‘’Tis so raw-boned’: William Morris in Scotland

Scotland was not a country with which William Morris was particularly enamoured. His visits there, often undertaken with some reluctance, were only ever of a practical nature. In spite of his instinctive dislike for the place, however – displayed especially in the accounts of his passing visits in the 1870s – Morris travelled frequently to Scotland during his socialist years, making the journey at least once a year between 1883 and 1889, and often multiple times in one year. This post is intended to be a comprehensive account of Morris’s movements and experiences in Scotland, from his first visit in 1871 to his final trip in 1889.

Morris’s experience of Scotland was mainly urban and mainly confined to the Lowlands. Towards the larger cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee he was at best indifferent, at worst actively disdainful. Morris’s opinions on Scottish architecture were almost entirely negative, though his universal scorn on this point was sometimes balanced out by his admiration for parts of the Scottish countryside, as well as the pleasure he evidently took in any hint of a connection with his beloved Walter Scott. Morris was only to visit Scotland’s Highlands once, and even that visit constituted little more than a brief day’s excursion between appointments. Never a sightseer for more than a few snatched hours at a time, Morris was almost always in Scotland on business.

Morris’s first visit to Scotland was in July 1871, when he was travelling to Iceland via Granton, which was then a small port on the outskirts of Edinburgh. On July the 6th he boarded an Edinburgh-bound overnight train at London, along with his travelling companions Charlie Faulkner and Eiríkur Magnússon. ‘[A] third-class rail-way journey by night’, he noted in his diary, ‘is neither eventful nor pleasant; we droned away as usual in such cases, though I for my part was too excited to sleep’.1 Crossing the Tweed the following day, Morris entered Scotland:

[N]orth of the Tweed the country soon got very rich-looking with fair hills and valleys plentifully wooded. I thought it very beautiful: we had left the sea now; but every now and then we would pass little valleys leading down to it that had a most wonderfully poetical character about them; not a bit like one’s idea of Scotland, but rather like one’s imagination of what the backgrounds to the border ballads ought to be: to compensate, the weather was exceedingly like my idea of Scotland, a cold grey half-mist half-cloud hanging over the earth.

Compared with Morris’s later remarks, these first impressions are comparatively favourable. The green, fertile country around Berwickshire and East Lothian, with its hints of Walter Scott, appeals to him, perhaps because of its resemblance to so much of England. Indeed, part of the charm of this part of Scotland seems to lie in its being, for Morris, not really Scottish.

Arriving in Edinburgh – or ‘Edinborough’, as Morris calls it – the three travellers catch a glimpse of the city while awaiting their onward train: ‘we went up for a few minutes into the dismal street where people were taking their shutters down, then wandered about the station, felt frowsy, and drank ineffably bad coffee in the refreshment-room till the train started for Granton.’ In spite of his low spirits, Morris seems initially impressed by the rugged splendour of the more historic parts of Edinburgh:

As you come up to Edinborough it looks striking enough certainly, and is splendidly set down, with the huge castle-rock rising in the middle of it and on its out-skirts the quite wild-looking mountains about Arthur’s Seat; underneath lies what is left of Holyrood: once upon a time it must have been an impressive and poetical place, but I should think always very doleful.

Such praise is curtailed, however, as the tawdry reality of nineteenth-century Edinburgh2 is brought into focus: ‘the dolefulness remains, the poetry is pretty much gone: the station is a trifle more miserable-looking than the worst of such places in England: looking up from it you see high houses going up the sides of the deep gorge it lies in; they are black, they are comfortless-looking and not old now’.3 Evidence of nineteenth-century poverty and dilapidation have, for Morris, negated any sense of romantic grandeur.

In Granton, ‘a dull, dull place with the slip-shod do-nothing air that hangs about a small port’, Morris, Faulkner and Magnusson met with their fourth companion, W. H. Evans. Struggling to ascertain the exact time of the arrival of the Diana, the boat in which he was to travel to Iceland, Morris began to fear that he might be about to have his ‘first experience of a Scotch Sabbath’. Breakfasting at a ‘dismal big inn’ – probably the Wardie Hotel on the Lower Granton Road – Morris remarked positively (a rarity while he was in Granton) on the view ‘over the firth and its islands, the going and coming trains, and the steam-ferry to Burnt Island that lies on the other side of the firth.’

Escaping into Edinburgh after breakfast, Morris’s gloom failed to dissipate. He had his hair cut ‘in terror of the dreaded animal, Faulkner all the while egging on the hair-dresser to cut it shorter’. Afterwards, Morris and Faulkner ‘drove about a bit in an open chaise thing with the uncomfortable feeling that one doesn’t know where to tell the driver to drive to, and that he and everybody else are pointing the finger of scorn at us for being strangers and sightseers’. Morris’s hostility towards Edinburgh only seems to have grown during this brief excursion: ‘well, we drove into the Grassmarket and other parts of the old town; there is little left now that is old in look, and all is dirty and wretched-looking in the old town, and the new town provincial and pretentious to the last degree’. He returned to Edinburgh ‘well tired’4, and that night stayed at the Granton Hotel on the east side of Granton Square.

