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Fred Urquhart: Once upon a time he was a ‘white hope’ of Scottish literature.
by Tobias Kelly


November 10, 2018 | by Tobias Kelly

On a damp Edinburgh day in July 1940, Fred Urquhart stood before a tribunal on the Royal Mile. Just a few weeks previously, over 300,000 British and French troops had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, as the German military pushed onwards towards the Atlantic.

Since the start of the war, all British men aged between eighteen and forty-one had been liable to conscription. Yet, Urquhart, described by one critic as the foremost Scottish short story writer of the twentieth century, claimed exemption on the grounds of conscience. He was far from alone. Between 1939 and 1945, around six and a half thousand Scottish men and women made similar applications. They included socialists, anarchists and humanitarians, as well as large numbers of Christian pacifists, and many things in between. Alongside Urquhart, they also numbered the poets Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig, writer and painter Ruthven Todd, the novelist Robin Jenkins, and artists Alberto Morrocco, Edwin Lucas, and Sax Shaw. Although the conscientious objectors of the Second World War have now largely fallen from popular memory, we might wonder why so many significant Scottish cultural figures stood before a tribunal and refused to take up arms? The answers lie partly in a story of often ambiguous loyalties. But they can also be found in the relationship between the creative process and the struggles to make an intangible conscience persuasive to others.

A general amnesia about the conscien-tious objectors of the Second World War is largely due to a discomfort about refusing to fight fascism. If the conscientious objectors of the First World War are sometimes held up as principled opponents to the slaughter of the trenches, those that came over twenty years later produce a much more complex response. Refusing to fight the Nazis seems very different from refusing to fight on the Western Front. It is important to remember, though, that for much of the 1930s broadly pacifist attitudes were part of what Scottish historian Arthur Marwick called ‘middle opinion’. Indeed, there was a strong tradition of activism against war across most shades of the political spectrum. For young men and women growing up in the aftermath of the First World War, it was widely assumed that if another outbreak of violence came, it would be even more destructive than the last. In the late 1930s, Urquhart felt that any new war would be unwinnable, writing in his diary that ‘those who don’t get killed by bombs or gas will find when the war ends that they are slaves under absolute fascist dictatorship’. The possibility of gas attacks caused particular fear, and after the declaration of war Urquhart would wear a gas mask whenever he went into town. For Urquhart, the renewed violence was almost too much to bear, writing in his diary that twenty years after the ‘war to end all wars’, the world had gone mad again. It was the Somme, rather than Auschwitz that, initially at least, focused the mind.

Photos from just before the war show Urquhart’s angular face, a faint smile and slightly distant eyes. By the late 1930s, he was gaining critical success as a writer of stories on the quiet dramas of working-class Edinburgh life. Following the publication of his first novel, Time Will Knit, the New York Times Book Review, for example, described him as one of the ‘white hopes’ of Scottish literary life. The book was also one of the first Scottish novels to write openly and sympa-thetically about homosexuality. However, despite being well reviewed, he never quite earned enough from his prose to make ends meet and was never really an established part of the Edinburgh literary scene.

Urquhart’s father was a chauffeur for several wealthy Scottish families, living all over the Lowlands of Scotland, with Fred spending his school holidays with his grand-parents in the working-class parts of north Edinburgh. Urquhart left school at fifteen and worked in an Edinburgh bookshop, before falling out with the owner. Parents and son remained close throughout this time, and, when he could, he would send his mother money for what he called ‘gin and rent’. His politics were resolutely left wing and there were inevitable tensions with his conservative father, who accused him of being unpatriotic. The son responded that he had more in common with the German working class than Scottish landowners for whom his father often worked. Although Urquhart never appears to have joined the Communist Party, he was broadly sympathetic to its cause, and a close friend, a teacher called Mary Litchfield, was a Communist Party activist in Fife. On the eve of the war Litchfield’s house, where Urquhart often stayed, was raided by the police, who suspected her of harbouring ‘fifth columnists’. In the following days Urquhart ripped several pages out of his diary. It was not just party politics though that made him nervous. He was gay and sexually active, and the possibility of the police reading the diary at a time when homosexuality was illegal inevitably caused anxiety. We might speculate on what it does to a person’s enthusiasm to put their life on the line for a country that would send you to jail for the most intimate aspects of your personal life.

