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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter VIII - Union Riots in Glasgow


In December 1701 the Town Council debated the method to be taken for addressing the King regarding the serious decay of trade in Glasgow, [The economic condition of the Northern Kingdom altogether had reached a depth of very serious depression. Dr. Thomas Somerville, author of The History of Great Britain during the Reign of Queen Anne, has painted it in sombre colours. "The history of Scotland," he says, "from the union of the two crowns, exhibits a gradual tendency to national depression, which, at the accession of Queen Anne, had reached an extremity almost incapable of any aggravation or redress. Science and literature languished; commerce, manufactures, and population declined; luxury, from the example of a more opulent neighbourhood, advanced with rapid steps among the higher ranks. The specie of the country was drained, and poverty, like a gangrene, had overspread the whole body of the people."p. 147.] but the project was stopped by the death of William on the eighth of the following March. Queen Mary having died eight years earlier, the crown passed at once to her younger sister, who then became Queen Anne. The Council duly covered the King's seat and its own in the High Kirk with seventy-six ells of black baize, and, headed by the Provost, Hugh Montgomerie of Busby, took the oath of allegiance to the new sovereign. Already, while this was being done, Queen Anne herself had revived the project which was to become the most important act of her reign, and was to open a new era of prosperity for Glasgow and of progress for Scotland. On the iith of March, the third day after her accession, in her first speech to Parliament, the Queen recommended the opening of negotiations for a union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland.

The idea was not new. All the world knows how Edward I. had effected his purpose, by crafty and overbearing methods and with disastrous results. James VI., on his accession to the English crown, had at once made a proposal for an incorporating union of the kingdoms, and actually assumed the name of King of Great Britain. [Magna Britannia was the name given by the ancient geographers to the larger of the British Isles, to distinguish it from Britannia Parva, the smaller isle, which is now Ireland.] Fifty years later, during his domination in both kingdoms, Oliver Cromwell carried the transaction through, and governed the two countries as a single republic, which was only broken up again at the Restoration. Latest of al], King William, in his first communication to the Scottish Parliament, had pointed out the advantages of a union, and the Scots had appointed commissioners to complete the project.

All these movements of a hundred years, however, had been frustrated by the reluctance of the English merchants to admit Scotland to the advantages of their foreign trade. It was only upon the arrival of another consideration, a real danger to themselves, that these English merchants showed eagerness to secure the union. Queen Anne was without a direct heir. Her last remaining child, the Duke of Gloucester, had died two years before her accession. In the event of her own death there was the possibility of serious trouble over the inheritance of the crown, and the English saw with alarm the likelihood of disastrous results if once more there should be separate kings ruling on the two sides of the Border. In England a recent Act had settled the crown on the House of Hanover, but no such Act had been passed in Scotland, and in the event of Queen Anne's death it seemed quite possible that the northern kingdom might invite the actual nearest heir, Her Majesty's half-brother James, to occupy the throne. England was then at war with France, and the issue was doubtful. The battle of Blenheim had not yet been fought. And if the weight of Scotland were thrown into the balance in favour of the fleur-de-lys the prospect would be serious indeed. In this emergency Queen Anne's first Parliament at once appointed a commission to treat with Scotland for a union.

But the English were not yet prepared to meet Scotland on equal terms. While anxious to obtain for themselves the political security which a union would give, and to admit certain products of Scotland which would be helpful to their own manufactures, they proposed to shut out other Scottish products, such as wool, which might compete with their own; they refused to allow Scottish merchants to trade with the English plantations in America; and they insisted that the Company of Scotland must cease its operations. [Hill Burton, viii. 82.] In view of the unfairness of these terms it is not surprising that on 9th September, 1703, the Scottish Parliament withdrew its commissioners, and in emphatic language declared their commission to be "terminate and extinct."

Among the Scottish commissioners whose labours were thus suddenly cut short was Hugh Montgomerie of Busby, the Provost of Glasgow, on account of whose expenses, before he set out for London, the Town Council ordered 2000 merks to be borrowed and placed in his hand, and at the same time obliged themselves to meet any bills he might draw upon them. [Burgh Records, 10th Oct. 1702.]

