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Reference group
United Scotsmen (act. 1797–1802) was an underground republican organization that sought political reform in Scotland, including universal suffrage and annual parliaments, as well as insurrection through a strategy of physical force, activism, and collaborative linkages with the United Irishmen, United Englishmen, and French radicals.

The United Scotsmen was, in some sense, an extension of the Scottish constitutional radicalism of the early 1790s. Indeed, members' focus on electoral and parliamentary reform paralleled the aims of the earlier Glasgow Society of United Scotsmen, which was founded in November 1793 and sent delegates to the British convention of that year, and placed the United Scotsmen firmly in the tradition of the Scottish Friends of the People. However, following the passing of the repressive Two Acts in 1795, open reform societies were no longer feasible and radicalism was forced to adopt a clandestine existence. In 1795 the United Irishmen had reorganized as a secret, oath-bound society, intent on raising armed revolution in Ireland and promoting sister societies in Britain. The influence and involvement of United Irishmen in the development of the United Scotsmen was considerable. David Black, a Dunfermline weaver and United Scotsmen member, believed that ‘persons from Ireland … were the original founders of the Society of United Scotsmen’ (examination of Black, June 1798, NA Scot., JC 26/297–8). While the precise origins of the society remain obscure, radical Irish missionaries, refugees, and expatriates played a central role in reinvigorating Scottish radicalism in the latter half of the 1790s.

The first recorded attempt after 1795 of United Irish contact with Scottish democrats was in July 1796, when two delegates from the Belfast United Irishmen, Joseph Cuthbert and Thomas Potts, were sent to Scotland. They carried with them a copy of the new constitution of the United Irishmen ‘for the inspection and approbation of the Scots’ (TNA: PRO, HO 100/62/141, 21 July 1796). The Belfast delegates reported to their compatriots that ‘the Scotch were willing and ready to act with the Friends of Liberty in Ireland’ (ibid.), although at much the same time another Ulster United man believed ‘the Scotch were not possessed of sufficient energy’ (TNA: PRO, HO 100/62/144–5, July 1796). Despite such reservations, the Scots were enthusiastic enough to organize their radical societies on the Irish model. The authorities first became aware of the United Scotsmen early in 1797 and they were considered to be little more than a Scottish branch of the United Irishmen. The United Scotsmen adopted the constitution of the United Irishmen, which provided a sophisticated organizational structure with local, provincial, and national stratification. The Resolutions and Constitution of the United Scotsmen (1797) was a verbatim copy of the constitutional document of the United Irishmen, apart from the substitution of the words ‘North Britain’ for ‘Irishmen’. Following the establishment of the United Scotsmen, connections with Irish radicals were fostered through regular intercourse between Scotland and Ireland, especially frequent tours by United Irishmen to meet United Scotsmen leaders, distribute information about the activities in Ireland, promote ties with France, and assist in the expansion of the United Scotsmen network. It was a political exchange between the two nations that was referred to as ‘planting Irish potatoes’ among the disaffected in Scotland (Scott to Dundas, 22 July 1797, Dickson and others, 340).

Such exchange and collaboration was a central feature of the United movement. The United Scotsmen's Resolutions and Constitution expressed the view that ‘Mankind are naturally friends to each other’ and professed the United Scotsmen ‘friends to mankind, of whatever nation or religion’ (NA Scot., GD 26/15/55). Accordingly, like the Irish, the United Scotsmen sought to co-ordinate their efforts with the French. One member went so far as to say that United Scottish objectives were underpinned by ‘French principles and French rules’ (McFarland, 154). While the Scottish radicals were not as closely connected with the French as the United Irishmen, there was certainly productive interaction. In 1797, for instance, a French emissary toured Scotland, lecturing to radical groups on French plans to assist the revolutionary agenda of the United Scotsmen. That same year the society's Thomas Muir arrived in Paris, embittered with the British government after his transportation to Botany Bay, and acted as a link between the United Scotsmen and the French directory until his death in 1799.

The United Scotsmen also sought to co-ordinate their activities with those of English radicals. This was particularly successful in the north of England, where United Scotsmen delegates toured regions hosting United Englishmen. Westmorland and Cumberland, for instance, were areas suspected of having links with the United Scotsmen. The United movement in Scotland also maintained connections with the London Corresponding Society and in 1797 ‘a Delegate from the United Scotch [was] sent expressly to London to know how far the English Patriots were willing to assist their brethren in Scotland and Ireland in the great work of overthrowing Tyranny’ (O'Coigly's memorandum, 4 October 1797, Goodwin, 434).

By the time of the delegation to London the United Scotsmen had reached a peak. Michael Fry states that the ability of the society ‘to inflame the people at large was patently minimal’ (Fry, 235), yet it was not unsuccessful in attracting recruits. In May 1798 the lord advocate and MP for Edinburghshire, Robert Dundas, expressed concern at the rapid growth of the movement, which he said ‘had been proceeding more extensively than I could have believed’ (ibid., 234). Some estimates of the number who joined the United Scotsmen seem unrealistic, with figures varying from 50,000 to 200,000. More realistically, the society at its peak about September 1797 counted some 10,000 men among its ranks. Four months earlier the number of members was reported to be about 2900 and the rapid growth in membership during 1797 can be attributed to three factors: the immigration of Irish radicals to Scotland after the imposition of martial law in Ulster in 1797 provided new recruits; popular discontent with the Scottish Militia Act (1797); and active missionary work by the society.

