Remembering Ian MacDougall (1933-2020)

Founder of the Scottish Labour History Society

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First published: 13 April 2020

We have to record with great sadness the death of the founder of the Scottish Labour History Society, the distinguished, inspirational and indefatigable labour historian, Ian MacDougall.  Those who knew Ian may have been aware of his poor health in recent years, which was overwhelmed by coronavirus.  We will obviously make arrangements to commemorate Ian's matchless contribution through our website and Journal. Meanwhile, our best tribute is to continue Ian's trailblazing work and to safeguard his memory.  Here, current SLHS chair Stewart Maclennan acknowledges Ian’s role in establishing the Society and its Journal, and taking both forward successfully through many of their early years.

The small group of academics who gathered in the staff club of Edinburgh University in 1961 included a newly qualified history teacher, whose past career showed little sign of entitlement to such exalted company.  Ian MacDougall had left school without qualifications at fifteen, worked in newspaper distribution, done his National Service, then became what would now be described as a mature student.  He was, however, so clearly a man of ideas and commitment as to emerge as Secretary of the newly-founded Scottish Committee of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

In this capacity, Ian set off in vigorous pursuit of the new organisation’s primary remit, the compilation of a catalogue of labour records in Scotland, and in 1965 published, under the aegis of the Committee, An Interim Bibliography of the Scottish Working Class Movement, its 142 cyclostyled pages representing the work-in-progress of Ian and other volunteers.  That same year, the Scottish Committee achieved an amicable autonomy as the Scottish Labour History Society.  Ian continued as Secretary, in which post he would remain for thirty years.

Ian’s long-held ambition for a periodical publication took shape in 1969 with the first issue of Scottish Labour History Journal (currently in its fifty-fourth edition).  As the Society became noted for its themed conferences, the massive Labour Records in Scotland was published, at six hundred pages over four times the size of its predecessor, an undertaking unparalleled before or since.  1978 also saw the publication of Essays in Scottish Labour History, a festschrift edited by Ian, in tribute to his mentor in the founding of the Society, the historian William Marwick.

There would follow a prodigious output of volumes – almost thirty from a check of my shelves alone – in which Ian’s capacity for exhaustive research combined with his rare quality as an oral historian to present working people telling their own story in their own voice.  Here we find: compilations of records; pictorial albums; the Flashback series of studies of workers in marginal occupations; the Voices series, recording the memories of dockers, hunger marchers Spanish Civil War veterans, journalists and others; studies of villages, Napoleonic prisoners of war and activists in the West Fife coalfield.

Ian relinquished the secretaryship of the Scottish Labour History Society in 1996, having become researcher for the Scottish Working People’s History Trust, from which post he would eventually retire – at the age of eighty!  His astonishing publishing schedule continued to the end: the last ‘Voices’ volume, Voices of Scotswomen in Peace and War, came out in 2019, in which year he also helped edit and publish the profiles of Dalkeith written by the town’s former Provost, David Smith, a fellow member of our Society, who predeceased Ian in February of this year.

To a very considerable extent, Scottish labour history of the past sixty years is what Ian MacDougall made of it.   Unfailingly genial, supportive and self-effacing, he leaves not only a unique literary legacy, but also a model for the practise of labour history which the Society he founded and led will always seek to emulate.