This is the first in a regular column in which we will uncover Scotland's Radical suppressed history. This first column is written by Donnie Fraser and starts with the period 1776-1794.
"What are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from the Union that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence, and even her very name !" (1)
So wrote Rabbie Burns, the radical poet, in 1790. Burns symbolised much of the torment suffered by the emerging working class in Scotland at this time. Since the failure of the '45 Jacobite uprising and the genocide that followed Scotland had fallen into a state of political apathy, represented by people interested only in representing themselves, and governed in a corrupt colonial fashion by Henry Dundas, 'uncrowned King of Scotland', and virtual dictator. In such circumstances the 'mob' became the expression of the popular will. However while the British state set out to wipe Scotland from the political map North British was a nationality only adopted by the aspiring ruling class in Scotland. For the poor & dispossessed who had begun to congregate in central Scotland at the birth of the Industrial Revolution the desire for national justice was always to the forefront of their demands. This is why following the revolutions in America and France the emerging Scottish working class made its demands for social justice and national freedom. The jump from Jacobite to Jacobin, with its comparable demand for Scottish independence, was not difficult in a country that had been effectively militarily annexed by England.
War in America
However not all Jacobites found the transition so easy. When the Americans declared their independence on July 4,1776 the sizeable amount of ex-Jacobites there, many of whom had left Scotland rather than live under a Hanoverian monarch, mostly sided with the British crown, although many had been coerced with threats against themselves and their families in the 'auld country'. However not all Scots succumbed and many fought notably with the Americans such as John Witherspoon, who was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Robert Watson of Elgin who served with the American militias before coming to prominence with the London Corresponding Society and United Englishmen, and John Paul Jones from Kirkcudbright who raided the English coast on behalf of the Americans, destroying much English shipping trade. He was to become the founder of the American Navy after the war.
Their attitude was replicated at home. From the time that war broke out speakers across Scotland came out in support of the Americans, as the war awoke political passions again. During 1778-79 there were several mutinies of Highland regiments. Sparked by non-payment of wages and the threat of being shipped into slavery, there was also a deeper radical sentiment in many rank and file soldiers. General J Adolpuhus Oughton wrote that, 'I should think it highly advisable to withdraw all the [Scottish] regiments from this country, replacing them with an equal number of English; as I discover too many seeds of discontent, especially amongst the lower people' and warning that many were Republicans and Americans.(2)
This awakening of political passions corresponded with rapid changes in society as the industrialisation got underway in Scotland and peasants were expropriated from the land and forced to sell their labour in harsh factory conditions. The leaders of what was beginning to show the emerging signs of consciousness as a class were the weavers, who were to remain at the forefront of the workers movement for another half century. The moves towards combinations of workers (the forerunners of the trade unions) showed this emerging consciousness. However combinations had been made illegal under Scots Common Law in 1776 and the bosses, backed by the state, were determined to stamp out this emerging aspect of the workers movement.
In the summer of 1787 Mill bosses in Glasgow decided to cut wages by 25 per cent. Hundreds of weavers came out on strike. They held out for over two months despite the bosses employing scab labour. On September 2 the weavers cut the looms of the blacklegs machines. They peacefully demonstrated through the streets of Glasgow back to the East End, where they were met by the 39th Regiment at Drygate Brig. The Lord Provost ordered them to open fire, three weavers were killed and further three died from their wounds. The strike fizzled out after this and four of the strike leaders had to leave Glasgow to avoid the authorities. However James Granger was later arrested and brought to trial the following summer. Charged with mobbing and rioting offences and 'illegal combination to keep up wages' (3), Granger was sentenced to be whipped through the streets of Edinburgh and banished from Scotland for seven years 'as an example for the benefit of society'.(4) The naked class aggression pursued by the bosses and state ensured that the spirit of rebellion was not to be far from the surface.
