Men of steel who marched into Scots industrial folklore
3 Jan 2011
Cloaked in matching jackets and with only three caravanettes to shelter them from the bitter cold, 12 determined men started their long march from Gartcosh, in Lanarkshire, to London.
It was January 3 1986, 25 years ago today.
Social and political unease was brewing in Scotland as Conservative privatisation policies and economic cutbacks meant many industries were being closed down.
Ravenscraig, the famous steel works near Motherwell, was among the plants facing cuts, along with its nearby Gartcosh finishing mill, which had recently been threatened with closure.
The 12 Gartcosh to London marchers, led by Ravenscraig union convener Tommy Brennan, were determined to fight against those cuts.
Among them were representatives from all the major political parties, including Iain Lawson, then chairman of the Conservative parliamentary candidates’ association.
Evening Times reporter Ken Smith, who now writes The Herald’s Diary column, and photographer Craig Halkett marched alongside the campaigners and documented their 10-day journey.
“The closure of Gartcosh would have taken away some of our economic argument to keep Ravenscraig open as well,” remembered Mr Brennan. “Gartcosh finished our produce and was important to the whole process, so we got all the political parties together to march our petition down to London to keep it open.”
The march would go on to become one of the defining moments in the fight to keep steel jobs in Scotland. Covered by newspapers, radio and TV stations across the UK, the Gartcosh to London march became a national event.
“It was all about getting publicity,” said Mr Brennan. “When we came up with the idea we knew we had to get every political party involved, and we did. At first they said it couldn’t be organised, but after a night in The Griffin bar we decided just to do it ourselves.”
The men, who included Jim Wright, the SNP spokesman for steelworks, Jim Bannerman, the Liberal representative, and Celtic chairman and former MP John Reid, as the Labour representative, marched down the east side of the UK past other steel factories to gather support.
In order to make it to London within 10 days, when a debate on the Scottish steelworks was planned for the House of Commons, each of the men walked the distance in relay shifts.
Ken Smith remembers the camaraderie on the trip. He said: “We had a good time. It was confined living though – those caravanettes were designed for a family, not four grown men. We would each walk some of the journey and then have a few pints at night. It was bitterly cold though.
“One of the guys decided to bring a chicken to cook in the oven for dinner one night. But we were so busy we forgot all about it. When we arrived in London we found a green-looking chicken still in that caravan oven. I’ll never forget that sight.”
The marchers finally made it to Downing Street, their ultimate destination, after 10 days of walking. By the time they got there, the closure of the Gartcosh finishing mill had become a subject of national interest. The men planned to hand in a 22,000-strong petition to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, although she refused to meet them at the doors of Number 10.
Mr Brennan explained what happened next: “We decided to go to Buckingham Palace instead. When we got there the flag was down, so we knew the Queen was away.
“We went inside anyway and were met by one of her aides who accepted the petition on her behalf. We did get a letter from the Queen after that, and it was even more good publicity.”
The parliamentary debate was also cancelled, as a result of the Westland Helicopter scan-dal and Michael Heseltine’s resignation.
But while the march was hailed as a great success, it did not succeed in stopping the closure of the Gartcosh mill, which shut in 1986. Although the Ravenscraig plant also closed in 1992, it was later than originally planned.
“The Gartcosh campaign could never be described as a 100% success,” explains Iain Lawson, now honorary consul for the Republic of Estonia in Scotland, and who left the Conservative Party during the campaign to save Gartcosh.
He added: “There were partial victories: the Ravenscraig plant closed some years after it probably would have, which considering the number of jobs there at the time was an important achievement.”
Today, the marchers and the widows of those who marched will meet up to mark the 25th anniversary of their journey and watch a new documentary made about their efforts.
Tace Dorris, who has produced the film, believes the march was an important moment in Scottish industrial history. She said: “I think it is essential that these men be remembered. I have never met a more wonderful, sincere and down-to-earth group of people. They are ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing and should be honoured for doing so.”