New Edinburgh exhibition reveals reality of post World War 1 Scotland

David Kirkwood (before he became MP) on the ground after being batoned by police, while Willie Gallacher stands by after being arrested.' Pic: from exhibition
David Kirkwood (before he became MP) on the ground after being batoned by police, while Willie Gallacher stands by after being arrested.' Pic: from exhibition
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A major exhibition opening today details how soldiers and tanks were deployed against strikers in Glasgow’s George Square in 1919 as union officials argued for a shorter working week to help unemployed returning servicemen.

The violent Battle of George Square on 31 January 1919, also known as ‘Bloody Friday or ‘Black Friday’’ occurred just 82 days after the end of the Great War and saw a clash between 100,000 strikers and the police.

Another exhibit

Another exhibit

The British Government, fearful of the repercussions of the mass unrest in Glasgow following the Russian Revolution and Easter Rising, ordered the army to have tanks on standby and drafted in hundreds of soldiers to the city.

Politicians had promised a “land fit for heroes” but this did not materialise.

A war-weary populace with a new-found political voice – a population with raised expectations of better homes, improved working conditions and hope for a brighter future, soon took matters into their own hands and changed the face of Scottish politics.

The free exhibition, ‘A Better World? - Scotland After the First World War’, at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh, marks 100 years since the Armistice and reveals some of the rare or unique items in the library’s collection.

Another piece from the exhibition

Another piece from the exhibition

These include a photograph from the strike, the strike bulletin and a poem by the Glasgow Proletarian School which ran classes for both adults and children.

Also on display is a letter from revolutionary socialist John Maclean to a friend where he writes about how he believed his food in Barlinnie prison in Glasgow had been laced with tranquillisers. Maclean attempted to deal with the problem by asking supporters to bring him food.

The exhibition spans political events and showcases election flyers and posters from a tumultuous era in politics when Scotland’s electorate swelled to more than 2 million, and parties were compelled to appeal to women voters for the first time.

Also on display is a detailed hand-drawn plan of the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh.

Scots rallied to the call to have such a memorial in the capital city rather than the focus being entirely on a memorial in London.

However, the original plans came under close scrutiny after fears were raised that the proposed structure would alter the city’s skyline.

Visitors will also be able to watch black and white footage of how life went on after the war, with clips of Scots attending horse-racing, queueing for the cinema, or small children learning Highland dancing at school.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, who will speak at the launch of the exhibition, said: “The National Library of Scotland is to be warmly congratulated on this innovative and poignant exhibition in commemoration of the ending of the Great War in November 1918. Many such events will take place to mark the centenary of peace in Europe in that year but ‘A Better World?’ is an exhibition with a difference.

“It focuses on what happened in Scotland after 1918 and the hopes of the nation for a better future which would stand as the best possible tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives in the terrible conflict. Carefully selected original items from the wonderful collections of the Library then demonstrate the realities of what happened in Scotland during the 1920s and 1930s.”

Alison Metcalfe, manuscripts curator, said: “It was a time of great political unrest with high unemployment and poor housing. The strikes really ramped it up for the government.

“The exhibition is named after a phrase used by the Ministry of Reconstruction, which was formed in 1917 to rebuild the nation after the war.

“The Ministry developed the idea of rebuilding a society that was fairer than it was before the war, stating that “the idea of… a simple return to pre-war conditions, has gradually been supplanted by the larger and worthier idea of a better world”.

Jan Usher, social sciences curator said: “Soldiers and police were kept on standby for days after the George Square riot.”

* ‘A Better World? Scotland After the First World War, free entry, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, 16 November 2018 - 27 April 2019.