James D. Young

The May Day Celebrations in Scotland


Before the advent of the Second International in 1889, socialists through- out the world celebrated the Paris Commune as the most sacred and the most holy day in the calendar of international labour (1). Although the martyrs and fugitives of the Paris Commune were not forgotten after the foundation of the Second International, socialists increasingly focussed on May Day as the most important celebratory event in the litany of labour’s communion with and struggle against capital.

Nevertheless there were important differences in the celebration of May Day on the Continent and in Britain during the heyday of the Second International between 1890 and 1914. Despite Frederick Engels’s ecstatic enthusiasm for the gigantic May Day procession in London in 1890, the British socialists were - and remained - more ‘backward’ than their Continental counterparts in their celebration of May Day. In discussing this difference in the celebration of May Day or in Britain ‘Labour Day’, Julian Braunthal noted that:

“The French and Austrians decided to celebrate 1 May with a general strike the Germans and British by holding mass meetings on the first Sunday in May and the parties of most other countries with meetings on The evening of the first of May” (2). But in the 1980s the workers’ movement in Britain often celebrated May Day on the first Saturday not the first Sunday in May. This was to avoid the odium of antagonising the upholders of Sabbatarianism.

Unlike the English, the Scots were unhappy from the very beginning with the decision to celebrate May Day on the first Sunday of the month instead of the actual 1 May. But, although support for the May Day celebrations did not develop so rapidly in Scotland as in England, the Scottish socialists, though numerically smaller in relation to population size, became more conscious from the mid-1890s of being out of step with most of their comrades on the Continent. With a smaller workers’ movement than existed in England, the Left in Scotland could exert more influence on the workers. Alongside the celebration of May Day in the Scotland of the 1890s, however, the Scots did not neglect to celebrate the Paris Commune as the first example of workers’ power in practice (3).

In any warts-and-all history of the British labour movement, the advent of ‘the Fourth of May Demonstration’ was a landmark in the growth of the idea of workers’ international solidarity. As H.M. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) wrote:

“London, the metropolis of capitalism, 4 May 1890, takes her place between Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Copenhagen as a great centre of the social revolution - a centre nonetheless important in the future because the workers are now trying their strength against their slave drivers in peaceful combination” (4).

Although Glasgow was a much more proletarian city than middle-class Edinburgh, May Day was not celebrated in ‘the second city of the (British) Empire’ in 1890. In Glasgow the SDF was weak and at a low ebb in 1890; and in his ‘Glasgow Notes’ in Justice, the organ of the SDF, James Smith focussed on the 10,000 workers who were unemployed. When he stressed that the economic ‘outlook is indeed gloomy in the extreme’, he touched on one reason for the Glaswegian socialists’ weakness (5). What he did not mention was their sectarian refusal to co-operate with other socialists.

In the early 1890s the Scottish workers’ movement did not speak about May Day, but about the demonstration for the eight-hour day among the workers of all countries ‘in the civilised world’. At the meeting on the East Meadows, Edinburgh, on 4 May 1890, the Scottish Socialist Federation persuaded a thousand workers to vote for a resolution stressing ‘the international character of the labour question’ (6). By contrast, the first celebration of May Day in the other major Scottish city took place on Glasgow Green, 3 May 1891, where a resolution supporting the agitation for an eight-hour day was carried ‘with acclamation’ amid three cheers for the social revolution’ (7).

But the enigma of why May Day was not celebrated in Glasgow in 1890 cannot be explained away simply by evoking the serious poverty and unemployment of that year. The socialists in the SDF in Glasgow were, though functioning in harsh and difficult circumstances, imprisoned in their own self-imposed sectarianism. This was probably a major reason for their failure to get May Day celebrated in 1890. A clue to this unconcealed sectarianism regarding May Day was seen in their criticism of the Edinburgh Trades Council’s refusal to support a May Day demonstration at all in 1891, though ‘the Scottish Socialist Federation proposed to hold the pageant on 3 May instead of Labour Day’ (8).

