Stories from the Edge of the World

Posted by in July's Magazine

It is well known that Scots were the shock troops of the British Empire but it is less well known they also organised labour, forming the backbone of trade unions to lessen the exploitation of the capitalist class that the self same shock troops cleared a path for. The stories in Scotland’s Radical Exports would make several fascinating movies and the tales they tell need to be read for many reasons, not least because they are very well told.

Take the story of William Wilson the first Secretary of State for Labor in the United States. A laddie from Blantyre who, aged 6, defended his home side by side with his parents (kitchen knife in hand) from the bailiffs attempting to evict them from the miner’s cottage that was their home. His work as a union activist for miner’s in America saw him listed as a wanted man but that past did not prevent US President Woodrow Wilson making him the first Labor Secretary in the USA.


His first test came in 1914 when the militiamen employed by the Rockefeller Company were unable to tear down the tented village of striking workers at Ludlow. Rockefeller pressured the Governor of Colorado to send in the National Guard who succeeded horribly, firing into the unarmed camp for eight hours, killing 7 men, 2 women and 11 children. The site of the Ludlow Massacre is now a National Monument. Despite William Wilson’s best efforts, it took US entry into the First World War and a shortage of labour to bring about the right to collective bargaining, an eight-hour day, curbs on war profiteering, and the establishment of grievance procedures.

There are other remarkable stories of Scots such as Doug Fraser who organised the automobile workers in Detroit. After facing down his own members – who had built a union hall in Tennessee with separate facilities for blacks and whites – it took an escort of black members to escort him safely from the hall. Or how about Peter Fraser a trade unionist who served a year in prison for vociferously opposing conscription in New Zealand for the First World War and went on to become one of New Zealand’s greatest Prime Ministers. He played a key role in setting up the United Nations at the San Francisco conference of 1946 and was given the freedom of the City of Edinburgh in recognition of his work.

Her fae Burdiehouse
Whilst in each of the thirteen chapters, Pat Kelly uses an individual to illuminate the Scottish contribution in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; it is in the little vignettes of other Scots that this book really comes into its own. We meet Glaswegian John Williamson, a man deemed so dangerous during the McCarthy era that on finishing a five year prison sentence in 1955 he was deported back to Glasgow. From Kilmarnock comes the marvellously monikered Sam Scarlett, a trusted friend of Industrial Workers of the World leaders Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood. The Law stalked Sam throughout his life, from Chicago to the Prairies of Canada.

The book’s weakness is the slim evidence of the role of Scots women in the Diaspora though, to be fair, that is another book, which the author acknowledges. The pen portrait of Pat Webster from Burdiehouse – she played a key role in New Zealand’s Trade Council of Trade Unions and the success of the Labour Party – shows the rich potential for such a tome.

Putting that small criticism aside, this book is worth the entry price alone for the fascinating discovery that the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the very folks who bedevilled Butch and Sundance, was formed by Alan Pinkerton, who fled persecution as a ‘dangerous radical’ the day after his wedding in Glasgow.

He broke his principle of not using Pinkertons in labour disputes when asked to deal with the Molly Maguire’s a secret society of Irish-American coalminers, Pinkerton’s work lead to the execution of the leaders.

Lest you think that all this trade union nonsense is a thing of the past then the experience of Bill Oliver, from Kinning Park, in 2004 shows that the struggle continues. The Victoria secretary for the union CFMEU had his house firebombed due to his organising in construction. Mysterious incidents like this are given their proper context in this book, which shows how Scots such as Carnegie were not averse to using similar tactics to increase profits in the US. Ironically, the reason many Scots moved abroad in the first place.

Kelly’s book serves us well in telling the tales of Scots abroad and how they shaped politics and trade unions. It’s a compendium of stories that inspire, entertain and crucially, inform. If you can’t afford to buy it order it from the library or ask for it as a gift but do get it, if only to shut up that boastful Australian (you’re bound to know one). The next time he’s singing a tearful Waltzing Matilda tell him it’s taken from the Scots song Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea – another wee gem from this gem of a book.

Info: Scotland’s Radical Exports by Pat Kelly, Grimsay Press £14.95

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