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Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Times
Chapter V. The Massacre


WILLIAM PITT, at the head of a Tory administration, backed by a majority composed of pensioners and placemen, had, in 1793, plunged the nation into a ruinous war, which was intended to crush Republican Institutions in France, and to restore the old line of despots. This war was at first very unpopular in Britain, and was denounced with dauntless courage and transcendent ability by Fox, Sheridan, Lauderdale, and other Liberal leaders in Parliament, In 1795, the King was assailed as he passed with the cries of ‘Peace! Peace! Give us bread! no Pitt! no famine! no war! Down with George!’ and the State coach was pelted with stones, and the windows smashed in by an infuriated mob.

At the same period, Henry Dundas, as Secretary of State, exercised absolute authority in Scotland. He rewarded his flunkies with all manner of places under Government, and, the Habeas Corpus Act being suspended, caused those who ventured to demand Parliamentary Reform, to be arrested and confined in filthy prisons, or sent off (after a mock trial by prejudiced judges and packed juries), to Botany Bay. There was no popular representation in Scotland at that time. Thirty members represented the counties; but the franchise was confined to about 1500 or 2000 voters of the upper class. There were fifteen Burgh members, who were elected by self-elected Town Councils.

The disastrous effects of the war were immediately apparent. On the 5th of February 1794, the Chancellor of the Exchequer took notice of the stagnation of trade in the previous year—as dreadful as it was uncommon. In Scotland commerce was crippled, and manufactures which had been in a flourishing condition were ruined. Thousands, and tens of thousands of artisans, who had been in comfortable circumstances, were reduced to extreme misery. When they became desperate, and ‘would not starve in peace,’ troops of cavalry were sent for to trample them down. Fluxes and fevers, caused by bad and insufficient food, spread extensively amongst the poor. As the war progressed the destitution became dreadful. It is related that some poor wretches in Perth were in such a famished condition, that they dragged a cow that had died of disease out of a quarry hole, and devoured the carrion like vultures. In 1795, bread was so scarce and so dear, that at a Court of Common Council, it was moved that the public dispense with the use of hair powder, as far as convenient, so as to economise flour, and the soldiers were prohibited from using that ornament. The sufferings of the poor even touched the head of Royalty, and King George gave orders that all the bread used in his household should be made of a mixture of meal and rye. It was said, however, to have been extremely sweet and palatable.

Whilst the people of Scotland were in this miserable condition, the Tory Lords of Justiciary mocked them with rose-coloured descriptions of the blessings they enjoyed. ‘The people of this country (said the President at the trial of a Government spy for High Treason) were satisfied, and good cause they had to be so, with the blessings which they enjoyed under a system of laws, and a form of Government, the essence of which is liberty. Every man’s right; every man’s franchise; the fruits of his industry; the safety of his person; the exercise of his religion; his liberty; his fame; all have been secured to the utmost extent of his wish. What fair pretence then can any man have to seek for a change?

At the commencement of the French war, recruiting was carried on with the greatest activity in all quarters, and the sweepings of jails were utilised as food for powder. Men were enlisted under false pretences, and some Highland Regiments broke out into general revolt. At Perth, desertions became so common in the 90th Regiment, although death was the penalty, that troops had to be posted at all the roads to keep the men from running off, and public dinners were given to keep them in good humour. The fleet at the Nore was taken possession of by mutineers, and the Thames blockaded. Press-gangs lurked in every sea-port town and pounced on the poor sailor, who had perhaps just come home from dTlong voyage, and sent him off to cruise in a man-of-war for years. Merchant ships were robbed of their best hands and sent in a crippled condition to sea. Even landsmen, if a Provost or Bailie was not satisfied with their conduct or circumstances, could be apprehended and sent off to fight the French. Meanwhile H. J. Pye, Esq., the Poet Laureate, wrote such patriotic verses as the following:

‘Yet if the stern, vindictive foe,
Insulting aim the hostile blow,
Britain in martial terror dight,
Lifts high the avenging sword and courts the fight;
On every side behold her swains
Crowd eager from her fertile plains,’ etc.

Disgraceful defeats were celebrated as victories, with illuminations, fireworks, and bacchanalian rejoicings. As the war proceeded, taxing nets, with meshes of the smallest sizej so that nothing could escape, were drawn, and drawn again, across the exhausted nation, and as the haul was insufficient the waters were so to speak poisoned. Unconstitutional and immoral means of raising money were invented, namely Voluntary Subscriptions and Lotteries, and an enormous burden laid upon the shoulders of posterity. £375,264,941 were added in eight years to the National Debt. Within the same period £15,106,051 was paid as subsidies to various foreign powers for helping us to carry on a war, which some of these mercenaries had commenced, and which it was more their interest than it was ours, if it was any one’s interest, to continue.

