Yes Heroes: R.E. Muirhead

The first in a series perpetuating the memory of prominent and forgotten members of the Yes movement for independence.

As is my want, I was having a wee trawl through the internet recently looking for an obscure reference to Norway and the background to their Unions with both Denmark and subsequently Sweden, prior to their Independence in 1906, when I happened upon the following letter in the then Glasgow Herald from October 1930.

Click to view the full letter

As I read the letter, I was struck, as no doubt you will be, at how fantastic a job the Unionists have done in staving off any concessions to Scotland in the intervening 82 years since R.E. Muirhead penned his epistle. The problems of disproportionate land ownership and mass unemployment continue to blight our country. Our letters pages and online forums echo with the same calls for the right to self-determination over our own affairs. Whilst the Unionist credo of ‘waiting for something to turn up’ still remains the same. ‘Don’t vote Independence, honest, Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister in 2015 and all will we be well…’

Intrigued by the mysterious R.E. Muirhead off I tootled in the faint hope of finding more about him and his succinct letter writing style.

It didn’t take me long. R.E. stands for Roland Eugene. Born in 1868 in Lochwinnoch. Roland, as he was known was fervent about politics and philosophy. When the Russian “nihilist,” Prince Peter Kropotkin, held a meeting in Glasgow, about 1895, it was the 17 year old Roland and his older brother Robert Muirhead who instigated and organised the visit. Robert took on the role of chairman for the meeting. The meeting attendees read like a roll call of the Scottish political intellectual elite. By the age of twenty Roland was a friend, associate and supporter of Keir Hardie in the Scottish Labour Party of 1888 and subsequently the Independent Labour Party of 1893.

As a keen historian and someone who’s been interested in Scotland’s Independence from the age of 11, (a school pal’s loyalist dad was an aspirant middle class Tory and exemplified everything I’ve come to loathe about servile colonial Unionism), I was surprised at my lack of recognition, that Mr Muirhead wasn’t a name that jumped out at me as belonging to the pantheon of crusty old McDiarmid types who’d maintained the Independence movement through the 20th century.

Roland, was one of a small group which formed the Young Scots League around 1900. As a devout pacifist, he left the Young Scots’ in 1914 in protest at their endorsement of the Great War. Disenchanted with the lack of progress towards Scottish Home Rule, he became one of the one the main proponents of the revival of the Scottish Home Rule Association. He and his young protégé Tom Johnston, later Churchill’s Secretary of State for Scotland and father of the modern Scottish Office, were among those who set up the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1917. Roland was its first secretary. Its efforts produced several home rule Bills. The Bill of 1924 fell with the Ramsay Macdonald Government and the 1927 Bill, giving Scotland dominion status (this was the year the Statute of Westminster set up the Commonwealth), was talked out by a… *drumroll… Unionist.

It’s Tom Johnson, who gives an affectionate insight into Roland’s younger years. He wrote of him in his biography ‘Memories’ (1951):

”Almost as far back as spans the memory of living man Roland Muirhead has been a notable standard-bearer for self-government in Scotland . . .

”Half a century ago he packed his bag and walked out of the family tannery business in Renfrewshire to live the free life, first in an Owenite colony in the State of Washington (USA) and then in a non-violent anarchist colony in the same state.

”I never rightly got the hang of what happened during his brief sojourn in these oases in the wicked world, but he was soon back in London organising a co-operative tannery, and shortly thereafter he was engaged managing the old family business in Renfrewshire, which – lest you think he is simply a starry-eyed dreamer! — he has managed for years and still does with conspicuous success.”

The SHRA’s activities were part of the pattern of agitation which led to the formation first of the National Party of Scotland in 1928 and then of the Scottish National Party in 1934. The decade that followed of mass unemployment, migration, economic depression and Westminster’s continued failure to do anything other than leech off Scotland’s labour saw him leave the SHRA to join the fledgling National Party of Scotland as Secretary.

In 1926 he founded the Scottish Secretariat. This was created to coordinate the collection and dissemination of information on Scottish issues, and to act as a body which was not tainted by murky political party associations. It also increased the chances of having articles accepted in Scottish newspapers, as many editors automatically rejected anything which arrived on party stationary. Similar today, in that the best chance SNP politicians have of getting a story in their local papers is to don a non-political disguise and communicate with the readership via their letters page.

