekists, but it’s probably somewhere between fifty and sixty, mostly French, German, Hungarian and Slav volunteers. Only one Briton, a Glaswegian by the name of Peter Kemp, is known to have been formally executed, as were three from the Lincoln and George Washington battalions, but according to Jason Gurney “a large number disappeared without trace”.

Morale deteriorated further in the Spring of 1937 with the Stalinist onslaught against the CNT defence committees and the various, smaller, anti-Stalinist Marxist parties in the rearguard, in their attempt finally to suffocate the social revolution and wrest control of working class Barcelona from the rank and file of the CNT unions. This scenario was presented to the world as a legitimate governmental move to crush a Trotksyist-fascist-anarchist coup d’etat – and the world believed it, or pretended to.

In September 1937 the Comintern Executive Committee appealed to all IB officers and men to be on their guard against Trotskyist- fascist-anarchist infiltration. In fact there were few real Trotskyists in the IBs, and the handful of anarchists who remained in the IBs were closely-monitored by the NKVD-led Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM), operating as the party’s private police,

In spite of a demoralising defeat at Brunete, in August 1937 the British Battalion regrouped and fought on to the Fuentes de Ebro prior to an advance on Zaragoza, which they failed to complete. From there they pressed on to Belchite where they emerged victorious for a time following a particularly bloody hand-tohand, close-quarter, battle with the Francoists. The Battalion’s greatest success, however, was its key role in the capture of the Aragonese town of Teruel on 8 January 1938, but this proved short lived as by the end of the month the British were forced into a series of retreats in the face of a fierce Francoist onslaught. The reality was that the forced dissolution of the libertarian  Council of Aragón by the Communistforces of General Lister’s XIth Army in August 1937 effectively extinguished the last guttering flame of the social revolution in Spain. It was the beginning of the end for ‘Loyalist’ Spain. The disintegration of the 450 kilometres of Aragón’s front lines in March 1938 underlined the profound impact that the devastation of the rearguard had had on the popular will to resist.

By the summer of 1938 the Soviet Union had failed in its diplomatic aim of establishing an anti-German alliance among the Western governments and, with a fascist victory looking increasingly inevitable, Stalin’s foreign minister, Litvinov, informed the British ambassador that a Franco regime would be acceptable to the Soviet Union provided Spain didn’t become a German or Italian satellite. The Soviet delegate on the Non-Intervention Committee then drew up a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign combatants in Spain and the granting of belligerent rights to both sides, allowing them to purchase arms legally. Finally, on 21 September, in a cynical attempt to win the support of Western governments – and at the height of the Ebro offensive in which 7,000 foreign volunteers were fighting – Juan Negrín, announced to the League of Nations that his government had decided, unilaterally, to withdraw all foreign combatants from the Republican zone.

Following the British Battalion’s withdrawal from the Ebro for repatriation, Sam Wild, commander of the British Battalion, called for volunteers to return to the front line for 48 hours to give republican forces time to bring up fresh troops. All of the men agreed to go back; many never returned. In the three days of fighting at the Ebro following Negrin’s announcement, more than two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded, or reported missing.

The evacuation of the IBs was neither easy nor quick, but even so most British survivors were home by the end of December, leaving about 6,000 volunteers still remaining in Catalonia, albeit demobilised. In fact, eighty per cent of them re-enlisted to fight in the rearguard actions holding up the Francoist advance. The IBs were among the last Republican troops to cross the border, which they did on 9 February. Two weeks later, on 24 February France recognised the Franco government followed quickly by Britain.

And their legacy? Even though the IBs were relatively few in numbers, they played an important role as shock troops, and central to their effectiveness — especially in the early days of the war — was their political and moral commitment, for which they paid a heavy price, with 549 dead and thousands more wounded. But whatever the International Brigades may have done for Spain, they did considerably more for the image and credibility of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

The moral example of the IBs certainly benefited the Republic, and as the civil war progressed the idealism and heroism of the rank and file had an even greater impact on the wider labour movement, with a marked increase in the membership and influence of the CP. In spite of their politics, the rankand- file IBs’ genuine internationalism and sense of working class solidarity and selfless heroism could not have been in starker contrast to the treachery of the Bolshevik leaders of the Soviet Union or the rank hypocrisy of the socialist and bourgeois politicians of the western democracies.

But what these ‘premature anti-fascists’ did impacted on posterity and inspired later generations with their bravery and selfless courage. It certainly made an impact on me, and it is because of them that I came to see the Spanish Civil War as ‘unfinished business’, especially in the years 1962 to 1964 when Franco was unleashing a new and brutal wave of repression. With horror I read about the arrests and torture of striking miners and industrial workers, the judicial murders of the Communist Commissar Julian Grimau for alleged war crimes, and the garrotting of two young anarchists, Delgado and Granado, for a bombing of which they were totally innocent. It appeared to be starting all over again and no one was doing anything about it, given Spain’s strategic importance during the Cold War.