Waking early the next day, Morris looked eagerly for the sight of the Diana, dogged by ‘a sort of feeling that we shall never get away from Granton, and indeed, it is a place to inspire that feeling’. At length the boat was spotted, and preparations made to sail the following day. At this point Morris’s spirits seem to have lifted, though he was no better disposed towards Edinburgh than he had been hitherto. On the 8th of July, the eve of his departure, Morris remarked in a letter to Philip Webb that ‘when I really want to cut my throat I shall go to Edinborough to do so; it will be an easy matter so to do’.5 With that parting shot, Morris left Granton harbour aboard the Diana the following morning.

Sailing north up the east coast of Scotland, Morris was again unimpressed by the scenery, declaring it a ‘a very dull and uninteresting-looking coast’. Passing Fair Isle, between Shetland and the Orkneys, Morris’s interest is momentarily piqued by a connection with Icelandic saga: the island, Morris notes, is where ‘Kari stayed with David before he struck the last strokes in the avenging of Njal’. Beyond that, however, along with the decidedly prosaic observation that ‘Fair Isle and Shetland are both high conical hills to look at’, Morris’s interest seems mostly to be confined to the operations of the seamen aboard the Diana, the quality of the sailing and his and Faulkner’s continuing seasickness.6

Beginning his return journey to London after almost two months travelling around Iceland, Morris and the rest of his party departed the harbour at Reykjavik on the 1st of September. By the 6th, they were off the north coast of Scotland. Passing the southernmost Orkneys, ‘we could just see the low bank of the islands against a beautiful golden sunset, as we sailed along in great rest and peace’.

The following day, the Diana sailed alongside the Aberdeenshire coast, not much more than ‘a long grey line’ as far as Morris was concerned. His recent experience of the dramatic Iceland scenery made the comparatively dreary coastal landscapes of Lowland Scotland even more unpalatable than before: ‘I thought the Scotch coast wondrous dull after all the marvels we had seen; even the Firth of Forth and its islands.’ Arriving in Granton in the evening, Morris and his companions were ‘glared at stolidly by a line of Scotchmen and boys, whom somehow it occurred to most of us Englishmen to fall to and chaff, which amused them and us till the gangway was thrust ashore’. After a brief farewell stop at an Edinburgh tavern, Morris boarded a train to London, though with his sense of geographical scale significantly altered by recent experience: ‘So into the train, thinking what a little way it was from Edinburgh to London.’7

Morris returned to Iceland in 1873, again sailing in the Diana from Granton harbour. Morris records this journey in considerably less detail than on the previous occasion, with most of his impressions of Scotland during this trip being confined to a letter written to Philip Webb a few hours prior to his departure on July the 11th. Again, in this letter, there is the sense of gloomy pessimism which seems to pursue Morris whenever he is in Granton: ‘I feel as if I had been away several months already’. There is also a hint of national chauvinism in Morris’s account of the Scots he encounters: ‘The Scotch people I have seen seem to me to keep well up to their character: 3 very drunken tradesmen we saw on Wednesday going along arm in arm obviously congratulating themselves on being the cream of the human race, were types to rejoice the heart of a Taylor’.8 Morris’s impression of Edinburgh (spelled correctly this time) is at least a little more favourable than it was during his last visit: ‘I found Edinburgh … to have a strong flavour of Scott & his novels this time. I went into the high Church [St. Giles’ Cathedral or the High Kirk] (sadly bebuggered as it has been9) rather a mean church always I fancy, but smelling strongly of Davie Deans & the rest.’10 It seems that suggestions of a favoured work of literature – whether Walter Scott or Icelandic saga – are, for Morris, particularly capable of redeeming otherwise unlovely aspects of Scotland’s buildings, landscapes and localities.

Of Morris’s return journey from Iceland in September 1873 there are no detailed accounts, though it may be assumed that his passage again took him between the Orkney Islands and Shetland and south along the east coast of Scotland.

morris league

Morris would not return to Scotland until 1884, during which year he made three separate trips north of the border, all in the name of socialism. On the 17th of November, during a meeting sponsored by the Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL), Morris delivered ‘Misery and the Way Out’ at Edinburgh’s Hall of the Literary Institute on South Clerk Street.11 The audience at this lecture was roughly 3,000. He returned to London a day or two afterwards but was back in Scotland again on the 23rd of November to deliver a lecture before the Glasgow Branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In December, Morris was in Scotland for a slightly longer period of time, during which he embarked on a socialist lecture tour. On the 11th of December he gave a lecture at the Greenock Branch of the Land Restoration League, and on the evening of the 13th he delivered his ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’ at Picardy Hall in Edinburgh at a meeting sponsored by the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL (Morris and John Bruce Glasier first met on this occasion). On the morning of 14th Morris gave an impromptu speech to the Glasgow branch of the SDF at their branch rooms, and in the evening of that same day he delivered his ‘Art and Labour’ to the Glasgow Sunday Society at St. Andrew’s Hall, to an audience of around 3,000. After the lecture, Morris again addressed the Glasgow branch of the SDF. He arrived back in London on the 16th.12

