At a time when Scotland was very much part of a Britain united in the war effort and maintaining its unity in opposition to the enemy, certain young men and women felt uneasy with this Britishness. Around 1940 the Fianna na h-Alba was formed in Glasgow by Harry Miller and Drummy Henderson. It had certain similarities to the Fianna Erin in Ireland, not least the name, but was very much a loose association of young people with a belief in Scotland and a desire for a change in the current order.
Based in a dunny at 181 Pitt Street, below a brothel, the association brought together people from all walks of life who had an interest in outdoor activities, Scottish culture and, in most cases, politics. ‘Some of the guys were university students; others were brass finishers like me in Fairfield’ (Jimmy Jennett), ‘the thing that bound us together was the fact that we wanted things Scottish’ (Norrie Owen)
The Fianna, later called The League of Young Scots, lasted little more than a decade but it was to have a profound influence on the lives of many of its 130 or so members. ‘They were all looking, obviously looking for something… which didnae exist at the time.’ (Norrie Owen) Out of it came the College of Piping, the Inverscotia Singers, a flow into the nascent SNP, and a body of young people who passed on their pride in their country and its culture ‘like somebody spreading the gospel, like ministers’ (Hugh MacDonald). ‘Strangely enough 1745 was the thing we recalled and in a rash moment we said, we’ll see independence by 1945.’ (Hugh MacDonald). This was not to be but not through lack of trying, indeed six members of the Fianna and the Inverscotia Nomads were jailed for their participation in the bombing of the ICI building in Glasgow 1944.
Aside from its unofficial political activities, the main thrust of the Fianna was outdoor pursuits and Scottish culture. There was not much for youngsters to do at that time and since the trams gave a quick, cheap and easy exit from Glasgow they would get together in groups at the weekends and go hillwalking and climbing, often to Arrochar or Luss, sleeping under the stars or in dosses or youth hostels.
They would gather together back at Pitt Street on their return, pull all the leftover food and have a ceilidh. An annual dance in the St Andrews Halls was the only occasion that all would gather together but there were also many regular cultural activities including country dancing. The most important of these however was, without doubt, the chanter classes taken by Seumas MacNeill as they led to the founding of the College of Piping when premises were offered in Otago Street, Glasgow in the 1950s. The link between the two organisations is evident in the badge which is common to both.
Although organisation of the Fianna was loose, it was run in a rather militaristic fashion, with uniform, membership card and the signature of a member and a probationary period necessary before membership was approved. All members, including women, had to own a kilt and pay thrupence per week. The aims of the organisation were stated clearly on the membership card:
‘We even had a membership card – oh it was great, aye. Non-political and non-sectarian. The idea that it was non-political was bloody magic… They were all Scottish Nationalists. Anarchists, Scottish Nationalists, Scottish Republicans. It was anything with the word Sco- even Scottish Cooperative!’ (Jimmy Jennet)
The 130 or so membership of the Fianna na h-Alba was, of course, too numerous to stick together so it naturally split into smaller groups, some informal but others more organised and exclusive, but the elite were, without doubt, the Inverscotia Nomads. Fronted by ‘the Chieftain’, MacGregor Kennedy, they were highly ritualistic and selective in their membership, and did not hesitate to banish members who they considered had acted inappropriately. Membership varied over the years but some core members were MacGregor Kennedy, his brother, Randolph, Roy Campbell, Rab Sharples, and Seumas MacNeill. Others were Davie Smith, Terry MacDonough and Jimmy Jennett. They would go weekending together and held an annual dinner.
This took place at a different venue each year, always north of the highland line. The Nomads took it in turns to organise the dinner and the location would remain secret until the last minute. Members and guests met as Anniesland Cross in Glasgow and travelled together to a hotel where they would ceilidh all weekend. The Inverscotia dinners continued long after the disbanding of the Fianna na h-Alba and indeed their successor, the Tryst, continues the tradition today, still all male, still meeting at Anniesland Cross, and spending the weekend ceilidhing in a hotel, the difference being that new blood has been brought in to replace those who have, sadly, departed.