The conflict within the Edinburgh Trades Council survived until at least 1896. There was a dispute between the ‘old’ trade unionists and the ‘new’ and largely socialist trade unionists about whether workers were being asked to support an international Labour Day or May Day as a symbol of Labour’s struggle against Capital. As a report in the Labour Chronicle, 1 June 1896, put it:

“There can be no doubt, too, that many of the old school of trades unionists look with some degree of suspicion on these demonstrations, having begun to notice that their bent is towards socialism’ (9). Although the conflict between the ‘old’ trade unionists whose allegiance was to the Liberal Party rather than the Scottish Socialist Federation or the Independent Labour Party the socialist and the ‘new trade unionists’ more internationalist outlook fostered socialist sentiments and assisted their orientation towards the Left.

But, although Glasgow has attracted more attention from labour historians than the capital city of Edinburgh, May Day was celebrated in Edinburgh on 1 May, 1896 ‘rather than on the first Saturday in May’. As the Labour Chronicle explained:

“The Trades Council having decided to take no part in any labour demonstration this year, the Scottish Socialist Federation and the Independent Labour Party determined to make a start with a really socialist demonstration and on the day when the socialist workers in every land celebrated the festival of Labour”. Between eight hundred and a thousand workers - “rough, unlettered working men” - voted for resolutions supporting the agitation for a legal eight-hour day and against war and militarism (10).

As a postscript, it should be added that the real, tangible radicalisation of the Scottish, and especially the Glaswegian, working class exploded during the First World War. In spite of the work of those British ‘revisionist’ historians who have sought to play down the extent and significance of the Red Clyde, the celebration of May Day by thousands and thousands of men and women was an index to the growth of socialist consciousness.

When the big breakthrough came in 1917 in the wake of the Clydesiders’ support for Zimmerwald and the first Russian revolution there were now sixteen platforms with representatives from 230 socialist organisations on Glasgow Green. Indeed, an estimated 100,000 people took part in the actual march through the streets in 1917. Then, in May 1918 and in the midst of a brutal and bloody war, thousands and thousands of Glaswegian workers struck work on 1 May to celebrate the solidarity and dignity of labour (11).

An exceptionally proletarianised area, Glasgow was destined to be a major catalyst of socialist change in Scotland. In mobilizing the Irish immigrants in Scotland behind the Labour Party, the way was opened up for the advent of the first ‘minority’ Labour Government in 1924.

But 1918 was a significant landmark in the growth of the celebration of May Day in the Celtic countries of ‘Great Britain’. In Dublin as in Glasgow, working people celebrated May Day on 1 May for the first time on any scale. As Cathal O’Shannon, the editor of Irish Opinion, put it: “The Glasgow workers, like those in Dublin, decided to hold May day this year on 1 May, and not the first Sunday. Glasgow and Dublin are the two cities in these countries that lead the van in the militant army of Labour, and from them, if from nowhere else, we may expect a bold lead”.

1. James D. Young, “Socialism Since 1889: A Biographical History”, (London, 1988)
2. Julius Braunthal, “History of the International, 1865-1914” (London 1966), p.246
3. David Lowe, “Souvenirs of Scottish labour”, (Glasgow 1919), p.34
4. H.M. Hyndman, “The Fourth of May Demonstration”, Justice, 3 May 1890.
5. James Smith, “Glasgow Notes”, ibid. 10 May, 1890.
6. “Edinburgh Socialists and the Eight-Hour Day”, ibid. 10 May 1890.
7. “Glasgow”, ibid., 16 May 1891.
8. “Scottish Labour Notes”, ibid., 24 May 1891.
9. “Labour Chronicle”, 1 May 1895.
10. "May Day Celebration in Edinburgh", ibid., 1 June 1896.
11. “Glasgow Herald”, 2 May 1918.
12. “Labour Day”, Irish Opinion, 30 May 1918.


