Janey Buchan : a Biographical Introduction

By John Powles. Curator of the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection

Janey Buchan, born 30th April 1926; died 14th January 2012.

“Oh, dear me, the warld’s ill-divided,

Them that work the hardest are aye wi’ least provided.”

I heard Janey speak or sing those two lines from Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song many, many times, always with great passion and feeling; appropriately so, for that couplet encapsulates the essence of her political philosophy, and her lifelong commitment to social justice and  egalitarian ideals. Janey was forthright, sometimes vehemently so, and always totally committed in her energetic support for a wide-range of causes, including CND, gay rights, anti-apartheid, amongst many others. But she was much more as well – patron and campaigner for music, art, theatre, museums, libraries, as well as being hugely generous with her time, with financial support, and her friendship; admirably she valued loyalty above all other virtues.

Janey O’Neil Buchan (nee Kent) spent her childhood in a one-bedroomed tenement flat in Partick, Glasgow; her father was a shipyard worker turned tram driver, her mother a domestic servant, both were members of the Communist Party. Janey left school at 14 and became a typist to help the family finances. It was as a member of the Young Communist League that Janey met her future husband, Norman, a student at Glasgow University, in 1940; they married in 1946.

The Buchans were heavily involved with the arts throughout their 44 years of marriage; early interests included the Glasgow Unity Theatre, as well as being one of the main initiators of the People’s Festivals in Edinburgh at the start of the 1950s. Like many others, Janey left the Communist Party in 1956 following the Soviet invasion of Hungary; she joined the Labour Party, and remained, despite her heavily condemnatory stance toward “New Labour”, a member all her life.

Janey and Norman were both instrumental in the revival of folk music and song in Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s when 72 Peel Street became open house to a host of transient musicians, singers and writers. The Buchans continued to be heavily involved in song, especially political songs and songs of social justice, from Scotland and from all corners of the world. Already well known singer/songwriters, such as Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl, were promoted and sustained, as were the then less well known, like Billy Connolly, Ray Fisher and Martin Carthy … and many more!

Whilst Norman became a M.P., Janey became increasingly politically engaged locally, serving as a Councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council from 1974 to 1979, when she became MEP for Glasgow, a post she held until retiring in 1994. She was also for several years a leading figure in the Scottish Labour Party, serving as vice-chair for some years. In all her roles Janey served with dedication and energy, concentrating on the core duties of her posts, whilst also using her position and influence to further the many causes for which had an allegiance.

Janey and Norman were widely acknowledged to be a very close and mutually supportive couple, and Janey was deeply affected by Norman’s sudden death in 1990. But, being Janey, she carried on working for social justice and continued to “work the coffee cups” – her way of summing up her strategy of persuasive engagement and influence. During the years following Norman’s death Janey with her usual generosity placed thousands of books and artefacts with universities and public collections across Scotland, as well as further afield.

More recently Janey moved from Peel Street in to live in London, before moving on to Brighton, where her son, Alasdair, lives. I recall visiting Janey’s flat on the seafront in Brighton, and commenting on the wonderful south-facing view she had straight out to sea; Janey replied that being there was her first chance in decades to sit and contemplate the sea and the sky, something which speaks volumes about her as a person, and about her life.

Note : From the 1950s onwards Janey amassed an eclectic collection of political song and songs of social justice materials. This resource of major importance now forms part of the Political Song Collection at Glasgow University, where, as Janey so very much wanted, it is open for all to consult and use.