An offshoot of the Inverscotia Nomads was the Inverscotia Singers. ‘And they jazzed all over the place. From one end of Scotland to the other. That’s an exaggeration. As far south as Dumfries and perhaps once or twice up to Fort William. And they done if for nothing – just to spread the songs and that.’ (Jimmy Jennett) This was not just simple, ceilidh singing. Songs were well rehearsed and arranged in three and four part harmonies, even though ‘None of us had any music, there wasn’t any music between us’ (Norrie Owen), and the Inverscotia Singers performed concerts in pubs and churches, and for the Scottish Arts Council. They even came to the attention of Jimmy Logan and were engaged for a week at the Glasgow Metropole. A trip to Moscow with Calum Kennedy followed. They were not, however, looking for fame, or for a career in the entertainment industry. Angus MacGillvery foreword to the LP, Angus’s Ceilidh gives a clearer idea of their raison d’etre.:
The authentic ring of the open air you will hear in the outdoor songs of the Inverscotia Singers. It is no fortuitous accident or carefully calculated theatrical gimmick. They have been hiking, climbing, camping, skiing and canoeing together for years in every corner of their beloved Scotland. At weekend ceilidhs around campfires, in small village halls and in great houses and homely scheillings of a host of friends where entertainment has always followed the course hallowed by countless centuries of Celtic tradition. The old songs have mingled with the new, love songs giving way to more martial airs, songs of the outdoors being followed by those expressing attachment to hearth and home.
Jimmy Jennett, Norrie Owen and Hugh MacDonald each had different involvement in the Fianna na h-Alba, and the Inverscotias and thus their recollections threw light on distinct areas. Jimmy Jennett was an early member of the Fianna na h-Alba and became both an Inverscotia Nomad and Singer, although not till he returned from working as a nurse in Brechin. He did not coincide in the Inverscotia Singers with Norrie Owen, who had become dillusioned with it and resigned. Although Norrie was in Fianna na h-Alba and the Inverscotia Singers, he was never a Nomad and was unique in this respect. Hugh MacDonald was among the first to join the Fianna na h-Alba and was one of its leaders in later years. Although he was a guest at the Inverscotia Dinners he was never a Nomad. After the demise of Fianna na h-Alba, Hugh MacDonald formed another organisation called Aiseirigh na h-Alba (The resurrection of Scotland), very little is known or recorded about this group.
Hugh MacDonald learned many of his songs from his father, a fine singer like himself, while others he gathered from those around him. At the age of about 16, for example, while passing a pub in Stirling, he heard a stirring song being belted out and, thinking ‘the whole world had come to pass’ went inside to listen and to ask the singer to note down the words for him. The song was the Battle o Stirling Brig and many went on to learn it from Hugh.
Prominent singers in the so-called Folk ‘Revival’, such as Hamish Imlach, also learned songs from him, while many others were fortunate enough to be invited to the regular ceilidhs he held at his home, in St George’s Road, ‘just for the singing, the voices, the patter’. With his love of Scots songs and involvement in Scottish nationalist politics, Hugh MacDonald, together with the Bo’ness Rebels, became involved in the publishing of a wonderful series of books, The Rebels Ceilidh Song Books. These combined traditional material with songs of a more political nature, whether serious of humorous, such as ‘The Rebel Heart’ and ‘The Wee Magic Stane’. Hugh MacDonald was a principal figure in the Fianna na h-Alba until the organisation came to end and remains today a staunch believer in Scottish culture and political independence.
In 1944 Hugh joined Fianna na h-Alba. It was formed by the late artist Harry Miller and had a marked influence on many of its members. In Glasgow because of the limited premises, membership was limited to 300 - and there was a waiting list.
Hugh recalls: "I got in the back door. A college of Piping and a college of Druming had been started. I joined the college of Piping and was able to join the Fianna".
"It was started to make young Scots mentally and physically fit to take a leading part in the restoration of the national life of Scotland". Meeting four nights a week - with at least 15 minutes compulsory Gaelic each night - the Fianna was a movement which helped dreams come true. Scottish history, poetry, music and dancing were also taught. At the weekend’s members met to go to youth hostelling and hill walking. The Piping and Drumming sections grew so big, and being specialized, finally had to separate from Fianna. This is how the present College of Piping is in Glasgow. The Principal, the late Seamus McNeill, was also in the Fianna.
At 16 Hugh was a group leader, and a year later he became editor of the monthly Fiery Cross and at the same time became advertising manager of the Piping Times, now an internationally known publication. By 1950 he was Taoiseachd, the leader.
"The same kind of movement is still desperately needed today. It provided an education that is almost impossible to get and it let people see Scotland in a true perspective". Sadly when Hugh was forced to move to England, the Fianna ended.
In 1948 Hugh wrote the following editorial for Fiery Cross regarding the name change for Fianna na h-Alba to the League of Young Scots.
For five years we have been known as “Fianna na h-Alba”, and both the organisation and the rooms have been referred to affectionately as “The Fianna”. Non-members usually attempted some vocal, gymnastics before compromising with a mangled version such as the “Feena” of the “Feeahna” or worse, but now such innocent amusements are finished. On the…September, 1946, the name was altered by Congress to “League of the Young Scots”, with the Gaelic sub-title “Comunn na h-Alba”, (which, as disciples of Drummond Henderson and Alexander MacNeill are well aware, means practically the same thing).
