tHE city chambers was in turmoil. Massive development projects had plunged Edinburgh into the red and the city was up to its neck in debt. Edinburgh was to be declared bankrupt, councillors were refusing to accept responsibility for their profligence and the public was being kept in the dark about the whole thing . . .
It may all sound like the plotline of the current tram saga of over-reaching ambition and lack of financial control on the High Street, but this story is, as are many things in Edinburgh, almost 200 years old. And back in 1833, the saviour of the city’s fortunes proved to be a draper from the High Street of lowly farming stock, who went on to become one of the most radical politicians of his time.
Yet these days few people will have heard of Duncan McLaren, even though he once donned the ermine and chains of the office of lord provost, opened the private parks of the city to the poor, was a great believer in free education, changed workers’ conditions for the better, scrapped an unfair religious tax, attempted to deal with public drunkenness, and even rescued city from bankruptcy. On top of all that, he exposed fraud at the heart of the railway expansion mania, successfully sued The Scotsman for libel and attempted to stop the marriage of one daughter and the medical career of another – despite supporting women’s rights.
However, author and journalist Dr Willis Pickard is hoping to resurrect McLaren’s name with his new book about the life and times of the provost Edinburgh forgot.
“There was a biographical memoir printed just after his death, but since then there’s been zilch,” says Dr Pickard. “He was a hugely significant person in 19th-century Edinburgh and Scotland and yet because he never made it to the giddy heights of prime minister, he’s been largely forgotten.
“It’s quite ironic these days as there are parallels that can be drawn with McLaren’s time as a city councillor and things that are happening today.
“Although McLaren was a self-taught man he was an incredibly successful businessman and when he became a councillor he knew how to read a balance sheet and could see the mess the town finances were in because of the council’s ambition to build, and especially to expand Leith Docks.”
It was that development that got the city into such financial trouble – especially as the Duke of Buccleuch was also building Granton and trade found that cheaper to use. Dr Pickard adds: “There were also many angry businessmen who were owed money, but the biggest creditor was the government.”
McLaren’s early years on the new council were dominated by the city’s bankruptcy – the figure owed stood at £400,000 – and like the current council administration, fingers were pointed at previous incumbents for running up debts.
However a government inquiry into Edinburgh’s state of affairs found there was not enough evidence to report “actual embezzlement or fraud . . . ignorance and reckless confidence can alone save the city managers from a charge of fraud.”
By 1836 McLaren had become city treasurer, but there was still no deal done on the city’s debt. It was only in 1838 when he went to London to thrash it out with MPs, ministers and lobbyists that a resolution was finally reached, with the government absolving the city of paying interest on the debt.
“If the kind of clarity that he brought to bear on the figures had been in evidence before 1833, you wonder if the city would have suffered five years of financial embarrassment,” says Dr Pickard.
“He was undoubtedly the rescuer of the city in that respect and I would say Edinburgh was lucky to have had a man of his considerable abilities at that time.”
Those abilities were first honed at his uncle’s store in Dunbar, where he was apprenticed aged 12. After four years there he moved to his uncle’s brother’s store in Haddington, but a year later the lure of £40 a year and the bright lights of Edinburgh proved too much and he moved to work with a wholesale merchant firm in the High Street.
By 1824 he was made an offer by a Glaswegian businessman who had formed such a high opinion of McLaren’s business acumen, to fund him in his own shop. With just £800, even then a small sum for a business start-up, he launched his draper’s store on the Royal Mile opposite St Giles Cathedral.
“McLaren was largely self-taught but he had great business instinct,” says Dr Pickard. “He was the person who ended the old way of bartering the price of goods in stores – he just said ‘that’s the price, that’s what you pay’ and soon every other store was doing the same thing.
“He also knew the value of a good advertisement – in fact he was perhaps one of the first users of ‘spin’ as we would call it these days.
“He would frequently travel to London and Manchester to buy materials so Edinburgh ladies could have the latest silks and bombardines, whatever they were. He turned what was a drapers into a department store to rival Jenners.”
While building his business McLaren was also becoming politically motivated and when political reform came in 1833 and the first public elections were held, McLaren was elected to the Second Ward – with much support from his church, the United Secession in Bristo Street (a breakaway from the Church of Scotland, which later became the United Presbyterian Church).
His church believed that the annuity tax all Edinburgh people – except lawyers – had to pay to the established church, was unfair and that religion should be a voluntary matter, so McLaren was voted in on a “scrap the tax” movement.
“McLaren was a very serious minded person,” says Dr Pickard. “He was very committed to his church, but didn’t get involved in its running, though its support was key in getting him elected. He was fervent in his belief though that the annuity tax was unfair and he had pledged to change that. The tax was money to provide the upkeep of ministers of the established church, and many people thought it was unjust, especially if they weren’t of that church.
“The exemption of lawyers also riled people. It took him 40 years, but the tax was eventually scrapped.”
As well as his financial expertise, McLaren also started the building of 13 free schools for all children in Edinburgh, but after his three-year stint as lord provost from 1851 to 54, he quit the council and focused his sights on parliament – although he wasn’t elected as a Liberal MP until 11 years later when he was 65.
“People very much regarded him as their spokesman in parliament. He very much championed Scottish issues – although he would not consider himself to be a Nationalist as such, he wanted to ensure that Scotland didn’t get a raw deal, which is why he earned the name ‘The Member for Scotland’.
“He was a supporter of national sentiment, but when it came to whether Scotland should have its own parliament again, an issue which was beginning to raise its head, he did not approve – mostly on the grounds that it would be a waste of money.
“He would be turning in his grave now,” jokes Dr Pickard.
So why has McLaren’s story been forgotten? Dr Pickard says: “His causes ceased to be his party’s or the country’s causes.
“His kind of Liberalism was replaced by that of Lloyd George and the rise of Labourism. And his campaign against the established church is not something which resonated these days in our secular age.
“But I do believe that the self-made draper who made political and religious leaders quake and spoke up for ordinary, hard-working people deserves to be better remembered.”
n The Member for Scotland: a Life of Duncan McLaren is published by Birlinn at £20.