by Michelle Moffat
If asked to think about daily life in Britain during the Second World War, popular topics that come to mind might be air raids, factory work, food rationing, or the blackout. In interviews with former war workers, similar themes were brought forth. Men who had worked in industries on the home front were reluctant to admit to interviewers that they had any leisure time during the war, ‘batting away’ questions on free time, and insisting they had been too busy to indulge in the pursuit of pleasure.1 The popular ‘People’s War’ narrative has also promoted an image of ‘patriotic sacrifice, marathon working hours … and women tired out from endless queuing and making-do’.2 While these topics are at the foreground of many memories of the home front, they have overshadowed other aspects of wartime life. Evidence gathered from Scottish archival sources shows that many people continued to enjoy popular pastimes from pre-war days, indicating that leisure was a core part of everyday life in Scotland during the Second World War.
In pre-war days, cinema was a popular Scottish pastime. Admission charges were very low, making it a relatively affordable leisure option. It was especially popular with the working classes and with youths, demonstrated by a 1937 survey that found 36% of West Lothian children attended the cinema at least once a week. During the war, cinema continued as one of Scotland’s most popular forms of entertainment. In response to a 1943 questionnaire on cinema habits, Scottish respondents mentioned the pleasure of being able to lose oneself in a film featuring a favourite actor, going to the cinema ‘for a good laugh’, and using film as a way of avoiding ‘the usual fit of depression of a Saturday afternoon’. Cinema could also provide escape from Luftwaffe bombing raids. After two nights of heavy bombing of Glasgow and Clydeside in early March 1941, the deputy chief constable of Ayrshire noted, ‘On the second night of the attack when the people were able to interpret the noise they were hearing, there was no panic, and very little use was made of public shelters. The only people to leave the cinemas were the Civil Defence personnel’. These hardy Scots were not about to let the Blitz stop them from seeing the end of their film!
Like cinema, football was also a favoured Scottish pastime. Before the war, it was the most popular leisure pursuit of working-class Scotsmen, and historian T. C. Smout referred to it as ‘the new opiate of the people’.3 During the war, official regulations required that mass sporting events, such as football, could only go ahead under restricted attendance conditions. Small venues could only host 8000 persons, while larger venues were restricted to crowds of 15,000. On special occasions attendance regulations were relaxed, allowing over 37,000 people to attend a Rangers vs. Celtic match in September 1942. Attendance regulations were also waived for international matches such as when 105,000 fans watched England beat Scotland at Hampden Park in April 1943. Similarly, the Edinburgh Hibernians played a Services XI in Glasgow in front of a crowd of 30,000. The servicemen won by one goal, though The Scotsman applauded the performance of the Hibernians, who ‘worthily upheld Scottish football prestige’. ‘It was quite like the old times’, one Glaswegian commented, though he lamented, ‘Scottish football is not a patch on English’.
In similar fashion to other popular forms of leisure, cultural entertainments continued – albeit somewhat altered – during the war. Between 1939 and 1945, ballet, orchestral, and theatre groups continued to tour, including The Scottish Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Anglo-Polish Ballet. Further, groups such as the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) brought theatre performances, variety shows, and mobile cinemas to places as far afield as the Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland. Facilities such as galleries and museums were not left completely unaffected by war, though. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, large facilities chose to send their most valuable items to country houses for safe-keeping. At the National Gallery of Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery most possessions were distributed between a variety of country lodges and castles, though large pieces such as a Van Dyck and wax models by Michelangelo were kept in a reinforced room at the National Gallery. Similar measures were enacted by Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museum, which was fortuitous, as the facility was badly hit in the Clydeside Blitz. Despite the building suffering extensive damage, director Tom Honeyman noted his relief that, as a result of the implemented safety measures, ‘nothing of any real value’ was lost from the collection.
Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, at that time known as the Royal Scottish Museum, sent the majority of its collections to country houses and castles for safe-keeping, and most of the museum was closed to the public until 1944. However, the museum continued to operate in some capacity: a series of lectures were given to servicemen at two anti-aircraft stations in Scotland, specimens were loaned to other galleries, and schoolchildren from Edinburgh, Fife, West Lothian and Peeblesshire were allowed to visit. When it officially re-opened in 1944, the Museum’s programme had a distinctively Scottish flair: public lectures included ‘Scotland’s Contribution to Metallurgy’ and ‘The Mountains of Scotland’, while the exhibition ‘Spinning and Weaving’ featured Scottish textiles and tartan weaving demonstrations. The two most popular exhibitions, though, were about Scotland’s role in the frontline war effort.
These small snippets of leisure in Scotland indicate that wartime life did not solely revolve around work and sacrifice. In fact, the selected archival sources reveal that entertainment was a common aspect of everyday life during war. Pleasure, it seems, was a revered – if now forgotten – part of Scottish wartime culture.
Michelle Moffat was recently awarded a doctorate in history from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Michelle’s research examines society and culture in Scotland during the Second World War, and her doctoral thesis included chapters on morale, delinquency, and holidays, amongst other topics.
1 Juliette Pattinson, Linsey Robb, and Arthur McIvor, Men in Reserve: British Civilian Masculinities in the Second World War (Manchester, 2017), pp. 243-244.
2 Geoffrey Field, Blood, Sweat, and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939-1945 (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012), p. 2.
3 T. C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950 (London, 1986), p. 202.
Ideas for Further Reading
- SMT Magazine and Scottish Country Life is available at National Museums Scotland and the National Library of Scotland.
- War films can be viewed on the Scotland on Screen website and on the British Pathé’s YouTube channel.
- Chapman, James, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 (London, 1998).
- Maver, Irene, ‘Leisure Time in Scotland During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’ in John Beech, Owen Hand, Mark A. Mulhern, and Jeremy Weston, eds., Scottish Life and Society: The Individual and Community Life (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 174-203.
- Taylor, Matthew, Sport and the Home Front: Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-1945 (Milton Park, 2020).