Before the outbreak of war, Urquhart worked as a civilian at the army and navy shop in Fort George on the shores of the Moray Firth. He apparently had to leave the base in a hurry though, after being caught with a soldier and threatened with prosecution. Even before this event, it does not seem to have been a happy time. The experience would seep into his written work, which often had anti-military themes. A 1937 short story appearing in Left Review, ends with the lines ‘I eat, sleep and drill. I’m a soldier – but am I a man?’. Another story, ‘To-Morrow will be Beautiful’, tells of a young girl’s visit to an Edinburgh barracks, where she describes soldiers as ‘a man who was little better than a machine’.

The declaration of war and the introduction of conscription brought Fred Urquhart’s antipathy to war to a head. By early 1940, he was supplementing his income by working as a gardener in Cupar, living with Mary Litchfield. An increasing number of his friends were joining up and Urquhart’s publisher wrote urging him to put on a uniform as soon as possible. Even Litchfield tried to persuade him that he should join the army, arguing that defeating fascism was more important than anti-militarism, causing considerable strain in the relationship. Urquhart though was determined not to join the armed forces. He was in two minds whether to apply for a desk job or to register as a conscientious objector, telling his publisher that he did not think that his talents lay in ‘staggering beneath the combined onslaught of a heavy pack and the sarcasms of some bone-headed sergeant’, but also worrying whether he had the ‘courage’ to stand before a tribunal.
He asked some friends to find him a job in the Ministries of Propaganda or Food, but to no avail.

For Urquhart, artists had a very particu-lar role in war, writing in his diary that ‘in a war like this it is imperative that people like me should be kept inviolable. We are part of a civilisation that must be saved.’ He was also deeply concerned that military life would destroy whatever talent he had, noting that ‘a writer, to be a good writer, must suffer, but I don’t see why one should suffer needlessly… (the army) would kill everything creative in me’. He was far from alone in feeling this way. The composer Benjamin Britten, for example, had gone into a semi-exile in the US with the outbreak of war, asking his publisher ‘where would English music be today if those men who happened to survive the last war had shared the fate of their less fortunate colleagues?’. Eventually returning to England, Britten told the tribunal that his life was devoted to creation and he therefore could not take part in acts of destruction. For Britten, he could best help his fellow humans by writing music. The tribunal granted an exemption, telling Britten to write for the BBC. Unknowingly, in Edinburgh, Urquhart hoped for similar treatment.

‘I eat, sleep and drill. I’m a soldier – but am I a man?’

Fred Urquhart’s conscience – often fraught and divided – was typical in many ways. Indeed, there is a broader sense in which conscience only comes into view when it is troubled. A clear conscience can seem unremarkable and therefore unremarked, and all too often the only conscience we know is a guilty one. The diaries and letters of other conscientious objectors are full of concerns about what friends, families and neighbours might say. There is also often careful consideration of what military service could mean for professional and personal life, and whether fascism was a greater threat than war. Many conscientious objectors were also deeply concerned with whether fear was driving their actions rather than conviction and principle. Urquhart was not entirely comfortable with his own position, and when a young boy asked him why he was not in uniform, much to his later disappointment, he replied that he was medically unfit. For the people who claimed exemption from fighting on the grounds of conscience, their convictions were often uncertain, not least to themselves. Many conscientious objectors changed their minds, and as the war went on, the voice of conscience was just as likely to tell people to fight fascism as it was to urge for peace. Edwin Morgan, for example, was initially determined not have anything to do with the military, but on appearing before the tribunal, and with most of his friends already signed up, agreed to serve in a military medical unit. Either way, more often than not, conscience was uncomfortable and anxious.

After much doubt, Urquhart appeared at the Edinburgh sheriff court. The hours of waiting in a crowded and smoky room seem to have taken their toll, and on noticing the reporters and members of the public in the court, he became flustered and inarticulate. He would later write that the tribunal seemed to be posing questions designed to trip up, and he eventually decided to answer only yes and no, in case he stuttered. When able to speak, he argued that he had shown his pacifism throughout his published work and considered war ‘the greatest of all evils’. The tribunal asked whether he was willing to do anything for his country, and to his later regret Urquhart said no, almost immediately realizing that he would have said he would help his country by continuing to be a writer. The chair of the tribunal responded that Urquhart’s answers made them question his honesty, and after barely ten minutes, the case was dismissed.

