You can't stop the Scots from drinking. Or can you?

Although most people have heard about the Prohibitionist movement in the USA and its success in imposing a total ban on alcohol sales in the 1920s, America was not the only country in which the temperance movement was a major force. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Scotland's historic brewing and distilling, and equally historic drinking capacity, were under serious threat. In 1922, Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP for Dundee, even lost his seat in parliament to Prohibitionist candidate Ernest "Neddy" Scrymgeour.

Scotland has a long association with alcohol, being famous for its numerous whisky distilleries and the beer brewed by names like McEwan's, Tennent's, Caledonian and Belhaven. But it has also has a long history of religious puritanism, going back to the Reformation and John Knox in the sixteenth century. This Protestant worldview, critical of all earthly pleasures, also played an important role in Scottish culture and society for centuries.

Throughout history many people have spoken against the evils of alcohol, but the temperance movement first became organised in the 1820s, when campaigners like John Dunlop in Glasgow set about educating the public on the dangers of drink. In the 1830s, temperance societies sprung up all over Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, as people realised the damage that heavy drinking was doing to families and communities. The temperance movement was closely connected with the evangelical Christian movement of the time, but also sought to provide evening entertainment with magic lantern shows to entice drinkers to leave their pubs.

Despite what people might think now, the notion of banning alcohol was far from just the fringe belief of a few eccentrics. Temperance movements were active in many countries, including Canada, Sweden and Norway, as well as the USA. The movement had famous followers in Scotland such as Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, and publisher William Collins who gave his name to a famous publishing house.

It also attracted less distinguished supporters, including unofficial Scottish poet laureate William McGonagall, who penned a number of odes such as "The Demon Drink", which links alcoholism with the campaign for Scottish Home Rule. In "The Destroying Angel or The Poet's Dream", he is visited by a heavenly messenger preaching violence:

"That by God's decree ye must take up arms and follow me
And wreck all the public-houses in this fair City,
Because God cannot countenance such dens of iniquity.
Therefore, friends of God, come, follow me.

"Because God has said there's no use preaching against strong drink,
Therefore, by taking up arms against it, God does think,
That is the only and the effectual cure
To banish it from the land, He is quite sure. 1

Ironically, for many years the only memorial to McGonagall in his home town of Dundee was a public house bearing his name2.

In 1913 the temperance campaigners, known mockingly as "pussyfoots", achieved their greatest triumph. The Temperance (Scotland) Act allowed electors to vote on whether their district should allow the sale of alcohol, or limit or refuse all applications for liquor licenses. However, the outbreak of war meant implementation of the law was suspended until 1919.

During World War I, drinking became a major issue throughout Britain, and the government passed laws to restrict sales. Prime Minister David Lloyd George said at the time, "we are fighting Germany, Austria, and drink; and, as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink."3 There were worries that drunkenness of munitions workers was hampering the war effort, and the government reduced drinking hours and nationalised pubs in some areas including, in Scotland, around Invergordon and Gretna.

Once the war was over, many Scottish communities took advantage of the Temperance Act to ban the sale of alcohol. One famous example, Stewarton in Ayrshire, held a poll under the act in November 1919. The following June, all the town's public houses were forced to close down. Two further polls were held in the 1920s, but again the town voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Finally in 1961 a fourth vote reversed the decision and pubs were able to open once more after 41 years.

Stromness in the Orkneys was dry from 1920 to 1947, only repealing the ban because they felt it was scaring off fishermen and sailors from visiting the town4; Lerwick and Wick in the north were also dry for shorter periods. The effects continued for many years: some regions of Glasgow, such as Cathcart and Pollockshields, and whole towns, including Kirkintilloch, had no licensed premises at all until the 1970's.

Since the temperance campaigners threatened, and indeed desired, to put them out of business, Scotland's breweries found themselves having to fight back fiercely in defence of the merits of liquor. Their anti-temperance propaganda sought to avoid the subject of alcoholism by asking questions like "Why should mother go without her nourishing glass of Ale or Stout on washing day?"5 But they also began brewing "black beer" with little or no alcohol.

Dundee, a city afflicted by great poverty in the early twentieth century, was another hotbed of temperance. The people of the city elected Ernest "Neddy" Scrymgeour as a Member of Parliament in 1922, standing as a Labour Temperance candidate: he was the only temperance campaigner ever elected to parliament in Britain. The strength of the movement in Dundee may have been due to the city's unusually high proportion of female workers, who were widely known for their drunken carousing and suspected immorality.

The temperance movement slowly declined after the 1920s, perhaps influenced by the failure of the experiment of Prohibition in the USA - certainly the reason was not any decline in Scottish drunkenness. There still remains a Scottish culture which encourages binge drinking and the nation has a high amount of alcohol-related crime, including domestic violence and street assaults: a 2001 report claimed 26% of all crimes and offences recorded by police were associated with alcohol abuse6.

Despite the Scottish love of drink something of the attitude of the temperance campaigners must have lived on, as strict licensing regulations remained in force until the 1970s, requiring pubs to close at 10pm and prohibiting Sunday opening. Finally, the Licensing (Scotland) Act of 1976 changed this, repealing earlier legislation and liberalising opening hours, but the sale of alcohol by off-licences (which sold drinks you could take home) was still banned on Sundays until 1995.

1 William McGonagall, "The Destroying Angel or the Poet's Dream", McGonagall Online, ed Chris Hunt, (18 January 2003).

2 For more on McGonagall and temperance see the poems "The Rattling Boy from Dundee", "A Tribute to Mr Murphy and the Blue Ribbon Army", "The Troubles of Matthew Mahoney", and "A New Temperance Poem in Memory of my Departed Parents Who Were Sober Living and God Fearing People". Also see (the source of the McGonagall quote): Chris Hunt, "Temperance Gems", McGonagall Online, (18 January 2003).

3 David Lloyd George quoted in Norman H. Clark, "Prohibition in the US", New Oregon Trail, (18 January 2003). Prohibition In Other Countries.

4 The Orcadian, "Stromness 'wet' again", The Orcadian, (18 January 2003).

5 Quoted in Jacqui Sergeant, "SBA Open Day: Open Day 1997", Scottish Brewing Archive, 20 March 2002, (18 January 2003).

6 Catalyst Health Economics Consultants, Alcohol Abuse in Scotland: Trends and Costs - Final Report, (Edinburgh: The Stationery Office, 2001). Online at (18 January 2003).

  • Catalyst Health Economics Consultants. Alcohol Abuse in Scotland: Trends and Costs - Final Report. Report produced for the Scottish Executive (Edinburgh: The Stationery Office, 2001). Online at (18 January 2003).
  • Clark, Norman H. "Prohibition in the US". New Oregon Trail. (18 January 2003).
  • Hunt, Chris. "Temperance Gems". McGonagall Online. (18 January 2003).
  • Laing, Robin. "The Angels' Share". Living Tradition Issue 22 July/August '97. (18 January 2003).
  • Old, Iain G. "Candidates and Constituency Assessments: Dundee East". Scottish Politics Pages. (18 January 2003).
  • The Orcadian. "Stromness 'wet' again". The Orcadian. (18 January 2003).
  • Sergeant, Jacqui. "SBA Open Day: Open Day 1997". Scottish Brewing Archive. 20 March 2002. (18 January 2003).
  • Stewarton and District Council. "The History of Stewarton". Stewarton. (18 January 2003).
  • "Temperance". Glasgow Green. (18 January 2003).
Also, thanks to Siobhan for her knowledge of early twentieth century Dundee culture.