How Scotland’s martyrs for democracy were written out of history


My column today in the Scotsman: How Scotland’s martyrs for democracy were written out of history

The radicals of late 18th and early 19th-century Scotland were inspired by the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s book ‘Rights of Man’ to campaign for greater democracy at a time when the country had only a few thousand voters, writes Kenny MacAskill.

History, it’s said, is written by the victors and Scotland’s no different, though its past has been recorded by the Establishment, not an invading foe. That was brought home to me when an Australian academic directed me to an article on the Martyrs’ Monument standing in Edinburgh’s Calton Cemetery.

It was helpful for researching my book “Radical Scotland”, covering the French Revolutionary period to the 1820 Rising, a time when Scotland was ignited by events across the channel and inspired by Thomas Paine’s book “Rights of Man”. For the story of its unveiling epitomises the difficulties faced in finding out about Scotland’s radical history and how the limited public knowledge about it isn’t by accident but design.

The obelisk’s recognisable to many, given its prominence on the city landscape, though what it represents is known by few. It is in the memory of Thomas Muir and colleagues who were transported to Botany Bay in the 1790s for seeking the universal franchise.

Less well known’s that three of the five were English. Equally the name of another Scot, George Mealmaker, should be inscribed along with them.

The genesis for the memorial came about after the failed 1820 Rising when the oligarchy of rich landowners who controlled Scotland realised that some rights would have to be ceded and soft power was used, as well as repression. It would though still take until 1832 for the First Reform Act to be enshrined, although even that only increased the franchise to about 65,000 in a country with a population of 2.3 million.

One voter who was the only candidate

It wasn’t until after the First World War that all working-class voters got the franchise. But even that was an improvement on what had gone before and any suggestion of some glorious British democracy facing off despotic France is a charade.

In the 1790s and up until that first reform, it’s estimated that the vote was possessed by around 4,000 people – and half of them were reckoned to be fictitious.

The absurdity of the situation is best reflected in the tale of an election for the constituency of Bute, Ross and Cromarty.

It was reckoned that there were fewer than 50 electors for that huge landmass, but bad weather meant that only one candidate was in Rothesay when the election took place.

But not only was he the only candidate but the only voter and he proceeded without any shame to nominate himself, vote for himself and have himself declared elected.

It was that abuse and corruption that Muir and others railed against, yet they were cruelly punished for their audacity. After their transportation, others continued the struggle and Mealmaker, considered the leader of a militant organisation “the United Scotsmen”, was sent to join them.

Discontent, not just over the franchise but social and economic conditions, increased and then continued for many years.

Iron fist in a velvet glove

They’re part of that hidden history of Scotland, from the King’s Birthday Riots that convulsed New Town Edinburgh through to now rather douce Perth being considered a “dangerous place” by the Lord Advocate who felt it unsafe to venture there.
It includes garrisons being constructed across central Scotland for the purpose of ensuring “internal tranquillity” and disturbances that raged in autumn 1797 when conscription was imposed, culminating in the Massacre of Tranent, an event that was a military atrocity compounded by a state cover-up.

Though dissent had been largely quelled by the turn of the century, the idea of a better world never disappeared. When recession followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, radicalism revived and, in 1820, what was more accurately described as a general strike than a ‘rising’ began in the west of Scotland with more than 60,000 workers out and large areas ceded to the rebels. The links back to the 1790s in both ideas and individuals were clear.

After 1820, a velvet glove was placed over the iron fist, Walter Scott’s tartanry was unleashed and Highland Games were invented. Streets were named lauding the supposed “great and the good” and statues to the Lords and even a few Ladies were erected. History was being written by the victors, but it was their story.

Radicals sought to preserve their own memory and record their martyrs. The intention had been to site the obelisk on Calton Hill but that was refused by the Tory council. Acquiring a plot in the cemetery, they then faced a legal challenge about disturbing the peace of the dead and it wasn’t until 1843 that it was finally unveiled.

It was a conscious effort to write them out of history. Hence, I grew up less than 40 miles from Tranent, yet I never knew about the massacre, nor was I taught about either Muir or the 1820 Rising. There’s a radical history out there and I hope my efforts do our martyrs some justice.