Scottish Radicalism: How So? in the 1790's and 1819-20.

May 4, 1995

Developing in Scotland even before the Union of 1707, industrial capitalism surged ahead towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, turning Scottish convention on its head. The decline of what was dubbed the `moral economy' in favor of more impersonal and adversarial relationships between the owners of the means of production and their wage working employees was not well accepted by many, and led to much tension and anger.

T. C. Smout has made the claim that the Scottish people were `inflammable'. Such a statement must withstand heavy debate amongst Scottish historians, as the old agreements on the passivity of the Scottish populace has recently come under serious question. What has been asked is how justified historians such as Smout, Bruce Lenman, and Michael Fry are in essentially dismissing the significance of the radical uprisings in the 1790's and 1819-20. Countering the older arguments are those of historians like J. D. Young, and Christopher Whatley, the former taking a more revisionist nationalist stance and the latter taking a more moderate approach.

In examining this subject, one must understand the conditions in Scotland, the moral economy, the 1790's, and the period of 1819-20, before comparing historians' views on the subjects.

Various factors worked in favor of radicalism in these periods. The influence of the French Revolution was often blamed for the problem of radicalism. The rising tide of radical success in France both scared the upper classes, and emboldened the lower classes. According to John Brims, "men had to believe that it was attainable before they would stir themselves," and the evidence of French success in these matters was "stunning."(footnote 1)

One must not simply think that the radical movements in Scotland were French in nature. `Trees of Liberty' were planted across Scotland, including in Dundee, demonstrating popular sympathy with French successes. As well, the third National Convention of the Society of the Friends of the People, towards the end of 1973, "had been shot through with sinister-sounding expressions" suggesting that it "had decided to model itself on the revolutionary French National Convention."(foonote 2) This certainly outraged the public. But much of the pro-French sentiment evaporated when France declared war on Great Britain. In essence, it merely provided the inspiration for Scottish people to attempt their own changes.

Coupled with the examples set in France was literature being promulgated on the domestic scene in its support. Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was read extensively in Scotland. Paine was an "English champion of both the French and American Revolutions," and advocated "radical social and political change."(footnote 3) Brims contends that there was little trace among the disturbances of the summer of 1792 to indicate that the "lower orders had adopted the revolutionary republican ideology of Thomas Paine."(footnote 4) However, the anti-revolutionaries certainly did not help their case when, on 21 May, 1972, a proclamation was made against seditious writings. This most definitely led to an even wider desire to read Paine's forbidden words.

Another reason for the rise in radicalism may be shown in the Whig dissatisfaction with the state of reform. The rejection by the House of Commons of a motion for Burgh reform made by Richard Sheridan on April 18, 1972, forced the burgh reformers "to reassess their whole strategy," and may have been a direct catalyst for the development of the Societies of the Friends of the People, which encompassed many dissatisfied Burgh reformers.(footnote 5) The middle class was desiring more equal participation in the running of government, and blamed not only the corrupt and inefficient burgh system, but also the Tories in power in Parliament, and Dundas in particular.

A particular underlying factor in the rising discontent, was the disintegration of the sense of a Scottish moral economy. Scotland was traditionally a paternalistic society. The lower classes accepted their place in the society because the upper classes looked after them to some extent. This was an essentially feudalistic arrangement, becoming obsolete in an era of industrialization and urbanization.

The economy was moral, because everyone got what they needed within a mutually dependent relationship. A peasant's lord would provide for the peasant's basic needs, in the least. This kept the peasants content, and allowed an otherwise free reign for the lord. It was developed into a employer-employee relationship over time, so that as long as conditions seemed fair, Scottish workers were quiescent.

Riots were a common way for the lower class to communicate to the elite. It was something of a right to be able to riot and get across a certain point. Usually the crowd was protesting about food, either the high prices or the simple lack of it. As such, these riots had a relatively unantagonistic edge. The crowd was usually allowed to stomp around a bit, break a few things, and make a lot of noise, until they felt they had made their point. This was one prime reason that the military was not used to control the agitators, because it would be in violation of what could be considered the rules of the game. The familiarity among townspeople as well was what allowed the moral economy to work, because elite knew their dependents; they were not just a mass horde in their eyes.

The advent of market forces brought an end to the moral economic arrangement, and profit became the prime motivating factor for many employers and lords. This meant that less care was taken for their underlings. Familiarity faded, traditional networks of social control dissolved and resortions to force became far more frequent.

