On this day – 28 October – in 1922, Italian fascists marched on Rome, leading to Benito Mussolini’s assumption of power in Italy. In Germany, Hitler had joined the Nazi Party in 1919 and was gradually building its fascist ideology. The cancer of fascism, which would plunge the world into a devastating war, was beginning to spread. By the early 1930s, it had even found a breeding ground in Scotland. On 8th February 1935, William Joyce, who later became infamous as Lord Haw-Haw, addressed a meeting of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in Kirkcudbright, in south-west Scotland. Joyce had been promoted as Director of Propaganda by Sir Oswald Mosley, the BUF’s leader. Mosley had been inspired by Mussolini after meeting him on a trip to Italy and modelled his ‘Blackshirts’ on the Italian fascist image.

Joyce’s appearance in Kirkcudbright was hardly a surprise. The BUF’s magazine – ‘The Blackshirt’ – called Galloway “the cradle of fascism in Scotland” and Kirkcudbright was virgin territory for the fascists to exploit. Although difficult to believe today, in the 1930s, the sleepy little Galloway enclave of Dalbeattie was home to the largest branch of the BUF in the country. Led by the local Town Clerk - James Little – the Blackshirts had recruited more than 400 members. Nearby Dumfries boasted a further BUF branch of 120 members. James Little gave an air of respectability to the BUF and such were his skills that he soon became the national organiser for Scotland.

The reasons for the BUF’s popularity in south-west Scotland can be found in its industrial heritage. In the early twentieth century, coal and railways helped the rapid expansion of mining, quarrying and manufacturing in Ayrshire and Upper Nithsdale, creating scattered enclaves of an industrialised working class, whose political leanings, in the home of Keir Hardie, were more socialist than fascist. Galloway, however, was the exception. The rural economy was based firmly on agriculture. The larger towns of the area like Dumfries and Stranraer, relied primarily on farming for their economic survival. Against the backdrop of a world recession, chronic depression and the blight of racist and authoritarian ideology spreading across Europe, the BUF’s anti-communist and anti-socialist message chimed with the rural Galloway audience. By the mid-1930s, the BUF had attracted 500,000 members across the UK and had branches in Glasgow, Motherwell, Ayr, Dumfries and Aberdeen. But the far-right group struggled to gain a foothold in Scotland’s major cities, with their strong tradition of left-wing politics. BUF membership in Glasgow never exceeded 80, despite personal appearances by Mosley and Joyce at major rallies in the city. 

The situation in Galloway was different, however. On the evening of Friday 6th April 1934, Mosley addressed over 3,000 people in the Drill Hall (now the Loreburn Hall) in Dumfries. The Dumfries and Galloway Standard even expressed its surprise at seeing several hundred ‘Blackshirts’ in the audience, who forcibly ejected a bunch of communist agitators who had tried to disrupt the event. The meeting was arranged by the Dalbeattie Town Clerk - James Little. In the front row of the Dumfries rally were local dignitaries such as Cecil Dudgeon the MP for Galloway and Dr Joseph Hunter, the MP for Dumfriesshire. Both were members of the Liberal Party, although Dudgeon went on to join Mosley’s BUF. After two and a half hours of a rousing, passionate speech, during which Mosley promised to re-organise agriculture and to put thousands of men back to work on the land, he received a prolonged standing ovation.

The BUF had harvested huge support after Viscount Rothermere, editor of the best-selling Daily Mail and owner of the Daily Mirror, who frequently wrote commentaries praising Hitler and Mussolini, penned a long article in January 1934 under the banner headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts.” A notorious sentence in the piece reminded the Daily Mail’s two million readers that “The socialists especially, who jeer at the principles and uniform of the Blackshirts as being of foreign origin, forget that the founder and High Priest of their own creed was the German Jew Karl Marx.” Rothermere’s article provoked such outrage amongst his Jewish readers, that several large companies such as Lyons & Co. and Salmon and Gluckstein, threatened to withdraw their advertising, forcing the press baron to climb down and retract his support for the Blackshirts. But by then the damage had been done. 

Mosley’s fame in Scotland grew. He was nominated for the rectorship of Glasgow University and although he did not win, his candidature was supported by George Bernard Shaw. As the war clouds loomed over Europe, the BUF’s policy of non-intervention began to draw massive audiences. 30,000 people crammed into Earls Court in London in July 1939 to hear Mosley demand that “Britons must fight for Britain only.”  After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Mosley began to campaign for a negotiated peace with Hitler. In 1940, Mosley was arrested at his London home and imprisoned along with 750 of his supporters under a regulation which allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathisers during the war. The BUF was then disbanded by the Government.

William Joyce meanwhile fled to Berlin to avoid internment and was soon on the Nazi payroll broadcasting propaganda in his own show “Germany Calling” that was beamed into Britain, urging the British to surrender. It was estimated that Lord Haw-Haw’s programme had over six million regular listeners across the UK. Some of his messages had a chilling resonance with the rural population of south-west Scotland, where he had familiarised himself before the war. In one programme he warned that by the Spring of 1941, German soldiers would be picking buttercups on the foothills of Knockdolian, a hill in South Ayrshire. Joyce was captured in 1945, tried at the Old Bailey and hanged for treason in 1946.

The Blackshirt legacy of Dalbeattie is not something locals are keen to remember. Oswald Mosley and William Joyce were unwelcome visitors in Scotland and their brief popularity in Galloway is a disturbing reminder of the fragility of our democracy.