Revolution in France
In 1789 with the French economy in crisis the rising bourgeoisie overthrew the absolute rule of Louis XVI. The Bastille was stormed and all the political prisoners released. The newly formed National Assembly abolished the feudal system and issued the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen as the basis of the new French constitution. The Revolutionary antics of the French sent Shockwaves throughout Europe and as Armand Kersaint reported to the French National Convention, 'no where is more joy caused by your victories than in Scotland'. (5) Many reform clubs and societies were formed throughout Scotland in the aftermath of the French Revolution in pursuit of the goals of 'liberty, equality and fraternity'. Thomas Paine's famous defence of the Revolution, The Rights of Man, which told of universal suffrage and the abolishment of the nobility in France, was widely circulated after 1791.
Neither did the French Revolution bypass the Highlands. The Rights of Man was translated into Gaelic as resistance to the feudal system that had been imposed on the Highlands following Culloden began to manifest itself. The communal clan system of land ownership had been abolished and tile chiefs become anglicised feudal Lairds intent on extracting the maximum profit from the land. When sheep farming was introduced to the Highlands in 1762 by Sir John Ross of Balnagowan the people were about to find out in fiill their inferior status within 'North British" society. Later in the century when the price of wool rose to feed the new textile mills of the Lowlands sheep began to be brought in on such a scale as to displace the people.
Bliadhna nan Caorach (Year of the Sheep)
In June 1792 following the arrest of 8 men from Strathusdale in Easter Ross after disturbances over disputed grazings, plans were made to drive all the sheep out of the Highlands. Proclamations were issued to the neighbouring areas to this effect but also to call for lower rents, more arable land, an end to enclosures and bread for the poor. By the end of the week some 600 men from Ross-shire and Sutherland had around 10,000 sheep on the march. They had bought £16 worth of gunpowder and the local authorities were too afraid to act against them. The Sheriff Depute of Inverness warned that a plan for insurrection had been formed, and troops were sent north at once to defend the feudal property laws. The crofters had left a small force to guard the sheep whilst the rest went out to find more. On August 5 this smaller force was confronted by three companies of the Black Watch, backed by a force of mounted gentry, their forces scattered and seven of the leaders were soon arrested. Hugh Breck MacKenzie and John Aird were sentenced to 14 years transportation to the newly founded penal colony of Botany Bay in Australia and the others were Jailed or banished from Scotland. However MacKenzte and Aird managed to escape their captors and, with the help of a sympathetic population, went to ground, never to be captured again.
This Highland action was closely linked to agitation in the South. Radicals in Edinburgh had issued Highland soldiers with a leaflet urging them not to forget the massacre of Glencoe, to stand by the people, stay at home and 'assert your independence.' It was accompanied by a more direct appeal to insurrection, 'Your countrymen look up to you as their protectors and guardians, and will in their turn lift up their arms to protect and assist you.'(6) This was part of a broader strategy that was in 1793 to see the radicals specifically produce 'small patriotic publications' emblazoned with 'the figure of a Highland man in full dress, with target and broad sword, to attract the attention of the Highlander,'(7) and trying to dispel the largely manufactured Highland/Lowland divide.
In the Lowlands 1792 witnessed further growth of the Radical movement. In May the Government had passed legislation banning 'seditious' meetings and publications to try to halt the advances of the radicals. On June 4, the King's Birthday, serious riots occurred in Edinburgh which lasted for three nights. Mobilised through the spreading of handbills and placards thousands gathered to demand 'liberty, equality and no King' (8). An effigy of' 'King Harry IX' Dundas was burnt and the windows of his brother Robert, the Lord Advocate, house were smashed. Troops were called in to quell the riot and shot one man dead, wounding six others. Despite a reward of 150 guineas being offered for information only three men were brought to trial. Two were found not proven but Alexander Lochie was sentenced to 14 years transportation though was later set free on remission. He was defended by a young advocate filled with the spirit of the time. Thomas Muir, Effigies of Dundas were burnt in towns and in villages across Scotland, toll-bars were attacked in the Borders and in Portsoy the cannon was fired by 'the mob' on the anniversary of the French Revolution as the discontent manifested itself in varied forms.
