During the winter of 18 -
-, there was a great scarcity of grain in the western districts of
Scotland. The expediency of the corn laws was then hotly discussed, but
the keen hunger of wives and children went further to embitter the
spirits of the lower orders. The abstract question was grasped at as a
vent for ill-humour, or despairingly, as a last chance for preservation.
As usual, exaggerated reports were caught up and circulated by the
hungry operatives, of immense prices demanded by grain-merchants and
farmers, and of great stores of grain garnered up for exportation. As a
natural consequence of all these circumstances, serious disturbances
took place in more than one burgh.
The town of ——, in which I then resided, had hitherto been spared, but a
riot was, in the temper of the poor, daily to be expected. Numbers of
special constables were sworn in. The commander of the military party
then in the barracks was warned to hold himself in readiness. Such
members of the county yeomanry corps as resided in or near the town were
requested to lend their aid, if need should be.
I was sitting comfortably by my fire-side, one dark, cold evening,
conversing with a friend over a tumbler of toddy, when we were both
summoned to officiate in our capacity of constables. The poor fellows
who fell at Waterloo sprang from their hard, curtainless beds with less
reluctance. We lingered rather longer than decency allowed of, buttoning
our greatcoats and adjusting our comforters. At last, casting a piteous
look at the fire, which was just beginning to burn up gloriously, we
pressed our hats deeper over our eyes, grasped our batons, and sallied
The mischief had begun in the mills at the town-head, and as the parties
employed in the mob went to work with less reluctance than we had done,
the premises were fairly gutted, and the plunderers, (or, more properly
speaking, devastators) on their way to another scene of action, before a
sufficient ‘posse’ of our body could be mustered. We encountered the
horde coming down the main street. The advanced guard consisted of an
immense swarm of little ragged boys, running scatteredly with stones in
their hands and bonnets. These were flanked and followed by a number of
dirty, draggle-tailed drabs, most of them with children in their arms.
Upon them followed a dense mass of men of all ages, many of them in the
garb of sailors, for the tars had learned that the soldiery were likely
to be employed against the people, and there is a standing feud between
the " salt-waters ” and the "lobsters." There was also a vague and
ill-regulated sympathy for the suffering they saw around them, working
at the bottom. All this array we half saw, half conjectured, by the dim
light of the dirty street lamps. The body was silent, but for the
incessant pattering of their feet as they moved along.
The word was given to clear the street, and we advanced with right
ill-will upon them. The first ranks gave back, but there arose
immediately a universal and deafening booting, groaning, yelling, and
whistling. The shrill and angry voices of women were heard above all,
mingled with the wailing of their terrified babes. "We maun hae meat;"
"Fell the gentle boutchers ;" "Belay there! spank him with your pole ; ”
resounded on every side, in the screaming tones of women, and the deep
voices of sailors, garnished and enforced with oaths too dreadful to
mention. Nor was this all: a shower of stones came whizzing past our
ears from the boy-tirailleurs mentioned above, levelling some of our
companions, jingling among the windows, and extinguishing the lamps.
Some of the boldest of the men next attempted to wrest the batons from
the constables who stood near them. In this they were assisted by the
women, who crushed into our ranks, and prevented us giving our cudgels
free play. The stones continued to fly in all directions, hitting the
rioters as often as the preservers of the peace. The parties tugged and
pulled at each other most stubbornly, while the screams of pain and
anger, the yell of triumph, and hoarse execrations, waxed momentarily
louder and more terrific.
At last the constables were driven back, with the loss of all their
batons and most of their best men. The mob rushed onward with a
triumphant hurrah, and turned down a side street leading to a granary,
in which they believed a great quantity of grain was stored up. The
proprietor’s house stood beside it. A volley of stones was discharged
against the latter, which shattered every window in the house, and the
missiles were followed by a thunder-growl of maledictions, which made
the hair of the innocent inmates stand on their heads, and their hearts
die within them. The crowd stood irresolute for a moment. A tall
athletic sailor advanced to the door of the granary. " Have you never a
marlin-spike to bouse open the hatchway here ? ” A crowbar was handed to
him. " A glim ! a glim ! ” cried voices from different parts of the
crowd. It was now for the first time discovered that some of the party
had provided themselves with torches, for after a few minutes’ fumbling
a light was struck, and immediately the pitch brands cast a lurid light
over the scene. The state of the corn merchant’s family must now have
been dreadful. The multitude stood hushed as death, or as the coming
thunderstorm. All this time the sailor of whom I have spoken had been
prising away with his bar at the granary door.
At this moment a heavy-measured tread was heard indistinctly in the
distance. It drew nearer, and became more distinct. Some respectable
burghers, who had assembled, and stood aloof gazing on the scene, now
edged closer to the crowd, and addressed the nearest women in a low
voice : " Yon’s the sodgers. ” The hint was taken, for, one by one, the
women gathered their infants closer in their arms, and dropped off.
First one and then another pale-faced, consumptive looking weaver
followed their example in silence. The trampling now sounded close at
hand, and its measured note was awful in the hush of the dark night. The
panic now spread to the boys, who flew asunder on all sides -- like a
parcel of carion flies when disturbed by a passenger -- squalling, "Yon’s
the sodgersl” So effectual was the dispersion that ensued, that when the
soldiers defiled into the wider space before the granary, no one
remained except the door-breaker, and one or two of the torch-holders.
The latter threw down their brands and scampered. The lights were
snatched up before they were extinguished, by some of the boldest
constables. Of all the rioters only one remained—the tall sailor, who
may be termed their ringleader. The foremost rank of the soldiers was
nearly up to him, and others were defiling from behind to intercept him
should he attempt to reach the side streets. He stood still, watchful as
a wild beast when surrounded by hunters, but with an easy roll of his
body, and a good-humoured smile upon his face.
"Yield, Robert ]ones,” cried the provost, who feared he might meditate a
desperate and unavailing resistance. But instead of answering, Robert
sprung upon a soldier who was forming into line at his right side,
struck up the man’s musket, twisted off the bayonet, and making it shine
through the air in the torchlight like a rocket, tripped up his heels.
"Not yet, lobster!" he exclaimed, as the bayonet of the fallen hero’s
left-hand man glanced innocuously past him, so saying, the sailor
rapidly disappeared down a dark lane. — Edinburgh Literary Journal.