The well-to-do were just as anxious when times were difficult to avoid disorder ... but they were seen more as a means of preventing trouble and less as a part of a pattern of mutual obligation. (footnote 6)

The 1790's saw several major outbreaks of unrest in Scotland, the biggest being the King's Birthday riots. Though normally a time for boisterous celebrating, the King's birthday became politicized in June 1972. Long before the riot, pamphlets attacking the Lord Advocate, Dundas, were circulating everywhere, indicating that it was most likely well planned. The celebrations turned to riots in Edinburgh, and elsewhere, with Dundas being burned in effigy. The rioting went on for "over three nights, with at least one rioter shot dead."(footnote 7) Hamish Fraser cites the rising food prices as the spark to the unrest. The government was blamed for them, because of the imposition of the 1971 Corn Law, which "prohibited grain imports until the price reached" a certain high mark. (footnote 8)

This was only the most open aspect of the unrest, and was not particularly radical in intent, when compared with the political reform movement of the Societies of the Friends of the People. These groups met in three National Conventions, which moved from moderate and loyal in the first, to radical by the third. This trend came about as the moderate middle class left the movement, usually fearful of or disgusted by the radical shift, usually emanating from the better-off sections of the lower class which were involved in the Friends, the weavers in particular. So, the groups' main leaders, which were among the upper classes, were progressively arrested and silenced, such as the case of the lawyer, Thomas Muir, who was transported to Botany Bay, or retreated into anonymity to avoid being branded revolutionary. 1974 saw the execution of Robert Watt, a government-spy-turned-radical who planned to seize the arms within Edinburgh castle for an uprising. A few "stalwarts" had continued secret activities, but "the execution of Watt and the mass arrest of radicals... generally brought an end to that."(fotnote 9) With the loss of the real leaders and the Whig constitutionalists, the Friends managed to lose a lot of their initial support, and eventually petered out.

The Friends' parliamentary reform movement lasted approximately two years, but the 1790's saw more radicalism in the end of the decade with the United Scotsmen. A secret revolutionary movement, little is known to this day as to how wide membership was and how much sympathy they managed among the general populace. As opposed to the Friends, the Scotsmen were wholly working class. Weavers were again probably predominate, and it seemed strongest in the textile regions. The Scotsmen seemed to be following the United Irishmen, a more powerful grouping whose experience was injected into the Scotsmen via the Irish immigrant weavers.

The unrest of 1819-20 was of a different nature to that of the 1790's; the conditions had changed. The population explosion, and the bustling growth of urban centers caused much discomfort. The rise in the standard of living experienced in the 1790's can be contrasted to the widespread unemployment, industrial depression, and rising food prices in 1819-20. The end of the Napoleonic wars brought great dislocation to Scotland, as troops returned home to "find themselves treated as seditious rabble and industrial scrap."(footnote 10) As well, employers were mustering viscous attacks on `combination' and labor unionizing, trying to break the working class. Tensions were on the rise as people began to train and arm, in preparation for violence.

On 1 April, 1820, there appeared notices in Glasgow calling for a general strike on the fifth. The streets of the city were lined with troops, and 300 radicals clashed with some cavalry, to no effect. Also, some forty to fifty radicals marched towards Falkirk to meet with another group from Stirlingshire and to seize arms at the Carron Iron Works. They were intercepted by troops, and four were wounded in the ensuing battle, while the rest fled. 47 prisoners were taken in all, of which three were executed, and the rest were mostly released. The failed Glasgow uprising was followed by many other smaller demonstrations for the next few years.

The demonstrations in this period were centered in the West, the industrial heartland of Scotland at the time. The response was substantial, as an estimated 60,000 people stopped work, across various trades. Not all took up arms, but a few did. An additional difference with the earlier period of revolt, the leaders were mostly proletarian.

The opinions of historians on the importance of the unrest of the 1790's and 1819-20 varies widely, from those that scoff at them, such as Smout and Lenman, to the revisionists that find them of utmost importance, such as James D. Young.

Smout rates the earlier period of uprisings as more important, though he belittles both. In reference to the United Scotsmen, he notes that

Their complete failure to start anything of significance even in the year of the Militia riots underlined again... the uninflammable character of the Scottish populace as a whole. (footnote 11)

Smout's favorite theory is that of compartmentalism, in which he sees the Scottish working class as not composing a class at all, merely made up of individual trades. The theory of vertical divisions as opposed to horizontal has also been expressed by E. P. Thomson.(footnote 12) Smout found the Scottish labor unions to be more along the lines of the seventeenth century guilds in that "they fought mainly to protect a particular trade" and tended to be as much at odds with each other as with the employers.(footnote 13) He claims that the employers saw a class unity where the laboring class itself felt none.

Bruce Lenman tends to agree with Smout on various points. He emphasizes the part that weavers played in both uprisings, and discounts other trades workers involved. In explaining the failure of the 1790's unrest, he claims that it was essentially the weavers, and they were incapable of seizing power. Not only could it be deemed a failure, but it even increased inequities as the radicals scared the majority into the conservative camp.( footnote 14) He has decided that though authorities feared the spread of working class radicalism, it was ineffectual, poorly led, and died a quick death.