Friends of the People
Moves were made to bring together the 80 or so different societies that had been formed in the preceding years under the banner of the Scottish Friends of the People, to be loosely modelled on the recently formed United Irishmen. The first Society was formed in Edinburgh on July 26 and was soon joined by societies from Wigtown in the south to Thurso in the north. It was a middle class led body, but unlike the similar societies in England was open to all social classes, due to the increased education of workers in Scotland, and lower subscription rates. This led to there being a stronger demand for the 'equalisation of property' amongst the Scottish Society. Thomas Muir and William Skirving, a Fifeshire farmer, made plans for the first 'General Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland' in December 1792 which around 150 delegates attended and Muir tirelessly toured weaving districts across central Scotland to gather support. During the Convention Muir read out an address from the United Irishmen, 'We rejoice that you do not consider yourselves as merged or melted down into another country and that in the great national question you are still Scotland.'^) At the end of the session the delegates rose from their seats, held up their right arms and swore the French oath, to 'live free or die'.(10)
The Convention took place against a background of increased agitation in support of the Revolutionary French government at war with Prussia and Austria. Trees of liberty were planted in several places to celebrate the French victory at Jemappes. There were large riots in Perth and Dundee and a successful sailors strike in Aberdeen and the authorities were running scared of the rising tide of revolutionary currents. They decided to act. James Tytler. editor of the Historical Register, was summonsed on 2 January for advocating non-payment of taxes without universal suffrage but he fled to America whilst Thomas Muir was arrested, and released on bail, on his way to defend him. Then three Edinburgh printers John Morton, James Anderson and Malcolm Craig were sentenced to nine months hard labour for making a toast 'to George the Third and last, and damnation to all other crowned heads'.(11) James Smith fled to France when he was arrested for holding public meetings and demanding universal suffrage. Simon Drummond and Capt.Wm. Johnston, the printer and editor respectively of the new radical paper The Edinburgh Gazetteer, received three-month sentences for reporting the comments of Lord Braxfield in their paper! Wm Stewart fled when summonsed for publishing a translation of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Finally in March Walter Berry and James Robertson were jailed for being concerned in the distribution of The Political Progress of Britain. The author of that Scots republican and internationalist attack on British imperialism and the slave trade, James Thomson Callender, made his escape to America.
These arrests led to the withdrawal of the moderate elements from the Fnends of the People and at the 2nd Convention in April there were no more than a dozen delegates who had been present at the first.
Muir was now a marked man and Dundas was 'resolved to lay him by the heels on a charge of high treason' (12). Muir had travelled to France after being bailed but when the British declared war on France be found himself unable to return for his trial. Dundas took his opportunity and declared him an outlaw. The French made strong appeals to him not to return but Muir was decided upon it. He was arrested on his return in August & brought before the notorious Lord Braxfield and a jury made up of members of the loyalist Goldsmith Hall Society. Accused of, amongst others, making 'a most inflammatory and seditious [speech] falsely and insidiously representing the Irish and Scottish nations as in a state of oppression and exciting the people to rise up and oppose the government'. (13) Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay. It was this trial that inspired Burns to write Scots Wha Hae. Burns had been active in the radical movement and had been responsible for sending four small cannons to France in 1790.
Such was the spirit of the time Burns was forced to publish Scots Wha Haeanonymously, and it was soon banned as seditious. After his involvement in a riot in Dumfries Burns was threatened with transportation by his Excise bosses and forced to curtail his activities. His ballads and songs did much to help the spread of radical ideals and the libertarian Scots Wha Hae was quickly adopted by Scottish workers as the National Anthem. Muir was soon joined by the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, 'the most determined rebel in Scotland' (14) who was sentenced to 7 years transportation for writing and printing anti-war literature. Because their presence in Edinburgh was considered to be such a threat to public order they were held on board the Royal George in the Firth of Forth, before being removed to Woolwich Hulks in chains, to await transportation.
