Early days of the Union and Scots are already under the English cosh

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General Wade

Walpole and the Whigs

The Whigs fared badly at the 1724/5 election and lost many supporters but Cock-a-hoop with their malt tax victory over the Scots Walpole’s new government put the boot in and forced even more commodity taxes on Scotland. The recently increased Scottish presence at Westminster counted for nothing since with a built-in majority guaranteeing its power England cared nothing for Scottish opinion.

Mindful of General Wade’s attack on Glasgow and the murder of civilians just a year or so before Scots were well aware of the threat of the English military should any violence occur and took a new tack by forming into political groups. These, in turn, merged and over the next ten years of the Whig government, the movement developed into a potent political force at Westminster. But victories were not so significant as to cause Walpole to worry unduly.

Porteous Riots Edinburgh

But England was not without its problems on the political front as an increasing number of Whigs became disillusioned with Walpole’s authoritarian style of leadership and his foreign and economic policies which alienated the United Kingdom from Europe and the world. Adopting the title, “The Patriots” a new political grouping evolved and claiming to be the protectors of the unwritten English constitution attracted a significant following and the support of the Scottish politicians at Westminster.

Around this time the English press was just taking off with its reach extending outside London into the provinces and the “Patriots” were quick to use the new medium to inform the public of their aims and aspirations. But achieving change was a slow process and political guerrilla tactics adopted by the “Patriots” took time to wear down Walpole and his ultra-right-wing English centred supporters who had ruled the roost for so long years.

The election of 1734 provided the opportunity to challenge Walpole’s Whigs and the “Patriots”, in an alliance with Scottish peers did just that making maximum use of the media to get its message across to the nation. And the message was!! That there was nothing wrong with the recently formed United Kingdom. The way forward was to embrace and enhance a fully integrated nation-state under a Protestant monarch. Scots peers responded positively and support for Walpole’s Whigs in Scotland began to waver. A new newspaper, the “Thistle” published weekly, was widely circulated in the central belt, less so in the highlands who had not been persuaded to the “Patriot” cause preferring a return of the Stuart divine-right monarchy. The political message, “there is another way” resonated well with Scots. The problem for many was “which way”.

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The “Patriots” agenda promoted the message that a victory for them would bring a return to a political system true to the content of the Acts of Union ensuring equal rights for all. The strategy failed because of the limited reach of the campaign and the “Patriots” changed tack and concentrated their efforts in the professional sectors of Glasgow and Edinburgh and failed to extend it to the rest of Scotland. So not enough people got the message!!! But they did make inroads in the cities!!

In England Walpole’s Whigs took a beating but retained power which meant that Scotland was bang in the firing line for more harsh treatment at their hands.

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The Porteous Crisis 1737/38

The crisis brought Scots of all political persuasions together under the “Patriot” banner to protest against Whig government abuse and disrespect of Scottish legal and political autonomy. It began in the spring of 1736 when two habitual burglars were done for breaking and entering and robbing the Collector of Customs building in Kirkcaldy. A crime for which they were sentenced to Hang. While awaiting their execution both prisoners escaped custody. And their exploits brought support from the public who considered the sentence to be unjust. But authorities ignored their pleas and went ahead with the execution. The public execution in the Grassmarket was attended by a large crowd who were vocal in their protests and when the deed was done a few of them started to throw stones at the hangman and his helpers. This was not an unusual occurrence and usually passed without further incident. But on the occasion, there was an immediate and brutal response when city guard leader, Captain John Porteous fired into the crowd and ordered his men to do the same. When the shooting stopped there were eight dead and much more seriously wounded. The public protested vehemently and Porteous was charged with murder, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging in the same Grassmarket where he and his men had committed the atrocities.

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The incident would have been closed had the execution been carried out, but Whig peers petitioned the Queen Regent Caroline to suspend the sentence so that appeals could be gathered and presented to the courts. She duly consented to their request and ordered the Scottish Lords of Justiciary to suspend the sentence for at least 6 weeks. Edinburgh citizens, sorely aggrieved that they were being denied justice took matters into their own hands, dragged Porteous from the Tollbooth and hanged him in the Grassmarket.

John Porteous, Captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, over-reacted Stock  Photo - Alamy
THe Hanging of Porteous in the Grassmarket, EEdinburgh

News of the “riot” reached the Westminster government who immediately ordered General Wade and his English forces to Edinburgh to assist in the “speedy and exemplary punishment’ of the riots” “ringleaders and abetters”. A second large body of English soldiers was moved into Edinburgh castle to patrol the area and to conduct “stop and search” patrols and enforce curfews. The Westminster Whigs also took the view that the Edinburgh city authorities were at fault. Opinions that were strengthened in the weeks that followed when no-one had been brought to account. General Wade complained that: “the magistrates had conspired to allow the murder of Porteous and aided their escape from justice”. His unfounded assertions provided the catalyst the Whig government had been waiting for and it speedily introduced a new act, the “Bill of Pains and Penalties” and used it against Edinburgh, with the charge that the City authorities had “insulted the royal prerogative”. Edinburgh’s Lord Provost was arrested and many “Royal” privileges were removed adversely affecting traders and the city was placed in purgatory. Edinburgh citizens were angry at the actions of the government and questioned the legality of the English moves against the city. The question most raised was, “what right had been bestowed on Westminster that gave it the authority to punish Edinburgh for a crime involving Scottish citizens, that had taken place on Scottish soil? Scottish politicians set aside their petty partisan quarrels and protests were raised at Westminster strongly condemning the Whig government for its, “contradiction to the express Articles of Union”. But their protests fell upon deaf ears. Edinburgh was made to pay a heavy fine to the exchequer and every church minister in Scotland was forced to read out a proclamation apologizing for the behaviour of Edinburgh citizens.

malt tax | Lenathehyena's Blog
The Malt Tax

The Porteous affair was one of many incidents in which the Walpole government protected the military from its excesses through the imposition of “Martial Law” and acts of public violence against the people of Scotland. What was particularly galling was the unequal treatment of Scottish protestors when rioting in English cities had never been subject to military occupation and martial law. The Whig victory was pyrrhic since it confirmed what many Scots knew in their hearts that Scotland was not an equal partner in a Union of countries but a colony of England. The indignities inflicted by Walpole’s Whigs drove some Scots to seek the overturn the British and to invite the return of the Stuart’s to Scotland, but people in the Central belt and lowland parts of the country preferred to remain with the Union hoping for the removal of Walpole’s Whigs and a return to the ideals of the Acts of Union. Wishful thinking indeed!!!

Cartoon commenting on the abolishing of Malt Tax in 1880. William Ewart  Gladstone is depicted as a cat who killed the rat (the tax). William Ewart  Gladstone (1809-1898) a British statesman of


2 replies on “Early days of the Union and Scots are already under the English cosh”

General Wade subjected Scots to 40 years of savage brutality and was responsible for the bulk of the highland clearances. His lasting legacy to Scotland could be summarised in one word “fear”. And the impact of Wade’s aggression lingers on. Witnessed by the reluctance of Scots to vote for independence.

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