Tartan Terrorism: The Forgotten History of Scotland's Violent Extremism

Sectarian violence in the 1970s and 80s was perpetrated by the far left, but could a post-Brexit referendum see a new breed of far right extremism crawl out from the fringes?

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20 February 2017, 2:57pm

(Top photo is not actually of a violent extremist; just of a man in a balaclava against a tartan background) 

"Fascist scum," spluttered Nigel Farage, without irony, after some pro-independence Scottish nationalists tussled him out of a press conference in an Edinburgh pub back in 2013. 

It created a media frenzy at the time, but the real history of the extremist struggle for Scottish independence goes far beyond a bar-side slanging match between the former UKIP leader and a handful of Alex Salmond fanboys.

In the 1970s and 80s, the fight for an independent Scotland was marred by militant pro-independence terror attacks – splinter groups dubbed "Tartan Terrorists" were behind bomb blasts that rocked Edinburgh Castle, letter bombs dispatched to top politicians and the Royal Family, and an anthrax dump at the Tory party conference.

But not long after the Farage spat, around the time of the 2014 independence referendum, a new kind of extremism began to rear its head in Scotland. And this time it came from the far right. The Scottish Defence League, Britain First and the National Front all crawled in to campaign on the fringes of the unionist campaign. In the aftermath of the No vote, far-right revellers were filmed making Nazi salutes and singing Rule Britannia as they brawled with police and lit flares in the streets of Glasgow.

(Top photo: Andrew Milligan / PA)

They didn't make much impact. Militant unionism is a much younger child than militant separatism: revolution is easier to rally around than the preservation of the norm. As Liam Turbett wrote for VICE when analysing the dismal efforts of the far right to make gains in Scotland, "for [Scots] craving a cultural identity, a feeling of supremacy, a uniform or a street fight, there's already a host of 'legitimate' organisations to get involved with".

But that could be about to change. With talk of a potential second Scottish referendum following Brexit, another opportunity for legitimate sectarian debate could force those on the further fringes of the right into more aggressive action this time around. 

Kris McGurk, 25, is the chairman of the Regimental Blues, a British nationalist group included in a recent report commissioned to review the policing of far right protests in Scotland. The Regimental Blues (RB) – which ex-soldier McGurk says was founded in 2013 to push Protestant unionist values on the fraught streets of Glasgow – appear to share at least one member with the Scottish Defence League, an offshoot of the far-right English Defence League (EDL).

A Regimental Blues promotional video

In a now-deleted post on its website announcing "Regimental Blues Votes GB", the organisation listed targets including Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, "all Yes campaigners" and "businesses backing the Yes campaign". Kris says that threatened violence didn't happen, and that RB focused on signing up loyalists so they could vote No. There also was no mention of real thuggery from either side of the campaign in the papers. "We sent our followers to back the mainstream," said Kris. "To do leaflet drops, man the phone-lines, to focus on community issues and not politics."

Similarly, he claims that though RB values might chime with Britain First and the Scottish Defence League, "we keep well away from them in the street. We'd have to give up a lot of our Christian values, and we wouldn't like to be classed as far-right extremists. Some of the things [these groups] say on paper [about] controlling immigration, a lot of people would agree with, including myself, but on the street they don't agree with that – they're very aggressive and hard… [so] RBs always maintain we have nothing to do with them."

Kris hints, however, that a second referendum could provoke a different type of action. "The west of Scotland is a hotbed for sectarianism now," he said. "The SNP has blown the community apart. I wouldn't be falling under Better Together again. Politicians should be looking at Northern Ireland, at the consequences of allowing tensions on the street level just to keep boiling and boiling."

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In the 1970s and 80s, the extremists came from the left. In 1966, Marxist revolutionary Matt Lygate founded the Workers Party of Scotland to lead the struggle for a Scottish socialist republic. Alongside translating the works of Chairman Mao into Gaelic, Lygate and his cohorts spent their days planning violent bank robberies to fund the operation. In 1971, the party's bookshop was raided, and in 1972 Lygate and his comrades were all convicted of bank robbery in what are believed to be some of the longest sentences in Scottish legal history. Lygate got 24 years: "Eight years for robbery and 16 for his politics," a lawyer ruefully observed afterwards. 

Violence continued: in 1971 an unclaimed bomb blast rocked Edinburgh, and the early 1970s saw continued explosions at oil pipelines and radio masts, claimed by leftist splinter groups.
In 1981 a militant group known as the Dark Harvest Commando collected soil contaminated by British Army anthrax tests and dumped it at the doors of the Tory party conference. This was two decades before attacks using the same lethal bacterium killed five American citizens and provoked one of the largest FBI investigations in history.

The Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA) – sometimes dubbed the "Tartan Terrorists", and founded by former soldier Adam Busby – was perhaps the most prominent of the leftist splinter groups. In the 1980s, the group began using marzipan, which looks and smells like the plastic explosive gelignite, to create hoax parcel bombs, targeting British businesses or "settler companies", as they called them. In 1983 there were 27 Tartan Terrorist attacks. Other campaigns included a genuine letter-bombing campaign that targeted Margaret Thatcher and Princes Diana, and a foiled acid attack on Cherie Blair in 2002.

Part of a letter sent to the Press Association from the Scottish National Liberation Army in 1983 (Photo: PA)

All these – and many more attacks – are chronicled here by David Leslie, a former News of the World true crime correspondent, who wrote a book on the SNLA. Hundreds of years in jail sentences have been handed down to ultranationalist terrorists, though Leslie claims that only one light injury occurred – a result of when a secretary handled a letter bomb

With those harsh sentences in mind, even members of the Scottish centre-left suspect a level of foul play. A number of ultranationalist luminaries have been accused of false-flag collusion with the British government, alleged to have infiltrated the SNP as part of a government campaign to delegitimise the Scottish campaign for independence. SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament Christine Grahame, for example, has claimed still-classified documents will expose a "dirty tricks campaign… waged against the party by British unionists". 

Widely accused of being an agent provocateur is Major Frederick Alexander Colquhoun Boothby, who founded the paramilitary Tartan Army – the group that claimed responsibility for the bulk of the 1970s bombings. Boothby moved back to Edinburgh in the late 60s from Surrey, where he'd been "under suspicion of beguiling teenagers into Satanic rituals". Boothby, alongside SNLA founder Adam Busby, was accused of being a Special Branch agent who infiltrated the nationalist movement to make it appear extremist and absurd. Similar claims have been repeated by infighting ultranationalists.

Adam Busby is now wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis. He spent the referendum period emailing dozens of bomb threats to Pittsburgh University, for reasons which remain unclear. The SNLA surge led by Busby in the 1980s was provoked by the controversial failure of the 1979 devolution referendum due to low turnout.

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The No campaign's win in 2014 didn't trigger any wave of bombings, and far-right activity remained a sideshow. 

In fact, the only visible ultranationalists on the scene were Siol nan Gàidheal (SnG), or Progeny of the Gaels, whose slogan is "White Settlers Go Home". Back in 1994, an enforcer for the organisation allegedly bragged about breaking the jaws of English expats to Scotland before "help[ing] them with their bags to the station". 

This time around, SnG's participation in the referendum campaign was limited to a few banner drops and graffiti tags. Key man Bruce Ogilvie – who refused an interview with VICE – cut a faintly tragic figure, clad in shabby tartan as he heckled career politicians. It hardly seemed as terrifying as the pro-union press tried to suggest.

Another SnG spokesperson told VICE: "We don't trust any journalist, as half the stuff that has been published seems to have just been made up, and the rest is merely half-truths." This goes some way towards explaining the failure of truly radical nationalists to make much headway in Scotland, either during the referendum or throughout the 20th century.

"If there's another election referendum it would be time for a hard campaign."

The very fact the SNLA were not visibly "taken seriously" by the British government or the media stopped them from achieving serious publicity or impact, a recent academic paper suggests. By "publicly ignoring" the radicals and relying on local law enforcement to fire-fight their campaigns, "the British government minimised the performative power and thus the influence of the movement". Treated like a joke, they became one.

But in 2017, the Regimental Blues present an arguably more potent threat. By aiming lower than the ultranationalists, they are more likely to achieve success. Unlike the faintly ridiculous Major Boothby and his comrades, Kris is a smooth-talking everyman. "People who meet me think, 'He's a nice guy, he's got a good head on his shoulders,'" said the ex-serviceman and father of four. "But when I say I'm in RBs, all of a sudden I'm a knuckle-dragging good-for-nothing. That's the opinion we're trying to change."

With nationalist views increasingly becoming more mainstream, the RBs do not need media attention to win people over to their cause. Instead, Kris described a rapidly-spreading grassroots political movement, feeding off resentment of the political establishment rather than being withered by media scorn. "If there's another election referendum it would be time for a hard campaign," Kris warned. "No more just parading."

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