The first impetus to write my novella ‘Adventure on the Scotch Express’ came from the re-enactment, in 2009, of a suffragette procession that had taken place in Edinburgh in 1909. I took part in the re-enactment myself, adorned with a sash in Women’s Freedom League colours (green, gold and white) in memory of my suffragette great-aunt. Various women’s organisations had organised the re-enactment and many of them had made banners and dressed up as historical figures. Typically I had not joined any of the relevant organisations, I put together my sash at the last minute using bits and pieces I found around the house, and I ended up walking with a group from South Queensferry, because one of my friends was with them. They carried a banner with a somewhat scary message on it.
We couldn’t walk the entire original route because of the tram work that was happening at that time and that is only now approaching completion, but we started off from Bruntsfield Links, where the 1909 procession had begun, and we ended up on Calton Hill trying to listen to speeches that were being carried off on the wind before the words reached us.
I can’t say whether my great-aunt, Jenny McCallum, a textile worker from Dunfermline, took part in the original march or not. She had joined the Women’s Freedom League, possibly following a suffragette meeting held at the factory gates in the lunch-hour, or perhaps after going to a meeting organised separately in the town. Dunfermline had a history of radicalism in politics and a glance at some of the local newspapers of the time reveals that there were all sorts of political movements represented there. My great-aunt felt so strongly that she gave up her job, went to London with a small group of other suffragettes and was arrested for ‘riot’ at the Houses of Parliament. According to a newspaper report of the trial, some of the suffragettes in the group made inflammatory speeches, some climbed on a statue just outside the House of Commons, and others just stood and watched. The police don’t seem to have discriminated between them when making arrests. She and the others she was with were sentenced to pay fines, but they all refused to pay and were sent to Holloway Prison for several weeks. A photograph exists of Jenny in prison dress, though it is likely this was taken in a photographer’s studio at a later date. The picture here is from a family group photograph taken in about 1900.
This story doesn’t seem exceptionally heroic compared to some of the exploits of the other suffragettes, but in those days it must have taken quite a lot of nerve and determination for a textile worker who had probably never been outside Scotland before to go and participate in a riot in London. On return to Dunfermline Jenny was blacklisted by the mill owners but by 1915, when she got married, she was secretary of the Textile Workers Union. In the 1920s she apparently used to entertain Red Clydesiders in her house. Presumably she had met them in the course of her political activities. The Women’s Freedom League did have links with the early Labour Party.
I realise I haven’t yet explained how the Scotch Express came into it! I had originally wanted to write this story as a play, and it seemed to me like a good idea to have a train compartment as the setting. I was undeterred by the fact that it would have been a nightmare to stage, as many of my ideas for plays have been over the years. A train compartment is a useful setting for a story, however, and once I populated it with characters, all having different reasons for being on the train and most of them with something to hide, the setting became almost part of the story. I suppose I was also thinking about my great-aunt travelling to and from London by train for her demonstration.