In the summer of 1797 the Glasgow United Scotsmen claimed, in a letter to the London Corresponding Society, that 500 radical societies existed in Scotland. The precise number of United Scotsmen societies cannot be determined, but twenty-six organizations are mentioned in official records. Weavers formed the backbone of the societies and textile towns like Cupar, Kilwinning, Maybole, and Thornliebank were centres of United Scotsmen strength. While Glasgow and Paisley were United Scotsmen heartlands, the practice of deploying missionaries to the shires as well as the labour mobility of journeymen artisans, who were well represented among members, facilitated the geographical diffusion of the United Scotsmen. Strongholds were established in Angus, Ayrshire, Dumbarton, Dundee, Fife, Lanark, Perth, and Renfrew.

The United Scotsmen remained elusive to the authorities on account of its intricate network of secret local committees delegating to a national committee convened in Glasgow. The esoteric nature of the United Scotsmen was reinforced through an oath of secrecy and secret hand signs. It sought to keep no records and, in a letter to the London Corresponding Society in June 1797, the Glasgow United Scotsmen agreed ‘in the necessity of … regular Correspondence’, but urged all letters be destroyed (Graham, 810). There is also evidence to suggest that the United Scotsmen exploited the extensive network of freemasons' lodges in Scotland as a cover for radical activity and recruitment. Some cells armed and drilled members in a military fashion. Other members were encouraged to join the militia and volunteers to gain arms and, importantly, training in the use of weapons. The regicidal nature of some branches was given expression at Stirling, where members referred to George III as ‘George Whelps’ and toasted ‘The Old Dog's head cut off, the Bitch hanged, and all the Whelps drowned’ (Wells, 73).

Such discourse was alarming to authorities who saw the United Scotsmen as part of an elaborate and well-organized national and international conspiracy. Despite the society's elusiveness, the government was able to infiltrate some parts of the movement. West-coast ports were placed under close surveillance and officials ordered to apprehend and sometimes deport suspicious Irishmen in an effort to diminish radical intercourse between Ireland and Scotland. The passing of the Illegal Oaths Act in 1797 dampened enthusiasm among some members and ultimately impeded the society's growth. For instance Robert Winluck, an Irishman domiciled in Perth, refused to take the United Scotsmen oath on the grounds that the act made it a capital offence. When the Irish nationalist William Orr was executed in October 1797 for administering the United Irish oath, some Scottish radicals became disillusioned with the oath-bound organization and some branches of the United Scotsmen ceased to meet. Another radical arrested that autumn with probable connections to the United Scotsmen was the bookseller Alexander Leslie.

A further blow to the confidence of the United Scotsmen came with the arrest of a Dundee weaver, George Mealmaker, and nine radical associates in November 1797. Mealmaker was a key figure in the Scottish reform movement, playing an active role in the Scottish Friends of Liberty and having drafted the reform address for which Thomas Fyshe Palmer was transported in 1793. Mealmaker was also one of the leading characters in the United Scotsmen and his Moral and Political Catechism of Man, or, A Dialogue between a Citizen of the World and an Inhabitant of Britain (1797) was one of the rare printed texts of the movement. Found guilty in 1798 of sedition and administering illegal oaths, Mealmaker was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation to Botany Bay [see also Scottish martyrs].

In legislation passed on 12 July 1799 the United Scotsmen, along with the United Englishmen, United Britons, and United Irishmen, was outlawed by name. Despite the judicial and legislative crackdown, some members were resilient. Archibald Grey, for instance, one of the leaders of the Glasgow society, fled to Hamburg and joined radical émigré ranks that formed the so-called Society of British and Irish Patriots. Recruits numbering about 700 remained active in 1802 in Auchterarder, Crief, Dunning, Foulis, and Perth. As the Glasgow United Scotsmen took stock of its numbers with and without military training in 1802, a fear of a revolt, co-ordinated by radicals in Scotland, England, and Ireland, penetrated government ranks. Yet, in spite of the activity of sections of the United Scotsmen and sporadic attempts to recruit new members after 1799, the organization lacked vigour and potency and it finally faltered in 1802.

Michael T. Davis


TNA: PRO, HO 100/62 · NA Scot., GD 26/15/55, JC 26/297–8 · D. Dickson and others, eds., The United Irishmen: republicanism, radicalism and rebellion (1993) · M. Fry, The Dundas despotism (1992) · A. Goodwin, The friends of liberty: the English democratic movement in the age of the French Revolution (1979) · J. Graham, The nation, the law and the king: reform politics in England, 1789–1799, 2 vols. (2000) · E. W. McFarland, Ireland and Scotland in the age of revolution (1994) · R. Wells, Insurrection: the British experience, 1795–1803 (1983)