Ideas are not as fragile as men. They cannot be made to drink hemlock.
Cleon in Thucydides

An invitation from the glorious city of Budapest to write about the celebration of May Day during the world crossroads-crisis year of 1990 was a great honour. Just as political crisis and economic turmoil were very important in 1919, when the name of John Maclean, the great Clydeside socialist, linked the cities of Budapest and Glasgow in the struggles of working people for justice and democracy, so similar trends linking other cities in an unofficial spiritual international of visionaries are visible today. And Budapest and Glasgow have always had visionary intellectuals in their midst.

The key to everything that is happening in Scotland in 1990 is the very, very serious economic crisis. Although the Scottish workers’ movement is still alive and kicking against the tyranny-creating ‘free market’ forces of today, trade unions are losing members as the process of de-industrialisation continues unchallenged in any significant way by the Labour Party. And yet despite soul-destroying unemployment, massive poverty and increasing ill-health in many communities, the never forgotten tradition of celebrating May day has been revived.

On 1 May, 1990, a group of between three and four hundred men and women, workers and intellectuals, carried a banner through the East End of Glasgow. In attempting to make links between the hundred-year past of Scottish working people’s struggles against militarism, unemployment, poor health and inadequate education, an uncertain future and the present, the brightly coloured banner with the words, “From Chicago to Glasgow: 100 Years of May Day”, evoked the past to conjure up an image of a future in which the May Day celebrations would be at the heart of the existence of working people.

A small unofficial celebration of 1 May 1990, in what was once ‘the second city of the (British) Empire’ is instructive. In harking back to one hundred years of May Day as a symbolic day of workers’ solidarity internationally as well as at home, the small amorphous group built around the book, Workers’ City, are committed to the socialist dream of a world free of poverty, ill-health, ignorance, obscurantism and militarism. This celebration is important in a wider context in which Scots are engaged in soul-searching about their own nation’s past.

Although numerically small, May Day gatherings in the cities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh and in some of the smaller towns such as Stirling and Kilmarnock, they were not reported in the daily or weekly newspapers. As meetings took place to celebrate May Day in recent years have attracted fewer and fewer people as the official trade union leaders have lost touch with the grassroots, together with the repression stimulated by Mrs Thatcher, the Scottish workers’ movement is being born again outside the official movement.

The biggest May Day celebration in Scotland in 1990 was held in Glasgow. Organised by the official labour movement, it had to give more emphasis than in the past to the Scottish national question. Alongside this official celebration on Sunday, 7th May, on the famous Glasgow Green, where May Day was first celebrated almost a hundred years ago, an unofficial platform gave hospitality to socialists (1).

In Britain as a whole the economic crisis is really putting socialism back on the agenda. In an article in the Times, the organ of the British Establishment, it is reported that ‘Thatcher rules, but still people want socialism’ (2). By contrast, the Scots are much more disaffected from the British Establishment than the English or the Welsh.

This is the background against which the Scottish Trades Union Congress organised an international day or workers’ solidarity in July 1990. In coming out of the celebrations leading up to May Day last year, the 14th July, 1990, was set aside as A Day For Scotland. A protest against ‘every piece of undemocratic legislation from the Poll Tax (a tax redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich) to cuts in the National Health Service’, this celebration of life against English Toryism is a historic turning-point (3).

In attracting 25,000 to Stirling on 14 July, the Scottish Trades Union Congress is responding at least partly to the unofficial celebration of inter-nationalism on 1 May 1990, for the first time since 1923, as A Day For Scotland. Though A Day For Scotland attracted much attention from the newspapers, it was the culmination of earlier struggles for justice and national dignity. Backed up by pop bands, the participants were agitating for a Scottish Parliament and socialist policies (4).