I may not have been wise or competent in what I did, but I did not have the benefit of hindsight. My conscious choice about the manner of my involvement in the anti-Francoist resistance was as a fighter – as opposed to being a helper of Franco’s victims. To do otherwise would have felt like running away, psychologically and intellectually. It would have been hypocritical of me to choose what I knew to be the easy and safe – but useless and ineffective – options of demonstrations, picketing and leafleting and not to challenge Franco head on as it were, following the example of those extraordinary men and women who went to Spain in 1936 and 1937 to fight for a better world.

I felt I had a moral obligation to intervene on behalf of past, present and future victims of Francoism. It was a just war and a just cause – the assassination of Franco. My authority was my conscience and the ghosts of Franco’s victims since 1936. And so, on July 31st, 1964, just three weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I went back to Blantyre to pack my Bergen, folding my kilt ostentatiously on top, and made the final preparations for my trip to Paris – and my rendezvous with destiny in Madrid. Like George Orwell, Ethel MacDonald, ‘Big Dan’ Mullen and thousands of others in 1936, I was off to Spain because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The assassination did not succeed, which is another story, but Écrasez l’Infâme!

The selfless men and women who fought in Spain for the idea of liberty against the reactionary priest-, gun- and prisonbacked, medieval ideology that was Francoism are the forgotten dead and a now-dying generation to whom we have an obligation of remembrance, a duty of commemoration which is honoured, at least in part, in Dolan’s and Gray’s respective books.

In 1945 New York Times correspondent Herbert Lionel Matthews wrote the following: “Spain was a melting pot in which the dross came out and pure gold remained. It made men ready to die gladly and proudly. It gave meaning to life; it gave courage and faith in humanity. It taught us what internationalism means, as no League of Nations or Dumbarton Oaks will ever do. There one learned that men could be brothers, that nations and frontiers, religions and races were but outer trappings, and that nothing counted, nothing was worth fighting for but the idea of liberty”.

An Anarchist’s Story: The Life of Ethel Macdonald
Chris Dolan
BIRLINN, £9.99
pp224, ISBN 1841586854

Homage to Caledonia
Daniel Gray
pp256, ISBN 1906307644

Stuart Christie is the author of ‘Granny Made Me An Anarchist. General Franco, the Angry Brigade and Me’, Scribner, £7.99

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Contents

Volume 5 Issue 1


STUART CHRISTIE – Call to Arms: Scots in Spain

ALAN TAYLOR – A Life in a Year: Burns in Crisis


GEORGE ROSIE – 1979 and All That: Sir Humphrey At War With The Scots

CHRISTOPHER HARVIE – Mayday!:How the Iolaire and Royal Oak Were Sunk

JENNIE RENTON – Indian Diary: Fancy a Beer?



HARRY REID – Breaking Up Is Easy To Do: Religion on the Long Island

BRIANMORTON – Tete-a-Tete: Return to the Poet’s Pub

Reviews by Cairns Craig, Ronald Frame, Rodge Glass, Roger Hutchinson, Susan McCallum-Smith, Sarah MacDonald, Alasdair Macrae, Alison Miller, Alice Thompson, Colin Waters

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



Mayday! – Christopher Harvie

I ask myself, is it just a matter of a few dozen passengers,

or do I watch the whole human race over there, haphazardly

hanging on to some run-down cruise-liner, fit for the scrapyard

and headed for self-destruction? I cannot

be sure. I am dripping wet

and I listen. It is hard to say who the seafarers over there

may be, each of them clutching a suitcase, a leek-green talisman, a dinosaur, or a

laurel wreath.

HANS-MAGNUS ENZENSBERGER is a poet who – to the EJ Thribbs of Metrolit – is too clever for his own good, writing with equally fluent acidity in German and English. He recognises the value of disaster. In complex socio-economic situations, it cuts through the different traditions of narrative and memory, rearranging them to produce story and analysis of a frozen moment of shock, and then a longer-unwinding trauma and ‘loosening of the screws’. Enzensberger wrote ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ in 1978 when the hopes of 1968 had curdled and been cudgelled into terror, whether by the Baader-Meinhoff gang in suburban Germany or by Catholic and Protestant hitmen in the streets of the Titanic’s birthplace, Belfast. Thomas Hardy had been on the scene early with ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. “The matt-grey iron ship,/Which ought to have been the future” was never far from the mind of the Ulster-man Louis MacNeice. Man’s conquest of the elements also conjuring up the great ship as Moloch – and of other, disadvantaged men and natural forces, taking their chance or taking their revenge. James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997) – a technical and financial triumph (forget plot and acting) reinstated both. It was trumped three years later by the reality of 9/11.