In 1795, petitions from all parts of the country were presented to the King, praying that his ‘weak and wicked ministry’ might be dismissed, and the war brought to an end. An Act for raising 6000 men in Scotland for the militia, as a trap for the regular army, came into operation that year, and was regarded with great disfavour, not only by working men, but by many of their employers. The endeavour to execute it was the cause of much disturbance throughout the whole country, and in some parishes of the Highlands the people banded together to oppose it.

The inhabitants of Tranent were bitterly opposed to the Act, and on the 28th of August 1797, being the day before the Deputy-Lieutenants were to meet there with their Lists and Ballot-boxes, messages passed from colliery to colliery, and from parish to parish, ordering the people to assemble at Tranent. In the evening a mob two or three hundred in number had collected, and marched about the streets beating a drum, and calling out ‘No Militia.’ They then went to the house of Robert Paisley, the Schoolmaster, who had made out the Lists of persons liable to serve under the Act, and he having been threatened flew for safety to the house of the minister. The mob, however, demanded the parish books and Lists from his wife, all of which she delivered, with the exception of an uncorrected copy of the List which had been left where the District Meeting was to be held next day. The poor dominie was in such a state of terror that he flew at first to St. Germains, then to Bankton, then to Prestonpans, and finally to Edinburgh—leaving his wife to take her chance—nor did he venture to return home or to open his school for a month afterwards.

Meanwhile the mob, carrying the Session books in triumph, marched to the Meadow-mill, thence to the village of Seton, and through Cockenzie and Prestonpans, beating their drum, and summoning the people to turn out and oppose the Militia Bill, and asking all they met their opinion of that measure. Intelligence of the disturbance having reached the ears of Mr. Anderson of St. Germains, and Mr. Caddel of Tranent, two of the Deputy-Lieutenants, they sent for troops to Haddington, and on the morning of the 29th, Captain Finlay arrived at St. Germains with about twenty-two of the Cinque-Ports Regiment, and an order from the Marquis of Tweeddale to Mr. Anderson to collect his troop of Yeomanry Cavalry, and he accordingly gathered together twenty-two of them. But. the Deputy-Lieutenants, alarmed lest these forty-four soldiers might be insufficient to deter the populace from breaking up the meeting, wrote to the Commanding Officer at Musselburgh for one or two troops of Dragoons, and two troops of the Pembrokeshire Cavalry, numbering about eighty, were sent.

About eleven o’clock the Deputy-Lieutenants, riding in the rear of this escort, proceeded from St. Germains to Tranent, and on the way saw numbers of women and children in a state of great excitement. One woman insulted Mr. Caddel by saying, ‘Take care of your head, John!’ On entering Tranent, and near the junction of the street with the Post road, the party found themselves surrounded by a crowd chiefly of women who were extremely clamorous and abusive, and addressed the-Deputy-Lieutenants by name, and threatened them that they would not leave the town alive, and swore they would have their heart’s blood before an hour was over. At the same time the sound of a drum was heard. On alighting at the door of Glen’s Inn, Mr. Gray and Mr. Caddel were rudely jostled and otherwise insulted by the multitude. Constables were stationed at the door, and the Dragoons were drawn up at the end of the village, with orders to advance should any attempt be made by the populace to break into the Inn. Business then commenced, the Deputy-Lieutenants intimating from the window that appeals would be heard from the various parishes—that of Salton being the first. This was answered by cries of ‘No Militia! no Militia!’

One Duncan, a collier, said he had a proposal to make on behalf of the people, and on being requested to state it he explained that if the gentlemen would agree that there should be no Militia, then the people would be agreeable. The proposition being rejected, Duncan retired calling ‘No Militia! no Militia!’ Appeals from the parishes of Salton and Ormiston having been disposed of, the meeting proceeded to hear appeals from Prestonpans, when a potter, called Nicholas Caterside or Coutterside, presented a round robin, signed by about thirty people, chiefly potters. This document expressed disapproval of the Militia Act for Scotland, declared that the subscribers would endeavour to resist it, and the meeting would be responsible for the consequences; that if compelled to become soldiers no reliance could be placed in them. This paper was pronounced to be highly seditious, and Coutterside was said to have been guilty of a flagrant breach of the law, which, in consideration of his ignorance, should be overlooked at present, but an eye kept upon him. On being dismissed it was observed that the women had mostly disappeared, and that the streets were crowded with men armed with bludgeons. The mob began the attack with a heavy shower of large stones, which smashed in the window of the room where the Deputy-Lieutenants were sitting, and forced them to seek shelter in corners and passages. Mr. Caddel went to the window and tried to read the Riot Act; but a volley of stones compelled him to retreat to his corner and read it there. The mob made violent efforts to break open the door, and a party of the Pembrokeshire Cavalry were drawn up opposite the house; but being pelted with stones, were compelled to gallop down the town. A Sergeant was knocked off his horse and wounded. Mr. Caddel went outside and informed the people that the Riot Act had been read, but a shower of stones made him run in again, and the attack on the house was resumed with greater violence than ever.

