Scottish working people's history

Steam locomotive at platform
Railway workers society
decorative scroll.
Full scroll image

'Make a point'
Poster for National
Council of Labour
Full colleges poster

Scottish working people's history was the subject of our treasures display from 2 September to 30 October 2011.


Items relating to working people in Scotland featured in the autumn 2011 treasures display at the National Library of Scotland.

Exhibits told the story of Scottish working people's efforts to improve work and social conditions in Scotland and beyond. They included:

  • Original letters
  • Minute books
  • Posters
  • Photographs
  • Printed items.

Unrivalled collection

The collection of archival sources at NLS that cover working people's history is unrivalled.

A significant amount of this material has been donated or deposited through two organisations:

Records of the working-class movement

This display paid homage to these organisations and their invaluable contribution to labour history.

They have traced and preserved some of the oldest surviving records of trade unions, co-operative and friendly societies, educational bodies and activists involved in the working-class movement in Scotland.


Collection highlights on show

Among collection highlights on display were:

Illustration of two hands shaking with 'Firmly united' written below
Bookbinders' union card, 1822.
Full union card image
  • A membership card of the Edinburgh Journeymen Bookbinders' Society, one of the earliest known Scottish trade unions, dated in 1822
  • The original deed of establishment in 1761 of the Fenwick Weavers’ Society in Ayrshire, which is regarded as the world’s first co-operative society
  • The defence statement read out by John Maclean, the revolutionary socialist and leading figure in Red Clydeside, at his trial for sedition in 1916
  • A 'tramp card' issued by the UK Society of Coachmakers in 1903 which supported workers as they moved around the country looking for employment
  • The service and pay book for John Dunlop who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War
  • The 1915 desk diary of James Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party and chairman of the Labour Party
  • A register of the books loaned out to members by the Edinburgh No 1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen from its library.

Trade unions

In the early days trade unions were small, locally-based organisations of skilled workers mainly concerned with regulating the trade.

As their structural organisation became more sophisticated, the unions created mechanisms of financial support and protection for their membership before the welfare state, as we know it today, was established.

They played a key role in the negotiations over pay and hours of work with employers.


Friendly societies and the co-operative movement

Words' The society of weavers' from handwritten document
Fenwick Weavers' Society
deed, 1761.
Full deed page image

Friendly and benefit societies were one of the earliest forms of workers' organisation in Scotland.

They were set up by groups of people to protect themselves against hardship usually as a result of old age and illness.

The co-operative movement in Scotland can be traced back to 1761, when the Fenwick Weavers' Society, the earliest co-operative society for which full records exist, was established.

The co-operative movement took off in Scotland in the 1860s. By 1868 there were over 130 co-operative societies in the country.


Workers' education and literacy

Education and literacy became a vital aspect of the working-class movement.

Many trade unions and co-operative societies established lending libraries for their membership.

In the late 19th century Socialist Sunday Schools and Fabian Societies emerged in Scottish towns and cities to encourage the spread of socialist values and to promote political debate.

Independent workers' education was another significant development in the early decades of the 20th century.

The National Council of Labour Colleges and the Workers Educational Association played a key role in providing tuition to working men and women.


Political activism and activists

Photo of man on horseback
Working-class actvist
John Bird.
Full John Bird photo

'Independent Labour Party' stamp
Independent Labour
Party officials list,
Full ILP officials list

Industrial action and political activism enabled workers to put on the table their demands for better pay and working conditions, and to conquer basic rights which nowadays are often taken for granted.

Activists such as John MacLean (1879-1923), John Bird (1896-1964) or James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) became the leading lights of the working-class movement in Scotland and beyond.

This class-orientated activism evolved into more sophisticated forms of political organisation in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

The foundation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and the Labour Party in 1906 heralded the emergence of a new political force to be reckoned with.


International perspectives

Scottish working people's efforts to build a fairer society stretched beyond Scotland.

Key figures of the labour movement such as Keir Hardie were widely respected abroad for their contribution to improving the lives of the disadvantaged.

Scottish working men and women maintained strong links with trade unions and left-wing political organisations in other countries, particularly those under the influence of the former USSR.

Ordinary Scots also played a key role in international conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), fighting against fascism as part of the International Brigades.



The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

Past treasures displays



Treasures page

Speak me