A piece of my own family history was brought to my attention by one of our customers. Stewart MacLennan, who is Chair of the Scottish Labour History Society, told me that my father, Donald Renton, is mentioned in A Bible of Discontent: The memoir of Hugh D’Arcy, bricklayer and trade unionist. Both were Portobello boys from Pipe Street. D’Arcy recalls:
There was a Mr Carrigan who taught the science class, from Towerbank and St John’s pupils, but one day in an extra mural little session he gave us his opinions about Donald Renton. Donald was a very well-known Communist activist in those and later days in Portobello where his family lived. Mr Carrigan said he was surprised that Donald, who had been a pupil of his and showed good promise in school at Towerbank, had become a troublesome agitator and a person we should not get involved with.
Well of course many of us were influenced against Renton and his comrades by remarks like that so that one day at Wood’s Park football ground some of the boys from Pipe Street met other boys from Mitchell’s Buildings and we were hostile to each other in any case, like different gangs. This day our mutual antagonisms only expressed themselves in argument, and I said to Charlie Renton, one of Donald’s younger brothers: Your brother’s a bloody agitating upstart. “Is that so?” said Charlie “Well who the hell do you think got you lot your school dinners?”
Well that stopped me in my stride, but I didn’t really know anything about who got us school dinners. However, I found out through my parents, that what Charlie said was true. Not just Donald, of course, but the local Communists and Labour activists who had campaigned and agitated for the Local Authority to provide school dinners to the families of the unemployed.
My dad later fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He left the Communist Party in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution (when the contrarian MacDiarmid decided to join) and went on to became an Edinburgh councillor for Craigmillar ward. In the 60s, when filling in his Census form, I remember him entering under Occupation: Revolutionary Communist; and under Religion: Militant Atheist.