John McAra

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JOHN McARA 1857?- 11th Dec,1915

Propagandist.

Known as ‘The Guthrie Street Anarchist’ or ‘wee McAra’, John McAra was a propagandist, a persistent, engaging, sarcastic orator and ‘flying stumper’ in Glasgow, Dundee and in the Meadows and The Mound, Edinburgh at the turn of the 1900’s. His pitch was for Anarchism and especially Kropotkin’s ideas. Quoting Kropotkin he believed that ‘Anarchy in its elucidation must have clear cut speech, no guesswork as regards its meaning.’ He drew very large crowds. An article about him and his ideas in the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, described him as short and squat with a square jaw and a constant flow of ideas. He won his case at appeal for defying the council by ‘speaking without a licence on the Mound’ amidst such licence-conformers as ILP, SLP, RPA, Secularist Salvationists, Sheepfold Missionaries, Undenominational Evangelists, Mormons and Co-operators all of whom it is said, he considered frauds – “not getting to the heart of the trouble”. From FREEDOM correspondence page he suggests, “if there were 50 flying stumpers willing to take the tub and to rough it if need be, their purpose to promote Anarchy, the people with their voluntary offerings would give as much as we could to keep them, not like lords, but considering the time they would have at their own disposal for self-improvement they would be much better off than workshop drugged. …if fifty flying orators were to take the position and sell on average four quires of FREEDOM and a corresponding amount of pamphlets don’t you think it would make things hum?”

Crowd Puller.

John drew big crowds and his skill was to bring the content of his pitch such as the South African War or the Russo-Japanese war around to the sale of his publication whether it was a copy of Freedom or other penny pamphlet such as ‘War’ by Kropotkin. A ‘slum man and an Anarchist’ he could speak for hours holding the crowd’s attention on current local and international issues including anti-religion, anti-war and against other devices of the system. John was clear when it came to selling weekly papers or monthly journals , ‘my notion is, pamphlets numerous, but papers few. One journal is enough to work with, any more [papers] handicaps the stumper… on wet Sundays three quires of a weekly paper, sodden, get dried in a corner and then given away for nothing knocking the bottom out of a propagandist already on the rocks….[about the idea of a new paper to be launched in May 1912] I am not ardent or warm.’ While he lived in Glasgow he spoke every Sunday at Glasgow Green or at Gaol Square at 3pm during which the FREEDOM was sold. He made propaganda tours around the country eventually moving to Edinburgh.

Persistent Orator.

His daughter described him in FREEDOM; “John McAra was the most persistent outdoor speaker in the Anarchist movement in Scotland, and as a literature seller had no equal. When living in Glasgow he was to be found on the Green on Sundays surrounded by a large crowd. Of recent years however he had lived in Edinburgh, where his favourite pitch was The Mound. A few years back the local magistrates passed a by-law against speaking on that spot, but McAra defied them. For this he was prosecuted, a nominal sentence being inflicted. On appeal he gained the day and has since stuck to his post there in spite of all threats. He was very well known and respected and his quiet humour and twinkling eye will be greatly missed one man saying that an Edinburgh landmark had been removed. He seldom allowed the weather to interfere with his propaganda, and although his physical constitution was strong, his death at the comparatively early age of fifty eight was undoubtedly due to his exposure to the cold winds and rain. We hope other comrades will fill the vacancy left by our dear old friend”.

Early Death.

He died in Edinburgh after two operations in one week, with his children and a few comrades by his side, buried in Newington cemetery -without clergy. The above details taken from his obituary by his Daughter and other FREEDOM entries 1900-1916.

By Stasia Rice