The rise of Scottish nationalism and sectarian hatred were two of the main reasons why fascist movements did not manage to make the same headway north of the border in the 1930s as they did in England, says new research.

According to historian Dr Stephen Cullen, of Warwick University, Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) at its height in 1934 had 50,000 members throughout the UK. There were 10,000 in Yorkshire but only around 1000 in Scotland.

However, one place where the BUF did successfully recruit in numbers was Dalbeattie in Kirkcudbrightshire, largely because of a character reminiscent of Dad's Army's Captain Mainwaring who was its local leader, as well as being the bank manager and town clerk.

Dr Cullen's conclusions are contained in a paper entitled The Fasces and the Saltire: The Failure of the British Union of Fascists in Scotland 1932-40, published in the Scottish Historical Review. It is informed by his study of police, MI5 and Special Branch records.

Perhaps surprisingly, these reveal little evidence of anti-semitism within the BUF in Scotland until about 1938-39. "And by that time they were largely confining themselves to small, private indoor meetings," says Dr Cullen.

"Neither were they much given to violence. It was their Communist Party opponents who more readily resorted to violence."

But Dr Cullen argues that there were other obstacles the BUF could not overcome in Scotland, not least that the political stage was already cluttered with the different sections of nascent nationalism, the comparatively prominent profile of the Communist Party as well as the other established parliamentary parties.

The BUF, however, did not help itself. "The failure of the BUF to articulate a clear Scottish national policy, perhaps some form of home rule within the Union, in all probability cost them some support from the right-wing elements that were attracted, instead, to the nationalists.

"Indeed, the SNP were concerned by the possible overlapping appeal of their own nationalism with fascism, and one of the SNP's first actions was to issue a statement condemning fascism and dictatorship." This was because some members had been making favourable noises about fascism.

But the Scottish nationalists were more than just political opponents, according to the new research.

"On at least one occasion, Scottish nationalists helped break up a BUF meeting in Edinburgh. A BUF meeting at the foot of the Mound on June 20, 1937, which had attracted about 10,000 people, was disrupted by communists and Scottish nationalists. The small group of BUF supporters was attacked by the opposition, and a number of communists and nationalists were arrested."

Meanwhile, Dr Cullen has found that the BUF ironically lost potential support because of its rather enlightened approach to religious issues.

"The BUF consistently maintained an impartial line, arguing that both Protestants and Catholics could be good fascists and loyal Britons." As a result it faced opposition from militant Protestants who successfully painted it as a party whose allegiances were to Mussolini's Italy and therefore to the Pope in Rome.

"The BUF was never able to counter these allegations successfully, and it is clear that by refusing to take a partisan line on the religious issue the BUF was never able to win the support of many Protestants, while Catholics do not seem to have been drawn to the movement in abnormally large numbers.

"This failure to identify with one or other sectarian tendency may well have been a key factor in explaining the failure of the BUF in Scotland, especially in terms of street politics," says the historian.

But Dr Cullen did find one BUF stronghold: "The most successful BUF leader in Scotland was James Little of Dalbeattie. Little was an example of the type of local leader the BUF desperately needed but rarely found.

"In addition to being the BUF leader, he was a bank manager, town clerk, and a well-known and respected figure in the town. The breadth of Little's involvement in Dalbeattie life may well have lain at the heart of his success as a local fascist leader."