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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The cradle of Scottish fascism

The cradle of Scottish fascism

This is the talk I did not give at a meeting of Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway on 30 March. The subject is (or was) the radical history of Dumfries and Galloway. But then as I struggled to turn a lengthy essay into a 12 minute talk, I realised that most of the people mentioned could be described as ‘unionists’ and only one - Robert Burns could be described as supporting radical independence.

Then I discovered, via Lucy Brown, that the strongest Scottish support for the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s came from Dumfries and Galloway. With 400 members in 1934, the small town of Dalbeattie had more BUF members than Edinburgh and Glasgow combined and was described as ‘the cradle of Scottish fascism’.  

The region’s flirtation with fascism was mercifully brief, but between 1945 and 1997 it was solidly Conservative and Unionist party territory - apart from 1974-79 when my French teacher George Thompson was elected as SNP MP for Galloway.

So I re-wrote (several times) my conclusion suggesting that there is likely to be a strong No vote here in 2014.

Now here is the talk I didn’t give.

“Every one is born as a free person, that is, by nature, no one comes out of the womb under any civil subjection  to king, prince or judge; nor does any one bring out of the womb a sceptre or crown upon their head.”

This quotation is from  ‘Lex, Rex or the Law and the Prince’, which was written by Samuel Rutherford  while he was in London in 1644. Rutherford was involved in the negotiations for a religious and political union between England and Scotland proposed by the Solemn League and Covenant. The book used a fierce combination of philosophy and theology to argue against the ‘divine right of kings‘. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 it was burnt by the public hangman and  Rutherford would have been executed  for his treasonable  beliefs, but before he could be brought to trial, he died in March 1661.

Rutherford’s connection to Dumfries and Galloway  is that he was  the very popular minister of Anwoth parish in the Stewartry. between 1627 and 1636. Although very few people in the region would have read the book, the religious and political struggles which produced Lex Rex continued  in the region for nearly 100 years. During  Charles II reign, the region was seen as a rebellious province and experienced a low intensity civil war.

Opposition to the Stuarts in Dumfries and Galloway led to support for William of Orange’s invasion in 1688. From Wigtownshire, James Dalrymple and his son John were part of the invasion force. They had been leading figures in the Scottish legal establishment until forced into exile in Holland. From the Stewartry there was William Maxwell . His father had been a contemporary of  Samuel Rutherford as the Presbyterian minister of Minnigaff parish. William Maxwell went on to fight for King William at the battles of Killiecrankie and the Boyne, rising through the ranks to become a colonel.

In Dumfries, William Craik was elected as the new provost on 26 December 1688 and Dumfries burgh council voted to proclaim  William of Orange their new king on 9 January- the first town in Britain to do so. Scots supporters of William of Orange favoured closer union with England, but William’s English advisers rejected this.

William Craik’s son in law Robert Johnston represented Dumfries’ burgh in the 1706 Scottish Parliament. Colonel William Maxwell represented the Stewartry in the same Parliament. Both voted against some, but not all the Articles of Union- despite this Johnston’s grave in Dumfries carries a Latin inscription stating that he asserted Scotland’s liberty by strongly opposing the Union.

In November 1706, John Hepburn, minister of Urr led a troop of armed horsemen into Dumfries where they burnt  the Articles of Union at the Mercat Cross where the Mid-steeple now stands. On the other hand, John Dalrymple who was now the 1st earl of Stair, was a strong supporter of the Union which he believed was an essential defence against  the threat of a second Stuart restoration.

The reality of that threat was demonstrated by the Jacobites in 1715. In Dumfries and Galloway a small force of Jacobites were led by William Gordon of Kenmure, whose father had fought for William of Orange at Killiecrankie. The other leading Jacobite was William Maxwell, the 6th earl of Nithsdale who was a member of the region’s Roman Catholic community. In October 1715 along with a some of Jacobites from the north of England and a group of Highland Jacobites, they attempted to capture Dumfries.

Colonel William Maxwell was sent to Glasgow to organise its defence against the Jacobites, while Robert Johnston  helped organise the 3000 volunteers who rushed to defend Dumfries along with John Hepburn and 300 of his armed followers. The Jacobites turned back and marched into England where they were defeated at the battle of Preston.

