By Peter Berresford Ellis
(Initially in the Irish Democrat)
In January, 1797, the London Government's agents there uncovered plans for a general uprising in Scotland and the establishment of a Scottish Republic. Scottish republicans were in close contact with the United Irishmen. Nine prominent Scotsmen, including progressive members of the London parliament and several Scottish peers, were named as members of the 'Provisional Government of the Scottish Republic'. The president of this government was a young Scottish lawyer named Thomas Muir. Muir had already been sentenced to fourteen years transportation to the penal colony at Botany Bay but had made a daring escape in an American warship and made his way to France where he had been honoured as the first non Frenchman to be made a citizen of the republic.
Thomas Muir had been a prominent leader of this movement and during trips to Belfast, where he was a friend of Napper Tandy, he had been made an honorary member of the United Irishmen. He even opened links with another Celtic country, Brittany, where he was in touch with the famous Marquis La Fayette who had fought in the American War of Independence along with hundreds of Bretons. It was from Brittany that the French Revolution had actually been given its kick-start. La Fayette had made an impassioned plea for the continuance of the Breton parliament when the French decided to abolish it. Armand Kersaint, another Breton republican, made an interesting address to the French National Assembly, reported in Le Moniteur, January 3,1790: 'The English people, like all conquerors, have long oppressed Scotland and Ireland; but it should be noted that these two nations, always restive, and secretly in revolt against the injustices of the dominating race, have acquired at different epochs concessions which have engendered the hope of ultimately regaining their entire independence ...
Since the Union, Scotland has been represented in Parliament, but out of such proportion to its wealth, its extent and its population, that it does not conceal the fact that it is nothing but a dependent colony of the English Government. Yet the Scots know their rights and their strength; the principles developed by the French nation have found zealous defenders who have been the first to merit the honour of being persecuted by the British Government; but these persecutions have made proselytes, and nowhere is more joy caused by your victories than in Scotland, the principal towns of which have been illuminated to honour them...'
In July, 1793, Muir was arrested returning from Paris via Ireland. He had able defenders, including the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the Earl of Stair and Earl of Stanhope. Indeed, Muir had popular international connections. American President George Washington personally ordered the United States warship, the Otter, commanded by Captain Dawes, to rescue Muir from the penal colony in New South Wales. Washington even offered Muir a position in Washington. Muir declined.
Having successfully reached Paris after many amazing adventures, including being badly wounded in a brush with an English warship in Cadiz Bay, arrived in Paris and was given a house in Chantilly which became the intellectual centre of the Scottish republicans. Indeed, many Irish revolutionaries, like Napper Tandy, were visitors. Many leaders of the Friends of the People had, however, been arrested and tried for crimes from high treason to sedition. Robert Watt and David Downie had been arrested with incriminating plans for an uprising in which Edinburgh Castle was to be seized. Robert Watt became the first Scottish republican to suffer the death sentence. After being hanged, his head was cut off and thrown to the people. The last of several Friends of the People leaders to be sentenced to fourteen years transportation in 1794, Joseph Gerrald, had 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!'
With most of the leadership of the Friends of the People arrested, a new totally secret revolutionary organisation had to be organised. It was called the United Scotsmen, taking its name from the Irish model. By the Spring of 1797, the United Scotsmen were active, based on local cells of not more than sixteen people sending a delegate to committees at parochial, then county and then national level. The National Convention met every seven weeks in different locations, usually within the vicinity of Glasgow, Stirling or Edinburgh. There was a seven man executive which governed the movement. Lord Daer, whom the authorities had not touched because of his family connections, was a member. Lord Hugh Sempill of Beltrees (Renfrew), was another. William Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale, Colonel Norman MacLeod, a Whig Member of Parliament for Inverness, the Earl of Buchan and Sinclair Campbell of Glenorchy also served on the executive. Robert Fergusson was another member and he was said to be the grandson of the Robert Ferguson of Aberdeen who had been involved in the Presbyterian plot to assassinate William of Orange. Another member was Sorley Bell (referred to in English reports as 'Sorbelloni'. Angus Cameron, a tradesman from Weem, Perth, was also a member.
In 1797 affairs came to a head in Scotland mainly due to the Militia Act in which the government had passed a law conscripting able bodied Scots males, between nineteen and twenty-three years old, for military service. Riots were breaking out in Kirkintilloch, Freuchie, Strathaven, Galston, Dalry and throughout Aberdeen. The Government responded by sending in troops. People were being killed and wounded. In January, 1797, the French had mistakenly sent troops to England. The plan was to land two armies, one at Bristol and one at Hull,appealing to English republicans to join them. The armies were commanded by American and Irish officers. By mistake the troops heading for Bristol landed at Fishguard. It was a silly mistake. The situation in England was different than in Ireland and Scotland and the English with republican sympathies were English first and republican afterwards.
The French had also tried to land in Bantry Bay in December, 1796, and this caused General Lake to start disarming the United Irishmen in Ulster. Whether there was a disagreement among the National Executive as to the time to strike is not clear. But, it appears, Angus Cameron of Perth decided to act on his own and issued a call to the United Scotsmen to rise in Perth. His second-in-command was James Menzies Jnr., a Weem merchant whose brother was the famous botanist Archibald Menzies of Weem (1754-1842) who had fought in the American War of Independence. Reports indicate that 16,000 men answered Cameron's call. They included a cavalry regiment. The United Scotsmen had initial success. They captured Castle Menzies and forced Sir John Menzies to declare against the Militia Act. They marched on Blair Castle where the Duke of Atholl was forced to surrender. Then a detachment went to Taymouth Castle, near Kenmore, residence of the Earls of Breadalbane. This was also a military headquarters and the United Scotsmen were able to seize its armoury.
