Guest Post: Scottish Covenant and expat Scots in Singapore

covenant2With just days to go before the 2014 Referendum, the campaign for Scotland’s future remains on a knife edge. Years of lobbying on both sides will very shortly come to an end and, as Scotland wakes on Friday, she will be met with a new chapter in her history. The figures of Alex Salmond and David Cameron have, rightly or wrongly, become synonymous with the opposing campaigns, yet, in the final days of this most important of weeks, it is worth remembering that Scotland’s search for greater powers has a far longer history than the political careers of these two men. Scottish nationalist organisations have existed in many guises since the nineteenth century. From the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights down to the Scottish National Party, the idea of Scotland having a parliamentary assembly has long been proposed. In the late 1940s it was the Scottish Convention that made the clearest contribution to the national movement. The organisation’s Scottish Covenant—a mass petition demanding a parliament for Scotland ‘within the framework of the United Kingdom’—was introduced in Edinburgh in October 1949. Positive responses to the Covenant were virtually immediate: over 50,000 individuals signed the document within one week.

Scotland’s geographical borders could not contain this enthusiasm, and news of the Covenant quickly spread to those settled outside of the homeland. In January 1950, as the total number of signatures was estimated to stand at around 700,000, the Singapore Free Press informed readers of the campaign’s progress, drawing upon romanticised notions of Scotland to do so. ‘A flame of nationalism is at present sweeping Scotland. From castles among the heather covered mountains to the tenements and middle-class homes of the cities, it is spreading like the Fiery Cross which once rallied the scattered clans’ (Singapore Free Press, 3 January 1950). Yet many Scots in Singapore were not content with being passive observers and felt that they had the right to be heard. Early reports in the press illustrate that although they had begun to voice their opinions, the efforts of those Scottish residents were perhaps somewhat muted. ‘Scots here may sign Covenant’, the Straits Times cautiously reported of the movement in May 1950.

Singapore Free Press, 4 July 1950

However, within a matter of weeks, evidence emerges of more stringent efforts. On the inside page of the Straits Times, amongst advertisements for Harpic cleaner and Alka Seltzer—‘the best relief from that “ache-all-over” feeling’—a short notice could be found, placed by the Singapore St Andrew’s Society. ‘Through the kindness of Robinson & Co., Raffles Square, the Scottish Covenant may now be signed by Scotsmen and Scotswomen interested, whether members of this Society or not’ ( Straits Times, 14 June 1950). Within one month of this advertisement the Singapore Free Press once again picked up on the story, on this occasion reporting that ‘72 Singapore Scotsmen have signed their names to the Scottish Covenant’ (Singapore Free Press, 4 July 1950). Collected in the diaspora, the 72 signatures were then returned to Scotland. However, A.A. Ewing, Chieftain of the St Andrew’s Society, could not guarantee whether the signatures would be ‘included in the desired 2,000,000 names which the Scottish National Assembly hopes to present at Whitehall’. Yet, the value of this collection of names could be counted in other ways. For the Singapore St Andrew’s Society, ‘these signatures will show the Assembly that there is strong sympathy for the movement abroad’. Of course, the fundamental aim of the Scottish Covenant for which there was ‘strong sympathy’ in Singapore was considerably more diluted than the aim of Yes Scotland. Nevertheless, the actions of the ‘72 Singapore Scots’ demonstrates that in the 1950s many Scots, though far from home, had an appetite for change.

By Lesley Robinson, written originally as part of Lesley’s research for my European, Ethnic and Expatriate project.

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