Wednesday, August 22, 2012

John Murdoch - 'Land and Labour Pioneer'

Sad to hear of the recent death (June 23rd) of Scottish radical historian, James D. Young at the age of 81. Young, who taught history for many years at Stirling University, was the author of books including The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class and a biography of Clydeside socialist John MacLean. It was Young who rediscovered the unpublished manuscript of the autobiography of John Murdoch, the Islay-raised campaigner on behalf of crofters. Here are some excerpts from an article Young wrote in 1969 in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin (Vol.xix):

John Murdoch: A Land and Labour Pioneer

'In 1925 the unpublished manuscript Autobiography of John Murdoch was deposited in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, by Professor Magnus MacLean. This Autobiography was not entered in the manuscript catalogue, and Scottish historians have been hitherto unaware of its existence. I located it in the Mitchell Library after I had found a scrap of paper in the in the manuscript catalogue referring to a pamphlet by John Murdoch in the small safe.

John Murdoch, who was to play a key role in the Highland land agitations in the 1870s and 1880s, was born on 15 January 1818 at Lynemore, Ardchloch, Nairnshire. He lived to be 86, and his life was filled with many-sided activity, whose significance has not received the attention it deserves...

His father was John Murdoch, and his mother was Mary Macpherson, the daughter of a sea captain: and both families had roots which stretched far back into Scottish history. In 1827 the family moved to the Island of Islay, and John Murdoch lived there until 1838. His ‘agricultural education’ was inaugurated on ‘the little farm which had been selected and conferred on my father’. Moreover, he imbibed the rich folklore, customs and culture of the Highlanders among whom he lived and grew to manhood. In later life he was to become an associate of Michael Davitt, Henry George, Joseph Ashby, Patrick Ford, the editor of the New York Irish World, J. Shaw Maxwell, Keir Hardie, and other land and labour agitators.

Islay in the 1820s and 1830s was geographically remote and culturally alien from industrial society, with its rigid social stratification and class conflict, which had emerged in the Scottish Lowlands and the north of England. Murdoch’s life in Islay was happy, exciting and satisfying: and the social structure and the wholeness of a common culture, shared by all ‘classes’ from the Highland aristocrats down to the small farmers, had a profound influence on his subsequent social and political thought. His experiences there were in the fullness of time, to turn him into a left-wing radical rather than a class-conscious socialist; and his hatred of the squalor and ugliness of industrial society inhibited him from making common cause with the industrial workers before the early 1880s.

In 1838 he went to ‘serve in the shop of Mr William Boyd, a grocer in the High Street, Paisley’. Mr Boyd was ‘an earnest and prominent Radical’. But within six weeks of his arrival in Paisley ‘there was a letter from my father stating that he had been favoured with an appointment for me in the Excise’. He reluctantly decided to accept a job in the Excise service; and he began and completed his training in Edinburgh under ‘an English gentleman who had strong Highland sentiments from his serving some time when a young man in Islay’. Then he worked in Kilsyth, where coal-mining was in its infancy, and in Middletown, Ireland, as an Excise officer. He was already very critical of the drink trade (his only real criticism of Islay was that the island’s prosperity depended on whisky); but he was not above taking the occasional glas of whisky...

In 1845 John Murdoch’s father was killed in a shooting accident, and ‘the factor’ took advantage of the situation to evict his mother and her children from their farm. He was not embittered by this experience. A short time later he returned to ‘a Ride’ in Islay, and he was soon involved with a group of fellow radicals in discussing ‘science, history, poetry, theology and politics’. Before long, however, he was destined for service in Dublin, Shetland and Inverness. While engaged in Dublin as an Excise officer, he was active in an agitation for improvements in the pay and conditions of his fellow officers. In Dublin, too, he contributed articles to such newspapers as the Nation on a wide variety of agricultural topics. He was a practical land improver as well as a political agitator. While working in Inverness in 1873 as an Excise officer, he announced his retirement. Then he became founder and editor of The Highlander.

The Highlander was published in Inverness between 1873 and 1882. It was a very radical paper in which Murdoch ‘advocated the cause of the people, and particularly the right of the Gaelic people to their native soil’. (Glasgow Weekly) Through The Highlander and Murdoch’s personal intervention in disputes between crofters and landlords the way was prepared for the successful speaking tours – and the rise of the Crofters Party – of Henry George and Michael Davitt in the 1880s.

In the 1870s John Murdoch agitated through the columns of the The Highlander for the setting up of a royal commission on the Highlands. In 1883 he gave valuable evidence before the commission, of which Lord Napier was chairman. In 1884 Michael Davitt toured the Scottish coalfields advocating the nationalisation of the land and minerals. John Murdoch simultaneously made his first efforts to win support among the industrial workers for land reform. By this time he was living in the Scottish Lowlands; and there is evidence to suggest that he was still evolving towards the left. When the miners of Lanarkshire founded a Scottish Anti-Royalty and labour League, he tried to get them to affiliate to the Scottish Land Restoration League. In the general election of 1885 he was a parliamentary nominee of the Scottish Land Restoration League; and he stood as a Land and Labour candidate in the Patrick constituency of Glasgow.

During the by-election in Mid-Lanark in April 1888, John Murdoch, who was now seventy years old, campaigned on behalf of Keir Hardie. A few weeks later he took the lead, together with Hardie, in helping to initiate the Scottish Labour Party. This was probably the last major act of his political career, but he toured the southern counties of England with Joseph Ashby in 1891 on behalf of the English Land League. Then he settled down to complete the autobiography he had begun in 1889 and to observe in the Scottish Labour Party the alliance of Scottish land and labour reformers he had striven to create in 1884.

John Murdoch’s political evolution was unusual: in his sixty-sixth year, he moved left, not right. He was an active temperance reformer, a land reformer, a journalist, a champion of the Gaelic language, a collector of Highland folklore, and a foundation member of the Scottish Labour Party'.  
John Murdoch (1818–1903)
Some year's after Young's article, John Murdoch’s autobiography was edited by the historian Dr James Hunter and published in For the People’s Cause, HMSO, Edinburgh, 1986. 

The farm where the Murdoch family lived in the 1830s was Claggan Farm, near Bridgend. We will return to Murdoch and Islay  later at this blog.

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