By Mark Smith and Alastair Stewart

On November 16, 1922, Winston Churchill, recently defeated as MP for Dundee, boarded the London sleeper train. He was dejected, frustrated and ill, and wrote that he had been left “without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix”.

The election had been extremely difficult for Churchill. He had unwisely attacked the local newspaper proprietor DC Thomson. The public meetings he attended had also been hostile and eventually the Labour vote swung behind the prohibitionist candidate, and Churchill lost the seat.

The fact that he never returned to Dundee and turned down the freedom of the city when he was offered it later is significant: Churchill believed the city was a “life seat and cheap and easy beyond all experience”. But his political rejection by Dundee has morphed into the baseless myth that Churchill hated Scotland.

Churchill is accused of ordering tanks into the “Battle of George Square” in 1919 and abandoning the 51st Highland Division at St Valery in 1940 because they were Scottish. It has also been suggested Churchill was prepared to sacrifice Scotland to Nazi troops during the Second World War to protect the south of England. In 2019, MSP Ross Greer went as far as to tweet that Churchill was a “white supremacist” and a “mass murderer” interspersed with hand-clapping emojis.

The proliferation of all these myths, misleading stories and lies is marked by the absence of a single, centralised resource about Churchill and Scotland. The former prime minister Gordon Brown remarked of his predecessor: “So much has been written about every aspect of Winston Churchill’s life that it is surprising that one important area – his relationship with Scotland – has commanded so little attention.”

Churchill, like the Union itself, has been taken for granted. In his book Stone Of Destiny, Ian Hamilton observed that King George VI was the rallying, non-political force in the Second World War. Fast forward and it is Churchill who has become an omnipresent spectre – a symbol, half-remembered, inspiring religiosity or pure hatred.

Those trying to embellish Churchill’s memory with an almost spiritual perfectionism are just as guilty as those who peddle nonsense. Churchillian bon mots are as famed as Wilde and Shakespeare. But he did not say: “Of all the small nations of this Earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” There are a thousand other well-meaning old wives’ tales which do more harm than good.

Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre, has highlighted one such story doing the rounds on the internet. Depending on which version you read, there was a poor Scottish farmer called Fleming. One day he heard a cry for help from a nearby bog.

He dropped his tools and ran in the direction of the screaming. There, a terrified boy, covered in muck, was struggling to get free and was close to choking. Fleming saved the boy from what would have been certain death.

The following day, a carriage pulled up to Fleming’s humble home. A smartly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy. “I want to repay you. You saved my son’s life.”

“No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied. At that moment, the farmer’s son came to the door of the dilapidated home.

“Is that your son?” the nobleman asked.

“Yes,” the farmer replied proudly.

“I’ll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow up to be a man you can be proud of.”

And he did. In time, farmer Fleming’s son graduated from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. He became known throughout the world as Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Years afterwards, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin. The name of the aristocrat who came to Fleming’s door? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill.

A wonderful story. Of course, there is no truth in it at all. There is no evidence of young Churchill holidaying in Scotland or falling in a bog. Nor is there evidence that Lord Randolph Churchill funded Alexander Fleming’s education.

Farmer Fleming was already an old man, with his second wife and in his sixties, when Alexander was born in 1881. The family was not wealthy, but they did not live in a hovel. Alexander Fleming attended local schools and then the Academy at Kilmarnock. By the time he travelled to London in 1895 to live with his older brothers, Lord Randolph was dead. During the war, Churchill was treated for pneumonia, but with sulfadiazine, not penicillin.

Interestingly, this is not a new story. It was circulating in some form as early as November 1946, long before Churchill or Fleming’s death.

Within the Churchill Archives Centre, there is a typescript note to Churchill from Elizabeth Gilliatt, his secretary. She reports: “The Press have been enquiring about a story of your youth, contained in a speech to be made this afternoon (of which they have advance copies) by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh.”

She then recounts a version of the story above, concluding by saying “The Daily Telegraph have spoken to Lady Fleming who said it was a very good story but quite untrue”. Churchill’s response is minuted and brief: “I agree with Lady Fleming”.

The most well-meaning of stories distort reality when what we need is the truth. To attempt to set the record straight, the International Churchill Society has published an edition of its quarterly magazine, Finest Hour, dedicated to Churchill’s Scottish connections. Even a full edition only began to scratch the surface.

