Scotland has been ill at ease with its position within the United Kingdom at various times in the three centuries since the Act of Union (1707), and from time to time serious disturbances have erupted there which threatened the British status quo. In 1715, and 1745, serious armed rebellions broke out in northern Scotland in support of the reinstatement of the Stewart royal family, and were only put down with great difficulty. By the 1790s the focus of trouble had shifted, for the revolutions in America and France found extensive support among the Scottish working classes. Corresponding societies, groups in favour of peaceful but radical constitutional reform, grew in the Scottish lowland cities. The British government was alarmed, and the societies were brutally suppressed (see articles on Thomas Muir elsewhere in this blog).
The outlawing of the corresponding societies did not bring an end to radical political activity in Scotland, it merely drove it underground. The main secret society which emerged in the wake of this repression was the United Scotsmen. Inspired by events in America and France, and in particular by the formation of a virulent radical movement in Ireland called the United Irishmen, this organisation was to become a major thorn in the side of the establishment in Scotland throughout the period. Although the stated aims of the United Scotsmen were the same as the old corresponding societies, namely universal suffrage and annual parliaments, in fact this was a totally new development in Scottish politics, for it was a truly revolutionary body advocating a French-style armed revolution and the foundation of a Scottish Republic.
The weakness of the corresponding societies had been their openness and transparency; penetrated by government spies, their compromise had been inevitable. As an illegal organisation, the United Scotsmen had to be careful to maintain secrecy in all its endeavours. The structure was designed to preserve that secrecy. Branches or cells of no more than 16 people made up its membership, each sending anonymous delegates to local meetings where delegates were chosen to attend regional meetings where policy and tactics were discussed, thus minimising the chance of being discovered by the agencies of government, and in the event of discovery limiting the damage that could be caused. From 1795 onwards, the United Scotsmen grew in this organic way, reaching a peak of membership in 1797 of over 3,000. Precise membership figures are not available, since the organisation kept no records at all, in the interests of security. Some estimates of as many as 22,000 have been made by modern historians. The two Fife villages of Strathmiglo and Auchtermuchty alone has over 2,000 members. The membership was comprised overwhelmingly of working men; handloom weavers, artisans, small shopkeepers, and the like.
The year 1797 was an important one in this story, for in June of that year Parliament passed its Militia Act. Fears of a republican invasion of Britain were at their height, and the Act was part of the attempt to strengthen its home defence forces. It provided for the forcible conscription of 6,000 men, to be deployed within Scotland itself, to defend against any French incursion. This was the first time conscription had ever been used in Scotland, and hostility to the Militia Act was both widespread and immediate. There can be no doubt that the numbers joining the United Scotsmen grew exponentially during that summer, and very little that the many local protests, rebellions and insurrections of 1797 were organised with the help of that body. Perhaps the best known of these is the so-called Battle of Tranent. On August 28th 1797 a large crowd of mine workers and their womenfolk gathered in Tranent, East Lothian, shouting 'No militia' and marching behind a drum. A large detachment of both Cinque Port and Pembrokeshire Cavalry were despatched to restore order, and met with fierce opposition from the protesters. Fighting broke out, and in the following massacre at least 12 civilians, including women and children, were killed.
In the same year the United Scotsmen seem to have strengthened their contacts with Britain's enemies elsewhere, in Ireland especially but also in France and the newly republican Netherlands. The most interesting outcome of these liaisons was a plan to land 50,000 Dutch soldiers in Scotland, to seize the central belt and effectively detach Scotland from England. Such a force would almost certainly have succeeded had they appeared, given the widespread opposition to the Militia Act. However, when the Dutch fleet eventually left the Texel in October of that year, they were soundly defeated by the Royal Naval North Sea Fleet under Admiral Duncan. A slightly smaller-scale invasion of Ireland by the French had been foiled by bad weather the year before; these were both lucky escapes for the British Government.
The disastrous attempted uprising by the United Irishmen in 1798 effectively ended the aspirations of both that body and the United Scotsmen, though of course radical politics in Scotland persisted. Any reader interested in learning more could do worse than read 'Popular Disturbances in Scotland 1780-1815' by Kenneth J. Logue (1979)