The tour of December 1884 was, of course, marked by political strife within the British socialist movement. The SLLL had been founded earlier that year as a Scottish affiliate of the SDF in Edinburgh, and the SDF’s own H. M. Hyndman – as well as Hyndman loyalists in the SDF’s Glasgow branch, which had only recently been formed – almost immediately began to regard it with hostility, suspecting it of anarchist leanings. Serious divisions made themselves evident at the meeting of the SDF’s Glasgow branch on the evening of the 14th, when a letter from Hyndman attacking the SLLL’s co-founder Andreas Scheu was read out. At the end of that same meeting, the Glasgow branch secretary W. J. Nairne is supposed (according to John Bruce Glasier’s account) to have publicly needled Morris on the question of Marxist theory, having treated him as an opponent for most of the evening. Outraged at Hyndman’s machinations in Scotland, Morris formed his ‘cabal’ almost immediately upon his arrival back in London, and shortly thereafter split from the SDF to form the Socialist League (SL).13

Political issues aside, it is also on this tour that Morris records his first impressions of Scotland and its people for more than a decade. In a letter to his daughter Jenny he records ‘Wet weather in Glasgow, and my impressions of that huge den by no means pleasant; though some of the country one runs through from Edinburgh is beautiful’. In Newhaven, which was then a fishing village and small port on the very outskirts of Edinburgh, Morris recounts a more pleasing experience:

I went a long walk with Scheu yesterday afternoon which brought us (after dark) to Newhaven; we took omnibus [sic] there … and the said vehicle was half full of fish-wives and their babies: they were not beautiful ones like Christie Johnson14, but were clean and neat, and were dressed in the proper style with jackets of bright chintz; and were a relief from the usual dulness of Scotch street life.

Again, a literary connection brings Morris momentarily out of the gloom which usually descends whenever he is in Scotland, and he is able briefly to take some interest in its more colourful inhabitants. He is soon engulfed again, however, when he is faced with the prospect of Scottish architecture: ‘The house building is terrible both here [in Glasgow] and at Edinburgh, & in short almost wherever one comes across a house in Scotland: so coarse and raw so to say: it seems wretched that they should spoil the lovely country with them.’15 It is not immediately clear what Morris has in mind when he is making these criticisms – does he mean the new tenements and suburban villas? Is it the pomp of the fashionable Scots Baronial style he dislikes? Or is he referring to the more ponderous variety of neoclassicism popular in Scotland during the Georgian and Regency years? As will be seen, the charge of rawness or barrenness is often repeated, but never clarified.

Morris returned to Scotland for another lecture tour in April of 1885. This tour was, mercifully, to be considerably less eventful than that of the previous year. On the 23rd, Morris travelled by train from London to Glasgow, a journey which he spoke of in a letter to Jenny: ‘I had a wet day to travel to Glasgow on, so that I missed the sight of that fine country between Lockerlie [presumably Lockerbie] and Carstairs’. There is a theme emerging here: when Morris does praise Scottish landscapes (a rarity in itself) it is always the country between places which he praises – the places themselves (the cities and towns) are usually not much more than a necessity to be borne.

During the day on the 24th, Morris was taken out on a steamboat excursion up the Clyde to Lochgoilhead, a small Highland village on the northern shore of Loch Goil, in Argyll and Bute. That evening, having returned to Glasgow, Morris read out some of his own poetry at Pillar Hall, Queen’s Rooms. The reading was part of an effort to raise funds for the Glasgow branch of the SL, which also sponsored the meeting. The following day Morris travelled to Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘Work as It Is and as It Might Be’ at the Free Tron Hall, in Edinburgh, at a meeting sponsored by the SLLL. Morris was pleased with what he found in Edinburgh: ‘the meeting was once more good there & the Branch in high spirits because they made some money by it: they have some very good and thoughtful men among them.’ After the meeting, Morris was detained by the sculptor J. Pittendreigh McGillivray, much to his chagrin: ‘a socialist sculptor (nomine McGillivray) victimised me by making me to sit to him’. On the 26th Morris travelled back to Glasgow from Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’ at the Albion Hall, in a meeting sponsored by the SL’s Glasgow branch. Morris was a little less enthusiastic about the state of the SL in Glasgow: ‘a good lot, but wanting instruction badly’. After the meeting, Morris again sat for McGillivray.

On the 27th Morris left Glasgow for Chesterfield, where he was due to attend yet another meeting before staying the night at Edward Carpenter’s residence at Millthorpe. Writing to Georgiana Burne-Jones from Millthorpe the following day, Morris reflects briefly on his most recent experience of Scotland: ‘I have been getting on pretty well in Scotland, but whether pock-pudding prejudice [‘pock-pudding’ was a derogatory Scottish term for an English person] or not I can’t bring myself to love that country, ‘tis so raw-boned.’16 Morris notes with pleasure the progress of socialism in Scotland – as he would continue to do over the next few years – but the country itself is quite simply not to Morris’s taste. Echoing his earlier criticism of Scottish architecture, Morris finds Scotland to be simply too raw to ever be truly appealing, though whether he means this in an architectural, topographical or even a cultural sense is not made clear.

Yet another socialist lecture tour was to take Morris back to Scotland in June of 1886. Though limited to the country’s Lowland region – as indeed all Morris’s lecture tours had been and would continue to be (with the exception of the brief excursion to Lochgoilhead in 1885) – this was nonetheless to be one of Morris’s most extensive tours of Scotland. It began on the 21st, when Morris caught the 8pm train from London. Morris’s impressions of this journey take what is by now a predictable form: ‘woke as the train went out of Stirling & showed a very raw-boned town but a lovely country: plain & mountains with Tay17 amidst it very lovely. Perth also blue-boned but a most beautiful situation especially down the water of Tay.’ Again, Scotland’s urban or semi-urban environments are coarse and unlovely, while the country surrounding those places is pleasant and beautiful.

