In a similar way to social movements more generally, there tend to be trends in the topics addressed by protest stickers. Over the last year or so, the number of protest stickers relating to Covid-19 has decreased. The number of stickers relating to transgender (trans) rights, on the other hand, has increased dramatically, perhaps in response to high-profile events and controversies in the media. I have found stickers that defend and celebrate trans people, and transphobic stickers that attack and criticise them. For this blog post, I have decided to only feature the former kind, as I do not believe that the existence and rights of trans people is a debate. It’s bad enough that transphobic stickers are on the streets in such large numbers, I am not going to use my blog to give them a platform, even if it is to criticize them.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is an incredibly complex one that has been going on for decades. Every so often violence flares up, drawing international attention back to the region. The most recent outbreak started on 10th May 2021, sparked by the predicted eviction of four Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Control of the area is contested, and more than 1000 Palestinian families are currently at risk of eviction.
Most of the protest stickers I have found in the UK are sympathetic to Palestine, it is very rare to find pro-Israeli ones. The conflict is a relatively common topic of stickers (I wrote a blog post about pro-Palestinian stickers in London back in 2017), but when the violence gets worse the frequency of stickers increases. With the outbreak of hostilities in May, the number of stickers in Edinburgh went up. Several of the designs I have seen before in other cities, but some are unique, and some are specific to Edinburgh.
A 500-year old royal park might not be the first place you look for evidence of Scotland’s turbulent history. But that is exactly what the Radical Road is, a trace of a particularly tempestuous period of history in Edinburgh’s famous Holyrood Park. The path was built in 1822 by unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland after a failed uprising two years earlier. Sadly, the path has been closed ever since a large rockfall in 2018, and it isn’t clear when, or if, it will reopen. Nevertheless, the story of the Radical Road and the events that led up to its construction is fascinating.
The American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s sparked radical movements and debates across Europe, and Scotland is no exception. I have written before on this blog about the Political Martyrs Memorial in the Old Calton Burial Ground commemorating 5 reformers that were transported to Australia for their part in a campaign for universal male suffrage and annual elections in the 1790s. This growth in radical ideas and groups was also accompanied by fierce oppression by the authorities, the 1819 Peterloo Massacre being perhaps the most famous British example. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 led to an economic depression that severely impacted living conditions in Scotland. Demands for reform grew, particularly in the west of Scotland – workers believed that the government didn’t care about their poor living and working conditions. On the 1st of April 1820 a proclamation was posted around Glasgow calling for a general strike. The strike started two days later, with tens of thousands of people across central Scotland refusing to work.
The strike was supposed to be accompanied by an armed uprising. The government had a network of spies, informants and agent provocateurs within the reform movement, so the authorities were aware of most of the plans. The impact of this for the radicals was bigger than just losing the element of surprise, however. The agent provocateurs deliberately encouraged unrest in order to expose the radicals, and exaggerated the threat to the government. Because of this, the number of people willing to take part in armed uprising was lower than both the radicals and the government expected. Largely as a result, the uprising was over before it even began. There were several violent clashes between the authorities and strikers around central Scotland over the next few days. For example, on the 8th of April a crowd managed to free 5 prisoners as they were transported to Greenock Jail. Around 20 people were killed or injured in the fighting. The strike and uprising was crushed quite easily, and 88 people were charged with treason, with 3 men – James Wilson, Andrew Hardie, and John Baird – executed.
The defeat of the uprising pretty much put a stop to radical organising in Scotland. Hundreds of radicals emigrated to escape repression, and the reform movement was decimated. In 1822, George IV visited Scotland. It was the first time a British monarch had visited Scotland in nearly 200 years, and he proved incredibly popular. The visit increased loyalty to the monarchy and further dampened the radical movement. Sir Walter Scott had an important role in organising the visit, and helped to reinvigorate Scottish national identity in the process.
After George IV’s visit, Scott suggested that unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland could be used to build a path in Holyrood Park. As well as giving the men work, it was also designed to discourage further unrest. The work was hard and tiring, leaving the men little time to organise, and they were separated from their local communities and activist networks. A local nursery rhyme was inspired by they scheme:
Round and round the Radical Road the radical rascal ran
If you can tell me how many ‘r’s are in that you can catch me if you can.