Thousands of English troops poured into the country. These line regiments were used because the commander in Scotland was afraid of sending Scottish troops against their fellow countrymen. Faced with superior forces, Cameron proved a good commander. His army' simply melted back into the population. He and Menzies were never caught and eventually settled in America. On July 17, 1797, an Act of parliament declared the United Scotsmen illegal and any member liable to an immediate seven years transportation. In November, 1797, trials for sedition started and George Mealmaker, a Dundee weaver, was sentenced to fourteen years, while other members received various terms of transportation and imprisonment. Two prominent organisers, Archibald Gray and a man named Dyer, were able to escape from prison and make their way to Hamburg in Germany.
The exact aims of the rising were discovered in papers found by government agents in January, 1798. A special House of Commons Committee was sent up to investigate matters. Over the next four years, many Scotsmen were to be tried for treason and sedition as members of the United Scotsmen. Men like Robert Jaffrey, David Black and James Paterson in September, 1798, who, from the dock, applauded the United Irishmen uprising. There was a former militia sergeant William Maxwell who was tried on June 23, 1800, and given seven years transportation having been found to be an organiser and circulator of United Scotsmen propaganda. The last record of a United Scotsmen having been tried before the courts for the serious crime of sedition was the trial in 1802 of Thomas Wilson, a Fife weaver, and a delegate to the National Convention. There were many other trials on less serious charges. The most tragic blow to the United Scotsman was, of course, the death in January, 1799, at the age of thirty-three of Thomas Muir at Chantilly. His death was caused by the wounds received in the fight with the English man o' war.
Among veterans of the Friends of the People and the United Scotsmen was James Wilson of Strathaven. he had become active in 1792. A literate man, he was a weaver by profession and a delegate to the National Convention. In 1820, aged 63, then a grandfather, Wilson, true to his principles, took up his gun and joined the younger men in answering the call in the 1820 insurrection in Scotland. In the aftermath of that insurrection he was one of 85 prisoners to be charged with High Treason. He was hanged and then beheaded. His last words on the scaffold were 'I die a true patriot for the cause of freedom for my poor country'.
This year we will see many 1798 commemorations. In Scotland, the 1820 is annually commemorated at the graves where its executed leaders lay buried (in Sighthill and in Strathaven). As Scotland begins its tentative steps towards finally achieving its own parliament, one is aware of a sense of excitement and change in the air ... changes in the status for all the nations on these islands. Perhaps the sacrifice and aspirations of the United Scotsmen will now be accorded a proper place in history.
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)
Scots Independent Book Review by Donald Anderson.
'The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class 1774-2008' by Dr James D Young.
ISBN 978-1-873586-84-6. Price. £10..50. Order from Clydeside Press, 37 High St, Glasgow, G1 HLX. Or, order from your public library.
This is an update from the 1979 edition. Apart from much new information, from thirty years ago, the Red Doactor tells us he was not converted to the cause in his first edition. The second edition is unmistakably written from a Scottish Independence viewpoint, for which he makes no apology or false academic pretence of “objectivity”. In fact, he openly and with great honesty, condemns the Unionist historians so beloved of the establishment. He seemed surprised that his first book caused such a furore in academic circles but makes no bones of his stance in his second revival. The first one was good enough, with lots of hidden Labour and Scottish history, which the establishment preferred to remain hidden. This has lots of new information unobtainable elsewhere. His extensive research has led him to the unshakable conclusion that Scottish Independence is not only inevitable, but desirable in that nothing worth while can be done in this wee country without the will and the power to do all that is necessary to bring us out of the abyss Scotland has sunk into since 1707 and possibly 1603.
Luckily for the good Doactor he is well past retirement in his 79th year and does not have to worry about pleasing his establishment bosses. He left school at 14 years of age working as a sawmill labourer in his native Falkirk. He became a mature student in 1964, at Strathclyde University, obtaining his Doctor of Philosophy at Stirling University. At Stirling he was awarded his PhD for a pioneering thesis on Scottish Labour history. He taught there for almost a quarter of a century before ill health forced him to retire. No need to second guess that his career took a nose dive when he came out for Independence and a Scottish Socialist Republic. His research grants and offers of publications suddenly ceased and he was told in no unsubtle tones that that would change if he took the Queen's shilling and came back into the fold. Fortunately for posterity he was made of sterner stuff, as can be seen in his works, including his latest “Rousing” and his new pamphlet on Burns the Radical and Revolutionary Republican, not the maudlin, sanitised stuff of Unionist suppers.
Nor does he spare the very British Londoncentric left in his well researched account, for reasons every reader here will know. One of his previous books, 'The Very Bastards of Creation' does that in great detail and is worth obtaining. Each chapter is followed by a lengthy resource notes. The whole book is flagged with names, events and organisations which alone would make a great reference book and should be a must for every student of Scottish history. More than that, it is highly analytical and deserves a place in every Scottish Nationalist library. Needless to say, there will be no place for this book on the Great Brit left pretentious shelves any more than distributors will deliver it to the bookshelves of the main bookstores. Order it now for your local libraries, or your own collection.
The only fault I could find was Alasdair Gray's cover illustration, a reconstruction of the front pamphlet written in Gaelic and issued to the Scottish Highland regiments by the Edinburgh Radicals and Friends of the People in 1792. He portrays the Highlander son and 19th century belted plaid, with a nineteenth century spurran. Shocking Alasdair!