Over the following seven days, Morris gave lectures and attended meetings in Arbroath, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Bridgeton. The tour began in Arbroath on the 22nd of June, where Morris was unusually positive about his surroundings – in a short article written for the Commonweal, Morris describes Arbroath as ‘a pleasant stone-built town’ and praises its ruined abbey and church, while in a letter to Jenny he writes that Arbroath is ‘not a bad sort of a town for Scotland’, and again praises the town’s abbey. While by no means effusive, Morris’s uncharacteristic enthusiasm might be said to have a distinct cause: Arbroath possesses a direct connection with Walter Scott. Both in his article for the Commonweal and in his letter to Jenny, Morris notes that Arbroath is the model for the town of Fairport in Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), and he confides to Jenny that while in Arbroath he has been ‘walking on the sea shore not trying to remember Miss Isabella Wardour’. These purely scenic and literary observations are, however, tempered by Morris’s newly acquired materialist emphasis: ‘[t]he industry practised there [in Arbroath] is sail-cloth making, and it is a in a very dismal condition at present. There was much suffering in the past winter.’

Morris’s political experiences in Arbroath were well-recorded in the pages of the Commonweal, as was the whole of the 1886 tour. During the day on the 22nd, Morris writes, he took a walk with his host, ‘a Free Kirk minister and a Socialist’. The pair came across a field labourer ‘who was resting from his job of harrowing at a field’s end’, and Morris proceeded to enquire into the specifics of his working life:

I should premise for the benefit of our English readers, that Scotch field-labourers are hired by the half-year, and receive their “meal and milk,” lodging in a “bothy” – or a not too luxurious pig-stye – and a sum of money. This friend, who was a brisk and intelligent young man, told us that wages were low, and that he was now receiving £9 for the half-year, instead of £12, which he used to receive … I was told afterwards that wages had fallen back to what they were ten years ago … A foreman, our friend told us, was now getting £28 per annum, which used to be the wages of a full private labourer.

Morris the materialist is again in evidence here. Indeed, Morris’s new materialist focus, as well as his immersion in the world of Scottish socialism, has allowed him to engage with the working people of Scotland in a much more empathetic manner than he did in the 1870s, during his brief stays at Granton. No longer demeaning stereotypes or amusing diversions, working-class Scots are people in their own right, existing in particular circumstances and subject to particular constraints.

In the evening, Morris lectured to an audience of ‘upwards of 600 very attentive persons, mostly of the working-class’, at a meeting sponsored by the Arbroath Lecture Committee. According to Morris’s account his lecture was positively received, and ‘A fair amount of literature was sold.’

The next day, Morris delivered ‘True and False Society’ at the Oddfellows’ Hall on Forrest Row, Edinburgh, in a meeting sponsored by ‘the fag-end of the Industrial Remuneration Conference of last year.’ Despite pessimistic predictions, the event was well-attended and lively. A vote of thanks was moved in Morris’s favour by ‘a clergyman’ (the chairman), as well as the Reverend John Glasse, who was also speaking, and a third speaker, who ‘poked some ecclesiastical fun at [Morris], interlaced with buttery compliments.’ Speaking to branch members afterwards, Morris records that ‘[t]hey seemed rather depressed; lack speakers; and so find it difficult to make much way.’ Indeed, in spite of the success of the recent meeting, Morris received from the branch members a gloomy picture of the state of Scottish socialism: ‘One comrade said that in talking to fellow-workmen they would agree with everything that he said in favour of Socialism, but could not be brought further than this passive adherence.’ Still, there was some cause for optimism: there had been ‘commendable efforts’ to sell the Commonweal, while the University Society were ‘starting a kind of progressive debating society, appealing to trades’ unionists and co-operatives to join it’.

On the 24th Morris gave the same lecture as he had done the previous day, sponsored by the same organisation, at the Waterloo Rooms in Glasgow. The meeting was again well-attended despite ‘apprehensions of a failure’, with the audience ‘perhaps more in assent than at Edinburgh’. Closing his account of this meeting in the Commonweal, Morris remarks that ‘the Scotch are much given to “lion-hunting,” and that therefore it is necessary for a Socialist who wants to get at the facts to discount a certain amount of the enthusiasm with which he is received, if he happens to have any reputation outside Socialism.’ He also comments on the presence of a ‘good sprinkling … of Land Restorers’ in Glasgow.

On the 25th, Morris lectured in Dundee, again delivering his ‘True and False Society, at a meeting once again sponsored by the committee of the Industrial Remuneration Conference. Morris records that he had ‘much such an audience as at Glasgow, only that they lacked the instruction that our Branch has, with all drawbacks, given to the Glasgow folk’. He also takes time to note that ‘Trade is very slack at Dundee; the jute business nearly gone, Indian competition having destroyed it. I was told that there are few places where the difference between the classes is more felt than it is at Dundee.’ Ending his political account of Dundee, Morris recommends the formation of a branch of the Socialist League there.