At the heart of the revival of the May Day celebrations in Scotland spilling over into July and August is the economic crisis. Although Pat Kane, a left wing pop band leader, is right to say that ‘the 1980s saw a flourishing of proletarian and socialist images of Scotland’ with ‘the experiences of the urban working class’ being a major part of this voicing of Scotland’, the role of the Labour Party in Scotland in accepting Thatcherite economics has been crucial in triggering off mass discontent (5).

In Glasgow the Labour administration has adopted Thatcherite economics. As part of their strategy of economic regeneration, they have attempted to give the famous Glasgow Green to money-obsessed redevelopers. In circumstances where economic scarcity is bringing democratic processes to the edge of extinction, the May Day celebrations are being increasingly seen as an index to what the democratic Left now requires to do to counter the the inherently undemocratic ideology of the ‘free market’ forces which allow, in the idiom of George Bernard Shaw, ‘the rich and the poor alike to sleep under London Bridge’.

Despite the much talked about ‘death of socialism’ in British newspapers the democratic Left in Scotland is now attracting mass support for humane policies to deal with the economic crisis. At the moment thousands of oil workers engaged on the off-shore oil industry are on strike against the big multinational oil companies to demand proper safety measures in a crisis and accident prone industry. The oil workers in the North Sea of Scotland are now gaining considerable support from the official trade union leaders, other workers on shore, the media and ‘public opinion’. Much of their success is due to the ongoing soul-searching in Scotland including a re-assessment of the significance of May Day in our national history and the history of other countries. Alongside a born-again capitalism and the alleged ‘death of socialism’, the forces of a socialist renaissance are becoming increasingly vocal and confident.

1. ‘Defend the People’s Culture’, The Glasgow Keelie, July 1990.
2. Robin Oakley, ‘Thatcher rules, but people still want socialism’, The Times, 4 July, 1990.
3. ‘A Day For Scotland’, Radical Scotland. June/July 1990.
4. ‘No looking back as young celebrate power’, Observer Scotland, 15 July 1990.
5. Pat Kane, ‘A Day for Scotland’, Radical Scotland, August/September, 1990


Alongside the massive de-industrialisation now underway in America and Western Europe, the restructuring of the transnational capitalist economy stirs up new class struggles between the privileged and the unprivileged. This process is also stimulating socialists to rediscover something of their own history. And as the torch of unenlightened capitalist “enlightenment” passes from Glasgow towards the end of this year, the Glaswegian socialists’ role within this event will be to assist the Left in Ireland to reconstruct the memory of Glasgow’s Dublin connection and vice versa. At the heart of any progressive definition of culture is the deposit of the most precious part of the accumulated cultural treasures of the past - that is, the consciousness of men and women themselves. The new capitalism of the late-twentieth century is unwittingly contributing to the rediscovery of Glasgow’s Dublin connection. With the revival of the memory of Glasgow and Dublin as workers’ cities par excellence, left-wing Scottish poets and novelists are crafting new prose-poems about the continuity of workers’ creativity.

The No Mean City of no mean socialist educators and agitators has always had an internationalist outlook. In fostering an oppositional, anti-capitalist culture from the nineteenth century, the negative image of the no mean city of the disaffected was developed against the unenlightened Scottish Enlightenment. In any case, the slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of Glasgow's Enlightenment from the late eighteenth century into the next century.

Crammed between Paris in 1989 and Dublin in 1991, Glasgow - at present the city of European capitalist “culture” - had important historic links with both of those cities of European workers’ culture for more than a century.

Over a hundred years ago refugees from the bloody and brutal repression of the Paris Commune sought political asylum in the poor but generous communities of the workers’ Glasgow. Inside working-class Glasgow the refugees from the workers’ Commune in Paris made their own contribution to the cumulative growth of socialist ideas and attitudes. At the same time, they were joined by French glassblowers whose distinctive ideas about capitalist injustice were well received in the workers’ Glasgow.