Skirving pressed ahead with the plans for the Third Convention of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh, November 1793. With much of the leadership now arrested invitations had been sent to delegates of the United Irishmen and various English Societies, in order to give it an international context. Dundas learnt from the spy 'JB' that the Convention had decided to form a secret committee with the power to form a Convention of Emergency. If necessary this Convention would declare itself permanent and resist attempts to disperse it. The authorities seeing the potential powerbase being built resolved to smash the Convention. Warrants were issued for three of the six English delegates Maurice Margarot, Joseph Gerrald and Charles Sinclair as well as Skirving and Alexander Scott, the new editor of The Edinburgh Gazetteer. On December 5 the Convention was broken up by force. Margarot, Gerrald and Skirving were each sentenced to 14 years transportation whilst Scott fled the country and Sinclair's case was dropped when he turned informer. Gerrald told the court that the English had deprived the Scottish people of their rights from the time of the Union of 1707, 'But if that Union has operated to rob us of our rights, it is our objective to regain them! ' (15) Margarot likewise wrote from his cell that the Scots must form 'armed associations' and 'get arms and learn the use of them.' (16)
The 'Pike Plot'
The 'martyrs' were transported to Botany Bay in Australia aboard the Surprise. The remaining Friends of the People decided that action had to be taken before the authorities came for them as well. Robert Watt, an ex-government spy, set up a 'Committee of Ways and Means', and along with David Downie plans were made to establish a Provisional Government of Scotland. The radicals were to obtain pikes and halberds across the country, seize Edinburgh Castle, banks and public offices and a team of agitators went around the country to build support. The rising 'was not to be confined to Edinburgh, but was meant to take place in some of the most considerable towns in Scotland on a certain day, and at one and the same time,' (17)
However their plans were discovered in May 1794 when the authorities found an arms cache. Both Watt and Downie were convicted of High Treason by an English Royal Commission of 'Oyer & Terminer', and sentenced to death. As with the leaders of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745/6. who were also tried under English law, this was a breach of the Treaty of Union. It was not to be the last time! Karl Marx recognised this as an example of Scotland's colonial status commenting that English law was frequently 'forced' upon the Scots, (18) Downie had his sentence reduced to life transportation, and it is believed that he gave evidence against Watt to the authorities in return for his life. On 15 October 1794 Robert Watt was hung and beheaded for his plans to establish a Provisional Government.
The Friends of the People wasn't a cohesive body, representing as it did all social classes. The reactionary attitudes of the time forced all the progressives to come together to present some form of united front in the case for social justice. There were Unionist tendencies within the Friends but these tended to represent the upper elements, whilst the rank and file were staunchly Republican. As Lord Daer, noted, 'the Friends of Liberty in Scotland have almost unanimously been enemies to the Union with England. Such is the fact whether the reason be good or bad.'(19)
The French too were in no doubt as to Scotland's colonial status when Citoyen Armand Kersaind reported to the National Convention that, 'The English people like all conquerors have long oppressed Scotland and Ireland; but it shall be noted that these two nations, always restive and secretly in revolt against the injustices of the dominating race have... the hope of ultimately regaining their entire independence.' (20) The British State thought it had suppressed the movement, but all it had done was to push it underground. Plans were afoot for a new clandestine organisation, which had largely cast off its bourgeois leadership and based itself closely on militant Irish republicanism the United Scotsmen... to be continued.
REFERENCES - The Dawn of Republicanism
2) JA Oughton letter to Weymouth, 1779, S.P. 54/47
3) Scottish Record Office, JC 3/45, Sentance against James Granger, 25/7/88
4) Annual; Registar for 1788 (London 1790), pp209-10
5) Le Moniteur, 3/1/ 1793
6) JD Young 'Very Bastards of Creation' p.38-9
7) 'Second Report of the Committee of Secrecy', Parliamentary History of England, Vol.XXXI, 1794/5, p.850
8) W.W. Straka, 'Reform in Scotland & the working class', Scot' Tradition Vol.2, no.2, 1972, P.37
9) Peter MacKenzie, 'The Trial of Thomas Muir, Esq. Advocate' (Glasgow 1836), p.42
10) P. Berresford Ellis / S. Mac A Ghobhainn 'Scottish Insurrection of 1820' p.60
11) Thomas Johnston, 'The History of the working classes in Scotland' p.60
12) WH Meikle 'Scotland and the French Revolution' p.114
13) 'Scottish Insurrection..' p.61
14) Robert Dundas, Lord Advocate in letter 2/8/1793
15) '1820', p.64
16) '1820', p.67
17) Henry Dunda in letter to Pitt
18) K.Marx 'Grundrisse' (Harmondsworth) p.133
19) Lord Daer letter to Charles Grey, 17/1/1793
20) Le Moniteur 3/1/1793
JD Young, 'The Rousing of the Scottish Working class'