Turbulent Scots: Wendy Wood, 1892-1981

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. First up is Wendy Wood, artist, campaigner, and committed nationalist.


Scottish nationalism gained traction throughout the twentieth century. Wendy Wood was an important figure in the Scottish independence movement for much of this time. Preferring direct action to political maneuvering, she was a controversial figure, even within the nationalist movement. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that she was a fearsome, dedicated campaigner.

Gwendoline Emily Meachum was born to Scottish parents in Kent on 29th October 1892. Her mother told her stories of William Wallace, but she did not grow up in Britain, let alone Scotland. The family moved to South Africa for her father’s work, and Wendy’s experience of the Boer War as a young child probably shaped her later politics; it was not uncommon for Scottish nationalists to compare themselves to the Boers.

Wendy went to school in England, discovering a passion for art. She studied in London, including at the Westminster School of Art. She was involved in politics from a young age, and was a supporter of the suffragettes. Aged just 19, Wendy married Walter Robertson Cuthbert in 1913 and moved to Ayr. The couple toured Scotland, and in her later years Wood talked about having an epiphany about the significance of nationalism at the Wallace Monument during this road trip.

Wendy had two daughters (Cora and Irralee) during the first World War. She also became increasingly active in nationalist politics, joining the Scottish League in 1916 and the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1918. In 1923 she got a job with BBC radio, and would go on to become a successful storyteller and illustrator of children’s books. In 1927 she divorced her husband and started to use her mother’s maiden name, Wood.

When the National Party of Scotland was founded in the 1928, Wood was an early supporter. The National Party would merge with the Scottish Party to become the Scottish National Party in 1934. Wood worked hard to promote the cause of nationalism; she became an effective public speaker, and toured Scotland speaking at public meetings. In 1957 alone she gave 73 speeches.

Wendy Wood leading a protest against schemes to encourage emigration in 1959 (Source: The Scotsman/TSPL).

Wood was a firm believer that cultural nationalism was just as important as political and economic nationalism. She founded Scottish Watch in 1931, a youth organisation the encouraged its members to learn about Scottish culture. For example, she organised mass Scottish country dances in Princes Street and Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh. At its height, Scottish Watch was more popular in Scotland than the Scouts.

Wood always preferred direct action to negotiation and compromise. In 1932 she led a group of nationalists into Stirling Castle to take down the union flag and replace it with a lion rampant. This was particularly embarrassing for the British soldiers stationed in the castle, and Wood was criticised by some members of the National Party of Scotland for taking such a symbolic step.

In 1947 Wood embarked on a fundraising and publicity trip around America, speaking to large crowds of expatriate Scots. She was also given an official position in the Scottish National Party. She didn’t like the restrictions of party politics, however, and left to form the Scottish Patriots in 1949, an organisation dedicated to cultural nationalism.

Wood was involved in several successful campaigns in the 1950s and 60s, including persuading the Church of Scotland to adopt a policy of home rule in 1961, pressuring the Post Office to issue Robert Burns stamps in 1966, and getting the Elizabeth II motif removed from post boxes (Scotland was never ruled by Elizabeth I). In 1972, she started a hunger strike when the British government failed to deliver on a promised referendum, and only stopped when she received a promise that the issue would be discussed in Parliament.

Wendy Wood speaking at a rally in Stirling in 1989 (Source: Scottish Political Archive).

Scottish nationalism was not the only cause Wood supported. She started an anti-conscription league in 1933, and was imprisoned for the first time for trying to disrupt a fascist rally in Edinburgh. She also went to prison in Glasgow to draw attention to the awful conditions faced by female prisoners. In the 1930s and 40s Wood supported Indian Independence and she sided with Iceland during the Cod Wars in the 1970s.

Wood continued to campaign into her 80s. She was uncompromising in her beliefs; for example, she had a union flag placed under the carpet on the stairs of her Edinburgh home so that she could tread on it every day. She was passionate about Scottish culture and folklore, and helped define Scottish nationalism over more than 50 years of fighting for Scottish independence. She died on 30th of June 1980.

Sources and Further Reading

Crow House Kitchen. “Scots Women of History. 2 – Wendy Wood.” Last modified 27th June 2014, accessed 23rd September 2020. Available at https://crowhousekitchen.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/scots-women-of-history-2-wendy-wood/

MacPherson, Hamish. “Wendy Wood: A Scottish Patriot to her Very Core.” The National. Last modified 21st April 2020, accessed 23rd September 2020. Available at https://www.thenational.scot/news/18392801.wendy-wood-scottish-patriot-core/

Pittock, Murray G. H. “Meacham [married name Cuthbert], Gwendoline Emily [pseud. Wendy Wood].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 18th September 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40380 [Subscription required to access].

Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs Memorial

Whenever I move to a new city I like to get to know its history, especially its radical history. So when I started reading up on Edinburgh, and found out it has a memorial to five political reformers, I knew it had to be one of the first places I visited when I arrived. The memorial is a familiar part of the skyline of central Edinburgh, but few know who it commemorates, or what they did to deserve such a tribute.

The Political Martyrs Memorial in the Old Calton Burial Ground, Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Political Martyrs Memorial is located in the Old Calton Burial Ground on Waterloo Place. Edinburgh’s graveyards are interesting and atmospheric places. The Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is probably the most famous for its connection to Greyfriar’s Bobby and JK Rowling, amongst others. It is a popular stop for Edinburgh’s numerous ghost tours. The Old Calton Burial Ground has several notable features too, however. As well as the Political Martyr’s Memorial there is also a grand memorial for Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the only memorial to soldiers of the American Civil War outside of America, so it’s worth a visit even if radical history isn’t your thing.

The memorials for philosopher David Hume and Scottish-Americans who fought in the American Civil War (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Unveiled in 1844, the Political Martyr’s Memorial is a 27 metre tall obelisk on a square base. The plan to erect a monument to the five martyr’s was the brainchild of David Hume, a Scottish doctor and MP. He chaired a London-based committee to raise the funds for the memorial. It was designed by Thomas Hamilton, who also designed the Burns Memorial on Calton Hill. The original plan was to site the memorial on Calton Hill itself, but the local council refused, so a plot was acquired in the burial ground instead. On the north face are inscribed the names of the men which the memorial is dedicated to: Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald.

The names of the five martyrs inscribed on the north face of the memorial (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Two quotes are inscribed on the west face of the obelisk. They are part of speeches given by two of the radicals during their trials. The first is from Thomas Muir, and reads:

I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.

30th August 1793.

The second quote is from William Skirving:

I know that what has been done these two days will be rejudged.

7th January 1794.
The two quotes inscribed on the west face of the memorial (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The 1790s were a politically turbulent time across Europe. Inspired by the French Revolution in 1789 and the publication of texts such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, reformers in many countries began to demand change, and Scotland was no exception. The men commemorated by the Political Martyr’s Memorial were just some of the reformers who fell victim to a wave of oppression that swept across Europe. Thomas Muir and William Skirving were the only two out of the five who were Scottish (the other three were English), but all five were arrested for sedition in Scotland. They were part of a movement that was demanding universal suffrage (for men) and annual elections. Contrary to the fate the name of the monument implies, however, the men were not executed for their ‘crimes’; they were sentenced to transportation to Australia. Margarot was the only one who ever made it back to Britain alive.

Hume also initiated plans for a similar (but smaller) memorial in London, which was erected in Nunhead Cemetery in 1852. Campaigns for political reform in Britain continued, on and off, well into the nineteenth century. Hume and the other members of the committee that funded and built the memorial wanted some heroes for the new generation of reformers to rally around. It takes political power and financial resources to build a memorial, so it is relatively unusual for radical people and events to be commemorated in this way (unless they later come to be seen as fighting for a good cause). Although wanting change, Hume was still part of the political establishment, so he would have been keen to tone down the more radical elements of the 1790s campaign. The Political Martyr’s Monument doesn’t mention any specific demands or actions, and the two quotes featured are quite moderate.

As an object, the Political Martyr’s Memorial is relatively nondescript. There are lots of monuments on Calton Hill, and if I’m honest most of the others are more interesting to look at. However, the story of its’ construction, and those of the men it commemorates, are interesting. I’m certainly glad I went to visit, even if only because it led me to these stories.

Sources and further reading

Bambery, Chris. A People’s History of Scotland (2nd edition). London: Verso, 2018.

Canmore. “Edinburgh, Waterloo Place, Old Calton Burial Ground, Martyrs’ Monument.” No date, accessed 9th September. Available at https://canmore.org.uk/site/117414/edinburgh-waterloo-place-old-calton-burial-ground-martyrs-monument

MacAskill, Kenny. “How Scotland’s Martyrs for Democracy were Written out of History.” The Scotsman. Last modified 27th February 2020, accessed 9th September 2020. Available at https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/how-scotlands-martyrs-democracy-were-written-out-history-kenny-macaskill-1995976

Wikipedia. “Political Martyr’s Monument.” Last modified 6th May 2020, accessed 9th September 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_Martyrs%27_Monument#:~:text=The%20Political%20Martyrs%20Monument%2C%20located,18th%20and%20early%2019th%20centuries.