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The United Scotsmen
by Donnie Fraser
Following the final suppression of the Friends of the People (FoP) with the execution of Robert Watt the democrats were forced into retreat. Britain was still at war with revolutionary France, and the government was making full propaganda use from the ‘Reign of Terror’ in France, and using it to whip up patriotism, and repression, at home. With the FoP in Scotland destroyed popular democratic activity was forced to take place on a local scale until such time as a national framework for resistance could be established.
It found an outlet through the food riots that swept the winter of 1795-6 when the export of food was prevented and then distributed amongst the local population. This raising of public well-being over the rights of private property was indicative of an embryonic class-consciousness. In Inverness workers came out on strike and marched to Castle Stuart to prevent the shipment of grain. There they were met by the British Army and representatives of the Anglo-Scottish ruling class, and were shot at until they dispersed, leaving several wounded. In Montrose the houses of rich Unionists were attacked and John Rodgers from Dundee, an ex-FoP, was arrested when a ship in Dundee harbour was commandeered by the crowd and accused of stating “That we ought to have had a Revolution long ago and… that if they wanted a Revolution the present was the properest time to obtain one.”(1)
It was a situation that would not last long. Wage labour in factory-based production had given rise to a new class of workers owning little but their labour power, the proletariat. It transformed the nature of national resistance in Scotland and Scottish Republicanism came to the fore.
The United Irishmen (UI) had been formed in 1791 but the failure of their constitutional approaches led to their adoption of an openly revolutionary programme in 1795. The following summer they set emissaries to Scotland with a copy of the new UI Constitution for the ‘inspection and approbation of the Scots’ (2). The emissaries reported back favourably that ‘the Scotch are willing to act with the Friends of Liberty in Ireland’(3).
Societies of United Scotsmen (US) had existed since the early 1790s but after being invited to re-organise along Irish lines their philosophy became overtly revolutionary and their strategy insurrectionary.
New members were inducted into the organisation by means of a secret oath, and secret passwords and handshakes were used to greet each other. The basic unit of organisation was the branch. When any branch reached 16 members a new branch was formed in order to prevent extensive penetration by government spies. When more than 3 branches in any district were formed they elected delegates to a Parochial Committee, which in turn elected delegates to County and Provincial Committees and then to the National Committee, which met in Glasgow every six or seven weeks. Within the National Committee was a secret seven-man executive that governed the movement. The expenses of the delegates were funded from a sixpence joining fee and subscriptions of threepence per month thereafter. Only the delegates and the branch secretary would know who the delegates were. Delegates to the National Committee were told the name of a contact called the ‘Intermediary’ who would call for them and conduct them to the secret meeting place.
The subterfuge was deemed necessary when dealing with an enemy that had shown its brutality when the largely bourgeois leaders of the Friends of the People had been sent to Botany Bay. The US were based almost exclusively in the ascending working class and had ‘decided to go by themselves’ and ‘the common people by themselves’ instead of ‘relying upon the gentry’ (4). They built up a strong base of support in working-class communities, especially the textile manufacturing areas of west-central Scotland, Ayrshire, Angus, Fife and the Lothians, where the weavers were to the fore. “Their ostensible object was Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments, but their ulterior aim was purely republican.” (5) Throughout Scotland they set about the task of preparing an organisation capable of acting in unity with sister organisations in England and Ireland and, with French military assistance, “found, on the ruins of the established government, three distinct republics of England, Scotland and Ireland”. (6)
At the end of 1796 a French force of 15,000 men sailed for Ireland but weather conditions meant that a landing couldn’t take place at Bantry Bay. Exiled Irish Republican leader, Theobold Wolfe Tone remarked that, “England has never had such an escape since the Armada” (7). The ruling class was shaken and the initiative passed firmly to the radicals. The French had promised ‘fraternity and assistance’ to any in Europe who followed their lead and rose against the old order, also promising asylum to the ‘victims of despotism’ (8). Under these auspices many Scots had made their way to France to press for military assistance. But when the French sailed again in February it was to Fishguard near Bristol leaving the Scots and Irish riled. Plans hadn’t been laid with the locals and when they failed to rise significantly in support of the French the invaders were quickly arrested. But the ruling class’ fear of French style revolution still precipitated a crisis in the financial markets.