Returning once again to Glasgow, Morris delivered ‘The Political Outlook’ at a meeting sponsored by the Glasgow branch of the Socialist League, which again took place at the Waterloo Rooms. A large audience – over 600 – was again in attendance, and the meeting was broadly successful, though Morris records that ‘several got up and went out almost as soon as I began: it seems there was some mistake as to my subject, as there was a religious meeting elsewhere in the premises, and some of the proper audience thereof had wandered into our hall.’ After the meeting a special tea was held in Morris’s honour, at which he recited the speech made by John Ball in the Market Place in A Dream of John Ball. The tea went on past midnight, and at its close branch members accompanied Morris back to his hotel singing the ‘March of the Workers’.

The final lecture of the lengthy tour of 1886 was on the 28th of June, at Bridgeton, in the east end of Glasgow. Morris delivered ‘Socialism’ at the Temperance Institute on James Street, during a meeting sponsored by the Glasgow branch of the Socialist League. Morris’s impressions of Bridgeton itself were not favourable: ‘a most woeful abode of man, crying out from each miserable court and squalid, crowded house for the abolition of the tyranny of exploitation.’ Neither was the meeting there much of a success – the audience only numbered about 200, with the ‘monotony of acquiescence … only broken by an eager religionist, who turned his question-time into a kind of sermon addressed to us’.

Reflecting on the whole of the tour, Morris finds that ‘the condition of opinion in the Scotch towns that I have visited is encouraging.’ He records that ‘the halls were mostly well filled, and the audiences more than attentive – almost enthusiastic’. Morris is confident that ‘the ideas of Socialism are taking hold’ in Scotland. Finally, he observes with pleasure that ‘Nor will the attachment to puritanic religion, which has been held up as such a bug-bear to us, be a very serious barrier to Socialism … the Scotch, it seems, no longer care to mix religion with their politics’. ‘Here, then,’ Morris concludes, ‘is good hope of harvest’.18 On the 29th of June, Morris returned to London.

Morris returned to Scotland once more that year, on September the 26th. He was there, unusually, for commercial reasons – he was travelling to Manchester and made a detour to Edinburgh to inspect the new Morris & Co. window that had recently been installed in St. Giles’ Cathedral. In a letter home to Jenny he sketches a gloomy but not altogether negative vision of the city: ‘The smoke hung low on Edinburgh yesterday so that the mountains looked like strong outlines against the sky and the ugly detail of the houses was a good deal hidden so that there was something very fine about the whole view from the castle hill’. Describing the Morris & Co. window in St. Giles’, Morris is implicitly critical of the quality of the rest of the cathedral’s furnishings: ‘Our window is fine & looks a queer contrast with its glittering jewel-like colour to the daubs about it.’19

Morris returned to Scotland numerous times in 1887, and in April of that year he embarked on yet another socialist propaganda tour of Scotland. Morris records each of these visits in his Socialist Diary of 1887.20 On the 14th of March, Morris lectured at the Tron Hall in Edinburgh. The audience, Morris records, was ‘slender in number’ but ‘attentive and intelligent and very enthusiastic’. Morris here echoes his optimism of the previous year: ‘things seem on the rise in Scotland.21 In Edinburgh our branch is doing better, though the SDF are more active, as they have more working-men amongst them; our people are on quite good terms with them: best of all the general feeling of advanced political people is turning our way there.’ The day after his lecture at the Tron, Morris visited Roslin, a small town on the River North Esk, just south of Edinburgh, within which is located the heavily ornamented Rosslyn Chapel. Writing of this visit, Morris returns to his old habit of denigrating the buildings of Scotland (as well as its weather, perhaps more understandably) while praising its landscapes: ‘a beautiful glen-ny landscape much spoiled temporarily by the remains of last week’s snow, and permanently by the misery of Scotch building and a manufactory or two’. Morris’s enthusiasm for Rosslyn Chapel itself, a building of the fifteenth century, is conspicuously muted: ‘strange indeed, unquestionably romantic; but the work coarse and quite lacking the deft skill and crispness of medieval work; the romance laid on with a trowel, as if by an amateur determined to be romantic’. That evening, Morris returned to London by the night train.22

On April the 3rd Morris embarked on what he had come to call ‘my regular Scotch tour’.23 His first meeting was in Glasgow, where he met with comrades from the Socialist League and spoke at their usual Sunday meeting on Glasgow Green, ‘the audience something like our London ones but I should say more intelligent, knew better what was being spoken about, I mean.’ In the evening, Morris delivered ‘True and False Society’ to an audience of around 1,000, with Cunninghame Graham MP in the chair. ‘The lecture was well received,’ Morris records, ‘and a Socialist resolution carried’. The following day Morris was in Dundee, speaking as ‘part of the fortnightly entertainment’ put on by David Macrea, a parson formerly of the United Presbyterian church until his expulsion for heresy. The audience, Morris writes, ‘was large, “respectable”, mostly lower middle class, and seemed rather startled, but not unfriendly.’ On the morning of the 5th Morris travelled to Edinburgh to deliver another lecture: ‘audience small … the chairman, a very good fellow was not a good chairman; but we carried our resolution, though clearly there were many dissentients at one time in the hall: those who agreed seemed very hearty.’ That night he slept at the residence of the Reverend John Glasse, before heading to Glasgow the next day, where he ‘met the Branch and friends at a tea-party’ in the evening.

