Long Way From Glasgow a memoir by John Donaldson

long way from glasgow

John Donaldson’s memoir ‘Long Way From Glasgow’ is a fascinating read. It encompasses his life growing up in Glasgow during the Second World War and the years he spent in Canada building the trade union movement. John’s experiences are well worth chronicling including difficulties encountered in Africa and time spent in such far flung places as USSR and Nicaragua.  

I am, of course, very familiar with Glasgow and also know Toronto well so I am oriented when John refers to Bay and Bloor. However, his book is more than a personal memoir and proides absorbing commentary on the social history of the time.  It will particularly appeal to anyone interested in the Trade Union Movement.

John is now retired and lives in Ontario, Canada.

long way from glasgow

Below you will find some extracts from Long Way From Glasgow highlighting different sections of the book:

War is declared

‘A few weeks before war was declared my mother received a letter from her brother Eddie in Canada. By now it was clear that war was inevitable. He told her she should send Jean and me over for the duration of the war. If she agree, he would see about booking passages … on the ship, the Athenia,… My mother told us later that she thought very hard about it but just could not do it.  The Athenia was to sail from Glasgow to Liverpool, then from Liverpool to Montreal. She was torpedoed by a German U-boat four hundred miles west of the Hebrides. There were one thousand one hundred passengers and three hundred crew on board. One hundred and eighteen were lost.’ 

(The S.S. Athena was a steam turbine transatlantic passenger liner built in Glasgow in 1923 for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, which later became the Donaldson Atlantic Line. The ship was hit on 3 September, 1939, just a few hours after war was declared.)

Difficulties in Organising Unions

‘After the CN Tower job came to an end, I started to work at a large job in downtown Toronto. I had become friendly with some of the guards on this job.  They were mostly South Asians who had recently immigrate.. I found them to be good people and they were well-educated, many with university degrees. They were working for minimum wage, which at the time was two dollars and ten cents per hours.  I’ll call the name of the security company …’Century Security.’  Century had guards employed all over Toronto, from just two guards at a an apartment building … to a dozen at a car company .. and many other factories. It was obvious that they were going to be very difficult to organize. You could not organize as per individual location, but by district, as laid down in labour legislation.’

Working to build Trade Unions in Canada

‘About twenty security guards and I met at the hall at 1604 Bloor Street one Saturday morning. We spent most of the day going over the proper procedures to establish a union. At the end of the day, we had elected a president, vice-president and executive board. Guess who was president? We, of course, still had to get legal status from the Ontario Labour Relations Board. This would come later.’

Socialist Philosophy versus Capitalism

‘After giving our lunch orders … the money managers told us about some investments they had made.  They had bought some shares with a company that had just received an order to build fighter jets for the Israeli Air Force. MacIsaac immediately took exception to this, saying we should not be investing in fighter jets that are going to kill people…

The hosts, dyed-in-the wool capitalists, took exception… The ensuing debate became a bit uncomfortable: socialist philosophy versus capitalism. The meal arrived with great fanfare, just in time to change the subject.  When my waiter lifted the silver cover … there was my filet mignon…looking like a work of art. Allan leaned over and whispered in my ear: ‘You’re a long way from Glasgow.’


‘The group I was with headed north to the mountains where the air was clear and cool …We visited a coffee plantation owned by a German family.  They had been sympathetic to the Sandinistas and had secretly assisted them in the struggle.   We had supper at the plantation’s lodge… I remember it was a clear night with a full moon and very quiet except for our own conversation.  The stillness was at times interrupted by gunfire.  The contras were still fighting in the mountains.  We sat with a commandant who told us of his participation in the revolution, and how he brought in weapons from Cuba in a plane and turned the tide of a losing fight with the contras to win the battle.’

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Comment on Facebook on ‘Long Way From Glasgow’ by Devon Hayter

‘This weekend I was honored to receive a personalized copy of my mentor, John Donaldson’s memoirs. I was incredibly lucky to grow up around John. He fueled my love for Politics, football, and was a major inspiration to move to Scotland. I’ve heard many of these stories over family dinners, or when I was in College and John was my guest of honour during the George Brown Labour Fair. Stories of his early days, growing up in Glasgow during WW2.. To his misadventures being a merchant seamen and his time spent in African prisons. To the gritty tales of his rise as a leader and activist, helping to unionize many different sectors of the working class. His international dealings with the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, meeting with leaders of Labour in the USSR, and taking on union corruption at home. I wiped a few tears from my eyes during this read… I’m humbled to call you my friend. #longwayfromglasgow #johndonaldson #unionmade #internationalsocialism #tradeunion’


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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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