We know that many forces members and supporters will be dismayed that the Fianna no longer exists as such, and think that our high ideas of a complete revival of Scottish art, culture and way of life have been thrown over by the adoption of the English name. That is not the case. The members who agitated and voted for a change of name were mostly the older members who loved the name for its sentimental associations, but they were inspired by the same ruthless desire for a speedy advancement of our aims which last Spring made them decimate the Fianna so that the quality of the members would be maintained. We became convinced that the name conveyed nothing but a wrong impression to the vast majority of people and that our progress was being greatly retarded by it. Difficulties arose with the Highlanders’ Institute which showed that even most Gaelic speakers have never heard of the heroic followers of Finn-a sad reflection on our educational system.
After numerous inconclusive discussions we wrote for advice to three experts on Scottish affairs – Harold S. Stewart, of the Daily Record; Alexander Nicolson, Lecturer in Celtic at Glasgow University, and Seton Gordon, famous piper and naturalist. All three approved the aims and the name of the Fianna as being eminently suitable for a Scottish Youth Movement, but the latter two agreed that a different name might have a more general appeal.
We cannot convert people by speaking to them in a language they don’t understand, so we have changed the name. But some day when Gaelic is taught in every school, when Highland communities flourish in our awakening glens and the S.B.C. broadcasts daily a pibroch before breakfast, we shall be Fianna again.
(Picture on the left shows Hugh (Uisdean) MacDonald at the Cowal Highland games in August 1950, holding aloft a Lion Rampant flag with other members from the Fianna na h-Alba and leading the protest against the then current Prime Minister Clement Attlee who attended the games with his wife. Hugh recalls an event that happened that day when he says “the Prime Ministers car was just passing by when I noticed the car window was down, I decided to run at it and managed to get myself through the window and landed at the feet of Attlee and make my feelings known before his Special Branch escort kicked me out.”
In 1964, the following tribute was written by Hugh MacDonald to the late president of the SNP Roland E. Muirhead, on behalf of Fianna na h-Alba, in a special edition of Forward Scotland dedicated to him.
“Patriotism is in large part a memory of heroic dead men and a striving to accomplish some task left unfinished by them. Had they not gone before, made their attempts and suffer the sorrow of their failures, we should have long ago lost the tradition of faith and service, having no memory in the heart nor any accomplished dream.”
The words of the soldier poet Pearse sound singularly apt at this time as we mourn the passing of Roland Muirhead. Not the end of an “Auld Sang” but the closing of a chapter is how he himself would have viewed his death in relation to the National movement. Eighty years in the vanguard of his country’s service – unremitting ceaseless activity that shamed many a younger man - that was R.E.’s contribution to his ultimate aim, Scotland free in a world of peace. The old Scottish Radical tradition is poorer for his passing. For myself, as President of Fianna na h-Alba in the post war period, I will never forget how R.E. and his staff were always available to help and advise us in our work amongst the youth of Scotland.
For his services R.E. was honoured as our first and only life member. Many young Scots who were members of our organisation graduated to other sectors of the National movement but I am sure I speak for them all when I say that R.E.’s memory commands us to re-new our efforts to ensure “that this is not the end- Scotland’s Parliament will meet again.” Cha’n Fhois gu Buaidh!
His ‘backing’ of the original “Sangs o the Stane” booklet undoubtedly provided a launching place for the folk song renaissance which stem from that period and which is now so much a part of the social scene in Scotland today.
From folk song to philately-the connection is not immediately noticed, but to R.E. and his staff any vehicle that could be employed to promote Scotland’s Independence was harnessed for battle stamps to commemorate Fletcher of Saltoun, Burns, E.I.R., ‘Free Scotland,’ and Bannockburn, not forgetting the many thousands of propaganda stickers, all ideas that could increase the currency of Scotland’s case were pursued with zeal. Let us hope that the work will continue to go on in the pattern way.
With his fine, deep voice, Norrie Owen had enjoyed singing from an early age and, although nobody in his family sang Scots songs, he developed an interest in that direction and joined first the Clydebank then the Islay Gaelic choir. He had joined the Fianna na h-Alba through some friends who shared his interest in Scottish culture:
‘They were all looking, obviously looking for something, you know, which didnae exist at that time cause, oh, you know, this was way back when the hostels was the only one, way before the folk movement, the hostels was about the only one place you would hear Scottish songs, and of course the League of Young Scots, or the Fianna na h-Alba which was the original name, was in Pitt Street in Glasgow and that drew people who had an interest in things Scottish’
Once he moved to the Islay Choir, Norrie was soon asked to join the Inverscotia Singers.