In his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) WB Yeats, a poet of similar cold ambition, notoriously condemned the soldier-poets of World War I for their “blood and sucked sugar-stick” liberal-humanist attitudes. Modern conflict had become so technologised as to make destruction owe more to systems-failure than to tragedy: “Some fool has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road. That is all”.

This piece was stimulated by two accounts describing the war-provoked ‘tragedies’. They involved large numbers of victims in remote places, placed there by modern technology, blends of heroism, incompetence and sheer destructive force. They also happened within a particular social and geographic context which has preoccupied this commentator for a couple of decades while writing a cultural history of Britain’s Atlantic coast, Floating Commonwealth: the effect on civic and national identity of the century after Water-loo when the Atlantic was an Anglo-American mare nostra: carrier of the argosies of Lancashire and the Clyde, New Orleans and Chicago, to be celebrated largely by pacific radicals from Samuel Smiles to Walt Whitman. Then came the iceberg, and Yeats’s car crash: in some respects a systemic and psychological lesion akin to the shell-shock that marked the Western front.

The ‘Royal Oak’, the subject of David Turner’s artless but often touching collection of documents, recollections, letters and photographs, Last Dawn: The ‘Royal Oak’ Tragedy at Scapa Flow, was stimulated by an uncle’s death in the sinking, on 14 October 1939. The battleship was launched just as World War I broke out, and took part in the battle of Jutland in May 1916, the only great clash of fleets the Great War produced. The destruction of three British capital ships, with over 6000 dead, showed how vulnerable such vessels were. It may also explain the apparent indifference the political elite showed the victims.

Churchill praised the sinking of the ‘Royal Oak’ as “a remarkable episode of professional skill and daring” on the part of the German U-47, whose commander Guenther Prien had wormed his way into the supposedly safe anchorage through a channel regarded as unnavigable. A later public would probably not second Churchill’s gallantry. Armour and fifteen-inch guns seemed to protect; after a torpedo-strike they were as deadly as the warhead. “Up to the present I have not been troubled by the war and I am not worrying. Really, I am safer than you are”, wrote Ordinary Seaman Jack Wood, to his family in Consett, County Durham. Days later, with 832 others, he was dead.

The vast mechanised destruction of World War I was recouped by a memory which Yeats himself helped generate, settling on the outlandish or the desperate. Rudyard Kipling, the technocrat-prophet of the ‘Fleet in Being’ and the Kitchener Army, was almost silenced by the immensity of total war. A lesser but still imaginative talent, CS Forester, captured, in Brown On Resolution (1929) and The African Queen (1935), the same sort of individualistic, machine-defying gesture which – in the desert campaign of TE Lawrence and the Dublin Rising of 1916 – shook the Turkish and British empires.

The steam technology of the Dreadnoughts wasn’t predictable in wartime conditions nor were hitherto settled social relations. Far from starring in ‘fleet in being’ roles, they proved terrible liabilities: kings, not queens, of the chessboard. In an anticipation of later tragedy there had been, on 27 October 1914, farce: the two-year-old battleship HMS ‘Audacious’, forced from Scapa by the lack of U-boat protection, hit a Ger-man mine off Lough Swilly and sank without loss of life. Its wreck remained visible throughout the war, although it was only officially written off after the Armistice in 1918. The Admiralty was able to keep sch-tumm about this embarrassing loss. Its air patrols, warding off inquisitive Zeppelins, accounted for mysterious aircraft spotted over Galloway; putting an idea into John Buchan’s mind for his Thirty-Nine Steps. But it was a commentary on the fundamental uselessness of the giant heavy-gun warships the great powers had been competitively building for a decade. Admiral Jellicoe said that he could lose the war in a quarter of an hour if the Germans knocked out his capital ships, but he couldn’t have won it with them, even given years.

The one Dreadnought that earned its keep never fired an angry shot: the German ‘Goeben’, a new battlecruiser presented (with menaces) to the Turkish government in October 1914. Dan van der Vat’s The Ship that

Changed the World (2000) showed how it helped bring Turkey (by then recovering from its Sick Man of Europe role) into the war on the side of the Central Powers, and gave the Allied commanders of the black-farcical Dardanelles invasion the willies, should it descend on their fleet of elderly, lightly-armed ships. As a result, the landing failed through incompetence, the ‘warm-water’ route to Russia was never secured, and the absence of this accelerated the Tsarist collapse.

