THE cause of Scottish independence was fortunate enough to attract great women over the decades following the First World War. So much so that I have often thought that period was the wellspring of the rebirth of Scottish nationalism which, in truth, had never died out even in the days when Scots played their decisive roles in establishing the British Empire.

The disproportionate slaughter of Scots in the trenches and the rise of the socialists of Red Clydeside and elsewhere brought the issue of Home Rule to the fore as never before. There had been attempts to raise the issue on a number of occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and even that Dundee MP Winston Churchill was in favour of a federal Britain – tell that to Boris Johnson.

Yet it took until the late 1920s to see political organisations dedicated to Scottish independence. The National Party of Scotland, forerunner of the SNP, was founded in 1928. It consisted largely of men, but right there in the forefront of its establishment was a woman called Wendy Wood.

To sum up Wood in one sentence is impossible, but I’ll try: she was a patriot, an artist, a human rights campaigner before people knew what human rights were, an inspiring speaker, a controversialist, a romantic, eccentric and colourful figure who challenged plenty of people in the independence movement as much as she confronted the British state. Along with Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Nicola Sturgeon, she deserves to be classed as one of the most important women in the fight for the return of Scotland’s independence. Remember, we are only taking back something we had for nigh on 900 years.

Wood was not always right and not always popular, but of one thing there is no doubt – she was a Scottish patriot to her core and she dreamed of, and fought for, Scotland’s freedom.

It is ironic, therefore, that this great Scot was born in England. Her real name was Gwendoline Emily Meacham and she was born on October 29, 1892, in Maidstone in Kent where her parents were residing prior to emigrating to South Africa. If challenged as to her Scottish birthright, she would adapt the Duke of Wellington’s quote about his Irish birth and say: “One does not have to be a horse to be born in a stable.”

Her Scottish father Charles was a chemist and a talented amateur landscape painter, while her mother Florence was the daughter of a sculptor and educated Wood about Scotland with tales of William Wallace. The family survived the Boer War, Wood recalling years later that her father had given her a cut down rifle to defend herself. They came back to Britain, where Wood attended Hamilton House School for Girls in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

It was there that she first displayed her real talent for art, recalling in her memoirs: “It was to draw and paint that I rose at six on winter mornings and stole on tiptoe to the cold school studio to work in secret … Drawing filled every margin of my exercise books, painting filled every second of my spare time.”

Her family was connected to the Scottish Colourist master Samuel John Peploe and Wood seems to have been determined from a young age to make a living as a painter. She met figures from the arts – HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw among them – and persuaded her parents to pay for lessons so that she could study under Walter Richard Sickert, already established as an important member of the Camden Town group of post-impressionist artists.

Wood recalled: “For 10 shillings per quarter at the London County Council one could be taught by one of the greatest masters, that is to say, the pupils could enrol, but if for any reason Sickert did not approve of them, somehow they did not turn up again.

“I was a lot younger than the other students. It was my first experience of a life class and I was terribly nervous of the great man… Sickert took my pencil from me, also my India rubber which he threw out of the window… Everyone in the class either fell in love with or loved Sickert or fell foul of him and loathed him.”

WOOD loved him. She also adored William Rothenstein, the painter, printmaker, draughtsman, lecturer, and writer on art. He told her: “You’ve got a terrific imagination. I have none. I can’t paint a ribbon without seeing it. I’d curb you and exhaust you in a short time. Keep away from art schools and just keep on drawing and painting.”

She resolved to do just that. The family holidayed in Scotland and Wood soon came to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this land while she grew to love the culture of its folk. Married at the age of 19 to Walter Cuthbert, in 1913 she and her husband toured Scotland in his motor car – a rare sight in the Highland in those days. It was here and then that she began her great romantic passion for Scotland and the Scots, aided by an inspirational visit to the Wallace Monument at Stirling.

She would write of her discoveries of Scotland’s ancient folklore: “The faerie faith, surviving as it does in Celtic lands … is in line with all other faiths in which angels and spirits hold their place, and only those ignorant of even the little that is known about psychic energy, and those who are blind to the beauty of the Celtic Tradition, will lift the nostril or raise the eyebrow in scorn. The Faeries of Glenmore are only a further illustration of the belief in that something indestructible of which sage and savage have been equally aware.”

She never lost that mystical view of Scotland, but she was hard-headed enough to know that only solid political campaigning would gain back Scotland’s freedom.

“Assuredly we must cut our coat to suit our cloth – and the cloth is the tartan,” was one of her favourite phrases.