In the late spring a Dutch fleet began preparations for invasion at the River Texel. One plan was to send 50,000 troops to Scotland from where they would seize control of central Scotland from the Forth to Clyde. The Radicals believed that à Ghaidhealtachd would rise in support and the troops would then pass over to Ireland. Then mutiny broke out in the British Navy’s Channel Fleet at Portsmouth. Many radical prisoners had been given the chance to join the navy rather than face deportation, in particular many hundreds from Ireland had chosen this fate, and in many ships Irish made up the majority of crew. Under the influence of many UI sailors the mutiny soon spread to the North Sea Fleet at Nore. Richard Parker, who had spent much time in Perth radical politics, was elected President of the mutineer’s Committee. They attempted to get ships to defect to the French and for others to sail to Ireland and Scotland to form a republican navy. A lack of wind prevented the Dutch fleet from taking advantage of the situation and before the winds had picked up the mutiny had been put down. Lord Camden moved quickly to ensure that no more US prisoners were sent to the Navy.
French and Irish emissaries toured Scotland in the spring as the US launched a recruitment drive and even by this early stage of their development their membership, of almost 3000, exceeded the total electorate of Scotland (9). By the end of the summer it had multiplied many times. At local level US infiltrated the regular army, Highland Regiments and local Volunteer Regiments in order to receive some form of military training for their planned insurrection.
The Scottish Militia Act
The Government countered in July with legislation to outlaw the taking or administering of illegal oaths, effectively making membership of the US liable to 7 years transportation, and by introducing ‘an Act to raise and embody a Militia force in that part of the Kingdom of Great Britain called Scotland’, to strengthen forces against external invasion and internal revolution. (10)
The army was already hated by the working-class because it was used by the ruling class to crush democracy at home and abroad. The Militia Act was seen as a direct attack on workers as the bourgeois could buy their exemption from it. The Act gave powers to raise a force of 6000 men to be chosen from a ballot of all able bodied men aged between 19 and 23, a random conscription. Lists of names were to be drawn up by schoolmasters preceding meetings of Deputy Lieutenants, where a date would be set for the ballot. The posts of Deputy Lieutenant (DL) had been appointed to each Scottish county from the ranks of the gentry. Their remit was ‘for the preservation of internal tranquillity’ and to bolster the state’s spy network. (11)
Across Scotland the class lines became clearly drawn. Workers proclaimed that ‘we are not going to risk our lives for [the gentry] and their property’ (12), that they ‘disapproved of the War’(13) and, ‘would rather die to a man than be pressed for soldiers’ (14). Resistance first broke out on August 17 at Eccles in Berwickshire, where a crowd armed with sticks and stones prevented the Authorities from carrying out the Act. Resistance spread like wildfire throughout the country from the Borders to Aberdeenshire within days. Wherever the authorities tried to implement the Act lists were seized from schoolmasters and destroyed, property destroyed and trees of liberty planted as the people sought to oppose the Militia by force.
On August 28 a large crowd gathered from the local colliery villages and behind a drum, shouting ‘No Militia’ (15), they marched to Prestonpans where a meeting passed a series of resolutions against the Act. Led by Joan Crookston they sacked the schoolmasters house and destroyed the list before dispersing in order to return to Tranent the next day, where the proposed ballot was due to take place. The Scottish authorities couldn’t cope with the pressure erupting around the country and some 1400 English troops had been drafted in to prevent opposition to the Militia.
Early the next morning the Deputy-Lieutenants gathered at St-Germains and, backed by troops from both the Cinque Port and Pembrokeshire Cavalry, as well as local yeomanry, made the journey to Tranent.
There they were met by a hostile crowd of several thousand ‘chiefly women’ (16) who ‘damned them for a parcel of English buggars’ (17) and claimed that the Militia was, ‘against the Union’ (18). All the neighbouring villages and workplaces came to show their opposition including the salters from Prestonpans who had been implicated in the Pike Plot of 1794. John Caddell of Cockenzie, a local mine-owner and DL, was particularly incensed by the presence of so many women ‘damning them for bitches’ and threatening to hang them all (19). When the resolutions of the Prestonpans meeting were rejected by the DLs as seditious Caddell tried to incite the crowd by throwing several stones into its midst.