Scotland was now dangerously exasperated. When the next Parliament met, in May 1703, a political firebrand, of strong republican views, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, led a definite crusade of hostility against England. The English Parliament had settled the succession to the crown of that country on the Princess Sophia, wife of the Elector of Hanover, and daughter of the Queen of Bohemia, daughter of James VI. and I. Now the Scottish Parliament passed an Act of Security declaring that Scotland would choose a different sovereign unless its demands were satisfied. There were rumours of a great tinchel or deer drive by the Highland chiefs in Lochaber, at which a rising for " James VIII." was to be planned, and certain stormy petrels of the Jacobite court in France, like the notorious Lord Lovat, were known to be in the country. [The Duke of Queensbery's Letters, 11th Aug. 1703; 14th Jan. 1704. Somerville's Queen Anne, p. 179.]

But the exasperation of the people of Scotland was most alarmingly shown by a tragic event at Edinburgh. The Annandale, a ship belonging to the Company of Scotland, which had been fitted out for a voyage to the East Indies, had been seized in the Thames at the instance of the English East India Company. At the moment when the passion of Scotland was excited to flaming point by this outrage, an English vessel, the Worcester, trading to India, was driven by stress of weather into the Firth of Forth. The ship looked like a pirate, with her guns and numerous crew, and strange rumours regarding her began to be passed from mouth to mouth. Some of her sailors when in liquor made strange statements. In particular a black slave described how, off the Coromandel coast, the Worcester had captured a ship with English-speaking men on board, had thrown the crew into the sea, and had sold the vessel to a native trader. The people of Edinburgh, with rising resentment, identified the lost ship with one belonging to their own African Company, and Green, the master of the Worcester, and his crew, fifteen men in all, were seized, tried, and condemned to execution. The evidence was flimsy, and the Government would have reprieved the prisoners, but a furious mob surged round the Tolbooth, and demanded their lives. The Government yielded, and Green, his mate, and the gunner of the ship were dragged to Leith, amid the curses and pelting of the crowd, and there hanged, while they protested their innocence to the last. [Defoe, Hist, of Union, p. 78.]

That was in April 1705. Meanwhile, under the Act of Security of the previous year, and in order to be prepared to resist any further English aggressions, including the attempt to force the English choice of a monarch on Scotland, every man in the country who could bear arms was being trained by monthly drills. In Glasgow captains, lieutenants, and ensigns were appointed for the various companies, and severe penalties were imposed on any who did not accept their appointment and fulfil their duties. Certain Glasgow merchants, also, anticipating a demand for munitions of war, began to import gunpowder on a considerable scale, and the magistrates took the opportunity to lay in large supplies. [Burgh Records, 12th and 17th Feb. 1704.] Nothing seemed more likely than that, should the Queen die, the two kingdoms would be embroiled almost immediately in the flames of war.

With these facts in view the English Parliament and the English nation at last saw it to be their interest to arrange a union of the kingdoms on something like equal terms. Commissioners were accordingly appointed, thirty-one on each side, and after secret and exciting labours, which lasted for a week more than two months, a scheme of union was produced.

When the details of this scheme were made known in Scotland a storm of opposition at once broke out. The country was treated to a shower of pamphlets which declared that the commissioners had been bribed, and had sold their country. What Scotsmen had wanted was a federal, not an incorporating union, and the arrangement which had been made placed the kingdom, it was averred, for ever under the heel of its ancient enemies, the English. [Hill Burton, viii. 137.] Behind the storm was the whole force and interest of the Jacobite party, who saw in the union a destruction of their hopes that Scotland as a separate kingdom might see a restoration of the direct line of its ancient Stewart kings, in the person of the Queen's brother, as James VIII. The Presbyterians also, and especially the Covenanters of the west, were enraged at the thought that they were to be placed once more under the rule of bishops, who comprised an important part of the House of Lords.