The Radical Road became a popular path in Holyrood Park, with views over central Edinburgh and towards the Pentland Hills. In September 2018, 50 tonnes of rock fell onto the path during the daytime, and it was decided the path could no longer remain open. Discussions about how to make it safe for use are ongoing, but the Park’s status as a Ancient Monument makes the situation more complicated. Hopefully it will reopen one day, but until then it remains an important trace of Scotland’s radical history, hidden in plain sight.
Sources and Further Reading
Armstrong, Murray. The Fight for Scottish Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820. London: Pluto Press, 2020.
It often feels like events like Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have forced climate change down the political priority list. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes for Climate have lost momentum, and they are not getting the same kind of press coverage as they were in 2019. Nevertheless, climate change continues to be an urgent issue, and it keeps cropping up in Edinburgh’s protest stickers, alongside other environmental issues. With the next UN Conference on Climate Change being held in Glasgow in November 2021, Scotland might see an increase in environmental activism.
Cramond Island sits about a mile off the coast on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Island can be reached on foot via a concrete causeway at low tide, and it is a popular spot for Edinburgers to visit. There is a long history of human use of the Island, but the most prominent human-made features date from the Second World War. The Island was part of a string of defenses designed to protect the Firth of Forth, and many of the concrete structures used to house searchlights, guns, stores, and generators remain. This uninhabited coastal environment is not the kind of place that you would expect to find graffiti, but it seems the smooth grey concrete is an irresistible canvas, with tags ranging from basic scrawls to elaborate designs covering every available surface. I was even more surprised to discover that quite a lot of the graffiti is political, turning this little island into a radical outpost.
Protest stickers tend to reflect the issues that people care about. It should come as no surprise then that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a popular topic of stickers over the last 12 months. I have written about coronavirus protest stickers in Brighton, where I spent the first lockdown, but since I moved to Edinburgh I have found a whole new set of stickers, which have evolved as the pandemic has. From criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, workers rights, and complaints from the city’s student population, through to questioning the efficacy of lockdowns and masks and even rejecting the existence of Covid-19, the stickers I have found over the last few months represent a range of conflicting views.
Towards the Leith end of Leith Walk is a long red sandstone building. 106-154 Leith Walk is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between developers who want to demolish the building to build student housing and the grassroots campaign group Save Leith Walk. In January 2019 planning permission for the new development was denied, a significant victory for the community group. New plans have been submitted that propose to keep the building intact and reopen it as commercial spaces, but in the meantime the shop fronts remain boarded up. The dark gray wooden boards have come to serve a purpose of their own however, as a sort of community pin board. Slogans, street art, and other miscellanea appears, disappears, and reappears often. One of the most recent installations is called False Idols, by Creative Electric.
The death of actor Sean Connery on the 31st October 2020 sparked a predictable outpouring of grief and admiration, particularly in his home city of Edinburgh. Not everyone mourned his loss, however. It was well known that Connery physically abused women. On several occasions he explained how he felt entitled to hit women who ‘deserved’ it, and his first wife Diane Cliento accused him of sustained physical and mental abuse during their marriage. Many people, myself included, didn’t know about this until after Connery’s death, and False Idols questions how such a man could be celebrated as a national hero.
False Idols is described as a community art project, and in some ways it is the literal embodiment of this term. It is made up of comments posted on the I Love Leith Facebook group in the wake of Connery’s death. It must have been installed quickly, because it was destroyed on the 4th of November, just four days after Connery died. It was replaced on the 13th of November, and I took these photos two weeks later, on the 22nd. It was still largely intact when I passed by again on the 29th. You can never be sure how long street art is going to last, and the more controversial something is, the more likely it is to upset someone enough that they will try to obscure or destroy it. This is part of what makes political street art so special; it gives people an opportunity to express their opinion in public space, a privilege normally reserved for those who are rich or famous enough to attract media coverage or buy advertising.
It is generally accepted that people say things on social media that they wouldn’t be willing to say in ‘real life’. So it is interesting to see the language of social media transposed onto the public space of Leith Walk. The comments have been anonymised, but I wonder how the commenters would react if they suddenly saw their own words as they walked past. Would they regret their choice of words, or their tone? Or would they stand by them? Would they be upset, angry, or proud that their opinions have been plastered onto the physical fabric of Leith? Would they even recognise their own words in this strange context?
Both political street art and social media provide ‘ordinary’ people with a platform to express their opinions. False Idols brings these two platforms together, with thought-provoking results.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Last time I looked at Wendy Wood, artist and campaigner. This time it is the turn of Margo MacDonald, a charismatic politician and broadcaster.