The soldiers were forced into John Glens Public House where Alison Watson marched outside the door beating a drum and shouting ‘No Militia’ (20). The pub was surrounded and when the authorities tried to escape they were forced back as locals ripped up chimneys and fired them from the rooftops. They weren’t going to let them go until the authorities abandoned their plans for the militia. As the tension mounted at first the soldiers fired blanks, but before long adopted a policy of shoot to kill.
The soldiers broke out round the back of the pub and managed to clear the streets, before chasing the people out into the open fields where the Cavalry would be more effective. For a half-hour the drunken troops, along with those stationed at the entrances to Tranent, set about ‘shooting, spearing, slashing and riding down a populace armed only with stones’ (21). By the end of the massacre 12 men, women and children had been murdered, and many more injured. After the streets had been cleared the authorities waded in and made 36 arrests. The Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas, refused to indict the troops for murdering unarmed civilians and justified their actions in the face of “such a dangerous mob as deserved more properly the name of an insurrection.” (22)
Strath Tay Rebellion
A week of protests throughout Perthshire in late August had followed the same pattern as across the rest of the country. Lists were destroyed and local gentry were forced to sign bonds not to execute the Act. But the Tranent Massacre provoked an open rebellion in Strathtay.
The local US took control of the situation and under the leadership of Angus Cameron, a Wright from Weem, issued a call to turn local protests into an open uprising. Cameron and James Menzies had been conducting nocturnal drilling throughout the summer and inducting new members into the US by means of the now illegal secret oath. Cameron, who was said to be a great orator, spread the rebel message addressing crowds in both Gaelic and English. 16,000 rose at his call and captured Menzies Castle, where Cameron administered the seceet oath to ‘stand by one another’ (23). They swept the area forcing the local gentry to sign bonds against the Militia and compelled the Duke of Atholl to swear not to implement the Act ‘until the general feelings of the country were made known’ (24). A regiment of rebels were despatched to Taymouth Castle to clean out the armoury and to raise a Cavalry regiment. Cameron had seen the barracks being built in towns and cities in Scotland and warned of future military government. They planned the get arms and take to the hills to fight a guerrilla campaign, launching night time raids on the army. But before the people could be armed extra troops had been sent to the area. Cameron ordered his army to melt back into the countryside. Cameron and Menzies were arrested in midnight raids on September 14th. Hundreds of armed Highlanders chased the convoy to Dunkeld, shooting at them, but not getting close enough to rescue the prisoners. Eventually the authorities made their escape and the Strathtay uprising was over. And though armed crowds in Aberdeenshire forcibly halted further meetings most of the ballot meetings were now over and the authorities turned their attention to those responsible.
They realised that ‘from the symptoms of Resistance appearing at places considerably remote from each other there cannot be a doubt that it is the operation of Jacobin Emissaries employed for the purpose’(25), blaming ‘the set of men who were active with Muir etc’ (26). And so they set out to rid the US of its leadership, a number of whom had been arrested for involvement with the Militia riots. First though came the Militia trials. At the first of them on 9 October Lord Braxfield sentenced three men and a woman from Eccles to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay. The harshness of the sentence led subsequent juries to leniency though several leading US such as Christie and Campbell from Fife were transported and many more, including Angus Cameron, simply fled the country and made for the radical exile communities of Paris and Hamburg.
The Dutch fleet that had been assembling at the River Texel eventually set off in October where they were met and defeated at Kamperduin by the British Navy. The Brits had weathered the storm for now and soon followed the arrests of leading US. The most prominent was George Mealmaker, a Dundee weaver. He’d been responsible for writing the anti-war pamphlet that saw the Rev. Palmer sent to Australia in 1794 and was also arrested in connection with the Pike Plot but released. Now a leading figure within the US he wrote and published the ‘Resolutions and Constitution of the Society of United Scotsmen’. At his trial in January 1798 he was accused of distributing another of his pamphlets ‘The Moral and Political Catechism of Man’ in which a moral defence of rebellion was made, and of ‘administering unlawful oaths’ (27). As he was being sentenced the Government learnt in full of the detailed plans to establish a Provisional Government of the Scottish Republic with Thomas Muir as President. Mealmaker was duly sentenced to the same 14 years transportation that Muir received by a jury made up of bankers and merchants whose houses had been marked down for burning.
