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.
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.
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]
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.
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].
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 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.
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.
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 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.