The first act of physical violence took place in Edinburgh itself. On 23rd October, 1706, while Parliament was sitting to consider the measure, a rabble gathered in the streets of the capital, hooted and stoned the High Commissioner, and smashed the doors and broke the windows of the Lord Provost, Sir Patrick Johnstone, who had been one of the commissioners at the drawing up of the treaty. Further trouble was only averted by the bringing of troops from the castle into the city, and the posting of guards of soldiers in the streets. [Defoe, p. 238; Lockhart Papers, vol. i. p. 163.]

It was not long before the bad example of the capital was followed in Glasgow. Here an address was drawn up urging the Government to abandon the project of union, and the magistrates were asked to give it their official sanction. This, under the direction of the Lord Advocate, they refused to do, and, on the refusal being made known, a ferment began to rise in the city. In the midst of the public excitement and fever, the General Assembly thought fit to appoint the keeping of a national fast. In Glasgow there was a popular preacher, the Rev. James Clark, minister of the Tron Kirk, who seems to have inherited the instincts and proclivities of John Knox. He chose for his text Ezra, ch. viii, v. 21: "Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance." His congregation were already irritated and excited enough, when, waxing eloquent in his peroration, he declared that addresses would not do, prayers were not enough, exertions of another kind were needed. "Wherefore," he concluded, "up and be valiant for the city of our God!"

The sermon ended about eleven o'clock, and by one o'clock the drum was beating in the back streets, and the mob was getting together in dangerous fashion. As an indication of its temper it burned the Articles of Union at the Cross. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. xiv,] Next day, the 7th of November, the crowd, led by some of the deacons of the trades, surged round the Tolbooth, shouting, raging, throwing stones, and raising a great uproar. Finding the Provost had escaped from the building, the rioters rushed to his private house, where they seized all the arms in his possession, some twenty-five muskets, with other property. They then proceeded to break the windows of the laird of Blackhouse, who had advised against them.

Provost Aird meanwhile, with rather more discretion than valour, fled to Edinburgh. He returned when all was quiet, but the trouble soon broke out again. A little firmness on the Provost's part would probably have prevented any disturbance, but he was of the sort that fails to be firm out of fear that it may provoke reprisals. The result which followed was that which may always be expected from such a policy. To conciliate the populace Aird released from the Tolbooth a man who had stolen one of his muskets, and took a bond from him to appear when called upon. Scenting weakness at once, as a mob always does, the crowd stormed into the Town Clerk's chamber, and demanded that the bond be given up. The leader was one Finlay, "a loose sort of fellow," without employment, who had once been a sergeant in Dunbarton's regiment in Flanders, and whose mother kept a "changehouse" or small tavern in the outskirts of the town. Thinking to pacify the rabble, the Provost yielded again, and gave up the bond. The only result, however, was to make the crowd more insolent. When the Provost came out of the Tolbooth they assailed him with villainous language, hustled him, and covered him with dirt. Seeing it impossible to reach his own house, he dashed up a common stair, and took refuge in a house, where they failed to find him. Defoe, who tells the whole story, declares that if they had found him they would have murdered him. But the Provost was hid, somewhat ingloriously, like Falstaff, in a bed folded up against the wall, which they never thought of taking down; and, having escaped the danger, he was conveyed out of town next day by his friends, and retired for a second time to Edinburgh.

By that time the mob had obtained complete mastery of the town. No magistrate durst show his face, and all the houses of the burgh were searched for arms. It was only at last, when the magistrates saw the citizens disarmed and the rabble possessed of their weapons, with the prospect that they might seize their houses, wives, and wealth, that they took heart of grace and ordered the captains of the city companies to call out their reliable men. When the rabble, headed by Finlay, next attacked the Tolbooth they were surprised to find it defended. At the first sally, and the firing of a few shots, the rioters dispersed and fled, and they were soon cleared from the piazzas and closes.

