Victorian Scotland



By the time Victoria became queen of Great Britain in 1837 the powers of the monarch were much more restricted than those of her 18th century predecessors, and far less than the autocratic power, always greater in Scotland than in England, that kings had had before 1688. Parliament was sovereign, although the unelected House of Lords retained powers of veto over the Commons. The House of Commons itself was elected only by a minority of the adult population. By sheer longevity the Queen impressed herself on her subjects and gave her name to the high era of the British Empire. The royal family’s purchase of Balmoral Castle in 1853, and the Queen’s affection for things Highland, renewed a Scottish enthusiasm for the monarchy.

Liberals and Tories

In the later years of her reign, Victoria had two commanding figures as leaders of each of the political parties; William Ewart Gladstone in the Liberal Party which had emerged from the former Whigs; and Benjamin Disraeli, later Lord Beaconsfield, as leader of the Conservative Party, who also retained the name of Tories. The parliamentary confrontations and alternations in power between Gladstone and Disraeli codified the style of two-party politics that prevailed at Westminster, with the Labour Party largely replacing the Liberals after 1921. On the basis of Westminster electoral results, however, the Liberals would have remained consistently in power in a Scottish government from 1832 to 1900.

Political cartoon map of Scotland

Political cartoon map of Scotland

Throughout the century Scottish politics were dominated by the Liberals. Gladstone in particular made a strong impact on Scotland, and was for some years the member of parliament for Midlothian – once the parliamentary seat of Henry Dundas – whose electors he regaled with speeches of heroic duration. Gladstone received ecstatic welcomes on his travels throughout Scotland, on one occasion receiving the freedom of the burgh of Dingwall without actually getting off the train. Scottish Liberalism had roots in the radicalism of the decades that followed the French Revolution, and in the independent status of the Free Church. For those who believed in landlaw reform and free trade, it was the only parliamentary party. Liberalism was also linked with a new impetus towards self-government.

Although the imperial parliament at Westminster was more highly organised than ever before, there were vast ranges of home, colonial and foreign affairs to be considered. The affairs of Scotland had to be fitted in with other demands on parliamentary time. The Scottish electorate, expanded by successive Reform Acts, and aware of the country’s unresolved problems, pressed their parliamentary representatives for action. People began to question whether the tax and excise contributions from Scotland to the United Kingdom were adequately reflected by government expenditure in Scotland. In 1888 the government came up with the Goschen Formula, named after the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It set Scotland’s share of government funds at eleven pounds for every eighty spent in England.

The separate nature of Scottish, Irish and English institutions made legislation for the whole of the United Kingdom a cumbersome business. As this became more apparent, a separate Scottish parliament seemed to many to be practical solution as well as one that answered to a strengthening  current of demand in Scotland itself.

Disraeli and Gladstone

Disraeli and Gladstone

The post of Secretary for Scotland, abolished in 1745, was reinstated in 1885. But the Scottish cause was of less pressing concern to the government than the demands of the Irish. The Scottish Liberal members were British before they were Scottish. They lack the passionate intensity of their Irish counterparts, who focused their attention on Land Reform and Home Rule. Their urgings were muted by comparison.

But Ireland – unlike Scotland – had a Catholic majority who did not feel that Westminster could ever fulfill their aspirations. On the other hand Scotland – unlike Ireland – had an industrial economy that was intimately linked with that of England and had vested interests in the British Empire. If the nationalists of Ireland had the problem of unionist Ulster to contend with, the people of Scotland had the problem of a more diffused but still vibrant unionism, particularly among the aristocracy and the leaders of commerce and industry. It was inevitable that Scottish devolution should stay well down in the order of government priorities. When Irish Home Rule was voted down in parliament in April 1886, the Liberal Party split between those who supported the idea of an Irish government and those who did not. There was no likehood of a similar Scottish bill succeeding, but the movement for Home Rule remained alive.

The Scottish Labour Party

In 1883 the Scottish Labour Party was formed, two years before the Labour Representation Committee in London, and in the same year the first conference of the Home Rule Association took place. The Scottish founders of Labour had home rule very much on their agenda. James Keir Hardie stood for election as the very first of all Labour candidates in his home district of Mid-Lanark in 1888 but was defeated, and was later to represent English and Welsh constituencies. Parliamentary success came very gradually for Labour. In the early years of the 20th century, it was an amorphous movement made up of a number of local parties and interest groups, which would not finally coalesce until the early 1930s. The era of the monolithic Labour ‘machine’ was still some way off.

