The history of working people in Scotland

These pages highlight key items from the National Library of Scotland collections focusing on Scottish labour history.


Socialist Sunday School certificate, around 1900

Socialist Sunday Schools emerged in the late 19th century as an alternative to the more traditional Christian Sunday schools held in churches. Socialist Sunday Schools became recruiting grounds for future socialist organisations. Children educated in these values often progressed along this path in their early adult life.

Illustrated Socialist Sunday School certificate

A socialist alternative

In Scotland, the Socialist Sunday School movement began in Glasgow in the 1890s, but soon spread to other parts of the country. The aim was to promote and share socialist values, and to offer an alternative to the teaching of Christian Sunday schools and state schools. The movement flourished until the 1930s, and was closely linked with the Independent Labour Party.

Unlike the church Sunday schools, the Socialist Sunday School meetings were attended by people of all ages. The movement offered secular alternatives to christenings, marriage, and funerals.

Ethical and moral values

The key values that underpinned the Socialist Sunday Schools were:

  • Love
  • Justice
  • Learning
  • Social responsibility
  • The dignity of labour.

In promoting these principles, they ensured that children would become capable and responsible thinkers.

Ethical and moral lessons were taught through stories and lessons, including myths, legends, and traditional tales. There were also 10 socialist commandments which children learned by heart. You can find out more about these commandments on the Red Clydeside website.

Format of meetings

In many respects, the Socialist Sunday School meetings were run along similar lines to church Sunday schools and services. They had a set order, and included lessons, recitation of texts, a collection which was given to a chosen charity or fund, and hymns. The movement produced its own hymn book, and one of the most popular hymns was 'England Arise' written by Edward Carpenter.

The movement also organised a range of social activities for members, including parties, outings, picnics, and fêtes.

Suggested discussion points

  • Look at the socialist 10 commandments and think about the values of the Socialist Sunday School movement in general. How are they similar or different to the 10 commandments in the Bible, and Christian values as taught in church?
  • Why do you think that the Socialist Sunday School movement adopted the format of Christian Sunday schools and church services?
  • Try to find the words to 'England Arise' by Edward Carpenter. What is the tone of the song, and what values does it promote?
  • Discuss whether you think that children should be taught religious and political values from an early age?

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Find out more about labour history at NLS

We have the leading collection of research material relating to Scottish labour and trade union history.


Visit the Scottish Screen Archive to find films relating to Scottish industry from fishing and tweed-making to mining and agriculture.

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