‘The Scot’s Independent’ paper, that we all know and love, particularly when pressed into a corner by a fevered vendor, sporting excessive nasal hair and smelling ever so slightly of damp tweed and fading Hai Karate, was also bankrolled by Muirhead. Independently wealthy, he owned Gryfe Tannery in Bridge of Weir, that Johnson speaks about. According to Dr Robert MacCormick, Roland was not averse to dipping his hand into his pockets on many an occasion to keep the Independence movement from sinking.

His role as a businessman was unusual in Scotland, in that he maintained his socialist principles in a capitalist, exploitative commercial world and introduced worker sharing in the ownership and management of Gryfe Tannery at a time when workers were seen as the rather manky tools of production, that one wouldn’t have round for Sunday tea. He also introduced the then revolutionary 40 hour working week into the tannery.

By April of 1934, amid much splitting and schisms, the likes of which had been unseen in politics since the heyday of the Peoples Popular Front of Judea, calm was restored with the joining together of the Scottish Party and the Scottish National Party. Roland, ever the Zelig of Independence politics was elected as Honourary President of the party in 1936. A poll in the Scottish Daily Express that year bore a striking similarity to the online polls we occasionally see in the Hootsman, it reported an overwhelming 113,000 respondents in favour of some form of home rule, versus a mere 5,000 who opposed any change whatsoever, oddly enough in these pre-digital days, the result of the poll was published…

In May 1941, Muirhead found himself caught up in one of the finest examples of dirty tricks propaganda perpetrated by the British state. Students of Scottish Independence history gulp, gyre and rage at accusations from some of our mouth breathing opponents who delight in wailing that members of the SNP were intent on assisting the Nazis invade Britain in the vainglorious hope of helping set up a Tartan Vichy style government. We are reliably informed by the state, that following raids on the homes of Muirhead; Arthur Donaldson, Douglas Young and Muriel Gibson, “subversive literature and a large cache of weapons” were removed.

The accused were huckled off to the Gitmo of the day, Bar-L and detained for the kind of strident questioning, that sees waterboarding as no more harmful than a vigorous spa. The MI5 mastermind behind the raid was Richard Brooman-White, the future Tory MP for Rutherglen and Scotland office minister.

Brooman-White claimed that an anonymous, never-to-be-named informant told him that Muirhead, Donaldson and company were intent on welcoming the Nazis to Scotland and setting up a Quisling style puppet government. Brooman-White was a Lieutenant in the MI5 section which dealt with the mysterious sounding ‘Celtic Movements’. This department came under the supervision of senior spymaster Guy Liddell. Liddell was the man who was passed over as head of MI5 after sources named him as the mysterious fifth man of the Philby, Burgess, Blunt, McLean Soviet spy ring gang. Liddell wrote of the reason behind investigating the SNP members in his diaries as follows:

“We have formed a new section under Dick Brooman-White to deal with the Celtic movements. The Germans had obviously done a good deal of work in the Breton movement and it may be that to some degree they have done the same work here.”

The Breton movement Liddell speaks of were the ‘Bezen Kadoudal’, they were a desperate gang of artists, poets and priests, whose main claim to infamy, until the execution of Breton priest and Breton language activist Yann Vari Perrot by the French communist resistance, was the destruction of a statue of a Breton oppressor in Rennes.

Donaldson was held in Barlinnie for six weeks of questioning until he was released…without charge.

If you step back and look at the setting of this time-line, it’s obvious that events conspired to make both the gullible and the malevolent believe there was a hot bed of Tartan fascists desperate to enslave Scotland under the Nazi yoke. Add in to this potent mix, the arrival of the ever so  slightly unhinged Rudolf Hess, who crash landed his Messerschmitt  on the moors above Eaglesham, a mere ten miles as the crow flies from Donaldson’s Lugton home and a similar distance from Muirhead’s Lochwinnoch mansion house, and the news that 1,500 people had died in Luftwaffe raids on London on the very same night and you can see how the embers of propaganda are easily fanned into a roaring and insatiable fire.

The reality is somewhat different and the best tongue – in cheek account can be found in this passage from the memoirs of the man Winston Churchill labelled as the ‘King of Scotland’, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston MP.

