Scotland: the land of haggis, tartan... and a hidden radical history. It's a history that is gradually coming to light, and with it, a new understanding of the country, in the upcoming book Radical Scotland. As the publication date draws closer, we asked MP Kenny MacAskill to share his thoughts on why he wrote it.
The genesis of Radical Scotland lies in the biography I wrote of Jimmy Reid when I stepped down from the Scottish Parliament. Researching arguably Scotland’s greatest radical figure of the second half of the 20th century led me to consider those that had inspired him. From that came the book Glasgow 1919 and the narration of the rise of Red Clydeside. That in turn led to those that had first lit the radical flame.
For in the 1790s, Scotland was fired by radical sentiment. The French Revolution had shown that another world was possible and “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” rang out across the land. However, Scotland was then run by an oligarchy of rich landowners and their interests were threatened. Brutal repression followed and many were transported across the seas.
But the vision never died and just over a decade on the cause was revived. It would culminate in the 1820 Rising: a general strike in the west of Scotland, from which it was hoped that revolution might spring. It too was brutally suppressed, and its leaders hung and beheaded, which was the last use of such a punishment in Britain. Others were once again transported. Their sacrifices were not in vain as the First Reform Act soon followed and other steps were taken by the establishment to assuage popular discontent.
As ever though history is written by the victors and in this case, it wasn’t a foreign power but the ruling class. It’s their statues that adorn parks to this day and their history that’s recorded. It’s for that reason that this book begins with story of the Martyrs Memorial in Calton Cemetery.
The Scottish Radicals wished to have their history remembered and their martyrs lauded. The story of the opposition they faced sets the scene for the uncovering of other tales. I was born in Leith and live in Edinburgh but never knew of the proposed Dutch invasion to support a radical rising or of the Kings Birthday Riots that engulfed the city. Likewise, I grew up less than 40 miles from Tranent and yet neither knew of the massacre there, nor of the willingness of many to fight back against the oppression they faced, as garrisons were built and harsh laws imposed.
This isn’t the story of the Lords and Ladies, but of the radicals who fought for universal suffrage and the rights of working people.
Radical Scotland is out on 27 February. Pre-order your copy now!