‘At that time in my opinion, that was when the Inverscotia were at their best purely because you then had two bass baritones, tenor, tenor and a lyrical tenor, Randolph, so it was a better balance altogether’
Despite being a member of the Inverscotia Singers, Norrie was too outspoken ever to be a Nomad, and this led to tensions, particularly when, partly on his suggestion, they began inviting guests to their annual dinners, and yet did not include him in this invitation.
‘They thought they were the big cheese, you know, MacGregor in particular. He was called the chieftain. He still thinks he’s the chieftain.’
This was one of the factors which led to Norrie’s leaving the Inverscotia Singers, although he did begin to attend the annual dinners and he continued to host many a fine ceilidh himself. Fortunately, the Nomads had heeded his warning that: ‘you’ll have this dinner and one year you’ll turn up and there’ll only be one of you, the rest of you will be dead, you know, this thing’ll die’ and the dinners continue in some form to this day.
Jimmy Jennett was born in Govan in 1928 to a shoemaker and a wire weaver. He is a fine singer with a tenor voice, able to carry off sentimental songs as well as entertain an audience with comic numbers. He became involved in the Fianna na h-Alba at an early age when there wasn’t much entertainment in Glasgow and young people would take off to the countryside for the weekend.
‘I was a weekender, I went away the weekends and after about 3 or 4 weekends I had to get a kilt because up-everybody, well not everybody but of course when you got on the bus at Buch-eh, Killermont Street it was like embarking for France in 1914 you know, every bloody regiment in Scotland was there.’
Even before joining the Fianna, he flirted with the Young Communist League which arranged entertaining weekends away for young people:
‘the big camp on Inchmurran. Oh this is real, this is real he-man stuff – you had to get a boat to get there, you know a ferry. And…a fire, and lots of pleasant young ladies, music and, it never rained. I don’t remember it ever raining!’
‘we became immediate converts to communism! We got a lift frae Glasgow [laughs] on a Saturday and back on a Sunday!’
Jimmy became an apprentice brass finisher in Fairfield’s in Clydebank and in 1944 he volunteered for the navy. After being demobbed he became a nurse in Brechin, which meant that he was, for several years, separated from the other Fianna members. He kept in touch, however, occasionally coming down to Glasgow to join them for a weekend’s hill-walking and ceilidhing. On his return, he was invited to join the Inverscotia Nomads, to become their ‘clown prince’ (Norrie Owen) and to form part of the Inverscotia Singers, since Norrie Owen and Sinclair Little had by this time left. Jimmy remembers those years with great fondness, the weekends away, the concerts, and the dinners:
‘We used to walk in all dressed like Harry Lauder’s pals and we were, they used to think we were the artists for the night [laughs]. As Roy’s wife said, all you two, all you guys have to do is just appear and you get a clap and she was quite right.’
Time passed, however, and people got married, had children and moved away. Later still the first of them began to ‘sail the golden currach’ and Jimmy Jennett composed The Soldier’s Road to mark their passing:
When we walked to Bridge of Orchy
In the moonlight long ago
When the soldier’s road was frozen
And the peaks were white with snow
We had tales and songs between us
And our souls too young to fret
But we had hopes and visions
That the heart remembers yet
When we walked to Bridge of Orchy
In the moonlight long ago
When the soldier’s road was frozen
And the peaks were white with snow
Now the wind came off the clachlead
It blew round us as we stood
But we were warm and merry
On that freezing-frozen road
There was shining lochans round us
To the south and east and west
And we saw the full moon shining
On Ben Doran’s distant crest
Now the moon is still as radiant
And the Rannoch Hills remain
But the magic of those weekends
We’ll never know again
For we were boyish dreamers
In a world we did not know
When we walked to Bridge of Orchy
In the moonlight long ago
There was Randolph always singing
And MacGregor looking grim
There was Seamus at the canntaireachd
And lecturing Wee Jim
There was Rab and Roy and Terry
Who could always sing a stave
When you heard the moothie playing
You knew it was Big Dave
But now the song is ending
For the heroes are no more
Some have sailed the golden currach
To Tir nan Og’s far shore
Where they’re singing in around a campfire
Or dossing in the snow
As we did at Bridge of Orchy
In the moonlight long ago
The legacy of the Inverscotias and the Fianna na h-Alba remains strong, however, as their example was a great influence in the lives of many of those around them who, in turn, have passed their interest in Scottish culture on to succeeding generations.
Seylan Baxter, May 2006
My eternal gratitude goes to Seylan Baxter for allowing myself to use her original article and to add further information to it. This article is dedicated to the late Hugh (Uisdean) MacDonald and all other past and present members of Fianna na h-Alba.
Seamus MacGille Glais, January 2014