Thomas Muir had escaped from the penal colony in Australia on a boat sent by George Washington in February 1796. He’d been imprisoned by the Spanish in Mexico, and taken as a prisoner to Cuba to await transportation to Spain. On sailing they were caught in a gunbattle with a British gunship during which Muir was hit in the face with shrapnel. The extent of the injuries meant that the Brits failed to recognise him, when they searched the crew. After eventually being transferred to Spain he was released due to French pressure and in November 1797 he eventually reached Bordeaux where he was hailed as a ‘Hero of the French Republic’ and a ‘Martyr to Liberty’.(28) Working in close connection with Napper Tandy and Thomas Paine he urged the French to intervene with military assistance to establish a Scots Republic and moved to Chantilly, near Paris, where he could meet US delegates away from the eyes of British informers.
But the French tactics were changing and in February 1798 they sent their forces to Egypt, where they hoped they would be able to launch an offensive against British shipping trade to India.
The Governments counter-offensive continued with the arrests of many more US as well as the leaderships of the United Irishmen, United Englishmen (UE) and London Corresponding Society. The UI resolved to make a fight for it before the authorities came for the rest of them as well. In May 1798 large parts of Ireland rose in open rebellion. Minus its leadership the UI rising was badly co-ordinated but throughout the summer the revolutionary forces sought to establish an Irish Republic. A French force of 1000 men eventually landed at Killala in August but by September the rising had been suppressed leaving tens of thousands dead in it’s wake.
Without French assistance, and minus most of its leadership, the US didn’t risen in support. And while reports filtered through of Highland regiments refusing to fire in Ireland, many more were used as the brutal pawns in the British Empire’s great game of divide and rule. The Radicals did have some success. On 13 June Scottish regiments refused to go to Ireland after meeting with the local US. This prompted more arrests and transportations. David Black and James Paterson, two Dunfermline weavers, were sentenced to five years transportation after they, ‘traitorously expressed sorrow for the success of HM armies and joy at the existing rebellion in Ireland’. (29) Black, like many others, fled the country.
The failure the Irish rising and of an attempted third French invasion of Ireland, with Wolfe Tone, in October increased Irish immigration to Scotland. Many members of the UI joined with the US, but the down side was that it wasn’t just Irish radicalism that was imported to Scotland but also Orangeism. The authorities had realised that ‘the worse of [republicanism] is that it stands to unite protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, goodbye to the English interest in Ireland’ (30). The orange order had been formed as a counter-revolutionary force to combat Irish republicanism and though it only existed in the Ulster protestant immigrant community in Scotland for generations it is still deployed to divide catholic and protestant workers to this day. The authorities tried to bribe the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland by offering large sums of money in return for keeping the Scots-Irish from identifying themselves as Scots, but the Irish rebel remained a rebel, and continued to play a large part in the early political and industrial organisation of Scotland.
The failure of the Irish Rebellion was an obvious blow to Scots republicans and the Government soon laid plans for the destruction of all working class self-activity. They outlawed the US, UI and UE, brought in a series of anti-combination laws, bribed Ireland into Union, and tightened the controls over the press.
The advent of rapid industrialisation had led to a growth in the combinations of working people. The working class, still in its infancy, was rapidly growing and exerting its influence. With US members petitioning the early forms of Trades Councils with anti-government petitions the government had never been in doubt about the organic links that existed between combinations and radicals, and that all working class activity must be crushed. The United Journeymen Shoemakers of Edinburgh had been formed to negotiate higher wages and support the unemployed, but when they tried to strike for higher wages in 1798 the authorities stepped in and tried them for ‘combination’.