Finlay then, who had established a guard of his own in the castle ruins near the Cathedral, declared that he would march upon Edinburgh, and force the abandonment of the union. He set off with a company of forty-five men.

Meanwhile the Government, seeing the danger of the situation, hastily, on 29th November, passed an Act repealing the order to train companies, and ordering the return of arms to the magazines. When this was read from the usual place of proclamation, the head of the Tolbooth stair, the riot broke out again. The officers were stoned, the town guard was disarmed, and the mob, breaking into the Tolbooth, possessed itself of two hundred and fifty halberts stored there. They then marched about the town, with a drum beating at their head, breaking doors and windows, entering and plundering houses, and carrying the spoil to their headquarters at the castle.

While these scenes were being enacted in Glasgow Finlay and his party had reached Kilsyth. They found no signs there of the great contingents of malcontents which they had expected to join their march from different parts of the country. On the other hand, they heard that a body of some two hundred dragoons was on the way from Edinburgh to suppress the rising. Finlay then marched his men to Hamilton, hoping to find another muster there. There was no news of it, however, and so, says Defoe, "he bestowed a volley of curses upon them," and marched back to Glasgow, where he arrived, "to the no small mortification of his fellows," on the day after the plundering riot above described.

The marchers made haste to hand over their weapons, not to the magistrates, but to certain deacons of crafts, who, it appears, had been secretly their friends, and hastily dispersed to their homes. Within two hours afterwards the dragoons entered the town. They seized Finlay and a comrade, one Montgomery, whom they found sitting with him by his mother's fire. They then rode to the cross, and cleared the streets, and presently, finding nothing further to do, rather inadvisedly marched away again by Kilsyth to Edinburgh with their prisoners.

But no sooner were the soldiers out of the town than the mob gathered again, and, knowing that they had only the pusillanimous magistrates to deal with, demanded that the Town Council should send a deputation to Edinburgh to secure the release of Finlay and his friend. Faced by force majeure, the magistrates again yielded, and sent two of their number, with several of the deacons of trades, to interview the Government. That deputation received short shrift from the Chancellor, but by the time its members returned to Glasgow the outbreak had died away. [The fullest account of these riots is given by Defoe in his History of the Union, pp. 267-280. Details are also given in the Hist. MSS. Corn. Report, XV. pt. iv. p. 352, and in The Union of 1707, published by the Glasgow Herald in 1907.]

At the same time another demonstration was being made in the west country. On 20th November a party of Covenanters, several hundreds strong, rode into Dumfries, drew up in military order at the cross, and burned the Articles of Union. Arrangements were also made for a great rising, to be led by one Cunningham of Eckatt. The malcontents were to meet at Hamilton, eight thousand strong, march upon Edinburgh, and disperse the Parliament. On being told, however, that they were being used as cats'-paws by their old enemies the Jacobites, the Covenanters lost enthusiasm, and, when only four hundred appeared at the rendezvous, they abandoned the project. [Memoirs of Key of Kersland, vol. i.] It was this party which Finlay had hoped to meet when he led his men from Kilsyth to Hamilton.

Provost John Aird and his bailies cannot be said to have made anything like a heroic appearance during these troubles, but it is agreeable to know that their incapacity and pusillanimity have had no counterpart in the civic annals, either before or since. A notable feature of the occasion was the action taken by John Bowman, Dean of Guild, and George Buchanan, Deacon-Convener. In the midst of the disturbances these gentlemen called their respective houses together, and drew up a list of emergency measures for quelling the tumult and protecting life and property. These they submitted to the provost and magistrates on i8th November, but the necessary firmness seems to have been lacking on the part of the city fathers to make them effective. [Burgh Records, 18th Nov. 1706.]

On 16th January, 1707, the Act of Union passed through its final stages in the Parliament House in Edinburgh, and was duly touched with the sceptre by the Queen's High Commissioner. Notwithstanding the opposition it received from the populace of Glasgow, the Act was to form one of the most important turning-points in the fortunes of the city, opening up for it a new era of prosperity through the golden gateways of the West.


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