My sister, Dr Jane George, phoned to tell me of Ian MacDougall's death – at 87 and through coronavirus. I could imagine the grief coursing through one of Scotland's most remarkable extended families, the folk who over the decades provided him and Sandra, companions since she married him at 18, with the raw material for his Book of the Scottish People
, guessed now to extend to over 30 volumes – from bondagers, fishwives, librarians, to Leith dockers, journalists, and the folk of Lilliesleaf. In fact, just before the bad news broke, I finished a midget book on world railways by citing from one of his oral histories, of the gunpowder works down in the helpfully damp glen at Roslin with its hand-pushed trams running on wooden rails, titled Ye had tae be Careful!
. Penicuik and the Teviot Valley were the two geographic polarities of his work.
An extended written work on Ian and his achievement should be propelled on its way (I am at the end of a month's self-isolating in Melrose, fingers-crossed okay) and the MacDougall oeuvre is with my main notebooks which are in my Tuebingen office or in the files in the NLS. An encouraging note from Neal Ascherson propelled this attempt to write about what Ian meant to the Harvies, and to try to sketch the background to it.
I first met Ian when he and the late John Simpson addressed the University Labour Club in 1963, its chair Fred Reid having just gained his remarkable First with a thesis on Keir Hardie the previous year – the first blind student to do so. I and several Labour/CND activists joined the infant Scottish Labour History Society, with its elder statesman William Marwick, doyen of the anti-war radicals of 1914-18. Then Ian became one of my father's part-timers at Regent Road Institute (the left's answer to the Territorial Army) and just after graduating in 1966, my parents invited my university history friend Julie MacWhirter (daughter of Chrissie and Bob, of Edinburgh CND, in Grange Loan, big sister of Iain) for supper with the MacDougalls. In fact, the screen took over from supper as we watched in black-and-white the Aberfan tragedy of 21 October 1966 taking over, with its 144 dead (126 of them primary schoolchildren).
There was another link – with the Borders. Ian had been evacuated to Lilliesleaf during the war. My father ran St Boswells School from 1949 to 1958, and would retire to Melrose in 1979. Through his regular visits, we saw up-close how the man worked, amid a remarkable group who would also irrupt in the early organisation of the Open University, not a tape-recorder man but a subtle note-taker – attended as time went on by Henry and Sandra Cowper, Ian and Helen Wood, John and Gerry Brown, and later Paul and Rosey Addison.
This is a first shot at screen-setting the physical landscape against which Ian staged his 'people's history': as vivid as Raphael Samuel or Bill Fishman – both admired him – in London's East End and the great rivers of creative activity like public broadcasting and the Open University which had to be fought for. Ian showed how much power already rested with ordinary folk but, looking through my own time in Edinburgh, it's amazing how much of it was generated in that area of south-east Edinburgh.
Julie and I had both graduated in the Edinburgh history school that summer and as postgraduates were active in the Scottish Labour History Society (in East Preston Street, close to Nelson's publishing office and printing works) and owed much to Newington itself, its industries and workshops – from Nelsons to Bartholomew's Edinburgh Geographical Institute, where my brother Steve was apprentice cartographer in 1968, overcoming a severe bout of Krohn's syndrome in 1969 which the nearby Longmore Hospital staff – almost against the odds – cured.
Ian's Short Account of Scottish Labour Sources
became the huge A4 Labour Records in Scotland
vade-mecum; Strathclyde University with Hamish Fraser and Iain Donnachie, and the Scottish Teachers' Special Recruitment Scheme with my father at the College of Commerce celebrated Robert Owen and New Lanark in 1971.
I worked for Labour from a tiny office on Crosscauseway, at the end of Grange Loan, stood for the Council in 1967 and 1968, before going to the new Open University at Milton Keynes in the summer of 1969 – and battling with Robert Maxwell MP. Julie became one of the OU's first part-time tutors in history, despite the onset of multiple sclerosis. With the help of her husband Terry Brotherstone, she worked as long as she could and her courage inspired. Another Newington and Royal High friend, Iain McLean, researching on industrial and housing politics in Glasgow, became a Labour activist in Oxford and later Newcastle, responsible for Tyneside's remarkable regional 'Metro' and for gaining justice for the Aberfan victims.
One spin-off still kicks: Linda Myles' brilliant political thriller Defence of the Realm
, 1985, with Gabriel Byrne and the remarkable Denholm Elliot (the ultimate Teviot name?) recently repeated on TV. It stemmed from East Preston Street at a slightly later period, with Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson, as well as Lynda.
Outside tourist sturm-und-drang, little has changed? But when you look at a place in a different way, you see something else: I returned to St Boswells recently and remembered the classrooms of my father's school on the Green, built in 1830. No way was it a standard board school. Its three big classrooms had tall windows and heavy partitions which folded, making it into a great hall, for parties, dances, plays. John Smith who built it – and Abbotsford – had read his Scott, and been to Robert Owen's New Lanark...
To both of you, with memories, love and thanks, from the Harvies, and hundreds more.