James Keir Hardie  (15 August 1856 – 26 September 1915), 1892

James Keir Hardie (15 August 1856 – 26 September 1915), 1892

In 1906, the year of an electoral landslide for the Liberals, they took almost 57 % of the vote and won 58 parliamentary seats. The comparable figures for Labour were 2.3 % of the vote and two parliamentary seats. It was 1922 before Labour won the largest share of the vote and the largest proportion of Scotland’s 71 parliamentary seats.

Education for all

From 1872, under secular management, primary schools continued to teach Calvinist theology in the stately but incomprehensible language of the Shorter Catechism of 1643, and the parish ministers of both the Established and the Free Kirks called regularly to inspect the scholars’ Bible knowledge. The Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, which made schooling compulsory for all children from the age of 5 to 13, brought the existing parish and burgh schools under the state control of a Scotch Education Department, based in London. The new drive for the education created a rush of new school building projects and many new jobs for single women: the first professional opportunity for females.

Establishing the Free Church of Scotland

Establishing the Free Church of Scotland

Outside the burghs, education before had been largely in the hands of the churches, administered at a parish level, and run by the village dominie, who in theory, and often in practice, would teach bright children – boys only – from the absolute basics to the university entrance level. The burgh schools were run by the councils, and in the cities there were other schools, some privately endowed, like Hutchesons’ in Glasgow, some founded as philanthropic ventures, like the ‘ragged schools’ set up in Edinburgh by Thomas Guthrie and in Aberdeen by Sheriff Watson. Episcopalian and Catholic schools remained outside the system, funded by their own churches and parishioners, as did the private fee-paying schools. Secondary education was not compulsory and continued to be supplied by the grammar schools and academies, their fees often moderated by endowments and bursaries. The widening of the curriculum to include the sciences and the introduction of the Scottish Leaving Certificate in 1888 gave an impetus to secondary schooling, since the certificate inevitably set a standard that was used by employers and institutions. Until 1892, when all primary and most secondary education was provided free by the state, secondary schooling was essentially for the children of the better-off. For the poorer it was an economic and social struggle to send their children to the academy.

A schoolclass in Glasgow, c.1890

A schoolclass in Glasgow, c.1890

The universities were the pillars of the Scottish professional bodies in law, Church and medicine, and consequently were part of the establishment rather than engines of change. Their concerns were with classical education, evolved from the old curriculum, and the new ‘pure’ sciences. Honours degree courses were set up from 1858, reflecting a new seriousness in the pursuit of advanced scholarship and a significant extension of the universities’ role from being places of general education to suppliers of more specialised learning.

Industrial relations

By the 1850s that industrial base was still expanding and consolidating. To grow, it needed markets far beyond Scotland. Competition from Germany, France and Belgium as well as England meant that Scottish firms had to compete or die. With the exceptions of tweed cloth, whisky and the new linoleum, little that Scotland made was unique. Only more effective products or cheaper prices could hold the market, and even then protectionist tariffs could cut off trade. The linoleum producers of Kirkcaldy flourished but had to build factories abroad to get around local tariff barriers. The surest source of wealth was that of the primary producer, receiving royalties on coal or ore production. Next surest was perhaps the brewery trade, although it had grown to a point where foreign markets were essential.

Workers in Scottish oil industry

Workers in Scottish oil industry

Manufacturers could make fortunes but could also go bankrupt through over-trading or failure to keep pace with innovation. The Aberdeen textiles industry virtually disappeared between 1832 and 1848 in the textiles slump. Prices of commodities rose and fell. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 had a disastrous effect on imports from the American south but stimulated trade with the war economy of the north.  The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871, although it left exporters to France with long delays in the payment of outstanding debts, generated another economic boom.

Amongst employers the attitude remained vigorously against trade unionism, and the Clyde Shipbuilders’ and Engineers’ Association of 1886 had it as a prime aim to combine against the unionisation of their work forces. Political support for their point of view came strongly from successive Whig, later renamed Liberal, governments whose definition of reform fell far short of workers’ rights. But the extension of parliamentary voting to all adult males in 1867 opened up the way for a political party that could claim to represent the interests of workers. Industrial disputes continued to be bitter. They were sometimes large-scale and long-lasting, but the results were less one-sided than earlier in the century. In 1891 Motherwell railway station was wrecked by rioting strikers when the Caledonian railway tried to evict employees from their tied houses. In 1894 sixty-five thousand miners were on strike from June to October, causing extensive lay-offs in coal-dependent industries. Perhaps only half the strikers were trade union members. Even in the largest industries, union members were in a minority. When the Scottish Trades Union Congress was founded in 1897, most of its constituent unions were small and local organisations, although by then trade union membership was rapidly growing and an era of merging and of amalgamating with English union was beginning.