Urquhart appealed his tribunal decision. This time he was fortunate to be represented by a young advocate, Labour party activist and fellow conscientious objector called Gordon Stott. Twenty-five years later Stott would be appointed Lord Advocate for Scotland, becoming the most senior legal figure in the country. On Stott’s advice, Urquhart barely spoke at his appeal, and did not mention his Communist sympathies, but took a friend along to provide evidence of his ‘humanitarian’ objections to war. The appeal tribunal, led by the aristocrat Lord Elphinstone, granted Urquhart exemp-tion on the condition that he carried out agricultural work. The vast majority of conscientious objectors were treated in this way. Although some were sent to prison after rejecting all compulsion, the local notables sitting on the tribunals seemed happy not to force them to fight, so long as they were willing to do something for the collective good. Many, like Urquhart, went into agricultural work, whereas Robin Jenkins spent the war looking after trees on the west coast of Scotland. Others worked in hospitals or did ambulance work, often near the front lines. A sizable minority joined the armed forced in the non-combatant roles. Edwin Morgan, for example, worked as part of 42nd General Hospital, leaving Peebles in 1941 to spend the rest of the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.

It was not entirely straightforward though for Urquhart to find agricultural work, as several farmers turned him down. One wrote back telling him that a lamppost was the best place for his kind of conscience and that he should go to Germany. Even-tually he found work on a dairy and potato farm in Kincardineshire owned by John ‘Red’ Mackie. Mackie would later become a Labour MP and junior Minister in Harold Wilson’s government, and his younger brother was a future Liberal MP for Caithness and Sutherland. These days the family are probably best known for their crisps and ice cream. Urquhart was initially set to work helping to bring in the potatoes. This was cold, tiring, and badly paid, and he complained that he was not being given enough food. There were Polish officers lodged near the farm, and he notes in his diary that he thought many of them were fascist sympathisers. He continued to write throughout this time and was relieved when he was transferred to clerical duties at the farm, keeping track of the milk yields. However, he got into trouble with the Ministry of Labour, who had a much more traditional understanding of what counted as agricultural work. The biggest source of tension though was Mackie’s wife, Jeannie. Urquhart, who by now had unrequitedly fallen in love with his employer, became convinced that Jeannie was trying to starve the farm workers and mistreat her husband. By late 1944 this all became too much, and he becan to look for work on an English farm. Urquhart would not return to live in Scotland for nearly fifty years.

Scotland in the mid-twentieth century, as with many other times and places, was marked by complex loyalties, and conscien-tious objectors made their arguments in the middle of all this. A small minority of nationalists refused to fight on the grounds that the British state had no right to raise an army in Scotland. Douglas Young, for example, the wartime leader of the SNP, was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, splitting his party. Although sometimes described as a conscientious objector, technically he was no such thing, denying the right of the British crown not only to conscription, but also to judge his conscience. Young and the relatively small number of nationalists who refused to fight stand out as an anomaly though, as many conscientious objectors also saw themselves as loyal, perhaps even exemplary citizens, whose convictions were part of a longer tradition of moral seriousness and individual freedom. Yet even for those who did take up arms, they rarely did so just for God, King and Country, but also for family, friends, comrades and loved ones. These loyalties were often overlapping, contradictory and ambiguous. Conscientious objectors were not just men and women of high principle, although they were that too. They were also sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, colleagues and comrades. Litchfield urged her friend to join up in the name of class solidarity, rather than national loyalty. Edwin Morgan took up non-combatant duties after his best friend was enlisted. Urquhart’s convictions and uncertainties about what to do in a time of war were filtered through concerns
about his relationships with friends like Litchfield, his parents, lovers, class and own artistic endeavour.