Significantly then, even the strongest opponents of the Union in 1706  became supporters in 1715, preferring the rule of  King George to that of another King James.

John Hepburn died in 1723 after a long an eventful life which included escaping a charge of treason for his involvement in a plot to kill both Charles II and his brother James in 1683. Then, in 1724, Hepburn‘s followers, called the Hebronites became involved  the uprising of the Galloway Levellers. This began in March and continued through until October.

What sparked off the Levellers uprising was the first of the Lowland Clearances. In order to create large cattle enclosures, several hundred tenants and cottars were evicted from their farms. According to the Caledonian Mercury newspaper, a ‘hill preacher’ addressed a conventicle of the dispossessed in such forceful language that they immediately set out to remove the source of their grievances by throwing down the dykes of the newly built cattle parks. When the owners of the demolished dykes attempted to intervene the Levellers armed themselves with muskets. Outnumbered and outgunned, the land owners sent an urgent plea to the authorities in Edinburgh for troops to be despatched to restore order, which, by October, they had succeeded in doing.

The troops sent to restore order were the 2nd earl of Stair’s dragoons, commanded by Major James Gardiner. He was a deeply religious man who spent much of his time in Galloway in the company of local ministers, most of whom were sympathetic to the Levellers. Gardiner had fought against the Jacobites at the battle of Preston so when Jacobite landowner Basil Hamilton demanded that extreme measures should be taken against the Levellers, Hamilton was ignored.

The Levellers last stand took place in October. Gardiner ordered his dragoons to use minimal force and the Levellers put up minimal resistance. About 200 Levellers were captured, but most were allowed to escape on the march back to Kirkcudbright.

Despite the defeat of  Jacobites in 1715, they remained a threat, but  southern Scotland provided very little support for the Jacobites in 1745. The Jacobites were joined by at James Maxwell from New Abbey. James Maxwell was one of the local  Roman Catholic Maxwells and despite fighting for Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden managed to return home safely and live quietly on his estate. His son William, born in 1760, was to follow a very different path.

William Maxwell was educated by Jesuits in Europe, yet despite this education and his family’s royalist traditions, after  a visit to Paris in 1789, Maxwell became an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. After returning to England, in 1792, he visited Birmingham in an attempt to buy arms for the Revolutionaries. This created  a political storm. On 8 October 1792 he was denounced by the Sun newspaper as  ‘English Jacobin Number 1’.

Sensibly, Maxwell fled to Paris where he was welcomed by the Revolutionaries and made an officer in the National Guard. On 21  January 1793, Maxwell was a member of the National Guard unit which escorted king Louis XVI to the guillotine.

On 1 February 1793, France declared war on Britain. In March, Maxwell returned to England and  soon afterwards became a doctor in Dumfries where Robert Burns was his patient and his close friend. While Burns could share his radical views in private with Maxwell, the forces of reaction dominated the public realm. It was in the midst of this gathering storm that Burns wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’.

According to John Syme, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was written while he and Burns were travelling through the Galloway Hills in late July 1793. The verses were completed after they arrived back in Dumfries where Burns said he made an association between the Wars of Independence  and ‘the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient’. This is a guarded reference to the  trial in Edinburgh of Thomas Muir and William Palmer for sedition as supporters of the French Revolution. Muir was sentenced to transportation for 14 years and Palmer for 7.

Yet while one revolution was being held in check another revolution was growing in strength. This was the industrial revolution.

Until his death in 1792,William Maxwell’s brother Thomas had been a partner in the Manchester firm of Taylor and Maxwell. Set up in 1785, this firm pioneered the use of chlorine to bleach cotton and James Watt’s son, James Watt junior was apprenticed to Taylor and Maxwell in 1788. James Watt junior infuriated his father by becoming a supporter of the French Revolution, before, like William Maxwell, settling down to become a respectable member of society.

The decision to apprentice James Watt junior to a cotton manufacturing firm in Manchester was influenced by Peter Ewart who was Boulton and Watts agent there.  Peter Ewart was born just over the Nith in Troqueer.

 This local connection helped Peter Ewart sell steam engines to the two largest cotton spinning firms in Manchester. These had been set up by John Kennedy and his partner James McConnel and by Adam and George Murray- who also came from the Stewartry. As teenagers in the 1780s, they had become apprentices to machine maker William Cannon another economic migrant from Galloway. The four moved to Manchester in the 1790s, where they established businesses.

