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Book of Scottish Story
The Meal Mob

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 forth.

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.

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