It often feels like events like Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have forced climate change down the political priority list. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes for Climate have lost momentum, and they are not getting the same kind of press coverage as they were in 2019. Nevertheless, climate change continues to be an urgent issue, and it keeps cropping up in Edinburgh’s protest stickers, alongside other environmental issues. With the next UN Conference on Climate Change being held in Glasgow in November 2021, Scotland might see an increase in environmental activism.
Cramond Island sits about a mile off the coast on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Island can be reached on foot via a concrete causeway at low tide, and it is a popular spot for Edinburgers to visit. There is a long history of human use of the Island, but the most prominent human-made features date from the Second World War. The Island was part of a string of defenses designed to protect the Firth of Forth, and many of the concrete structures used to house searchlights, guns, stores, and generators remain. This uninhabited coastal environment is not the kind of place that you would expect to find graffiti, but it seems the smooth grey concrete is an irresistible canvas, with tags ranging from basic scrawls to elaborate designs covering every available surface. I was even more surprised to discover that quite a lot of the graffiti is political, turning this little island into a radical outpost.
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’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.
Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.
Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.
Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.
1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.
By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.
During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.
During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.
The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.
Sources and Further Reading
Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].
Couzin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Saltaire Society Scotland. No date, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/awards/outstanding-women/2015-nominees/helen-crawfurd/
Simkin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/CRIcrawfordH.htm
Todd, Amy. “Women and Peace: Helen Crawfurd.” On History. Last modified 6th May 2019, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://blog.history.ac.uk/2019/05/women-and-peace-helen-crawfurd/
Protest stickers tend to reflect the issues that people care about. It should come as no surprise then that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a popular topic of stickers over the last 12 months. I have written about coronavirus protest stickers in Brighton, where I spent the first lockdown, but since I moved to Edinburgh I have found a whole new set of stickers, which have evolved as the pandemic has. From criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, workers rights, and complaints from the city’s student population, through to questioning the efficacy of lockdowns and masks and even rejecting the existence of Covid-19, the stickers I have found over the last few months represent a range of conflicting views.
Towards the Leith end of Leith Walk is a long red sandstone building. 106-154 Leith Walk is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between developers who want to demolish the building to build student housing and the grassroots campaign group Save Leith Walk. In January 2019 planning permission for the new development was denied, a significant victory for the community group. New plans have been submitted that propose to keep the building intact and reopen it as commercial spaces, but in the meantime the shop fronts remain boarded up. The dark gray wooden boards have come to serve a purpose of their own however, as a sort of community pin board. Slogans, street art, and other miscellanea appears, disappears, and reappears often. One of the most recent installations is called False Idols, by Creative Electric.
The death of actor Sean Connery on the 31st October 2020 sparked a predictable outpouring of grief and admiration, particularly in his home city of Edinburgh. Not everyone mourned his loss, however. It was well known that Connery physically abused women. On several occasions he explained how he felt entitled to hit women who ‘deserved’ it, and his first wife Diane Cliento accused him of sustained physical and mental abuse during their marriage. Many people, myself included, didn’t know about this until after Connery’s death, and False Idols questions how such a man could be celebrated as a national hero.
False Idols is described as a community art project, and in some ways it is the literal embodiment of this term. It is made up of comments posted on the I Love Leith Facebook group in the wake of Connery’s death. It must have been installed quickly, because it was destroyed on the 4th of November, just four days after Connery died. It was replaced on the 13th of November, and I took these photos two weeks later, on the 22nd. It was still largely intact when I passed by again on the 29th. You can never be sure how long street art is going to last, and the more controversial something is, the more likely it is to upset someone enough that they will try to obscure or destroy it. This is part of what makes political street art so special; it gives people an opportunity to express their opinion in public space, a privilege normally reserved for those who are rich or famous enough to attract media coverage or buy advertising.
It is generally accepted that people say things on social media that they wouldn’t be willing to say in ‘real life’. So it is interesting to see the language of social media transposed onto the public space of Leith Walk. The comments have been anonymised, but I wonder how the commenters would react if they suddenly saw their own words as they walked past. Would they regret their choice of words, or their tone? Or would they stand by them? Would they be upset, angry, or proud that their opinions have been plastered onto the physical fabric of Leith? Would they even recognise their own words in this strange context?
Both political street art and social media provide ‘ordinary’ people with a platform to express their opinions. False Idols brings these two platforms together, with thought-provoking results.
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. Last time I looked at Wendy Wood, artist and campaigner. This time it is the turn of Margo MacDonald, a charismatic politician and broadcaster.
The movement for independence in Scotland has been building momentum since the mid-twentieth century, and has made some significant gains over the last 50 years. Central to those gains have been the efforts of some charismatic and driven women, including Wendy Wood, who was the first Turbulent Scot I featured on this blog, and Margo MacDonald, the focus of this post. Like Wendy, Margo was passionate and likeable, although both women struggled with the constraints of membership in a political party.
Margo Aitken was born on the 19th of April 1943, one of 3 children. She grew up in East Kilbride, and trained as a PE teacher when she left school. In 1965 she married her first husband Peter MacDonald, they had 2 children. The couple ran a pub, and Margo’s experiences talking to customers and getting to know the regulars seems to have been influential on her later political beliefs.
Margo embarked on a political career in the early 1970s, winning the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973 as an SNP candidate. She won by 571 votes. This was a remarkable achievement; the SNP wasn’t considered a serious political force at that point, and it was widely believed that they couldn’t win an election under a Conservative government. Margo proved all the doubters wrong. She wasn’t an MP for long though, as she lost her seat in the 1974 General Election. She lost further elections in 1978 and 1979, but her 1973 victory helped establish the SNP as a serious political force.