On the 7th of April Morris was in Hamilton, where he found most of the SL branch members ‘in [the] last depths of depression’ as a result of the defeat of the recent miners’ strike. The mood at the branch meeting that evening was sombre – ‘there was rather a chilly feeling over all’ – though Morris notes that ‘A comic event enlivened us of a drunken man in the gallery who insisted on mistaking me for his representative Mr Mason, and quarrelling with me on some political matter which the liquor told him I was saying.’ The 8th of April saw Morris in Paisley, where he delivered ‘Socialism: the Way and the Means’ at the Good Templars’ Hall. In the chair was Robert Cochrane, the Provost of Paisley, ‘a curious old body once a chartist I think.’ On the 9th, a Saturday, Morris was in nearby Coatbridge, where he spoke at an open-air meeting in ‘a sort of open space by a canal at the end of that miserable cinder heap, lighted up, as night came on cold and clear, with the flare of the iron furnaces.’ Morris describes the meeting as ‘pretty good’, though he writes that he was forced to ‘compete [for the attention of the crowds] with a cheap-jack and the Salvation Army’, and was at one point ‘disturbed by a drunked [sic] Irishman’. On Sunday Morris was back in Glasgow, where he spoke at ‘quite a big meeting on the Green’ before he left for Newcastle. ‘The Glasgow Branch is in good condition’, Morris writes, ‘apparently are working hard, and are getting a good deal of support’. Morris goes on to note that ‘Kropotkin’s visit has turned them a little in the Anarchist direction, which gives them an agreeable air of toleration, and they are at present quite innocent of any parliamentary designs.’ ‘The feeling amongst the working men about’, Morris concludes, ‘is certainly in favour of Socialism; but they are slack in joining any organisation as usual: still the thing is taking hold.’

A letter Morris wrote to Jenny on April the 14th, shortly after he arrived back in London, provides an insight into Morris’s own personal impressions of Scotland during the tour of April 1887. He is not particularly impressed with Glasgow Green, describing it as a ‘doleful open-ish garden’. Of Dundee, however, he is less critical: ‘the place on the water side looking on Dundee and its “Law” or hill was beautiful.’ Morris’s journey from Dundee to Edinburgh on the 5th stirs memories of his first trip to Scotland, as he remarks to Jenny that ‘one has about 30 minutes sea from Fife across the firth to Granton, whence of old times I set sail to Iceland.’ On the 6th of April, Morris writes, he made a brief stop at Linlithgow on his way from Edinburgh to Glasgow: ‘there is the 15th century palace, a ruin, but nearly complete on the border of a little lake, and a fine Church the nave quite untouched, the choir made very ugly by the presbiterian [sic] fittings, & stupid by a feeble attempt at restoration.’ Of the tea party he attended later that day, Morris remarks that it was ‘rather slow; our Scotch friends not being very good at that sort of thing they are so shy.’ Evidently he is still occasionally inclined to view Scots in slightly stereotypical terms, though here it is more or less good-natured. In Paisley, Morris is able to indulge his architectural and historical interests: ‘A doleful place to look at, but with the nave of the old abbey Church yet left, a fine 13th century building; which must have been very fine indeed when its long aisleless choir was standing, of which but a few walls are left.’ Coatbridge, however, has no such distractions: ‘’tis an iron working place where at night the flaring furnaces put out the moon and stars.’24

In March of 1888, Morris was on another socialist lecture tour. The tour began on the 21st of March in Kilmarnock, ‘a not very important town on the edge of the mining district.’ Morris, again with the eye of a materialist, observes that the town’s main industry is the railway works and makes a note of the low wages currently being paid to the local miners. Morris delivered ‘Monopoly’ at Clerk’s Lane Church, to an audience that was ‘fair in numbers’ and ‘attentive’ but ‘not demonstrative’ and mostly middle class. Morris also notes that a branch of the SLLL has just been formed in Kilmarnock, though he is pessimistic about its prospects. That evening Morris travelled to Penkill Castle in Ayrshire, to stay with the artist William Bell Scott. He spent the following day there with Scott. In a letter to Jenny, Morris judges the castle itself to be ‘so much spoiled that one can take but little pleasure in the architecture thereof’. On the other hand ‘the place is lovely: it lies on the hill-side on a spit of ground with a beck running on each side … from the tower you can see the great wide firth (of Clyde) Ailsa Craig plain to see, & the mountains of Arran lying in the distance’25. In a letter to his mother written a few weeks later, Morris notes that Penkill is ‘somewhere about where the scene of Guy Mannering26 is supposed to take place.’27 Even during these days of lectures and branch meetings, Morris is still alert, as he has ever been while in Scotland, to the slightest hint of Walter Scott.

On the 23rd Morris was scheduled to give a lecture in Leith, which was then officially separate from Edinburgh. The lecture was a failure: only five people turned up, so the event was cancelled and the admission fee refunded. All was not lost, however, as Morris and his comrades decided to hold an impromptu open-air meeting on Leith Walk, apparently with some success. A crowd of ‘upwards of 200 persons’ assembled, and ‘listened for an hour and a half’. On the 24th Morris gave a speech on behalf of the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL in West Calder, a ‘wretched little mining town’. Morris and his comrades ‘did not expect much of a meeting on a Saturday evening in such a place’, but a bell-boy was sent round to whip up an audience, and in the end ‘some sixty persons, all workmen’ attended, who ‘made an excellent audience as to attention and spirit.’

