We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Young Scots' Society (act. 1900–c.1920) was a group of Liberal activists who fostered the recovery of the Liberal party from defeat and division at the general election of 1900 and contributed to its strong Scottish performances in 1906 and 1910. In 1900 the Scottish party was divided in its responses to the South African War and at the general election of 1900 ended up with a minority of Scottish seats for the first time since 1832. The leading Scottish newspapers, the Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman of Edinburgh, supported the Unionists but the Edinburgh Evening News, edited by Hector MacPherson, had taken a Liberal line and had been a staunch supporter of ‘pro-Boers’. It was in the correspondence columns of the Edinburgh Evening News that the first proposals to establish a ‘Political Association for Young Men’ (12 Oct 1900, 2) were heard in a letter from ‘Junior’. Another correspondent, ‘J. M.’, argued that existing political clubs paid too much attention to billiards and were of ‘little educational force in politics’ (13 Oct 1900, 2). Further letters over the next two weeks supported this idea and the first meeting of what would become the Young Scots' Society took place on 27 October 1900. This was followed by a public meeting on 14 November.

Although the Young Scots in time extended their network of branches all over Scotland, in its early days the society was heavily concentrated in the Scottish capital and in other Liberal strongholds, such as Dunfermline, in the east of Scotland. The South African War provided the society with its early focus and attracted controversy to its activities. In April 1901, when the society sought a venue in Edinburgh for an anti-war meeting to be addressed by the Cape politician John Xavier Merriman, they were refused the use of the Music Hall on Queen Street and the meeting was eventually held amid tumultuous scenes at Waverley Market. This meeting, and much of their early propaganda, led to their condemnation as ‘the most empty headed and long tongued section of the Radical party, and, of course, they are pro-Boers, but in their estimation they are perfect patterns of Liberalism’ (The Scotsman, 23 Dec 1901, 6). The pro-Boer activities of this period did not indicate a fundamental anti-imperialist strand among the Young Scots. Although they were strongly opposed to what they saw as the restrictions on free speech in the way the government handled the opposition to the South African War, they admired examples—especially Canada—of effective self-government among the colonies.

The ‘head and shoulders’ (The Scotsman, 12 Sept 1901, 4) of the Young Scots was James Myles Hogge (later Liberal MP for Edinburgh East, 1912–24), who was possibly one of the original correspondents in the Edinburgh Evening News. Along with Hogge the leading spirit in the pro-Boer activities of the society was Thomas Shaw (1850–1937), the MP for Hawick Burghs. Other leading figures in the early days of the movement were two lawyers: Arthur Dewar (1860–1917), a member of the Scottish bar who sat as MP for Edinburgh South, 1899–1900 and 1906–10, and later became a judge; and a local solicitor, John Blair.

The revival of a classic Liberal issue, free trade, saved the Young Scots from being regarded as faddists and extremists, protesting merely over such minor Scottish grievances as the royal numeral of the newly crowned Edward VII (there had not been a previous King Edward of Scotland). The Young Scots opened a free trade campaign in 1903 and thereby reconnected with the mainstream of a reunited Scottish liberalism, tariff reform having little appeal north of the border. Their campaign helped to revive the fortunes of the party in Scotland and contributed to a series of by-election victories that presaged the landslide of 1906, when Liberals won fifty-eight of the seventy Scottish seats. The new MPs in 1906 included many men who had been, or would be, prominent in the Young Scots. Among these were John William Gulland (1864–1920), an Edinburgh corn merchant who was MP for Dumfries Burghs from 1906 to 1918 and became Liberal chief whip; John Mackinnon Robertson, a former leader writer on MacPherson's Edinburgh Evening News and now the ‘professorial’ and ‘polemical’ MP for Tyneside (The Scotsman, 7 Jan 1933, 10); Charles Edward Price (1857–1934), the vituperative Englishman (and partner in the biscuit firm of McVitie and Price) who as MP for Edinburgh Central from 1906 to 1918 became known as ‘the Member for Edinburgh’; and John Archibald Murray MacDonald (1854–1939), MP for Falkirk Burghs from 1906 to 1918 and secretary to the Cobden Club during its campaign against tariff reform. Joseph Dobbie (1862–1943), an Edinburgh solicitor who was elected for Ayr at a by-election in 1904 but was singularly unlucky to lose it in 1906, was also a leading Young Scot.

They were joined by a number of older MPs, such as James Caldwell (1839–1925), a calico printer and a former Unionist who became a Gladstonian, representing Mid-Lanark from 1894 to 1910; another former Unionist, Sir Alexander Cross, first baronet (1847–1914), a fertilizer manufacturer who sat for Glasgow Camlachie from 1892 to 1910 and took a special interest in the reform of Scottish home-letting law; and Duncan Vernon Pirie (1858–1931), a former army officer who was MP for Aberdeen North from 1896 to 1918. They helped push the Young Scots to a degree of prominence in Scottish affairs in the Edwardian period, exemplified by the support of the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a Scottish MP (Stirling Burghs), and of other members of the cabinet.

