The Crieff Riot of 1780

The Crieff Riot of 1780

The  decade between 1771 and 1781 saw considerable  civil disruption  throughout the towns and villages  of Perthshire and Fife  The reason was primarily  a succession  of  crop failures  and an acute  shortage of  meal – the staff of  life – for the vast  majority of the populous . Traditionally  grain  was exported  abroad ( mainly to Europe ) from the Fair City and a one particular incident seemed  to act as a catalyst  to civic  unrest . A sloop was loading at the harbour with vast quantities of this precious cargo . In   a short time  the whispers began to circulate around the  loom shops  of the starving  weavers .

On the night of December 30th 1772  , men began to collect in  numerous small groups and then began to saunter casually past the Speygate, along beside the South Inch and then towards the port. By ten o’clock a large crowd had arrived at the sloop and proceeded to board it. The crew made no resistance and the mob set to work removing the grain from the hold. The magistrates were informed of the affair and with a number of citizens made their way to the New Shore but were ignored by the mob. They quickly dispatched a message to the small force of military stationed in the town but by the time that they arrived the men had disappeared. About 2½ ton of bear ( barley ) had been looted. The magistrates left a small guard over the sloop and retired to bed. All was quiet until about three in the morning when the rioters reappeared and attacked the shop of a baker, John Smith. His stock of meal, flour and bread were ransacked but before the business could be completed, the military appeared and two of the rioters were captured and placed in the town jail.

The next day, New Year’s day, there were still angry groups of men discussing the imprisonment of their friends. As evening came they massed in the High Street and started to advance towards the Old Tolbooth at the bottom of the street. This time the council and magistrates were ready. A detachment of infantry were stationed in front of the Tollbooth with a couple of cannon in their midst. For all this display of power the mob advanced pelting the soldiers and the Provost with stones. It was at this stage that the Provost read the Riot Act.

The soldiers loaded their muskets with ball cartridges and the cannon with grape- shot but no command to fire was given. Either through fear or common humanity, the Provost at the last moment decided to agree to the rioter’s demands; the two prisoners were released from the jail and delivered to their friends. There were shouts of triumph from the rioters and the crowds started to disperse. For a short time  things  quietened down but else where there arose  strong rumblings  of  discontent . In Perth  a meeting of the “Justices and Heritors “ was hastily convened  . Remember  that this was some 60 years  before the Reform Acts were passed  bringing the right  of electoral representation  to the British middle classes . In the 1770s  the law  was passed and indeed  administered  by the chosen few . It was the lairds and the  aristocracy , both minor and major , who controlled  what was to happen in the  unhappy event of civil disruption . The heavy hand of  justice  came thundering down ! On the 19th of January 1773 , the “ Justices and Heritors “ made their  move , The statement issued  was proclaimed  with the intention of diffusing any discontent that may have been in the air .

“That this ( the quelling of mobs ) may  be done in an orderly and effectual manner  , a signal shall be made at Perth – in case the mob proceeds from thence – by firing a cannon  once every five minutes for an hour  at least ; and  in case it proceeds from  any other place  , by ringing of the Parish bell , as well  as by  sending  notice from  one place to another . That as soon  as such signals  are heard  or notice given  , the same shall be further communicated   by ringing the Parish  bells of the other Parishes who perceive   the same  , and the Minister and precentor of such Parish shall take  care the bells be so wrung upon such signals and notices  , and all noblemen , gentlemen , and other heritors  , with their tenants , servants and  dependants  , shall thereupon  assemble  at the respective  Parish churches , mounted on horseback , so far  as they have horses , and armed ( at least with clubs or stout sticks  ) ; after which they are to repair  to the place  where such mobs  are , or if they have information thereof , they are to repair  to the North Inch of Perth, where they will be  joined   by the Sheriff , with His Majesty’s forces , and to receive  directions  where to proceed “ .

“ The meeting recommended the resolutions to be read  to the different  congregations  on the two subsequent Sundays  . These things  show in what  a  dangerous  state society  existed , and the use  that can be made  of a Minister and precentor “

Crieff  is  but seventeen miles from Perth  and  in  the 1780s  was  certainly not the douce Victorian spa that was reflected in the holiday guides of 20th century Perthshire . On the 16th December  1780 , five of its  citizens had  decided  enough was enough . James Maxtone , stocking maker , James Fisher and David Campbell  his apprentices , another James Fisher , an apprentice weaver  and William Ross , day labourer of Pittenzie all gathered  with a large crowd of others to break into the house  of  William McLellan  , meal seller  , whom they  believed to be hoarding meal . They grabbed the unfortunate McLellan and dragged  him   out of his house  and  shoved  him onto a cart  before carrying him through the streets  of Crieff . The procession  wended its way  down what is  now North Bridge Street  to the  banks of the Earn . At the edge of the water  the cart  with the poor  Mclellan was propelled into the murky deep . The meal hoarder  found himself in danger of  drowning and only the prompt  action of young Campbell saved  what  could  have  been a fatality .

Things  settled  adown and the mob dispersed  . A few days  later the authorities arrested Maxtone , both Fishers , Campbell and Ross . On the 12th of February they appeared  at the  High Court in Edinburgh  indicted  by the  King’s advocate . On the account  of the non appearance of a material witness , the case was adjourned till the 19th  and  eventually the jury returned with their  findings . Maxtone and the younger  Fisher were discharged as a result  of that Scottish speciality “ Not Proven” ! All the others  were found  guilty . Campbell and the older Fisher  were  recommended for  mercy  and  released   with a suitable caution . Ross was the unfortunate . After being kept in prison in Auld Reekie  he was sent to Perth   and lodged in the prison there . On the first market day  he was publically whipped   through the streets   and set at liberty , after which, with in twenty days  , he was bound to leave Scotland   , “never to return  on pain of being whipped and banished as often as he shall found to be in Scotland “

And they say things  get wild on Games Night !


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