Parties of Dragoons again passed along the streets in front of the Inn, firing blank shots with their pistols; but without making any impression on the mob, when Major Wight, looking out of the shattered window, repeatedly called out, ‘There! there!’ and pointing to the people assembled in the narrow lanes opposite. As the Dragoons did not take the hint, he cried in a loud voice ‘Why don’t they fire?’ a question that was echoed by the rest of the Deputy-Lieutenants; when the Dragoons with cowardly ferocity fired their pistols and carbines at both man and woman. A horrible yell from the crowd told that the shots had not been without effect. A party of troopers went to the back of the house, where the openness of the ground enabled them to act with superior advantage. Some of the Cinque-Ports Cavalry were here ordered to dismount, and discharge their carbines at people who were on the tops of the houses. One man, supposed to be William Hunter, was shot, and fell dead to the ground. Thirty-six persons were secured and sent prisoners to Haddington. Not content with having driven the crowd off the streets of Tranent, the cavalry scoured the surrounding country, and without the slightest provocation or reason, shot, cut down, wounded, and killed people who were engaged at their usual work, and knew nothing of the riot.

A girl named Isobel Roger, aged nineteen, who was beating the drum, was chased by a dragoon into the passage of a house and shot dead. Three men, viz. : William Smith, William Hunter, and George Elder, were killed in the street. Peter Ness, a sawyer in Ormiston, and walking to that village, was attacked by five or six dragoons in a field on the south of Tranent, and killed and robbed of his watch. William Lawson, carpenter in Ormiston, who was driving his cart loaded with wood from that village to Tranent, was fired at and mortally wounded by a party of cavalry. Stephen Brotherston, who had taken no part in the riot, was walking with his wife and an old man named Crichton on the Ormiston Road about a mile from Tranent, and, seeing a party of cavalry coming, stepped into a field by the wayside. One of the dragoons fired at and mortally wounded Brotherston; and whilst the poor man was being supported by his wife and friend, another dragoon entered the field and gave Crichton six strokes with his sword, one of which cut his nose to the bone. The dragoon then turned to Brotherston and struck him repeatedly, whilst the wife cried,

‘Oh, strike me rather than my poor man, for they have shot him already!’ to which the soldier answered with an oath. A boy named Kemp, thirteen years of age, ran into a field beside the road to Ormiston, but was pursued by a dragoon, who stabbed him in the breast, and with repeated blows cleft his head in two. Alexander Moffatt and John Adam were also murdered by the dragoons, and the pockets of the latter emptied.2 Eleven people were killed, and many severely wounded, in this disgraceful affair. Attempts were made by the relations of the murdered persons to get the offenders prosecuted ; but the Lord Advocate declined to institute prosecutions, and lodged a complaint instead against the Agent whom the relations had employed to procure precognitions, for having advised his clients to take such a step, but the complaint was dismissed by the Court of Justiciary as incompetent. The affair was burked.

The four Deputy Lieutenants addressed a letter* to the Marquis of Tweeddale, Lord Lieutenant of the county, giving a full account of the riot, but omitting any allusion to the massacre. The letter contains this passage:

‘We cannot conclude this Address without expressing our high sense of the temperate, firm, and spirited conduct of the officers employed on this occasion. We have no hesitation in declaring, that to their exertions we owe the preservation of our lives, and that by their means only we were enabled to discharge the duty prescribed to us by the Act of Parliament.’

At this distance of time, one can pronounce an impartial judgment on the Tranent massacre, and the Deputy Lieutenants may be acquitted of all culpability in the matter. But it is notable, as a sign of the times, what a high value they put upon their own skins, and how little on those of the ‘rabble.’ The killing of eleven poor people, and the wounding of many more, is not worth mentioning. The blood of the slain rests, with oceans more, on the Tory ministry, who plunged the nation, in spite of all remonstrance, into an unjust, unnecessary, and ruinous war, and in a lesser degree on the cowardly ruffians who committed the murders.


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