Siol nan Gaidheal

William Gillies

William Gillies (Liam Mac Gille Iosa) was one of the pioneers of the Scottish Nationalist movement. Born in Galloway, Gillies whose father was a merchant in the City of London, was educated mainly in the English metropolis, and it was there that he was to spend most of his adult life.

The Highland Land League

From an early age, Gillies interested himself in Scottish history. At the age of seventeen he was privileged to form a close and abiding friendship with the editor of the "Highlander", John Murdoch. Mainly by the efforts of this great Scot, the first round in the fight for recognition of Crofter rights had just been won in the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry. Into the campaign that ensued, William Gillies entered with enthusiasm as a propagandist of the Highland Land League, not failing to maintain his support for the cause of "Tir agus Teanga" (Land and Language), when later, once more by direct action, the inadequacy and deceits of the Crofter Act of 1886 were challenged.

From that time the ideal of Scots national independence displaced the view of self-government for which, with Ramsay MacDonald, he had worked in the old Scottish Home Rule Association. Such vestiges of faith in Westminster politics as remained with him were soon dispelled.

Gaelic Propaganda

Whilst still a youth, William Gillies had set himself the task of learning Gaelic, and he became able in a few years to speak and write in fluent Gaelic, enriched by a wide acquaintance with the classic writings of the ancient national language. He wrote five plays in his adopted language, which were produced on the stage in London. He also became an important contributor to the Gaelic cultural movement and was secretary of the Gaelic Society of London from 1904-5. But on the rejection of the secretarial report, and the defeat of his challenging motion that the Society's object should be the extension of Gaelic as a living tongue, and it's recognition by all as the national language of Scotland, he resigned, devoting his energies to Comunn nan Albannach, afterwards to Clan na h-Alba, composed of revolutionary nationalists whose propaganda became widespread.


Encouraged by John Murdoch many years before to study the lives and writings of Thomas Davis, John Mitchell, and other leaders of the Irish revolutionary movement, Liam Mac Gille Iosa became a consistent supporter of Sinn Fein and an original member - the first Scot to be so honoured - of the Gaelic League in London. At that time he met and formed a close friendship with Art O'Brien who was later to become head of the Irish Self Determination League. In 1916, he openly supported the Easter Rising in Dublin and berated both Scottish socialists and Gaelic enthusiasts for their lack of support. However, in spite of this, Gillies did trojan work as a propagandist for the Irish cause and evidence exists to indicate that Irish leaders including Collins and DeValera were aware of his valuable work.

Scots National League

Like many who had joined the Highland Land League, Gillies was inclined towards the left of the political spectrum, declaring himself to be a committed socialist. He contributed some material to Ruaridh Erskine of Mar's nationalist periodicals "Guth na Bliadhna" (Voice of the Year) and "Alba" and later in 1920 both men became the two principal leaders of the newly formed Scots National League which emerged out of the ashes of the Highland Land League. Inspired by the struggle in Ireland, it was hoped the SNL would provide the necessary impetus required for a Gaelic political and cultural revival in Scotland. The League collaborated with John MacLean who, in 1920, issued a call to workers to support the creation of a 'Scottish Workers Republic'. Indeed, in October of that year, MacLean was the main speaker at a League commemoration at Arbroath Abbey to mark the 600th anniversary of the Declaration of Scottish Independence. The League produced a journal called "Liberty" to which Gillies was a regular contributor. It contained articles on Scottish history, political independence, culture and football as well as pro-Irish nationalist news items. The journal received funding from Sinn Fein in Scotland and, ironically, the editor John McArthur who was a Rangers fan, sold it outside Ibrox Stadium.

Fianna na h-Alba

In July 1920 John MacLean argued that, "the withdrawal of Scottish lads from the cold blooded murder of the the greatest question confronting Scotland today, for if speedy action is not taken, a horrible tragedy will be enacted, and Scotland will be disgraced forever." In line with these sentiments he issued a pamphlet, 'The Irish Tragedy: Scotland's Disgrace' which sold 20,000 copies. In response, a Scottish nationalist volunteer force was established which contemplated military action for the liberation of Scotland. Whilst little is known about this episode, we know from correspondence between Micheal Collins and Art O'Brien that Erskine of Mar and William Gillies were involved, and that Collins described Gillies as "a very genuine man". Collins was sceptical about military action on the part of Fianna na h-Alba and in a letter to O'Brien dated 21 March 1921 comments, "they do not appreciate the particular difficulties they are up against". He observes that the Irish were stronger even during their weakest period (1904 to 1908) than they (Scottish Nationalists) seem to be at present; regarded the issuing of a proclamation premature, and felt it better to work away as a handful than generate false hopes. "Failure in this manner would mean much more to the small groups than years of tireless labour and non-recognition". In any event, possibly due to advice from the Irish, Fianna na h-Alba abandoned their plans.

The Scots National League eventually became one of the constituent parts of the modern Scottish National Party. In the 1930's, however, most of the Gaelic enthusiasts of the National League were expelled from the SNP, which was thus (as Hugh MacDiarmid has remarked) 'made safe for mediocrity'. William Gillies, who was one of the founders, and for the first four years, editor of "The Scots Independent", died in 1932 following a period of ill health. Agnes Clark, one of his closest friends wrote, on hearing of his death: "He has left an example of noble effort, great faith and true devotion to his country." William Gillies' devotion to the cause of freedom of his native Scotland and fellow Celts of Ireland cannot fail to inspire all true Scots and freedom loving people everywhere.

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