In the mechanised death business, the propensity to cock-up radically increased. Technologies had been overstressed which became unpredictable under fire and the human factor neglected. By 1939 the capital ship was a disaster-in-waiting. The loss of the ‘Royal Oak’ chillingly prefaced the Battle of the Atlantic, though its casualties would be overtopped by the Cunarder ‘Lancastria’ torpedoed off Saint Nazaire on 17 June 1940 (at least 2500 dead). The British Empire never recovered from the loss to the Japanese on 10 December 1941 of the battleships ‘Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’ and the fortress of Singapore two months later on 15 February. The swift decolonisation of 1957-63 was a death foretold.

The impression of high command is of tight-arsed Admirals all too conscious of their deadly, fragile, malfunctioning leviathans – taking escort vessels from them to protect convoys was like drawing teeth – and cavalier about the people who had to navigate them, and their possible reactions. Where matters were already sensitive in 1914, disasters like the Dardanelles brought aggravation:

Oh England sent our wild geese forth
That small nations should be free,
And their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves,
Or the shores of the grey North Sea.

– was a verse of ‘The Morning Dew’ composed by Charles O’Neill, a nationalist priest, after Easter 1916. For protestant Ulster the Battle of the Somme, conducted with equal crassness between July and November 1916, became its blood-sacrifice for the Union.

Lonely graves aplenty there were after the wrecking of the steam yacht ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm off Stornoway in the first minutes of New Year, 1919. 205 men, 188 of them from the Long Island, were drowned within sight of the town, often after years of hazardous service. Serial incompetence in handling an overcrowded, elderly ship, bad navigation, non-existent rescue services produce, in John MacLeod’s judicious and wide-ranging account, When I Heard the Bell: The Loss Of The ‘Iolaire’, a case of constructive homicide. Though such behaviour at General Staff level was standard practice in most Western front offensives. It showed how the imperial elite could mishandle even its most loyal servants, the naval reservists of the Hebrides. This catastrophe was explicit because the security blanket had ended with the war.

By such means, trauma could be smothered before it became awkward. As MacLeod points out in a book distinguished by range of reference, so great was the disruption surrounding the war’s end – the Spanish flu epidemic, the industrialising schemes of the soap magnate Lord Lev

erhulme, the end of the herring trade with Russia, and the onset of the depression in 1920 – that few people could reorient themselves sufficiently to offer solidarity to the families bereaved. John Buchan in his Mr Standfast, published in April 1919, noted the contribution of the Highlands to the war, but also their listlessness. Quite justifiable: the depression came and stayed, on an island once prosperous through remittances. My English master Hector MacIver, squiring Louis MacNeice round Lewis in 1938, was no more sanguine on a couple of decades Scotland could have done without:

The glass is falling hour by hour,
The glass will fall forever
But if you break the bloody glass
You won’t hold up the weather.

There is a lot of ruin in a nation or empire, even when such trauma isn’t delusive but exposes fundamental weaknesses in its war machine. This was evident in the long-drawn-out psychological tragedy of many of the participants in the Falklands campaign of 1982 and subsequent wars, and, of course, in the technical unsuitability of much of the hardware. The state-of-the-art destroyer HMS ‘Sheffield’, built in 1977, had its aluminium superstructure packed with plastic-covered wires. Hit by an Argentinean missile, this burned uncontrollably: as dangerous as a Dreadnought whose poorly-protected magazines, heavy armour and massive gun-turrets could drag it under in minutes.

We are these days repeating some of this history. Nearly 300 Lewismen, as many as drowned that Ne’er Day, left their sad island on the Canadian Pacific liner Metagama on 21 April 1923 for the New World. The son of one of the 24 accompanying women was the egregious Donald Trump (product, ironically, of a Scots-Ger-man marriage) who has come home to a scarcely friendlier coast with golf courses in mind, though whether his schemes will fare any better than those of Lord Lever-hulme rests with other blind economic forces, and New York billionaires are not this year what they were last year, as ‘quality tourists’ or as financiers.

And the capital ship is back, in the form of Gordon Brown’s giant aircraft carriers: the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales which will probably be the last big ships to be built in an increasingly deindustrialised UK. A form of weapon one would think, after the experience of the Falklands, peculiarly vulnerable to sophisticated missiles and determined terrorists. Suicide bombers and tacticians of the 9/11 sort have solved the problem of how to regroup after an attack, by writing off the human accounting. But hadn’t the Admirals and Generals of 1914-18 already done so?


When I Heard the Bell: The Loss Of The ‘Iolaire’
John MacLeod
BIRLINN, £ 16.99
pp272 ISBN 9781841587929

Last Dawn: The ‘Royal Oak’ Tragedy at Scapa Flow
David Turner
ARGYLL, £ 7.99
pp154, ISBN 1906134138

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories