Sport and the Dunbartonshire Unionists, c. 1900

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

The problem with being a historian is that you are sometimes spoiled for choice. Between myself and other members of the sport and recreation management team at Moray House, we have always tried to emphasise that sport in never apolitical: given not only its sometimes most superficial political implications (that of identity), but also the politics of patronage and sponsorship. ‘Facilitators’, be they in the governmental, the volunteer, or the private sector, want to patronise sport for various political ends, and it is always best to tell students who will pursue a career in the sports sector that this is the system, and the reality, that they will either need to negotiate with, or to fight against. Unlike, say, the Olympics, however, grassroots sport or its history often does not get dissected as part of a political process. In Scotland, since parliamentary and (especially) municipal political histories are a piecemeal lot, there are all sorts of different original directions you can go in. And, if you’re a political historian of sport, researching sporting cultures in regions where there is little political historiography, it can be a veritable treasure chest as to what to begin doing research on, and what you necessarily leave aside. If only you had the time… and money…

It is tempting to think that there was a time when sport was pristine. But sport at the fin de siècle was no less political than it is nowadays. Then, as now, most people did not take up sport, at least immediately, to settle political grievances. They probably participated in sport because it was fun. However, sport nevertheless exemplified how different groups needed to negotiate with their surrounding gender, class and employment environments, and this was certainly the case in the Vale of Leven, in what is now West Dunbartonshire. A future publication of mine will detail this employment (and ethnic) hierarchy as it related to Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Renton Football Clubs, titans of the early Scottish game during the 1870s and 1880s. These clubs existed within the paternalistic work cultures of their locales: Dumbarton FC, in the shadow of its familial patrons at the Denny shipyards, and Renton and Vale of Leven, under the patronage of turkey red dye barons Alexander Wylie and Archibald Orr-Ewing respectively. Wylie and the Dennys were Liberals, and the Orr-Ewings Conservatives, but all were grouped under the ‘Unionist’ banner after Prime Minister William Gladstone’s ‘conversion’ to Irish Home Rule in 1885-86.

Orr-Ewing represented Dunbartonshire in Parliament from 1869 to 1892, and Wylie held the seat from 1895 to 1906. This was, however, a marginal constituency that leading lights in the Liberal party challenged; from 1892 to 1895, in fact, the seat was held by future Liberal Scottish secretary John Sinclair. Needless to say, the Catholic voters in this region, some of whom gained the right to vote after the extension of the Franchise in 1885, posed a continual threat to their employers’ hold on their seats, and the employers consequently needed the Protestant end of their workforces to help them win elections. This was also the case in the town of Dumbarton, which was itself part of the Kilmarnock Burghs constituency (along with Kilmarnock, Renfrew, Port Glasgow and Rutherglen), which Col. John Denny represented in Parliament from 1895 to 1906. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) struggled in a region where the Protestant working class and employers shared a culture, often in the context of the Established Church of Scotland and the Orange Order. I.G.C. Hutchison, amongst others, has written in depth about how Glasgow’s shipyards were staunchly Tory during the period.

My research has not really examined the electoral implications of sport in Dunbartonshire to any great degree. But my research on this article, and on my doctoral thesis and book, suggests that the Unionists nevertheless viewed sport as a part of their electoral universe. Wylie, the Orr-Ewings and the Dennys were enthusiastic fans of sport and Volunteerism, particularly for their purported value in the context of management (cynics amongst us – and aren’t we all? – might read that as ‘social control’). But sport, at least to a certain extent, had a role to play in a party political sense as well. John Denny certainly used football in his 1895 election campaign with the Liberal Unionists, whereby the phrase ‘Ho, away! Play up, Dumbarton!’ was requisitioned by the Denny campaign to drive sympathetic Dumbarton voters to the polls: not unimportant when Renfrew and Port Glasgow contained many Liberal voters who did not rely upon the Denny yards for employment [1].

The Dunbartonshire Conservative and Unionist Association’s papers, housed at the National Library of Scotland, discuss at least a few more possible uses for sport. One of them was as a means of socialisation amongst the party’s local activists. The Dunbartonshire Unionists, in 1904, had set up their own billiards club for participation in a local challenge shield ‘with the view of establishing more friendly intercourse amongst the Clubs throughout the County’ [2]. Then there was the use of cycling, both as a means of networking, and as a means of organising the vote. The local Unionist Cycling Corps was hinted at as being active in inter- and intra-party competitions. It was additionally credited with helping to organise the ‘party’ during 1898-99. ‘The corps has now a membership of 484’, stated the 7 December 1899 report by the Unionist Executive Committee to the Dunbartonshire Constitutional Association (the precursor body to the DCUA), ‘and there can be no doubt that during an Election Contest it will be of the very greatest assistance’ [3].

A membership roll of 484 is indeed impressive for a local Unionist cycling association. It’s no doubt impossible to verify claims of its helping to organise Unionist electoral success in Dunbartonshire; and, as a historian of sport, one is often predisposed to view such claims with a hint of scepticism. But it does, at the very least, tell us that the creep of post-1850 British sporting culture into banal political circles was indeed occurring at a grassroots level in the west of Scotland. Nevertheless, it still speaks volumes about the place of cycling vis-à-vis football that, when John Denny looked to win a parliamentary seat in the county, he invoked the association game for the purposes of doing so, and not cycling.


[1] Lennox Herald, 27 July 1895.

[2] NLS, Dunbartonshire Conservative and Unionist Association (DCUA), Acc 12264/1, Annual Report, 8 December 1904.

[3] NLS, DCUA, Acc 12264/1, Report by the Executive Committee to the Dunbartonshire Constitutional Association


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2 responses to “Sport and the Dunbartonshire Unionists, c. 1900”

  1. Mel Tudor says :

    Not sure if you are interested in an old photo I have
    It is of members of Vale & Leven Cycle Club Dumbarton 1901 Lists Capt Cameron
    This would be a special club sitting with 21 members and their bikes and one dog
    Looks like it was taken in front of old church yard
    Photo is in great condition
    Currently it is in Mosgiel New Zealand
    Found in old picture framing shop
    Owner unknown
    Can send you and email attachment of it

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