‘In Embro to the ploy’: The People’s Voice at the National Library of Scotland – Catriona M.M. Macdonald

On the 13th May, the National Library of Scotland hosted the first in our series of events relating to the People’s Voice project. The focus of our half-day workshop was on archival perspectives, and also on the extent to which different time periods and locales generate their own special challenges for the researcher and the archivist.


Kirstie Blair, in her presentation ‘Songs for the Million: Recovering Popular Verse Cultures’ highlighted the obstacles faced when locating and framing popular verse cultures, before turning her attention specifically to the publication history and circulation of the temperance poem, The Drunkard’s Raggit Wean: ‘A wee bit raggit laddie gangs wan’rin’ through the street…’

She identified versions of this work in broadsides, British and colonial newspapers and in edited collections (e.g. The Crystal Fount, 1858) before turning her attention to a range of franchise poems, including the following extract read at a franchise demonstration reported in the Hamilton Advertiser in 1884:


Let Tories laugh. They laugh who win:

And this you may be sure,

No Tory can your birthright keep –

Your victory is secure.


She ended her presentation by giving the audience some intriguing insights into her soon to be published work on the People’s Journal: we look forward to seeing the anthology when it appears in press later this year.

Erin Farely, a post-graduate student from the Univeristy of Stirling, and Michael Shaw, the People’s Voice Research Assistant then turned our attention to the importance of the local dimension of political poetry and song, and the role of trade societies and unions, blending insights from archival and material sources. It was particularly fascinating to see what the Lamb Collection from Dundee has to offer scholars of that city.

Turning our attention southwards, Robert Betteridge of the National Library of Scotland drew our focus tighter still: to a particular place (Edinburgh) and to two particular elections (1832 and by-election 1834) and to one particular candidate, James Aytoun. His lecture was fascinating in pointing to the traces of broadside literature found across a number of National Library collections. It made the team only too aware of the amount of archival ‘digging’ they will have to do!

Finally, David Goldie concluded the day by offering us food for thought, when it comes to dealing with materials relating to the early twentieth century. David, the co-editor of a recent anthology of Scottish war poetry, From the Line (ASLS, 2014) made a strong case for the limiting impact of parody in the political poetry of the early years of the twentieth century. How and where do we find an authentic voice, unmediated by popular expectation and the homogenising impact of mass education? Equally, ought we to look at this more positively, as confirmation that political poetry as a form had somehow come of age?

The enthusiasm of the audience (ably channelled by the chair-person, Gerry Carruthers) and the exciting insights offered by the speakers, was very encouraging, and the People’s Voice team would strongly urge – as they did on the day – anyone who has an interest in this area to get in touch with them to find out more about the project.