Having given birth to her daughters Cora and Irralee during the war – she also had a miscarriage of twins – Wood seemed ready for a life of domesticity in their home at Ayr near where her husband had his business.

Cuthbert built her a studio and Wood resumed her art with some success, changing her name in 1927 to emphasise her family’s artistic connections, but she was already politically committed, and had joined the Scottish League in 1916 followed by the Home Rule Association in 1918.

In 1928 came the foundation of the National Party of Scotland and in the party Wood found her voice – literally so, for she began to speak at public rallies and party meetings, travelling with her supporters and companions in a van from meeting to meeting. The colourful and forthright banners which accompanied her works of art designed by Wood herself.

In 1932, and tiring of the lack of action by nationalists, Wood led a group of people attending the annual Bannockburn rally up to Stirling Castle, where they hauled down the Union Flag and raised the Saltire. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the local barracks were reprimanded for failing to stop her.

That publicity stunt led to her becoming a target for the British state’s intelligence corps.

IT was only revealed decades later that in July, 1933, Special Branch prepared a report on her activity. It said that Wood, who was then living at Balcarres Street in Edinburgh, was chairperson of the Democratic Scottish Self-Government Organisation (DSSO) whose aims were “to achieve complete separation of Scotland from England and to set up an independent Parliament with sovereignty vested in the Scottish people”.

The National’s sister paper reported: “The DSSO had said that these aims could not be achieved except by direct action, ‘not via Westminster, where the English outnumber the Scottish representatives by seven to one’.

“The police report described a meeting Miss Wood had arranged at the Ivanhoe Hotel, Buchanan Street, Glasgow, when officials of the Irish republican movement in Scotland were present at her invitation.

“She said a plebiscite in the East of Scotland had produced a decision not to support England in any war that that country fought and she was seeking a similar vote in the west.

“The DSSO had been threatened by communists and a Protestant gang known as the Billy Boys. Miss Wood called for volunteers to stand up to all opposition.”

Wendy Wood fell out with the Scottish National Party on several occasions – at one meeting she said the party would “expel Wallace” – and she felt a non-partisan approach was the correct way to win independence. She founded the Scottish Watch as a youth movement to encourage learning about Scottish culture and set up mass country dances in Edinburgh in Princes Street and on the Castle Esplanade.

In 1946 she stood as an independent in the Glasgow Bridgeton by-election and polled 2575 votes to save her deposit – not bad for a first time candidate with no party organisation behind her.

In 1949 Wood founded the Scottish Patriots which soon hand hundreds of members, and in the 1950s led the successful campaign to have post boxes recast without the Elizabeth II motif. There had been no Elizabeth I in Scotland, was her reasoned argument.

Wood often took up causes other than Scottish independence. She supported Indian independence in the 1930s and 40s, and in the 1970s she sided with Iceland in the Cod Wars. Three times she went to prison for her beliefs – once for battling fascists in Edinburgh in which she reportedly gave as good as she got and on the final occasion for speaking to the Scottish crowd in Trafalgar Square prior to the England vs Scotland match in 1951. She was beaten up by an English policeman before being fined and eventually sent home.

Sir Compton Mackenzie was huge fan. He dedicated his book On Moral Courage to her. The French government gave her a medal for her art and her service to Scotland, and on a tour of the USA she spoke to thousands of ex-pat Scots despite the authorities forcing venues to cancel her speaking events.

When she addressed the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1961 she was the first woman to do so since Lady Liverpool in 1931. She at least persuaded the assembly to look at Home Rule and that eventually became the Kirk’s official position.

In 1970, the 650th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath took place at the Abbey. The event was set against a background of tension between the Labour government and nationalists. When secretary of state Willie Ross, the self-declared “Hammer of the Nats” rose to speak, Wood stood and shouted “hypocrite”.

There was another side to her for Wood had a spell reading stories on Jackanory, named as Auntie Gwen.

In 1972 she embarked upon her most dangerous campaign. In protest at Prime Minister Ted Heath’s failure to deliver a promised referendum she began to starve herself to death. All she wanted was for Heath to at least discuss the issue

Unionist MPs were aghast at the thought of her becoming a martyr and several came to see her at her home in Edinburgh to plead with her to start eating again which she did having extracted a promise that Parliament would at least discuss the issue.

Still campaigning in her 80s, Wendy Wood died on June 30, 1981, at the age of 88. She was mourned across Scotland.

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