Tam Dalyell: the shipping news

When Tam Dalyell, the distinguished politician, died in January, I fell to reminiscing about his long public service. As is often the case, appreciation of a person’s qualities is heightened by their sudden departure; too late for delivering a message personally, we are inspired to write about them instead. I could focus on his detestation of Imperialism (shaped by the Suez Crisis of 1956), his notorious tenacity in his crusades against devolution (who can forget the West Lothian question?), or against Margaret Thatcher’s conduct of the Falklands’ War, particularly her order to sink the Argentinian ship the Belgrano?
However, it is his interest in ships of a different sort that I want to write about – “ship schools”. This has a personal note for me, as I was on a ship school, the Nevasa, in 1974. It was one of the outstanding experiences of my life, and nurtured a lifelong love of travel.

The idea for ship schools came to him at a Salzburg Seminar on American Studies, self-described as “an international forum for those seeking a better future for Europe and the world” and set up in 1947 after the ravages of World War II.

In his autobiography, he muses: “In any person’s life it is strange how determining points of that life can be triggered by the most unlikely of beginnings”; in this case, by gazing from a window at his home  and seeing a ship heading for a breaker’s yard. Couldn’t such ships be re-purposed? As a football coach, he had taken his award winning team by ship around Europe where they had played at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon and also in St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it then was) in the Kirov workers’ stadium.


West Lothian County School boys at the Kirov stadium

He was advised to flesh out his ideas and so produced The Case for Ship Schools, providentially reviewed by an old acquaintance, one Brian Redhead (on several occasions, Dalyell modestly claims that “in life, timing is everything” and attributes his idea’s success to several instances of  such “luck”); however, his well-known tenacity must have played an important part. And so, the idea of the school ship sailed off into the sunset!

In his books about the ship schools Dalyell pays tribute to their rather rudimentary precursor, carried out on a very small scale in the 1930s, administered by the Scottish Schools Travel Trust. Both of his ship school books make interesting reading even now, though from the perspective of the modern eye look quite anachronistic (girls being shown how to make bread rolls, boys examining the ship’s bridge equipment), but the ethos is sound: travel broadens the mind, so why not do it in an educational setting? Dalyell was convinced that such excursions would also build pupils’ confidence, to help them to learn social skills, to question the world around them and give them a feeling of what he called “belongingness”.

Of course, he was eager to serve on the first journey of the ship school Dunera as deputy director of studies; in fact, it was during this expedition that he was notified of his nomination for what was then the West Lothian constituency (later Linlithgow) from whence his political career took off.

Dalyell aboard ship

Naturally, his books and other writings have found a home here in the National Library of Scotland, and there is a small collection of papers in our Manuscripts division.  He also wrote numerous forewords to books ranging from a history of Bathgate (part of his constituency) to an autobiography of the physicist and spy Paul Broda.  He also wrote for The New Scientist and was a columnist for The Independent newspaper, as well as his contributions to the parliamentary record Hansard (requires log-in).

Our Moving Image Archive has a few films featuring him, including a Devolution interview with Wolfe/Dalyell, 1978: A report about devolution in Scotland, featuring interviews with SNP politician Billy Wolfe and Labour’s Tam Dalyell, as well as film from the Labour Party annual Scottish conference, Ayr, 1972 and two Dalyell family films from 1949.


Sir Thomas (Tam) Dalyell of the Binns, 11th Baronet (9 August 1932 – 26 January 2017)



Dalyell, Tam. The case for ship-schools. Glasgow:  Civic Press, 1960.

—. Devolution: the end of Britain? London: Cape, 1977.

—. Dick Crossman:  a portrait. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

—. The importance of being awkward: the autobiography of Tam Dalyell. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2011.

—. Misrule: how Mrs Thatcher has misled Parliament from the sinking of the Belgrano to the Wright affair. London:  Hamilton, 1987.

—. One man’s Falklands. London: Cecil Woolf, 1982.

—. The question of Scotland:  devolution and after. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2016.

—. Ship school. London: Newman Neame Ltd., 1963.

—. A science policy for Britain. London: Longman, 1983.

—. Thatcher: patterns of deceit. London: Woolf, 1986.

—. Thatcher’s torpedo.  London: Woolf, c 1983.

—. Why not all Scots support proposals for an Edinburgh Assembly: a response to the Scottish Council: pamphlet. [Edinburgh?]: Labour against Assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff, [1976].