Kevin Gallagher and George Smith: Duntocher, Dumbarton and the 1820 Scottish Rebellion

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Blog Author: Gina Lyle

On the 3rd of November 2020, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies had the pleasure of welcoming Kevin Gallagher and George Smith to talk on ‘Duntocher, Dumbarton and the 1820 Rebellion’. Hosted entirely online, the first CSCS seminar of the semester demonstrated the resilience of these researchers and permitted guests from far-flung corners to attend.

Ronnie Young, from the Scottish Literature department at the University of Glasgow, began proceedings by introducing the evening’s speakers and entertainers to all attendees. George Smith is an independent scholar, a playwright, and a writer, currently writing a book of working-class short stories set in 21st century Scotland. Kevin Gallagher is a final year PhD researcher in the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Literature department, focussing on the editing of Burns in the 19th century. Both are involved in the editing of an eagerly anticipated collection of essays on the 1820 radical uprising, The Scottish Rebellion: Insurrection 1820.

We were delighted to receive musical interludes showcasing Sophie Rogers’s talents throughout the event. ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was performed as an unofficial song of the rebels in its depiction of rebellion against despotic rulers, and Allan Murchie’s poem ‘Bonnymuir’ was set to music. Rodgers delivered beautiful adaptions of Alexander Rodger’s poems ‘The Twa Weavers’ and ‘Waiting for Corruption’, expressing the sentiments of the rebels, and contributing to the lively spirit of the evening.

Gerard Carruthers, the Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature, provided a historical contextualisation to the seminar’s focus. Carruthers identified the suspension of Habeus Corpus in 1714, challenges to the free press, and concerns regarding the relationship between wages and food prices as central issues leading to the rebellion. Events such as the Peterloo Massacre, the Queen Caroline Affair, and the Cato Street Conspiracy all establish the importance of the pike in the psyche of the discontented British people, and set the scene for this seminar’s focus.

The paper presented was a collaborative effort from George Smith and Kevin Gallagher, and so the delivery reflected this, with both researchers speaking in turn. There was tremendous use of PowerPoint presentation throughout, offering images of pikeheads, maps of village streets, letters, and relevant political cartoons. Full advantage was taken of the digital format, resulting in a wonderfully engaging evening. Gallagher and Smith began by exploring central accusations of treason, exploring the case of a cotton spinner tried for treason. This example raised an interesting point; how might local level events form a national picture?

This project centred on the radical activity in the village of Duntocher, in the county of Dunbartonshire in 1819 and 1820. The discussion began with an investigation into how many pikes were made in the village during this period, and where these pikes ended up. Their research looked closely at a delivery of old iron files at Mr Eddington’s ironworks and utilised a number of witness testimonies, and even a little mathematics, to estimate how many pikeheads were made over a short period in April 1820. The fates of these pikes were investigated with reference to transport links to Glasgow, and the potential for workers who migrated across Glasgow and Duntocher to have smuggled them away at night. The purpose of their making was explored as a symptom of unrest in the era.

Economic factors, such as the different wages for spinners and weavers, were used to discuss whether motivations for rebellion were based in ideology or economic necessity. Gallagher and Smith identified a sense of fear among employees that they may be killed if they went to work, suggesting that perhaps many were under duress, rather than exercising free choice.

The heightened sense of anxiety in the area was noted; letters written to the Glasgow Chronicle comment upon reformers fearing confrontation with dragoons in the street. The potential for reformers to conquer Dumbarton castle for its strategic and symbolic value was responded to with the stationing of soldiers. Whether the plot was in any way real, or even achievable by the rebels, military deployment to the village demonstrates how seriously the threat of rebellion was taken. The anxiety of both reformers and authorities in Dunbartonshire culminated in ‘The Battle of the Bellows’, resulting in arrests and the trial of the Duntocher Radicals.

The Battle of the Bellows could not send rebels to the same fate as the better-known names of the insurrection; they were all acquitted, due to a lack of evidence, and positive statements made in their defence. A letter was even written to the governor by those jailed, thanking him for the kind treatment they received while incarcerated. The tone is sincere, and the purpose, perhaps, to show the rebels as intelligent, civilised folk. Ultimately, Gallagher and Smith suggest that local events are impactful at a national level. This research uses a wealth of resources to create a rich image of the radical uprising in Duntocher those two hundred years ago, revealing the details of a local event with national repercussions.

Ronnie Young led a thought-provoking Q&A which noted the great potential for further research in this subject, discussed the lack of monuments to such events, and permitted Sophie Rogers to elaborate on the creative process of putting Alexander Rodger’s words to music. The responses to this event showed the audience had a strong appreciation for the paper and its implications.

For those further interested in radicalism in Scottish history, the CSCS will be commemorating two-hundred years of the Scottish Radical Uprising with an online event on January the 8th 2021, with full details available here.

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