The next day saw Morris in Glasgow, where he was scheduled to give an open-air speech to the local branch of the SL. Heavy snow forced postponement, and Morris instead spent the day in conversation with local branch members at their rooms on John Street, ‘very much to my own pleasure as without flattery they were, as I have always found them, hearty good fellows and thorough Socialists.’ In the evening Morris delivered ‘Art and Industry in the Fourteenth Century’ at Glasgow’s Waterloo Hall, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SL. ‘All political parties in Glasgow have been depressed of late’, Morris wrote later in the Commonweal, ‘but the knowledge of the [socialist] movement and sympathy with it have grown very much … The first novelty of the subject has worn off, and those who attend the meetings now are those who look upon the matter seriously.’ Later in the evening Morris was entertained by Professor Henry Dyer, who spoke to Morris of his time in Japan, much to Morris’s interest and apparent amusement. On the 26th of March Morris was in Edinburgh, where he delivered ‘The Society of the Future’ at the Trades Hall on 142 High Street, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SLLL. Morris was pleased with this meeting, remarking that the audience was ‘one of the very best audiences I ever spoke to, and missed no point in the lecture.’

On the 27th, Morris lectured at Buchan’s Hall in Barrack Street, Dundee, at a meeting sponsored by the SLLL. Morris records ‘much the same kind of audience’ as he had had in Edinburgh, ‘except that there were more middle-class persons amongst it, who made themselves useful by asking questions easily answered’. Morris notes that Dundee is home to a branch of the SLLL, ‘manned by energetic workers, whose work, however, is difficult, because ordinary party politics run high in Dundee, and the Radicals there have not got further than the Gladstoneite programme’. The final stop on the tour of March 1888 was Aberdeen – this was Morris’s first and only visit to that city. On the 28th of March he delivered ‘Monopoly’ at the Lecture Hall, at a meeting sponsored by the Aberdeen branch of the SLLL. The audience was ‘thin’ and, again, mostly middle-class, but ‘attentive and not disposed to carp.’28 The local branch of the SLLL he found to be made up of ‘some energetic and intelligent men, a good deal kept down … by the ordinary Radicalism of the place’. Writing to his mother, Morris was uncharacteristically positive about Aberdeen as a place: ‘The old town, which has always been separate from the new, with its own Corporation &c is a very pleasant place: it has the Cathedral in it and the College, and the country beyond is very beautiful.’29

Summing up his experiences on the 1888 tour, Morris writes in the Commonweal that he is ‘very favourably impressed by the outlook for Socialism in Scotland. There can be no doubt that progress has been made since last year, in the teeth of great difficulties.’ Morris declares that in spite of the hostility of the press, the oppressive practices of anti-socialist employers and ‘the traditional puritanism of the country’, the socialist movement is ‘gaining ground steadily’ in Scotland, and especially in Edinburgh.30

Morris was to make the journey to Scotland twice in 1889. His first visit constituted a brief tour, from the 9th to the 13th of February, beginning in Glasgow where he gave a lecture to the local SL branch on the evening of the 10th, having taken the night train to Scotland the previous day. On the 11th Morris gave a lecture to art students on the subject of Gothic architecture, and on the 12th he gave an address at the Glasgow School of Art on the subject of Arts and Crafts. On the 13th Morris was in Edinburgh to deliver a lecture to the branch of the SL there.

In a letter to Jenny composed back at home in Hammersmith, Morris writes of his journey from London to Glasgow: ‘Day dawned with a beautiful many coloured sunrise a little before Glasgow over a dull and dreary country.’ At Glasgow, he found himself in the depths of a Scottish winter, recalling later that ‘as Glasier and I went through the streets it looked like a city frozen to death; for there was scarce anybody abroad, and all was grey. The river too was nearly covered over with ice.’ The next day was mostly spent with John Bruce Glasier at his home – Morris notes that Glasier’s mother ‘is a Gael and can talk her native tongue.’ Writing of his journey from Edinburgh to Macclesfield on the 14th of February, Morris is in a critical mood: ‘I could not help noticing that even by then we had got to Carlisle [sic] how much daintier & prettier all the detail of the country was than in Scotland. Indeed ugly Scotland is much uglier than ugly England.’31

Morris’s second and final tour of the year took place in the autumn. On the 30th of October he delivered the presidential address to the Applied Art Section of the National Association for the Advancement of Art (NAAA). The address was delivered at Queen Street Hall in Edinburgh, and the speech was ‘The Arts and Crafts of To-Day’. That afternoon, Morris was chairman of a meeting of the same section of the NAAA at the National Portrait Gallery, also in Edinburgh. The following day Morris was again acting as chairman, this time for a general conference of all the NAAA sections, which again took place in the National Portrait Gallery. Morris was not particularly impressed by any of these meetings, and said as much in a letter to Jenny: ‘I was in the chair at some monumentally dull papers; and you may imagine how I fidgeted, my dear.’

