‘Radicals: John Murdoch and the Birth of Scottish Socialism’

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On 28 April 2015, the Centre was delighted to welcome Calum Cameron White to discuss ‘Radicals: John Murdoch and the Birth of Scottish Socialism’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

In comparison to contemporaries like Keir Hardie or Michael Davitt, John Murdoch has been neglected by historiography. This ‘half-buried folk hero’ was a vocal advocate of land reform, an anti-Imperialist, a Scottish nationalist, and one of the founders of the Scottish Labour Party. Despite his penchant for Highland dress, he was not a ‘romantic primitivist’. He sought to give voice to the exploited and the working class, especially in the Highlands of Scotland. Calum recounted a personal anecdote in which Murdoch was described as ‘a troublemaker’, but he may be more accurately characterised as a dissident.

In 1873, Murdoch founded The Highlander newspaper, which ran for nine years. It was dedicated to the land question and promoted Gaelic revivalism, especially in the Lowlands, but was plagued by lawsuits, especially from landowners, and was closed in 1882. However, it certainly made an impact, as John MacLean later commented that Murdoch represented a ‘natural conscience’.

John Murdoch (1818-1903)
John Murdoch (1818-1903)

Two years after the closure of The Highlander, the Scottish Land Restoration League was founded by Murdoch and others. Addressing the first meeting of the League in Glasgow, Murdoch stated:

Clan had fought against clan and nation against nation whilst the monkey and cat had been eating the cheese. What the league wanted was the land restored to the people, not merely because it was a grand and great thing, but in order that they might be set free from the thraldom in which they now were…in order that men might come to realise the grand idea of humanity and of Christianity which God had given them to realise.

Scottish media coverage of the League was generally condescending, and their radical views were often erased from newspaper reports of public meetings. Murdoch received a warmer welcome in America, when he toured the country with Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell. The two men did not get on, due in part to Parnell’s neuroticisms, but they spoke before huge audiences: 20-30,000 people in Chicago for example. Another breach in their relationship was when Murdoch turned down Parnell’s offer to stand as an MP for Tipperary. Murdoch refused on the grounds that he felt ‘real work must be done outside of parliament’. Helping the Highlanders overcome their fear of landlords remained his top priority.

Later Scottish nationalists such as Ruairidh Erskine of Mar and William Gillies considered themselves ‘disciples of Murdoch’. The influence of Murdoch could also be felt at the Mid-Lanark by-election in 1888 (an historic moment in the development of the Scottish Labour Party) as he encouraged Keir Hardie to stand as an independent Labour candidate. Later that year, he was one of the chairs at the founding meeting of the Scottish Labour Party.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series concludes on 12 May with Dr Michael Brennan (Trinity College, Dublin) discussing ‘Interlace and the early art of Scotland’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.

On 13 May, Dr Brennan will lead a half-day workshop on ‘Understanding Interlace’. This workshop is free, but booking essential as places are limited! More details here: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/understanding-interlace-a-hal…

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