As an apprentice in London, Peter Ewart had helped construct the cast iron gears of the Albion Flour Mill. Powered by Boulton and Watt steam engines, this burnt down in 1791 and its blacked ruins were the inspiration for William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills.'

By 1815, when the battle of Waterloo finally brought the years of war to an end,  the firms of Kennedy & McConnell and A & G Murray owned the largest factories in Manchester, each employing over 1000 workers. In 1824, John Kennedy and Peter Ewart  joined the management committee of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.  John Kennedy became very deeply involved in this railway plan, acting as a judge at the Rainhill Trials in 1829 which established that the future of transport lay with steam locomotives.

But while speeding up the movement of cotton between Liverpool and Manchester helped increase the profits of manufacturers, it also increased the pressure on the workers in the cotton factories to work ever harder and ever faster.

Born in Newtown Stewart in 1814, Peter McDouall discovered the destructive reality of the industrial revolution as doctor in Lancashire. He witnessed at first hand the appalling price paid by the  men, women and children who worked in the factories and so became  militant Chartist and advocate of a ‘general strike‘.

In July 1839, he was arrested and imprisoned in Chester for a year but McDouall remained committed to his beliefs. Following his release from prison he was one of those who swung the Chartist movement behind the general strike of 1842. With a reward of £100 for his capture hanging over him, McDouall fled to France, where he lived until 1844. On his return to England, McDouall resumed his work for the Chartist movement. In 1848, McDouall was arrested again and sentenced to two years in prison. Then in 1854 he  emigrated to Australia with his family, but died soon after arriving.

It would have made a neat conclusion to this talk if Peter McDouall had met Friedrich Engels in Manchester in 1842. Unfortunately by the time Engels arrived in Manchester, McDouall was already in France. However I will introduce my conclusions with an edited quote from Karl Marx.

We make our own history, but we cannot make it as we please, we are constrained by circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. We cannot change those circumstances, but we can make the effort to understand the past.

In the context of the independence referendum, what can we learn from Dumfries and Galloway’s past?  If we go back to the creation of Scotland between the rule of David I in the 12th century and David II in the 14th, we can see that in Galloway there was strong resistance to becoming part of Scotland, led by the region‘s Gaelic kindreds. Then, as we have seen, when the opportunity to break the Union came in 1715, Galloway and Dumfriesshire chose to support it. In the later 18th century when the industrial revolution began, it was north-west England rather than central Scotland which attracted our industrialists and their opponents.

 Attitudes in the early 20th century are illustrated by a lengthy speech on the importance of ’the Imperial Armed Forces’ given at a banquet held in Dalbeattie honour of local author Samuel Rutherford Crockett in 1906.  On an even darker note, in  1934, the British Union of Fascists had several hundred members in Dumfries and Galloway -with Dalbeattie having the largest numbers. Apart from the election of George Thompson as SNP MP for Galloway in 1974 Dumfries and Galloway voted solidly for the Conservative and Unionist party  between 1945 and 1997.

This history suggests a region with a more strongly developed British identity than a Scottish one. Unsurprisingly then, in the 1979 devolution referendum, 59.7 % of  the voters in Dumfries and Galloway voted no. In 1997, 60.7% voted yes for a Scottish parliament but 51.2% voted against the parliament having tax raising powers.

In the 2011 Scottish election, across Dumfries and Galloway, Conservative and Labour both got 21 000 votes and the SNP 19 000. Assuming  Conservatives will vote no in 2014 and SNP yes, it will be Labour voters who will decide the outcome.

To secure a majority yes vote in Dumfries and Galloway in 2014 just over 12 000 of these  Labour voters will have to be persuaded to overcome a deep rooted regional bias in favour of the Union and vote Yes to a Scottish future.


Anonymous History is Made at Night said...

Fascinating Alistair. I think there is a whole other radical research strand on Scottish fascism in both its unionist and nationalist manifestations

Some interesting stuff here:


9:52 pm  
Anonymous murraymarine said...

great insight to the past politics of D~+G it would have made a great talk still will...

1:32 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

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7:19 am  

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