In 1974 Margo became Deputy Leader of the SNP. She was critical of the Party’s poor performance in the General Election that year, particularly the failure to convert more Labour voters. She was a prominent member of the 79 Group, which tried to persuade the SNP to move further left to appeal to the working classes. The Group was banned by the SNP in 1982, and many of its members left the Party. However, they were later readmitted to the party and several had successful careers, including Margo and Alex Salmond.
Margo’s membership of the 79 Group meant that she wasn’t re-elected as Deputy Leader of the SNP in 1979, and she was one of those who left the Party in 1982. She established herself as a successful radio presenter, and wrote for several Scottish newspapers. She remarried in 1981, to politician and columnist Jim Sillars. As devolution became more likely in the mid-1990s, Margo rejoined the SNP as she believed it was the only way to achieve Scottish independence. She was elected as an MSP for Lothian in 1999. Margo was popular, but was outspoken on lots of contentious issues such as sex worker’s rights and MSP’s salaries. She struggled with the restrictions of being part of a political party, and was disciplined in 2000 for not toeing the party line.
When the SNP chose its candidates for the Scottish elections in 2003, Margo was 5th on the list, almost guaranteeing that she would not get re-elected. She stood as an independent candidate in protest, and was kicked out of the SNP. Margo had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996; in the run up to the 2003 election this became public knowledge. Margo believed someone in the SNP had leaked the information in an attempt to hamper her chances of getting re-elected, which they denied. However her diagnosis got out, it didn’t prevent her getting elected. She went on to be reelected as an independent candidate in 2007 and 2011. Margo used her platform to continue to fight for what she believed in. She became a fierce advocate for assisted suicide; this was a particularly personal issue because of her illness.
Throughout her career, Margo was suspicious that the British Security Services were interfering in Scottish politics. She believed that MI5 infiltrated the SNP in the 1970s, and in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum she asked the Security Services to guarantee that they would not interfere. Throughout her career she supported the causes that mattered to her; she once joined an Anti-Trident protest outside the Scottish Parliament, and she campaigned to ban vuvuzelas in Scottish football grounds.
Known as firebrand and rebel, Margo remained a popular and well-known politician until her death on the 4th of April 2014. She was respected, if not always liked, by allies and opponents alike. Although she never had a smooth relationship with the SNP, she helped to establish the party as a serious political actor. I’m sure that many Scots remember her fondly.
Sources and Further Reading
Black, Andrew. “Margo MacDonald: The Life and Times of a Political ‘Blonde Bombshell.” BBC News. Last modified 4th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26854930
Gander, Kashmira. “Margo MacDonald Dies: Tributes Pour in for ‘Britghtest Light’ Veteran Scottish Politician. The Independent. Last modified 5th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/margo-macdonald-dies-tributes-pour-veteran-scottish-politician-9239694.html
Mitchell, James. “Margo MacDonald, Independent Scot, 1943-2014.” The Conversation. Last modified 4th April 2014, accessed 6th November 2020. Available at https://theconversation.com/margo-macdonald-independent-scot-1943-2014-25299
Torrance, David. “Margo MacDonald.” The Glasgow Herald. Last modified 5th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13154083.margo-macdonald/
Torrance, David. “MacDonald [nee Aitken], Margo Symington Jack.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 15th February 2018, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.108517 [Subscription required to access]
Wikipedia, “Margo MacDonald.” Last modified 21st September 2020, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margo_MacDonald
Last weekend I was out on the Royal Mile preparing for a Geographies of Protest walking tour for the third year students. It just so happened that I witnessed a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion whilst I was out and about. The protest was in two parts: the first was an animal die-in in West Parliament Square, and the second was a march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. It is always interesting to witness a protest first hand, and this was no exception.
Founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has experienced a renaissance since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. From protests to art, the resurgence of BLM over the Summer of 2020 has been dramatic. Racism has been a topic of protest stickers for as long as I have been studying them, but the recent BLM revival has resulted in a corresponding surge in stickers that use the language and symbolism of BLM. Since my recent move to Edinburgh, I have found a lot of protest stickers on a whole range of topics, but racism and BLM have been some of the most common.
On the first day that I arrived in Edinburgh in August I went for a walk up the Royal Mile. As I walked towards the castle, my eye was caught by a set of pictures and yellow ribbons attached to the railings of the Tolbooth Kirk. On further investigation, it turned out to be an installation of photos called ‘I can’t breathe’ by British born Nigerian photographer Jamal Yussuff-Adelakun. The ribbons are expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Scotland.
The installation at Tolbooth Kirk is just one part of the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, a series of artworks in towns and cities across Scotland led by creative producer Wezi Mhura. Scottish Black and Asian artists have created new artworks in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The formats range from stereotypical street art murals, to less conventional photography and digital artworks. The project is “a call out to the people of Scotland to challenge racism wherever you see it – in the streets, in institutions, at work and at school.” As I have continued to explore Edinburgh over the last few months, I have come across more examples from the mural trail (of course I could just look them up on the map, but I think it’s more fun to stumble across them!)
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013, but the movement has experienced a resurgence since the death of George Floyd in May 2020. I am interested in the ways that protest movements make their mark on public spaces, and I have recently written about the traces that BLM protests left on the streets of Brighton, my home city. The BLM mural trail is more formal than the traces I found in Brighton, but it has a similar effect; it brings the debate into public space, and reaches out to those who might not otherwise have become involved in the conversation.
There seems to be a perception amongst many Scots that racism isn’t really a problem here. Interventions such as the mural trail help to undermine this narrative, and draw attention to the very real examples of racism in Scotland, as well as how broader systematic discrimination affects ethnic minorities here. The first step to achieving change is to start a conversation, and the BLM Mural Trail is an innovative and effective way to do this.
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.
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.
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].