But the links between the workers’ Glasgow and Dublin owed a great deal to James Larkin, James Connolly, John Maclean, Harry McShane and many others. As early as the 1850s, the voice of disaffected Irish labour found expression in and through the genius of the poet-pedlar James McFarlan In his great poem The Lords of Labour and in his essays on judges and police courts, he spoke up in defence of the workers’ Glasgow.

Then the same discontent of the Irish in Glasgow was expressed in the early nineteenth century by the talented Irish novelist Patrick MacGill. Working alongside “the great John Maclean” in the Social Democratic Federation MacGill articulated the growing disaffection of the working-class Irish in Glasgow. Although the Irish immigrants in Glasgow were marginalised economically, they kept their cultural identity. This was at the heart of the Glaswegian Left’s Dublin connection then and later on, too.

When Glasgow municipal socialism (sic!) was allegedly the envy of the world according to the city’s bourgeoisie, Glaswegian workers suffered from appalling poverty, malnutrition, ill-health and unemployment. Even so, they always tried to assist others who were sometimes worse off than themselves. During the “Labour War” in Dublin in 1913, the workers of Glasgow collected and sent donations - the workers’ pennies - to the poor and exploited just over the sea. In the left wing nationalist newspaper, Irish Opinion, the editor, Cathal O’Shannon, in the seminal year of 1918 wrote: “The Glasgow workers, like those in Dublin, decided to hold May Day this year on the 1st May, and not the first Sunday. Glasgow and Dublin are the two cities in these countries that lead the van in the militant army of Labour and from them, if from nowhere else, we may expect a bold lead”.

An awareness of Glasgow labour’s historical links with socialist Paris and the workers’ Dublin is not of mere academic interest. It is part of what should be the collective memory of, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “our enslaved ancestors”. Far from fostering any awareness of those links the so-called Labour administration in Glasgow under Pat Lally are attempting to develop severe amnesia about the real history of the no mean socialist city of Glasgow. The Labour Party’s almost touching support for Thatcherite economic doctrine compels them to repackage Glaswegian workers’ collective memory of past struggles against poverty and unemployment.

But although Glaswegians need a collective memory Glasgow’s real Glasgow they should also remember the continuity of Liberal-Labourism (Lib-Labism) between then and now. Far too often in the past as now so-called Labour men and women have done the bosses’ dirty work. Working people need to develop a new pride of where they came from as well as why they are resisting Labour-cum-Tory measures in the interests of the privileged.

A useable past - a meaningful, relevant Labour history - means that the values of authentic socialism need to be fought for and fostered, so that the majority of people can make decisions for fundamental change designed to make the present the past. Therefore labour history museums should not serve as monuments or mausoleums; they should become resource centres to equip those who are struggling to eradicate unemployment, elitist education, poor housing and poverty. And any city aspiring to become a true city of culture should join in the struggle for democratic socialism from below from Paris to Glasgow and Dublin and beyond.

But what is essential to connect the historic links between Glasgow’s Dublin-like workers’ struggles with ongoing struggles everywhere in the here-and-now is collective memory. The spectre of the memory of the working class is what really worries the ruling classes here, there and everywhere. In a perceptive discussion of the role of historical memory and the struggles for justice throughout the world, the American radical, Meridel Le Sueur, argues that: “Many remember everything ... the ruling class is finding that out now ... you have to differentiate the class memory of the bourgeoisie who dismember memory instead of remembering it ... it is their class weapon ... and because the crisis of capitalism is repeated and grown into a monstrous evil the memory of struggle returns to all”.

In Paris, Glasgow, Dublin, New York, Warsaw and Johannesburg historical consciousness of the real past of humankind is being rediscovered. It is vital to the survival of civilisation itself. A low level of historical consciousness is, in fact, an indispensible part of ruling class control over working people. The restoration of Glasgow's Dublin connection - an important part of the Western socialist heritage - will contribute to the eventual eradication of exploitation and injustice, not the “heritage industry” or “the end of history” being fostered by the Tories and their cohorts elsewhere.