Their Work Lives On

Last week I visited the amazing recreation of a World War 1 battlefield at Leckmelm near Ullapool. Built as part of a transition project for the Primary 7 pupils moving onto secondary education, the community assisted the local History teacher to create this very time limited display. Situated next to Loch Broom, British and German trenches at Arras had been authentically replicated and rows of crosses bearing the names of the men of Lochbroom who never returned home stood under the shadow of the towering mountains. Although just a tiny number of the 140000 Scottish soldiers who lost their lives in the war to end all wars, the poignancy of seeing the names of brothers, cousins and friends from this isolated but close knit community cannot be underestimated.

One outspoken critic of the war was John MacLean, immortalised in Freedom, Come All Ye, the Glasgow schoolteacher imprisoned in 1918 for sedition. Upon hearing the proclamation of war, it is reported that his first act was to graffiti anti war slogans. Perplexed by the situation where men with the same deep held beliefs but from opposing countries were sent to kill each other, his rallies and speeches were not welcomed by the establishment and led to him being no longer allowed to teach before the horrific times that awaited him in prison.

In 1913, (William) Henry Cowan, Liberal MP for Aberdeenshire East brought a Scottish Home Rule bill before Westminster. The Liberal Party were strongly in favour of Scotland determining her own future in those days and closely following the Irish struggle for independence, moves were made to afford Scotland the same albeit under different circumstances. In May 1914, the bill passed its second reading and if it had not been for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand four weeks later igniting the start of World War 1, Scotland might well have had a different story to tell over the last century. Shelved for the moment, the bill was never enacted and governance from Westminster continued. Although a laudable attempt at the creation of a Scottish Parliament, the matters to be reserved within the Government of Scotland Bill 1913 would still have caused issues as they do today – defence, foreign affairs and finance amongst others.

Many people questioned how this would affect England and place it at a disadvantage, the opposite argument of which we hear today namely that we need the support of the Union. However, it was also said that Scotland was too small to govern itself and England was the real strength behind the union; indeed, if Scotland did not drop this desire for self governance then moves could be made to stop Scots from having any say in the current UK government. England would need to subsidise Scotland and how could that be called self governance and if we had separate trade laws, then how could the two countries work together. There was even mention of soldiers atop Hadrian’s Wall – so far, so familiar! And always the word England when what was meant was the UK.

The SNP as we know it was formed in 1934 and the next strong push to achieve independence did not come until 1949 with the 2 million signatories of the Scottish Covenant. More than quarter of a century passed before the 1979 devolution referendum was called and history shows the injustice that thwarted this attempt like all others before it. The creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was the next development before the historic events of 2014 and thankfully it seems that we will not have to wait another 20 years before we get another chance, this time with the correct outcome.

More than 100 years on, some of the words spoken by Henry Cowan could, incredibly, have been written today. Apart from speaking of the scorn the Scottish press poured on the idea of independence, his pertinent and heartfelt belief resonates that “We have a right, with all our separate national characteristics to manage our own affairs in our own way.”

We should all also take a moment to reflect on another of his quotes that “Some of the leading spirits have passed away without seeing the promised land, but their work lives on“ and give thanks to all those who laid the path for us to tread.