Elizabeth Ritchie is a Lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. She blogs about the history of Easter Ross and the Northern Highlands, in a collaboration between Historylinks museum in Dornoch and the Centre for History.
In the early 1930s two young men decided that ‘the sustaining force of any people is the virtue of patriotism’. The problem was that the people with whom Seumas Adam and Alastair Dunnett were concerned were Scots whose identity they felt had been subsumed into a British and imperial identity. For adults there were a ‘narrow choice of opportunities for national fervour’, such as Para Handy stories or international rugby or football, but for children there was nothing.
Being keen on the robust training of the outdoors, Seumas and Alastair were drawn to the Boy Scout movement. They found it easy to stimulate an interest in Scotland among the boys and soon
wiped out from its self-conscious mythology most of the Red Indian cult, substituting for it authentic and healthy elements from the outdoor traditions of the country where the youngsters had their roots. Boys became clansmen, because that was in fact what they were. They saved up to buy a kilt of their own tartan. They found out what was happening in their clan territories today. They went camping on clan ground and grew to a warm kinship with the land and the folk on it. Not one of them was the worse for it, nor longed to be a cowboy or a Blackfoot. We saw them grow up strongly, and their minds with them, and knew it was time to put this operation into practice on a large scale.
Being aspiring journalists, Seumas and Alastair decided that their large scale project would be to found a boys’ magazine.
Their observations on 1930s boys’ reading material reveal the upper-class, English and imperial orientation of how male British identity was formed. The weekly papers consumed at this formative age
led their readers adventuring into all parts of the globe – except one. The somewhat repetitive pattern of their tales dealt with young explorers up the Amazon or down the Congo; South Sea planters’ sons; English boy football stars; pet gorillas which played cricket; jabbering and excited foreigners ready to be cowed by clean-cut types; Zulu chiefs who would eagerly exchange herds of cattle for alarm clocks.
Only one part of the word did not pulse with these thrills. The weekly wave of adventure never reached the Scottish shore: not even on the home front, which was held to be adequately covered by stories of English public school life. In this grand pattern of events no British schoolboy could hope to be a hero unless he had been a fag and a Fourth Former in his day, with plenty of high-class japes. The ‘bad yins’ of these tales, apart from an occasional genteel cad, were coarse errand lads, usually discovered twisting the arms of small boys, although these villainies were mere by-products of the major crime of working for a living. … We came to the conclusion at the time that these literary enticements were likely to overbalance all but the most sturdy, and that Scots boys were bound to grow up with a tendency to regard themselves as potential emigrants or déclassé provincials.
Seumas and Alastair had spotted a gap in the market which also provided the perfect platform to shape boys’ sense of self. Entirely in agreement with other magazines that rough and tumble adventures were ideal for creating manliness and a strong sense of national identity, all that needed to be done was to shift the location to Scotland. By valourising the nation of their birth The Claymore would create a generation of young men with confidence in their Scottishness.
We gave to our readers a picture of Scotland as a Land of Adventure. It was a staggering novelty, but they stood up to it bravely, and in growing numbers. Here was a robust, modern, and above all cheery setting for the whole gamut. The story themes were inexhaustible. If one wanted football stars – where were there any better? In a country which had invented so many sports, the sports theme was a natural fit. Schools? – Rookwood and Greyfriars were sissy retreats from the authentic vigour of Tayside, our fictional Alma Mater. And so through the list. It is tempting at this remove to smile at the amateurism which may have been visible. The fact is that the stuff was good. Much of it was later produced in book form by publishers who knew their business. The Claymore was sent, at their request, to various libraries and exhibitions throughout the world and put on show as the selected example of the British tuppenny for youths.
Good the magazine may have been, but it was not sufficiently popular for the enterprise to survive. In July 1934, after a run of 31 issues, it folded, leaving Alastair and Seumas in debt. The duo, with bills to pay and determined to promote a distinctive Scottish masculine identity built on outdoorsmanship, decided on an entirely different but equally challenging project. In an era when most Scots had only encountered canoes in a boys’ magazine or if they had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the pair would paddle from Greenock all the way up the west coast, and across the open waters of the Minch to the Outer Hebrides. But that story is for another time.
Alastair Dunnett, The Canoe Boys: From the Clyde Past the Cuillins (Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 1995) [reprint of 1950 original]
Copies of The Claymore are held at the National Library of Scotland.