Thursday, April 26, 2012

The United Scotsmen Movement

In Socialist Courier's earlier post on the 1820 Insurrection mention is made of one of its participants, James Wilson, who had earlier been a member of the United Scotsmen. This is a brief history of that organisation. While the doomed uprising of the United Irishmen in 1798 is well known to the present day, much less known are the United Scotsmen and their abortive democratic republican movement in Scotland. In Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh  stands the Martyrs Monument remembering five men, three of them English, imprisoned for campaigning for parliamentary reform. The five were accused of sedition in a series of trials and transported to Australia in 1794 and 1795 and sentenced by Scotland’s hanging judge Lord Braxfield. who had made his views plain: "A government of every country should be just like a corporation, and in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented".  One of those exiled was Thomas Muir, a Glasgow lawyer, who was Scotland's president-in-waiting if the United Scotsmen movement had prevailed.

The Society of the United Scotsmen was an organisation formed in Scotland in the late 18th century and sought political reform. It grew out of previous radical movements such as the Friends of the People Society and Friends of Liberty, pro-democratic organisations that were springing up, inspired by the events of the French and American revolutions. Its aims were largely the same as those of the United Irishmen and it was only upon a delegation of United Irishmen arriving in Scotland to muster support for their cause did the United Scotsmen become more organised and more overtly revolutionary. Corresponding societies, groups in favour of peaceful but radical constitutional reform, had spread in the Scottish lowland cities but the societies were brutally suppressed.  The weakness of the corresponding societies was their openness and transparency; easily penetrated by government spies, which meant their compromise had been inevitable. Owing to its aims and activities, the United Scotsmen had to remain a secret society, and organised themselves into cells of no more than 16 people. 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.which would send delegates to larger bodies on occasion. The United Scotsmen were particularly adept at gaining support from the working classes of Scotland who stood to gain by becoming politically enfranchised as the society sought. Those joining the United Scotsmen pledged: "that I will preserve in my endeavours to obtain an equal, full, and adequate Representation of All the people in Great Britain."

The aim of the society was universal suffrage and annually elected parliaments, with a strong streak of republicanism running through it as well. By the mid 1790s the society had around 3,000 members, which  was then actually more than the entire electorate of Scotland with a population of 1.4 million! The membership continued to grow. Precise membership figures are not possible, since the organisation kept no records at all, in the interests of security. Some estimates of as many as 22,000 have been made by modern historians. The two Fife villages of Strathmiglo and Auchtermuchty alone has over 2,000 members. The membership was comprised overwhelmingly of working men; handloom weavers, artisans, small shopkeepers, and the like.

In June 1797, Parliament, in fear of a French invasion passed the Militia Act as part of the attempt to strengthen its home defence forces. It provided for the forcible conscription of 6,000 men, to be deployed within Scotland, to defend against any French incursion. This was the first time conscription had ever been used in Scotland, and hostility to the Militia Act was  widespread and spurred the numbers joining the United Scotsmen during that summer. Workers proclaimed that "we are not going to risk our lives for [the gentry] and their property" , that they "disapproved of the War". 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.  In the Battle of Tranent,  August 28th 1797 a large crowd of mine workers and their womenfolk gathered in Tranent, East Lothian, shouting "No militia" and marching behind a drum. A large detachment of both Cinque Port and Pembrokeshire Cavalry were despatched to restore order, and met with fierce opposition from the protesters. Fighting broke out, and in the following massacre at least 12 civilians, including women and children, were killed. 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.”

The Tranent Massacre provoked an open rebellion in Strathtay under the leadership of Angus Cameron, a wright from Weem, who issued a call to turn local protests into an open uprising. Cameron and a James Menzies had been conducting nocturnal drilling throughout the summer and inducting new members into the United Scotsmen 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 are believed to have rose at his call and captured Menzies Castle. 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". Rebels were despatched to Taymouth Castle near Kenmore, residence of the Earls of Breadalbane, to clean out the armoury. But before the people could be armed extra government roops had been sent to the area. Cameron ordered his supporters to melt back into the countryside. Cameron and Menzies were arrested in midnight raids on September 14th.

The United Scotsmen had also hoped to get support from the Dutch and there were plans for 50,000 Dutch troops to land in Scotland and to take over the Scottish central belt. However the Royal Navy intercepted the Dutch fleet and defeated them at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797.

 The United Scotsmens aims in the rebellion were to establish a new Provisional Government with Thomas Muir as President. Various leaders of the United Scotsmen were arrested and tried. For example, George Mealmaker, Dundee hand-loom weaver and pamphleteer, was sentenced to 14 years transportation. Other leaders such as Robert Jaffrey, David Black, James Paterson and William Maxwell were all found guilty of seditious activity. The last record of a United Scotsmen member having been tried before the courts was the trial in 1802 of  Thomas Wilson, a Strathmiglo weaver, who was banished from Scotland for two years for spreading sedition amongst farm labourers.

The United Scotsmen 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." (Alexander Dixon letter to H. Dundas, 28 Aug 1797)

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