Although the Young Scots lent general support to the programme of the Liberal government after 1906 there were two issues to which they paid particular attention: Scottish home rule and land reform, which were closely connected in their minds. The rejection by the House of Lords of two Scottish land bills in 1907 and 1908 pointed to the need for the end of the veto of the upper house. Only Scottish home rule could secure the advanced land reform that would help to repopulate rural Scotland, improve the health and welfare of the nation, and staunch the flow of emigration of this period. Many meetings were held on these themes in the years between 1906 and 1910 with notable appearances on Young Scots' platforms of leading Irish nationalists like T. P. O'Connor and John Redmond. Many of the arguments used at these meetings, and in publications such as Sixty Points for Scottish Home Rule (1912), to which the Glasgow municipal politician Sir Samuel Chisholm contributed an introduction, were in the tradition of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights of the 1850s or the Scottish Home Rule Association, founded in 1886.

The Young Scots saw Scottish home rule as the antidote to the congestion of parliamentary time, which led to the neglect of Scottish affairs in the House of Commons. It was hailed as ‘true imperialism’ and the means to a ‘better union’. Home rule would also unlock the possibilities of reforms in key areas of Scottish life—housing, temperance, and education for example—which had languished in the period of Conservative domination. Young Scots MPs succeeded in initiating debates on the home-rule issue in the House of Commons in May 1908, August 1911, and May 1913. On the last occasion Sir William Cowan (elected in January 1910 for Aberdeenshire East) argued that the
most influential political association of an unofficial character in Scotland today is the Young Scots Society, a society which from its very inception has placed home rule for Scotland in the forefront of its programme. For years, in season and out of season, that organisation has carried on throughout the length and breadth of Scotland an active campaign in favour of self-government. … I claim that it has brought about a position of affairs in which this question can no longer be treated with contempt or ignored. (Hansard 5C, 53.474, 30 May 1913)
Despite the tendency of the Young Scots to inflate their own importance and agency, the government showed little interest in taking forward the subject of Scottish home rule and it remained on the fringes of the parliamentary agenda until the 1970s.The eccentric Scottish nationalist Theodore Napier perhaps put his finger on an important point when he criticized the Young Scots for their official connection with Liberalism. He argued ‘were they truly a Scottish National Association they would be free to act independently after Liberal, Conservative or Unionist parties and make Scotland's welfare their sole object’ (The Scotsman, 9 May 1908, 12). After 1910 the Young Scots attempted to take a slightly tougher line with the Liberal party over candidatures in Scottish seats. They argued that only Scots should be chosen for such seats and a fuss was made at the Kilmarnock by-election in 1911 when W. G. C. Gladstone—despite reverence for his grandfather—was deemed to be insufficiently engaged with Scottish issues. In the event he was able to do and say enough to convince them of his sincere commitment to Scottish home rule and other shibboleths of the Young Scots and he won the seat.

Although the Young Scots continued to be active during the First World War, contributing to the debate about conscription or passing resolutions protesting against the executions of the rebels in Dublin in 1916, their heyday had been during the Edwardian period. Like other bodies they were affected by renewed Liberal divisions, with Robertson becoming a leading figure in the Asquithian party and Hogge, although nominally an Asquithian, moving close to such controversial figures as Sir William Sutherland in Lloyd George's circle. Nevertheless, the Young Scots influenced both the labour and the Scottish national movements of the inter-war period. Thomas Gibson, a key figure in moving the national movement away from romantic causes and towards practical politics, and the remarkable political patron Roland Muirhead, were active Young Scots. Indeed Muirhead, as well as funding the Independent Labour Party newspaper Forward (edited by Thomas Johnston), gave substantial sums to the Young Scots. Some of this money was used to establish its own newspaper, the unsuccessful Young Scot. Although the commitment to Scottish home rule of the Independent Labour Party can be exaggerated, there were, nevertheless, links with the Young Scots. The United Free Church minister James Barr, MP for Motherwell (1924–31) and Coatbridge (1935–45), had been a Young Scot and maintained an interest in Scottish home rule, moving a bill on the topic in the House of Commons in 1927. As well as these links to later movements the principal achievement of the Young Scots was the revival of the Liberal party in Scotland in the aftermath of the defeat and division of 1900. Through their activism they brought new blood into the party and helped to focus attention on key issues like free trade and land reform, which contributed to the victory at the general elections of 1906 and 1910.

Ewen A. Cameron

Sources  

Edinburgh Evening News (12 Oct 1900); (13 Oct 1900) · The Scotsman (12 Sept 1901); (23 Dec 1901); (9 May 1908); (7 Jan 1933) · Sixty points for Scottish home rule, Young Scots' Society (1912) · The Young Scots handbook, 1911–1912, Young Scots' Society (c.1911) · NL Scot., Scottish secretariat, Roland Muirhead, acc. 3721 · J. A. Murray MacDonald, The case for federal home rule (1904) · T. Shaw, Gladstone: a living teacher (1902) · S. J. Brown, ‘“Echoes of Midlothian”: Scottish liberalism and the South African war, 1899–1902’, SHR, 71 (1992), 156–83 · LordCraigmyleT.ShawLetters to Isabelnew edn1936 · R. J. Finlay, ‘Continuity and change: Scottish politics, 1900–45’, Scotland in the twentieth century, ed. T. M. Devine and R. J. Finlay (1996) · Hansard 5C, 53 (1913), 474 · J. Kennedy, ‘Responding to empire: liberal nationalism and imperial decline in Scotland and Quebec’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 19 (2006), 284–307 · J. Kennedy, ‘“Contrasting liberal nationalists”: The Young Scots' Society and the Ligue Nationaliste Canadienne’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 13 (2007), 39–70 · J. Barr, Lang syne: memoirs of the Rev. James Barr, B.D. (1949) · H. MacPherson, Hector Macpherson: the man and his work (1925)