Immigration information office poster

Immigration information office poster

The High Victorian years of the early 1870s saw the peak rate of industrial expansion. The demand for labour was such that the market laws of supply and demand were on the side of the workers; pay went up and concessions in working hours were made. Holidays were introduced, leading to the establishment of the ‘Fair’, when whole towns virtually closed for a week, with the Glasgow Fair just the largest example. A 60-hour or more working week was relatively common, and not until 1880s was legislation introduced to limit working hours in engineering to 50-hours a week.

Fun and games

By 1881 the population of Scotland had reached 3.7 million. The majority now lived in towns and cities. Despite long working hours and the traditional disapproval of visible enjoyment of Sunday leisure, families still found ways of enjoying themselves. The 19th century bridges the divide between the games and pastimes of an earlier Scotland and those of the 20th century. Calvinism has stamped out all but the faintest memories of the old holy days, but exuberance transferred itself to country fairs – including the ‘holy fairs’, were communion was taken by everyone – mid-winter revels and harvest homes, some of these displaying a seasonal rite that went back before Christianity. The fires of Beltane and midsummer, scarcely Christianised as Johnsmas, burned on hilltops all over Scotland as a ceremony of renewal, whilst bold young men leapt across the still-flaming embers.

Victorian children in traditional wear, 1890

Victorian children in traditional wear, 1890

By the end of the century such celebrations were rare and had to be deliberately and self-consiously recreated. The tradition of the night of Hallowe’en remained more vibrant, although it moved steadily down the age range.  Instead the girls attempting to divine whom they would merry or how many children they would have, or young men dressed in masks and strange clothes representing the spirits of the dead, it became a ‘tricks or treats’ night for child guisers and as such lasted on into the next century.

In second part of 19th century the sport activities became more popular. For information on 19th century sport in Scotland click here.

The turn of the century

Towards the end of the 19th century, the last large-scale British colonial war began in South Africa. Again there was a boom in shipping, cloth and munitions supplies, and a new recruiting call to the men of Scotland. The Boer War was not a wholly popular war, and there was a strain of pacifist and anti-colonial resistance. A strong element in the Liberal party opposed the way in which the war was conducted; they paid for this with electorial defeat, even in Scotland, in 1900. The ‘pro-Boer’ Liberal member of parliament for Caithness was burned in effigy in Thurso. The war ended with the surrender of the Boers and the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1900.

Just after the Boer War, a bright young Scot of twenty-six went out to become private secretary to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa.His father was a free Church Minister, and he had studied at Glasgow and Oxford. He exuded ambition and ability through every pore. On his return to Great Britain he would be a publisher, a best-selling author, a member of parliament for the Scottish universities and as journalist. He would become a baron and end his career as governor-general of Canada. John Buchan was the Empire Scotsman and Anglo-Scot par excellence. A rising man at the peak of empire, his career seems to indicate a seamless union of the two countries at the heart of it.

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir,  (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940)

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940)

The years between 1905 and 1914 nevertheless show a higher rate of emigration from Scotland than at any time in the 19th century. It was a time when prices were rising faster than wages, and the population, which was now over 5 million, was expanding faster than its opportunities. In the aftermath of the Boer War, and again between 1908 and 1910, there were sharp industrial recessions. By now factories built in a hurry in the previous century were seen as vile places to work in; their machinery, much of it no longer new, showed that the Scots had not lost their capacity to make do and mend. To more Scots than ever before, other lands seemed to offer more opportunities, and by now their emigration was a matter of choice rather than desperation or compulsion. Faster passenger ships went to more places, and very often there were contacts waiting to help; people could exercise control over their own future. During 1913, thirty-six thousand emigrants left by ship from the Clyde. There had always been suspicions that emigration deprived the country of its most energetic and enterprising young people, and somewhat discouraging inferences might be drawn by those who remained behind. In the early part of 20th century, under the gloss of Imperial confidence, there were deep cracks of uncertainty. Looking forward into the new century, most people with an interest in politics expected Scottish Home Rule within ten or twelve years; they would have been astounded to know it would take 99 years, and the collapse of the empire, to bring it about. ‘It’s kittle shooting at corbies and clergy’, says an old Scots proverb; but shooting at the future is the most kittle business of all.

‘Scotland, History of the Nation’, David Ross

 

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