The movement for independence in Scotland has been building momentum since the mid-twentieth century, and has made some significant gains over the last 50 years. Central to those gains have been the efforts of some charismatic and driven women, including Wendy Wood, who was the first Turbulent Scot I featured on this blog, and Margo MacDonald, the focus of this post. Like Wendy, Margo was passionate and likeable, although both women struggled with the constraints of membership in a political party.
Margo Aitken was born on the 19th of April 1943, one of 3 children. She grew up in East Kilbride, and trained as a PE teacher when she left school. In 1965 she married her first husband Peter MacDonald, they had 2 children. The couple ran a pub, and Margo’s experiences talking to customers and getting to know the regulars seems to have been influential on her later political beliefs.
Margo embarked on a political career in the early 1970s, winning the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973 as an SNP candidate. She won by 571 votes. This was a remarkable achievement; the SNP wasn’t considered a serious political force at that point, and it was widely believed that they couldn’t win an election under a Conservative government. Margo proved all the doubters wrong. She wasn’t an MP for long though, as she lost her seat in the 1974 General Election. She lost further elections in 1978 and 1979, but her 1973 victory helped establish the SNP as a serious political force.
In 1974 Margo became Deputy Leader of the SNP. She was critical of the Party’s poor performance in the General Election that year, particularly the failure to convert more Labour voters. She was a prominent member of the 79 Group, which tried to persuade the SNP to move further left to appeal to the working classes. The Group was banned by the SNP in 1982, and many of its members left the Party. However, they were later readmitted to the party and several had successful careers, including Margo and Alex Salmond.
Margo’s membership of the 79 Group meant that she wasn’t re-elected as Deputy Leader of the SNP in 1979, and she was one of those who left the Party in 1982. She established herself as a successful radio presenter, and wrote for several Scottish newspapers. She remarried in 1981, to politician and columnist Jim Sillars. As devolution became more likely in the mid-1990s, Margo rejoined the SNP as she believed it was the only way to achieve Scottish independence. She was elected as an MSP for Lothian in 1999. Margo was popular, but was outspoken on lots of contentious issues such as sex worker’s rights and MSP’s salaries. She struggled with the restrictions of being part of a political party, and was disciplined in 2000 for not toeing the party line.
When the SNP chose its candidates for the Scottish elections in 2003, Margo was 5th on the list, almost guaranteeing that she would not get re-elected. She stood as an independent candidate in protest, and was kicked out of the SNP. Margo had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996; in the run up to the 2003 election this became public knowledge. Margo believed someone in the SNP had leaked the information in an attempt to hamper her chances of getting re-elected, which they denied. However her diagnosis got out, it didn’t prevent her getting elected. She went on to be reelected as an independent candidate in 2007 and 2011. Margo used her platform to continue to fight for what she believed in. She became a fierce advocate for assisted suicide; this was a particularly personal issue because of her illness.
Throughout her career, Margo was suspicious that the British Security Services were interfering in Scottish politics. She believed that MI5 infiltrated the SNP in the 1970s, and in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum she asked the Security Services to guarantee that they would not interfere. Throughout her career she supported the causes that mattered to her; she once joined an Anti-Trident protest outside the Scottish Parliament, and she campaigned to ban vuvuzelas in Scottish football grounds.
Known as firebrand and rebel, Margo remained a popular and well-known politician until her death on the 4th of April 2014. She was respected, if not always liked, by allies and opponents alike. Although she never had a smooth relationship with the SNP, she helped to establish the party as a serious political actor. I’m sure that many Scots remember her fondly.
Torrance, David. “MacDonald [nee Aitken], Margo Symington Jack.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 15th February 2018, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.108517 [Subscription required to access]
Last weekend I was out on the Royal Mile preparing for a Geographies of Protest walking tour for the third year students. It just so happened that I witnessed a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion whilst I was out and about. The protest was in two parts: the first was an animal die-in in West Parliament Square, and the second was a march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. It is always interesting to witness a protest first hand, and this was no exception.
Founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has experienced a renaissance since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. From protests to art, the resurgence of BLM over the Summer of 2020 has been dramatic. Racism has been a topic of protest stickers for as long as I have been studying them, but the recent BLM revival has resulted in a corresponding surge in stickers that use the language and symbolism of BLM. Since my recent move to Edinburgh, I have found a lot of protest stickers on a whole range of topics, but racism and BLM have been some of the most common.