“At the time, somebody took it upon himself to hint to the police that Roland might be a sympathiser with Hitler, or at any rate anti-English, to warrant a raid upon his house. A raid duly took place and after some locks had been forced there was borne off in triumph a sporting rifle of the last century vintage which had belonged to an uncle or brother… plus a few rounds of revolver ammunition, but no revolver. Fortunately, there existed at the time in the offices of the Crown Prosecutor and the Lord Advocate a sense of humour, and the engines of war referred to were hurriedly ordered to be returned, so that Roland Muirhead was deprived of a martyr’s crown… But he complains that he has never yet been compensated for the damage to his locks.”

Contrast that anecdote from Muirhead’s old friend and fellow socialist, with the papers released by MI5 in 1994 after Arthur Donaldson’s death, and our brave Scottish press which regurgitated the unsubstantiated reports as if they were cast in stone and continued to perpetuate the myth of ‘subversive literature and a large cache of weapons’. The literature referred to was from the Scottish Neutrality League and comprised of posters protesting against the conscription of Scottish women taken down south to work in factories in England.

The escapade was further described in Guy Liddel’s published diaries as follows:

“Arthur Donaldson, the dissident Scottish Nationalist, has been arrested and two others called Hope Campbell and Haig. Campbell was a deserter evading conscription. Haig, who is associated with McGibbon, was found to be in possession of firearms, two or three rifles, a few revolvers and some ammunition. The prosecution was undertaken on the instigation of the Lord Advocate.”

Arthur and Violet Donaldson…’dissidents’.

It could also be construed, that Johnson wasn’t averse to playing a bit of politics to strengthen his hand in Scotland. He managed to wring increased administrative devolution to Scotland from Churchill, by using the argument of ‘a Sinn Fein movement coming up’.

Scotland was in a state of unrest at the time, these jolly, ‘spirit of the blitz’ films were propaganda, there were a 65 recorded disputes in the Scottish coalfield in the first three months of 1941 alone. An inspector of mines reported ‘a profound spirit of indifference’ among most workers. Johnston was so concerned that he launched a pithead propaganda campaign warning of the evils of Nazism. The miners’ conduct was said to be deeply resented by soldiers and their families. It wasn’t just the lads who kept the home fires burning who were discontent there were strikes in the aviation works at Dumbarton. The Clyde shipyards were paralysed by an apprentices’ strike. A home intelligence report said tales of slackness and production defects were ‘common’. So against this background, it’s possible that an ambitious Johnson played the home grown terrorist card. Something that still resonates with contemporary independence supporters who are still tainted with the ‘dissident’ brush as a direct result of the internal machinations and power games played out between two Westminster behemoths.

A murky period in modern Scottish history thus passed, so besmirched was the ‘dissident Arthur Donaldson, that within a few years he was a leading light in the SNP and became its first successful party leader in 1960. Which finally resulted in the Hamilton win in 1967.

Poor old Roland denied the mantle of martyrdom, that Tom Johnson had him pegged for, instead spent the post war years continuing to bankroll the Independence movement and agitating at the ‘Devo Max’ contortions of John MacCormick, which finally resulted in McCormick leaving the party and setting up the Scottish Covenant Association, which managed to garner two million signatures demanding the convocation of an Scottish Assembly.

Muirhead, ever the agitator, celebrated his 82nd birthday in 1952 by setting up the Scottish National Congress, with its Gandhi-esque programme of passive resistance — or “nonviolent non-co-operation with English domination”.

These pesky coves indulged in rascally things like welcoming the 250th anniversary of the ‘Treaty of Union’ by burning copies of  said proclamation in 1957, much like many of their countrymen had done in 1707, but which strangely, few emulated in 2007.

Roland, the co-founder of the SNP died in 1964 and was buried in Lochwinnoch. After the cremation service, Douglas Young used Jimmie Maxton’s words to describe Roland as the “greatest patriot Renfrewshire has produced since William Wallace.” A committee of the good and great was set up to perpetuate his memory. They didn’t do terribly good job of it.

R.E. Muirhead I salute you.

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About Mark MacLachlan

Prior to taking the government shilling and the subsequent blogging fankle, Mark MacLachlan spent decades involved in writing about film, running film festivals, operating a classic cinema and making short films and documentaries. He lives in the Southwest and is an active participant in arts collective

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