The political leg of Morris’s second tour of 1889 began on the 1st of November, where he delivered a lecture on socialism at Oddfellows’ Hall in Edinburgh, at a meeting sponsored by the local branch of the SLLL. On the 2nd Morris was in Glasgow, along with Walter Crane, Emery Walker and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson. At Glasgow’s Albert Hall Morris delivered ‘On the Origins of Ornamental Art’, during a meeting sponsored by the Socialist League’s Glasgow branch in cooperation with the Edinburgh branch of the SLLL. On the 3rd of November Morris was again in Edinburgh, speaking at a reception organised by Edinburgh socialists at the Waterloo Rooms. On the same day Morris travelled back to Glasgow to chair a lecture given by Walter Crane to the local branch of the SL at Glasgow’s Waterloo Hall. He returned to London the following day, never to visit Scotland again.32

Scotland seems to bring out the best and the worst in Morris. It is in Scotland, indeed, that Morris can be glimpsed at his most cantankerous and most quarrelsome. At times he is downright unkind, even chauvinistic (especially during his fleeting visits in the 1870s), treating everything he sees with a certain glowering disdain not altogether without a degree of ‘pock-pudding prejudice’. When Morris is in this frame of mind, everything in Scotland becomes ugly, or more simply bad – from the houses to the coffee – and not even the odd pleasing landscape or the occasional suggestion of Walter Scott can completely redeem it. And yet Scotland also sees Morris at his most active and his most generous. Giving freely of his time and resources, Morris worked tirelessly during the 1880s to draw the people of Scotland into the cause of socialism and advance the cause of the working class there. During his innumerable lecture tours north of the Tweed – amidst all the speeches, addresses and branch meetings – Morris engaged wholeheartedly and in complete earnest with the people of Scotland, finding amongst them a great store of dedicated and intelligent comrades and friends.



  1. The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. By May Morris, 24 vols (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1910-1915), VIII, p. 1. (Afterwards CW).
  2. Much of Edinburgh’s Old Town had, at that point, become a kind of picturesque slum, with the city’s wealthier residents having decamped to the eighteenth-century New Town many years previously.
  3. CW, VIII, p. 3.
  4. Ibid., p. 4.
  5. The Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. by Norman Kelvin, 4 vols in 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984-96), I, p. 141. (Afterwards Collected Letters).
  6. CW, VIII, pp. 9-11.
  7. Ibid., pp. 184-185.
  8. As Norman Kelvin helpfully points out in a footnote in the Collected Letters, Morris is probably referring to Tom Taylor (1817-1880) here, who was a dramatist and editor of Punch from 1874 to 1880. Taylor was partly educated in Glasgow and in 1873 wrote a play about Scottish people entitled Arkwright’s Wife: An Original Domestic Drama (Collected Letters, I, p. 195).
  9. St Giles’ underwent extensive restoration twice during the nineteenth century.
  10. Collected Letters, I, p. 195.
  11. Salmon and Baker incorrectly locate the Literary Institute on a non-existent Clark Street.
  12. Nicholas Salmon and Derek Baker, The William Morris Chronology. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996, pp. 138-139. (Afterwards Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology).
  13. E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, pp. 350-357; Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber & Faber, 1993, pp. 497-500.
  14. Kelvin notes that Morris is here referring to the eponymous heroine of Charles Reade’s 1853 novel Christie Johnstone, the beautiful and courageous daughter of a Scottish fisherman (Collected Letters, II, p. 347).
  15. Collected Letters, II, p. 347.
  16. Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 147; Collected Letters, II, pp. 426-427.
  17. Norman Kelvin notes that W. J. Mackail silently corrected Morris’s geographical error here – from ‘Tay’ to ‘Forth’ – when publishing an excerpt from this letter in his biography (Collected Letters, II, p. 560).
  18. Collected Letters, II, p. 559; Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 164; William Morris, ‘A Letter from Scotland’, Commonweal, Vol. II, No. 25, July 3rd 1886, pp. 105-106; William Morris, ‘The Sequel of the Scotch Letter’, Commonweal, Vol. II, No. 26, July 10th 1886, p. 114.
  19. Collected Letters, II, p. 578.
  20. William Morris, ‘William Morris’s “Socialist Diary”’, ed. by Florence S. Boos, History Workshop, No. 13, Spring 1982, pp. 1-75. (Afterwards ‘Socialist Diary’).
  21. As Florence S. Boos points out, Morris’s optimism resulted from strike action by the Federation of Scottish Miners. This action was, Boos notes, short-lived, as the parliamentarism of the SDF became increasingly popular amongst the Scottish working class (‘Socialist Diary’, p. 43).
  22. ‘Socialist Diary’, p. 43.
  23. Collected Letters, II, p. 633.
  24. ‘Socialist Diary’, pp. 47-50; Collected Letters, II, pp. 641-642.
  25. William Morris, ‘Socialism Militant in Scotland, Commonweal, Vol. IV, No. 117, April 7th 1888, pp. 106-107, p. 106 (Afterwards ‘Socialism Militant’); Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, p. 196; Collected Letters, II, p. 759.
  26. Walter Scott published Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer in 1815.
  27. Collected Letters, II, p. 767.
  28. ‘Socialism Militant’, pp. 106-107; Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, pp. 196-197; Collected Letters, II, p. 760.
  29. Collected Letters, II, p. 767.
  30. ‘Socialism Militant’, p. 107.
  31. Collected Letters, III, pp. 31-34.
  32. Salmon and Baker, The William Morris Chronology, pp. 221-222; Collected Letters, III, p. 118.




About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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1 Response to ‘’Tis so raw-boned’: William Morris in Scotland

  1. Michael says:

    Surely the hallmark of a good writer: not a subject I have any interest in, and yet I was compelled to read almost all of it. I suppose it anything can be interesting if you look at it in a certain way. Looking forward to the next one…

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