For one, the popular notion Churchill was kicked out of Dundee in 1922 ignores that he was returned as a Liberal five times. Churchill had been invited to contest the seat by the Dundee Liberals and to be their candidate. He was no “carpetbagger” by today’s standards.

The great distance between a constituency and Westminster was a universal problem for those in high office.

Between 1908 and 1922, Churchill was president of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, a battalion commander in the trenches, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for Air and War, and Secretary of State for the Colonies until the government fell in 1922 – when he lost his seat. There is scant evidence he abused his constituency, which is a different charge to being neglectful or out of touch which he probably was.

Churchill was, in fact, the original nationalist – and a federalist. Unionism and nationalism were always complementary and interchangeable forces in Scotland for the first part of the 20th century – and Churchill knew this. As early as 1913, he looked forward to the day “when a federal system will be established in these Islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs”.

Socialism to Churchill was a lifelong threat (despite serving professionally and personally with Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin during the war). In a speech in Edinburgh in 1950, Churchill warned that centralised socialism threatened the Union: “If England became an absolute Socialist state … ruled only by politicians and their officials in the London offices, I personally cannot feel Scotland would be bound to accept such a dispensation.”

He continually acknowledged efforts to establish Scottish Home Rule. John MacCormick’s Covenant for a Scottish Parliament achieved two million signatures. As chairman of the Scottish Unionist Members of Parliament, James Stuart responded: “If the people of Scotland were ultimately to decide in favour of a Scottish Parliament, no-one could gainsay them.” As the opposition leader at the time, Churchill was unequivocal: “This letter expresses my own view, and there is nothing I can add to it.”

By 1952, and King George’s death, a remarkable “war” had started in Scotland. As David Freeman writes in Finest Hour, many Scots believed that, in their country, the new Queen Elizabeth was not Elizabeth II and that the royal cypher in Scotland should be ER and not EIIR. However, the Post Office went ahead and unveiled Scotland’s first EIIR post box on the Inch housing estate in Edinburgh.

Within two days, vandals had defaced the box with tar, and two attempts were made to blow it up. They finally succeeded on February 12, 1953, when the box was blown apart by gelignite. A lion rampant was draped over the ruins. The government, led by Churchill, quietly arranged that boxes in Scotland should only be decorated with images of the crown.

The International Churchill Society has also explored the ironic connection between Churchill and the founder and leader of the Scottish National Party, Andrew Dewar Gibb. The two men met when Churchill commanded the 6th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916, and Andrew Dewar Gibb was his adjutant.

Dewar Gibb later released a book about his time with Churchill in the trenches in which he praised his friend. “I am firmly convinced that no more popular officer ever commanded troops,” he wrote. “As a soldier [Churchill] was hard-working, persevering, and thorough. He is a man who is apparently always to have enemies.

“He made none in his old regiment, but left behind him there, men who will always be his loyal partisans and admirers, and who are proud of having served in the Great War under the leadership of one who is beyond question a great man.”

In Finest Hour, the historian Gordon J Barclay suggests that Churchill is caught between two images: the faultless secular saint and the villain. Barclay refers to a report in the Mail on Sunday that Churchill was prepared to sacrifice Scotland to the Nazis in the event of a German invasion – the report named Barclay’s book on the Second World War in Scotland as the source. But Barclay confirms his book and research suggested no such thing.

Barclay also deals with the story that Churchill sent English troops and tanks into George Square in Glasgow to crush a strike in 1919. The reality is that the city’s own authorities called in the army. Most of the troops were Scottish but 100 years later, the mythical version of the event – that English troops were in George Square – appears in Scottish school textbooks.

The International Churchill Society aims to kickstart the process of consolidating the truth and dismissing these myths. It has already launched an appeal for more information about Churchill’s many associations with Scotland to further study how the famous wartime Prime Minister and the Scottish people affected one another.

The problem they face is social media and the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Churchill’s record in Scotland. Churchill is a lightning rod for modern debates about Britishness and independence. Social media is replete with half-remembered facts and outright lies in this battle.

We cannot allow historical truth to be another tool in today’s debates just because it doesn’t fit contemporary moods. From 1707 to the present day is a significant historical gap to leave blank. And Churchill was a giant of Scotland in that time.

Alastair Stewart is a member of the Churchill Society Advisory Council