Under the new legislation the US were forced further underground and, given their procedure to destroy all documentation, it is difficult to find hard evidence of their activities. Certainly many were arrested and charged with all manner of ‘crimes’, and there were several other deportations to Australia. In early 1802 the US were asking for membership returns to the National Committee, asking for details of anyone with military training. In April they called for a scaling down of low-level resistance in order to lull the authorities into a false sense of security as a prelude to ‘imminent revolt’(31). Later that year in the last trial of any US, Thomas Wilson, a weaver from Strathmiglo in Fife and delegate to the National Committee, was banished from Scotland for two years for spreading sedition amongst farm labourers. In the villages of Auchtermuchty and Strathmiglo alone the US had over 2000 members by this time. In England republicans were arrested in connection with the Despard Conspiracy when it was alleged that a plan had been hatched to kill the King and spark an uprising. And in 1803 the Irish were again in rebellion under Robert Emmet, but it was quickly suppressed.
But by this time the people’s faith in revolutionary France was waning. Napoleon had earlier returned to France to overthrow the Directory and, in the counter-revolutionary coup of 18 Brumaire, a three man Consulate was created to govern the Republic. By 1802 Napoleon had been installed as ‘First Consulate for Life’ and later ‘Emperor of France’. The democratic ideals were gone and when War was restarted with Napoleonic France in 1803 the government found it easier to whip up patriotism against a France which was no longer interested in expanding democracy but upon expanding a continental empire.
The goal of establishing a Scottish Republic with the backing of French arms had gone but the experiences of the United Scotsmen played a large part in forging working-class identity in Scotland. The Militia riots, by pitting the Anglo-Scottish ruling class and its various tools of oppression against the people, had raised the awareness of the class relationships within Scottish society. They had ‘united the lower against the higher ranks. They swear they will rather die to a man than be pressed as soldiers…. to defend the property of the rich.’ (32) The next time the struggle of the Scottish working class would erupt into open class warfare the republican goals of US were still prominent.
1) Kenneth Logue, Popular Disturbances in Scotland, pg 47
2) Newells Report, 21 July 1796, HO 100/62/14 (W)
3) Henry Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (1969) pg 192, also Roger Wells, Insurrection the British Experience 1795-1803, pg 72
4) James D. Young, The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class, pg 54
5) George Penny, Traditions of Perth (1830) (Young)
6) Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Commons, 1799
7) Johnathon Bardon, A History of Ulster, pg 229
8) Graham Bain, The Thunderbolt of Reason & pg 22
9) The United Scotsmen had a membership of 2871 in April 1797 (Wells) v Scottish electorate of 2655 out of a population of 1.4 million in 1790 (Scots Magazine LII, pg 354). This figure incidentally is less than that of Preston which had an electorate of 2800. By early September the US membership had grown to 9653 (Wells) before the heavy recruitment that followed the Militia Riots.
10) Logue, pg 75
11) Dundas letter to Lord Luitenants, 14 May 1794 (Logue)
12) anon. letter to Bathgate schoolmaster (Logue)
13) Logue, pg 105
14)A. Dixon letter to H.Dundas 28 Aug 1797 (L)
15) Meikle, pg 180
16) Rev James Lapsie to R. Dundas 28 Aug 1797 HO Corr., RH2/4/80, f.216v. Note the Rev Lapsie testified against Thomas Muir in 1793, for this outhouses at his manse were burnt to the ground during the Milita Riots in Campsie on Aug 22 1797.
17) Declaration of John Batham CPC 28 Oct. 1797 (Logue)
18) Herald & Chronicle 14 Oct 1797, evidence of Major Wright at Tranent trial.
19) Deposition of M. Smith, SRO CS230 c/10/12 (L)
20) Declaration of William Aiton, 28 Aug 1797, HO Corr RH2/4/80, f.202v
21) Tom Johnston, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland (1974), pg 230
22) Robert Dundas letter to Portland, 26 Dec 1797 (Logue)
23) Declaration of John Menzies, 3 Oct 1797
24) P. Berresford Ellis & Seamus Mac a Ghobhainn, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, pg 77
25) Boswell to R. Dundas, 8 Sep 1797, HO Corr., RH2/4/81, f.98v
26) Duke of Montrose letter to Portland 7 Sep 1797 (L)
27)1820, pg 78
28) Michael Donnelly, Thomas Muir of Huntershill, pg 23
29) 1820, pg 83
30) Archbishop of Armagh, as cited in Peter Berresford Ellis, History of the Irish Working Class (1972), pg 68
31) Wells, pg 235
32) Alexander Dixon (DL) letter to H. Dundas, 28 Aug 1797 (L)
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
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