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Glasgow, Russia and 'The Most Dangerous Man in Britain' - John Maclean

John Maclean, whose name is still very well-known in Glasgow, is somewhat unique in tying together the intertwined histories of early 20th century Glasgow and Russia - to the extent that British Military Intelligence once considered him 'the most dangerous man in Britain'.

A portrait photograph of John Maclean, pictured in December 2018 upon his release from Peterhead prison
A portrait photograph of John Maclean, pictured in December 2018 upon his release from Peterhead prison

John Maclean was born to deeply religious, Gaelic-speaking, Highland parents in the southside of Glasgow at Pollokshaws on 24 August 1879. It's little doubt that Maclean was in part radicalized by his circumstances and surroundings: brought up on tales of the Highland clearances from his Mother and Father, by the time he reached 18, he had lost 3 siblings and his Father. His views on local and international politics continued to be shaped by not only the extremely squalid conditions present in the poorer districts of Glasgow at that time but also pamphlets and essays circulating at the time. Upon reading 'Capital' by Karl Marx in 1900, MacLean found the Marxist teachings a valuable way to understand the world around him.


With the outbreak of the First World War, he stepped up his activities and denounced the war as a conflict that pitted British and German workers against each other in the interests of the rich. Glasgow stepped up with him. Along with the famous female-led rent-strike beginning in Govan in 1915 led by Mary Barbour, the people of Glasgow and the wider region were increasingly enraged by the poor living conditions, coupled with the conscription of men to go to die in what now seemed to be a futile and bloody conflict. This period became known as Red Clydeside with strikes, mass demonstrations, and calls for revolution.


Maclean was arrested and imprisoned several times under the Defence of the Realm Act however following his establishment of a Bolshevik Consulate at 12 South Portland Street (a location pointed out on our Glasgow Alternative Bike Tour) in early 2018, he was arrested for sedition and later sentenced to 5 years in Peterhead Prison, near Aberdeen. His treatment in prison was tough: force-fed and kept in poor conditions, his physical and mental health began to suffer. Following an armistice on November 11, 2018, he was released the following month and returned to Glasgow to a thunderous reception of thousands. One estimate of the crowd’s size was two hundred thousand people and though a weakened Maclean wanted to return to his southside home quietly, the crowd spontaneously removed the horses from his carriage and drew it themselves through the main streets of the city.


After this triumphant return, his later years were marked by ill health, family problems and increasing paranoia and mental illness, the after-effects of his time in prison. He fell out with many of his former comrades, accusing some of being police spies and collapsed whilst giving a speech, dying shortly after on St Andrew's Day in November 1923 at the age of forty-four. One of his last acts in the days before his death was to give away his only coat to a destitute man from Barbados, a Mr. Neill Johnstone.


His legacy is a complicated one as he saw the potential for a specifically Scottish revolution to take place, even speaking of a ‘Celtic Communism’ inspired by Scotland’s clan spirit, and he is therefore claimed by both left-wingers and Scottish nationalists alike. Whatever we might make of his politics today, he stood up firmly for his beliefs and was defiant to the last. He attempted to stop the madness of trench warfare, which had cost millions of lives, speaking out for peace, self-determination, and brotherhood in a time of war, imperial ambition, and bitter hatred. It cost him much and may in part explain his sad and early death. He died in 1923 and a crowd of thousands gathered for his funeral.


A photograph showing huge crowds for the funeral of Jogn Maclean in 1923.
Funeral of John Maclean

His socialist principles, commitment, and dedication to the betterment of working-class lives ensured that his life was revered by many. In the USSR to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, a postage stamp was created.

Commemorative postage stamp of John Maclean celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, released in 1979 in the USSR
Commemorative postage stamp of John Maclean celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, released in 1979 in the USSR
 

This blog is part of our growing Special Topics Collection, discussing a whole range of topics that we feel are of significance to Glasgow and help us form a narrative of how Glasgow has evolved.

 

Many thanks to our guide Ruairi O'Ceallaigh for writing this post.

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