The war had brought questions of obligation to the fore, but not always in ways that we would assume. The blitz and rationing might have created a culture of mutual self-sacrifice, but this was not always warmly or easily embraced, as some people were clearly more willing to sacrifice than others. Urquhart’s own fiction sought to show this ambivalence. In his novel Jezebel’s Dust, a woman complains about Churchill’s claim that he had nothing to offer, but blood sweat and toil, saying that she liked her comforts as she eats a plate of meringues. Fighting or not fighting, taking up arms or refusing to do so, rarely broke down into a simple distinction between the loyal and disloyal, those supporting the war effort and not, or the conscientious and the cowardly, but operated in the space in between. Those people who eventually registered as conscientious objectors were probably only a very small minority of all those who were reluctant to fight, and many of them, like Urquhart, would have considered other options before doing so. Behind the story of a nation united in sacrifice, only a tiny minority of people would actually end up firing a gun in anger. As in any war, the majority of military jobs did not involve direct fighting, but were in logistics, planning, medical care, or engineering, for example. There were also reserved occupations, which at various times included miners, farm workers, accountants, tailors, and dentists, amongst others. It was also possible to gain exemption on medical grounds. In this situation, where people like Benjamin Britten were supported by the BBC and the classical music elite in London, working-class shop workers like Fred Urquhart were in a less privileged position, lacking the knowledge and social connections that might help them find alternative employment.

Behind the story of a nation united in sacrifice, only a tiny minority of people would actually end up firing a gun in anger.

In the midst of wider ambivalences about the turn to arms, the thing that most marked out the people who stood before the tribunal was a need to make their conscience public. If conscience was deeply personal and intimate, it was often also hidden. Standing before a tribunal therefore required making it tangible and visible to others. Providing evidence of conscience was difficult though and Urquhart had stumbled over his words whilst trying to do. One way of proving the sincerity of conscience, to both yourself and others, was by going to jail. Norman MacCaig, working as a teacher at the outbreak of war, was sent to Edinburgh Castle, before serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, and eventually being allowed to work as a gardener back in Edinburgh. Hard work was by far the most common way of proving convictions. Many conscientious objectors were more than willing to work for others, so long as it did not involve shooting a gun. This is how Robin Jenkins ended up heaving logs, Edwin Morgan patching up the wounded, and Fred Urquhart picking potatoes.

But alongside incarceration and labour, we might also see art as a way in which people tried to work through their conscience and give it a physical form. Urquhart had essentially claimed as much when he appeared before the tribunal, arguing that his written work was proof of sincere and genuine objection to war. By no means all writers and artists sought to put a troubled conscience about war at the centre of their work. More often than not the tensions of conscience flit in and out. Norman MacCaig’s refusal, for example, was deeply personal and individual, perhaps best summed up in an undated poem Patriotism: ‘My only country, is six feet high, and whether I love it or not, I’ll die for its independence’. In another poem he wrote ‘My profound ideas were once toys on the floor, I love them, I’ve licked most of the paint off.’ If he is not talking of conscience, it is hard to know what he might mean. As a teenager contemplating war in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan filled his scrap books with images of destruction. One page contains the words, cut out of newspaper print: ‘war, a highly practicable experiment. You are free to choose any butcher you like.’ In the first half of 1940, he would copy out the lines ‘When the light finally broke behind my eyes I was made blind to the appearances of the world…’. Elsewhere conscientious objectors are an enigmatic presence in the background of Robin Jenkins’ most famous work, The Cone Gatherers, but they are right to the fore though in his later novel, A Would-Be Saint, where the central character is a young man grappling with how to live at peace in a society mobilized for war.

Even if conscience never explicitly raises its head though, there are clear parallels between a creative process that tries to give form to the otherwise intangible, on the one hand, and the attempt to give conscience a concrete presence, on the other. Poems, music and brush strokes make the unseen or unsayable, seen or heard. And conscientious objectors tried to turn their otherwise private convictions into something that could be judged by others, to give public form to the deeply personal beliefs. Both processes involve the attempt to make the invisible visible, the inchoate choate, and both processes are shot through with uncertainty, hesitation and the possibility of misunderstanding. Although we might not always agree with the answers they came to, as people like Urquhart, Morgan and MacCaig grappled with their obligations to themselves and others, they left us a rich cultural legacy.

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