Michael Fry follows suit, stating that "despite its wider proletarian base in an expanded proletariat, radicalism was more isolated" in the Radical War era "than it had been even in the 1790's." Both outbreaks, he claims, caused Scottish labor to "recoil from this isolation" and take shelter in "moral force."(footnote 15) He finds that the radicalism was "premature" in a nation only just modernizing and urbanizing and incapable of fostering a movement of the masses.

Young, at the opposite end,

argues for the continuity of a Jacobin revolutionary leadership from the United Scotsmen to the Radical War, with substantial working class support.(footnote 16)

Young contends that there was far more radical support in Scotland than other historians consider, claiming that the massive government attempts to silence dissent shows that it must have been there.(footnote 17) He sees the movement in Scotland as both republican and nationalist, and believes that the authorities' fear of radicalism was certainly justified.

Professor Young is often viewed with a certain skepticism in historical circles, however, because he is considered a socialist and revisionist historian. More moderate views have been put forward by historians such as T. M. Devine. He finds that the progression of the Scottish economy and society precluded a real revolution, due to the immense power of the landed class, the overall power of conservative forces, the undisruptiveness of many of the changes wrought in industrialization, and the aggressive paternalist system.

Another historian who takes the moderate approach to the issues is C. A. Whatley. Whatley discounts the "long standing belief that the Scots were characteristically quiescent," and gives some leeway to the more revisionist historians like Young. He stresses that newer evidence and fresh perspectives change the older assumptions somewhat. Lowland Scots "mobilized the collective strength" similar to the lower classes across Europe, simply with less violence up until the 1800's.(footnote 18)

From whence comes the conclusion of this paper. The revisionist left does have a point when it emphasizes the importance of the unrest, which "gave voice for the first time to the newly awakened aspirations of democracy."(footnote 19) But both extremes in the debate draw assumptions about the amount of support for radicalism among the populace, for which little evidence exists, due most likely to the very effective government repression of the time. Young claims that it was widespread, and Lenman finds it limited and pitiful. As new evidence comes to light, the cherished beliefs of both sides become more gray. The address circulated in Glasgow which sparked the Radical War makes reference to "the sacred obligation ... to defend your country and your King," and cites it's base in the constitution, which refutes Young's arguments that the radicalism was republican and nationalistic.(footnote 20) But the mere mass circulation of such a document and the event it spurred demonstrates the development of a real Scottish political consciousness, something historians such as Smout neglect. Other debates are entwined within it as well, as Fry makes his statement that Scotland was as yet undeveloped, urbanized and industrialized, a raging debate in its own right.

What full truth there may be in the dispute over Scottish radicalism has yet to emerge to the light of historical day.


    "From Reformers to Jacobins", 36.

  1. "From Reformers to jacobins", 46.
  2. Integration and Enlightenment , 101.
  3. "From Reformers to Jacobins", 32.
  4. "From Reformers to Jacobins", 31.
  5. "Patterns of Protest", 277.
  6. Conflict and Class , 65.
  7. Conflict and Class , 65.
  8. Conflict and Class , 69.
  9. A History of the Scottish People , 418.
  10. A History of the Scottish People , 417.
  11. "The Birth of Class?" , 292.
  12. A History of the Scottish People , 413.
  13. Integration and Enlightenment , 103.
  14. The Dundas Despotism , 340.
  15. "The Birth of Class?" , 294.
  16. The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class , 52.
  17. "An Uninflammable People?", 71.
  18. Scotland and the French Revolution , 110.
  19. "Patterns of Protest", 288.

Works Cited

Brims, J. "From Reformers to Jacobins: The Scottish Association of the Friends of the People." Ed. T. M. Devine. Conflict and Stability . Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd., 1990.

Clarke, Tony and Tony Dickson. "The Birth of Class?" Eds. T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison. People and Society in Scotland, Vol I . Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Limited, 1988.

Fraser, W. Hamish. Conflict and Class: Scottish Workers 1700-1838 . Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Limited, 1988.

Fraser, W. Hamish. "Patterns of Protest." Eds. T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison. People and Society in Scotland, Vol I . Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Limited, 1988.

Fry, Michael. The Dundas Despotism . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

Lenman, Bruce P. Integration and Enlightenment: Scotland 1746-1832 . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

Meikle, Henry W. Scotland and the French Revolution . Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1912.

Smout, T. C. A History of the Scottish People . London: Fontana Press, 1969.

Whatley, Christopher A. "An Uninflammable People?" Eds. Ian Donnachie and Christopher Whatley. The Manufacture of Scottish History . Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992.

Young, James D. The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class . London: Fontana Press, 1979.

return to Howard's Scottish Page
Howard's main page