William Morris. Commonweal 1886

A Letter from Scotland

Source: “A Letter from Scotland” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 25, 3 July 1886, p.105-106;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

On Tuesday 22nd I found myself at Arbroath, a pleasant stone-built town of some 20,000 inhabitants on the German Ocean, the original of ‘Fairport’ in Scott’s ‘Antiquary’, the remains of a magnificent church and abbey dominating the homely houses. The industry practised there is sail-cloth making, and it is in a very dismal condition at present. There was much suffering there in the past winter. In a walk that I took with my host (a Free Kirk minister and a Socialist), we got into conversation with a field-labourer who was resting from his job of harrowing at a field’s end. I should premise, for the benefit of our English readers, that Scotch field-labourers are hired by the half-year, and receive their ‘meal-and-milk’, lodging in a ‘bothy’ — or a not too luxurious pig-sty — and a sum of money. This friend, who was a brisk and intelligent young man, told us that wages were low, and that he was now receiving 9 for the half-year, instead of 12, which he used to receive. He also told us, perhaps unnecessarily, that he could not save out of this splendid salary. I was told afterwards that wages had fallen back to what they were ten years ago, at which time they had risen suddenly. A foreman, a friend told us, was now getting 28 per annum, which used to be the wages of a full private labourer.

In the evening I lectured to an audience of upwards of 600 very attentive persons, mostly of the working-class. They cheered me heartily, and took up the points well. There was a goodly attendance on the platform of the committee who had organized the meeting, and who were chiefly co-operators. Questions being asked for, I only got one, from the irrepressible temperance champion, which was received with some laughter. In fact, the meeting was rather huddled up at the end, as there was no gas and the light began to fade into the mid-summer twilight, which is all the darkness of those northern regions at this time of year. A fair amount of literature was sold.

On the 23rd I lectured at Edinburgh, in the Oddfellows’ Hall, for the committee which is the fag-end of the Industrial Remuneration Conference of last year. We expected but a poor attendance, as there were several meetings of parliamentary candidates going on in the city; but after all it turned out well, the attendance being better than at any previous lecture. Again the audience seemed sympathetic — nay, enthusiastic. I asked for questions in writing, dreading the meandering speech which usually accompanies spoken questions. I got quite a pack of cards of them; and the answers were well received. A clergyman was in the chair, another (our friend Mr Glasse, who made a Socialistic speech) moved the vote of thanks, and a third seconded it. This last gentleman poked some heavy ecclesiastical fun at me, interlarded with buttery compliments. Once for all, I must ask our comrades to forgive me for receiving votes of thanks, on the ground that I could not help it. The sale of literature was good. I had a short but pleasant interview with the members of the Branch afterwards. They seemed rather depressed; lack speakers, and so find it difficult to make much way; but are getting a few new members, in spite of the slackness of their propaganda. They told me that a branch of the Social Democratic Federation started, apparently with good prospects, early this year or late last (I forget which), had quite disappeared after a few weeks’ existence. One comrade said that in talking to fellow-workmen they would agree with everything that he said in favour of Socialism, but could not be brought further than this passive adherence. On the other hand our comrades are making most commendable efforts to push the Commonweal, and with much success. The news-shops take it and sell it, too, and they are also getting newsboys to sell it; so that propaganda of some sort is going on, only our comrades feel the want of public and obvious propaganda. I should add, the University Society, who have a good deal retreated from their position, at all events in appearance, are starting a kind of progressive debating society, appealing to trades’ unionists and co-operatives to join it, which our comrades intend to use for their own and other people’s education.

The 24th I gave the same lecture at Glasgow. A wet evening, meetings of candidates throughout the town, and again apprehensions of a failure; but again a good audience, perhaps rather more in assent than at Edinburgh; a somewhat overwhelming amount of questions, the answers to which were very well received. A sprinkling of Ruskinians were there, somewhat inclined, I fancy, to take exception to the roughness of the opinions: indeed, the mover of that (terrible) vote of thanks said as much, and was somewhat cheered.

I may here remark that it seems to me that the Scotch are much given to ‘lion-hunting’, and that therefore it is necessary for a Socialist who wants to get at the facts to discount a certain amount of the enthusiasm with which he is received, if he happens to have any reputation outside Socialism. Still enough remains in these cases to show that there were many in the audience who really agreed. At Glasgow there was a good sprinkling also of Land Restorers; but these, I think, are beginning to see out of the narrow close in which Henry George has hedged them.

The 25th I lectured at Dundee and had much such an audience as at Glasgow, only that they lacked the instruction that our Branch has, with all drawbacks, given to the Glasgow folk, and therefore did not seem so ready to take up the points. Trade is very slack at Dundee; the jute business nearly gone, Indian competition having destroyed it. I was told that there are few places where the difference between the classes is more felt than it is at Dundee. I much regretted that I could not stop there and get to know some of the workers. Our comrades here (Glasgow) ought to make a push to get up a branch at Dundee.

I meet the Branch to-day, and in the evening lecture again. Tomorrow I lecture at Bridgeton, a suburb of Glasgow. But I send this off to be in time for the current number, and will give an account of whatever else happens next week.