Jeff Meek

A curious, or perhaps irksome, aspect of ‘British’ approaches to the history of sexuality is that they tend to neglect the variation of experience within the United Kingdom. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve read, or watched, or marked, pieces offering a summary of developments for non- heterosexual Brits over the past century, which often contain statements like this: ‘Gay men in Britain had to wait until 1967 before their sexual lives were legal’.  This is true for some gay and bisexual men living in England and Wales but not for those living in Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  Being an academic based in Scotland means that a share of my research relates to the Scottish dimension, and what many forget, or are ignorant of, is that Scotland has its own independent legal system, education system and religious institutions. I’ve heard Scottish work described as ‘local’ or ‘regional’,  which ignores important aspects of Scotland’s cultural and political history, and its relations to the somewhat Anglocentric historiography of sexuality in the UK .

James Adair [from 'Day of Big Issues at Assembly', Glasgow Herald, May 27 1958, p. 7]
James Adair [from ‘Day of Big Issues at Assembly’, Glasgow Herald, May 27 1958, p. 7]

Scotland was not included in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and Scottish gay and bisexual men were consigned to a further 13 years of criminalisation. Yet, that only tells part of the story. From the post-war period onwards there were few prosecutions in Scotland relating to private, consensual homosexual acts. This was not the result of forward-thinking legal attitudes but peculiarities of Scots Law. Neither was the delay the result of the influence of Scottish churches, which have perhaps been given undeserved prominence in debates about sexual politics and rights.  In reality the Catholic Church in Scotland was rather quiet on the issue, but was privately, and pastorally, supportive of law reform organisations. Indeed, it saved the Scottish Minorities Group  (the country’s foremost homosexual law reform organisation) from ‘abandonment’, by offering it premises, when SMG’s relationship with the Church of Scotland stuttered during 1971 (they had previously supplied meeting rooms), and Catholic priests were not infrequent speakers at SMG events. The relationship between SMG and the Church of Scotland had been relatively supportive from the birth of SMG in 1968/69 until 1971, and  while initially protesting loudly against decriminalisation, it was internally split on the question and by the early 1970s cautiously supportive of legal change.

James Adair, the dour, opinionated former procurator fiscal, may well have been seen as the most prominent Scot on the Wolfenden Committee, and the fiercest opponent of legal change, yet his influence on Scotland was patchy. His comments on decriminalisation north of the border may well have been loud, but they were also mendacious. He claimed that legalisation would lead to the development of homosexual subcultures in Scotland but would, through his previous role as procurator fiscal, have been well aware of the already flourishing queer scene in major Scottish cities.

One could argue that the main obstacles for legal change in ’67 related to the now thorny issue of ‘corroboration’ under Scots Law (that there must be at least two independent sources of evidence), and the policy of prosecuting only in the public interest (prosecuting consenting adults for something committed in private was viewed as counterproductive). For many Scottish legislators the cry was ‘dinnae meddle!’ – offences which were prosecuted in Scotland would still be offences in England and Wales beyond 1967 (e.g. cottaging). This of course ignored issues relating to human and citizenship rights, and although temporary was an unsatisfactory situation.

* Don’t meddle/interfere

Jeff MeekJeff Meek is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow on the AHRC-funded ‘A history of working-class marriage in Scotland’. He maintains an interest in the history of same-sex desire and blogs occasionally on its history in Scotland.  His current research interests include same-sex unions in historical context and the emergence of queer subcultures in late 19th and early 20th-century Scotland. He tweets from @archivehermit

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  1. The picture of James Adair (looking like a mafia godfather rather than a prosperous Glasgow lawyer) was taken during the 1958 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland when they voted to reject the majority report of the Wolfenden Committee about the de-criminalisation of homosexual male activity. Did they actually endorse Adair’s minority report?

    • Hi Bob, thanks for your comments. Adair’s minority report ‘influenced’ the CoS’s attitude to homosexuality and homosexual law reform, despite divisions existing within the church. However, the CoS itself preferred to investigate the majority report on its own basis. The Assembly of ’58 underlined the common ground the parties shared. The press coverage might have given Adair undue prominence due to his involvement with Wolfenden.

  2. The habit of academics based in England and the US to ignore Scotland (and Northern Ireland) does often lead them into error – like you I remind readers that, despite the unions of 1603 and 1707, England, for good or ill, chose to keep its own legal system. Not only does the ignorance of the situation in Scotland render their assertions about “the UK” or “Britain” incorrect (and where are the peer reviewers and editors in this process) but they also deny themselves sometimes rich opportunities for deepening their research. Still goes on today – just last week I was reading the introduction to the OUP edition of Wilkie Collins’ _Man and Wife_ which suggests that ignorance of matters “Scotch” has not lessened.
    Lovin’ the beard!

  3. Absolutely Brian, and there has been a tendency to view Scottish affairs as regional variations rather than something much more intricately woven into the fabric of the nation’s social, legal and political identity. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Pingback: ‘Dinnae Meddle!’: Scotland and the Historiography of Homosexual Law Reform

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